The intersection of canon and creed

June 27, 2011

At every point in their history, communities have two historically oriented challenges: to remember their definitive story line faithfully and to project it forward into an uncharted future.

The Christian community faced this dual challenge with special urgency in the middle of the second century, closer in time to its foundational events than we are to the Civil War that has in many ways defined the American story. Back then, of course, there were fewer ways to remember and transmit the past than we have now. Even with our many modes of communication, however, it is not clear that we are in a better position than they with respect to projecting the story forward.

In the twenty-first century as in the second, the life and character of the Christian community are at stake as we work at the task of transmitting our faith to the people around us.

During the second century crisis, the Christian community developed thee mechanisms to help its members stay focused on the organizing story of its life. It identified a set of writings that were deemed to be most reliable in remembering and interpreting the past. It set forth a compact set of ideas that constituted the theme or message that was to serve as a guide to understanding this literature. It acknowledged a teaching voice that could guard the past and proclaim its implications for the present moment and the future.

In a book that is part of a new series of “resources for the use of scripture in the church,” theologian Robert W. Jenson discusses the intersection of two of these elements—the body of recommended writings and the organizing story. For convenience, he uses two technical words—canon for the body of writings and creed for a set of approved statements or formulas adopted as statements of the Christian faith.

Jenson is persuaded that Christians need both elements because neither one by itself satisfies the historical challenge that we face. By itself, the canon contains more information, ideas, and interpretation than we need, and much of it is distracting. We need a guide to help us discern the central story around which all of the detail is organized. That is what the creed, a sharply defined set of basic ideas, does for us.

By itself, however, the creed—the body of concise statements of faith—is insufficient. It leaves out or minimizes aspects of the story that we actually need in order to understand the narrative and be empowered by it.

Jenson is not much interested in the detail of how the canon was decided upon or who made the decisions. Instead, his interest focuses upon the relationship to each other of what traditionally have been called the Old and New Testaments. The canon for Christians in the church’s early life was what we call the Old Testament. Not until Jesus and those who had known him personally disappeared did some of the new writings take on the aura that previously had surrounded the law and the prophets. The question for Jenson is not what use Christians have of the Old Testament. Rather, it is why Christians who already have the Old Testament need the New.

Similarly, Jenson is less interested in specific creeds, such as the Apostles’ or Nicene, than he is in the creedal tradition, in the practice of drawing up and using brief summaries of the central story. The purpose of the creedal tradition is to provide assurances to Christians that they are in touch with the authentic stream of faith and the life-giving practices that are deeply rooted in that faith.

An important aspect of this book is a set of exegetical chapters in which Jenson demonstrates how canon and creed work together. Under the interpretive principle of “the creed as critical theory for scripture,” he discusses Genesis 1:1-15, Luke 1:26-38, and Mark 14:35-36. He acknowledges that we live in a challenging time when several ideologies, including postcolonial theory and womanist theory, instruct us to be “suspicious of appearances.” The church, he says, “cannot simply opt out of modernity’s critical pathos; we may not be of the world, but we are in it, and all in it now are critics.

The question for us is what “set of instructions” should we use “to perceive what a scripture text is truly up to.” Jenson’s answer is that it is creed. For most Christians in the church today, however, this answer will take some hard chewing before we can digest it. More on this another time.

A ‘Riding Bike’ for Robert Penn

June 24, 2011

After riding bicycles for thirty-six years, Robert Penn was ready to buy a new bike even though he already owned six. Frustrated at “the round of buying stuff that is designed to be replaced quickly,” and planning to ride this new bike for thirty years or more, he wanted to “savour the process of acquiring it.” He wanted the best bike he could afford, expecting to be able “to grow old with it.”

The process of acquiring this bicycle included two factors unique to Penn’s situation: the prospect of writing a book about how he did it and an expense budget that allowed him to travel throughout Europe and North America to examine first hand the manufacturers of components that would go into this personal bicycle.

