Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Month: October 2011

Doers of the Word and Students of Christ

Christ the Teacher

The Letter of James, which some scholars contend echoes the words and teaching of Jesus more than any other portion of the scriptures outside the Gospels, provides the following exhortation: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22).  This statement could well the the corollary of the intriguing comment that Jesus makes to his disciples and the crowds in the midst of today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 23:1-12):

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matt. 23:1-3).

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, James admonishes us.  Be doers of the law and not simply promulgators Jesus seems to be saying.

Both of these statements are directed at the faithful in general, but both are particularly pointed for those who are in the position of teaching the faith.  Call no one rabbi (great one or teacher) Call no one Father.  Call no one instructor.

But while they are particularly pointed for religious types–I’m often called “Father Jody” after all, the issue can be pushed.  St. Jerome dealt with the question of whether anyone could rightly be called teacher or father:

“No one should be called teacher or father except God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  He alone is the Father, because all things are from him.  He alone is the teacher, because through him are made all things and through him all things are reconciled to God.

But one might ask, “Is it against this precept when the apostle calls himself the teacher of the Gentiles?  Or when, as in colloquial speech widely found in the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, they call each other Father?” Remember this distinction.  It is one thing to be a father or teacher by nature, another to be so by generosity.  For when we call a man father and reserve the honor of his age, we may thereby be failing to honor the Author of our own lives.  One is rightly called a teacher only from his association with the true Teacher. I repeat: the fact that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption.  Similarly this does not make the terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father. (Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 4.23.10)

Jerome has touched on something important: the fact that Christians believe that Christ plays an ongoing role as our great Teacher.  One of the great classics of the early Christians centuries is entitled “Christ the Teacher” (Cyril of Alexandria), and there is a particular Iconographic depiction of Christ that bears this name as well.   You see, as one commentary puts it “Christians have only one teacher, Christ, in the sense that they are lifelong disciples of him alone.  Other teachers play a transitory role.” (The New Jerome Biblical Commentary)

The problem is when religious leaders, teachers and others forget the fact that we are all answerable to that which is greater than ourselves.  When this forgetfulness is coupled with power it leads to abuse.  As St. Chrysostom says in his commentary on this passage: “For such are all they who practice self restraint in mere words while being unforgiving and grievous to bear when they have had no experience of the difficulty in actions.  This is no small fault.  In no small way does Jesus increase the former charge. (St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 72.2)

So, we understand how it is that a person can be called “teacher” if they have association with the Teacher, that is, Christ.  But what about “Father?”

Just as St. Jerome indicates that no one should be called teacher except insofar as they have association with the Teacher, so does C.S. Lewis argue that to call a person father is only rightly done insofar as they reflect the virtues of the Father, that is God, the archetype of our virtuous and righteous actions.  Lewis was not, and most people today are not, so naive as to think that every human father actually acts in this way.  Unfortunately there is ample reason for the fact that many people have problems reflecting upon God as Father because of their relationships with their human fathers.  Recognizing that troubling reality does not prevent us from seeing in this fact a clarion call to greater virtue among human fathers–they are called to exhibit the love of God.  They are called, as we all are, to be doers of the word.

I would say that the same is true in talking of the mothering virtues as well–they are archetypical of God, who is spoken of in scripture as brooding over Jerusalem as a hen broods over her young (Psalm 91:4; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34).  This imagery is appropriated in a rather  jarring, but wonderful and effective way by Johnny Cash in his song When the Man Comes around, in the phrase, “When the Father Hen shall call his Chickens home.”

This is why Paul can use both masculine and feminine imagery in reference to his relationship with the Thessalonians.  He and his co-workers where “gentle […] like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children,” and in our lesson for today, Paul says they “dealt with each [of the Thessalonian believers] like a father with his children,urging and encouraging […] and pleading that [they] lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

Anything that is good, anything that is virtuous in humanity is good in reference to God, is good in the sense that it reveals the character, the heart, of God.  And working to share the nature of Christ is precisely what it means to be a disciple, a student.  The word is the same from which we get the term “discipline,” so to be a disciple of Christ is nothing less than to be a doer of the word, and not a hearer only.  It implies action.

