Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In other news

In an overwhelming display of generosity and good will, the Turkish government gave the Orthodox Church back this dilapidated, hundred year old building (that the Turks had "appropriated" in 1997):

Bravo, Turkish government. What more could the Orthodox want?

Buddhism and Abortion

I'm not sure why it never occurred to me (given the essential role that respect for life plays in Buddhism), but reading about abortion laws in Thailand has made me realize just how "pro-life" Theravada Buddhism can be:

In [the] Buddhist view, both having an abortion and performing an abortion amount to murder. Those involved in abortions will face distress in both this life and the next because their sins will follow them.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Action 5 News Meets Survivor

In a recent TV plug for WMC-TV Memphis evening news, the anchor promised that if you watched that night you would see the sex of an unnamed staff members baby revealed. It turned out the story was actually attached to a report about the accuracy of a take home test that purports to determine the sex of a fetus, but I'm concerned that TV channels feel the need to advertise the news as if it were reality TV.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Texts on Thanksgiving: Jonathan Edwards

This short quote is from a sermon by Jonathan Edwards entitled "The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth:”

When God hath opened a very large treasure before us, for the supply of our wants, and we thank him that he hath given us so much; if at the same time we be willing to remain destitute of the greatest part of it, because we are too lazy to gather it, this will not show the sincerity of our thankfulness.

Edwards has in mind here particularly the abundance of information which God has revealed about Himself for mankind’s benefit. The Bible, for example, lies waiting to be plumbed for the abundant and rejuvenating truth which it records. Edwards balked at the idea that the information was so readily available and yet so few people took advantage of it. (Easily imaginable is the kind of invective he would call down on contemporary society, with its obscenely ready access to Scripture and inversely proportional apathy to its message.) Yet, the idea carries beyond just knowledge. God has afforded to humanity abundant blessings that merely await human appropriation. Salvation must spring immediately to mind, offered freely to all and yet rejected by so many. More convicting still is the abundant time and resources of so many of the world’s Christians for which they give thanks but with which they never do anything productive for God’s ends.

Edwards insists that gratitude for some blessings best takes the form of seizing those blessings when they are offered. Are there gifts which God has offered that we refuse to accept for His purposes?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

We interrupt this program to bring you some late breaking news:

The pope has come out in favor of condoms as a means of combatting the AIDS crisis in Africa. Or at least he thinks that they are slightly less immoral than HIV positive, homosexual prostitutes having unprotected sex with clients.

But then again, who doesn't think that?

Texts on Thanksgiving: Symeon the New Theologian

The following passage may be found in Symeon the New Theologian’s homily On Faith:

I grieve, I exhaust my heart, I pine for you when I bring to mind that we have a Lord so bountiful and compassionate that simply if we have faith in Him He grants us gifts beyond our imagination—gifts we have never heard or thought of and that ‘man’s heart has not grasped.’ Yet we, like beasts, prefer the earth and the things of the earth that through His mercy it yields in order to supply our bodily needs…This is our purpose, for this we were created and brought forth: that after having received lesser blessings in this world we may through our gratitude to God and our love for Him enjoy great and eternal blessings in the life to come. But, alas, far from having any concern for the blessings in store, we are even ungrateful for those at hand, and we are like the demons, or—if truth be told—even worse. Thus we deserve greater punishment than they, for we have been given greater blessings. For we know that God became for our sakes like us in everything except sin, so that He might deliver us from delusion and free us from sin. But what is the use of saying this? The truth is that we believe in all these things only as words, while we deny them where our acts are concerned. Is not Christ’s name uttered everywhere, in towns and villages, in monasteries and on mountains? Search diligently, if you will, and find out whether anyone keeps His commandments.

Symeon, with fearful conviction, speculates about just how deep is human ingratitude. It is one thing that humanity should prefer the immediate, terrestrial blessings to the eschatological, supernal blessings. After all, the one is grasped by the senses and the intellect (if one is keenly perceptive), while the other is grasped only by faith and only in the spirit. Yet humanity is not even appropriately thankful for those earthly blessings it receives. Being more richly blessed than the demons—infinitely so—in this life, humans typically have a disposition no better than evil spirits. It raises doubts about whether or not humanity truly can be grateful for the eternal gifts which were bequeathed to it in the Incarnation since humans cannot seem to begin to show appropriate thanksgiving for the blessings which are experienced now.

