Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions IV

Officialdom, of course, officially forbids our sharing Eucharist together, claiming that we must all believe the same, that we must conform to certain statements of belief or polity, failing to acknowledge in its presumption that the heart of the human encounter with God, particularly in Communion, is inarticulate. Inarticulate, too, is the pain at the heart of our shared Eucharists; we have no illusions of institutional unity, but we do know the joy of brokenness made whole through God willingly ruined for us, made one in that broken Body.

While the leaders of the church wrangle over power and privilege, we gaze at one another across the Crucified who at once lies between us and unites us. The genius of Christianity is that it takes pain seriously, so that even as we Break Bread together, the pain of our divisions frees us form delusions of control over God and becomes an agent of transfiguration and joy.

People in persecuted churches, whether persecuted by the political arm or by their own ecclesiastical leaders, have always understood this role of pain and the importance of the self-emptying God. People understand it as well today as they did in the early Syriac churches, which have long been labeled "dualistic", "heretic", and "schismatic". Only today are scholars free enough, thanks to the ecumenical movement—thanks to the revelation of the last thirty years of how much theology at the official level has political power as its motivating force and subtext, pushing it toward ineluctable conclusions—only today are scholars able to take a new look at early texts from Semitic Christianity, a Christianity that shows little Hellenizing influence, texts that reveal a Christianity much closer to the Gospel of Jesus than what has evolved inside institutions, East or West.

These documents are only now being translated into English and coming into general circulation, thanks largely to the efforts of Dr. S.P. Brock. St Ephrem (4th c.) and St Isaac of Nineveh (7th c.), the grassroots ecumenist experiences the joy of recognition. Here is the kenotic God who goes to the heart of pain and finds new life, hope, joy; here is a theology that embraces the paradox and ambiguity of life, that reverences the creation, that reveals the play of Presence, Absence, and indwelling, putting on and taking off metaphors.

God has made small His majesty
by means of these borrowed names.
For we should not imagine
that he has completely disclosed His majesty....
but it represents only what we are capable of:
what we perceive as His majesty is but a tiny part.

Loving is the Lord who Himself put on our names--
right down to the mustard seed was He abased in the parable.
He gave us His names, He received from us our names;
His names did not make Him any the greater,
whereas our names made Him small.
Blessed is the person who has spread Your fair name, Lord,
over his own name, and adorned with Your names his own names.

Why, the inevitable question arises, have these texts remained so long hidden from us, especially when they open scripture and pierce the heart, leading us to the silence of the divine exchange? The Orthodox monk may nod wisely, having had a Greek, somewhat altered, version of Isaac as his sole guide in the early years of his monastic life. But monasticism is legendary for its role in ecclesiastical power politics, and the churches of Eastern Christianity play the same power games as the churches in the West on a different board.

Yet people still seek the ideal, the divine folly of singleness of heart, often hidden entirely under the camouflage of family and job, not realizing that his also was the ideal of many ancient Christian communities. They try to live the Gospel ideal as the earliest solitaries did, uncompromised (they hope), by the intrusions of the political-theological push-me-pull-you of institutional hierarchies. "Flee bishops," the early desert dwellers said. Some said, "flee women," too, but then, no one is infallible, and there is little comment in the early texts on the irony that the role models of the male solitary were often the harlots of the desert.

Vatican II and the ecumenical movement were and continue to be fostered through liturgy and solitary prayer in the environment of silence, especially that offered by the houses of more formal communities. Such communities are microcosms of the world and the churches outside, fraught, sometimes, with divisions, fears, doubts as the winds of change sweep through, swirling in their wake mistakes, absurdities, and cosmetic veneer. Only today are these formal communities beginning to recover the ancient wisdom that community can be built only on the same conversion of heart that each human being must pursue in interior solitude for the sake of the world community at large.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions III

A lot is changing, of course: new paradigms and new methods in theology are finally coming into their own. But what is alarming to a grass-roots ecumenist is that so much of the official dialogue appears to insist on using paradigms, language, and method that are completely out of date, that this dialogue continues to base itself on assumptions that few respectable scholars would accept.

