Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"Rock, Redeemer, and Friend"?

This post was updated several times over the past hour, and might be updated again. Hit "refresh" to make sure you're reading the latest version.




Wow-- interesting new trinitarian language and imagery being touted by my church, the Presbyterian Church, USA ("PCUSA" for short). Behold:


The divine Trinity -- "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" -- could also be known as "Mother, Child and Womb" or "Rock, Redeemer, Friend" at some Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) services under an action Monday by the church's national assembly.

Delegates to the meeting voted to "receive" a policy paper on gender- inclusive language for the Trinity, a step short of approving it. That means church officials can propose experimental liturgies with alternative phrasings for the Trinity, but congregations won't be required to use them.

"This does not alter the church's theological position, but provides an educational resource to enhance the spiritual life of our membership," legislative committee chair Nancy Olthoff, an Iowa laywoman, said during Monday's debate on the Trinity.

The assembly narrowly defeated a conservative bid to refer the paper back for further study.

A panel that worked on the issue since 2000 said the classical language for the Trinity should still be used, but added that Presbyterians also should seek "fresh ways to speak of the mystery of the triune God" to "expand the church's vocabulary of praise and wonder."

One reason is that language limited to the Father and Son "has been used to support the idea that God is male and that men are superior to women," the panel said.

Conservatives responded that the church should stick close to the way God is named in the Bible and noted that Jesus' most famous prayer was addressed to "Our Father."

Besides "Mother, Child and Womb" and "Rock, Redeemer, Friend," proposed Trinity options drawn from biblical material include:

- "Lover, Beloved, Love"

- "Creator, Savior, Sanctifier"

- "King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Spirit of Love."

Early in Monday's business session, the Presbyterian assembly sang a revised version of a familiar doxology, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" that avoided male nouns and pronouns for God.

Youth delegate Dorothy Hill, a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, was uncomfortable with changing the Trinity wording. She said the paper "suggests viewpoints that seem to be in tension with what our church has always held to be true about our Trinitarian God."

Hill reminded delegates that the Ten Commandments say "the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name."

The Rev. Deborah Funke of Montana warned that the paper would be "theologically confusing and divisive" at a time when the denomination of 2.3 million members faces other troublesome issues.

On Tuesday, the assembly will vote on a proposal to give local congregations and regional "presbyteries" some leeway on ordaining clergy and lay officers living in gay relationships.

Ten conservative Presbyterian groups have warned jointly that approval of what they call "local option" would "promote schism by permitting the disregard of clear standards of Scripture."

Protestants in general don't have anything approaching the Roman magisterium (teaching authority). Individual PCUSA congregations, for example, have a great amount of leeway in how they may interpret pronouncements from the General Assembly. One thing we Protestants are good at, though, is following the Protestant impulse to its logical conclusion-- schism. There's always somebody in some church threatening to break away. I see schism as not-good, not-bad; it's simply one of the ways in which human thought and emotion manifest themselves as action. Magneto's question to the mutants is a practical one in such cases: "Who will you stand with?"

PCUSA has had something of a contentious history, to put it mildly. The merger of northern and southern churches under a single umbrella organization didn't occur until 1983, and the old pre-Civil War divisions echo even today in the various (and often conflicting) theological approaches and stances taken by different synods, presbyteries, and congregations. As Kate McCarthy wisely noted in "Reckoning with Religious Difference" (a chapter from the collection Explorations in Global Ethics, edited by Sumner Twiss and Bruce Grelle*), we need to be as mindful of intrareligious diversity as we are of interreligious diversity.

Personally, I couldn't care less about the specific terminology of the liturgy. If our General Assembly decided that all future communion liturgies must include the line, "And let us now munch the body of Jesus," I'd recite the line with nary a twinge of conscience. This sort of claim freaks out some of my conservative papist friends at Catholic University, for whom the liturgy ("Liturgy!" bellows Zero Mostel) is a sacred jewel. I imagine it also freaks out a large number of Protestant conservatives. (Mainstream Protestantism in the West has taken a decidedly Catholic turn these last few decades, a trend noted by some anthropologists of religion. Greater attention to and care about the liturgy is one example of that Catholic turn. The increasing prevalence of fully robed clergy is another.)

