Monthly Archives: June 2018

Office Lectionary Gaps

I find myself pondering the reasons for gaps in the lectionary of the Daily Office readings. I’m struck by a couple in particular…

What makes these interesting is that I’m not looking at the currently lectionary, but the original 1928 Daily Office lectionary.

Here’s one: 2 Samuel 11:2-4a, and 12:1-7,9-10,12-13a

That’s the David and Bathsheba story. The big chunk missing makes sense—that’s the full narrative that doesn’t focus on the specific sins of David here. What draws my eye immediately is the odd single-verse gaps, the omission verses 8 and 11. Here they are:

verse 8: [Nathan to David] And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.

verse 11: Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.

So, it seems like the polygamy of David is at issue here—but wouldn’t that seem to be  pertinent thing in discussing his “acquisition” of Bathsehba?

Doubtless the reason for this omission was because this is a reading for a major day—it’s the first reading at MP on Lent 1. I imagine the idea here was to avoid scandalizing congregations with the idea that David was polygamous or at least to distract people with that fact at this point. In all fairness, 2 Samuel 12:1-25 is read in its entirety on the Friday after the 15th Sunday after Trinity so we can chalk this up to Sunday Embarrassment, a feature of Anglican lectionaries since 1561.

What, then, do we make of Joshua 11:1-19, 23?

This is the reading appointed for Friday after the First Sunday after Trinity and is the only time Joshua 11 is read during the year. Let me provide you with some context—here’s 18 to 23:

18 Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. 19 There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle. 20 For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favour, but that he might destroy them, as the LORD commanded Moses. 21 And at that time came Joshua, and cut off the Anakims from the mountains, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the mountains of Judah, and from all the mountains of Israel: Joshua destroyed them utterly with their cities. 22 There was none of the Anakims left in the land of the children of Israel: only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod, there remained. 23 So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD said unto Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance unto Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. And the land rested from war.

It’s the divine genocide section.

Clearly no Sunday Embarrassment going on here because it’s a Friday and not a hugely major one at that. What interpretive principles are at work here, I wonder? I can see that these verses cause a scandal, but for me it’s more important that they’re left in. I believe it’s important that the rough edges remain in the text because they cause us to examine our hermeneutics more carefully: a selectively edited Bible makes it easier to teach and believe a simplistic inerrancy doctrine.


Found another good one… Thursday after the 20th Sunday after Trinity: 1 Kings 2:1-4, 10-27

Like any good bandit chieftain, David leaves behind a hit list for Solomon on his deathbed:

Moreover thou knowest also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, unto Abner the son of Ner, and unto Amasa the son of Jether, whom he slew, and shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins, and in his shoes that were on his feet. Do therefore according to thy wisdom, and let not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace. But show kindness unto the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be of those that eat at thy table: for so they came to me when I fled because of Absalom thy brother. And, behold, thou hast with thee Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite of Bahurim, which cursed me with a grievous curse in the day when I went to Mahanaim: but he came down to meet me at Jordan, and I sware to him by the LORD, saying, I will not put thee to death with the sword. Now therefore hold him not guiltless: for thou art a wise man, and knowest what thou oughtest to do unto him; but his hoar head bring thou down to the grave with blood.



The Lazy Invitation

With General Convention coming up, I’m thinking about Communion Without Baptism again, prompted by occasional mentions of it I see around.

Clearly I’ve got strong opinions on this topic, but it’s occurred to me that I rarely express the real problem with it…

Bear with me here for a moment. My take on it is the traditional and the canonical one: that there is a theo-logical order to the sacraments. Baptism begins an individual’s covenant relationship with the Triune God through the church; the Eucharist nurtures that covenant relationship and helps one grow in intimacy towards a deeper connection with God and all of the other members of Christ. These are two major parts of the sacramental path to discipleship. Following Jesus starts on a whole new level with Baptism, then the rest of the sacraments help us follow that path more clearly and deeply into love of God and neighbor. That’s why I think this whole debate is important. Because it’s about follow-through: at the end of the day, it’s about discipleship.

