December 31, 2012

Christmas Special

The "must see and glad I saw it" of this Christmas season was the Call the Midwife Christmas Special --- apparently a last-minute decision on the part of PBS, as it didn't appear in the program guide. I only caught word of it because of a promo on the day itself. The new series ended its run for this season earlier this year, so the Christmas special came as something of a surprise.

And not only a surprise, but a delight. This is a wonderful tale of redemption, forgiveness, closure, thanksgiving for changing times, and the sufficiency of grace: good themes any Christmas. Keep an eye out for a rebroadcast, and keep a hanky handy. Wonderful performances by the standout cast.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 22, 2012

Papal Fallibility

Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to make use of his Christmas message to do a bit of theology concerning human nature. In doing so he reveals a fundamental failure to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation.

...People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being.... They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.... The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man's fundamental choice where he himself is concerned...
This rather misses the mark, as the whole point of the Incarnation taking place in the manner it did — via the work of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, without any participation of a human male — was to reveal the secondary quality of maleness and femaleness: Jesus derived his entire human nature from the Virgin Mary (or so says the Definition of Chalcedon). Although Jesus is male, his humanity derives entirely from a female. So the "human nature" is in itself genderless, although each particular human being has, by virtue of genetics and epigenetic factors, a sexual or gender reality expressed anatomically, psychologically,  emotionally, and socially. But as with all qualities of a person, sex is not essential to the nature: it is a characteristic particular to the individual, like height, or eye or hair color, or any of the other variable factors that individual human beings have. We even have a very clear sense of the genetic factors that produce this particular characteristic quality of the person. The quality does not make them human; their humanity gives expression to the quality.

The Pope takes what can only be described as a hard-line determinist position, pure sexism in its most precise form: anatomy fixes identity. In addition to the discontinuity of this position with the doctrine of the Incarnation, this also tends, like its cousin racism (also based on "given" characteristics), to dehumanize the human person, and reduce the concept of the person to the level of the animal nature; it puts all the weight of identity on the very aspect which the doctrine of the Incarnation shows us should not be given any weight at all, for as St. Paul so famously observed, "in Christ there is no more male and female."

Categorical difficulties
Which brings me to Genesis. One of the ongoing problems with the traditional Christian view of sex and sexuality lies in the reading of Genesis 1:27 ("male and female he created them") as referring to categories of people; that is, reading the words male and female as adjectives. However, in Hebrew, they are nouns — and would likely be better translated as "a male and a female, he created them." Although the Greek translation (LXX) elides them into adjective form, the Aramaic retains the noun form, and in one of the Aramaic versions adds specific details about the couple.

It appears from the contemporary evidence that Jesus and other Jews of the Second Temple era read and understood the text in this way, as referring to a couple. The Damascus Document of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Geniza A Col. 4:19-21), for example, uses the verse from Genesis in support of its argument in favor of monogamy. The same is true of a section of a Zadokite Document (7:1-7) that is usually classed with the Old Testament pseudepigrapha or apocrypha. (It seems to me to be from the same source as the Qumran text.)

And Jesus himself, when he cites this text in his critique of divorce and remarriage (Matt 19:4-6) is also clearly referencing not some alleged complementarity that makes male and female fit together, but rather the simpler and more obvious notion that a couple join together to form a unity: he even quotes (paraphrasing the Hebrew, as do the LXX and Targumim, by adding "two") another portion of Genesis (2:24). He then nails the matter home by his own gloss, "So they are no longer two, but one flesh."

So this isn't about categories, but about the mystery of how two become one — which is, of course exactly how St. Paul deals with it in Ephesians, which is also about how two become one — the two of Jew and Gentile (2:15) in one body as well as the two of husband and wife in one flesh.

So could we please have no more of this nonsense about categorical qualities being determinative about who and what people are, at their most basic level as human beings? People are fully dimensioned with many qualities and characteristics, and indeed free — with the freedom given by their Creator — to become all that God intends for them. The Scripture may begin with Genesis, but it ends with the Revelation of the new humanity, which transcends the merely earthly categories and qualities that each of us possess. It is not our substance or our genes that matter: but our actions of love and service to one another.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

ps: Let's try a mental exercise. Surely a part of the imperative of bodily identity as male and female should be "ordered" towards what male and female exist for: sexual reproduction. So any person who fails to live out this aspect of his or her natural identity is in some way "constructing" an identity at odds with their biological destiny. So the "celibate lifestyle" is contrary to human nature.

