Monday, June 30, 2008

Why Do People Genuflect?

The practice of genuflection, or bowing on one knee, typically the right, is not as old as some might suppose. Traditionally, it dates back to the 16th Century, at about the time of the Protestant Reformation. It signifies humility and self-abasement in the presence of the Real Host. Faithful Catholics and members of the Anglican Communion genuflect when in the presence of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, although genuflection may have ties to the secular practice of physical obeisance before earthly lords and kings.

Yet we might place genuflection in a much longer tradition of physically arranging the body during prayer. This practice dates back certainly to the very early church and even to the Old Testament, when people occasionally kneel in prayer. This would contrast with the standard Jewish position of standing to pray, and was used to express a particularly fervent or heartfelt petition. By the fourth or fifth century, kneeling had become the posture of private Christian prayer, while standing remained the norm for public and corporate petitions before God.

Modern genuflection might then represent the presence of individual piety in the midst of common faith. We hold nothing more personal than our bodies, and moving them in response to the presence of the broken body of Christ, and in reply to the words that affirm his physical sacrifice, symbolically connects us to Christ's emptying of self in this world and upon the cross- whether we bow on one knee, or two, or in the Eastern fashion prostrate ourselves entirely.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Was Buddha Fat or Skinny?

Simply put, the answer is yes-just not in the way you think. The fat Buddhas you see in restaurants are importations from Chinese folklore, sometimes by way of the Japanese. They depict the Chinese monk Pu-Tai, or Hotei in Japan. He was a monk who wandered the Chinese countryside, known for his generosity and vision; he may or may not be a conflation with the Chinese god of prosperity, luck, and happiness.

The size of the fat Buddha's belly represents his great spirit of generosity and perhaps compassion; his belly holds "many souls." Due to its connection with physical sustenance and pregnancy, in many religions, the belly is an important center of spiritual power. The belly is often seen as the truest center of a person, and rubbing the Buddha's belly can often bring luck- even fertility.

However, this Buddha has no physical connection with Gautama or Siddhartha Buddha, the historical Buddha and founder of Buddhism. They were different people. The common misconception that the Buddha became fat and prosperous after renouncing the ascetic paths of fasting and self-denial seems unlikely. The historical Buddha insisted on a middle path in this regard, renouncing both the Hindu asceticism and the hedonism and self-indulgence of the nobility. He had lived both of these ways, and rejected them after reaching enlightenment, preaching instead practical moderation and restraint in all things.

Beyond this level of description, however, the issues of identity in Buddhist thinking become more complex. First, there is the Buddhist teaching that all are one- novices in Buddhist monasteries are often pointed to statues of the Buddha (fat and skinny and muscled and varied in many other ways) and told "that's you." So in this way, regardless of their physical and historical distinctions, the fat and skinny manifestations of Buddha do represent the same spirit, if not the same person: one of the many distinctions not as clear in Eastern thought as in the West.

Furthermore, some sects of Buddhism believe in past, present and future Buddhas- with the future Buddha being the more rotund. Not only are these one in the sense that all people are one, but also in the sense that Buddha can have more than one manifestation; they are the same Buddha, the same Enlightened One. Given that anyone can achieve enlightenment, the potential number of Buddhas is infinite.

Or one, depending on your perspective.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Old School: John Jacob Faude

"And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead. And he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there, he would be there..."

The Reverend John Jacob Faude became Gethsemane's third rector on January 1, 1890, the very day that the former rector attained the Bishopric. He oversaw further remodeling of the church. This included seats added in the south aisle, the installation of the "Gethsemane" chancel window, and a memorial pulpit. Faude also oversaw measures to protect the building proper, including wire screens to protect the stained glass, a storm porch over the Fourth Avenue entrance, and an iron fence to guard the front grass.

Not that Faude's ministry was purely material. The church also gained a permanent kindergarten school in this period, the Women's Guild and Women's Auxiliary, and a men's parish club. Other organizations formed under Faude's hand included a chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew (an organization incorporated by Congress), the Daughters of the King and the younger Daughters of St. Agnes, and a Girl's Guide that made clothing for the hospital and orphanage Gethsemane had previously begun. Further, Faude established the St. Thomas mission for black people by 1894 and began the long-running "Parish Visitor," the
newsletter that kept the parish informed.

In 1895, Gethsemane hosted the first General Convention of the church held west of the Mississippi, to overwhelming success- a moment that marked Gethsemane's tradition of hospitality. This was further carried out by renting the church for various functions, the funds from which helped pay for the long-delayed parish house- and the rector's back salary.

On April 2, 1901, the Reverend died of typhoid fever and appendicitis. The Alter Guild dedicated the new altar to him, in remembrance of his leadership and ecclesiastical, canonical, and parliamentary knowledge. He guided the church through difficult economic times, and his determination to organize and order the parish doubtless led to his most noted contributions.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cliff Notes: Circumscription of the Topic

With the second lecture, James narrows the scope of his inquiry still farther in The Varities of Religious Experience. Now having honed in on the type of individuals he will analyze, he defines the actual experiences one might call religious. For him, religion famously means "the acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider divine."

