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The Church Confident

About the Author
David Wagschal

A New Ecclesiology for a New Millennium? Part 3

I really wish that the church could regain some confidence. It seems to be in short supply.

Take the clergy. My years working in the church taught me that Christian professionals have a serious problem with low self-worth and low self-esteem. A sense of inferiority and even shame has become very internalized. How many times have I heard pastors or priests talk about not having a “real job” or otherwise deride or downplay their own profession? How many times have I seen clergy embarrassed to admit their profession or even attempt to hide it in public contexts? Or to be so aggressive about asserting their identity as to make it clear that it’s a sore point? How many times have I heard pastors tell me that they just don’t feel valued or respected? And how often have I seen behaviors in clergy that simply seem to say, “No one gives a damn about me, and I’m very hurt”?

None of this is surprising. Even in my lifespan (I’m just pushing 40), there is no doubt that the clergy have fallen in society’s estimation. As the churches have become slowly marginalized, the clerical caste no longer holds the caché it once did. Their socio-cultural prestige has waned as the socio-political power of the churches has waned. Recent scandals haven’t helped.

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Credo in…quid? Who is an orthodox Christian?

Pope Francis’s visit to American shores unleashed a storm of breathless reporting and commentary that transfixed the press in the United States for a full week. (I would link, but it’s hard to know where to begin.) Yet amidst the musings on issues both profound and mundane that his journey spawned, one thing was again very clear in the coverage of the pontifical progress: the media are generally flummoxed when they attempt to comprehend and articulate the nature of the factions and fractures within Christianity, particularly when it comes to understanding what an orthodox Christian might actually be.

Exhibit A was this New York Times piece, which begins by airing the views of a representative from the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church [bold emphasis mine]:

[Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller], a conservative German in black clerical clothing, said neither the pontiff, nor his church, cared whether “Obama says the pope is a very good man” or whether a “fallible” Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. And if papal proclamations of Catholic doctrine on core issues of family have eroded Francis’ global standing, so be it.

But Cardinal Müller is no objective papal observer. He is a leading voice in the orthodox wing of the Catholic Church that worries that outsize attention on Francis’ welcoming, pastoral style could distract from the church’s core beliefs.
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Doctrinal Quiz Time!

About the Author
David Wagschal

(“So wrong for so long?” Part Four)

My final thought on theological traditionalism relates to content – to what we believe. Here I want to make what is perhaps my boldest assertion, which is:

I’m not sure many people actually believe much of the old synthesis anymore.

If there is a definitive blow against the “tradition argument”, this may be it. If people are objecting to homosexuality on the basis of tradition, and yet not themselves adhering to that tradition on pretty fundamental levels, what are we to make of this?

This observation is born out of many conversations I’ve had with Christians in traditional churches where it becomes clear to me that the beliefs espoused by my friends often have only a superficial connection with the traditional Greco-Roman Christian synthesis. Their underlying, foundational beliefs are quite different. Sometimes people don’t seem to realize this disconnect and sometimes they do – they realize that they are actually creating something quite new, yet still wish to maintain a traditional identity.

Am I right?

Well, if you’ve had experience with traditional Christianity, take my “Doctrinal Quiz” and see what you think!

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Theology in Our Own Voice (The Problem with Tradition Part Three)

About the Author
David Wagschal

(“So Wrong for So Long?” Part 3)

Another weakness with traditionalism is that it can introduce a certain evasiveness, obfuscation and even deception into theological discourse.

Traditional theology insists on being in a conversation with past figures. This is not in itself a bad thing. The problem emerges when the next step is taken – which it usually is – and theology begins to be done through the voice of these figures.

The result is a theological discourse in which most authoritative claims are made beginning with phrases like “Martin Luther says….”, “Athanasius says…”, “Thomas Aquinas says…”, or, most commonly, and worse yet, with a traditional collective: “the tradition says…”, “the Fathers say…”, “the Church teaches…”, etc.

What is the problem with this? Well, it’s fourfold.

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The Dangers of Traditional Theology (The Problem with Tradition Part Two)

About the Author
David Wagschal

(“So Wrong for So Long?” Part 2)

For many of my friends, especially from the Catholic, Anglican, or Orthodox churches (sometimes Lutheran too), the weight of tradition is a powerful argument in the controversy over homosexuality – or, for that matter, in any theological or ethical debate. For them, to do theology necessarily entails a reverent engagement with the sum total of the church’s experience. Often tradition is accorded a near-absolute authority. At the very least, the weight of tradition acts as a powerful break on any change or innovation.

As I noted last post, I’m sympathetic to this vision. At its best, it represents an openness to wisdom and experiences beyond our own place and time. It is a deferential way of doing theology that emphasizes the importance of dialogue with the past, and demands a humility about our own, modern opinions. It also counters the notion of theology as simply an exercise in philosophical ratiocination or pure Biblical exegesis.

I’ve nevertheless become increasingly aware of the weakness and dangers of doing theology this way. These are not well recognized today. In fact, I think they’ve rarely even been identified.

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So Wrong for So Long? (The Problem with Tradition Part One)

About the Author
David Wagschal

“David, can the church really have gotten it wrong for so long? You claim that the church has made some pretty big missteps, not only on the homosexuality issue, but on the nature of scripture, the church, even the Gospel itself. Doesn’t that really strain the limits of credibility? Really, for almost two millennia the church has, well, blown it?”

This is among the most common objections I hear, especially from friends of churches which identify closely with the traditional Greco-Roman or “imperial” synthesis (Catholic, Orthodox, traditional Anglicans, etc). It’s the tradition question: can we not rely, at least to some extent, on received tradition – on the sheer weight of now almost twenty centuries of consensus and usage – as a criterion of truth? Should not this tradition be authoritative for Christians?

A Good Objection

Gotta say that I am very sympathetic to this objection. It was the key reason why, in my late teens, I left a mainstream Protestant church to join a more traditional church. I could never get my head around the sheer historical implausibility of the Reformation view of the world: first there was Jesus, then Paul – then darkness – then the Reformation.

Really?

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Some Common Objections

Maria and I have received several comments on our first few posts (and a few have begun to trickle in on my “A New Catechism“).

We’ve received a few particularly articulate reflections on our theological “drift”. A few common themes have begun to emerge. These include concern about the potential exclusivity of “grace alone”, worries about love’s rather secondary place, concern about the absolute prioritizing of “grace alone” vs. approaches that emphasize the polyvalence and complexity of the tradition (and, more profoundly, an understanding of reality that places a premium on rational balance and moderation), and, perhaps above all, concern about whether “good news” can really be all that good when it seems so down on human capabilities and human participation in salvation.

All of these are critical – and complex – issues that we’re going to address bit by bit, directly and indirectly, in the coming months.

We thought, however, that it might be useful to at least briefly delineate a our position a little further on several of these topics.

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