REDEEMING THE TIMES

 

 

THE BISHOP ELLIOTT LECTURES

for the

EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF WEST TEXAS

14-15 October 2005

 

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner

 

 

Lecture III

 

Redeeming the Times: The Renewal of Your Minds (B)

 

 

Introduction:

 

                In this my final talk, allow me to begin by returning once more to the first.  Any attempt to read the times coram Deo involves an assay in Christian Prophecy.  If I read the New Testament correctly, the gift of prophesy of which Paul speaks is precisely this—an ability to speak a word that allows the church to understand correctly its true situation before God.  I honestly do not know if I am so gifted, but I have been asked to make such an attempt.  In response, I have tried to do so as honestly as I am able. In this attempt, I may or may not have been successful.  It is properly your business to weigh what I say and test my words “in the Spirit.”  Prophesy, Paul tells us, must be weighed within the body of the church, and for this reason I can only urge you to undertake such a test not with a clever mind nor with pre-established opinion, but by searching the scriptures and engaging in the twin practices of prayer and fasting.

                 Whatever the character of our times may prove to be, they are sufficiently troubled to suggest that we listen (though with caution) to anyone who seeks to locate our common life before God, even if what they have to say contains some rather harsh truth.  I confess that the “truth” with which I began is at a minimum uncomfortable.  Our situation before God is this.  We have constructed a god in our own image rather than in the image of Christ Jesus.  Gods that are the creations of human imagination are properly called idols, and people who worship such gods are properly called idolaters. The words idol and idolater are, among us, normally associated with primitive people, not sophisticated Westerners.  Using words such as these in respect to ourselves is both unusual and, one suspects, offensive.  If indeed we are worshippers of a god of our own design, our desire to know God as God is in truth may well not as yet be strong enough to banish the god or gods we have made for ourselves.  We may not be either open or receptive to God as revealed in the face of Christ Jesus, but if we are we will know the presence of the Spirit in the midst of a process of repentance.  In my second lecture, I suggested that such repentance would manifest itself in a certain stance (desire, openness, and receptivity) and that this stance would be accompanied by forms of ancient Christian practice—immersion in Holy Scripture, life together in a communion of mutual subjection and instruction, and prayer.

                 The result for which we pray as penitents is a renewed mind and a transformed life.  What we seek is escape from conformed lives and minds that simply adapt to their surroundings.  What we seek above all else is truth—both about God and ourselves.  Now I come to the point of this final address.  For Christians, even Christians who become hermits, the truth about God and ourselves is found only in communion with other Christians—only by immersion in the communion of saints.  For all of us, this means life together with other Christians both within the communion of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and within the confines a given congregation of fellow believers.  For most of us, this congregation does not take the form of a monastic community but of a parish.

                So my specific question is this.  How do the renewal of the mind and the transformation of life take place within a parish based congregation?  My answer is only in so far as theology once more assumes its rightful place at the center of the life of our congregations.  Our minds will be renewed and our lives transformed only in so far as right knowledge of and love for God (the true subject of theology) become the chief aim of all we do in our various congregations—our celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, our services of Baptism, our Confirmations, our sermons, our Sunday School classes, our enquirers groups, our men’s and women’s groups, even our vestry meetings.  If we are to shed our idols and turn to worship of the one, true and only God revealed in Christ Jesus, theology, the quest for the knowledge of God, must come to dominate what we do in all dimensions of our life together.  Within our parishes, repentance will necessarily take the form of a renewal of theological reflection and study.  It is not enough just to do the liturgy.  It is not enough to design popular programs that attend to current interests and meet common needs.  Renewed minds and transformed lives issue from attention to who God is, and that means from theology in its classical sense—not an academic discipline hermetically sealed within a professional class, but a living engagement between God and those who seek to worship him in Spirit and in truth.