So before you give anyone any sort of honor, square them up and see if they are striving to lead a virtuous and faithful life.  Are they humble before God and are they trying as best they can to love their neighbors.  Are they truly exhibiting the passion of a faithful teacher, the care of a spiritual father.  Are our mothers nurturing and our fathers supporting (recognizing that, of course, men and women can each do both of these things).  In other words are we working every day to be more and more Christ like, and reveal in a more complete way the character of the God in whose image we were created in whose presence we thrive.  This is what it means to be doers of the word.  This is what it means to always be students of Christ the Teacher.


On The Perception of Christ at the time

Sermon prep for Proper 24 (Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22).  Re-reading bits of Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower:

Still, for good or ill, as true or false, Jesus would have appeared primarily as a prophet, and as a prophet he proclaimed the imminent coming of God’s kingdom, which evidently meant, for him as for others, that God would fulfill God’s promises and vindicate God’s people (Mark 1:15, 9:1; Luke 11:20).  Naturally, such a proclamation had implications for those who held power in the present age–for masters and slave owners, for administrators and governors, for kings and emperors–since it relativized their power, declaring them accountable for their use of it.  If God reigns, then God reigns over everything, “for you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). [emphasis mine] (Bryan, 41)

Worship like it’s 1099: Tradition, Liturgy, and “Relevance” « The Curate’s Desk

The following is one in a series of ads put out by Christ Church, New Haven.  They have sparked quite the response on Facebook.  It’s interesting that I shared one of the ads and it received several “likes” mostly–though not totally–from younger folks, providing an example of the phenomenon discussed below. Check it out.

So, what is going on here?  In all, I have counted 150 or so “likes” on our page and on the pages of those that shared the ad along with lots and lots of comments.  It is rare that a piece of church media generates such a response.  It has obviously stricken a chord.

The interesting thing is that it was overwhelmingly younger folks sharing and liking the ad.  Those that expressed doubts or outright resentment were from another generation.  They seem angry that young people would find value in something they worked to undo.

via Worship like it’s 1099: Tradition, Liturgy, and “Relevance” « The Curate’s Desk.

When Harry Should Avoid Meeting Sally –

NYTStanley Fish hits on something important here: we all have our objects of “unreflective scorn,” and he’s right, I think, that meeting and knowing them makes it less possible to scorn them.  There’s a profound lesson in reflection on both of those facts.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas is a luminary who occupies such a place in my anti-pantheon. I have been throwing verbal brickbats at Habermas for years (I once even called for him to be prevented from writing anymore; I didn’t specify the means), poking academic fun at his slogans (like “ideal speech situation” and “universal pragmatics”) and trumpeting the emptiness of his program to anyone who would listen.

This means that Habermas (along with a few others I will not name) is very important to me. I feel that I couldn’t get along without him. I need him to be there. If he were taken away from me, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d have to find someone else to be the object of my unreflective scorn. And that would prove difficult, given that Habermas, or anyone else who might fill this slot, has very particular views (the ones I love to hate), and installing a disciple or a simulacrum in his place would not really be satisfying.

{Read it all: When Harry Should Avoid Meeting Sally –}

H/t: @craiguffman

GUEST COLUMN: The possibility of pluralism — faith and diversity at Vanderbilt | InsideVandy

I have to be honest: I view the push to make the leadership of every student group on a campus open to everyone–even those who do not share a commitment to the purpose of the group–as absurd.  I may write more about exactly why later on, but for now I pass along this opinion piece.  I agree with the author that such policies actually quash diversity and honest dialogue in favor of a false view of society.


The debate over Vanderbilt’s new religious life policy demonstrates how difficult it is to discuss faith without the conversation degrading into binary “us vs. them” categories — conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. nonreligious, tradition vs. individualism.  The more public the controversy, the greater the possibility of mutual demonization using these tired, increasingly irrelevant categories.

The issue presented by this policy change is whether Vanderbilt will allow student groups to ensure that their leaders share the core beliefs and purpose of the group.  This change came from the highest levels of Vanderbilt’s administration, not the Interim Director of Religious Life or the Dean of Students office. Several religious organizations, including Graduate Christian Fellowship, the ministry in which I serve, are on “provisional” status due to this policy.  Like virtually all campus religious groups, our membership is open to all students.  We merely ask that our leaders hold to our core doctrinal beliefs.

