Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If I may be deliberately oversimple for a moment...

Erring on the side of simplicity is not exactly my trademark, but if I may deliberately oversimplify for a moment: Christianity is, at its core, the faithful affirmation of the paradoxical. This is clearest in Christianity's two most critical dogmas. The Christian must affirm that:

  • God is one, and God is three.
  • Jesus was fully human, and Jesus was fully divine.
Those dogmas not only do not make sense, they seem to be deliberately contradictory. And why not? The closer one looks at Christianity, the more it becomes obvious that the faith revels in contradiction, takes supernal delight in constant paradox.

God makes exceedingly great demands on His followers. After all, "small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" makes the cut. For some people, God demands truly supernatural feats, like passing large even-toed ungulates through pinholes. He tells me that if I am struck, I am not allowed to strike back. He tells me that if my spouse mistreats me, neglects me, and rejects me that I am not allowed to break the bonds of marriage and seek another spouse. He tells me that I cannot indulge the sexual urges He has embedded in me. He tells me that I no longer have any claim to things that I "own," but all are at His disposal. I have to love my enemies, give what I have worked for to those who have not earned it, repress my thirst for pleasure of various kinds, and (perhaps worst of all) give up one day a week to warm a pew.

While affirming the truth of the above, it is impossible to not equally affirm that God makes absolutely no demands of His followers. After all, adoption into God's family is "not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." God demands absolutely nothing from you. Otherwise it would not be a "gift of God" freely given. The same Lord who says "small is the gate" says "my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

It's a paradox, and it is by no means unique. I am called to love my enemies, but also to hope in the coming vindication of a just God. I am called to deny this world in favor of the one to come, but also to work actively in the world. I believe that God is immortal and that he died. I believe that He works in all things and that He preserves the freedom of man's will. I believe that He is self-sufficient and that He yearns for my love in a way similar to the way I yearn for His love.

And if I may go even further down this path of oversimplification, I think many of the controversies that have embroiled the church could be solved if only we would remember the devout faith of the early church in the paradoxical nature of ultimate truth. In the course of my recent readings, I have seen every manner of human contrivance conspiring to rip apart the church. Only in abandoning the strictures of human reason can we adequately express the truth of a God Who we must universally affirm transcends human categorization. The best way to express this ineffable divine mystery is in silence. Since, however, there no virtue more lacking in theologians than silence it is best to embrace our Christian heritage and express the great Truth in sets of paradoxical truths.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Note in Passing

The more I read of Protestant Scholasticism, the more I feel the prayer of Jesus echoing inside me, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to little children in accordance with Your good pleasure."

Friday, February 19, 2010

On the Intrinsic Value of Self-Restraint

There are a great number of things about which I think I would believe differently if I were not a Christian. (Truthfully, I think it is either a self-deceptive or a worthless sort of faith that says, "I would believe everything I do now whether God affirmed those beliefs or not.") For example, I think if my understanding of the nature of sexuality were not tempered by an understanding of divine intentionality, the practical outworkings of those views would likely lead to some form of sexual libertinism. Similarly, while I think I would still be in some sense be a complimentarian regardless of my faith, I think the nature of that belief would be significantly altered. I certainly would not hold the absolutist views that I do about things like lying and violence, for example, without my faith.

I say all that in order to contrast it with my beliefs about the intrinsic value of self-restraint. One of the hallmarks of Christianity (a hallmark, not a foundation - I clarify knowing that I have officially spent too much time immersed in Protestant scholasticism) is the ability of the will to restrain the corrupt impulses of our nature. For Paul this is expressed in terms of a constant battle between the spirit and the flesh, a fight against the will of his members in which he is perpetually engaged. For Paul, as well as thousands of early Christians there was the additional application: the will must restrain natural fear of death in order to stand up to martyrdom. When martyrdom was no longer a threat, Christianity expressed this most noble of its aspects through rigorous asceticism. Today, though the corporate state of Christianity is one more interested in utilizing the will to restrict the flesh of others, the ability of the will to restrain the impulses of the flesh is still an essential character of the greatest men and women of faith I have ever known.

