Thursday, September 30, 2010

Marriage: A Tabernacle of Truth

In reading (and inevitably rereading) David Bentley Hart, I have grown very fond of his explanation of a concept he typically refers to as "difference" within the Trinity, but which might be more familiar to the typical Christian as a theology of relationality or community. (I realize that in making this connection, as with others that will follow, I am being painfully imprecise in a way that would likely infuriate Hart. Nevertheless, because the concept of community is so prevalent in theology at the moment and because I believe that the emphasis on community arises from the same spirit as Hart's stress on the priority of difference I think some profit may be derived from equating the two, if only provisionally for the sake of simplicity.) In contrast to the "perverse and sinful fiction" that is contemporary understanding of personality, the Trinity as dogma demonstrates the absolute priority of difference (and again, I know that the imprecision of my language will not do justice to Hart's theology) against the illusion that a person exists as, in any sense, a self-contained autonomous self. Trinity affirms that relationality is not fundamentally the interaction of independent beings but actually the foundational makeup of Being itself, the essential substance of truth.

To highlight this, Hart makes reference to the analogies used by the early church to comprehend the Trinity. Particularly instructive are the social analogies of the Cappadocian fathers and the psychological analogies of Augustine. Rather than one being more fitting than the other, it is important to realize that both balance each other to create an ineffably distant analogy to the Trinitarian life. The relationality of the Trinity manifests both as an interior reality within the unity God (as in the psychological analogy) and as actual difference manifest in distinct persons (as in the social analogy) - though these persons are always understood in terms of the constant interplay of giving and receiving and giving again.

Thus Hart writes:

As the Son is the true image of the Father, faithfully reflecting him in infinite distance, and as the Spirit forever "prismates" the radiance of God's image into all the beautiful measures of that distance, one may speak of God as a God who is, in himself, always somehow analogous; the coincidence in God of mediacy and immediacy, image and difference, is the "proportion" that makes every finite interval a possible disclosure - a tabernacle - of God's truth.

In general, the very nature of humanity can be understood as one of these tabernacles of God's truth, a window into the infinite Trinitarian reality subsisting in perpetual unity in difference. As with the aforementioned analogies for Trinity, relationality makes up the essential character of all humanities being. There is no need to demonstrate the social nature of the human experience of difference, but Hart argues that even within ourselves there is interior difference. Humans experience themselves within themselves as an "exterior" object. Even in saying "I am..." we necessarily remove ourselves as the speaker, speaking about ourselves as we would an object that could be externally observed. Hart words it better: we really possess identity apart from relation: is not even our "purest" interiority reflexive, knowing and loving itself as expression and recognition, engaged with the world of others through memoria and desire, inward discourse and outward intention (hence the genius of Augustine's "interior" analogies)?

Or consider:

...knowledge and love of neighbor fulfill the soul's velleity toward the world, and so grant each of us that internally constituted "self" that exists only through an engagement with a world of others; but that engagement is only possible only in that the structure of interiority is already "othered" and "othering," in distinct moments of consciousness' inherence in itself.

It was after reading and synthesizing this understanding of the Trinity (infinitely superior to other "community" themed explanations of the Trinity which I have lately been made to read) and its significance for anthropology that I saw an immediate and fantastic application to marriage as understood through the creation accounts. It struck me that marriage is also one such tabernacle of Trinitarian truth in which humans could "at infinite analogical remove" (to borrow from Hart) participate and understand the incomprehensible divine dynamic of difference. The dance - an Orthodox analogy - of experiencing the self as other and incorporating the other into the self without negating its otherness fits neatly into the language of the garden and the creation of woman. Eve is she who was taken from Adam (his rib) and formed into the other but who Adam immediately takes back into himself (as bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh) without ever negating her complimentary nature. The unity in marriage, the ideal unity perhaps inaccessible in this life of sin, is not a unity of purpose or will, not an exterior contract willingly accepted by two autonomous parties but the embracing of the other into the self so that, without negating the difference, there is separation of will or purpose. It is replaced by a unity of giving up self and embracing the other into self.

If this is true, then some of Hart's most beautiful language about the Trinity applies, however equivocally, to the marital relationship as an analogy of the divine life. Marriage is that relationship "of self-oblation according to which each 'I' also 'not I' but rather Thou." It is a symphony of mutual joy - the joy of knowing and of loving - which consists of a perpetual self-giving to the different other who is nevertheless self. It is the "fullness of shared love," a perpetual expression of the "dynamism of distinction and unity."

