REDEEMING THE TIMES

 

 

THE BISHOP ELLIOTT LECTURES

for the

EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF WEST TEXAS

14-15 October 2005

 

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner

 

 

Lecture I

 

The Times

 

Introduction

 

            When first I was asked to deliver these lectures, I asked what the organizers wanted me to do.  I was told that they would like me to expand on an article of mine that was published in the journal First Things under the title “An Unworkable Theology.”  The article was originally entitled “ECUSA’s God.”  It is a short piece in which I tried to describe what I called ECUSA’s “working theology.”  By “working theology” I meant neither the theology to be found within the pages of the Book of Common Prayer nor that of any particular individual; but the standard version of the Christian message that is announced Sunday by Sunday from the pulpits of our various parishes and missions.  In response, I paused for a moment and as I did thought to myself, “there’s really not enough there for a series of lectures.  What on earth am I to do?” But still, perhaps foolishly I accepted Frank Fuller’s invitation, and some weeks later I still found myself wondering what I was going to say.

 

            Fortunately, the organizers of this gathering came to my rescue by providing a title for my addresses and our discussions, namely, “Redeeming the Times.”  The title itself provided a clear structure for the discussion I hope we can have.  We have to talk about the times and we have to speak of what it might mean to redeem them.  My addresses will follow this simple outline—one address on the nature of our times followed by two on the subject of their redemption.

 

            As I thought about our task, a single but disturbing thought crossed my mind again and again.  To speak about the nature of one’s times and the character and manner of their redemption involves one per force in an assay (not essay) in Christian prophecy.  Need I say that anyone who attempts such an exercise does so at their own risk.  It may prove that their attempt to speak of how God’s people stand before God proves to be not true but false prophecy.

 

            One is thus left with the Hamlet like quandary, “To speak or not to speak, that is the question.”  Given this dilemma, it is well to qualify one’s remarks in a manner similar to the way in which St. Paul concludes his discussion of sex and marriage in 1 Cor. 7.  The Greek reads, “And I think that I too have the mind of Christ;” meaning you Corinthians have such a mind and so do I; so let us submit ourselves jointly to Christ so as to resolve these matters in a way that conforms to his will rather than our own.

 

            In these lectures, that is the best I can muster.  I think I have a grasp of our times and what God asks of us in their midst, but I cannot claim certainty.  What I say must be tested by others within Christ’s body.  They must be offered within a body of people among whom mutual subjection and mutual correction are habits of common life. In this case, mutual subjection and a certain degree of humility are essential because my take on our times is not exactly up beat.  When I look at how things stand between the churches and God, I am not encouraged—at least in the short run.  I cannot escape the view that we are all in for a period of judgment in which we will be rendered small and weak.  This first lecture, in particular, contains what I confess is a dark vision.  However, my deepest perception is hopeful, perhaps in the extreme.  I believe firmly that in the midst of and on the other side of judgment always lie reconciliation and redemption.  So I see ahead, in the midst of and on the other side of judgment, a profound renewal of the churches and indeed the possibility of their reunification.  I believe, in short, that the Holy Spirit will appear in our weakness, call us to repentance, and renew our common life.

 

            I say these things knowing full well that many here see things in a different light than I do.  I view our time as one in which a culture once Christian becomes increasingly less so.  It is my belief also that the confusion and division into which the churches in the West have been thrown by their attempts to address this change in social location are best understood as a sign of divine judgment.  The judgment has been brought about by a failure on the part of the churches to proclaim the truth with which they have been entrusted and in so doing patiently to seek his will.  As a result, instead of being a medium through which Christ redeems the times, they have simply adapted to them.  Our state is something like a reversal of Paul’s appeal in Rom. 12.  “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  Of us it can be said that we have been conformed to our times through minds that have adapted to them.

