Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Alities: lamenting the loss of grammar

It is my first semester at the University of Maryland, College Park, and as a budding English major, I am attending a class entitled Structural Grammar. It is a challenging concept for one steeped in more traditional notions of English grammar taught with prep school precision, not to mention six years of Latin grammar under my belt. A noun is no longer "the name of a person, place or thing." In fact a noun is no longer a noun -- it is a "nominal". Nominals are words which function in the grammatical place of a traditional noun, i.e., words which occupy the place of a subject. "Objectives" are words which occupy the place of a traditional noun when used as predicates or objects of prepositions, etc. Most importantly, verbs are no longer action words, nor are they verbs. In lieu of verbs we are introduced to "verbals", words which occupy the place of traditional verbs and which express actions. With verbals, for example, one can "engine" a car, i.e., drive a car. Next we are taught about "modifiers". No longer do adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, nor do adverbs modify verbs. Modifiers, the instructor insists, are any words which occupy the place of, or perform the function of, a traditional adjective or adverb. The stated purpose of this new system of grammar is to bring to language the distinctions well known between lexicons which prescribe the usage of words, and those which describe the usage of words. We are taught to look at the patterns of speech and writing and ask if "meaning is conveyed", if one can understand what is being said or written, and if so, then to analyze the same and describe the patterns. All forms of speech and writing are considered to be correct as long as the goal of transferring meaning is met.

Although I think the course is a bit silly, it is highly recommended for English majors by my academic advisor, one Dr. Esther Birdsall, and I take my lessons seriously. I do understand the underlying cultural context of the system -- to suggest that all forms of communication are equal and that no one should fail to advance in society just because she or he has not enjoyed the benefits of a more formal, classical education. In order to get an honor grade at least one extra-class meeting is required with the instructor who is, as I recall, a very nice if not particularly profound man. When he places his hand on my leg while examining a particular sentence to be sure I understand how properly to parse same, I begin to realize that there is something more to structural grammar than meets the eye, but that is another story. I largely ignore the principles of structural grammar after achieving my desired honor grade. In fact, I do not think about it much until recently when finally my ears can no longer tolerate the "alities" of life, let alone the apparent success of the principles of structural grammar in our society, to wit, the demise of classical English grammar. The "alities" you say. What "alities"? Since I am by profession a clergyman, I submit the following paragraph written from the prospective of one interested in theology. It amply demonstrates my point.

My speciality is pondering the directionality of our commonality. The reality is that the casuality of spirituality feeds the mission criticality which drives the physicality of mentality. If performed with intentionality, the phenomenality of educationality will result in a partiality for the functionality of culturality.

Now, I am the first to admit that I am less than perfect in my speaking and writing. I am certain that my eighth grade English teacher, Miss Dibert, still shakes her head in utter disbelief when I write. Additionally, I am interested in the societal ramifications of how we use language and how best to eliminate culturally based discrimination of all kinds. Nonetheless, I am reminded of the words of the immortal Henry Higgins who sings, as I recall, “how an Englishman speaks absolutely classifies him.”

Does “specialty” have more power when described as “speciality”? Does athleticism take on more meaning when described as “physicality”? When did intentionality replace purpose? Is there something about the word, “function” which is enhanced by using “functionality” in its stead? How long have we been “dehungarizing” with Snickers? Why are critical missions now “mission critical”? What on earth is a workload optimized server? (Please do not write with an answer to that rhetorical question – I do know what is a powerful computer.)

Perhaps I am just getting too old-ality.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion

The Anglican Communion is a voluntary coalition of autonomous provinces linked primarily by a similar expression of worship, the desire to be "in Communion with" one another, and a large dose of good will. In the eyes of some, the Articles of the Lambeth Conference of 1888 helped to shape minimal criteria for participation in this voluntary coalition. Historically each province has been free to proclaim adherence to the Articles without proof of compliance. Of late some of the provinces have passed judgment on the actions of other provinces, calling into question compliance with the minimal criteria, and in some cases severing the ties Communion. It is not the first time that the Church of England, spiritual home of the Anglican Communion, has faced distress. The wisdom of Elizabeth in the mid-sixteenth century required Catholic and Reformed to worship together at the same altar using the same liturgy, in essence enforcing good will. The Book of Common Prayer was the symbol of unity regardless of what worshipers might have felt in their hearts or believed with their minds.

