REDEEMING THE TIMES
THE BISHOP ELLIOTT LECTURES
EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF WEST TEXAS
14-15 October 2005
The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner
Redeeming the Times: The Renewal of Your Minds (A)
Redeeming the times! Redemption is our topic, but what might such a project involve? I recently had the privilege of hearing Jim Wallace give the Blandy Lectures at the Seminary of the Southwest. I have long been an admirer of Jim, and through the years have been a subscriber to Sojourners Magazine. Jim’s message from the beginning has been remarkably consistent. Conversion and evangelical faith, if genuine, are expressed in seeking justice for the poor. In his latest book, How the Right Gets it Wrong, and the Left Doesn’t Get It, he continues with his devastating critique of our society’s treatment of the poor; and he calls for a “turning.” If you will, he calls for repentance on the part of the American people and particularly on the part of the churches. If the bible is about anything, Jim believes, it is about God’s concern for the poor; and he calls for Christian America once more to enter the public square and join a movement for the alleviation of their distress. He believes that religion has a moral voice that is crucial to the health of our society, and he longs to hear that voice once more.
Some time back, I heard a rather different call for repentance; this time from Mr. Dobson’s organization, Focus on the Family. Shortly after I became a Dean at the Yale Divinity School, I was called upon by two representatives of this organization. They spoke at length of the need for personal conversion so that America would return to the family values that made it strong. For these bright and quite serious young people, the times could be redeemed only if individuals in their hearts and minds accepted Jesus. Then and only then would the moral rot they saw as characteristic of the times be halted and a new dawn appear.
After hearing Jim speak, I had a curious flashback to the earlier visit from Focus on the Family. Though my sympathies were decidedly on the side of Sojourners, I realized I had a similar reaction to the distinctive pleas that came from each. My reaction was simply that the churches do not at the present moment have the strength and integrity to launch either a movement for social reform or a revival of personal holiness. My perception was that on neither account were the churches up to the task of redeeming the time. My reaction was not indifference to the need for social reform and the renewed presence of personal holiness. It was simply that the churches lacked the ability to accomplish either goal.
How then are the times in which we live to be redeemed? If I am right to contend that the times are best characterized, coram deo, as idolatrous, what then should we do? We cannot huff and puff like the Little Engine that Could and spring lose from our midst a national movement for social reform. We do not have the ability to lead a national movement as the churches did in the struggle for racial equality in the 1950’s and 60’s. Neither do the churches have the internal integrity and power to launch a nationwide revival like those witnessed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Besides, even if the churches were up to such challenges, if my diagnosis is correct, we would in fact miss what is required to redeem our particular time. If our problem before God is that our minds have adapted to the times, if our problem is that our minds have not been transformed by the Gospel of Christ, then the redemption of our time must wait upon the renewal of our minds. Only such a renewal will transform us and make us a suitable vehicle for God’s redemptive power in and through the person of Christ Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We should not deceive ourselves. God does not give his Holy Spirit to the worshippers of false gods. He gives his Spirit to those who worship him as revealed in the face of Christ Jesus. In so far then as we are idolatrous, we should not expect great outpourings of the Spirit. We should in fact expect our common life to be something like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Our question should be not how can we grow the church, or how can we have greater political influence, or how we can provide rest for the troubled souls that surround us. Our question should be, can these bones live?
Ezekiel’s answer was yes, and so should be ours. God never deserts his people even though they desert him. And the first sign of his presence in and through the Spirit is recognition of our true state before him and, following that recognition, repentance—turning around. Our transformation through the renewal of our minds will occur through a long period of repentance and purgation in the midst of which we come to know the truth about God revealed in Christ Jesus. As we struggle to grasp our true state before the face of God and respond appropriately to what we see, we will discover that God’s Spirit is present with us precisely in this unlikely and very painful place. It is in this painful place that we will learn to worship God in Spirit and Truth.
The body of this address (and the next one), therefore, is about how penitents come to know the truth about God—how they are transformed through the renewal of their minds. It is my hope that in carrying out this exercise I am pointing to the place where the Spirit of God is present among us.