Symeon suggests that the truest act of thanksgiving is obedience, which in turn mediates more blessings to creation. If he were alive today, would he still find that our thanksgiving exists “only in words?” Would he still say, “Among thousands and myriads you will scarcely find one who is a Christian both in word and in act.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Texts on Thanksgiving: Peter of Damascus

Here is a text from Peter of Damascus, A Treasury of Divine Knowledge:

The purpose of what we say in our prayers is as follows. The thanksgiving is in recognition of our incapacity to offer thanksgiving as we should at this present moment, of our negligence in doing so at other times, and of the fact that the present moment is a gift of God's grace.

The prayers offered by the monks in Peter's day always began with a thanksgiving. This thanksgiving, according to Peter, was not so much a genuine fulfillment of humanity's duty to be grateful to God. In fact, it functioned first and foremost as a reminder that people cannot be truly thankful as they should. Whether it be sin or merely ignorance that prevents people from truly recognizing all that God does for His children, the gratitude offered God is never sufficient. It overlooks things that God has done and continues to do. Even if humanity were able to recognize every grace conferred to humanity, people could still not thank God adequately since every moment it would be necessary to thank God merely for the gift of being itself.

Peter recognizes that beneath every thanksgiving offered to God should be implicit remorse and recognition that it is never enough. Do we deceive ourselves into believing our gratitude is sufficient?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Texts on Thanksgiving: John Chrysostom

On Sunday morning, it seems appropriate that the text should come from perhaps the preeminent preacher in all of Christian history. This is from John Chrysostom's 15th Homily, a sermon regarding the martyrdom of Stephen:

None, I repeat, will be able to harm us, unless we harm ourselves; nor will any make me poor, unless I make myself such. For come, let us look at it in this way. Suppose that I have a beggarly soul, and let all lavish all their substance upon me, what of that? So long as the soul is not changed, it is all in vain. Suppose I have a noble soul, and let all men take from me my substance: what of that? So long as you do not make the soul beggarly, no harm is done…And why say I these things? None will ever be able to plot against us, nor lay us under any evil charge, if we choose (that they shall not). For how now, I ask you? Let him drag me into a court of justice, let him lay vexatious informations, let him, if you will, have the very soul out of me: and what of that? for a little while, undeservedly to suffer these things, what does it signify? “Well, but this,” say you, “is of itself an evil.” Well, but of itself this is a good, to suffer undeservedly.

what is a man injured, when from death itself he has got great gain, not merely no hurt? If indeed the man had been immortal, and this made him mortal, no doubt it would be a hurt: but if he be mortal, and in the course of nature must expect death a little later, and his enemy has but expedited his death, and glory with it, what is the harm? Let us but have our soul in good order, and there will be no harm from without. But thou art not in a condition of glory? And what of that? That which is true of wealth, the same holds for glory: if I be magnanimous I shall need none; if vainglorious, the more I get, the more I shall want. In this way shall I most become illustrious, and obtain greater glory; namely, if I despise glory. Knowing these things, let us be thankful to Him Who hath freely given us such a life, and let us ensue it unto His glory; for to Him belongs the glory, forever. Amen.

This text responds to the question of whether or not Stephen losses anything by virtue of being martyred. The preacher answers that persecutors took nothing from Stephen when was of any enduring worth. He was, after all, mortal to begin with. His life was not something he possessed; it was something he was slated to give up eventually anyway. Moreover, in dying Stephen found much more than he lost, embraced as he was by the eternal glory of God. Instead of depriving him of his life, Stephen’s murderers had ironically initiated him into Life. No matter how hard anyone may try to deprive Christians of anything, John Chrysostom reminds his listeners, so long as they have their priorities rightly ordered then their true treasure is invincible. It is for this that the preacher urges his audience to be grateful, that God should so love them as to give them a hope of life which can never be taken from them. They have an unassailable promise for future glory that of which trial, persecution, and even death cannot deprive them.

How often are we grateful when we are given that for which we ask? John reminds his readers that the greatest gift of God was that for which we did not ask, which we did not deserve, but which God took the initiative to grant us nonetheless.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Texts on Thanksgiving: Cyprian and the Roman Martyrs

This text is from a letter of Cyprian to those awaiting martyrdom in Rome:

Cyprian to the martyrs and confessors in Christ our Lord and in God the Father, everlasting salvation. I gladly rejoice and am thankful, most brave and blessed brethren, at hearing of your faith and virtue, wherein the Church, our Mother, glories. Lately, indeed, she gloried, when, in consequence of an enduring confession, that punishment was undergone which drove the confessors of Christ into exile; yet the present confession is so much the more illustrious and greater in honour as it is braver in suffering. The combat has increased, and the glory of the combatants has increased also. Nor were you kept back from the struggle by fear of tortures, but by the very tortures themselves you were more and more stimulated to the conflict; bravely and firmly you have returned with ready devotion, to contend in the extremest contest.

