Friday, 3 July 2015

The good theologian who "saw one thing and believed another"

The Evangelist now mentions Thomas' profession. It seems that Thomas quickly became a good theologian ...

(Thomas Aquinas Commentary on the Gospel of St John, chapter 20, lectio 6.)

How does the apostle become "a good theologian"?  Here the Angelic Doctor echoes Augustine, who declared, "He saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched".  There is, then, a disjuncture between what Thomas saw and what he believed.

Appropriately, the NRSV translates Jesus' words to Thomas in John 20:29 as a question:

Have you believed because you have seen me?

Perhaps this captures something of the quizzical nature of the exchange.  As the Angelic Doctor reflects:

'Because you have seen me, Thomas, you have believed.' There is a problem here: for since faith is the substance of the things we hope for, the conviction about things that are not seen (Heb 11:1), why does our Lord say, 'because you have seen me you have believed?' We should say in answer that Thomas saw one thing and believed another. He saw the man and the wounds, and from these he believed in the divinity of the one who had arisen. 

So what is a good theologian? One who, looking upon an infant in a manger, a naked body on a cross, bread and wine on an altar, the neighbour and stranger, 'sees one thing and believes another'.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

"Something more local, more embodied"

Anglicans in many places across the globe will be commenting on developments in TEC's General Convention.  From some there will be heart-felt praise.  From many there will be expressions of genuine hurt and heart-felt condemnation.

But what if such a focus - from ecclesial left and right - is misplaced? What if the future mission of the Church in its Anglican expression in the North Atlantic world is decided not in the politics of conventions and synods but in diverse communities of word and sacrament, prayer and service?

From religiocity, an excellent blog by Matt Boulter, a priest in the Diocese of Texas:

The question I’m asking [about General Convention] is: “is anyone listening?” Yes, many of the major news outlets, traditional and online, will carry the stories. But does anyone in my local ministry context—the folks our community is reaching out to in evangelism—really care?

What is interesting is that, while most of these contacts—the people we believe God is calling to come and taste our Anglican way of being Christian—are quite happy to be living in a “red state,” many of them are not. A good percentage are for gay marriage, against the alleged “right” to bear arms. But both groups are attending our events at church and our evangelistic parties and venues out on the town and at people’s homes: crawfish boils, film nights, pub gatherings, bible studies, service projects.

These people—on the left and on the right—are nothing if not cynical about the church. Many of them walked away from the church, from “organized religion,” years ago. And yet, they are responding to our invitations. They are hanging out with a peculiar group of people (our church community) who love the Body of Christ. They are being drawn in, as if by a “good infection” (to quote CS Lewis).

And now for some more good news. You see, in my local ministry context, we have earned the trust of the community; we have been granted the “right” to minister in ways public (news interviews, interfaith efforts, initiatives for the poor, multi-church conferences) and private (counseling sessions, hospital visits, visits to incarcerated folks). People in our city trust us “on the ground.” They know that we love them, that we love Jesus, and that we are committed to serving our neighbors.

So the ones who would roll their eyes (at best) at the news coming out of Salt Lake City trust us and open themselves up to us anyway, and the ones who would give their Twitter feed a “high five” as the news rolls out of Utah, even if they were to pay attention … these people let us into to their lives, not because they agree with the developments of G.C. They do so, rather, because of something more local, more embodied, more important: a lived encounter with the love of Christ.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Cistercian simpicity, Cranmerian beauty

This is the Cistercian abbey of Flaran, France.  Upon viewing the photograph today when published by the French Cistercians on Twitter, my thoughts moved to one of the introductory rubrics to the 1662 Eucharistic rite:

The Table at the Communion time having a fair white linen cloth upon it ...

It's a rubric which in many ways encapsulates the simplicity of the 1662 rite.  Now, no, this is not to suggest that Cranmerian simplicity is identical to Cistercian simplicity.  However, there is a shared beauty and eloquence in the simplicity of both.  A bare altar was a distinctive feature of Cistercian liturgy, allowing a renewed focus on the mystery made present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist - a concern embodied in 1662.

It is a reminder for contemporary catholic Anglicans that cathedral-style liturgy is not the only liturgical ethos worthy of consideration and emulation.  And it might also encourage what seems to be the beginnings of a re-reception of 1662 by catholic Anglicans.  Rather than iconoclasm, we can see a near-Cistercian beauty in its simplicity.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

"As with a seraph's robe of fire": Keble, the 'secular', and glory

In his poems for the Third and Fourth Sundays after Trinity, days of early summer, Keble sets forth a vision of re-enchantment.  This vision is contrasted with the "Hateful spell of sin" (Third Sunday after Trinity) and "Reason's spells" (Fourth).  The former darkens the imagination, dulling us to the mystery of Presence and Gift, the latter cannot "disclose" the miracle of the Incarnation, of the material being taken up into the Divine.

Against the "Hateful spell of sin", Keble on the Third Sunday after Trinity - reflecting on Luke 25:10 - points to the nearness of the holy angels:

Nor is the dream untrue; for all around
The heavens are watching with their thousand eyes,
We cannot pass our guardian angel's bound,
Resign'd or sullen, he will hear our sighs.

He in the mazes of the budding wood
Is near, and mourns to see our thankless glance
Dwell coldly, where the fresh green earth is strew'd
With the first flowers that lead the vernal dance.

Here, the holy angels are not the only signs and gifts of enchantment: they dwell amidst the "budding wood ... fresh green earth ... first flowers", the "vernal dance" of spring and summer.  Seen and unseen, together rejoicing in Gift and communion.

