Saturday, 11 February 2017

Hauerwas on Matthew 5, Part Two

Jesus charges members of the church to confront those whom we think have sinned against us. He does not say that if we think we have been wronged we might consider confronting the one we believe has done us wrong. Jesus tells us that we must do so because the wrong is not against us, but rather against the body, that is, the very holiness of the church is at stake. Moreover, to be required to confront those whom we believe have wronged us is risky business because we may find out that we are mistaken.

Anger and lust are bodily passions. We simply are not capable of willing ourselves free of anger or lust. Jesus does not imply that we are to be free of either anger or lust; that is, he assumes that we are bodily beings. Rather, he offers us membership in a community in which our bodies are formed in service to God and for one another so that our anger and our lust are transformed...Alone we cannot conceive of an alternative to lust, but Jesus offers us participation in a kingdom hat is so demanding that we discover we have better things to do than to concentrate on our lust. If we are a people committed to peace in a world of war, if we are a people committed to faithfulness in a world of distrust, then we will be consumed by a way to live that offers freedom from being dominated by anger or lust.

Our speech always takes place in the presence of God. “Thus disciples of Jesus should not swear, because there is no such thing as speech not spoken before God. All of their words should be nothing but truth, so that nothing requires verification by oath. An oath consigns all other statements to the darkness of doubt. That is why it is ‘from the evil one’” (Bonhoeffer)

[Jesus] does not promise that if we turn the other cheek we will avoid being hit again. Nonretaliation is not a strategy to get what we want by other means. Rather, Jesus calls us to the practice of nonretaliation because that is the form that God’s care of us took in his cross. In like manner Christians are to give more than we are asked to give, we are to give to those who beg, because that is the character of God.

To be a disciple of Jesus, to be ready to be reconciled with those with whom we are angry, to be faithful in marriage, to take the time required to tell the truth – all are habits that create the time and space to be capable of loving our enemies.

We are be perfect, but perfection names our participation in Christ’s love of his enemies.

Excerpted from Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible; London: SCM Press, 2006), pp. 68-72.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Hauerwas on Matthew 5

The Sermon on the Mount cannot help but become a law, an ethic, if what is taught is abstracted from the teacher...the ecclesial practices that have legitimated questions about whether Jesus‘s teachings in the sermon are meant to be followed are but reflections of Christologies that separate the person and work of Christ...
The not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon – precisely because they are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. Moreover, Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess al the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn, and some will be meek.
For the church to be so constituted, according to Bonhoeffer, requires the visibility of the church. To be salt, to be made light for the world, is a call for the church to be visible...Christians, however, are tempted to become invisible, justifying their identification with the surrounding culture in the name of serving the neighbor...

This does not mean that those who would follow Jesus do so that they may be seen. Nor are disciples called to be different in order to be different. Jesus clearly thinks that disciples will be different, but that difference is because of what he is – the Son of God...

Each of the Beatitudes names a gift, but it is not presumed that everyone who is a follower of Jesus will possess each beatitude. Rather, the gifts named in the Beatitudes suggest that the diversity of these gifts will be present in the community of those who have heard Jesus’s call to discipleship. Indeed, to learn to be a disciple is to learn why we are dependent on those who mourn or who are meek, though we may not possess that gift ourselves...

the source for any understanding of the Beatitudes must be Jesus. It is from Jesus that we learn what it means to be “poor in spirit.” Thus Paul can commend the Philippians to have “the same mind...that was in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 2:5-8]

Paul does not assume that our poverty of spirit is the same as Jesus’s self-emptying, but rather that Jesus’s poverty has made it possible for a people to exist who can live dispossessed of possessions. To be poor does not in itself make one a follower of Jesus, but it can put you in the vicinity of what it might mean to discover the kind of poverty that frees those who follow Jesus from enslavement to the world. Not to be missed, moreover, is the political significance of such poverty. Too often we fail to recognize our accommodation to worldly powers because we fear losing our wealth – wealth that can take quite diverse forms.

Perhaps no beatitude is more christocentric that Jesus’s commendation of those who mourn, for they are, like him, prepared to live in the world renouncing what the world calls happiness and even peace...Like Jesus, moreover, the disciples endure injustice with the hard meekness that still hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Yet the righteousness of this new people is blessed by the mercy seen in the forgiveness that Christ showed even to those who would kill him. Such a people are capable of peacemaking because they are sustained by the purity derived from having no other telos but to enact the kingdom embodied in Jesus.

