December 21, 2012
Catholic tradition, Christianity, Christmas, Demonic Possession, Jesus Christ, Meaning of Life
Advent, Birth of Jesus, Charlie Brown Christmas, Christ, Christmas, Epiphany, God, Gospel of Luke, Jesus Christ, Kierkegaard, Santa Claus, The Incarnation
Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I think my favorite Christmas special is the Charlie Brown Special, in which Linus reads from the Gospel of Luke–the story of “what Christmas is all about,” and at the end the children sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The theme of the show was against the commercialization of Christmas. That trend has continued to the point that for retailers, “Christmas” begins in September. That is a shame. For Western Catholic Christians, Christmas begins December 25 and continues until January 5, and then there is the Feast of the Epiphany (the coming of the Wise Men) on January 6. The time before Christmas is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, with the focus being on the Second Coming more than the first.
For orthodox Christians of whatever stripe, Christmas is about the coming of God into man, in which God Himself, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born as a baby in a manger over 2000 years ago. The notion of a being who is fully God, fully man is an offense to many in the intellectual classes–Kierkegaard recognized this in his writings. The belief seems absurd. Yet the Christian faith teaches the coming of the eternal into time, the infinite into the finite, the God-man. Because of that, sin and death are overcome and human beings have not only the hope of salvation from sin, but of salvation from death. Salvation is far more valuable than anything than Santa Claus can bring! I have no problem with children believing in Santa Claus as long as they are taught the true meaning of Christmas–God, born like the rest of us, as a newborn baby who grew up, struggled as we do with temptation, taught a “more excellent way,” was crucified, died, and was buried, and was raised from the dead. Now God the Son remains incarnate, fully God, fully man, for all time. It is an incredible message, that is for sure. I believe it to be true. For those readers who also believe it to be true, consider the wonder of it and thank God for the gift of Himself for us.
June 25, 2012
Catholic tradition, Christianity, Mysticism, St. Thomas Aquinas
Christian mysticism, Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Church, Huston Smith, John of the Cross, LSD, Meister Eckhart, Mysticis, Mysticism, Psychedlic Drugs, R. C. Zaehner, Scotus Erigena, St. John of the Cross, St. Julian of Norwich, St. Theresa of Avila, Stanaslav Grof, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas Aquinas, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Contrary to a common stereotype, mystical thought has always played a role in the development of Christian thought, just as it has in other religious traditions. While eschewing Gnosticism, Neoplatonist pagans such as Plotinus were used by Christian writers, and the Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings could be called mystical works from a Christian perspective. The Eastern Orthodox Church has emphasized contemplation, and this trend became dominant during the late states of the Eastern Roman Empire just before Constantinople was taken by the Turks in 1453. In the Western Church, St. John of the Cross, St Julian of Norwich, and St. Theresa of Avila were only a few of the great mystics. The Church has taken care regarding mysticism, not in order to make life difficult for the mystics, but to make sure that the teachings of the mystics were in line with Christian teaching. St. Theresa of Avila gladly submitted to that rule and did not begrudge it–anyone with doubts should read her writings. There were a few exceptions, but this was not due to the authors’ mysticism. The problem was the teachings of certain mystics seemed to conflict with the teachings of Christianity. I am not sure if Scotus Erigena was a mystic, but he was clearly a pantheist, and while not formally condemned, his position was stronger than the alleged panentheism of Meister Eckhart–Erigena clearly identified God with the universe in his dynamic pantheistic system. Meister Eckhart, on the other hand, believed, as far as I can follow his thought, that the was a good Thomist–if every contingent thing that exists is radically dependent on God, then without God all contingent things are literally no-things. Thus God is all in all. Eckhart’s teachings could be a form of panentheism, and one could even interpret them in terms of classical theism. In my judgment, Eckhart’s heresy trial was based on a misunderstanding of his teachings.Mystics tend to emphasize the untiy of all things in the One, and sometimes they seem to subsume creation into God so that God is the only reality and contingent things are unreal. R. C. Zaehner has argued that Christian mysticism always kept the God-world distinction in the background while Eastern mysticism did not. That is a widely disputed point; many writers would claim there is a strong cross-religious and cross-cultural commonality to religious experience. Huston Smith has argued that within a religious tradition that approves their use, psychedelic drugs may be a way to reach the transcendent. From a very different perspective, Stanislav Grof has argued that high doses of LSD can put some persons in contact with transcendent reality. Even the majority of mystics who do not use drugs use fasting, chants, and other methods to focus the mind. However, as William James notes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, there is a passivity to mystical experience–ultimately it is a gift of grace. James is also correct in noting the ineffable quality of mystical experiences. It is not that mystics cannot communicate anything about their experience–otherwise, why would they write books about mysticism–but that language does a poor job in communicating the experience. In December 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas told his secretary that he had a mystical experience of God of such power that everything he had written before was “straw.” He died shortly afterward in March 1274.
