Saturday, August 9, 2014

Renouncing, responding, and reacting to Satan…

Between the protesting of Christian Privilege in America with “Satanic Black Masses” by various secularist societies and also the Church of England’s creation of a Baptismal Rite that does not use the word “satan” or “devil” there has been much ado about “satan” as of late. The vast majority of which has left me wanting to beat my head against the wall. As a rule if you want Christians, of any sort, to abandon all sense, all ability to communicate, and all relationship with history and tradition… have a conversation about “satan”.

As Christians we believe in a God that is engaged and active in the world, seeking to draw all of us into harmony with each other and God. Within our belief system there is also an awareness of an active force working to draw us out of that harmony with God and each other and into disharmony. There are various biblical moments when this force is portrayed, and some of those times the force is named as “satan”. 

What we have done, rather problematically, over the past 2000 years is amalgamate a large amount of biblical and non-christian concepts of “evil” and wrapped them up into a human concept, almost an anti-idol, called “satan”. This anti-idol is not really useful, and definitely not inherent to, Christianity.

To begin with there are a series of religions, that preexist or developed independent of Christianity, that evoke or appear to evoke a “satan”, “devil”, or “demon” type being. In all probability whatever being you would draw if asked to draw “satan” is an amalgamation of pieces from these non-christian traditions. The deal is that none of these religions is particularly set against Christianity and its concepts of God, none of them privilege Christianity as force against which they are working in the world. Some of them were powerful in their day, Zoroastrianism, others were variations of the basic paganism and pantheism one found throughout the world.

The concept of Satanism, a religion that worships the biblical entity Satan and seeks to bring down Christianity, is an invention of the Church in the Middle Ages. It is what happens when we began to react to latent pagan ritual and activity in the European culture from a space of paranoid power. It is inherently part of the anti-Semitism and active misogyny of the day. This is an era of texts that warn against Jews sneaking into churches to steal consecrated hosts out of tabernacles so they can stick pins into them and purposefully recrucify Christ then give them to wanton women to summon satan in highly sexualized occult rituals.

When we, as Christians, respond to “Satanism” out of this construct we have inherited from the Middle Ages what we are doing is buying into the anti-Semitism and patriarchy inherent to the initial construction. This flexing of our privilege in society, and all of the oppression we have done in the name of Christ by means of such, is exactly the reaction modern “Satanism” is attempting to evoke from us.

Modern “Satanism” has more in common with “The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” than any other “religion”, especially the fabricated one of the Middle Ages. Its purpose is to call out the inherent privilege that Christianity has in the world today. It is based in the very valid critiques of organized religion found in the writings of Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and Feuerbach. That as Christians we are as want to use our faith for wish fulfillment, gaining power, ignoring problematic issues, and the like as we are to use it as a means of actually having a deep and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ.  Like Nietzsche’s text Anti-Christ, the argument is not that Christ does not exist but that what Christians believe does not reflect the Christ of the Gospels, the title is there for shock value. Such is the way of modern “Satanism” the point is not to undermine Christianity as a religion but to undermine the misuse of Christianity by Christians. It is a social commentary against the societal ills Christianity has done not a religion seeking to summon and manipulate Satanic forces against the Church. 

And this is the point where, as Christians, we really need to pause. The construct of “Satanism” within our theology, as already noted, comes out of a space of oppression of Jews and women, amidst others. This problematic beginning brings with it inherently problematic theological concepts. As Christians we praise God, give thanks to God, glorify God in our lives… God longs for such to occur, but such things do not actually affect the nature of God. Likewise when we defame God, give blame to God, profane God in our lives… God weeps for such to occur, but such things do not actually affect the nature of God.

The common reaction by Christian’s to “Satanism” is concern for the objects of our faith and ire at the individuals who are not respecting our authority over them. Yet, when people profanely use the Bible, profanely use the sacraments, profanely use the icons and imagery of the church… and historically Christian groups have done this to a much greater extent than any “Satanist” groups… it is the people who are brought into a state of profanity not the source to which these objects guide us. An appropriate response would be concern for the people distancing themselves so from the objects that guide us towards God and deeply wondering what we have done, as Christians, that has brought about a situation where these objects no longer speak to harmony with one another and with God that is evocative of the Gospel message.