UPDATE: You can read the full text of the address courtesy of Whispers in the Loggia. As I suspected, Benedict reads Gen 1:27 as referring to categories, not people. He's done it before, and will do it again...

December 20, 2012

Grace's Cost

Grace is not cheap. It is free. It comes as a gift, unearned, unasked for, unexpected and most of all undeserved.

He was the gift that gave it. 
He gave that gift to save us. 
That gift was costly to himself alone,
All for our sake and our salvatiòn. 
Deo Gratias.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Eve of St Thomas 2012

December 19, 2012

It's In the Cards

tsh as dr grün
Once upon a time I felt flattered to be asked to produce ID in order to order a drink or buy a bottle of spirits, wine or beer; it is now not so flattering not to be asked for ID in order to obtain a senior citizen discount...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 16, 2012

The Unheeded Warning

In spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t: a sermon for Advent 3c

Advent 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
With many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people.

Our gospel passage this morning ends with the assurance that John the Baptist proclaimed “good news” to the people. In light of recent events, we sure could all use some good news. I have to say I am heart-broken, right now, as I know many are, at the terrible tragedy that took place last week in Connecticut. But our other Scripture readings sound like good news, no doubt about it. The prophet Zephaniah urges daughter Zion and Israel to shout out and rejoice, and to make thanksgiving for the redemption of the Lord and God who is coming to rescue and restore that kingdom and that hope. God will restore their fortunes, the prophet promises; God will give them the victory of a triumphant warrior; God will rejoice over them with gladness and renew them in love, exulting over them with loud singing as on a day of festival. Fling out the banners and light the fireworks; strike up the brass band and start the parade!

Those sentiments are echoed in the First Song of Isaiah that we used as our psalmody this morning — words full of assurance that God the Savior is at work and that God’s work is trustworthy and solid. If there were a theological “Angie’s List,” this would let us know that God gets an A-triple-plus rating — God is someone you can count on.

Saint Paul continues the celebration in his Letter to the Philippians, beginning with that word that gives this Sunday its name, “Rejoice Sunday,” or as it is known in Latin, Gaudete. What we heard as our second lesson today would have been the first words you heard on this Sunday in the Western church right on up into modern times: not only an assurance of reasons to rejoice, but a command to rejoice. We follow that tradition by using these rose-colored vestments on this day — lightening up from the somber purple of the Advent season to a brighter and more cheerful hue.

+ + +

By this time these warm-up acts have got us ready for a celebration in the gospel. But what are the first words we hear from John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It seems the parade has come to a screeching halt. As if a gunman has broken into a classroom and opened fire. As if the pink of the vestments were not a celebration of life but about breast cancer awareness, awareness of that terrible disease that strikes so many; it’s as if someone in the brass band has hit a very sour note, or even worse, that a sniper has opened fire on the band, and all of the instruments have fallen silent. The towering figure of John the Baptist points with his gnarled hand at the crowds who have come out to hear him preach — like the ghost of Christmas yet to come. And if the crowd wanted something other than fire and brimstone, they are in for a surprise, for he calls them, a “brood of vipers.” And yet the Gospel goes on to say he encouraged the people with such good news. I don’t know about you, but being called a viper is not the best news I’d like to hear.

So let us look more closely at what follows that initial stern rebuke. There is good news, thank goodness. For after this powerful condemnation and threats of axes and fruitless trees being chopped down and thrown into the fire, when it gets down to brass tacks and the fate of the crowd — no doubt shivering in their sandals by that point at the prospect of what is about to be demanded of them — when the terrified crowd gets up the courage to ask what they can do to be saved, what does John tell them?

“Whoever has two coats must share with whoever has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. You tax collectors just collect the tax, and you soldiers don’t blackmail or abuse people!”

Well, if you had been there then, wouldn’t you breathe a sigh of relief at those words? After his verbal introduction and assault, John does not ask the people to do anything at all extraordinary — he doesn’t ask them to live like him out in the wilderness dressed like one of the prophets of old with a hairy mantle and a leather belt, living off locusts and wild honey. He tells them to go home and get back to work and do their jobs and live lives of honesty and fairness.