The book includes a compendium of information about the history of bicycle design, with multiple photos and drawings. Penn writes in a pleasant, non-technical style that informs and entertains. People who know bicycles and those who don’t will find the book accessible.

Penn’s personal bicycle, he tells us early in the book, “will look like a racing bike, but it will be finely tuned to meet my cycling needs.” He will not be racing, he tells us, “but I’ll ride this bike regularly and I’ll ride it fast.” He will take it across Britain, over the length of the Pyrenees, and down the Pacific Coast Highway.

Penn uses a term I like. What he wants to acquire is a riding bike.

So what does he choose for this special bicycle of a lifetime?

Frame: steel frame designed and handcrafted by Brian Rourke Cycles in Stoke-on-Trent, one of a small number of well-established British frame builders.

Tubing: one of the latest designs by the Italian company long acclaimed for its bicycle technology, Columbus of Milan.

Fork: instead of steel, a carbon fiber fork also designed and manufactured by Columbus.

Handlebars: drop bars by Cinelli, an old-line Italian company now a subsidiary of Columbus.

Headset: the best that can be bought anywhere, designed and produced by Chris King Components of Portland, Oregon (my town!).

Drive train (cranks, derailleurs, and shifters): Campagnolo of Vicenza, Italy, still the world-acclaimed designer of bicycle componentry.

Wheels: Royce hubs (Hampshire, England), D T Swiss rims and spokes, wheel building by Steve ‘Gravy’ Gravenites of Fairfax, California (one of the people still in the center of mountain bike demigods in Marin County).

Tires: Continentals, handmade in Korbach, Germany.

Saddle: Brooks (the classic B-17) manufactured in Smethwick, Birmingham, England.

Brakes: He doesn’t tell us but my inference is that they too are Campagnolo.

The result is a bicycle that combines classic design, fine craftsmanship, and modern componentry. And the cost? Not counting travel: $5,500.

Not bad! Amortized over thirty years, that’s $3.50 a week, which is only fifteen cents more than the medium caffe latte I drank this morning at Peets on N E Broadway  in Portland while writing this report.

Penn inspires me to design a new bicycle that is exactly right for me—a riding bike that is the finest I can afford with the components that will allow me to continue cycling the way I want to. At best, however, it’s hard for me to anticipate more than a decade of hard, fast cycling, only ten years compared with Penn’s thirty. Per week, it’ll cost me more—two lattes instead of one—but these days I’m double-dipping (Social Security and a church pension). So why not? That’s really not much to spend on “the pursuit of happiness.”

The Seamless Web of Life

June 21, 2011

When Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn signed the bill outlawing the death penalty in his state, he referred to a book that had been published fourteen years earlier, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections, citing two phrases, “the seamless web of life” and a “consistent ethic of life.” Having missed the book when it first came out, I found a copy and have read it with deep appreciation.

To my surprise, I discovered that The Gift of Peace does not discuss the controversial social issues that are so much a part of the American political scene. Rather, it is a memoir by the author in which he reflects upon three challenges that had shaped the last three years of his life: the false accusation of sexual misconduct, pancreatic cancer, and preparing for death. These reflections became a testimony of Bernardin’s faith and an expression of an ever-deepening spirituality.

I came across the phrases that had brought me to the book in only two places, and even in these locations they are not used to debate gender-related ethical issues and questions concerning when life begins. Their only specific reference is to the need for consistent medical care throughout the society for all who need it. From the time he first experienced symptoms that led to the cancer diagnosis, Bernardin received the finest care that the American medical system could provide. Because of his position as Cardinal arch bishop of a large Catholic community, red tape was cut instantly and he was treated with little regard for the costs.

By implication, readers can conclude that Bernardin would favor revisions of the American health care system so that all persons, regardless of position or income, could receive the same care that he received and not need to worry about the costs.

