Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, November 17, 2016

George Washington's great letter to the Jews

This is the introductory part of a presentation delivered on November 18. The whole thing will shortly appear in Discourses on this website. I wanted to get the George Washington letter out as soon as possible.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, November 18, 2016

One of the difficulties about the sort of preaching and teaching I do is that I don’t really know my audiences. I was in parish ministry for 21 years and I knew the parishioners in those three churches extremely well, as members of the clergy are privileged to do. It’s really hazardous to speak to strange audiences about delicate matters, and particularly in a time such as this when families are nervous about getting together for Thanksgiving. 

So… I am going to ask you to be charitable toward me this weekend, because I am going to make a really strenuous effort to speak to everyone, not just to one side or another. I have two choices tonight: I can ignore our present political upheaval and pretend that nothing has happened, or I can address it and try to put it into a biblical context. I’m going to attempt to do the latter. So is this going to be a political presentation? Yes and no. It is going to be political in this sense:  I am going to talk about the election tonight, to set the stage for tomorrow when I probably will not talk about it. I assume that there are people here who voted for Trump, and people who voted for Hillary, and maybe some who voted for neither one.

But my presentation tonight will not be political in this very important sense: I am hoping to present a picture that transcends political differences. I am not here to speak as a Democrat or Republican or any other specific political identity, but as a biblical Christian, or as one who is always aiming at being a biblical Christian.

I have spent many hours these past ten days, trying to make some sense out of our current situation. I’ve read pretty much anything I can get my hands on or click on. I’m going to try to give a quick overview of my reading and listening, and then I’m going to turn to the biblical witness, with a reminder that the Lord Jesus warned his disciples, “There will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is not yet.”

Here’s one piece of analysis, from Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court for 30 years (she now teaches at Yale, which now unfortunately makes her an elitist). This past Monday, she commented that “the campaign revealed unexpectedly deep fissures in American society” including “the stereotyping of African-Americans” and the “demonizing of immigrants and Muslims” which has left many of our people “deeply uneasy.” We are looking at a great division between white people, on the one hand, and black and brown people on the other. Moreover, she observed, this includes white people of every class—working class, middle class, and upper class elites—who don’t have much contact with black and brown people because their lives are so cocooned and cushioned.[1] It is this division that I want to highlight in my offering to you tonight as we look toward the season of Advent.

I don’t know about you, but high on my list of most-admired people is George Washington. I would like to remind you of something he wrote in 1790, when he was the newly elected President. He was scheduled to visit Newport, Rhode Island. The warden of the Jewish congregation in Newport, whose name was Moses Seixas, wrote a letter on behalf of his people. He described them as “the children of the Stock of Abraham,” clearly hoping to identify the commonality among Christians and Jews. (I think we might pause at this point to recall that Muslims also consider themselves to be children of the stock of Abraham.)  Moses Seixas expressed the Jewish community’s esteem for President Washington, and its pleasure that the God of Israel, who had protected King David, had also protected General Washington. He observed that while the rest of world Jewry lived under the rule of monarchs, potentates and despots, the members of his congregation, as citizens of the new American nation, were part of a great experiment: a government “erected by the Majesty of the People,” to which they could look to ensure their “invaluable rights as free citizens.”

Washington wrote back, greeting the congregation and thanking them. He  borrowed ideas – and actual words – directly from Seixas’s letter, and then he concluded, :
…happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.
May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way.
The letter is signed, simply, “G. Washington.” Every year to this day, the synagogue in  Newport re-reads Washington’s letter in a public ceremony.
“Every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.” The vine and fig tree image is found in three places in the Old Testament, so we are already in the world of the Bible. “None shall make him afraid.”
I was walking along the street in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday and I was looking into the faces of the brown, black, Asian, and otherwise multicultural people that passed, and I wondered, “Are you afraid, now?”
Everybody knows, by now, about the escalation of overt ethnic, racial, and religious hostility that began in the summer and increased after the election. The Wall Street Journal listed incidents in colleges like San Diego State, Elon University in North Carolina, and the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania.[2] In New York, white men shouted “You’re next!” at a black policewoman, making shooting motions with their hands. An Arab boy has been called a “sand nigger” by his schoolmates. Jewish journalists all over the country are receiving messages saying that the ovens are waiting for them. A 12-year-old boy in Gainesville, Florida, the son of two American-born parents of Egyptian heritage,  came home greatly distressed because his classmates accused him of being part of the Islamic State. The antagonism is not only from the Trump side. In California, a Latino student told a female classmate, “You support Trump! You hate Mexicans!” and threw her to the ground. Extremist groups have been emboldened. One website declared that violence was not necessary, but called explicitly for “yelling at brown people so they would “feel that everything around them is against them. We want them to be afraid.”[3]

