Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How a witch strengthened the faith of an Anglo-Catholic, and how a Wycliffe-Arminian Heterodox Protestant saw it

The first half of the title for this post concerns Hector, who posted How a witch strengthened my faith at the Aleksandreia site. The second half refers to my seldom-humble self, more or less a Christian who refrains from heresy by welcoming schism.

Those who are conversant in ancient Greek have observed that the term Paul used when he wrote of heresy has connotations of party or faction. Thus, I suspect that heresy is the act of seeking domination of the body of Christ for one's own party or faction. The orthodox are merely the heresy in power. The sin, if it can be called one, is the arrogance of believing that I, or my group, understand God better than any other individual or group within the faith, who has a slightly different idea of exactly what God is trying to tell us.

Hector lists a number of well-known miracles as the foundation or his faith. I have no objection. I frankly don't give much thought to whether these miracles did or did not occur. More often than not, my comment on such debates is "Don't mess with the stories." They are there for a reason. Perhaps they are there because some will recognize God through these accounts of miracles. Others may not, but may find the stories moving in some sense. Yet others may be put off by the improbability of such events - for them, no doubt, God has other ways of calling.

What ways? Well, as an avid reader of science, although not professionally competent, two of my favorites are the fact that the universe we live in began with a tremendous burst of electro-magnetic energy some thirteen billion years ago, and the fact that the foundations of evolutionary biology can be discerned in the first two chapters of Genesis. For the most part, human culture only discovered the first point in the mid-20th century, but somehow Moses knew all about it some 3500 years before the Hubble Space Telescope or the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. The second escaped human knowledge until well after Darwin; before Darwin, we didn't have the empirical knowledge to recognize what the text was talking about, so our ancestors became infatuated with much simpler interpretations.

But these little pieces show a congruence between science - the empirical knowledge of our world - and monotheistic revealed faith, not enough to uphold any given prophet or savior, but enough to suggest that there is a God who created all that is, seen and unseen, a deity who occasionally has reason to communicate to us as best we can understand.

Whether I believe in specific miracles really truly happened is, to me, rather irrelevant. They may well have, without setting aside science. There is no question that our universe runs in accordance with patterns that science can and has explored with some accuracy. But, if there is anything transcendent, it would be roughly like a larger Venn diagram enclosing our universe as a subset, represented by a smaller Venn diagram. A transcendent God could intervene whenever he chose, and obviously chooses to do so rather seldom. Indeed, if there were no consistent scientific basis to the universe, miracles would not be particularly extraordinary. They would be commonplace random events in an unpredictable chaos.

So we come to the White Witch, a devout member of a schismatic Anglican church which insists on restricting the priesthood to males, relying strictly on the King James Version of the Bible, and presumably also on denying the validity of same-sex couples or marriages. She had an out of body experience, as a child, while clinically dead, before doctors noticed a restored heart beat and breathing. The experience was two minutes of conversation with Jesus Christ.

Do I find this credible? Not in the sense that it restores my faith, but I wouldn't presume to deny that it could not have happened. The fact that this happened to her as a child, that she had no religious training from her parents, provides a veneer of credibility. Onthe other hand, the fact that she later attended a Roman Catholic School, after that practiced some version of Wicca for twenty years, and only after that became an Anglican Christian, suggests that the conversation with Jesus had not made much of an immediate impression on her. For a skeptic, there is plenty of cause to doubt.

Again, I don't much care. The vision is for her, if for anyone. There is no way to test whether it is genuine. Therefore, I doubt that it is of great significance for me.

This former Wiccan "found her thirst for a particularly feminine spirituality slaked in a newfound devotion to the person of the Ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of God." Here is another conundrum for an Arminian raised in the attenuated Calvinism of the late 20th century Presbyterian Church USA. Do I believe that Mary, the physical human mother of "the carpenter's son," was taken body and soul into heaven? No, my faith does not rest on what many denominations, including the Roman, Greek, and Anglican churches, reverence as "the Assumption."

