Tradition Versus

I meant to write about this earlier, but the week has been a busy one — I was invited to speak to a theological gathering in Iowa this week, and drove 2,100 miles in four days to get there and back! — and so this has gotten away from me. And I need to be at work soon, so I’ll have to make quick work of this.

Conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has made much of the yawning gap between progressive Christians and Conservatives, especially their vastly different approaches to the weight given to the historic teaching of the church. Douthat writes that it is always “Year Zero” for progressive Christians (a reference to the Khmer Rouge and their desire to completely reconstruct Cambodian society based on a terrifying amalgam of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory and an appeal to “traditional” values of Cambodia’s imagined rural and small town past) who look both to the aboriginal Christian community and to modern times but seem to want to ignore the accumulated centuries of Christian experience, thought, and teaching — especially on sex and marriage.

And again: part of the point of being Catholic, I would have thought, is that we don’t have to keep having these arguments anew in every generation, like a megachurch in the midst of a succession crisis or coping with a superstar pastor’s theological drift; rather, we can treat past teaching as essentially reliable, and indeed treating past teaching as reliable is essential to what being Catholic means.

Now yes, not every question can be settled by precedents, the church must sometimes think and act anew, and other criteria, likes the ones that Martens invokes, can matter for present-day debates.

But the point that conservative Catholics keep pressing in the current moment, without a satisfactory response, is that when the precedents line up the way they do in the case of marriage and divorce, there is a very heavy burden of moral-theological proof resting on the innovators, one that can’t just be answered with appeals to the signs of the times and the movement of the spirit.

Otherwise Catholicism would basically be left in a perpetual year zero, in which just about any change would be possible … and, for that matter, any past development could be simply undeveloped when the time seemed ripe.

Part of the revolutionary/liberationist way of viewing the world is to see the urgency and immediacy of now. “If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?” There’s justice to be done and people to be liberated. The conservative rightly asks — what if we are not the people, and what if now is not the time? Because human history — especially modern secular history — is filled with this fierce anticipation of the ultimate now, and the need to work purposefully toward history’s ultimate end or perfect justice, and in virtually every circumstance the human actors seeking some kind of final resolution to the human condition have been utterly and completely wrong.

Douthat, however, fails in a couple of key ways.

First, he has reduced the church (at least here) solely to its teachings, as if it were nothing else. It is not a mystical body, a called-out community, it is not a place where the Holy Spirit can and will work in a amazing and strange ways. Where new things are done. It not a community of people that is the object of God’s attention and affection. The church in Douthat’s understanding is a subject, with God and the teaching as objects we grasp and comprehend.

I can understand why anyone would reduce the church to a set of supposedly unchanging teachings — this is conceptually easy to handle, and makes faith the acceptance and embrace of certain propositions that confer moral status on acts and actors — and this is some of the church. It it reasonable and well ordered. But this is most definitely not the whole of the church. There is that encounter with God, in which we are grasped and comprehended, where we are not actors, but are acted upon. Where reason does us little good.

In this understanding, we are not a people defined and read by (and into) the story of Israel — we are rules bound and rules setting committee where the teaching never or rarely ever changes. This is a church more reliant on Aquinas and the councils than it is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Second, there is that simple fact that so much of what the church teaches seems so out of whack with what actually happens in the story of Israel in scripture. From war to sex to marriage to even abortion, scripture itself provides us with examples that do not work in concert with what the story of scripture — or even the torah itself — teach. For example, I am very sympathetic and even somewhat supportive of the anti-abortion position, and that it is coherent with a New Testament and early church ethic of life reflected in the Didache and supported elsewhere in scripture. But I have never heard anyone who is pro-life deal with the test for marital infidelity in Numbers 5, a test mandated by God to Moses which appears to induce a miscarriage — an abortion— in a woman guilty of “defiling herself” by lying “with some man other then [her] husband,” though it is hard to tell exactly what happening because verses 5:20–22 are so very steeped in euphemism (womb swelling and thighs falling away).