The parish I currently attend  issues an open invitation to all to the altar. I’m not a fan of that. And, yes, my rector knows that full well. However, I don’t have quite as big of a problem with it at this parish because the clergy are very good at follow-up and emphasizing discipleship. I know that if an unbaptized person starts attending and starts communing, the clergy will begin a discussion with them about getting baptized and getting engaged in the community. No, they’re not doing it right and they’re not following the canons. But, at the end of the day, all of this connects into whether we are about forming communities of discipleship.

Ok—that having been said, the real problem that I have with Communion Without Baptism is the lazy invitation. I think that some clergy and/or congregations welcome anyone to the table because 1) they want to demonstrate to themselves how inclusive they are and 2) because it avoids the hard conversation. Let’s break these down…

1) The Thrill of Inclusivity

One of the complicating factors in this discussion is the question of post-schism Episcopal identity. So few of us are now Cradle Episcopalians. (I’m not.) As a result, we don’t always know what being “Episcopal” looks and feels like. However, a lot of us are refugees from churches that have done us spiritual damage; we may not know what “Episcopal” should feel like, but we sure do know what it shouldn’t feel like! And exclusivity is often a very big part of that, and a major source of past spiritual damage. As a result, there are many Episcopalians who will reflexively choose what appears to be the inclusive option whether it has theological integrity or not. Indeed, I’ve been in Episcopal parishes who will trumpet their inclusivity all day long but aren’t very friendly or welcoming or…inclusive…at all. What’s important to them is their ability to see themselves as inclusive and therefore better than the churches they left.

2) Avoiding the Hard Conversation

What happens if a policy is announced from the chancel that a visitor doesn’t understand? What happens if the priest says in part “…only baptized Christians should receive the Eucharist…” (I say in part because, as I’ve argued at length before, how we invite people is very important and just saying this in this way is not the way to do it) and in doing so offends an unbaptized visitor? The two most likely possibilities is that the offended person will leave to never darken the door of that church again or else they will come with the very simple question: “Why can’t I receive?”Then, that leads to a potentially uncomfortable conversation where the priest has to explain that we actually believe that the Eucharist is important and that the Church has historically maintained rules around who does and doesn’t receive and why. And that can lead to tricky questions about whether we actually believe all of this stuff and what does baptism actually do anyway and do we really believe that Jesus is there in that little cracker in a special way. Which can lead to the look that says, you guys really are crazy and I can’t believe I just wasted a Sunday morning like this…

It also means hitting that point where we have to explain that we actually do believe these things that we say about God and Jesus, but that we don’t believe all of the things that other Christians believe that you may have heard in the media, and, yes, we think you can believe in God and dinosaurs and science all at the same time.

But at the end of the day that conversation has to get to the point where it says that we believe that the little cracker and the sip of wine are life-changing things. That they mean enough that we need to rethink and reshape the way that we are in the world on account of them. That Eucharist and baptism are about discipleship and that means reorienting the way we live. And I think that’s the hard conversation that gets avoided; it’s so much easier to give a lazy invitation instead.

Because you don’t need to have the hard conversation if you can give the lazy invitation. If you get up in front and say “all are welcome, no questions asked,” well—then they won’t be. The questions won’t be asked, and the consequences of these sacraments won’t get discussed.  The follow-through won’t happen. The discipleship will be lost by the wayside. And that’s what worries me about this whole Communion Without Baptism thing.

It’s one thing for a parish to ignore the canon if the follow-through and the commitment to discipleship are there. It’s another thing entirely to try to get rid of the canon, to make a policy of not even asking the question. The sacraments are about discipleship. They’re about how we are converted into the Body of Christ and, from there, drawn into the mind of Christ. That’s why this matters. It’s not about inclusive vs. exclusive—that’s the wrong framing because that’s not a fight I’m even interested in having. It’s about discipleship and whether we are fostering and promoting it or if we’re more interested in taking the easy way out.

