March 3, 2007

Acts and Actions

Some while ago, my brother-in-Christ Thomas Bushnell posted an excellent meditation on Acts 11. I commend the whole reflection to you, but want to post here the nine points he discerns from the tale recounted there, as a way in which the church might best engage with change, discernment, and possible reception.

1. Individuals, both within and without the church, based on their own private experiences of God, are led to violate existing norms. They may be doing so without any consultation or approval from established authorities.

2. The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the new effort. The sign of the Holy Spirit is not some sort of conformity to existing practice, but is instead some sort of publicly visible grace. We might think of communities of joy and growth, of feeding the poor, of fruitful prayer.

3. The rest of the church, nervous and upset by the innovation, asks for an explanation. They do not insist that approval had to be granted in advance. If the innovation is right, then it does not matter that they were not consulted; if the innovation is wrong, it would not matter if they had been.

4. The private experiences of God which led to the innovation are explained.

5. The experiences of violating existing practice are related, signs are described of God’s activity preceding the innovation, activity which occured outside the church.

6. The gifts poured out by the Holy Spirit are described.

7. Now, for the very first time a public theological rationale for the innovation is given. Crucial reliance is placed not on scripture, tradition, or reason. No explanation is given about how to interpret the scriptures which prohibited the innovation. Reliance is instead placed upon the visible gift of the Spirit.

8. The church responds in joy and thankgsiving, genuinely pleased that the innovation has overthrown what had been previously understood to be the bounds of God’s grace.

9. The church’s missionary apparatus swings into action, not to block the innovation or argue against it, but to spread it as soon as possible, as widely as possible.
As Thomas suggests, applying this approach in our present crisis seems a helpful way forward.


Allen said...

I like this approach and I think it shows promise. I linked to it, and to An Immodest Proposal here.
I lifted up only a tiny part of your Immodest Proposal -- I myself am only at the point of knowing what our response must not be -- I'm glad you're thinking about what it might be.


Father Doug said...

I'm surprised that you, Tobias, would endorse this piece. It seems terribly weak to me. First, it acts as though what was happening in Acts 11 was simply an ordinary instance of "innovation" or of breaking norms. We are dealing with an apostolic event that will either create what we know today as Christianity or that faith will be stillborn. These are original, founding events that create the possibility of genuine Christianity (that's why they're in the Bible, and why they happen to Apostles.)

Second, why would one find caring for the poor or being filled with joy equivalents to the miracles recounted here. We're talking visions, angels, speaking in tongues.

Then there's the point that the development is seen by the Apostles as entirely justified by the new reading of the Bible occasioned by the resurrection of Jesus. Look at Romans 15:8-12 for one apostle's refutation of the ridiculous idea that the so-called innovation contradicted Scripture.

Finally, the Apostles understood that they were entering a new stage or "dispensation" in the unfolding of God's mercy. They did not view the earlier practice now as "unjust," or unenlightened or sinful. It was right for its time (note Jesus' own "I was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel") but now superseded.

nlnh said...

Doug, if you are looking for some miracles, perhaps you should drop by Bp. Schofield's cathedral in Fresno.

Miracles seem to be pretty plentiful in those parts.

Tobias said...

Dear Fr. Douglas,
I am not surprised that you find this argument weak, resting as it does on human experience. But I am afraid I don't find your arguments against it to be persuasive since they seem all to be based on a matter of degree rather than kind.

First of all, I would say that the events recounted in Acts are in the Bible because they happened; and that they were indeed important in the emergence of Gentile Christianity.

Second, I think we have Jesus' testimony that ministry with the poor is an actual encounter with the divine presence, of at least equal weight with visions and tongues, rites and sacrifices.

And yes, a new reading of the Bible was called for. It always is. But it took experience to unlock the eyes of the apostles both to the resurrection and to the presence of God among the Gentiles. Paul could never have written Romans 15:8-12 unless God had personally knocked him down and shown him the error of his ways.

Finally, I'm surprised to find you advancing a species of dispensationalism. On the contrary, I think Paul's rejection of the Law relies in very large part on the fact that it never really was of much help in coming to know God; that self-denial has a form of piety, but is of no ultimate moral value; and he rejected all his rabbinic learning as so much refuse. That is not a simple supercession, but a change in direction.

Someday I believe everyone will see that "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" is a sufficient scriptural justification for same-sex relationships being capable of the same blessedness as mixed-sex relationships, just as we now see "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people" as a justification for Gentile participation in Christianity. But some folks are going to have to have the same kind of personal encounter with God as Saul did on the road to Damascus before their eyes are opened.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Second, why would one find caring for the poor or being filled with joy equivalents to the miracles recounted here. We're talking visions, angels, speaking in tongues.

Fr. Doug, I confess that I find your statement simply amazing. As Tobias said ministering to the poor is the same as ministering to Our Lord.