And this is really where the good news comes in — for certainly it is good news, as Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul assure us: that salvation is not something we have to do on our own for ourselves, but something that is done for us by one who is mighty to save. For surely, as Isaiah says, it is God who saves us, and we can trust in him and not be afraid.

And on top of that, John the Baptist, after that initial stern language, gives us the good news that what is asked of us is not impossible — but is really only fair and just and right: to share our resources with those who do not have — our clothing with the naked and our food with the hungry — and to do the work we have to do with honesty and without taking advantage of or abusing anyone else.

And that, my friends, is the good news — that we have been saved by God, and that what God asks of us is to love God and our neighbor.

+ + +

And wouldn’t it be lovely if people actually did. If it’s really that simple, why did the prophets have to keep proclaiming it? Why did John the Baptist have to shout at the people and greet them as a brood of vipers? Why did he have to warn them of the coming destruction and the fruitless trees and the great bonfire at the end of time, the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire that will burn up all the worthless chaff and deadwood of unproductive lives?

You know why — because in spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t. Even without the awful example of last week’s shooting, ringing in our ears, impossible to avoid as you turn on any television station at all, we know that people do not do as they ought to do. In spite of the fact that everything works so much better when everyone follows the simple rules of courtesy and fairness and generosity — just common sense — people still try to take advantage — just watch the exit ramp on any crowded highway: someone will have to create a lane of his or her own, or find a creative way to nose in at the head of the line causing everyone else to be slower. In spite of the calls for spare coats to be dropped off at the library or police station for distribution to the poor and cold, the dawning day of the Lord’s Day will find plenty of closets full of clothing that people haven’t worn in years. To my own shame I realized as I wrote these very words that there was more in my closet at home than really needed to be there; and I took that unworn second coat up to the library on Eames Place and dropped it off; how about you?

If nothing else, let this reading today be a reminder to us — to all of us — of a simple command: to check that closet when you get home and find the coat you no longer wear and bring it to the library or the precinct so it can be given to someone who will actually wear it.

We are not asked to do the impossible, my friends. We are asked to do something so easy it would be a crying shame for us to fail to do so. It would be a shame to end up crying in shame when the ax is laid to the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s good news, if we are prepared to hear it, and hearing it, act upon it. God gives us the warning; may he give us the strength to do as he commands.+

December 15, 2012

Rachel Weeps

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing.
Rachel cries for her children and will not be consoled,
because they are not.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.
A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing.
Rachel cries for her children and will not be consoled,
because they are not.

From Requiem for Children, 1980
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

MP3 File

December 12, 2012

Thought for 12.12.12

Unity is not a value to be held in spite of diversity. It is a value we hold because of diversity. If we were all the same we would not need such a value.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Being Institutionalized

Sir Tony Baldry is reported as saying, "For the Church of England, the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the distinctiveness of men and women, so removing that complementarity from the definition of marriage is to lose any social institution where sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged."

To imply that sexual difference is essential to marriage is just a circular argument for "only mixed-sex couples can marry." To say that removing sexual difference from marriage means we have to remove it from all other social institutions is to the point, though. I mean, haven't we? Shouldn't we? Is it just that marriage is the last bastion of the social shrine of sexual difference? To what end?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
h/t Thinking Anglicans

December 11, 2012

Sirens and Asparagus

It is now reported that the English Parliament, while edging towards approval of same-sex marriage, is responding to appeals by at least some in the Church of England, to make it part of the law that the Church of England (and that of Wales) be explicitly prohibited from performing such marriages.

Needless to say present law of the Church of England (and Wales) does not allow for same-sex marriages, although there has been occasional movement in that direction. It appears that some fear that if something is not forbidden it will become mandatory.

This particular "lock" or "lockout" forbidding England and Wales to perform same-sex marriages even if their governing bodies decide to do so seems a bit like our American "fiscal cliff" -- a law put in place to prevent a body from doing what it very well knows it might one day choose to do, but is unwilling to do or fearful of doing.

The fact that there seems to be a need for such an external restraint is testimony to the lack of resolve -- and the pressure for change -- within these institutions, and a sad sign of a kind of double-minded immaturity and unwillingness to deal with reality.