From the response of the Roman clergy on behalf of those suffering:

In which matter we ought to give you also, and we do give you, abundant thanks, that you have brightened the darkness of their prison by your letters; that you came to them in whatever way you could enter; that you refreshed their minds, robust in their own faith and confession, by your addresses and letters; that, following up their felicities with worthy praises, you have inflamed them to a much more ardent desire of heavenly glory; that you urged them forward; that you animated, by the power of your discourse, those who, as we believe and hope, will be victors by and by; so that although all may seem to come from the faith of those who confess, and from the divine mercy, yet they seem in their martyrdom to have become in some sort debtors to you.

In these complimenting passages we see an overflowing of thanksgiving from those who are perhaps least in a place to be grateful. Cyprian thanks God for the martyrs, not necessarily because they are being forced to suffer but because they are a true witness in their suffering. Cyprian is grateful to be associated with so powerful a testimony to the power of God’s goodness as those who would suffer willingly for the truth. He would follow their example at the end of his life. In turn, the martyrs echo Cyprian’s gratitude with overwhelming gratitude of their own. When darkness begins to creep up on them in their cells awaiting torment and death, they are grateful to be part of a community that glories in them and stands behind them unto death. Even when they are most isolated - separated from society, hidden away from their families, and condemned to death - they are never truly alone. They are part of a community, a heavenly body from which they cannot be separated by earthly means. They are sustained by the gratitude of their Christian family and they reciprocate by sustaining others with that same spirit of thanksgiving.

When the community of faith was still very much struggling in its infancy, Cyprian and the martyrs are abundantly thankful to part of the body of Christ. How often do we take it for granted?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Texts on Thanksgiving: Mark the Ascetic

The following text is from St. Mark the Ascetic's letter to Nicolas the Solitary:

Try, then, to remember unceasingly all the blessings that have been given to you by God. In particular, always keep in mind that miraculous grace which you told us He conferred on you when you were sailing with your mother from the Holy Land to Constantinople. Recall the terrifying and uncontrollable violence of the storm that broke on you during the night, and how everyone in thye ship, including the crew and your mother herself, perished in the sea; and how by an incredible acdt of divine power you and two others alone were thrown clear of the wreck and escaped. Remember how you came providentially to Ankyra, and how, with fatherly compassion, you were given hospitatlity by a certain freeman, and became friends with his devout son Epiphanios. Then both of you under the guidance of a holy man, entered on the path of salvation and were received as true sons of by the servants of

What repayment for all these blessings can you possibly make to Him who has called your soul to eternal life? It is only right, then, that you should live no longer for yourself, but for Christ, who died for your sake and rose again. in your struggle to acquire every virtue and to fulfill every commandment, always seek "the good, acceptable and perfect will of God," endeavoring with all your strength to pursue it.

From this brief passage, we can gather that Nicolas, the letter's addresee, sometime in his past was returning home from a pilgramage to the Holy Land. During the course of his return voyage, the ship was overtaken by a violent storm that killed most of the crew, most of the passengers, and Nicolas' own mother. Nicolas himself was thrown adrift at sea and eventually washed up at Ankyra. Yet for all this, Mark insists that Nicolas should be thankful, not only generally - as if it were some default disposition in spite of the circumstances - but particularly about this miraculous grace above all others. Why? Because Nicolas emerged from this harrowing ordeal a better person, a reformed person, a true son of God.

Mark saw providence working for the benefit of God's people even in their trials. Do we reserve our gratitude for blessings which conform to our expectations?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


In honor of this, my one hundreth entry, I present the top ten quotes of the previous ninety-nine entries:

10) David Lipscomb from The Wisdom of David Lipscomb. As tempting as it was to quote Lipscomb on the question of civil government or pacifism (issues about which I feel strongly), this quote is infintely more compelling to me.

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.

9) Bill Burton from Muslims: Do They EVER Pray?. I have comment on a number of obscenely stupid news articles, and this quote typifies them all.

