Monday, December 28, 2009

"The divine nature exceeds each finite good..."

I admit before I start that I am grasping to understand what I read even as I read it and still as I write this, so I beg your pardon for however half formed are the ideas that I am about to present. They are my reflections upon reading an essay by David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite” (which I will quote at length).

Solid comprehension of how the Trinity functions both as a unity and a triunity has plagued Christian thought since the beginning of systematics. We have attacked it with analogy and discourse, but all to often the result is ultimately frustration. Any sense of satisfaction we gain, as with so many of our answers to the most pressing questions (I think particularly at the moment of Anselm’s satisfaction at having finally “proved” God), is always turned to despair upon deeper consideration of the problem. My aim is certainly not to solve once and for all the understanding of how God exists as both three and as one. Instead, I want to address a possible explanation for why we do not and perhaps cannot every fully wrap our minds around how God exists in community and personal unity.

This quote from Dr. Hart originally caught my interest, initially for its complex beauty but immediately after for its provocative content:

“Our being is synthetic and bounded; just as (again to borrow a later theological vocabulary) the dynamic inseparability but incommensurability in us of essence and existence is an ineffably distant analogy of the dynamic identity of essence and existence in God, the constant pendulation between inner and outer that constitutes our identities is an ineffably distant analogy of that boundless bright diaphaneity of coinherence, in which the exteriority of relations and interiority of identity in God are one, each Person wholly reflecting and containing and indwelling each of the others.”

Now certainly it is not a new thought that the nature of God should be reflected in the nature of man. After all, it was the Cappadocians who famously drew analogies between the community of man and the community of God. Such a social understand of God’s nature its relation to the human desire for community is actually quite fashionable now. Less recognized, but no less novel, is the realization that this analogy is “ineffably distant” from the nature of God. When one tries to understand the triunity of God as somehow analogous to three coessential humans, the theological fallout is mind boggling. This tends toward the conclusion that the community of God is so distant from ourselves that not only can we not use humanity as an analogy for understanding God, but we also cannot use our understanding of God’s community as normative for the “ineffably distant” reality of human community.

And, yet, I think both of those conclusions may be overturned when we understand precisely why it is that we are so ineffably distant in our reality from God. Dr. Hart describes the community of God:

“Surely this progression – from the divine nature’s infinite source, through God’s gnosis of himself, to the “conversion” of that recognition into delighted love, into agape – is a description of how the one God, even in his infinite simplicity, eternally conceives his equally infinite image, knowing himself perfectly in his Logos, and so eternally “wills” himself an equally infinite love, so completing his Trinitarian life in the movement of the Spirit.”

Knowledge and love, logos and agape if you will, are the communal acts of God. Through self-knowledge and self-love (in the words of Gregory of Nyssa about whom the article is written “He desires what he possesses, and possesses what he desires”) each Person not only knows Itself and loves Itself but knows the Others, without qualification, and loves the Others, without qualification. In so doing, every movement, every aspect of His being, every inclination of His nature is a total unity which is utterly indivisible. For where there is no distinction of will or knowledge, and where the “aporia that theology much inevitably confront” is solved by seeing God “in terms of the order of relations that distinguish the Persons from one another ‘causally’”, we are left with a totally satisfying, though no less incomprehensible, picture of God.

While still beyond human conception, while still necessitating that we stop before God in silent recognition of our ignorance and insufficiency, this revelation is not totally without merit. For not only can we use humanity’s psychology and society as analogies for God’s unity and community, but we can also reap the psycho-social benefits of understanding what separates our nature from closer analogy to God: namely imperfect knowledge of self and others, and imperfect love of self and others. Human psychology is strewn with the victims of inadequate self-knowledge and self-esteem (or love), and certainly every mental health professional would encourage people to develop both a healthy love of self and a healthy knowledge of one’s own person. Yet, do we ever think that in doing so, we better embody the image of God and more closely mimic what it is to people transformed into his Incarnate Image? The same applies for society. How often do we hear it preached how far a little understanding of one’s neighbor can go towards a peaceful, harmonious, and productive society? Nowhere do I hear, however, about how making the effort to know one another is actually pursuit of divinity, which itself is the perfect exemplar of what it means for Persons to be in fully disclosed harmony with one another.

