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Posts Tagged ‘Sacraments’

Since I started looking for a church, the one that has appealed to me the most has been the Episcopal church.  I liked the Lutheran church, too- in practice it was very similar, but I wasn;t excited about it having Luther’s name attached to it, and I felt like a British church was slightly more culturally relevant to me than a German church, although the preference is only mild.

Anyway, when I look for a direction to go, a way to follow Christ, Anglicanism (and since I’m in the US, that means the Episcopal church) continues to beckon as an attractive and meaningful path.  In all honesty, the odds are decent that this is the direction that I will eventually go, once I get all of my issues sorted out.

Of all the mainline Protestant denominations I am familiar with, the Episcopal church appealed to me the most for several reasons.  I like the liturgical aspect, and I like the communion/eucharist-centered service.  However, my concerns with Episcopalianism/Anglicanism that I am going to express in this post also apply to the rest of mainline Protestantism  So keep that in mind.  In general, I am more interested in older Protestant denominations, though, i.e., the ones that came more or less directly out of the Reformation.

Anglicanism’s via media is very appealing to me.  In theory, it has the good parts of Catholicism- the meaningful liturgy and ritual, an ordained clergy that can trace apostolic succession, and a lot of tradition, coupled with basic Protestant theology, a lot of tolerance, and (in theory) a tradition of latitudinarianism that allows for a pretty theologically diverse bunch to all be united in one communion.

I also really, really like Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  If allAnglicans were like him, I would join the Episcopal church without reservation.  He is intelligent, creative, insightful, and he is able to maintain the same kind of balance between theological orthodoxy and progressive social action and an inclusive attitude that Brian McLaren advocates.  Except where McLaren is kind of adorably fumbling about it, the Archbishop does it all with such elegance.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of a church of Rowan Williamses, the Anglican communion is more a church of John Shelby Spongs and Peter Akinolas, tearing at each others’ throats, and I want nothing to do with either of those types.

First I want to address my Bishop Spong problem, and it’s really not a problem with Spong per se  so much as it is a problem with theological liberalism in general.  But given how outspoken Spong has been, and the kind of “Christianity” he has advocated, he’s kind of my lightning rod for everything I think is wrong with that side of the theological spectrum.  In my opinion, theological liberalism is dross.  Why be a Christian is you don;t really believe in the empty tomb, the incarnation, the resurrection?  Why bother?

As Rowan Williams put it in his eloquent (if slightly academic) response to Spong’s 12 theses, back when Williams was the Bishop of Monmouth,

For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.

If Jesus is just a mortal philosopher, I see no reason to bother with Christianity at all.  I realize that accepting Jesus as God means having to deal with some hard issues and maybe living with some serious paradoxes, but I see it as the only way to be a Christian, and I want to be a Christian.

My point is that mainline Christianity in general and the Episcopal Church in specific are so riddled with theological liberalism that I don’t know if they’re really worth bothering with, or if I’ll just be frustrated all the time.

At the same time, I think religious fundamentalism is equally ridiculous.  Both religious fundamentalism and theological liberalism are the bastard children of modernism, and are in my mind the chief case for why modernism was horribly bad for Christianity.

If the Episcopal church could find a way to be progressive without compromising the essential beliefs of Christianity, it would, in my opinion, be the best of all worlds.  Unfortunately, at least the American Episcopal church seems to be doing a whole lot of compromising.

I have other concerns with the Episcopal church, too.  Chief among them is that so far, I haven’t seen much in the way of authentic community.  Juice and cookies in the undercroft do not a community make.  I imagine that part of this is a matter of finding the right parish, and also of persisting- real community is like a living thing, and living things don’t usually spontaneously spring fully grown into existence.

There’s also a teeny tiny bit of stigma attached, since becoming an Episcopalian would mean pretty much embracing the ultimate expression of WASPishness.  But I guess I can deal with that.