Random Antiphonage

Doing some psalm antiphon transcribing.

The fourth antiphon for Lauds on Pentecost—so the one intended to go with the canticle… We all know the Benedicite, right? That’s the one on Saturday morning that never ends. Love this twist on it:

O ye Wells of Salvation, † and all that move through the baptismal waters thereof, * sing praises to God, alleluia.

This is the kind of theo-liturgical play that antiphons offer.

That is all.

Xunzi’s Take on Ritual: Part 2

Here’s the second part of my presentation for the Society of Scholar Priests. Part 1 introduces Xunzi as a pre-modern person interested in how ritual practice forms virtue; part 2 is here, part 3 is looking at classical Anglican liturgy with Xunzi’s thoughts in mind.

(Production on the next Liturgical Look Forward is running behind, but it should be up at some point today…)


I’m going to abstract out of Xunzi’s thought four big picture points.

  1. Human nature is bad; because it’s bad it must be corrected by means of external tools following an external pattern.

  2. The efficacy of ritual lies chiefly in its ability to channel emotion and shape affect.

  3. Ritual is essential, but for ritual to be most effective requires teachers.

  4. Ritual creates a harmonious society by inculcating proper relationships


1. Human nature is bad; because it’s bad it must be corrected by means of external tools following an external pattern.

Mengzi—a Confucian teacher in the previous generation—teaches that human nature is good. Since it’s good, in order to know what is good, we simply have to look within ourselves. Goodness is inate. While our good nature may be corrupted by society or through some other problem, it’s always there and its development is a natural process. Thus, meditation and introspection are key tools for forming the virtues because they enable us to look inwardly and tap into that inherent good nature. As a result, Mengzi can use the metaphor of growth. So, seeds of virtue within human nature will naturally grow. It’s one-directional process and there’s a certain natural inevitability to it. Just like a plant, if human nature is given what it needs and is not interfered with, virtue is going to grow. So, Mengzi can use agricultural metaphors.

Xunzi doesn’t. He’s deliberately setting himself up against Mengzi and he uses no agricultural metaphors for the human spirit or for the acquisition of virtue. Instead of being agricultural, all of his metaphors are about crafts; they’re technological. A piece of clay is never inherently going to become a pot. If you don’t do anything to it, it’s just going to sit there.  In the same way a piece of wood is never going to spontaneously turn into a wheel. Instead, it requires an artisan to steam the wood and use a jig to shape and bend it into a new configuration. These are the metaphors he employs before turning to the construction of virtue within humans.

Someone may ask: if man’s nature is evil, then where do ritual principles come from? I would reply: all ritual principles are produced by the conscious activity of the sages; essentially they are not products of man’s nature. A potter molds clay and makes a vessel, but the vessel is the product of the conscious activity of the potter, not essentially a product of his human nature. A carpenter carves a piece of wood and makes a utensil, but the utensil is the product of the conscious activity of the carpenter, not essentially a product of his human nature. The sage gathers together his thoughts and ideas, experiments with various forms of conscious activity, and so produces ritual principles and sets forth laws and regulations. Hence, these ritual principles and laws are the products of the conscious activity of the sage, not essentially products of his human nature. (Burton, 160)

[All quotations come from Burton Watson’s translation of sections of the Xunzi whom he romanizes as Hsun Tzu]

So—there are two external things at work here. There is the tool and then there’s the pattern. So, there’s the means by which character is shaped, then there’s the pattern of what you’re trying to shape it to. So where do these come from? This is directly related to the question that Lizette Larson-Miller raised in her talk: if liturgy is primary theology, where does liturgy come from? What’s it’s initial source? Xunzi invokes the sage kings of antiquity and points to the rites handed down in the traditional documents:

In ancient times the sage kings realized that man’s nature is evil, and that therefore he inclines toward evil and violence and is not upright or orderly. Accordingly they created ritual principles and laid down certain regulations in order to reform man’s emotional nature and make it upright, in order to train and transform it and guide it into the proper channels. In this way they caused all men to become orderly and conform to the Way. (158)

Well, ok, great—but where did the principles come from?

