Thursday, September 25, 2008

Variegated Christians: Difference & Desperation

In our current times, only ignorance denies the various and fragmented facets of Christian expressions and identities within the larger mysterious and majestic corporeal of Jesus Christ. This fact is most obvious when one looks at the latest local church directory.

Listed in the directory, we have Presbyterian, Methodist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Anglican, Bible-Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Evangelical Free Church, and etc. And we still have not include the hundreds of independent churches, the Eastern Orthodox church, and the Roman Catholic church. Besides, not to mention the existence of innumerable piecemeal and divergent groups within each of these traditions.

Let's take the Roman Catholic Church as an instance. It has been popularly presumed that the Roman Catholic Church is the one church that is still harmonious and united without much variances within its body. But that is far from the case.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, there are groups such as the Sedevacantists, the Conclavists, and the Palmarians that disagree with current Roman See. Some believe that the seat of St. Peter is still empty even though Pope Benedict XVI is already occupying it. These Roman Catholic groups have been, since the Vatican II (some even earlier), condemning the institution and it apostolic succession. Some have even declared their own popes. Some individuals from these groups were deemed heretical and excommunicated by Vatican. But many still identify themselves belonging to the Roman Catholic Church.

Hence, one visible united, harmonious, consistent, non-inner-conflicting global and universal church is still unrealized in this part of heaven. Therefore we cannot deny such diversities within the body of Christ. We can see this as a tragedy but we should not stop learning to accept this 'Difference' as a gift.

On the other hand, pluralizing the Christian faith is never an option. No matter how variegated the body is within, we cannot declare that each individual or group has no similarity or shared traditions and truth-claims, particularly the central truth of God's good news through Jesus Christ. Such liberty is not given to us.

In view of this tension, crisis, tragic or however one denounces it, we desperately need to recognize our grotesque ambition to shape Christ's body into our own body. Such realization hold us from declaring that we have seen and so delude ourselves with the thought that we own the fullness of this sacrament. Again, such liberty is not given to us.

In simpler terms, we are in a 'Desperation'. Knowing that each part of the body belongs to the same body, and each body cannot claim to own the entire body, then it is best to learn what's more to see from the other parts. Out of the deep difference, we need to desperate for a communion of learning from each other; appreciating each others not less than ourselves. This is a also a gift. This is ecumenism. This is the body of Christ. And this is us.

Faith, is most fully itself and most fully life-giving when it stops you ignoring things, when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought–and of course therefore a bit more alarming than you ever thought.
(Rowan Williams, 'What Difference Does it Make?' - The Gospel in Contemporary Culture)

Sherman Kuek's recent reflection of Prostestants' gleaning from the spiritual wealth of the Roman Catholics, and the fact that Cardinal Walter Kasper admonishing Catholics to read Martin Luther are evidents of each body parts acknowledging, accepting, and learning from one another. While Kuek was commending his own tradition's spiritual wealth, Cardinal Kasper was acknowledging Luther as "full of the power of faith... from whom even Catholics can learn". The Cardinal even proclaims that Luther's hymns are "full of spiritual power".

Although Kuek tried to emphasize the seemingly non-corporative and loneliness of some esoteric individual Protestants who cultivate some similar practices as the Catholics, the actual fact is that the Protestant part of the body of Christ is not as non-corporative, lonely, or esoteric as he observed.

My Presbyterian church's liturgy has the congregation to stand, sit, and recite accordingly. Genuflect is up to individuals' perspective. Probably Scottish tradition does not see this particular practice as more reverential than, say, standing.

Take the Russian Orthodox Church at Bukit Timah. They stand throughout their 2-hour mass as their expression of reverence and worship, while the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Singapore, have their congregation sit, kneel, and stand as their expressions. And we do have members in the Presbyterian church that I'm attending that genuflect. I'm one. Once in a while I even make the 'half-kneel' at the side of the pew before taking my seat. And I don't see or sense anyone treating us like some "fishes out of water" or attracted disdain attention. Again, it's probably a matter of our effort to open our eyes to uncover to us the larger world.


The Inquisitor said...

Heh heh, maybe you would like to open your eyes wider to "uncover" the wonders of tongues speaking and Westminster Theological Seminary's dogmatic stance on inerrancy and other differences from you as a "gift".


The Inquisitor said...