Two weeks ago, I read an article about hostility toward Asians. I didn’t realize that there was any hostility toward Asians to speak of…they are supposed to be the “model minority.” The article recounted the experience of a young Asian man, an associate editor at The New York Times, who was just getting out of church, mind you,  with his family on Sunday morning. A woman passing by became infuriated that his child’s stroller was in her way. She screamed, “Go back to China! Go back to your f-ing country!”  It was mournfully funny that he wasn’t even ethnically Chinese, but Korean; in any case, he was born in the United States. Since the election, Asians of all stripes have reported many more incidents of openly expressed prejudice.
Many graffiti have popped up that read, “Make America White Again,” often with a swastika added. What in the world is “white” anyway? I heard a discussion about this on NPR. One person said that Greeks were white. Another said, no they aren’t, not after 400 years of occupation by the Ottoman Turks. My thoughts went back 70 years, to my public school in Franklin, Virginia. Every single student was “white,” supposedly. (The invisible black children went to school “on the other side of the tracks,” quite literally.) However, there was one Jewish child, whose parents operated a dry goods store, and there was one boy whose parents had come from Lebanon, and two girls whose parents had immigrated from Greece. Were they “white”?  They were all completely assimilated, as far as I could tell; the boy with Lebanese parents was voted “best looking” and was wildly popular. The two girls with Greek parents were very pretty and very talented; one of them married the Lebanese boy. At our 50th high school reunion, I saw them again for the first time in decades. I discovered that they were actively involved in various causes in their community. I plucked up my courage and asked them if they had felt any prejudice in school. To my astonishment they both said, vigorously, yes indeed they had. What then, I wondered, was “white” anyway? Was my Lebanese classmate “brown”? What are their children and their grandchildren? I tried to imagine them being called “sand niggers.”

We seem to be losing touch with the spirit of our founding President, who wrote with such feeling, “And none shall make him afraid.”

The complete presentation will shortly appear in my Discourses. 

[1] The New York Times, 11/13/16.
[2] The article speculates about a drop-off in student applications from abroad, affecting the bottom line of US colleges. “Foreign Students Hit Record, The Wall Street Journal 11/14/16. 
[3] “Reports of Bias-Based Attacks,” The New York Times, 11/12/2016.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Beyond Religion and Spirituality

Beyond Religion and Spirituality

Address to the President’s Conference sponsored by Trinity School for Ministry
Baltimore, Maryland
October 21, 2006

Celebrating the Baltimore Declaration 25 years later

by Fleming Rutledge

When the Baltimore Declaration first appeared, it was electrifying for many of us. It offered so much encouragement, and strengthened the hand of those who were wondering if we hadn’t become entirely irrelevant. Since then, a lot of friends have split. For myself, I’m still here as a representative of the dreaded “mainlines.” I have not and will not give up on the mainlines, and that includes The Episcopal Church (TEC)—which will always be PECUSA to me. To paraphrase Graham Greene, I intend, God willing, to live out the rest of my life as a piece of grit in the machinery.

The title of this address is “Beyond Religion.” Everybody here knows about that fast-growing category among millennials called “spiritual but not religious.” Generally speaking, people use this self-definition to mean that they want no part of the “institutional church” but seek a connection to some sort of transcendent dimension. This viewpoint presents us with serious problems in proclamation and teaching the gospel. I’m going to argue that the biblical witness is neither “spiritual” nor “religious,” but because so many millennials define themselves in these terms, we need to address these conceptions with warmly pastoral sensitivity and audacious theological imagination. I am long past the point of being in a position to engage with young people in a local setting, but I am quite sure that many of you here have special gifts of the Spirit for the times we live in, and I’d like to try to give you some encouragement your approach to the millennial challenge.

