Saturday, 12 July 2008

Gene Robinson and the shape of religion to come

Gene Robinson's article in the Guardian should make clear to any with doubts where the Church is heading: a marginalised Bible, and an obscured 'God' - the God of 'God's self'.

Since they're clearly reading this blog, I wonder when Fulcrum might start critiquing these sorts of issues instead of the ills of GAFCON, Reform, etc. Come on guys and girls, you know you want to!

"The God I know is alive and active in the church, not locked up in scripture, says Gene Robinson"

I believe in the living God. Now, that may not seem like a surprising statement for a bishop of the church to make - but as we approach the Lambeth conference of bishops, it may be a crucial belief to reaffirm.

The debate raging in the Anglican communion over the place of women and gays in the life and ministry of the church, and the name-calling about who does and does not accept the authority of scripture, belies a much deeper question: did God stop revealing God's self with the closing of the canon of scripture at the end of the first century, or has God continued to be self-revelatory through history, and right into the present?

My conservative brothers and sisters seem to argue that God revealed everything to us in scripture. Ever since, it has simply been our difficult but straightforward task to conform ourselves to God's will revealed there and to repent when we are unable or unwilling to do so.

For me, there is something static and lifeless in such a view of God. Could it be that even the Bible is too small a box in which to enclose God? Read more

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  1. Where does the phrase 'God's self' come in?

  2. Hi Sam

    This "God's self" etc, language is being used increasingly to avoid speaking about "himself".

    Robinson does talk about "himself" later, but the use of this language is becoming widespread.

    Check out what this paper from WATCH has to say, especially the bit I've highlighted in italics:

    The constant and uninterrupted use of language which is exclusive and used repeatedly can be intimidating or even aggressive: Almighty God, Lord of Power and Might, Everlasting Father, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. Intimidation and aggression do not give life to the people of God called to grow in wisdom and understanding. We need to use the full range of biblical
    images for God, the tender and nurturing as well as the powerful. Yet we must recognise that our growing includes encouraging fresh expressions of language for each new generation. The gospel always has a reforming, reinterpreting edge to it.

    “Almost all of the language used in the Bible to refer to God is
    metaphor, with the possible exception of holy...There is no point in pontificating what metaphors like “God as father” ought to mean. If God metaphors become problematic for a significant group of people, it is pointless and patronising to tell them they ought to understand differently”. (What Language Shall I Borrow” by Brian Wren). God reveals the Godself to us through-out the scriptures as mother, father, friend, love, wind, fire. And for some God is more than static noun: God becomes dynamic verb. We may leave words behind entirely: “The more I walk with God, the less words about God will do” (John Spong). The best God metaphors are those that move us deeply and enable us to encounter and be encountered by the dynamic dance of incandescent love that Christian experience names as Trinity."

  3. Ah. I was being obtuse.

    I would still want to make distinctions!! Here, between a liberalism that sees Father language as necessarily oppressive and therefore to be rejected, and an orthodoxy which sees any language as ultimately insufficient. The difference is that the orthodox are able to take what is good and necessary from the language, and then move on and upwards, treating the language as a step. The liberalism rejects the step as such.

    Or, to put that another way, we are only able to detach ourselves properly from fatherhood language when we have fully fathomed what it means to call God Father. Which I don't envision happening any time soon :)

    I'm reminded of the line in the psalms 'do you think I eat the flesh of bulls?'

    Do you have any views on the mystical tradition? I'm often led to wonder if it's a difference there that underlies many other differences (including about Rowan).

  4. I wish to pick up on the issue of the "metaphors" for God. There is a recent book by Kenneth Bailey "Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Re-told Israel's Story". He makes two important points.
    First, we should not leave metaphors empty of content. In Islam, the adjectives ascribed to God (Allah) are not to be taken to mean what we might mean by such adjectives as that would be to describe God by reference to the created world and thus is idolatrous. The result is that adjectives such as compassionate and merciful are emptied of all content and we are left with no assurance that God is compassionate or merciful.
    Secondly, the challenge of Islam needs to be met. It is not adequate to take a metaphor like "Father" and invest it with the meaning from British culture or Jewish or Greek or any other culture. We need to invest it with the meaning derived from the Bible. To do this Bailey appeals to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, although he ranges wider than that. His discussion of the fatherhood of God as seen through that parable and elsewhere in the Bible can provide all Christians with great encouragement.
    I reject the idea that seems to be implied by Robinson that metaphors, particularly biblical metaphors, are unhelpful is enabling us to draw near to God but they need to be understood through the Bible rather than through our culture.
    Tim Keene

  5. Sam

    In his book "A Clear and Present Word", Mark Thompson makes the suggestion that language itself is a gift of God to us.

