Monday, August 23, 2010

Knowing the Biblical Sense

More than any of my very outspoken and radical stances, my belief about the suprarational nature of God (or the "illogicalness" of God if you prefer) has caused the most controversy. As an ardent proponent of non-resistant pacifism and "Christian anarchy," and an equally outspoken opponent of therapeutic and eugenic abortion, I find it somewhat odd that the simple and somewhat esoteric assertion that God could make A equal not A should engender the most antagonism toward me. (For previous posts, see my response to Ron Highfield and Barton W. Stone.) I would like to think that somehow people sense the inherent threat to their worldview that comes from admitting that God is not constrained by logic. On the one hand, atheists have objected, I feel, because they know that a God which cannot be logically assaulted cannot be assaulted. On the other hands, Christians have objected because their theology and, more critically in some ways, their biblical hermeneutic is based on the supremacy of logic. (Interestingly, through the influence of John Behr I can no longer understand why our biblical hermeneutic is not founded primarily on the supremacy of Christ.) There is something frightening about the possibility that we might not be able to put God in any box at all, not even the box of logic. There is an understandable anxiety about the fact that the Creator may not be able to be circumscribed and thereby made impotent by the creation.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe this to be the case. I would gladly argue the point for the rest of my life using nothing but rhetoric, existential appeals, and unaccompanied quotes from church fathers, theologians, and even, strangely, rationalist philosophers. Yet, I feel compelled to address the question biblically, in part because I know that I can never convince anyone in my own movement without making direct appeal to the Bible, and then only through the preferred hermeneutic of Baconian induction. Conveniently, regardless of how I feel about the ultimate validity of the strict application of logic as a hermeneutical tool, even when all the instances of divine revelation are lined up neatly for the reader, the God of illogic is revealed and vindicated. That is, in part and crudely, what I propose to do here.

The Bible is replete with stories of God's self-revelation to humanity. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that the Bible is the story of the history of humanity coming to know God. If I had the time and inclination, I could make an exhaustive list of all theophanic activity in Scripture, and I am confident that my conclusion would be the same. I would gladly demonstrate that no one in Scripture arrived at God rationally. Each was called by God apart from the powers of his or her own intellect. Moreover, it would be a pleasure to show that these callings and the regular inbreaking of God into reality was more often explicitly contrary to logic rather than in line with it. I do not, however, have the time or inclination.

So let it suffice to examine the text more generally with special attention paid to a representative example: Moses and the burning bush. With the arguable exceptions of Adam and Eve and the disciples at Mount Tabor, no one experienced a more direct revelation of God than did Moses. He heard God's voice directly and frequently. More importantly, he would even "see" God at one point in his life. For all the spiritual intimacy typified in David or the faith typified in Abraham, no one compares to Moses in terms of direct personal contact.

The burning bush, moreover, as the beginning of the long and close connection of God with Moses represents a particularly potent example to demonstrate the irrationality of God and His self-revelation. It is not merely that Moses did not discover God after contemplating the logical inevitability of a supreme being. It is not enough that Moses encountered God rather than deducing His presence. Moses experienced God in a way that was supremely irrational: a bush which while on fire was not consumed. The experience of God was not merely overwhelming within the bounds of reason but violated the principle of reasons which govern existence. Modern science only serves to elucidate this story by highlighting its blatant idiocy. Fire, we know, is no independent thing, merely the visible byproduct of the process of rapid oxidation. In other words, there is no fire without consumption since fire is itself only the tangible product of consumption. A fire that does not burn anything is an impossible contradiction, a square-circle right in the Bible.

Hallelujah to the impossible contradiction. This is the God of Israel, the violator of reality and the defier of the "laws" of reason, the precepts of logic. This is the God we see manifest throughout the Bible. The God who parts the waters, who turns water into blood, who turns water into wine, who turns water bitter, who makes water come from a rock, who walks on water, who destroys the world with water, and redeems the world with water. Sometimes the sun stops. Sometimes the earth swallows people up. Sometimes storms quiet. Sometimes food multiplies. Sometimes people raise up from the dead.

