Sunday, December 31, 2006

Toward a Systematic Theology of a System-Resistant Progressive Catholic

Over the past few months I have been unable to convene the Francis/Clare Community (F/CC), the weekly group of progressive Catholics who meet for a discussion of our world, the lectionary of the church, a potluck dinner and the eucharist. Some are members of small independent Catholic bodies, some still Anglican, some disaffected from organized religion altogether. I've missed my community. But with an evening + day class schedule plus a Buddhist group therapy I was attending, being out three nights a week was just impossible. This hiatus has given me a chance to rethink what I understand to be my religion. It would be easy to take the Unitarian seminarian approach of the via negativa - I don't believe in the creeds, I don't believe in the hierarchy, et al. The via positiva is much more difficult: I believe…..and here's why....

In the past few weeks, I've been engaged by John, a former Disciples of Christ pastor turned Episcopalian, in an internet discussion with a wide range of folks assembled by my friend, all of them unknown to me personally, in topics surrounding the issues of what is meant by the concepts "orthodox" and "Christian." It has been a good experience for me. I have thought that before resuming leadership of the F/CC, I probably ought to have a clear sense of what I saw as the mission of that group, including the theology I would bring to bear on that project. In short, I found myself contemplating the unthinkable - rewriting my own systematic theology. I still feel the way I did my first day in systematics class in seminary when I posed this question: Why is it necessary to have a system into which one's theology could be placed? What kind of G-d could be placed in such a box?

But I think today that my concern is not so much with the box as much as the notion that somehow G-d must fit it, thereby creating a compulsion for all others to do the same. What I've become comfortable with is the notion that we all speak for our own faiths and that anything else is dishonest (we don't all believe the same things) and arrogant (none of us have the right to speak for others, only ourselves).

And so, when the question was raised in our internet brawl this week "Exactly what does 'Christian' mean?" I took it upon myself to offer a stream of consciousness systematic theology of my own. The result follows:

Being Christian for me means being:

* A follower in a way of being fully human and living a life radically open to G_d taught and modeled by Jesus of Nazareth
* A seeker and worker for the Kingdom of G-d he preached, incarnated and ultimately gave his life for
* A tiny piece of polished glass in a huge, rich mosaic of widely diverse tradition, praxis, beliefs and self-understanding that stretches back 2000 years and draws from much more ancient sources in Hebrew, Greco-Roman, Celtic, middle eastern sources
* A human being who finds guidance and inspiration in the wisdom found among the Christian Scriptures sometimes called the New Testament and among the Hebrew Scriptures upon which they are based as well as among widely ranging aspects of the ensuing Christian theological tradition
* A child of G-d bearing the image of G-d who by virtue of the Christian tradition has come to value Creation, its inhabitants and the Creator who lies behind as well as within it

* A mystic who recognizes the divine in Creation and in the inner depths of self, a pattern of spirituality with a long pedigree in the Christian movement
* A prophetic voice for social justice, a vocation with a long pedigree in the Christian movement and in the Hebrew tradition which preceded it
* A professed member of the Franciscan third order seeking to live out vocation to follow the Way of Jesus in the manner of Francis of Assisi

In my understanding of Christian, I value

* Creation, Creator
* Spirit and the power of transformation including the redemption of social institutions
* Image of G-d found on every human face even when I have to work hard at seeing it (particularly when I have to work hard at seeing it)
* The life, teachings and example of Jesus who reveals G_d, embodies Spirit, exalts Creation and provides a Way of living into the same
* Sacraments in which the outward and visible signs point to an inward, spiritual grace (which is NOT to say G-d is not always present just that we are particularly aware of it in that moment and manner)
* Principled, post-conventional thinking found in the teachings of Jesus (Love your neighbor as yourself, blessed are the poor) and in the tradition (war is only just when the last resort necessary for self-defense)
* The witness and example of the many saints
* The apostolic succession and the ordering of ordained ministers not so much in terms of authority (and despite its tendency to tyranny) but simply because the succession provides a historical connection to the very roots of the tradition, a wide stream in which we today stand
* The richness of the 2000 years of Christian tradition, practice, beliefs

