Thursday, December 20, 2007

William Penn: The heart from which all Scriptures come

From today's daily online quote service, Words of Wisdom, comes this quote: "There is something nearer to us than Scriptures, to wit, the Word in the heart from which all Scriptures come." -William Penn (1644-1718)

I've always liked Penn. I admire his idealism and the colony he founded on that idealism. Through the portals of the city of brotherly love poured thousands of European colonists who would not have been welcome in most other American colonies primarily because of their religious beliefs. They included a number of my own emigrant ancestors.

The Quakers held a number of beliefs seen as odd by their fellow Anglican, Puritan and Catholic countrymen and women. They believed that everyone had a spark of the divine in them and that worship did not involve the set liturgies of the Catholics and Anglicans or the extended guilt-driven preaching of the Calvinists but rather sitting in silence, waiting for the divine within to quake, moving the individual to speak what was on their heart. They also reasserted the wisdom of the early Christian movement that following Jesus essentially ruled out military service and the state killing we attempt to euphemistically rationalize as capital punishment. Penn's jails were true penitentiaries, solitary confinement for the purpose of repentance, reconsidering one's life with the goal of social reassimilation at the end of that experience.

Penn's Quakers were quickly outnumbered and eventually overwhelmed. But the matrix of religious freedom and the refusal to couple absolute religious certitude with temporal power resulted in a creative mix in Philadelphia in the heart of Penn's Woods that would ultimately give birth to a new nation "conceived in liberty," as Lincoln would describe it a century later at Gettysburg, today a short drive away from Philadelphia. We are in William Penn's debt for his vision, without which, as the Proverbs writer observed, we would surely have perished.

What synchronicity that this quote arrives two days after my minor eruption over the barely implicit literalism in the statement of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (see previous blog entry) Penn's words reflect two major influences on my spiritual development. The first is Francis of Assisi's focus on compassion driven praxis: "Preach the good news at all times, use words when necessary." For Francis, written words on a good day reflected the compassionate life one was living which treated all of creation, particularly its most vulnerable members, with respect. On other days, they merely got in the way of the compassionate life of service to the poor.

The second is the wisdom of Jerry Drino, my rector and mentor at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in San Jose, CA. A fellow of the Four Spring Seminar which uses a Jungian depth analysis to consider the Christian faith, Jerry was wont to pose this question: "Is it true because Jesus said it, or did Jesus say it because it was true." The first time I heard that question I found it disquieting to say the least. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was an important question, a question I continue to pose to my students today.

Scripture is always at most a secondary product of a primary experience of the divine. Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy called the experience of the divine the mysterium tremendum, an awe inspiring event (both in the sense of terror and wonder) which poorly lent itself to words. For virtually all of us, any scripture seen holy today is the product of centuries of transmission of first oral and later written tradition resulting in our receiving a product that is many years and countless generations of transmission removed from the experience which gave rise to it. Thus to conform one's own spiritual life to scripture, as the archbishop was suggesting, is essentially to buy into someone else's experience of the divine. At a very basic level, it is potentially a betrayal of one's own calling to an authentic life of spirit.

As I said in my rant on Rowan's ramblings, I hardly could be seen as one who does not value scripture. I find scripture highly useful and worth serious consideration. I quote it in my teaching, my writing (as alluded to above) and my conversations with others. Scripture is a valuable beginning place for the consideration of one's own spiritual life. But is but a beginning place, the first word, not the final. Hence, notions of conforming to scripture, obedience to official dogmatic understandings of that scripture or testing one's own spiritual experiences against others' understandings of that scripture for validity (whatever that could possibly mean) runs a major risk of truncated spiritual lives even as they provide the basis for the belief systems approved by conventional religious authorities.

Penn's formula provides one powerful corrective to this truncating tendency: what does one's heart say to you? How does your own experience of the divine inform your understanding? What might one's very spirit sense about what the spirit is saying to you, to the world? These are important dimensions to any spiritual life of integrity. Without them, our religion does not belong to us. As I teach my students, the most brittle religious constructs in the world are those we inherit from respected others and simply accept without question, much less reflection. It's precisely those inherited religions that are most vulnerable to the simple question "Why do you believe that?" And it is the consideration of that question that often induces painful feelings of betrayal of one's authority figures and cognitive dissonance in recognizing the fragility and often the superficiality - sometimes even the indefensibility - of inherited and unreflective belief systems.

While Penn has located the personal and affective dimension of believing, I would suggest there is yet another important question one must ask about one's own religious construct and the way scripture is appropriated within that construct: How does one's religion impact the world around us? It is, of course, very Franciscan to look around the Creation and see the image of the divine imprinted on every aspect of the created universe. And that's a good starting place. But it's only the starting place.

