Category Archives: Great Books

Heresy As Extremism: Why the Middle Way is the Narrow Way

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.
Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

“Sincerity is no guarantee of being correct.”

-Rev. Dr. Mickey Efird

The lies of heresy are not just false, they are false in the extreme.

We’ve examined before in this space how heresy flattens the mysteries of the gospel.  The great doctrines of the church, the Incarnation and Trinity, are in a real sense names for mysteries.  These mysteries the church, we believe, has been led to confess by the Holy Spirit.  In so confessing, we preserve and celebrate the mystery of God and God’s mighty saving work.  Heresy always simplifies that mystery to something more palatable and less gospel.

But heresy can also be understood as a form of extremism.  Jaroslav Pelikan, near the end of Volume 1 of The Christian Tradition, notes, “It was characteristic of heretics that they erred in one extreme or the other, denying either the One or the Three, either despising marriage or denigrating virginity.”  It is worth mentioning that Pelikan, the now-deceased don of church history at Yale, writes this after multiple chapters spent painstakingly quoting and examining what the heretics themselves wrote.  He then quotes Gregory the Great:

“But the church, by contrast, proceeds with ordered composure midway between the quarrels on both sides. It knows how to accept the higher good in such a way as simultaneously to venerate the lower, because it neither puts the highest on the same level with the lowest nor on the other hand despises the lowest when it venerates the highest.” (334-335)

If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, you know that just a little ways this or that and you will take a tumble.  So it is with orthodoxy.  Precision in thought, as in machinery, only tolerates so much wiggle room. Chesterton noted that many are shocked at the vitriolic arguments about small points of doctrine, but they do so because they fail to recognize that there are no small points about the Divine:

“…it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”

chesterton orthodoxyHeresy, even in the lightest of touches or turns, always perverts Christian truth into something “blasphemous or ferocious,” something extreme.  The Arians, sincere though they were, turned Christians into creature-worshippers.  The gnostic-influenced Christians, who’ve strangely enjoyed a kind of foolish re-appropriation of their literature in the last couple of decades, denied the good not only of God’s creation but the truth of the Incarnation as an affirmation of the physical order (modern Darbyism does something similar with its false doctrine of the rapture).

An inch is everything when you are balancing.

This not only inveighs against those who wish to deconstruct orthodoxy as some kind of conservative fantasy, it also points us to why pious rhetoric that pits “the middle way” against “the narrow way” is ultimately false.  In terms of doctrine, the middle way – the balancing of heretical extremes in order to discover the one way to stand tall amid a thousand ways to totter over – is the narrow way.

Thus we can conceive of heresy, like Pelikan, as extremism.  Examples might include: emphasizing the transcendence of God to the detriment of the immanence of God; emphasizing works of piety so as to leave aside works of mercy; dogmatically adhering to classical Christian teaching in one area of sexuality while completely ignoring others; a simplistic biblicism that ignores experience and tradition (or, on the other hand, a Romantic attachment to experience which runs amok over scripture and tradition); or finally, as Bonhoeffer famously noted, grace divorced from the cross.

An inch is everything when you are balancing, which is why the narrow way of Christian truth is also the middle way.  I’ll let Chesterton have the last word:

“It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

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Are We Witnessing the “Suicide of Thought”?

chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

-G.K Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” in Orthodoxy

Satire is effective because it wraps a kernel of truth in packing that, if well-constructed, is hilarious.  An example of effective satire is this “story” from The Onion:

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Trescott University president Kevin Abrams confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Abrams, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus. “Whether it’s a discussion of a national political issue or a concern here on campus, an open forum in which one argument is uniformly reinforced is crucial for maintaining the exceptional learning environment we have cultivated here.”

dissent-is-hateOf course, college campuses are not alone in tending towards a sort of intellectual univocality.  Various corners (or are they cul de sacs?) of the church vie to have their views not only recognized, but made sacrosanct.  We see it also in our wider culture.  I am not among those who thinks that the sky is falling due to the Oberfell ruling; nevertheless, Justice Alito was probably correct in saying this decision will be used against those who will not “assent to the new orthodoxy.” (For all the bleating about “thinking for oneself,” every community has its own orthodoxy, after all.)  He was similarly prophetic in his concern about “those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