The president is obviously a Christian. He prays every day.

8) Symeon the New Theologian from An Earnest Prayer For Taking the Eucharist. It is hard for me to read this and not think that I am missing something every Sunday morning when I pass the Lord's Supper down the aisle.

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

7) G. K. Chesterton from The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton (Excursus 1). Chesterton, among other things, revolutionized the way I thought about love. His was by no means the only voice as I began to reconsider how I understood the affirmation that God is love, but his was very likely the initial voice. These are a pair of related quotes to illustrate his points.

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

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.

6) David Bentley Hart from Recommendation: Atheist Delusions. The full quote--and for that matter, the entire book--is very enlightening, but in the interest of brevity, I will include only the introduction.

There is, after all, nothing inherently reasonable in the conviction that all of reality is simply an accidental confluence of physical causes, without any transcendent source or end. Materialism is not a fact of experience or a deduction of logic; it is a metaphysical prejudice, nothing more, and one that is arguably more irrational than almost any other.

5) Georges Florovsky from The Wisdom of Georges Florovsky. This opinion of the role of history in theology (particularly in churhces like the Orthodox Church) stands in stark and refreshing contrast with the lifeless formalism and repitition which is at least the stereotype of so many tradition oriented churches.

This call to 'go back' to the Fathers can be easily misunderstood. It does not mean a return to the letter of patristic documents...What is really meant and required is not a blind or servile imitation and repetition but rather a further development of this patristic teaching, both homogeneous and congenial. We have to kindle again the creative fire of the Fathers, to restore in ourselves the patristic spirit.

4) Rene Descartes from Descartes, Unexpected. It was hard to choose a single quote about the foolishness of using logic to limit God, but Descartes stands out as something of a surprising (at least to me) spokesman for the "irrational" position.

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.

3) Vladimir Lossky from The God of the Square-Circle. No less than the inability of logic to limit God, the limits which reason imposes on human knowledge have enticed me. It would be easier, and perhaps more appropriate, to cite a fourteenth century hesychast on this point, but Lossky sums it up nicely nevertheless.

The only rational notion which we can have of God will still be that of His incomprehensibility. Consequently, theology must be not so much a quest of positive notions about the divine being as an experience which surpasses all understanding.

2) James A. Garfield from A Sentiment Plagarized from James A. Garfield's Journal, June 14, 1853. This quote, while seemingly devoid of content, expresses shockingly well my attitude about the way I have spent the better part of the last two years.

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.

1) Helmut Thielicke from The Wisdom of Helmut Thielicke. This quote takes precedence for me over all others I have posted because, as much as the previous quote described my actual experience, this quote describes what I continue to hope for in pursuing theology as an occupation, as a obsession, as an act of devotion to God.

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Language and the Corruption of Meaning

It is interesting (which is, in this particular context, a euphemistic way of saying “tragic”) the way the dynamic and cultural nature of language can completely transform the meaning of words. Specifically it is “interesting” how Christians have been able to constantly reinterpret the Bible and the rich theology therein—at times under the conscious aegis of contemporary contextualization but more often entirely unconsciously and thus uncritically—with a ceaselessly shifting cultural lexicon. Words which have a very specific meaning have crossed time and language, arriving at the present only semantically equal to the original with the meaning totally lost. The form persists while the function is obscured. There would be little cause for alarm if, as many seem to think, the problem could be solved merely by opening a dictionary of ancient words. In truth, the dictionary only compounds the problem: explaining ancient words with modern glosses or, at best, drawing tenuous parallels to modern concepts.