So, again, he will set aside the most common experiences of religion and the most common defintions of religious experience as ritual or collective rite. He notes that the personal experiences of religious founders must predate the traditions they establish; the only exception to this would be the fetishism and magic worship of our remote (pagan) ancestors, about whom so little is known as to be almost entirely useless.

So these will be purely individual encounters between man and divine- but what of the divine? James denotes this as any object that is godlike, whether a deity or not. This allows for a broader sweep of spectrum than most definitions: it would include Transcendentalism as well as Christianity, Deism as well as Judaism.

Yet it would not include the ethical, however robust the moral code or just feeling. James notes the difference between the stoic acceptance of truth that seems to be the most that the irreligious can posit. He contrasts this with the glad and joyous acceptance of one's state present in most Christian religious genius.

As James himself says, "Here religion comes to our rescue. There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cliff Notes: The Varieties of Religious Experience

The American psychologist and philosopher William James penned the classic The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, establishing a uniquely scientific and charitable method of thinking about religion.

Originally delivered as a series of the renowned Gifford lectures, the chapters of the Varieties examine the lives of more than two hundred believers who had known profound religious transformation. Few other works have so quickly become canon for both psychology and philosophy, and the text was crucial to James’s developing Pragmatism, America’s sole contribution to formal philosophy. It is still in print today, more than 100 years later.

Focusing on individual experience and respectfully analyzing common themes and elements in believer’s own powerful words, James changed the way generations of scholars and Christians alike have thought about the elements of faith.

Join me over the next few weeks at Curious Monk, as I walk through this modern classic. Tonight I address James’s own introductory remarks.

James begins the Varieties by insisting that his own approach to examining religion has been and will be reliant on the literature of individual believers. This is opposed to what would have been more common approaches to examining faith via physiology, as connected to upsets of digestion or organs (persons in extremis).

He also asserts that he will be disregarding the faith of most believers, who practiced a hereditary and cultural form of faith, a second-hand religion that would reveal little about transformative psychological experience. Rather, he will focus on “religious geniuses,” those relatively few believers who have had profound experiences of faith, and who could relate those phenomena articulately.

That these individuals have also often been linked to psychological neuroses does not bother James at all, as he dismisses “medical materialism,” the belief that the factuality of physical causes bears direct relation to the value of its result. That is, hallucinations produced by hunger, in James’ estimation, would be no less valid, and would relate no less truth, than those explained in other ways. Biology does not dismiss religion, in James’s view.

Rather, he pursues precisely those individuals otherwise aberrant, first, because psychological aberration can illuminate psychological normalcy, and second, because those people who have been profoundly and strangely transformed by religion have been precisely the ones to contribute the most to it.

This is true most famously in the case of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers; in the 1600’s Fox famously decried the bloody town of Lichfield without knowing until much later that 1000 Christians had been martyred there under the Roman Empire. Fox believed he had been led by Spirit to make the prophecy.

This is precisely the sort of man, and the sort of experience, that The Varieties has in mind.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Was Jesus fathered by a Roman soldier? Through rape?

Some eternally seem to wish to think so. The notion seems to come up every Christmas. And the point has its merits. Christ incarnates the Father's love for humanity, and in so doing Christ reverses the expectations of the world. The high will be brought low, and the poor will become rich. That the salvation of the world could come through a rape victim and her child could have a certain appeal. It would certainly reverse the stigmas commonly afflicted upon the victims of heinous acts.

However, there is no basis for a claim. The thinking that leads to this almost always presupposes that a virgin birth could not have happened. If this is so, then we can look for other ways in which the texts relating to the nativity depart from history. When we see that they do, we can assert that the story of a miraculous birth is likewise a retrospective gloss over a more common and brutal fact. It is the kind of thinking that humans do nearly every day. We fudge the details, we repaint the facts in a certain light- usually in ways that are more or less self-serving. Mary's innocence of willful participation in a premarital sexual affair thus become Mary's willing service of God and, for Catholics, innocence of sin altogether.

The nativity could thus be a mytholization of balder historical facts. The same suspicion guides the search for scientific explanations for the biblical Exodus and the plagues that came before it.

Of course, by the standards of traditional Christianity, neither explanation excludes the other. Scripture and tradition are both clear that God uses history itself as allegory- according to a scriptural worldview, the bald, scientific or historical facts, no matter what they were, would themselves be less significant than the spiritual realities they signified. The virgin birth as such (or not), can certainly be of no more import than the Father's recognition of his Son at baptism, or Christ's continuous submission to his Father's will.

Furthermore, the very concern driving this, the concern over what can and cannot be a miracle, would be quite different in the context in which the scriptures were written. We moderns often understand miracles as a breaking through, or a transformation of, the natural laws that govern the universe. Yet the ancients lacked our awareness of natural principles. They do not pause once while telling of Egyptian magicians going toe-to-toe with the Supreme Being for several rounds of serious plague- making.

Still, the ancient peoples insisted on miracles: as signs pointing to the power and fidelity of God. This is the point of unnatural narratives: the realities of the Judeo-Christian God subvert and overwhelm the realities of opposing kingdoms. Within the Christian faith, there can be no doubt that the birth of Christ was certainly this. As was the rest of his life.