Next, I think the worldwide Anglican Communion’s current shenanigans over homosexuality are shameful.  Don’t get me wrong- I think Christianity’s attitude towards homosexual people has been decidedly un-Christian.  However, I think that by stepping out on its own to ordain gay bishops and bless homosexual unions, the American Episcopal church pretty much pissed all over the idea of unity within the Communion.  It was rash and reckless, and probably (if also unfortunately) too soon.

At the same time, the response of the Northern Virginia parishes has been tantamount to “taking our toys and going home” when the game doesn’t go their way, which is equally disrespectful to unity and togetherness.  And Peter Akinola’s response, to actually promote the schism, has been the crowning deed of the whole affair, completely un-called-for and inappropriate, displaying a kind of scorn and derision to the Anglcian Communion as a whole that completely undermines everything that it is supposed to stand for.

Whatever it turns out that God really wants, I’m pretty sure it’s not recriminations and schism.  The actions of both sides of this debate betray a disregard for Christian unity and brotherhood/sisterhood that makes me very sad.  Kudos to the Archbishop for dis-inviting both sides to the Lambeth conference.

Now, as a non-Anglican, it can be argued that the whole thing is none of my business.  But at the same time, I’m considering becoming an Anglican, and so the situation is important to me.  I’m not excited about the prospect of joining up and then being caught in the ultra-liberal faction of a schism that never should have happened in the first place.

But I have to weigh that concern against the incredible good that I see in Anglicanism.  I feel the sense of authoritative-ness that I’m looking for, both in the clergy and in the institution.  I feel that there is so much room for spirituality and even mysticism (especially with Rowan Williams in the Archbishop’s seat), and also Christlike life and social action.  The churches and the liturgy are beautiful, and they bring a sense of holiness and connection to God.

In any case, this is the situation where I am seriously torn.  I want very badly to go down this road, but I am afraid that the obstacles are simply too great.

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Sorry this post has been so long in coming.  I haven’t had much time to put together a long post that meaningfully addresses complex and abstract issues, and on top of that, I sunk into a period of total spiritual apathy that I might just now be coming out of.

As I indicated in the introductory post to this series, I feel like I am standing at a spiritual crossroads of sorts.  Two of the paths that I have been honestly considering in my journey towards Christ are Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

One of my concerns with Protestantism in general, and with Evangelical Protestantism in specific, is that I see a lack of authoritative-ness, both institutional and personal.  Particularly in the emergent conversation, clergymen don’t come across as trustworthy guides or wise counselors because they come across as regular people just trying to figure things out.  I’m not saying that I think clergy should have all the answers and not be on spiritual journeys of their own, but there’s a sense in which I want clergy to be something more than just another person at church, who happens to be able to give a good sermon.

So I think I am looking for a church with an ordained clergy, and a church with institutional weight.  At the very least, “having been around a long time” means having, as an institution, weathered all kinds of turmoil and change without being destroyed by it.  To me, an older church feels generally more trustworthy and reliable simply by virtue of its age, and the collected wisdom of generations that goes along with it.

What churches have that more than Catholicism and Orthodoxy?

Furthermore, I’m looking for a church that is genuinely sacramental, one that includes outward expressions of faith and repentance to accompany the inward changes that seem so elusive and ephemeral.  I also want sacraments that are something more than a clever symbol that can be changed at will.  Although I believe that sacraments are largely symbolic, I think that too much emphasis on their symbolic nature renders them weightless and inconsequential.

So far, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy seem to fit the bill most perfectly.

I’m also looking for a church where there’s a real sense of community, more than “hanging around for donuts and lemonade after church and chatting with the peopel you’re friends with.”  What impressed me so much the one time I went to an Eastern Orthodox (OCA) was that they actually all sat down together for a meal when liturgy was finished.  In both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I think there is a sense of identity that is fundamental to community that I haven’t seen in most Protestantism.