That, I think, is a beautiful image of marriage based analogically on a beautiful image of the Trinity. After all, as Hart reminds, we can always affirm that "God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Personal vs. Person

In general, in reading Stanley Grenz's Theology for the Community of God I have very often been unimpressed and only rarely disappointed. I did find one rather predictable occasion of unnerving theology, however, in his explanation of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Grenz is part of that venerable tradition of Western theologians whose reductionist pneumatology equates the Holy Spirit to the bond of love between the Father and the Son. This is, so far as I'm concerned, an essentially binitarian view of God where the two person of Father and Son constitute God with the Spirit as an unintended consequence of their relationship. David Bentley Hart is more generous when dealing with the tradition in general. He writes:

There is a long, predominantly Western tradition of speaking of the Spirit as the vinculum caritatis between Father and Son, which - if taken to mean that in the divine life the indiscerptibility of love and knowledge is such that God's generation and procession enfold one another, the Spirit acting as the bond of love between Father and Son, the Son as the bond of knowledge between the Father and Spirit, the Father being the source of both - is a good and even necessary term. But it can also be misleading, in various ways: as Orthodox theologians occasionally worry, it can give the appearance that the Spirit is not irreducibly "personal" as Father and Son.

Correctly understood, however, it does none of this; and it depicts the Spirit as not simply the love of Father and Son, but also everlastingly the differentiation of that love, the third term, the outward, "straying," prodigal second intonation of that love.

Whatever the merit may be of Hart's evaluation of the tradition in general (and stricken as I am by intellectual hero worship, I doubt I could ever flatly disagree with him), Grenz's pneumatology seems to fall far short of Hart's "correctly understood" application of the tradition. Instead, Grenz sums his position up thus:

The personhood of the Spirit arises from the personal character of God as well. The love that binds the Father and the Son is the essence of the one God, for "God is love." God is also personal. Therefore his essential nature - love - is likewise personal. This essence is also the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who as the "concretization" of that essential divine character must be person.

I would like here to point out merely the most obvious flaw with this line of reasoning: simply because something is person does not mean that it is a person. The adjective "personal" in general usage - and, it would appear to me, in the above usage - means that object of the adjective involves persons. The love of the Father and the Son is personal because it involves the hypostases Father and Son. The love in my marriage is arguably personal on the same grounds, that it involves two (and hopefully only two) persons. By Grenz's logic, this makes the love in my marriage a person in its own right. Grenz argues, and I certainly agree, that God is personal, but it is because he is "constituted" of persons. I likewise agree that his love is personal, but again it is personal because it is "shared" among persons. None of this demands that the love is itself a person distinct from the persons who share the personal love.

In short, simply calling something personal does not logically demonstrate that it is a person. PC owners everywhere can sleep easy tonight.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pope "Succeeds" In Britain

I read a report of strangely triumphant sentiments issuing from Rome following the pope's trip to Britain. Since this trip gained mainstream attention, I have heard nothing but negative feedback from people I know in the UK regarding the pope, the trip, and Roman Catholicism in general. (In a sense, it was almost nice to hear people irrationally attacking something other than Islam for a change.) In spite of this general perception (at least for my part) of negativity if not hostility toward the pope, the Vatican is calling the trip a "great success." Examples of this success are curious.

Benedict's warning about the dangers of an increasingly secularized society had been received "with profound interest" from Britons as a whole.

And why shouldn't they be? I'd be profoundly interested to hear from the Vatican that my country had descended into moral degradation. I'd not only be interested; I'd be interested in how he justifies the moral hypocrisy as many citizens of the UK were. (A question quite rightly arises in the mind: what concern of the pope's is the secularization of England when his church is being rocked by yet another wave of sex abuse scandals.) I would be most interested in how the aggressive atheism in Britain had earned my country the label "third world."

I'd also be interested in why, for the first time ever, the faithful were charged an entry fee into papal appearances - in addition, of course, to the millions in tax dollars that were spent to accommodate him.

So perhaps "profound interest" is the best way to describe the British response. The Prime Minister said it even better:

[The pope] challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing.

The only problem is, that when the country sat up and thought, they didn't like what they concluded about Catholicism. However the Vatican is measuring success, I cannot imagine how that qualifies.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Annihilationism is one of the few doctrines that, were it true, I would immediately become an atheist (at least functionally) by default. That may seem like something of an extreme evaluation of a teaching, particularly one that deals with so speculative an issue as the eternal fate of the unrighteous following judgment. The ethical implications of annihilationism, however, are so drastic that I cannot imagine any other response.

