Monday, December 13, 2004

FUGGEDABOUTIT!?" -- A response to Rev'd Canon Lesley A. Northup

Nathan at Fides, Spes, Caritas calls my attention to the text of what I would describe as "a spirited homily" by Episcopalian Rev'd Canon Lesley A. Northup, calling upon her parishioners to "Get Real - Read The Book".

It appears that Reverend Canon Northup is deeply embittered over the recent election of President Bush; opposition to abortion and gay marriage as motivating factors in the Republican victory, and their characterization as "moral values" or more specifically, "Christian values"; the recent criticism of 250 African Anglican bishops regarding the U.S. Episcopal Church's consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, a divorced man living with a male lover, which is in itself a sign of what the Washington Times describes as the slow erosion of membership in the Episcopalian Church of America (concurrent with the ECUSA's rapid abandonment of the moral and theological doctrines of traditional Christianity):

I read that this latest election was decided by something called "moral values." That is, specifically, opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Those were the two moral issues that made all the so-called Christians stand up and be counted. Christian values, Christian morals -- we are told that these won out in this election.

Well, they aren't my Christian morals, and I don't want to be that kind of Christian. I don't want a name that implies I think or feel or believe like people who make these their highest values -- or fears. There are many Christianities out there -- always have been. The Religious Rightwing, the fundamentalists, the zealots, the anti-intellectual evangelicals -- have a lot of nerve trying to claim that their very narrow brand of Christianity is the only one.

I say it is time true Christians -- and by that I mean people who believe in and follow and actually live the teachings of Jesus -- it's time true Christians reclaimed the name "Christian" and stopped being coopted by persons who have little knowledge, understanding, or practical application in their own lives of Christian principles.

If I understand Canon Northup correctly, nobody who maintains the legitimacy of traditional Christian teachings on sexuality or the "life issues" qualifies as a real Christian, since they don't follow Jesus:

Real Christians have to stand up and say, "Morality? This is what you call morality? You've got to be kidding!" Real Christians have to point out that "Christian" means "someone who follows the example and teachings of Jesus," not "someone who will swallow whatever a preacher will tell them." Real Christians have to take this book that everyone keeps referring to, this Bible, and actually read it and find out what those teachings are.

It is a familiar line of reasoning you probably have heard before in discussion of such issues: if Jesus didn't mention it, it probably wasn't of concern to him; or, to put a New York spin on it: "if it's not in the Good Book, FUGGEDABOUTIT!!"

But don't take my word for it, here is Canon Northup:

"In the book, Jesus never said a word about abortions. Some Christians oppose aborting a fetus that cannot even live on its own, but this deeply held conviction did not prevent millions of good life-respecting Christians from voting to continue an unprovoked and falsely justified war of aggression that has killed tens of thousands of perfectly innocent people who were already living. I think Jesus probably would not have liked this.

In the book, Jesus never said one word about homosexuality. It probably never even crossed his mind. As a matter of fact, Jesus very seldom talked about "thou shalt nots" -- about terrible things you weren't supposed to do. His morality was about what you were supposed to do. He was crystal clear about "thou shalts." Here is what morality is, according to Jesus: Feed the poor (there are about 12 million people in our country who worry daily about whether they will have food); comfort the prisoners (probably includes not torturing or shooting them); accept the outcast (the queer, the single mother, the street person, the Muslim); shelter the homeless (and stop creating more of them); be good stewards and shepherds (stop raping the environment); depend on God, not on wealth (and don't collect it at the expense of the poor); treat others as you would have them treat you. And FIGHT for justice.

This is the morality Jesus taught. This is Christian morality. This is what "good" Christians endeavor to do. Everything else is self-righteous prooftexting of the old Hebrew Scriptures and unworthy of the adjective "Christian."

I'm not going to respond to Rev. Northup's condescending portrayal of Christians across the nation, and her insinuation that anybody who voted Republican advocates the use of torture, the perpetuation of poverty and homelessness, and "raping the environment." Such underhanded tactics are not unlike the inquiry: "so, have you stopped beating your wife?" -- Neither a yes nor a no will suffice.

Nor will I address at length her allegation that life-respecting Christians ought to "FIGHT for justice" and refuse to engage in "unjust wars of aggression" -- in the face of Saddam Hussein's bloody crimes against his people (as chronicled in Kanan Makiya's Republic of Fear, for example), one might also defend the liberation of Iraq in terms of bringing justice to a brutal dictator who had eluded the law for far too long.

But these are all merely tangents, and I will trust in the intelligence and sound common sense of my readers to judge for themselves.

I would like to address, however, Rev. Northup's line of thought regarding "true Christianity" as can be obtained by reading the scriptures, since it's a prevalent argument of our time.

"True Christianity" = Christ - The Church?

Canon Northup's reliance on the Bible as the source of "true Christianity" (aka. "what Jesus actually said") struck me as having a distinctly Protestant ring to it -- and a radical one at that. Note how she conveniently severes and isolates Jesus' words from the teachings of the apostles, pitting one against the other. Although she neglects to mention St. Paul in her homily, I suspect she would be inclined to dismiss the writings of the Apostle (and that of the early Church Fathers) on homosexuality as merely reflective of the bigotry of their time, in conflict with the nonjudgemental love of Jesus and thus only so much historical baggage to be discarded. The same might be said for the early Church's teachings on abortion, about which Jesus did not specifically refer but which, again, the early Church had plenty to say.

Most Protestants posit the Holy Scriptures as the sole rule of faith, believing the Protestant Reformation's assertion of sola scriptura to be a rediscovery of real Christianity after centuries of Catholic ignorance. In contrast, the premise of Canon Northup's call to "take back Christianity" goes one step further: the imposters are not only Catholics, but practically all -- Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox -- who choose to abide by and defend the moral norms of Christian tradition.

