Chinglican Christianity: Nice Work

Chinglican Christianity: Nice Work June 17, 2014

There’s no fun like theological fun. Once upon a time, I thought that only the Hong Kong public had so much theological fun in their secular presses. With new debates everyday across the Hongkonger public sphere about the relationship among biblical exegesis, political theology, and grassroots democratic activism, it seemed like those of us in North America were missing out.

But some of the fun has now arrived in Vancouver, the city where I learned to be a Chinglican and where I began to blog about what I once called ‘Anne Hathaway Anglicanism.’ Vancouver’s public sphere is currently obsessed with how to conceptualize conservative Protestantism, largely because of local debates about a transgender policy at the Vancouver School Board and the viability of a law school at Trinity Western University that asks its participants to sign a conduct covenant banning all sexual relations outside of heteronormative marriage. In this context, the local religion journalist Douglas Todd issued a 10-point primer on liberal Christianity in the local paper, the Vancouver Sun. While ‘an estimated 80 million liberal Christians live in the U.S. and Canada,’ Todd observes that ‘given a media framework packed with conservative Christians at one end and militant atheists at the other — the public rarely hears about these people in the middle.’

Now an evangelical Anglican church is responding. In a ten-part series, St. Peter’s Fireside is putting on its blog a ten-part series on ‘classical Christianity,’ an attempt to correct Todd from his putative misperception that liberal Christianity is the via media. Against ‘liberal Christianity,’ they wave the flag of ‘classical Christianity,’ which is apparently ‘the ancient faith practiced by the majority of Christians for the last 2000 years’ that is actually the ‘middle way between aggressive, anti-intellectual fundamentalism and flaccid, lukewarm belief.’ One can safely assume that the latter is Todd’s ‘liberal Christianity.’ In fact, they say that ‘there are some things that Classical Christianity can affirm in each of Todd’s 10 points’ while emphasizing that ‘there is also much that must be added to, or rejected completely.’

The trouble is that these assertions to represent the position of ‘classical Christianity’ seem — perhaps unintentionally, but inadvertently — to be claims that these blog posts speak for the monolithic, uncontested (evangelical Protestant) alternative to liberal Christianity (read: Protestantism) for the rest of the church catholic. One wonders if this is an example of argumentative over-reach. Perhaps they mean to say that they have articulated an ‘evangelical’ theology — that would be good and fair. But aside from the slight problem that we do not know whether Todd is in fact an Anglican, were Todd to have articulated a ‘liberal’ broad church theology and St. Peter’s Fireside an ‘evangelical’ one, an Anglo-Catholic voice certainly still deserves to be heard. I am, of course, not a particularly good representative of Anglo-Catholicism, and at this point, I need to disavow representing anything. If anything, consider me an interlocutor with some Anglo-Catholic commitments, although I really feel uncomfortable calling myself an Anglo-Catholic because I am in fact a Chinglican.

The point is that however the authors of these forthcoming blog posts claim to speak for classical Christianity, that one wonders whether they have taken the totality and complexity of the church catholic into consideration suggests that they need an interlocutor. I’d be happy to give that — and only that, with no claims to representativeness — a go. And here’s my main point: I’m not sure it’s always productive to see ‘liberal’ and ‘classical’ Christianity as binary opposites.

This first post by Mike Chase is a great example of why these ‘classical Christians’ need an interlocutor — and hopefully, more than one. The fuss that Chase makes in this post is over Todd’s claim that a liberal Christianity espouses ‘co-creation with God.’ Here are Todd’s claims in their entirety:

While some Christians think of God as a supernatural “Almighty” being who can do whatever “He” wants, liberal Christians believe God has feminine and masculine qualities; operates as much like a force field as a person and needs creatures to help achieve divine aims. Since the 1960s, it’s been common for liberal Christians to talk about being “co-creators” with God.

Chase has a three-part rebuttal – very trinitarian, I must say, after Trinity Sunday. First, a classical Christian God is a sovereign person; second, God’s primary gender is masculine; and third, God is autonomous and does not need co-creators. I recognize that much of this delineation seems owed to the way that systematic theology is taught in seminaries. To call this view of God ‘classical’ suggests that there are multiple positions through which God is approached, some of which owe more to arguments from antiquity (which makes them ‘classical’) and others that take a more ‘progressive’ view (which makes them ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’). That is to say, there’s a sense in which one set of arguments are classified as ‘classical.’ This is opposed to another set of arguments that is ‘liberal.’

It’s these neat categorizations of the ‘classical’ versus the ‘liberal’/’modern’ that is perhaps getting Chase into trouble. After all, if it is true that the ‘co-creator’ view of humanity is a ‘liberal’ theological conception that must be opposed by an affirmation of God’s autonomy, then is Chase disavowing that John Paul II represented anything resembling classical Christianity? After all, the controversial point in Laborem exercens is precisely that humans are ‘co-creators’ with God. That this point was contested by Stanley Hauerwas in his provocatively titled ‘Work as Co-Creation: A Critique of a Remarkably Bad Idea’ doesn’t actually advance Chase’s point. John Paul II built on the tradition of Catholic social teaching in which popes since Leo XIII — themselves drawing from ‘classical’ theology — to say that human work in Genesis was an act of ‘co-creating’ with God. Hauerwas’s disagreement lay in his critique of Vatican centralization, i.e. John Paul II’s ‘co-creation’ theology was too vague and too much thought up in the armchairs of the Vatican to be of any use to people who actually live off wages for their work. If Chase is challenging the point about ‘co-creation,’ then the real question is whether John Paul II should be considered a ‘liberal’ or a ‘classical’ Christian. Never mind that the pope is Catholic — it is right and just that Anglicans should engage Catholic social teaching, not least because the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is one of its primary exponents. The question is, are they suggesting that Catholic social teaching is not representative of ‘classical Christianity’?