But it isn’t merely the reduction of valid viewpoints that is at issue, it is the manner in which those viewpoints are decided.  Another aspect of what Chesterton called “the suicide of thought” is the power play that the injection of a kind of fundamentalist identity politics as brought to contemporary discourse.  In many corners of American intellectual life, what matters is not what one argues but one’s identity which determines (before a word is spoken) the validity of what is proffered.  A self-described liberal college student aptly described the illiberality of such power games in a thought-provoking piece titled, “Social Justice Bullies”:

“But here’s the thing — who I am does not (or should not) have any bearing on facts. The problem with this brand of modern social justice advocacy is that who one is as a person (race, class, gender, etc.) is the be all and end all of their capacity to have a certain viewpoint. A millennial social justice advocate can discount an opinion simply because it is said or written by a group they feel oppresses them. It is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem whereby one attacks the person saying an argument rather than the argument itself. But this logical fallacy has become the primary weapon of the millennial social justice advocate. It is miasma to academia, to critical thinking, and to intellectual honesty. Yet it is the primary mode of operating on college campuses nationwide.”

To be clear, at issue is not the ends to which contemporary “social justice bullies” aim but the means employed (side note: if you are worried you may be a SJB, check here).  Any means that rules out certain thoughts or ideas based solely on the identity of the person who holds them (outside of, say, a KKK or Nation of Islam member, someone who self-describes in a prejudiced way) is the opposite of the liberal ideal, which values exchange of ideas and wrestling for the truth.  Orginos elaborates:

“What I am talking about so far is not meant to discredit feminism or any social justice position that seeks to empower oppressed people or remedy social ills. As I made abundantly clear to begin with, these are fundamentally good and necessary goals. What is the issue here are the tactics used by some from a purported place of moral high ground to immunize themselves from criticism while promoting a close-minded authoritarian vice-grip on society through chillingly sinister tactics.”

It is both disingenuous and counter-productive to demand conversation about serious issues facing our society AND police attempted conversation so tightly that only the pre-determined righteous elite can come to the table.  This is at least part of the reason for the gridlock we currently face; those who set the terms of the debate have done so in a manner that predetermines the outcome, and then shame those who refuse to play their power game as unwilling and backwards.  The faux empathy which demands to settle ahead of time not just what can be said but how it is said  – resulting in the exchange of “one idea,” as The Onion so aptly put it – is regressive in the extreme. Rabbi and systems theorist Edwin Friedman called such gridlock “a failure of nerve”:failure of nerve

“…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the ‘sensitive’…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of ’empathy’ into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

It’s tempting to be an alarmist about all this.  But the good news is that the flesh-and-blood people I talk to in my community, or pray with at the church I serve, are more fully-orbed than this.  I worry that, with Chesterton, “We are on the road to producing a race of [people] too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

But most people I know – those not trying to get a book deal or grow their Instagram following – are not like this.  If you pay too much attention to the thought police – the basement bloggers, armchair theorists, and self-obsessed justice tourists – it’s easy to become convinced that truthful speech and honest, vulnerable conversation are at an end in the 21st century West.  But we can do better.  Thought need not be destroyed on the altar of ideology masquerading as empathy.

But fighting this trend will require all of us – left/right/center, libertarian and communitarian, Christians and atheists and agnostics, progressives and traditionalists – to embrace a hermeneutic of charity that will allow us to be more interested in genuine engagement than in scoring points with the home team, more desirous of actually achieving progress than being seen as an expert in demanding it.  Otherwise, we are fated to continue trying to move forward as a church and society while fighting over the few, narrow, pre-determined views.

What do you think? Are we witnessing the suicide of thought? What institutions, places, arenas are there for genuine engagement across the usual battle lines? Leave a comment below.

