“I just want to know what it means!”

Perry Robinson, a philosopher in the Orthodox Church, wrote an interesting article Why I am Not an Episcopalian. It’s a fairly sharp response to an Episcopalian struggling with the trinity.

I sure hope that God will not judge me on my theology.  My faith is strong.  My belief system probably needs a little tinkering.   But I’ll still sing what the church says.

The general article, however, repeats the same tired analysis of why TEC is in such bad shape.  Admittedly, he’s amusing:  “TEC – “Don’t believe in that crap?  Neither do we” with KJS is in one photo.   But it is finally unenlightening (although true).

Yes, your average Episcopal priest isn’t a great expert in theology.   I wish more were familiar with the broad panentheism in the Orthodox tradition, and the deeper expressions of recent Catholic theology.  I wish priests were better able at explaining the relevance of the living God known through the Trinity.   When an Episcopal priest denies the atonement, discards the sacrificial language of the Eucharist, or explicitly avoids the readings of Revelation, I’m disturbed.  But Perry misreads the past and seems oblivious to our current context.  Bad theology didn’t simply drop into the Episcopal Church and cause it to go to hell.

Mr. Robinson is right about a lot of things:  Yes, most Episcopalians are a lot like Unitarians.   In fact, for the first 60 years of our country, the people who governed were either one or the other.  We came from the same social class.   At the first general convention, the creed was almost rendered optional during communion services.  Robinson, perhaps unwittingly, rediscovered a part of our social DNA.

But even more so, your Average Episcopalian agrees with the Unitarians about all sorts of things.  S/he probably thinks the following: the earth is round; that evolution is true; that the universe is billyons of years old – and that this sort of thinking is relatively recent.  And it affects the content of Christian doctrine.   Now this is, perhaps, a contestable statement, but Mr. Robinson has to confront it at some point.

Just as I expect Mr. Robinson questions my… true Christianity, from my perspective, Mr. Robinson believes the earth is flat; evolution is untrue; God did create the earth in 6 days.  It is, after all, what the bible implies.  As he indicates, If you don’t believe what the bible says, you’re not actually Christian.  You’re interpreting scripture so it fits with what you want it to believe. Tu Quoque, my friend.   No True Scotsman, and all.

Now I confess that I don’t actually believe that Mr. Robinson thinks these things.  He’s got theology to maneuver his way around them.   He’ll explain to me analogy, allegory, historic orthodoxy, and come up with inventive ways to – I hope – demonstrate that “divinely inspired” does not mean God sat down with a huge pen to write our sacred scripture.

But I suspect many smart, post-Christian people don’t think the church knows very much.  Years ago, the church’s authority was assured.  It was part of our cultural context to believe what the institutions around us said.  Alas, these institutions became less credible and more self-interested.  But the problem wasn’t just church leaders; congregants themselves were pushing the envelope.  The problem remains:  what kind of information are we handing down, and does it matter?

Like other conservative commentators, Robinson seems to assert that the decline of church is a consequence of poor theology.  Really?  It’s not bad music?  Tepid leadership?  Poor preaching?   Mediocre priests?   And yes, if the choice between supporting a decaying building and sending it to Haiti, one seems to be far more effective and appealing to your questioning Christian.

Robinson’s introductory story is most telling.  “Tell me what it means,” he demands.    The cool kids didn’t want to study the bible.  They wanted pizza.  Bible or pizza.  He chose the bible.  We Episcopalians, instead, chose pizza.

When it comes to pizza, Jesus was once called the big cheese and the one true olive.

He could at least have admitted it was a tough choice.

Like him, many Catholic scholars ask,  how do we form thinking? Can the church can be trusted to shape those minds?   Perhaps Anderson is right to ask, “what makes you a Christian?”  I might take it further:  why should people become Christians at all?  Does Christianity matter to the world?   Can it?   Why?

Robinson seems to be arriving from a world where everybody around him is a Christian, and already understands what the true faith should mean.  I do not live in that world.   I’m honestly perplexed by what he may articulate as “True Christianity” because my initial suspicion is that he thinks that the Earth is flat and Jesus was a Jewish Clark Kent.   I suggest there’s a lot in between, and we’ll probably get much of it wrong.  But by God’s grace, it’s OK.  I’m too dull to have my theology perfected before I get to the pearly gates, and fortunately, I’m unconvinced by his system of argument.

Further, I’m skeptical about his invention of the past.  Did most Episcopalians really believe in the Nicene Creed twenty years ago?  To what extent was their belief out of social obligation? A nod to one’s forebears?   Did interpreting scripture metaphorically get invented by John Spong?  Or did people compartmentalize, just as they do now?     I have several “old timers” who say, “I just say the creed.  I don’t think about it.  It’s what I was taught.”  It’s a delightful way of being faithful, perhaps.   Robinson presumes that church goers had clear beliefs, or were even concerned about them.  My own suspicion is a little less charitable: people who went to church, including the Episcopal Church, believed all sorts of things, but kept them private.

