Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The GOD or DEITY of North American Anglicanism

A discussion starter.

One of the first things I learned on arriving in the USA from England in 1990 was that the three basic questions to ask in The Episcopal Church are: Who is God? Who is Jesus? And, What is salvation? (It was my colleague, Professor Charles Caldwell, at Nashotah House Seminary who taught me this, as he also taught me not a few other things about the doctrine, liturgy and parties of The Episcopal Church.)

The identity of Jesus is totally dependent on who is God, and salvation is wholly dependent upon the identity of Jesus! And the big question of today—Anglican Identity—can only be truly answered when these preliminary questions are answered satisfactorily.

In 2006, when anyone is trying to understand the progressive liberal leadership of The Episcopal Church, as also of the Anglican Church of Canada, it is beneficial to seek to begin not with the question, “Where do you stand on same-sex affection?”, but with the request, “Please share with me your doctrine of God!”

If you can get activist progressive liberals actually answering the question, “Who is God?” and you press them for details (which may not be easy to get) then you are likely to discover that you are being educated in one or more doctrines of God (from different people in the progressive camp) that have been around a long time and have had varied names, but are known in the text-books as Deism, Unitarianism, Modalism, Panentheism and Process Theology. All these are substitutes for or alternatives to Trinitarian Theism (as it is declared in the Nicene Creed and in the Athanasian Creed).

Here I want to reflect upon the presence and influence of Deism in Anglicanism today (we recall it was very present in the late 18th century in the PECUSA); but first I wish to make a comment about Panentheism and Process Theology. These two forms of belief in God have much energized the more educated and rational parts of the feminist and liberationist movements within the mainline churches in the last forty years or so. According to panentheism, although God transcends the world in one part of his/her being, he/she also communicates another part to the cosmos (thus the popular image of God [as Mother] birthing the cosmos continually). This allows for the naming of God as “Mother” and the use of “She” and “her” etc., and also it breaks the long established patriarchal structure and language of the Church. According to process theology, God exists in two aspects—in his/her “primordial” nature God exists eternally and immutably apart from the world; but in his/her “consequential” nature, he/she is constantly changing, constantly growing in perfection and including within himself/herself the world’s experiences. This can easily become a basis for a call for change in the Church to keep in step with God who (in the 20th century) is including in the divine being the advances in human freedom and dignity achieved in the world.

While panentheism and process theology have been adopted and carefully used by some of the liberal progressive intellectual leadership within the Anglican Family of North America, in fact it is a form of Deism or Unitarianism that is most widely held, not usually self-consciously but really and truly in terms of practical theology by many Episcopal/Anglican leaders. Deism has a very respectable pedigree in both old Europe and in colonial America and new born U.S.A. and is intimately connected to what we call the Enlightenment in the West. It is thus a rational doctrine and it seems to come naturally to human beings who both want to believe in a Supreme Deity and also in themselves as genuinely dignified and free agents.

How Deism works is something like this. A Supreme Being is confessed as God, the Creator and Preserver of the universe. Human beings are said to be made in God’s image which means (in the 20th and 2lst century context) that they have real dignity and full rights to be whatever and whoever they are designed/were created to be. Thus “in the image of God” is not seen as meaning—as in classical theology— that there is real potential for communion between God and the human being and that God can by his Spirit actually work within and through a human being to change, sanctify and deify her/him. No, to be in the divine image is seen as being a statement of the dignity of human beings before God and before each other, and this dignity remains in full, even if they are deemed to be sinners before and by God. or sinners in the judgment of humanity. In relation to such creatures—that is all of us—God acts upon us only in what we may call “external manipulation” by his providence. He can push us here or there but he cannot work any inner transformation within us by the action of the Spirit within us, because as creatures we are incapsulated in our finitude by the very design and purpose of God. Every being, human and other, has a complete nature, which contains from the start implicitly all that it can ever become. That is, all that we can ever be arises from the unfolding or working out of our primary constitution and nature. We are intended to be what we are created to be and there is no place here for supernatural intervention in this human constitution and nature, for the latter is complete. However, God can move us here or there to be in this or that place and situation to be what we are intended to be. As rational agents we can of course determine in our own power to love and be loved and to cooperate with God in his grand design.

So the religion connected with Deism and human rights/dignity ideology can make use of the outward form of received Christian worship and Sacraments but they are seen, not as the place where there is a true personal meeting with and fellowship with God but rather where there is a working out of the potentiality of each human being in community before God. God is the creator of each person and her/his unique nature. and it is in community that this is discovered and affirmed and celebrated. And God is seen not as the One who changes the inner nature but rather as the One who externally pushes each person into situations where the inner nature can reach its full potential. (Thus a wide range of innovations in church doctrine and practice, ethics and polity are justified on this basis, especially the claim that same-sex affection is God’s design.)

Deism is emphatic that there is One God but it also allows people to be in practice committed to Modalism (that is, God is One Person and this One Person has Three Special Names and Three Modes of Activity and Relationality). So a pretence or semblance of trinitarianism is maintained and further this form of trinitarianism is even used as a model for community on earth (diversity in unity and unity in diversity)!

Where Deism rules there is no evangelization of the kind we find in the Acts of the Apostles and no pursuit of communion with God in holiness that we find required by the Epistles. What there is—and this is seen in much official Episcopalianism and Anglicanism in North America—may be described as a religion based upon the Creator God’s support for the outworking of human liberation, potential, rights, dignity and nature, with Jesus as a Model from the past to encourage and guide, and the Spirit as the external wind of God blowing us into the places where Deity wants us to be. [Watch out for this doctrine to be given form in the Installation of the new lady Presiding Bishop in Washington DC on Nov.4.]

Conclusion. But those of us who seek to be truly Trinitarian Theists, and who believe in the reality of communion with the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit, cannot even think of being judgmental on our progressive liberal relatives in the confused Anglican Family, for, although we have preserved a modicum of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, we have bequeathed to America since the 1970s a form of Anglicanism that is divided into so many parts, schools, groups and jurisdictions, that we appear to venerate as icons centrifugal forces of division and have no desire for being united by the One Spirit, under One Head, worshipping One God in One Faith with One Gospel. One Baptism and One Eucharist.

October 25, 2006

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