The former kings looked up and took their model from heaven, looked  down and took their model from the earth, looked about and took their rules from mankind. Such rules represent the ultimate principle of community harmony and unity. (107-108)

Xunzi is invoking a received pattern here. The Five Classics refer to a triad between heaven, earth, and humanity. Each of these has a Way, a Dao. As far as the Daoists—like Laozi and Zhuangzi–were concerned, these three ways are interwoven into one great unnameable indescribable Dao and human virtue consists of cooperating with and conforming one’s life to the Dao of heaven and earth. You align your pattern with the cosmic pattern. Xunzi says, no, that’s not going to work—because if you look at heaven and earth, things aren’t perfect, orderly, and harmonious. The natural world has lots and lots of disorder in it. So as far as he’s concerned, you can extract some principles of right living by the observation of heaven and earth, but humans are the ones who bring order to both heaven and earth. Our job isn’t to passively float along accord to their Dao; instead, we need to discern the patterns, figure out how order needs to be brought, then to accomplish it. Thus the first job of the sage kings is to ask—what’s the cosmic pattern supposed to look like. Where is it orderly and harmonious, and where is it not? What are the patterns that do work? So—from that work of observation the sage kings figure out what the patterns of humanity are supposed to look like.

Next, the tools. Then they abstracted from that big-picture goal what rites and rituals and ceremonies are needed to do the work of shaping people to create virtue. Ok—so how do they figure this out? Here we get to Xunzi’s anthropological principles and to his functional approach to ritual and that leads to our second point:


2. The efficacy of ritual lies chiefly in its ability to channel emotion and shape affect.

Emotion is at the heart of Xunzi’s anthropology: “The basic nature of man is that which he receives from Heaven. The emotions are the substance of the nature and the desires are the responses of the emotions” (151).So, Xunzi sees us principally as emotional beings. We act out of our emotions and our emotions give rise to our desires. Alright so what’s the problem here? Well—here’s where we get to why he says human nature is bad:

Hence any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal. Therefore, man must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles, and only then will he be able to observe the dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the forms and rules of society, and achieve order. (157)

So, this is where I’m going to qualify his language a bit. When Xunzi says that human nature is bad, a precise way to frame it is that human nature is inherently anti-social because our tendency is to follow our desires regardless of the consequences for ourselves or for anyone else around us. That’s our nature: we’re selfish and will live a disordered existence in order to satisfy these desires.

[In many ways, I see his perspective as parallel with an Augustinian post-lapsarian anthropology: while humanity is created good in the image of God, the corruption of Original Sin does make us inherently selfish and disordered—a condition from which we need to be redeemed. Obviously, we and Xunzi disagree on how that redemption happens!]

What do we do about desire? Well, some philosophies said that desires can be extinguished—whether through force of will or meditative training, desire can be stopped. Xunzi had a very clear teaching on this point: “Beings that possess desire and those that do not belong to two different categories— the living and the dead” (150). Desire is not the kind of thing that can be extinguished. Instead, it can be channeled and directed and modulated:

What is the origin of ritual? I reply: man is born with desires. If his desires are not satisfied for him, he cannot but seek some means to satisfy them himself. If there are no limits and degrees to his seeking, then he will inevitably fall to wrangling with other men. From wrangling comes disorder and from disorder comes exhaustion. The ancient kings hated such disorder, and therefore they established ritual principles in order to curb it, to train men’s desires and to provide for their satisfaction. They saw to it that desires did not overextend the means for their satisfaction, and material goods did not fall short of what was desired. Thus both desires and goods were looked after and satisfied. This is the origin of rites. (89)

If the people have emotions of love and hatred, but no ways to express their joy or anger, then they will become disordered. Because the former kings hated such disorder, they reformed the actions of the people and created proper music for them, and as a result the world became obedient. (115)

