Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Ordination of Women: You're Doing it Wrong

I was startled when I saw the front page of the New York Times last Saturday in a grocery store. This was the story:

More than 150 Roman Catholic priests in the United States have signed a statement in support of a fellow cleric who faces dismissal for participating in a ceremony that purported to ordain a woman as a priest, in defiance of church teaching.

The priest in question, who is ordaining women, is associated with some 300 Austrian priests who have signed "A Call to Disobedience" aimed at correcting perceived problems with the practice of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to actively participating in the ordaining of women, the controversial Call directs priests to say a public prayer every week for reform, to admit non-Catholics and divorcees to communion, to permit lay preaching, and to pursue every avenue to ordain married people (regardless of gender).

While I think some of these goals are admirable--and some deeply destructive--I am disturbed by the way that these priests have elected to go about "reform." Prior to the lamentable circumstances of the Reformation, in which the pope responded so violently to the prospect of dissent and thus precipitated schism, the Roman Catholic Church was a rich kaleidoscopic of beliefs that were allowed to coexist in Christian fraternity. With comparative rarity did disputes come to the point of one view or the other being declared heretical and condemned. When they did, the problem was solved in council and the results thereby significantly more reliable and enduring. Things have changed since then.

It is interesting that the Americans who have expressed their support for the Austrian dissidents were careful only to support their right to speak their minds. That, after all, is a right once cherished in the Catholic Church. Where the Austrian priests err, and where they warrant the just censure of the church, is when they choose to subvert normal avenues of reform and simply elect to do things the way they think they should be done (which was the ultimate mistake of Martin Luther and subsequent "reformers"). I disagree strongly with the ordination of women, but I would respect and defend anyone's right to disagree with me on that in a spirit of mutual forebearance. What disturbs me is when Christians becomes so certain in their personal, local, or regional beliefs that they would rather set up an alternate church (or in this case an alternate practice) than to work for change.

Like so many genuine reformers in the Catholic Church and elsewhere in the past, these priests would have profited from allowing the force of their arguments (and perhaps their skill in ecclesiastical maneuvering) to win the day rather than simply claiming victory by the supposed virtue of their positions. It is not as though there is a great sin being perpetrated by the existence of a male-only clergy or a Catholic-only Eucharist. The highest good may be disputed, but certainly few will contend that there is an urgency in these matters to correct grossly sinful behaviors (i.e. priest X does not sin by virtue of the fact that he is a member of a male-only clergy). The process of true reform for the better which began at the cross and continues on infinitely into eternity as we grow ever in grace and knowledge of God surely can stand for us all to take a surer and less fractious road.

Or do we not, as Christians, believe that the truth will win out regardless?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Because twice makes a tradition, this two hundredth post will be dedicated to ten memorable quotes from the previous hundred entries here.

10) J. W. McGarvey from The Wisdom of J. W. McGarvey who I was excited to find was yet another outspoken proponent of pacifism in the history of the now militaristic Churches of Christ.

I would rather, ten thousand times, be killed for refusing to fight than to fall in battle, or to come home victorious with the blood of my brethren on my hands.

9) Bill Maher from The Wisdom of Bill Maher? Don't ask why I was watching Bill Maher.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but nonviolence was kind of Jesus’ trademark, kind of his big thing. To not follow that part of it is like joining Green Peace and hating whales. There’s interpreting and then there’s just ignoring. It’s just ignoring if you’re for torture, as are more evangelical Christians than any other religion.

8) John of Sinai from Sunday of St. John of Sinai. These entries, and this quote in particular, represent the profound importance to me of Lent and the devotional struggle it entails.

The place of temptation is the place where we find ourselves having to put up a bitter fight against the enemy, and wherever we are not involved in a struggle is surely the place where the enemy is posing as a friend.

7) Gregory Akindynos from The Wisdom of Gregory Akindynos who represents a startling source from which to receive a call to intellectual restraint.

For you should have known not only how to write discourses and devise syllogisms, but also where to do this and who ought to do it and from what motives.

6) Peter of Damascus from Texts on Thanksgiving who revolutionized the way I understood and expressed gratitude toward God.

The purpose of what we say in our prayers is as follows. The thanksgiving is in recognition of our incapacity to offer thanksgiving as we should at this present moment, of our negligence in doing so at other times, and of the fact that the present moment is a gift of God's grace.