And for non-believers? In the absence of historical evidence outside of scripture, one fails to imagine what non-believers would do with the Virgin Birth at all, or why they could care to. Having dismissed our only functional sources, and not accepting the Christian witness to Christ's life as a whole, there seems a lack of sensible things to say on his humble beginning.

Of course, that sort of thinking fails to sell books. And it's nice to sell books.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Editorial: The Wikicreedia Project

Due to the flurry of questions Curious Monk has received about last week's proposal, it seems appropriate to publicly answer a few of the more commonly asked questions. This should alleviate any concerns about the aims and methods of the project. Curious Monk appreciates your interest.

Q: What is Wikicreedia?
A: The Wikicreedia Project is an idea whose time has come. Wikicreedia is a concise, on-line formulation of the common beliefs of 21st century Christians. Clergy and laity alike will collaborate to produce this document via the same interactive technology that allows Wikicreedia- its more famous cousin- to grow with its audience. Wikicreedia is entirely user-generated, meaning that it depends on no one authority for its content: only you. Over a period of four years- the same period of the original Nicean council, and with equally thorough and informed debate- willing Christians of every stripe will articulate the beliefs they hold against the deceptions and distortions of our time. At the close of four years, discussions will culminate with the rolling out of a creed written for our age- and hopefully many ages to come.

Q: What's wrong with the creeds that we already have?
A: There are no errors in our current creeds. However, nearly 2000 years of history have substantially changed the world and its people: believers and non-believers alike. It makes sense that the intellectual vessels of Christian faith- the dogmas and doctrines that we agree to- will have changed as well. To endlessly repreat the precise words, no matter how wise, that those before us spoke is to fail to grow as a body and to be potentially unprepared for the return of Christ. Our growing concerns for human rights and for the world we inhabit are but a few of the situations the church fathers could not have anticipated. It is our task to address them, for ourselves and future generations.

Q: So you want to replace the creeds?
A: Not at all. The body of believers, having formulated the new creed, will makes whatever use of it we choose, including possibly none whatsoever. As an article of faith, the new creed would be intended to stand alongside those that have come before.

Q: But isn't this heretical?
A: The original creeds were written to unite the original communities of Christians across fervent divisions of belief. It seems difficult to imagine how a testament to this first venture would produce very different results. But no matter the creedal content produced, the full body of believers cannot witness against itself. By affirming what we actually have in common, the new creed would in fact illuminate as such the many distortions currently mascarading as traditional belief.

Q: So where is this?
A: Wikicreedia as such does not exist yet. Curious Monk will be certain that you know when and where it does. But the larger project- the discussion about the lies of our age, the yearning to mutually discover and share the truth of the times- that is already in the hearts and minds of many believers.

Q: So how would this all happen?
A: Much has yet to be decided, and the Wikicreedia Project needs all the help and life you can give it. But all change starts locally, and religous transformation is no exception. A committee of commited Episcopal clergy and laity might do well to get Wikicreedia off its feet by formulating the key issues to be address. Then Wikicreedia might roll out across local Protestant denominations in its early formulation, then tap into regional and national conversations as its audience- and authorship- grows until finally joining with international Catholic and Orthodox concerns. Obviously, the task is large. But we can start quite small.

Q: Cmon, could all this actually happen?
A: As said before, the time for Wikicreedia has come. Christianity is undergoing stress and strain probably not felt since the Reformation. The Christian faith will change whether or not we want it to. But if we want it to change in this particular way, toward unity and common feeling and common ground and common hope, there's quite possibly nothing that could stop it.

Thank you.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Were the First Christian Baptisms Done Nude?

It seems likely. Since Christ was almost certainly crucified naked, and since early Christians saw baptism as symbolic death and rebirth, it is quite probable that at least some Christians were baptized naked. Notes Reformed theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony:

"This same aspect, rebirth, led to an interesting custom which survived for some centuries as basic to baptism, namely, baptism, usually by immersion, in the nude... The emphasis on death and rebirth led to a stress on immersion as symbolically representative of this fact. Men were born naked; hence, they were reborn naked in baptism. No works of the unregenerate man could be carried into heaven; therefore, the candidate symbolically stripped himself of all clothing to indicate that he had nothing save God's grace. There were two baptistries thus in churches for some generations, since men and women were baptized separately....This practice of naked baptism indicates how seriously the Biblical symbolism was taken by the early church."

The notion is not without its skeptics, however. According to Lurie Guy in the June 2003 issue of
the Journal of Religious History:

"Baptism was understood as a radical life-changing act in the early church. Its radical nature was reflected by it being administered to candidates, male and female, who were apparently naked. The issue of nakedness must, however, be re-examined in view of the fact that baptism was normally administered by male clergy and Judeo-Christian modesty would not likely allow a religious practice where female nakedness was exposed to male gaze. This makes it unlikely that male clergy did in fact baptize naked women. The article notes that the term gymnos, used for nakedness, had a much wider usage than its English equivalent and might simply point to divestiture of outer garments only."