Yet, I think that this particular virtue is so consistent with what I believe to be right that I would extol it regardless of my faith in Christ. The ability of someone to be in complete control of his person would be the most impressive achievement I think man could ever accomplish. This is not a matter of simple self-control, since that says nothing of the aims of the person in control. (After all, imagine if Hitler had always been in complete control of his person, how much more potent a force he might have been.) This is not the ability of man to restrain himself to reach his own ends, but the ability of man to restrain his own desire for those ends in favor of some other ends. This is truly virtuous apart from God (if that were in fact possible), as it signifies man's transcendence of himself. What, after all, could be greater that, since by its definition self-transcendence necessitates that a man becomes better than himself?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reflections on Ash Wednesday

Lent, believe it or not, is one of my favorite times of year. It isn't because I particularly enjoy the observation of Lent (or, for that matter, that I even truly observe it: "Therefore you shall fast in the days of the Pascha...and you shall sustain yourselves with bread and salt and water only...but on [Good] Friday and on [Holy Saturday] fast wholly, and taste nothing. You shall come together and watch and keep vigil all the night with prayers and intercessions, and with reading of the Prophets, and with the gospel and with psalms, with fear and trembling and with earnest supplication, until the third hour in the night after the Sabbath." Didascalia Apostolorum). What I love about Lent is the sense of unity it gives me. The practical outworking of my Lenten devotions, meager though they are, are a constant reminder to me that I am actively engaged in a tremendous body of Christians acting together in devotion to Christ. Every time I face and overcome temptation by God's grace, I mirror in my actions not only Christ who overcame temptation in his forty days in the desert but also the common experience of each of the many parts of his living body who also struggle and conquer and are made more than conquerors through God's love for us. So though I see the inherent hypocrisy in it as I try in some infinitesimal way to mimic the sufferings and trials of Christ from my rocking, reclining throne in my climate controlled palace, I trust that God's mercy will forgive the joy that I feel in this season more than any time of year.

And this year more than most years. While petty squabbling has caused there to be a break in, of all things, when we consecrate this time in preparation for the greatest of Christian feasts, once every few years all Christians, East and West, are unified as an Easter people, theologically and chronologically. This is just such a year. This year, in theory, some 1.75 billion Christians are observing Lent in one way or another. Do we even begin to grasp what a number like that means? That is enough, in rough numbers, to have one Christian sit on every person in the USA, the UK, and China. Or perhaps, more productively, that is enough Christians that, if we were so inclined, we could pray for each soul in those three powerhouses by name in a matter of only a moment. To play out the metaphor more fully, if we were to pray for a different person by name before every meal, the Christians observing Lent could pray for the entire population of the world in the course of one day. I realize of course how naive it would be to take the statistics for Christian adherence and to extrapolate them like that, but the thought is nevertheless provoking. Mystifying even. Most importantly, humbling.

It should humble because, in spite of our over-inflated senses of self-importance, we are shown our own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. The common analogy presented from the pulpit about the body of Christ that asks whether this person is a hand or a foot is laid bare by Lent which points out that you are neither a hand nor a foot but one of many largely indistinguishable blood vessels which serve to reliably though mechanically keep the body moving.

It should humble us more, perhaps, not by causing us to realize our own insignificance but, ironically, our own untapped potential. While one the one hand putting the part in its place, Lent should in the most shocking way shame us for the way we have allowed the church to fragment into impotence. We come together to form a dramatic unity in consecration to God, which is of prime importance no doubt, but when it comes to being His ambassadors to the world, we spend most of our time lost idly in individualism. The question "what can I do" must be answered with a "nothing," but at the same time Lent answers "what can we do" with a resounding "more than you have been doing."

Or as Samuel Annesley (John Wesley's grandfather) said, "It is serious Christianity that I press, as the only way to better every condition; it is Christianity, downright Christianity that alone can do it; it is not morality without faith (that is but refined hedonism); it is not faith without morality (that is but downright hypocrisy); it must be divine faith wrought by the Holy Ghost, where God and man concur in the operation, such a faith as works by love, both to God and man, a holy faith, full of good works."

With that somewhat protractive introduction out of the way, my main purpose in posting today was going to be to share some quotes - ancient, early modern, and contemporary - about Lent. The first is from Athanasius in whose time Lent, as we presently know it, was born. The next is from John Wesley, which I have truncated freely for space and effect, and then his brother Charles. Finally the comments of a pair of modern authors are included.