I could go on, and I have elsewhere. Now, the church catholic and apostolic believes — and rightly so — that is has a divine mandate to teach, and much of the teaching has sources other than scripture. But that is half the problem. Yes, there are sources of wisdom and knowledge other than scripture, because all scripture really tells us is the story of how much God loved Abraham that God made promises to Abraham’s descendants — promises held on to despite failure, defeat, conquest, and exile — and not so much how to live or organize our communities. This is what it means for the church to consider its history as “Israel shaped.” Even the law given in the torah itself is not followed by Israel in scripture, and while that has consequences for God’s people, God never abandons and never fails to love, care for, or remember his people. We may have a great teaching designed to encourage human flourishing, but God is God and the promises of God are true no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

Finally, there is the matter of God himself vacating his teaching without actually undoing it. The gold standard here is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. According to the teaching of God to Moses in Deuteronomy 23:1, eunuchs are not allowed to be part of the assembled people of God:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1 ESV)

No reason is given here. It is just proclaimed. We are free to contemplate the reason, but in the end, God gives none.

So when Philip found himself facing an Ethiopian eunuch who has been reading the words of the Prophet Isaiah, and to whom he had just preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Philip — and the readers of Acts — likely knew the law. Knew that the Ethiopian was simply forbidden from being one of the called out people of God because God himself had said so.

That was the immutable teaching of God, to Moses — even better than anything a medieval doctor of the church had contrived.

Philip could have simply said no. He could have said “let me think about it” or “let me go to Jerusalem and talk it over and then we’ll do a study about it.” He could have fallen back on the clear and direct teaching of God.

But he doesn’t. Philip commands the chariot to stop, they go down into the water, and the eunuch is baptized. He acts. Because he knows that God has acted.

God doesn’t rescind the teaching. The words given to Moses in Deuteronomy still stand. And yet, God brought to Philip a man who by all rights he could exclude from the assembly and instead, Philip made him part of the body of Christ. Because the Holy Spirit demanded it. Because God put Philip there, in the right place at the right time, to meet someone whose faithfulness could now matter to the assembled community of God’s people. Because sometimes, God does do something new. Because sometimes, now really is the time, and we really are the people.

Douthat (and other conservatives) are correct that too many liberal and progressive Christians have been thoughtlessly tossing away the historic teaching of the church, and have been doing that for some very frivolous reasons — equality and freedom — reasons that will likely not stand the test of time. (Progressives and liberals, for their part, are too busy trying to reason their way through or around or out of things that are not reasonable, because no one wants to be a sinner in need of repentance and penance, and few have looked at Acts 8 and been willing or able to live with the tension of a practice that seems unfaithful to the teaching.) There is wisdom and the Holy Spirit in the accumulated teaching of the centuries, and we are fools to discard it for the vagaries of sentiment and social science. But it would be wise to remember those teachings, however valuable and wise they may be, are also the products of human endeavor, informed by the prejudices of time, place, and culture. They may have lasted the centuries. But they are not infallible. And likely not God’s last word.

Because even divine teaching is sometimes undone by divine acts. By a neighbor, faithfully seeking, right in front of us. Touched by God’s grace.

The Least in The Kingdom

It’s been a busy week, and I’ve not really had time to sit down and do any serious — or even casual — blogging. (But I have a long list of things to blog about. So, there’s that…)

I noticed something going over the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5-7, beginning with the blessings and ending with the authority of Jesus), and it deals, I think, with the writing I’ve been writing about on the torah, the teaching God gave through Moses to Israel in Sinai (both in Exodus-Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Continue reading

Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic

Nothing seems to be dividing the church (at least in the relatively wealthy West) quite like the matter of sex. Particularly homosexuality, and whether or not gays and lesbians can be included in the community of those called to follow Jesus.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it starkly in a recent column when he wrote that church teachings stating homosexuality is a sin is a “choice” that “prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.” Continue reading

Sinning In Thought And Deed

As Jennifer and I were getting ready to go to our favorite Bridgeport cafe, I was mulling over a conversation I had earlier in the morning with my “daughter,” Michaela. (I put daughter in quotation marks because, well, she’s my daughter by proclamation. There’s nothing formal or legal or biological about it. Like most good things in my life, she just walked up to me one day a couple of years ago and simply claimed me. “You shall be my daddy, and I will be your daughter,” she said. And that was that.) I won’t say what that conversation was about, but as I was mulling it over in my mind, and something Jennifer noted afterwards, I began to think a bit about some things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.

