Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jefferts Schori and individual salvation

In her opening address to our General Convention this year our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, took the American church to task for teaching the "heresy" if individual salvation. It raises questions about her theology of salvation. Does she mean to say that one does not have to have a personal relationship with God in order to be saved? What about all the verses in the Gospel of John that make an individual response to grace essential to salvation? Is she just wiring around that Gospel?

The definition of a heretic is not one who believes entirely differently from oneself. A heretic is one who teaches part of the orthodox truth of a religion and part that is not, claiming to be of the faith, yet not really being so. Equally, every heresy is half a truth that hides half a lie. Perhaps this is the issue our Presiding Bishop is addressing. If so, then I agree with her wholeheartedly.

The half a truth is that a personal response to grace is essential. The half a lie is that this is ALL that is necessary. We in our individualistic culture are quick to emphasize the individual response, but slow to recognize the need for community. How many people do you know who claim to have faith in the Christian God, but are unwilling to be part of a Christian community of faith?

Let me illustrate my line of thought. On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto to the status of "dwarf planet," along with 43 other such bodies known to science. Officially our solar system no longer has nine planets, but eight. That was not the decision of one scientist, but on a multi-year program to establish a usable definition of what constitutes a planet. When the definition passed Pluto no longer qualified. Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C. says of this new definition, "I think this will stand the test of time." But you see that the decision was made by an officially recognized community of specialists in the area, not by the whims of one person. Science seems to know what religion has forgotten in our country, that we know what we know about God in community.

In a delightful children's poem about six blind men who go to see the elephant, each one is described as categorizing the whole animal in terms of only the part that they happen to experience. They fall to arguing with one another about the elephant, when each is partly right and all are wrong. The allusion is made to theology, where the God we seek to describe is beyond the comprehension of every one of us, yet known in relationship by all of us. As we humbly share our walks with God we expand our collective knowledge of Him. Individual response to grace is essential for this, but so is community. What is more, the person who exercises their faith only on the individual level finds himself locked in the prison of his own subjectivity, with no correction for errors. In the same Gospel of John that speaks so frequently about individual response to grace, Jesus talks clearly about flocks, not individual sheep. The lone sheep is wolf-bait. The lone theologian will sooner or later become the heretic. To imagine that we can go it alone is to fall into the heresy of our age. If this is what she meant then I agree with the Presiding Bishop.

GeneralConvention, Resolution DO25

General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed Resolution DO25, which describes our church as one for whom the doors to the path to ordination are open to all. It is seen by many as a repeal of BO33, an 11th hour resolution of the last General Convention that called upon the church to exercise restraint in ordaining people whose manner of life would be a hindrance to the wider church. BO33 was passed to comply with the Windsor Report's call for a moratorium on ordination of non-celibate homosexual people, and DO25 affirms that indeed we are ordaining partnered homosexual people. Those who wish our church would open its doors to partnered homosexual people in ordained ministry see it as a victory, those who oppose it generally see it as a defeat.

Our bishop, Andy Doyle, voted against the resolution, and if I had been there I would have as well. Both he and our whole delegation from the Diocese of Texas see the resolution as descriptive rather than prescriptive (see his blog at such that it requires no changes in our policy in the Diocese of Texas. Personally, I can't see the use of a descriptive resolution. Besides, my position on human sexuality agrees with the resolutions of Lambeth 1998, that reaffirm that human sexuality is only approved of in the church in the context of monogomous heterosexual marriage. But I say this in full awareness that others believe differently whose hearts are just as sincere and whose minds are just as informed. I also know that, just as the position of those who disagree stirs pain in me, my position stirs pain in them. It goes without saying that this is the big divisive point in the church, not just the Episcopal church, but all Mainline denominations.

Many are quoting Jesus' commands to unity in John 17. Many people are naming the side of the divide to which they do not ascribe as the one to blame for our divisions, which is, frankly, quite silly. Everyone knows, after all, that there would be no divisions if everyone agreed with me! It does no good to claim that Jesus agrees with me. Everyone claims that. In the long run, what one person believes is the teaching of Jesus is nothing more than what that person believes is the teaching of Jesus. Each person is locked in the prison of their own subjectivity until they enter into dialog with others. The issue is how wide a community to enter dialog with, and there's the rub. The upshot? When church unity is conceived of primarily in theological terms Jesus' idea of unity seems discouragingly elusive.

Many years ago I was read a poem about the centipede. Someone by chance asked the bug how he kept all his legs in order, how he didn't trip up. The question reduced the poor little animal to immobility, "lying in the gutter, wondering how to run!" Perhaps the unity Jesus commands is not something you achieve by trying to create it, but something you discover when you obey His other commands. Like someone learning how to drive cannot stay in the middle of the road by looking at the sides, but rather straight ahead, maybe Jesus' idea of unity is something we find we have when we capitalize on those myriad things we have in common and focus on what He gave us to do,which is to share His love with the world. In the final analysis, if we stand shoulder-to-shoulder serving food at a soup kitchen, or handing out medicines to the sick of Honduras, or pounding nails into a Habitat for Humanity house, our theological differences will be of precious little import.

So I say, let's stop worrying about unity or division. Let's stop talking about it. We've talked it to death and it's got us nowhere. Let's focus instead on showing God's love to one another rather than being shown it, on serving Christ in the world rather than being served, and on learning and sharing rather than teaching and knowing.