 

            If one knows how to look, the conformation of the churches to the times appears pervasive.  It can be found in Evangelical religion that espouses a view of the Gospel promising material success and inner peace.  It can be found in liberal Protestantism’s espousal of the sovereign rights of the individual.  It can be found in a host of locations in between.  But the conformation appears among liberal Protestants, and so also among Episcopalians, most clearly in the divisive cultural issues brought by new reproductive technologies, abortion, sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage, and euthanasia.  At each of these points the argument among and between Christians is driven by the common anthropology of our culture—one that depicts moral agents as unique individuals, as selves with a particular history and destiny, and as persons with rights that protect their individuality and particular life journey.  But more of this in a moment!

 

            I have no statistical data, but my perception is that most Episcopal clergy do not see our times as I do.  For the majority, the new possibilities our culture provides for both self-protection and self-expression on the part of individuals, selves, and persons are viewed as new works of the Holy Spirit that affirm a pluralism of individual choice within the Spirit led march of history.  Thus, To Set Our Hope On Christ, the volume commissioned by our Presiding Bishop to explain the actions of ECUSA in the matter of Gene Robinson, rests its argument basically on this point.  Human beings are fallible and God is unfathomable.  In our finitude we face mystery too deep for human comprehension.  Thus, in a way each person has their own grasp of truth.  Consequently, all our claims to truth must be open to a deeper understanding provided by meeting with difference.  Any attempt by us to erect boundaries of an institutional, intellectual, or moral sort will prevent us from being drawn into the deeper place into which God through the leading of the Spirit wishes to draw us.  God’s revelation, therefore, is always received in partial and contestable ways.  Interpretations of the Bible are almost by necessity various. The Bible, like the forum of democratic pluralism, is itself a market place of opinion in the midst of which we must search for ever deeper understandings of God’s nature and will.

 

I personally find this view curious, suggesting as it does that any rendition of the Gospel we have is essentially contestable not just in its formulation but in its substance.  This may or may not be a legitimate concern.  It is not my business now to sort out the issue of Christian truth, though I will address this question in the second of these addresses.  Whatever the case may be, I could go on in far greater detail about this presentation of ECUSA’s defense of its actions.  The point to be made at the moment, however, is that the implication of TSOH is that ECUSA, by its action, is being drawn along with the rest of the Anglican Communion into a deeper understanding of God’s will—one that affirms the experience of those now living a life most Christians in the world view as contrary to that will.  I doubt very much that all those here who support ECUSA’s action would defend it in this way.  I cite this example only to place before us a position more common yet quite different from the one I will present both in respect to the times and their redemption.

 

The Times

 

            How then ought we to understand the time in which we live?  There are as many possibilities as there are points of view.  We could describe our era as one in which America is projecting its power throughout the world.  Or we could say that our time is one in which information technology came to control the world economy. Or we could say our age is marked by competition for scarce resources and an international search for cheap labor. Or we could say that in our age the ancient struggle between Christianity and Islam once more erupted.  I have no doubt that these, along with many others, are legitimate descriptors of our era.  However, if as Christians we are to ask about redeeming our times we are required to remove the question from the realm of political economy and place it within a theological frame of reference.  Our question then becomes how we are to characterize ourselves coram deo, as standing before God.  And since judgment begins always with the household of God, we must ask in particular how we are to characterize the common life of the churches “before the face of God.”

 

            I believe this question must be posed to the entire Western Church, but I will make my attempt by focusing on my own church, ECUSA.  I do this in the hope that a single example will cast light on a much broader set of issues.  My answer, as I have said, is that we stand under divine judgment; and this for one basic reason.  It is not that we are more immoral than other people.  It is not because we are insufficiently keen witnesses (though that is certainly true).  It is not because we have been unjust and failed to be sufficiently inclusive and tolerant (though in many ways we have).  It is rather because we have become idolatrous.  We have taken our understanding of what it is to be a human agent and created a God who conforms to that understanding.  It is in this sense that we have become conformed to this age rather than transformed by the renewal of our minds.

