In his “The Episcopal Church: Still Christian?” piece, Doug Bandow posted an article on The American Spectator about the Episcopalian leader Katharine Jefferts Schori’s comments about individual salvation in Western theology. In the comments section of the Spectator article and on the linked Free Republic page, political conservatives skewered Shori for her Third World, Lefty ways that distort Christianity. The article informs us:
Describing a United States church in crisis, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told delegates to the group’s triennial meeting July 8 in Anaheim, Calif., that the overarching connection to problems facing Episcopalians 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,” Jefferts Schori, the first woman to be elected as a primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion three years ago, said. “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 being.”
I suspect that Schori here intuits correctly.
I often find myself in an odd situation where I have to defend “progressive” folks. I am the extreme, right wing reactionary who thinks that the West started its road to perdition in the thirteenth century (not the Reformation or the French revolution or industrialization or the 1960’s). Why must I busy myself with excusing the enemy?
Well, I am not excusing anyone, but I sometimes find conservative attacks on their political foes unjustified. The American Anglicans might have lost their minds in so many ways, but with each lapse of good sense, they may still offer isolated propositions that are true.
In this example, Schori indulges in multiculti speak, offering the Bantu word, Ubuntu, as unadulterated, primitive wisdom. In this, she follows type; decadent Westerners have looked with naive longing toward their designated noble savages for centuries—a sort of modern version of the medieval fascination with Prester John. She furthermore distorts the insight that she does have by overstating the case. For we do exist as individuals, just as we exist as members of a family, clan, town, tribe, nation, language group, and so on. There is a level of reality of the individual human being that cannot be reduced or subsumed into other levels.
Yet, Schori is getting at something, and her conservative critics appear unaware of the problem that she mentions. For it seems that modern, Western society is the first one that abstracts the individual out of the larger communal context in which most human life is lived. Of course, there have been ascetics and hermits who went into the wilderness to wrestle with demons and to run the good race, but they are few—and even they had to return to the cave to minister unto the blind who constantly sought to bother them with worldly concerns.
I had a theology professor who liked to say that Christians came by the bunch, not by the piece. We are the body of Christ, not a lone soul in a sea of darkness. By nature and by grace, we belong to one another. Humans are social beings, and Christians are even more so corporate beings. As such, Shori echoes the tradition when she questions the “great Western heresy.”
Schori stated, “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 being.” I find no fault in this sentence or in the sentiments that lead to it. A certain form of egotism—of spiritual narcissism—animates the Protestant self-love evident in theologizing that, “Christ would have died just to save me alone.” Whether such is true or not, what sort of spiritual condition facilitates such thoughts?