Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Apologetic Power of Original Sin



In Christian theology the term 'mysteries of faith' is applied to truths which humankind could only attain knowledge of through revelation. For example, the chief mystery of the faith is the revelation that God is a triune being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other mysteries are creatio ex nihilo, the incarnation and the atonement. It is the mysteries of the faith which give Christianity its religious power, so to speak (see my definition of 'religion' below), making it so much more than the intellectual and/or moral idealism that inept churchmen have often reduced it to.  It is the apprehension of the mysteries through faith which can render a simple believer a better practical theologian than the professional equipped with a doctorate and which sustains martyrs in their time of trial.

While these mysteries can certainly be explicated by human reason, that is only after the fact of their revelation in holy scripture. Actually, one can concede that the human mind and heart could perceive aspects of the mysteries of faith apart from their revelation in scripture, as, for example, Aristotle postulated a first cause, an unmoved mover who must be responsible for creation. But such heights of apparently unaided perception of divine truth can only be attained because of the revelation of God in nature, including the human nous and psyche, and they remain limited.

One of the mysteries of faith is original sin. I think it was Chesterton who wrote that original sin is the mystery of the faith for which there is the most empirical evidence. The world and human nature are clearly not the way they should be. As creatures animated with souls we seek an explanation for that apprehension. Either God does not exist - the seemingly inexorable conclusion to which atheists like Stephen Fry have come in the face of human suffering at the hands of human and natural evil; or God exists but humankind has turned from him in some act which has brought about calamitous results in the created order.

It is the second belief, which is essentially the doctrine of original sin, that atheists like Stephen Fry - who is on my mind not because he is the best exemplar of the new atheism but simply because I saw an interview with him on the television at the weekend (from which comes the clip) - seem unaware of. His conclusion that the existence of God is inconsistent with the existence of evil does not account for original sin. That lacunae in his thinking may well be accounted for by the low stocks of the doctrine of original sin in much of contemporary Christian preaching and teaching. This, one suspects, is the case in the Church of England (at least outside of evangelical circles) which Fry would have been exposed to growing up. It is certainly so in much of  the broader Christian mainstream. I well remember listening to a radio interview c. 2000 with one of the leading clerics of the Anglican Church in Adelaide who opined that he couldn't believe in the doctrine of original sin - notwithstanding its presence in the Church of England's historic Articles of Religion - because it was "creepy" (I'll come back to this observation, which is more astute than the clergyman probably realised).

Presumably such preachers resort to a sort of Teilhardian evolutionary schema in which humankind is "falling upwards", beckoned by God towards a state of perfect union with him through spiritual exercises and devotion to good works (which in contemporary mainstream Christianity are often expressions of particular political beliefs). This dovetails nicely with the contemporary desire to be "spiritual but not religious" - as if one could have the spirituality without the religious doctrine! - and no doubt provides a welcome supplementary income stream for those who conduct workshops and retreats focusing on spirituality. But without a doctrine of original sin this version of Christianity is semi-Pelagian at best and neo-Gnostic at worst. Mere spirituality is not enough to save us from ourselves. Indeed. the realm of spirituality can be just as much subject to the twisted egocentricity that results from original sin as any other area of life.

It is extraordinary that large swathes of what was once Christendom should thus abandon a doctrine with such apologetic power, by which I mean the power to not just explain our predicament, but to enlighten us and set us on the path to redemption. Having been dismissed by liberal theology in the 19th century as primitive and opposed to the prevailing doctrine of the day, which was evolutionary progress, original sin enjoyed a brief  revival in mainstream Christianity in the first half of the 20th century thanks to the so-called neo-orthodoxy proposed by Karl Barth, who was reacting to the unspeakable horrors of  World War One. But by mid-century Barth's neo-orthodoxy had developed into a political theology of the Marxist Left, a dead end if ever there was one, not least because it neglects one of the fundamental and inescapable tenets of the belief in original sin - fallen humankind is not perfectible in this life.

To be continued...

Note on 'religion'
The term 'religion' and 'religious' are so much open to misunderstanding these days that some Christians think their use should be abandoned, at least in reference to Christianity, lest the uniqueness of the Christian revelation be seen to be put on the same level with the other world religions. I see their point but I disagree nevertheless, and for what it may be worth I offer here my reason for doing so. I use the terms religion and religious in what is perhaps their most ancient sense as far as the Latin term from which the English word is derived goes, and that is to denote the rule of one's life or the beliefs by which I am bound in living.

This understanding of the term, I think, has the virtue of not being an abstraction. It can also be applied to the various 'religious' beliefs of humankind without necessarily implying that Christianity is on the same level, so to speak, as other religions. The fact is that while religions are not all equally valid, all human beings are religious - even the tiny minority of Western educated atheists are obsessed with God and with what rule of life they should follow if he does not exist.          





