Of Sacramental Nature

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Rector’s note: Over the past few weeks there has been a formidable amount of conversation around my blog. The conversations have been respectful and insightful. It is what a blog should engender. There have been discussions as to the nature of Salvation, and recently a discussion on orthodoxy (right belief) in relation to orthopraxy (right practice) I have contended that it is the practice of the faith that forms belief. The Gospels and early writings in the church imply as much….Do the right thing and then the theology will follow….There is challenge to that way of thinking however, always has been…Martin Luther being one such challenger. One thoughtful contributor made the observation that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are rightly described as two sides to the same coin. Pete Wilson weighed in with another metaphor which I think is quite ingenious, and has caused me to think again…which is a healthy thing for all of us to do in this ever unfolding life of faith. For those of you who did not see Pete’s response I am reprinting it here. Thanks to all for these enlightening conversations:

 

Peter Wilson
June 9th, 2012

To Ashton Hill:

Since you asked for feedback from other readers, please let me make three points.

One, you say that orthodoxy and orthopraxy may be two sides of the same coin. Let me suggest a different metaphor: an estuary. In an estuary, it is difficult to know precisely where the freshwater stops and where the saltwater begins. There is an area of brackishness where the two types of water swirl and mix. In theological reflection, it is likewise difficult to know where belief and practice begin and end. Theology is a swirling and mixing of belief and practice. In the Episcopal tradition, the three resources we use to do theological reflection are Scripture, tradition, and reason. Reason includes not just rationalism and logic, but also experience and imagination. We use these tools to reflect on our life experiences, and thus our theological understanding evolves.

Two, the Church’s liturgical life is also part of our formation and theological reflection. There are two main cycles in the liturgical calendar: the Incarnational cycle (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany), and the Paschal cycle (Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost). These seven seasons of the Church year mark the turning points in the life of Jesus. In marking and living these moments liturgically, the Church lives the life of Jesus and makes the same earthly pilgrimage. This draws us over time into deeper relationships with others, the whole creation, and God. Thus, the practice of living liturgically shapes our belief which in turn shapes our practice. Where does belief start and practice end? The answer is unknowable, so we’re back to the estuary metaphor.

Three, the Church’s sacramental life is also part of our formation and theological reflection. Sacraments like Holy Baptism or Holy Eucharist are rituals that the Church celebrates regularly in corporate worship. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of God’s self-giving. God gives part of himself through the sacraments. The Church in turn gives itself to the world. The Church, then, is a sacrament in, to, and for the world. The sacramental life, like the liturgical life, is part of the Church’s belief which informs its practice which in turn informs its belief. So just like an estuary where it is difficult to mark precisely where freshwater ends and saltwater begins, so too in the Church’s theological life it is difficult to know where orthodoxy (belief) and orthopraxy (practice) precisely begin and end.

The Episcopal Church offers a way to do theological reflection using Scripture, tradition, and reason; through the liturgical calendar it offers a way to make an earthly pilgrimage by following the life of Jesus; and through its sacramental life it offers an ethic and witness based on giving oneself to and for the greater good, which is the way of God. The experience of all this is estuarial. And as anyone who has been in the delta knows, estuaries teem with life.

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Robin McLain
June 15th, 2012

Mr. Flowers, would you care to follow up with references from Scripture on your statement about “do the right thing and the theology will follow,” since you alluded to the Gospel on that?

I agree that respectfulness should be the “flavor” of these and all discussions.

Cordially,

Robin McLain

Ashton Hill
June 25th, 2012

I have contemplated Robin McLain’s entry several times over the past two weeks. I have been forced to return to the language several times because my memory does not do justice to the vibrant pictures painted with so few words. Robin, you seem to have a gift. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Robin lists “Scripture, tradition, and reason” as the three resources Episcopalians use to perform theological reflection. My initial reaction was to reject tradition as a useful tool in this process. After understanding that the canonization of The Bible and the historical records of theological discussion of the sort Jim Flowers repeatedly has referenced all are a part of The Church’s tradition, I had to correct myself. I suppose I have moved myself to the point where I can appreciate tradition as being instructive, but not authoritative. I hope we can continue our discussions if I can try to keep that difference in mind.

Does the Holy Spirit have any part to play in the process of theological reflection from the Episcopal perspective? (I do not know that there really is an Episcopal perspective, so if that language creates a barrier please tell me what langauge I should use.)

Jim Flowers
June 25th, 2012

Ashton, Thanks for the question. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was not only a fine poet of the English Romantic period, but a consummate Anglican. He was also a formidable theological apologist. In an argument with the puritans (the fundamentalists of his day) he asserts that it is the imagination that gives life to scripture, not the reverse….and he went so far as to equate the imagination to the Holy Spirit! So certainly the Spirit figures in in no small way. Best, Jim

Robin McLain
June 25th, 2012

I think you have my name confused with someone else’s post. I am not an Episcopalian, but went to All Saints when I was a child and my parents continued to go there in later years

So it was someone else who said that about Scripture, tradition and reason, not me.

My beliefs line up with the solas – Sola Scriptura being the one that has been discussed here and dismissed by Mr. Wilson, who, I believe, is an Episcopalian.

Ashton Hill
June 28th, 2012

Jim, I am trying to understand. Are you agreeing that the imagination and the Holy Spirit are synomous? Are you suggesting that the Holy Spirit is an external entity that stimulates or otherwise communicates via the imagination. Is the Holy Spirit an entity distinct from the human imagination.

I understand that your answers cannot necessarily be confined to context of my questions so please let me know if I become annoying.

Thanks again.

Ashton

Jim Flowers
June 29th, 2012

I think the Spirit is pervasive throughout the cosmos. We are no less a part of it and it of us than we are a part of nature and nature of us. It is the animating force of the universe (in the Greek it is pneuma: wind, breath) It is the breath of the universe…We are taught in the Gospel of John that the Spirit will lead us into all knowledge/Truth in the broadest sense. That process I believe requires, implies imagination (Our human imaginations created in the likeness of the imagination of God…..Rahner) So the metaphor of imagination as Spirit (that which inspires us to Truth and therefore action) works for me. Thanks for the question.

Ashton Hill
June 29th, 2012

Thank you, Jim. I am with you to a point, as usually seems to be the case here. :-)

I am trying to articulate this for the first time so it probably will come out wrong, but my perception is that we are instructed to bring our thoughts (including imaginative thoughts) under submission to the discipline of scripture. It looks like we are at the chicken vs. egg empasse again where a modest difference in which each of us tends to emphasize could have a dramatic impact on where we wind up.

I appreciate your answering my questions. The same is true for the several people who gave me feedback a couple of weeks ago. Unless something slows down unexpectedly, I might not be able to check back in for a week or more. If that proves to be the case, I hope you, your family and your extended church family all enjoy a safe and happy Independance Day.

Best wishes.

Ashton

Jim Flowers
June 29th, 2012

Ashton, A quick follow up: My contention is that the Imagination/Holy Spirit (I’m going with Coleridge here) has the capacity to free scripture from narrow and rigid interpretation, and open it up to new revelation and to the fullness of God’s vision for the world. I am convinced that that was Jesus’ main argument with the Pharisees who constantly insisted on the so-called letter of the law only to miss the grand vision of an all inclusive and liberating Gospel. Thanks again for your thoughtful conversation. Blessings to you and yours this Independence Day as well.

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