Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Long ago..." (Hebrews 1; John 1)

Were the openings of either the Letter to the Hebrews or the Gospel of John to be depicted using the forms available in modern cinematography, the means to do so are obvious, I think. Imagine a wide screen depicting the silent depths of infinite space, evoking in the viewer a sense of awe. Then a great scroll of words - a “crawl,” technically - appears at the bottom of the screen, and proceeds across the field of view: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…”; or “In the beginning was the Word…"

Both these readings invoke a perspective of the widest kind, but they do so in different ways. Hebrews will go on to spend much time in a Platonizing world of ideas, exploring a timeless picture of how heaven and earth relate. It begins, however, with a reflection on the ancient rather than the timeless, alluding to that “long ago” of prophets and patriarchs. John will soon become a historical narrative, depicting the life of Jesus as a concrete set of events in human experience. It begins, however, with this eternal cosmological reflection on just how the world is.

In our own encounter with Jesus we may find ourselves also starting at one or the other of these places. There is the concrete historical person, a man of one place and time, whose teaching and actions belong to that time, but nevertheless point beyond them. And there is that wider reality of the cosmos, the mystery, beauty and curiosity of what is, whose profound reality calls us to think differently about the concrete and the specific.

Augustine, in his Confessions, says he read 'books of the "Platonists," wherein
I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the same effect... that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” ...Similarly, I read there that God the Word was born "not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor the will of the flesh, but of God.” But, that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” was not there.
It is this intersection of timeless mystery and historical existence that undergirds the Gospel. These two books both tell us that the Jesus who led a concrete, ancient life is a figure whose significance transcends time; and also that time itself and the universe have mysteries whose exploration leads to him. We can start at either place and make our way to the other. In both journeys we encounter him who was not just “long ago” but in whom we all find out own beginning, and our end.

[From a sermon preached at St Luke's Chapel, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Monday February 16  2015]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"If your eye causes you to stumble..." (Mark 9:42-50)

Today's Gospel is of course proof that no-one really takes the whole of Scripture literally. "If your
St Lucy - Domenico di Beccafumi (1521)
hand causes you to stumble, cut if off...if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out!" Of course Jesus can't mean this literally. So we end up with a sense that this text means we have to...get serious about things, or something.

In a public lecture here at the Yale Divinity School last year however, Notre Dame New Testament scholar Candida Moss suggested that the almost universal effort to spiritualize this confronting text from Mark may not be as well grounded as we tend to assume. In "The Righteous Amputees: Salvation & Sinful Body in Mark 9" (which I am hoping may show up as part of a forthcoming book), Moss pointed to evidence that quite a few ancient medical and philosophical commentators could see the removal of an offending body part as appropriate for moral or therapeutic reasons. So - perhaps Jesus meant it too?

I don't recall Moss going in this direction in the lecture, but it has occurred to me that there were many people in a first century Mediterranean setting living in grinding poverty, without adequate health care, and subject to the systematic as well as the arbitrary violence of occupation, who would have found themselves one-handed, one-footed, or one-eyed without having faced any real dilemmas about the matter, prior to being in it at least.

For such hearers of these sayings, their significance was not merely spiritualized, but on the other hand would not in all likelihood have implied the need for further voluntary mutilation. Rather they might have functioned as a sort of beatitude: "you have only one eye? Better far to enter the kingdom with one eye than to be two-eyed and cast into hell." "You have only one foot? Better to stumble towards the kingdom than run towards hell." And so on.

There is certainly something to ponder here regarding disability, but today in a group without such obvious experiences visible, I will fall back on offering us a different version of the spiritualizing route to consider these sayings. While we have hands, eyes, and feet, each of us has experiences of difficulty and suffering which affect our capacity to live, and to serve others. Our psychological or emotional limits, imposed or inherent, can also affect how we perceive ourselves and our capacity to progress to the kingdom. The Gospel however suggests we should take courage however we find ourselves, and use who we are and what we have. It does not mean that suffering or oppression are justified or to be celebrated, but that our real embodied existence, even if it results from them, always offers cause for thanksgiving nonetheless.

The other reading, from 2 Timothy, captures something of this same message, reminding each "Timothy" who apparently lacks confidence not to despise their own gifts; for "God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim 1:7). So whatever it may be, let us "rekindle the gift of God that is within" us (v.6) as we progress towards the kingdom, just as we are.

[Preached at St Luke's CHapel, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, February 10 2015]

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Do Seminaries Have a Future?

Some recent crises in Episcopal seminary education have caught much attention; but the real question for theological education may be more deep-seated than conflicts between Deans, faculty members and trustees.

In remarks given to the Executive Council of TEC last year, the presiding bishop commented favorably on the rise of local non-accredited training programs, and went so far as to say that:

The average Episcopal congregation, with 60 to 70 members attending weekly worship, cannot afford the traditional model of full-stipend paid leadership, a building, and a sufficient program to support its members in their daily baptismal ministry.  Nor can seminary graduates with educational debt afford to work in most of them.[1]

This stark analysis is probably right, but the wrong conclusions could easily be drawn from it. Most importantly, the changes afoot do not mean a simple jump from one universal model of seminary education to another. The challenges for theological education would benefit from being considered in the light of wider education changes too.

A 2013 report from British education policy expert Sir Michael Barber entitled An Avalanche is Coming suggested some of the key issues and prospects for higher education as a whole, while envisaging potential drastic change include closures of some traditional institutions:

  • How can universities and new providers ensure education for employability? 
  • How can the link between cost and quality be broken? 
  • How does the entire learning ecosystem need to change to support alternative providers and the future of work?[2]

These sound familiar, or should; but not even the most alarmist commentator imagines all universities as we currently know them will close, or that distance learning schemes with internships will suddenly replace liberal arts colleges. It will be the same for seminaries. Not all can survive, at least not as we know them now, but some will. While many parishes will seek leadership from part-time and non-stipendiary clergy trained in new ways, many others - not least larger parishes, which will exercise leadership in diocesan communities and other networks – will still require pastors and teachers whose formation will best be undertaken in something resembling traditional educational settings.

The learning ecosystem is indeed changing. A seminary program like that offered by Berkeley at Yale will be (even) more exceptional in future; but far from being less relevant, its work will be even more vital to a changed and changing Church.

[Excerpted from Andrew McGowan’s forthcoming essay in the Journal of Anglican Studies, “Soundings Amid the Avalanche.”]



[1] Katherine Jefferts Schori, ‘Executive Council Opening Remarks’, http://www.episcopalchurch.org/notice/episcopal-church-executive-council-opening-remarks-presiding-bishop Accessed January 11 2015.
[2] Barber et al., An Avalanche Is Coming, p. 6.