5) David Lipscomb from David Lipscomb on Zeal and Giving. In addition to being a wonderful example of the rhetorical genius and force of Lipscomb's teaching, this is still a relevant critique of the fundraising activities of modern churches.

A pure consecrated church will spread by the force of the zeal and devotion of its own members. Only a cold, lukewarm, selfish, unconsecrated church needs other devices to spread it...When the church has not zeal, devotion, self-consecration to cheerfully and gladly do the will of God, it should be taught its duty. If it refuses to do it, it would be a blessing to the world and an honor to God for it to die.

4) Ron Paul from A Memorial Day Salute to Saluting expressing the irony of the uncritical worship offered to American soldiers.

The endless praise offered to those who serve in the military--“thank you for your service” in defending the empire--is a required politically correct salutation to our “universal” soldiers. No, they never say thank you for “defending the empire”; it’s much more decent--it’s thank you for defending our freedoms, our Constitution, and for fighting “them” over there so we don’t’ have to fight them here at home. Though the wars we fight are now unconstitutional, the military is endlessly praised for defending our liberties and Constitution.

3) Katharine Hepburn (as Eleanor of Aquitaine) from The Lion in Winter offering a popular audience the kind of thinking that could revolutionize the world if it ever took hold.

How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war. Not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it, like syphilis, inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little? That's how peace begins.

2) Panayiotis Nellas from Christ and True Ontology. Nellas gives so much meat to theological thinking; this is only an example.

Man finds his existence and being in Christ. Before and outside Christ, his being is a being-unto-Christ. And when it is not oriented towards Christ--when, to be more precise, it is defined in freedom and consciousness independently of Christ--then it is a being-unto-death, as Heidegger called it, quite correctly according to his own perspective. United with Christ, the iconic biological being of man becomes a true being-in-Christ. In Christ, man finds his true ontological content.

1) Petru Dumitriu from The Wisdom of Petru Dumitriu. Having first encountered Dumitriu over two years ago and too quickly abandoned him out of necessity, his word have nevertheless haunted me. They echo my own acute awareness of the absurdity of everything especially God and existence, all the while being expressed in faith.

Finally, to reduce all these questions to one: how can one love God when he obviously does not exist? And -- putting the same question in a different way -- how can one love human beings, when they are as they are, and when there is no God?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Wisdom of J. W. McGarvey

"I would rather, ten thousand times, be killed for refusing to fight than to fall in battle, or to come home victorious with the blood of my brethren on my hands."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Call to Arms

Graduate education is a form of spiritual warfare, an immense and immensely violent striving for recognition from one’s superiors, distinctions from one’s peers, and foundationally and ultimately formal qualification. It instills in the student a take no prisoners mentality because of the unremitting totality of the enterprise. To succeed is to lay hold of a great and elusive prize that is a permanent tangible reminder of the student’s value; to fail is to have inadequacy as a permanent brand on one’s self-image. The academy’s expectations pale in comparison to the professor’s expectations, and these in turn melt away beneath the weight of the expectations that students impute to both. It all amounts to a goal which is so apparently unattainable that it cries out to be sought with militaristic determination, in the unrepentant, unyielding haze of bloodlust.

The real of trick of the enemy, however, is to convince students that they are one another’s enemies on the academic battlefield. Thus, the student seeks to whet the scholarly appetite at the throat of his or her peers, and disputation is the native language learned in academic infancy. Curiosity is thinly veiled reconnaissance in which the competition is sized up, their shortcomings noted in a tactical ledger for future reference. Debate is a form of guerilla warfare where the student attacks mercilessly at the first sign of weakness and retreats again at the first glimmer of strength. These “mock” battles are rehearsed in private and acted out on grander and grander scales before professors as if by players on a stage. At the end, all eyes turn longingly to the judgment seat for some indication of who might have emerged victorious from the day’s fray.

But professors and the institutions they represent are neither a theater audience nor great adjudicators. They are lone watchmen standing before the gateway to student aspirations. What they lack in force of numbers they make up for in cunning, allowing or encouraging the deceit that students are at war among themselves. They placidly watch as students beat each other into weariness and then beg to have the prize handed to them, all the while delighting in the secret irony that the truly gifted students would realize that they have the collective power to storm the gate and take their prize by force.