That last one is my favorite, if for no other reason than I believe I will get to experience it myself.

We do not grasp God logically in the same way that I do not understand my love for my wife logically. Even if we concede that science can exhaustively explain my love for my wife in neuro-chemical terms (and I think this would be unnecessarily generous), I do not understand my love for her as biological. My love for her is experienced irrationally. In the same way, even though some may delude themselves into believing that they may approach God through unadulterated logic, humanity does not understand God rationally but existentially, and even then as an irrational experience. We do not believe that seventy-two mathematicians went into seventy-two different rooms and emerged seventy-two days later all holding identical translations of Euclid's Elements into Koine. We do not believe that 318 logicians made the trek to Nicaea in order to confirm as orthodoxy that A =/= ¬ A. If we believe the tradition (and I see no reason not to), then we believe that seventy-two Jews, contrary to all reasonable expectations, produced identical translations of the highly irrational stories just outlined and that 318 bishops assembled at Nicaea to confirm the radically illogical orthodoxy that A = ¬ A.

John Locke was confused to speak of the reasonableness of Christianity and his confusion is like an epidemic in the Christian consciousness. We worship the reasonableness of Christianity and the logic of its rational God like an idol. With all the trouble caused by the biblical anthropomorphisms of a God who speaks and walks, with hands and eyes and a mouth, there is no more perilous anthropomorphism than the rash assumption that God is logical and reveals Himself logically. By insisting that God must conceive of reality as humanity does, must interact with creation as humanity does, and must operate within the same binding strictures that humanity does we come closer to making God over in our image than if we were to insist He had hands. In fact, I am ready now to confess that it is easier for me to suggest that God may have hands than to insist that He must be logical. The former speaks only of the possibilities open to an unfettered deity while the other is the supreme fetter which ties Him down and make Him little more than an unspeakably powerful wizard in a children's story.

The God of the Bible does not behave logically and people do not arrive at Him rationally. It is, therefore, quite inappropriate as far as I'm concerned to suggest either that God is the solution at the end of a metaphysical equation or that God is bound in any sense by the mathematics that produce such equations. If God is real, and He is, He necessarily transcends logic, and nothing demonstrates this more clearly than His activity in the world as recorded in Scripture.

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, pt. 3

This is a continuation of my quotes from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. (See also, Part 1 and Part 2)

"I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world."

"The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite." He expands, "Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable." Given this truth about the world, he argues, "Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth...whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth."

On Christology, he gives his peculiar but nevertheless effective twist: "For orthodox theology has specially insisted that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God."

"Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly, charity certainly means one of two things--pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people. But if we ask ourselves (as we did in the case of pride) what a sensible pagan would feel about such a subject, we shall probably be beginning at the bottom of it. A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn't: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing; but it is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice, such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all. It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild."

"The instinct of the Pagan empire would have said, 'You shall all be Roman citizens, and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent; the Frenchmen less experimental and swift.' But the instinct of Christian Europe says, 'Let the German remain slow and reverent, that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental. We will make an equipoise out of these excesses. The absurdity called Germany shall correct the insanity called France.'"

"For instance, the cheap anti-democrat of to-day will tell you solemnly that there is no equality in nature. He is right, but he does not see the logical addendum. There is no equality in nature; also there is no inequality in nature. Inequality, as much as equality, implies a standard of value. To read aristocracy into the anarchy of animals is just as sentimental as to read democracy into it. Both aristocracy and democracy are human ideals: the one saying that all men are valuable, the other that some men are more valuable. But nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice; nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive."

"Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier." He sums this up by saying, "As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same."

"So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless. The question therefore becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art? How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always satisfied with working? How can we make sure that the portrait painter will throw the portrait out of window instead of taking the natural and more human course of throwing the sitter out of window?"

"The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old."