For example, there seems to be, in official dialogue, a primacy of polity based on the assumption that Jesus founded an institution. What we can know from the documents we have is that Jesus preached an interior wisdom that enabled people to discard social strictures, to realize the fullness of their humanity in the co-creative love of God, primarily by embracing the poor and the outcast with humility and compassion. Some time after Jesus is thought to have lived, there appeared thriving communities of diverse expression throughout the Roman Empire, not only those spreading to its western borders, which are named in the New Testament, but also those at its eastern frontiers and beyond, which are not, all claiming to follow his teaching. Further, it is evident in the earliest writings of Christian scripture that there are already conflicts which influence the way in which both Jesus and the communities are portrayed.

If we are honest, the conclusion that arises from these facts exposes the same truth that Jesus taught with his life: all human religious institutions are fallible. All churches, while claiming to take their inspiration from the revelation in Christ and to act in his name can do so only if filled with the divine life through the Holy Spirit; and this mystery of Incarnation can be received only by hearts that are open, softened by tears from stone to flesh.

What is equally alarming to the grassroots ecumenist is that there is no open acknowledgement that current discussions of structural unity, whatever form that might take, are based largely on divisions of power. The primary interest of the institutions, with their hidden agenda of uniformity, is to perpetuate themselves. Underlying these political struggles is a tyrannical paradigm of the divine, which has little use for paradox and ambiguity, for the scandal of the Gospel or creation as it is.

What seems to go unheeded is that our divisions, with their organpoint of pain, are themselves a source of blessing and salvation. They remind us that we are creatures, keep us from euphoria and hubris, hold before us the mystery of the divine indwelling people of different Christian traditions and different religions, the Divine who chooses to indwell and transfigure us as we are, and not as we might think we ought to be.

As we in the grassroots communicate and make Eucharist across the lines, the pain of our sad divisions nurtures in us the "mind of Christ"--that code phrase for the humble God, the kenotic God "who did not think divinity a thing to be grasped but emptied [him]self"--an attitude that was very much in evidence at the flowering of the ecumenical movement at the official level, but seems largely to have disappeared with the passage of time, just as it did in the early churches. Plus ça change...

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions II

Even supposing that rationalism, for example, might allow earnest theologians to"prove" the existence of God; if the God who emerges from such an exercise is a tyrant who condemns the vast majority of humanity to hellfire, then theology is left gazing into the mirror of its own elegance, while onlookers are inclined to respond with amusement, indifference, or revulsion.

It might be argued that raising such an issue is itself a demonstration of why theological and clerical training have been kept formally split for the last two hundred years. But I would like to suggest instead that this attitude exposes the underlying contempt of academia for pastoral concerns. Cultured by resentment in the seminary medium, this contempt spills over from pastors to their flocks. Ironically, the grassroots ecumenical movement has flourished in part by awakening to and discarding this yoke of contempt.

Blessing has thus issued from the very brokenness and divisions of theology itself. Indeed, it could be said that one constant element in Christian theology and polity that creates the climate in which divisions become necessary is the compulsive need to create a closed and static aesthetic of denial in pursuit of a specious purity. What is denied is the paradox of the fundamental sign that lies at the heart of Christianity, and its embrace of the reality of ambiguity in creation in all its mysterious diversity.

Without paradox and ambiguity and their accompanying fluidity, we live in closed systems, and there is no freedom—or salvation—in a closed system. We need to remember that one of the earliest meanings of the world "salvation" in Hebrew is deliverance into an open space—an open space with all of its unknowns, and that the hubris of every age is the presumption that we can acquire and correctly evaluate all the information we need to control what is ineffable.

It is arguable that the mystery of creation has an intrinsic aesthetic that far surpasses man-made syntheses, and that the source of this beauty lies, in part, in its elusive qualities. One reason that environmental questions are inherently theological issues is that, if we lose beauty, the beauty of diversity, the beauty of unique organisms, the beauty of empty space and untrammeled wilderness, we lose, as philosopher Erazim Kohàk has pointed out, a context that is greater than ourselves.

