Saturday, August 29, 2009

What about Heresy?

If people now have trouble with creeds, as some of us do, many have even much more trouble with the idea of heresy. In fact, heresy is now generally seen as something so odious it is seldom mentioned in "polite" Christian circles.

"Whatever Became of Heresy?" is the title of one subsection in my forthcoming book "The Limits of Liberalism." As I write there, "throughout most of the history of Christianity, the treatment of heretics has been so harsh and so many 'heretics' have suffered so much that most of us in this age of tolerance and humane treatment for all naturally shy away from those pathetic practices of the past." But should we do away with the concept of heresy altogether?

Carl E. Braaten is a contemporary theologian who has dared to write about the necessity of keeping the concept of heresy. Braaten (b. 1929), an eminent Lutheran theologian who is conservative but not a fundamentalist, is the author of "That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church" (2008). (I have a review of that book in the July 2009 issue of "Missiology: An International Review.")

In his book Braaten forwards what he calls “Evangelical Catholicism.” With that emphasis, he speaks for many (conservative) theologians and church leaders who believe that everything is not permitted. He thinks there are scriptural and creedal norms that must be regarded with utmost seriousness. I agree.

If there is a central Christian Story, as I have repeatedly affirmed on this blog, then believing Christians, as opposed to cultural Christians, can surely be expected to agree with the basic expression of that Story--as, perhaps we could say, expressed in the creeds. Those who do not or cannot in good conscience agree with that basic expression may then rightfully be labeled with that odious word "heretic."

Then the question becomes, What does the church, or what do Christian institutions, do with regard to those who appear to be "heretics"? Certainly, I do not believe that they should be punished, mistreated, or harmed in any way. Regardless of what people do or do not believe, they should be treated with respect, kindness, and consideration.

Because of all the negative baggage carried by the word “heretic,” perhaps a different term should be used altogether. But surely there needs to be some way to distinguish between those who are Christians because of what they believe and those who are Christians because of their cultural identification but who do not, or who no longer, hold to the central Christian beliefs.

One final caveat: it must be remembered that while the word "creed" comes from the Latin "credo," meaning "I believe," the New Testament perspective on belief has far more to do with a life commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord than to intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What about Creeds?

As a "born and bred" Bible-believing Baptist, I never had much use for the Christian creeds--and in many ways I still don't. I have never been the member of a church that regularly, or even occasionally, used one of the Christian creeds as a part of worship.

Actually, my problem with the creeds has been not in what they say but in the way they have been used. When creeds are used as summaries of vital Christian doctrine and expressions of common faith, they are not only acceptable but also valuable. But when creeds are used to enforce conformity and to eliminate diverse views they become problematical.

The Apostles' Creed is widely used in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and many Protestant Churches. The longest part of that creed is about Jesus:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

That statement, as well as its amplification in the Nicene Creed, expresses the heart of the Christian Story--and it is hard to see how people could really be considered "believing" Christians if they do not affirm this central part of the creed. But does that mean we all have to interpret each part of it in the same manner--in a literal, factual manner? I think not.

How many of us today could possibly affirm, for example, that Jesus ascended in a physical body from this earth to a physical heaven in some sort of "three-story" universe? But does that mean that we should remove that phrase from the creed? Again, I think not. While we now will need to interpret it in a metaphorical rather than a literal manner, the assertion of Jesus' ascension is not without significant theological content.

So, the creeds are good as summaries; they are dangerous as weapons. The use of the creeds must allow room for diverse interpretations, but they are to be affirmed as valuable expressions of the core of the central Christian Story.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Are Historical Religions Better?

This is my response to the second issue raised by a "thinking friend"(TF) on August 13 (and repeated in different words in another e-mail message of August 20). My response to the first issue was in "Is There One Christian Story" posted on August 18.

In part, my TF wrote: "There seems to be a hint of judgment in noting the story-less tradition of Buddhism as compared to our 'decisive' faith story. Is an 'historical' religion better? If so, why?"

Regardless of what I think about the merits of "the Christian story"--and I continue to maintain that in spite of all the differences there is an overarching story which not only unites all Christians at some level but also definitely makes Christianity a historical religion--I in no way think that being historical in itself makes Christianity superior to non-historical religions.