Repentance with Thomas a’ Kempis

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.
From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

“I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” -Thomas a’ Kempis

The most beloved book by Christians, other than the Bible, is a short devotional work by a 15th century monk named Thomas a’ Kempis called Imitation of Christ.  a’ Kempis is no saint or Doctor of the Church; as best as we can tell, he was a humble monk from a now-defunct order who just happened to leave us some of the most profound and stirring insights into the spiritual life every put on paper.  He was a favorite of Therese of Lisieux, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Thomas Merton, just to name a few.  And during this season of Lent, who better to guide us on the practice of repentance? Let us give the wise monk a hearing once more:

“The only true liberty or honest joy is in fearing God with a good conscience. Blessed is the man who can set aside all the sources of distraction and perfectly recollect himself in holy repentance. Blessed is he who shuns all that soils and weighs down his conscience…Always keep an eye on yourself and be more willing to correct yourself than your dearest friends.” (Ch. 21, “Repentance of the Heart”)

A few thoughts:

  • How radically pre-modern it is to claim that liberty resides in fearing God! Modern libertarians would shun such a notion of freedom.
  • Repentance is a “recollection” of the self. Like the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner is one who returns to their true home to be restored in the arms of the loving Father.
  • Repentance requires setting aside distraction? Dear God, my iPhone and my iPad have both been flashing alerts at me in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing.  Few acts of  renunciation are more difficult in 2015 than living lives which are not constantly drowning in distraction.
  • More willing to correct myself than others?? But it’s so easy to despise my neighbors’ speck or splinter, and to ignore the log in my own eye!

Repentance is, of course, a daily need and not merely a seasonal occurrence.  For half a millennium, there have been few better guides than Thomas a’ Kempis.  He would be the first to say this obvious conclusion: the point is not to know how to define repentance, not to read great works about repentance, but to do it.

Source: ‘a Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ (New York: Vintage Books 1998), 30.

Leadership, Stress, & Triangles

Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.
Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.

What if stress is less about working too much or too hard, and more about how we function in relationships? If you are a leader (check and see if anyone is following you if unsure), Ed Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve is a must-read.  Subtitled “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friedman’s final work (completed by family and colleagues posthumously) applies his theory of family systems to leadership.  The Psychiatrist-Rabbi offers this provocative claim near the end of the book:

“A leader’s stress and his or her effectiveness are opposite sides of the same coin…not because failure to be effective creates stress, but because the type of leadership which creates the least stress also happens to be the type of leadership that is most effective.”

Of course, it is possible to be stressed from overwork; it’s not as if there no limits a leader’s stamina, regardless of how wise her or his functioning might be.  “There are limits to everyone’s strength,” says Friedman, “but it takes less weight to strain your body if you attempt to lift the object from certain positions.”  So it is with our position in relational systems.

For Friedman, the primary relational unit of concern is the triangle: a triangle is a relationship between any three persons, organizations, or entities.  Two parents and a child, or a husband, wife, and mother-in law, or you, your supervisor, and the company – all of these are examples of triangles.  As you may guess, they are all around us.  Friedman insists that it is how we function in these relational triangles that determines our effectiveness as leaders (which, as we’ve established, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from stress).  Here’s where leadership, stress, and triangles come together:

“The stress on leaders (parents, healers, mentors, managers) primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in responsible position for the relationship of two others. They could be two persons (members of the family, and two sides to an argument) or any person or system plus a problem or a goal. The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates detriangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating.  Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.”failure of nerve

In other words, there is a “sweet spot” for leaders, somewhere between being aloof and unconnected and being over-identified and in the muck.  Friedman describes this this carefully negotiated relational position as “differentiation,” in which one is connected to two others in conflict while maintaining a healthy sense of self with the boundaries which that entails.

Friedman’s language is somewhat arcane, and you would need to read this and/or Generation to Generation to grasp the full lexicon.  Hopefully this sample is helpful, and encourages you to go out and read more for yourself.  A Failure of Nerve tops my list when other pastors and leaders ask me for book recommendations.

For now, think of it this way: how much of your work or family stress is related to undo ownership for the relationships of others?  When I think about my early ministry, that question is downright scary.  But I’ve found Friedman’s concept of differentiation to be immensely helpful to me as a leader, as I negotiate a variety of triangles and seek maximum effectiveness.  We’ll give Rabbi Friedman the last word:

“Leaders who are most likely to function poorly…are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to the irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.”

P.S. For further clarification on Friedman’s theory of leadership, check out this very helpful (and brief) video:

Source: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury 2007), 219-221.

The Wild Truth or Easy Heresy?

chesterton
Even Pharrell couldn’t imagine this much fun: Chesterton thinking about orthodoxy.

