29 May 2013

Against (Further) Heresy: or, Fundamentalism's Gnostic Secret

About a year ago, Thomas Long took aim at what he sees as the deeply Gnostic bent in the more liberal branches Protestantism. "Preaching Easter at Old First Gnostic" suggests that scholars like Crossan and Bishop Spong, along with the congregations that follow them, are the contemporary heirs to the Gnostic tradition in as much as they reject the mystical and metaphysical aspects of Christianity in favor of a post-Enlightenment ideal of right knowledge (over and against right belief). The people at "Old First Gnostic" don't take seriously the belief in an incarnate God or the resurrection, reducing Christ to the (or a) moral teacher.

There is, though, another type, more subtle, form of Gnosticism that Long fails to mention. Whereas Old First Gnostic would probably be ok with the Gnostic label (and might have Elaine Pagels in their congregation's library), this other group would balk at the title. They are very serious about weeding out any and all heretics; they take very seriously most of, if not all, of the claims of miracles; they might even burn books by Crossan, Spong, and Pagels. There form of Gnosticism is, much, much more subtle -- but it is also hidden in plain sight. This Gnosticism posits a strict dualism between the soul and body. Taking a page from classical Greek philosophy, they hold that the soul is fundamentally immortal.

There is a certain strand of Fundamentalist* thinking, exemplified in Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, that suggests when a person dies, there soul immediately ascends to Heaven and hangs out with God until the Resurrection. In this soul-body dualism, we are souls trapped in outdated, faulty flesh machines just waiting to die so that our souls can go be with God. God will eventually grant us new flesh machines that aren't faulty.** We are, in essence, under factory recall. We are encased souls, and our bodies aren't that important. Of course, most Fundamentalists would disagree with such a summary position. Grudem goes out of his way to discuss the sorrow that comes with the death of a loved one. This is, however, the logical conclusion of such a belief. The Gnostic theology does not mesh with our lived experience, and yet Grudem holds on to it.

Now before I move on, let me clarify: such a position does have some validity. As we occupy space and time, we long for the Kingdom of God outside of time. The Kingdom of God is eternally present (in much the same way as the Son is eternally begotten of the Father). In that sense, when a person dies, they are in Heaven because they are present in the eternal Kingdom of God, outside of time. In the very linear time that we inhabit, however the person if dead -- soul and body. It is obviously difficult to comprehend this distinction. Eternity, after all, falls completely outside of our experience. Chronology is difficult to discuss when it involves the eternal. It is a distinction that must be made, though, and one that the Church has traditionally held. We do not believe in reincarnation, a independent soul that jumps between bodies. Instead, we believe in a human existence in which body and soul are linked. Grudem (et al) does not take the time to make the distinction of existence in time and existence in eternity, but instead argues for an immortal soul. He (unknowingly) joins the Gnostics.

The problem with the Fundamentalist position is not that it agrees with ancient heretics. Some heretics make for great conversation partners. Rather, at issues is that this Fundamentalist Gnosticim does not fully consider the consequences of death.If the soul survives, then is a person truly dead? Sure, there body might cease to function, but the soul -- the part of them that is not just recycled atoms -- lives on. The person -- separated from the body -- "goes to be with the Lord." Death becomes nothing more than a physical experience and does not include the full person. Given Grudem's emphasis on a "person" going to be with the Lord, we can safely imply that he places personhood firmly in the soul (which is, itself, an issue; see the discussion on anthropology below). In Grudem's thinking, then, a person does not die. Thus, death is undone by mental acrobatics rather than the Resurrection of our Lord Christ. Such a position ignores the fully glory of the Resurrection.If a person does not truly die, how can they truly be raised? Again, it reduces the resurrection to getting a new flesh machine rather than a restored and perfected life.