A more reflective, more self-aware student body would spend less time emulating a knightly tournament and more time laying siege to academia, the stone keep with its rich storehouse of prestige and vocational security. Clarity of vision, mutual forbearance, and the combined force of a phalanx of intellects fresher and more virile than those who would oppose them, these would characterize the struggle for the unattainable goal. Then when the fortress had been razed and its keepers inevitably brushed aside, the new academy, perhaps even a stronger academy, could be constructed inviting a new, perhaps stronger, generation of students to storm its walls and take what is theirs by right of force and determination.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Psychology of Unity

B. J. Humble’s article “The Influence of the Civil War” examines the role the Civil War played in precipitating the eventual division of the Stone-Campbell Movement into the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ. Traditional historiography with its hagiographical bent painted the movement’s post-war unity as an anomaly on the American religious landscape. Humble, however, probes beneath the surface in line with more recent revisions in the traditional approach. He examines the rhetoric of the anti-society Disciples before the outbreak of the war and after. Tolbert Fanning is a noteworthy example, as a prominent even the premier voice of the Disciples in the South. Before the war he was opposed to the missionary society but professed spiritual unity with its members nonetheless. What changed after the war for Fanning, and for many of the anti-society Disciples in the South, was not the stance toward American Christian Missionary Society itself but a subtler shift in the way that opposition manifested itself. Fanning wrote later of the pro-society Disciples in the North: “Should we ever meet them in the flesh, can we fraternize with them as brethren?” He shifted from calling the members of the Society “brothers” to referring to them as “monsters in intention, if not in very deed.”

Fanning’s behavior and Humble’s observations have interesting implications for understanding the nature of division. It is notable that an issue which existed before and after the war should be treated so radically differently over time. The doctrinal reasons for opposing missionary societies had not changed, but the issue suddenly became so divisive that it became a lightning rod for splitting a movement that had not even a generation earlier come together for the common purpose of Christianity unity. The relevant change came when an issue of doctrinal opinion took on personal overtones.

Of course that is an oversimplification. It is equally true that the issue of missionary societies had not fully come to a head until after the Civil War. Certainly the actions of the American Christian Missionary Society during the war had confirmed many of the fears of anti-society Christians that were merely theoretical prior to the war. The political endorsement of the union by the Society—which in the South amounted to a wholesale endorsement of war, tyranny, and the slaughter of Christians—could only reinforce and intensify anti-society sentiments wherever they already existed. More importantly still, the issue of missionary societies should not be isolated as the sole cause of division. The factors were multiple and complex.

It is nevertheless telling how radically the Civil War and the personal animosity it engendered altered the way doctrinal heterogeneity was treated. Gregory E. McKinzie, in his article “Barton Stone’s Unorthodox Christology,” recounts the early Christological controversy that threatened the proposed unity of Stone’s and Campbell’s movements. These two great fathers of the movement differed publicly and vocally on so basic and critical an issue as whether or not Jesus was God. Campbell published an article in response to Stone in which he stated “I fraternize with [Stone] as I do with the Calvinist. Neither of their theories are worth one hour…” Stone responded that if Campbell only called brothers those who, in Campbell’s words, “supremely venerate, and unequivocally worship the King my Lord and Master” then Stone was not his brother at all. Yet in spite of this strong rhetoric, the two men were architects of a unity between their two movements on the grounds that Bible-based unity transcended metaphysical uniformity.

Yet the same movement which united in spite of foundational theological difference split in the wake of the Civil War because significantly less dramatic doctrinal differences took on the character of personal loyalties. There a sense in which most Christian division can be reduced to this basic human flaw. I refer here not to functional division but spiritual division, since obviously a body of believers who believe it is a sin to have a kitchen in a church building cannot flourish shackled (at least architecturally) to a body of believers who meet in a building with a kitchen. The watershed, however, between this functional division and a true spiritual rupture comes when people begin to associate their doctrinal beliefs, no matter how strongly held, with their identity. Then, a dispute over personal opinions becomes a dispute between persons. It is the difference between a Tolbert Fanning who can attend a meeting of the American Christian Missionary Society and call its members his brothers and a Tolbert Fanning who calls a sectional meeting in the South and demands repentance from the “monsters” in the North.