Then there’s also the point that Chase makes about ‘co-creation’ as a remarkably bad idea. For Chase, ‘God is always the initiator and sustainer of creative work,’ which makes humans more properly ‘sub-creators’ than ‘co-creators.’ This critique is ironic, for this gets at the heart of what the classical question about Arianism was all about. In a remarkable account of why the fourth-century heretic Arius thought and did what he thought and did, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argues that what was at stake in the Arian controversy wasn’t simply whether Jesus was actually ‘God’ or ‘sub-god.’ The reason that orthodox theologians like Alexander and Athanasius argued so strongly against Arius’s claims that Jesus was a ‘sub-god’ was that this had massive implications for how Christians thought of their participation in the divine life. If what it means to be ‘in Christ’ is to be simply be joined with a ‘sub-god,’ then God the Father is sufficiently distant and unknown to us — i.e. as Williams points out, Arius was arguing for a conservative position with a distant, unknowable God. The orthodox rebuttals were far more creative and — dare I say it, ‘liberal’ — than anything Arius could have asked or imagined — if Jesus was indeed fully God, then participation in the life of Jesus was nothing short of theosis, that is, as Athanasius once put it, God became man so that man could become God. That is the orthodox view of Jesus. To insist that humans are ‘sub-creators’ is to dangle dangerously close to Arius’s condemned conservative theology. In turn, the ‘co-creation’ view may be more classical than either Todd or Chase have imagined.

This finally leaves us with Chase’s nervousness that Todd is propagating a feminist theology. Granted, Chase’s original post deals with the feminine metaphors for God in Scripture, although Chase insists that a classical view of God is that God is masculine. One wonders what Chase might do, then, with Julian of Norwich. When Julian describes Jesus as maternal and calls Jesus ‘Moder Jhesu,’ is Julian being ‘liberal’? The point about Julian of Norwich also extends to Todd’s other claims. When Julian utters her ‘All shall be well’ because God holds the world — the ‘little thing’ of creation — is Julian describing a ‘force’ or a ‘person’? Is this sovereignty Chase’s voluntaristic assumption that God can do whatever he wants, or is it a maternal sovereignty of care where, in the words of another classical prayer, God sends forth his spirit, and they are created, renewing the face of the earth? Is a fourteenth-century English visionary better classified as a ‘liberal’ or ‘classical’ theologian

In short, if indeed Chase is advancing a ‘classical’ theology, one wonders if it must always oppose, reject, and contest Todd’s liberalism. Might it not be better to point out that Todd’s ‘liberal Christianity’ is ironically classical? After all, the reactionary view to Todd’s liberalism leads Chase dangling close to theological paths that he might explicitly disavow. Can’t we be more classically catholic about the whole thing? This is precisely what I meant when I said that these bloggers seem to need an interlocutor – our catholicity is practiced by conversation and communion, reminding each other that common ground can be found in unexpected places.

It’s with that sort of catholic anticipation that we look forward to a second rebuttal to Todd on the authority of Scripture.

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  • Robert

    Todd started it! 🙂 When engaged in polemics must one really stick to the facts? SPF has simply reacted to Todd’s monolithic “liberal Christianity” (80 million strong! wow!), with a monolithic “classical Christianity.” Neither is *really* seeking a via media, because – as I said – when engaged in polemics, that is bad form. Just ask Athanasius.

    • Oh yes, of course Todd started it. The question is whether a response must be reactionary. It could be, after all, ‘catholic’ – which I suppose would be more classical — and creedal!

    • Oh, and I love Athanasian polemics. They gave Rowan Williams such a headache in that book!

  • Michael

    Thanks for your engagement with my blog. One of your issues seems to be with the term ‘Classical Christianity’, when it seems you would have preferred us to use ‘evangelical’. I stand behind this designation, as we are not proposing any theological point that would be at odds with historic/council/creedal Christianity. Furthermore, we are not discussing anything pertaining to the four specific points of Evangelicalism (biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, mission). This group would include evangelicals, orthodox Roman Catholics, Creedal Christians, Neo-Orthodox, etc.

    Also, I think you need to give the blog a closer read. Not once do I say that God’s primary gender is masculine. In fact, I say this: “to say that God is masculine or feminine is to flip the meaning of the image of God on its head.” I have absolutely no problem with Julien of Norwich describing Jesus as maternal. What I am simply assertting is that Classical Christianity, from the Father on down, has referred to God using the masculine pronoun and as Father.

    There is also the co-creator bit. My reason for critiquing this and using the language of sub-creator, is a corrective. Liberal Christians use this language believing that God needs us, his ‘co-creators’ in order to accomplish divine aims. What I am simply saying is that he is not. I am not necessarily opposed to the idea of us being co-creators, but I am when this term finds it’s ground in a belief that God needs us.

    • Matthew

      Hey Mike! Since we just had a little girl I am not up on every detail going on here, but I had a chance to read your piece and it brought up a question that’s been bouncing around in my head for the past couple of years. No trouble if you don’t have time to respond, but since I know the quality of your work first-hand I thought it’d be well worth getting your thoughts 🙂

      My understanding of your argument is that where liberal Christianity puts forward one idea or another, we would be better advised to opt for the teachings of classical Christianity instead. From a personal standpoint, I’m all for this. My question is: what should one do when St. Peter’s Fireside (or another C of E congregation) teaches one thing, and classical Christianity teaches another?