And what did Paul say in Corinthians about tongues and prophecies? It was all as a noisy gong, as a clanging symbol without love. It's the love, the Two Great Commandments, that's at the very heart of Christianity.

Father Doug said...

Does not the Resurrection of Jesus in fact usher in a new dispensation? Does not the Church differ from Israel even while it shares her identity? Was Jesus in fact a closed-minded bigot when he said, "I have come to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"? Are we, then, more enlightened than he? And if everything happening now is merely different in degree rather than in kind from the founding events of our faith, why look to those events at all? Why not just realize that everything past is necessarily inferior merely because it is past? If events today are different in degree rather than in kind from the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the call of the Apostles, then is not Jesus himself superseded?

The inclusion of the Gentiles is not just an incremental step toward "inclusion" that needs then to be followed by further steps. It is the final universalizing of Israel's comprehensiveness. The Gentiles are the nations--all the nations of all times and places, all those nations carefully enumerated in Genesis 10. They are "brought in" to Israel's blessing through Jesus as nations, that is as the "generations of men" that dwell on the earth by God's gracious gift of sex: "Cush begat Nimrod . . ." They are "male and female." We're not talking about a phase of enlightenment here to be superseded by further phases. In this way, Christ is the end (goal, purpose) of the Law.

I suppose you refer to Matt. 25 in arguing that ministry with the poor is an encounter with God. Please note, however, that those rewarded in that story are those who did not recognize Jesus in the poor. By contrast, the divine manifestations given to Peter to verify God's mighty new work in calling the Gentiles were specifically given to identify the new ministry as blessed of God. The blessing in Matt. 25 comes to those who do not see Jesus in the poor. The blessing in Acts 10-11 depend on Peter seeing the Holy Spirit in Cornelius.

We already knew that Cornelius was a good guy (he supported the synagogue.) What was not known was that he was now, through Jesus and not through circumcision, incorporated into the Israel of God.

Analagously, I certainly agree that GLBT Christians are often very good people. What is specifically not given in that is the idea that sexual coupling which rejects God's bimorphic design of humanity is now (contrary to all Scripture and precedent) blessed by God.

A final rushed comment: Are you suggesting that Paul finds the law to be mostly a matter of "self-denial"? I read Paul to say that the heart, the reality of the law is in fact God's love for his people or, more accurately, God's faithfulness. The Law testifies to that faithfulness but cannot itself consummate it. That is the work of Christ on the cross. Thus, Christ is the "end" (telos, goal) of the law.

Another, more rushed, comment: "Love your neighbor as yourself" begs the question, What is proper love? Must it not be rooted in the truth? Can we love others if we do not seek the truth with them? Can confirming others in their error (even if they seem to like it) be true love? The Resurrection of Jesus means not just forgiveness but also the restoration of God's created order in Jesus. Christian faith is not only "process." It is also "content."

Tobias said...

Dear Fr. Doug,
I have to confess I'm not really sure what you are getting at. My comment on dispensationalism was simply surprise that you would use an argument -- and you seem to be continuing it in your first paragraph here -- that is essentially "progressive." What I am saying is that the recognition of same-sex relationships as morally permissible is a step forward in human maturity; a realization of an error, if you will -- perhaps analogous to Jesus' own change of heart regarding the Canaanite woman, based on her argument that even "dogs are worthy of the crumbs." My problem with your argument would be that you seem to recognize dispensation in previous times, but want to rule it out for our own times. The issue here is not nationality, but sex. In the 19th century, it was slavery. It took 1900 years more or less to put the promise in Galatians: "no more slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male and female" into practice concerning slaves. The "Jew or Gentile" part was realized, as you point out, in Paul's day -- though the process took a good bit of working out and encountered some resistance. The last stage -- the rejection of "male and female" as locus for a category of division -- is slowly being worked out in our own time. Do not be amazed that the work of God should take millennia -- for a thousand years are as a moment in God's eyes. (Note that "male and female" does not eliminate gender -- but it eliminates the idea that the genders are "oppposite" or "different" or that only in the union of "male and female" is the fully human revealed.)

I'm not sure what your point is about Matthew 25. You seem to be stressing the "gnosis" of knowing who Jesus is, rather than the "praxis" that Jesus himself seems to emphasize as of crucial import. Other texts support my view, including Jesus' rejection of those who call him "Lord" but do not do the works he calls for.

As to begging the question, I think your argument about bimorphic sexuality proves nothing at all. Many animals are "bimophic" sexually -- and this is part of our animal nature. It is our capacity to love in which we share in God's image, not in our ability to "couple." As OT scholar Jacob Milgrom has noted, the commandment to multiply and fill the earth has been quite adequately carried out, perhaps more than is necessary. Biology, even biology described in Scripture, is a very weak reed on which to hang a theology.