The Inner Work of a Repentant Idolater: Desire
My way of putting the question of the shape of repentance for an idolater is how we might put ourselves in the way of having our minds renewed and our lives transformed. Before I give the answer I have come to, allow me to acknowledge a debt to two people who have helped me think through the issue with which I have presented us. I have been enormously helped by Ephraim Radner, my friend and colleague at ACI, who gave an address not long ago entitled “Truth in Love: The Virtues of the Intellectual Life.” From him I gained an understanding of what repentance for a wayward mind might look like. My other debt is to Ashley Null for his pioneering work on Thomas Cranmer. As you will see, I believe the faithful reading of Holy Scripture holds the key for the renewal of our minds and so also the renewal of the church; and it was Ashley Null, in an article soon to appear entitled “Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican Way of Reading Scripture,” who helped me understand the centrality of this practice, not only for Anglicans but for Christians as such.
For minds conformed to the world, repentance involves a double movement. It requires both recognition of one’s true state and genuine sorrow that one is in such a state. The first movement of a repentant spirit is recognition and sorrow. The second is desire (that carries with it resolution) to know God as God is and not has we have imagined him. The psalmist writes:
As a hart longs for flowing streams,
So my soul longs for thee Oh God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
The psalmist sings of his desire to know God face to face—as he is, and not as he may be imagined. Such desire, a desire that is in part intellectual, comprises the second movement of repentance in cases where one’s sin is worship of a false god. Now we come to the hard part. God’s redemption of our time is, as in all times, mediated through a people who know and worship him in Spirit and in truth. How does the worship of God in Spirit and truth come to be among people whose minds have become conformed to the world around them and whose desires are scattered about throughout that very world? In short, how is God to be properly worshipped by people with both misdirected desires and darkened understandings?
One part of the answer is that God makes life quite uncomfortable for all who do not honor him as God. God humbles the proud; and it is difficult not to believe that the present state of our churches is the result of such humbling. The point of humiliation, however, is to get our attention—not to destroy us. It is God’s desire to turn our attention to the true source of saving knowledge. So, it is God’s purpose to turn the attention of a penitent to the one in whose life God has revealed himself—in whose face can be seen the glory of God. It is Jesus who is God’s great counter to idolatry in all its forms. It is in this man’s life that God presents himself as he is in truth and not as we might imagine him.
Penitents will be driven by both desire and resolve, and in our case that desire and that resolve will be for the acquisition of a renewed mind—one formed in the image of Christ Jesus rather than the images of our era. Here we arrive at the first step required of us if we are in fact to prove ourselves genuine penitents. If our minds are indeed to be renewed and our lives transformed, our desires must be purified and our minds enlightened. For a renewal and transformation of this sort, there is only one place to go. That place is not the countless self-help books on the inner life. It is not the myriad of techniques for achieving inner peace. It is not even a life devoted to good works. The context in which we come to know and love the Lord as he is in truth is within the pages of Holy Scripture. It is here that Christ is to be found in his fullness. It is here that our hearts are redirected and our minds renewed. As my friend Ephraim Radner has written: “If you do not have a consistent discipline of reading the Scriptures day by day, in their breadth and sweep, Old and New Testaments, how shall you ever learn to love the Truth in the sense of “turning” towards it and being swept up by it?” (“Truth in Love”, p. 8)
I am aware that in saying this I may well be dismissed as one who spouts truisms and prescribes bromides. I am aware also that I am giving this address in an area of the country where there are more Baptists than people. I am aware that for this reason I might be heard as a bible thumper who has thrown away his mind rather than submitting it for transformation. But I wish to assure you that in calling us to this first step along the road to the redemption of our times, I am in fact neither spouting truisms nor prescribing bromides. I certainly have not become a stealth Baptist. I am in fact being more Anglican than most Episcopalians could ever hope to be, and I am calling us back to a practice that lies at the base of all the forms of renewal that have marked the history of the church from the very beginning. Indeed, I am calling us back to a practice that lies at the very foundation of the Book of Common Prayer.
a. Cranmer on Holy Scripture
I cite as a crucial and (I hope) formative example, Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the English Reformation and the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer is important for Anglicans (and I believe all Christians) not in the first instance for his peerless prose. He is important in the first place because he understood as well as anyone within the history of the church the central importance of scriptural knowledge for the health of the church. Bear with me for a moment while I recount his prescription for ridding the church of the idols that possessed it in his time.