There’s a long passage, after Jesus tells those gathered (disciples and others) who is truly blessed in this world, that they are the salt and light of the world, and that Jesus himself came to fulfill the “law” or “teaching” (νομος nomos in Greek, תּוֹרָה torah in Hebrew) that God gave to Israel in the Wilderness. He then tells everyone listening something that sounds both stunning and harsh:

19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19-20 ESV)

It’s a rigorous teaching that Jesus gives here. None of it can be dropped, none of it can be relaxed. Even as he fulfills God’s teaching, all the word’s spoken by God to Moses (and through Moses, to Israel) in the Wilderness remain true. All of it.

What does Jesus preach in Matthew 5:17-32? That even thinking of killing, even being angry, even insulting one’s neighbor and brother, puts one at risk for judgement (a very earthly and temporal judgement, the council and the fire of Gahenna). That even thinking lustful thoughts makes one guilty of adultery, and that it is better to “lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Again with Gahenna.) In fact, Jesus tells those assembled to hear him that anyone who divorces, or married someone who is divorced, “commits adultery.”

He then follows with a teaching on oaths, an admonition against retaliation (“But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil”), and the command to love enemies, followed by one final command that seems utterly unreachable to all but perhaps the most dour Calvinist or most committed Catholic traditionalist:

48 You therefore must be perfect [τέλειος, with an implication of completeness], as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 ESV)

While the teaching here is rigorous, and can be read literally (and may even be meant literally), I think there’s also another reading here, one that fits in well with the way many Torah teachings sit in tension with the actual lives of many of the characters in scripture.

One example. (There are many others…) Leviticus 18:9 states, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home.” And yet, Genesis 20:12 reports during the second time Abraham pawns off his wife Sarah as his sister to avert a potential violent death, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” [Emphasis mine.] Granted, Abraham does this long before the teaching in Leviticus is given to Israel, but the editors of scripture left this intact purposefully, I believe, to note that the lives of even the best of God’s people — and this whole story really begins with Abraham and Sarah — are messy and frequently out of sync with God’s teaching.

And that we would not exist as a people — the people of God — had these people not lived messy lives. We are the product of their messy, disordered, sinful, and law-breaking lives.

With that in mind, I look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-32 and think that perhaps this is a reminder to those who have not murdered, or committed adultery, or divorced (or married someone who was divorced), or sworn an oath, or even sought vengeance and hated an enemy, that there isn’t that much difference between thought and deed. If we take what Jesus says here seriously, we are all sinners. (I know this is what Lutherans teach and generally believe, even if it isn’t what they practice. Because it isn’t what they practice.)

The point of the teaching here, then, is to provoke both conscience and humility. “At least I’ve never killed anyone,” I can say. And it’s true. I’ve never killed anyone. But I have been angry, so angry I have wanted to. And so, rather than allow me to sit in smug self-righteous, this teaching reminds me that I too am a sinner, little different, and little better. (Think of what you can truly, honestly, and self-righteously claim to never have done.) To use an example from my upcoming book (and the reason I am no longer being considered for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), the one who has never actually committed adultery should look upon someone who has with a little humility. Who has not contemplated someone else lustfully? Because not all that much separates the thinking from the doing.

Certainly not in the eyes of God.

And note, Jesus speaks in this passage not of eternal consequences for sin in one’s heart and one’s soul, but of temporal consequences. This is part of the coming judgment that will overtake Israel. I’m not entirely sure what that means. On the face of it, there is a incredible harshness, a brutal mercilessness to this. Just as there is to all of the judgment talk in Matthew. (And Matthew is very focused on the coming judgment.) “Don’t think those of you who haven’t actually done anything will be safe, or safer than the rest of you, when the hour comes,” Jesus might be saying here. (This is why we need to take judgment seriously in Matthew.) And yet, the point may also be that when we argue among ourselves over who is more sinful, or more righteous, we are no longer paying attention to what’s going on around us, and the judgment to come will overtake us — all of us, even the supposed righteous who have sinned in thought but not in deed — when we least expect it. “Watch therefore,” Jesus tells his disciples later in Matthew, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

In fact, it may be that in the judgment to come, those have actually sinned, in thought and deed, and who have acknowledged that sin, will have an advantage over those righteous who have lived far more exemplary and respectable lives. Because perhaps they are paying attention, and know to flee when the time comes. While the righteous will stay. And fight. And die. (Evoking Jeremiah 21, as so much of Matthew’s judgment talk does for me.)

I don’t like to mix my gospels when I do this kind of thing (contemplate and teach), but this understanding brings to mind a passage from the Gospel of Luke:

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. ’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)