10 September 2015

Theological mathematics

In the summer of 1939, just weeks or perhaps days from the opening guns of World War II, Thomas Kelly was staying at an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While there, he wrote some reflections that were published posthumously among the essays collected by his son Richard Kelly in The Eternal Promise.

Among other reflections, he wrote:
Outside the shadows of the evening are falling upon the quiet, friendly garden where a few moments ago three of us, two Fathers of the Catholic tradition and a Friend, were speaking of the sacraments. There was much talk of the "covenanted channels," of the seven to which Catholics hold, of the two which Protestants practice. So long as questions of theological mathematics were upper, of seven or of two, there was a danger which we tacitly avoided. It became evident that I, an "unbaptized" Quaker, was not a Christian, except for the saving provision which allowed one to be a "Christian by desire."

Yet as the conversation moved to the love of God, to the need of Christ being formed in us, to the outgoing love of the Nazarene, to the blind and lame and wounded in body and soul in these days, the conversation became a sacrament where the Presence was as truly in our midst as He is in the Mass within the chapel walls. For the time being, Sacramentalist and Quaker were one, in the fellowship of the Church Universal.
The phrase that struck me forcefully: theological mathematics. Kelly is gently putting the question of sacramental observances in perspective, but I sat there wrestling with a different arithmetic: subtraction. We serve such an amazing God, we are led by such a luminous Saviour, the world is so demonstrably in need of authentic Christian hope, that I'm having a hard time with all the public Christians who seem intent on telling us (whether crassly or with endless theological subtlety) why this person or that should have the church's door slammed in their face.

It's not that we shouldn't have boundaries. Apparently many people are, at any given moment, not attracted by the Light we ourselves have found irresistible; they are entitled to their choices. But our invitation must remain honest and real and the door must remain open, fully lit. What we can't tolerate is a false welcome, an ostensible invitation with hidden screens to be sure nobody we're uncomfortable with stumbles in. Yes, we will have healing work to do; wounded people are not entitled to remodel the household of faith to suit their allergies and addictions. We will have to struggle, together with newcomers, over different understandings of the ethical consequences of conversion, whether the sharp edge of the struggle is sex or money or the obligations of citizenship. God knows, we're dealing with all this ourselves. But, the point is, when people come to us and say that they're ready to embrace Jesus, we then face these problems, even these conflicts, together.

The conflicts between theological conservatives and theological liberals in our evangelical corner of the Quaker world are not to be dismissed or taken lightly. At our best, we challenge each other's pretensions and false heroism, and keep each other honest. But I fear that when we let those conflicts take up too much space, we lose our perspective and our priorities. It's not that we need to conceal these conflicts in order to avoid scandalizing potential converts. People aren't stupid, they won't be surprised that we "mature" Christians are just as human and fractious as they are. But woe unto us if we diminish Christ's ability to create unity where the world would predict, even encourage, division.

If I begin to tell my Quaker brothers and sisters that Jesus is not the Christ, that the Bible is not what it says it is, that evangelism and social justice are unimportant, and that the processes of group discernment don't apply to me, I expect them to approach me kindly and suggest that I might be in the wrong community. Short of that, I hope they understand ... they're stuck with me. And I with them.

A few years ago, a group of young Friends was visiting Moscow. At the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, one of the members of the group was not allowed to enter because he was wearing shorts. The sensible-tourist side of me understood that places that have been invested with sacred significance often impose traditional ways of defining reverence, and we have no choice but to bend courteously to these traditions. But another part of me was shaking with outrage: if this place represents itself as the LORD's, then it must also represent the LORD's welcome! I was shaken with a visceral empathy for George Fox's inability to reconcile himself with "official" Christianity.

A few more words from Thomas Kelly, from the very end of his book: "Our fellowship groups are small, but they can be glorious colonies of heaven, cities set on a hill. It is a great message which is given to us -- good news indeed -- that the Light overcomes the darkness. But to give the message we must also be the message."

"Loose Canon" Giles Fraser ... Christian politicians won't say it, but the Bible is clear: Let the refugees in, every one of them.

... and the Quaker Council for European Affairs, Andrew Lane: We CAN choose loving and effective responses.

Thomas Edison's recordings of Leo Tolstoy.

Dessert: from London's Los Pacaminos, a delightful reworking of the garage-rock classic "Wooly Bully."


Daniel Wilcox said...

Wonderful, The Eternal Promise! Many years ago, before I knew of Kelly, I came across that book at a yard sale. It looked intriguing. And turned out to be a real lifeline for me during that time.

As for your statement, "Some of the conflicts between theological conservatives and theological liberals in our evangelical corner of the Quaker world are not to be dismissed or taken lightly."

Since I've been members in both the liberal and the evangelical wing, been an East-coast and a West-coast Quaker, I've run into a number of those conflicts.

But my question to you is have you in Russia (or in Northwest Yearly Meeting) run into hard Calvinistic Friends, ones who teach that God has foreordained most humans to Hell, and that all infants at conception are evil?

Years ago, I left another denomination and became a Friend exactly because Friends writers said all Friends think God loves everyone.

Yet today, when visiting a Quaker site, I was shocked to see they were promoting a hard Calvinist book! I NEVER expected to see that. Very disconcerting, for me even worse than some Friends who claim to be nontheists.

forrest said...