My own congregation in northern Virginia hasn't made much noise about things like the revised hymnal. However, we are, like many Presbyterian churches, still mired in controversies that come to a head during yearly meetings of the PCUSA General Assembly, of which two such controversies are particularly noteworthy: (1) the status of Jesus Christ as one and only savior (i.e., the christo-soteriological question), and (2) homosexuality-- especially as it pertains to ordination and marriage.

Within my own congregation, people skew both liberal and conservative. To our credit, we're a church that appreciates a good dialogue. People get angry during some meetings, true, but anger while at church is neither sinful nor ironic; it's merely natural wherever you find strong differences of opinion. As a congregation, we've had to deal with some tough issues, and we're still dealing with them.

The true measure of any congregation, I think, is its sense of community-- an underlying, indefinable something that holds it together despite the conflicts that burble to the surface now and then. As with any other church, my own church in NoVA has lost members over some conflicts, but on the whole, we've kept together as a family. To that extent, it seems a bit silly to abandon the family as a means of resolving a conflict. The abandonment option is open to Americans and other Westerners, I think, largely because of the pervading ethos of the marketplace: just go find another church if you're not happy with where you're at. While many people still hesitate to adopt such an attitude across the Protestant/Catholic divide (there's something icky about those creepy Catlicks, you see), such border crossings nevertheless do occur quite frequently.

At the same time, schism can be the appropriate response to perceived problems, if it is adjudged that those problems are too severe to be corrected. If we stick to the family analogy, this might be like talking about divorce in the case of irreconcilable differences or transfer of child custody away from an abusive parent.

On an organizational level, you can expect institutions to behave like living organisms. Fission occurs. Sometimes it's healthy; sometimes not. Not-good, not-bad. Me, I've got no intention of abandoning the family. I know my congregation in NoVA will move forward in a spirit of trust and faith no matter what emanates from the General Assembly; that conviction hasn't failed me yet.


A NOTE ABOUT GENDER-INCLUSIVITY

The question of gender-inclusive language brings us close to the heart of the theological process, and calls to light just who does theology: it's not always the career theologians! Sometimes the proles in the pews are directly involved.

I think that faithful renderings of the scriptures (e.g., English translations of the Bible) should avoid deliberate insertion of gender-neutral pronouns for the sake of gender-inclusivity, and would extend this thinking to all past (not future) creedal formulations. However, tinkering with the liturgy strikes me as perfectly permissible, especially when it comes to various prayers and responsive readings. In our congregation in NoVA, such prayers and readings are written up "fresh" every week, and I would have no trouble at all seeing something along the lines of:


...this we pray in the name of the Mother, Child, and Womb.


Doesn't bother me a bit.

So: as I see it, the Lord's Prayer should still be the "Our Father" (as Catholics generally call it). But there's plenty of room in the liturgy for gender-inclusivity. Along with this, I think Christian educators-- i.e., the folks running the Bible classes and reading groups and so on-- can be of service in unplugging the sexism inherent in the ancients' way of looking at the world by talking about the histories of such terms and passages, and explaining why modern believers should avoid certain aspects of ancient thinking.

I stand against the (largely feminist) project of forcibly deconstructing "kyriarchal" or "phallocentric" language in the scriptures mainly because I don't believe that such language necessarily abets sexism. It doesn't have to: much depends on the temperament and proclivities of the community using the language. If you teach the kids about the meaning behind the words, then the words don't have to conduce to, say, an overly masculine picture of the divine.

[NB: For Christians, there is a special christological problem, however, that pertains directly to the spatiotemporal Jesus' masculinity, and whether that masculinity has any bearing on the larger question of who the CHRIST is. I won't be discussing that in this post, but be aware that it's a huge issue in feminist christology.]

Theology is a creative endeavor, of course, and feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson (cf. She Who Is-- a great read) have done much to recover ancient feminine concepts of the divine (e.g. Sophia/Wisdom) and place them at the forefront of modern Christian consciousness. I applaud such efforts. If anything, such efforts should go hand-in-hand with the continued preservation of ancient formulations so as to provide a balance of gendered imagery instead of trying so hard to uproot and destroy traces of the masculine in religious worship and conceptualization of the divine.

