By The Rev. Dr. Harmon L. Smith
Grace and peace and hope to all of us from God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
My mother and father were life-long Methodists, and we were a deeply religious family that took regular church going, praying, and hymn singing as routine practices. Then as now, ‘religion’ could mean both sectarian and nonsectarian civic values and practices. Churches were socio-cultural institutions of communities of like-minded people with designated holy places, practices, organizations, and ancient texts whose stated purpose was to relate us to God the Father of Jesus. And all that agreed with thinking that ‘ligio’ is the Latin root of religion because ‘ligio’ referred to broad social obligations towards everything including rulers, family, neighbors, and the gods. In sum ligio means decorum and etiquette and that, as I knew them, identified churches.
I wasn’t long into my preparation for ordained ministry, however, before I began to learn that ‘religion’ can mean something else. First, there is no scholarly consensus about precisely what the word means. As I’ve said, in the ancient world and roughly until the late middle ages, the Latin root ligio signified individual virtue that meant good manners and social niceties that we call etiquette. But when religio entered the English language in the 13th c. it meant a life in bonded or yoked communities, literally ‘a bound life’ like in a monastic order. Then only 3 centuries later religion defined the jurisdiction and orbit of church and civil authority.
Then I spent much of my adult life researching, writing, and teaching about what is now called ‘civic or civil religion’. These progressions of ligio were interesting but not persuasive – and I favor the derivation of ‘religion’ from another Latin root, ligare, that means to ligate – to re-connect, re-bind, or re-member. Ligare is what happens when a broken bone gets reset and bound so that it’s affiliation to the whole body can be restored. And that understanding suggests that religion re-stores. re-connects, re-ligates us to a prior relation with God that we have damaged or broken by sinning.
That meaning is both scriptural and reasonable. It’s the message of Easter as well as St. Augustine’s definition of religion: God created human beings, and specifically the human mind, in his own image for kinship and fellowship. I find that understanding of both creation and re-demption theologically persuasive. But being bound, as in captivity, can be inhibiting and stifling a well as healing and restoring. Binding is a restraining function to be sure, but it can also be liberating in that it repairs what was broken. Altogether that is a more accurate theological understanding of how we are related to God – or as Paul puts it, how we are simultaneously bound and free.
From the beginning, as you know, a large problem emerged for Christians. We were originally a Jewish sect and that meant inheriting the traditions of the Law and the Prophets. While that tradition offered liberation from false gods and freedom to embrace the Law, it also bound the Israelites to God by keeping The Law. It was the same with Roman law and the em-peror. By the most commonly accepted count there are 613 commandments in the Bible, so it’s unsurprising that in both the OT and NT there are robust debates about which Law is first and above all other commandments. Is it circumcision, or keeping the Sabbath, or the law of Sacrifi-ces, or some other law? What is the law above all laws?
As early as the 4th c. Leviticus had stated why Jehovah’s commandments should be obey-ed by placing the imperative in an indicative: “you are to keep these commandments because I am your God” and then added “You must not hate your brother in your heart…but you must love your neighbor as yourself”. Later, in his 7th c. farewell address to the Israelites at the end of their exodus from Egypt as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses delivered not only the Decalogue but also the Shema: “Hear this, Israel, Jehovah is our God, Jehovah alone: and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might”. So the Bible is clear – this is not a natural law – we are to love God and neighbors for no other reason than that God commands it. And we know the rest of the story. In the end people rebelled, wrote their own laws, created idols to worship, and practiced the dictates of their own hearts. In return God punished them but did not abandon them.
The Law was meant to reorient us to God – from apostasy and alienation to fidelity and friendship – to his purposes for us in his original creation – to show that he loves us despite our apostasy. But mere obedience to the Law became more important than loving the God who gave it. Our history is deeply rooted in that history and these underpinnings were problematic for Jewish-Christians early on. Paul used the Law and the Prophets in Galatians to support the truth of Jesus’ revelation, but no one who has read Romans would say he believed the Church was under the Law. In Jesus’ Farewell Address, he tells his disciples that it is their responsibility to preserve his legacy when he is no longer bodily present with them because his Spirit will not be given to the entire world. When asked ‘what is the most important Mosaic law’, his response was ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind’, and the 2nd most important is ‘love your neighbor as much as you love yourself’. And then he added, ‘Everything in the law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments”. Everything, he said! And Christians say these words hold special authority and are above all other commandments because they express the authority of Jesus himself. So this single commandment is the entirety of the requirements of the Decalogue and summarizes the moral life.
Some complain that this is the most difficult of all the commandments – the hardest to understand and translate into specific acts. On the surface it appears to be two commandments but we remember that Jesus responded to a scribe in Mark saying the two parts go together – and we call them a single commandment and believe they are inseparable, So what would you say it means for us to act out this commandment. It is among Jesus’ last words to the disciples imme-diately after their ‘Last Supper’ together on the night before his crucifixion when he tells them that ‘I will know who loves me by who keeps my commandments’.