God commanded that the church go forth and teach the Gospel to all nations. God did not command that the world understand what we teach. When the Gospel is not understood in the world the only one at fault is the Church for its teaching not the world for its lack of understanding.

It is exceptionally true that we maintain an understanding of evil that recognizes it as a force with active intent and purpose in the world. As we do so, however, it is important to not allow that very force to draw us into blind reaction to the needs and concerns of our fellow human beings as we live in ignorance of the faults of organized religion when it comes to perpetuating societal ills. To do so is to buy into the trap of that same evil, to be, in a way, Satanist ourselves.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Thoughts on Sacramental Marriage equality and the letter of Paul to the Galatians...

One thing Christianity has had a history of doing is absorbing and repurposing foreign traditions for its own use. This is not a bad thing; Christmas and Easter are both exceptional examples of appropriated holidays put to exceptionally and vibrantly meaningful use. There comes a point, however, when we have to honestly access these appropriations. There is nothing wrong with having our liturgical calendar aligned with the seasonal calendar of solstices and equinoxes. There would be a problem, however, if we found ourselves falling into worship of the solstice and equinox itself.

Marriage, like Christmas and Easter, has been absorbed and repurposed by Christianity over the past two thousand years. This is a good thing; it means, however, that we do need to honestly access it as an appropriation. Are we indeed basing our concept of marriage on core biblical principles of family… or are we simply finding places where the Bible reinforces concepts we have appropriated from outside of the Christian faith.

I want to take a few minutes to reflect on this in the midst of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This document is easily argued to be one of the earliest, probably the second, sections of the New Testament. In the opening paragraphs of Galatians we come across a poignant question: “Am I now seeking human approval or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ”.[1] Now this verse is normally used to advocate for what is considered “traditional” and “biblical” marriage. The concept being that those individuals who seek to allow same gender couples to marry are wanting the approval of the age and are moving away from God’s desires. What I think is critical to point out, however, is that the “traditional” concept of marriage does indeed please a certain group of people and any change is inherently unpleasing to them. This verse is not meant as means to stop changes in understanding but to make any reader question how much what they are seeking is a matter of pleasing themselves, and not a matter of seeking God.

I can say this with a great level of certainty. We have to realize that the majority of the letter is around the issue of circumcision. A point on which Paul was decidedly on the radical liberal agenda in defiance of those seeing to uphold traditional understandings about genitalia and their place in the rites of the church. The question at his time was whether or not the rite of initiation in the Church, baptism, had expectations in regards to genitalia. The question in our time is whether or not the rite of recognizing a family in the Church, marriage, has expectations in regards to genitalia.

Paul’s core argument in this conversation is that “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”.[2] Inherently, that the rite of initiation in the church is not justified by what is occurring with the genitalia of the individual but what is occurring in regards to their faith in Jesus Christ. I do not think that it is too bold of a jump to say that the rite of making family in the church is not justified by what is occurring with the genitalia of the individuals but what is occurring in regards to their faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul’s argument around Christian initiation continues “for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor circumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love… For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’”.[3] What those of us seeking marriage equality are advocating for is the idea that “for in Christ Jesus neither vagina nor penis counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love…”. And before we are told this is an unbiblical concept it is important to realize that just shortly before making the above statements Paul writes, “there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.[4]

The argument that is quickly put forward is that any relationship that is not based upon the right types of genitalia is inherently about “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealous, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these”. No one is suggesting that relationships involving these sinful components are not inherently against Christianity. What is being argued is that these components do not depend on the genitalia involved but whether or not the relationship under scrutiny is based on “faith working in love” or not.

Further the argument is that it is only “faith working in love” that can bring about the fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control”.[5] That the Holy Spirit’s action is neither ensured by, nor detracted by, the genitalia involved but by the couple being open to Her on account of “faith working in love”. That the important question is not “what genitalia are involved” but indeed “does the relationship involve the fruit of the Spirit”.

Paul’s point is that if the fruit of the Spirit is present then “there is no law against such things”.[6] That the law cannot inhibit a person from initiation into Christianity on account of genitalia, if the fruit of the Spirit are present in that person as they have “faith working through love”. Similarly that the law cannot inhibit a couple from the rite of making a family within Christianity on account of genitalia, if the fruit of the Spirit are present in that couple on account that they have “faith working in love”.