That is perhaps all too vague to be much of a complaint. An example: Vladimir Lossky has suggested to some acclaim that the formula “one substance in three persons” has been corrupted by the modern understanding of personality. Speaking of the Father, Son, and Spirit as “persons” was filtered (and thus altered) immediately into Latin where the term carried with it a connotation of “mask” that is entirely absent in the Greek. The concept was further altered in the West as culture embraced a radical form of humanism in the Renaissance and, even more dramatically, in the Enlightenment. Western culture (and this embraces the Eastern Church) now understands the person in terms of radical individualism, the thing which makes the “me” actually “me” and not “you.” Contemporary culture lacks not only the appropriate language to speak about the hypostases of God but lacks the appropriate concepts to grasp the personhood in theology. The solution for generally embraced in theological discourse is to abandon the corrupted terms (something that the preceding sentence demonstrates that I am guilty of as well). Instead of the three “persons,” English theology reverts to a transliterated form of the Greek: “hypostasis.” This by no means solves the problem. Simply changing the word to more nearly resemble the original does not automatically attach to it the original concepts. Even as theologians strain to unravel the mystery of the original terminology, how the ancients conceived of hypostases is continually colored by how moderns conceive of personhood. In its extreme form, this tendency produces literature like The Shack where God is depicted as three people with different voices, different senses of humor, different tasks, and different interests, in short, different personalities. This, for Lossky and later for David Bentley Hart, represents a fundamental reversal of the way conceptual transformation ought to work. Christians are constantly allowing the changes in the concepts conveyed by language to alter the original concepts: modern personhood explains theological personhood. Hart suggests that rather than altering the language (i.e. using “hypostasis” instead of “person”), people ought to be rethinking the concept of modern personhood. A true understanding of theological personhood ought to have radical effects on how Christians conceptualize human personhood. In the most basic terms possible, instead of thinking that God is persons in the way humans are persons, people ought to understand how they are persons by thinking about how God is persons.

The problem is not restricted to the esoteric fields of theology proper and anthropology, nor is that my primary concern in arguing this point. In fact, the specific problem which is the catalyst for this thought was actually inspired in part (heaven help me) by the pope and in part by the Jars of Clay song, “Love Song for a Savior.” The pope, several weeks ago, warned a group of children that the “love” which was being peddled on the Internet and in popular culture was not really love at all. I agree, but, while the pope may recognize (at least in speeches) that “love” as expressed in the contemporary idiom is not love in the true sense, in the Christian sense, the secular definition of love has crept into our religious thought and corrupted our understanding of love as God intends it or as the biblical authors mean it. Case and point is the aforementioned Jars of Clay song, the first verse of which describes a girl in a rosy haze thanking Jesus for flowers, running into his arms, and singing over and over: “I want to fall in love with you.” This picture of “true love” is contrasted to those people who sit in church and ignore the sermon. Someday, they too will sing the young girl’s chorus: “I want to fall in love with you…my heart beats for you.”

It could not be more evident (to me at least) that this is a clear permeation of the secular idea of love into what ought to be a truer, more theologically sound conception of love. Jars of Clay is by no means the lone, or even the most egregious, offender. This idea of Christians “loving” Jesus and God “loving” us has seeped into our hymnography, into Christian pop music, into sermons, and into the popular consciousness. The idea is pervasive that the way God loves mirrors in some way the sentimentality of the contemporary understanding of love and that we should, therefore, reciprocate that “love” in kind. The statement “I love Jesus” is more likely to denote nothing more than a positive affection for the Savior than it is to suggest any concrete reality that aligns itself with biblical or historical theological perspectives on love. The affirmation that God loves us is likewise diluted beyond the point of substantial meaning such that God might just as easily be caricatured as our Heavenly Father who carries pictures of all His children in his wallet.

It may be alarmist of me, but I would suggest that the contemporary contextualization (which is, in this particular context, a euphemistic way of saying “rape”) of the meaning of “love” is the root of a number of significant theological problems. I wonder, for example, if the “faith alone” mentality which understands faith as the mere desire of Jesus to “come into my heart” is possible with a more concrete, less romantic view of what it is to love God and be loved by Him. More certainly, this false idea of love stands behind the overwhelming majority of objections to Christianity which begin, “How can a loving God” and end with a description of behavior which we would never permit from our spouses or relatives or friends—as if that were some kind of objective measure of love. Still more troubling are the manifold “loveless” marriages that people are stuck in. Love, rightly considered, is not something that is fallen into our fallen out of so much as it is something which the lover consciously chooses to express to the beloved through certain behaviors and dispositions. If God could fall out of love with humanity, then we would all be quite doomed. For just this reason, I object to the language of Jars of Clay about wanting to “fall in love” with Jesus, not—as with Dr. John Stackhouse—because it gives me the “homoerotic creeps” but because loving Jesus is not something which I fall into anymore than love (properly so-called) is something which I fall into with my wife.