So while the sinfulness of humanity and the limitations of our nature will always prevent any dramatic ascent towards the divine nature, the perfectness of that nature understood through the ineffably distant analogy of what we know of our own nature (created as it is in His image) can serve as a motivator for the personal and interpersonal transformation of God’s people into God’s likeness. I will leave you with a final quote from Dr. Hart, who clearly expresses his thoughts better than I do:

“We waver between these two analogical orders at an infinite distance from their supereminent truth; and obviously the orders are not separate: knowledge and love of neighbour fulfill the soul’s velleity towards the world, and so grant each of us that internally constituted ‘self’ that exists only through an engagement with a world of others…”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merit Based Education

I am a firm believer in merit based education. As someone who has never felt adequately challenged in a classroom full of people who are my peers only with regard to their age, I am frustrated by the present system which encourages everyone toward academic mediocrity. While I understand the realistic hurdles implementing the below system would entail, I outline below the basics of what I think an ideal, merit-based educational system would look like. The entire system is understood to be public, funded in the same way schools are presently, with all people still having the option of private or home education. The system I describe would hopefully not only aid students in reaching their full potential and thereby cultivate for each generation the best doctors, lawyers, scientists, historians, philosophers, and artists but also properly allocate government resources so that the most tax money was being spent on those who were working the hardest in school and the least on those who are not. The present system which spends X dollars on the next Albert Einstein and X dollars on the next Big Mac “engineer,” while equitable is inefficient and inadequate in my opinion.

Merit-Based Education (An Ideal Scenario)

All education would be standardized, much like it is now in the USA, from Kindergarten to the 8th grade with a general curriculum oriented towards basic proficiency in English, Math, Science, and Social Sciences. Everyone, after all, in civilized society should be able to add two and two, read, write, know the capital of their own country, and understand that babies don’t come from storks. The only difference between the present system and the new system is that every year students would receive three different “grades,” or evaluations, instead of only one. The first would be the standard grade, based entirely on the performance of the student on work assigned and assessments administered. The second would involve teachers K-8 providing a subjective evaluation of each student based on personal interactions and perception of potential. The final evaluation would be in the form of a general, standardized aptitude test that would measure the various intelligences and objectively gauge a child’s potential. At the end of the 8th grade, a cumulative score would be calculated with the three scores from 8th grade having slightly more weight than those from the 7th grade, which in turn have slightly more weight than those from the 6th grade and so on. Every student would be ranked relative to the other students in his or her class, and be presented with four options.

1) A three year program that offers the entire high school curriculum at an accelerated rate.

2) A four year program that offers the entire high school curriculum at the standard rate it is given now.

3) A two year program that focuses on basic life skills and vocational training. It would provide the basics of a high school curriculum in a condensed form with heavy emphasis on electives that teach life and vocational skills.

4) A student may choose to withdraw from school altogether.

Based on the ranking derived from the scores accumulated in grades K-8, students would be given the following options:

  • The top 15% would be granted automatic admission to the three year program, though they would have the option to pursue any of the four courses.
  • The next 35% would be granted automatic admission to the four year program, though they could choose the two year program or withdrawal if they desired. Of these with automatic admission to the four year program, the top 5% could opt for automatic admission to the three year program on a probationary status with continuing enrollment being based on academic performance in the first year.
  • The bottom 50% would be given automatic admission to the two year program, though they could simply choose to withdraw. Of these with automatic admission to the two year program, the top 15% could opt for automatic admission to the four year program on a probationary status with continuing enrollment being based on academic performance in the first year.
  • Any student of any rank could prepare an appeal to be presented to an appeal board in an effort to gain admission into the three or four year program on a probationary status, with a certain quota of appeals required to be granted every year.

A program like this would hopefully solve some of the deficiencies in the present system: maximize potential both for students and tax payer dollars, reduce teacher burn-out, and still maintain a certain degree of charity for anyone who feels in some way disadvantaged by the system.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Revealed in darkness; hidden in the light

The classic stance on the nature of God, one to which I have long subscribed now, is that He is totally transcendent, ultimately unknowable and inaccessible. The greatest spiritual leaders of the Christian tradition (John of Sinai, Gregory the Theologian, Pseud0-Dionysius, and Gregory of Nyssa all spring immediately to mind) conclude their great quests for knowledge and experience of God with the revelation that the closer one gets to God the more that person realizes that He is so very far away. Yet, as I read St. Serafim he seems to emphasize precisely the opposite, that is the accessibility of God for the truly devout man. It seems to me, and you be the judge, that his theology is reacting to the Enlightenment. It is expressed best in these two quotes:

"In our time because of the almost universal coldness toward the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and because of our inattentiveness with regard to the acts of His Divine Providence concerning us, as well as to the communion of man with God -- because of all this -- we have reached a state in which we may be said to have withdrawn almost entirely from the true Christian life."

"Now some people say: '...Is it possible that men could see God thus clearly?' Yet there is nothing obscure here. The lack of understanding is attributable to the fact that we have strayed from the simple vision of the early Christians and, under the pretext of enlightenment, have entered such a darkness of ignorance that we consider inconceivable what the ancients grasped so clearly; even in their common talk, the idea of God appearing to men had nothing strange in it."

He provides a number of proof texts for his point of view, but more interesting to me is the connection I see to the Enlightenment. In an ancient world that had no aversion to the idea of the miraculous and revelation, the unkonwability of God was emphasized. As a reaction to a world that now rejects the miraculous, St. Serafim instead stresses that accessibility of God to the person of true faith, one living the "true Christian life." In fact, his whole theology centers on the acquisition of the Spirit of God as the purpose of the Christian life. God is something gained by the doing of good works in the name of Christ, and trading those good works for grace. In market language, he suggests that the Christian should "Gather up the capital of the blessed abundance of Christ's Grace, [and] deposit in the eternal bank at a rate of interest unmeasurable in earthly terms." God is not only accessible, but his blessings are commodities that can be traded at a favorable rate for the Holy Spirit.