             So my attempt to address our problematic state before God leads me to ask an unexpected question.  What relation is there, or ought there to be, between theology and the everyday life of the church?  This question is not one that is high on the agenda of very many Episcopalians, be they clerical or lay.  It may be sad but it is also true that we have witnessed over the past years a steady decline in the place of theology at all levels of the life of The Episcopal Church. Attention has moved steadily away from instruction that draws the baptized members of the church more deeply into a common knowledge and love of God (which is the proper subject matter of theology in all its forms) and toward various forms of social action or pastoral practice designed to address either the perceived ills of society or the experience and perceived needs of individuals.  In this matrix of social concern and personal need, theology tends to become at best a “tag on”—a way of justifying a particular set of social concerns or a way of giving religious meaning to a personal history.  It’s focus is not in the first instance the knowledge and love of God as mediated through the common life of the church but the provision of ad hoc justifications for pursuing a limited range of personally selected and very earthly goods (one might add gods).

     In our present ecclesial culture, theology follows along behind commitment and experience and is trotted out, if the occasion demands, to provide a blessing for what our commitments and experience have already told us to be both right and good.  It is no wonder, therefore, that within the parish context, theology is something of an orphan child that is allowed to make only limited public appearances. It is no surprise either that theology in its more formal and academic guise is, on the whole, viewed from within the parish context as remote, abstract, and of no real value for the everyday life of the church.

                I have spoken thus far of the Episcopal Church, but generalizations of this sort apply across the spectrum of American Christianity.  In his book Kicking Habits, Thomas Bandy notes five theological motifs he claims characterize the life of the churches in America that, in his words, “are thriving.”[i]  Though he states that these theological motifs are, on the whole, characteristic of churches that lie outside the established denominations, he in fact describes motifs increasingly common to all forms of American Christianity, Episcopalianism included.  Upon examination, the striking thing about each of these “theological motifs” is how wide spread they are and how remarkably anti-theological each of them turns out to be.  Upon examination, it is striking as well how well each motif is suited to a god made in our own image.

                The first motif Bandy terms “Sentinel Theology.”  Sentinel Theology is in fact more of a stance than a thematic account of Christian belief and life.  It urges believers to adopt the stance of “a watchman on the ramparts” proclaiming, not impending doom but “the experience (emphasis added) of a proximate holiness (or state of health) that is just over the horizon.”[ii]  The second motif is “Healing.”  The new theology does not emphasize the imitation of Christ and the suffering such imitation involves.  Rather, it holds out a promise that, by walking with Christ daily, life can be transformed in a way that will allow one to “kick the habits” that ruin life’s pleasures.  It follows that the third motif is “Walking with the Risen Lord.”  The emphasis of the new theology is neither an exploration of basic Christian doctrine nor is it an ethical imitation of Christ.  Its focus is rather “healing in association (emphasis added) with Christ.”[iii] Given this emphasis on the daily experience of healing and the constant presence of the Christ in one’s personal life, it is not surprising that the fourth motif is a “Return to Eden.”  Salvation does not involve dying and rising.  It consists of the return to a state that “combines final and complete insight into one’s own unique selfhood, affirmation, and cleansing of that selfhood, and taking one’s appropriate place in the eternal scheme of the universe.”[iv]  The final motif is “The Damascus Road.”  In Bandy’s words, “Authentic religion is not about information (read theology). It is about experience.”[v]  It is better to speak of this experience as a transformation in the direction of life than it is to speak of it as a conversion in which one has to assimilate new information, of, if you will, an adequate and full account of Christian belief and life.

     Here indeed is an understanding of the Christian religion that has little need for theology and indeed Bandy insists that thriving churches will down play the importance of doctrine ( and , more broadly, theology) altogether.  They will in fact reserve such teaching for those who may develop an interest in that sort of thing.  Theology in the parish thus becomes the preserve of a special interest group—one that has rather rare tastes.

 

Theology: What in the World is it?

