September 20, 2006

I have begun wondering lately if I haven’t gotten wrong the difference that separates the divide between those who are ready to leave TEC, non-liturgical fundamentalists, the moderates, and those of a more progressive persuasion.

Of course it is difficult to characterize, but I have to date been pretty insistent that matters of sexual orientation, gender issues, and the like are symptoms but not the root cause of the problem.  I still think that is true.  But I’m wondering about something else, although I’m not sure I can articulate it.

My belief– my deeply held belief– is that God is a transcendant God, active and alive in the world around us.  I believe that is manifested in many ways, but let’s just leave it at that for now.

I am now starting to wonder if that is a belief common to us or not.  As I read the creeds, it occurs to me that it is possible for one to believe in the resurrection of Christ and not be particularly spiritual.  In other words, it is possible to believe that the cognitive belief in the historical “facts” of the tradition makes one a Christian.  I am wondering, for those of you leaning towards the ACN and AAC groups, if this is the appropriate way to categorize your faith.

In my own experience, I place less emphasis on the cognitive belief of the historical facts (so that the facts of history do not really make much difference in my religion) but in my experience of God.  In other words, I have come to expect certain things to be true about the nature of Christ as manifested in my understanding of the creation, the resurrection, and so forth– and it is in my understanding of the nature of God which is important to me.  The facts themselves are all interchangable.  It is for this reason I do not really care if the birth of Christ was technically a “virgin birth”, or many other technicalities of the faith.  It is how the stories shape my understanding of God and God’s intent for us as a people that is important to me.

If I am correct that some groups place all the emphasis on the facts alone (believe in the physcial resurrection and you are Christian), then I wonder about those implications.  It seems to me that we learn more each decade about the facts of the faith, and this kind of thinking tends to want to put faith and science in juxtaposition unnecessarily.  I rather think of science as the “how” and faith as the “why”.

I would rather not, actually, try to convince a nonbeliever about the physical resurrection of Jesus.  That’s not a very interesting conversation to me.  I’d rather talk to them about how that event shapes my life on a daily basis.  As Verna Dozier said, “Don’t tell me what you believe, tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”  That is a critical distinction for me, and one that makes the conversation much more meaningful.  That is why I can hardly sit through non-liturgical fundamentalist services which (for me) drone on and on about how important it is to accept the Lord Jesus as my personal savior.  For me, the response to that is, “Fine- so what?  What if I do?  What if I don’t?”

And hopefully I don’t get an answer that only serves my own self-interest like “if I don’t I will go to hell” or something like that.  I can’t believe that even a cognitive shift of belief is helpful for anyone if its only intent is to save one’s own skin.

It seems to me like the picture must be broader.  It must be about the vision of God.  In Archbishop Desmund Tutu’s words, “God Has a Dream” and we should be working towards it.  I can’t believe God’s motivation is for us to all act out of our own self-interest.  That doesn’t make sense to me.  It isn’t consistent with anything I’ve gotten out of Scripture about the character– the nature of God as we know God from what we are given to work with nor from my experience of God.

Conversion must, then, be something deeper.  It must be an understanding that, as my rector Ed Bacon is fond of saying, instead of working to get to heaven that we are working to bring heaven to earth.  That altruistic act– the act of working for the betterment of community for the sake of the kingdom, is what God wants for us, and is the result of a belief in the resurrection, which allows us renewal not only as individuals but full resurrection as a people of God.



8 Responses to “Faith”

  1. FrMichael Says:

    Although I’m not AAC, ACN, or Episcopalian, I would certainly lean more on their side (the “reasserters”) rather than yours (the “progressives”) generally speaking, although I deplore their attempt at schism.

    I don’t think these categories of yours describe the split of TEC. I suspect you can find both categories of people on either side of the reasserter/progressive divide. That is certainly the case in the Catholic Church. In TEC, one can observe people who maintain that the important thing is to hold onto fundamentals like the Nicene Creed– everything else is irrelevent to God, apparently too little for Him to notice or care. Likewise, there are a lot of reasserter Christians, fundamentalists and Pentecostals quite ignorant of ecclesiastical history and the content of Christian dogmatics but have a vivid sense of God in the present.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Thanks, Fr Michael.

    I think you are right, upon reflection. I know that in my own faith history, I started out being more in the “all God, no tradition” camp, but as I developed my faith the historical resurrection and statements of faith as put forth in the creeds became more important to me (although much of the creeds still drive me crazy).

    So rather than suggesting it is all or none, I guess I am suggesting that it is a “more this way” or “more that way” paradigm– that, for example, by changing the outlook on the traditional faith we upset those who are “Orthodox” more than those who are “Progressive” because much of their faith is based on what is manifested in the tradition; where what would be upsetting to a Progressive would be something like suggesting that God is a judgemental God, who does anything other than show love to all his children.


  3. Chip Says:

    Hi, Jeff,

    As you concluded in the prior post, your original assumption was incorrect. We on the orthodox end do hold to the belief in a transcendant God who is actively at work in the world today. The difference is that we have a very different sense of what that means than y’all on the progressive end do. We do place less emphasis on experience and more on Scripture, tradition, and reason. (Yeah, we do tend to place reason above experience.)