Mystics also have a sense, as James noted, of certainty that the experience they had was real. The experience itself does not last long; James is probably not far off the mark when he states that most experiences last less than half an hour. These special gifts of grace are the height of the contemplative (Mary-type) life as opposed to the more practical Martha-type life. The church requires both.
Christian mystics should always keep in mind the fact of the incarnation (as did St. Theresa of Avila). Matter is good and redeemed by God through Christ. Any mystical experience that denies the goodness of matter is heretical from a Christian perspective. What mystical experience tells Christians, among other things, is how small we human beings are in comparison with God. Even the Beatific Vision will not result in anything close to a complete knowledge of God. It is good for humans, who have a tendency toward pride and arrogance, to realize their smallness, their nothingness, in the face of Existence Itself.
June 2, 2012
Catholic tradition, Christianity
Bible, Catholic Church, Christian, Church Fathers, Holy Tradition, HolySpirit, Orthodox Church, Private Interpretation of Scripture, Private Revelations, Richard Hooker, Theology
Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The great seventeenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker once lamented the strange teachings that arise when Christians accept their own private interpretation of scripture over the tradition of the church. The result is practically seen today in 200+ major Christian denominations and over 20,000 total groupings of Christians in the United States alone. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the very beginning of the church was that Holy Scripture, while worthy to be studied by any Christian, does not find its final interpretation in the individual. Individuals are prone to error and often misread the Biblical text in terms of their own desires. Thus the Holy Spirit, through the Church Councils, the Creeds, the Fathers, and the Bishops, has guided the Catholic Church into all truth and set the boundaries of acceptable interpretation of Scripture.
A corollary of private interpretation is the tendency of some Christians to assert that “God laid a burden on my heart…..” or “God spoke to me, and therefore…..” It may be the case that God did speak to the person, but such revelations should not be accepted uncritically. I am very careful to make a claim about any private revelation–I prefer to say that God speaks to me through the Sacraments, through His Word in Scripture and in Tradition, and through the consensus of the Church as a whole. Thus, if I were to feel as if God spoke to me, I would determine first of all whether that alleged communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If not, the “revelation” was either of my own (usually selfish) desires or a revelation from a source hostile to God. It is all too easy to justify our own selfish desires by appealing to “God told me I should do x, and it is so amazing that x is what I wanted to do in the first place.” Thus the alleged “revelation” becomes a justification for selfish, prideful, sinful behavior that “cannot be questioned” for “how dare you question the voice of God who spoke to me.” The problem is that God does not contradict Himself, and He would never command a person to violate His expressed will in Scripture, tradition, and His Holy Church. “Prove the spirits,” the Bible says, to determine whether they are genuine. Otherwise, our fallen, sinful nature will take over and we will mistake our own voices for the voice of God.