Finally, perhaps because of tradition and institutional age and wisdom, it seems to me that Catholicism and Orthodoxy have been able to escape the twin evils of fundamentalism and theological liberalism that plague Protestantism so doggedly.

So why don’t I just become Catholic or Orthodox?  I have a couple of reasons.   First, my understanding of and belief in Jesus Christ is actually fairly Protestant.  Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would essentially involve rethinking and re-imagining everything I already believe, and I’m not sure I want to do that.  It’s not that I’m complacent or scared to re-think, but that my Protestant understanding of Jesus is intimately tied up in my decision to believe in Jesus in the first place.  adopting a totally new view of atonement and salvation would mean a complete rethinking of Christianity, and I’m not sure I want to do that.

Second, both churches have doctrines that are often troubling and in my opinion wrong: Catholicism has  it worst here, with things like the ban on contraception, the celibate priesthood, and transubstantiation.  But Orthodoxy doesn’t necessarily escape doctrinal scrutiny either.  Their beliefs and doctrines may be verifiably the oldest traditional Christian beliefs, but that doesn’t mean I agree with them.

At the same time, I have been wondering lately if submission isn’t actually an important component of Christian faith.  While there are unreasonable extremes, I wonder if it might actually be spiritually healthy to submit to authority and be teachable, and allow your opinions to conform to something greater.

If I’m just looking for the church that teaches exatctly what I believe, I might never be challenged and forced to grow.  I’m not sure.

My other problem, more one with Orthodoxy than Catholicism, is that they are in many ways very alien.  AI grew up Mormon, which claims all kinds of unique distinctiveness but in reality it has deep (and to me, obvious) roots in the frontier Protestantism of the early 19th century, so Protestantism is more culturally consonant for me.  Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would be almost as jarring as becoming Hindu.

Again, maybe that’s actually good- maybe encountering Christ shouldn’t be about being comfortable but instead should be about following him, even if it means following him into strange places.

I have a lot to think about.

Oh, and on a practical note- Orthodox liturgy is long, and you have to stand up the whole time.  I guess you get to sit down in Greek Orthodoxy, but it seems so much more of an ethnically rooted church, and, well, I’m not Greek.

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First, before you read this post and certainly before you comment, go back and at least read The Old Limbo Crossroads, to get some background. It’s better if you’re new to this blog to get completely caught up by reading What’s Going On, but the previous Crossroads is really the bare minimum.

Okay, now on to the topic at hand, which is Evangelical Christianity.

I grew up Mormon, but I grew up in East Tennessee, which means that most of my peers were Evangelical Christians of some kind. Most of my close friends were nonreligious or Roman Catholic, but most of the Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years was evangelical.

In particular, I had one really good evangelical friend whose name was Brock. We had kind of a common understanding that meant we didn’t try to convert each other, but through him I was exposed to a lot of the people that he went to church with. This exposure was often limited, but it was significant: these were people who really believed in Jesus Christ, who lived Christ-centered lives, and who were happy about it. You could see it in their faces, that Jesus Christ had made a difference. It was something that I did not see in my fellow Mormons, and it was something that stuck with me and was not easy to reconcile, even on my mission. I often thought back to these people and wondered how, if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was really Christ’s church on earth, how these non-members could be so obviously and vibrantly Christian.

As I served my mission, my understanding of Jesus Christ developed and it drifted towards a more full understanding of grace, one which I inevitably had to try to reconcile with Mormonism (and I did it by constantly revising the Gospel According To Kullervo). Most of the doubts I had about Mormonism were laced with Evangelical concerns. My personal understanding of Jesus Christ ultimately developed into something very Protestant, with Mormonism’s specific practices and odd doctrinal quirks pretty much tacked on to the side.

Thus, last year when I finally started giving serious voice to my doubts about Mormonism, it was because I increasingly saw Mormonism as something that did not match my understanding of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and what I thought Christianity was all about.