Odysseus bound to the mast comes to mind, knowing he has no power to resist the sirens' song, but wanting to hear it all the same, while his deaf crew row with wax-filled ears.

Of course, it also reminds me of Alice: "I'm so glad I don't like asparagus, for if I did I should have to eat it, and I can't bear it."

Is it any wonder the Church of England -- coming to resemble both of these -- lacks credibility?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 5, 2012

Jumping the Gun?

There is a press report that the Presiding Bishop has accepted Mark Lawrence's renunciation of ministry in The Episcopal Church.

While I believe that Mark Lawrence has abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church, I do not think he has renounced his ministry, at least in the manner laid out by Canon III.12.7, which requires a written declaration to the Presiding Bishop expressing a “desire to be removed.”

I think that rather than jumping the gun, and taking actions and speeches as if they met the formal requirements of the Canon, the process of dealing with the abandonment should have been followed to the letter. Lawrence's November 17 speech — and other actions — obviously do not constitute "a good faith retraction" of those things that led to the charge of abandonment, which is what he could have done in the 60-day period to reverse course. But continuing on the same course does not transform abandonment into renunciation under either the letter or spirit of the law.

Haste is not our friend.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

UPDATE: An additional problem is that “renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline or Worship of the Church” — which constitutes abandonment under Title IV — is not the same thing as “renunciation of the Ordained Ministry” under Title III. I think it is clear that Lawrence has done the former, but it is not at all clear he has done the latter — in the form set out in the Canon, that is, by a written statement to that effect. There has been no canonically formal, “You can't fire me, I quit.”

December 4, 2012


The term "Mutual Responsibility" popped up in the late 60s in Anglican circles as a way to describe how the Communion ought to work together, and it has been part of our cultural DNA ever since, right up to and including the Proposed but Not Yet Widely Adopted Anglican Covenant.  I would like to suggest that this supposedly foundational principle be unmasked for what it actually is: not a creative bit of gene therapy, but an alien virus that is ultimately harmful to the Body Ecclesiastic.

It seems to me, that beneath the mask of the high-sounding terminology works the reality of former colonialists wanting to make their former colonies (and themselves) not to feel so bad about the past and present, and pretend that "we're all equal" while knowing full well that "some are more equal than others" in terms of resources. This in part derives from the colonists' romantic (and envious) view of the emerging churches ("they have such a vibrant faith") in comparison with their own staid and stolid churches, that they feel have grown lukewarm.

Some might say I am being cynical; but this seems to cover the evidence a bit more completely than otherwise. After all, why is it that this notion emerged precisely in the era of post-colonialism if not as a part of that very movement. Who can deny that we've seen the sad results of both colonialism and post-colonialism in the secular states over the last two generations; and why should anyone assume that the church is immune from the same malady?

To test the waters, one might well ask, How can one truly be "mutually" responsible? To what extent does this "responsibility" shift from acknowledging one's own faults to the larger body, to the larger body picking out the perceived faults in the individual members — or one or two self-righteous members deciding that they can pick out the faults of everyone else? "Motes and beams" come to mind. Mutual responsibility may just end up as codependency.*

Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, seems to have been well aware of the phenomenon of one part of the church deciding what was best for another part of the church, and the tension between missionaries and those missioned. And he neatly outlined the dilemma of "mutual responsibility" in the last chapter of that document: the tension between "bearing one another's burdens" (6:2) and "all must carry their own loads." (6:5).

The answer, it seems to me, is not so much  to stress the "mutual" as the "responsibility." People ought to take responsibility for their own actions, engaging in vigorous self-critique before daring to engage in other-critique. As Paul also says, we are called to freedom, not to self-indulgence. "The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." (5:13-15) If we want anything mutual let it be mutual charity and forgiveness, coupled with responsibility to the one who actually is our judge. Not autonomy, nor neither heteronomy — but theonomy, with the knowledge that God, and God alone, is both our Judge and our Advocate.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

*From Wikipedia:

Codependency (or codependence, interdependency ) is defined as a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (as in an addiction to alcohol or heroin); and in broader terms, it refers to the dependence on the needs of or control of another. It also often involves placing a lower priority on one's own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships. Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, or control patterns. Narcissists are considered to be natural magnets for the codependent.
Does that sound familiar?