How much truer is this today than a century ago? "It is customary to complain of the bustle and strenuousness of our epoch. But in truth the chief mark of our epoch is a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real laziness is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite external case; the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motorcars; but this is not due to human activity but to human repose. There would be less bustle if there were more activity, if people were simply walking about. Our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous."

"There is only one thing that can never go past a certain point in its alliance with oppression--and that is orthodoxy. I may, it is true, twist orthodoxy so as partly to justify a tyrant. But I can easily make up a German philosophy to justify him entirely."

"To hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially favourable to activity or progress. Our fighting and creative society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody, on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice."

"The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug, all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments. The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that?--that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about, any one can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology dealt much with hell. It is full of DANGER, like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis."

"Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground."

His observations on the difference between the way science views nature and the way Christianity views nature are thought-provoking:

"On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane, or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws."

"The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved."

His statements about the peculiarity of the Christian story are even better:

"To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a STORY, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn't. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man "damned": but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable."

"You cannot finish a sum how you like. But you can finish a story how you like. When somebody discovered the Differential Calculus there was only one Differential Calculus he could discover. But when Shakespeare killed Romeo he might have married him to Juliet's old nurse if he had felt inclined. And Christendom has excelled in the narrative romance exactly because it has insisted on the theological free-will."

"Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point--and does not break." To which he adds, "And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, (the matter grows too difficult for human speech,) but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist."

I will conclude this entry on this rousing and deeply encouraging note: "Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Muslims: Do They EVER Pray?

White House spokesman Bill Burton on Obama's religion:

The president is obviously a Christian. He prays every day.
In other news, Muslims pray daily. Someone should introduce our government to Wikipedia.

Descartes, Unexpected

"The mathematical truths which you call eternal have been laid down by God and depend on him entirely no less than the rest of his creatures...In general we can assert that God can do everything that is beyond our grasp but not that he cannot do what is beyond our grasp. It would be rash to think that our imagination reaches as far as his power."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

US Values: Conform or Die!

A recent news article about whether or not Obama is a Muslim (the silliness of which I do not intend to dignify with comment), includes these statistics:

And 32 percent said Muslims should be barred from running for US president, while 28 percent said they should be prohibited from serving on the US Supreme Court, and 25 percent said most US Muslims do not believe in US values.

I always thought one of the hallmarks of "US values" was the freedom to not believe in US values. Say, for the sake of argument, that 25% of the population is right and Islam is intrinsically opposed to American values (much the better for Islam in my opinion): so what? If you oppose them on those grounds then you obviously do not believe in US values. At that point, you would need to begin opposing yourself as well. Hopefully everyone can see the futility of that. Or will bigotry blind us to even most basic truths?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton (Excursus 3)

"The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose."

This insight has come to me before in a slightly different form. Recent reading I have done has made me wonder not so much at the beauty of the world (the fact of a nose, as Chesterton might put it) but in our ability to appreciate that beauty. It is just as easily conceivable to me that humanity should have no aesthetic at all, that we should look on the mountains or the stars or the face of a lovely woman and feel absolutely no sense of joy intrinsic in the beholding. That we have been given the ability to appreciate the mountains, to imbibe of their grandeur and experience delight simply by seeing them, is more beautiful to me than any particular beauty that may be enjoyed.

From there, I certainly agree with Chesterton that the very fact of the nose is more comical than the amusing nose. That we have legs is more fantastic than any place those legs may carry us. That we have hands is more spectacular than any monument those hands can build. But before that, the very fact that Chesterton can be heartbroken by the beauty of it is itself more beautiful still.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton (Excursus 2)

"When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: "Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is." Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies."

This has always been a pet peeve of mine, ever since the father of a friend of mine promptly dismissed my assertion that churches should not be teaching classes out of The Purpose Driven Life by commenting, "It is good thing I don't believe all the things I believed when I was young." Well, I am older now (though not quite so sagacious as he is, I'm sure) and I still don't think churches should be teaching classes out of The Purpose Driven Life. That, I'm sure, would not interest him. In his "philanthropy" he would surely and generously grant me more time to overcome my idealism.