The provinces of the Anglican Communion today stretch literally across the world and exist within a multiplicity of cultures. It strains the obvious to observe that each province will reflect the culture and traditions in which it is located. As but one example, the one with which I am most familiar, The Episcopal Church has a deeply democratic polity, no surprise for a church located primarily in the USA. In TEC, all major policies are fashioned by vote during the meetings of the General Convention, and bishops are elected rather than appointed. The policy of TEC is so deeply embedded in democratic principles that decisions at the diocesan level often require separate majority (in some cases super majority) votes of both clergy and laity. Bishops in TEC have considerably less authority and power than in many provinces. That said, TEC conforms in all respects even to a strict reading of the Articles of the Lambeth Conference of 1888. In TEC, every ordinand proclaims that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation; the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds are a part of every major service of worship; Baptism and the Supper of the Lord are administered “with the unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution”; and, we maintain the Historic Episcopate as “adapted ... to the needs of [this] nation.”

What the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot instill in the various provinces is the missing element of good will. It is not within his power so to do. What the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot do is enforce kindness on the part of each province to extend to all of the other provinces acceptance at face value of compliance with the historic minimum standards. He cannot stop judgmental behavior. It is not within his power so to do. While TEC has made decisions over the last forty years to open the process of ordination to all people who express a Call by God and whose Call is tested and affirmed by the community of faith, TEC has never varied even an iota from the stated desire to be a constituent province of the Anglican Communion. TEC has not declared itself out of Communion with any other province. TEC will not walk away from the Anglican Communion, but very much like the Archbishop of Canterbury TEC is powerless to control the hearts and minds of the constituent provinces, and must beg upon the good will of all for the maintenance of unity within the provinces of the Anglican Communion .

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Anglican Umbrella

I've owned many an umbrella over the years -- big ones, little ones, folding and fixed, automatic and manual. No matter the type of umbrella, invariably one of the struts breaks rendering the device less suited for its task. Two or more broken struts and the device is just about useless. One common metaphor for Anglicanism is that of a large umbrella under which is gathered and protected a large number of differing points of view -- the result of Catholic and Protestant being "urged" to worship together during Elizabethan times. Seems to me in recent days (read certainly the last fifty years) that the struts of the Anglican umbrella are breaking, one by one, sadly reducing the number who can fit under the umbrella. Anglicanism has always depended upon the good will of all under the umbrella to accept and tolerate diversity. Just as the umbrella needs good struts, Anglicanism needs good will to exist and function properly. It's time to repair the struts!

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Bible and Ignorance: Weapons of Mass Misinformation

It is important to be clear. "Ignorance" is a word with connotations which are not always helpful. In this reflection, I use the word simply to describe the state of not-knowing, of being unaware.

It is my observation that there are at least two kinds of ignorance -- profound ignorance and elected ignorance. Profound ignorance is the state of simply not knowing due to lack of knowledge or the availability of knowledge. Elected ignorance is the state either of not knowing in the face of available knowledge, or choosing not to believe available knowledge. There are two sub-sets of elected ignorance, benign and insidious (or pernicious). Benign elected ignorance represents a true lack of knowledge -- in the face of available knowledge, choosing not to read and/or study materials one knows exist. Insidious (or pernicious) elected knowledge represents the intentional manipulation of others (or self and others) despite an awareness of and/or study of available knowledge.

It is very hard to judge the level of ignorance of others for we cannot always know of the available body of knowledge to how much another has been exposed. From the arena of faith, I take this example. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the finds at Nag Hammadi exist -- they are real, and they impact the study of Holy Scripture. However, if someone either does not know about them, or knows about them but has not learned what they might say, then we are dealing with benign ignorance when the leanings from these sources are not brought to bear. On the other hand, if someone knows about them and has studied them but simply chooses to ignore them when advancing a particular argument or point of view, then we are dealing with insidious ignorance.

The levels of ignorance which I observe when the Bible is discussed worry me. In a few cases I observe pernicious ignorance. In these cases I see trained, often ordained, people proclaiming nonsense about Holy Writ, apparently for the purpose of furthering their professional status by intentionally distorting what they know to be true about Scripture in order to gain popularity among their following. Such persons are educated and they know better, but they support popular prejudices because they perceive that it will further their success. Their behavior is reprehensible because it is intentional.

In the greater majority of cases, I observe benign ignorance with regard to the Bible. I see people reading Scripture in a particular English translation and drawing conclusions therefrom without much attention being paid either to other translations or, when necessary, to the original languages in which the Bible developed. One does not have to be fluent in either Hebrew or Greek to attempt a responsible word study to find the meaning of a given pericope. I see people citing a passage reflecting the culture and understanding of a semi-literate, pre-scientific, nomadic culture as normative for today without even attempting to consider the historical context. One does not need to be a scholar to observe that the body of knowledge which existed twenty five hundred years ago is not as extensive as that which we enjoy today. If we are to cite the Bible as a norm or standard for the living of life, it is critically important that we know what it says, and, where necessary, why it says what it says.