A consistent ethic shows in other ways throughout this book. All of life is to be understood as bound up in one system that is bounded by God’s steadfast love and Christ’s continuing presence in every aspect of experience, especially our times of suffering. Even death is to be understood within the framework of this consistency. Death becomes our friend, part of our time of life that becomes our passage to eternity.

Bernardin frequently refers to the redemptive aspect of suffering. He sees it in Christ’s life, and especially in Gethsemane and on the cross. He believes that his own suffering because of an aggressive cancer could be his final gift to his diocese.

This understanding of suffering is illustrated by the way that his own experiences with cancer led him to a ministry with others in treatment at the same time and with cancer sufferers in an ever-widening circle around the world.

Bernardin does not debate theological questions about life and death. He takes life as it is, declaring that death has its place, and then shows how he lives with peace and joy in the shadow of the cross. He also shows how important it is that we support people who are sick, troubled, and suffering. During this period of his own illness, Bernardin came to realize more fully than before how important it was for him to minister to the sick because they are especially ready to come into contact with the transcendent.

The first crisis discussed in the book, the accusation of sexual misconduct, also illustrates how important it is to live so that the values of truthfulness, honor, and faithfulness to fundamental principles of life stay consistently in place.

This part of the book also illustrates how deep and strong the Catholic system of life really is. Life within the church and participation in its sacramental reality claim loyalty in a powerful way.

Bernardin died when he was a decade younger than I am now, which is one of the reasons why a theme that permeates the book affects me so directly: letting go. He suggests that this attitude is one for people throughout the life span. Its importance in the later years, especially as people face the reality of death, is even greater.

As Bernardin says in the hand written note at the beginning of the book, we can let go if we understand that “the good and the bad are always present in our human condition and, that if we ‘let go,’ if we place ourselves totally in the hands of the Lord, the good will prevail.”

Cycling with harmonic unity and energy

June 16, 2011

Planing is a term from water sports that Jan Heine and Mark Vande Kampe have applied to the riding characteristics of road bicycles. It refers to a smooth, efficient matching of the cyclist’s rhythms and the dynamic properties of the bicycle itself. When bicycles plane, they seem to move with the cyclist with such harmony that speed and endurance are increased to a significant degree. A synonym might be the word soar.

I remember times when I seemed to plane, going back at least thirty-five years and recurring now and then ever since. The most recent episodes were during the 2010 Grand Canyon Ride with PACTour. On most days of this 1,100 mile trip, I had to push in order to stay in touch with the slow contingent that trailed along toward the end of the pack.

On three or four afternoons, however, something happened: harmonic unity and energy appeared. I found a pedaling cadence (probably around 90 revolutions per minute) that felt exactly right and which I could maintain with occasional gear changes according to the undulations of the course. Despite having cycled for several hours, I could stay in this mode for an extended time during which I gradually moved past other cyclists who ordinarily rode faster than I did. My body and my bicycle seemed to blend into one smooth movement forward.

On this trip, I was riding my Co-Motion road bike, with short wheel base and Woundup carbon fork. On other occasions, however, I was mounted on my forty-year old classic Mercian touring bike with steel fork. The sensation of harmonic unity and energy was much the same despite the different properties of the bicycles.

Jan and Mark most often refer to planing when they are climbing steep grades. Some of their test bikes plane and some do not, at least not when they first ride them. My trouble is that climbing is when I most need the help that this harmonic efficiency produces, but that is when I am least likely to achieve it.

On this season’s first ride up Newberry Road to Skyline Boulevard in northwest Portland, I thought about the fact that neither of these bikes seems to plane when I take them on this two-mile stretch of road with its 8% and 9% grades. The reason, I’m guessing, is that planing can happen only when the rider produces enough power and maintains the rhythm that releases the harmonic interaction. Low gears are part of the answer, but my low gear on this most recent ride was a 26-27 combination and even with this I couldn’t maintain the cadence. Even if I keep a cadence, I suspect, there would not be enough stress on the bike to stimulate the sense of planing.