March 10, 2012
Anger at God, Atheism, Catholic tradition, Colleges and Universities, Ethics, Leon Kass, medical ethics, religion, Richard John Neuhaus, Roman Catholic Church
Ethics, Hans Jonas, Hastings Center Report, James Gustafson, Leon Kass, medical ethics, Paul Ramsey, Philosophy, Religious Ethics, Richard John Neuhaus, Roman Catholic Ethics, Secularization
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A few of my medical ethics students (not by any means the majority) object to my including such a large component of religious ethics in my teaching. Such an attitude is not surprising–it is another instance of religion’s increasing exclusion from public life and debate (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus‘ “naked public square,” but it is nevertheless disturbing. The founders of the great Hippocratic tradition of medicine (and ethics) were Pythagoreans, and their thought cannot be understood apart from Pythagorean mysticism. Roman Catholic scholars were producing texts in medical ethics as early as the seventeenth century, and taught medical ethics as a university course long before the contemporary bioethics revolution began in 1966. Roman Catholic concepts such as the principle of double effect and the ordinary-extraordinary care distinction have become a part of the ethical vocabulary in medicine.
In addition, Protestant scholars, such as Paul Ramsey and James Gustafson, have made important contributions to medical ethics. Jewish scholars, such as Hans Jonas and Leon Kass, have also contributed to the field, with Professor Kass serving as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. Muslim scholars are beginning to be published in both mainstream medical and in medical ethics journals. At a practical level, understanding diverse religions is important for any health care provider.
The terms of the debates over key bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia cannot be adequately understood without understanding the religious arguments involved in these debates. I am not denying the possibility of a consistent secular ethics; I am saying that, as a matter of fact, de-emphasizing the religious aspect of medical ethics is irresponsible, period, and would be more irresponsible for me from a scholarly/teaching point of view.
What is more disturbing than students’ attitudes, which may be as much due to lack of exposure to alternative views (especially for those students who are “rabidly secular”), is the increasing exclusion of religious points of view from medical ethical debates. This exclusion is not absolute; journals such as the Hastings Center Report occasionally publish articles from a religious perspective, as do some other journals in medical ethics, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The false Enlightenment assumption that religion is only a private, subjective matter is part of the problem. Such a view reveals utter ignorance of the function of religion in personal behavior and in society. As one of my teachers at UGA once said, “I would never be such a damned fool as to claim that religion is only a private matter.” He was a liberal Protestant and not a raging Fundamentalist, but he understood the function of religion to be inherently social. He also understood that religions make claims about reality, and such claims can be broadly tested against human experience in general, although there will always be an element of faith and of mystery in religion.
Increasingly, I find a small group of students who could be called “misotheists”–they hate God or at least the notion that any Creator exists. Since these are mostly science students, I would guess they were encouraged to believe such things by some of their science teachers, as well as by the strict methodological atheism of modern and contemporary science. Far too many science teachers make sweeping metaphysical claims regarding religion being a superstition and claim that such a view is “scientific.” Of course this is really the philosophy of “scientism,” the view that science can explain all reality and that any reality claims that go beyond a mythical “scientific method” are, by their very nature, not part of reality. Such a view needs to be justified by argumentation, but neither the scientists who accept scientism nor students are willing to present arguments–their hostility to religion is palpable. Other students (and atheists and agnostics in general) are angry ex-religious people who have rebelled against, perhaps, a harsh religious background (or maybe they just want to get laid and don’t want any religion to get in their way). Since misotheism is, like scientism, an emotionally-based position, there is no rational way to get most people who hold such views to think them through.
I admit I’m frustrated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a religious believer who teaches in a college or university. They follow the logic of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, adopting not only its positive side (toleration for different points of view) but also its negative side (the total secularization of the academy). Even in religious schools, the logic of the Enlightenment leads many faculty be be atheists or agnostics and to minimize the role of religion in public life. It is sad that this attitude has spread to future health care providers.