It makes me think about two things. First, it strikes me as ironic that now, as we live in a time of darkness, God should be viewed as accessible, not only by St. Serafim, but by Pentecostals, Holiness churches, other charismatic groups, and anyone who conceives of God more as a friend and less as an untouchable monarch. Second, I wonder if perhaps, in his fervor, maybe St. Serafim hasn't quite gotten back to what "the ancients grasped so clearly," that even the most precise language cannot begin to grasp God, much less the crude language of modern economics.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Polygamy: The Bible as a Cautionary Tale

Polygamists have always been able to muster good biblical evidence for their lifestyle, much to the consternation of many Christian monogamists. In addition to the striking absence of any prohibition of polygamy or any positive command for monogamy, polygamists rally to their cause the great figures of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. One is left to wonder if Christians have any grounds for an ethical prohibition of polygamy, if monogamy really is ordained as the exclusive form of marriage. Nevertheless, a brief analysis of the relevant texts should prove more than adequate to demonstrate that even the Bible sees polygamy as an inferior marital system.

Abraham, the father of all patriarchs, is possibly the most notable example and consequently the one turned to most often. Yet, recalling the story, it is remembered that Sarah only gives Hagar to Abraham out of desperation and necessity for the procreation of children. (Note that the actor in this situation is the wife, thrusting the second wife on the husband.) As soon as this necessity passed, as soon as Sarah had a legitimate heir of her own womb, the bigamous marriage became the number one source for tension in the marriage. Sarah turns violently on Hagar and her son, demanding that Abraham exile them both – a command not so unreasonable in Sarah’s mind given her role as the instigator in the marriage. Abraham’s great precedent as a polygamist involves his wife compelling him to take a second wife and then later rescinding that order and driving the second wife away. His polygamy is little more than the capitulation to the frantic whims of his wife.

Two generations later, another of the greatest figures in Jewish history, the namesake for the nation will become a bigamist. How can this be held up as an example? Jacob’s intention all along is to marry only Rachel. He only marries Leah as a result of Laban’s trickery, and is forced to work an additionally seven years before he can marry the woman he truly desires. What’s more, the tumultuous tale of Jacob’s children is predicated on the dysfunctionality of his marriages. Just as Rachel had been favored (if such a weak word may be used to describe how one might feel if he was tricked into marrying the unattractive sister of the girl he loved) so too were her children. The marriage that should have been and the children that should have been receive the love that should be given to one’s children, prompting the disaffected children to perform the most despicable act contrary to fraternity since Cain killed Abel. This is the family dynamic the Bible depicts for polygamy.

Very little is said about the wives of David except the manner by which he acquires them. Michal, the king’s daughter, is the prize of a particularly gruesome attempt by Saul to trick David into his own death. Abigail comes to be David’s wife after her secret rendezvous with David gives her first husband a heart attack. In the meantime, David has been estranged from Michal who was married off to another man. Later, David will demand her back from her husband who loves her enough to follow her on the road weeping at his loss only so that he may condemn her to a life of conjugal exile.

The example of Solomon should never be used as a defense for polygamy, and for my part I have never seen it employed such. Just because it paints the practice in a bad light, however, is no reason to exclude it from the discussion. Chapter 11 of 1 Kings begins “Now King Solomon love many foreign women…” What sounds at first like a list of sexual conquests that would put to shame even the most imaginative boys in high school locker rooms is in fact the basis for Solomon’s personal apostasy, the division of the nation, and ultimately the exile of God’s people. Solomon is reported to have more than outdone Joseph Smith having married 700 wives and 300 concubines (which, if you think about it, is more than enough women to have a different ménage á trios every night for well over a year). The text very bluntly states “his wives turned his heart away.” Certainly it was not the multiplicity alone that did it but the diversity. Nevertheless, the divided loyalties so prominent in the Jacob cycle have been extrapolated to their extreme level here: Solomon’s most important loyalties are ultimately divided as a product of his polygamous relationship.

