Gatekeepers and outsiders

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I stumbled onto a blog by an Episcopal priest whom I mistakenly assumed to be a theologically progressive Christian. I'm not sure where I got that idea from, and I recently discovered after getting into a back and forth discussion in the comments to one of his posting that he was quite orthodox theologically. As a theological progressive of a Borgian bent, I found I shared little common ground with him to form a basis of discussion.

On the surface, the matter being discussed was the question of open versus closed communion (he favored closed communion, which is to say he believed it should only be available to baptized Christians.) But there was a deeper difference that quickly emerged. I am interested in the historical Jesus, and I believe that Christianity, and views about Jesus himself, underwent a process of evolution after his death. This is the distinction between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus that Marcus Borg frequently writes about. The blogger, on the other hand, committed what I consider a fallacy of retrojecting post-Easter Christianity onto the pre-Easter Jesus. Orthodoxy in this way becomes a self-justifying position; since what we know about Jesus is filtered through the post-Easter writings of the Gospels, we are somehow expected to take these post-Easter filters at face value as our only source of knowledge about him, and not look deeper into the layering process of tradition. (The fact that there was not one Christianity in that post-Easter period, but in fact many Christianities, of which the eventual orthodoxy was just one strand, complicates this point even further, but never mind that.) Thus certain theological notions about, for example, Christian membership, are anachronistically assigned to Jesus himself, even though he and his followers were not "Christians" but devout Jews.

I have stated in the past that I consider closed communion to be a perversion of Jesus's life and teachings of open commensality. The blogger's response was interesting--he simply claimed that Jesus was actually not all that inclusive. Apparently all that eating with prostitutes and tax collectors didn't count for much. Personally, if I thought for a moment that Jesus were as exclusionary as this priest claimed, I would reject all association with any form of Christianity altogether. Better to be a Buddhist than a follower of a Jesus who did not express radical inclusion through his life and teachings.

As I have mentioned on other occasions, communion per se isn't something that matters a great deal to me. I suppose, in part, that is the former Quaker in me coming out. I do often feel obliged to defend the honor of Quakers, who are inevitably excluded from the "Christian community" by proponents of orthodox views on baptism and communion, since without fail the argument runs along the lines that a) one must be part of the Christian community to receive communion, and b) the rite of initiation that puts one in this community is baptism. Since Quakers don't practice baptism, they are implicitly but automatically excluded from this grand ecumenical Christian community. But that isn't really the point. I may or may not choose to take communion at a church service, depending on the underlying approach that the service takes towards the act. If it is all about membership privileges, I don't partake; if it is about community and inclusion, I do.

And the real problem for me is indeed the philosophy of inclusion. What concerns me is the idea of a two-tiered body of worshipers--on the one hand, there are those who have undergone the initiation rite, who get to fully participate in the worship experience; and on the other, there are those who haven't been initiated, who just get to sit and watch from the outside as a second-class worshiper. The most wonderful message you can give to a visitor, an outsider, a seeker, who comes to worship with your congregation is to immediately tell them, "You are completely welcome here. You can fully participate with us." The priest who defends closed communion, in my view, places dogma over inclusion.

To me, universal love means universal inclusion to those who sincerely wish to participate. Denying that you are being insensitive about these kinds of issues doesn't make it not so. For some, it seems clear to me, dogma is more important than compassion.

Maybe I should have been a member of some secret brotherhood that had an initiation rite. Or maybe I should have joined a fraternity when I was in college. Then maybe I would have understood the point of such rites. But I never saw their point. As I see it, baptism can be a fine and admirable voluntary expression, a personal choice by those who want to show their Christian faith in a particular traditional outward way--but I just don't like the idea of it as a prerequisite for full acceptance into a community of faith. I've been an outsider myself too many times in life, and maybe I just identify with outsiders too much. I believe that was what made Jesus such an important figure--I believe that he, too, stood with the outsiders, not with the rule-making authorities and the gatekeepers.

9 comments:

Annie said...

I agree wholeheartedly. The way I see the closed communion, gatekeepers as you have so aptly labeled them, is that people are standing between ourselves and God, choosing who is worthy of the kingdom and denying the very work of Christ through the Holy Sacraments. For the record I am a cradle Episcopalian.

The Lord has invited us all to his table!

Cynthia said...

The other sticking point in the UCC is that only ordained or licensed ministers can officiate, as if the clergy say the magic words and God appears.

