Friday, November 2, 2007

The Beloved and ++Katharine Jefferts-Shori

My friend Elizabeth Kaeton, Chair of the Standing Committee of Newark and rector of St. Paul’s, Chatham, NJ writes of the Presiding Bishop’s visit to their clergy conference. I am so taken with this report of ++Katharine that I have included Elizabeth’s description here. You can read the whole thing at ( I never have gotten that link thingy down.)

Bishop Katharine made a brilliant connection with the story of Genesis 1 and the baptism of Jesus. God said, "This is my beloved, with him I am well pleased," which is an echo, she reminded us, of God saying at creation, "It is very good."

Further, she connected the story in The Garden with the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, reminding us that Jesus was able to resist Satan because he had just been baptized and had a very clear sense of his identity and the fact that he was 'beloved' of God.

I absolutely resonated with her point that our understanding of our identity frames the way in which we view the world and the language we employ in our conversations about God and religion and the human enterprise.

If we believe ourselves to be wretched and fallen human beings, that sin came into us in the Garden by the temptation of Satan in the guise of a snake, we have a very different understanding of ourselves and the world than if we believe ourselves beloved of God - sons and daughters who claim our inheritance of eternal life through Christ Jesus because we, like the rest of creation, are worthy and, indeed, "very good."

The Evangelical, more Calvinist position begins with the wretchedness of humankind, and pretty much stays there, being eternally if not daily thankful for the salvation and redemption of the human condition by the suffering (emphasis on suffering) and death of Christ Jesus.

The traditional Anglican position has been to hold all three chapters of the Genesis account in tension - the fact that we are beloved of God and the fact that sin is in the world.

The idea of free will celebrates the gift of our God-given gifts of intelligence and reason, but does not negate the presence of evil in the world, nor our capacity to make wrong decisions and choices. But, neither does the capacity to make bad choices negate the inherent goodness of our humanity.

The truth is that God is a mystery, and we do well to understand that the best evangelism is one that invites others into a deeper experience of this mystery - not the certainty of answers set in cement tablets.

Bishop Katharine then did just that and had us meditate on the image of God coming to us and saying, "YOU are my beloved, with YOU I am well pleased."

After a time of silence, she invited us to share our insights. It was so much easier for many of us to concentrate on how others were beloved of God and how God might be pleased with someone else. Anyone but us.

Bishop Katharine asked us to consider how our conversations with each other might change if we began in a place of affirmation rather than a place of harsh judgement.

Comment: I have always had problems with the Protestant concept of the “Total Depravity of Man”. This is more of a Calvinist understanding but I find plenty of that theology in Luther’s writing too. What if Augustine was wrong about Original Sin? Pelagius thought so.The whole of the Medieval theology would have been turned on its ear.

The Protestant theology of the 16th century came out of a post-plague era convinced that that pestilance had been punishment for immorality rather than the results of the failure of social contracts and social structures that had been so neglected because of war and squander that basic health and hygene had been neglected.

The response to the humanism of the Renaissance that was spreading over southern Europe was to solidify this idea of the total depravity of humanity and find salvation in the free grace of God. It was an important idea for its time. But this sense of the depravity of humanity will be the death of our own era if we do not confron it. I am grateful to ++Katharine taking it on in her wonderful non-judgmental manner. I have not ever seen a bishop who is so self-differentiated as she.

What if all the ‘stuff and bother’ that has confronted the Church since General Convention 2003 was precisely what needs to happen to the Church, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion? What if what needs to happen for the Episcopal Church is to be small enough and singular enough to become the leaven for a society that would like to be selfish and self-agrandizing. Only the Episcopal Church has the contacts in society at present to really address the domination sinfulness of our present generation. What if the call of the Episcopal Church is not to be the Church of the Socially Accomodating but to become the small Church of the Niggeling Conscience? It won’t make us popular but it will allow us to live out our Christianity with integrity.

Bishop Jefferts-Schori begins her theology not with our ‘falleness’ but with our ‘belovedness.’ I must admit that I have not felt ‘beloved’ in the Episcopal Church of late. I have received a message of my ‘falleness’, my sinfulness, my error for being gay even though I know that this is not of my making. It is hard to stay present to God who is telling me of my ‘belovedness’ when those I have respected in my Church are telling me different. I do not disagree that I am fallen and sinful but it is from my own sins, not those of previous generations, or Eve or for some unknown reason that I attracted to members of my own sex. The grace I know is because God has loved me even at my most unloveable. It is there that my loving must begin. It must be willing to love those who are the most unloveable—ARG! It is so difficult yet so necessary.

I must admit I am an old fan of Matt Fox’s Original Blessing. I have not followed his work since he left Rome and became an Episcopalian, but I did appreciate how his work addressed the loss of basic worth that Original Sin has engendered within Christendom and how it has subjected people. Even how we have come to regard others as sinful before regarding them as “good” gives fertile ground for the negativity that is so present in today’s culture.

Such terms as Last Judgement, Justification, Redemption, even the word Salvation have taken on meanings which were never envisioned when they were first coined. Today I believe we must be willing to explore new ways of discovering our ‘blessedness’ so that we can hear the ‘blessedness’ in others. We are going to have to find new ways of discussing our faith. We need to find new ways of articulating the relationship between God and humanity and the realtionships that we have with one another. The language of psycology helps better that the language of law upon which most of our traditional language of theology is based. But the language of mysticism—that constant trying to verbalize the ineffable, is what is going to be the most important.

We are not well schooled in the language of mysticism. Clouds of Unknowing, Interior Castles, Original Blessings are hard to unpack and are fraught with imprecision. But what else is the description of God and God’s actions. No more scholasticism in theology. We need to start with everyone’s “belovedness”

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