Athanasius of Alexandria, Festal Letter 6

But just as Israel, advancing toward Jerusalem, was purified and instructed in the desert, so that they would forget the customs of Egypt, so it is right that during the holy Lent, which we have taken upon ourselves, we should give our attention to our cleansing and purification, so that setting forth from here and mindful of fasting we can ascend to the upper room with the Lord and dine with him and share the joy in heaven. For otherwise, without keeping Lent, it would not be allowed us either to go up to Jerusalem or to eat the Pascha.

John Wesley, Sermon on the Pharisee

A Pharisee (to express his sense in our common way) used all the means of grace. As he fasted often and much, twice in every week, so he attended all the sacrifices. He was constant in public and private prayer, and in reading and hearing the Scriptures. Do you go as far as this? Do you fast much and often? Twice in a week? Once at least? Do you fast twice in a year? I am afraid some among us cannot plead even this! Do you every day either hear the Scriptures or read them? Do you join in prayer with the great congregation, daily, if you have opportunity? Do you strive to make opportunities? Do you spend an hour in a day, or in a week, in praying to your Father who is in secret? An hour in a month? Have you spent one hour together in private prayer ever since you were born? Ah, poor Christian! Shall not the Pharisee rise up in judgment against thee and condemn thee?

Charles Wesley, Penitential Hymn

Lat They hand upon my soul
Bruise me with Thy righteous rod,
Wound and never make me whole,
Till my spirit returns to God;

Ford Keifer, We Are Easter People

Jesus' forty days of prayer suggest that Lent is a time of prayer, of listening to God in his Word, and of responding from the depths of one's own heart. The long prayer vigil on Holy Saturday night is the climax of this season of prayer. Because the Church watches with her Lord, she is sensitive to his coming, to his presence and activity in her midst. Because she has kept vigil, she can cry out, "Alleluia, this is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!"

D. T. Niles, The Power at Work Among Us: Meditations for Lent

In the world as we look around it, we see contending forces battling for the souls and bodies of men. While men in one part of the world are plagued by the problems of work, in another part of the world they are plagued by the problems of leisure. There are those who seek temporary relief in mass entertainment, alcohol, or drugs. There are others who seek permanent relief in a flight from life and sometimes even in suicide. For most it seems that there is nothing human goodwill can achieve apart from each person creating around himself an immediate circle of friendship. When the visible thus offers no ground for hope, is there an invisible reality on which hope can be based? There is. men have a sure and steadfast anchor, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone. There is a throne above the universe and that throne is not empty. Hope does not arise from the circumstances of life, it arrives from the throne of God.

Finally, from the Book of Common Prayer, this is my sincere hope for all Christians observing Lent that we might all see the practical implications of our shared devotion: "O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth, send they Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ's sake. Amen."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Wisdom of the High Middle Ages

I am presently reading through a collection of excerpts from primary sources relevant to the Reformation. The following quotes come from a variety of sources but all from the time period immediately prior to the Reformation.

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it.

If you avoid unnecessary talk and aimless visits, listening to news and gossip, you will find plenty of suitable time to spend in meditation on holy things.

A wise man once said "As often as I have been among men, I have returned home a lesser man.

No man can live in the public eye without risk to his soul, except he who would prefer to remain obscure. No man can safely speak except he who would gladly remain silent. No man can safely command except he who has learned to obey well.

But the security of the wicked springs from pride and presumption, and ends in self-deception. Never promise yourself security in this life, even though you seem to be a good monk or a devout hermit.

There is no real liberty and true joy, save in the fear of God with a quiet conscience.

Do not busy yourself with the affairs of others, nor concern yourself with the policies of your superiors. Watch yourself at all times, and correct yourself before you correct your friends. Do not be grieved if you do not enjoy popular favor; grieve rather that you do not live as well and carefully as befits a servant of God, and a devout religious person. It is often better and safer not to have many comforts in this life, especially those of the body. Yet, if we seldom or never feel God's comfort, the fault is our own; for we neither seek contrition of heart, nor entirely forego all vain and outward consolations.

If you had more concern for a holy death than a long life, you would certainly be zealous to live better.