    And, no, God’s desire is not for us to act out of our self-interest. It is, rather, for us to come to the end of ourselves and turn to Christ — not out of compulsion, but out of conviction, humility, and love.

    We can even agree with you that “God has a dream,” and we’re certain that dream will be fulfilled. The dream, though, is not “the betterment of community,” but the goal of bringing everything in heaven and earth under Christ (see Ephesians 1:10). Does that end have a social expression? Sure. It means that humanity will in essence be living like it should have in pre-Fall days. It means a world without pain or tears. But this goal is not just a social one, but goes way beyond into a reordering of the created order.

    Peace of Christ,

  4. Jeff Says:

    Hi Chip –

    Thanks for the response.

    I think that I agree with just about everything you said. My only clarification would be that I don’t distinguish between “bringing everything in heaven and earth under Christ” with the betterment of of community.

    We are called over and over again in the old and new testament to work for social justice– to feed the poor, see Christ in the “least of these”, to take care of the marginalized.

    I think the last paragraph is just adding flesh to the bones of your Ephesians quote, not contradicting it. Jesus said to love God with all our being AND to love our neighbor as ourselves. I don’t see loving our neighbor as ourselves as self-interest, but as taking the interest of Jesus- the command he gave us- and putting it forward. It isn’t either/or– it is both/and.


  5. john Says:

    1. Transcedent, with an “e” okay?
    2. The conservative side would be better characterized not as non-liturgical fundamentalists (my goodness, what a biased slam)but as people who think the overall witness of scripture, traditon, reason, anatomy etc., call into question the so-called progressive sexual ethics of ECUSA’s mainstream; who think that Scripture is indispensable for knowledge of God; that true theology proceeds from something that is received, namely, the acts of God in history as interpreted by Scripture, and is not something we create out of nothing; that the Christian faith is both a way of believing and a content of belief; and that God continues to actively lay down patterns of judgement and grace. Most conservatives leader that I know in the ACN and ACC would be best defined as theological realists and not as theological idealists.

  6. john Says:

    You write: “In my own experience, I place less emphasis on the cognitive belief of the historical facts (so that the facts of history do not really make much difference in my religion.” But wait! Is not the biblical witness fundamentally about a God who acts in history? Isn’t it absolutely critical to the Christian faith that God actually rescued the people who were under slavery by Pharaoh, and sent prophets to plead for repentance and to assure people of God’s lovingkindness, and really became incarnate in Jesus, rose from the dead, said to people, in the flesh, ‘Come unto me all who are heavy laden and I will refresh you?’ and so on? It seems to me that you lose everything with this view. If I am wrong, you still lose the true drama of the NT especially. It’s hard to imagine Bach composing his passions if the events witnessed to in the NT did not happen. Maybe listening to one of the passion with the idea that Christ brought into concrete form and history the very being of God–forgiving, commanding, judging, healing–with give you a more dramatic understanding of the gospel. Yeesh, I just don’t know what to make of that statement: history doesn’t make a difference to one’s theology.

    If none of this matters, and you say “It’s the meaning or truth or symbolism or ideas behind those stories whether they actually happened or not” then you are an extreme theological idealist/existentialist of some sort, and I hope you sort all this out in seminary.

  7. iJeff Says:

    John –
    Thanks for commenting.
    I think you have missed the point of my post.
    The Verna Dosier quote that I use often sums up my position nicely: “Tell me not what you believe but what difference it makes that you believe.”
    History absolutely plays a part of my beliefs. But from my point of view it is only worthwhile to debate the past insofar as it affects the future.
    Given the choice between debating someone over whether or not the virgin birth was a reality or a myth or on talking to them about how to work on making people in this day and age feel less marginalized because of their situation, I will definitely choose the latter– and I believe that is a stronger Christian position.
    If the past becomes a stumbling block to moving into the future, then it isn’t worth stumbling over. That isn’t to say it isn’t valuable, but it isn’t worth fighting over.
    It doesn’t mean that Bach didn’t believe those historical facts, that I don’t necessarily believe them, or that you don’t believe them. It is just that they needn’t be the cornerstone of faith in our world, in our time.
    That’s my point.

  8. […] How true.  I have written before on the “Facts of the Faith” before (see Faith and others), but I think Murphy makes the same point exceptionally well.  If we do not distinguish between the historical facts that actually occurred in history and the doctrine and theology that tradition has built up around those events, then we are subject to be very shaken when we learn new information about the history.  We have very little room for science, and tend to put science at odds with religion instead of complmenting religion.  We tend to become over-zealous in a need to make the Scripture a historical account, bound in inerrancy, instead of a work of people with their own point of view, agenda, and problems.  Is God present in Scripture?  Of course.  And it is helpful to find God in Scripture if we know how God was working with the authors of the text when it was written.  Why the authors were writing what they were writing.  What came later.  That drives us to ask what we are called to do now. […]

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