The position inevitably leads to multiple systematic issues, such as an incomplete anthropology that is not concerned with physical things. The end result of Grudem's theology is that the body is only important as a vessel for allowing us to exist on Earth. On a related note, the theology (as explained by Grudem) is very selective about its biblical foundation (as is most Fundamentalist theology). First, it ignores texts that rejoice in our embodiment (cf. especially Song of Songs). True, Paul was worried about "the flesh," but it doesn't take a New Testament expert to realize Paul has something more specific than a human body in mind. (Of course, Grudem is not alone here. Augustine introduced this particular strain.) Second, it ignores texts that talk about being in the grave or asleep in Christ. One last point on systematics: Grudem suggests that our death joins us to Christ's death and completes our sanctification, but here he turns death into a sacrament. It is our death in baptism that joins us to Christ's death (and our resurrection to Christ's resurrection). By extension, it is Christ's death that joins him to all of humanity (as death is the final part of the human experience in the here-and-now).

There is a further theological point, though it is more of an issue of popular theology, falling into the domain of pulpits and Sunday school rooms -- and the belief of the common Christian. Arguably, it is in the popular understanding that this theology becomes its most dangerous. In the popular understanding, it's amazing how quickly the Resurrection of the Body falls off. We die and go to Heaven, end of story. At best, the Resurrection becomes some immediate act. At worst, it is conflated with death itself.

Instead, we must maintain a developed anthropology that includes death. We cannot separate out our souls as the true and undying self. We will die and do so entirely. We cannot ignore the importance of our bodies. Whether the body is good, bad, both, or neither, it is important. The body is part of the full self. We cannot degrade the Resurrection. It is full, complete, and glorious. We cannot be secret Gnostics, despising the flesh as an evil cage to be escaped.

Grace and Peace+
_ _ _
*It is difficult to come up with a concise label for this group, especially since their heresy spreads beyond their own group. It is prominent in Baptist circles, but certainly exists in popular theology. Most would label this group as "Evangelicals," but that rubs me (a member of the Evangelische tradition) the wrong way and is not entirely accurate. I'm going with Fundamentalist, but I recognize two things: a) as with Baptists, the belief spreads beyond the strict definition, and b) as with Evangelical, it is difficult to pin down a precise definition (for instance, I'm certain that not everyone who holds this belief is a strict creationist).

**This position inevitably shapes the general fundamentalist theology of creation and an ethic of conservation, as well. The world is faulty, just like us. We will leave it eventually, so why should we bother maintaining it? It is a faulty logic, of course, but one I have heard argued many times. Operating within the logic of the theological position, however, it quickly falls apart; just a tenant should maintain his or her apartment, so to should humans maintain the earth -- both to please the landlord and also because we don't know how long we will need to keep the lease. Of course, this position does not grant much (if any) inherent value to creation, but it is a starting point for a much-needed conversation on care for Creation.

12 May 2013

Thinking Through the Ascension

Below is my homily for the Ascension, but first, a word: it is perhaps obvious to say, but a sermon which meditates on the ineffable quality of the Ascension is, itself, hard to put into words. "Beloved people of God, we cannot explain this. So let me now explain how we can't explain." Sunday comes too soon.


Grace to you, and Peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, the Risen and Ascended One. Alleluia and amen.

Last summer, while I was working in the Smoky Mountains, I spent the night on top of Mt. LeConte. It's the third highest peak in the national park and a difficult, steep five miles to the summit. Once up there, I had an amazing view of the surrounding mountains and breath-taking places from which to watch the sunset and sunrise. While watching the sunset from a hidden ledge that only a few people (including my guide) knew about, I was excited to get back down the mountain and record the experience in my journal. The more I tried to write, though, the more I found my words failing me. I don't have the vocabulary to fully express the majesty of what that sunset. The way the sun hovered at the horizon, catching the clouds around it on fire, and the sky's slow fade from blue to the deepest purple, will forever be indescribable.

Comprehending the major Christian feast days is eerily similar. Words fail to do full justice to what is happening. Sure, we can understand birth and death. Christmas and Good Friday make sense. Easter? Well, we can sort of cognitively grasp what's happening. A heart can stop and then start again. We know that these are only partial understandings, but at least we have a starting point, right? Theology can take root in biology, at least in our minds. Much like the majesty of sunsets and mountains, we have scientific language available. I know that the sunset on Mt. LeConte was a function of slow geological movement, atmospheric distortion of light, and the rotation of the earth. All of this is true, but it fails to account for the full, sublime beauty of these events.