There are others of course. The story of Elkanah leaps to mind, with one of his wives (described in the text as the other’s “rival”) brutalizing the other on account of her barrenness. What’s more, there are certainly positive supports for monogamy, such as the exclusivity of the archetypal marriage. After all, just as God didn’t make Adam and Steve, God didn’t make Adam and Eve and Lucinda. Thus, while the lack of direct prescriptive statements in the text about polygamy might prevent some (myself included) from classifying the practice as totally impermissible, the biblical exemplars for polygamy are less exemplary. It can be safely asserted that the ideal biblical view of marriage at all times (yes even in the times of the Patriarchs) is a monogamous one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers

The first quote is St. Ephraem's prayer at the end of his Life of Saint Mary the Harlot. The rest are from the Apophthegmata Patrum:

Have mercy upon me, Thou that alone are without sin, and save me, who alone art pitiful and kind: for beside Thee, the Father most blessed, and Thine only begotten Son who was made flesh for us, and the Holy Ghost who giveth life to all things, I know no other, and believe in no other. And now be mindful of me, Lover of men, and lead me out of the prison-house of my sins, for both are in They hand, O Lord, the time that Thou shalt bid me go out from it elsewhere. Remember me that am without defence, and save me a sinner: and may Thy grace, that was in this world my aid, my refuge, and my glory, gather me under its wings in that great and terrible day. For Though knowest, Thou who dost try the hearts and reigns, that I did shun much of evil and the byways of shame, the vanity of the impertinent and the defence of heresy. And this not of myself, but of Thy grace wherewith my mind was lit. Wherefore, holy Lord, I beseech Thee, bring me into Thy kingdom, and deign to bless me with all that have found grace before Thee, for with Thee is magnificence, adoration, and honour, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

A certain brother while he was in the community was restless and frequently moved to wrath. And he said within himself, "I shall go and live in some place in solitude; and when I have no one to speak to or to hear, I shall be at peace and this passion of anger will be stilled." So he went forth for himself with water and set it on the ground, but it happened that it suddenly overturned. He filled it a second time, and again it overturned; and he filled it a third time and set it down, and it overturned again. And in a rage he caught up the jug and broke it. Then when he had come to himself, he thought how he had been tricked by the spirit of anger and said, "Behold, here I am alone, and nevertheless he has conquered me. I shall return to the community, for in all places there is need for struggle and for patience and above all for the help of God." And he arose and returned to his place.

A brother asked a certain old man, saying, "Would you have me keep two gold pieces for myself against some infirmity of the body?" The old man, seeing his thought, that he was wishful to keep them, said, "Even so." And the brother going into his cell was torn by his thoughts, saying, "Do you think the old man told me the truth or not?" And rising up he came again to the old man, in penitence, and asked him, "For God's sake tell me the truth, for I am tormented thinking on these two gold pieces." The old man said to him, "I saw that you were set on keeping them. So I told you to keep them; but indeed it is not good to keep more than the body's need. If you had kept the two gold pieces, in them would have been your hope. And if it should happened that they were lost, how should God have any thought for us? Let us cast our thoughts upon God; since it is for him to care for us."

A certain old man dwelt in the desert, and his cell was far from water, about seven miles; and once when he was going to draw water, he flagged and said to himself, "What need is there for me to endure this toil? I shall come and live near the water." And saying this, he turned about and saw one following him and counting his footprints; and he questioned him, saying, "Who are you?" And he said, "I am the angel of the Lord, and I am sent to count your footprints and give you your reward." And when he heard him, the old man's heart was stout, and himself more ready, and he set his cell still farther from that water.

The abbot Cyrus of Alexandria, questioned as to the imagination of lust, made answer: "If you have not these imaginings, you are without hope. For if you do not have imagination thereof, you have the deed itself. For he who fights not in his own mind against sin, nor gainsays it, sins in the flesh. And he who sins in the flesh, has no trouble from the imagination thereof."

An old man saw one laughing, and said to him, "In the presence of Heaven and earth we are to give account of our whole life to God; and you laugh?"

Athanasius of holy memory sought the abbot Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria; and when he had come down, he saw there a woman that was an actress, and he wept. And when those who stood by asked him why he had wept, he spoke. "Two things," said he, "moved me. One, her perdition; the other, that I have not so much concern to please God as she has to please vile men."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cultural Particularlism vs. Occasional Particularism

The beautiful and problematic thing about modern biblical exegesis is that it has been molded, formed, beaten, and contorted so thoroughly into conformity with the principles of linear logic and scientific empiricism that there is little mystery left to the academic reader of the New Testament. Exegetical quibbles have been reduced to just that, largely meaningless arguments over the minutest points of grammar and syntax. One would think that with such substantial agreement on the original intent of the text among exegetes (that is those who think such an intent can even be determined with any degree of certainty) that unity would be the natural outgrowth of this uniformity.

Yet the weight of division has now shifted to hermeneutics, where the force of enduring meaning now lies. Where before the argument was "How can any rational man understand this any other way?" the problem now is "Given that we all see this the same way, how do we justify our differing applications of it?" The postmodern question is no longer "What does the Bible say about X?" but "How do we apply what it says about X?" (Or, from my admittedly cynical viewpoint, "How do we contort what it says about X so that it conforms to what we have already decided to do?")

