March 11, 2014
March 10, 2014
Original Sin and its Unreckoning -- how our unavoidable sinfulness is clothed in something better than fig leaves.
Lent 1a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGWe come once more to the first Sunday in Lent, the season of the church year in which we are called to examine our lives, to take stock of where we stand with God, to repent of wrongs done in the past and move forward with resolve into the future.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.+
Speaking of wrongs done in the past, our Old Testament reading this morning takes us back to the most distant past, to the story of the first wrong done, the first violation of what at the time was the only “thou shalt not”: “God commanded the man..., ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’” You may notice this morning’s excerpt from Genesis skips right to the woman, and her conversation with the serpent — the most disastrous conversation in human history. The folks who designed our Scripture readings — no doubt because they wanted to focus
on the question of temptation to go along with the Gospel for the day — have skipped over the part of the story about how the woman came to be there in the first place. However, because I would rather focus more on the responses to temptation than the temptation itself, I want to note what is missing from our reading. But first want to emphasize what is there. Notice that the “thou shalt not” commandment is given to the man alone — Eve has not yet made her appearance from Adam’s side. We can assume that Adam told Eve about the tree and about not eating from it, for she tells the serpent about it — she can’t plead ignorance of the law. But notice that she adds something that was not in the version that God gave to Adam; she adds “nor shall you touch it” to “you shall not eat” Now, we don’t know if this was her idea, or if Adam added this himself when he told her about this tree. You can just imagine that he did, though. Can’t you just hear him, women of Saint James? Can you hear a man’s voice in this? “Eve, we’re not allowed to eat the fruit of that tree; so don’t even touch it or we will die!”
In any case, both Eve and Adam ignore the commandment, and not only touch (about which God said nothing) but they also eat(about which God was perfectly clear, to Adam at least!) And their eyes are opened to their own naked shame — having come to the knowledge of good and evil they realize they have done evil, and they cower in their shame.
The next part of the story is also left out of our reading, but I’d like to remind you of it. I’m sure you all know the story — where it goes from there. When God charges Adam with having done what he ought not to have done, what does Adam say? “The woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it.” When God turns to the woman, what does she say? “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The serpent itself cannot find his forked tongue and is speechless at last! He has no one to blame.
Both Adam and Eve imply, “It’s not my fault!” What might the serpent have said? “The Devil made me do it”? Later traditions hold that the serpent is the devil, in physical form. He is the tempter, the root of the problem, the thing that leads people astray, even to his own hurt — as hurt he is by the end of the tale.
There is another old tale, by the way, so old that no one quite knows who first told it. There are versions from ancient Greece, from West Africa, from Asia and the Middle East. Sometimes the characters are a scorpion and a frog, but since were talking about serpents I’ll tell you the one about the fox and the snake.
Once upon a time — that’s how all good stories start, right — a fox came upon a snake sunning himself by the side of the river. Fox wisely kept his distance and inquired politely, “What are you up to Mister Snake?” Snake looked at Fox with his cold eye and said, “I would like to crosssss thissss river but I can’t ssssswim. Would you mind at all giving me a ride over?” Fox raised his eyebrows and said, “Well I would but I’m afraid you might bite me and then we would both drown.” Snake then said, “Sssut, sssut!” — Snakes are not very good at saying, ‘Tut, tut’— “now why would I do that? Please jussst give me a lift and I promisssse I won’t bite you. I’d crossss my heart if I could!” So Fox approached Snake and allowed him to slither up onto his back, and then stepped into the river and began to swim. Sure enough, about halfway across, in the deepest part of the river, Snake bit Fox right in the back of the neck. And as they were sinking beneath the waters, Fox looked back over his shoulder, gave Snake a plaintive look and said, “Why?” Snake shrugged — at least as well as a snake can shrug without any shoulders — and sighed, as both of them perished, “It’sssss my nature!”
+ + +
Well, we could say the same thing, couldn’t we. In addition to shifting the blame for our sin to someone else, sometimes we are willing to take the blame ourselves but simultaneously try to excuse ourselves by saying, “I can’t help it. It’s my nature.” There is truth in that, which this story — not the one about the fox and the snake but the one from Genesis — is designed to tell us.
Human beings do have a tendency to sin — the theologians call it “original sin” meaning it is there from the beginning. It is a part of us, deep down, this desire to choose selfishly and out of self-preservation or pride or envy, rather than choosing the path of self-giving goodness and generosity. The story in Genesis, after all, isn’t really about snakes and fruit trees, but about human beings. Snakes don’t really talk, and in this tale from Genesis the serpent is a parable for human craving, for own desire to choose for ourselves at the expense of others and in defiance of God. It is our nature. Once one has the capacity to choose, one can choose wrongly. The point of the story is that Adam and Eve choose wrongly while they are in Paradise, just as the devil himself chose wrongly and turned away from God while he was an angel in heaven. Sin — or the possibility of — is there from the beginning. It is original.
