On Fixing the Church

There are obviously problems with the church. Whether it is Protestant or Catholic, Evangelical Protestant or Mainline Protestant, the retention rate of youth is something like 15 – 17%. Catholic worry that their losses are going to Protestant churches, particularly large evangelical ones, while Protestants worry their their losses are either going to Mainline Protestant churches, such as Anglican or Episcopal Churches, or, simply dropping out of church altogether. Surveys show that the “nones” are now about 25% of society and the “spiritual but not religious” are a larger percentage than that. And everyone is looking for solutions.

The Protestant world has the best developed Church Growth movement, so their solutions are being brought into the Catholic world as well as being applied in the Protestant world. Perhaps the key is to fix the service (or the mass) by making it more entertaining or enticing: the sermon/homily should be improved and the music is key (which usually means that it should be modern). Multimedia displays are certainly important. And then one should have a vibrant youth ministry. Of course, these solutions leave out the average church, for the average church is a small church without the resources for such fixes. Furthermore, there research shows that the two most significant reasons why people join a (Protestant) church is (1) that they are greeted warmly at the door (and especially if the greeter recognizes them the second week) and (2) they feel safe in leaving their children in the children’s ministry (safe was the term used, not that they felt that their children would have an encounter with Jesus). Relationship and safety are key, while sermons and music are somewhere down the line.

Still, that makes life difficult for Catholic Churches, for many of them have little formal greeting and less chit-chat. The idea is that once one enters the church one is silent and spends time in prayer and adoration before the mass begins. It is certainly important that one feels that one’s children are safe, if one has any, but CCC only runs part of the year and usually one brings the children into the mass and sits with them. When it comes to music, it is true that beauty is an important aspect of church along with the good and the true, but music is not so much the focus of the mass as Jesus is. Certainly the point is not to have a great choir or band, but to participate in the music and thereby be part of the mass. When it comes to the homily, it is clearly the place for good catechesis, but the average priest has at least one homily to write daily and sometimes two or more, unlike the typical evangelical pastor who has two or three per week and can spend 6 to 8 hours per sermon. I am all for doing homilies well (I have taught homiletics, so I am invested in this), but few Catholic priests have the time for long preparations. If they are invested in something other than multiple masses (with funerals and the like), they are spending time in prayer: liturgy of the hours, among other things. I worked as a biblical scholar for 40 years, so I could and can look at the reading, know the issues in the passage, and “see” an outline: rare is the priest who has such advantages. But on the other hand, the typical Protestant pastor spends something like 15 minutes per week in prayer (other than prayer during services). Many Catholics have tried to focus on relationship with priests dressing informally much of the time and trying to be “one of the people” (especially in the post-Vatican II world, which misunderstood Vatican II).

Catholics often try to import the evangelical Protestant crisis mentality by calling for the faithful to have a “personal encounter” with Jesus. Now there is an authentic Catholic or historic way to encourage this, but that is more a process of increasing devotion that will probably have moments of special awareness of the presence of Jesus. The “asking Jesus into your heart” thing is an induced crisis only known since the time of Charles Finny and not known at all in the New Testament (check out the 10 evangelistic “sermons” in Acts or Paul’s gospel in Rom 10:8b-10, for example). Protestants are finding that without spiritual direction the “crisis” wears off the further it recedes into the past. They are exploring Catholic spirituality which is more process oriented and developmental with crisis experiences happening only when it is felt that God sovereignly intervenes. The two camps seem to be passing each other in the night. Meanwhile, the people keep falling away.

What I note is that some of the most creative thinkers are calling for a different approach. Perhaps the priest should start thinking of himself as a monastic, as a man of prayer. He can do that more easily because he is celibate. So there is a call to return to prayer, refocus on celibacy, dress traditionally so people can see that the man is a priest, and to focus on the holiness expected of priests. This is what one will find in the works of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Robert Cardinal Sarah, and a host of others. The anonymous work In Sinu Jesu calls on priests to spend significant time in adoration, to be priests, men of prayer and the altar rather than administrators or engaging in other ministries – or rather these other ministries should take a second place to the primary ones of prayer and the ministry of the word, as it is put in Acts, with the Mass being the source and summit of all prayer.

The other approach is to turn from “dumbed down” Catholicism to clear, honest, thoughtful Catholicism, an approach found in Word on Fire Ministries. But this also calls the priest to an engagement with theology in a spiritual way. Thomas Aquinas did have a good head, but in the end he was a Dominican friar, for his head was subordinated to and in the service of his devotion to Christ. It is no accident that a number of great saints are part of those studied by Word on Fire.

The above are miscellaneous thoughts for difficult times. What is clear is that the solution to problems in the church is not primarily Protestant Church Growth strategies that are not working for most Protestant Churches. It is certainly not watering down truth so that what one believes and what one seeks ethically is less important than whether it is meaningful to one, makes one feel good. It may indeed be that the reachable solution for Catholics is godly priests, priests who know that they are at their  roots monks, and that their focus is prayer. This is not without its hardships, but it would seem to be in tune with renewal movements down the ages and points towards a unity of liturgy and life with the priest leading the way by example.




Posted in Brothers and Sisters of Charity Reflections, Church History, Ministry, Personal | Leave a comment

Loving Your Enemies in Peace

I have been concerned for some time about the level of emotional discourse in political discussion and the lack of respectful, rational interaction. This happens within the Church, especially in various blogs, within discussions of news items, and especially within political discourse with its highly polarized and highly emotional discussion. I often referred to Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve in referring to it.

Recently I came across another book, written by a conservative economist (and at the time the president of a conservative economic think tank) who is deeply Catholic, but written in non-religious language (although he does refer to the Bible and clearly admit his religious position). This is a sociological, research-based work that is deeply rooted in the values of Jesus. I recommend it:

Brooks Love Your Enemies

I have both the print and audio book; I love listening to the audio book, but to get the data I need the print book.

Because he is arguing for a dropping of motive attribution asymmetry (the other group is evil and my group has good motives), which is surely a form of judgment, and moving to an approach of love (seeking the good of the other), I was reminded of St Seraphim of Sarov, who says in one of this teachings:

On Preserving Peace of Soul (#12 in Life and Teaching, #25 in Little Russian Philokalia)

“It is necessary to try by all means to preserve peace of soul and not to become indignant because of insults. For this one needs to restrain oneself from anger and to pay heed to guard the mind and the heart against improper doubts.

“One should endure insults indifferently and should train oneself to treat them as if they do not concern one.

“This exercise can set our heart at peace and make it a dwelling of God Himself.

“We find an example of such mildness in the life of Saint Gregory the Wonderworker. A whore demanded publicly a recompense from him stating that he sinned with her. He was not in the least angry with her, but said meekly to one of his friends: ‘give her what she asks without delay.’ When the woman received the money she was attacked by a demon. The Saint however drove the demon out from her by prayer. (Lives of the Saints, 17th November).

“In case it should be impossible to restrain oneself from becoming indignant, it is necessary at least to restrain one’s tongue, according to the words of the Psalmist: ‘I am so troubled that I cannot speak.’ (Ps. 76, 4).

“In this case we can follow the example of Saint Spiridon of Trimithunt and Saint Ephraim the Syrian. Saint Spiridon (Lives of the Saints, 12th December) treated an insult as follows: when he was summoned to come to the Byzantine Emperor, as he was entering the palace, one of the servants who were in the palace thought him a beggar. The servant laughed at him, did not let him come to the emperor and he even hit Saint Spiridon on the cheek. The Saint, as he was mild, turned his other cheek to him, following the words of Christ (Math. 5,39).

