Thursday, July 2, 2009

An Attempt to Purge the Presbyterian Church Fails

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written widely on religious issues, mostly from the perspective of a seeker without claim to having discovered ultimate truth. He was a lifelong Presbyterian in what is now the PCUSA and joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, where his challenging questions were welcomed and where he was personally loved and supported.

Unfortunately, Jensen's writings became the focus of a conservative Presbyterian attempt to have him forced out of the Church. This despite the fact that Jensen is not a pastor, professor, or Presbyterian official. Moreover, the Presbytery (regional assembly, composed equally of clergy and lay members which fulfils the function of a bishop in Presbyterian governance) refused to allow Jensen to speak in his own defense.

You can read about this disturbing turn of events in "The Inquisition," an excerpt from Jensen's book, "All My Bones Shake." The excerpt has been posted on the blog Killing the Buddha.

Jensen writes:

"As I sat with a dozen St. Andrew’s members and listened, it became increasingly clear the whole charade had nothing to do with me. It was an assertion of dominance by those who wanted—or needed—clear answers to inherently perplexing questions about the meaning of the label “Christian.” I assume the reason I was not allowed to speak was that those in charge of policing the boundaries of acceptable answers to those questions did not want delegates to see me as real person; better to keep me out of sight so that I could remain an abstraction in people’s minds. "

It brought to my mind memories of the power grab the leadership of Grace Chapel Presbyterian Church used to move their congregation -- and the valuable property purchased, to a significant degree, with money from PCUSA members -- to the more "conservative" Evangelical Presbyterian Church. While claiming the title of "oppressed dissidents," these leaders had manipulated the open-hearted leaders of the Presbytery of Mississippi into signing legal papers granting the local congregation control over their property, and then filed a lawsuit for the right to use that control to take the property out of the denomination altogether. I attended Presbytery meetings in which Grace Chapel supporters asked why the Presbytery had sued Grace Chapel. They were amazed to learn that it was the other way around.

I had to wonder, during that process, how people can use religious language to supply their all-too-human need for labels, in- and out-groups, professional recognition and power, and, in the case I was involved with, valuable real estate. Reinhold Niebuhr suggested that the Biblical definition of basic sin is pride -- the replacement of a real, imperfectly knowable divine Person with a Caricature (or if you prefer the old term, an Idol) that can be molded to justify our own values and goals.

Jensen's experience, while not unexpected in some denominations, is a looming trend in the Presbyterian Church. Those of us who, with John Calvin and Karl Barth, equate "religion" with idolatry, need to stand up and make our voices heard.

Fortunately, that happened in Jensen's case. Although the Presbytery voted to require St. Andrew's to purge Jensen from the rolls, an appeal to the Synod led to a negotiated resolution that restored his membership.


Christopher said...

Re: the Calvin attribution, cite please!

Jim Craig said...

"As soon as we have gone outside Christ we have nothing but the idols we have formed. But in Christ is nothing but what is divine and keeps us in God." (Commentary on John, Vol. II, on 14:11, 79ff.). Cf. Commentary on Philippians, tr. T. H. L. Parker, 1965 on 2:6-11, 246ff.

See Institutes I.ii.2, I.iii.1, I.xiii.13, Liv, I.v.11-13, Lxi.8.

Philip Butin has a nice article on the subject.

A good passage from the piece:

Calvin's own experience with certain aspects of medieval worship led him to regard many of the practices mentioned above as 'idolatrous'. But this was no mere term of abuse. For Calvin, idolatry could certainly be crassly 'material', in the sense that objects or aspects of the created order are worshipped in God's place. But it was at least as likely to be intellectual. He called the mind a 'factory of idols', and was especially concerned to show that if we attempt to know or describe God in concepts which originate with us, we cannot focus on the true God of the scriptures, but are able only to project a nonexistent idol.

Christopher said...

Perhaps I misunderstood what you meant when you suggested that Calvin equated religion with idolatry. Maybe I don't understand how you're using the word "religion."

Christopher said...

Calvin aside, having now read the Jensen essay, it seems fairly clear that your Niebuhr quote is an indictment against Jensen himself. Jensen asks: "[C]an one be a Presbyterian, a Protestant, or a Christian and believe, for example, that God is simply a term for the energy that gives rise to life and that the resurrection should be understood symbolically?"

The answer is an emphatic NO. I have always wondered at people who utterly eschew even the attempt at orthodoxy. What's the point? If you're going to thumb your nose at the Bible and the historic teachings of the church, what is the purpose of applying the veneer of Christianity?

Most of us wrote the PCUSA off years ago, but of all the meandering mainstream denominations, the PCUSA has the largest remnant of orthodoxy. At least it did around 2004-05 when the "Confessing Church" movement (an homage to Bonhoeffer's Nazi-era resistance) was active. I know the PCUSA took steps in 2006 to advance its trek leftward and that included measures to hold church property hostage to prevent the exodus of those who had to that point been holding out hope that reformation or revival was still possible.

There are always two sides to every story. The other side to the Grace Chapel story is that Grace Chapel decided to stand up and refused to be intimidated. The so-called "Louisville Papers" don't exactly allow the PCUSA to claim that they were picked on.

For the PCUSA to claim that Grace Chapel or the EPC caused problems in the church evokes the exchange between King Ahab and Elijah in 1 Kings 18:17-18.

All that said, Jim, I agree with you 100% about the prevalence of idolatry and its fundamental sinfulness. I wonder therefore why you would consider it fortunate that the presbytery would restore to membership a person who replaced "a real, imperfectly knowable divine Person" with an impersonal "energy that gives rise to life."