In the current culture wars, I observe the Bible being used as a weapon of mass misinformation. Here is an example which is both current and quite common, even though awesomely ignorant: "the Bible condemns homosexuality." I hesitate to make a blanket statement to the effect that all credible biblical scholars take exception to such an assertion, but I observe that certainly most academicians of stature do take exception to the assertion. It is easy to read the Bible in an English translation and lift a couple of verses from hither and yon to justify such an assertion. Commonly cited sources are to the letters of Paul and the Holiness Code in Leviticus. Less well-informed people will also cite passages like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah even though such stories do not obtain to the issues at hand. The problem is that people who cite single verses taken out of context fail to account for the underlying meaning and/or context of the prohibitions. It is unclear, for example, whether Paul differentiated between sexual behavior and promiscuity; it is certainly unclear whether many people who read his words today make such a distinction. If we believe that there is a distinction between sexuality, per se, and promiscuity, per se, then we have to read the letters of Paul with more precision. The issue is not sexuality, but promiscuous sexuality (for Paul, they may have been one and the same). I observe that thoughtful people today do draw such a distinction, noting that not all who engage in sexual behavior do so promiscuously. As another example, it is much more clear that the prohibitions of the Holiness Code found in Leviticus are dated by the standards and norms we all consider appropriate for life today. To this observer, if one is going to apply some of the prohibitions of the Holiness Code to the living of life today because "they are biblical," then logically one must apply all of them. Very few people, if any, today live their lives in total obedience to the prohibitions of the Holiness Code.

I make the case, therefore, for an approach to reading the Bible which emphasizes not only the printed words, but rather the greater meaning behind the words. As a rule of thumb, look for an overall message, a message the truth of which can be sustained throughout the various verses, chapters and books of this compendium of religious thought. Love of God and neighbor are tenets which can be traced from early parts of Genesis to the end of Revelation. Is a stated belief limited in scope to a particular moment in history or to a particular cultural need? If so, read and appreciate it for what it is -- a piece of history. Rules for the preparation and storage of food which make sense in a nomadic society may not make sense in a time when most every one has access to refrigeration! Is a particular statement directed to an unique and temporary situation? If so, does the situation exist today? As but one example, the advice given to the Hebrews during their time of enslavement may not be applicable to people who are not enslaved today.

Those of us who trace our faith through what we call Anglican tradition embrace a three-fold test of belief -- tenets of faith must meet the tests of Scripture, tradition and reason. We cannot, we must not, turn off our brains when we open the Bible.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fitting In

The headline of the online version of the New York Times caught my eye. "Women in the military ... fitting in." The content of the article discussed the ways in which the military is accommodating the presence of women, and the ways in which women are attempting to "fit in". I wept as I read it.

I am an average guy. I like football, I think I understand natural aggressiveness, and yes, when no one is around, I sometimes even watch a boxing match on tv (rarely, but occasionally). When I was a little boy my friends and I played "cops and robbers." I used a pair of Roy Rogers branded, chrome-plated toy six shooters. "Bang, bang, you're dead," was the constant refrain as we attempted to sneak up on the other and "make a kill". I had to say it verbally because at that age I was not permitted to play with real cap guns. Such is the stuff of being a boy in America in the late 1940s, early 1950s.

When I reached eighth grade, to my good fortune my parents enrolled me in a Quaker school . Although the Quakers were not evangelical in any kind of overt way, it was very hard not to be entranced by the faith, commitment and witness which they offered to anyone with eyes to see. As I experienced Quaker philosophy in the school I attended, although there was clearly a non-violent overtone to the community, no one particular belief was required for membership. There was no creed, no statement of faith. Their teaching was discovered by listening to individuals articulate their beliefs and watching how they lived their lives. The level of congruence between stated faith and lived life was amazing, much higher than I observed in the Episcopal church which I attended. It has been more than forty years since I was immersed in a Quaker community but I suspect that the observations which I made then still hold true today.

Why did I weep at the article which talks about the military and women fitting in? The non-violent approach to life which was instilled into my veins during the formative high school years has always longed for a time when, as Isaiah proclaims, swords would be beat into plowshares, when lion would lay down with lamb, when war would be no more. Perhaps it is ever so chauvinistic to so say (although I hope not), but it is a dream of mine that as women work in the military perhaps the presence of the feminine (dare I say, "feminine divine") might lead to new ways of approaching and solving problems, difficulties and disagreements. It is my fond hope that the presence of females in roles of leadership might lead to more accommodation based upon the building of relationship, and less overt use of weapons which maim, kill and destroy. That is an heavy burden to lay upon women, I acknowledge, but it is unlikely we will ever achieve such a goal with men in power and control, such is the nature of male aggression.