Hinduism, I think, provides a good example of the sort of paradigm I'm talking about. Divine pairings of masculine and feminine abound in Indian traditions, with both genders occupying (and even alternating) generative and destructive roles. It's the kind of thing a Camille Paglia feminist such as myself can get behind: not merely the notion of an Absolute that utterly transcends gender, but a more integrated notion of an Absolute that incorporates gender even while going beyond it. True gender-inclusivity isn't about the destruction or erasure of all notion of gender.

[Coda: As someone who doesn't subscribe to an anthropomorphized conception of the Absolute, I'm not sure how much of the above discussion applies to my own religious perspective. "Is God masculine, feminine, or something totally other?" strikes me as requiring Master Joju's terse "Mu!" in response, not to mention a few well-placed blows to the head with a heavy, splintery stick. However, as an elder who has taken a vow that says, in part, that I should work to uphold the "peace, unity, and purity" of the Church, I hope that other Christians will read the above post and take some time to ruminate on ways that they might also spread such peace, unity, and purity, working in and through and around the flawed vocabulary of our faith.]






*Crass self-promotion: on Amazon, Explorations, which weighs in at 350 pages, is shamelessly selling for $36.00-- typical overpricing for college textbooks. Imagine the value you'll be getting when you purchase a copy of the equally hefty Water from a Skull from yours truly for only $21.95! Eh? EH?

What??

WHERE ARE YOU GOING!? COME BACK!


_

7 comments:

Sperwer said...

"The abandonment option is open to Americans and other Westerners, I think, largely because of the pervading ethos of the marketplace: just go find another church if you're not happy with where you're at."

Doesn't it have more to do, fundamentally, with the nature of Protestantism's empahsis on the primacy of indiviudal conscience, than with the "ethos of the marketplace".

Kevin Kim said...

Sperwer,

You've got a point as far as departure from one's church goes: the role of personal conscience is indeed important for Protestants and is probably the closest thing we have to a magisterium-- by which I mean in this case, that which guides Protestant thought and practice.

But the notion that other churches-- including those of different denominations-- are readily available for attendance is, I think, more a function of the marketplace mentality than of conscience.

While I can't speak to the issue in Buddhism, I can vouch that many Protestants will attend a given church simply because it's conveniently situated. Others, of course, will go out of their way to attend a church they love and are loyal to, even if this entails a one-hour drive (I wonder whether anyone's done a study of Christians' threshold of tolerance for church commutes in terms of time, distance, etc.).

This isn't to say that conscience isn't playing a role even in cases where people skip to a different church/denomination, but the relaxed manner in which such skipping is often done indicates to me that quite a few people view their houses of worship as items on a menu.

I suppose I've revealed a bit about my attitude toward such thinking and behavior. Uh-oh.


Kevin

Maven said...

I wonder though... inasmuch as schism can be separating one's self from others, can it also be a separation, in a sense, from the Creator? Being in the world, rather than be of the world...

I, myself, have somewhat separated myself from my Episcopalian roots, as I find the creeds too exclusionary, and a particular line of the liturgy (from the Sermon OTM) that I think shouldn't be overqualified.

Jesus came for all of us, who should corner the market on Christ? The comment, "Who will you stand with" struck me.

This is the thing that interests me about exploring Quakerism, the quieting the ego, and just experience the Creator in quietude, and speaking out and sharing with the congregation as inspiration shows itself.

All too often politics and ego end up interfering with the "wherever two or more are gathered."

It is especially timely to have a post such as this, given our government's attempts at reinventing "democracy" as a theocracy. In a theocracy, if you're not with the majority, you're pretty much S-O-L.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, Kevin: can you change the liturgy without changing the Bible, which occupies a prominent place within the liturgy? I suppose one could, but that begs the question of why a community should continue in its "book religion" when the book is no longer seen to be appropriate. This is even more the case when the book contains material that is downright inappropriate, and a bad influence on people!

As for the doctrine, I think changing the language of the liturgical formulations is also a change in doctrine. No problem, there, but I'd like to see people be honest in saying that they are changing doctrine, really changing it.