Paul’s admonition at the end of Chapter 5 is as useful and meaningful today as it was in his day: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the spirit let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.”[7] At the time his call was to all of the Christian groups around the place of genitalia in the midst of Christian initiation. He inherently called the focus on the law as to what it considered appropriate genitalia for the rite of initiation a conceit. In so doing he automatically denied the authority of a faction of the church to have its way unilaterally. He did not deny the validity of Christian initiation that had requirements for genitalia, he did, however, deny the universality of such requirements. He allowed for full and complete Christian initiation without them.

My position on Sacramental Marriage, in regards to genitalia, is thus basically equivalent to Paul’s position on Sacramental Initiation, in regards to genitalia. That with Jesus the only thing that counts for anything “is faith working through love”.


[1] Gal 1:10
[2] Gal 2:16a
[3] Gal 5:6, 14
[4] Gal 3:28 b,c
[5] Gal 5:22-23 a
[6] Gal 5:23b
[7] Gal 5:24-26

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Are graduating seminarians leaving the "real world"?

Recently it was presented to me, again, the concept that any one discerning to be a priest must have experience working in the "real world" outside of ministry and how even mission work and religious/service non-profit work are seen as dubious experiences.

When I started to discern twelve years ago, in college, this concept was simply frustrating as friends would say "I feel called to be a doctor/lawyer/teacher/author" and the church would say "Amazing! Follow your calling! How can we help?" while those of us who said "I feel called to be a priest" were told "go be a doctor/lawyer/teacher/author and come back to us when you have real world experience".

Now I realize that the heart of this is that the church does not function in the same way many other parts of the world outside of it does and clergy need to understand this other way of working to relate to people and, in many cases, guide the church to better practices of organization. The way the Church generally resolves this problem, instead of creating a general mechanism for guiding younger aspirants into gaining an understanding of this "real world" while also actively discerning a call to ordained ministry, is to place the onus of the problem onto the young discerner. Blessedly, for myself and many others, priests and lay ministers of the church are aware of the problem and strive to pick up the slack.

But now on the eve of graduation as I apply for clergy positions and enter into the final stages of discernment with my diocese towards ordination the question hits in a very different way. If I have the joy of finding a calling to one of these positions then will I be leaving the "real world"? Is the expectation for me to wake up the morning I start my first call and look at every person around me and think "they are those who work in the "real world" and I am no longer one of them"? Am I to approach my future, God willing, peers in the clergy and think "ah look, here we are, those who do not work in the "real world""?

If the work of the clergy is not readily considered work of the "real world" by the church, if the clergy, and the church by extension, are simply part of some "religious world" separated from the doings and goings on of the "real world", then what exactly is the point? Would the Church not be exceptionally better served by telling the clergy to be fully engaged in the "real world" around them so no one has the idea that they work in some "religious world" than telling aspirants to get "real world" experience before they leave the "real world" to work for the "religious world"? Is not, in the end, this bifurcation simply the church acquiescing to the place secular society would have it sty in... an impotent place for individual private spiritualism with no correlation or material value to the real world?

As a graduating seminarian I do not look at myself as leaving the "real world". I look at myself as finally being able to enter it in the way I have been called for as long as I have allowed myself to be truly open to God's grace. If this years graduating seminarians are not expected to go out and work in the "real world" as people with "real world" vocations gaining the necessary "real world" experience throughout their lives to always be relevant than what, if anything, are we expected to do?

As a closing meditation I offer John Mayer's No Such Thing as the Real World video.

Friday, February 14, 2014

An Urban Parson: Part 2, The church pollutable or the church unpollutable.

So these post will be much like the Country Parson of Herbert, not in amazingness but in the fact they will be a series of post written not in experience but in preparation for upcoming experience. I am using the term "urban" loosely to mean non-suburban and a pastor seeking to relate to an urban Main Street community, be it rural or metropolitan. My theory is that the relationship a pastor needs to have between their Burroughs in NYC or their rural Main Street is in many ways inherently similar.

Church pollutable or the church unpollutable...

There are two concepts of inclusion... The first concept is that we have to create a false "clean" space where offensive or problematic elements are not allowed to enter... Church then becomes a false "clean" space where any offensive or problematic elements of the self are not allowed to enter. The second concept of inclusion is basically we open up the church to the unclean reality of ourselves and the world we live in, that we do indeed slide down the slippery slope of sin and perdition following Christ in his descent unto hell.