I would rather women lead by transforming military life, and, for that matter, life in general. Women cannot possibly make more a of a mess of things than have men over the years. Women striving to "fit in" military life? God, I pray not.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Static or Dynamic?

How shall we approach and understand Holy Scripture? I wish this were an easy question but alas it is a question which divides Christianity into quite unfortunate camps each with varying answers to the question, each with its own set of interpretive guidelines (hermeneutic). The historic position of the Episcopal Church, springing as it does from Anglican heritage, is that faith and belief must be based upon a dynamic tension between Holy Scripture, tradition (the magisterium or historic teaching of the Church) and reason. Exalting one aspect of this trinity of tests for faith and belief over the others has proved throughout the five hundred years or so of Anglican teaching to be folly, and has resulted more than once in schism. Those who wish to rely solely upon Holy Scripture have found themselves to be at odds with those who prefer to emphasize the traditions of the church Catholic. There were reasons for the Acts of Uniformity and of Supremacy in 1559 -- people were losing their lives. Here in the United States, several hundred years later The Reformed Episcopal Church was born of the tensions between the Protestant influences and what today we call the Oxford Movement. As I write these thoughts the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed concerns about the ability of the Anglican Communion to sustain the differing expressions of faith and belief which currently exist under the Anglican umbrella -- expressions of faith which appear to be based upon differing biblical hermeneutics.

It is my presupposition that our understanding of Holy Scripture must be dynamic. It is insufficient except as an historic exercise to read sacred scripture through the eyes of the Abrahamic Hebrews, or of the Mosaic Hebrews, or of the Diasporic Hebrews, or even of the Apostolic Hebrews at the time of Jesus. It is not sufficient to think that the Christians present for the great 4th century Councils of the church were more understanding in their approach to sacred writ than are we today. To the contrary, we have many more hundreds of years of both information and learning to apply to Holy Scripture than did the Patristics. I write not just about the availability of technology which enables and enhances learning, but also of the discovery of ancient manuscripts unavailable to earlier ages -- scrolls, codexes and other resources which help to inform our study. We can compare and analyze sources, texts and apocryphal materials in ways unknown and undreamed by our ancestors in the faith.

There is a translation of Holy Scripture entitled, "The Way". Apart from the fact the Holy Scripture does not need a new name, I find that appellation to be disconcerting, even heart-breaking. It suggests that there is a single way to the exclusion of all others not only in matters of faith, but also in matters of text. Such an assumption is nonsense. There is no "once and for all time" meaning to sacred scripture, no one "way", but rather a developing understanding which taxes not only our ability to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, but also our ability to reason and be faithful in our time to the examples of Jesus. To think otherwise is to suggest that the Holy Spirit no longer moves in our midst, that divine revelation has ended and that, indeed, God is no longer active in our lives. It is antithetical to belief in God to posit that divine revelation ended with the finalization of the canon of scripture as we know it today. Similarly, it is nothing less than idolatrous to suggest that several verses from the Bible designed to address the living of life in a different age and time obtain today in the face of vastly differing circumstances, and often it flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus, himself. (I have often wondered why those who call themselves biblically fundamental Christians take such delight in eating bacon with their eggs.) It is critically important to study the messages of the various books which comprise the Bible in the contexts of their development. With regard to the Tenach, in order to understand any given passage, we must ask, at a minimum, from what part of Hebrew history does the writing come, what issues are being addressed, and what form of literary writing is being used? With regard to the Christian Testament, shall not we inform our understanding with information about authorship, date of creation and comparisons with other readily available historic data?

As the database of knowledge expands, our approach to Holy Scripture must remain dynamic. We have nothing to fear and everything to gain by learning all we can not only about the forefathers of our faith but also about the sacred writings which inform us even today. To be ordained in the Episcopal Church, one must profess a wonderfully expressed affirmation about the Bible, in essence that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. I believe that today just as I did when I affirmed it thirty seven years ago. To affirm that, however, is not to say that everything in Holy Scripture is necessary for salvation, or to suggest that we should stop reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Bible with every tool at our disposal. Those of us who wish to follow "the way" must of necessity approach Scripture, to borrow a turn of phrase from the United Methodists' 2001 campaign, with open hearts and open minds, ever aware of the grace and power of the Spirit continually to inform our faith and belief.

The only credible answer to the question is: "dynamic"