More frustrating than the fact that I did not change and do not expect to change is the mentality that I keep encountering that suggests that I ought to change. There is some delusion that has crept into the senile minds of older men that they must make an effort to divest me (and others) of my youthful zeal. Why? What virtue is there in stripping someone of zeal and diluting someone's ideals? I hope that I never slide into this trap. I hope that I always will oppose youthful vigor if it is misguided and support it if it is virtuous, but may it never be that I should oppose zeal merely because it is zealous.

I get the sincere impression that the "philanthropists" in question are not bothered so much by my zeal as by their inability to counter my zealous arguments with sound counter-arguments.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, pt. 2

This is a continuation of my quotes from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. (See also, Part 1)

"Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn." He elaborates, "At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table."

Continuing on skepticism, he predicts its inevitable end: "It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, 'Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?' The young sceptic says, 'I have a right to think for myself.' But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, 'I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.'"

Standing at the cutting edge of the evolution versus creation issues that still plague us: "If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time."

"It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself." To this criticism, he adds this suggestion: "It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers."

"Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain."

Concerning who was greater, Nietzsche or Joan of Arc: "We KNOW that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow."

"Man is something more awful than men; something more strange."

"It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time." Expanding on this principle he writes, "It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad...Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death."

"...the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads...They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not." I disagreed with this at first, thinking that he meant it was somehow necessary that two and one make three. He explained, however, that the difference was only in the human mind's ability to comprehend that two and one should not make three. He concludes, "That we cannot imagine it is a limit of imagination not possibility."

On the problem of induction and the discovery of purpose behind what is observed: "...But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince...The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment." They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery." Of those who appeal to laws of nature, he chides, "It is the man who talks about "a law" that he has never seen who is the mystic." He concludes, quite masterfully, "Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together."

Of the thrilling nature of creation: "...when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door." He adds, "I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash. Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years."

"And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited."

Regarding so-called "sexual liberation," he explains, "I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself...Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman...To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once."

"Surely one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde." He states this more aphoristically later: "We should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them."

"Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type. He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree. But Herbert Spencer, in his headlong imperialism, would insist that we had in some way been conquered and annexed by the astronomical universe." He adds later, "The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it."

"An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century."
He adds later, "Therefore in dealing with any historical answer, the point is not whether it was given in our time, but whether it was given in answer to our question."

"It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came, a point on which any mediaeval would have been eager to correct them. They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint, or inwardness and sincerity. They will think me very narrow (whatever that means) if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar, but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk."

He writes at length about the beautiful work God has accomplished in creation:

"And the root phrase for all Christian theism was this, that God was a creator, as an artist is a creator. A poet is so separate from his poem that he himself speaks of it as a little thing he has "thrown off." Even in giving it forth he has flung it away. This principle that all creation and procreation is a breaking off is at least as consistent through the cosmos as the evolutionary principle that all growth is a branching out. A woman loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death."

"According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free."

"God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it."

I will conclude this entry with this surprisingly poetic statement about the value of transcendence in theology: "The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Opposing Islam

I wonder if it has occured to anyone else that militant opposition to the opening of mosques in the US is actually encouraging rather than discouraging terrorism. I realize that inaction may very well allow a mosque fronting for a terrorist cell to be established, but surely the constant and distrubing images of Americans vigorously opposing and even persecuting Muslims do more for terrorist recruiting than the necessarily covert activities of a few scattered mosques could. Nothing says "the infidel has declared war on us, we must respond in kind" like actually actively opposing Islam as such apart from any evidence of terrorist activity.

