Right before I joined the Episcopal Church a person near dear to me called it “the laughing-stock of Christendom.” I believe he was right in many regards. It is a mixed blessing being a part of what amounts to foolishness in the eyes of Christendom. The Episcopal Church (TEC) just finished its National Convention this week, and by my score board there were two extremely controversial things done or said there. The first of which is the Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori’s opening address, the second of course, the passing of BO 25. I’d like to reflect first on Bishop Schori’s speech. Here are a few links so that if you are unfamiliar with the speech or the fallout you can aquaint yourself.
The theme of the Convention is the Xhosa word: Ubuntu which means “I am because you are,” or “I exist because you exist,” or “Our existences are intertwined inseparably.” It’s one of the most important words of the 20th century. If you don’t believe that a non-English word can be one of the most important words of the previous century then you need to read No Future without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (ret.). I think having an understanding of the theme of the Convention helps to put these much quoted words from Bishop Schori’s speech in a little better context than conservative pundits are doing:
“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.”
So there you have it. I wish I could know in what way she uses the term “heresy,” but because I have yet to read anything else she has written or spoken (I know, I’m a bad Episcopalian), and because she is a duly appointed bishop of the Church, I have to assume at this point she is using that word with all the historical and polemical force that it can possess. This makes me sad. Personally, I think the word “heresy” should be consigned to the realm of historical scholarship. Followers of Christ should stop using that ridiculous word (I have thrown the word around a lot myself). Because we can (and I have a feeling a couple of you will) regurgitate what our Systematic Theology textbooks told us the word “heresy” means, but at the end of the day it is a subjective curse word used to describe those who profoundly disagree with us. Any objective meaning that the word ever had is lost in the millions of polemic, emotional, tactical, and political utterances of it throughout the course of Christianity’s rocky history.
On the other hand, Bishop Schori’s comments cut to the center of the most profound and disturbing theological question that I’ve ever come across–the question, in fact, that led me away from evangelicalism in the first place; the question D.A. Carson couldn’t or wouldn’t touch (I asked him one time)– How can you reconcile Luther’s interpretation of Paul’s teaching on Salvation and Justification with the words of Jesus generally, but especially in Matthew 25:31ff. (there are other passages but this one is representative)?
Doesn’t Jesus seem to imply that Salvation is not contingent upon personal faith but upon how we treat each other? Actually that last part is not merely implicit, he explicitly states that eternal judgment whether negative or positive is based on how we treat each other. The fact is that Jesus doesn’t say much about a individual faith relationship anywhere, but has tons to say all over the place about loving each other (fellow disciples, neighbors, enemies, etc), and forgiving each other, which are, in my mind, exactly the two principles that underlie the concept of Ubuntu.
So, while I disparage Bishop Schori’s vocabulary choices, I do not out of hand dismiss what she said (even if it was politically charged given the current situation of TEC). Furthermore, I challenge anyone to give a satisfying answer to the question above. I am genuinely interested in what you have to say.