Yet the artwork of the earliest Christian catacombs clearly depicts nude Christians being ritually immersed in water, and nudity as a whole has been a recurrent them in Christian art. The idea must have come from somewhere. And though many of these later depictions equate nakedness with the Old Testament theme of shame, the same divestiture can have precisely the opposite connotation: the innocence of the first humans in Eden.

Since the early church emphasized Christ's stark reversal of human ills- sin to sanctity, death to life, old man to new, sinful flesh to spiritual body- the early Christian communities would have gravitated toward precisely the sort of simple, dramatic symbolism that naked baptism would have provided. Their Judaic aversion to nudity in the sight of others would only have been present only to the degree to which it was not overcome by the Hellinizing aspects of Roman rule, and baptism divided by sex would have ameliorated the most obvious concerns.

Moreover, given the multiplicity of practices amidst the early Christianities, and the difficulties in uniting the separate communities of faith of diverse practices, it does seem likely that some, if not most, of the first Christians were baptized without under- or overgarments.

And to think, the great Christian debate about Baptism came to be how much water was involved.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Old School: Reverend Anson Graves

"And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead. And he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there, he would be there..."

No Country for Old Men

The Reverend Anson Graves, Gethsemane's second rector, began life as a farm boy in Burlington, Vermont. Arriving in September, 1884, he oversaw the final moving plans, including installing the new organ and organizing a new choir. Despite his insistence that the new church remain free seating, the architect designed several plats for paying members. However, overall Graves saw to the consolidation of the ambitious church work begun by Knickerbaker. He sold all the old property, but the new debt still overcame the resulting monies, and the parish rented a house for him until the rectory could be built. However, he resigned to become Bishop of the Missionary Jurisdiction of the Platte.

He was installed in that office January the First, 1890.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Old School: David Buel Knickerbacker

"And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there-" No Country for Old Men

Half of the arrogance of the current age, I would guess, it the nervous apprehension that we are unique in virtually everything we do- just us in the whole darn world. If that's so, then the other alienating idiocy we have is that we're the first to do it, not just now, but ever- first people to ever think or do anything in particular.

It surprises me that we could believe such things, but there you are.

With the second of those two errors in mind, I'm starting a new series, profiling those great men (unfortunately, no great women are noted) who came before us to Gethsemane and made a place. We are shaped by the places we inhabit, whether we come to them by choice or not. In that way, they have been prepared specifically for us. These are the men who paved the way.

David Buel Knickerbocker was elected rector of Gethsemane after its initial split from the parish of Holy Trinity in 1857. He had been a missionary to that parish and to the newly begun Church of the Ascension that later became Gethsemane; rectoring, however, meant that he could focus solely on Gethsemane.

Before the year was out, the parish was self-sustaining and adopted the Free Church principal, which meant that all seating was free. The people "had a mind to work" and came together under that principal. The Ladies Aid and Missionary Society travelled throughout the city with his oversight, welcoming newcomers, caring for the sick, and bringing children to Sunday School.

Eleven years later, the Young Workers and the Brotherhood of Gethsemane reached out with missionary zeal throughout Minneapolis, serving the Indians on the river near Fort Snelling. They also became lay readers at outlaying mission posts- a special project which flourished under Knickerbacker.

By 1859, within just two years, the parish had added ten new families. In 1860, a parish school opened to teach young people rudimentary music and catechism and the prayer book. By 1862, the church had grown to 175 members, and had to expand the building in 1865 to seat 350 people.

Throughout this rapid expansion, Knickerbacker never forgot his missionary purpose. He travelled widely and never stopped seeding new churches in unity. Despite an offer from the Seabury School in Faribult, the vestry encouraged him to remain longer, as he eventually did- although by this time he had established so many churches- including one at the local jail- that he could not himself serve them all. Upon his decision to remain, together with the Ladies and the Brotherhood, Knickerbacker began and ran the "Cottage Hospital" - the first hospital in Minneapolis.

Knickerbacker was also an able fundraiser, beginning an envelope collection within the parish and frequently requesting the aid of his brother Masons and the business community. With his help, Gethsemane was able to: enlarge the hospital not once, but twice; maintain a mission to the Indians in Mendota; carpeted the church and installed a new organ; established "Sheltering Arms," the city's first orphanage; and finally, by 1883, moved the expanded church to its new lots at Fourth and Ninth.

Two months after the cornerstone was laid, Knickerbacker resigned, to become the Bishop of Indiana. The congregation, at last, accepted his resignation. He had served for twenty-seven years, declined several loftier positions, and worked for periods entirely without pay- having been involved and active in every aspect of parish life.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

What Is the Latter Day For Saints?

According to the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints, all time since the original apostles (nearly all of the time the Church has existed) is Latter Day. Mormons use the term saint in the Pauline sense, meaning the term applies to all members of the Church.

However, what distinguishes this latter day from the time of the apostles (the first day) is the Great Apostasy, meaning that Mormons believe that after the death of Christ, the persecution of his followers caused many to drift from his teachings. This caused a break in the authority conferred by Christ to his Apostles- what Catholics and other denominations emphasize as the Apostolic Succession.