Does "The Bible" "say what it is"? -- Or don't you mean that the author of Timothy tells you what he says it is? When he tells you that, what does he mean by "all scripture"? There have been, as you must know, different books which different people thought of as "scripture" as this collection gradually accumulated; and he may not have been thinking of any particular collection as being 'the' scripture, all the scripture, and nothing but... And "useful" certainly does not come imply "should be taken at face value."

Johan Maurer said...

Daniel, yes, I have come across some symptoms of what you describe as "hard Calvinism." What grieves me more than that is a widespread lack of knowledge of what early Friends taught about sin, including original sin. I've written about this in a couple of places, such as here and here.

Johan Maurer said...

Forrest -- your points are good examples of the conversations that we ought to be having instead of descending to the usual predictable platitudes and manifestos. Behind many of our recent eruptions of the "mathematics of subtraction" are differences in biblical interpretation that we rarely seem to address directly.

When I cite 2 Timothy 3:16-17, I'm going on trust that Timothy wrote under inspiration, that the Scripture he's referring to was still in formation even as he wrote, and in God's good time this Scripture would be ratified by the church (that is, by our own family in its discernment practices, full of debate and conflict and prayer and politics!). Timothy's passage makes some high claims for the Bible, but he does not oversell it!! He does not license freelance Bible-bashing of people whose interpretations we disagree with. He does not make the Bible a fourth member of the Trinity.

In short, I'm happy to let Timothy's passage speak for itself, both in its power and in its ambiguity.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for the two other posts you've written. I agree with most of your points there, especially "But as pessimistic about humans as they were, they did not leave humans without hope. Though vulnerable without God, we are in fact born innocent. We lose that innocence when we make self-centered choices, but God invites us to put our trust in Divine power to make different choices."

But I don't see how this has anything to do with Matt Chandler's book being taught by a Friends Meeting. In that book there is no hope for most of us, because we were predestined to eternal damnation and born "in essence, evil."

I don't see how you could possibly be more grieved by a "widespread lack of knowledge of early Friends taught about sin, including original sin."

What could be worse than that every infant at conception is "in essence, evil" and that most infants (billions of us) were predestined to eternal damnation before the beginning of the universe:-(?

I must admit, I am confused. I've read quite a few of your posts.

Johan Maurer said...

Daniel, I loathe that doctrine of essential evil and total depravity, which I consider heresy. However, I have developed a thick hide concerning the nonsense that sometimes passes for religious education if I can't see a way to engage with it personally. I have some trust in people's resilience and essential common sense. (Remember the controversy over the Pew Forum study mentioned in this old post of mine, "More heat than light"?)

The reason I grieve the lack of knowledge of Friends teachings is that those teachings are an antidote to inhumane doctrine. I wish that even those Friends meetings whose leaders believe in total depravity would at least engage with what the first Publishers of Truth said about those doctrines, if only to attempt a reasoned disagreement. Instead I feel as if there is a vacuum into which these alien teachings have flooded -- as if those teaching them assume that they are somehow normative. They have probably never had to deal with George Fox's accusation that they are "pleading for sin."

I have been wrestling personally with how to confront a similar issue in my own yearly meeting, but I've just not yet reached a sense of freedom to tackle it. Thanks for your persistence. (I did read your own blog post on the topic.)

Daniel Wilcox said...

Johan, Thanks for the quick reply.

I think you are probably right about how many churches, "lack of knowledge of Friends teachings." (Being a literature teacher and lay historian, sometimes I have to opposite problem;-)

Friends and others who avoid theological studies don't seem to realize (or are so busy working, raising kids, etc., they haven't the time)
not grounding their spiritual experience in understanding means all manner of other theologies will fill the open space.

Currently, Calvinism is popular almost everywhere, even in Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and other Arminian churches. And, now, I guess in some Quaker meetings.

I read in your "More heat than light" that it was -2 degrees in Russia back then. Sounds like my life when I grew up in
icebox Nebraska.
Here, in balmy California on the usually cool coast, it's been near 90.:-) Unusual, but then it's been a record breaker year. We had 90 degree weather even in January.

Kirby Urner said...

Speaking of theological mathematics, I've been spinning some very particular math as Quaker [tm], even presented at Earlham about it:


Johan Maurer said...

Kirby, I wonder if your advice that "we may and probably should study math in a cultural matrix" applies to the varieties of ways people deal with ambiguity and paradox (as encouraged or discouraged by their societies). Are some cultures more prone to list, inventory, and codify things (seven or two sacraments, for example) than others?

Anonymous said...

I have my own take on theological mathematics.

Suppose that you run a political science game with two subjects. You go to the first subject and offer her $1 for herself or $10 for the second player, who she never sees. Then you go to the second subject and make the same offer, $1 for you or $10 for the other subject, and so on, back and forth.

The most likely way for both subjects to win this game is to forgive any transgressions that the other player might make. An interpersonal war, with each subject taking personal $1 after $1, isn't going to work well.

To make the game harder, the person running the game can try to artificially create a transgression or two.

--Paul Klinkman

Johan Maurer said...

Paul, at the time the first round is beginning, does person no. 1 know that the exact same offer is being given to person no. 2? And are the two people paid their money before the second round?