Anyway, the practice of "half-kneeing" before entering the pews is grounded upon the idea of showing reverence to the "Altar table" where the Eucharistic Sacrifice is held. Try referring to the table in ORPC as the "Altar Table" in front of Rev. Burke and observe some interesting results... :P

Thus, I think that you're mistaken when you say that,

"Genuflect is up to individuals' perspective. Probably Scottish tradition does not see this particular practice as more reverential than, say, standing."

Its not a matter of perspective because these practices are grounded upon a certain theology of the Church, i.e. the Eucharistic doctrine of the real presence, Eucharist as a Sacrifice of Christ, etc.

Is, for example, the minister conducting the Eucharist facing the congregation or the High Altar a matter of perspective of reverence?

If these actions are a matter of perspective, why does the Westminster Confession go all out to detail instruction to prevent ministers from "lifting them (the elements) up" and so on and so forth?

That is because the puritans understood back then that the whole idea of priests lifting up the elements while facing away from the congregation and lifting it up towards the High Altar is an act of offering up Christ, literally, to be sacrificed to God, that is why they go all out to forbid this practice into the confession.

Now, I am not saying that the puritans are right about this, (I think the idea of a Eucharistic Sacrifice is okay. But the Anglicans in Singapore are strongly evangelical, good luck to me to trying to convince them to put the High Altar back to use!)

but I would reject your divorcing the acts of the liturgy from its spiritual and theological significance and reducing it to a mere subjectivist preference.

You should try reading the current Pope's book "The Spirit of Liturgy" to see the theological meaing behind every miniscule practices in a service.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Dom,

"the wonders of tongues speaking and Westminster Theological Seminary's dogmatic stance on inerrancy and other differences from you as a "gift"."

I have precisely that in mind when I wrote the post. So it was an exercise for myself to be reminded that there is always a need for me to learn to see what's more to be learned from them on those issues even though I disagree with them on exactly those issues.

The Orthodox Church able to share communion with the Catholics, but they don't do the "half-kneel" when they approach the pews.Does that mean they think the species as mere bread and wine?

If not, then it's really up to their own theology that justify their liturgy, which u pointed out and which i agree. But i dont agree that there is only one theology to be learned from one practice.

The Inquisitor said...

Now now Joshua, you are getting the logic mix up.

My proposition is only that the half-kneel entails a high theology of the Eucharist, I never claimed the converse proposition. Luthereans also have a high eucharist theology, but that does not mean that they enforce the practices of kneeing during the Eucharist.

Meanings are public things, just as meanings attached to words is not a matter of subjective decision, so are meanings attached to physical actions, i.e. genflecting, which you can't just change on a whim.

Therefore, you can't go round making up a new theology to justify a pre-existing practice that by itself already has a theology behind it, anymore can you, at least by yourself as an individual, go round giving new meanings to words.

As a real test for this, why don't you go try telling Rev. Burke that the clerical collar really does not have the historical meanings which he is so adverse to and to start wearing one next time. :P

St. Andrew's will always be ready to receive you. :D

P.S. I was just kidding about the clerical collar thing, really, don't tell Rev. Burke that.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Dom,

I'm questioning why should one expression confined only to one theological interpretation.

For eg. kneeling at the pew can be understood according to different tradition differently.

So to say that if someone kneel at the pew can only be understood through Roman Catholic's theology is, i think, unjustifiably narrow.

Yes, there is already a theology behind the existing practice, but that does not forbids the development of other theological thoughts over the same practice which is based on the narrative found in the Scripture.

Take the Crucifixion theology for eg. Instead of only penal substitution, there are 'christus victor', and other theological insights about it. And it is not necessary that penal substitution is the primary meaning of Christ's crucifixion. There are just many facets to understand the powerful event of the cross.

Hence, i'm not arguing for a relativistic or pluralistic theological interpretation within the body of Christ. I'm arguing that given such diversity, we should learn to acknowledge and accept and learn from these variegated facets of worship expression with the aim to finally able to see some glimpses of the eternal and objective truth.

The Inquisitor said...

Again Joshua, I never claimed that, there is "one expression confined only to one theological interpretation."

Of course an expression is open to multiple theological interpretation. My only claim is that the interpretation of such expressions are determined by the history, tradition and culture by which the practices arose. If within the tradition or culture, there are multiple theological interpretation, then there's nothing wrong with that.