Music and ritual, then, are the means by which emotions are channeled and expressed in appropriate ways. They take the urges that are going to arise in humans naturally, but they place boundaries and limits on them. He points in particular to the way that burial and mourning rituals function:

Rites trim away what is too long and stretch out what is too short; eliminate surplus and repair deficiency. Extend the forms of love and reverence, and step by step bring to fulfilment the beauties of proper conduct Beauty and ugliness, music and weeping, joy and sorrow are opposites, and yet rites make use of them all, bringing forth and employing each in its turn. (100)

So—rites and music don’t suppress feeling, they direct it. They guide it. Sometimes they may need to temper it, but Xunzi’s starting place is with humans as emotional animals whose responses and anti-social tendencies can be remedied by means of ritual patterns that can model and inculcate proper desires and proper social relationships.

3. Ritual is essential, but for ritual to be most effective requires teachers. 

So—rites are essential. But, they are not self-evident. They can lead individuals in certain directions but are going to be less efficacious if they are not fully understood. You can’t just be self-reflective. You can’t look into yourself and figure out they are or aren’t working because the principles are external to you. You need a teacher to get the most out of them. Here’s the long version:

In learning, nothing is more profitable than to associate with those who are learned. Ritual and music present us with models but no explanations; the Odes and Documents deal with ancient matters and are not always pertinent; the Spring and Autumn Annals are terse and cannot be quickly understood. But if you make use of the erudition of others and the explanations of gentlemen, then you will become honored and may make your way anywhere in the world. Therefore I say that in learning nothing is more profitable than to associate with those who are learned, and of the roads to learning, none is quicker than to love such men. Second only to this is to honor ritual. If you are first of all unable to love such men and secondly are incapable of honoring ritual, then you will only | be learning a mass of jumbled facts, blindly following the Odes and Documents, and nothing more. In such a case you may study to the end of your days and you will never be anything but a vulgar pedant. If you want to become like the former kings and seek out benevolence and righteousness, then ritual is the very road by which you must travel. (20-21)

Learning by itself is no guarantee of virtue. You’ve got to have a teacher. Here’s the short version:

Ritual is the means by which to rectify yourself; the teacher is the means by which the ritual is rectified. If you are without ritual, how can you rectify yourself? If you have no teacher, how can you understand the fitness of ritual? If you unerringly do as ritual prescribes, it means that your emotions have found rest in ritual. If you speak as your teacher speaks, it means that your understanding has become like that of your teacher. If your emotions find rest in ritual and your understanding is like that of your teacher, then you have become like a sage. Hence to reject ritual is to be without law and to reject your teacher is to be without a guide. . . . Therefore learning means learning to regard ritual as your law. The teacher makes himself the standard of proper conduct and values that in himself which finds rest in ritual. (30)

4. Ritual creates a harmonious society by inculcating proper relationships 

Confucian thought is not modern Western thought. It is not egalitarian. Instead it is inherently hierarchical and, indeed, hierarchy is very much seen as a good thing. Kongzi [aka Confucius) himself laid out five fundamental relationships between unequals that must be kept in correct relationship in order to ensure the smooth functioning of society. Xunzi insists that the correct relationships are embedded within ritual:

Heaven and earth are the beginning of life, ritual principles are the beginning of order, and the gentleman is the beginning of ritual principles. Acting on them, practicing them, guarding them, and loving them more than anything else—this is the beginning of the gentleman. Therefore Heaven and earth produce the gentleman and the gentleman brings order to Heaven and earth. The gentleman forms a triad with Heaven and earth; he is the controller of all things, the father and mother of the people. Without the gentleman, Heaven and earth will lack order and ritual principles will lack unity. There will be no true ruler or leader above, no true father or son below. This is what is called the extreme of chaos. The correct relationships between ruler and subject, father and son, elder and younger brother, and husband and wife begin and are carried through to the end, end and begin again. They share the order of Heaven and earth, they last for ten thousand generations. They are what is called the great foundation. The rules that govern mourning and sacrificial rites and the ceremonies of the court and the army are based upon this single foundation.  (44-45)