 

            To be more specific, as moral agents we view ourselves as individuals, selves, and persons.  As individuals we are utterly unique beings.  As selves, we have a history and destiny peculiar to ourselves.  As persons we have rights that protect our individuality and allow us freedom to express our nature and follow our destiny. This view of moral agency has about it many admirable qualities.  The problem is we have created a god to suit our individual, self-defined, and personally based account of what constitutes our fulfillment as human beings.  We have, in short, created a god in our own image and our churches are busy accommodating their worship to the praise of such a god—a god who looks remarkably like ourselves.

 

            To display this point and expand upon it, I will freely borrow from the account Alasdair MacIntyre has given of the tradition of liberalism in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?  The present economic, political, and ecclesial cultures of America plainly stem from this tradition as does our view of moral agency; and it is this tradition that currently is bringing all its force to bear (in a hostile way) on more traditional forms of Christian belief and practice.  MacIntyre notes that the tradition of liberalism cannot allow for a single notion of good to possess “the public square.”  Liberal society must remain neutral in respect to the good. Something similar must be said of the common (or not so common) life of the churches.  What one can express in public are not notions of good but preferences.  Of course, some way must be found to order preferences both in respect to individual life and to social policy.  No rational way can be found to achieve this goal, however, because there is no common notion of good to which appeal can be made when it comes to sorting out conflicting claims.  Thus, the way in which one establishes preference in the public arena (be that political or ecclesiastical), if it cannot be done by force, is by bargaining.  Everything, both in respect to private and public life becomes a “trade off.”  Social and ecclesial life become free trade zones for preferences.  All one needs to be able to play the game is the ability to bargain.

           

There are two things in particular to be noted about this form of social economy.  The first is that theories of good, right, and justice abound.  They must for the following reason.  To have one’s preferences excluded is to have one’s rights denied.  Then the question arises of how one person’s right to his or her preference is to be balanced against a contrary right claimed by someone else.  At this point, some theory of good and justice must be invoked, but in a liberal social economy of preferences, no one theory can establish itself.  Theories of good and justice simply multiply exponentially and interminably in the same way as do preferences.  Given this social reality, one can see easily why supporters of Gay rights hold ordination and the blessing of Gay unions to be matters of justice.  One can see also why supporters of Gene Robinson hold that his election was above all “a justice issue.”

           

The dominance in America of a liberal social economy also renders the account of moral agency I have thus far only suggested more intelligible and it explains the special significance accorded to sexual preference and sexual satisfaction.  The denizens of a social order based upon competing preferences think of themselves not as inhabitants of a pre-established moral order but (as indicated previously) individuals who are utterly unique, as selves that have particular personal histories and needs, and as persons who have rights that allow them to express their individuality and pursue their personal well-being within the social world they inhabit.  For moral agents who think of themselves as individuals, selves, and persons, sexuality becomes, along with money, both a marker of identity and a primary way of expressing the preferences that define identity.

           

It is precisely this notion of moral agency and personal identity that makes both the internal workings of ECUSA and the Robinson election so understandable.  Here in Gene Robinson can be seen a unique individual, who is a self with a particular history, and a person with a right to express his preferences and put his talents to work in the social world he inhabits.  To deny him that right on the basis of sexual preference is, at one and the same time, to deny his personal identity.

 

This notion of moral agency also makes understandable why the issues of abortion and euthanasia take their place alongside self-chosen sexual expression as centers of moral controversy both within the churches and without.  At the basis of each of these arguments lies the characterization of moral agents as individuals, selves, and persons who have the right to pursue the preferences that provide them with personal identity. This view of moral agency finds its natural companions in a bureaucratic/prophetic theory of authority (of which I will speak in a moment), and a view of social life that has its focus on individual freedom, pluralism of belief and practice, and equal justice.