The gist of my argument is that the meaning of practices and expressions are essentially public things, a whole tradition and culture may guide the development of the interpretation of a practice, just like how a whole culture may guide the development of the usuage of a word, which meaning can change over time. However, the interpretation of a practice cannot be determined by a single individual, anymore then can a single individual change the meaning of a word, unless that individual happens to occupy a significant role within that tradition/culture, i.e. canonized Saints or Popes or other prominent figures.

Thus, by yourself, your genuflection in a presbyterian church is completely out of sync with the tradition of a presbyterianism, as the tradition of presbyterianism has no interpretation of genuflection, thus, such an act has no more meaning than the word "alkhg" because in our culture, we have no precedent interpretation for such a word.

Practices and liturgical expressions are not like theological doctrine. In theology, lone ivory tower academics can of course propose whatever new theories or deductions or development from pre-existing doctrines as they like. Because within the academia culture, the academia does have a monopoly over the significance of theological doctrines and theories.

But when it comes to a liturgical practice or expression, no lone individual has a monopoly on the meaning of a practice. The meaning of a practice depends on the society or culture practicing it, and requires the conformity of laypersons, leaders and teachers to propagate, enforce and use the practices according to the interpretation to which they want the expressions to have.

Thus, my main contention is that a public expression belongs to a tradition/culture and that, unlike a theological doctrinal development, no single person can simply change the significance of it simply by a fiat.

I think T.S. Eliot's Notes on the definition of Culture would be very helpful here.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Dom,

You are simply saying: one cannot do something which has an individual meaning in a church that does not recognize the meaning of that something you do.

I dont think it's valid. The individual's practice can has a transcontextual meaning even though his immediate surrounding does not share the meaning. It's like using a "grail" during a tribal ritual.

Say that the tribe performs a ritual which ends with the drinking some holy water. And they specifically use coconut shells to serve as "cups" for them to drink the holy water because they believe that coconut shells are special and meant to be used as "cups" for significant usages.

When one of the tribe's members Mr.X who has spent 5 years in a western cosmopolitan joined them in the ritual, he uses a grail. To him, the holy water should be contained in a grail in order to be consumed.

The tribe does not share Mr. X's understanding of grails just as Mr. X does not share the tribe's understanding of the coconut shell. But both of them know that the water is holy. Hence in their own response to this, both of them use what they think best to express their reverence for the similar sacred object.

Obviously the tribe does not take it as an offense that Mr.X uses a grail. Neither did Mr.X felt offended when the tribe didn't use grails. This is because both parties understand the fundamental meaning of the 'container', that is to be a symbol of reverent to the holy water.

Hence Mr.X usage of grail has a transcontextual meaning with the tribe's usage of coconut shell in that particular ritual.

Sze Zeng said...

Hence when different public expressions clashed with one another, there is no necessity that changes of either one or both must happened.

It can be that, in such clashes, we uncover a more foundational significance that actually can be appreciated by and underlies and empowers both expressions, which is ultimately very much shared.

sk said...

Hi there. I have just come across this interesting post, being pleasantly surprised that you have interacted with one of my write-ups in particular.

I have three points to pick up on, each one probably being rather lengthy.

1. Your reading of the Sedevacantists, the Conclavists, and the Palmarians that disagree with the current Roman See does not comply with the Roman See's perspective of divergent views in the Catholic Church.

Whilst many of these schismatic groups continue to see themselves as Catholic, it is ultimately the prerogative of the Magisterium to define the nature of the Church's relationship with these groups. If the Church does not continue to see them as Catholic, then they must essentially be non-Catholic no matter how Catholic they proclaim themselves to be.

In the scheme of the Catholic Church, one is not Catholic just because he calls himself one. One is Catholic when the Church calls him one. One does not "receive" the faith or the Church. Like a Mother, it is the Church that receives one into its bosom. Similarly for me, I did not receive the Church. On the contrary, I was received BY the Church into full communion.

This is a concept that is absent in Protestant ecclesiology. In the Catholic Church, there is the Magisterium which holds supreme prerogative in determining matters of faith and morals and does not give space for subjectivity and ambiguity in issues which it deems absolutely crucial to the salvation of the children of the Church. Any sort of reading into Catholic theology apart from the perspective of the Magisterium does not cohere with the Catholic ethos. Catholic theology is Catholic theology only when it adequately represents the view of the Church in issues of faith and morals. For this reason, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has reiterated that just because a person is both a Catholic and a theologian does not give him a right to claim his theology to be Catholic theology. It is Catholic theology only when it complies with the Magisterial teachings of the Church.