Just so, we miss the point when we limit our understanding of theology to that which can be understood scientifically. Christmas is about the full incarnation of God as Man, not reproductive health. Good Friday is about God's self-sacrifice, not just the cessation of biological function. Easter is about so much more than a heart beating again. This season isn't about divine defibrilation but an entirely new way of being alive, a new way of being, and a new creation.

And then we get to the mystical feasts. If we have trouble with understanding the more common place events in the life of Christ, how much more confused are we by those unique events which fall completely outside of human experience? We become even more lost. We lack a point of comparison. The Transfiguration, Ascension and Pentecost? Not even the most theoretical of physicist can provide insight into those.

No, we need a poet, not a scientist.

Instead,we end up with an idea of these great feasts that is overly reductionistic. We try to make sense of that which is wholly other. The Ascension becomes little more than Christ flying around like Superman. And then we really start to think about it. So, he ascended...to where? How exactly does one get to heaven? Second star on the right, straight on till morning? No, that's Neverland. Where's Jesus? Where's Heaven?

This question never really bothered me until I tried to think about it. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. Ok, cool. But...then I tried to put the Ascension into words. How did he get there? He ascended and, what, just kept going up? How far “up” does one have to go to get to the Kingdom of Heaven?

In The Truman Show, Jim Carry's character sets sail on a local body of water and eventually tears a whole in the fabric of his small little world. While the metaphor is certainly an apt way of thinking about Christ's life, and the image of tearing the fabric of this world is a beautiful expression of divine revelation, that's not what happens during the Ascension. What we read in today's Gospel was not Jesus going up and up and up until he burst out the side of the universe. We can't reduce the Ascension to such a literal interpretation.

These questions used to have answers. In the ancient way of understanding the cosmos, Heaven had a very definite physical location in space. The Ptolemaic cosmologists had an answer for this. Heaven is the outer-most sphere, just past the seven planets. It was obtainable in a physical way. But, from where I sit, as the first human-made objects leave the outermost parts of the solar system, they haven't hit any angels yet. Such a blunt view of heaven doesn't work well with how we think about the universe and our place in it. We can't reduce the Ascension to archaic astrophysics.

Where does this leave us? Did Jesus go up to space and disappear into another realm? No, we can't reduce the Ascension to divine teleportation.

Instead, we are forced to face a discomforting truth: we don't understand. We can't understand. It is too far afield from anything we have ever known. We think of theology as “faith seeking understanding,” but we fall short. There is nearly 2,000 years of theological tradition urging us to make sense out of what we believe, but we simply can't. We don't have the vocabulary to fully express the majesty of the Ascension. Instead, we should look east and turn to our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Orthodox theology offers a much-needed break from the over-bearing scholastic bent of theology; it invites the Church to dwell on the mysteries of the faith, to enjoy the unknown, and to celebrate the unknowable.

In rejoicing in the mystery, we can turn then to the altar with confidence. We can give thanks for God's own gifts of bread and wine and trust that the Risen and Ascended Christ is truly present in this sacred meal. Even though He is seated at the right hand of the Father, Christ is in the Holy Eucharist – in a very real way. And when we offer theses gifts back to God, we too are lifted up. In Christ's Ascension, we see the fulfillment of Creation being joined to the Kingdom of God. A human enters eternity, just God entered time. Just so, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are, in some very small way, joined to eternity. Heaven and earth unite. Our prayer joins with the Christians who came before us and those who will come after us. The Church – past, present, and future, here in Decatur and all across the world, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, on earth and in heaven, wherever that may be, the whole Church – ascends to the Kingdom of God. Just for a moment. Christ becomes present in midst of the Church. Heaven becomes present on Earth. The Church becomes present in the midst of the Triune God. It's a mystery.
Thanks be to God.