Growing up, the most common hermeneutical method I encountered (and shamefully even employed myself) was cultural particularism. What the Bible said had to be strained through the filter of culture to uncover the kernel of enduring truth. When Peter wrote about submission to one's government, it was only his particular cultural catalyst that caused him to make the statement (i.e. the perception of Christians as treasonous promoters of civil unrest). When Jesus commanded the rich to sell their possessions and give them to the poor, this had to be understood primarily in terms of a culture where the rich became rich by unchecked exploitation of the poor (totally unlike today). It would be unconscionable to think that the American Revolution might have violated Peter's injunction to submission or that rampant Western materialism was diametrically opposed to Jesus' very strict teachings on earthly possessions. Somewhere in those cultural commands were glimmers of eternal principles that could be held to, if only nominally, without interfering with the progress of modern man.

This approach effectively made the Gospel socially and (to some degree) ethically impotent. Every command was a cultural command, and therefore could be explained away to some extent by the social milieu of the time. The socio-ethical demands of Jesus and the apostles had only as much force as could be retained if every cultural aspect was stripped away. The theology remained, but the practical implications of that theology were completely up for interpretation. As long as the Greco-Roman culture was never perfectly replicated, the plain sense of the New Testament had no command force for Christians. (Curiously, this led some to try to seize parallels between modern culture and Roman culture as a basis for simple interpretation of Scripture. This was something taught to me even still as an undergraduate, and while the ends are noble in my opinion, the means fall into the same specious logic they are trying to correct.)

I have noticed, however, a shift from this hermeneutic of cultural particularism to one of occasional particularism. The recognition (or dare I say over-recognition) of the ad hoc nature of biblical writings has caused the culture in which the documents were written has been reduced to secondary interpretive status and the occasion surrounding them made primary. Prohibitions against homosexuality which had been countered with references to a society that rejected the practice (something which is categorically false) are now ignored on the grounds that Paul was undoubtedly talking about rampant cult prostitution in the given church and therefore opposing paganism, not homosexuality. Regulation of women to subordinate roles in worship in 1 Timothy 2 which had previously been sneered at as vestiges of a lost, patriarchal time are now upheld as necessary - but nonetheless irrelevant - counters to a situations where the gynecocracy of the Artemis cult had spilled into the church. Now, it is no longer necessary to reproduce the entire culture of the Greco-Roman world in order to directly and plainly apply the Scriptures. Now only a similar occasion must arise for the text to once again have plain, normative force. Thus has the text of Scripture been saved for modern application.

Or has it...

As lacking as the system of cultural particularism was, it had one thing that occasional particularism does not: a solid common base for discussion. While the basic contours of Greco-Roman culture and history are more or less canonized in the minds of historians, the particular occasions of the New Testament documents are not. While there is objective grounds on which one can argue about the social perceptions of homosexuality in the first century, there is no consistent way to address what precisely comprised the Colossian heresy. Hermeneutics has moved from dismissing the normative force of Scripture on the basis of concrete historical facts to dismissing it on the basis of imaginative reconstructions of particular situations. The whole process is logically unsound. We use X (which we don't understand by our own admission) to determine the content of Y (about which there is no concrete external evidence) so that we can use our theory of Y to understand X. If the mathematical analogy seems convoluted, it is because it is.

Let me propose something radical. A canonical Christianity (that is any Christianity which has respect for the normative force of the Bible as it stands) requires a belief in the enduring nature of its commands. While I respect and employ both methods of cultural and occasional interpretation, I recognize that the Bible was formed as such because it contained eternal commands normative for the church centuries after the documents were written. If the occasion is the defining hermeneutical principle, why did the church select these documents to represent their canon of faith centuries after these occasions were completely forgotten? If the culture is the defining hermeneutical principle, why did rural Gauls, urban Alexandrians, Judeans, Romans, and Greeks all unify around this corpus of literature in a time when its particular culture had been lost to the memories of their ancestors? If the Bible is defined primarily by its culture and occasion then it never exists (which I imagine is fine for those who use these hermeneutics to get out from under the Bible's authority). Rather than saying "What was the culture or occasion of this document so that I can rightly apply it?" I propose the new question "How can I honestly apply this text in spite of the fact that I am not in that occasion or culture."

The Bible has not acted as normative for two millenia in the Church because it has had a static culture (in any respect) or because there has been a convenient recycling of relevant occasions. It has endured because its lays out the eternal principles of faith and practice. A hermeneutic that embraces this fact is a hermeneutic I can embrace.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jesus: Jewish Hero Par Excellence

In working my way through Robert Alter's Art of Biblical Narrative for class, I came across a proposal of his that I found striking, though not for the reasons Alter intended it to be. He proposes that there are in the Old Testament a number of narrative type-scenes, literary motifs which are repeated so often that there repetition must be deliberate. These scenes, according to him, were so ingrained in the literary tradition that their inclusion was expected, their alteration suggestive, and their omission telling. He enumerates these six recurring motifs:
  • Epiphany in a field
  • Betrothal scene at a well
  • Annunciation to a barren mother
  • The initiatory trial
  • Danger in the desert and the discovery of a well/sustenance
  • The testament of the dying hero
In reading that list, I was struck by how clearly those motifs seem to be incorporated into the Gospel narrative. Alter alludes to this with regard to at least one of his type-scenes (or perhaps more...I admit I'm not finished reading the book yet), and I imagine that someone has written extensively on this. I have not, however, seen or interacted with that literature. So forgive me as a I fly blindly and try to work through just how I see these conventions of the heroic literature of Israel's past being incorporated and reworked into the story of Jesus to depict him as the Jewish hero par excellence.