Because of this break, further error crept into Christian teachings. Beliefs drifted from those of Christ to those produced through human reason by his followers. Though some reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, attempted to restore the true nature of original Christian teaching, the generational drift of Christian doctrine has been toward greater error and deeper division- because the teachers themselves have lacked divine and apostolic authority.

Thus it was under the direction of the Heavenly Father that the prophet Joseph Smith restored the gospel of Jesus Christ in America. After a long period of spiritual searching and confusion, Joseph Smith received a vision of Jesus Christ which encouraged him to find his own path. Later, John the Baptist and other prophets and apostles appeared to endow him and an associate with renewed Apostolic authority. Subsequently, Joseph Smith received the Book of Mormon- an account of Christ's mission to the Americas.

Thus Christ has restored proper teaching and apostolic authority in this latter day, and promised that neither will lapse again. This latter day is also the last day of Christian history.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Does Mormonism Have Extraterrestrial Origins?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as Mormonism, makes no claim to extraterrestrial origin. Rather, Mormons believe that the message of Jesus Christ has been present since the origin of creation. It has appeared and reappeared throughout history, with each period seein a rise and decline of acceptance of the message.

Most pertinently, Mormons believe that the message of Christ came to the Americas in the time of 2700 BCE until 420 CE in the form of Jesus and a consequent apostolic movement. The American prophets and apostles also produced writings on the message and life of Christ. These were preserved miraculously on golden plates and given to Joseph Smith, Jr. by the Angel Moroni. Under the insipration of the Holy Spirit, he transated these documents into English.

The word Mormon itself comes from the name of the 4th Century prophet credited with compiling most of the original writings.

The popular American religion which does have extraterrestrial origins is the Church of Scientology, which believes the human beings house immortal sprits called "thetan" which have been subjected to trillions of years of trauma, including injuries inflicted by extraterrestrial dictatorship.

Scientology has run into repeated conficts with the United States and other governments, has been repeatedly challenged as an extravagent pyramid scam with brutal internal policies, and might well have been invented by founder L. Ron Hubbard entirely on a dare.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Editoral: Your Chance to Change the Faith

This seems an appropriate time to talk to you about something I believe in. What I'm going to propose may sound radical and strange, but it would allow the best ideas of our time to inform our future through the best tools we have on hand.

In Estonia, the government website “Today I Decide,” allows citizens to comment on draft laws and to submit their own ideas. If a majority of participants approve the measure, the government reviews it. And last fall in New Zealand, the government launched a wiki (a site that anyone can edit) to solicit input on the wording of a Policing Act before introducing it to Parliament. France is echoing the notion; citizens can participate in a government online forum on laws currently being considered. And in England, anyone can submit an e-petition directly on the 10 Downing Street website. One in ten Brits have drafted or signed such a document.

The Internet can bring us closer to a participatory and representative democracy. Citizens might not be far from collectively drafting their own legislation. Certainly, today we can have our voices heard in ways that haven't happened since the demise of Athens.

Now obviously, the Nicene Creed is a touchstone of the faith for millions of Christians around the world. And I would not dream of supplanting or replacing it in Christian liturgy. But it is equally obvious to me that its meaning is not transparent in our time. To evacuate its significance requires a good deal of shifting theological and Scriptural ideas that were formulated nearly 2000 years ago. I would wager that many parishioners do not understand it, or interpret it altogether incorrectly.

Yes, the Nicene Creed has endured through the ages and it addresses the timeless story of the Trinity's interaction with humanity.

But it also tells a story very much grounded in its own time. It is the product of a Council specifically formed to counteract the heresies of the day- ideas that have ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. Many of these internecine struggles have been resolved. Many of them no longer seem particularly relevant; for example, I do not hear many people crying out on street corners that Jesus was God, but not fully God.

And history has not stood still since then, either for the Church or for the world it's called to minister to. Since the formulation of the Creeds, schisms have split the Church- at first into East and West and later into Catholic and Protestant traditions. We have seen the priesthood of all believers, most sharply in Protestantism, but to a lesser degree paralleled by the reforms of the Council of Trent and Vatican II. We've shifted from Latin to vernacular languages. We've seen the roles of women change.

Intellectually, we understand Christ differently than our Neoplatonic fathers. In preaching and teaching and in the minds of many parishioners, we want to understand the mission and life of Christ as much as His death and resurrection. We want to know what He said and meant as much as what his death accomplished. We are much less concerned with metaphysical questions of how Being and Substance relate within the Trinity than we are concerned with how we relate to God and to one another.

And our questions are no less urgent. Sin persists, but the power sin wields has grown ever greater. We've seen a century of genocide. We've seen the resurrection of tyrannies as cruel as anything the ancient world ever knew, wielding weapons that could well kill extinguish humanity entirely. Poverty continues, but more people than ever experience it- presumably, more people are starving now than in the entirely of human history. Yet the rich live in greater separation from them, I believe, than in the time of Christ himself.