“When Saint Ephraim the Syrian (Lives of the Saints, 28th January) was once fasting in the desert, he was deprived of his food in the following way: his disciple on his way broke the container. When the Saint saw his disciple, looking sad, he said: ‘Do not be upset, brother: if the food did not want to come to us, then we will go to it.’ And the Saint went to the broken vessel and sat down there and ate the rest of the food that he could scrape out of the vessel. Such was his mildness. And in regard to the way we can conquer our anger, we can learn from the life of Saint Paisius the Great (Lives of the Saints, 19th June). Saint Paisius asked Christ, when He appeared to him, to liberate him from anger. And the Saviour said to him: ‘if you want to conquer anger and rage all together, desire nothing, hate nobody and humiliate no one.’ In order to preserve peace of soul it is necessary to drive off despondency and try to have a joyful spirit, following the words of the wise Jesus Sirach: ‘I have driven off many sorrows as there is no use in them.’ (Eccl., 30, 25)

“Also it is necessary for the sake of peace of soul to avoid condemning others. The peace of soul is kept by lenience to others and by silence. When man is in such a state he receives Divine revelations.

“In order not to lapse into condemning others man should pay heed to himself, accept from no one the bad thoughts and be as dead to everything.

“It is necessary in favour of peace of soul to immerse in oneself often and to ask the question: ‘where am I?’

“Together with this, it is necessary to observe that the bodily senses, especially the sight, should serve the inner man and should not amuse and distract the soul with material objects. For only those receive the gifts of grace, who are busy with inner work and are watchful in regard of their souls.”

[Puretzki, Nicolas,of Sarov, Monastery. Life and Teaching of  Saint  Seraphim of Sarov. Serebrov Boeken. Kindle Edition.]

If in these polarized times when the parties in the Church, the political parties in the USA, and . . . well, you can name the groups . . . look like the Palestinian-Israeli tension (that comparison is from the person who popularized the term motive attribution asymmetry, which I heard of before reading Brook’s book), we can only expect similar results unless we and many others are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Whether one comes from a monastic, a sociological, a family systems, or simply a Jesus point of view, it is worthwhile to think on these things, and then act.

St Seraphim is my current spiritual director (at a distance in time and culture) and he and Arthur Brooks, among others, have already challenged me to consider and in some cases revise my behavior, often by simply being silent.

Posted in Brothers and Sisters of Charity Reflections, Personal, Political theology | Leave a comment


A new year approaches with a coming new decade. The Davids have so many new things in our lives that we can scarcely keep up with ourselves. First, we have a new address:

         5499 East State Hwy 29, Georgetown, TX 78626  USA

Second, we have a new home (the chaplain’s house at Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory):


Third, we have new ministries: Peter is Chaplain for the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eurcharist, assists as requested in the Diocese of Austin, and celebrates the Divine Liturgy most weeks for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community, as well as continuing as New Testament Editor for Word Biblical Commentary. Judy continues her ministry of spiritual direction and counsel, mostly over the phone. (She offers individual and very small group spiritual retreats in our house, which is a former convent with its own chapel). The second edition of her Pause, Pray, and Play(which brings her spiritual journey up to date) is expected before Christmas. Together we host and lead a (small) cell group for the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, Domestic.

This was not our plan for the year. We spent the first half of the year busily and happily ministering in Houston, based in our apartment in St Clare Monastery. In June Judy was brought up to Calgary to visit our daughter Elaine and her family there. We had no idea that we would meet Elaine and Greg next time in Georgetown (near Austin), Texas in October. Judy and her sister had gone to El Cajon California for what proved to be a last visit to Judy’s sister-in-law, Harriet Bouchillon. Judy also went to the Brothers and Sisters of Charity Domestic Leadership Gathering in April. We planned an August trip to St Stephen, New Brunswick, to visit our daughter Gwenda and her family, a trip that ended up with more serious purposes, including Peter’s driving our son-in-law Brent back from Saint John twice after eye examinations which indicated that he is going blind from wet macular degeneration. But the start of that trip was altered by the death of Harriet (widow of Judy’s younger brother) on July 24 and her funeral on August 3. The end of the trip had the suspense of an email asking us to make an appointment with the Vicar General of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter. We saw him on August 20 and he proposed that we move to Georgetown TX, for the Dominican Sisters had requested that Bishop Lopes send them a chaplain. We visited the Priory in Georgetown the next weekend and decided to accept the appointment. We had our goods moved on September 13. And we did our final move as soon as Peter finished up his commitments in Houston on September 29. It was breathtakingly fast. Other than Peter’s making a quick trip back to Houston in October for a final Sunday ministry and his going to Mundelein IL for the Ordinariate’s Clergy Assembly in late October, we have been here since then. (He cancelled out of the meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature due to the expense and a lack of time and energy and John Michael Talbot told us not to go to the early October Gathering of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity Domestic, rightly stating that with the move it would have been too exhausting.) The bonus we received with this move was two visits from Judy’s sister in October that helped us settle (and another planned visit over Christmas) and the fact that Judy has a cousin and his wife in Georgetown and her 98-year-old-aunt lives with them. Yet another bonus was the fact that Elaine and Greg had already planned a late anniversary trip to Austin and then that Ian and his two children are scheduled to arrive here from Mission, British Columbia, just after Christmas and to stay until after New Year’s.

So we have moved for the 26th time in our 52 years of marriage and are living in the country on the east edge of Georgetown in, as Judy says, “the most lovely home I ever dreamed of,” and are still in reasonable health (Judy still has congestive heart failure, but is does not seem to have become worse due to the move and her knee problem has been manageable, although she often uses a cane; Peter does have a lower back issue, but can manage it by means of exercises taught him during physical therapy – needless to say, we used a mover to pack and move).

We are thankful for the gifts God has given us this year, all based on the gift of his Son, which we anticipate in Advent and celebrate on Christmas. We look forward to continuing to serve him actively until he receives us at our death or returns to set this world to rights in the coming of his kingdom. Of course, that simply leads to continuing joyful service throughout the coming ages.

Thanks be to God.