So we are in an age where people question the church; and these questions are public.  It’s not an easy environment, and I suggest that Robinson’s sophisticated answers won’t do very well.

Robinson is right, though, the Episcopal church is parasitic.   Yes:  as long as there is a Roman Church or Fundamentalists, there will always be an Episcopal Church.  We’re a church of refugees.  But not from good theology, but perhaps from the sins of the Fathers; or from the aggressiveness of the reformers.  But I suggest that Parasitism is probably a good part of Church history, especially when we talk about its relationship to the state.  And for some, the church was a parasite upon the ignorance of the people rather than the benign agent of all that is True, Good and Beautiful.

Robinson also correctly notes that the Episcopal Church does not command commitment.  Of course!  It’s competing in a commercial society!   Doctrines are bought or sold according to untility.   Buddhist or Catholic?  Whichever gives me the best high at the time!

If we want to change that, we’re probably going to have to change capitalism.  And I’m not prepared to go there.  He’s welcome to try.

But I am an Episcopalian because I believe that we embody Catholicism where the laity has a say.   Theology is not the purview of professional Christians; the bible is not merely interpreted by the Magisterium.  It is practical, open, and risky.  The consequences aren’t neat or uniform.   Those in the Orthodox and RC churches will surely reap their reward.  Perhaps we will also.  If we worship in a reasonable way (Rom 12:1-2), perhaps we can also trust that the Lord is merciful and slow to anger….(Ps 103:8).  And that we Episcopalians will still know Him in the fullness of time (Matthew 19:26).

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6 comments on ““I just want to know what it means!”

  1. dmhamby2 says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful, intelligent, fair and level response. I doubt you and I would always agree either, but I bet we could worship and converse on similar pages. For the record, in my article that sparked Percy’s comments, I had not intention of being the voice of TEC or an expert in theology. I’m a grad student with the desire to teach world religion someday, and am immersed in Christian studies now but most of my academic background before that was in other religions, philosophy, and journalism. As far as theological knowledge in TEC, all priests I’ve had and folks I’ve come into contact with in TEC are more well-read and knowledgable than most denom’s I’ve visited and been part of in the past, but all are trying…I don’t think they “chose pizza.”

    • padremambo says:

      I appreciated that you were struggling with it. For me the trinity is how Christians say, “God has a life.” There is a cooperative nature within God, and the Trinity describes how God is the Word in this cooperative fashion. I think he used your discussion to lambast the Church, using pedantic and predictable canards.

      I guess I should have been more clear. Choosing pizza is a perfectly justifiable choice. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).

  2. dmhamby2 says:

    I guess my overarching problem with the Trinity I can’t reconcile is the so-called “Scandal of Particularity.” I love Jesus, but the way most Triune Theology posits the existence of Jesus before time began (whether as “The Word” or a corporeal being) is something I can’t quite at this time ascribe to. I also think the theology leads to assenting to substitutionary atonement as a natural conclusion, which I don’t quite. But my journey and study is not over yet, so we’ll see where I find myself…

  3. padremambo says:

    I don’t think the trinity needs to say that the human being Jesus, anthropomorphically, existed before time began. I think Orthodox theology is different than Mormonism in describing “persons.” Persons is a theological concept that in part has something to do with the interaction between the transcendent and materiality.

    But the catalyst for all communication, and life, has to do with God in Relationship with someone – the Son.

    As far as atonement goes, the trinity, IMHO replaces substitutionary atonement by representing a peaceful, rather than a violent, relationship. The atonement reveals the violence at the root of human civilization, and the cost of it. Which is the Son. Without the cross, the violence is hidden, and we go on ignoring the way we hurt one another.

    Best on your journey!

  4. Matt Baldwun says:

    Very interesting post Padre.

  5. I didn’t take the Episcopalian to be struggling with the Trinity, but articulating his reasons for rejecting it. The post was, here’s why I don’t believe X, rather than, I can’t see how to put X and Y together.

    I don’t believe I judged his soul on the state of what he professes. I judged what he professed in terms of it being Christian doctrine or not.
    My analysis of TEC was new and unique. The critique you target was why this or that thing shows that TEC is going down the toilet. My argument assumes it is already in the crapper and asks for a reason to think that it counts as Christian.

