Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lively Dialogue

As previously noted here, I spent this past week reading General Ordination Exams in western North Carolina. My experience there was, from beginning to end, one of respect and care for the people who wrote the exams we were reading. Our work was to evaluate the work they submitted, not their call to ordained ministry. That work is appropriately left to their Bishops and Commissions on Ministry. Our work was, while not without import, much simpler: to evaluate their submitted responses to seven questions in seven canonical areas: Holy Scripture, Church History, Theology and Missiology, Christian Ethics and Moral Theology, Contemporary Society, Liturgics and Church Music, and Theory and Practice of Ministry.

We were told that the work was “on loan” to us as graders, and when I left Kanuga I left my only copies of all six of the GOE sets that I read in a box to be shredded. The questions themselves are another matter: those are posted on the website of the General Board of Examining Chaplains and were previously shared on this blog. (See post for 1/8/11)

I told a colleague this week that I thought clergy gatherings would be more constructive if we could find a way to build more serious theological reflection into them. If we who are ordained did that more regularly, we might better model for those who head off to seminary and ultimately take the GOEs why this work is so important. It can often feel like a “hazing” ritual. But the truth is that there are things we expect clergy to grasp, particularly in the denomination I am a part of. All of us are expected to be “growing into the full stature of Christ" - young and old, male and female, lay and ordained. All of us are, no doubt, works-in-progress. But if a parishioner comes to a priest to have a conversation about the Bible, or whether or not a Christian can faithfully join the Armed Forces, or bring a child into this world, that person deserves a right to encounter someone who can at the very least enter into the conversation.

The first question seminarians who took the GOEs this year were asked to respond to was this:

Living with "the other" - the one from whom we differ culturally, politically, economically, theologically - has always created challenges for God's people. From biblical times to the present day, living with "the other" has provided occasion for defining the nature of community, for addressing fundamental issues such as purity and holiness, and for determining who is "in" and who is "out."

In both testaments of the Bible we find lively dialogues among communities with very different perspectives on the question of how to deal with "difference." This question asks you to enter that conversation exegetically and theologically.

In a three-page essay:

A. Exegete, in no more than one page for each pair, the following pairs of biblical texts, comparing and contrasting their historical and theological characteristics:
Pair 1
Ezra 9:1-4 and Ruth 4:13-17
Pair 2
1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and Ephesians 2:14-18

B. Identify a situation in the contemporary world where "difference" presents a challenge, and, using your exegesis of either Pair 1 or Pair 2, demonstrate how these texts might help to address this situation in a constructive way.

It’s the kind of question I would expect my undergraduate students to be able take a stab at after finishing a basic 100 level course in the Bible. It’s the kind of question I have no doubt that an EfM graduate (Education for Ministry, a course of study for laity) could answer. Surely, then, it is a question that a person called to parish ministry might relish delving into. I am not going to write a full fledged “answer” to that question here, but I want to explore the question itself, because I do think it matters, and that it's a very good question!

It goes to the very heart of what the Bible itself is (and is not.) Some people (and even some seminarians) think the Bible is a rule book, and if that is how we read it then every internal inconsistency must be smoothed over or “explained away.” But if the Bible is something more like a library that records the stories that God’s people told of their encounters with God, over time; stories influenced by the particular times and places where they emerged, then “lively dialogues among communities with very different perspectives” becomes not an embarrassment that needs to be explained away, but an opportunity to delve more deeply into the mystery of God’s Holy Word.

Here’s an example of what I mean: my reading partner this week was a laywoman from Virginia who is older than my mother. I would argue that our differences—in gender, age, geography, and role each of us plays in the Church we both love—gave us a greater, not lesser, opportunity to discover the Truth together. Moreover, my view is that this Truth is not located somewhere “in the middle” (geographically I guess that would put us somewhere in New Jersey?) but rather that it is found dialectically.

So it is also, I believe, with Holy Scripture. These two pairs of readings wrestle with the same questions, about inclusion and exclusion, but from different perspectives. It really does depend on how you look at things, and it matters where you stand when you do the looking. That’s why that great scene from Dead Poet’s Society is so powerful: when the teacher, played by Robin Williams, stands on a desk and invites his students to do the same.