In The Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter alludes to the Christian appropriation of the annunciation theme, but does not go into detail about how it is employed or what it might mean.

Throughout the Hebrew literature, the scene is extremely familiar, even to the casual reader of the Old Testament. In Gen 11:30 we learn that Sarah is barren. In Gen 18, God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. There He announces to him that Sarah will have a child, despite being nearly 100 years old. In Gen 25, Rebekah is barren, but when Isaac prays to God, she becomes pregnant with twins. God speaks to her, explaining the fate of her two sons. 1 Sam 1 tells of Hannah's childlessness and oppression. While praying, she is approached by God's representative and who blesses her before she finally conceives Samuel. The motif spills over into Luke 1 where Elizabeth is both aged and barren, but an angel prophesies the birth of her son.

In each case, the barren mother is miraculously with child, and not only a child but one who will be a great hero in Israel's history. Alter notes earlier in his book, not in connection with these type-scenes, how even the story of Judah and Tamar can be understood as a woman taking her childlessness into her own hands. She overcomes and gives birth to a progenitor of David. Isaac, the child of promise, Jacob, the namesake of Israel, Samuel, the greatest judge of Israel and the anointer of David, and even David in a radical revision of the motif. The greatest heroes of Israel's history are conceived through the greatest miracles of God, against all odds. They are unique even before their birth.

And yet Jesus is greater. A named messenger comes to Mary and announces to her that she will give birth to the greatest of Israel's heroes, the Messiah. As had been the case with Sarah, as had been the case with Elizabeth, Mary answers with doubt. After all, she is a virgin. But the angel reminds her that the power of God overshadows all else. The God who has proved in the past that He needs neither fertility nor youth to create will prove once and for all that He alone is the Creator. In a way that was truly unprecedented, God would overcome an impediment greater than had been overcome with Isaac and Jacob and Samuel. From before his birth, the very conception of Jesus is shown to be in the line of great Jewish heroes, and yet a cut above the rest. The revision of the "barren mother" motif serves to punctuate to totality of God's power and foreshadow an epic career that would transcend any other. The virgin birth is not merely a scientific oddity, no matter how the modern mind would like to reduce it to that, but an organic link between Jesus and the heroes of Israel's past as well as a definitive statement about his place in the pecking order.

Like I said, the observation is almost certainly not novel, and doubtless you can already see the other motifs threading through the Old Testament into the story of Jesus. Nevertheless, I intend to pick this up again in another post at another time. Until then...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

An Earnest Prayer For Taking the Eucharist

"You have vouchsafed me, O Lord, that this corruptible temple, my human flesh, should be united to your holy flesh, that my blood should be mingled with yours, and henceforth I am your transparent and translucent member. I am transported out of myself. I see myself such as I am to become. Fearful and at the same time ashamed of myself I venerate you and tremble before you." -- St. Symeon the New Theologian

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Wisdom of Helmut Thielicke

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians is one of the most insightful and convicting works that I have ever managed to read in less than an hour. Weighing in at a meager 41 pages (in my edition), Thielicke has nevertheless squeezed a wealth of wisdom into his work. The quotations I'm going to provide by no means do the whole book justice. I recommend this "exhortation to spiritual hygiene" to every aspiring theologian and every lay person who has a distrust of scholarship or theology.

"Theological thinking can and ought to grip a man like a passion."

True theologians "think within the community of God's people, and for that community, and in the name of that community."

"Dialectic and paradoxes are the way a law-abiding church's thought overcomes the most monstrous frictions."

Overzealous theologians "have smothered the first little flame of a man's own spiritual life and a first shy question with the fire extinguisher of their erudition."

"Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other man who does not know this and that. I have greater possibilities and also greater temptations. Anyone who deals with truth - as we theologians certainly do - succumbs all too easily to the psychology of the possessor. But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is self-giving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself."

Of the proper use of theology when correcting another: "The purpose of his action was not to impart to the other man some understanding of what we theologians are driving at, or to lead him gently beyond the stage of his previous knowledge, but to render him helpless - this person who because of his previous education could not be equal to this literature set before him - and to suffocate his perhaps very simple objection to the historical-critical study of the Bible by throwing over them an overbearing and imposing blanket of arguments. Here truth is employed as a means to personal triumph and at the same time as a means to kill, which is in the starkest possible contrast with love."

"...history reconstructed apart from faith cannot possibly be the foundation of faith..."

"To express this in another way, theology can never "prove" preaching, but it has the same outlook as preaching; it is also a witness, only with other methods and means."