Heresy never goes away, it simply returns in various forms.  Whether it is the gnostic escapism of the Heaven is For Real, so popular in our ‘Christian’ bookstores and movies, or 18th century deism that has re-emerged as MTD, heresy (being a parasite) will always be found wherever true belief and practice occur.  The key is not just to be able to identify it, but to recognize now boring it is.  Thus, G.K. Chesterton speaks of “the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy:”

“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

Those of us advocating for a third way or via media tend to share an interest in basic orthodoxy, in part because we see doctrinal renewal as a key to the vitality of the church, but also because this gives us something more interesting to do that merely wallow around in progressive and conservative echo chambers.  As Chesterton notes, the church had to constantly juke to avoid heresies from every corner.

“She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth wheeling but erect.” (Orthodoxy [Mineoloa: Dover 1994], 94.)

In my view, the wild truth remains the property neither of the left nor the right in the church.  Orthodoxy is not the possession of any culturally-determined faction or party, but it is the inheritance that the Holy Spirit, the saints, apostles, and martyrs have entrusted to us.  And that millenia-old party is better than all the dull heresies put together.

“A School for the Lord’s Service:” 6 Lessons from a week with the Benedictines

monastery2014
An elderly monk-priest enters the sanctuary to prepare for one of the many prayer services of the day. Personal photo.

I spent last week at Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, N.C.  I was warmly treated by the Benedictine brothers who live and work at the Abbey, which is on the campus of a small Catholic college.  While the purpose of the week was to study and plan sermons for the upcoming year, I also enjoyed the rich prayer and worship practices of the Benedictine life and learned  much during my all-too-brief time with the community.  Here are a few of my takeaways from the week, along with some pertinent reflections from Benedict himself.  I would be interested to hear your own experiences with monastic and/or retreat communities as well, and discover what insights others have gained in such contexts.

1) Community is a blessing

Monastic life is built on the principle that the Christian life is a community experience.  As John Wesley – sometimes compared to Benedict – said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”  In their daily prayers, the monks remembered their brothers who had most recently died.  Portraits of deceased Abbots (leaders of monastic communities) adorned the hallways.  They know that a personal search for the face of God is inextricable from a community dedicated to the same.  After all, these dedicated men possess a timeless social network; not one built on clicks, pixels, and limited to 140 characters at a go, but flesh-and-blood brotherhood established by a communal effort at what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” over time.

2) Community is difficult

The only way to live a life without annoyances might be to leave human interaction all together.  This, of course, would not be without its own problems.  But the point remains that community is a discipline, and one that is sometimes more task than gift.  After just a few days I found myself picking out which brothers annoyed me during prayer times.  This one constantly rubbed his face; that one seemed to always be sneezing and snorting; another appeared to be giving me the stink eye from across the chancel; and WHY did the fellow behind me have have the LOUDEST ticking watch in all of Christendom?? (You get the idea.)

Last week I had to face, once more, that I can be a  rather petty creature.   I suspect I am not alone.  That tells me that we shouldn’t be too triumphalist about community, because human sinfulness affects even the most well-intentioned persons and reaches into the holiest places.  Community – any community, religious in orientation or not – is a challenge because it is always made up of flawed creatures.

3) Reverence is a rare treasure

Something that continually struck me last week, because of its ubiquity in the monastery,  was the absence of something significant in my life: reverence.  Awe.  Rudolph Otto called this sense the “numinous,” that deep intuition that something greater, something worthy of our highest adoration, is both accessible and yet not fully within one’s grasp.  I appreciate the incarnational nature of so much of today’s Protestant worship.  God is our true joy and our friend, and we should celebrate that with gladness.  But I fear we have sometimes so embraced these aspects in our shared worship that the transcendence of God, the holy Otherness of the “I AM” who gives life to Israel and the Church, gets lost.   We need reverence as much, if not more so, than we need comfort.  In his instructions to his Order, known as  the Rule, Benedict says,

“When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, 
we do not presume to do so 
except with humility and reverence. 
How much the more, then, 
are complete humility and pure devotion necessary 
in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!” 

4) Hospitality is a beautiful spiritual gift

UMC Bishop Robert Schnase has reminded us that one of key practices of a fruitful congregation is “radical hospitality.”  The Benedictines who welcomed me this week embody this virtue in a truly gracious way.  The Rule of Benedict, again, says:

“If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region 
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires, 
provided she…does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands, but is simply content with what she finds.”