On the other hand, those who are adherents of non-historical religions (or a mystical, non-historical version of "Christianity") are usually clear in their contention that religious faiths focussing on "eternal truths" are superior to any religion based upon historical events. The Buddhist scholars with whom I regularly had dialogue in Japan left little doubt about direct contact with Ultimate Reality bring better than any reliance upon historical events.

As I write in the seventh chapter of my forthcoming book "The Limits of Liberalism," "Gotthold Ephriam Lessing (1729-81) was one of the outstanding philosophers of the Enlightenment era. In an essay published in 1777, he wrote that 'accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason,' and he went on to declare that such a situation is 'the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.'”

In other words, Lessing denies that historical events can lead to universal or ultimate truths. And so do many who are not adherents of a historical faith such as Christianity.

So, regardless of my personal beliefs, Christianity has through the centuries been considered a historical religion by most people who have a thorough understanding of it. This says nothing, though, about the relative value of that position. It does mean, though, that many who have a non-historical religious faith are often dismissive of Christianity partly, or largely, because it is a religion based upon a historical story.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is There One Christian Story?

I received some significant responses to my blog entry for August 11, and one "thinking friend" raised questions about two issues so important I feel I must respond to them--to one in this post and to the other later.

The first issue is concerning the great diversity within Christianity. Is, as my respondent wrote, Christianity so diverse with so many different interpretations that, "just like other traditions," Christianity has many stories rather than being a story? Thus, "rather than our strength being in a common, singular story, our strength may be in the multiple 'stories' understood by the various Christian traditions, denominations, sects, etc."

Certainly, there is no question that there is great diversity within Christianity. There are multiple differences between various forms of the faith now and there are great differences between the bulk of Christians now and Christians of one hundred, five hundred, one thousand, or fifteen hundred years ago--to say nothing of the differences between Christians now and those of the early Church.

But, are there multiple stories? Or is there only a great variety in the way one central story is understood, explained, and followed? In spite of all the diversity, I am firmly convinced that there is, in fact, a central Christian story. Moreover, it is belief in and commitment to that story that makes one a Christian, in the sense of being a Christian believer. (There is and has been for a very long time "cultural Christians," people who are Christians because of their birth and cultural connections; the multitude of people like that are to be distinguished from those who are Christian believers, that is, people who have committed their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ and are seeking to live accordingly.)

The Bible, for all its diversity, is primarily one overarching story much more than a book of teachings, of "eternal truths." The classic Christian creeds have been used and are used today by millions of Christians. Interpretations of the creeds vary greatly, but there is allegiance to the centrality of the creeds as summaries of the Christian faith--of the one, central Christian story.

For the past three years I have taught one of the required theology courses at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. The textbook I have used is Hans Küng's massive "Christianity: Essence, History, Future" (1995). He writes about the six different Christian paradigms and the great differences between those six basic expressions of Christianity. But he continually emphasizes the commonality that is found in all types of Christianity in all eras.

I think Küng is entirely correct in his assertion about the essential commonality of Christianity. In spite of all the variance in the way it is interpreted and explained, there is, indeed, one overarching Christian story.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

August 15

August 15 is a significant date for many reasons.

In my blog post for August 6, I wrote about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Six days later the Pacific War came to an end -- so since then in this country August 15 has been known as V-J (victory over Japan) Day. Accordingly, August 15 is celebrated as Liberation Day in Korea and some other nations. Here is an image if the front page of the New York Times for August 15, 1945:
Every year in Japan, August 15 is referred to as shusen kinenbi, which literally means "memorial day for the end of the war." The official name for this day is Senbotsusha o Tsuito Shi, Heiwa o Kinen Suru Hi (the day for mourning those who died in war and for praying for peace). I hope that all of us can take some time today to pray that there will be peace in our world, that there will be no more use of atomic weapons and that wars of all kinds will cease.

August 15 has long been celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church, and some other Churches, as the Assumption of Mary (the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was taken bodily into heaven). In many places it is a "holy day of obligation," meaning that attendance at Mass is mandatory.

On August 15, 1534, Ignatius of Loyola and his followers made a commitment that led to the formation the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), which I wrote about in my blog post on August 11. (August 15 was chosen as the date for that event since it was an auspicious feast day.)