Men, once born, must organize themselves into a society. But if they form a society without hierarchical divisions, then there will be quarreling. . . . This is why I say that ritual principles must not be neglected even for a moment. He who can follow them in serving his parents is called filial; he who can follow them in serving his elder brothers is called brotherly. He who can follow them in serving his superiors is called obedient; he who can follow them in employing his inferiors is called a ruler. (46)

The patterns in ritual lay out the social scripts for how one is supposed to behave towards those arrayed around you in social relationships. If we live into the ritual then we will be taught the proper kinds of actions and the proper kinds of attitudes that we should use for people all of the way up and down the social scale. This happens most powerfully in full scale, whole community ritual activities.

Most of the time that Xunzi talks about ritual it’s rather generic and in passing. There are only a few specific rites that he goes into detail on. Otherwise he just assumes that we’re familiar with the ritual environment of 3rd century BC China. The two he does dig into in detail have very specific social hierarchy connects. One is burial and mourning rites for parents, the other is a community feast that takes place at a village school. He describes how the host treats the guest of honor, and then how all of the people in attendance are served. He ends his description of it and summarizes the ceremony like this:

When the distinction between eminent and humble is made clear, when the complexity or | simplicity of the ritual is adjusted to distinctions of rank, when there is harmonious pleasure without abandoned behavior, drinking according to distinctions of age but with no one left out, and drinking and feasting without disorder—when these five types of conduct are achieved, they will be sufficient to insure moral training to the individual and peace to the state, and when the state is peaceful, the world will be peaceful. (119-120)

I find this significant. His ideal ceremony for describing what a well-ordered society looks like and how a well-ordered society is formed in the first place is a community feast where everything is done in good order and where no one is left out. It’s really hard for me to read this and not to make the move to the Eucharist! So—let’s go ahead and do that. Let’s move away from Classical China and move into Classical Anglicanism. After making one over-arching concluding point.

For Xunzi, ritual is about moral formation, virtue acquisition, through training a new habitus formed in and through ritual action. Even though there’s a lot of talk about learning, and a teacher is essential to get the deepest meaning out of ritual patterns, the most important thing about ritual is to do it and to gain a new way of being through ritual action. We perform our way into virtue. We don’t think it. Our emotions are trained and modulated and the affections are shaped. This is an incarnate and incarnational process. We’ve mentioned muscle memory several times across presentations. And here it is again. The renewing and redirection of desire is trained through ritual participation and the way we relate to one another is formed through deliberate patterning. Ok—now that we have that piece in place—let’s take a look at some Classic Anglican patterns and practices and see if we can find anything new…

Serious Liturgical Geekery: Part 1

I often post sections or entireties of presentations that I give for various groups—this is one of them.

I was invited to present at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Scholar-Priests this past month on the broad & general topic of the liturgy and formation. This gave me an opportunity to play around with a concept that has been bouncing around in my head for several years and to re-attack something that I had been previously from a new angle.  Because I’m reworking some stuff here that I originally wrote for the SCP conference in Detroit several years ago, there is material here that some long-time readers will likely recognize, particularly in the latter stages. However, there’s a lot of new things too and the new things make the old things more interesting! (I think so, at least…)

This is part 1 of 3; part 2 is looking at Xunzi’s arguments about what ritual is and how it functions; part 3 is looking at classical Anglican liturgy with Xunzi’s thoughts in mind.

So, without further ado…

Whenever I take on a big topic—and Liturgy and formation is a very big topic—I always like to try and get some outside perspective. We tend to get caught up with the usual authorities and in the usual takes on the situation as laid down by the usual authorities based on the usual stances and approaches. So my reflex is to go find somebody else. Somebody who does not share all of the fundamental assumptions that we start from and that isn’t locked into the philosophical constructs of late post/modernity and the combined academic and ecclesial culture of the Episcopal seminary. But yet—still has something interesting and compelling to offer. So, someone disconnected from our conversations but who still has a perspective worth engaging.