Planing or no planing, I will keep on climbing these challenging grades as they come along. After all, I do want to get to the top and down the other side. But after the road evens out a little, I will try to find that zone when everything comes together and I feel as though I can ride effortlessly for the rest of the day.

Note: Jan and Mark publish their test reports, technical studies, and opinions in “Bicycle Quarterly.” Links to this journal and many other related matters can be accessed at Jan’s blog. For my blogs on the Grand Canyon tour, check the archives for September 2010. The cyclist pictured above happened along just when I was taking a photo break half way up the steep part of Newberry Road. I don’t know if he was planing, but he was riding a lot faster than I. 

A church that trusts the past as it moves into the future

June 13, 2011

During the 1960s, one of the most widely covered stories in religion was the concerted attempt to create a comprehensive form of mainline Protestantism for the United States. Throughout the process’s creative period, the churches’ theologians were at its center because the primary focus was to address issues of ecclesial and sacramental theology that had kept the churches separated from one another for nearly 400 years.

As I reported in a recent column, some theologians registered unfavorable responses to the theological aspects of the documents that the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) published. Other theologians, however, came to strongly positive conclusions as is illustrated in a series of essays published in the Austin Seminary Bulletin: Faculty Edition (December, 1970). The entire edition was devoted to A Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting.

Rather than summarizing these essays as a single document, I am highlighting ideas presented by Professor James A. Wharton. His standing among Presbyterian colleagues is indicated by the fact that he served as a member of his church’s committee to draft a new Confession of Faith and a Book of Confessions.

In his analysis of the theological affirmations of the Plan of Union, Wharton concludes that its drafters “have depended heavily upon the classical Christian formulations as these are embodied in the traditional heritages of the consulting churches. The drafters “reach back behind contemporary faith statements current in some of the consulting churches to a point at which the older traditions of some participants and the current traditions of others can be seen to derive from similar classical rootage.”

Wharton is convinced that this use of language was not a tactical ploy designed to “pacify conservative sectors among the consulting churches.” Rather, the Plan of Union is built on the principle that “the theological base, the identity-ground, of the uniting church stands in direct solidarity and continuity with the church of Jesus Christ throughout all ages.”

These ideas, Wharton suggests, had fallen out of fashion in some of the denominations and the crisis of “combining these traditions into one uniting church has compelled the drafters to look at the church again from an historical perspective to which we had grown quite unaccustomed.”

This same Plan, however, was also marked by theological openness, Wharton continues. He sees this characteristic in the stance taken toward creeds as they would be used in the united church. Classical creeds would be used persuasively, not coercively. Furthermore, the new church, “with the guidance of the Holy Spirit” would be free to develop new confessional forms in contemporary language. “The basic principle is that only after the united church has been formed and begun to share a common life will it be appropriate to undertake a new expression of the faith it holds in common.”

Wharton suggests that the Plan has refused to push the proposed new church in the direction of any of the “sectarian options currently in vogue” which would have “rendered the plan almost immediately obsolete.”

He declares that the Plan is an exercise in trust. It takes the theological traditions of the participating churches seriously, but it gives even greater support to the “judgment that the common rootage in the classic Christian tradition of all the consulting churches is a thing to be trusted and relied upon in the future theological course of the church’s life.”

Having introduced the idea of trust, Wharton carries it further and in so doing affirms the theological principle upon which any serious discussion of Christian unity ultimately depends. Here is the way he states this position:

The Plan of Union “supposes that a church constituted as the plan provides will seriously weigh its varied testimony to the classic Christian tradition in any decision or new formulation it may be called upon to make. It assumes the integrity of the consulting churches toward the theological traditions which each brings to the union. Then it assumes that the church born of the union of these churches will show equal integrity toward the broader and richer theological base which the union provides.

“But, above all it trusts. It trusts not in the everlasting adequacy of the combined traditions, and certainly not in the potential wisdom of the united church to provide more adequate traditions of its own. Basically, it trusts the Lord of the church attested in Scripture and in derivative ways in these various traditions to keep the faithful witness to him alive in a church constituted in this way.”