It is very easy for first world peoples in a consumer-driven society to appropriate scripture such as the Genesis passage instructing human beings to take dominion of the earth and use it to their heart's content without regard for impact on others. It is easy for people living in atomized first world nations marked by hypercompetiveness to rationalize the practice of state killing or economically driven invasions of other countries with selective appropriation of scripture. Conversely, it ought to be no surprise that a selective literalist appropriation of the Quran was on the lips of the pilots of highjacked airliners as they collided with the Twin Towers in New York. As Mark Twain said, even the devil can quote scripture. And as feminist scholars have long noted, any text without a context (or consciousness of implicit subtexts) is almost always a pretext.

Demands for conformity to an authorized vision of scripture almost always signal a number of things: the combination of some form of power with an absolute conviction of the rectitude of a given course of action which scripture has been marshaled to legitimize. Clearly, such a combination can on the rare occasion be salvific, i.e., it can bring health and wholeness to its adherents and those whose lives they touch sometimes in the face of extreme adversity, such as the confessing church movement in Nazi Germany. But more often the combination of power, absolute certitude of one's rectitude and the use of legitimizing scripture is anything but healthy, as the example of George Bush's invasion of Iraq because, according to him, G-d had instructed him to do so suggests.

The question of "What does the Bible say?" is too rarely accompanied by the more important questions of "What does it mean?," "What might the divine be saying to me and to the world in this?" and "How does that understanding impact my own life, the lives of others and the world around us?" And when we neglect the elements of head, heart and relationality to the world around us, buying into the understandings of others without reflection, we have virtually guaranteed that our own spiritual lives will be stunted and set the stage for religious tyranny.


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

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church, Dio. of El Camino Real, CA (inactive status)
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.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"It's Bib-i-cal" - Of Power, History and Stuffed Purple Shirts

If I have ever felt that I am a stranger to the Anglican expression of the Christian tradition which I once pledged my life to serve "as priest in the order of Melchizedek forever," it is certainly upon reading the Advent Letter from the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I have to confess I did not get far into the letter before becoming so nauseous I had to stop reading. Here are two points that caught me:

The Communion is a voluntary association of provinces and dioceses; and so its unity depends not on a canon law that can be enforced but on the ability of each part of the family to recognise that other local churches have received the same faith from the apostles and are faithfully holding to it in loyalty to the One Lord incarnate who speaks in Scripture and bestows his grace in the sacraments.

Of course, one of the great beauties of the Anglican Communion has been its refusal to be bound by the hierarchical, patriarchal structure of the Roman expression of catholicism. I observe that the British Isles' expression of Christianity has long demonstrated that resistance. It is evident in the community-based Celtic Church prior to the Council of Whitby at which Roman rule was imposed. It was also evident in the Pelagianism native to Anglican thought which refused to buy into Augustinian constructs of conditionality of G-d's love and the requirement of obedience to an institution and its dogma as a condition of salvation.

Clearly, the Communion is one of voluntary affiliation. The reality of that existence in itself ought to guarantee healthy disagreement and discussion about matters of faith as a matter of course. Attempts to impose a single vision on that ongoing discourse as a condition of belonging is a betrayal of the tradition. Indeed, it would be an abandonment of the Communion as it has historically existed.

What I found most alien in this statement was the notion of a single received tradition, "the same faith from the apostles" which true members of the communion are "faithfully holding…in loyalty to the One Lord incarnate who speaks in Scripture…" Of course, much of that is the boiler plate theobabble one would expect from an Archbishop of Canterbury. What is troubling is its lack of any semblance of historicity.

The reality is that the understanding in this letter is hardly "the same faith from the apostles." While it goes without saying that Jesus would probably not recognize himself in much of the religion which bears his name, the same can undoubtedly be said for his earliest followers and interpreters. Indeed, the notion of a single faith held by the various parties within what became the Christian faith is simply irreconcilable with the extant voices of that early tradition. What is observable from those voices is multiplicity of understandings, not a univocal tradition. The history of the stream of faith that came to be called Christianity more readily justifies a description of the same as Christianities, not a single Christian faith. The notion of a Golden Age in which everyone got along and believed the same things - located prior to the corruptions of Rome in the Protestant mythmaking or in an unbroken chain of sharers of the same vision dating back to St. Peter and hammered out in councils and succeeding magisterium in the Roman Catholic version of the myth - is simply the stuff of wishful thinking.

But here is the part that stopped me dead in my tracks -

So a full relationship of communion will mean:

The common acknowledgment that we stand under the authority of Scripture as 'the rule and ultimate standard of faith', in the words of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral; as the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which decisively interprets God to the community of believers and the community of believers to itself and opens our hearts to the living and eternal Word that is Christ. Our obedience to the call of Christ the Word Incarnate is drawn out first and foremost by our listening to the Bible and conforming our lives to what God both offers and requires of us through the words and narratives of the Bible. We recognise each other in one fellowship when we see one another 'standing under' the word of Scripture.