Obviously I’m not going to be using those two words, “spiritual” and “religious,” in the commonly understood way. When I use the word “religion,” I am using it the way Freud used it in The Future of an Illusion. That is to say, “religion” is the projection of human wishes and desires onto an imagined god or gods who require ritual, worship, prayer, sacrifice, and so on. This whole phenomenon, he thought, was tragically self-deceiving, and it was the responsibility of mature civilization to discard such illusory thinking. Freud’s long essay is, to my mind, the most powerful argument against religion ever written, and every thinking Christian should read it. John Calvin argues the same point as Freud in a certain sense, since he famously declared that the human mind is “a perpetual factory of idols.”

I am also using “religion” in the sense that Karl Barth used it. I first came across this in 1973 at Union Seminary in New York City, where Paul Lehmann required theology 101 students to read Barth’s Romans commentary—yes, the whole thing! In our first year! Speaking for myself, I experienced it as revolutionary, in very much the same way as its early readers did. Barth refers to “religion” as “the last human possibility” confronted by “the impossible possibility of God”.[1] He declares, “Religion is a human work.” And further, “A religion adequate to revelation and congruent to the righteousness of God…is unattainable by human beings.”[2] That’s the way I’m using the word “religion.” I believe this statement about the incapacity of the human being to come up with anything like the story of God in Jesus Christ is a foundational biblical affirmation and essential to the renewal of the church.

And as for the word “spiritual,” I’m using it as almost synonymous with “religion.” Spirituality, as I’m defining it, is essentially a human activity or human trait. This word “spirituality,” now so omnipresent, was unknown until fairly recently. I never heard it used in the church until about 30 years ago, and now it’s heard everywhere. (I was a bit disappointed to see that Dr. Les Fairfield is teaching a course in “Celtic Spirituality”….) Well, I’m taking a polemical stance here, but I believe that for the sake of the gospel we must make a distinction between spirituality and faith. To put it in the simplest terms possible, spirituality is all too easily understood as a path or ladder to human religious attainment, whereas faith is pure gift, without conditions. Nothing can be done from our side to increase it or improve upon it. On the contrary, we throw ourselves daily upon the mercy of God, saying, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief!” I like the old translation because it puts the emphasis on “thou”—it’s God who is going to help our unbelief.

I have often spoken of the moment when I became suspicious of spirituality. Thirty years ago, our family was undergoing a crisis. I received a long, compassionate letter from a friend on the West Coast. The letter was wonderful and I saved it, but there was one thing in it that bothered me. The friend who wrote it said, “Your spirituality will get you through this.” I recoiled when I read that. I think it may have been the first time I was ever conscious of that word. Whatever it meant, I was keenly aware that I didn’t have it. In and of myself, I had nothing adequate for what was facing my family at the time. I had only the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, in death and in life.[3]

            I think it might be helpful to recall how some of the current enthusiasms emerged. In Walker Percy’s novel The Second Coming, published in 1980, there is a hilarious description of a wildly eclectic group of people among whom are born-again Christians, old-line Episcopalians, a trendy minister in a jumpsuit (this is the 80s), a believer in astrology, a theosophist, and a Jehovah’s Witness. The narrator reflects:

“Is this an age of belief, a great renaissance of faith after a period of crass materialism, atheism, agnosticism, liberalism, scientism? Or is it an age of madness in which everyone believes everything? Which?”[4]

I had forgotten how firmly all this believing in everything had taken hold until I went through my old files on religion. For instance, I found a New York Times article from 1986 about “spiritual concepts.” Here’s how it begins:

Representatives of some of he nation’s largest corporations, including IBM, AT&T, and GM, met in New Mexico in July to discuss how metaphysics, the occult, and Hindu mysticism might help executives compete in the world marketplace.