The importance of this context is precisely that it is not a human artifact. It is a context where human pain can become part of a larger whole and transfigured. In an artificial environment, pain can only be confronted and dealt with as a problem whose solution is anaesthesia, distraction, or management.

The same principle applies to every aspect of our lives, especially our lives in churches that are supposed to offer us transfiguration through liturgy, and the theology that underlies liturgy. If we fill up all the silence and all the empty space in the world, if we lose beauty by trying to nail everything down into artificial constructs and eliminate the elusive transcendent, that is, the context greater than our selves, then we have nowhere to take our pain.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions I (1998)

It was 1963, I think, in a classroom at Stanford University, that my commitment to the flowering ecumenical movement was focused by Robert McAfee Brown, who had just returned from Rome as an Observer at Vatican II. He was full of stories, enthusiasm, longing. We sat electrified as visions of unity generated by the first session became almost palpable: the revelation of a Catholicism beyond stereotype, a revelation that seemed to shatter Bob's Presbyterian world, as open as that already was, as surely as it shattered the disparate worlds of his listeners.

So eloquent was he that we began to wonder if he were about to take instruction, if perhaps he were recommending that we do the same. But suddenly he broke off, and when he resumed there was an austerity in his voice that dissolved our cloud-castles and pulled us upright in our seats. I don't remember the exact words, but what he said went something like this:

"All of us at this time, when such hope is coming out of the Council, are deeply attracted to the idea of unity. Unity will come about, in my view, only one way, and that is if each of us stays where we are and helps our own church move toward this goal, no matter how much easier our lives might be made by crossing over the lines."

The rest was silence..

For me, headed for an Anglican religious community and then the solitary life, Bob's words had the force of a command. In ensuing years, his charge has come to mind repeatedly, sometimes when I was in despair that I would ever be able to live out my vocation within the Anglican Communion; sometimes with a tinge of irony when an ecumenical encounter would bestow insight and transfiguration that could not have occurred in the context of structural organic unity among the churches.

In recent years, many people have publicly bemoaned the stagnation of the ecumenical movement, due not only to the present administration in Rome, but also to the changing climate in other churches. This decline, I believe, is for the most part confined to institutional leaders, and has occurred for two reasons. The first is an outmoded view of what "organic unity" means; the second lies deeper and is far more troubling.

But the ecumenical movement has never been the sole property of ecclesiastical bureaucracies. From the beginning, the grassroots, which include some professional theologians, have moved faster and accomplished more both in theology and praxis than have those who represent a particular institution. When I listen with one ear to colleagues who are members of ARCIC express fears for its future, in the other ear, I hear my grassroots ecumenist friends saying, "It's gone too far. They can't stop us now."

The institutions need to remember, in this decade of evangelism, that people who are deeply committed are increasingly aware of the difference between conversion to the Gospel and membership in a self-perpetuating organization. They will not stay with religious groups that promote, to use the current buzzword, codependence. Between bureaucracies and committed grassroots ecumenists, the gulf grows ever wider.

People are beginning to realize, especially in the wake of the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell television series, that theology is as deeply rooted in our biology as is mythology. Where the churches have most profoundly failed us is in their reluctance to encourage us, to teach us, each to be a theologian.

This does not mean that everyone need have a degree, or understand the subtleties of academic protocol. Theology, beyond the niceties, is a way of thinking, a way of looking and listening and relating, that can be awakened and taught fairly easily. Grassroots ecumenists learn by the heart as well as the head, by osmosis as well as study, facing through the fear and diffidence that for centuries have been instilled by church leaders bent on control, exacerbated by the mistaken identification of theology with various schools of discourse.

For, at root, beyond the academic definition that theology is what theologians do when they are doing theology, theology addresses human constants, human needs, and human questions in relation to what is perceived as the divine, or the possibility (or not) of the divine. Whenever it loses sight of this, theology finds itself in deep trouble.