One of those who made that commitment was Francis Xavier, and on August 15, 1549, he was the first Christian missionary to set foot on Japanese soil, arriving in Kagoshima on that date. Here is a painting of Xavier's landing in Japan:

August 15 also has a very personal meaning for me: it is the day on which I was born. And it is also the day on which my wife and I were blessed with the birth of our first child, our son Keith.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Christian Story

This summer the Horne Bible Study class at Second Baptist Church, Liberty, MO, has been studying James M. Fowler's book Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian (1984). Fowler (b. 1940), Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, is better known for his Stages of Faith (1981), but I have found the former book to be theologically erudite and have enjoyed the discussion of it.
"Adulthood, Vocation and the Christian Story" is the fourth chapter of the Fowler book we have been discussing on Sunday mornings. Fowler uses Gabriel Fackre's The Christian Story (1978) in his presentation of "the Christian master story." In that connection I reminded the class that more recently Brian McLaren has attractively presented the Christian story in The Story We Find Ourselves In (2003), the second book in his "A New Kind of Christian" trilogy.
In the midst of the discussion about the Christian story, I mentioned what I thought was obvious and non-controversial: Christianity is different from religions such as Buddhism because it emphasizes a story, whereas Buddhism and other Eastern religions do not. But there was quick and vigorous disagreement with my statement: Buddhism has stories, it was pointed out, like the Buddha's leaving the comforts of his palace upon seeing, for the first time, illness, old age, and an example of the ascetic life.
Unquestionably, there are many stories found in Buddhism and other Eastern religions--as well as in Native American religion. But having stories and basically being a story is greatly different. That difference is due mainly to contrasting views of history. Christianity as well as Judaism and Islam are historical religions. They each are based upon a story--with a beginning, historical development, and an envisioned end. Their distinctive story is decisive for each religion.
Buddhism, though, is an example of a non-historical religion--non-historical not in the sense that it did not have a historical beginning but in the sense that history is not decisive for it. The "four noble truths" lie at the heart of Buddhism. They are "eternal truths" unrelated to history. There may be various stories about those truths, but those stories are not a part of a basic and defining story.
The Christian story is what makes Christianity unique. Christianity "conflicts" with Judaism and Islam--as well as with secular ideologies such as Marxism that are also based on the idea of linear history--because of the differences in the stories. But it "conflicts" with Buddhism, and other similar, non-historical religions, because of the difference between being a story--that is, being historical, considering some historical events crucial for meaningful life now and after death--and seeing religion as basically understanding eternal truths and as having immediate contact with ultimate reality (being enlightened) by comprehending those truths.
Whether one believes in or lives by the Christian story is optional, of course. But it seems to me that understanding the nature of Christianity entails recognizing the existence of a story which defines the faith. For comprehending the true nature of Christianity, acknowledging the centrality and the uniqueness of "the Christian story" is not optional.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

"Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam"

St. Ignatius of Loyola: In God's Service (2001) by Peggy A. Sklar is purportedly for high school students, but I found it to be a good, though brief, summary of the life of Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

As Ms. Sklar summarizes, "Ignatius believed that all of life is prayer and that everything that is done is for God" (p. 69). That sentiment lies behind the Jesuit motto, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam in Latin. In English the motto is For the Greater Glory of God.

Later, writing about Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises, Ms. Sklar states:
"One of the key defining characteristics of Ignatian Spirituality is Ignatius's ability to find God in all things" (p. 85).

Ignatius does not seem to be saintly in the manner of Francis of Assisi--and in some way that makes him more appealing to me. It would impossible for most of us to live and act like Francis. But Ignatius was more of a plodder; he accomplished much by a stubborn tenacity. That is something I can more easily emulate. And finding God in all things and doing all things for the glory of God are challenging principles that I would like to seek to pratice daily, intentionally.

I just learned that many Jesuit schools ask students to write A.M.D.G. (the initials of the Jesuit motto) at the tops of their papers to remind them that even their schoolwork is to be "for the greater glory of God." I don't think I will ask my students to do that, but starting with my first class on August 20, I am going to put Ad Majorem Dei Glorium at the bottom of the title page of my PowerPoint presentation each week.

I also like this prayer by Ignatius:
Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

Ad Majorem Dei Glorium

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"The Bells of Nagasaki"

I planned to finish reading this book on August 9, for the book starts on August 9, 1945--but I finished reading it today, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Dr. Nagai gives a first-hand account of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, where he was a doctor on duty at the nearby Nagasaki University Medical School.

