June 27, 2007

The Way

on the feast of S Irenaeus of Lyons
preached at the Finger Lakes Conference • June 28 1999
Tobias Haller BSG

Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies... — 2 Timothy 2:23

The Apostle Paul warned his young protege Timothy, “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” Like most advice, this bit of avuncular Pauline wisdom has largely been ignored. An agnostic viewer of the church’s history — or an honest Christian — might be tempted to say that the church’s history consists of little else besides stupid and senseless controversies.

Christ went to the cross to save the world, but the proximate cause of his predicament was violent controversy about the sabbath, the Temple, and various fine points of Jewish dietary law, and the precarious balance of power between Rome and the tetrarchs. Peter and Paul faced the problems of what we’d now call a pluralistic society, and the question of whether, and how far, Gentiles should be let in on the Christian thing — and whether, in the case of men at least, such an entry required parting with a nonvital portion of their anatomy. Later Irenaeus wrote a big, fat book about heresies, most of them now long forgotten. The Holy Fathers who hammered out the Nicene creed argued on and on about the difference between “same as” and “similar to” — and their successors in the Reformation argued about double predestination and allowing the chalice to the laity. The list goes on and on…

And please don’t mistake me: I do not say these matters were of no importance. Although the burning issues of one age are the cold ashes of the next, while they burn, they do give some light, and as the Gospel appointed for the feast of Saint Irenaeus has it, giving light is a large part of what we are to be about. (Luke 11:33-36) It is out of these conflicts — some of them now seeming so trivial and pointless — that the church took shape, defining itself in these tensions. As Saint Paul himself once observed, with a flash of Hegelian insight, it is through controversies and factions that the genuine truth is eventually discerned. (1 Cor. 11:19)

The downside of all of this is the hurt and harm that happens in the process. As parties form around various positions, mutual anathemas are issued, and where the power of the sword falls into its hand, orthodoxy can be a terrible thing indeed, mowing down those it considers heretics — which is just a fancy Greek word applied to members of the opposite party.

But if we look closely at our church, the church that survived the controversies, that was formed out of these tensions, the strange thing is that our surviving church quite often represents the forces of change and development, not the orthodox defenders of what they think of as the faith once given. Yesterday’s heresies become today’s orthodoxies, and presto chango: who is the heretic? If nothing else, none of us Gentiles would be here if the Circumcision Party had had their way. Even though they had scripture and tradition on their side, the church moved on.

As it has a way of doing. Because the church is not so much about taking up a position as in being a way. The Spirit moves where it wills, leading a pilgrim people. And to follow the Spirit, and to follow Christ, means pulling that cross from the ground and carrying it every day of your life, not knowing where it will be planted next. If the church is to be true to its own best self, it must always be on the move, and follow the One who is the Way.

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The other thing about heretics — the orthodox kind, the kind who get left behind when the church moves on, the kind who think they have God in their pocket next to their zipper-flap bibles — the thing about heretics is that they are always so sure of the truth. Their truth, that is. Now, as Professor Indiana Jones told his class in archeology, “I’m here to teach you about facts. If you want to talk about truth you’d better check the philosophy department.” But the orthodox heretics have forgotten that: they treat the truth like facts. They think it’s all clear and self-evident, printed in black and white, with words of Christ in red. In doing so, they neglect the living Truth who is not a fact but a Person; who is a Word that is always being spoken in our hearts, not set in stone or printed on india paper in red ink. Christ, the living Word is also the living Truth, the Truth that reveals itself not in static (and therefore dead) absolutes but in the relatedness that binds all things in one. The real Truth is about relationships, for it is out of relationships that reality itself is constituted, from the Holy Trinity on down.

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We are, like it or not, in the midst of another Reformation. The parties are formed up, taking their positions, marshaling their data. Out of this turmoil new life will arise, but many will suffer in the process. Is there a better way? Is there a nobler truth? You know there is. And you know who he is. Only Christ, whose mother hen wings stretch out and over the universe of human fallibility can gently rustle us together so none of us gets lost. Only Christ whose naked Truth was a scandal to Jews and a folly to Greeks can embarrass us into setting down our dog-eared Bibles with a blush of shame, as we realize who it is we have been arguing with, demeaning and demonizing. He is the Way, he is the Truth, and he is Life. And before him all our controversies, no matter how deeply convinced we are of their importance, become senseless and stupid. He is the Way, and the Truth, and Life. May we always walk in that Way, rejoice in that Truth, live in that Life.+


10 comments:

rick allen said...