My personal opinion is that the small "c" catholic and Orthodox traditions preserve a liturgy that ought to be valued more as historical art than as insight into anything factually real.

Kevin Kim said...

Maven,

"I wonder though... inasmuch as schism can be separating one's self from others, can it also be a separation, in a sense, from the Creator? Being in the world, rather than be of the world..."

Schism is usually a communitarian response, so I'd hesitate to say it's "separating one's self," as if it were a personal decision. A dude leaving a church isn't a schism, but a large chunk of people leaving en masse to form a new branch of that tradition is.

I say this is not-good, not-bad because in some cases the schism is merely the outward manifestation of a rift that had been in existence for a long while. When the pressure of a dysfunction builds, fissures will appear, and that pressure will find release-- somehow, some way. For PCUSA, there's always the chance that we'll return to the pre-Civil War division of (roughly speaking) northern liberal churches and southern conservative churches. Our approaches to crucial social and theological questions are so disparate. At the same time, I think our union benefits from the dynamic tension that arises from our, uh, forced cohabitation (I use "forced" with caution; an argument can be made that this union happened with the consent of the laity, but I'd have to read more about PCUSA history before I can comment further).

"I, myself, have somewhat separated myself from my Episcopalian roots, as I find the creeds too exclusionary, and a particular line of the liturgy (from the Sermon OTM) that I think shouldn't be overqualified."

I taught a course at my church on philosophy of religion a few years back, and one gentleman in the class said that he had stopped reciting certain parts of the Apostle's Creed because he found those parts offensive. I understood what he was saying, but my own feeing is that there's the formulation, and then there's the cognitive content-- the meaning-- behind the words. "Peace on earth, good will to men," for example, refers to all people, and I think that was true even back when the verse was originally written. Not knowing the Greek, I couldn't tell you whether the ancient verse employs a personal pronoun in the masculine plural dative, but if it does, I seriously doubt it was meant to exclude women. Same as in French: there's no grammatical neuter in French, so all neuter "it"s will automatically default to the grammatical masculine, and this is done without actual prejudice toward phallocentrism.

If one can, through one's conscience, reformulate the cognitive content of a creed, then that goes a long way toward repairing whatever damage has been done via "malestream" sexism. I take seriously the feminist argument that language influences thinking (an argument that's not uniquely feminist, anyway), but I reject the idea that language necessarily influences thinking. If this were true, if one meaning could only be associated with one term such that we'd have no option but to read a term a certain way, then various ethnic groups wouldn't be able to reappropriate certain ethnic slurs and retool them as expressions fit for their own use (best example: the N-word within black communities). The text can remain the same while the cognitive content changes.

"This is the thing that interests me about exploring Quakerism, the quieting the ego, and just experience the Creator in quietude, and speaking out and sharing with the congregation as inspiration shows itself."

I've never attended a Quaker service, but will have to visit some Quaker houses of woship whenever I get back to the States. Maybe there's a contingent of Quakers here in Seoul...?

"All too often politics and ego end up interfering with the 'wherever two or more are gathered.'"

Sad but true. You can expect certain things to go wrong once a religion has become an institution-- especially an institution that physically settles somewhere (unlike, say, itinerant monasticism, which has fewer typically institutional problems). However, I don't believe institutions are inherently evil: they're an expression of the human need for structure, authority, and stability, not to mention an outgrowth of a communal survival impulse.

"It is especially timely to have a post such as this, given our government's attempts at reinventing "democracy" as a theocracy. In a theocracy, if you're not with the majority, you're pretty much S-O-L."

Oy... whether we're heading toward theocracy in the States is a matter of debate, I think. I'm no fan of Bush's social conservatism and can't relate to his position on gay marriage. I have my own theocrat-related worries, but it has to be remembered that Bush isn't forever. He's not dictator for life, which is what routinely boggles my mind about people who flee to, say, Canada, and even give up US citizenship "because of Bush." Bush'll be gone soon! I do agree, though, that Bush's social conservatism is creepy.


Kevin

Kevin Kim said...

Nathan,

"I dunno, Kevin: can you change the liturgy without changing the Bible, which occupies a prominent place within the liturgy? I suppose one could, but that begs the question of why a community should continue in its "book religion" when the book is no longer seen to be appropriate. This is even more the case when the book contains material that is downright inappropriate, and a bad influence on people!"