The other 612 promulgate specific laws and Jesus says that the Great Commandment is first among all of the commandments – and I spent most of my adult life exploring how this one can help us know how to respond to the urgent moral issues in our time – stealing, lying, politics, whether to open the country or keep it locked down, abortion, surrogate parenthood, racism, economics, sexism, dying and death, genetic intervention, and now a viral pandemic that is progress-ing from fear to hysteria. What I learned is that the best single place for Anglicans to look for help is not in dense theological treatises or pro-found liturgical commentaries, although both of these are immensely useful. The best single place for Anglicans to look is in the astonishingly rich resources of our books of common prayer.
Nine prayer books have evolved in the more than 400 years since the first one appeared in 1549, and their ethical and moral teachings have remained remarkably stable. What is key and constant in all of them to date is an emphasis on the habits of virtue that mark a life of obedience and holiness. So they have steered clear of dogmatic lists of prescribed behaviors. The conceptual center of our prayer books is not a set of laws but a scriptural, reasonable, and traditional un-derstanding of the gospel. What our tradition teaches is not a list of laws like the Decalogue, but a life of intentional and personal holiness that is nurtured in common prayer that binds us together that places moral choices directly on our personal consciences and ethical principles – even when we are separated by distance or a pandemic or whatever;
So if we ask ‘what specific guidance does our prayer book say about abortion, lying, suicide, stealing, adultery, and other behaviors that we customarily say are morally wrong’, we learn that while General and Diocesan Convention resolutions may say a lot, the BCP says very little. Alternatively, if we ask ‘what does the prayer book say about service, unity and constancy, obedience, peace, love, faithfulness – about resisting evil and respecting the dignity of every person’ – that is what the ethical teachings of the prayer book are about. In fact, all of the BCPs are rich resources for underwriting the virtues and godly graces that are indicative of a holy life.
I also learned that the genius of Anglican Christian ethics and moral theology is a special gift from our earliest theologians: scholarly priests who wrote our prayer books, emphasized personal conscience formed by catechesis rooted in scripture, ‘right reason’ that is formed in shared commitments shared commitments, the practice of prayer, and a ‘practical divinity’ that is directed toward “the perfection of the stranger” and the glory of God. And between various extremes, a via media that advocated nothing in excess and moderation in both thought and action. All of that means there is no definitive code of required behaviors.
Meanwhile, perhaps most prominent among the ways the prayer books answer how we act out loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind and loving our neighbor as we love our-selves are the liturgies for the 7 sacraments. They tell us what God does for us and expects from us. Notice, e.g., how straightforward are the questions addressed to candidates for Holy Baptism. “Do you renounce Satan and all the forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you turn to Jesus and accept him as your personal Savior?”
Nowhere is the candidate instructed to say how, he or she will do these things. The response is only that we will do them – saying simply “I do” or “I will, with God’s help”. It’s the same with “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and “will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human person”? And it’s much the same in the other sacraments. The Catechism adds “God does not limit himself to these rites; they are (also) patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us”.
When St. Thomas Aquinas appropriated the wisdom of Aristotle, he showed Christians that we can be enabled to actualize our potential imago Dei by being directed and formed in right habits. That’s how our prayer books answer the old debate about whether being or doing comes first. And it reminds us how, very like our being Southerners or Northerners or Westerners or Easterners, we learn to know who we are as Christians by participating in common sets of rituals, ceremonies, practices, and rites that convey to us an inherited set of shared traditions, commitments values, and virtues. That. I think, is the main reason we have so much missed being together in person to worship these past several weeks. We have appreciated having the monthly Titusian, streamed services, phone calls, and all the other severed connections, but we miss being together because we are not religious hermits. So one of my habits now is to pray every day, reading your names from our church directory, believing that helps me stay in touch with you.
From the 17th c. to the present, our answer to questions about specific behaviors is that God’s life becomes our life in ways more diagnostic than prescriptive – more pastoral than juridical – more indicative than imperative – as personal acts reflecting our formed consciences in obedience to our formed faith. The prayer books do not embrace a doctrine of total depravity so we have no need for a corresponding code of behavior. We affirm a ‘fall’ that has severely damag-ed but not obliterated God’s image. Sin only makes sense to us in light of what we have learned about what is contrary to God’s purpose for us as we know that in Jesus the Son. Or as Julian of Norwich put it in the latest Titusian, “if we never fell, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we are of our self, and also we should not fully know that marvelous love of our Maker”.
This separation is going to end. We are social creatures and we need the company of each other. And in anticipation of realizing that hope, we personally remember each other in prayers, continue to embrace the riches and resources in our prayer book, and privately practice its several disciplines and rites. Every one of these can be a great comfort to us in our relative isolation; and they can be constant reminders of how we obey the Great Commandment and learn how to act it out – even when we are sequestered and scattered. So I believe, especially in a time of anxiety and quarantine, that all of these are helpful ways to encourage us to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and our neighbor as we love ourselves. – and they are good reasons to give God thanks for the great gifts we honor and celebrate as Jesus’ legacy. So say Deo gratias with me. Alleluia! He is risen. And thanks be to God. Amen – so be it.