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.”
What the Owl is Trying to Say
As of this writing we are about five months into An Owl Among Ruins. It would be understandable if our few readers don’t find much logical consistency in the thing so far. We may have created more frustration than clarity. That’s not good for one who is still trying, at 73, to get control his mother tongue. Athe best advisors on the subject say Keep It Simple; no extravagant turns of phrase, no complex compound sentences—you learned it in grade school. I’m slow. By now it’s fair to ask, What Is the Owl Trying to Say? Put it down in as few words and as plainly as possible.
OK, here goes. It will help to start with the key terms. Luckily they are few, but unluckily, from the first they don’t mean what people think they mean. Here they are: Faith, Covenant, Love, Freedom, Obedience. These are things already alive in human hearts, maybe in all human hearts. Let’s take them one at a time, then see how they fit into a whole.
Faith is usually taken to mean a human accomplishment, either potential, developing in the heart, or full blown and ready for action. It is more accurate to say Faith is first God’s faith toward us, his creatures, whom he has chosen to be different from himself. Before that, he elected to have a Son, a Person other than himself, and a Spirit of Love that flows between them. Through the Son he chose to create us, his creatures; and another thing, the cosmos in which for us to live, also exchanging love; love between himself and us, and love among ourselves. All this choosing went on before there was such a thing as time. If only one thing is clear so far, let it be this: the initiative belongs to God. Our lives as his creatures come from that source, which lies behind all of the creative forces we can observe. Faith—God’s faith, which we find in ourselves—is the most fundamental fact of human existence.
The Covenant between God and his creatures is actually a succession of covenants; we might call them agreements, or treaties, or promises. The key point here again is God’s initiative. God makes promises to Noah, that there shall never be a flood that covers and destroys all life on earth; to Abraham, that he will be the progenitor of a numerous people; to Moses and the Hebrew people at Sinai, that he will be their God and they will be his people through thick and thin; to his people Israel, that it will prosper as long as they obey his laws and avoid the idolatries that surround them; last to the New Israel, the church, established by the Holy Spirit after the death and resurrection of his Son, who became a man and lived and died as a man, seen, heard, and touched by other men.
The Bible is the record of human efforts to cope with this God. He never gave them a choice about making a covenant. The most important feature of the Ten Commandments is the first line, which is not a law at all, but a divine roar: I am your God. Everything after that is commentary, a footnote. The Creation is the material basis for the covenant. There is no reason for it to exist except as the theatre of operations between God and his creatures. The Covenant is the spiritual basis of Creation, its whole reason for being. In the absence of Love between God and his creatures—all of them, not just Israel old or New—it would not matter in the least what we do or don’t do. As it unfolds, the Covenant has its ups and downs, sometimes terrifying but never lost sight of. Eventually Israel returns from Babylonian exile to its homeland, and is living there under Roman imperial rule when Jesus come on the scene.
The first thing Jesus has to say is this: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” That declaration is as radical as the one at Sinai, “I am your God and you are my people.” It demonstrates again what we said twice above: the initiative, the kingly power, belongs to God. Jesus goes on to demonstrate by his words and actions what kind of human life corresponds to that knowledge. That is, living for others. Jesus’ first words are not “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That had already been said many centuries before, in the book of Deuteronomy. But Jesus’ life was a life lived for others, healing, feeding, and proclaiming God’s kingship over all. The world knows how it played out.
Freedom in this context means the freedom to live for others, knowing full well that one may lose this earthly life, as Jesus did, ignominiously —but knowing also that we have dual citizenship; we have another, truer life, hidden from us now, but secure in God with Jesus Christ. The technical word for that dual citizenship and the knowledge of it is eschatological consciousness. It surpasses all the other kinds of “consciousness raising” about which people are so zealous, for the Self is no true self outside this truth: we are first citizens under God’s reign. Understanding where our true life is, and that it cannot be lost, we are free to do anything this earthly life calls on us to do, up to and including laying down this life for others’ sake.
Obedience is the human response to God’s initiative. Having received the gift of faith from God (reminder: not a decision, not a leap into the dark, not a human accomplishment—a gift from God), joy and thankfulness burn toward an outlet. Then God in his freedom answers the individual with a vocation; a task to perform, a completely individual matter. The meaning of obedience is not conforming to social or sexual or any other kind of moral principles; it means hearing one’s own unique call, the vocation, however surprising it may be, and carrying out the task. Not everybody likes what they are given to do. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus, thrown down and blinded, stripped of his identity, given a different name. Think of Moses making excuses at the burning bush before he goes to Pharaoh.
Waiting on God
Faith, Covenant, Love, Freedom, Obedience. These are the main points of the Owl’s message. The Owl denies any doctrinaire or hegemonic content to them. The Owl has no stake in whether a reader takes to them or not. He’s just been saying you are free; not just free in a commonplace sense, but FREE. In the Resurrection everything that needs to be done has been done. Now it is for us to live and let live, succor and take care of each other as best we can, while we wait on God’s good pleasure going forward.