Monday, March 31, 2008

Serious Doubt is Faith

So what is Easter about anyway? Newly returned to the fold – but that’s another story – I’ve had relatively little exposure to the gestalt, the full experience of Holy Week. In fact, as a sometime Presbyterian, even when I was (previously) in the fold, the opportunity to embrace the richness of this journey was wanting, as the church calendar wound its way from Ash Wednesday, through Lent, to this period of reaffirmation and the full intensity of what our belief system is founded upon. Now, for perhaps the first time for me, Easter had begun to make sense. This year in particular, as St. James has continued to enrich this special season with services that celebrated each stage of this passage, the extremes that attach to the passion were brought home to me. (In truth, Nicola’s been making this point with me for some time now – but who knew she was right?)

We had the further good fortune this year to be sitting this Easter morning in St. Mary Magdalene’s (a high Anglican church in Toronto where Andrew is currently assistant organist), in culmination of this extraordinary week and in the presence of what I can only describe as the ‘full Monty’ of formal Anglican liturgy – in one of few such churches in Toronto (‘Smokey Tom’s’ being the other that comes to mind, St. Thomas’ by its less descriptive moniker). I make this particular distinction, since my expectation was that, here in this bastion of Anglican tradition (from incense and full procession, to sung scripture, prayer, and creed), I would hear, as homily, a reiteration of the principal belief upon which Christian dogma is predicated – that this is the day of resurrection.

Now, I’ve heard Father Harold Nahabedian, longtime rector of St. Mary Mag’s (as it’s affectionately called), speak before. So that his text would be a wonderful, layered piece, commentary on this fundamental truth of Christian belief – but informed by a more progressive and subtle questioning of Christian literality – was not a total surprise. But in the presence of such high ceremony and celebrated utterly surrounded by trappings of the historic and essential church, it brought home the challenge, the paradox for the 21st century Christian with which some of us struggle: just what is it that we believe and weekly reaffirm in our recitation of our creeds, Apostles’ or Nicene.

Perhaps not too coincidentally, Michael Valpy’s editorial, in this past weekend’s Globe and Mail (March 22, 2008), is entitled Taking Christ Out Of Christianity. Slightly less sinister than its title would perhaps suggest, it examines a posture increasingly present in today’s church: considering the possibility that “no miracles-performing, magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life” should comprise the core of our belief structure. The piece, largely based on the writings of Gretta Vosper, a Toronto-based United Church minister, explores the contention that it is precisely this set of dated, historical-literal, decreasingly credible myths, doctrines, and dogma – “theological detritus” (in Ms. Vosper’s words) – that is at the root of shrinking church membership and attendance. That today’s Christian is far too sophisticated, theologically speaking, to buy into this system of beliefs and that the church’s viability is under siege – barring a wholesale, revisionist housecleaning. Valpy explains further that, at the core of her argument, is the need to not simply tinker with, modify, or modernize historic, perhaps antiquated and decreasingly relevant concepts and ritual in an effort to find some palatable “middle ground” for we folk in the pews (in the fond hope that we’ll keep showing up!). But to redefine our practices and beliefs in essential and, certainly for some, convulsive ways – not the least of which is the celebration of ‘renewed hope’ in place of a resurrected Jesus, as the central tenet of the rite of Easter.

So where does all this leave me, a reclaimed Christian and newly minted Anglican? Father Harold (in a shared and candid moment at Fellowship following this lovely service) ‘confessed’ that he’d ‘departed’ from his prepared text. Without his further elaboration, I was left to wonder: departed from what? Had he stopped short of an explicit retelling of the ‘usual’ Easter message, perhaps feeling that, like many of the modest number of theologians whose writings I’ve dabbled in lately, he is uncomfortable propagating the literalist view of the resurrection? But still pulled his punch when it came to some variant of Ms. Vosper’s rather radical stance, not wanting to risk alienation of that (likely significant) chunk of the congregation that would see such commentary as frankly heretical? I’ll not have an answer to that one.

I don’t know much for sure about my relatively recently undertaken journey, in from the wilderness as it were. What I do know is that I have been drawn to the formality, the increasing familiarity, and the immutability of the Anglican liturgy (especially the BCP). I know that the ritual ‘climb’, through the church calendar, and Holy Week in particular has lent (sorry, that was an accident!) meaning to this affiliation. And I know that less ‘mysterious’, symbolic, even poetic celebrations have been far less compelling for me. What I don’t know (among many things in this regard) is whether I need to have all this to be predicated on a ‘real’ event, to be a story populated by real people, enacting history exactly as portrayed by flawed, at times contradictory scribes, for it to have meaning for me. Somehow I think not.

“Serious doubt is faith”, Paul Tillich.

1 comment:

mackie100 said...

Every year I get a little more involved in the Lenten journey. Maybe it is because Advent/Christmas often is too much of everything to focus on anything.

Lent/Easter flies below the radar of commercialization both inside and outside the church walls. Perhaps with good reason, it has all seemed rather depressing, a lot of minor key singing, denial, death followed by a spring to renewal in the midst of muddy snow banks.

This year several things totally changed my take on Lent. First a big banner in the parish hall mapping in a maze like fashion the proposed path to Easter. Being in the choir I was privileged to get a guided tour by Lynn explaining the path or perhaps ‘stream’ of her thinking in creating this route. The second thing was a winter storm that cancelled the yearly Messiah concert and placed it firmly in Lent, exactly where it was intended to be performed. Next were the weekly Lenten services and Tuesday talks. All these things created a brand new vision of all this for me.

The final thing that happened during lent was a podcast of A Prairie Home Companion that I regularly enjoy, being a self-deprecating confirmed Lutheran. In the February 23rd edition Garrison Keillor tells the story of the Lutheran minister’s visit to the local Roman Catholic priest who was have a crisis in faith. When asked to share a drink of scotch the pastor was faced with the decision to abandon his lenten vows or support his friend. He chose the latter, perhaps I little too eagerly. However it reaffirmed his understanding of Lent as not what we give up but what we do, that matters.

This taught me that Lent could be (should be) more about reflecting on how we move forward as Christians both in understanding and action, not just about the sorrow of the cross and penance for past sins. In this I agree totally with your title that doubt is faith. If we are not open to the ideas around us, our faith is not being challenged or allowed to strengthen and grow.

I wonder if all this could have been realized outside of the structure of the Lenten/Easter observance. Incense and sung creeds aside, I believe that the structure of church tradition allows for, not hinders this personal growth. Yes some may just hide in it. That is their prerogative. In a world where old assumptions of the bible specifically the Christ story are being constantly challenged, working out from a familiar structure is essential. It is this working from the known to the new that was the basis of many of Tuesday talks at St James not to mention the basis for the Messiah story as told by Jennens and Handel and perhaps the gospels themselves.