According to annihilationists, the unrighteous are destroyed following judgment. They simply cease to exist. They are not eternally tormented in hell nor do they undergo purgative or pedagogical ordeals until they freely accept salvation. They simply cease to be. The position strikes a compromise between those who cannot violate God's justice by embracing universalism and those who cannot violate God's love by affirming an eternal, punitive hell. That is certainly a noble goal and, as an eschatological vision, it has tremendous appeal (even to me). Yet, as with all eschatological teaching, it has value only in so far as it gives meaning and evokes response in the present.

What then is the meaning conveyed on the present by annihilationism? What response should it evoke from contemporary believers? Annihiliationism declares unequivocally that the beliefs of the prevailing secular humanism are in fact quite correct with regard to the post-mortem fate of humanity and that we should therefore embrace the concomitant ethical nihilism it espouses. As striking as that conclusion may seem, it is quite easily defensible. One need only ask your standard atheist, "What happens to you after you die?" The answer, "Nothing." As far as the typical secular atheist is concerned, death represents the end of personal existence. Now, admittedly, the annihilationist adds an intermediate step towards this cessation of existence. They include a resurrection and judgment prior to unconscious oblivion, but the ultimate result is the same.

Proceed a step further and realize that the absence of life after death is the metaphysical grounds for the general affirmation of ethical relativism and, the more logically consistent, ethical nihilism. Because there is no life after death, there is no reason to live as if there is. Annihiliationism strips eschatology of its ethical power and makes it motivationally impotent. Who would fear for his eternal soul if you taught him that after he died, if he was among the unrighteous, that he would simply cease to be? If you live a reckless hedonistic lifestyle as an atheist you already believe that death marks the end of personal existence. Even if you were converted to the annihilationist position, that outlook does not change.

Ironically, even the standard Christian conception of universalism has more ethical potency than annihilationism. At least the product of righteousness here is the right to bypass the pedagogical hell. In stripping Christianity of hell, annihilationism strips the majority of the lost in the Western world of any reason to embrace the Christian ethos.

Annihilationism: more dangerous than universalism and atheism. Go figure.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, pt. 4

This is a continuation of my quotes from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. (See also, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

"The question of whether miracles ever occur is a question of common sense and of ordinary historical imagination: not of any final physical experiment. One may here surely dismiss that quite brainless piece of pedantry which talks about the need for "scientific conditions" in connection with alleged spiritual phenomena. If we are asking whether a dead soul can communicate with a living it is ludicrous to insist that it shall be under conditions in which no two living souls in their senses would seriously communicate with each other. The fact that ghosts prefer darkness no more disproves the existence of ghosts than the fact that lovers prefer darkness disproves the existence of love. If you choose to say, "I will believe that Miss Brown called her fiance a periwinkle or, any other endearing term, if she will repeat the word before seventeen psychologists," then I shall reply, "Very well, if those are your conditions, you will never get the truth, for she certainly will not say it." It is just as unscientific as it is unphilosophical to be surprised that in an unsympathetic atmosphere certain extraordinary sympathies do not arise. It is as if I said that I could not tell if there was a fog because the air was not clear enough; or as if I insisted on perfect sunlight in order to see a solar eclipse."

"When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say "My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell." No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day."

On the inestimable importance of the early education of boys by their mothers, he writes, "...a boy is only sent to be taught at school when it is too late to teach him anything."

A fantastic definition of the Fall: " the question, 'What is meant by the Fall?' I could answer with complete sincerity, 'That whatever I am, I am not myself.'"

" so far as the liberal idea of freedom can be said to be on either side in the discussion about miracles, it is obviously on the side of miracles...If you wish to feed the people, you may think that feeding them miraculously in the wilderness is impossible--but you cannot think it illiberal. If you really want poor children to go to the seaside, you cannot think it illiberal that they should go there on flying dragons; you can only think it unlikely. A holiday, like Liberalism, only means the liberty of man. A miracle only means the liberty of God. You may conscientiously deny either of them, but you cannot call your denial a triumph of the liberal idea." He continues, "The assumption that there is something in the doubt of miracles akin to liberality or reform is literally the opposite of the truth. If a man cannot believe in miracles there is an end of the matter; he is not particularly liberal, but he is perfectly honourable and logical, which are much better things. But if he can believe in miracles, he is certainly the more liberal for doing so; because they mean first, the freedom of the soul, and secondly, its control over the tyranny of circumstance. Sometimes this truth is ignored in a singularly naive way, even by the ablest men."

