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Faith and Deconstruction

There is nothing specifically Christian about theological curiosity. Before there was Gospel there were Greek, Jewish, and other more exotic writings about the gods. The first recognizably Christian theology was anti-theology, that of Irenaeus against what he called vain speculation and superstition. The first constructive Christian theology, that of Origen, was greeted with profound distrust, and branded with the same epithet: speculation. To this day, the best Christian theology (Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is not an attempt to produce positive, orthodox teaching, but a critique of understanding. Its goal is the exposure of false and groundless pretensions. So it has been since Moses’ interview with the Unnamable at the burning bush.

It is ironic then, that certain writers who believe they are defending the Church and Christian values, are squeamish about deconstruction criticism. See for instance the “Houses of Worship” column in the Wall Street Journal. Deconstruction is supposedly iconoclastic, and therefore inimical to Christian belief, which is expected to be apodictic truth, backing constructive moralism. Writers in the more familiar mode apparently think old King Numa had it right at the beginning: the purpose of religion is to make a society cohere, and there is no distinction between religion and faith.

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Philosophy meets Faith

The Owl wishes to acknowledge a great debt of gratitude to one of his teachers, the Rev. Dr. Harvey Guthrie, erstwhile Dean of Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, who generously took him under his personal tutelage and introduced him to Richard Rorty, of whom more below.

God’s being

Operating as a philosopher, let it be noted, not a theologian, Richard Rorty denies the necessity of a god who made the world with some intent of his own, which it is our task to discover. As philosophy, this is perfectly correct Down that path lie only the pretentious creations of human minds—in other words, idols. In Rorty’s famous dictum, truth is made, no discovered. As far as we think we have the truth of God in hand, we made it up. But God’s truth is a thing of a different order, wherefore we say—or rather, we hear God say he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That is not a valid philosophical utterance; it is not philosophy at all.

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The Grammar of God-Talk

Elsewhere in these writings we have asked whether it were not better for us to avoid theological language, at least when talking outside our own coterie of committed Christians. With those whom we would like to reach to make disciples, it is repugnant. Doctrine is not simply teaching, it is dogmatic; not authoritative but authoritarian. The talk that is expected of us, and we too often give, is counterproductive.

Yet surely there is a proper place for theological language, if it can be used judiciously, understanding its peculiar grammar. Richard Rorty understands and fails to understand this. In his terms there is nothing to be said about the nature of man, or the nature of God.[1] It is simply absurd to put predicates behind “God.” Yet we take very seriously a sentence like “God is love,” “God is good.” and “God is truth.” How can this be?

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The Freedom of a Christian

Our God is a free God, all-powerful and able to carry out His will. He is not an idol who obeys human creators. In his freedom he has bound himself into a covenant with all his creatures, and particularly to those he created a people at Sinai. He does not wait on us to discover him; it is for us to wait on him, not because he needs our obeisance, but because he loves us. God comes and gets us, or rather he comes and offers his providence, and ultimately his own self to us, tangibly, in the shape of his son Jesus Christ, the first man and the true type of which all we are the antitypes.

Authentic human being is a life hidden in God with Christ (Colossians 3:3), in glorious freedom from cultural definitions, whether these are imposed upon us by career, gender, social standing, education, or tastes in material things. Our true life will be revealed in God’s good time. Meanwhile, God’s freedom is the guarantor of our freedom from the oppressions and obsessions of this world, which is the theatre for the working-out of God’s covenant with us, but not a permanent home.

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The Church’s Acceptance

Lately in church we heard the familiar message that wherever two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, there he is. Next we learned he is not only in each person, but even in the decor of the sanctuary: the flowers, the banners, and the aura of the place—in the deacon too! Not a suggestion comes out that he’s in the silence that eclipses personalities and distractions; that most eloquently bespeaks his steadfast patience.

Once my friend Ev asked, Suppose Jesus walked in on a Sunday worship service of ours. What would he do? Lenny Bruce had an answer in one of his routines. Jesus and Moses show up at St. Patrick’s, Manhattan. Soon the place fills up with gimps and crips, and the commotion is terrible. The Archbishop gets on the hotline to Rome: “What are we gonna to do? We’re up to our ass in wheelchairs and crutches here!”