    The Orthodox tradition isn’t panentheistic. This is a common mistake. Orthodoxy affirms creation ex nihilo even though it affirms that God is the formal cause of creatures through the logos of their respective natures. The article you cite, form Wikipedia (hardly reliable) makes this an other mistakes. Besides, I wasn’t charging him with having a mediocre theological understanding, but of professing heterodoxy.
    I don’t think the bad theology in TEC didn’t just come from no where. I don’t think I made that claim. If you think I misread the past, then you need a reason for thinking so.

    I didn’t argue that Episcopalians are like Unitarians in social ways. Theologically they were quite distinct. Take Bp Bull’s classic attack on Socianianism as proof. There were lots of reasons why the Creed was almost rendered optional. The thinking of some bishops was that the theology was sufficiently contained in the liturgy, making creeds superfluous. That is something altogether different than making the theology of the creed optional.

    The agreement between Episcopalians and Unitarians on the truth of heliocentrism is irrelevant. If I thought the Bible taught geocentrism unambiguously rather than a gave a perspectival view point this might be relevant. The effect on Christian doctrine is hardly comparable with a full blown denial of Trinitarianism.

    You impute to me views that I in fact do not hold and implications that I do not draw. I do not think the earth is flat or that evolution is untrue. I think Naturalism is untrue, but evolution and Naturalism aren’t the same things. The former is a mechanism by which species change occurs, and the latter is a metaphysical thesis about the natural of reality. Moreover, it is unlikely that given evolution there is a coherent notion of “species” in a realist sense to be had, since no two instances of a given “species” has the same DNA.

    I don’t think the Bible implies that the earth is flat or that God created the world in six 24 hour periods. I have never been a fan of Seventh Day Adventist Creationism, form which modern creationism derives. Augustine’s “literal” commentary on Genesis gives anything but a literalistic creationist view. The same goes for a good many of the Fathers. I’ll take Augustine, Basil and Nyssa (and C.S. Lewis) over Ellen G. White any day of the week. Consequently, there is no tu quo que argument to be made here since I deny the premises.

    It might have been helpful to actually poll me for my views on such matters prior to imputing me with the hick views of unthinking creationists.

    Nor do I advocate a dictation theory of inspiration. But of course the most ardent 19th century defenders of inspiration and inerrancy such as Warfield didn’t either. I am an inerrantist of sorts, but none of this is quite relevant or comparable to the issue on the table. My Episcopalian interlocutor wasn’t giving a certain read of Trinitarianism that has purchase in the text or in the Christian tradition. If he had, you would have an apt comparison. Rather he denied the doctrine altogether. A denial and a gloss are not the same things.

    Surely poor leadership, teaching and such were all contributing causes. But then again, I didn’t name heterodoxy as the only sufficient cause for the decline of TEC. So this is another straw man. You might have poor preaching and teaching of the laity of clergy due to the ascendancy of non-Christian though in TEC, but that doesn’t seem to appear as a possibility in your assessment. More to the point, repeated gathering of data seems to support the claim that liberal churches decline in large measure because people who believe go elsewhere and those that don’t figure out that it’s a waste of time and stay home.

    I don’t think Episcopalians chose “pizza.” Many of them chose Rome, Wittenberg or Constantinople.

    You are right to ask, why should people become Christians at all, but of course this assumes what I pointed out that is now controversial, whether TEC is Christian at all? What does the word mean? Is someone who denies most of the Creed, professing Christianity or something else?

    As for the world I have arrived from, I live in the same world you do. Growing up, most people around me weren’t and aren’t Christian. (Father, sister, extended family, peers.) if I thought that Christian doctrine as such was the product a human reconstruction project, then it is likely we’d get much of it wrong. But of course, this assumes the falsity of the claims of revelation and certain ecclesiologies. I am not clear why you get to assume such views without argument.

    Its not a question of what most Episcopalians believed twenty years ago. Most were nominal adherents. The point at issue was whether twenty to thirty years ago, the term Christian could be correctly said of TEC as opposed to now. That isn’t settled by taking a poll. It never was so established in any age of the church.
    Glossing the Scylla and Charydbis as Rome and Fundamentalism is a mistake. There are plenty of other options on the table-Lutheranism, Calvinism, Orthodoxy, Anabaptists. If TEC is a church of refugees, where are these new refugees coming from I wonder to replace those that have gone out the door?

    I suppose I don’t think the church is to compete in a commercial society, which is why it is so bad at it. Consequently, when I say doctrine, I mean something else than the way you use it. Besides, useful ideas can be false.

    In Orthodoxy, the laity have a say so I find it hard to take that as a distinguishing mark of TEC. And it is not like the liberalism in TEC is from the laity. If anything, it came from the top down with the house of laity being the most resilient of resistors.

    Truly the Lord is slow to anger, but he’s not too keen on those who deny him before men either.

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