Warmest Advent Greetings

Peter and Judy

Fr. Peter H Davids                              Judith L Davids

5499 E State Highway 29,    Georgetown Texas 78626

713-314-7886                                     832-398-9519

pdavids@icloud.com                          jldavids@me.com

Posted in Ministry, Personal, Uncategorized | Tagged | 3 Comments

He Will Take What is Mine and Share It with You – Meditations on Trinity Sunday

On Trinity Sunday 2019 the readings were John 16:12 – 15 and Prov 8:22 – 31. It was while working through these readings that several issues suddenly fell into place for me. The Proverbs reading is about Wisdom, the divine co-creator, that in the New Testament is read as Jesus (Colossians1) or as a type of stand-in for the Holy Spirit (Jas1:5 or the end of Jas 3 – James has no reference to the Spirit). In the former foreshadowing, Wisdom is equivalent to the Divine Word or Reason, and in the latter it functions as the one producing virtues, which Paul attributes to the Spirit.
The Trinity 2.jpg
The John 16 reading is as follows:
13 But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. 15 Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. 
Here one has a Trinitarian reference: Spirit, the Son (“me”), and the Father. The Father shares all with the Son, and the Spirit shares what is the Father’s and the Son’s with the followers of the Son. Thus the followers of the Son become one with the Trinity, as the Trinity is one. In John 15 this is put in terms of “friends,” for in classical literature (Cicero in the Roman world and then later Aelred of Riveaux in the western Christian world) a friend is not necessarily an equal or a buddy, but someone who agrees with his or her friend on all things, earthly and divine. That is why classical authors would say that a wife should have the same friends as her husband and the best and most important friends of her husband were the gods he worshipped. To depart from the worship of her husband’s gods was to depart from friendship with her husband, for she clearly had another opinion. And that is also why friendship can be among unequals, such as someone being the friend of the king or the friend of a Roman noble.
But this passage in John goes beyond simply understanding what friendship is. First, it explains why one should not judge others. It is clear in John that judgment belongs to the Father and the Son, the Father having given all judgment to the Son. Thus to judge independently of the Son is to usurp the place of the “One Judge” (Jas 4:12 – 14), for the Spirit does not normally share the judgments of the Father and the Son with the followers of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus has said that he has not come for judgment, but that he will judge at the end of time, so all judgment within time is premature. (That the Son is now outside of time and thus judging, as necessary, is irrelevant in that human beings are still within time.) There are times when judgment or the threat of judgment is announced, but those are times when the Spirit communicates through those of his people that we call prophets. That role is that not of all followers of Jesus and that role is not even that of most prophets most of the time. But it does explain why James feels free to give a prophetic denunciation in Jas 4:1 – 10 (and that passage is recognized as a prophetic denunciation in the style of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures). True, the Apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes (i.e. the whole of the people of God), but while aspects of that binding and loosing are for this age, most of it is eschatological, for the coming age. What is for this age is primarily ruling on what is and is not allowed to followers of Jesus, although there are exceptions, explicitly attributed to the Spirit, such as Peter speaking to Ananias and Sapphire in Acts 5. 
Second, the Lord’s Prayer/Our Father is not about human beings getting their desires fulfilled. Rather, the glorifying or hallowing is that of the name of the Father(whichJesus in John connects to the glorifying of the Son) and that is the function of the Spirit in John 16. The main request is for the kingdom of God to come, which is the same as the divine will being done on earth as it already is in heaven, in the divine sphere beyond the space-time universe. In other words, the ones praying(theprayer is collective, for it is the church praying together, at least in Matthew 6) are agreeing with the Father(andthe Son) in all things human and divine. This is an act of commitment or faith. But they only know the content of this request, this agreement, if the Spirit has revealed it to them. Likewise the prayer asks for daily bread, for that is what the client of a patron(bethat patron a ruler or an important landlord) asked for each day. Their security lay in their trust of the patron and their agreement with whatever the patron decided. That means that one wants one’s transgressions against the will of the patron, in this case the Father, forgiven, for then one has deviated from friendship and cannot expect to receive daily bread. The one part of the will of the Father that is clear is that he wills to forgive and therefore, having the same mindset, since the believer agrees with him(anwith fellow believers) on all things human and divine, the true friend, the true believer can say that they have forgiven those who has transgressed against them.
Third, this applies to the role of faith or commitment in praying for the sick. In Jas 5:14 – 15 James gives instructions to presbyters/priests/elders (as over against the whole community, which comes to the fore in Jas 5:16 and seems focused on forgiveness). The presbyters follow a rite of being called to the sick, anointing them with oil as the Apostles did in Mark 6, and praying for their healing in commitment or faith. Without a specific word, this would mean a prayer of trust that the Lord would in some way heal and raise up the sick. One hopes that this is physical healing. However, as John’s gospel shows, “raising up” can have two meanings, one of which is raising up to health from the bed of sickness and the other is raising up to God. The presbyters or presbyter prays as they anoint, fully committed to the fact that God will act, but not necessarily knowing how God will act. It is a simple prayer – it does not seem to need a lot of words or a lot of repeating, as if to persuade God. But at the same time, the presbyters should be those closest in mind and heart to the Father and the Son, the ones that the Spirit communicates the mind of the Trinity to to the degree that it is necessary. (If it were always clear, then we would no longer “walk by faith” but rather “by sight,” even if the sight was inner insight.) Thus at times the Spirit does reveal the mind of the Father and a presbyter knows specifics of what to pray for. Then “faith” has come “by hearing” and in this case not a general hearing of proclamation, but the specific hearing of a “word” from God, as we see at times in the biblical book of Acts. Such “words” of course, need discernment, which is rarely practiced in this day and age, but was well-known to St Ignatius (in an appendix to his Spiritual Exercises. And the proof of whether one has really heard God or not, of whether one is projecting on to God a method of prayer or the desires of one’s own heart, is whether when one prays according to that “word” it really happens.
This truth, of course, is scary. On the one hand, the first time I did pray as a presbyter in the church was at a healing Eucharist in 1979. I simply read the scriptures, expounded the scriptures, celebrated eucharist, and then prayed exactly as James said to pray. And I did not hear anything special or feel anything special. But the one woman there who had a demonstrable illness was healed instantly – only she did not tell me for three months (which was probably good for me). My satisfaction was only in knowing that I had done the will of God, had agreed with the communication of the Trinity through James, and I trusted that God had done or would do whatever type or manner of healing he desired – that was his business, not mine. 
On the other hand, I have been in situations – I think of one in Germany about 2001, in which I went to pray for someone (person y) and, before the prayer time was talking with and praying for another person with the spouse of the “someone” (i.e. person y) present. I heard within,“Prepare person [the spouse of person y] for the death of y.” So as I counseled and prayed, I was conscious of this secondary purpose. Then, when I went to pray for y, my prayer was shaped by what I knew I had heard. I did not want to pray in that way, and in the prayer I expressed my own hopes as well, namely that I had misheard and so could hope for physical healing, and I did not directly say to either person x or person y what I had heard, but I trusted inwardly that God had communicated his purpose and prayed pastorally in such a manner that I was in agreement with it. And so it happened. Nor is that the only time something like that has happened.
So when I pray for the sick, I pray according to the revelation I have. I know God has promised to bring some type of healing or raising up if I trust him. So I pray trusting that that has happened. (Alternative, as John Wimber taught, one can stop to observe and ask what God is doing and then pray for more of what he is indeed desiring, because he is in fact doing it.) But sometimes one gets the word, “Be healed!” “Standup and walk!” or “Set your house in order, for you will soon be with Jesus.” I am comforted by the fact that in my small way this is analogous to what I read in the lives of such holy presbyters as St. Seraphim of Sarov, who often knew that a person would be healed and how they would be healed or, on the other hand, that a person would die before someone came to him asking for pray for themselves or for another. I hardly compare myself to his level of intimacy with God, but his (their– for there are others with such great intimacy with God) experience explains my experience, his way of prayer and holiness guides me forward into deeper intimacy with God, and his teaching I find is exactly what I saw in the readings last Trinity Sunday. And for that I am thankful, although thanks seems too weak a term for the enlightenment and peace that I received that Sunday and thankfulness too little to call the inner drive towards more holiness and intimacy so that I can be humble enough to be trusted with my Lord sharing with me through the Spirit as a friend does with his vastly inferior but still true friend.
Posted in Brothers and Sisters of Charity Reflections, Ministry, Theological Reflection | Leave a comment

The Integration of the Charismatic and the Contemplative

I am a fully professed member of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, Domestic. The BSCD stands for the integration of a number of things (which is good – that influenced our joining), one of which is the charismatic and the contemplative. I want to take this as a type of test case of the problem of integration and look at some of the questions it raises.

E C Glass High School.jpg

The first question is: “What is integration?” I was in high school during the first half of the 1960’s. In 1964 E. C. Glass High School was integrated. Five students from Dunbar High School, the Afro-American high school in the city, were transferred into E. C. Glass by court order. All were high achieving students. All needed the higher standards and wider academic class selection of E. C. Glass. Most, if not all, were in my advanced English class, which means that I got to know them. What was clear was that integration did not mean upgrading Dunbar so that the academic level and facilities equaled those of Glass: that would be separate but equal. Integration did not mean bringing those five students (in the first year, followed by more the following year; eventually Dunbar would be closed and Glass and a new high school in another part of the city would continue on as fully integrated high schools) into Glass and giving them their own classes (a parallel stream within Glass) or even allowing them into lower level classes in Glass. Integration meant that those students became fully a part of E. C. Glass High School and were a part of any and all classes that fit with their academic aspirations and abilities, as well as were able to join any sports teams, musical organizations, or co-curricular activities for which they were qualified and in which they were interested. It was not that the students of E. C. Glass all accepted this change easily – I witnessed some racial harassment of Owen, the male I knew best, in physical education class (Owen endured it with equanimity) and would suppose that the women students experienced a parallel situation – it was that the changes that happened were what integration meant. It did not mean separate and equal, it did not mean being both held at the same time in tension, but it did mean the two mixed on the basis of total equality. And this meant that some aspects of the E. C. Glass culture, or parts of it, would have to go, such as the assumption that Afro-Americans were inferior or less capable. I should note that at the same time or perhaps a bit later Rev Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, was photographed on the steps of his church, arms crossed, blocking the racial integration of his church. I understand that he quietly changed his stance a year later, but at that time he did not want African Americans in his church on an equal, integrated basis. Thus, if we in the BSCD integrate the charismatic and the contemplative or even the charismatic and the Catholic, we would expect the practices, theologies, and experiences of the two to be combined on an equal plane in a single structure or worship experience. Otherwise one would have parallel tracks or separate but equal.