So Ruth and Ezra, and the Paul of Corinthians and the “Paul” of Ephesians do not need to be made to all agree. You do not best hear “the word of the Lord” here by putting them all in a blender and holding the button down. In fact it reveals a great deal about the neuroses we have inherited from The Enlightenment that we would ever think this was the goal in the first place.

So try this: Ezra should never be caricatured as a racist bigot. He is trying to hold a community together that is in very serious danger of losing its identity. He is rightly worried about having survived the Babylonian exile and for the community to nevertheless disappear from the pages of human history through syncretism and intermarriage and a general dilution of Covenantal faith. Ezra and those for whom he speaks have come through the trauma of the Babylonian exile. So Ezra (and Nehemiah) build walls. They represent the original “homeland security” program. They say, “never again” The walls they build are not only physical walls around the holy city but walls, or let us call them boundaries, that express who they are (and who they are not.) The primary issue is idolatry; and intermarriage threatens to draw God’s people away from the Covenant with YHWH and into the worship of the false gods of “the nations.”

Including Moab. That is one of the places explicitly mentioned in Ezra as a “danger” to the post-exilic community that is trying to carve out a space for its own survival. Scholars debate the dating of Ruth but some see it as a text nearly contemporaneous with Ezra, written as a sort of counter-testimony. It is set in a “galaxy far away,” or to be more precise, in a time long, long ago. Back in the glory days, before exile, back in the time even before King David was born. For the story of Ruth is in fact the story of King David’s family tree. The story reveals a "dirty little secret" in that family tree (as anyone who has ever endeavored to do genealogical work knows no family tree is immune from.) In this case, it turns out that David’s great-grandma was a, wait for it...a Moabite!

Great King David; “pure” King David, had a foreign great-grandmother! Expressed another way, without Ruth, there is no David. Now Ruth “converted” and did not draw Boaz away from YHWH. “Wherever you go,” she had famously promised her Jewish mother-in-law, “I will go.” Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.

Even so, it is not hard to imagine that the writer of the story of Ruth and Ezra would not have seen eye-to-eye. And even if one dates Ruth to a much earlier time period, the debate still remains. It’s a debate about who is in, and who is out. It’s a debate about whether the core of the covenant is about purity or about fidelity. And the answer is not that Ruth is right and that Ezra is wrong. The real answer is that it depends, and the great power of Holy Scripture here is that rather than giving us a prescriptive answer for how to build faithful communities in every time and place, the editors of the Bible have instead preserved for us a conversation that invites us in, a descriptive response that means to engage us in every new circumstance that God’s people encounter.

One could move through a very similar kind of analysis with the two Epistle readings, but the point should be obvious and the possibilities of where one goes with this are endless. Who should be ordained? Should gay and lesbian people be fully included in the life of the Church? How does a person of faith wrestle with the thorny questions of immigration, particularly illegals? Should the Eucharistic feast be open to all, or to all baptized, or to those who believe “rightly?” The reason that so-called liberals and so-called conservatives keep fighting in the church (and synagogue) is not only that it has always been so; but perhaps it is what God also intends. That is, to simply say it this way: questions like this really do have (at least) two sides. In choosing to preserve the “lively dialogue” the editors of the Bible have told us something very important: that we need each other. That none of us possess “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” A community that means to be faithful to God’s Word would be a community that hears both, and then discerns within the unique circumstances of our own time and place how we might best appropriate those learnings. Ironically, in the pursuit of preserving our identity by way of purity and exclusion we may lose the very core of that identity. Often that path can be rooted in fear. But we can also lose our way by being so “open” that we don’t know who we are anymore.

There is not one right way to answer a question like this. But there are plenty of wrong (and even dangerous) ways that one can go astray. And it most definitely matters.

1 comment:

  1. Your exegesis of the passages brings to mind a statement made by the instructor of a course I took on early Christian practices. He was speaking of the need for the presence of diverse opinions and backgrounds in order to keep the church alive. "Don't monocrop the church!", he warned. " For ground to remain fertile it needs crop rotation and diversity. So it is with our church. If we want it to grow, we need diversity." The professor is a wise, well-educated man but my grandmother, with her grade-school education, said it as well I think: "If you only spend time with those who think like you, you may end up not thinking at all!"