This is for the encouragement of Christian lay and clergy people, who perhaps find themselves more chagined than pleased by our habitual expressions of the Christian faith. Our intent is to take a point of view from which faith is confused with neither civic virtue, nor with any prescribed emotion. Wrangles and obsessions already amply displayed in public will be avoided. The people in the pews are athirst for Gospel; our hope is to demonstrate their longing and curiosity to the clergy, that they might address it more confidently than they do. Nothing worthy of our commission is accomplished by offering the people a putatively more accessible or comfortable substitute.
I am a lay Episcopalian, communicant in the diocese of Los Angeles. I finished seminary at the age of 25, in 1971. Then I left the Church for fourteen years, returning at the age of 39. For thirty-eight years, I followed a career as a Rehabilitation Counselor in a state social service agency. In retirement my projects include this writing, reading, and a volunteer job I share with my wife, visiting patients in hospital under the chaplain’s supervision. At times I have wished for a vocation to the priesthood, but it never came. I take it the life of a Christian layman is itself a vocation as serious and necessary as any other in the Church.
The label “contrarian”
I call myself a contrarian. One may set out to earn that name, as a sophomore does, for its own sake. That is not especially admirable; maturity will usually cure it. It was a happy relief to give up the youthful pretense of splendid isolation and let myself be embraced in my parish. However, one soon discovers, among what we might call cultural Christians, that faith makes one a contrarian against one’s will. Clergymen might be even more likely than the people in the pews to be cultural Christians, and to see nothing amiss; they have themselves to account for. A lay person seeing this may have to depart from where one of these presides, without wishing any ill to those he leaves behind.
The label “Christian”
One knows it will sound foolish and arrogant, to call oneself a Christian. Whether anyone deserves the name is surely for God to judge. On the other hand, anyone confirmed in the Church has heard the Bishop address him as “Christ’s Own.” Surely we are all his, and nothing unless his. There is the ground of our hope.
Old and New Owl
Around 2003, I wrote an earlier version of this blog, which went by the same name. I’m still happy with most of what I wrote then. Some of it will appear in revised and updated form in this version. Some of it went into a book about the differences between Christian faith and cultural Christianity.
In our day, cultural Christianity has two major poles. The first is a holdover from nineteenth century liberal-critical study of the Bible. The second is moralism, public or personal that also dates from the nineteenth century, had its high water mark with the Social Gospel of the 1890s, and reverberates still in what people are pleased to call progressivism.
One can sit a long time in almost any church in America without hearing any twentieth century theology. That is a shame, because there are great teachers to be found: Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, H. Richard Niebuhr, William Stringfellow, and more. To this student the greatest of them all is Karl Barth (d. 1968), a world-historical theologian with only about five peers in all of church history. He it is who is credited with “Crisis Theology,” or “Neo-orthodoxy.”
As readers wil see, continued study plays an important part in the Owl’s formation.The most important sources I have found since seminary are the theology of Karl Barth, the ante-Nicene Fathers, American history, and the fiction of F. M. Dostoevsky and James Joyce. I have been lucky enough to meet a few great teachers, including Randall C. Reid and Harvey Guthrie, of whom more below. I commend to you the following:
Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, especially Notes from the House of the Dead, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky (Princeton, 1976 to 2002), makes reading the novels a fresh experience. Frank himself is a rare writer, who knows the proper use of the word “eschatological.”
James Joyce. Academic critics make much of the supposed Homeric framework of his novel Ulysses. Homeric as the body may be, the soul of it is one vast liturgy, beginning with a Latin introit and ending with “yes.” Read it out loud to get the music of the thing.
Flannery O’Connor, all her short stories, and her letters to “A” in the collection selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald under the title, The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979). O’Connor sees Christian dogma as a powerful bulwark of intellectual freedom, and sets forth a faith utterly free of sentimentality.
Aleksander Wat, his autobiography My Century, written with the assistance of Czeslaw Milosz (University of California Press, 1988). Wat’s account of human freedom is a worthy successor for our time, of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. The story of his search for his wife after they were released from different Soviet prisons is one of the great love stories of the twentieth century.
Harvey Guthrie, in Theology as Thanksgiving, (Seabury Press, 1981), describes faith without resorting to metaphysical language. The relationship thus described, between us and the one who is with us, turns out to be true freedom —the freedom we need to be worshipers, moral agents, and lovers.
Richard Mitchell, the “Underground Grammarian”; especially his essay “Writing Against Your Life.” (Click on “The Great Booklets and Other Essays.”) Mitchell wrote as much to discover for himself what he believed, as to make his ideas clear to rest of the world.
Jacques Ellul, in The Subversion of Christianity (Eerdmans, 1986), sets forth the crucial dichotomy between faith and religion.
William C. Placher, in The Domestication of Transcendence (Westminster John Knox, 1996), gives fresh readings of Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, rescuing them from the hardened academic reductions they have received since soon after each of their deaths.