The second question is: “What is the charismatic?” Concomitantly, we might ask: “What is the contemplative?” This issue is trickier. On the one hand, by “contemplative” we in the BSCD would mean Christian contemplation such as that pointed to by St John of the Cross or St Teresa of Ávila. This could be expanded to more imaged versions of contemplation, such as that of the Blessed Sacrament, or such eastern versions of contemplation as that which St Seraphim of Sarov practiced using the Jesus Prayer. All of them include the stilling of the passions, the cleansing of sin, deep humility, obedience to the inner voice of God, and, in the end, direct inner (or outer) experience of God, if that is granted.

On the other hand, the “charismatic” is more difficult to define. I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren, an ecumenical movement of the early 1800’s. To find a common denominator among denominations they sought the Spirit’s leading in the “Breaking of Bread” service (they recognized correctly that the Eucharist is the central Christian experience, the point of unity) so that they would not need to use anyone’s liturgy. John Nelson Darby would write in those early years, “It is the duty of Christian men in these last days to seek the renewal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Thus, he expected a wider set of gifts to be expressed than the “Spirit’s leading” they were experiencing, gifts such as tongues and healing. However, Darby came into contact with Edward Irving (and the New Apostolic Church) that claimed to be having an experience of these gifts of the Spirit. They may also have had a document from a Jesuit in South America that gave the key ideas of what would later be known as dispensational theology. Whatever the exact situation, Darby’s interest in “prophecy” and the “last days” did develop into dispensational theology and Darby’s tendency to react to strong individuals repelled him from the claims of the equally strong Edward Irving so that Darby developed the idea of gift cessationism that came to be connected with dispensationalism. The gifts of the Spirit were only for the initial period of the church, after which the Bible sufficed for the church age and any claim to spiritual gifts (other than the “leading of the Spirit” in the breaking of bread and similar situations) was illegitimate. The Reformed Tradition had a parallel theology, but it was not built on a theory of dispensations, the separation of Israel and the Church, and a particular view of the “last days.” None of these movements expected a crisis experience in either their gifts (or non-gifts) of the Spirit or in evangelism. They did evangelism, but any crisis experiences in evangelism were spontaneous and not required, certainly not engineered. Jonathan Edwards would be a good example of this attitude from the Reformed perspective (for example The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Applied to that Uncommon Operation that Has Lately Appeared on the Minds of the People of New England).

John Nelson Darby.jpg

The end of the 1800’s all of this changed. Charles Finney introduced “the use of means” into evangelism: there was a shift in music to more emotional forms using contemporary tunes (which one hears when the hymns are played up tempo by a skilled musician), there was the “altar call” to come forward to the “mourners bench” where one knelt until one had the crisis breakthrough, and there were, of course, counselors who helped one through this experience, as well as the gifted preacher. This format would develop through the ministries of Billy Sunday, Dwight L. Moody (and Sankey), and Billy Graham into the “normative” crisis “born again” experience of the first half of the 20thcentury. If one has had the experience, then one is “saved,” and if one has not had the experience, no matter how orthodox one’s belief, deep one’s sacramental experience, or firm one’s commitment, one is still “lost.” The crisis experience is the key.

In my case, I grew up believing the faith, committed to the faith and, of course, Jesus, as far back as I can remember. I know that about age one my mother started to read Bible to me and my older brother. I can remember pride about age five in the fact that I had sung every song in the “breading of bread” (of course, I could not partake of communion at that age). But just a bit later I had an experience of spiritual and emotional abuse when a Sunday School teacher told us in my small class that if we did not “ask Jesus into [our] heart” Jesus might come and “rapture” your parents and they would go to heaven and you would be left behind – alone. It was well-meaning crisis evangelism, but its effect on me was terror. For weeks afterwards I would lay in bed in the darkness and “ask Jesus into my heart” multiple times before falling asleep. I never told anyone about that experience at the time. I made no change in my beliefs or faith commitments. It was an experience of terror, not of conversion. I would quietly grow up in the faith (and even, about age 8, give a talk at the Bible Club fund raising banquet, a talk that was broadcast over the radio – a big thing in those days), and, about age 14, in a rational, reflective movement in my bedroom one summer decided that it was “time to get serious” about my faith commitment, i.e. to take adult responsibility. I made some changes in my life (e.g. I stopped going to school dances, which brought about a breakup with my girlfriend), but mostly I approached the elders of my “assembly” (church) that fall and asked for baptism and to be “received into fellowship” in the “assembly” (church) that we attended. Baptism was put off until the next January, which was after I was 15 and after we moved into a new church building (the baptismal in the old building was leaky and the elders did not want to repair it). Baptism, in their view, was right and proper, but it was only a witness and was really in the end unnecessary. I was, however, “received into fellowship” a couple of weeks after making the original request, as I remember it, which meant that I could not only receive communion, but also take my place as an adult male in the “assembly.” In the ‘morning meeting” or “Breaking of Bread” I could “give out a hymn” or stand and pray or read (and expound) a short scripture passage or even pray for the bread and wine. I wisely limited myself at first to hymns or perhaps a short prayer. You have to get used to the “leading of the Spirit.” Shortly after I turned 15 the elders picked out three young men (of which I was the youngest) and on a quarterly or monthly basis had the youth lead the evening evangelistic service (at which there were no persons who were not died-in-the-wool members, so there was no danger of damaging anyone’s faith) with one of us young men preaching (women could play the piano or perhaps sing a “special number”). By summer the elders decided we were good enough to move to the family Bible hour (the preaching service after the “Breaking of Bread.” The Sunday after my 16thbirthday (which was Nov 22, 1963) I preached my first Sunday morning sermon (I still have it on tape – and if I feel any pride it should be enough to humble me). My point is that a crisis conversion experience was assumed to have taken place in me, but no one knew when it was. I would eventually be asked by a Christian organization, and would give that experience at age 5, but would know all along that it made no difference in my spiritual status. My other point is that while we denied some “charismatic gifts” and certainly “speaking in tongues,” it was clear that we practiced others – the “leading of the Spirit” into verbal expression in the “Morning Meeting,” and the gift of teaching and perhaps even prophecy (although we would not have called it that) in both the “Morning Meeting” and the “Family Bible Hour.” No one needed a crisis experience to exercise those gifts – all adult males who were “in fellowship” were assumed to have them, although some would be more gifted as teachers and preachers.

However, crisis conversion was not the only thing that happened in the late 1800’s, for there were a series of adventist movements (the Plymouth Brethren had been part of an adventist wave in the early 1800’s) then that applied the crisis idea to two other areas: crisis sanctification and crisis healing. The Christian and Missionary Alliance developed its houses of healing for the latter purpose (although they were willing to take more time that would be taken in later movements), and, of course, in that denomination Jesus was (and is) viewed as savior, healer, sanctifier, and coming king. There were, of course, other groups as well, for this was a time of ferment. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, among others, experimented with and longed for crisis spiritual gifts (i.e. what would be called “charismatic experience”), but it was what became the Pentecostal movement that developed this experience. Crisis was how one made spiritual progress, so one stayed in prayer until one received the gift of tongues (the “initial evidence” of the filling by the Spirit) and then stepped out in other gifts. Thus, crisis experience was the key idea of the period between 1880 and 1910, and it remained important in North American fundamentalism afterwards.