*Being open to the constant surprise of encountering the divine in totally unexpected ways

In my understanding of Christian I believe

* in G-d, mystery beyond human understanding and construction, who creates, sustains and redeems all of creation (Aquinas - We come from G-d and we return to G-d)
* I can trust G-d with my life here and now as well as whatever - if anything - may follow this life. It is not necessary for me to falsely reassure myself by contracting with G_d through the agency of organized religion (accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior, buying into creed or confession) for this to occur.
* in the communion of saints - all of them. Though I do not know there is a life after death, I sense that there is, choose to believe that there is and I experience the souls of those who have gone before me, particularly as they surround us in the eucharist.
* that the Way of Jesus is salvific - it brings health and wholeness to human beings

* that the Way of Jesus is transformative, redemptive personally and collectively
* that the Kingdom of G-d is the heart of Jesus' life and mission and that it is still as potentially life-giving to day as in his day
* that the Kingdom of G-d is the means by which love of neighbor and concern for the least of these, the fundamental tenets of Jesus' teaching, are expressed as right relation, justice

* that the deepest experience I can have of the presence of G-d occurs in the heart of the Creation
* that the second deepest experience of G_d's presence occurs in the heart of the sacraments.

I am a Christian despite

* The needs of so many fellow Christians to create boxes into which they would fit G-d (a laughable notion)
*The needs of so many fellow Christians to create a single box into which they would fit the diverse tradition of which we are a part
* The needs of so many fellow Christians to proclaim the requisite beliefs all must hold so they can feel secure about their own
* The history within our tradition of legitimizing and practicing almost every social pathology known to humanity: slavery, racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, anti-semitism, colonialism
* The tendency toward self-deprecation required of the faithful as a means of aggrandizement of patriarchal constructs of G-d (sovereign, judge, king, et al)
* The tendency toward infantilization of the faithful by its hierarchical leadership including telling people what they must believe in the name of some elusive notion of orthodoxy rather than asking them what they do believe and why

* The long pattern of legitimization of war if not the outright calling for crusade
* The tendencies of exclusivism found in most Christian theology that tend to play out in intrafaith wars for control and extrafaith pathologies such as anti-semitism, crusades, White Man's Burden and the legitimization of often genocidal conquest
* The virtual loss of any authentic appreciation for and following of Jesus (orthopraxis) in favor of conformity to rule-driven moralism and constructed belief systems (orthodoxy)
* The presumption of far too many Christians to speak of their faith in prescriptive terms (you must believe...) rather than descriptive terms (I believe...and here's why...)

Finally, there are a handful of singular aspects of the tradition that strongly inform my understanding of being Christian :

From the Gospels:

* The Beatitudes
* The Lord's Prayer
* The Prodigal Son
* The Good Samaritan
* The Great Commandments
* Jesus' articulation of his vocation from Isaiah at the beginning of Luke (free the captives, heal the wounded, et al)
* When you've done it to the least of these....

From the Christian Scripture:

* "Faith without works is dead: - James
* In Christ there is no slave or free... - Paul
* Paul's four fold form of the eucharist: took, blessed, broke, gave

From the Hebrew Scripture:

* Genesis creation accounts (both of them)
* the Prophets
* the Psalms and Proverbs
* Micah - What does G-d require of you? Love
mercy, do justice, walk humbly with G-d
* Proverbs - Without a vision, the people perish

From the Tradition:

* Historical: Meister Eckhart, Hildegaard of
Bingen, Peter Abelard, Teilhard de Chardin,
* Modern: Latin American liberationists, Matthew
Fox, John Hicks, Elaine Pagels, John
Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Bob Funk,
* All will be well and all manner of thing
will be well
- Julian of Norwich
* Canticle of the Sun - Francis
* St. Richard: Day by day, three things I pray,
to see thee more clearly, love thee more
dearly, follow thee more nearly.

OK, that's a beginning, the first word, not the final. As with most things in my life, it is indeed a work in progress.

p.s. I also believe there is a particulary hot spot reserved in hell for those who create these *$#!schizy HTML editors


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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