But the schisms of Christianity have not evaporated in the midst of what should be our common causes. The thriving of denominational life in America meant generations of people assuming common faith- with everyone who had the same minister. Being Christian in American has come to mean a set of choices: do I want Spirit and go Pentecostal? Teaching and Presbyter or Anglican? Evangelical and Baptist? Discipline and Methodist? What do I emphasize? And what do I give up?

Of course, we should not sacrifice anything, as Paul would emphatically remind us. The members of the body must work together; spiritual gifts function not in isolation, but in tandem. In the demise of Christendom as we have known it (and it is most certainly dying) it might be time to revisit our common ground. The collapse of Christianity's hold on centers of political and social power might also mean we can relax our hold on ancient words and ancient splits.

I propose, then, a Creed, formulated by the laity of the Christian church and adopted by such. I propose a project dedicated to answering the questions and controversies of the day through ecumenical dialogue and using the best mediating tools of the day: the Wikicreedia Project. Four years of broad based dialogue, (in the fashion of the original council) driven by ordinary parishioners and informed by modern clergy, ought to accomplish something.

I say we set it up. I say we make a web page with the questions and controversies of the day. I say we invite everyone we can to answer those challenges and come together in words, affirming what we can, even today, agree upon. If we're coming to the time when we can write our own secular laws, I don't see why we can't also claim responsibility for our religious beliefs.

At the very least, we would see what we actually believe, as opposed to what we are possibly just supposed to. Forming a creed is nothing if not a rigorous moral inventory. Then, at least, we will see where we actually stand- the most important part in deciding where to go.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What Does the Nicene Creed Actually Mean? Part Two

"Through Him All Things Were Made" again emphasizes the equal status of the Son by placing him as the agent and Logos of creation-he is the locus of the Father's interaction with the cosmos, including its genesis.

"For Us Men and for Our Salvation, He Came Down from Heaven" echoes Christ's assertions of ascending and descending; in this case, descending originally from heaven- the incarnation does not mean that Christ's origin lies with this world. The idea is more fully developed in the famous kenosis passage of Philippians.

"By the Power of the Holy Spirit, He was Born of the Virgin Mary and Became Man" describes the Christ as wholly and fully human, originating in a womb. By establishing God as Father and mother Mary as a pure servant of God, this marks the first reconciliation of God and cosmos- the human family and the divine are no longer necessarily separated by sin.

"For Our Sake He Was Crucified Under Pontius Pilate; He Suffered, Died and Was Buried" relates the essential sacrificial tale of Christ's life and marks the purest historical claim of the Creed. That Christ suffered continues God's passion for humanity and denotes the full humanity of Christ.

"On the Third Day He Rose Again in Fulfillment of the Scriptures," obviously relates the triumphal moment of Christian doctrine and squares it promptly with Biblical prophecy, as in the mouth of Christ himself beforehand and by implication in the texts of the Old Testament.

"He Ascended Into Heaven and Is Seated at the Right Hand of the Father," reverses the earlier descent of Logos into the world and repeats the notion of heaven as heavenward-up, a common conception of the time. This in some sense marks Christ's reunion with the Father and presages our own similar fate.

Yet "He Will Come Again in Glory to Judge the Living and the Dead and His Kingdom Will Have No End" tells us that something will happen first: Christ must again descend from Heaven with the full authority imparted by the Father and establish the Kingdom of God, which will never end.

"We Believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life" introduces the Helper promised by Christ and denied by the early Macedonians. This clause establishes the Spirit also as Lord as thus equally sovereign with the Father and the Son.

"Who Proceeds from the Father (and the Son)" presents us with one of the most controversial of the Creed's clauses, as it describes Son and Father as co-originators of the Spirit, yet John's Gospel clearly states the the Spirit "proceeds from the Father" and adds no more. This clause was added after the originating council, without the consent of all parties, and marked the first division between the Eastern and Western Orthodox Churches. Though there are other theological and Scriptural reasons for adding the clause, the Creed remains essentially complete without it, and the Episcopal church recently approved a version removing the added phrase.

"With the Father and Son, He is Worshiped and Glorified" elevates the Spirit to the same level of worthiness as the Father and Son, equally God.

"He Has Spoken Through the Prophets" emphasizes the Spirit's inspiration and communicative role, most evident in the prophetic elements of the Old Testament and in the later Christian Pentecost.

"We Believe in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" affirms the continuance of faith from the original apostles of Christ to the time of writing (and today). It also, clearly, establishes that all the churches represented by the council and agreeing to the creed are one Church in that faith.

"We Acknowledge One Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins" establishes Baptism as the mark of Christian forgiveness and the means of its conveyance. Baptism symbolically parallels death and rebirth (going down and coming up) and the ancient system of sacrificial cleansing (separation from the community, isolation, and restoration to the group). Early Christian Baptisms were all done by immersion.

"We Look for the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the World to Come," reiterates the verbal and existential promise of Christ for Christians individually and the world at large. Christian believe this to be the point toward which history inevitably moves.

Monday, June 9, 2008

What Does the Nicene Creed Actually Mean? Part One

The word "does" in the question might well be its most significant part. The Nicene Creed is not our Bible "what does Genesis mean" but is in fact more like a Christian Constitution "what does the Creed do?". It was expressly created to overcome the particular theological disputations of its day. It tells the bare minimum of the Christian story. It relates it without historical or theological detail. Its intention was to unify early Christianities, and it is reaffirmed weekly by many diverse Christian traditions nearly two thousand years later.