The article goes on to describe “human potential” techniques that “blend Eastern mysticism and Western occult thinking.” Increasing numbers of middle-class Americans are showing interest in this supposedly new thinking in which “man can create his own reality.” We are on the verge of “a great evolutionary leap of consciousness.” Celebrities like Shirley McLaine popularized notions that “man can achieve whatever he wants, create whatever he needs. People are beginning to discover their own divine self.” Back then, though, the reporter thought it was important to quote various authorities who raised alarms about this way of thinking. Listen to their warnings: “This [trend] represents a complete rejection of Judeo-Christian ideas and bedrock American values.” The new notions, one said, reject “the Judeo-Christian idea that there is a single, omnipotent God who has revealed his will to man.” (You could still say “man” back in 1986!)[5]

Look, I know you know all this, but I must admit I was startled, going through my files, to realize how thoroughly these “New Age” ideas from the 70s and 80s have become integrated into the psychological and mental makeup of our culture, almost without being noticed: “Master the possibilities.” “Create your own reality.” “Be all you can be.” Here’s my point: these ideas about human self-creation are deeply religious notions. They are born out of illusion, wishful thinking, and a failure to look radical evil straight in the face. Human potential itself has become the object of worship. What I’m suggesting is that “spirituality” can easily become a type of human-potential thinking.

To bring this right up to date, I saw many connections this week to the political horror show we are living through. In New York State, where I live, a woman named Wendy Long, a Republican, is running for the seat of Senator Chuck Schumer, in line to be the next Democratic party leader in the Senate. She supports much of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda. She wants to restore “Judeo-Christian culture.” Why do I mention this? Simply to point out that, contrary to Wendy Long’s assumptions, it is not Muslims who started to undermine our Judeo-Christian identity. It was white, late-sixties New Age gnostics who were themselves products of the Judeo-Christian persuasion. The enemy was in our own household.

In the Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth defines “human religion” this way: “the realm of attempts by man to justify and sanctify himself before a wilfully…devised image of God.”[6] The position I’m staking out is that in today’s context, it is more crucial than ever to make a sufficiently sharp distinction between self-justification and self-sanctification, on the one hand, and on the other, the utterly gratuitous, prevenient action of God in justifying humanity by the self-offering of his Son. I’m choosing those two words carefully: gratuitous in its original, primary meaning of “given freely, without regard to merit” and prevenient, meaning “to go before,” as in prevenient grace which precedes anything we can do to earn or deserve it.

So what is the antidote to the situation we find ourselves in, where voices within the church are calling for the reinstatement of Pelagius as a Christian teacher and model? Where “Celtic” services on Sunday evenings, with candles and chants and eclectic liturgies, attract far more millennials than Sunday morning worship? Where so often, sermons are little more than assorted more-or-less-religious reflections having little to do with the actual biblical text? Where the high Christology of the Creeds and Councils has become a Jesus-ology, based on his inclusive table fellowship? What is the antidote?

In one of my old files I came across an interview with the pre-eminent Anglican missionary bishop and historian Stephen Neill. He said, “Biblical preaching is practically unknown these days.” This is in the 1970s! He continues, “I find a very remarkable response to biblical preaching. There’s not nearly enough of it in the churches in America…[Unless] you are rooted and grounded in the faith, there is no particular impulse to pass it on.” This was more than 40 years ago, and the trends have proven him right.

I’m here to argue that when there is no biblical preaching, the church is in a crisis. We need to define what we are talking about, though. I think many people think we are hearing biblical preaching because the Sunday sermons seem to be based on a biblical text. But that is not what makes a sermon biblical. If the preacher is not personally invested in expounding the text, so that he or she seems to be risking something, it’s not biblical. If the sermon does not seem to be coming out of the preacher’s inmost life-and-death wrestling with the text, it’s not biblical preaching. If the preacher is not preaching as George Whitfield did, “a dying man to dying men,” it’s not biblical preaching. My friend the late great writer Joseph Mitchell, was a member of Grace Church in New York in Fitz Allison’s time. He was very scornful about what was being called, in the 90s, the Information Highway. “There is no information highway,” he said. “What you need to know is, you’re going to die. That’s the information.” Annie Dillard wrote something similar: the writer must write as one “who knows she is dying, speaking to other dying people, determined not to enrage by triviality.”[7] What I mean by speaking of dying in preaching is that every sermon should have at least a suggestion that this might be the last word a preacher ever says, the last word you might ever hear. Is it a word of death, or a word of life?