I understand sacrament to be making visible and tangible that experience of God which is invisible and intangible. It is we who have need of ritual, not God. When I gave birth to my first child, I realized that she was baptized in the waters of my womb, that she was nourished by my body and blood. Baptism and communion are ways we realize our God-given sacredness, our unity as children of God, and live out Jesus' mandate that all are welcome. Yet these very rituals also illustrate the Church's exclusionary nature as well, showing us just how much work there is yet to do.

Mystical Seeker said...

Cynthia, you raise an interesting point about the UCC requiring licensed or ordained ministers to be the ones to administer the sacraments. The UCC doesn't call its pastors "priests", but in a sense they are still expected to perform a priestly duty.

Grace said...

Hi, Mystical,

If you draw a sharp distinction between the Jesus of history, and the Christ of faith, how are we able to really determine this, and what criteria can be truly reliable.

Don't many of these radical scholars began with the presupposed assumption that the historical Jesus is just a Jewish cynic or a mystical teacher,? Then any teaching which seems to allude to His divinity or sounds like the early church is immediately relegated to a later layer of tradition, not attributed to the historical Jesus at all.

But, aren't their presuppositions already determining the end result of the research which reflects their own bias? Do you see what I'm saying? It's like a kind of circular reasoning.

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, I disagree with you that scholars such as those you mention are beginning with the presuppositions that you have described. The specific ones you mentioned may or may not be correct in their interpretation of what kind of ministry Jesus had, but my observation has been that those characterizations are conclusions based on scholarly inference, using the tools at their disposal, and are not presuppositions or starting points. This is a quite different from what we often find among orthodox apologists for the faith, where they take a certain kind of post-Easter orthodox filter at face value, refusing to delve into any layering or traditioning process that may have preceded the written texts, and rejecting any finding that contradicts the dogma.

Grace said...

Mystical, do you think it's at all possible, that there is a real continuity, that the Jesus of history does reflect the Christ of faith?

You know the epistles actually predate the gospels, and reflect a very high Christology. For instance, a portion of the epistle to the Philippians actually incorporates a creed that many scholars believe dates to only 20 or 30 AD, and expresses the confession of the earliest Christians.

Concerning Jesus:

Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross! Phil. 2:6-8.

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, I don't take the position that the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christianity were completely different. This is the position that a Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, has essentially taken, and I disagree with that. Nor do I think that the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ were the same either. I think there was an evolution of Christology over time, and this evolution can be seen from reading the letters of Paul and then the synoptics, and finally John.

I doubt that the hymn that you quote from comes from as early as 20 AD, since that would have been before Jesus's own ministry. The dating of that hymn is subject to debate, but we do know that it is included in a letter by Paul that was written after the death of Jesus. In any case, it describes Jesus as being "in the form" (or in the "image") of God, as it then goes on to say that he was "in the form" of a slave ("In the nature God" is how the NIV, which often interjects its own conservative theology into its translations, chooses to translate this.) This hymn clearly praises Jesus, as Paul himself elsewhere praised Jesus as having been exalted into God's presence. Paul certainly believed in Jesus's special divine role, and I don't think anyone disputes that.

Note that Paul also expresses an adoptionist view elsewhere, in the epistle to the Romans, where he says that it was during the resurrection that he was made the Son of God. And Paul, I might add, indicated in 1 Chronicles that the nature of his experience of the risen Christ, which was visionary, was the same as the nature of the experience of the risen Christ by those who preceded him. Thus he was not making any reference to a physical, bodily resurrection, but to a vision of the exalted Jesus in heaven. The physical resurrection stories didn't show up in biblical writings until some 40-45 years after Jesus died.

My point here is simply to note that it is a huge fallacy to argue, as the blogger I mentioned in my posting did, that simply because the post-Easter writings came from the post-Easter Christian community, we have no choice but to accept the lens through which those works were written as the only possible way of understanding Jesus's life. This attitude ignores the array of scholarly tools at our disposal than can help make a serious effort at gettign a handle on the historical Jesus.

Grace said...

Thanks Mystical for sharing your thinking? I can see that you've researched these issues. Have you also had an opportunity to study the work of some of the orthodox scholars such as FF Bruce, and Bruce Metzer from Princeton relating to the NT documents??

Also, I wanted to share something that Annie has stated awhile back. I firmly believe that the Lord has invited all to His table. But, does it seem likely that someone would want to share in holy communion who doesn't truly think that in any sense Jesus died for them, or that we are actually even in a symbolic way sharing in the body and blood of the Lord.

What I'm asking is why would someone who has not received the work of the cross want to share in a Christian sacrament?

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, you do pose an interesting question. I don't know if there is a single answer to that question. I guess it might depend on the individual.and probably also it depends on how the sacrament is described when it is presented to the congregation.