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Distinctively Christian Faith

What makes Christian faith distinctly Christian? From the most ancient times, Jews knew that God’s reign is eternal, God’s steadfast love endures forever. Jhwh keeps his covenant with Israel through all vicissitudes. God is with us: Immanu-el. Christian faith might seem little different from this, but for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

During his journey from Anglican to the Roman Church, Cardinal Newman first thought he would find a clear basis for faith in the teachings and practices of the ancient church. But the more one studies the ancient church, the more one might question whether it had a coherent understanding; how much Jewish and Gentile Christians had in common during the time of Paul. The more Newman studied it, the more diversity he found. Knowing these things, he was driven to conclude that the authoritative thing is the Church in and of itself.

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Life in God, Life in the Mire

By now Owl readers will have heard that Christian life is life for others. What we usually meant by that is easy enough to summarize: Jesus’ identity with the hungry, thirsty, naked, or sick; strangers and prisoners (Matthew 25:35–36); prophetic justice to protect widows, orphans, and resident aliens; religious and secular efforts to make the world better. All these things are undoubted goods, among the duties of Christians and everyone else if we are to have life together.

But there is a deeper meaning that takes us to where Jesus’ ministry took him, to the death of an outcast. From eternity, the Crucified One is the type, the definition of true humanity. We are the antitypes. Our true life is not to be social engineers with a prescribed plan, but to know that we have died, and our true life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). The earthly manifestation of that life is Jesus Christ utterly condemned, and we sinners with him.

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The Nature of Scripture

Scripture presents special problems to interpreters: The nature of scripture? Etymologically, nature is derived from the Latin noun natura, based on the participle natus, born. All things in nature are born, i.e. not supernatural. But isn’t scripture supernatural? Some religious people say it is. Others say no; it is like all language, a human creation, not Truth, but a human attempt to cope with Truth, limited by all the contingencies of our times and places, buffeted as we are by forces beyond our control. What could it possibly mean to say either that Scripture is supernatural, or that it has a nature?

When people think of Scripture as supernatural, or holy, or as the Word of God, they mean it is not a product of human wisdom, but of a Spirit that breaks into the world from outside. Now we’re deep into capital letters. “Word” and “Spirit” denote persons of the Trinity. If we treat Scripture similarly, we will have divinized it. But nowhere is it said that Scripture is a God or any part of God. We may say the Spirit of God speaks through the prophets, but that is about as far as we can safely go. The tablets given to Moses at Sinai are covered with words from God, but they can be smashed to bits if necessary to make a point.

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Faith, Doubt, Anxiety

There is a world of difference between the proud courage which dares to fear the worst and the humble courage which dares to hope for the best.

— Søren Kierkegaard[1]

The Silence of the Universe

However confident one might feel on Sundays, there comes the intimate, private moment when one confronts another truth: our relationships with God are fraught with anxiety. Like all generations before us, we hear the silence of the universe, which enforces a sense of alienation. We know he is with us as we worship and go about our daily work. Is it so, Is that a case of self-deception? It takes a strong Christian to approach these questions forthrightly.

The Lord offers to bear our griefs. That includes the pain of anxiety. To accept his offer we have to confess it, to own our doubts. In the Eucharist we lift our hearts up to the Lord—not our scrubbed and shining faces, but our secret, overburdened hearts. We present our selves, our souls and bodies—the whole, omitting nothing, beseeching God to accept this offering, to cover us with the righteousness of Christ.

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Liturgical Man

The proper study of Mankind is Man

Alexander Pope

The Owl remembers hearing that Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931–2019), preaching on the true value of human beings, said that if we but knew the reality of Jesus Christ to be seen in each one, we might have to spend our lives on our faces in worshipful reverence for every one we met. If he did say that, he was flying against  the overly facile beliefs most people have about the dignity of man. Agreeing more with Tutu and not with Alexander Pope in the above epigram, the Owl posits Liturgical Man.

Liturgy comes from Greek roots, meaning the proper work of an individual, according to his or her place, or rank, or office in a public context, particularly the clerical and lay roles in Christian worship, prescribed by tradition. In the Episcopal Church the liturgy is set forth in the Book of Common Prayer; the Roman Catholic Church has missals for the same purpose. Practically all the denominations’ worship includes some form for Eucharist, or Communion.

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