February 7, 2012
abortion, bureaucracy, Catholic tradition, Freedom of Religion, Health Care, religion, Roman Catholic Church, The American Left, totalitarianism, United States of America
abortificants, abortion, anti-Catholicism, Anti-Christian Bigotry, anti-religious bigotry, artificial contraception, Barack Obama, Catholic Church, Department of Health and Human Services, Faith-based, Freedom of Religion, H. Tristram Engelhardt, Obama, Roman Catholic Church, totalitarianism, United States Department of Health and Human Services, United States of America
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The United States Department of Health and Human Services mandated that employers offer health care insurance to employees that includes payments not only for standard birth control, but also for abortificants. Faith-based organizations are not exempt from this mandate. The Roman Catholic Church is resisting this mandate, as well they should, and since abortificants are also paid for, all faith-based groups who oppose abortion are being forced to violate their beliefs. I have no doubt that the social democrats and socialists who read this post will disagree, which is their right. What about the right of a faith-based organization to establish employment benefits in line with its beliefs? H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., a bioethicist and physician at the Baylor College of Medicine, has argued for ideological pluralism in health care choices. That is, if someone accepts abortion, she can buy insurance through a company that accepts abortion. Roman Catholic groups could have what Engelhardt calls “Vaticare” or something like that. Now Engelhardt is a Classical Liberal who is consistent that pluralism be respected. What the government is doing is the equivalent of telling “Vaticare” or similar organizations that their beliefs be damned. The government will now tell you what to do, and if you don’t like it, suck it up. The result, if this rule is not overturned, will be a mass closing of faith-based organizations that help a significant number of people.
Although Mr. Obama has tended to be a friend of Wall Street and warmongers, his ideological roots are strongly Marxist, and, I would claim, totalitarian. The fact that he is no more totalitarian than Dubya does not change the fact that Obama desires as much power as did Mr. Bush. Regulatory agencies have been one way that government can gain power without legislative approval. Congress should establish a conscience clause in the health care bill in order to allow for faith-based organizations to offer insurance to their employees consistent with their own beliefs. To do otherwise would be another step toward a “social democratic benevolent” dictatorship that the most radical on the left wing desire. Although this is by now a tired cliche, it remains true that freedom of religion was never construed by the founding fathers to mean freedom from religion. I am pleased that Eastern Orthodox Bishops (The Council of Canonical Orthodox Bishops) as well as conservative Protestants have joined the effort to reverse this rule change. I hope they succeed.
November 14, 2010
Catholic tradition, Exorcism
Anneliese Michel, Catholic Church, Catholic Church in the United States, Demonic possession, Exorcism, Exorcism of Emily Rose, Ouija
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At http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/a-shortage-of-exorcists is an article concerning the shortage of exorcists in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Apparently a number of dioceses have reported a need for more bishops and priests trained in exorcism. Why is there such a demand?
A skeptic might answer that superstition is spreading throughout the U. S. and a greater number of exorcisms is evidence of increased credulity. Such a skeptic might also claim that exorcisms are risky because they are a form of malpractice in treating those who are really mentally ill.
Another option is that demons (fallen angels) not only exist in reality, but that they can also possess a person who is spiritually vulnerable or who invites the demon in either by corruption of character or by intentional or unintentional invitation. Those who saw the original version of the movie The Exorcist may remember that Regan, the possessed child, became possessed after playing with an Ouija Board, in which the demon pretended to be a playmate and called himself “Captain Howdy.” Some individuals believe that using an Ouija Board, or even using other forms of automatic writing, invite entities in, and that not all of those entities are friendly.
There is also the possibility that, with God’s permission, a demon could possess the body of a good person, as was the case in the movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The idea was that if Emily Rose manifested the demon in such a way that people could not deny its existence, materialists would be open to the possibility of a spiritual world that is beyond the material. And that opens the possibility not only to the existence of demons, but to the existence of God. I do not know if the priests involved in the “real Emily Rose case,” the exorcism of Anneliese Michel, had such an end in mind. It seems to me that they sincerely tried to help her, but unfortunately she died of dehydration and starvation during the exorcism.