             Now if circumstances are even close to the way in which I have described them, one must ask if parishes in fact have very much need for theology?  Is there any sense in which theology might have importance for parish life that is more fundamental and more extensive than the ad hoc, limited and rather instrumental role it now seems to play?  The answer to this question depends, I believe, on what we understand theology to be.  If it turns out that theology is in fact what most people now take it to be, the answer is most certainly no.  If, however, as I believe, theology is properly a very different sort of enterprise than our popular notions display, then a renewed and reformed presence of theology (understood rather differently than now it is) within parish life will bring about nothing less than a collision of worlds!

            One can get a sense of the force of the collision by asking not how we do but how we ought to understand the nature of theology.  In his book, The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck asks what we might mean when we speak of church doctrine.[vi]  He notes that theological theories of religion and doctrine can be divided into two primary types.  In his words, the first “emphasizes the cognitive aspects of religion and stresses the ways in which church doctrines function as informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities.”[vii]  The second sort of theory focuses on what Lindbeck calls the “experiential-expressive” dimension of religion.  According to this sort of theory, doctrine is not comprised of propositions that provide knowledge of objective realities but rather of symbolic expressions that display “inner feelings, attitudes or existential orientations.”[viii]

Lindbeck suggests what he considers a more excellent way--one he calls the “cultural-linguistic” approach to religion and doctrine.  Religion and doctrine can best be understood as analogous to languages and the forms of life to which they are tied.  Thus doctrine should be understood in the first place not as a set of truth claims nor as a set of expressive symbols (though it contains both) but as a form of culture that is comprised of “idioms for the construction of reality and the living of life.”[ix]  On this view, doctrine may be compared to the grammar of a language.  It comprises a set of “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.”[x]  On this view, doctrine is not a means of personal communication but a necessary medium for becoming part of a culture.  The implication of Limbeck’s argument is that as one cannot be a person apart from a culture, so one cannot be a Christian person apart from the language and forms of life that give identity to such a reality.

 The Place of Doctrine in the Life of a Parish:

            Bandy’s picture of the theological motifs characteristic of what he calls a thriving church all suggest that an “experiential-expressive” view of doctrine is now dominant within them.  I have suggested that this view as well lies behind the place of doctrine in Episcopal parishes.  If I am right to conclude both that this is at present in fact the dominant view of doctrine (and so also theology conceived more broadly) and if I am right to assume that Lindbeck’s view of the nature of doctrine is more adequate, then giving theology its proper place in the life of a congregation involves nothing less than a collision of worlds.  And I use the term a “collision of worlds” as a trope for repentance? How so?

            If doctrine is best understood as definitive of a culture, as comprising its language and forms of life, then the chief pastoral function of a parish is not to provide a religious idiom for the expression of personal experience and commitment but to teach those who believe in Christ how to speak the Christian language well and how to inhabit the forms of life that go along with it so that they can both have the sorts of experiences Christians have and become adults who, as members of a single culture, both speak as Christians ought to speak and care responsibly for the forms of life that give Christian people their distinct identity.  At the most basic level, the learning of doctrine (which includes first of all the ability to read the bible as Christians read it; and, along with biblical literacy, the ability give expression in word and deed to the witness to God contained therein) is properly not the preserve of a special interest group nor the vehicle for giving religious expression to personal commitments and experience.  Rather, it is, along with worship, witness and communion, the primary means of forming a distinct people.

             Viewed in this way doctrine (which is the most basic, but not the only form of theology) comes to resemble, as in the movie Armageddon, an asteroid that threatens to annihilate the parish as we know it.  Americans do not view the congregations to which they belong as assemblies in which one must be reborn into a new people and then learn, like a little child, a new language, a new form of life, and a new range of experiences.  They view their congregations in stead as service organizations whose function is to meet their spiritual needs and provide for them a medium for the expression of their particular sensibilities and talents.  Our more successful parishes are not designed to draw people into a common form of language, life, and experience but to provide a broad spectrum of programs designed to satisfy countless individual tastes. It is perhaps unnecessarily provocative to say so, but our must successful parishes are designed to feed our idols.