The variegated trust that Wharton describes broke down as the churches moved toward the time when decisions about unity had to be made. The old churches, with their levels of trust diminished even more, remain. Their members and the nation which they have been called to serve in Christ’s name still await the new church that COCU sought to engender.

Bicycling around the country with one eye and half a brain

June 9, 2011

Two recent books are vivid demonstrations that cycling can be a way for older people to maintain and renew their sense of vibrant life. One of these books, which I featured in this column a few days ago, portrays the aggressive race-oriented cycling of 80-year-old Madonna Buder. As I read her book, I remembered another book that I found more inspiring, Megan Timothy’s 2009 volume 12,000 Miles for Hope’s Sake in which she describes her solo bicycle trip (at the age of 63) around the United States. So that more readers of my blog can meet Megan, I am reposting this column which first appeared April 10, 2010.

When I met Megan Timothy, she was working her way over Chehelem Mountain west of Portland, Oregon. Her bike was arrayed with gear for self-contained travel, while mine was stripped down for a fast training ride on a late summer day. A few moments of conversation, at a shady place on the side of the road, persuaded me that her story was one I wanted to hear.

In 2003 Megan experienced a stroke-like cerebral accident that left the shell of her body intact but robbed her of the ability to communicate. Printed letters and words made no sense, efforts to speak came out in gibberish, and writing was nothing more than scrawls. With the devoted and aggressive care of friends, she entered into therapy and then decided to accept the offer of surgical intervention to repair some of the damage to her brain.

From her saddlebag, she pulled out her book, Let Me Die Laughing—Waking from the Nightmare of a Brain Explosion, in which she tells her story.

During her convalescence, which had led to less-than-full recovery of communicative abilities, Megan had resumed bicycling, using a sturdy machine that she had ridden for many years in Africa, Europe, and the United States. Soon after her book was published, she decided to bicycle around the country. When her friends objected saying that she was “sixty-three years old, with only one eye and half a brain,” she responded by asserting that it was her best eye and the best part of her brain.

Because she had virtually no money, she would camp along the way, asking permission to pitch her tent at churches, in back yards, and sometimes behind the bushes on stretches of unpopulated roads. Often she did her laundry by swishing her clothes in soapy water in grocery bags.

When we met (September 2007), Megan had already cycled from her home in Southern California, across the United States to the east coast, up the Atlantic seaboard, across the northern stretches of the country, including the upper Midwest during 100-degree-plus weather. She had made her turn back to the south and hoped to be home in Hemet, California, by Thanksgiving.

As we parted, Megan promised to let me know when the book we both knew she would write would be out. Two years later, the announcement came: 12,000 Miles for Hope’s Sake, published by her friend’s small press, Crone House Publishing in Idyllwild, California.

Remarkable stories fill the book: perils of the road, serendipitous experience and encounters, the inherent generosity of people along the way, the fellowship of cyclists who find one another in their journeys across the land. Megan demonstrates that despite her mature years and compromised communicative skills, she continues to be an amazingly strong and resourceful cyclist capable of overcoming a wide range of hazards of the road.

Although traveling alone, she was supported by her network of friends who arranged book signings and press conferences as she worked her way across the country, and met her for brief interludes during her eight-month journey. Her best times, however, were when she traveled with complete freedom from schedules and friends. Quoting William Hazlitt (1778-1830), Megan asserts that “the soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases.”

Megan rises above the twin challenges of traveling with little money and a damaged brain. She really couldn’t read maps, and in moments of unexpected stress, she would experience the temporary breakdown of communicative skills. With increasing frequency, she spent time with other brain-damaged people, some of whom she met in chance encounters along the way and others in treatment centers around the land.

On the basis of her own experience, she explains what brain damage is like, illustrates the frequent deficiencies in medical care and therapeutic intervention, and recommends how families and friends can become advocates for brain-damaged people as they struggle to recover their abilities to communicate.

