Canterbury on dealing with ISIS and jihadism

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury has released a tightly reasoned essay on the necessity of a thoughtful and coordinated response to the threat posed by ISIS and the extremist so-called “jihadists” around the world.

The essay very carefully refuses to find a reductionist explanation, a simple way to understand what is, at its heart, a multi-faceted response to a number of local issues. The Archbishop writes in particular:

“Every conflict is individual, and a global narrative by itself does not address the particularity of each region or country. However, the reality of jihadist terror, and the related elements common to conflicts, have become more global since the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. Strategy must be holistic. This conflict embraces a whole range of complex causes, demonstrated in the huge number of Muslim deaths, often forgotten in the west. Nor is it restricted to the Middle East. The Central African Republic has descended into utter barbarism, with a religious edge, seen by many Muslims as religious cleansing of their followers. Somalia is chaos, Libya is in meltdown.

This struggle is not simply a religious conflict, but a terrible mix of ethnicity, economics, social unrest, injustice between rich and poor, limited access to resources, historic hatreds, post-colonial conflict and more. It is impossible to simplify accurately. We cannot tolerate the complexities and so we seek to hang the whole confusion on the hook of religious conflict. And because even to do that on a global scale is complicated, we focus on one area, at present Iraq and Syria, while others—Sudan, Nigeria and most recently Israel and Gaza—are forgotten. Or, equally dangerously, we deny it is religious, in the illusion that religion makes it unfixable.”

More here.

I can not stress how important I believe the addition of this voice, and what he says, is to the debate about a Western response to ISIS. Please, if you are a person of faith, take a moment to read the whole essay.

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What is irreducible in the Gospel? How do we give freedom to the hearers to synthesize?

Yesterday, as three groups of the House of Bishops went to visit churches, museums and cultural centers around Taiwan, I found myself thinking about the challenges of proclaiming the eternal Gospel to people whose thinking is organized in radically different ways than that of the West.

It’s not a new problem. The early missionaries of the Church struggled with explaining the Hebrew roots of Christianity to people of the Hellenistic culture. Missionaries who traveled East long ago learned to share the good news in ways that were intelligible back then. And now that we, who are formed in Western thought are trying to travel West to share the same Gospel, we are having to revisit that missionary challenge once again.

On Friday, when we had a presentation from the principle of the Theological School in Hong Kong, we talked about the difficulty in explaining the formal relationships of the third person of the Trinity to the first and second persons, in a culture that understands Spirit in a totally different manner. What they’ve discovered in Hong Kong is that, to be effective in educating clergy for the East, they have had to move away from the classical Western Augustinian models of sin and redemption toward a paradigm of companionship and discipleship. Once that happened, there was a rapid change in the ability of the students to synthesize the material they were learning and express it in ways that both surprised and taught their instructors.

On Saturday I had the chance to have lunch with a retired Taiwanese Episcopal priest, who had been trained as a Western philosopher (and had taught at St. John’s University for part of his ministry). We talked at length of the challenges of teaching Western ideas in a completely different semiotic context. As one of the translators of the Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin, he was particularly aware of the challenge of communicating nuance to the reader so that the reader would be able to understand and synthesize a deeper understanding in the way that students in Hong Kong recently have managed.

The two conversations have driven home for me the need for all of us who are trying to do missionary work (even among the scientific sorts) to think long and hard about the irreducible minimum concepts that we are trying to express. And how we can do so in a way that allows the hearers in the new and different culture the ability to respond in ways that teach us something about the nature of God. Since it does stand to reason that God is somehow present in their midst and has been whispering the Gospel in their ears all along (in a Rahnerian fashion I guess).

Anyone who has learned from the African, Native American and Latino Christians will know what I mean. Anyone who has learned something of God from the laboratory or the equation will as well I hope.

No answers – perhaps not for a long time, perhaps never. But it’s something to ponder while I wander the streets of a city in a country of a very different culture.

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The mission of education in Taiwan

Today, my first full day in Taiwan as part of the House of Bishop’s meeting, was spent taking a tour of St. John’s University. The university was originally planted in Shanghai by the then bishop of Shanghai – The Rt. Rev. Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, one of my favorite heroes on our Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.

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I found this plaque in English describing the work of Bishop Schereschewsky and his role in founding the University. We learned while we were there that the alumni have been quite famous over the years, presidents of Taiwan, representatives to the United Nations and even the famous architect IM Pei.

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We began with a presentation by the chaplain to the University, a former Math Professor who is also an Episcopal priest. He introduced the student faith community leaders (all Episcopalians) and they described their evangelism efforts and how they try to share the gospel on campus. It was moving and exciting to see how committed they were to telling the Good News in a place where Christianity is a small minority religion.