"Esoteric concealment on the perfidious ground that "I can't expect the people to be equal to this" could even lead to that offense against those least, for which Jesus coined the momentous picture of the millstone."

"My plea is simply this: every theological idea which makes an impression upon you must be regarded as a challenge to your faith. Do not assume as a matter of course that you believe what ever impresses you theologically and enlightens you intellectually."

"I don't believe that God is a fussy faultfinder in dealing with theological ideas. He who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological reflection. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life."

"Before the young freshman has really looked at the cornerstone of the Biblical story of salvation, for example, the story of Creation, and the account of the Fall, before he has come to know the Alpine peaks of divine thoughts in their majesty, he is made familiar with the mineralogical analyses of that stone. But anybody who studies geological formations on maps and graphs, and learns mineralogical formulae from a set of tables before he ever climbs the Alps, is hardly in a position to comprehend at all what the Alps are."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Being a Better Grape Picker

I would like to reproduce Step 10 of John the Scholastic's Ladder in toto because it was so profoundly moving for me, but time and copyright laws mitigate against that. Instead, I will offer up a few excerpts that were particularly potent.

The tenth step on St. John's Ladder of Divine Ascent is about overcoming slander. Slander here is not used in the modern sense of false, defamatory remarks. Instead, we slander one another, according to St. John, when we point out each other's sins either privately to another or even in our own hearts. It is a practice so commonplace and so thoroughly rationalized that to hear it called slander is a little galling. Yet, St. John more than adequately makes his point. I'll let him speak for himself.

"Slander is the offspring of hatred, a subtle and yet crass disease, a leech in hiding and escaping notice, wasting and draining away the lifeblood of love. It puts on the appearance of love and is the ambassador of an unholy and unclean heart."

"There are girls who flaunt their shamelessness, but there are others who are much worse, for they put on the appearance of great modesty while secretly engaging in abominable behavior [i.e. slander]."

"I have rebuked people who were engaged in slander, and, in self-defense, these evildoers claimed to be acting out of love and concern for the victim of their slander. My answer to that was to say: 'Then stop that kind of love, or else you will be making a liar out of him who declared, 'I drove away the man who secretly slandered his neighbor' (Ps. 100:5). If, as you insist, you love that man, then do not be making a mockery of him, but pray for him in secret, for this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord."

"Do not allow human respect to get in your way when you hear someone slandering his neighbor. Instead say this to him: 'Brother, stop it! I do worse things every day, so how can I criticize him?' You accomplish two things when you say this. You heal yourself and you heal your neighbor with the one bandage."

"Anyone untrammeled by self-love and able to see his own faults for what they are would worry about no one else in this life. He would feel that his time on earth did not suffice for his own mourning, even if he lived a hundred years, and even if a whole Jordan of tears poured out of his eyes."

I write this not as an exhortation to others but as a public form of self-conviction, an acknowledgement of the depth of my own guilt in this area.

I wrote previously on the remembrance of our sins. There I argued that only once we truly appreciated our sins could we truly appreciate God's grace. Here, St. John expands the value of an acute awareness of sin. When I truly recognize the depth of my own depravity, how can I even begin to look down on the sins of anyone else? I know that I would prefer, as he said, that people who saw me sinning would pray secretly for me rather than discussing my sin with someone else or even holding a record of it in their own hearts. I hope for my part, that the next time I consider making a passing comment to my wife about some girl's immodesty, I will remember this: "A good grape picker chooses to eat ripe grapes and does not pluck what is unripe. A charitable and sensible mind takes careful note of the virtues it observes in another, while the fool goes looking for faults and defects."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

You Put Blasphemy on Pagan Lips

Have we truly grasped the dire consequences of our substandard ethical witness?

"For the Lord says:....'Woe to him on whose account my name is blasphemed.' How is it blasphemed? By your not doing what I desire. For when the Gentiles hear from our mouth the oracles of God, they wonder at their beauty and grandeur; afterwards, when they find out that our works are unworthy of the words we speak, they turn from this to blasphemy, saying that it is a myth and a delusion. For, when they hear from us that God says: 'It is no credit to you, if you love them that love you, but that it is a credit to you if you love your enemies and those who hate you' -- when they hear this they wonder at its surpassing goodness; but when they see that not only do we not love those who hate us but not even those who love us, they laugh scornfully at us, and so the Name is blasphemed." - Pseudo-Clement, So-Called Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Church of the Spiritual Orphans

"A man who is travelling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and gets none of the good of his journey." - John Cassian

The modern "Discipleship Movement" has left a bitter taste in many mouths. Certainly the aptitude for abuse which was realized in many of those churches is a legitimate concern to have when broaching the issue of spiritual mentoring. Admitting that does not in any way excuse us, however, from addressing the serious issues that exist in the modern church with regard to the spiritual development of individuals. The spiritual growth of children is entrusted to their parents, but from the point of earliest adulthood forward, modern Christians seek accountability from their peers and receive instruction almost exclusively through impersonal means (i.e. from a pulpit). I would suggest that neither of these practices is in the best interest of the believer.