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton (Excursus 1)

I have heard the argument so often that it nauseates me to see it now, "That if God really loved us then He wouldn't make us follow some arbitrary rule book." There is embedded in this nonsense the idea that somehow love means acceptance and toleration. In reading G. K. Chesterton, I have found the words to reject this very common fallacy. Love is not the thing that leaves us as we are. Love is the thing that insists we change. Love is what tears us down into rubble because what we were was already a trash heap. Love destroys us and then forces us to sprout anew and better. Chesterton's words are, quite expectedly, more pointed and more memorable than mine:

"Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her."

"The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises--he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things."

"A man's friend likes him but leaves him as he is: his wife loves him and is always trying to turn him into somebody else."

"My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty...Before any cosmic act of reform we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance...We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre's castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening. No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself."

This is love, the kind of love that God has for us. It is not a love that says, "Because I love you, I will let you do whatever you feel is best regardless of what is actually best." That, quite frankly, is no love at all. God's is a love that draws on His infinite wisdom to say, "I know what is best for you, and, because I love you, I will not content myself with anything less than that." We not only ought to recognize that love in God but emulate it among ourselves. If we love each other, we cannot be content with each other so long as we are all mired by sin.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Arminianism vs. Pelagianism

I am getting very tired of sitting in class and hearing people confuse Pelagianism with Arminianism. There is the assumption, for whatever reason, that because Arminianism arose in conflict with "Calvinism" that it somehow must be the polar opposite of the traditional Reformed view of a meticulously sovreign God. It is not. Arminius was a Calvinist, and his theology attributed the overwhelming majority of the work in salvation to God's activity. For Arminius, the role of human free will in salvation was analogous to a beggar stretching out his hand to receive a gift. It is sadly inappropriate then to examine the 5-step "plan of salvation" and, discovering that God has been entirely removed from it and salvation left primarily in the hands of humanity, to label that "thoroughly Arminian." It's not. Pelagius is the heretic condemned for suggesting that man could theoretically achieve salvation of his own efforts, not Arminius. Arminius gave human free will only the cooperative role of accepting the otherwise unmerited and unobtainable grace.

If we are going to damn men posthumously for their theological systems, the least we can do is attach to their names the systems they actually held.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, pt. 1

Because of the overwhelming number of quotes that I wanted to share from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, I feel it prudent to split this up into multiple entries. Here are some quotes from the early portion of the book that I found thought-provoking:

"What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there?" Which is another way of stating the problem: "How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?"

"I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it." Which is to say, "When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion...I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy."

Responding to the assertion that it is enough (or even noble) that a man should believe in himself: "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums." Moreover, "A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert--himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt--the Divine Reason."

"Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness."

"If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat."

"You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons."

"Exactly what does breed insanity is reason." This is, in fact, the contention of the whole early part of the work. "This chapter is purely practical and is concerned with what actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we may say in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in the void." This is exlpained more artfully: "The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite...The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits." From which he concludes, "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."

This one is almost painful for me to think about with too much effort: "...a small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large."

Discussing the simplicity, all-sufficiency, and distasteful of materialism, he writes, "Take first the more obvious case of materialism. As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out...He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world." He continues, "For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion." And concludes, "But the point here is that the normal human mind not only objects to both, but feels to both the same objection. Its approximate statement is that if the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk. The deity is less divine than many men; and (according to Haeckel) the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole."

"Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies." To which he adds, less amusingly, "Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty as it is certain to lead to cowardice."

"The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman."

"He has always cared more for truth than for consistency." I hope this is someday said of me.

On the paradoxes of Christianity, of which I am so fond, he observes, "It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man."

"The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid...He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health."

Continuing on mysticism, he compares it to the sun: "The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility." Rationalism, quite the opposite, is more like the moon. "Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world."

I will conclude with what I can only describe as poignant geometry. If there can be such a thing, this is it:

"Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Rational or Spiritual Creatures?