Why does there seem to be an increase of apparent demonic activity in the U. S.? I believe it is because the United States is becoming more and more a “Me! Me! Me!” society. Selfishness and pride are the primal sins, and they are always destructive. Humans are naturally social animals, and attitudes that harm family and other social relationships can be one causal factor in mental illness. Another possibility, which is a live option for me, is that the self-centered attitude of many Americans is a way of inviting demons into their lives in a more direct way. If that is the case, and I believe that it is, then more Americans are becoming possessed by demons–literally. Does that mean that all exorcism cases are of the demonically possessed rather than of the mentally ill? Of course not–in my judgment, Anneliese Michel, for example, suffered from mental illness and was not truly possessed. But having talked to priests who have extensive experience with exorcisms (and could not mention specific cases but referred in general to the things they had witnessed), priest whom I trust, I believe that some exorcisms succeed in expelling a real demon (for you philosophers, I do mean “ontologically real,” literally) from a possessed person.
Christians should not dwell on fears of being possessed, but should focus their lives on becoming Christlike with the help of God’s grace. As for unbelievers, it may be that God is allowing demonic activity to show, as William Peter Blatty tried to show through his novel The Exorcist, that there is a spiritual realm. In an ironic way, then, demon possession can result in bringing a nonbeliever or a doubter closer to Christian faith.
September 16, 2010
Anglican Catholic Church, Anglicanism, Catholic tradition, Christianity, parapsychology, psi, psychical research
Anglican Catholic Church, Anglicanism, Catholic Church, Christianity, Fundamentalist Christianity, Orthodox, psychical research, Religion and Spirituality, Speculative Theology
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Over and over I hear opinion leaders say that traditional religion is constricting, and I will admit that some forms of traditional religion are. Radical Islam, radical Fundamentalist Christianity, and other fringe movements have given traditional religion a bad name. But I found since entering the Anglican Catholic Church in 1989 that orthodox Christianity is freeing, not binding.
All my life I have been a thinker, a philosopher, someone who wonders at the hows and whys of the world. Growing up in Fundamentalist Christianity was not healthy for that kind of thought. But neither was my short stay in liberal Protestantism. For liberal Protestantism, there is no place to set one’s feet. Sands shift, opinions blow in the wind, and the only heresy is orthodoxy. Speculation without some foundation from which to speculate turns into anarchy, which is every bit as imprisoning as Fundamentalism. Contemporary liberal Protestantism reduces Christianity to a distortion of social justice, with the mantra of “race, class, gender” the only words that its brainwashed adherents can speak. To say that there is anything about Christianity that is important other than the political will get you excommunicated from liberal Christianity. I felt like a puppet on a string–I had more intellectual freedom in Fundamentalism.
When I discovered orthodox Anglicanism, I discovered the richness and breadth of the Catholic tradition. Within the boundaries of the great Creeds–the Apostle’s, the Nicene, and the Athanasian–and under the teaching of the bishops on moral and theological matters I could speculate to my heart’s content as long as such speculation did not become an idol. Within Christian orthodoxy, I can accept any metaphysics compatible with the basic teachings of Christianity. I am a Thomist along the lines of the late Fr. Norris Clarke of Fordham University, but I could hold many other metaphysical frameworks and still remain an orthodox Christian. There is even room for psychical research and parapsychology–even the most traditional Anglicans have been generally open-minded about psychical research in England, and European Roman Catholics, including Pope Pius XII, had no problem with research on electronic voice phenomena. If someone at the Rhine Center or SPR asked me how I could be such a traditional Christian and still accept psi and be open to the existence of ghosts, I would ask that person, “Why not?” Orthodox Christianity has boundaries, of course, but knowing those boundaries makes me comfortable in exploring what I can within those boundaries. The world remains full of wonder, and like a child I can explore it to my heart’s content as long as I remain within the limits God has set. I am grateful for that.
August 24, 2010
Catholic tradition, Christianity, Churches of Christ, Liturgy, worship
Catholic Church, Christian Church, Christianity, Liturgy, Mass, Religion and Spirituality
One of the worst trends in contemporary Christianity is the destruction of the historic liturgies of the Christian Church. The Roman Catholic Church is slowing returning to a more traditional liturgy, but in most places the post-Vatican II degraded English translations of the Latin Mass live on. I have a St. Andrew’s Missal from the 1950s that contains, along with the Latin Mass, wonderful English translations of the liturgy in King James style English. It reminds me of the beauty of the pre-1979 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Not only has the language been bastardized, the beauty of ceremonial has been suppressed in many churches. But even churches with very little ceremonial have taken good order out of their worship services. The Churches of Christ in which I grew up had a certain beauty in the simplicity and good order of the worship service. Now they are trying to copy the Evangelical’s poor taste, with bad 1970s-style songs projected on a screen along with a free flow of emotion inconsistent with things done “decently and in order,” as St. Paul put it.