    If this is so, and the introduction to John's Gospel with its reference to Jesus as "the word" indicates it is, then we cannot view language as "ultimately insufficient".

    Moreover, I think this is central to a theology of the God of the Bible (ie the true God). Deuteronomy 4 is, I think, crucial to understanding God 'biblically':

    "Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice."

    God's is authentically encountered in the voice, to the extent that an outward form would be misleading. Israel's spirituality is thus not 'mystical' at all, for God is found not in the 'mystical experience' but the verbal exchange.

    Hence Elijah's experience: "The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”"

    Thus, far from "treating the language as a step", we must treat the language as the thing to which the step takes us - not a path towards God but an encounter with God.

    By contrast, Robinson's is the truly 'mystical' religion, since for him the Church is led beyond Scripture by 'the Spirit'.

    As an antidote, we do well to read Luther's "Against the Heavenly Prophets", which will also remind us that this is nothing new - the Church has been here before: "With all his mouthing of the words, “Spirit, Spirit, Spirit,” he tears down the bridge, the path, the way, the ladder, and all the means by which the Spirit might come to you. Instead of the outward order of God in the material sign of baptism and the oral proclamation of the Word of God he wants to teach you, not how the Spirit comes to you but how you come to the Spirit. They would have you learn how to journey on the clouds and ride on the wind. They do not tell you how or when, whither or what, but you are to experience what they do." (Luther's works, vol. 40, Church and Ministry)

  6. Peter Kirk's comments on Gene Robinson's article are interesting? John, I hope you don't mind me asking,, are many traditional conservative evangelicals also cessationists. I've been thinking about this for the last 18 months but don't want to make too many assumptions about people's theology but I went to a Bible study week led by Keswick on Acts a while back and came home feeling rather despondent and was wondering if the man I had heard speak was a cessationist. Do cessationists find it hard to believe in the physical manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit and that these can be experienced today? - am I now sounding very charismatic? I'll leave these things with you for you to think about. Please try not to bamboozle me too much with churchy jargon in your reply - I really am right at the beginning of my Christian journey and haven't even started theological college yet. I find it all fascinating and love learning though. My own blogging is helping me to explore my own theological leanings. So far I describe myself as open evangelical, gently charismatic but as I've said before all labels fail to describe one really.

  7. Rachel,

    You'll probably find most Conservative evangelicals approximate to a 'cessationist' position, though it is not one I hold myself. (Mine is a kind of post-Charismatic viewpoint.)

    It may be worth noting, though, that the key Reformers were essentially cessationist. You wrote, "Do cessationists find it hard to believe in the physical manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit and that these can be experienced today?" The answer, in the case of the Reformers, was not tha tthey found it hard to believe, but that, observationally, they saw it was simply not the case - and didn't believe this was because they or anyone else they knew lacked faith.

    I think that is a fair point. You have to bear in mind that the issues raised by the charismatic movement have been around for over a hundred years now - the 'movement' as we know it in this country began over 40 years ago. If there were some simple 'key' of faith to seeing manifestations of the Holy Spirit comparable to those in Acts, I reckon we'd have found it by now, don't you?

  8. So John
    Nicky Gumbel in his descriptions of the signs and wonders ministry of John Wimber and his personal experiences of being slain in the spirit etc - what do Conservative evangelicals make of these experiences and is this the reason why Christianity Explored rather than Alpha is delivered in Conservative Evangelical parishes? My Grandpa, who is no longer around, had an experience once of speaking in tongues and my Gran, now 93 years old, interpreted. How would conservative cessationist evangelicals explain these things? Why is the worship so much more uplifting in churches more open to these experiences than conservative evangelical parishes which seem to me so serious and sometimes, but this is only my opinion, lacking any real joy?

  9. Rachel,

    There's an awful lot of religious experience which is just that. Being 'slain in the spirit' is a widespread phenomenon, which is unrelated to authentic, or non-authentic, faith. People fall over under certain circumstances. Some of them feel better when they get up. That's all it is.

    I won't do Alpha because its approach to the Holy Spirit undermines the gospel (it actually logically undermines its own gospel - see here for a full account).

    I believe I have spoken in tongues. I used to believe it would be the key to spiritual transformation. It isn't. I find it can be useful in certain circumstances.

    What do you mean by worship? Singing? It is a very subjective judgement to say 'conservative' services 'lack any real joy'. I was at All Souls for the post-GAFCON meeting, and also at St Helen's for the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, and the singing at least was stunning. I think most people in the parishes where I work would also think you were off the mark here and we are quite conservative.