 

In the culture wars that rage over abortion, euthanasia, and sexuality defenders of more traditional Christian teaching are in fact called upon to engage American culture on a deeper level than any of these specific issues.  If they are to be effective, they must take on the very way in which Americans think the nature of society, and the way in which moral agents are conceived.  The “socio-logic” that stands behind ECUSA’s recent action beckons thinking to an even deeper level than the sad history of this church’s search for a distinctive place on the spectrum of America’s denominations.  It calls Christian thought to confront a perception of moral and social life that runs counter to the very foundations of Christian thought and practice.  It raises the question of whether we inhabit a moral universe with an order we are called upon to understand and to which we are required to conform, or whether the moral universe we inhabit is properly the creation of preference pursuing individuals, selves, and persons who create a social world suited to their self-defined goals through an elaborate process of moral bargaining.  These issues are to contemporary Christians in America of the same level of significance as were those posed by the dualistic Gnostic world-views faced by the early Christians.  It is in relation to these social constructs that Christians will have to hammer out once more what constitutes both orthodox belief and orthodox practice.

 

The Collapse of Common Life and Order

 

            The problem is that the adaptation of the churches to the social economy of modern society has so eroded their common life and subverted their ecclesial order that they increasingly lack the means to undertake such an enterprise.  This is a sweeping judgment, I know; but I believe I can substantiate it.  First, let us look at the common life of the churches by means of the concept of orthodoxy.  This notion is supposed to provide a rallying point for the maintenance of common belief and practice, but can it so function under the conditions that now comprise the internal life of the churches?  For many on what is now fondly or not so fondly called “the right,” orthodoxy represents a bulwark against disorder and degeneration; and it is easily defined and recognized by reference to what are often called “classical formularies.”  Peter Toon, the Prayer Book Society, and others have argued for some time that Anglicans veered from orthodoxy when they gave up the classical Anglican formularies—the 39 Articles, the Ordinal, the ’28 Prayer Book, the homilies, etc.  But do these documents represent orthodoxy in and of themselves or are they a product of a certain sort of communal reality that makes their statement possible and apart from which their meaning and application evaporate?

 

My contention is that orthodoxy is an essential part of the life of the church but that the very notion of orthodoxy depends upon a community with the sort of internal coherence and virtue that makes it capable of faithfully interpreting the Holy Scriptures through what the early church called “the deposit of faith.”  If these social conditions are not present, as any Lutheran will tell you, all the confessions in the world cannot guarantee communal integrity and order.  Orthodoxy in its proper use refers to a form of life and action (right praise) rather than to formularies.  Absent that form of life, formularies become lifeless points of reference open to interpretation and amendment as individuals or groups see fit.  In the absence of a form of life in which right praise occurs, both doctrine and practice fragment and become matters of “local option.”

 

            An eventuality of this sort carries with it a crisis not only in respect to common belief and practice but also one of authority and communal order. The emergence of local option and the displacement of orthodoxy through the erosion of a common form of life render those responsible for the common life of the church unable to fulfill what might be called their classical function.  I have argued on many occasions that a part of the reason for ECUSA’s recent break with tradition lies in the ascendancy within its ranks of a view of authority that has eclipsed what I called the “originating view of authority” that, from the very beginning, has obtained within all the churches.  According to the originating theory, authority exists to maintain and further common beliefs and practices amidst the changes and chances of history. When conflicts and new circumstances arise, those who hold authority have a responsibility to make and enforce decisions that protect and sustain communal values and practices.  Because of the particular responsibilities that fall upon them, the originating theory holds that those accorded authority ought both to be well acquainted with the traditions and practices that define a people or commonwealth, and they ought to possess certain virtues that make them better suited for the exercise of authority than others.

 

In recent years, another theory that I have labeled “bureaucratic/prophetic” has steadily eclipsed this understanding.  It has done so because it fits so well with the anthropology of individuals, selves, and persons and with the concomitant social strategy of preference expressed as “local option.”  The bureaucratic/prophetic theory begins with a denial of the fundamental premise of the originating theory.  Its fundamental assumption in respect to social life in all its form is irreducible pluralism rather than common belief and practice.  For this reason, according to the newer theory, authority does not exist to promote common belief and practice.  Rather, it functions in a bureaucratic manner to insure that there are just procedures that allow each person to pursue their own likes.  Nevertheless, in a pluralistic social world, bureaucratic authority cannot in all cases prevent the misuse of power to gain special privilege.  Therefore, bureaucratic authority must be supplemented by prophetic authority.  The job of prophetic authority is to unmask abuses of power so as to ensure that those unjustly prevented from pursuing their personal goals and enjoying their fair share of the reward of life in society may become free to do so.