I especially appreciated the gifts of hospitality shared by the Guest Master, Br. Edward, and his assistant, Br. Emmanuel.  They were exceptional hosts, doing everything from eating with me, to making sure I knew how to follow along in the worship services, to simply making me feel welcome.  As I prepared to leave, Br. Edward took me in the chapel to offer a prayer for me.  He then told me how blessed they were to welcome me, and how much he loved his role in the monastery because, “God has brought you to us, and now, after you leave, I get to welcome two more Christs today.”  He is so shaped by the gospel call to see Christ in the stranger, that he refers to the guests in his charge as “Christs.”  What a humbling gift, and a saintly heart.

5) Obedience and freedom are connected

Because of certain things happening in my own tribe at present, I was curious to ask the monks how discipline works among them.  I inquired about how things are handled if a brother fails to live up to their obligations by, say, skipping prayers, being constantly late, or shirking their duties in some other way.  The reply was pretty simple: the Abbot gets involved and, if needed, so does the Bishop.  Eventually, if a monk is recalcitrant and refuses correction, he can be released from his vows and asked to leave and thus  avoid, as one brother put it, “harming the whole community.”

The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule reads, in part,

“And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.

But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).”

Obedience and true freedom, order and charity, ultimately hang together.  Every healthy organism – and a community is an organism – has boundaries.  Though asserting such an interrelationship is anathema to the cult of “authenticity” and “self-actualization,” it is nevertheless true.  Obedience without grace devolves to legalism, and love without some sense of order will self-destruct under the weight of its own incoherence.

6) Silence is holy

Continuing in the theme of “things the 21st century has forgotten,” I will end with some thoughts on silence.  The Benedictines with whom I shared this week cherish the power of silence.  They know that cultivating the Spirit of charity requires space to listen, pray, and reflect.  This community kept silence from after dinner though lauds (the 2nd prayer service of the day, following vigils and breakfast).  The worship services themselves contain intentional silences, as well.

In the chapter on maintaining silence after compline, Benedict says,

“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times,
but especially during the hours of the night.”

I confess am too often fearful of silence; I love “background” noise, whether from CNN, or Pandora, or some other source of distraction.  My week with the brothers helped me better appreciate how impoverished this cacophonous existence of ours – so full as it is of iPhones, tablets, and Beats headphones – really is.  After all, sometimes God is in the silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).

Concluding thoughts

This experience was a great blessing, both in terms of my vocation (I had a truly fruitful week) and my own spiritual walk.  I will certainly return to be among these simple, devoted men again.  They have much to teach the Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole human community.

Benedict concludes his Rule by indicating that his text deals with only the “rudiments” of the virtuous life, the bulk of which is found in the Fathers of the Church and, especially, the Old and New Testaments:

“Whoever you are, therefore, 
who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, 
fulfill with the help of Christ 
this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; 
and then at length under God’s protection 
you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue 
which we have mentioned above.”

Michael Pollan, Online Communion, and Table Manners

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The work of the people?

The UMC has just had a rather interesting public debate: is it appropriate to celebrate the sacrament of communion online? While this is something that is being done in various churches, including some experimentation in United Methodist communities, this is the first time significant leadership of the church has gathered to discuss it. Many things are at issue:

  • To what extent is online community real community?
  • How do we balance the call to be missional with the call to liturgical and ecumenical integrity?
  • How does the classical Christian rejection of Gnosticism and affirmation of Incarnation play into this discussion?
  • How are the Eucharistic elements blessed, and can that blessing be extended via technological means?

Larry Hollon and other thoughtful folks have weighed in on this, but I want to offer my own reflection. This debate has been in my back yard, so to speak, as the precipitating event for this discussion was Central UMC Concord’s plan to celebrate communion as part of their new online campus. I have already spilled much ink on this (and if you want more, email me) but I just found something helpful in an unlikely place: Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Pollan is a renowned food journalist, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and an outspoken critic of pretty much everything about Western eating habits.  Rule 59 reads,

“Americans are increasingly eating in solitude. Although there is some research to suggest that light eaters will eat more when they dine with others (perhaps because they spend more time at the table), for people prone to overeating, communal meals tend to limit consumption, if only because we’re less likely to stuff ourselves when others are watching.  We also tend to eat more slowly, since there’s usually more going on at the table than ingestion. This is precisely why so much food marketing is designed to encourage us to eat in front of the TV or in the car: When we eat alone, we eat more. But regulating appetite is only part of the story: The shared meal elevates eating from a biological process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community.”