We must believe that the Bible was addressed to rational creatures, and designed by God to be understood for their profit. When we open the Bible under the impression that it is a book of mysteries, understood only by a few learned ministers, we are at once discouraged from reading and investigating its contents. But believing it was written for our learning and profit, and therefore addressed to our understanding, we are encouraged to read and diligently search its sacred pages. - Barton Stone

I think Stone may have more closely approximated the truth if he had begun this thought with "We must believe that the Bible was addressed to spiritual creatures, and designed by God to be understood for their profit." The text of Scripture gives no indication that its contents are primarily rational, not in the way that Stone indicates, and it certainly gives just the opposite impression of divine truth. In 1 Corinthians 2:13:16, Paul writes:

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: "For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.

Paul explicitly denies that human wisdom can grasp the truth about God. He contrasts human discernment with a "spiritual discernment" that is rooted in our redeemed, indwelled state. Spiritual truth is expressed in spiritual words, words that presumably do not accord with human modes of thinking. For this reason the unspiritual man is incapable of accepting or even adequately grasping truth about God. It is, to him, foolishness.

Paul explains, so far as I can tell, that this is because of the radical otherness of God. Who can know the mind of God from which spiritual truth flows? It seems self-evident to Paul that humanity is incapable of knowing God apart from His spiritually discerned truths. Normal human methods, what he terms "human wisdom" earlier in the chapter and what Stone would call rationality, are inadequate because God ineffably transcends our standard modes of thinking. Only through the transformative work of the Spirit, conforming our minds to "the mind of Christ" can we begin to grasp God. Only when we teach ourselves to "think" as God "thinks" is truth made known.

It is amusing to me that if the first sentence of Stone's quote is corrected in the way I suggested, the remainder of the quote seems to follow Paul's thinking quite nicely. It becomes a critique of hyper-rationalism and the belief that the truth of the Bible rests in the hands of an intellectual elite rather than, as I think Paul would assert, in the hands of a spiritual elite. Read it again:

We must believe that the Bible was addressed to spiritual creatures, and designed by God to be understood for their profit. When we open the Bible under the impression that it is a book of mysteries, understood only by a few learned ministers, we are at once discouraged from reading and investigating its contents. But believing it was written for our learning and profit, and therefore addressed to our understanding, we are encouraged to read and diligently search its sacred pages. - Barton Stone, with revisions

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Wisdom of David Lipscomb

The following quotes derive almost exclusively from David Lipscomb's Civil Government which I have just finished reading for the first time. My general impression at the end was one of encouragement. I was grateful to see that so much of what I have believed and striven to put into practice has been pioneered so clearly before. That is certainly not to say that I buy wholesale into everything Lipscomb says. I am uneasy about the position and power that he gives to Satan, almost as an opposite but analogous authority to Christ. Some of his particular applications of the principle of non-participation (e.g. Christians cannot work for the post office) seem to me to carry things too far. Still, the reasoning and the ethical conclusions of his work in large served to bolster and further refine my own beliefs about non-participation. I particularly appreciated, when compared to the Mennonite Guy Hershberger who I also greatly respect for his views on the subject, Lipscomb's emphasis on the transient nature of human kingdoms when compared to God's kingdom, what is often styled his "apocalypticism." His stress on the fundamentally antagonistic stance of the church to the world as a means of self-defense articulates a sentiment that has been latent in me for some time, but which I have been unable to give adequate expression.

Thus, without further ado, here are what I consider some of the more compelling quotes from David Lipscomb on the question of Christian participation in civil government:

"The chief occupation of human governments from the beginning has been war...All the wars and strifes between tribes, races, nations, from the beginning until now, have been the result of man's effort to govern himself and the world, rather than to submit to the government of God."

"[The principles in the Sermon on the Mount] are diverse from and antagonistic to the principles that have obtained and must ever obtain in all human governments. No human government can possibly be maintained and conducted on these principles laid down for the government of Christ's subjects in his kingdom. The spirit that prompts the practice of the principles is opposed to the spirit needful for the maintenance of human governments. The two spirits cannot dwell in the same heart, nor the same temple, or institution. A man cannot be gentle, forgiving, doing good for evil, turning the other cheek when one is smitten, praying 'for them that despitefully use and persecute' him, and at the same time execute wrath and vengeance on the evil-doer, as the human government is ordained to do, and as it must do to sustain its authority and maintain its existence."