Let me conclude this entry, the last of the catalogues of quotes from Orthodoxy first with the sincere admission that I had never read a Christian apology quite so appealing as this. Previously, I had never been roused by any apology more than the Epistle to Diognetus, particularly the fifth chapter. Earlier this year I completed David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions, which quickly became my favorite apology. I can now honestly say, however, that Chesterton has surpassed both ancient and modern apologists for me, not because he conclusively proves Christianity, but because, rejecting the possibility of proving it, he defends it existentially. He stands up for it as it is, not as a mathematical equation that, once sufficiently balanced cannot reasonably be denied, but as a messy, illogical, terrible, beautiful, true explanation of our messy, illogical, terrible, beautiful true existence. And that makes me very happy. Thus, I finish with this final quote:

"Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do--because they are Christian."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton (Excursus 5)

G. K. Chesterton's explanation of on what evidences he accepts the claims of Christianity was too compelling and too thorough to summarize or to quote only in part. Here is his extended argument quoted in at length:

If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, "For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity." I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.

Now, the non-Christianity of the average educated man to-day is almost always, to do him justice, made up of these loose but living experiences. I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way. Let us take cases.

Many a sensible modern man must have abandoned Christianity under the pressure of three such converging convictions as these: first, that men, with their shape, structure, and sexuality, are, after all, very much like beasts, a mere variety of the animal kingdom; second, that primeval religion arose in ignorance and fear; third, that priests have blighted societies with bitterness and gloom. Those three anti-Christian arguments are very different; but they are all quite logical and legitimate; and they all converge. The only objection to them (I discover) is that they are all untrue.

If you leave off looking at books about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men then (if you have any humour or imagination, any sense of the frantic or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation. That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a roccoco style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with the material of many camel's-hair brushes. Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society superior to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever found an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants? Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old?

No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk. So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything, a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.

He concludes thus:

This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Reason and Revelation"

During the course of my adventure into the 1880-1881 issues of the Gospel Advocate, I have chanced upon a number of amusing articles. I have particularly enjoyed some of the marital advice contained therein. It has, at one and the same time, a kind of amusing antiquity and a certain timelessness. I had something of the same reaction when reading an article by F. D. Srygley titled "Reason and Revelation." (I regret that I do not have the exact date for the purpose of more accurate citation.) Srygley, who was very nearly the subject of a recent term paper of mine, wrote the article to correct a misprint in his "Missionary Spirit vs. Missionary Plans" which said that "the Bible was given to supplant human judgment." Srygley clarifies:

It is far more reasonable to conclude the Bible was given to supplement, not supplant, human judgment. In fact, this is the only view of the matter which will comport with reason.

My immediate reaction to that was pronouncedly negative, given my belief about the fundamental nature of Scripture. Nevertheless, as I read on I was struck by the way he expressed this belief. His language in several places (particularly when presented out of context as I am about to do) has a ring of orthodoxy - dare I even say Orthodoxy - that appealed very directly to me.

It is the province of the Bible to supply what reason cannot furnish.

The axioms which constitute the foundation and beginning of revelation are wholly without the scope of unaided reason. To the mind enlightened by revelation these principles are clearly axiomatic, but to the mind destitute of inspired light they are darkly incomprehensible.

If the Bible does not occupy ground beyond the reach of human reason, it is not a revelation. Can it in any sense be considered a revelation to tell a man what he already knows?

In the article, Srygley develops the idea of complementary provinces of reason and revelation such that they form a mutually exclusive but "harmonious whole." He reacts to two opposite and equally dangerous extremes. Some make reason all sufficient and revelation only a marginal improvement on reason:

...they seem to consider the Bible only a better guide than reason concerning matters of which both have jurisdiction.

Others reject reason altogether in a perverse pietism:

Some seem to think a total rejection of human judgment an indication of great fidelity to God.