As the Pentecostal movement developed in North America, both sanctification and spiritual gifts were crisis experiences (remember that many Pentecostal churches also have “holiness” in their names). When the crisis spiritual gift reception (spearheaded by tongues) jumped into the mainline Protestant world in the 1960’s, the sanctification aspect did not come with it. Most mainline Protestant groups already had a theology of progressive sanctification. But the crisis aspect remained when it came to “charismatic gifts,” with tongues as the leading indicator. Tongues, of course, unlike the opinion now of the typical biblical scholar about what this meant in the biblical text, were seen more as a mantra or sounds expressing one’s emotion, than languages (which is what the term should mean in koine Greek) and likewise interpretation of tongues was viewed something like prophecy based on a “message in tongues” rather than the interpretation of a language that at least some people group (or angels) knew and spoke (even if no one in the gathered community did). Of course, the early Pentecostals also assumed that this actual language meaning was the meaning of the terms and on that basis some of the more enthusiastic undertook foreign missions without language training, often (but not invariably) with disastrous results. But by the time of the charismatic movement it was recognized, due to a number of linguistic studies, that this was not what the phenomenon called “tongues” usually was, although often a story or two circulated indicating that this “could” be the case once in a while. It is also true that in the mainline Protestant denominations crisis conversion was not a critical issue, even if crisis “baptism in the Holy Spirit” was in the “charismatic” parts of the denomination. That caused some tension with the Pentecostal source movements, which wondered whether the mainline Protestants were “saved.” But it meant that one had one crisis experience (baptism in the Holy Spirit) without the others (the “born again” experience or crisis sanctification). One might add that there was a tendency for the adventist eschatology to come with these experiences, i.e. that this experience was a restoration before the second advent and that the end of the age (often pictured in dispensational terms with a rapture) was close at hand.

The integration of this type of charismatic experience into mainline Protestant theology (and even that of some evangelical groups) was difficult. Thus, literature arose – e.g. that of Morton Kelsey – which argued that the gifts had always been around, so this present experience was a type of renewal, a new consciousness, but not a restoration; sometimes this same literature interpreted the gifts in Jungian terms or that of other psychological theory. The music that helped create the crisis experience was more easily integrated, at least so long as one had services set aside for its use. It tended to run on parallel tracks with traditional church music, although a few pieces of music were of high enough quality in both lyrics and musical composition that the did start to make it into hymnals, into the regular musical repertoire. This selection was not discrimination, but the filtering that has always gone on – a Charles Wesley or an Isaac Watts (among others) composed thousands of hymns, but only a comparative handful, perhaps 100 at best, have made it into the lasting repertoire. That is also not surprising: how many hymns or songs from the pre-printing centuries continue to be sung? Be that as it may, usually parallel tracks were arranged for both the music and the experience, with some services being “charismatic” and others being “traditional,” although there were exceptions: Church of the Redeemer, Episcopal, Houston, composed music that combined organ and guitar and that fit into the Eucharistic structure of an Episcopal Eucharist and that church, so far as I could tell, only had the one type of Eucharistic service. One thinks of the “King of Glory” setting of the mass in general or “Alleluia Nr. 1” in particular. While I only spent a week living in a community house of the Church of the Redeemer plus some briefer visits to services while visiting relatives in Houston, I am deeply thankful to that community in particular and their traveling Fisherfolk teams and to the mainline charismatic movement in general for being a step along my path of spiritual growth. All the same, the “charismatic” was usually compartmentalized from “church” in general, even if we tended to think of it as something deeper.

The problem of integration was even more difficult in the Catholic Charismatic movement. Generally, it was solved by either introducing some “charismatic music” at particular masses or having separate charismatic services that were not Eucharistic. In the 1970’s and 1980’s some priests made alterations in the mass structure or in the liturgy for healing during mass, which allowed for the introduction of free prayer and lay participation. In some settings the sacramental of anointing was (versus the sacrament of anointing) introduced so that lay people could anoint. This would fade out over the next decades as bishops and pastors, having seen the over-reaction to Vatican II and its results, insisted on reinstating liturgical discipline

There was more problem with integrating the basically Pentecostal theology. Often the theology was simply accepted and allowed to exist alongside tradition Catholic theology, with Catholic theology adding a sacramental side that made it Catholic. This is something of what I saw in Steubenville in 1980 at the National Catholic Charismatic Conference for Priests and Deacons (I was one of the 80 Episcopalians among the 800 participants). Various prophecies were stated, but, of course, these, while common in the charismatic movement, were not and could not be vetted by the Magisterium, as they should in a Catholic setting. Fr. Scanlon then said, “And we know these are true, for they agree with the Marian apparitions” (some of which, at least, had been vetted by the Magisterium and certified genuine). But there were other theological problems that were not addressed.

Catholic theology has the baptism of the Holy Spirit taking place at baptism – baptism in water and the Spirit. The newly baptized, adult or infant, is anointed at that time. There is a later event of first communion for baptized children, but, while ideally coming with catechism beforehand, this is a receiving of Christ in communion, not a new reception of the Spirit nor a being “born again.” There is also confirmation, but that, again after catechizing, is the time of strengthening and confirming the presence of the Spirit as one in turn confirms one’s faith commitment. It is not the baptism in the Spirit nor is it crisis conversion, although for some it may seem to be the latter. There is, then, growth in knowledge that is recognized at some critical points in life, but the Spirit is there all along. And, of course, in the case of adults being baptized, confirmation and first communion would happen at the same time. Likewise, the Catholic Church never asks in retrospect whether a person has been “born again” (had a childhood or adult crisis experience) but whether the person has been baptized and confirmed. The crisis, in both cases, is at the time of baptism, and it is a sacramental crisis event – what the person experiences or does not experience is not an issue, for the sacrament is effective with or without feelings.

There are other charismatic theologies and practices than that of the North American charismatic movement (which is certainly aging and may well be dying). In the Ruferbewegung in Germany we experienced a charismatic movement that was without the excited music, for it was without the need for crisis. It was assumed that believers had the Spirit, and that what was needed was the removal of blocks for the Spirit to manifest himself more. A quiet prayer over the person would be appropriate, as would the removal of theological objections, and after that a charismatic meeting would consist of gentle music, candlelight, quiet prayer in German, and then would spiral down (so to speak) into the depths and end up in tongues and/or prophecy, although only be a few of those present. Healing prayer was listening prayer that quietly asked for healing, perhaps at a distance from the person being prayed for. The charismatic service with its production of crisis was not part of the German scene we knew (although it was in the military chapel in Würzburg and at least some of the excited music was at a retreat Judy attended). A one- or two-week fasting retreat was more their style. Now that would integrate with Catholic theology better than the neo-Pentecostal approach that is usually used in North America.