Now, that doesn’t mean, ‘Oh well then. let’s just forget about it and get on with your life and sin as much as you like; after all, if it’s your nature then you can’t help it and it’s not really your fault.’ Nor is it enough to make the kind of response I spoke of a few weeks ago; the response that Joshua ben Sira gave his advice about: just always be good; choose the good — as I noted, that doesn’t work. We are not capable in ourselves to save ourselves. It is in our nature to run off the road. We need help. Sin, it seems, is inescapable; as St Paul wrote to the Romans, “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so that death spread to all because all have sinned.”
And that would be the end of the story were it not for the hope that is held out to us in Christ Jesus. That hope is not about finding some way never to commit a sin, but to address the root reality that, like it or not, it is our nature to sin. However much we might try to shift the blame, in the end it is our fault. The Snake of original sin lies coiled in our minds and in our hearts, and he will, from time to time, bite us on the neck — or the heel. It simply doesn’t work to adopt the stoic attitude of “Just say no” when in truth we are — all of us — addicted to sin, and the only truly effective answer to it is an appeal to a higher power to rescue us from our own fallibility and inability to save ourselves. Sin, as Paul told the Romans, has been there from the beginning; but it was not reckoned as sin until the law was given: that first law, “Do not eat of that tree.” And then, because the law had been given, the warning made, when the sin crept out, it was reckoned as sin. But since Christ has come, the law itself is dead. This is what St Paul is getting at in his Letter to the Romans: sin is still there, but the law is dead, and so sin is no longer reckoned.
We as Christians believe that a higher power has come to us in the person of Christ. Through him come the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness, purchased by means of his own obedience and righteousness, through which the law itself was put to death, nailed to the cross with him. We are not and we cannot be righteous on our own — but the reckoning of sin can be washed away, and we can be deemed as if we were righteous by and through the one who is righteousness himself, the obedient Son of God, who faced down the devil in the wilderness, who gave himself for our sake, on our account, and by his death stripped away the shroud of death that had covered all nations, to clothe us in the glory of his righteousness: clothed with Christ, we are covered by him. And so God looks upon us and loves us, when we do right. But when we do wrong he forgives us, all on account of the love he has for his Son, our Lord and savior, in whom we are all clothed from above.
Just as the Avenging Angel passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, houses whose doorposts were marked with the blood of the Paschal lamb, so too when God looks at us, washed as we are in the blood of the Lamb, and clothed with the royal robe of his righteousness rather than in our own patched together fig-leaf efforts at righteousness, to conceal our sin, when God looks at us, he no longer sees our sin. He sees his own beloved Son. In this is life, the life of the Son of God, in which we share, because we have been clothed with him. To him be the glory, henceforth and for ever more.
March 2, 2014
The really distressing thing about the C of E Bishops' Pastoral Guidance is that deep down they pretend to hold the line, Canute-like, at same-sex marriage, but have already swallowed incest and adultery whole, and like the adulteress of Proverbs 30:20, wiped the lips and said, "I've done no wrong." This is the inconsistency to which some of us have been pointing, and it is shameful.
They will be in the long run about as successful as Canute in keeping back the tide. Of course, he was really just making that very point. Perhaps the Bishops should copy his humility and admit that God is working out a purpose beyond their previous comprehension.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
February 21, 2014
Here is the collect for his commemoration on February 22:
God whose strength bears us up as on mighty wings: We rejoice in remembering your athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell, to whom you gave courage and resolution in contest and in captivity; and we pray that we also may run with endurance the race set before us and persevere in patient witness, until we wear that crown of victory won for us by Jesus our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
quick ikon by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
February 20, 2014
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
February 19, 2014
Linda Woodhead writes at Thinking Anglicans to point out the factual error in the English House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance to which I alluded earlier. Contrary to the bishops' assertion, the present day does not mark "the first time" that there has been "a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer." As Woodhead notes, Archbishop Davidson said almost exactly the same thing over a hundred years ago (1907) in relation the the changes allowing a man to marry a deceased wife's sister. And as Woodhead and I have pointed out, the changes in how divorce was handled, and remarriage allowed, also brought about a dissonance between church and civil practice. (And, one might well add, eventually a dissonance between church practice and the teaching of Christ, about which the Pastoral makes much noise but to which it also appears almost totally oblivious, since Christ "taught" nothing at all about same-sex marriage, but did have something to say about divorce and remarriage, some of which was even read in churches round the Communion just last Sunday!)