I don't disgree at all that Christ is the end (in sense of goal, telos) of the Law. But Paul appears to be saying, then, that for those who are in Christ, the Law has no longer any hold. Thus appeals to Leviticus (selectively) are out of place, unless they can be shown to have some specific moral weight apart from their inclusion in the legal code.

Are you accusing Christ of begging the question? He is the one who gave that summary of the law. And I think he meant what he said. The "proper kind of love" is that which does to others as one would be done by. What part of that do you not understand? The truth you seek is standing there before you. Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice.

Grandmère Mimi said...

What is proper love, indeed? It could be as simple as the act of mercy of giving the homeless person on the street five dollars, even if you suspect that person will buy booze or drugs with it.

I'll never forget the man I encountered in a street on the Lower East Side in NYC, who held up a sign that read, "NEED MONEY FOR DRUGS BOOZE AND WOMEN". I didn't give him anything, but I wanted to, because he made me smile.

Father Doug, you are, no doubt, vastly more learned in interpreting the Scriptures than I, but I hear you saying that once - or, perhaps, even before - we love people we must be sure that they are "rooted in the truth".

In the Gospels, Jesus seemed to bestow his grace lavishly, extravagantly, without questioning those he blessed and healed and forgave as to whether they were "rooted in the truth".

In my previous comment I meant "cymbals" not "symbols".

Father Doug said...

Sorry for the long delay.

Both Tobias and Grandmere Mimi seem to have seized on my comment about "proper love" as though I somehow meant that some persons were not worthy of love. Of course I don't mean that and I don't see how you could read me that way. The question is not whether I should love certain neighbors; I should, period. The question is what does loving them according to the truth look like? How, that is, shall I love them.

Yes, indeed, Jesus begs the question here. The question, so to speak, is "What shall we do with the riot of God's love and faithfulness that we call the law?" His answer is, "It all is finalized in love of God and neighbor. It all comes to its fulfillment there. It was all meant for love." That's quite a lot different from saying that "love" is now a substitute for the Law, that the Law can be set aside in favor of some other, undefined feeling called "love."

What would such a "love" be, stripped of all the content provided by the law and by the structure of God's creation (natural law)? It would be, I think, little more than a feeling of warmth, something like our church's self-contradictory uber-value of "inclusion" which collapses under the simple charge that it fails to include the non-inclusive. It's about as ridiculous as its cousin in the philosophical world: all truths are relative (oh, yeah, except for this one.)

Thus my insistence that Christian faith must be not just process but also content. Love has to be about something and what it is about is God's love for the world expressed not only in redemption but also in creation.

You've certainly got an interesting point, Tobias, in joining up the Summary of the Law with the Golden Rule. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps the only measure of love is whether I do to others as I would have them do to me. Doesn't that beg the question a bit, though? I mean, what if my desires ("as I wish others would do to me") are corrupt? What if the way I want people to deal with me is never to confront me about my sin and to let me slide oblivious into that slothful place where I can no longer be troubled with the judgment of a righteous God? What if I want to be left to die in my sin? Does that then determine the way I treat others? In point of fact, it may. But should it? Would I be right to confirm others in their complacency since that happens to be what I want others to do with me? I'm guessing you'll say no.

Re: Matt. 25, I'll try to restate my point which I'm somehow not communicating very well. The original point to which I responded was that the ministry to the poor performed by gay Christians was analogous to Cornelius & Co. receiving the gift of the Spirit and speaking in tongues. I questioned that the two were analogous. I find the Cornelius issue different precisely in that the manifestation of the Spirit there shows God's intention to bring Gentiles into the New Israel without circumcision.

While it is true that Jesus suggests that those who perform service to the needy will encounter him in doing so, this will happen, he says, anonymously. Unlike the situation with Cornelius in which the gift of the Spirit manifests God's presence, the presence of God in the Matthew 25 ministries is quite specifically hidden. The two are not analogous.

This is further confirmed by the fact that Cornelius himself was known to be generous to God's people prior to his inclusion into the Church. That by itself is not decisive. Peter doesn't say, "Of course! Why didn't I see this before! Cornelius is generous; generosity indicates the presence of God; ergo, Cornelius does not need to be circumcised." Rather, Peter says, "The Holy Spirit has descended upon Cornelius just as he did upon us at the beginning. God has accomplished his purpose in including the Gentiles through Christ apart from circumcision."

Now, insights continue. Peter has already received his vision. He is aware that God is up to something here. He begins his sermon in Acts 10:34 by noting that God is no respecter of persons but that everyone who "feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him."

Here, quite clearly, we confront the distinction in embryonic form between those commandments called moral and those having to do with marking off Israel as a nation chosen by God. Cornelius can be judged according to the former as "righteous," even though he is obviously deficient in the latter.