        

Monday, 24 August 2015

Two Views of Tolerance

"Two Views of Tolerance
Under the traditional view of tolerance, two aspects were required: first, that you respected the right of the person or individual in question to hold his beliefs and voice his opinions; and second, that you had a right to disagree with those beliefs and contest them both privately and publicly. As D.A. Carson paraphrases it in The Intolerance of Tolerance, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You do not have to like the person with whom you disagree, but you do have to respect and tolerate his right to speak.
This conception entails tolerance toward the person while allowing intolerance toward beliefs. Since beliefs are abstract objects communicated through propositions in written or spoken language, they have no inherent dignity in themselves. It does them no harm or offense to disagree with them or offer a rebuttal. Disagreeing with or being intolerant of a belief, in this view, is fundamentally different from being intolerant or hateful toward the person who holds that belief. In other words, this definition is built on a clear and obvious distinction between a person and his beliefs.
The traditional understanding of tolerance reflects a certain epistemology: namely, that there is such a thing as truth, it can be known, and the best way to discover the truth is through debate, reflection, and investigation. The pursuit of truth requires mutual cooperation, serious consideration of opposing beliefs, and persuasion through the use of reason. Coercion, exclusion, slander, and threats of force have no place in the search for truth.
Over the course of the last century, however, the old view of tolerance has been slowly transformed. The emergent new tolerance holds that persons who are truly tolerant accept the views of others and treat these individuals fairly. The key distinction is that under the old tolerance, one would accept the existence of other views even while rejecting some views as false; but under the new tolerance, one accepts these other views. In other words, all views are seen as equally valid and true.
The new tolerance rejects “dogmatism and absolutism,” affirms that each person has the right to live by his convictions, and eschews imposing one’s views upon others. Yet underlying this view of tolerance is a fundamental contradiction. Is not this concept of tolerance being imposed on all peoples and cultures, in direct violation of one of its own tenets? And as Carson points out, “does not the assertion, ‘Tolerance . . . involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism’ sound a little, well . . . dogmatic and absolute?"
Therefore, despite its appeal and aplomb, the new tolerance is both intolerant and internally incoherent."
From an article by Ben Crenshaw.  Read it all here.
Note on the illustration -  Non-American blog readers may be puzzled by the illustration. This internet meme - which adapts a scene from the wonderful 1980s film The Princess Bride - refers to several American city councils banning the establishment of restaurants of the Chick-Fil-A chain because the chain's owners have taken a public stance against same sex marriage on religious grounds. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Lectionary Reform, Anyone?

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is a good illustration of the power of editors. When one considers what has been left out of both the lectionary (the imprecatory Psalms, Jesus' conflict with the religious authorities in Matthew & John, the stoning of Stephen, the Apostles' miracles, Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality...you get the idea) and individual lections it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such decisions have been influenced by the liberal theology of the editors, who were representatives of mainstream Catholicism and Protestant churches in North America. At the very least, the lectionary seems designed not to offend progressive sensibilities. The result is that we have an apparent feast of readings over a three year cycle which, nonetheless, almost invites the preacher to depart from it if the whole counsel of God is to be taught. 

Pastors and others who must prepare Divine Service week after week can also testify to the odd choices in the RCL that make their life difficult, like the present focus on Jesus' bread of life discourse in John 6. I appreciate the opportunity to preach through this chapter slowly, but I know many pastors don't and opt instead for a series of topical sermons during this time of Year B.           

What chance, then, of lectionary reform? 

Slim, I think. Despite murmurs here and there in both liberal and conservative liturgical circles, most churches have apparently far bigger issues on their plate at the moment, not least being steeply declining attendance and the difficulties of passing on the Faith to the next generation. But Lutherans do have a ready made alternative if they're prepared to address the question of lectionary reform.

There is surely a case to be made on several grounds for Lutherans reverting to the historic one year lectionary:

Firstly, the educational benefit of increased repetition at a time of increasing Biblical illiteracy - 'repetitio est mater studorium'. The editing of the RCL assumes a familiarity with Holy Scripture which simply doesn't exist among our people anymore (if it ever did); too often, as a result, hearers are unaware of the context of a reading and unable to make the connections the editors seem to expect. A one year lectionary would enable hearers to become more familiar with key Biblical texts - and let's face it, for many of those in the pews the lections are the only scripture they are exposed to.    
Secondly, historically Lutheran homiletics and hymnody was to a large degree shaped by the historic one year lectionary of Western Christendom, providing contemporary preachers with a wealth of material to draw on, even in English translation - the sermons of Luther, for e.g..

Thirdly, it would re-align, so to speak, the lectionary readings with the traditional Collects, which follow a one year cycle based on the traditional Christian year. The power of the Collects, which are an important part of our catholic heritage, is obscured by the RCL readings and I'm afraid most alternatives I've looked at designed to fit the RCL readings don't come close to them in language or content, although versions of the traditional Collects slightly revised for modern usage are helpful. 

There are also other benefits like the full restoration of Palm Sunday (for many years now I have simply reverted to the one year readings for that celebration, as the Palm/Passion mix of themes in the RCL just doesn't work, in my view). Palm Sunday may be only a late medieval development in Western Christendom but long before that it was one of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Eastern church's calendar and for an obvious reason: its observation best serves the liturgical celebration of the unfolding narrative of Holy Week. It also provides rich homiletical material for the preacher heading into Holy Week.

Of course, there are advantages to the RCL which  a one year lectionary cannot match; the question is, which option best serves the church's needs at present and in the future? I am leaning towards the option which will promote a deeper knowledge of the Holy Scriptures among our people and which offers historical continuity, both features which seem to me to be particularly important as we head into the "post-Christendom" era.