It is interesting to note how frequently unity is sought through ever more distilled doctrinal confessions, with mixed results. From the Nicene Creed to the Restorationist “no creed but the Bible” to modern moves like paleo-orthodoxy, Christians hope desperately to achieve some semblance of Christian harmony by codifying from without what it means to be a Christian. Instead, it might be fruitful to consider that perhaps unity begins not at the level of doctrine but at the level of human psychology. The seed is planted when I identify as a Christian and only a Christian in a way that ultimately defies logical formulation because it consists in the mysterious working of Christ in me. Then, I recognize that I am a Christian definitionally and a Restorationist only incidentally. Then, recognizing that truth exists and warrants our faithful and diligent pursuit, you and I may work out our salvation with fear and trembling and tension and dispute and study and prayer and, most importantly of all, a Spirit of unity that vivifies all our collective efforts.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Dear John Letter to Uncle Sam

Dear Sam,

I don’t know of any easy way to say this, but it’s over between us. I think we have both known it for a long time and just didn’t want to admit it to ourselves. We’ve been growing apart for years and the time has finally come to say goodbye. I would like to say that it’s not you, it’s me, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

Sure, I’m young and idealistic; my expectations may not be realistic. I want someone who can keep his promises to me, someone who is always faithful not by happenstance but by nature. I need safety that isn’t transient and superficial, security that doesn’t understand economic crisis or “imminent” threats to “national security.” I need someone who has principles that run deeper than campaign promises and political expediency. I believe that there is someone out there like that. Someone who promises justice and delivers more than a reasonably high rate of accuracy for convictions and executions. Someone who doesn’t confuse liberty with libertinism. Someone who seeks peace through means other than bribery and intimidation. Someone like that.

As for you, I just don’t feel the same way about you that I did when I was young and na├»ve. I find that I am no longer willing to stand up and pray to your star spangled god. I am no longer content to sign my name to the roll and wait for you to call on me to rise up and kill, to lie down and die for oil or for land, for a confused notion of right or a vague and misplaced specter of exceptionalism, and certainly not for an innate sense of duty that I neither feel myself nor understand in others.

I know what you’re going to say. I’m just displaying the ignorance of my youth. Look at the sacrifices you’ve made for me. Look at how much better my life is with you in it. Look at the joy, the freedom, the strength, the protection that you provide. I’m not buying it. You’ve told those lies to others before me and you’ll get still more after me to believe them. But not me. I’ve outgrown you or, perhaps more accurately, outwitted you. I know that for you strength is synonymous with violence. I know that when you say protection you mean from other people just like you, weaker maybe but fundamentally no different. I know that for you freedom includes freedom for you to whore yourself out to every corrupt behavior and ideology that you can rationalize. I won’t buy into the lie that to be a good person, a good citizen, a good Christian means to surrender myself to you wholesale and slip silently into a fog of materialism, militarism, republicanism, pluralism, capitalism, and jingoism.

So you’ll excuse me if I don’t show up at your birthday party. I’m not sure if I know what there is to celebrate. Of course, you’ll see me around from time to time, and I’ll have things to say to you as a curious bystander might. Any time I come across something that belongs to you, I’ll gladly send it your way, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re welcome to ignore me altogether. I will, of course, be praying for you, but not the way I might pray for a parent or a spouse or even a brother or sister. I’ll pray for you the way a china shop might pray for a bull. With a little luck and divine intervention, you may do as little damage as possible, given what you are.

Respectfully (but not regretfully),
The Itinerant Mind

Friday, July 1, 2011

David Lipscomb on Zeal and Giving

Here is a thought from David Lipscomb's 1886 article "Equality in Giving (2 Cor. 8:13)" which ought to have significance both for miserly congregants and preachers who dedicate yearly, monthly, or even weekly lessons to the subject of giving.

God intends his church to prosper only as it is pure, ad all efforts to force a prosperity without corresponding consecration of hearts, lives and means to the service of God, is contrary to the will and provisions of God. Hence the effort to raise means and force a prosperity and increase that does not grow out of an earnest, self-sacrificing devotion on the part of its members, corrupts the church yet more and more and is a curse and not a blessing to the world. To spread a lukewarm, selfish, unconsecrated church is a curse rather than a blessing to the world, and is a dishonor and not an honor to God.

A pure consecrated church will spread by the force of the zeal and devotion of its own members. Only a cold, lukewarm, selfish, unconsecrated church needs other devices to spread it...When the church has not zeal, devotion, self-consecration to cheerfully and gladly do the will of God, it should be taught its duty. If it refuses to do it, it would be a blessing to the world and an honor to God for it to die.