To rely upon a falsehood as a point in argument is bad practice. One cannot reason to true results from false premises. Garbage in, garbage out.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
February 17, 2014
in keeping with the Pastoral Guidance of the Church of England's House of Bishops.
Almighty God, who orderest the world in families, and in furtherance thereof didst make Mankind in thine Image, male and female: We give thee thanks for the couple here standing in thy Presence, who, notwithstanding the immediately preceding invocation, have chosen to enter the estate of civil marriage with each other, in disregard of the fact that one of them is not different in gender to the other. Pour out upon them a rush of common sense and enlightenment to the error of their ways, and guide their feet to safer pastures in fulfillment of what, we do not doubt, is thine actual Will for them. If however they should persist in this Folly, deal mercifully with them, as the poor deluded wretches that they are. Father, forgive them, for — in spite of all our efforts to the contrary — they know not what they do. Amen.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Donatist wing of US fringe fundamentalism is likely nodding sagely to itself after the passing of Pentacostalist snake-handler Jamie Coots. Obviously he was no true apostle or he would have survived the bite.
Perhaps the Church of England should adopt a new litmus test for clerical worthiness?
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
There has been a good bit of reaction, besides my own, to the English House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance regarding marriage.
First, let me note a petition calling for its rescinding. I signed it yesterday and I urge others to do the same.
Second, I want to note that there has been some discussion concerning legalities, including whatever legal standing the Pastoral Guidance itself may, or may not, have.
My understanding of the episcopate is that bishops are essentially executives. That is, they are to carry out the legally agreed-to decisions of the church, to enforce the law of the church, not to act as potentates to order obeisance to their own whims. As Sister Clare Fitzgerald, SNDD, past president of the Roman Catholic League of Women Religious, once told me, in reference to a bishop of the highest authority, "The pope can order the nuns to wear their habit as a witness to their vows, because that is part of the rule of their order; but the pope can't demand that the nuns must eat spaghetti every Thursday."
In England, the bishops can charge clergy under the Clergy Discipline Measure. This gives them considerable scope, but only covers matters of discipline, not of doctrine. So the question seems to revolve to some extent on the meaning of "discipline" and "doctrine." Is a pastoral direction, or even a direct admonition not to do something which is legal under the law of the state and not expressly forbidden under the law of the church, a matter of "discipline?" Being an American I am not familiar with the intricacies of English law beyond knowing how intricate it is! So the questions are:
Does violation of the Pastoral Guidance or demands made in light of it constitute a breach of discipline under the CDM? The explanatory Code of Practice gives this much guidance:
26. These [acts or omissions contrary ecclesiastical la] are not defined in the Measure but reference has to be made to the many principles of ecclesiastical law, which can be found in Acts of Parliament, Measures and Canons of the Church of England, statutory instruments, custom, and case law.
27. There are many duties imposed upon the clergy under ecclesiastical law. Failing to comply with any of those duties or doing something that is forbidden by ecclesiastical law could be a ground for alleging misconduct.
This begs the question, Is there a canon or other actionable statement in place already forbidding a cleric entering a same-sex marriage?
The broader area under which discipline might conceivably be applied is that of "conduct unbecoming or inappropriate" to the clergy. Here the rules are more vague, and it should be noted that the Pastoral Guidance did pick up on some of this language — as the Code of Practice puts it:
29. The Measure does not define unbecoming or inappropriate conduct, but clergy in their conduct and everyday living are expected to be examples of what is acceptable in Christian behaviour. Members of the church and the wider community look towards the clergy to set, and conform to, appropriate standards of morality and behaviour.
30. In particular the clergy should live their lives in a way that is consistent with the Code of Canons (principally C26, C27 and C28). Canon C26 is particularly relevant. It requires the clergy to be diligent to frame and fashion their lives according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make themselves wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ. Furthermore they are not to pursue unsuitable occupations, habits or recreations which do not befit their sacred calling, or which are detrimental to the performance of their duties or justifiably cause offence to others.
This would appear to allow more scope for action against clergy, but for the fact that the "conduct" of entering a marriage with a person of the same sex is not necessarily "unacceptable Christian behaviour" or a "justifiable cause for offence." Why? Because the Pastoral Guideline says that it is perfectly fine of lay Christian members of the church to enter into such a marriage. The P.G. appears to want to have it both ways by appealing to the notion of "higher standard," but surely that which is "acceptable" and gives no "offence" to the church. As the Pastoral Guidance itself states,
18. ...same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments.