Our liturgy and its liturgical cycles are the product of a pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment world. Not pre-technological, not pre-philosophical, but thoroughly pre-modern but in no way does that mean primitive. So, in order to understand the motivations and spirit that had a hand in the construction of our liturgical cycles, I like to find interesting thinkers who were thinking about these topics—ritual, ceremonial, what it all means and why we do it—who are pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment, and pre-modern yet are dealing with these topics in interesting and sophisticated ways.

As a result, I’d like to introduce you to a thinker who will most likely be a new acquaintance to most of the folks here. Xunzi was a philosopher writing in the Confucian tradition right around the fall of the Zhou dynasty and the rise of the Qin. Born around 313 BC, he died in about 238 BC. We don’t have a lot of biographical data about him. He was born in the state of Zhao which is in the northern part of China up on Yellow River. Like many of the sages of the time he bounced around between the governments of the various warring states that existed before the rise of the dynasty that would unite China under a single Emperor, Shi Huangdi, in 221 BC. He was a teacher, a ritual specialist, and a magistrate before losing his position when his patron was assassinated in 238. He retired into obscurity before his own death. His writings are collected in a book known by his name, the Xunzi, divided into 32 essay-length chapters.

To put him in philosophical context, Confucian thought begins with the writings of Kongzi (Confucius) who died in 479 BC and whose writings focused on building a strong and virtuous society grounded in traditionalism, right relationships amongst and within a stratified society, ethical improvement that classified people on a spectrum from petty to gentleman to sage based on their investment in ethical progress. Much of the thought of Kongzi consists of reflection on older books of learning, histories, poetry, and ritual thought to be written by the philosopher kings of old. These are referred to collectively as the Five Classics. So references to the sage kings or the former kings refer to this body of traditional material that was seen as a quasi-divine revelation.

Around the same time as Xunzi, you have the philosopher Mengzi (or Mencius), also a Confucian thinker who advocated a human nature is essentially good and offered a moral and ethic program based on self-reflection. Since your nature is good, all you have to do is look inside yourself to know what is right. Mengzi becomes the central bearer of the Confucian tradition going forward and he is considered one of the four great sages of China along with Kongzi and two other later thinkers who will not appear in this paper.

Also at this same general time was Zhuangzi, whose book bearing his name would become one of the fundamental texts of the Daoist tradition. His basic concept is that there is a way (Dao) or fundamental pattern woven into the cosmos that can be discerned. The true sage is the one who conforms to this great Dao agreeing with Mengzi that human society is often responsible for people losing their way morally and ethically.

So—why is Xunzi interesting at all? Why bother going through all of this? Xunzi represents Confucian heterodoxy—his is the path not taken, and it’s because he fundamentally disagreed with Mengzi. Whereas Mengzi developed his moral thought based on the premise that human nature is good, Xunzi went in the opposite direction. He states clearly, repeatedly, that human nature is bad. I’m going to nuance that in a little bit—that’s his language, which is intended to be deliberately provocative, not mine. What Xunzi does believe is that because human nature is bad, it must be corrected and the ritual is the key. Of all the Confucian writers, he is the one who speaks the most and the most clearly about ritual and about Confucian metapraxis: why ritual should be done, why ritual is important, and how ritual functions as a formative tool to create virtuous individuals and a virtuous society. So here we have a 3rd century BC voice explaining what ritual is, how it functions, and how it creates virtue. He is thoroughly uninvested in our arguments and language games and in our philosophical constructions.

One other very important point about him: Xunzi denies any supernatural efficacy to ritual acts. As far as he is concerned either the gods and ancestors don’t exist or they do not care to intervene in human affairs—he’s kind of analogous to the Epicureans in that respect. Rather, he is arguing that ritual does what it does on its own terms and by its own means—not because a god or ancestor or spirit is functioning supernaturally through it. So, what I’d like to do is get a sense of where Xunzi is coming from, and then take a look at some components of Classical Anglican liturgy from the perspective that he shows us. I’m not proposing any sort of syncretism, of course; in fact, I disagree with Xunzi on some really important points. What I’m suggesting is that looking at how a pre-modern, pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment ethical thinker deeply invested in ritual and ceremony can break us out of our boxes and give us new eyes with which to look at our familiar practices.