             If one adopts a cultural-linguistic view of the nature of doctrine, however, one’s view of the proper function of a parish must change radically.  Theology is a word with multiple denotations and connotations.  At its most fundamental level, for Christians, it refers to those common beliefs and practices that yield the knowledge and love of God as made known to us in Christ Jesus, witnessed to in Holy Scripture, and mediated through the common life of the church.  It is comprised in the first instance, as Lindbeck says, of those “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action” that give definition to God’s people.  If the New Testament is to be believed, one cannot learn those rules apart from others who share them and one cannot learn them unless one becomes once again a little child who must be brought to maturity through the tender care of those who have a more mature grasp of the language and its attendant forms of life.

             At its most fundamental level, therefore, theology is a form of pedagogy by means of which Christian belief and practice are handed over.  In this process of handing on, Christians experience is opened up and our common idols smashed.  The congregation is clearly the primary locus for this incorporating and community forming activity.  It is the “place” where many become one body not only because they share one meal but also because they learn to speak one language and live one form of life.

A Practical Proposal about Theology in the Parish:

             The minute one begins to look at the place of theology in the parish in this way, they are confronted with enormous challenges.  In the first place, until recently, despite a constitutional insistence on the separation of church and state, the grammar of Christian life and belief was passed on from generation to generation in a very diffuse manner through a broad spectrum of social institutions, not all or even most of them ecclesial ones.  As time has passed, Christian content has increasingly been excluded from public forms of communication and education.  In the second place, as I have said, the spirit of the age awakens ever and ever more private views of religious belief and practice.  Increasingly, despite an increasing longing for community, the very notion of common forms of language and life that take precedence over individual taste and opinion seems increasingly unacceptable.  In the end, the sort of community we seem actually to want is one made of people whose tastes and opinions resemble our own—whose gods resemble ours.

                American religion, like most other American institutions, has a real genius for marketing and so has responded creatively to these circumstances.  It has more or less gracefully accepted its dethronement as the provider of a common moral and religious foundation for American society and has thrown its energies into developing “program churches” which market a wide range of religious and social activities that appeal to a wide range of distinct “publics.”

     The fact that church attendance has remained as high as it is in America is a testimony to the success of these efforts.  Nevertheless, they have resulted in a splintering of congregations into sub groups based on interest and, as a means of justifying this sort of inner segmentation, America’s religious marketing calls out for an “experiential-expressive” view of doctrine and theology.  The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has in fact given Episcopal and institutional blessing to this view of doctrine and theology by his call both to recognize that “we hold different truths” and accept these differences as part of a larger truth that exists beyond our ken and reach.

     If, however, doctrine ought not to be understood as a means of giving expression to personal religious experience but as the grammar of a language and form of life which is definitive of a common culture, then we must view the reaction of the churches in America to their changed social circumstances not as a creative adjustment but as a misconception of or even defection from what they ought to be up to.  Strange as it may seem, the Book of Common Prayer adopted for use in 1979 by The Episcopal Church  suggests a very different view of the place of theology in the parish than the one implied by its new Presiding Bishop—one that lies far closer to the “cultural-linguistic” view of theology than to the “experiential-expressive” view.

     The Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1979 gives the Sacrament of Baptism a far more prominent place than that accorded by the 1928 book.  In doing so, it highlights its public rather than its private nature.  It seeks in numerous ways to focus attention on the fact that in Baptism one does not in the first instance enter upon a personal and very private journey.  Rather, one becomes a part of a people who share One Lord, one Faith one Baptism, and one God who is Father to all.  The promises contained in the Baptismal Covenant unite all Christians in a common affirmation of faith that Jesus is both Lord and Savior.[xi]  United in this faith, Christians define themselves as those who “continue in the Apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.”[xii]  If ever there was an anti-idolatrous promise, it is this one.