Frankly, I find the Jewish teaching quite credible, that it is no coincidence that the first Christian church dedicated to veneration of Mary as Virgin Mother of God was built in Ephesus. Those Ephesians darn well needed a female spirituality, and if they couldn't have Diana, they were going to have Mary. Besides, it gave the silversmiths a new theme for profitable images to sell. But, I don't write it all off as idol worship.

One of the unique features of Christianity is a God who so loved the world that he became human, lived our experience, has a specific desire to reach out to us. Much as I respect the Jewish foundation for monotheism, and the piety of Islam, these offer a more austere and remote version of God. Of course, if there is only one God, there are not Jewish and Christian and Muslim godlings out in space fighting proxy wars with each other through their earthly adherents. There is only one. But we ornery humans are incapable of having one comprehensive understanding or relationship.

So if some women, and some men, need a "feminine spirituality," I'm sure God is quite happy to let them find that in his mother - albeit Muhammed made sense when he denied that a transcendent God could have had either a mother or a son. I am informed that the formal name within those orthodoxies that declare anathema on thinking like mine is "modalism." Well, so be it. I don't suggest that God, per se, is modal in nature, but that God is transcendent, and happy to let us humans venerate any mode that brings us closer to a transcendent unitary God - or even to let us worship a triune image of God.

Having had little direct sense of divine presence - the kind received with fear and trembling - I have been known to say that I sense to presence of God when I see it reflected on the face of someone in a praise team, as sunlight is reflected on the face of the moon. I seldom sense any DIRECT response to my prayers - I always have the dry spell Hector has been experiencing of late. But I don't sense that I'm getting a busy signal. I think C.S. Lewis wrote that "men's prayers today are one of the innumerable cordinates with which the Enemy [as Screwtape references God] harmonizes the weather of tomorrow."

A Roman Catholic blogging as Roland de Chanson interjects into discussion the assertion that "God speaks the Truth to whom He chooses. And His Incarnate Son established a Church to teach that Truth." The first sentence is inarguable, except by denying that there is a God (singular). The second defines the boundary between adherents of the Roman Catholic church and all other Christian denominations. In my mind, the vast bureaucracy in the Vatican City, and its subordinate institutions throughout the world, are merely one more heresy, no better and no worse than those it persecuted when it had the carnal power to do so. The significance claimed for the words "thou are Cephas" is strictly an ex post facto intepretation of convenience, which might have been presented earlier except that the ink had not yet dried.

Roland also speculates, what if this Anglo-Catholic formerly Wiccan women who had a conjectural conversation with Jesus Christ is "an agent of the Evil One intent upon your soul’s perdition?" I for one don't worry much about such things, because I don't seek for signs and wonders to sustain my faith. The Evil One, if there is such a Manischean graft onto the teachings of the Tanach (aka Old Testament) may send me any number of people relating glorious visions, but I put little stock in such things.

I believe in part because, if I don't construct edifices of detailed explanations of the unexplainable, it makes sense. Further, I can look back on my life and see connections made with a significance I could never have forseen. If someone had not very subtlely (as Albert Einstein used to say) been watching out for me, by all the statistical criteria of a cold indifferent universe and a corporate capitalist regimented economy, I should certainly have been homeless long since.

(Note: Hector, please invite John E. and Franklin, and even Roland, to comment here after you've read it). And you might want to look at this discussion with Eulogos.


Hector said...

Siarlys Jenkins,

Thanks for your response.

"Heresy", actually, has connotations of 'chooser', it comes from 'haereo', to choose. I use it as a neutral, denotative term, not with anny negative implications, because I am aware that in the eyes of the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople, I am a heretic as well. I am also aware that if one is not Catholic or Orthodox (as I am not), then the definition of 'heresy' becomes a very tricky one, and so perhaps it ought not to be thrown around too loosely.

Re: Indeed, if there were no consistent scientific basis to the universe, miracles would not be particularly extraordinary.

True. Miracles imply the existence of the natural. In thoroughly pre-scientific cultures like the Azande of East Africa, there is no sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural, indeed in many such cultures the term for 'magic' and 'medicine' is the same.

Re: Onthe other hand, the fact that she later attended a Roman Catholic School, after that practiced some version of Wicca for twenty years, and only after that became an Anglican Christian, suggests that the conversation with Jesus had not made much of an immediate impression on her. For a skeptic, there is plenty of cause to doubt.