The problem is not, as I said, so much with the words. We have preserved the right language. God should be spoken of as three persons and our basic stance toward Him ought to be described as love. The problem is the direction of meaning transformation for our words. Rather than allowing love rightly understood through divine guidance to determine how we ought to love both God and neighbor, we allow how we love apart from divine guidance to influence what we think is expected of us in the greatest commands. Human personhood ought to be defined relative to divine personhood, and human love ought to be define relative to divine love. In reversing these, our “contemporary contextualization” of meaning has led us into an unbelievably “interesting” modern problem.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I enjoy the fact that unfaithful spouses sometimes give each other AIDS and die.

Do you know what drives me crazy? People who hate homosexuals.

This has been a long standing sentiment, but this particular thought was sparked by an incident that occurred recently in Arkansas (where, I am proud to say, I received much of my fine edjumication). The Huffington Post (I know, but bear with me) posted this report:

An Arkansas School Board member recently launched an inflammatory anti-gay tirade on Facebook that ran the gamut from basic bigoted slurs, to encouraging "f*gs" to commit suicide and announcing that he'd disown his own children if they were gay.

My initial thought was to wonder just what kind of "tirade" this was and whether or not the report was just more media sensationalism. But no. Here is quote from Clint McCance himself:

"Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE."

In this quote really lies my major problem with people like this. For some reason, there are people in this world who think that sin is a justification for hate, which is ironic since that hate they are seeking to justify is itself a sin. It isn't every sin of course, because then there would be a lot of self-hatred (though I suspect there is). It's only homosexuality. Liars we'll forgive. Lechers we'll forgive. If you're Andre Leonard you'll even readily forgive pederasts. But if you are a homosexual, then for McCance you ought to commit suicide and for Leonard you ought to get AIDS.

It isn't even simply the fact that this view is misguided which really bothers me the most. After all, a lot of people are misguided (going on seven billion). What drives me up a wall is that people like Leonard, McCance, and Phelps make it that much harder for people to operate in a position of responsible Christian ethics, which includes both moral purity and love. I cannot adhere to the belief that God intends for sexuality to be expressed exclusively in heterosexual marriages without having attached to that position images of foul mouthed picketers and grammatically incorrect tirades. (Incidentally, was anyone else really concerned that a school board member used the term "thereselves?") People are driven by those images to the opposite extreme, which says that homosexual behavior must somehow be morally admissible because to think otherwise is to be a backward, hateful bigot.

It leaves me (and certainly countless other Christians) in the position of wanting to suggest that homosexual behavior is a sin that should be corrected but being unable to do so without having read into that suggestion more than is really there. I can say that marital infidelity is wrong. I can say that premarital sex is wrong. I can say that polygamy is wrong. But to say that homosexuality is wrong is to open yourself to a wealth or largely inapplicable criticism.

It is perhaps intrinsic to my position that it should not have a loud voice and therefore should be steamrolled by the cacophonous interchange of more boisterous positions, but I would just like to state for the record that I believe that:

  • God intends sex to be between one man and one woman in the confines of a single marriage for the duration of a lifetime.
  • Deviation from that divine intent is sinful.
  • It is morally irresponsible to acquiesce to sin.

In contrast, I do not believe that:

  • Homosexuality is more sinful than the sins which I struggle to overcome.
  • Grace is insufficient to cover homosexuality.
  • Sin in any way absolves Christians of showing the full extent of their love to one another.

On that last point, I would add that I do not:

  • Want homosexuals to kill themselves.
  • Hope that homosexuals get AIDS and die.
  • Believe that God is killing American soldiers as punishment for homosexuality. (At the risk of being inflammatory, it seems to me that if anything, dying at war is a natural - and somewhat obvious - punishment for being at war.)

And while I know that there are many who do not share my clearly superhuman ability to divorce my sexual ethics convictions from politics, I will also add that I think it is directly contrary to the basic principles on which the American government was founded that:

  • Homosexuals should be denied the civil benefits afforded to heterosexual couples.
  • Homosexuals should be discharged from the military because their sexual preference has been revealed.
  • Homosexuals should be discriminated against in any way in the public sphere on the basis of their sexual proclivities.

Take that for what it is worth, but I cannot help being frustrated that on the basis of the above affirmations that I should be lumped into the same category - even broadly - as people like this:

I like that f*gs cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. If you arent against it, you might as well be for it.

I am against "it" but no more than I am against people like you, Clint McCance.

Friday, November 5, 2010

And now, a public service announcement from the Pope and Patriarch:

The month of October saw two interesting announcements from, arguably, the world’s two most influential spiritual leaders.