Excerpted from Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible; London: SCM Press, 2006), pp. 58-65.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Aimless Happiness

"When I found myself confronted with perfect happiness, a quite unexpected thing happened. I suddenly discovered that if happiness is aimless, it's unbearable. I could not accept aimless happiness. Hardships and sufferings had to be overcome, there was always something beyond them. But because it had no further meaning and because I believed in nothing, happiness seemed to be stale. So I decided I would give myself a year to see whether life had any meaning."

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, School of Prayer (London: Daybreak, 1989), p. xiii

Saturday, 7 January 2017

ACNA Catechism – Responding to Adam C. Young

Rev. Young offers a good summary of the strengths of the ACNA Catechism in his March 2014 post. I would like to interact with his three main criticisms of it. In the following “Answer” refers to the ACNA Catechism, “Article” to the Thirty-Nine Articles.

(1) What is the human condition?
Young claims that the Catechism only designates our “self-centred rebellion against God” (Answer 2) as sin but not our “fallen and corrupt nature” (Answer 47). I am not sure this is true, given that Answer 2 speaks of our general human condition as “the state of sin” which is explicated in the very next answer as follows:
“Sin alienates me from God, my neighbor, God’s good creation, and myself. I am hopeless, guilty, lost, helpless, and walking in the way of death. (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 6:23).”
Consequently Answer 5 rejects any notion that we can mend our relationship with God , stating, “I have no power to save myself, for sin has corrupted my conscience and captured my will. Only God can save me. (Ephesians 2:1-9; John 14:6; Titus 3:3-7).”

Young would be right to observe that the Catechism does not use the phrase “original sin” but his judgement that “I am born a sinner by nature, separated from God” (Answer 106) is too little too late seems to me harsh.

(2) How may a person repent and place faith in Jesus Christ?
Young reads the Catechism’s answer as an Arminian statement and consequently in contradiction to the Articles. I can see why one might read it this way and I regret the Catechism’s failure to reference Ephesians 2:8 but the criticism is nevertheless not justified and this for two reasons. First, the “How” in the question cited (Answer 14) is arguably not concerned with the condition for repentance but its practical outworking. This seems to me clear from the sequence of questions. In other words, Question 14 does not ask, “can each of us repent and place faith in Jesus Christ as and when we wish or does this need God’s enabling?” It asks “how do you go about repenting and placing faith in Jesus Christ” and affirms that anyone at any time (and presumably anywhere) can do so, e.g., without any need for special rites or occasions, cf. Acts 16:31-34 and Romans 10:9, two of the Scripture references given.

Secondly, among the Scripture references given in Answer 14 is John 15:16 (“You did not choose me but I chose you”) and Answer 108 states that God “shows his saving grace by bringing to faith in Christ those who are far from him. (Romans 5:1-11),” thus affirming that we cannot come to faith in Christ apart from grace.

(3) Are there more than two sacraments?
The ACNA Catechism accepts the language of “sacrament” not only in relation to the “sacraments of the Gospel” (Answer 104), namely Baptism and Holy Communion, but also in relation to the other “five commonly called Sacraments” (Article 25). Young rightly notes the difference between Article 25 and Answer 117 which defines the difference between the two “sacraments of the Gospel” and the five “sacraments of the church.” The Answer reads
“They are not commanded by Christ as necessary for salvation, but arise from the practice of the apostles and the early Church, or are states of life blessed by God from creation. God clearly uses them as means of grace.”
Article 25 notes that these sacraments “have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles.” The addition of the word “corrupt” is of course significant but its omission need not be as odious as Young makes it out to be. Given that the way in which these rites were enacted at the time it is understandable that the Articles add the word “corrupt” but the way in which these rites are used today within ACNA and elsewhere is different from the common practices in 16th century Roman Catholicism. So unless one were to argue that one or more of these rites, having originated in corruption, should be dropped altogether, it seems feasible to drop the word “corrupt” without thereby implying that these rites were never practised in corrupt ways.

The main thrust of the sentence just quoted from Article 25 is not entirely unambiguous, “Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel.” Does this mean that they should not be called “sacraments” at all, as Young implies? Why then the addition “of the Gospel”? The concern of the English reformers was to make sure that Baptism and Holy Communion are clearly distinguished from any other rites that may be called sacraments (and the ACNA Catechism follows this); they were on the whole not as hard-line as Young on the use of the word “sacrament.” The proof of this seems to me in the second Book of Homilies, Homily 9. Young instead, in his first post, appeals to the earliest commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles, written by Thomas Rogers.

