Although probably past the news cycle, this solid critique of the Presiding Bishop’s opening comments at the Episcopal General Convention is worth repeating (I’ve been driving from Bozeman, Montana, to Myrtle Beach, so I’m playing catch-up!). From Mark Goodman, Dean of the Cathedral Church of Saint John in Albuquerque, who is blogging here:
…First, the Presiding Bishop’s opening address to Convention. The overall theme of this General Convention, it has been explained to us, is “Ubuntu.” Materials provided indicate that this is a Xhosa word, the language of sub-Saharan Bantu tribes-people, that means, “I am, because we are.” It is a word that locates the meaning of the individual, ultimately, in the community; I cannot have full meaning outside of the community out of which I come and in which I find existence and meaning. It is word that, to me, has echoes in the words of scripture, “…that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17: 21) But it is a word, it seems to me, that applies to how one lives within a community, ethical living, if you will, and has less meaning when applied to any sort of existential question.
So, when the Presiding Bishop set in opposition Ubuntu, “I am, because we are,” and the classic expression of Rene Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” I was perplexed. I think this is an artificial dichotomy. If the two words pointed to the same sphere of meaning, then I would agree that they were in opposition to one another. On the contrary, I think they complement one another in the way they illuminate different parts of the human condition. One gives expression to the necessity of community for true meaning of the individual, and the other tells us something about the centrality of intellect in affirming one’s existence in the midst of creation. Playing upon the mathematical tautology that “If a equals b, and b equals c, then a must equal c,” one might link them together and say something to the extent of , “I think, therefore I am; I am, because we are; I think more fully of my place in the world, because we are.”
It is all too common for people to disparage Western thought and spirituality in favour of a “the grass is greener on the other side” approach to alternatives, like Eastern spirituality. In part, this phenomenon is at the center of our Presiding Bishop’s comments in her opening address. Admittedly, Western philosophy is not the final word on mankind’s experience of himself in relation to the world, but it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or, worse, an outright obstacle to self-knowing. However, I was more than perplexed when I heard the Presiding Bishop say, in her address, the following: “The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy, that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention.”
O.K., I’ll agree that salvation isn’t based upon the recitation of a formula, even if it is a credal one, as if it were a magical incantation. Salvation is based upon a personal relationship with Jesus, as the Ethiopian eunuch responds to Philip at the opportunity of baptism, “I believe that Jesus the Christ is the Son of God.” Still, words are important, as this very early proto-creed suggests. Relationship, in a Christian context, begins with belief, and belief flows from faith, the sort of faith that inspires Peter to proclaim, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” To say that an adherence to the Creed is a caricature of the search for salvation is an over-statement, at the least. As catholic Christians, we judge our apostolicity, in part, by the continual adherence to the oecumenical Creeds. They are not salvific, in and of themselves, but they circumscribe a locus where salvation is to be experienced.
As for the statement that it is a heresy to think that we can be saved as individuals, how else are we to be saved? We are baptized individually. We confess a mature faith in Christ individually. We confess our sins and are forgiven individually. We are transformed by the grace and love of God individually. We experience sanctification and enter eternal life individually, all because we have an individual relationship with God in Christ. After all, to paraphrase, “We are saved, because I (the individual) am saved.” Even in the Old Testament, this is true. Think of Abraham’s conversation with the Lord about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (and, no, I’m not making any reference her other than to the salvation of the many through the righteousness of the few). As Abraham bartered with the Almighty about how many righteous people it would take to save the entire cities, it comes down to this: “Then [Abraham] said, ‘Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but once more: suppose ten [righteous] should be found there?’ And [God] said, ‘I will not destroy it for the sake of ten.’” (Genesis 18: 32)
I would not want to deny that the faithful community is vitally important to the life of the Christian disciple, and this is where I would find the intersection with Ubuntu. We are called, in fact, the Body of Christ. Salvation, however, is only by the rebirth of the individual into a new creation.
It would be a good thing to be able to sit down with the Presiding Bishop and have an hour’s discussion about these things. One always finds more light in face-to-face encounters than trying to parse words without a relationship to serve as a guide.
The Presiding Bishop also suggests a connection between Ubuntu and the work of Martin Buber, a 20th-Century philosopher. She says, “Some of you will hear a resonance with Martin Buber’s I and Thou and recognize a harmony. You will not be wrong.” I am sure that Bishop Katharine knows more about Buber’s philosophy than I, but I recall that the ultimate expression of the “I-Thou” experience is that between the individual and God, and that other, more worldly encounters of “I-Thou” are but harbingers of this deep meeting of God and a person, training us for it, if you will. It is not the “We-Thou” encounter.
And, finally, there is the Presiding Bishop’s reference to the centrality of Calvary to the Christian. “We Christians often think the only important part of the Jerusalem story is Calvary, and, yes, suffering and killing in that place still seem to the loudest news. But Calvary was a waypoint in the larger arc of God’s dream; it’s on the way to Jerusalem, it is not in Jerusalem. Jesus’ passion was and is for God’s dream of a reconciled creation.” Here I take exception again, for Calvary was not just a waystation, it was the station of God’s action among humanity. There it was that God sacrificed himself for the sake of all mankind, “as an expiation for our sins,” as St. Paul puts it. No, Calvary was not in Jerusalem. It wasn’t meant to be, for Jesus pointedly condemned the actions of the scribes and Pharisees, the rituals of the Temple that would become obsolete in his death, as the writer of the Book of Hebrews makes clear. That the crucifixion and Resurrection happened outside the walls of the Holy City is not an accident but a statement that God’s action was working outside the bounds of human certainty, and that continues to be true. The Presiding Bishop and I, I suspect, would agree on that; God’s action among his creation and people is ineffable and defies containment. And yet, as Christians, we believe that Calvary, the Cross, is at the center of that action.
Other bloggers at the General Convention, courtesy Charlie Jordan:
Kendall Harmon: http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/
John Burwell: http://www.holycross.net/Convention2009/
Steve Wood: http://treadinggrain.com/