The central role of Holy Scripture played for Cranmer in both renewing the mind of the church and transforming its life emerges clearly in his solution to a central theological dispute of his age. Was the church, particularly through its Episcopal leadership, the chief instrument of the Holy Spirit in making known right knowledge of God or had God appointed the bible as the chief instrument of the Spirit? Cranmer’s answer to this question is utterly consistent and is scattered through the major works for which he is responsible—his Great Common Places, the first book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Articles of Religion. In his Common Places, Cranmer makes a basic statement: “Scripture comes not from the church, but from God and has authority by the Holy Spirit.” He insists further that the Scriptures are everywhere about Christ. Thus, it is within their pages that we are to find true knowledge of God and not from some external source. So he writes:
“If anything were the Word of God other than Holy Scripture, we could not be certain of God’s Word. That if we be uncertain of the Word of God, the Devil might be able to make for us a new word, a new faith, a new church, a new God, indeed make himself god, as he has done up to now.”
His position in respect to the debate over scripture or church (in respect to knowledge of God) was that the church was properly the witness to the truth about God but in that witness it was dependent upon the primary witness of Holy Scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Further, he insisted that in determining the meaning of Holy Scripture, the church was to make appeal, under the guidance of the Spirit, to other portions of scripture rather than to external (and so bogus) sources of divine knowledge.
Given his view of the unique importance of Holy Scripture for right knowledge of God, it is not surprising that, in the Homily on Holy Scripture, Cranmer wrote: “Therefore, as many as be desirous (notice the word) to enter into the right and perfect way unto God must apply their minds to know Holy Scripture, without which they can neither know God and his will, neither their office and duty.” He went on to conclude, for “a Christian …there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable than the knowledge of Holy Scripture.” It is not surprising either that, because each Christian person was to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures, Cranmer insisted on the need for constant prayer for guidance by the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the service of Confirmation Cranmer wrote: “My good child, know this, that thou art not able…to walk in the commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace, which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer.” Priests were given the same reminder at their ordination. “Ye cannot have a mind and a will to do right before God and man of yourselves, for that power and ability are given of God alone. Therefore, ye see how ye ought, and have need, earnestly to pray for his Holy Spirit.”
How is the mind renewed? Though scriptural immersion on the part of the entire church—both clergy and lay! But that is not all. Scriptural immersion is also the means of turning hearts to God. Thus, in the Homily on Holy Scripture Cranmer wrote:
“And there is nothing that so much establisheth our faith and trust in God, that so much conserveth innocency and pureness of the heart and also outward godly life and conversation, as continual reading and meditation of God’s Word. For that thing which by perpetual use of reading of Holy Scripture and diligent searching of the same is deeply printed and engraven in the heart at length turneth almost into nature.”
So it was not only the renewal of conformed minds that lay at the heart of Cranmer’s proposals for transformation, it was also the redirection of human affection and desire. After 30 years involvement in our present struggle, I have come to the very simple conclusion that Cranmer’s way forward is no different from ours. The renewal of our minds and the transformation of our lives will come about at that point where we long to know God as God truly is. Such longing will mark the beginning of our repentance, renewal and transformation. I will say far more about this in my next address, the subject of which is “The Place of Theology in the Life of a Parish.” For now, I will say only that, within our church, such longing seems both weak and spotty. The time of our exile is not yet over. The redemption of our time is but a speck on our horizon. It will surely come, but not yet. And so for the time being we must wait in patience for our own turning, our own renewal and transformation to begin in earnest. I say this because the desires that direct our lives are so many and so varied at the moment they leave little room for the desire to know God and love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The business of the day swamps the most devout among us, and as a result we are on the whole ill disciplined in the practice of prayer and meditation on the pages of Holy Scripture. And, as a general rule, the formation offered in our congregations to children and adults seems inadequate to this task. Bible study is offered in most of our parishes but it is spotty, inconstant, and random; and, given the press of time, few feel free to take advantage of it. Further, it is not clear to me that our seminaries have prepared their graduates well to open the Holy Scriptures to their parishioners.