The rest of the visit involved meeting the University President – one of the few woman presidents in Asia, who is a Electrical Engineer who did her graduate training at Cornell. She talked about the history of the University and expressed her gratitude for the ongoing financial support of the Episcopal Church to its programs and continued growth. We asked about the possibility of forming a theological college to train clergy at the University and what might be needed for that to happen. (It’s needed she tells us.)

But I was most taken by the story of the university’s founding by one of our Episcopal Church’s missionary bishops. Schereschewsky, who also translated the Bible in Cantonese to aid evangelism efforts, founded the school as part of his work to create a new understanding of the role of learning in society, and a dream of having the Christian community in China take a major role in shaping the modernization process that was then underway. The university motto is “Light and Truth” – you would probably recognize it latin; Lux et Veritas. But I was taken too by the school slogan -

Talent serves Virtue; Learning serves Society.

A more Anglican understanding of the work of education would be hard to find.

The president of the University shared her need of Anglican and Episcopal teachers to come to live at St. John’s for a year or two. They would have the opportunity to learn Mandarin by immersion, and they would be incredibly helpful in the work of the Applied English department in training students to achieve functional

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(image of the altar of the Church of the Advent – the parish church on campus that also serves as the college chapel.)

Posted in Travel, World Mission | 2 Comments

Fall 2014 House of Bishops meeting

Tomorrow we will begin this year’s Fall House of Bishops meeting for the Episcopal Church. We’re meeting this year in Taipei, in the Diocese of Taiwan, a diocese of the Episcopal Church. As I mentioned this to people in Rhode Island, there was some surprise that Taiwan was part of our Church – but over the years, as our mission work in the Episcopal Church in the US
took us further and further afield, we have helped to plant a number of church communities in parts of the world beyond the US borders.

One of the hallmarks of Bishop Katherine’s leadership during her time as Presiding Bishop these past nine years has been strengthening of our interconnectedness with the missionary work that is happening around the world in the Anglican Communion and particularly in the Episcopal Church (which is still mostly based in the USA). Relationships have to be attended to intentionally to flourish, and visiting one another is a major part of that work. I’m still new to the House of Bishops, but over the past years, I’m told we have tried to visit a non-USA diocese at least once in each triennium.

I’m looking forward to this visit. There’s much to learn. As I write this, I’m sitting in the airport in San Francisco surrounded by people from countries all around the Pacific. It feels very different that it does sitting in the airport in New York City or in Boston, where you tend to be surrounded with people from nations that border the Atlantic. There’s a westward focus here on the West Coast that reflects America’s role as a Pacific Rim nation, just as there’s an Eastern focus on the East Coast, reflecting our role as a nation state on the North Atlantic. The food in hotel this morning reflected that – salmon, congee and rice along side the typical bacon, eggs and potatoes. (Just as breakfasts in the hotels on the East Coast will often have grilled tomatoes, backed beans – or just crisp breads, cheese and fruit.

Doing the work of telling the Good News requires the teller to be aware of the culture in which one is speaking. Learning to listen to and speak with the people of Asia may well be the great mission field of the Church in the next century. This trip we are taking is a chance for us to get started with that learning. I’ve never been to Asia – I’m excited to learn from the Taiwanese, and hoping to share something of what we are doing in Rhode Island as well. It looks like the schedule of presentations will include briefings on the work and challenges of the Church in Korea, in Pakistan and other parts of Asia as well.

Much to learn! Here’s hoping that there will be time to write and share regularly as well.

Posted in General Convention, Travel, World Mission | 5 Comments

Entangled States, the book

2250856I was talking with the publisher of Entangled States (the book that grew out of the blog, sermons and other writings I’ve done over the years) and he told me that we have just about sold out of the first printing.

The book was really his idea, and he’s the one who managed to take a pile of things that I’ve said over the years and turn them into something coherent and readable. Once he had put it together and I’d had a chance to do some editing, we published it online on Amazon and iTunes. That’s where I thought it belonged, being such a strong believer in digital media. But a number of friends asked if there was any way we could turn it into a paper edition as they much preferred to read a physical book to an e-book. David Ord (the publisher) found a way to do it, and even started a new virtual press in the process.

David’s waiting to see if there’s enough interest to warrant a second printing, so if you want to make sure to get a copy, grab one. (Entangled States will always be available in an e-book format.)

If you would like a paper copy, here’s bit of the publisher’s blurb and a link to the website to order one.

