Monday, January 24, 2011

heresy, history, and doctrine: a ramble.

Having finished the heresy-centric book Out of the Flames, about Michael Servetus and his book Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity), I decided to ask Google about ["Episcopal Church" heresy], wondering if they bothered any more, and having a vague memory that the Church had run a heresy trial some years back. They did, in 1996, against a bishop who ordained a gay deacon in 1990; the Church eventually punted on the trial, and in any case the deacon is now a priest serving in New Hampshire.

What a thing, though. 1996.

The latest news, though, involves a striking comment from the Presiding Bishop, at the 2009 General Convention, no less. I think I know what she meant, but she said
"The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy - that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention." [emphasis mine]
This is mind-bogglingly inarticulate, and the conservatives had a field day, because
  1. as far as I can tell, they already hate her for being the female head of the modern gay-and-women-ordaining Episcopal Church, who furthermore referred to a feminist-theology "Mother Jesus" in her inaugural sermon, and
  2. individual salvation by way of Jesus is kind of...the whole Christian thing.
The Buddhist Thing is the fundamental lack of separation between the seemingly different entities in the world of our lived experience.

The Jewish Thing is about God's relationship with his Chosen People in the world.

The Muslim Thing is submission to and worship of God according to the Qur'an.

The Christian Thing is individual salvation through Jesus Christ. If you're a Christian and you're not doing that, it's worth asking yourself what you are doing. (And tell me, if you're willing: we all work out our religion and spirituality in different ways and I am typically really interested in hearing about it, especially if I get to ask questions.)

I'm inclined to go with her clarification that she intended to talk about how Christianity also intends for people to live and function in community, and that's what the General Convention was part of. I don't know if her bad phrasing reflects her deeper thinking, or if she's just determined to stick her foot in her mouth. But come on, you're the head of a major national church. Surely you can avoid even the appearance of declaring your religion's central tenet to be heresy. I can do that, and I've only been a seriously practicing Buddhist for 4 years.

Conservatives are funny, though. I liked this guy, for his honesty. The Episcopal Church
has resoundingly declared its intention to stay on its revisionist course, and damn the torpedoes. It has now officially given its approval and encouragement to men who have an irresistible urge to have sex with men, and women with women. It is only a very short step away from giving the same approval to men who want to have sex with boys, and women with girls. If man/man sex is good and to be encouraged, what's wrong with man/boy sex? Or man/child sex? Or man/beast sex? Essentially anything goes in the sex department, and the prime responsibility of the church is to make sure that everyone is happy and comfortable with their sexuality.
Right, that's not a classic homophobia argument at all. I'm never sure what kind of failed sexual maturity leads people to draw comparisons of gay sex to pedophilia and bestiality. The typical conservative approach seems to be that WE MUST HAVE RULES, and it doesn't matter if those rules are arbitrary or harmful, we must have them and we must be strict, because otherwise, chaos! Our author continues:
We are merrily slithering down a long slippery slope at the bottom of which we will be greeted by the complete collapse of our Western way of life, just in time to submit to the gathering energy and suicidal passion of the radical Muslim alternative. Like the ancient Romans, we are sitting ducks for a new generation of Barbarians.

The Africans have had the guts to call a spade a spade. They are in the frontline trenches of the great Christian/Muslim divide, while we sit in our comfortable living rooms watching a daily torrent of news stories of men abusing and murdering women and children, and the filth glorifying sex and violence billed as entertainment by Hollywood and the media. We pretend to be horrified by the Muslim mistreatment of women, and soak up a daily dose of American-style abuse of women. Sooner or later we will get what we deserve - probably sooner.
Ah, yes, the decadent-society-in-decline thing. It's a core Christian idea that the world is inherently flawed, that God made it perfect and then humans sinned and screwed it up. Far outside Christianity in space and time, though, complaining about the decline of one's society is so universal that I think it's just an expression of fundamental human discontent. It seems like kind of a downer to see the force of theology behind something that seems to encourage the perception of conflict: between God and humans, between heaven and earth, between Christians and non-Christians. (And between humans and devils, if that's how you roll.)

The author could stand to read The Inheritance of Rome. Rome didn't "fall" as we usually think of it: it faded, and for centuries afterward the victorious Germanic tribes (especially the Franks) viewed themselves as the continuation of the Roman Empire. They didn't think they were its conquerors. They thought they were its descendants and preservers. While we now remember Coffee Talk's repeat of Voltaire's "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire," they didn't call it the Holy Roman Empire to be funny.

The Byzantine Empire also thought it was the continuation of Rome, to which it did have more of a claim than the Franks, since it actually started as the Eastern Roman Empire. They were also fading, but hanging in there, until the Fourth Crusade, not the Muslim empires, sacked Constantinople in 1204, and they never really recovered. Reality is always so much messier than our stories about it.

