Theological Temptations

Lectionary Texts

Preface

Your love of Christ shapes your love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience. You are lovers and knowers too. We are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine. In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love. We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of certainty. It is tempting to substitute the freedom and grace of confidence with the security and protection of certainty. But faith is about confidence not certainty. If we had certainty we would not need faith.

1. Errancy

Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture. You love the Bible. You love its psalmic depths. Psalm 130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names. Obededom comes to mind. You love proverbial wisdom. “One sharpens another like iron sharpens iron” comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom. The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus. His holding children comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life. Galatians comes to mind. You love its strangeness. John comes to mind. You love the Bible like Rudolph Bultmann loved it, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as a medium of truth for the practice of faith. Around our common table today in worship, we share this reliance and this love. The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, at and through Marsh Chapel, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel. A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings and for the reading of scripture. On the other side of the globe, way down in Sydney, Australia, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture. Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by their love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too. In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto: homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But the Bible is errant. It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of study just did not happen. They did. That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us. In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to remythologize the Bible too. It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear, that will open the Bible to us. We need not fear truth, however it may be known. So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight. So John includes the woman caught in adultery, but not in its earliest manuscripts. (Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.) So Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church. The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality. The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples. The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels. And so on…

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority. We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition. The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative. Do you hear that? It begs to be heard. Today’s passage from Matthew 4 is an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore. It looks back sixty years. Sixty years! What do you remember from January of 1948? Nor was it written for that kind of certainty. Matthew 4 is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class in Nebraska this winter I would buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.

We grasp for certainty, but confidence grasps us.

2. Equality

You love the tradition of the church as well. “Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…” John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth. The central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’. (It would be like political debaters today using charged language like ‘fairy tale’.) Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others. The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.

Baptism is as traditional and central a variously understood practice as Christianity possesses. It is in some ways the very doorway to our traditions. Yet listen to Paul today. In his context, he rejects baptism. For him gospel trumps tradition.

Our linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, falls before the gospel of grace and freedom. Further, on a purely practical level, another generation will not be impressed by church growth strategies rooted in the exclusion of 10% of the population. There is a serious upside limit to the use of gay ba
shing to grow churches. My three children in their twenties are not going to stay around for it.

It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out. But such a theological temptation has no future. Equality will triumph over exclusion. It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a Lenten study in suburban Washington DC I would have the group read G. Wills’ Head and Heart: American Christianities, for some perspective on the way traditions change.

3. Evolution

You love the mind, the reason. You love the prospect of learning. You love the life of the mind. You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”, you say. You love the reason in the same that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason. You love its capacity to see things differently.

Of course reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust. Learning for its own sake needs virtue and piety. More than anything else, learning, to last, must finally be rooted in loving. Did you hear the one thing requested in our vibrant Psalm? To inquire in the temple. Inquiry!

The universe is 14 billion years old. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion. 400 million years ago plants sprouted. 370 million years ago land animals emerged. 230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago). 200,000 years ago hominids arose. Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells. Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

If I were the chaplain of a small private school in New England I might have my fellowship group read this winter F Collins, the Language of God. He can teach us to reason together.

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety. They go together. The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption. Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty. But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience. Falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.

4. Existence

You love experience. The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ. You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too. Isaiah, in looking forward, can sing of the joy of harvest. We know joy. Joy seizes us. Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things. You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

But beloved, a simple or general appeal to the love of experience, in our time, in 2008, is not appealing or loving. It is not experience, but our very existence which lies under the shadow of global violence. To have any future worthy of the name we shall need to foreswear preemptive violence. How the stealthy entry of such a manner of behavior could shape our civil discourse without voluminous debate and vehement challenge is a measure of our longing for false certainties. Preemption is our besetting theological temptation. Our existence itself is on the line in discussions or lack of discussions about violent action that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, and reckless. One thinks of Lincoln saying of slavery, ‘those who support it might want to try it for themselves’. Not one of us wants to be the victim of preemptive violence. We may argue about the need for response, and even for the need of some kinds of anticipatory defense. But preemption? It will occlude existence itself.

If I were gathering a book club in downtown Boston to read this winter I would select the articles and books of Reinhold Niebuhr. Our future lies on the narrower path of responsive, communal, sacrificial, prudent behavior and requires of us, in Neibuhr’s phrase, ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’.

There are indeed theological temptations in the unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience. As we come soon to Lent let us face them down. Let us face them down together. Let us do so by lifting our voices to admit errancy, affirm equality, explore evolution, and admire existence. The measure of preaching today in the tradition of a responsible Christian liberalism is found in our willingness to address errancy, equality, evolution and existence.

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