Dr. Nagai (1908-51) was a Christian and a member of the Urakami Catholic Church--the largest church in East Asia--that was destroyed by the bomb. One of the most striking parts of the book is his "Funeral Address for the Victims of the Atomic Bomb." In one amazing paragraph in that address Dr. Nagai asks, rhetorically,
"Is there not a profound relationship between the destruction of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Nagasaki, the only holy place in all Japan--was it not chosen as a victim, a pure lamb, to be slaughtered and burned on the altar of sacrifice to expiate the sins committed by humanity in the Second World War?" (p. 107).
Dr. Nagai completed his book in August 1946, just a year after the bombing, but it was not published until 1949. The book was translated by William Johnston, an Irish Catholic missionary to Japan, and published in English in 1984. Father Johnston (b. 1936) also wrote a very insightful introduction to the book. Several years earlier he translated Shusaku Endo's powerful book Silence, and he has also written several books on mysticism.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Incident

I didn't intend for this blog to be mainly about racial matters--and it won't be--but I want to post some brief comments about the incident with Dr. Gates.

Actually, my sentiment is expressed well by a couple of journalists--and maybe that is all that needs to be said here. Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post suggested that perhaps it was Gates' air of "highhanded superiority," rather than his skin color, that most irritated Sgt. James Crowley, a working-class police sergeant. "But does anyone seriously think that a white, equally arrogant Harvard professor would have been thrown in jail for mouthing off? Something tells me not" (This Week, 8/7/09, p. 16).

Also Vincent Carroll in The Denver Post writes that "hurting a cop's feelings is not a crime in this country. There's no excuse for the police arresting a 5-foot-8, 150-pound professor who walks with a cane, regardless of what he said or what race he might be" (ibid.).

(For the record, Robinson is African-American; Carroll is white. Robinson's op-ed piece "Pique and the Professor" was posted on on July 28. Carroll's op-ed piece "Freedom to Yell at Police" was posted on on July 25.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Rev. Wright's Controversial Statement

In Rev. Wright's talk that I heard on January 9, he said he was quoting William James in his controversial statement ("God damn America"). Here’s what I found in that regard:

“James was part of a movement of prominent American businessmen, politicians, and intellectuals who formed the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898 and carried on a long campaign to educate the American public about the horrors of the Philippine war and the evils of imperialism. It was an odd group (Andrew Carnegie belonged), including antilabor aristocrats and scholars, united in a common moral outrage at what was being done to the Filipinos in the name of freedom. Whatever their differences on other matters, they would all agree with William James's angry statement: ‘God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles’” (“The Empire and the People” by Howard Zinn.)
According to Michael Fellman in “American Expansionists Greet the Filipinos, 1898-1902,” William James, who wrote to Charles Francis Adams in 1902, “God damn the U. S. for its vile conduct in the Philippines,” proclaimed that he was certain that American intervention would only kill Filipino national life: “we can destroy their old ideals, but we can’t give them ours.”
(James, 1841-1910, of course, was a very influential psychologist, philosopher, and author who taught at Harvard University from 1873 until 1907.)

Dr. Cone and Rev. Wright

It seems that Dr. James Cone was Rev. Jeremiah Wright's mentor mainly through his books, particularly Black Theology & Black Power (1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (1970). Rev. Wright was born in September 1941, so he is only three years younger than Dr. Cone and, thus, was not formally a student of Dr. Cone. But he learned "black theology" from Dr. Cone and that theology was central to mission statement of Trinity United Church of Christ.

In 2008, Dr. Cone was interviewed by Hana R. Alberts, and that interview was posted under the title "A Paradoxical Feeling" on March 24 on In the interview Dr. Cone explains his ideas and how they appear in Rev. Wright:

"Black liberation theory emerged out of the ministers: out of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the late 1960s."

"So black liberation theology is an attempt to bring Martin and Malcolm together. The 'black' in black theology stands for Malcolm X. The 'theology' stands for Martin Luther King."

Also, "black liberation theology was an attempt to make the gospel accountable to the black community, who were struggling for a more just society in America.

"What you have in Jeremiah Wright is someone trying to bring together Martin and Malcolm. He's a Christian preacher in a white church, by the way. He is speaking to the hurt in the African-American community. The suffering.

"You know, when King spoke to the black community, he spoke with language very similar to Jeremiah Wright."

"I think Rev. Wright is a perfect example and expression of black liberation theology. He's part of a progressive black ministerial community."