Yet the Pastoral Guideline, in what appears to be a somewhat donatistical move, would restrict a cleric who presumes to enter such a marriage from celebrating the sacraments. This is part of the incoherency to which I referred.
There is also the matter of appeals to conscience. I cited Article XXXXII not as a "legal" point as I do not know the standing of the Articles in English church jurisprudence. (Though I'd be interested to know if they still have any application. After all, the P.G. cites the 1662 marriage liturgy.) This highlights the principle that from the time of the Article marriage was held to be a matter of conscience for individuals to frame their lives in a godly fashion. Since the Pastoral Guidance affirms (quoting the position taken prior to the adoption of civil marriage equality) that
“the proposition that same sex relationships can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute. Same sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity…., two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage. The Church of England seeks to see those virtues maximised in society.”
then it seems that the church means to penalize, or to declare or describe a relationship (when clergy are involved) as unwholesome merely on the lack one person of each sex. This is why I criticize the Pastoral Guidance for appearing to do just that: fixing virtue on the gender difference.
Getting back to Clergy Discipline, as I noted, that Measure is not to be used in cases of doctrine. Yet the Pastoral Guidance lays out the issue as a doctrinal one, having to do with the "doctrine of marriage" and the "teaching" both of Christ and of the church. At the same time, I note the absence of reference to marriage in the creeds and the [English] catechism, and the fact that Article XXV (on the Sacraments) holds marriage to be "an estate of life allowed in the Scripture." One could argue that same-sex marriage is not "allowed" by Scripture, in that it is nowhere mentioned. But the argument that it is expressly forbidden is not definitive, and to cite Article XX, only that which can be proven can be mandatory. In short, one can allow what cannot be proven, but only require what can be.
I'm sorry to bash away on the Articles, but it does seem to me we need a sort of Traditional Anglican Settlement to all of this, by allowing diversity and letting God sort out all the rest...
UPDATEEcclesiastical Law blog has some very fine (and professional!) analysis with references to case law as well as the canonical details.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
February 15, 2014
The Church of England continues not to serve its members or itself very well. The latest is a statement of pastoral guidance from the House of Bishops in response to movements towards same-sex marriage. The full text, and much comment is available at Thinking Anglicans.
I call this statement "incoherent" due to its many internal contradictions, as well as its frequent assertions that contradict both received tradition and plain sense. Not being in a mood to "fisk" it (as I've done with things like Some Issues in Human Sexuality), I leave it to knowledgeable readers to do the work themselves. Leave it at this: a church that has come to tolerate remarriage after divorce cites the teaching of Jesus and its own tradition (including the plain text of its own traditional marriage liturgy) as a reason not to include same-sex couples. It is as if we were living on Animal Farm: the values of monogamy, permanent fidelity and mutual love (which the document cites as evident in at least some same-sex relationships) can be erased from the constitution, leaving only "man" and "woman" — the crucial defining adjective "one" no longer being applicable, even, as has been noted, for the likely future governor of the church. The Bishops have hinged the sole significant virtue (fidelity and so on being all very well but not restricted to mixed-sex couples) upon heterosexuality itself. Gender has become a virtue, and virtue insignificant. And they have the gumption to call this the teaching of Christ.
The document also calls upon the notion of a higher standard for clergy. This is a notion with which I am not entirely unsympathetic, as I do think clergy ought to model behavior that attests to a moral and virtuous life. However, in this case we are back to an Animal Farm model whereby all people are equal but clergy are more equal than others, and virtue now resides not in recognizable goods such as fidelity and love, but gender. In a further astounding application of this clerical principle, a cleric can say "informal prayers" for a same-sex couple in church (though not as a special "service of blessing") but cannot be so informally prayed for him or herself — so clergy who are gay or lesbian must remain celibate (which is to say, unmarried), while celebrating (informally!) the very thing they are forbidden to enjoy (because it would be an unwholesome example to the flock before whom they've just invoked their "informal" prayer. Moreover, even that informal prayer must be accompanied by a lecture to the effect that it is all rather out of keeping with the teaching of the church — surely the church giveth and the church taketh away.) I said it was incoherent, and it is.
Moreover, citations from Lambeth 1998 notwithstanding, this requirement of celibacy for gay or lesbian clergy is not in keeping with the church's own proper rule concerning the marriage of ordained persons. Article XXXII states:
Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God's Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.The emphasis in the last line is mine, and is intended to remind us that this is a matter of individual conscience, not to be tampered with or tempered by ecclesiastical authority.