On Saturday October 30th, the pope, the spiritual head of over one billion Christians, spoke to 100,000 Catholic children assembled from all corners of Italy in St. Peter’s Square. The seems to have had a number of lighter moments when the pope reminisced about his childhood, his dreams, and the desire to be taller. There was, however, a darker side to his speech, one which was tinged with no small amount of fear. Pope Benedict XVI urged the children to be wary of the kind of love that is peddled on the Internet and in the media. That kind of love is “incapable of chastity and purity,” and encourages people to “get used to love that's reduced to merchandise for barter.” The pope promised children that embracing the image of love which is propagated in popular culture would lead ultimately to unhappiness.

Certainly the pope’s message is not without merit. The pornographic paradigm for love that is uncritically received by everyone, not merely children, from popular culture (especially the Internet) stands in desperate need of correction. It does, however, seem strangely inappropriate for the pope to be warning people about love received from the Internet when what most people fear, in fact, is the kind of love being received in Belgian churches. Aged though the pope may be, he could hardly have let the matter of the hundreds of reported cases of sexual abuse perpetrated on children by his priests. After all, the Vatican had just summarily denied those abuse victims the right to hold a rally in St. Peter’s Square. It is perhaps unfortunate that the pope should be preoccupied with the troubles of a post-Christian culture when his own eye is plagued with an even more burdensome plank of patently unChristian behavior.

A little over a week earlier, the Ecumenical Patriarch - spiritual spokesman of a meager and curiously obscure three hundred million Christians - wrote an article for CNN in which he addressed issues of the Christian duty to the environment. In it he expresses the strongly positive message that creation has a unitive effect which transcends doctrinal differences, even between atheists and Christians. This world is entrusted to humanity, either through divine prerogative or through simple circumstance. Regardless, concern for the environment has a truly universal appeal and thus the ability to truly universally unite humanity in action toward a positive goal. Whatever elements of fear appeared in the course of Patriarch Bartholomew's message were tempered with a hope: "We are optimistic about turning the tide; quite simply because we are optimistic about humanity's potential. Let us not simply respond in principle; let us respond in practice. Let us listen to one another; let us work together; let us offer the earth an opportunity to heal so that it will continue to nurture us."

There is a great deal to commend the Patriarch's message. Specifically noteworthy is the positive theology which he presents to justify his environmentalism:

Nature is a book, opened wide for all to read and to learn, to savor and celebrate. It tells a unique story; it unfolds a profound mystery; it relates an extraordinary harmony and balance, which are interdependent and complementary. The way we relate to nature as creation directly reflects the way we relate to God as creator.

The sensitivity with which we handle the natural environment clearly mirrors the sacredness that we reserve for the divine. We must treat nature with the same awe and wonder that we reserve for human beings.

Creation is no less a work of the Creator than human beings are, whatever dispositional distinctions we make between humanity and creation relative to the divine. This earth is no less God's handiwork, and the respect which Christians in particular show for it reveals the respect we have for God's work.

The Patriarch's statement was not without detractors, members of the Orthodox community who for one reason or another met the article with palpable scorn. Some comments are beneath notice (e.g. "If he continues on this path I would not be surprised if, a couple of years from now, we’ll hear from the EP that Salvation will come through some UFO saviors") except perhaps for the purpose of gentle mockery, but other comments have some legitimacy. The Patriarch quite clearly did not get the memo that much of the scientific literature on global warming has been challenged (though notably vindicated within its own circles). More importantly, the question is raised as to whether or not this is the appropriate focus for the Ecumenical patriarch. Certainly no one would deny that environmental ethics is out of bounds for religious discussion, but is it really the place of the Ecumenical Patriarch with all his duties and responsibilities to weigh in on hot button political issues? Consider, for example, this accusation:

Most disturbing however is the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s subordination of human freedom to the fashionable fundamentalism of the environmental movement. Orthodox Christians have not forgotten the 2004 visit of Patriarch Bartholomew to Havana that saw His All Holiness praise Fidel Castro as an environmentalist while showing indifference to the regime’s laundry list of crimes and personally neglecting Cuba’s dissidents. How is it that the souls imprisoned by one of history’s great butchers are not worthy of pastoral concern?

More crucially, the Patriarch bestowed on the communist leader the Order of St. Andrew in a move which greatly angered many Orthodox worldwide. Yet the Patriarch action was justified - as part of his explanation for his entire visit - thus: "[the Patriarch comes] bringing the same message that Jesus Christ brought 2,000 years ago. It’s the same message of peace, the message of reconciliation.” The church the Patriarch had come to consecrate had been paid for in part by a Cuban government that has been increasingly tolerant in its religious policy.