Srygley rejects both of these. Reason and revelation both have their root in God. They must each have their ordained purpose. To reject either outright or even to diminish either is to reject or diminish God. One can just as easily reject reason as proper to the human person as he can reject the Bible as the revelation of God. "Both sins are rebellion against things of divine origin. Both proceed from a common cause." This whole philosophy gives Srygley a very healthy view of the role of Scripture in my opinion. I certainly reject the idea that the Bible is somehow synonymous with revelation - something Srygley would undoubtedly affirm - but when it comes to questions of the Bible and science or logic, I think Srygley hits the mark:

To talk about a conflict between science and the Bible, is about as sensible as to apprehend an actual quarrel and assault between one's manhood and boyhood.

God never explained in the Bible what man by reason could find out. There can never be a conflict between the Bible and geology because the Bible proposes to give no light upon the science of geology.

In the end, however, Srygley still comes out with a position on the adequacy of reason that I cannot endorse. "Human judgment properly cultivated, like revelation correctly interpreted, is absolutely safe as guide on all matters in its jurisdiction." This sentiment was enough to make me suspicious (especially because I know that Srygley is part of a tradition that sees the "correct" interpretation of revelation as being dependent on the powers of human reason), but where he finally concludes was enough to make me recoil.

Where reason is guide at all, revelation never interferes to offer a more excellent way. In fact, I apprehend that it is absolutely impossible for God by revelation to give a light superior to reason on themes within the scope of human judgment.

I agree with Srygley that reason has its proper province. I even support that it is ultimately reliable within that province (though I would say it was functionally reliable while Srygley would say its reliability is unqualified). What I cannot agree on is that God's self-revelation is in any sense restricted by human reason. I not only affirm that God's revelation can overrule, overwhelm, and even contradict human reason, this is one of the fundamental realities of the faith as far as I'm concerned. Revelation is the light which is superior to reason, even regarding things which reason purports to have grasped.

I suppose the real difference is that Srygley has confidence that what reason apprehends is in fact reality. I am more skeptical about our ability to adequately apprehend reality by the means of reason. Reason, for me, is only competent to allow us to function within reality. Reality cannot be circumscribed by reason. After all, God is real.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Sentiment Plagarized from James A. Garfield's Journal, June 14, 1853

I sit down to insult my journal by making a few senseless marks upon its page – merely stating that this day shared the fate of its predecessors, and perhaps brought no more to pass.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Original Sin and Theodicy

In reading about original sin and the Fall for my course in systematics, I was presented with a number of equally unsatisfactory options for understanding the Genesis narrative, Adam and his role in transmitting sin to humanity. Either Adam was a historical man who represented humanity in the primordial garden federally or naturally (either as the representative human or as the natural father of all mankind) or he is merely a symbol, a narrative device that depicts the existential reality of the origin of sin in all of us. All these interpretations seem to mistreat the text in my view. I certainly am inclined to think of the Genesis narratives, particularly the creation narratives as etiological and so in some sense the story must be about the origin of sin in the world. More critically, however, I read the Fall narrative as primarily theodic.

It is easy for exegetes or even simple readers to pick up in Genesis and read these stories from the implied standpoint of the narrative, to mentally enter into a world that predates the Fall and then to anachronistically read modern questions of origins into the story. That, I believe, is the root of many problems, not the least of which is the young earth reading of the text. In general this is the cause of a great deal of fundamentalist misunderstanding of Genesis. The concern for origins as mere objective facts is undeniably a modern construct.

With this in view, I think it is safe to assert that the origin of sin as objective fact is not the primary concern of the text. This leaves the mystery of what is. To answer this, it is necessary to reverse engineer the question that might give rise the answer given in the text. My first impulse is to offer “Why do we experience suffering?” In reality, however, this question is better answered not by pointing to the original sin itself but to the result of sins. Thus, the curse which is issued as the divine response to sin where the idyllic state is stripped from humanity and it is left to the cold, cruel creation answers that question.

The original sin itself, in my opinion, answers the question which arises from “Why do we experience suffering?” If the answer to the former is “as a result of sin,” then the natural question (with its implicit accusatory tone) arises: “Why did God allow us to sin?” It is as a response to this question that I think that the actual narrative of the original sin – as distinct from the narrative of the results of that sin – finds its true purpose. It declares with certainty that even when God gives it every advantage, even in a state of bliss, if humanity is given the freedom to choose evil it will work out a way to do so. It strips away human excuse for sin. If we try to claim that we live in a dark, dangerous world where survival seems to depend on selfishness, deceit, theft, and violence the biblical authors remind us that we love the simple freedom of choosing so much that we chose evil even in a world that was neither dark nor dangerous.