When a preacher expounds a text on Sunday morning, it should be clear that he is totally invested in what he (or she) is saying. I have always remembered something from my very early days as a preacher. The text was the story about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus. My mother was in the congregation. She reported to me afterwards that she overheard someone saying, incredulously, “She preaches about that as if she believed it!” That was a watershed for me. I learned how important it is that even if no one in the congregation believes the biblical story, the preacher believes it. More than that—the preacher stakes her life on it.

The preacher should be changed by his preaching in some way, every time. If the text is really having its way with you, you will know it and those who have ears to hear will know it. If you know you are dying you will know the word of life when you hear it, and it will not be something plucked out of an online homiletical resource. It will be wrenched out of your gut by something—Someone—whose power issues forth from the same living Word that brought the creation into being out of nothing—ex nihilo.

“What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:28-9) This has little or no resemblance to “religion.” Religion goes round and round on itself like one of those labyrinths that so many churches have now. I apologize in advance for those who will be offended, but the Word of God that encountered Jeremiah is not going to be found either in the coils of a labyrinth or at its center—or, for that matter, on any spiritual journey undertaken with the idea that your own efforts are going to bring you closer to Jesus than Jesus already is to you. The Word of God can and will break you. There is no wishful thinking in it. There is surprise, shock, and the utterly unexpected. Above all there is the cross and resurrection bisecting the human story and changing everything.

            This has to be all I can say to an audience that has had a long trip, some of you, and drinks, and dinner. I know it is very incomplete and inadequate in its provocations. For instance, I haven’t time to explain how important it is to have small groups meeting regularly to study the Bible, with guidance. The Word of the living God does not go out into a vacuum. As it is expounded, it is already doing its prevenient work. The fruit of the Spirit is the people of God. The Spirit in the living Word is already preparing those who will hear. He is present also in those who do not hear. The test of our radical dependence upon God can be found in Paul’s words to the church in Romans about Abraham, who went forth in faith trusting the Word of God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). The things that do not exist: life where there is death, hope where there is no hope, faith where there is no faith.

I spend half the year in New England, where there seems to be a church closing every week. The landscape is dotted with art galleries and community centers and “event spaces” that used to be churches. I often feel like Elijah:

“Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.”

But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand persons who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
(Romans 11:3-6)

I hope you recognized that, from Romans 11. You see? It is not in your hands. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32). He is doing for himself great things that we cannot even imagine. Therefore be bold, be unafraid, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord. We have a great gospel. There is nothing else like it in heaven or in earth. It is neither “spiritual” nor “religious”:

it is the still, small voice that you do not expect and cannot command;

it is the trumpet call of the age to come;

“it is the Word of God, which is at work in you believers.”[8]

[1] The Epistle to the Romans, transl. Edwyn C. Hoskyns ( London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 332. This is the early Barth, of course; many would say that he modified his use of the word “religion” later. That is a legitmate argument, but I think if he were around in our present context he would throw the Romans bombshell on the playground of the theologians once again.
[2] Ibid., 366.

[3] An oblique reference to the Heidelberg Catechism, Article 1.
[4] The Second Coming, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1980, 159.
[5] Robert Lindsay, “Spiritual Concepts Drawing a Different Breed of Adherent,” The New York Times, 9/29/86. Mr. Lindsay, was no fool. It’s interesting how rare this sort of perspective has become in the Times of today, 30 years on. And he was writing before the p.c. rejection of “man”!
[6] CD, thesis statement for I/2 (???). Barth does continue to speak sometimes of Christianity as religion (as did Calvin) but I am not sure that in today’s environment he might not have returned to his more polemical language in the commentary on Romans.
[7] Annie Dillard wrote that in a blurb for my first book, in 1998, and a lot of people thought she meant I was dying of cancer. Being literal-minded is an enemy of biblical interpretation!
[8] I Kings 19:12, I Corinthians 15:52, I Thessalonians 2:13)