Perhaps it is the "authority of scripture" passage, the code language of biblical literalists, that first stuck in my craw. Or perhaps it was the language about obedience, again a cardinal value of conservative worldviews befitting parent/child relationships but not those of mature adults. Or perhaps it was the "'standing under' the word of Scripture, again, an essentially fundamentalist construction. I read and reread this paragraph and thought to myself, what is this? What do I recognize in this writing of my own religious history or my current understandings?

What finally gave me a place to begin was the reference to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral Statement of 1866, one of the many documents found at the rear of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer under the heading "Historical Documents." Long known by many Episcopalians as boring sermon relief, the documents are marked more by their antiquity and curiosity than anything informing the faith of Episcopalians today. Williams' letter called the Statement "the rule and ultimate standard of faith." In fact, what that statement lays out are four "principles of unity…which we believe to be the substantial deposit of Christian faith..." Among these four "inherent parts of this sacred deposit," the statement lists scripture first. But it hardly refers to it as "the rule and ultimate standard of faith," an assertion which would promote it to an exclusive, superior status, a theological trump card over the remaining three principles. Nor does its inclusion in that list exhaust the faith, according to the Statement, only a "substantial deposit" of it.

Indeed, rules are by definition statements mandating specific behaviors and thus at a lower level of authority than overarching principles which underlie rules and thus are broader and more open to interpretation and application. Rules are the stuff of parent/child relations. Principles are made for adult believers capable of reason, reflection, deliberation and prayerful application. Think state laws (rules) and Constitutional provisions like Due Process (principles). At least in theory in Anglo-American jurisprudence, when lower level rules come into conflict with higher level principles, it is the latter which must take precedence every time.

Rowan increasingly sounds like a power-driven fundamentalist. And to the extent he actually speaks for Anglicanism, he speaks about a religion I do not recognize. But what troubles me most about this statement is not its betrayal of Anglicanism or its revelation of Rowan's devolution from thoughtful theologian, albeit a theologian generally isolated from reality, to a stuffed purple shirt spouting mindless theology unbefitting a man of his intellect and educational attainment. What troubles me most is that increasingly I find myself looking on from outside at a religion I no longer recognize devolving into a form that I despise and, like Rip Van Winkle, wonder how long I've been asleep.

Increasingly I find generalized references to "the Bible" in conversation to be signals to tune out. I find myself making the very ungracious presumption that whatever follows will be uncritical - if not mindless - theobabble. Sadly, that presumption has proven to be true more often than not. I also find myself replying to assertions about what "the Bible says…" with comments like "Bibles don't speak. Their readers do." And I find myself assessing religious constructs which describe themselves in terms such as "bible centered" or "bible based" as essentially practicing an idolatry of bible worship I find completely alien. It would be easy to slide into an ungenerous pattern of prejudice here, a proclivity of which I remain on guard in my dealings with others, particularly my students.

I also increasingly find my understanding of G_d to fit very uneasily with the descriptions of G-d found in Hebrew Scripture or the New Testament. I don't doubt the validity of the descriptions found there, whatever notions of validity might mean in such cases. I simply presume that while they may well describe the experience of ancient peoples of the divine, those experiences and resulting descriptions may or may not be particularly compelling for people of good faith here and now.

Perhaps the most troubling realization in all this is simply that the Bible per se does not form the basis of my faith. It does strongly inform it. And I value its wisdom even as I recognize its human imperfections and its captivity to cultural assumptions people in the 21st CE West no longer share. But my notion of the divine has grown over the years as I have grown. And a god who can be confined to any book, even a book as divinely inspired as the Judeo-Christian scriptures, is not a god worth worshipping. Conversely, a religion which purports to be devoted to the worship of a G-d who is the ground and source of all being cannot be relegated to, much less based exclusively in, any single account of that G-d.

And so I find myself looking from the outside in at a leader I once admired of a faith tradition I no longer recognize and wonder how I ended up here. I find myself essentially in theological free fall, awash in a sea of cognitive dissonance. But I also recognize that the genie cannot go back into the bottle again. I cannot "fake it till I make it," per the disingenuousness of 12 Steps thinking. I was not ordained to be dishonest with myself or others. I’m not sure I ever really believed what Rowan Williams is talking about here. But I am sure I don't believe it now and the chances are, I never will. Indeed, I think people of critical reflection and good conscience probably can't.

This past week on a prison visitation I engage annually with people of faith I found myself describing my religious orientation as post-Christian recovering Episcopalian. Ironically I came home from death row of our state prison to find this letter from Rowan Williams, an obituary for the faith I once held in the Anglican Communion. Whither goeth the Episcopal Church in the wake of this devolution of Anglicanism is yet unclear. So, what does it mean to be a priest of a tradition whose leader speaks in a language you find foreign? What does it mean to defend a faith increasingly cast in terms you find untenable? What can be salvaged of a faith which once burned brightly and hopefully and now sputters and dies?

There are no easy answers tonight, perhaps no answers at all. Tonight there is but grieving for a once proud tradition that has fallen into decay and anxious pondering of a faith journey which once seemed so promising and now has vanished into a fog of zero visibility.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA, inactive status)
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.