Like all good eating, the Eucharist is a ritual of family and community, a shared meal in which much more is going on than mere ingestion. Pollan is on to something when he says the marketers are driving us to eat alone for a reason: we eat badly when we eat alone, separate from a community of friends who would elevate our dining to something sacred.

Pollan is trying to help us recover something that is at the heart of Jewish and Christian spirituality: the beauty of table fellowship.

Christians, on the other hand, seem hell-bent on the Burger King-ing of worship (your way, right away). When it comes to our own peculiar form of communal eating, in which Jesus is both host and offering, I pray we listen more to Pollan and less to Burger King.

Decades ago, Albert Outler put his finger on the origin of this debate within Methodism:

“One of the most obvious of Methodism’s paradoxes . . . is that we are the only major ‘church family’ in Christian history that began as an evangelical sect within a sacramental church and then evolved into a quasi-sacramental church . . . without an adequate self-understanding for doing so.”

The journey from “quasi-sacramental” back to our roots – and really, the deeper taproot of the wider Body of Christ – is really just beginning.  For now, at least, the center holds.

Excellence as Deviance

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Here is my happy thought for the day, courtesy of business professor Robert Quinn. This is from his very insightful Deep Change, which I highly to commend to everyone regardless of your calling or profession, or role in leadership.

“It seems to me that you have to be clear about something.  Excellence is a form of deviance. If you perform beyond the norm, you will disrupt all the existing control systems. Those systems will then alter and begin to work to routinize your efforts. That is, the systems will adjust to try to make you normal. The way to achieve and maintain excellence is to deviate from the norm. You become excellent because you are doing things normal people do not want to do. You become excellent by choosing a path that is risky and painful, a path that is not appealing to others.” (176)

Though Quinn writes for a business audience, his findings about “deep change” (as opposed to quick change or incremental change) are important for anyone who, on an individual or organizational level, seeks change.  To seek meaningful, deep change, leaders must accept the pain and challenge of deviance, the disdain of the system, and the endless efforts to stifle creativity and difference.

Interestingly, I think the Christian could also substitute the word “holiness” for “excellence” in the above quote, and it would equally hold true.  What say you?

Chesterton and The Thrill of Orthodoxy

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We live in an age that revels in rebellion, that idolizes the myth of “thinking for myself.”  In such an environment, adherence to a set of philosophic, historic, and theological norms is seen as silly at worst and oppressive at best.  Orthodoxy is safe, boring, on this reading; the post-moderns tell us orthodoxy is the teaching of the powerful, the “winners” of history.  And, as the so-called Occupy Movement has taught us, nobody wants to pull for the winners anymore.  The effect of this cultural suicide in the church is the love-affair with the heterodox, seen in the odd passion for long-dead Gnostic sects and the popularity of speakers like John Shelby Spong (who jumped the shark years ago).

But alas, there is a balm in Gilead.  His name is G.K. Chesterton.  I’d heard much about Chesteron, but never read any of his major works.  Now I’m most of the way through his most famous work, Orthodoxy.  It is marvelous.  Arguments aside, it is quite simply written beautifully.  The man has a way with the language.  He brings his considerable talents to bear describing how he came to discover the truth and then, to his surprise, discovered that he had arrived at orthodox Christianity.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy.  People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.  There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.  It was sanity; and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.  It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses…she swerved to the left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles…The orthodox church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions: the orthodox church was never respectable.  It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.  It would have been easy, in the Calivinist seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination.  It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.

He argues that orthodoxy is a game of balance, and that the delicacy of that balance explains all the so-called hairsplitting over theological debates.  If you’re balancing on the tip of a needle, it becomes a game of millimeters.  Of course, I have to applaud him for taking a shot at the Calivinists right after the Arians (though I wouldn’t put them that close together).  But what a grand vision of basic Christian teaching!

He concludes the chapter on “the paradoxes of Christianity” writing:

To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (Orthodoxy [New York: Dover 2004], 94.)

Orwell once wrote, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”  Chesterton fulfilled this duty admirably.  May we be so bold in our own time.