“No matter how adamantly we insist on being divided, every now and then we can’t help but catch a glimpse of the fact we are bound together. Such a glimpse may come in the form of a spiritual experience, a sense that the universe is suffused with a divine Presence. Or it may occur in a laboratory, as a scientist discovers a connection no one has ever seen before and realizes there is a unity to reality.”

More at publisher’s site.

For what it’s worth, should there be any profits from the book, they will be donated to youth and young adult ministries here in the Diocese of Rhode Island. (ECC specifically.)

Posted in Books | 2 Comments

The Bishop of London on the nature of Truth

This has been a day of reading and reflection. I’ve had a chance to start getting caught up the long list of websites that I’ve bookmarked to read over the Spring and Summer.

I came across this quote by Richard Chartres in an interview on nature of Christian Contemplation:

“[T]ruth expresses itself as an economy in which the various elements of the truth aspect and balance one another. The truth is not to be encapsulated in a neat formula. It exists as a massive symphony, where the truth is given by the interplay of the various parts. If you omit any part of it, then there is a reaction and exaggeration of the missing element.”

More here.

I had a conversation earlier today on the nature of the paradigm shift the Church is presently experiencing. We’re moving from a deterministic understanding where we can “nail things down, just so” and know the right answer, to one in which we have multiple strands of networked ideas all competing and riffing off one another. We’re moving from a deterministic paradigm to a connectional one – where the interactions between ideas are at least as important, if not more so, than the ideas themselves.

So, with all that playing in my memory, I was delighted to run across this quote that describes Truth as a Symphony with harmony, rhythm, pitch and melodies. It takes us way from the idea of Truth as single statement and toward the idea of Truth as story.

Posted in Religion, SOSc | 4 Comments

Faith or Humility?

I’ve been turning a thought over and over since last weekend. The Gospel for that Sunday was the story of the Canaanite (outsider) woman who meets Jesus and asks for a healing for her daughter. Jesus initially rejects her request saying that he was sent to the Israelites not the outsiders. She pushed back and Jesus, impressed by her, heals her daughter.

It’s an odd story that doesn’t really fit with the paradigms we use to understand that Gospel story these days. We tend to think (rightly I believe) that God is acting in Jesus to draw all the nations and all people into a new relationship with God. The short hand version name for this paradigm is “Inclusion.” God is inclusive and profligate with Love for all. That’s a hard thing for us as humans to understand.

From that viewpoint, this gospel story is hard to understand. Either Jesus changes his mind (which doesn’t seem to fit with any of the other stories in the gospels), or he’s playing some sort of game with the woman who confronts him (which also doesn’t fit).

But Inclusion wasn’t always the primary paradigm for understanding the Gospel. Right after the Reformation, in the protestant churches at least, the paradigm was Faith. As Martin Luther argued, we’re saved by Faith, not by the actions we take or don’t take. That’s a huge point and an important thing to remember, and a central teaching in St. Paul’s writings. And it’s a bit easier to focus on the outsider woman’s faith that Jesus could heal her daughter in spite of Jesus reaction to her question than it is to put his reaction into a matrix of Inclusion. (So this wasn’t as difficult a story to preach prior to the post-WW2 paradigm shift.)

And prior to Faith, the paradigm of the Church was Humility. We were saved by Jesus and his humility to God, and we were expected to follow suit and be humble as well. To the early Church what was notable about the outsider woman wasn’t her insistent belief that God had room for her in God’s heart, or her faith that Jesus could and would heal her daughter, it was the way she responded humbly to Jesus’ reluctance to heal. She doesn’t become angry, she accepts what he says but continues to push. The early writers commend her humility and say that is what Jesus ultimately commends.

My point is this – there are multiple paradigms that have served the Church in its attempt to understand that actions of God in Jesus’ earthly ministry. But we always tend to look at each story through one set of lenses at a time. It’s rare that we take the time to try all of the various lenses that Church has used over the thousands of years it has wrestled with these texts. I’m thinking that this has impoverished our ability to read the Gospel. All of our understandings of what God is doing in Jesus are partial and incomplete. Like in physics where we need to know when we ought to use classical physics versus when we ought to use quantum physics, perhaps we need to be ready to shift paradigms when a particular story just won’t fit…

I’m thinking of committing myself to discipline of reading the gospel stories through these various paradigmatic lenses this coming year. I want to see what new insights such a practice brings to me as a preacher. There’s an art to knowing which sort of physics to apply to a given situation. I’m wondering if there’s a similar art to knowing which great Gospel paradigm to apply to a given story.

The only way to know is to try it.

Posted in Religion, SOSc | 8 Comments