Granted, leaving Mormonism ultimately led me to have to seriously examine, and in the end dig up and re-plant, my belief in Jesus Christ and in God. But I feel at this point that I have come full circle and I am now back in a place where I can state without (much) reservation that I believe in Jesus and I want to follow him.

Anyway, because of all of this, Evangelical Christianity is attractive to me. I have very little interest in theological liberalism (a topic that I will address in a future post), and reading some of the writers in the Emergent conversation (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller) within Evangelical Christianity has done a great deal to resolve many of my major theological concerns, showing me that I actually can be an Evangelical Christian without being a mindless fundamentalist or a rabid Republican. It has all been extremely compelling.

Right now my family is attending Cedar Ridge Community Church, which is a kind of emergent Evangelical nondenominational church, and it’s a really good place. It has a lot going for it. I agree with everything they preach form the pulpit, but in a way that challenges me instead of leaving me complacent. I am excited about their commitment to reaching out and blessing the world in so many ways. It is a church where I have few objections. But the more time goes by, and the more I find myself wanting to seriously follow, serve, and draw closer to, Jesus Christ, the more those objections seem to be a big deal.

Most of my objections have to do with Evangelical Christianity in general as opposed to the church we attend in specific.

The first is a question of authority, or more properly, of authoritative-ness. I guess I believe that all authority is given to Jesus Christ, like it says in the gospels, and that this authority still resides in Jesus, as opposed to being found in a book or in a pedigree of clergy or priesthood. Since Jesus promised us that when we are gathered in his name, he is among us, we have access to his authority when we are acting in his name.

That’s fine and good, and it’s actually kind of a tangent, because it’s not really my problem. My problem is that in the church I attend, there’s a real sense of all being on the journey together, like we’re all trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the best way we can, and we’re helping each other do that. That sounds great, but it doesn’t do the trick for me.

While there may be Authority, the kind that actually only Jesus has from the Father, I don’t feel like this set-up is very authoritative. Trustworthy. Reliable. Solid. I don’t feel like this church as an institution has much of any weight behind it whatsoever. It doesn’t feel solid. I’m not saying I think it won’t last- the church has been around for 25 years after all. But what is 25 years in the nearly 2000-year history of Christianity? What institutional experience and wisdom can there even be in an organization that is so new, especially one that is both Evangelical and Emergent, both of which in the context of church history mean some measure of rejection of broad arrays of Christian tradition?

My point is that I don’t feel like Evangelical churches are authoritative. I don’t think the Bible alone makes them authoritative, either, and I also don’t even think belief in Jesus Christ makes them authoritative.

What I’m trying to say is this- I wouldn’t feel confident going to the pastor at Cedar Ridge for personal or spiritual guidance. I feel like he’s just a guy, same as me, trying to figure thigs out. That has a certain appeal, sure, especially from the pulpit (there isn’t technically a pulpit, but that’s beside the point), but at the same time it doesn’t make me feel like he’s a spiritual leader that I could turn to. As far as I know, he hasn’t been to a seminary or anything. It’s kind of a surprise that that matters to me, growing up Mormon with a lay clergy, but as it turns out I think it actually matters a lot.

So with Evangelical Christianity, I have problems with how authoritative I feel the institutions and clergy are. My second problem is more theological. In theory, I believe in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, once for all. I believe in salvation by grace through faith. I believe that the price for my sins has already been paid, that I am already forgiven before I even did anything wrong.

My problem is that that sounds great on paper and in conversation, but it seems too abstract in practice. Let’s say I do something wrong, and feel bad about it. What am I supposed to do to be right with God? My theology tells me that inasmuch as I have faith in Jesus Christ, I am already right with God. But that doesn’t seem very real. I feel like I’m left trying to convince myself that I’m already forgiven and that it’s already taken care of and I should just be thankful for what Jesus did for me. But I still feel really bad, and all I can do is try, in vain, to talk myself out of the guilt.