Wherever you are and wherever you turn, you will not find happiness until you turn to God. Why are you so distressed when events do not turn out as you wish and hope? Is there anyone who enjoys everything as he wishes? Neither you, nor I, nor anyone else on earth. There is no one in the world without trouble or anxiety, be he king or pope. Whose, then, is the happiest lot? Surely, he who is able to suffer for love of God.

How great is the frailty of man, ever prone to evil! Today you confess your sins; tomorrow you again commit the very sins you have confessed! Now you resolve to guard against them, and within the hour you act as though you had never made any resolution! Remembering, then, our weakness and instability, it is proper to humble ourselves, and never to have a high opinion of ourselves. For we can easily lose by carelessness that which by God's grace and our own efforts we had hardly won.

What will become of us in the end if our zeal so quickly grows cold? Unhappy our fate, if we rest on our oars as though we had already reached a haven of peace and security, when in fact no sign of holiness is apparent in our lives.

Very soon the end of your life will be at hand: consider, therefore, the state of your soul. Today a man is here; tomorrow he is gone. And when he is out of sight, he is soon out of mind. Oh, how dull and hard is the heart of man, which thinks only of the present, and does not provide against the future! You should order your every deed and thought as though today were the day of your death. Had you a good conscience, death would hold no terrors for you; even so, it were better to avoid sin than to escape death. If you are not ready to die today, will tomorrow find you better prepared? Tomorrow is uncertain; and how can you be sure of tomorrow?

Of what use is a long life if we amend so little? Alas, a long life often adds to our sins rather than to our virtue!

Happy and wise is he who endeavors to be during his life as he wishes to be found at his death.

O wretched and foolish sinner, who trembles before the anger of man, how will you answer to God, who knows all your wickedness?

Heinrich Kraemer and Jacob Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum

There is no man in the world who studies so hard to please God as even an ordinary woman studies by her vanities to please men.

Jacobus Faber Stapulensis, Commentary on the Psalms

But even after a haphazard sampling of divine things [that is, things pertaining to Divinity studies] I saw so much light shine forth that, by comparison, the human disciplines seemed like darkness. They breathed a fragrance of such sweetness that nothing like it can be found on earth, nor could I believe that there is any other earthly paradise whose odor could lead souls toward immortality.

Gabriel Biel, The Circumcision of the Lord

On Christmas Day we, in our small way, gave thanks, expressing our love and praise for the redeemer who came into the prison of this world to lead the captives out of this prison. Today we magnify him with all our hearts because he put on our fetters and bonds and because he put his own innocent hands into our chains in order that we criminals might be set free.

Here Biel quotes Augustine:

The lamb takes away the sins both by forgiving what he has been done and by helping the sinner not to sin again.

Dietrich Kolde, Mirror for Christians

A prayer for supper:

O dear Lord, how many holy people there are who scarcely have bread to eat, and they thank you much more than I!

A prayer for bedtime:

O dear Lord, almighty God, I am a poor sinful person. I am guilty of not serving you fervently today; and of not saying my prayers with fervor; and of passing many hours, nearly all the time, idly; and of neglecting to do many good works.

Prayers for the deathbed:

O dear Lord, Jesus Christ, strengthen me in this holy faith. O dear Lord, even though I have sinned much and confessed badly and improved badly, I still do not want to despair of you, because you are so very compassionate; I have become so bitterly sour toward you and you have suffered so much for me. And you also said: Anyone who comes to your vineyard at the time of vespers should receive payment equal to those who worked the whole day. O dear Lord, I come to my conversion late. Have mercy on me. You can speak a word and forgive me all my sins.

O dear Lord Jesus Christ, you untied the bonds of all my sin with your holy suffering. Therefore, dear Lord, I want to offer you an offering of praise, namely my poor soul, which I offer into your hands. Now I will die patiently and willingly if that is your dearest will. O dear Lord Jesus Christ, I am very sorry from the bottom of my heart that I have angered you. O dear Lord God, I wish I were a thousand times more sorry. I wish I could cry tears of blood for my sins. Oh, dear Lord, accept my good intentions in place of works. O dear Lord, I give you my body and my soul. Do with me as your holy will dictates, and not as my earthly nature wills. The spirit is prepared but the flesh is weak: O dear Lord Jesus Christ, please do not reject me, a poor sinner.