Another approach to the “charismatic” is that of the early Vineyard. John Wimber, who saw his movement as neither Pentecostal nor Evangelical, but as a bridge, a middle ground, would another example of a more compatible theology. The early Vineyard music was music of intimacy with God, music sung to God. Some of that was lost later in the movement, but even then, the focus on God was usually maintained even if the music became louder and more complex. (And people stopped singing and became audiences, letting the worship team do the singing for them and evaluating the worship by how it moved them.) Wimber did not believe that one needed a crisis experience, but he allowed that some did have such experiences and that that was OK, perhaps even needed by them. Still, he did not try to produce one. Crisis experiences needed to be spontaneous. One was baptized in the Spirit at conversion (which for him was a conscious experience, not a sacramental one, for as an Evangelical Quaker he was not sacramental at all but had taken over the “born again” crisis approach of Evangelicalism, although mostly through personal conversation rather than higher pressure “rallies”). What one needed to do to experience the “gifts” was to obey the instructions in “the Book” and step out in faith. His conferences were generally trying to build a realistic faith that would endure. One listened to God and that did “what the Father is doing.” So, a particular prayer for healing might be changed as one perceived more and more clearly “what the Father is doing.” Perhaps despite cancer being the presenting issue, inner healing was what the Father was doing. Perhaps a demon might reveal itself, but the Father saw that as the least of the person’s problems and one might end up healing it out. The Christian life consisted of “teaching the Book, caring for the poor, and doing the stuff,” the stuff being operating in spiritual gifts and the like. Notice that social ministry was as much a part of following Jesus as spiritual gifts. It was all the Spirit. And while one might have a crisis experience, such as those who spontaneously started “speaking in tongues like a turkey gobble,” such an experience was not necessary. As Gary Best, leader of the Canadian Vineyards said many times, rather than receiving something that he did not have, “I just started keeping what I had been throwing out.” That meant that he had been getting impulses from the Spirit all his Christian life but had been neglecting to follow them. Once Wimber made him aware of what they were, he started paying attention to them and taking the risk of acting on them. As Gary Best (following Wimber) said, “Faith is spelled R I S K.” Again, this is far more compatible with Catholic theology. Where it differs is in that it follows evangelicalism and earlier fundamentalism in expecting crisis conversion rather than the development of sacramental grace. While the Holy Spirit comes automatically in conversion, the conversion itself must be conscious. One must have the “born again” experience in one form or another. Also, there is no real discussion of the relationship of sanctification with either conversion or Holy Spirit gifting. Of course, sanctification was desirable. No one advocated sinning. But since all sin had been taken care of in the “born again” experience, sanctification was a bit of an extra, although for Wimber at least acts of mercy were an action of the Spirit. To connect sanctification to the gifts of the Spirit might make the latter seem earned, which would not fit a Protestant theology of grace.

Now, as noted, both the Ruferbewegung and Vineyard (or at least Wimber) are more compatible with Catholic theology and sacramental practice than the neo-Pentecostalism that is usually the basis for charismatic experience in the Catholic Church. But there are Catholic approaches that are more compatible, if less exciting. I will look briefly at two of them, one from the East and one from the West.


In his book In the School of the SpiritFr. Jacques Philipp depends most upon St Thérèse of Lisieux. He, as a good Catholic, argues that the Spirit is in the baptized and what is needed is following the voice of the Spirit. That inner voice or quiet impulse is dulled by sin and by simply ignoring it. The voice becomes clearer as one follows it both into sanctification and into obedience. The voice might say to pray for or visit someone, and if spiritual gifts are needed, they will manifest at the time of the prayer or visitation. The Spirit works through the obedient heart. If one looks closely, the various gifts of the Spirit are there, although the book focuses on the seven in Isaiah, for they are the roots of the others, since all of the work of the Spirit is Jesus. If one asks, “How will I know it is the Spirit?” Fr. Philipp presents the rules for discernment of spirits from St Ignatius and the St Thérèse’s focus on totally accepting the will of God, even willing the will of God, no matter how painful it may be. There may be crises when one makes a breakthrough in one or another area, but it may also be totally gradual. As one becomes sanctified the voice of the Spirit becomes clearer and as one practices discerning and obeying, the process becomes almost automatic. The point is that it is not obtaining gifts that are under one’s own control that is the issue, but being oneself under the control of God, who can manifest himself through one in everything from the humblest service to the most dramatic prayer of faith. All of this, of course, is in the context of the sacraments, for that was the air that the spiritual masters he followed breathed.


St. Seraphim of Sarov takes a more Eastern approach in On the Acquisition if the Holy Spirit. In that work the focus is on sanctification and humble service. As one does this one grows closer and closer to God (and more and more humble, for one recognizes more and more one’s sinful nature). While God may manifest his gifts in one’s service along the way, it is as one develops closeness to God through constant prayer (daily prayers and, of course, the constant use of the Jesus Prayer) and sacramental life (even before he was a priest St. Seraphim was a frequent, even daily, communicant, which was unusual in the Eastern Church) and faithful, humble service that God can safely channel his wisdom and power through one. When one reads the life of St Seraphim one sees this in action. He becomes (if God wills) a staretz(orstarets) who is not only the source or wisdom but also of prayer and miracles, seen in spades in St Seraphim.  Seraphim did not take this mantle up until he was 60, i.e. after some 37 years of monastic life, although others had sought him earlier and had indeed found wisdom and graces of the Spirit even then. Yet in the earlier period St. Seraphim had also at times chosen to wall himself off for years at a time, sensing he was not yet ready for numbers of people to seek the Spirit in him.

Obviously, there is a lot more to say about both of these books and both priests have other works out, either from them or about them. But there are some conclusions to draw. First, both approaches accept the so-called charismatic spiritual gifts. In that sense they are charismatic. Second, neither approach needs to use means to create a crisis experience. In fact, both would be concerned with the “dictatorship of noise” as Cardinal Sarah notes in The Power of Silence. Music may be the expression of a particular culture, and that is not bad, but in relationship to the Spirit excited music comes afterthe Spirit has acted and one is excited because of the Spirit, not as a means of putting oneself in the mood for the Spirit to act. We are not in the time of the ecstatic prophets of the earlier periods of the Hebrew Scriptures, but in the time of the still, small voice. Both approaches I have cited stress sanctification and that that and drawing close to God are the focus rather than the gifts of the Spirit being the focus. One discerns what the Spirit is saying and then says it or does it. The gift is there to do what God has led one to do.


There is safety in this approach. Many leaders of the North American charismatic movement have been “taken down” by some character fault or another – sexual issues, pride, greed (which often slips in bit by bit), and others. I personally have sensed such things in some (i.e. that they were at risk) and seen them in others (including seen the results in congregations that are no more). The greater the power God manifests, the deeper must be the humility, self-knowledge, and repentance. Otherwise one is in great danger, and, if the danger becomes reality, others will be destroyed. I myself started to slip into the danger of seeking the gifts rather than simply seeking intimacy with God, especially during the 1980’s. Power tends to puff up, as does knowledge. Thanks be to God, he stripped me of a lot and has made me a disciple of the monastics. Other headline ministries (although in the wider perspective of the Church, they were actually small) were not so fortunate and continued until they crashed. On the other hand, St Thérèse endured years of weakness and illness that made her into a chosen vessel and similar things could be said of St John of the Cross or St Teresa of Ávila or St Ignatius Loyola and many others. We are an impatient culture and seek techniques or means of getting things done immediately. God trained Moses in the wilderness for 40 years – he is a very patient God – and even Jesus spent 30 years in virtually undocumented obscurity as “the technos[builder, carpenter, handworker]” before spending 3 years in active ministry. And he did not have to rid himself of sin and the like.

If we want true integration of the charismatic with the contemplative, we need, first, to find the charismatic in the gifts of the Spirit, not in the music that is part of a particular time and culture, but is also part of a means of trying bring about a crisis of breakthrough in the Spirit. The music is not charismatic per se, and it can be a distraction from what the Spirit is doing. I have often struggled while praying for people in a charismatic meeting, standing outside the prayer group so as not to hear their excited prayers and trying to focus inwardly so as to get past the music and hear the quiet voice of the Spirit. If we want true integration of the charismatic, we will also need to see sanctification as a key aspect, if not to receiving the Spirit, at least to making the Spirit safe (untainted by our sin and desires) and to enabling us to hear his voice and discern it. If we want true integration of the charismatic, we need to cultivate humility and time with God. We need to realize that those who are not willing to spend the time with God are not going to be able to be used by God and that those who are willing to spend the time with God will not care whether or not they are used by God, but only whether they experience the Father’s smile. Yet they will be used powerfully. If we are to integrate the charismatic with the Catholic faith, we need to be thankful for how the neo-Pentecostal movement or charismatic renewal may have helped us in the past (as I indeed am), but realize that in the end the way forward is found in the lives and teaching of the saints, but East and West.