"Later Irenaeus wrote a big, fat book about heresies, most of them now long forgotten."

I'm not so sure I'd agree with that. Gnosticism seems to be making quite a comeback these days. And Irenaeus' concerns about the proliferation of "secret gospels" of doubtful provenence seem equally relevant. His point about apostolic succession--a kind of "chain of custody" argument--should probably be taken more seriously than it is.

Even the popular, "I don't care what the Old Testament says, so long as Jesus didn't speak against it" has a Marcionite ring to it. For the orthodox, the context of Jesus--Second Temple Judaism--is central to understanding him. The Gnostic temptation spiritualizes and minimizes.

Stupid controversies we've got aplenty, I agree. But not that one.

Grandmère Mimi said...


In doing so, they neglect the living Truth who is not a fact but a Person; who is a Word that is always being spoken in our hearts, not set in stone or printed on india paper in red ink. Christ, the living Word is also the living Truth, the Truth that reveals itself not in static (and therefore dead) absolutes but in the relatedness that binds all things in one.


Tobias, there's so much that is good in this post, that I hardly know which to choose to comment on, but I liked especially what I quoted above, because, to me, the heart of Christianithy is the relationship with Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the life.

Tobias said...

Rick,
I'm not sure how much real gnosticism is out there. Christian Science, certainly, but most of what I see is not terribly like the material in Irenaeus. I actually waded through the whole of Against Heresies years ago and found little that I recognized from current thinking. Perhaps in some of the stranger cults, but what gets labled by reasserters as "gnostic" in mainstream Christianity is probably no more than either a scholarly interest in the Nag Hammadi texts or a healthy dose of Pauline recognition that the Spirit strives with the flesh. I don't know of anyone who takes the truly Gnostic view that matter doesn't have real existence, or is only some kind of emanation.

Second Temple Judaism is full of exaltation of the Spirit over the Flesh -- which is not to deny the flesh exists, but only that, as Paul says, it "cannot inherit the kingdom." Nor is ascetical curbing of the flesh a road to true holiness.

I agree with you on the Marcionite tendency one sees from time to time; but we do have to take Jesus seriously when he elucidates an OT text and not try to twist it into something quite different. The combined over-interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 as
"really" being against same-sexuality, while downplaying Jesus own application to divorce and remarriage is a pointed example.

And GM, I thought you were on vacation! Though glad to know you are staying in touch.

rick allen said...

"Gnosticism" is of course our term, a modern term, that can have a rather plastic meaning. Nevertheless, if websites and bookstore selections are any indication, some significant number of people self-identify as "gnostics."

I'm not sure if Professor Pagels would go so far. But as her recent output has contained a rather sustained polemic against St. Irenaeus, she has become a rather high-profile spokesman for the proposition that neither the canon of scripture nor the development of doctrine during the age of the Fathers can make any authoritative claim on us.

Some years ago I read Harold Bloom's "American Religion," an eccentric work by a self-professed "Gnostic Jew." As he said in a recent interview,

"...what I would call "the American Religion" is clearly a Gnosticism: The belief that the best and oldest part of you, the most inmost part, is no part of the created world at all, that it is part of the original Godhead; the belief that except for that spark or breath hidden deep within the lock of the self and very hard to get at, that otherwise all divinity consists of is a good God who has either been exiled to or has exiled himself to the outer spaces, out beyond our cosmos, and he cannot get in touch with us, and we cannot get in touch with him or it or her or whatever you want to call him." It is, for Bloom, the polar opposite of the demanding, communitarian religion of Yahweh (or Allah). I rather doubt Bloom's assertion that Gnosticism is the American Religion. But I think I see what he means.

Grandmère Mimi said...

We head for home tomorrow. My son-in-law allowed me to borrow his lap top.

Tobias said...