In her fulminations against Christian morality, Canon Northup is certainly not far off from joining the ranks of Bishop Spong (former bishop of Newark, NJ, and another intellectual lightweight of the Episcopalian denomination) in his "rescue Christianity from fundamentalism", which largely began as a protest against Christian prohibitions against homosexuality, contraception, premarital intercourse, and divorce, and has culminated in an all-out war against orthodox Christianity (aptly described by D. Marty Lasley in "Rescuing Christianity From Bishop Kevorkian").

Interpreting Scripture with the Church

The difficulty with Canon Northup's line of thinking is that, as Cardinal Dulles states in his excellent summary of Catholic theology The New World of Faith, "the Bible is not intended to be a complete or systematic inventory of Christian doctrine," and it is not sufficient to simply rely on "what Christ said" in the scriptures alone:

. . . one must avoid the fallacy of primitivism. Christ laid the foundations but did not construct the entire edifice. He planted the seeds but left the full growth to later generations. Conscious that the apostles were not yet ready to receive all that he had to teach, he promised to send the Holy Spirit to supplement his teaching after the Acension. in the New Testament we can glimpse the gradual emergence of certain structures that would not assume definitive form until a later time. We are the beneficiaries of this emergence. We cannot go back to the first century and begin again. . . .

"The unity and stability of faith required a voice that could authoritatively speak for the Church, an official teaching ministry in and for the Church. The bishops, together with the bishop of Rome, constitute what is called the "magisterium." As the official teachers of the Church, they have the power to establish Catholic doctrine. Their teaching is not simply their own; it bears the authority of Christ and is the doctrine of the Church." [pp. 79-80]

Just as Jews rely upon the rabbinic oral tradition that accompanies the Torah, so Catholics maintain that scripture is not the sole rule of faith for Christians, but relies upon tradition to guide in its interpretation (a fact which scripture itself affirms). Likewise, Catholics assert the doctrine of apostolic succession: that Christ entrusted the care of his church to his apostles and their successors (with St. Peter at their head), and invested in them the moral authority to teach and guide His Church in its travails on earth. Catholic Answers explains in its section on "Scripture and Tradition":

The true "rule of faith" —- as expressed in the Bible itself —- is Scripture plus apostolic tradition, as manifested in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, to which were entrusted the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles, along with the authority to interpret Scripture correctly.

In the Second Vatican Council’s document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum (Latin: "The Word of God"), the relationship between Tradition and Scripture is explained: "Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit. To the successors of the apostles, sacred Tradition hands on in its full purity God’s word, which was entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.

Former Southern Baptist Minister Charles Everson, blogging at "Land, Hope & Glory", describes his confrontation with apostolic succession in his journey across the Tiber:

As my journey continued, I began to question my own belief in sola scriptura. The primary issue for me became that of authority. Should the church or the Bible alone be the final authority? Neither was working for me. In my studies, I found that it was Jesus’ words, as recorded in the Bible, that gave the Bishops authority but yet, the Bishops were the ones who authoritatively gathered together the books of the Bible. . . .

I was left with two possibilities. The first possibility was that the church had gone off the tracks within several years after the resurrection of Christ. I wondered how these Church Fathers could believe these things that were clearly not biblical (in my understanding). The second possibility was that these people knew what they were talking about and they had the proper biblical perspective. Though I really couldn't understand how either of these could be true, I certainly did not want the second one to be correct.

A Question of Obedience

Like Charles Everson discovered, it does boils down to authority, and obedience. For if one recognizes the magisterium as the legitimate teaching authority of the Catholic Church, if one affirms that this authority is indeed invested in our bishops by Christ himself, we are not in a position to simply "pick and choose," or to appeal to "real Christianity" based on "what Jesus really said" exclusive of the tradition and teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

As Nathan Nelson put it so eloquently himself only a year ago in his answer to Andrew Sullivan ("Loving the Church, Living the Faith" CatholicExchange. Dec. 27, 2003):

Like Mr. Sullivan, I love the Catholic Church. I differ from Mr. Sullivan in that I believe that love of the Catholic Church is also obedience to the Catholic Church. Jesus Himself said that those who love Him must also keep His commandments. Faithful Catholics believe that the Church is not only the institution that He founded to pass on His teaching, but also His Body in a mystical and mysterious way. Thus, in order to love the Church and in order to love Jesus, we must obey the commandments of the Church, commandments that are also the commandments of Jesus. It’s precisely because I do love the Church and because I do believe it is the Mystical Body of Christ that I endeavor to obey it. It’s precisely because I love the Church and Jesus that I will not leave them, no matter how hard it may be to obey them and no matter how many times I fall when I should be flying.

So once again, let's listen to some parting words from Canon Northup, understood in context of what I have just written:

So, let's get real -- we act viscerally, we are easily swayed, we don't want to look too closely at the consequences of our actions. We find it hard to really follow Jesus' commands. We pick and choose our moral positions to make ourselves most comfortable. But since there's one thing we're always moral about --being polite -- we don't speak out against the theft of Christianity, we don't want to tell the harsh truth about the hijackers of morality, we don't dare mention that the emperor has no clothes. We think we have taken the high road by doing this. What we have taken is a dead-end to nowhere.

What constitutes a "theft of Christianity"? Who is really "picking and choosing" moral positions by abandoning the Church's teaching on morality (be it a matter of chastity, contraception, adultery, or homosexuality, or the range of what has been called the "life issues")? It is an all too common lesson that when one questions and turns his back on the Magisterium (the bishops, together with their head, the Bishop of Rome) on issues of morality, it is only a matter of time before one questions the orthodox Christian faith as well.

And at that point, one is truly, borrowing from Canon Northup, "on a dead-end to nowhere."

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