My ultimate takeaway from all this is how grateful I am that I get to study it academically. I don't really care about doctrinal disputes. Yes, it would be nice if religious leaders would stop advocating the execution of gays and telling people that condoms cause AIDS, but those are cultural issues, and that's ultimately what we're seeing here. To me, it's all angels dancing on the head of a pin: arguments between Buddhists, too. What matters is practicing meditation, practicing listening and speaking skillfully in relationships, practicing practicing practicing. One of the old Buddhist debates, still unresolved to my knowledge, was whether Buddha attained such a state that negative impulses/feelings/desires never even arose in his mind (rare to nonexistent in post-Buddha people), as opposed to having them arise and being able to let go of them immediately (which plenty of people learn to do).

I realize that the participants in doctrinal arguments, especially in a salvationist religion, often feel like there's more at stake than just whether they're right or not: it's the eternal fate of other people's souls. That's why they burned heretics, you see: heretics were worse than murderers because they imperiled other people's souls instead of just their own. It's hard to wrap my head around that kind of severity and urgency, but it still survives in a lot of modern debates even in the West, largely subjugated to the standards of liberal democracy. Abortion in America would be the choice example.

I feel like this history and emotion and doctrine is nothing but a distraction. In the end, who cares exactly how perfect Buddha's mind was or wasn't? My question is: what's my mind like? What happens when things arise for me? When I go looking for the supposed permanent thing that I think is me, what do I really find? Buddha is long, long dead. It's my experience I have to deal with, not his.

Why are humans so concerned that everyone else should think and believe the same thing we do?


  1. Great article. I'm appalled by the heretical words of the bishop. I don't understand why she thinks it's wrong to focus on our own individual relationships with God when that’s the basis for our salvation. To be saved we must repent of our sins to God and accept his sacrifice for us. I don’t have to repent for your sins, our sins, or their sins. That would do me no good. I have to repent for mine.

    And her words suggest that we should be more focused on the community’s goals than our own behavior. Our salvation depends on our relationship with God, not on the number of good deeds and new recruits we bring to the community. Participation in a Christian community can strengthen one’s faith, but it doesn’t replace individual responsibility. (I also am appalled by her use of the term "Mother Jesus." Jesus was a man. Get over it.)

    As for the hyperbolic concern that "Like the ancient Romans, we are sitting ducks for a new generation of Barbarians," I have mixed feelings. First I object, as you did, to the idea that Rome “fell.” Oct 1: Rome's here. Oct 2: It's rubble. Wrong. Second, I don't think that we're about to become moral savages. Sure, you know that some of my beliefs may not coincide with the trends in society and the government, but I don’t believe that our moral condition is dire enough to fear a complete upheaval of society.

    The concern I have is that the legal system has become so immoral that we're at risk of being sued for the silliest things. Why can someone sue me because they broke their leg in my house while trying to steal my TV? Why could a teacher get sued for giving a crying student a simple hug? Why should someone win a lawsuit for getting burned by coffee because there was no sign on the coffee warning that it might be hot?

  2. I don't think she meant to say quite the thing she said. In a lot of Christianity--let's say it, in the fundamentalist Protestant sects--there is a lot of what I can only describe as Jesus fetishism. It's like "Hare Krishna" or "Namu Amida Butsu" or whatever, but with something involving Jesus, as though the chanting is what's important. I have been to many extended-family dinners where the family-associated pastor, young and enthusiastic, says grace, and literally every 2-4 words is "Lord" (Anna has witnessed this).

    Anyway, my understanding is that she was criticizing that fetishistic urge, which is individualism as such, the emphasis of the individual, rather than the individual's relationship to God and Christ. Again, breathtakingly inept speech, but so far as I know, there's a strain of liberal theology behind what she says (and the "mother Jesus" thing, too, which I won't criticize without knowing more about it).

    About the McDonald's coffee thing: yes, there's no shortage of stupid lawsuits, especially around kids, but a lot of important detail often gets lost in the media reportage (such as it is) and the subsequent ruckus about how silly the tort system is. For example, here are the complexities of the McDonald's case.

    "During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds' knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard."

    So things are usually more complicated than our culturally inherited idea might lead us to think.

    Dunno. I think the legal system reflects the society: somebody manages to convince a jury of fellow citizens of these stupid things. It's not a mysterious external force. I imagine it will settle down eventually.

  3. Katie, there's a book called The Shack in which God-the-Father appears as a gospel-singing black gramma type but is still called "Papa," and a really interesting and cogent explanation for why. Jesus is still a man, but it's a really awesome read. My born-again dad found it to be the best presentation of Christian faith evah...