I agree that what Bloom describes comes close to what Irenaeus would define as Gnosticism; you find it in a good bit of New Age sensibility. And while a few "Gnostics" in this sense might describe themselves as Christian (i.e., Christian Science), I don't find this kind of teaching very often in my experience of the Episcopal Church. Perhaps I'm moving in the wrong circles! I think it is far frmo being "the American Religion," though elements of it crop up in the progressivism of some optimistic liberals.

What I am objecting to is the loose application of the epithet "gnostic" or "heretic" to what is plainly within the realm of patristic teaching and reflection on the relationship between God and the world. There are some narrow lines of division between a gnostic "divine spark" and an orthodox understanding of the imago dei -- and it is easy for the careless to step off the tightrope, as Bloom suggests. But it is also easy to step of the tightrope on the other side, as many in the "reasserter" movement do (including, for example, Pope John Paul II!) when they say things like "the image of God in humanity is incomplete without both male and female." (John Paul II put it this way: "Man became the 'image and likeness' of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning." (General Audience November 14, 1979; "By the Communion of Persons Man Becomes the Image of God") Note that this is contrary to the teaching of Aquinas I.Q93.6. In addition to standing against the teaching that Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, and he did not enter into "union" with a woman as Adam did. (Unless the Pope really does know something about Mary Magdalen...)

That is my greater concern; I will leave the Unitarian Universalists and Christian Scientists to wander off into strange doctrines of gnosticism -- I am more troubled by seeing ostensibly orthodox folks wander off into something not too unlike the the pagan doctrine of hieros gamos -- the revelation of God through the union of the sexes.

And dear Grandmère, it's good to hear from you, by laptop or desktop!

Señor Bozo said...

Tobias, this post appears to be excerpts from a sermon. Is the entire sermon available online? I'd be interested to read the entire thing. Thanks in advance.

Tobias said...

Actually, Señor B., that is the whole of the homily -- it was a short sermon (as most tend to be at the Finger Lakes Conference, given the very full schedule!)

JCF said...

Tobias,

I may be being the bearer of bad news, of which neither you, or anyone else here, should give a damn.

However, as it cheeses me off to see someone bad mouth *you*, I felt you should be aware of it.

It puts the Episcopal row into perspective. You've got the loud online liberals pushing gay entitlement, suing conservative congregations out of their buildings to push that (people who pride themselves on not being legalistic certainly know the intricacies of property law!

[You're hyperlinked here: http://jintoku.blogspot.com/2007/06/mercy-of-property.html])

and then crowing about it... (As for accusing the other side of theft, negotiate something instead! The law says you don't have to but do it anyway.) Try and engage these people on anything else, like Iraq or Palestine, and they don't care. Their upper-middle-class causes are all that matter. It really is driven by that class's changing mores and not a consistent theology. A dodgy convert to Islam doesn't affect them so that's like one tree falling in an empty forest or something. (Here I mean the liberal sites that report nonstop on the Episcopal row; if the Archbishop of Abuja trips and falls they're on top of him! Lots of liberals and moderates have spoken up agreeing the Redding affair makes no sense.) But if it's something they want "gay church weddings for example" there's lots of allusion to living tradition (!), and what a surprise, officially or not they have them. ("The Spirit told me exactly what I wanted to hear: C'est un miracle!")
[That concluding quote is supposed to be *you*, Tobias. It's hyperlinked to this very entry: http://jintoku.blogspot.com/2007/06/way.html]

Anyway, if you want to take this
%@#@&!! ...um, "misguided Christian" on, HERE is where I found you:
http://sergesblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/aussie-aussie-aussie-oi-oi-oi-mainline.html

(it was linked through The Daily Episcopalian, re the Tridentine Mass, strangely enough)

Tobias said...

Dear JCF,
The Young Fogey, as he likes to call himself, is certainly entitled to his opinions. The paragraph in question strikes me as more a rant than a reasonable argument, and I feel no need to engage him on it. I will allow what I've written to speak for itself, which I think it does in a rather calmer and more rational way than his emotional outburst. This certainly falls under the "stupid controversy" rubric, I think.

Thanks for the heads-up, though.