The Nicene Creed is a living, breathing document. It evokes more meaning than it bestows.

Yet it did originally mean something. And because the writers who agreed upon the Creed were very much aware of Judaic and early Christian traditions to which we also have some access, a few guesses might get us on our interprative way:

"We believe in one God" clearly echoes the Shema "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord" as it reaffirms the communal nature of belief. Not I, but we, believe in God, not gods.

"The Father, the Almighty" refers to God as Jesus did. It puts us in Christ's religious shoes. God is not only the father of Jesus but the father of humanity, as in the geneological "Adam, the son of God." By standing us where Jesus stood, the Creed invites us to contemplate the imatatio Christi, the imitation of Jesus himself.

"Maker of Heaven and Earth, maker of all that is, seen and unseen" contains the same belief as the Judaic formula "Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe...." The Father is not only the father of humanity, but radically soverign over the entire cosmos as its creator, including the unknown (sight being a frequent Biblical symbol for knowledge).

"We Belive in One Lord Jesus Christ" redoubles the opening affirmation of God as one and unitary. Yet it moves this affirmation also over Jesus Christ, the savior of mankind. We relate to Jesus with the same submission of will that Christ extended toward the Father, because they are of the same sovereign nature.

"The Only Son of God," reflects Christ's unique roll in history. Though the Hebrew kings were also called sons of God, this relationship was symbolic. By submitting himself to the Father and befriending the oppressed and serving humanity, Jesus Christ became the prototypical Son of God who Christians emulate. By all being in some sense sons of God through Adam, we are called to be fully sons of God in Christ.

"Eternally begotten of the Father" strongly rejoins Johanine notions of Christ's pre-existing the cosmos, though He does so in a way dependent on the Father's nature, being of the same. The Son is eternally generated by the Father, presumably, by the Father's love for God's people.

"God from God, Light from Light" then clarifies that, though different, the Son and the Father are one, just as two torches can be borne of the same flame. Of this, St. Athanasius himself said that the Father and Son are one "as the sight of two eyes is one." This subtly retouches on the metaphor of sight and knowledge: as we have "seen the light" of the Son, we may know the (light of the) Father.

"True God from True God" consequently rebukes those (Arians) who believed that Jesus was a lesser god, and not God in fully, true God being the phrase of the time. The above removes this as a creedal possibility. There are no degrees, no gradations, in Nicene divinity.

Consequently, "Begotten, not made" emphasizes that just as there are no degrees in divine nature, there is no subordination of divine origin. God did not create Christ Logos in the same way that God created the cosmos. Rather, the Father gave birth to the Son not as creator, but in the gentive sense, as a parent would.

"Of one Being with the Father," affirms just as there is no subordination of Son to Father in divinity or origin, also there is no subordination in substance, in existence. Three people may all be different people, but are no less human for being so.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

What Do All Those Letters On The Cross Mean?

There are four sets of letters inscribed on the cross over our altar.

They are, in no particular order, XPC, IHC, INRI, and NIKA.

IHC is an alternate version of IHS dating from the Middle Ages. These letters represent the first three Latin letters in the name of Jesus: iota eta sigma. More popular elucidations of these letters such as "I have suffered," or "In His service" entirely post-date the origin of the monogram.

The same is also true of the more common INRI, which does not mean "Iron Nails Ran In" as popularized by James Joyce, but is rather the acronym for the Latin words meaning "Jesus Nazarene, King of the Jews." These are, of course, the words inscribed by Pilate on the cross of Christ, though the exact wording is subject to some scholarly dispute. They were also written in Hebrew and Greek.

XPC, is linked, along with IHC, as abbreviation for IHCOYC XPICTOC, the common transliteration in Medieval Greek of the words for Jesus Christ. Its usage is more common in the Eastern Orthodox churches than in the West.

Linked also with the aformentioned NIKA, the entire phrase means "Jesus Christ Conquers".

Like all such monograms, especially the Icthys, these were used to signify the meaning and power of the Name of Christ, and a unifying influence amidst the early Christianities.

What Are Those Bells We Ring During the Service?

Altar bells, also known as mass bells or sanctus bells, come to the Episcopal Church through Roman Catholocism, where their intent was to draw attention to the occurence of transubstantiation, the transformation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This was essential, as Masses conducted in Latin were obviously hard to follow for laity who did not know the language.

Currently, their use is recommended, but not required, in both Roman Catholic and Episcopal and Anglican churches. The decision to use or not use bells is left to the discretion of the individual parish.

In modern usage, Catholic priests ring bells when the priest invokes the Spirit, when the Host is elevated, and again at the elevation of the Chalice. Episcopal worship, on the other hand, uses bells to draw attention to the Words of Institution (the part that retells the First Communion on the night of Jesus's arrest), and at the elevation of the Host and Chalice. Usage may vary, moreover, in accordance with the church calendar, especially during Lent and Holy Week.