I have a tendency to over state the case I hope to make, and I probably have done so in this instance. Nevertheless, I feel confident that persistent study of Holy Scripture is a practice in short supply among both our clergy and lay persons. I feel also that the cultivation of this practice holds the key to the renewal of our minds and the transformation of our lives that offer God the occasion for grafting our time into the redemption of the world through Christ’s death and resurrection and the accompanying gift of the Holy Spirit.
Once again, allow me to quote St. Luke. “What then shall we do?” My proposal is simple to state and daunting to carry out. We are called upon to make a radical shift in the focus of congregational life. A shift of the sort I have in mind will pose a challenge of enormous proportions. Repentance, genuine desire to know God, requires that immersion in the pages of Holy Scripture become the chief work of a parish and the primary expectation for clerical leadership. I must leave it to the inner workings of your imaginations to grasp how such a shift might occur and the price that must be paid to bring it about. It is enough to say that an effort of this sort will shift the focus of our energies and attention in extraordinary ways.
The Inner Work of a Repentant Idolater: Openness
But for the moment put this work of imagination aside. Let me turn now to another aspect of the inner work that lies before a repentant idolater. Repentance requires a reorientation of our desires to God so that we long to know God as God is. And this longing will lead us to immerse ourselves in the study of Holy Scripture as an essential part of each day. It will require more than a few moments with Forward Day By Day. It will require the devotion of time and attention.
There is, however, a second challenge that lies before a penitent—namely openness to instruction. It is one thing to desire to be rid of one’s ignorance of God. It is another to have one’s most basic conceptions of who God is and what God is up to challenged. It is another thing as well to be open to the challenge. I have claimed that desire to know God that is genuine leads to the adoption of a practice—daily immersion in the Holy Scriptures. The question, therefore, is to what practice does openness to instruction lead? The simple answer is immersion in the life of a community among whose members openness to instruction is a prized virtue. Repentance expressed as openness requires life together with others who desire to know God as God is. It is in such a setting that one encounters difference and in this encounter one’s life is unsettled—that is it is unsettled if one is open to what another disciple of Christ might be saying.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not speaking of what now passes for a community of discourse—one in which what one person says is assumed to be as valid as what another says. I am not speaking of “sharing” as now practiced in our “dialogues.” I am not speaking of the limitless tolerance characteristic of democratic pluralism. I am speaking of immersion in a community of people who have subjected themselves to daily reading of the bible—whose minds are being renewed and whose lives are being transformed by such immersion. I am speaking of immersion in a community of persons who are subject to Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture and subject one to another in both truth and love.
Again, if I can return to Thomas Cranmer, he assumed that the meaning of Holy Scripture was perspicuous to people whose daily practice included reading of the bible. Common knowledge was, after all, the point of his daily lectionary. I would add that this common practice requires another, namely, life together with others to whom one is open and from whom one expects not only encouragement and affirmation, but also correction and instruction.
The openness of which I speak is not openness to anything. It does not require itching ears cocked for any new and trendy spiritual idea. Openness does not require that we become children, in thrall to popular gurus and so tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine. It requires only that we place ourselves in the midst of a communion of persons among whom we can be instructed in the knowledge of God as revealed in Christ.
Repentance born of desire to know God, if genuine, is accompanied by openness; and openness, if genuine, is accompanied by the practice, or I should say practices, of life together in Christ. These two, with one other I shall mention in a moment, mark the door through which God in Christ and through the Spirit enters to redeem our time. There are two corollaries, however, that accompany repentance expressed as openness.
The first is that our congregations will have to alter many of their chief characteristics. I would say that the chief mark of the congregation of which I am a part is this. We are a welcoming community of people in search of (1) support in the midst of marital and professional trials, (2) help in providing a moral formation for our children, and (3) moving worship. I find nothing wrong with these goals in and of themselves. It’s just that they do not necessarily include those marks of life together that might signal desire to know God and openness to instruction. In particular, I speak of the marks mentioned in the Pauline literature. For example, lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearance, eagerness for unity, truthful speech, kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness. (See Ephesians 4: 1-4, 15, 32.) These are the marks of a communion of people open to God and one another, but they are not the marks by which we normally assess the health of our congregations. They certainly do not provide the primary agenda for discussions of parish life.