There's the book, and there's the liturgy. I see these as separate, quite distinct from each other. The liturgy belongs to tradition and is a living, evolving thing. Scripture is "living" insofar as people of different places and times will inevitably approach it in different ways.

Given the actual structure of church liturgies, which breaks down into distinct parts, I'd submit that liturgies are quite modular. There's a lot than can be rooted out and replaced with more modern language reflecting a more evolved theology-- at least for Protestants. Catholic progress in this area, especially in the upper echelon, is glacial.

"As for the doctrine, I think changing the language of the liturgical formulations is also a change in doctrine. No problem, there, but I'd like to see people be honest in saying that they are changing doctrine, really changing it."

That may be, but most Protestants don't consciously view liturgy in terms of doctrine, even if such a dynamic actually exists somewhere in their subconscious mind. Liturgy, for most of us, is merely a template to guide us through the hour of worship-- and I think that's a good description of the way in which many religious folks actually approach their hour in church. The most "content-rich" part of the liturgy is, for people at my church, the sermon. Everything else is window dressing-- prayers, hymns, etc.. I'm sure that many older members of the congregation would disagree with me if they heard the matter put so crassly, but I'm also pretty sure that this is, in fact, how most people get through the service. When we file out to shake the pastor's hand at the end, comments to the pastor will generally be about his/her sermon, not about the way the congregation sang the hymns, nor about the eloquently written Prayer of Confession for this week, nor about the skills of the choir (unless they're having a particularly good day!). Most of the laity don't think about liturgy.

As for being honest/explicit about changing doctrine-- that's precisely what happens at meetings of Session, or Presbytery, or the regional Synod, or the General Assembly: it's very much about theology, creeds, and the question of self-consistency versus breaking with history and tradition. Nothing would ever happen if people didn't question, doubt, debate, and innovate. At the same time, if people did only those things, there'd be no church, no doctrine, to argue over.

"My personal opinion is that the small "c" catholic and Orthodox traditions preserve a liturgy that ought to be valued more as historical art than as insight into anything factually real."

I see where you're coming from. I'm somewhat distant from the problem myself, as a nontheist. But as part of that community, especially as an elder, I'm inevitably involved in the larger debate. I think PCUSA did the right thing by not requiring people to adopt the new trinitarian language. At the same time, I hope that people in the pews will be open to the possibility of new formulations. In point of fact, most Presbyterians are unaware of just what creeds are in our Book of Confessions, and they have no idea about the theologies expressed in some of the hymns of the new hymnal (well, it's not that new anymore-- it's probably about a decade old!). They might be surprised to discover what ideas belong to the Presbyterian tradition.

But that brings us back to Sperwer's remark re: conscience. For Protestants, all that tradition is important or unimportant depending on how we each-- individually-- assign value to it. I can read the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order, then shrug and select only the parts of it I agree with to be part of my personal form of Presbyterianism. This won't affect much: I'll still be doing the same thing as everyone else around me in the pews. But it does mean that we Protestants can sometimes surprise each other by how different our personal beliefs and attitudes really are when it comes time to express them.

On the human level, the same holds true for Catholics, whom I've found to be just as varied a bunch as Protestants. However, the Catholic magisterium gives at least the illusion that there exists some sort of "essence" or "foundation" to Christian worship. Not believing in essences myself, I find that I'm not all that attached to specific formulations, which is why I wouldn't be all that up in arms about changes even to the Bible. I think an effort should be made to preserve original language, mainly for history's sake, but if the liturgy were to reflect more modern sensibilities, then so be it.


Kevin

PS: Feminism-- or the impulse to visualize the Divine Feminine-- creeps into Catholic piety in a lot of different ways, including the retroactive feminizing of Jesus. One of my classmates told me about the lactating Christ-- ever heard of that? See here, page 11.

Maven said...

Yes, yes, yes...There is a Meeting of Friends in Seoul!

http://www2.gol.com/users/quakers/korea_quakers.htm

The meditation is similar to the buddhist tradition (especially if your local meeting is Universalist vs Evangelical).