To apply this to our situation, we must once again ask whether the law's prohibition of same-sex intimacy belongs to the "moral" or to the "ceremonial" part of the Law. Could, in other words, a "gay" Cornelius be considered righteous? In answering this question, we may well want to consult biology, especially, as you put it, biology described in Scripture. We are drawn to natural law. Here we seek, as you put it, "some specific moral weight apart from. . .inclusion in the legal code."

If we believe that the same God is both creator and redeemer and if we do need that "moral weight" that a mere recitation of the moral code cannot give, I don't see why biology is such a weak reed. Christ's resurrection directs us, after all, back to creation. Paul looks there throughout Romans (Christ the second Adam) not least in chapter one.

Tobias said...

Dear Fr Doug,
You touch on a number of issues that are at the heart of the debate. I think as well that it appears the problems lie in the need for premises: and the reality that certain notions must simply be taken as starting points. The difficulty here is that the premises are so intimately connected with the conclusions.

"Love" is not merely a substitute for the law, nor simply a summary. In his use of the "Summary" as well as the "Golden Rule" Jesus gives us a new way of looking at the same old principles, in a kind of moral midrash. Clearly, it is loving to warn others when you think they are doing wrong; this is easily subsumed under the concept of doing for another what you would want for yourself, for who would not want to be warned of danger? So I take your point on that matter. (Though it begs the question that the warning is accurate -- that there is a fire in the theater; or, perhaps to stretch the analogy to fit this situation, that fire is always bad; there are places where fire is good!)

I also recognize your point about a defective capacity to desire properly, and the problem of one who wants done to him something that is objectively wrong. But this too begs the question if one assumes a priori that same-sex attractions are defective in any objective sense.

Recognizing this, you appeal to natural law as a source for an objective grounding. The problem with so-called "natural law" is that it too embeds its conclusions in its premises. I by no means agree that the creation rules out same-sexuality; if anything, it is obvious that same-sexuality is perfectly "natural" as a part of the created world, and capable of fulfilling the unitive "end" that is at least as important in sexuality as procreation. (I will be reflecting on this more at a later time. I will also note that folding in references to the Fall into a natural law argument also beg the question, and confuse the categories.)

This is obviously a point on which we disagree at a basic level, so your argument hangs by the very thing you need to prove. Actual biology (I don't think we can be bound by "biblical" biology when it is contrary to reality, any more than we are bound to biblical cosmology when it is in error) shows us that same-sexuality functions in nature as a means of building up animal and human society.

The other sort of "Natural law" argument -- insisting that procreation is the "natural" end of sex -- is also not only mistaken as to fact, but sets up its assumption that non-precreative sexuality is deficient. On the contrary, non-procreative sexuality is not only natural, but, in human beings in particular, is attested to in Scripture, tradition, and reason. I am working at present on an outline of these issues, which I hope to post within the next few weeks.

Now, this does indeed bring us to that primary question: is same-sexuality part of the moral order, or contrary to it? Are the laws governing it ceremonial or moral? (I hasten to add that this disctinction is itself not Scripturally evident. We Anglicans seem to think it is perfectly obvious; but the Jewish legal tradition recognizes neither this distinction nor "natural law.")

This is an area for in depth examination, hardly suitable to a blog comment. But let me look to the particulars of just one thing: The only "law" per se is found in the levitical texts concerning a specific male same-sex act. (Female same-sexuality is nowhere mentioned, let alone condemned, in the Law. This in itself should raise some question to anyone interested solely in the moral issue: is only male same-sexuality culpable; why did the Jewish tradition treat one as a capital crime and the other as a misdemeanor?) In any case, the Levitical laws, in both setting and self-description, are precisely defined as designed for setting Israel apart from the other nations. (Indeed, in the rabbinic tradition, all Gentiles were automatically suspect of homosexuality -- a point Peter is well aware of in his interpretation of his vision that "no one is to be called unclean." As he says, this isn't about food. So doubtless Cornelius would have been perceived as "suspect" along those lines.)

Now, I would not go so far as to say, "This is simply ceremonial" -- but it ought to be sufficient to raise some caution about the extent to which this law ought to be applied outside its Levitical context. Jacob Milgrom has done exactly that in his massive study on Leviticus.

In conclusion, you draw us back to Romans 1, seen as a reference to the creation. However, this is "the creation" (the world of created things, not the creation story) as filtered through the eyes of the Wisdom of Solomon, and it has precious little to do with Genesis. If anything it has more to do with the typical Jewish rejection of things Gentile -- suspect of all sorts of bad behavior due to rejection of God and worship of the creation.

So I must say I remain unconvinced by your appeals to nature, as I am sure you remain unconvinced by my appeal to morality. Both of us seem to think we have Truth on our side. It is at times such as this that I place my trust in a loving God who has promised to forgive us even when "we know not what we do."