The first concept I call the church pollutable. Church leaders and communities have to constantly censor themselves (a very different reality than to censer themselves) trying to make a picture of a perfect community that outsiders will enter and find an edenic place. The constant fear is individuals, ideas, or situations that will pollute the vision of the church they are attempting to paint. This is not a liberal thing or a conservative thing... sex positive and sex negative communities can do this... Tridentine Mass or Inclusive Liturgy congregations can live this reality out... the rule can be "no gays" or "no homophobes"... What matters is that there is a definition "this is clean" and "this is dirty" and a constant fear of getting dirty, of the church polluted.

The deal is that this does not work, it has never worked, it is inherently a dishonest and manipulative system. For a while things can appear to be working but eventually the broken human character will make itself known and "Eden", in what ever machination liberal or conservative it may be, will be found corrupted. It is, in the end, the action of a family in denial about addiction enabling and coenabling a mask to keep up appearances. It is the attempt to make a bucket a buckèt. It is an attempt to create by human action a church whose existence depends on God's action not ours.

The alternative, which I call the Church Unpollutable, is a concept of church where the concern is transforming the world into holiness and embracing the problematic elements we all bring into community. The church does not fear being unclean but fears not following Christ into the uncleanliness of the human condition. A church that does not try to create a faux heaven but seeks to follow Christ into the depths of hell. A Church that depends on a faith in God who will bring them into light not on maintaining themselves in a light by act and censor.

The main different here is a matter of comfort. The Church Pollutable seeks to create a place where a group of people feel comfortable and will react strongly when any element enters that makes them uncomfortable. The Church Unpollutable seeks to create a space where everyone acknowledges they are uncomfortable and to wrestle with the uncomfortableness of life. Or in more traditional language it is a matter of sin. The Church Pollutable seeks to create a place where a group presents itself living above sin and will strongly reject any element that calls that into question. The Church Unpollutable recognizes that we are sinners and wrestles with the sinfulness of life.

The difference is that of a show house and a home. Some people will reject any organization that will not strive to ever keep everything in pristine condition with thin plaster over any crack or flaw. People with similar concepts of pristine condition will continue to aggregate together and spend exceptional amount of energy keeping a house ready to be shown. My request is for community that will let the cracks show and be willing to seek to create a home, with all the mess and craziness that involves, and let the house showers look on aghast. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Urban Parson: Part 1, an officeless office...

So these post will be much like the Country Parson of Herbert, not in amazingness but in the fact they will be a series of post written not in experience but in preparation for upcoming experience. I am using the term "urban" loosely to mean non-suburban and a pastor seeking to relate to an urban Main Street community, be it rural or metropolitan. My theory is that the relationship a pastor needs to have between their Burroughs in NYC or their rural Main Street is in many ways inherently similar.

An Officeless Office...

My seminary building is a lot like many parishes... It is on a Main Street, literally, but situated in a way that no one would ever naturally try to enter it. When it comes to having any actual relationship with the reality of the community it is not ever going to happen by people naturally coming inside. It is also never going to happen by any meeting or plan that gets put together inside the seminary compound.

Now to be clear I am all for seminary compounds. I maintain a carol in the remotest corner of the library stacks and can get work done there I cannot get done anywhere else. The church has to maintain places and worship that allows for isolation. Jesus fled the crowds and the disciples on a regular basis for good reason (mainly the fact that people have a tendency to be frustrating as all get out). One can reflect in isolation, one can learn from mistakes in isolation, one can even go so far as to strategize scenarios in isolation... What an individual or group cannot do, isolated in a seminary or church compound, is effectively plan or relate to the community around them.

Sitting in my carol or church office, gathering a group of parishioners or seminarians in the parlor, to plan out ministry and mission will in the end create plans only capable of falling flat on their faces. These plans relate to the neighborhood as to exclusive consumers. The church might use bread from a local bakery at its Eucharist but it views the bakery as a place from which to purchase and consume not as a space that allows the church to enter into the Holy. The church might create a meaningful and viable community garden on their land but see it as a way the neighborhood can consume the church's theology about Eco-Justice. These are things that might look "missional" or "emergent" but are simply a continuation of capitalist Christianity.