As worship becomes bastardized, so does one’s view of God. God is no longer the transcendent (yet immanent) being who created the universe and who inspires awe; God becomes just another beer buddy (without the beer in many Protestant Churches). If any of us saw God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit face to face, we would fall to the ground in awe. Yes, God is our friend, but not a friend in the sense of a buddy who watches football with the guys around a big screen television. Traditional worship, including the traditional King James style language of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, lets us know that God is not man, that God is Holy, set apart from sinful man, even redeemed sinful man. The beauty of order in worship reminds us that “God is not the author of confusion”; He created the world in good form and order. Ceremonial and incense lifts our bodies and souls beyond the ordinary to the Holy. Most contemporary worship does not lift our souls and bodies any more than a large rock on the ground.
Clergy reply, “But we have to keep our young people!” Yet why are traditional Latin masses in the Roman Catholic Church filled with young people? In its bid to become “relevant” in worship, the church has not only lost the dimension of the transcendent; it is not even “relevant.” I think it was Peter Kreeft who said something like “Satan didn’t see a need to give the church atheists, so he gave it liturgists.” I tend to agree.
August 15, 2010
Biblical inerrancy, Catholic tradition, evolution and creation, historical-critical method
Bible, Biblical inerrancy, Catholic Church, Catholic tradition, Christian Fundamentalism, Christianity, evolution and creation, historical-critical method, Religion and Spirituality
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Education can be a painful experience for those who are brought up in Fundamentalist Christianity, especially if they are exposed to evolutionary biology and/or to historical-critical Biblical studies. A surprising number of seminary students graduate either as atheists, agnostics, or as liberal Protestants or Roman Catholics who believe few if any of the standard teachings of Christianity such as the bodily resurrection of Christ.
For me, seminary almost destroyed my faith–and this was a theologically conservative seminary! When I was exposed to historical critical study of the Bible, my former belief in the inerrancy of the Bible in all areas, including science and history, became a thing of the past. And the growing evidence for biological evolution, including evidence for human evolution, convinced me that my literal understanding of Genesis was flawed. When I graduated in 1986, I was an agnostic on the existence of God.
My journey back to faith began with reading the writings of Peter Kreeft and C. S. Lewis. These theologically conservative Christians were neither strict Biblical inerrantists, nor did they deny the findings of modern science. C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, even stated that he believed many of the miracles of the Old Testament were myth and probably did not actually happen. My journey culminated in 1988, when I became a member of the Anglican Catholic Church. Their belief is that the Bible is inerrant in all things necessary for salvation; this does not require absolute inerrancy regarding science or history. And since tradition and reason are used to interpret scripture, the Church sets the limits of required belief–the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds and the dictates of the seven ecumenical councils up to Nicea II in 787. What cannot be proven from scripture (as interpreted through the lens of tradition) cannot be required for salvation. So belief in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the general resurrection of all mankind are essential teachings of the church. But absolute Biblical inerrancy on scientific and historical matters are not. It becomes possible to be both theologically conservative and a non-Fundamentalist on scripture. The Church is also open to the best science of the day; it does not deny biological evolution. Evolution is thought to be the method God used to guide the development of life on earth. Creation and evolution, therefore, are not contrary to one another, but complementary.
Too many Fundamentalists give up their faith when faced with education rather than considering a third alternative. But accepting a strong doctrine of the teaching office of the Church (as do Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and traditional Anglicans) does offer a third way between Fundamentalism and liberal theology. Don’t throw out the baby of traditional Christian faith with the bathwater of nonessential opinions.