The rugged individualism of the West in general and America in particular has lead to a belief that your soul is in your own hands and in the hands of God. To place it in anyone else's hands would be to abdicate somehow our responsibility for it and surrender our control. In reality though, the inability to accept direction is nothing short of arrogance. The truly humble person accepts that there are those in whose hands his or her soul might be better off. This does not equate to the total abdication of responsibility, only the acceptance of guidance.

There have been attempts to correct the arrogant misconception. Some have formed small groups which allow for community and accountability, as well as mutual guidance. Others have opted for a more personal means, electing to have peers in whom to confide and to whom to confess, affording the same courtesy to their peers. Yet both of these practices fall short.

If two men are climbing a mountain, the one who is higher up holds the rope for the one below, supporting him and pulling him ever upward. If two men are walking through a forest, the one who is ahead calls directions out to the one who is behind. If two students are going through school, the one who has had the class already tutors the one who is currently taking it. It would be insane to have two men at the same point on a mountain and expect one to pull the other up. It would be unreasonable to have two men standing at the same point in the forest and expect one to tell the other what is ahead. It would be pointless to have two students who have never taken the class and expect the one to tutor the other. The same flaw exists in any peer support system. The growth is necessarily stagnated by the shared developmental level. Nothing can substitute for an older, wiser mentor.

What would the church look like if spiritual infants were adopted by parents rather than orphaned? At some point it isn't enough to teach generic lessons from a pulpit. At some point it isn't enough to confess sins to someone who doesn't know how to overcome them any better than you do. At some point it isn't enough merely keep faith alive. It must be nurtured, it must be attended to personally, it must be labored over, it must be loved into maturity by those who are already mature. What would a church look like that embodied Titus 2? The old women would teach the young women what it means to be good wife. The old men would teach the young men what masculinity really means. The body of Christ would take responsibility for itself, not in some nominal, disinterested way where the right hand says, "I sure hope the left hand doesn't fall off," but having instead a genuine anxiety for the well being of all.

The concerned Christian should always have one eye forward to see where good Christians have gone before and one eye back keeping faithful watch on those who are coming up behind. In that way we can stand in one unbroken line, on one unbroken path and never have to fear, as John Cassian says, travelling in the wrong direction and achieving nothing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The grace of God has ruined us...

...or at least encouraged us to ruin ourselves.

Let me explain. The sola gratia impulse of post-Reformation Christianity has created a religious culture where the emphasis is on God's grace and not human responsibility. In view of the depravity of the human condition (be it inherent or by the free exercise of our will) and out of respect for the extraordinary nature of God's grace, we declare - and rightly so - that there is nothing we can do to affect our own salvation. A man can never offer up so many good works as to make God awestruck by his righteousness and thereby earn his salvation. Similarly, a man can never be so utterly depraved that he is somehow out of reach of God's redeeming grace. Yet, these ultimately valid truths leave the question of how to respond to our sin hanging unanswered in the air.

Cheap grace is the answer we accept in practice. Taking sin as an inevitability, we accept it when it happens. We may feel a twinge of guilt. We may wish we could go back and change the past. The diligent Christian might even go so far as to try to pray for forgiveness each time he catches himself in sin. But if we are being honest, most of us cannot be bothered.

How often when doing something we ought not be doing are we gripped by the fear that some one will find out? Why is it that we never cease to invent new ways to keep our sin private for fear that we will be caught? How foolish! We have already been caught. The God against whom we sin is the God who sees our sin when it is hidden to everyone else. We fear our friends, our spouses, our families will discover our darkest sins, but why are we not gripped with dread to know that God sees them?

St. John the Scholastic put it this way: "We should be afraid of God in the way we fear wild beasts. I have seen men go out to plunder, having no fear of God but being brought up short somewhere at the sound of dogs, an effect that fear of God could not achieve in them."

We are so comfortable in the knowledge that God will forgive all of our sins, that we trivialize them. But how can we trivialize an affront to the very Maker of all that is and was and will be? How can we so easily take for granted a gift that was obtained with such difficulty? How can we treat so cheaply a redemption that was so costly?

Again St. John said, "The man turning away from the world in order to shake off the burden of his sins should imitate those who sit by the tombs outside the city. Let him not desist from ardent raging tears, from wordless moans of the heart, until he sees Jesus Himself coming to roll back the rock of hardness off him, to free the mind, that Lazarus of ours, from the bonds of sin."

How much more rightly would we understand the gift of grace if we first understood the gravity of our sins? When we sin it is not merely a breach of some human code but a violation of the Divine Will for humanity. When we fall, it is not by our strength that we stand again but by the strength of a God who was willing to be struck down on our behalf. When we sin, do we allow ourselves to suffer in accordance with the gravity of your transgression, or have we fallen totally into apathy?

It is my ardent prayer that we will all remember this: the immensity of God's grace was first and foremost necessary to blot out the immensity of our guilt.