This interpretation even gives some light to the juxtaposition of Adam and Christ in the New Testament. Adam is the old humanity that sinned even when there was no “need” to. Christ, in contrast, inaugurates the new humanity by refusing to sin even in the fallen world that we feel necessitates ethical compromise. Just as in Adam, who sinned in spite of every advantage, we find a humanity without excuse, in Christ we find a humanity excused and redeemed into a new life that permits freedom from sin.

Those are, at least, my humble thoughts on the matter being by no means a biblical scholar. I would welcome any biblical critique of that understanding, particularly with regard to the Christ-Adam dichotomy which I have never studied in depth.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hell and the Love of God

I read something wonderful the other day in Stanley Grenz's Theology for the Community of God about the nature of hell:

The final outworking of the rejection of God's love is a never-ending experience of the wrath of the eternal Lover. Hell, therefore, is not the experience of the absence of God's love. God loves his creation with an eternal love. Therefore God's love is present even in hell. But in hell people experience the presence of the divine love in the form of wrath.

Most of my life I have had the reality of hell justified to me on the basis of God's justice or holiness or righteousness but never on the basis of His love. It isn't to say that God's justice or righteousness or holiness would be insufficient to explain hell, it is just that the standard emotion-laden argument against hell sounds something like, "But how can a loving God condemn people to hell!" Justice and holiness in response to this became ways to explain away hell as an unfortunate necessity not incompatible with God's love but not expressive of it either. Hell took on the character of a necessary evil.

In Grenz's understanding hell is not only compatible with God's love but - given a correct understanding of hell and love - is actually the necessary expression of a loving God. Grenz notes (in a way similar to G. K. Chesterton) that true love is not expressed only in a kind of rosy, bubbly haze of joy. Instead, he writes:

Genuine love, therefore, is positively jealous. It is protective, for the true lover seeks to maintain, even defend, the love relationship whenever it is threatened by disruption, destruction, or outside intrusion. Whenever another seeks to injure or undermine the love relationship, he or she experiences love's jealousy, which we call "wrath." When this dimension is lacking, love degenerates into mere sentimentality.

God's love for His creation is expressed as much in His wrath as in His kindness. When the beloved spurns the love and seeks to sever the bond love is not experienced in casual acceptance of that alienation but in intense "jealousy."

Seeing hell explained in this way was exciting, but the excitement was somewhat abated when I read that Vladimir Lossky had already drawn much the same conclusion in his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

The love of God is an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.

Worse still, Lossky quoted from St. Isaac the Syrian in defense of this proposition.

...those who find themselves in gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love, undergo greater sufferings than those produced by the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love, is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God...but love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.

It would appear (again like Chesterton) that I went seeking something new and, when I found it, was shocked and encouraged to find that it was in fact old. If the doctrine of hell as the full and necessary expression of love has been lost in modern times, I hope we can recover it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton (Excursus 4)

"Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often hear it said, for instance, 'What is right in one age is wrong in another.' This is quite reasonable, if it means that there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish to be oblong."

This, I think, is still a pertinent critique of a largely aimless world. Chesterton criticizes here the rapidly changing aim of his time, but I think perhaps we suffer now from an even worse problem. We have as a culture abandoned aim in and of itself. To carry out Chesterton's analogy, the ideal is that women should wish to be elegant and adapt the changing means to the unchanging end. The flawed system of Chesterton's time is represented by women who thought they could improve by no longer wanting to be elegant but deciding instead to be oblong thus making both the ends and the means totally fluid. What has happened now is women no longer care to be elegant or to be oblong or to be anything. They do not even care to care, but have removed the possibility of an end altogether and thus making whatever means used not only fluid but ultimately irrelevant. There is a nasty nihilism lurking just beneath the surface of society, and we are determined to dance just as nearly to it as we can without falling off entirely into oblivion.

Or to put it in loftier terms (those of David Bentley Hart), in a world where the possibility of a definite end for progress has been destroyed by a post-Christian world's "ineluctable antinomianism" it should not surprise us to find that "the ethical strain in postmodern thought is usually its emptiest gesture."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Steps Toward Liberation

I was excited to see in the news recently that the Turkish government had allowed the ecumenical patriarch to conduct services at a historic monastery for the first time in nearly a century. My initial thought was to rejoice that the Byzantine church was finally making the steps to throw off five hundred year old shackles, to sigh with relief that they were taking steps toward liberation. Then I thought about liberty has done for the rest of us free-thinking apostates, and my excitement abated.