The position espoused by Thomas Rogers has been present within the Church of England from the 16th century until today and is also found in other commentaries on the Thirty-Nine Articles. But it is not the one codified in the Articles or Homilies. In a second post, Young rightly points out that “numbering the Sacraments at seven is not following the teaching of the apostles or the early church” and that the Eastern Orthodox churches have not adopted the number “seven” (Young acknowledges that the Roman Catholic church is not entirely rigid about the number either). But while he is thus aware of a fluid and broader understanding of the term, he seems to believe that the use the word “sacrament” pretty much inevitably leads us to think of other rites “as being Sacraments in the same way that Baptism or the Lord’s Supper are.” He therefore believes that “If we call these other things sacraments we need to qualify it EVERY TIME by saying that they are not really Sacraments in the truest sense.”

Such anxiety over the use of the word “sacrament” seems to me unnecessary. The Articles and Homilies seem to me less anxious about safeguarding the word “sacrament.” They are concerned with making sure that people understand the difference between Baptism and Holy Communion, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, rites which are not “commanded by Christ as necessary for salvation” (Answer 117).

Given the broad understanding of God’s grace reflected in the Catechism, and rightly so, I find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to deny that God uses means of grace other than Baptism and Holy Communion. The ACNA Catechism does not disallow the use of the word “sacrament” in contexts other than the two sacraments of the Gospel and the five sacraments of the church. It arguably allows for people to hold to a more Eastern Orthodox position but as ACNA is part of the Western church it does not seem to me unreasonable and harmful to single out “confirmation, absolution, ordination, marriage, and anointing of the sick” as “sacraments of the church.”  

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Christian Holocaust Theology

Stephen R. Haynes, “Christian Holocaust Theology: A Critical Reassessment,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62/2 (1994): 553-585, focuses on a group of thinkers, primarily North Americans, who  locate the fundamental historical failure of Christendom in its understanding and treatment of the Jew. None of them has used the term “Holocaust Theology” to describe their work, and Paul van Buren at least explicitly disapproves of it. Haynes defines
Holocaust Theology as any sustained theological reflection for which the slaughter of six million Jews functions as a criterion, whether the Shoah displaces or merely qualifies traditional theological criteria and norms such as Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience...
Explicitly or obliquely, each approach communicates the message that the Holocaust signals the moral bankruptcy of any theological reflection which lacks an awareness of anti-Judaism’s deep roots in Christian faith and the ongoing complicity of Christians in Jewish suffering.

Haynes explores the question whether the Holocaust has revelatory significance and what such a claim might entail, welcomes the service provided by Christian Holocaust Theologians when they assume “the role of the theological bloodhound sensitized to the distinctive signs of Christian anti-Judaism” but notes that “approaches to the complex Arab-Israeli conflict” are sometimes “simplistic, even dangerous.” He observes that for Christian Holocaust Theologians the restoration of Jewish life and culture in the state of Israel is a providential miracle that carries a message for the church. Sometimes the Shoa and Israel’s restoration replace the death and resurrection of Christ as the central theological datum. These and similar claims partly explain the cold response from many in the pews to Holocaust Theology.

The limitations of Christian Holocaust Theology:
  • “the Holocaust Theologians’ compensatory Christian Zionism is often accompanied by a less than critical perspective on Middle Eastern politics” with the suffering of Palestinians frequently overlooked
  • “its proclivity for assuming continuity between Christian Jew-hatred and Nazi anti-Semitism in ways that are unnuanced or historically problematic”

Haynes notes that some of the more traditional, apologetic theologians can be accused of a similarly simplistic rhetoric of discontinuity, as if Christians were not at all involved in the murder of Jews. But this is not helpfully countered by wedding  Christian and Nazi brands of anti-Semitism in “emotionally powerful, but historically dubious” formulations.
Ironically, it is often Jewish scholars who note the historical inconsistencies which the rhetoric of continuity tempts us to overlook. In the 1970s, historian Yosef Yerushalmi responded to Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide by observing that her description of theological anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition could not account for the fact that Jews survived at all in Christian Europe. In his critique, Yerushalmi consciously stressed what Ruether had underplayed or ignored in her early work on Christian anti-Semitism: that there is a “preservation” element in the Christian attitude toward Jews that is always found in tandem with the “reprobation” element; that in general Jews fared better than Christian heretics in the Middle Ages; that the Jews were never rightless in Christian society; and that it was not forced, but eschatological conversion which Christian theologians and monarchs most often sought for Jews.
Haynes argues that we need to acknowledge both that the Nazi regime “represented a sharp break from traditional attitudes toward the presence of Jews in Christendom” and that “the Nazi propaganda war against the Jews pandered to Christian Jew-hatred” and often successfully so. The Holocaust did indeed create a credibility crisis for Christianity
But two other facts cannot be ignored by responsible theologians. First, official policy toward Jews was never one of genocide during the centuries the church might have had the power and influence to carry out such a policy. Second, although the anti-Jewish tradition in Christianity desensitized many Germans to Nazi anti-Semitism, Nazism’s amalgamation of fascist and racist notions was compelling largely because it comprised a response to the dual crisis of modernity and a lost war. Neither of these considerations diminishes Christianity’s role as a necessary condition for the Holocaust; but they help explain why it was not a sufficient condition (Rubenstein and Roth).
  • “A final limitation of Christian Holocaust Theology-its lack of empathy for the theological universe most people inhabit-is one it shares with much of academic theology.”