In Episcopal/Anglican usage, the bells signify Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, rather than an absolute transubstantiation.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Editorial: The Trinity and Me

I keep waiting to meet the Trinitarian God.

Of course, part of the point of the Trinity might be to explain why this won't happen. Scripture progresses fairly neatly from Father to Son to Paraclete, at least in terms of encounters between the human and divine, ie one can't come until the other goes, one sends the other.

But still, since my logic has consistently, for the better part of sixteen years, failed at the feet of the Trinity to comprehend it/them, and since Scripture is not exactly systematic in elucidating the point, and since the tradition I grew up with repeated the doctrine as though that repitition were, in fact, an explanation, I consider myself at pretty loose ends in regards to God in Three Persons.

Let alone my problems, due to personal history, with the paternalistic language of the proposition. (Was Jesus just a son, like me, who couldn't overcome? "Father take this cup from me? No, okay, okay, I'll go, I submit! Wait, why did you leave? Why, Dad? Why?" )

So by my count, that leaves mystic, extra-lingual experience as the last valid route for confronting the reality I intellectually accept.

So I wish it would happen.

Of course, it may have. I mean, I've experienced God, briefly, as a lake of love, a field of invitation, and a storm of mystery. Is that a Trinity? Do I get to write a song about it? Can I get other people to sing? To agree?

Perhaps. Sociologically, the development of the Trinity may mark nothing more than an evolution in our understanding of God. Certainly, God cannot change. If God is Trinitarian, then God would have to always already have been Three. What changes is our relationship.

And through the history of Israel, we can certainly see developments. God is variously the God of creation, the God of daily protection and providential care, the God of history, the God of apocalypse, and the God of absense and silence. From all of these modes, Three Persons may actually be something of a graceful intellectual minimum.

This is not to say that one God or one Person could not be all of these things. It is to say that, once again, infinity makes confusion likely. Love may well be so enormously transcendent in its immanence that to begin to internalize it we might need to seperately contemplate, say, Formative Will, and Redemptive Grace, and Abiding Presence, while realizing that these things are all, in fact, one love.

Hey, is that another Trinity? I'm on a roll!

And it is to say that the Trinity may work best not as doctrine (as in the West) but as icon (as in the East). Not as the end of thought, but as its beginning. The idea of Trinity is itself fascinating. By logic we say that is impossible that three can be one, but our hearts know things our minds do not, our rational minds combat our emotive selves, and our bodies physically enhance our feelings even as they shape our mental self-image.

We must be all of these things, but can we be any one of them? Or are we the pattern of relationship between them?

What is the relationship between identity and community, self and other? Is identity solely the function of the self being identical to itself, or do selves develop only in relation to one another?

Certainly we are more ourselves when we are with others than we are by ourselves. Is the Son then more the Son for the existence of the Father, and the Father more the Father for the existence of the Son, and on, and on, forever?

If so, What does it mean to be a father, and to be a son- why does this image predominate? Do those concepts mean the same things I have heard in so many sermons, or did they resonate quite differently in the mind of Christ? And how does Spirit relate to both of them?

I certainly do not know, but I would like to.

May the God of Overwhelming Wind, the God of Everlasting Water, and the God of Desiring Flame all be with you.

How Did Trinitarian Christianity Come From Monotheistic Judaism?

As is occasionally the case, taking the broader historical view of religious development is somewhat deceptive here. From our perspective, to be sure, the nearly-polytheistic Trinity does seem an abrupt departure from the Shema of Judaism.

But the progression was not in reaction to Judaic monotheism at all, but in fact a return to it, in response to more aggresively polytheistic Christianities such as Arianism. We can most accurately understand the adoption of the Trinity as a sharply moderating turn in ecclesiastical history.

Though the Trinity first appeared as an article of faith in the Nicene Council, its origins reach back much further. The concept of three persons, or manifestations of God, certainly dates to the early First Century and the Church Father Ignatuis of Antioch, in his Letter to the Magnesians. And many Trinitarian scholars believe it may date back to original apostles.

But this was not the only possible position. Language such as Christ's own "no one is good but God" requires interpretation. And on such texts early Christians did not all agree.

So it cannot be coincidence that the two formative battles of the Christian faith, the battle for the identity and status of Christ, and the battle for canonizing the books of the New Testament, were so nearly co-temporaneous.

What is now orthodox Christianity emerged in a stew of reactions to the fact of Jesus Christ- and one of the most prevalent of these was Gnosticism, a faith that denied the humanity of Jesus as such and posited that humans bodies were mere containers of the divine, and could not be its manifestation.

One of the purposes of the Nicence council was to refute this claim, and to salvage a God of unity from diverse claims as to what Christ meant.

So we may note with interest that many of the texts cited in support of anti-Gnostic Trinitarianism come from the Gospel of John, which may well have itself been written in refutation of very early Gnostic christologies. (This would explain both its similarities to, and stark departure from, common Gnostic teachings).

Thus, though couched by neccesity in the terms of Neoplatonist language and rhetoric, by refuting radically Greek interpretations of a Hebrew prophet, the intellectual movement of the Trinity is actually, toward, and not away from, traditional Jewish monotheism.