The cure for this is "officeless" and even "homeless" clergy. Now I am NOT advocating that clergy should not have studies and safe secure places to live. What I am saying is that clergy should not have "offices" like a doctor or a CEO and that parishes should not have "conference rooms" like corporations, aka remote places that people go to for a specialist or where data, marketing strategies, and growth prediction algorithms are analyzed on high. Now to be clear there is essential spirit filled ministry in data analysis, marketing strategy, and growth prediction algorithms, the church needs to support and recognize the value of these ministries for itself and the world. Life giving Godly mission cannot live on theory alone, however.

This is why it is essential that the local coffee shop or diner be likened to the clergy's living room or office. Any Main Street has that place, the place that organically forms a hub for the community where people talk, the mayor shows up to get the beat of what is going on, where the owner is a central part of the local better business bureau. This is where the clergy has to be. Not to set up in the corner an extension of the Parish's isolated space a few blocks away but to become an empathized and knowledgable part of the community. To be sought after to interact with the community not because their is an office in a church down the street but because as an individual they are a valuable part of the community that is part of the heart of the day to day life of what is going on.

It is only when this happens, when the community's living room is also the living room of the clergy, that actual Missional/Emergent church dreams can enter into the emerging mission of God in the world. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Lex Credendi of the Grammy Weddings

"We pray what we believe and we believe what we pray" is a theological maxim so important it was originally written in latin, lex orandi lex credendi. The deal is that this is a statement more about human nature than God. The way it works out is that you can figure out what a community believes about a thing from looking at how it ritualizes a thing. A family that sits down every night for a meal views eating differently from the family where everyone grabs a bite when they have time and eats it wherever they please. This shows a difference in how they view eating but does not, by default say, anything positive or negative about the health of the family. I have been thinking about this maxim, lex orandi lex credendi, in relationship to the marriage of thirty three couples at last night's Grammy Awards. What does the ritual act performed their say about the beliefs these individuals hold about marriage.

Marriage is a responsibility for the world and the world must support it. People across the world saw these individuals vow their lives to each other. This is not a concept of marriage as a private matter but one that involves all of society. This is not an elopement to hide from family and social scrutiny in private but a very public statement of commitment. The couples view their relationships as something that directly impacts and is impacted by society.

Marriage is part of a greater picture. Very few people tuned in last night for the wedding, they tuned in for the music. The wedding was how these thirty three individuals entered into the life of the music, a cultural idiom that breaches across all of the world and all of our history. Their wedding is in service to a greater ideal. The marriage song itself was a blurring of genres and time periods that opened up  the audience to this greater picture.

The celebrant of a wedding must be a voice of the community. Queen Latifah might not be the Pope of pop culture but she is definitely in the running. She is a true and acknowledged shaman of her craft and beliefs. The marriage gains potency because she was the presider. They could have had some minor local official do the ceremony and make the important players those getting married, but the important player was the officiant. The couples were for all intent and purposes normal. 

Marriage is egalitarian and about love and commitment between two people. The couples presented a myriad variation on race and gender combinations. The common thread is their commitment to each other to become family as two equal adults of their own free will.  

There are many other points but I think these bring out the core parts of marriage as presented by this ritual: marriage is the loving commitment of two equal individuals of the sake of something greater in our society and culture that society and culture must support and as such is celebrated by a voice of the community. Not surprisingly this definition reflects a lot of Christian ideas around marriage. Most Christians, I would hope, would sign on to the whole of that definition and simply put qualifiers on it.

The obvious, and central Christian qualifier, would be to ensure the "something greater" involves Jesus. This is part of the Christian mission to transform all of society and culture towards God through Christ. The only other "Christian" qualifiers I have seen running about the web are ones I find inherently problematic.

These qualifiers boil down to two things. One, that marriage should not be a relationship between two equal consenting adults. Two, that if the couple cannot biologically procreate then they are incapable of marriage and family. I will readily admit that the bible presents an idea of marriage that is not egalitarian and requires procreation. I would readily challenge, however, that the bible calls us to something greater than this presentation.

The point, however, is to show that the lex orandi lex credendi of the Grammy Marriage is not inherently opposed to Christian Marriage. Like many points of secular culture it is many of the Christian concepts with God removed from the top of the cultural hierarchy. Many seek ways to force God back on top of the pyramid, through laws, violence, or coercion. My suggestion is to start with what people are accepting and find out how we can reground what is growing in Christian belief. God at the root of our society is much more valuable then God at the top.