As with repentance expressed as desire so also repentance expressed as openness will require of us fairly radical changes in the way in which we think of the life and program of our parishes. I must leave it to those of you skilled in program design and development to work out what the practical requirements of such changes might entail. I do, however, have one very practical comment directed particularly to those of us who may be ordained. As chief teacher within congregations, clergy will themselves have to become far more devoted readers of Holy Scripture than now they typically are. Yet another responsibility will fall on our shoulders, however. The communion of the church stretches over both space and time. Many, indeed most, of those who instruct us are now dead. Yet Americans, in particular, are increasingly people without memory. We live for today and tomorrow. Yesterday stands in the way of what is and what might be. This mind has crept into the churches. We too live for today and tomorrow. We too look for the present thing or the new thing rather than the old.
Yet, how are we to be instructed in the truth of God in Christ if we have no knowledge of the history of God’s people. Immersion in Holy Scripture raises the issue of instruction and instruction raises for Christians and Jews the question of memory. What is the wisdom imparted by those who have gone before us?
I am not naïve! I do not expect everyone in a parish to become a church historian. However, if our Priests and Pastors (who are our chief teachers) have no historical memory, we are indeed in deep waters. Having made this comment, I will say only one more thing on this subject. If desire to know God as God is requires a change in congregational practice, so also openness to instruction implies a radical shift in what we expect of our clergy, and what clergy expect of themselves. And with this observation, I include a confession. The last point is one I have been trying to make for 45 years. I have come to the sad conclusion that despite their eagerness to follow my advice, I have been preparing prospective clergy for a job that does not often exist. Openness to instruction does not often appear on parish profiles and knowledge of the traditions of our people does not often appear on the profiles submitted to church deployment.
The Inner Work of a Repentant Idolater: Receptivity
We now draw to the close of this meditation on what God might require of us for the redemption of our time. A false view of God can be countered only by a desire to know God as God truly is and openness to instruction. But one thing more is needed, namely, the actual reception of that to which we have opened ourselves. That is, do we actually take in and make part of ourselves what God is telling us through the Holy Scriptures and through our life with other believers. There come moments in every life when one desire is canceled by another and what we have heard, no matter how true, is, if not rejected, just pushed aside to await another occasion.
Let us face facts! The word of truth is hard to bare. When God speaks he more often than not must tare down before he can build. And when the issue between God and us is an idol—a manufactured deity designed to support life as we would have it—God’s attempts to smash our idols can be wrenching. In the end, the hardest thing in the world is to receive the Word God actually speaks.
So it is that as desire and openness were accompanied by practices, so also is receptivity. That practice is prayer—daily prayer in the context of meditation on Holy Scripture! What my friend David Kelsey has termed as a sort of short hand “the Christian thing” can be summed up by saying we worship God the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. It is this last person of the Holy Trinity upon whom we now must focus. I am enough of a Pauline and Augustinian Christian to believe that in the words of the ancient collect, “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” And so I believe that receptivity, apart from the practice of daily prayer, is a trait that lies beyond our reach. We do not, after all, know how to pray as we ought, but the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
I believe God’s promise. When we pray, we will be visited; and in that visit the power of the idols that hold us in thrall will be broken. We will dare not only to open ourselves to who God is in truth, we will be given power to take this knowledge into ourselves. At this point will begin the renewal of our minds and the transformation of our lives!
Our times—how shall they be redeemed? God in Christ and through the Spirit will open among us a door through which to visit our time; and he will do so by creating in us desire, openness, and receptivity. Each of these movements of the soul, if genuine, will be accompanied by the renewal of very ancient Christian practices—daily reading of the scriptures, immersion in the common life of the church, and daily prayer. It is this observation that leads me to ask once more “What then shall we do?” My concluding suggestion is this. Each of us seek to plant in the midst of the congregation of people with whom we worship a group with a vocation to pray for the church. Such a group might even take the form of an order whose honored virtues are desire, openness, and receptivity and whose practices are daily reading of the bible, both Old and New Testaments, participation in the common life of the congregation marked by lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearance, eagerness for unity and truthful speech; and constancy in prayer.