To my mind, though, that makes it even more credible, because sudden conversions (like Paul's on the road to Damascus) are the exception, not the rule. St. Peter denied Jesus three times, and refused to believe he had risen from the dead, even after having present at the Transfiguration. Most such experiences have a 'delayed reaction time'....we need to meditate on them for days, months, or sometimes (like Lindsey) for years before we truly understand them. That's part of the reason for the fact that (as the skeptics like to point out) the Gospels were written years after Christ ascended to the heavens. In some cases, it takes centuries for the full meaning of a religious experience or teaching to become realised and to affect society.
(Continued below)

Hector said...

Re: I am informed that the formal name within those orthodoxies that declare anathema on thinking like mine is "modalism."

It's not that, per se....modalism is the belief that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three 'modes' in which we experience God, as opposed to three distinct persons within God himself. In other words, the modalist holds that the differences between Father and Son are differences in how we perceive God, not real and permanent differentiations within God. It's the postmodern, 'perception = reality' all over again.

I think your overall conclusion makes sense, but I'd argue that the reason religion- and in particular, Christianity- makes sense is precisely because it DOES explain the unexplainable.

In other words, there are two ways we can judge the worth of a hypothesis. Sometimes, we can directly observe whether something exists or not, using scientific experiments, and we can judge between hypotheses that way. At other times, we cannot directly observe or test whether or not something exists, but by postulating its existence, we find that we are able to explain all sorts of other things. We can't observe complex numbers, for example. But if we assume they exist, then we can solve problems (involving such widely separated things as cubic equations, equations for harmonic motion of an overdamped pendulum, quantum mechanical equations, or equations for alternating current) that we couldn't solve otherwise.

Similarly, postulating a supernatural realm with God and his Angels allows us to explain the existence of natural world, and also to comprehend and make sense of things that we couldn't understand otherwise. When confronted by an experience like Lindsey's, the reaction of the materialist naturalist is to shrug and say, 'Weird sh*t happens.' I suspect this is what the good John E. would say. Well, that's true, and for some that's sufficient. Mystical experiences cannot compel belief, and they're not meant to. If they could, it would violate free will.

But I want more than to say, "Weird sh*t happens." I want to understand the weird and the wonderful as well as the prosaic and the things that can be observed every day. Science is great for what we can observe all the time, in experiments and studies. Theology helps us make sense of those rare moments in our lives, or in the lives of others like Lindsey, when 'the veil of the temple was rent in the midst' and through the veil we can see glimpses of a normally hidden, awesome, and barely comprehensible world beyond. Mystical experience cannot compel belief, but it can make belief reasonable, and for some even preferable. It is better to be able to make some sense of the inexplicable, than no sense at all.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I suppose I go beyond "modalism." I don't consider Father, Son and Holy Ghost to be different "modes" as opposed to different "persons." I consider them to be three incomplete human perceptions of an unknowable deity. I consider it foolish to even speculate about the contours or nature of God. I am informed in part by the Talmudic teaching that malachim, mistranslated into Greek as "angelos," are not independent beings with their own will, but presentiments of the divine, having no more choice in what they do than my hand has free will when I pick up a glass and take a drink out of it.

I suppose my own personal experience simply doesn't have much of the mystical in it. I sense that my life would, in the statistical probability of a cold, indifferent universe, be much worse than it has been. I can look back and see that someone has been weaving connections into my life years before I could recognize their significance. And yet, somehow, I have been making choices all along.

I'm neutral on whether your friend had a real mystical revelation, or a wierd dream. I don't have to decide, because it doesn't change my sense of either God, or of what I should do with my life. She is the only one who can come close to knowing, and of course, even she can never know for sure.

I don't think I use mysticism as some kind of higher math to explain things. We wouldn't really know a transcendent God without some efforts he made to reveal himself to his creation. After that, there is sufficient congruence between the revelation and what we can observe scientifically that they corroborate each other rather well. Then there is little left except to "Be still, and know that I am God." I'm actually not very good at the "Be still" part. But its good to know, all the same.

Siarlys Jenkins said...
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