 

The Idols that Bewitch Us

 

It would not be difficult to show that this configuration of social forces all were present in the Robinson election.  The Robinson election, however, is not the matter of primary importance.  It is a symptom rather than a disease.  The important thing about the Robinson election is that it manifests so clearly the social forces that at present erode the ability of all of America’s denominations to act like churches: that is to say, to form people in a pattern of belief and a way of life which may run against preference but nonetheless accords with what Christians have, through the ages, held to be the truth about God and his intentions for human life.  It is important to recognize these social forces, but it is important as well not to conclude that the recent actions of ECUSA can be adequately explained by the play of these forces alone.  Christians through the ages have faced social forces that threaten to compromise the truth they have been given to live and proclaim, but they have not always succumbed to them.  To think well about what is happening in ECUSA one must ask why the sirens of modernity have sung so sweetly in ECUSA’s ears.

           

My belief is that a religious factor must be added to this historical and sociological analysis of ECUSA’s actions.  I believe further that it is this religious factor that serves most adequately to define our times, as it were, before the face of God.  The English theologian P. T. Forsythe once wrote, “If within us we have nothing above us we soon succumb to what is around us.”  The account we give of ourselves as moral agents suggests, I believe, that the internal life of ECUSA may well lack a transcendent point of reference—one that can serve as a counter balance to the social forces that play upon it. 

The vacuity that lies at the center of the life of our church is clearly visible in the theology that currently dominates ECUSA’s pulpits.

 

            The vacuity that lies at the center can be seen, I believe, in what I called at the outset “the working theology of the Episcopal Church,” (and perhaps also that of liberal Protestantism as a whole).  Because I have served our church as a teacher rather than a parish priest, I have had an opportunity to hear the Sunday by Sunday preaching in a host of our parishes scattered throughout most regions of our country.  In the course of these travels, I have heard the same sermon preached from pulpit after pulpit. Only the examples change. The standard Episcopal sermon, at its most fulsome, begins with a statement to the effect that the incarnation is to be understood (in an almost exhaustive sense) as a manifestation of divine love.  From this starting point, several conclusions are drawn.  The first is that God is love pure and simple.  Thus, one is to see in Christ’s death no judgment upon the human condition.  Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are.  The great news of the Christian Gospel is this.  The life and death of Jesus reveal the fact that God accepts and affirms us.  From this revelation, we can draw a further conclusion.  God wants us to love one another, and such love requires of us both acceptance and affirmation of the other.  From this point we can derive yet another.  Accepting love requires a form of justice that is inclusive of all people, particularly those who in some way have been marginalized by oppressive social practice.  The mission of the church is, therefore, to see that those who have been rejected are included, and that justice as inclusion defines public policy.  The result is a practical equivalence between the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and social justice.  The kingdom and justice in fact stand on all fours one with another.

 

            Here is the theological projection of a society built upon preference—one in which the inclusion of preference within common life is the be all and end all of the social system.  One that does not ask authority to maintain and further that which is common but only that it provide just procedures for protecting individual rights and opportunity for prophetic protest when those rights are denied.  ECUSA’s God has become the image of this society.  Gone is the notion of divine judgment (save upon those who may wish to exclude someone), gone is the notion of radical conversion, gone is the notion of a common way of life that requires dying to self and rising to newness of life in conformity with God’ will.  Gone is the notion of incorporation into a people who are to proclaim one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.  In place of the complex God revealed in Christ Jesus, a God of both judgment and mercy, a God whose law is meant to govern human life, we now have a god who is love and inclusion without remainder.  The projected God of the liberal tradition is, in the end, no more than an affirmer of preferences.  This view of God is, furthermore, acted upon by an increasing number of ECUSA’s clergy who now regularly invite non-baptized people to share in the Holy Eucharist.  It’s just a matter of hospitality—of welcoming difference.  An inclusive God, it would seem, requires an inclusive sacramental system.