"Nor is the dream untrue."  Keble returns to this theme on the Fourth Sunday of Trinity, a meditation on Romans 8:19-22, the creation's longing.  The dream of Trinity III is no mere poet's dream - the dream originates from Elsewhere:

It was not then a poet's dream,
An idle song vaunt of song,
Such as beneath the moon's soft gleam
On vacant fancies throng;

Which bids us see in heaven and earth,
In all fair things around,
Strong yearning for a blest new birth
With sinless glories crown'd;

Which bids us hear, at each sweet pause
From care and want and toil,
When dewy eve her curtain draws
Over the day's turmoil,

In the low chant of wakeful birds,
In the deep weltering flood,
In whispering leaves, these solemn words -
"God made us all for good."

Keble describes this "good" in quite striking terms. Because of the Incarnation - "The hour that saw from opening heaven/Redeeming glory stream" - the material has been transfigured:

Thenceforth, to eyes of high desire,
The meanest things below,
As with a seraph's robe of fire
Invested, burn and glow.

The Incarnation, then, frees us from two spells - that of "Hateful sin", dulling our sense of gratitude and delight in the created order; and "Reason", unable to "disclose/The gracious birth" that is the Word taking up the material into a glory "Beyond the summer hues of even/Beyond the mid-day beam".

As catholicity and covenant noted previously, reflecting on The Christian Year is not a call for it to appear in contemporary homilies, or to be handed out to students.  It is, rather, to suggest the need for culturally-appropriate means of celebrating the vision which animated Keble - of a grace-drenched created order, in which "the meanest things ... burn and glow" with a glory beyond our imagining.

The evangelistic and apologetic significance of this may perhaps be detected in recent comments from Marilynne Robinson regarding the meaningless of the term 'secular':

Typology was or is one way of understanding and experiencing an articulate presence of God, the Creator pervasively present in the natural world in what he gives us to understand through it. This again raises questions about the notion of the secular, the worldly, as existing in opposition to the sacred. If the world is the Lord’s, if it speaks of him, if it is sustained by him in every moment, then, granting the historical importance of the idea of secularism, I cannot in good faith proceed as if it has meaning for me, or as if I find it at all appropriate as a term of judgment brought to bear against our period or any other.

Keble celebrates the beauty and glory of the created order as icon, as participating in the life of the Divine.  In Robinson's words, he does not argue against the secular - he proceeds as if it has no meaning, he rejoices because the worldly is sacred.  And there we might see something of the Church's hope in a secular age. No age, no place is secular. 'Secular' is necessarily a meaningless phrase because this world is filled with glory.  "As with a seraph's robe of fire."

Monday, 29 June 2015

"What was happening with the angel's help was real"

Peter ... did not realize that what was happening with the angel's help was real.

Acts 12:9, from the readings at the Holy Eucharist on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

Rowan Williams once argued that to reword a poem is to change its meaning. A poem enters into the world to expose the strangeness of language and the mystery of reality. Angels are the poems of scripture. They enter into a situation to expose the strangeness of God’s activity and the mystery of creation. We cannot remove them from the narratives without the internal sense of the story breaking down. To demythologise them is to destroy their meaning.

The future of angelology, then, must be in attentiveness to scripture, and the way that angels interrupt the linkages of immanent historical causality. We can speak of them only as we speak of any mystery: as pure poetry.

Steve Wright 'The Future of Angelology' on Faith & Theology. 

A few years ago, I heard an interview with the British theologian John Milbank, where he said, "I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I'm really bitterly opposed to… disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals."

He told a story about the Nottingham diocese in England, which he described as "a very evangelical diocese." They had received a request to participate in a radio show about angels. They surveyed their clergy, asking, "Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?"

Milbank chastised the diocese saying, "Now in my view, this is scandalous. They shouldn't even be ordained if they can't give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy."
Tish Harrison Warren 'Angels We Ignore On High: Reintroducing evangelicals to the heavenly host' in Christianity Today 20th December 2013.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Neither mapped nor catalogued

From Mariano Magrassi's Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, a wonderful quotation from John Henry Newman on the nature of Scripture in the mind of the patristic witnesses:

It is in point to notice also the structure and style of Scripture, a structure so unsystematic and various, and a style so figurative and indirect, that no one would presume at first sight to say what is in it and what is not.  It cannot, as it were be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The hidden God and the Forerunner

Why a Forerunner?  Because, says Augustine, we, being by blinded by pride, could only be healed by the humility and hiddenness of God, a humility and hiddenness which required a Forerunner as witness:

The wood of His humiliation was needful to you. For you had become swollen with pride, and had been cast out far from that fatherland ... On account of you He was crucified, to teach you humility ... because if He should come as God, He would not be recognized. For if He should come as God, He would not come to those who were not able to see God. For not according to His Godhead does He either come or depart; since He is everywhere present, and is contained in no place. But, according to what did He come? He appeared as a man. 

Therefore, because He was so man, that the God lay hid in Him, there was sent before Him a great man, by whose testimony He might be found to be more than man. And who is this? He was a man. And how could that man speak the truth concerning God? He was sent by God. What was he called? Whose name was John. Wherefore did he come? He came for a witness, that he might bear witness concerning the light, that all might believe through him. What sort of man was he who was to bear witness concerning the light? Something great was that John, vast merit, great grace, great loftiness!

... The true light, therefore, enlightened him by whom He desired Himself to be pointed out. Understand, beloved, for He came to infirm minds, to wounded hearts, to the gaze of dim-eyed souls. For this purpose had He come.

Tractates on John, 2:5-7

(The painting is Artemisia Gentileschi, The Birth of St John the Baptist, 1635.)