Therefore, the Sedevacantists, the Conclavists, and the Palmarians are Catholics only when the Church says they are. Arguably, they may not be deemed as less Christian or less saved; but they are nevertheless Catholic only when they are in full communion with the Roman See. So the prerogative to define their status with the Catholic Church is not theirs. The prerogative remains with the Magisterium, which represents the faith of the people called the Roman Catholics.

This also brings me to my next point...

2. The issue of ecumenism can be elusive. In speaking of ecumenism, again, one must understand the Catholic Church's definition of it. The Church, although earnestly desiring authentic unity, seeks to avoid the whitewashing of disagreements at all costs, lest this leads to a false union.

As far as the Catholic position is concerned, true union must find agreement in all crucial matters pertaining to faith and morals. Anything less than that would constitute false union.

I do not find disagreement with Cardinal Kasper's positive assessment of Luther's contribution to Christian life. I can and would emphatically affirm the same, especially in the interest of ecumenism.

But to say these things about Luther is not to be equated as being an indication of the Catholic Church now being ready to enter into full communion with the Lutherans of the world. Our differences in some issues of faith and morals are stark, and these differences cannot be whitewashed as if they did not matter. And yet, since the Catholic Church does not reject anything that is sacred and true even in other religions, what more the magnitude of affirmation we can afford over the teachings of Luther.

Having said that, affirmation at any rate does not mitigate the disagreements between the two faith communities. Hence, the finer nuances between the Catholic and the Protestant conceptions of ecumenism have to be understood.

3. In terms of spiritual and liturgical practices, you have argued your point from a personalistic perspective, although not necessarily individualistic. But from a Catholic perspective, the argument hardly agrees with our liturgical theology.

In the theology of the Catholic Church (as it also is with the Orthodox churches), there is a vast difference between the "Tradition" and "traditions". You are right indeed to observe that the issue of genuflection or bowing before the alter is a rather subjective act which remains within the prerogative of the individual (and that is tradition with a small "t"). But the veneration of the altar, as "the inquisitor" has rightly pointed out, is not an option in the light of the sacramental theology of the Church. So the veneration of the altar falls under the Tradition (with a capital "T"). This is why both Catholic and Orthodox churches venerate the altar as a part of their liturgical practices, even if this veneration is embodied in different forms.

While your tradition may not strictly forbid a veneration of the altar of some sort by individual members of the faith community, what separates your faith community from Catholic and Orthodox churches is the absence of a Tradition (with the capital "T") in your context. What you perceive as a transcontextual meaning is ultimately confined within the framework of your personalised definition, for even the idea of transcontextual meaning is not a part of the Tradition of your faith community. Therefore, even at best, its meaning is not catholic (in the sense of being "universal").

This brings me to the crux of my point. In the Catholic context, the Church is the community of faith and the liturgy/worship is the greatest act of the Church. Worship is an ultimate act of communion between the human and the divine, and also among the human persons as they share in that one true Body of the Lord. In other words, we worship in communion with one another. Every action that is performed, every prayer being said, is done so in a communion which gives a shared meaning to the liturgy itself.

In the Protestant contexts where I previously worshipped, we did not just have an issue with the grail (to use your metaphor). In fact, there were fundamental differences in our understanding of the "holy water" that the grails contained. For example, within one ecclesial community itself, there were those who believed in some form of real presence in the holy communion, and there were others for whom it was purely symbolic. So beyond it being an issue of whether the community recognises the meaning and validity of what I do, in the Protestant circle, there is also the issue of whether the community recognises the meaning and implication of what I believe about, say, the holy communion. It would be preposterous for me to believe in the real presence and to venerate the sacrament, whilst my neighbour takes it as a purely commemorative rite, when both of us partake of one bread together. And so while I may bow before what I perceive to be the elements of the eucharist with a real presence of Christ, the neighbour standing beside me wonders why I am worshipping a loaf of bread.

Thank you.

Sherman Kuek

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Sherman,

Appreciate your comment. What I can say is that there are things which we do not share among many others that we do :)