Brief Thought on the Sanctoral Calendar

I just finished writing a brief history of the Episcopal sanctoral calendar for another blog (I’ll link when it goes up).

I’ll be the first to tell you that the evolution of our Calendar has been both crazy and problematic. However, I’ve been seeing recommendations on Facebook and in other places suggesting that we just get rid of our Calendar—cut it back to just the Holy Days and take time to think it out, or to not even bother thinking it out.

I have a negative reaction to this proposal. Let me play devil’s advocate and suggest that a flawed Calendar authorized by the church is better than no Calendar. The 1928 BCP, despite a late push at the 1928 General Convention to adopt a calendar, was published with just the vestigal kalendar of Holy Days in place since the 1789 BCP. To me, a New-Testament-figures-only calendar is a betrayal of our pneutmatology and therefore ecclesiology.

We believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Holy Spirit has been at work since Pentecost guiding and directing the Church into all truth. (Obviously, the Spirit was around and active before Pentecost—my point is the Church, which wasn’t…) To skip over twenty centuries of human history is tantamount to a denial of the presence of the Spirit in the Church. Or, at the very least, a dangerous agnosticism about our ability to discern the movement of the Spirit in the past.

We need a Calendar to affirm fundamental Christological, pnematological, and ecclesiological truths: throughout the Church’s flawed and checkered history, the Spirit has been at work, saints have incarnated Christ in their times and places, and the Body of Christ has made Christ Really Present to the world through the members of the Church.

The question that we are faced with now is what exactly we want the Calendar to be. Is the Calendar a history of famous men who taught things we should know? Is the Calendar a representative picture of the kinds of people who make up the Church? or (spoiler alert) is the Calendar a depiction of the virtues of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit incarnated through the Body of Christ (in ways both representative and historical)?

Latest PC section up on Patreon

The latest section of Psalming Christ is up over on Patreon. I’m demonstrating what a close reading of the text looks like, informed by the methods assumed by Benedict and taught by Cassiodorus. It starts like this…


Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the anonymous Master are introducing their monks to a kind of reflective, ruminative reading of a text that occurs at the speed of memorization. That is, it is extremely slow and focuses on details of the text. Reading at this speed and level of attention is not something that modern people are used to—especially not those of us who have to take in large amounts of information every day. As a result, we have to relearn the skill of close reading: reading that pays attention to the grammatical and rhetorical features of a text and that pauses at points to ask questions and double-check our assumptions.

Let’s try a close reading of a psalm—one we know well—and start asking it some questions. Here is the beginning of Psalm 23, perhaps the best-known and best loved of them all:

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. (Ps 23:1-4, NRSV)

Let’s notice a few things up front: first, this translation (like most of them) breaks the psalm into poetic lines. As we discussed before, lines are important sense-units in the psalms specifically because of parallelism; where the line begins and ends is an important part of the thought-structure because it helps us see which words and phrases and ideas are being put into parallel with one another. In the oldest surviving Hebrew manuscript of the psalms, the Great Psalms Scroll from Qumran, each verse is written out on its own line. While the scribe could have fit more words on each page if the words had been written continuously, the line breaks are deliberately retained precisely because they have meaning.

Second, this translation includes a gap between verses 3 and 4. Recognize this for what it is—an interpretive editorial insertion meant to tell us something about the text. That is, this silent decision on the part of the editors suggests that verses 1-3 and verse 4 belong together in a way that verses 3 and 4 don’t. An interpretive recommendation is being suggested by means of the white space. Is worth noting at this point how much leeway editors have in arranging a text. Most of the punctuation that we see in the Psalms is an editorial decision—it’s not in the original Hebrew.

Right up front, the first verse raises two basic questions. . . .

Read the whole post on Patreon.