By way of conclusion, Haynes wonders whether it is “worth considering whether the impulse to remove from Christian confession in the post-Holocaust world all that offends or separates... actually enhances genuine interreligious dialogue. Many have concluded it does not.”
These concerns for Christian identity notwithstanding, theological adjustment in the light of Auschwitz is required if Christianity would maintain its relevance in the post-Holocaust world. Given the limitations of Holocaust Theology, we are left with a question: Is it possible to take to heart the advice of J.B. Metz to his students-that they avoid any theology that could have been exactly the same before or after Auschwitz (1981:28)-while also avoiding the excesses and pitfalls of Holocaust Theology? Let us hope this way is open, for the alternatives are unacceptable. Christians cannot miss their opportunity to acknowledge and learn from their anti-Jewish past, nor can they allow this past to overwhelm them or convince them to relinquish a prophetic Christian voice which speaks to all people. Neither way will lead the church where it needs to go-beyond the shadow of Auschwitz and into a new day of Christian faithfulness and responsibility.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Akedah Darkness

By way of reflecting on Leonard Cohen’s song You Want It Darker and Genesis 22 (see also previous post), this is an imaginative exercise (not an exegesis), reading the song as Abraham. Genesis 22 is cited in italics in the translation offered by Robert Alter.
If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him, “Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” God asked Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering. And Abraham could have said, "if that’s the deal, I’m not playing."
If you are the healer
I’m broken and lame
He could have said, "if this is what healing looks like, I'm stuffed." Or maybe this could be the counterpoint to the first two lines, "if you promise to heal, I allow myself to be broken."
If thine is the glory
Then mine must be the shame
The glory belongs to God. Always. Protesting God's command would cover Abraham in shame; having for years trusted this God, can he now give up without losing face? Praising God's command would amount to praising death, surely a shameful thing!

So Abraham says nothing. He keeps schtumm
You want it darker
We kill the flame
If God wants to extinguish Isaac's light of life, Abraham gets ready to kill the flame. No need for words. Except for the words of the Mourner's Kaddish.
Magnified and sanctified
Be Thy Holy Name
Why does he do it? Later Jesus would claim, "Abraham your father was overjoyed that he would see my day, and he saw it and was delighted." (John 8:56). God's Holy Name, "I AM who I AM," I will be who I am, the ever present one. I AM, the light of the world
Vilified and crucified
In the human frame
It is not truly God who desires darkness but it is us, we who cannot stand the light. And yet need it. We light candles for those whose life has been extinguished, not least in the Shoa.
A million candles burning
For the help that never came
Abraham's sons and daughters died and God did not turn up. He did not command the darkness, but neither did he prevent it. And in this sense
You want it darker
God must accept responsibility. But so must we.
Hineni Hineni
I’m ready, my Lord
Ready to kill or ready to suffer? Abraham's first Hineni is spoken to God, the second to Isaac.Ready to execute God's command, ready to be attetive to the sufferer. Ready to go on a walk for God (verse 3), ready to walk with the sufferer (verse 9). What faith can reconcile this? Not a faith that necessarily knows how things will work out but that trusts, "God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son."
There’s a lover in the story
But the story is still the same
Love - the word is used for the first time in the Bible here in Genesis 22, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, your son, your only one, whom you love. Should love not make a difference? It does not change the story. The text does not say that Abraham loved God but the test is arguably one that relates to the ordering of loves. Our loves for others are rightly ordered when they are directed towards the love of God rather than takes its place. But then
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
How can love for God lead to such an hateful act? It seems unbelievable that our love for God should ever lead us to seek to kill someone.
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
It must be true then that darkness has two causes
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Abraham sees beyond his own time and place. He sees the Messiah. He also sees the Shoa and murder before and after
They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
Executions on such a grand scale put our own trials and temptations into perspective
I struggled with some demons
They were middle-class and tame
But not any more if a text gives me permission to join in
I didn’t know I had permission
To murder and to maim
If so, truly,
You want it darker
And what can I confess but
Hineni Hineni
I’m ready, my Lord
Magnified and sanctified
Be Thy Holy Name
Vilified and crucified
In the human frame
A million candles burning
For the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
 And yet. The songs ends
If you are the dealer
Let me out of the game
If you are the healer
I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory
Mine must be the shame
You want it darker
Hineni Hineni
I’m ready, my Lord
But in Genesis 22 the third Hineni is in response to the urgent "Abraham, Abraham!" which heralds the end of the trial. The one who truly fears God sees the substitute ram and knows that there is a place in which God sees to it that justice is done, where he sees and can be seen, YHWH-yireh, "On the mount of the LORD there is sight." Light at last.

