Sunday, June 3, 2012

Heretical Orthodoxy...

Thanks to Mark Suriano and Kathryn Matthews Huey for their insights on today's readings. The term "heretical orthodoxy" is from Peter Rollin's "How to (Not) Speak of God."

Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Romans 8:12-17
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

In his book on the emergent church, How (Not) to Speak of God, Peter Rollins talks about something he calls “Heretical Orthodoxy.” The idea is that, rather than having, as Christians, to choose between an orthodoxy of absolutism (where we know everything about God, we have all the answers locked safely in our creeds and doctrines and theologies) or an orthodoxy of relativism (where we pick and chose our creeds and doctrines and theological beliefs like we choose our favorite soft drink, and it’s OK if you like Coke while I like Pepsi), there is a third way.

“Orthodoxy” is defined as “right belief”… but Rollins’ “Heretical Orthodoxy” asks: What if the Christian faith is not about right belief, but about believing in the right way? What new things could we learn about God, about one another, about ourselves, and about the ways in which the Triune God is alive and active in the world today?

In our Gospel reading, we meet Nicodemus, a man whose entire life revolved around careful, stringent orthodoxy.

The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism dedicated to carefully following every letter of the Law of Moses without deviation which, in their view, was the proper method to honor God. This translated into hundreds of laws governing every facet of life, from how far one could walk and how many things one could carry on the Sabbath to which races and nationalities one could associate with. All of this was in an effort to have lived a life acceptable to God on the day of resurrection.

The Pharisees’ polar opposite were the Sadducees, the elite and powerful group who emphasized the sacrifices and rituals of Temple worship above all. They associated with the Roman governors, adopted ever more of the food, dress, and habits of Greek culture, and did not at all believe in the resurrection. Where the Pharisees would be called absolutists, the Sadducees were the fist-century equivalent of relativists.

What these groups held in common was the fact that they had succeeded, at least in their own minds, in successfully defining God: What God expected, what God enjoyed, what God hated, who God hated, and how God reacted to specific external stimuli: do this here, and that happens over there. You get the idea.

The problem is that, in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God defined is God finished.” Once we are convinced that we know exactly what to do and say and think to get the desired result from the Divine, we in effect replace the Divine with the self.

So when our Gospel introduces Nicodemus as one who comes to Jesus by night… it isn’t just talking about the time of day when the sun is down. Nicodemus lives in the darkness of cold, idolatrous certainty, of an orthodoxy that has become an object of worship unto itself.

We aren’t told why Nicodemus came to see Jesus. In John’s chronology, this is not long after Jesus cleared the Temple, overturning the moneychangers’ tables and driving them out with a homemade whip. Perhaps this was actually something that the Pharisees appreciated, since they were constantly at odds with the elite leadership of the Temple, the Pharisees. That and the signs we are told that Jesus performed while in Jerusalem may have compelled Nicodemus to visit Jesus and invite him to join with the Pharisees. Certainly, Nicodemus’ opening words, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” sounds like an official pronouncement of approval.

At the same time, Jesus’ words and actions may have had an opposite effect on Nicodemus. Perhaps this Pharisee had been having misgivings about the effectiveness of his faith journey. He saw how the Pharisees neglected God-created humanity in favor of cold conformity to religious expectations. He saw that, rather than God blessing the faithfulness of the Pharisee sect with a restoration of God’s favor to Israel, the boot of Roman oppression ground harder down on the necks of the oppressed Jews with each passing day. He felt the darkness of idolatry, the worship of rules and regulations, freezing his innermost being, his very soul, to death. In this light, Nicodemus’ opening words could be seen as a plea for help.

If Nicodemus is there to make pronouncements, though, Jesus isn’t interested. If Nicodemus is there to plead for help, Jesus is quick to cut to the chase – to turn Nicodemus’ carefully orchestrated belief system, his painfully precise way of defining who God is and what God does, completely upside down.

And Jesus will do the same thing for us, if we let him.

Think of it: our reading features the most well-known verse in the entire New Testament, perhaps in all of Scripture: John 3:16. We see “John 3:16” signs at sporting events, we see its words featured on everything from billboards to bumper stickers to coffee mugs. But for many who both promote, and who read, those words, rather than understanding John 3:16 to be a joyous pronouncement that God loves all of us – every single one – so much that the only gift good enough for us is God’s only Son… the words serve as a dividing line between those who are acceptable – believers – and those who are unacceptable.

Further, “belief,” especially in a culture so heavily influenced by Evangelicalism, is at least functionally defined as mental and verbal assent to a specific set of doctrinal statements.

If salvation were so simple, Nicodemus wouldn’t have visited Jesus, because Jesus would have had no reason to come and die and rise in the first place. We’d have it all figured out.

But what if our faith journey isn’t a daily struggle to believe the right things? What if our faith journey is a process of learning how to believe in the right way?

What Jesus says to Nicodemus, and to us, is that our faith journey is not predicated upon what we know; rather we are brought into joyous relationship with the living God though being known by God. God cannot be quantified, God cannot be photographed, God cannot be predicted. God is not a crossword puzzle, a thing to be figured out. In his First Epistle, John makes the simple, bold statement that “God is love,” and love is a mystery: wild and bold, joyous and unpredictable, one does not determine the chemical processes by which love occurs, one simply jumps in and enjoys the ride.

Marcus Borg writes in The God We Never Knew about what it means to “believe.” Rather than strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, he speaks of belief as trust, as faithfulness, and, “in a very general sense…the belief that there’s something to all of this.” Borg says that faith that “believes God” is not something we can simply will, on our own: “we are led into it. It grows....It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens.” But we do have to “take the first step,” he says, “and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience).” So there it is, the mystery of grace and our response, however limited, however sincere. This is where we see the difference between classic orthodoxy, “right belief,” and Peter Rollins’ “Heretical Orthodoxy,” daring rather to believe in the right way.

Believing the right way means that, rather than consulting a doctrinal checklist to make sure we are “in with the in crowd,” we are open to see where God’s Holy Spirit is blowing today. Believing the right way means that, rather than drawing the circle of acceptability closer in each day, jealously guarding our glossy sheen of righteousness, we throw the circle wide, and watch who the lifted-up and glorified Son, Jesus Christ, brings in to the fellowship.

Believing in the right way meant that Phillip was blown by the wind of the Spirit to share the Good News with the Ethiopian eunuch. Believing in the right way meant that Peter was blown by the wind of the Spirit to bring the Good News to another outcast, a Roman soldier, a centurion named Cornelius.

Who, in our life, is waiting to hear that God loves them? Who desperately needs to see and hear that the only gift good enough to fully express the depth and breadth of God’s wild, unbridled grace, God’s ebullient, irrepressible love is God’s own Son? Which way will the wind of the Spirit blow us today?

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of believing in and following the way of Jesus, I hope you don't mind me giving you this link. It's a different perspective on the verse about the narrow gate.