If only I had known what Megan has revealed, I would have acted differently when my mother suffered the stroke that robbed her of most communicative skills. With the right kind of help from family and therapists, Mother’s half-sentences and seemingly aimless turning of pages in magazines might have become what they became for Megan, the tools of an active, intelligent brain still capable of effective, mostly independent adult life.

After reading 12,000 Miles for Hope’s Sake, I agree with the publisher’s comment on the back cover, that Megan’s “adventures and challenges and the wonderful people she met will have you laughing and crying and shaking your head in amazement.”

Faith-based cycling

June 6, 2011

The Grace to Race by Sister Madonna Buder is the only book I know that combines the author’s religious faith with aggressive engagement in cycling as an endurance sport. At first glance, it would seem to be just the book for a blogger (like me) who regularly posts columns on American religion and cycling. The fact that the author, at 80 years of age, is a little older than I gives still another reason why this book ought to be more satisfying than I find it to be.

This memoir of a woman who spent many years as a cloistered nun and triathlete does have positive attributes. Near the top of the list is the fact that she began her running activities when she was 48 years old, later moving into full-fledged triathlons. She continues her aggressive athletic endeavors despite the fact that she now is an octogenarian.

Another commendable factor is Buder’s advocacy of good causes, which she links with her athletic activities. She uses her running, swimming, and cycling as the means of doing good works for others. It is only right that she do this because, as the book reports, Buder herself has been the frequent recipient of acts of kindness and generous gifts from other competitors, race sponsors, and officials.

With respect to its religious side, The Grace to Race provides an interesting description of how Buder decided to enter the religious life and select the order in which she spent many years. It also portrays the way that one devout woman has moved from one kind of religious work to another. It describes how in later years, as her life and the Catholic Church changed, she transferred from a cloistered order to one that encouraged more active involvement in the world.

When Buder began running, and then cycling, she had little knowledge of the techniques and disciplines of these sports. Using borrowed and inadequate equipment, and competing with insufficient preparation, she pushed herself to the extremes, often using zeal and naive piety as substitutes for training, coaching, and practiced skill.

One result was that “the iron nun,” as people often described her, generated a growing notoriety (and sympathy) among triathletes. Another result was that she suffered a wide range of mishaps, accidents, and serious injuries. It is hard to believe that she was really as accident prone and foolish as the book portrays her. Perhaps the professional writer who assisted Buder in developing the book hyped the story with mock heroics rather than write a thoughtful exposition of her career as serious athlete in nun’s clothing.

Since this is the memoir of a religious woman, The Grace to Race integrates Buder’s faith with her athletic activities. In the race chosen to open the book, she is competing beyond the level for which she had trained and as her performance lags she makes “a kind of deal with God.” If she completes the race, she would know that her nephew, who had died the previous month, had died in peace. Beating the cut-off time by seventeen seconds, she thanked the Lord: “Now I know that my nephew is in peace.”

Near the end of the book, she describes an incident when she returned to a condo parking lot where she had left her car eight days earlier, only to find it missing. In her haste, she had parked the old car near a dumpster, thinking that it was an unused slot, and it had been towed. The very day when she came to claim her car it was to have been auctioned. After reclaiming the car, Buder named it for Saint Therese of Lisieux, “who is known to pack a lot of influence with the Lord. I am sure she saved my car from the auction block.” The very next night, however, the car was towed again because Buder had carelessly parked it on an arterial road that was “quiet at night, but busily trafficked during the day.”

During more than thirty years as an aggressive participant in extreme sports, “the iron nun” has competed in a remarkable number of events and demonstrated skill, strength, and uncanny ability to deal with unexpected developments. She demonstrates that people in their seventies can still perform at a high level. Buder has succeed in these activities despite the difficulties imposed by her religious vocation and, paradoxically, because of the piety with which her life as a nun has been infused. Both sides of Madonna Buder–religious woman and endurance athlete–deserve more thoughtful presentation than this book offers.