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Becoming One Under God – Theonomy rather than Autonomy or Heteronomy

As one meditates through Lent one reflects on realities one knew about, but which come alive anew. One such was Bp Robert Barron’s citing Paul Tillich’s analysis that peoples and nations alternate between heteronomy (when one’s life is determined by another person or group, such as a father in the family, a government in a nation, or law imposed on one) and autonomy (in which one’s life is determined by oneself). This alternation is often violent, such as when the colonists in what became the United States of America, resenting the order imposed on them by the colonial power, England – basically taxation both for the expenses of governing the colonies and for the benefit of England (many of the colonies were established as investments) staged a violent revolution and then in turn put down the Whiskey Rebellion against the taxes imposed by the new central government on the frontier makers of whiskey. One similarly sees this on the level of the family with the teenager who rebelled wishing to control their own family as they age and have children of their own. For Tillich and even more for Bp Barron the solution was theonomy in which people submit to the rule that stems from God, which is a rule of love in that it seeks the good of the other, not of the ruler. But it is true and principled and not liable to one’s own’s desires. As long as one is run by one’s own desires, there is fragmentation in society and chaos is one’s life – we need to be ordered by another, but the other to be acceptable must be recognized as ordering out of love, which is precisely the nature of God, both internally and externally towards whatever he has created. In other words, good social order requires conversion of heart.

The second element in my reflections was Luke 11:14-23, the demonized boy, who was in chaos, for the demonic is characterized by akatastasia(Greek), i.e. instability. The degree of organization is like that among orcs in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for they jostle together and even fight as they jog along in companies, kept in order by the whips of those who rule them. The tongue is, in this respect, demonic, for it is a restless evil in Jas 3:8, or, as the person of divided loyalties, unstable (Jas 1:8). The divisive pseudo-wisdom of Jas 3:14 – 16 is indeed unstable (akatastasiaagain), but it is also “demonic.” It is no wonder that in his call to repentance in the next chapter James calls for submission to God and resistance to “the devil” (Jas 4:7). In the case of the boy, once the demonic is expelled the boy is integrated and able to integrate into society. It is interesting to note that Jesus relates the expulsion of such spirits to prayer (and in some manuscripts “fasting” – but the two go together in that fasting is a “no” to this age while prayer is an alignment of the self under God), Lenten disciplines, which align one under God and return one to submission to him.

This relates to the present state of the world, which was well-described in the latest work of Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Day is Far Spent(which will come out in English in September) as described in a recent interview. The West in general (and I would add the USA especially) is in the grip of its passions, or, one could say, a radical autonomy. Thus there is a tendency to impose heteronomy on others, for only a strong power can bring the forces of autonomy to (temporary) heel, which Cardinal Sarah sees as Western imperialism trying to force its (corrupt) values on Africa or, we could add, the desire to use the heteronomous power of government to impose behavior and values on those in society– without conversion of heart – which is why Cardinal Sarah opposes the elements of the social agenda of those who would turn the Church into a social force rather than a spiritual force. He has already called for a return to this spiritual core (a core that draws from the deeper reality of God) in his work The Power of Silence.

This also fits with what Bowen Theory observes that the more anxious, more passion driven, undifferentiated selves are chaotic forces in society, while the true leaders are the less anxious, more thinking, differentiated selves. As Edwin Friedman pointed out in Failure of Nerve(posthumous work after his 1996 death that draws upon his earlier work), the emotionally driven society is what we see in the USA. And he would surely underline that today from a President who goes by his “gut feelings” rather than studies, analyses and reports (and that is what he says he does, although others concur) to an opposition that calls in highly emotional scare headlines for the rising up of “the people” to “demand” this or that. One is not surprised to see writers suggesting that the election of 2020 could bring about a type of revolution.

The solution is hardly in Protestantism, for at a time when the various principalities were asserting their own autonomy against the heteronomy of the Holy Roman Empire, the various Reformers proclaimed a type of autonomy in the principle of sola scriptura. Of course, autonomy was only taken so far, for when the peasants rebelled, Luther was all for the use of the forces of the state to ruthlessly impose heteronomy. Unfortunately, the Church did need reform, and we see it in its championing of the suppression of various reform movements by the Holy Roman Empire (which was indeed threatened). Meanwhile, the various principalities used the various reform movements to give religious sanction to their own aspirations of independence. Martyrs were numerous on both sides. But that also meant that Reformation was an infelicitous title, for while it may have started that way, in the end there was no reform but only a fractured revolution with the parts hating one another almost as much as they hated Rome (and more when Rome became less of a threat). The reform came, but it came in the Council of Trent that in fact codified into Church law 76 of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. But the genie of akatastasiawas already out of the bottle, for now there are 20,000 to 30,000 Protestant denominations (and does this count the many independent churches and house churches?) of every stripe of theology and often factions within the various denominations, factions that ultimately cannot be contained.

At times the Catholic Church has joined some Protestants in trying to use the state to control the autonomy of individuals as in their joint efforts at suppressing abortion. Laudable as the goal is, the means are not the conversion of hearts to a divine order, but an attempt to impose a heteronomy on the destructive autonomy of some, which will in turn lead to the breaking out of a new revolution against that heteronomy, for there will be abuses that will get publicized. The state, of course, is often vary willing to use this desire for state control to gain support for its wider agenda, an agenda that splits the very groups it is using. Thus those desiring health care that would lower the appalling rate of maternal and infant mortality in the USA and those who read their scripture as welcoming the immigrant and especially the refugee are often suppressed, or the attempt is made to suppress them, especially in the evangelical world, because that would give the group less traction with the state, which does not have those other items on its agenda. It is, instead, using the agenda agreed upon to suppress the liberal parts of Protestantism and those parts of society which are happy to side with it. The real god of the state is Mammon (although it is not afraid to give some deference to Mars and especially to Aphrodite – we see this in the numerous scandals infecting both state and church). There seems to be a new division between the various states (with the West, or parts of it, being the new factor in the division), and the battle could get violent. My concern is not the akatastasia, for that is to be expected in an emotionally driven society, but that the Church (and the multitude of ecclesial communities) is far from peaceful and far from a force for peace in that it is participating in the various sides. (I will not discuss how this state of affairs has changed in my lifetime, but simply note that there are reasons that Trinity Evangelical Divinity School spawned what would become the Sojourners community and not a religious community of the right.)

The need, then, is for the Church to be the Church and use the tools of the Church. That is, it should display the opposite of akatastasiain its unity. It should show that it can make peace among waring groups. It should live its contrast-lifestyle, the lifestyle of life under theonomy, rather than trying to impose it by force on others. In the Roman Empire there was abortion and the exposure of infants and all the moral vices that we find today. The Church speaks about them, but mostly to reject such lifestyles for Christians. That is the pre-conversion life. Now the Christian is reborn. And the Church lived love for others, adopting the exposed infants, giving up their negative practices, and helping the poor, the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan, as scripture says, which in part made them an attractive alternative to the society around them and its deities. And the Church did this through proclaiming the power of conversion of heart, of coming under the love-theonomy of God, seen in the upside-down world of the death of their God breaking the power of evil and leading to the establishment of their new community with its new future. Furthermore, the change was visible now in the holy lives (and often holy deaths) of its leaders (whether they were leaders in the hierarchal sense or leaders by their moral example, for some saints never had positions in the church, much less positions in society). That, I argue, is the way forward for the Church, although without divine intervention it is unlikely that we can do much about society collapsing around us. We might, however, be in a position to pick up the pieces as it collapses and after it collapses, whether it collapses into a new heteronomy, a type of dictatorship, whether of the right or the left, or autonomous chaos.