Couching this discussion as “the university vs. Christian students” is inaccurate, unhelpful, and allows the conversation to be caricatured and dismissed. Instead, this debate reflects a much more crucial question:  Do we want different communities with conflicting narratives and ideologies to be authentically represented on campus or not?

Vanderbilt’s chancellor and top leaders are in the difficult position of navigating this institution through the unpredictable currents of pluralism.  Because true diversity can be messy and contentious, the human tendency regarding pluralism is often to flatten differences and stamp out unpopular ideologies.   Irreconcilable ideologies produce conflict; conflict threatens peace.  However, the proper resolution is not to abrogate conflicting ideologies, but to learn to embody our robust particularities respectfully and intelligently.

The tragedy of removing some religious organizations from campus would not be merely the loss of religious liberty, an enormous and embarrassing loss indeed, but also the tacit admission by the administration that pluralism is not, in the end, a possibility.  It’s an admission that, at the end of the day, the university must ask student communities to surrender their particularities to guard against controversy and debate.

{Read it all: GUEST COLUMN: The possibility of pluralism — faith and diversity at Vanderbilt | InsideVandy.}

H/t: @jasoningalls

Does evil exist? Neuroscientists say no. – Slate Magazine

Augustine argued that evil is a privation of the good.  That does not simply mean that evil is simply a lack of the good, but rather, that the creation/creature has been deprived of the good that is part of the original intent.  In humanity this may mean being formed or educated away from the good.  Holding such a view of evil–that is, that it is not something independent that exerts force, but instead an absence that at a basic level results in decay and loss–means that issues such as those raised in the article below are not as difficult.  The issues relating to free will (or rather, the lack thereof) however are quite a bit more difficult to deal with from any common place perspective, religious or otherwise.

Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain?

Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general. A phenomenon attested to by a recent torrent of pop-sci brain books with titles like Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Not secret in most of these works is the disdain for metaphysical evil, which is regarded as an antiquated concept that’s done more harm than good. They argue that the time has come to replace such metaphysical terms with physical explanations—malfunctions or malformations in the brain.

Of course, people still commit innumerable bad actions, but the idea that people make conscious decisions to hurt or harm is no longer sustainable, say the new brain scientists. For one thing, there is no such thing as “free will” with which to decide to commit evil. (Like evil, free will is an antiquated concept for most.) Autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion. And thus intentional evil is impossible.

via Does evil exist? Neuroscientists say no. – Slate Magazine.

Generation XYZ: This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Morality – Danielle Tumminio – God’s Politics Blog

From being immersed in this supposedly amoral melting pot, here is what I’ve found: Brooks is right that many college-aged individuals do not have a traditional framework for tackling morality. Many are not immersed in religious traditions; few have taken ethics or philosophy courses.

That said, they are far from impotent when it comes to discussing right and wrong. First, they are deeply curious. They want to know what it means to live a good life. They want to know how to better our world. So while they may not be immersed in traditional moral frameworks, young people still invest themselves in moral questions.

Moreover, when they engage ethical questions, they have a tendency to think in incredibly creative ways because their perspectives have not been tainted by outside sources like philosophy or religion. That grants them a certain kind of innovation, though it also means they need to engage more traditional sources if they want to communicate with other generations for whom they are authoritative.

Second, as Brooks points out, young people have a tendency to be less judgmental and more empathic towards perspectives that differ from their own. This is not a bad thing. A comment like, “Who am I to judge?” shows an awareness that people do not make choices in a vacuum. They realize that violent upbringings or peaceful ones, sound school systems or dysfunctional ones, friends, money and opportunity all influence individuals. That awareness makes young adults less judgmental, but it does not make them morally illiterate. Instead, they base their beliefs in different sources, in compassion, psychology and lived experience instead of abstract thought.

Of course, it’s no surprise that young adults are crafting moral models differently than their elders when vitriol taints our moral climate.

{Read it all: Generation XYZ: This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Morality – Danielle Tumminio – God’s Politics Blog}

H/t: @frsimmons

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