    Having said that, I think we overlook the fact that human personality types - extrovert, introvert, etc - tend to be drawn to certain kinds of activities and to certain kinds of people. My guess is you're a bit of an 'outgoing' type who likes 'outgoing' 'worship' (excuse double inverted commas).

    There isn't, incidentally, a biblical equivalent of our English word 'worship', though it is used a lot in the translations. The biblical word denotes an attitude - 'honouring' - deriving from an action - 'bowing down'. That stuff about 'worship=giving God his worth' only works in English.

  10. Rachel, thanks for mentioning me in your comment and prompting this interesting discussion with John.

    John, you write that "the key Reformers were essentially cessationist." But is this actually true? Dr Jack Deere, in "Surprised by the Voice of God" (the same book from which I took the term "Bible deist") writes of how several of the Scottish Reformers, including John Knox and his mentor George Wishart, were considered by their contemporaries to be prophets and delivered predictive prophecies. So they were hardly "essentially cessationist". Calvin does not reject prophecy in his own time as impossible, but writes of the office of prophet in Ephesians 4:11: "This class either does not exist today or is less commonly seen" (Institutes 4.3.4, Battles translation), although he does seem to consider the gift of tongues to have ceased (Institutes 4.3.8). It would certainly be wrong to cite the Reformers to deny Gene Robinson's position that the truth about God is not limited by the church's traditional interpretation of Scripture.

  11. John I agree with this statement that you make:
    '... I think we overlook the fact that human personality types - extrovert, introvert, etc - tend to be drawn to certain kinds of activities and to certain kinds of people. My guess is you're a bit of an 'outgoing' type who likes 'outgoing' 'worship''

    Yes, my personality type is enthusiastic, upbeat and positive, I'm in touch with my emotions so I'm suited to more charismatic - style worship. However,I've looked at 'Revival Fires' in Dudley on the internet and my family and I wouldn't be comfortable attending such exuberant worship.

    I'm also quite serious and studious and as a literature student and English teacher have the type of enquiring mind that enjoys wrestling with and analysing the Bible so sometimes I'm just not too sure where I fit?

    As regards your thoughts on Alpha - I read them. I did two Alpha courses and I wasn't exposed to teaching where I was asked to pray that I might be able to speak in tongues and I agree with you that the gospel is sufficient. The charismatics I know don't seem to be preaching that there is anything beyond the gospel. Personally, I found it very comforting when I began to grasp that a desire for 'topping up' is not indulgent. When I first began to live Christianity a few years ago (I say live because even though I was born into a Chrisitian family, it wasn't really something I lived or understood until fairly recently), I used to worry that my real need to worship and pray and read the bible was a bit indulgent and that I should be able to happily be a Christian without hungering to do these things. On understanding that we can run a little dry and that things in our lives can distract us away from God but we can seek to 'reconnect' if you like, and that this does indeed feel like a 'topping up', I found all quite wonderful. It was while Nicky Gumbel preached on how the Holy spirit testifies to my spirit that we are children of God, that I felt I really grasped fully and powerfully just what Jesus did on the cross and it was quite an experience.

    I'm glad that you have shared your charismatic experiences and that you have prayed in tongues. I once came across a very conservative magazine on the internet called 'Present Truth Magazine' - which I refuse to look at now and it said some really awful things about the experiences that can be had like speaking in tongues etc. I think some of the mistakes I've made in my explorations of faith and its expressions are in polarising people and their beliefs and magazines like this one haven't helped to endear me much to the conservative evangelical stance but I'm realsing now this isn't their fault, it's more mine, for exposing myself to extremes. Thank you for your help in these matters.

  12. Peter,

    I was trying to answer Rachel's question, not to cover all the bases on cessationism. Hence I used the term 'essentially' - to mean that the Reformers did not deny miracles, etc, only that the Apostolic 'age of miracles' belonged in the past.

    Thus Calvin writes on the 'sacrament' of unction, "... James spake agreeably to the time when the Church still enjoyed this blessing from God. They affirm, indeed, that there is still the same virtue in their unction, but we experience differently. [...] They make themselves ridiculous, therefore, by pretending that they are endued with the gift of healing. The Lord, doubtless, is present with his people in all ages, and cures their sicknesses as often as there is need, not less than formerly; and yet he does not exert those manifest powers, nor dispense miracles by the hands of apostles, because that gift was temporary, and owing, in some measure, to the ingratitude of men, immediately ceased." (Institutes, IV, xix, 19).

    As to Gene Robinson's method, I think these words of Martin Luther apply: "Such an exalted spirit which is above the apostles ought also forsooth demonstrate his superiority by great signs."

    If we want to know where a 'spirit of prophecy' which can go above and beyond Scripture will lead us, we need only look to the Quakers where we see piety, yes, but without content and without gospel.