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Sheep and Goats

If you go into the Stone Chapel of Lanier Theological Library on the north edge of Houston, you will see in the dome of the apse a figure of Jesus in a composite view of final judgment, left hand gesturing down and right hand gesturing up. Human beings in the midst of collapsing buildings are heading upwards on his right and downwards into flames on his left. Obviously, the right and left gestures are from Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats. There the criteria of judgment are how one has handled the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the sick, and the prisoner – the needy of this world, the “least of these.” This behavior, it is clear, is credited as having been done or not done to Jesus himself.

Jesus Last Judgment Lanier Stone Chapel.JPG

This parable has been discomforting to the interpreters of my youth. This is judgment on the basis of works, it was asserted, and surely it must be for “someone else,” either “the nations” (but what does that say about “the nations,” then, that they can be “saved by works”?) or perhaps the Jews (since Jesus was speaking to Jews). Neither of these was satisfactory in that they introduce multiple bases of entry “into the kingdom.” Yet, in a sense, the answer is clear in two factors, one being that commitment and deeds in accordance with that commitment cannot be separated, as James says in Jas 2, and the other being that the same nature of God that we see in the Hebrew Scriptures is also found in the New Testament, and preeminently in Jesus.

God is, as Christian theology teaches, a triune God of love. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit is the love between them being one way that this is put. Each seeks the good of the other as other (for their benefit, not for the benefit of the one doing the loving action), and this is their nature. Creation itself is an act of extending this love, creating a human being who can love and be loved, and who can be drawn into the love-bond of the Trinity. Love, then, is always reaching out to find others to draw into the love relationship.

In the Hebrew Scriptures God shows love towards the Hebrews in rescuing them from bondage in Egypt just as he already showed his love to their ancestors who lived as foreigners, immigrants, in a land they did not own. This divine action, which we have sketched in the briefest of terms, is enjoined upon the Hebrews, upon Israel, in the covenant-making act and the expansions upon it. They are to be holy as God is holy, i.e. set apart, different, like God. So says Lev 19:1-18, which is only one example. What does this look like? It includes doing good to the underprivileged, the vulnerable. This passage concludes with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus was asked, and he gives an example of a member of a group that the Jews saw as illegitimate immigrants who followed Torah teaching (i.e. the Samaritan Pentateuch in some form) and showed love (was a neighbor to) a Jews, a member of a group that was actively hostile to them. The parable has no benefit returning to the Samaritan, but rather the love is simply seeking the good of the other as other, doing to another what one would want done to oneself. In the Hebrew Scriptures the key groups to reach out to are the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien/immigrant. All were without means of repaying those who sought their good; all were vulnerable. God is on their side, for he is love, caring for them. One sees this with hardly a mention of God in Ruth, in which two widows who do not seem to have access to the older widow’s land (which either was not planted or had been sold before her foreign sojourn or, if it had been planted, the one who planted it, relative or not, was not sharing the crop with them) receive divine love, in this case defined as covenant faithfulness, despite the main character being an immigrant from a group that could not, according to the Torah, enter into the people of God, an excluded group. Thus if one was faithful to God, if one loved God (sought his good, his honor, not that anyone could actually add to God’s honor or well-being), one loved that which God loved, which were those on the margins or even outside of the covenant people. There is where one found a face of God to love, where there was someone one could actually benefit, where one could be God’s “hands and feet” or “co-worker,” reaching out in love as God loves.

We return to the parable and see that if one really loves God, has entered into the loving relationship that characterizes the Trinity, then one loves whom God loves, and that is the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant or alien, the sick, the prisoner (one suspects in the New Testament period especially those captured in war and often exiled and/or sold into slavery). There one sees the face of God, the same face of God one saw in the Hebrew Scriptures, and there one can perform concrete acts that express the verbal commitment one makes in worship settings. Of course, this comes at a cost, and the cost is a type of cross, a dying to self-interest and a seeking of the interest of others, but that makes one more one with God. When Jesus sits on his throne, i.e. exercises his rule, he calls such into his “kingdom,” into a fuller experience of his rule, of his way of life, of the loving union of the Trinity (which would be explicated later), for in following their Lord, their heart and commitment is already there and they are expressing it every way they can in this age of the world and in this life.

What about those “goats?” They have also lived out their commitments. The devil in the various forms of Jewish literature, is involved in self-interest and self-honor. He is the opposite of the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, in a way. He is seeking pleasure, honor, power, and wealth (we might say, security). That is what is offered to Eve and Adam in Eden, that is what the angels who fall seek in 1 Enoch, and that is what Jesus consistently condemns. It is the opposite of love. The hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the sick, and the prisoner have nothing to give one; they are of no benefit. Thus they are ignored, or perhaps thrust away, or even exploited. Look at the politics of this world: if our care for the sick can benefit our cause or result in care for us at a later time, then we are for it, but if we do not see that, then we want to privatize medicine, making the sick care for themselves. If the immigrant can gain us votes or a good reputation or be needed workers for our industry (often at exploitive rates of pay), then we are for immigration, but if all we can see is social costs to their integration or a call to accept them and their culture as equals, then we reject them, for whatever reason. This is not a full explication of the politics involved in this country and many other countries, but it sketches the style of reasoning (to the extent that Christian thought and its kin has not been taken up, consciously or unconsciously). The point is that this age is concerned about “us” and, if there is a “seeking the good of others,” there is an underlying “for the ultimate benefit of us.” The giving characteristic of what God describes of love is relatively absent, and certainly there is no cross.

The “goats” may be saying what they like about their commitment to God or to Jesus, but their lives show that their real commitments, their true “faith” is in self. That is their ultimate good. They are like their greater and more powerful antecedents, the Watchers of 1 Enoch (picked up on Jude and 2 Peter 2, among other places), or the devil (in his first century form, ready to put down others for his own exaltation, and leading others in rebellion, i.e. in exalting self against God). Such a “kingdom” is unstable, which is how the New Testament characterizes the demonic. In is in a sense already a fire. And fire is prepared for the demonic (it is not said to be prepared for people, not even for goats, but for the devil and his minions) – they can be given freedom or space to express their nature. That, of course, is not the desire of God for any human being. Yet there is this mystery of freedom, which is necessary for love. God can create space for freedom and yet in his being outside the created order with its time know in his once-for-all knowing its outcome. These have chosen to put their real faith in self, or what they see as self, even if in actuality they are captive to spiritual forces they do not admit exist. They get to burn in the fire they have chosen. In fact, if they were in the presence of love itself, if they were dragged into the sphere of the kingdom, since it is the ultimate opposite of what they have chosen, they would experience it as fire. To the extent their choice of self is a negation of the good, to that extent the presence of Love Himself would be the burning refilling of their negation.

Jesus does not tell us how many are in each group. His purpose is to tell us what choice of the kingdom looks like and what are its results and the results of the negation of this choice. We can hope that ultimately not many choose the negation of love of “the least of these,” although, looking at the world around us, that seems more like hope in a coming conversion than the observation of the apparent actions of the people, structures, and political systems that we see, i.e. of the world.

So, no, faith without works is dead, for it is not true faith. There is no commitment to the love of God if we do not express the love that God is. The more God frees our lungs, the more this is as natural as breathing. It is all grace, but where one sees no evidence of grace there may well be no grace.

And that is why one wants to read, mark, and live Matthew 25. And that is also why one wants to observe its concrete outworking in the life of someone like St Teresa of Calcutta and countless exemplary lives before her, for they show that such entering into Trinitarian love is not only a desirable ideal, but an actual possibility, if one is also willing to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus.


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