     It is this promise that defines what it means to accept Christ as savior and  follow Christ as Lord.  It is this promise that makes faith in Christ as Savior and obedience to Christ as Lord a common rather than an individual enterprise.  It is this promise also that implies that doctrine and theology are best understood on the basis of Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic” model.  After all, to continue in a teaching and form of life means, at a minimum, to have a grasp of this teaching and its attendant forms of life.  Consequently, it is this promise that makes theology central rather than peripheral to the life of a congregation.  The promise suggests that congregations ought to be asking themselves first of all not how to appeal more adequately to individual tastes and commitments, but how they can become a body of people who faithfully pass on (in forms that are suitable to their own time and place) that language and those forms of life that comprise the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the common meal they shared and the prayers they prayed.  If the question of the place of theology in the life of a congregation were posed in this way, the present agenda for the life of most congregations in America would have to change almost beyond recognition.[xiii]

 Other Dimensions of the Place of Theology in the Life of a Parish:

                 To this point I have spoken of theology in its most basic form—as church doctrine.  Theology has other forms that naturally grow from and supplement this most basic one.  Doctrine must be explored, explained and defended.  If indeed doctrine provides a grammar on the basis of which one can learn to understand and live out a form of belief and life, it is important to explore the full range of its implications, to clear up the confusions it may produce and to respond to the objections it may call forth.  Consequently, theology properly takes on more complex forms.  We know these as dogmatic, systematic and apologetic theology.

     This is not the place to go into the differences between the differing forms that theology can take.  It is enough to say that doctrine, which is intended to provide access to the knowledge and love of God, must be explored, explained and defended if it is to be convincing and life forming.  Theology in these forms thus also has an important place in the life of any congregation and it is not one that can be left to “interest groups” that happen to be interested in that sort of thing.  Continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers will inevitably draw all Christians at one point or another toward theological questions that can be avoided only at the cost of spiritual health.

     There is no necessary reason for it to be this way, but Anglican churches have, from a time shortly after the initial stages of the Reformation, tended to place in the hands of their clergy the major responsibility for seeing to the presence in the parish of theology in these more complex forms.  Indeed, at their best, Anglican clergy have seen this sort of theological knowledge and pedagogy as a central aspect of effective pastoral care.  Forty years as a seminary professor have convinced me, however, that, despite assertions to the contrary, theological knowledge of this kind is no longer considered in any way central to pastoral care.  Theological students now come to seminary because they want “to do ministry.”  The churches and dioceses that send them want the same thing and by “doing ministry” they do not mean passing on, exploring, explaining and defending the language and forms of life that define Christians as Christians.  They mean responding sensitively to the needs and interests of others as these needs and interests are presented.  They mean “feeling the pain” and offering empathy and concrete help to those who perceive themselves in need.  The ministry thus becomes a therapeutic profession and, given this view of the ministry, it simply follows that an “experiential-expressive” view of doctrine is about all one needs.

Theology and Episcopal Authority:

             If indeed theology in the parish has to do with passing on, exploring, explaining and defending the language and forms of life that lead to common knowledge and love of God, then it becomes important for the life of the church as a whole that it take those steps it can to see that the theological knowledge passed on, explored, explained and defended at the parish level is not out of accord with the teaching and forms of life passed on by the apostles and the great church through the ages. 

I have already indicated that unless the members of our congregations are immersed in Holy Scripture, there is no possibility of faithful reception and passing on of Christian tradition.  False gods will abound among those not so immersed.  But more is needed—some form of authority to which people can turn in the midst of perplexity and conflict.  History displays various arrangements by which, through the ages, the church has sought to insure that, in the countless times and places its traditions are passed on, it remains, as a whole, of one mind in a bond of peace.  Anglicans have thought it best to guard the fidelity and unity of the church through the office of the Bishop.  To be sure, the job of a Bishop is complex, but a primary aspect of that job is to see that the local church remains in communion with the church universal—to see that its language and forms of life are in accord with those of the apostles. 