It’s all abstract: I just have to trust that my wrongs were already righted 2,000ish years ago so I have nothing to worry about. But I have a hard time convincing myself of it. Maybe it’s because I really don’t have faith. Maybe it’s because I’m still stuck in a Mormon mindset that demands I earn my salvation. I don’t know. But at the very least, I would like something concrete to do, at least an outward manifestation of reconciliation, so I can have some kind of closure on my sins. I’m not talking about earning forgiveness; I know I can’t do that. I just mean that I want to be able to somehow make concrete the abstract idea of my salvation by the grace of God. And Evangelical Christianity, in my opinion, doesn’t really offer that. It has no real sacraments, no clergy to confess to. It seems like the whole religion is just about deciding you believe, and then being glad about it.

I see it seem work for other people, and in theory I think it sounds great. But in practice it doesn’t seem to have any effect. I don’t feel transformed, healed, or even justified by just “realizing it’s all okay.”

Maybe I’ve missed the point- maybe Christianity is about realizing, for real, that it is okay, that Jesus made it so when you believe in him your sins are gone, and there’s nothing you have to do but acknowledge and accept it, for real. Maybe my insistence on some external performance is holding me back from real conversion, real faith, and the kind of transformational Christianity that I’m hungry for. I acknowledge the possibility. But it doesn’t change anything. And reassurances from other Christians that I’m on the right track are nice and supportive, but they’re not authoritative- they’re just more people like me, in the same boat as I am. What do they know? How are they more trustworthy than I am?

I imagine that the person that I really should trust is Jesus, that he has told me himself that he has atoned for my sins, and that anything else would just be noise. Maybe. But it doesn’t seem to be happening, to really be connecting. Again, I am left feeling like I’m just trying to talk myself out of feeling guilty.

I’ve talked about forgiveness for sins as probably the most important example, but the principles apply to the sum total of religious life. Evangelical Christianity has all of the action happen in the long ago and far away, and thus in the inaccessible abstract.

My third problem with Evangelical Christianity is the form of worship. For the most part, praise bands and Christian pop music do absolutely nothing for me. I want the deep spirituality of liturgy and hymns. I’m not trying to be a worship-consumer or anything, but modern, contemporary worship just doesn’t feel like it has any weight behind it. It is sincere but ephemeral, and seems to be primarily a matter of emotional appeal. Part of leaving Mormonism was the realization that emotions are not the same thing as the Holy Spirit. Emotions are the product of propaganda as often as they are the product of nearness to God.

Evangelical Christianity (particularly, for me at least, the emergent conversation) is firmly rooted in scripture, reason (within the context of faith), and mysticism (i.e. the Holy Spirit), but has abandoned tradition almost entirely. I know the emergent conversation has made overtures at recapturing some tradition, but in my opinion it’s been barely more than a token effort, and comes across as superficial to me.

In fact, sometimes Evangelical Christianity seems altogether tacky and plastic, not anything like an ancient Middle Eastern (or even European) faith tradition, and certainly not anything like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Finally, I have some issues with Community. I feel like Christian community is absolutely critical, as Jesus commanded his disciples to be one even as he is one with the Father. I realize that the emergent conversation has tried to emphasize this, but in practice it seems ot not be happening. How do you have authentic community in a megachurch?

Even at Cedar Ridge, which is certainly no megachurch, it seems to me like the congregation might be too big for authentic community, and although they try really hard (and admirably) to foster community, it seems artificial. It’s like they’re trying to make a plant by mixing the component parts all together in a bowl, instead of planting the seeds, setting up the right conditions, and cultivating it as it grows.

Anyway, I have a strange love-hate relationship with Evangelical Christianity, and I’m hesitant to embrace it more fully than I already have, while at the same time, it has things that I want and need that I don’t know if I really can find anywhere else. And I feel like I must face the real possibility that my hesitation is because of the lingering effects of my Mormon roots, or maybe because I simply haven’t fully been able to understand and appreciate what Jesus Christ is all about.

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