It is distressing that a document that so often calls upon Christ should be so blind to his actual teaching, and one that cites tradition so blind to its own history. I shall pray the bishops take a trip to Damascus, and a new bright light shine upon them, as it knocks them for a loop.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
February 14, 2014
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Jos (Nigeria) is complaining that the West forces various things, including homosexuality and condoms "down Africans' throats." The irony here concerns not just the content of what is allegedly being force-fed, but the one making the allegation: whose manner of teaching could fairly be characterized as entailing "requirements" suddenly objecting to the notion of others doing the same... as if they were!
For, of course, the West is not "forcing" homosexuality or condom use on anyone, and definitely not down anyone's throat. We are dealing here with a matter of projection: conservatives such as the Archbishop of Jos really do want everyone to do as they say they ought, and they think everyone is the same as they are with regard to that which they think is good. There is no nuance of "all may, none must, some should," but rather "I've said it, you must do it!" Such folks have no grasp of pluralism, only of mandate, and they project their narrow insistence that all must do as they do upon others who are, instead, content to live and let live. That someone who champions the repressive and regressive Nigerian anti-gay legislation could, with a straight face, complain about people being forced to act in a certain way would be laughable if the laughter didn't stick in, shall I say, one's throat.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
February 12, 2014
The Gospel is strong stuff, and its application can change the world — and the church. And although the church often acts as the brake rather than the engine of change, St Thomas African Episcopal Church was received by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1794, with Jones as deacon a year later, and a priest in 1802. He continued to build the church he served until his death in 1818. The Collect for his feast day appeals:
SET US FREE, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The icon is from my series of "real people" icons; an effort to portray the subject with as little stylization, and as much humanity, as I can muster.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
February 11, 2014
but never made it; others got there first,
and I was left behind; felt like a fool
who swims a river while he dies of thirst.
“So close and yet so far,” the saying goes.
The churning waters mocking, tantalize,
but I can’t move; the nature of my woes
is just what stops me getting to the prize.
He asked me if I wanted to be cured,
surprised no doubt at how long I’d endured
this state of things; but he — as quick as that —
he told me, “Rise, and carry off your mat.”
An angel stirred the waters of my soul,
and Jesus was the one who made me whole.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
A sonnet after John 5:1-9
February 11, 2013
February 6, 2014
Over at Facebook there's a discussion raging about the recent debate between Bill Nye "the Science Guy" and Ken Ham of the "Creation Museum." Some have given the palm to one or the other, or the palm to the face, as in "Why did Nye agree to this and dignify young earth creationism as if it were science?" However, I think the most instructive thing about the debate is that it displays the difference not between science and religion (which is why it may have been unwise for Nye to engage in it) but the difference between science and phoney science, and between true religion and mere dogged belief, what is sometimes called fideism. Ham is guilty of both phoney science and false belief. Does that sound harsh? Let me say more...
The most telling point in the "debate" came when both interlocutors were asked what sort of evidence might change their minds about Evolution or Young Earth Creationism respectively. Nye gave a list of possible pieces of evidence and said that were they presented he would have to change his view. Ham hemmed and hawed a bit, but essentially said that no evidence could cause him to change his beliefs. That is the problem with his view in a nutshell. His "truth" is unrelated to any "facts." And that's neither science nor religion, but folly.
For facts can stand without "truth" but "truth" cannot stand without facts. A faith that fails to take account of reality is based not just on a lack of evidence (which is one thing) but a denial of evidence, (which is falsehood). As Hooker said, Scripture is intended to supply those revealed truths that cannot be derived from nature. That means both that truth can be learned from nature, and that "revealed" truth cannot contradict what is learned from nature. It is a matter of a reasonable faith versus a kind of blind acceptance of the false. Ken Ham's statement that no evidence could convince him that his "truth" is mistaken is not Christian doctrine, at least as Hooker understood the interplay of reason and faith, which is how I understand it.
Here's something from a higher authority than me, if you like, though I don't think the level of authority makes it any more true: Pope Benedict XVI stated, "The Catholic Tradition, from the outset, rejected the so-called 'fideism,' which is the desire to believe against reason. Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd*) is not a formula that interprets the Catholic faith." (General Audience, November 21, 2012)
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
* My note: "I believe because it is absurd" is attributed to Tertullian. Though he did indeed go off the rails with his ultimate reliance on private revelation, it is fair to say that this attribution is out of context, as he was employing a rhetorical device to show how the scandal of the cross was not, in fact, a scandal.