 

            As a sort of short hand, it seems accurate to characterize the working theology of our church as a theology of “radical inclusion.”  As an example, we can do no better than  the matter of open communion (now claimed by many as a local option).  One can see hovering about this practice a congeries of theological and moral innovations all of which stem finally from this doctrine.  One can see an accompanying reduction in the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection; and one can see the eclipse of participation in Christ’s death through growth in holiness of life as a fundamental marker of Christian identity.  With the notion of radical inclusion and acceptance comes as well the view that one need not come to the Father through the Son. Christ is a way, but not the way.  The latter view is exclusionary and thus unacceptable, not being in accord with the open acceptance that has been revealed in the incarnation.  The Holy Eucharist thus becomes the quintessential sign of radical acceptance on the part of God and God’s people.  If it is to show forth God’s acceptance it must be open to all and sundry should they wish to partake.  Understandable also is the fact that this invitation need not be accompanied by a call to repentance and amendment of life.

 

            This last observation underlines the fact that ECUSA’s working theology is also congruent with a form of pastoral care designed to help people affirm themselves, face their difficulties, and adjust successfully to their particular circumstances.  I would be the last to say that this particular form of pastoral formation is without merit.  Nevertheless, it does not lend itself easily to the sort of meeting with Christ that in traditional Christian terms leads through faith, forgiveness, judgment, repentance, and amendment of life.  The sort of confrontation often necessary to spark such a process has little place within a theology of radical inclusion.  The theological stance adopted by those shaped by this theology is not one of challenge. Rather, it is one in which God is depicted as an accepting presence not unlike that of the therapist or pastor.

 

            It may seem that I am laboring the obvious when I say that many, if not most, of the classical themes associated with pastoral care can find no place within a theology dominated by the notion of radical inclusion.  The atoning power of Christ’s death, faith, justification, repentance, and holiness of life, to mention but a few, appear at best as an antique vocabulary to be either out grown or reinterpreted.  So also does the notion that the church is a community elected and called out by God from the peoples of the earth for a particular purpose.  That purpose is to bear witness to the saving event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and to call people to believe, repent, and live in an entirely different manner.  It is this witness that defines what many call “the great tradition”, but a theology of radical inclusion must at best trim such robust belief.  To be true to itself it can find room for only one sort of witness, namely, inclusion of the previously excluded.  Indeed, the connection of the existence of the Church to a saving purpose makes little sense because salvation is not an issue for a theology of radical inclusion.   God has already included everybody, and now we ought to do the same.

 

I have said enough by this point to contend without undue fear of misunderstanding that perhaps the most serious problem with the working theology of ECUSA (and perhaps that of liberal Protestantism) is that Christianity is no longer presented as a religion of salvation.  Salvation, which normally refers to the restoration of a right relation between God and his creation, cannot rightly be the theme of Christian witness because God has accepted us all already (save perhaps those guilty of exclusionary practice).  No! Salvation cannot be the issue. The theology of radical inclusion as preached and practiced within ECUSA must define the central issue as moral rather than religious, because exclusion is in the end a moral issue even for God.

 

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.”  Perhaps it is now at least intelligible why I would say that we must characterize our time as one in which we have been conformed to this world, and to justify ourselves we have created a god in our own image.  And perhaps now it is possible to understand why I would characterize our time as one of judgment—a time of judgment in which God calls out for repentance and an amendment of life that begins with the transformation of our mind.  I think it fair to say that God characterizes us as idolaters.  It is important to remember, I believe, that the Jews (and along with them St. Paul) hold that the greatest of all sins is idolatry.  In the end our current distress must be traced not to conservative obscurantism or liberal hubris, but to idolatry.

 

The question before us then is the one asked in the Book of Acts.  “What then shall we do?”  The simple answer is turn around.  The hard question is what such a turn around might look like.  It is to this question that I turn in the next two of these addresses, and in the first of these I shall ask what to me has become a pivotal question.  How shall we come to know the truth that sets us free?  Thank you.