For Anglicans, theology in the parish is related to theology in the church universal through the office of Bishop.  It is, however, just this aspect of the office of Bishop that has moved steadily out of sight within the life of the Episcopal Church.  The inability and unwillingness of our bishops to take the steps necessary to see that the passing on, exploration, explanation and defense of the language and forms of life that constitute Christian identity are in accord with the mind of the church universal have been displayed plainly by their inability and unwillingness to address the various theological crises that have come before the Episcopal Church in the last 50 years and by their insistence that respecting difference is more fundamental to the life of the church than finding a common mind.[xiv]  The result of this abdication is a sort of theological congregationalism at the level of both parish and diocese—a form of congregationalism that has an affinity for the “experiential-expressive” view of doctrine and theology and a preference for a form of dialogue that does not lead, as did Plato’s, to the overcoming of falsehood, but rather to the recognition that each person, each parish and each diocese may hold its own truth no matter what that might do the unity of the mind and life of the church.  In the end, this process leads to the worship of a multitude of gods, and I have already made clear what the proper name of such pluralism is. 

A Conclusion:

             As its subtitle suggests, the conclusion of this essay is that theology occupies a very precarious place in the present life of the Episcopal Church.  Its place is precarious in the first place because an inadequate view of the nature of theology has taken hold of the mind of the church.  This inadequate view, which Lindbeck terms “experiential-expressive,” has taken hold, however, because of a false understanding of the nature of the church itself—an understanding of the church as a service organization designed to meet human need and interest. A body of persons organized around such an end that calls itself a church will inevitably proclaim a variety of gods—gods they have fashioned to suit the tastes of their clientele.  In the course of displaying these inadequate notions of both church and theology I have suggested another way of viewing both, namely, that the church constitutes a people and that theology is a practice meant to carry over time and space the language and forms of life that make this people distinctive.  I have suggested as well that should the Episcopal Church decide to adopt the view of theology in the parish I have proposed, its adoption would involve a collision of worlds that would set the Episcopal Church at odds with both the general and ecclesial culture of the American people. It would involved a change in the way we view the congregation, the way in which the view the ministry of the church and a change in which we view the exercise of authority within the church. Changes such as these are not ones for which our history has well prepared us, but they are ones that would manifest the sort of repentance required of people who worship one or many false gods. 


 

[i] Thomas Bandy, Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997),  pp. 213-226.

[ii] Ibid., p. 215.

[iii] Ibid., p. 218.

[iv] Ibid., p. 220.

[v] Ibid., p. 222.

[vi] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984).

[vii] Ibid., p.16.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid., p. 18.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Book of Common Prayer, pp.302-303.

[xii] Ibid., p. 304. cf., The Acts of the Apostles, 2:42.

[xiii] For an account of how the agenda might change if theology understood in the way I have sought to display it became central to a congregation’s understanding of what it ought to be about see Philip Turner, A Rule of Life for Congregations Based upon the Baptismal Covenant, (Cincinnati OH: Forward Movement Publications, 1997).  For information about a group of parishes seeking jointly to make this Rule the basis of their parish program write St. John’s Episcopal Church, 134 N. Broad Street, Lancaster, Ohio 43130.  Or you may contact by email: jmreade@computech-online.net.

[xiv] For accounts of the decline of the Episcopal office in respect to doctrine and theology in the church see Philip Turner, “Authority in the Church: Excavations Among the Ruins,” First Things (Dec. 1990):25-31; “Communion, Order and the Ordination of Women,” Pro Ecclesia (Summer 1993): 275-284; “Episcopal Oversight and Ecclesiastical Discipline” in Ephraim Radner and R.R. Reno (eds.), Inhabiting Unity: Theological Perspectives on the Proposed Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat (Grand Rapids: MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), pp. 111-133; “Episcopal Authority in a Divided Church,” (Pro Ecclesia), forthcoming.  See also R. R. Reno