Ellen K. Wondra
Hoping, longing for renewal, Percy Bysshe Shelley asked the west wind, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” As I write this, in February in the upper Midwest, Shelley’s rhetorical question sounds either mocking or embittered. But by the time you read this, we will be experiencing by the grace of God the renewal of spring, at least in “the leaping greenly spirit of trees” by which e. e. cummings was amazed. As Christians living through a time of grave economic and social difficulties that affect many if not all areas of our lives and relationships, we hope for a rich, deep, comprehensive renewal that replaces anxiety and fear with trust and generosity, not just in our economic lives but in our relations with each other and with the whole of God’s creation.
It remains to be seen if the current heightened interest in alternative social arrangements--economic, political, environmental, educational, spiritual--will in fact grow and thrive either as the economic situation changes, or as it improves. To some extent, it is up to communities of faith and the persons involved in them to be sure that it does. In varying ways, each faith tradition, not the least Christianity, offers not only an alternate vision to our present conditions, but also some immediately applicable, practical guidance in making the vision a reality. Certainly Christianity has no monopoly on hope. Yet hope is central to Christian identity. And hope not in the sense of a vague longing, but in the sense of a vigorous, active engagement in bringing into being what we hope for, what we are confident God has promised. Manifesting and proclaiming that lively hope is part of giving witness to the faith that is in us, particularly when renewal and growth seem far away.
Part of the mission of the ATR is to stimulate thought and conversation on issues that face the church in the present. In this issue are articles on theology and ecology, on “opening” communion, on the conflicting worldviews of modern secularism and certain strands of biblical religion, on contemporary apocalypticism, and on the church’s role in public discourse. In each case, the articles pose two questions: How does the church best respond to its times and contexts? And, more subtly: What is the appropriate role of church leaders in crafting this response? The latter question arises in no small part because each of the articles addresses a significant intersection between what has been termed, variously, the church and the world, or Christ and culture, or theology and popular culture, or the gospel and everyday life. Karl Barth was surely right in urging pastors and theologians to keep the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. It is my hope that these articles will help us think more clearly and fruitfully about some of these matters.
As concerns about sustainability and the environment intensify and spread, it is increasingly important to articulate these issues within and through a framework that connects them clearly with Christian faith and life. There are multiple ways of doing so, including drawing on classical theological understandings of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, as Martha Kirkpatrick does in proposing an incarnational ecology. As Kirkpatrick notes, the church has lagged behind other groups and institutions in addressing environmental degradation and crises. The anthropocentrism of theology as it explicates the relationship among God, humanity, and creation has not provided an adequate sense of the indissoluble links between human beings and their surrounding environs. However, the kind of anthropocentrism that sees humans as having “dominion” over creation stands over against biblical portrayals of covenant, of divine presence, and of the scope of redemption. Renewed emphasis on the wholeness of creation as the subject of God’s love places sustainability firmly within the orbit of central Christian beliefs and commitments. (And please note that the Fall 2009 issue of the Anglican Theological Review will focus on sustainability and abundance.)
The Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada continue to discuss “open communion” or “the open table”—the matter of who it is appropriate to invite to receive the Eucharist on a regular basis. This is an issue where theology and practice, tradition and experience seem to come into conflict, raising questions of priority. That is, should a widespread change in practice prompt a change in the church’s official teachings? Should the clear tradition of admitting only the baptized to communion be revisited in a post-Constantinian context? Stephen Edmondson continues the discussion along lines suggested by James Farwell and Kathryn Tanner in the ATR in 2004. Edmondson offers a “thick description” of the theological underpinnings of some arguments for an open table. In doing so, he resists the temptation to reduce the question to a matter of hospitality over against tradition. Instead, we are asked to think more deeply about prevenient grace, God’s unconditional love, and the communal and relational character of the sacraments. This leads to consideration of how opening the table can most effectively serve the church’s mission, placing the focus on the responsibilities of those who are already baptized members of the body of Christ, rather than on those who aren’t.
Readers familiar with the work of Owen Thomas will find in his article further evidence of his close attention to the often unarticulated premises of theology in the modern and postmodern world. There are, he demonstrates, alternative and conflicting accounts of the cultural history that continues to shape thought around the North Atlantic and globally. Certain presuppositions and methods arise directly from the premise that the culture and thought of Athens in the sixth to fourth centuries BCE are the proper beginning point for contemporary thought. Others arise from the premise that it is the prophetic strand of Scripture and its continuation by Jesus and his followers that are the foundation we need. In fact, most of us combine these alternatives in one way or another, but Thomas makes clear that this combination is often more problematic than we think. Ultimately, it is a version of the prophetic strand that Thomas believes provides a reading of the persistence of conflict, disruption, and distortion that is both familiar and hopeful.
Thomas’s conclusions stand in sharp contrast to that of the popular Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction. Brock Bingaman explores the dispensationalist theology that grounds these narratives, explaining its history and its appeal. He notes its persistent division of Christianity from Judaism, despite the great care shown by the authors of the New Testament in building on central themes and images of the Hebrew Bible. While the form of dispensationalism found in these novels claims to originate in Scripture, it is in fact quite contrary to the Bible in many significant ways. In other words, Left Behind does not give a coherent rendering of the biblical material on which it purports to draw. Once this is evident, much of its appeal to biblically literate Christians is lost. In suggesting a more coherent alternative, Bingaman sketches out a narrative that is more compelling, even without the lurid details of popular apocalypticism.
The final article, on public reason and public theology, is the winner of the Charles Hefling Student Essay Prize for 2007. Bradley Pace takes on a certain form of liberalism that requires public discourse to be based in “public reason”—that is, forms and canons of reasoning that are widely held in a particular culture. On this view, Christians must abandon their “private” and particular claims and modes of reasoning when involved in public debate. Pace argues for a different approach, one which recognizes the public-private distinction as a form of “divide and conquer.” His approach reclaims the importance for both church and society of what William Temple called “social personality”: the church has much to say about how large social, economic, and cultural structures and ideas—not the least, Christianity itself—form whole societies as well as persons. One aspect of the church’s public theology is its witness given through life-giving communities, in contradistinction to systems and structures that erode communities and isolate persons. The fact that the church is not the only witness of this kind in no way diminishes its importance, particularly in a post-Christendom, postcolonial world.
So: how does the church best respond? How should leaders lead? Perennial questions, both, and ones that we all will continue to engage in the Anglican Theological Review, as elsewhere.