Friday, 18 November 2016

You Want It Darker

The title song of Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker (booklet here) features the voice of Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim*, singing Hineni – the words “Here I am” used three times by Abraham in response to God in the haunting story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). The song addresses God. It is he who wants it darker but it us who kill the flame.

Andre Salles observes
For his entire career, Cohen has grappled with God, with his religious upbringing and his doubts and questions and longings as an adult. This album is a frank testament from an old man about to come face to face with whatever awaits him, and here he wrestles with faith like never before.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that Leonard Cohen has given us a precise commentary on this passage. As he has done before in Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen conflates two figures in the song. Here it is “Abraham and Isaac, father and son, the sacrificer and the sacrifice. It’s Abraham who says ‘Hineni’ and it is Isaac who in effect says ‘I am ready, Lord’ The second thing he does is he tracks the shape of the narrative.” The three choruses reflect the three occurrences of Hineni in the narrative (verses 1, 7, 11). 

Rabbi Sacks suggests further that the song echoes a Rabbinic tradition
Said Rabbi Abba: Abraham said to Him,“ I will explain my complaint before You. Yesterday, You said to me (above 21:12): ‘for in Isaac will be called your seed,’ and You retracted and said (above verse 2): ‘ Take now your son.’ Now You say to me, ‘ Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad.’
Like Abraham, Leonard Cohen rises up in protest against the “cruelty and wilfulness of the entire story.”

“There’s a lover in the story,” sings Leonard Cohen. It is Abraham. Indeed, Genesis 22 is the first time that the word “love” appears in the Bible (verse 2). “But the story is still the same” and the paradox is this, Rabbi Sacks observes, that “out of love for God we sometimes kill in his name.”  

“This is [Leonard Cohen’s] final message to us. He’s saying ‘God, I love you but I don’t love the world you created...I love the love that you have for us but I don’t like the hate that so often that love gives rise to. And if the binding of Isaac is a symbol of that faith, then ‘If you are the dealer / I’m out of the game / If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame’. And yet for all that Leonard Cohen continued to affirm a very Jewish way.”

“In an extraordinary gesture he takes the biggest paradox of all, Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the’s a prayer for the dead but there is not one mention of death in it, it’s all about life, it’s all about God...Despite everything, in the face of death, Jews still praise God.”

“Even in the midst of darkness there is light. Even in the midst of death there is life. Even in the midst of hate there is love. And even with our dying breath we can still say Hallelujah. That is the power of love to redeem the brokenness of the world.”

“In this final song Leonard Cohen becomes Job, arguing with God, finding no answers to his questions but finding nonetheless the strength to sing and to affirm.”

It is worth listening to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in full. Leonard Cohen has clearly gone back to his Jewish roots for his final album. But this does not appear to be all that is happening. The next song (Treaty) opens with “I seen you change the water into wine” – a reference to what the Gospel of John records as Jesus’ first sign? Later the song It Seemed the Better Way confesses that “to turn the other cheek”
Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today
So when in the title song Leonard Cohen cites the Kaddish (“Magnified and sanctified / Be Thy Holy Name”) and then adds “Vilified and crucified / In the human frame” he seems to have the Christian conception of God in view as well. There is arguably still more to explore here.

PS: Rabbi Sacks often speaks of Cohen's final words. They are arguably not those of the title song which is also the opening song of the album but from the song Treaty reprised at the end of the album, "I wish there was a treaty / between your love and mine" - addressed to the one who changed water into wine.

*Shaar Hashomayim is the oldest and largest traditional Ashkenazi congregation in Canada, established in 1846. Leonard Cohen’s grandfather and great-grandfather served as presidents of the congregation and Cohen himself had his bar mitzvah ceremony there. It is there that Cohen recited Kaddish for his father whom he lost when he was nine.