"Every act of alliance with or reliance for aid upon the human government on the part of the church or its members, is spiritual adultery."

"No violence, no sword, no bitterness or wrath can he use. The spread of the peaceful principles of the Savior will draw men out of the kingdoms of earth into the kingdom of God."

"The great weakness of the church today is that the children of God enter into the kingdoms of this world, imbibe the spirit of those kingdoms, bring that spirit into the church of God, defile the church and drive out he spirit of Christ. The spirit of self-aggrandizement, reliance upon human wisdom, human devices, and institutions, ambition for worldly honor and glory, bitterness and wrath are as prevalent in the church as in the world. The spirit of gentleness and meekness under trials, insults and persecutions, is as seldom found in the church as in this world. The reason is that Christians enter the human governments, imbibe their spirit, participate in their works, and bring this spirit into the church of God. The spirit of Christ is driven out of the church and the distinction between the church and the world is destroyed."

"Christ's subjects are in the world but not of it. His kingdom is not of this world; his subjects cannot fight with carnal weapons. Their citizenship is in heaven, the weapons of their warfare are not carnal, but might through God to the pulling down of strongholds. His children are pilgrims and strangers in the earthly kingdoms. They seek a city which hath foundations, whose make and builder is God."

"The effort of man to live without God, and to govern the world, resulted in confusion and strife from the beginning. It brings strife, war and desolation still...All the wars and conflicts of earth, all the desolation, ruin and blood-shed, between separated nations, or distinct peoples, are the fruits of human government. The government of God breaks down divisions among those who accept it, and brings peace and complete union to all who submit to his rule. Whatever tends to wean men from this government of God, and to substitute other governments for it, brings confusion and strife."

"The spirit of the Church of Christ and the spirit of civil government are different. The one is a spirit of force, as all history attests, that no civil government ever did arise except by force, violence, and the destruction of life. So they must maintain that existence by force. We suppose the future, with but slight variations, will repeat the history of the past. But Christianity permits not its subjects to use force or do violence, even in defence of its own existence; its guiding spirit is one of love, peace on earth and good will toward man."

"No church ever thought of force to repress error, or to uphold truth until it had first imbibed the spirit of the civil power. The civil power is founded on force, lives by it and it is its only weapon of offence or defence. Christians enter civil government, drink into its spirit, and carry that spirit with them into the church. All force in religious affairs is persecution. This spirit of force is antagonistic to the spirit of Christ. They cannot harmonize. They cannot dwell in the same bosom."

"The religious element in man is the permanent uncompromising enduring element of his nature. And the very qualities that make him a cruel and unrelenting despot with carnal weapons in his hand, make him the self-sacrificing, devoted servant of God, willing to endure all things to save his enemies when clothed with spiritual weapons."

"The consecration of all the powers of mind, body and soul, to the service of God on the part of every man, woman and child, was the rule of the church."

"And it may be set down as a truth that all reformations that propose to stop short of a full surrender of the soul, mind, and body up to God, are of the devil."

"To the claim that a Christian is bound to vote, when he has the privilege, for that which promotes morality, and to fail to vote for the restriction and suppression of evil is to vote for it, we have determined that, to vote or use the civil power is to use force and carnal weapons. Christians cannot use these. To do so is to do evil that good may come. This is specially forbidden to Christians. To do so is to fight God's battles with the weapons of the evil one. To do so is to distrust God. The effective way for Christians to promote morality in a community, is, to stand aloof from the political strifes and conflicts, and maintain a pure and true faith in God, which is the only basis of true morality, and is as a leaven in society, to keep alive an active sense of right. To go into political strife is to admit the leaven of evil into the church."