One may rightly ask if peace and reconciliation are the appropriate course, just as one could easily argue that the pope gains nothing by dwelling on the sex abuse scandal. Yet, it is hard to avoid the feeling that, in a time when the community of faith is truly in dire need of spiritual leadership, Christian leaders of the highest order are two engrossed with personal denial and pet projects to respond to the needs of the people. Then again, if they could get their act together, would Christians even still listen?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Scars in Heaven

It has only recently occurred to me just how strange and fantastic it was that Jesus retained the scars of his crucifixion even after his resurrection. Certainly my view of the resurrection body is significantly tainted by the writings of theologians throughout history as much or more than by Scripture itself, but even in Scripture it is obvious that the resurrected Jesus is something different than the pre-resurrection Jesus. Mary Magdalene cannot recognize him (John 20:11-18), the men going to Emmaus cannot recognize him (Luke 24:13-34), he passes through locked doors (John 20:19), and mysteriously disappears from sight (Luke 24:31). All this is consistent with what Paul says about our own resurrection bodies in 1 Corinthians 15:

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body...The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Historically, there developed a more precise view of the resurrection body as 'supracorporeal.' Consider Nicholas Cabasilas regarding Jesus: "He discards the other features that belong to the body and possesses a spiritual body without weight or dimensions or any other physical conditions." Gregory of Sinai has a similar picture of the resurrection body of Christians: "The body in its incorruptible state will be earthly, but it will be without humours or material density, indescribably transmuted from an unspiritual body into a spiritual body, so that it will be in its godlike refinement both earthly and heavenly." While I certainly ascribe, at least loosely, to those historical conceptions of the resurrected body as somehow supracorporeal, it is hardly debatable that that Jesus, at his resurrection, possessed a refined and somehow different body than he had prior to his crucifixion.

And yet he preserves his scars. I had never thought about it before, and--without a little prompting from Cabasilas--I might never have thought it significant even if it had occurred to me. After all, it may merely be an indication that our resurrected bodies bear resemblance to our earthly bodies, even in their imperfections. They may serve a totally utilitarian function, since it is by seeing the scars--and in the case of Thomas, feeling the scars--that the disciples come to believe. There are certainly a variety of possible explanations, but Cabasilas takes it to mean much more than accident or utility. I am swayed by his interpretation. Referring to the scars, he writes:

He saw fit to cherish them because of His affection for man, because by means of them He found him who was lost, and by being wounded He laid hold on him whom He loved. How else would it have been fitting for an immortal body to retain traces of wounds which art and nature have sometimes eliminated even in mortal and corruptible bodies?...So He determined to preserve in His body the signs of His death and always to have with Him the marks of the wounds which were once inflicted on Him when He was crucified. Thus it might be evident in the distant future that he had been crucified and pierced in His side for the sake of His servants, and together with His ineffable splendour He might regard these too as an ornament for a King.

Cabasilas, in making his first point, eliminates any perception of accident or chance or pragmatism from the presence of the scars. That the scars have endured is a willful act of love on the part of Jesus. They are a testimonial not only for all time but for that eternity which is beyond time: Jesus loved us enough to die for us. They are a freely embraced article of his royal garb which rightly testifies that we have a king who is worthy of our love and honor and praise but who nevertheless deigned to love us first (Rom 5:8).

Yet Cabasilas continues, adding to his argument that the scars are an eternal testimony of Jesus' love that they are also an ongoing act of love toward humanity. That he should continue to wear them in spite of his exalted place is a perpetual reliving of his loving act toward humanity.

As it appears, He had the desire to suffer pain for us many times over. Yet that was not possible, seeing that His [resurrected] body had once for all escaped from corruption, and that He spared the men who would have inflicted wounds on Him...What could be equal to that affection? What has a man ever loved so greatly? What mother ever loved so tenderly, what father so loved his children? Who has ever been seized by such a mania of love for anything beautiful whatever, so that because of it he not only willingly allows himself to be wounded by the object of his love without serving from his affection towards the ungrateful one, but even prizes the very wounds above everything? He greatly honours us, yet it belongs to the greatest honour that He is not ashamed even of the infirmities of our nature, but is seated on His royal throne with the scars which he has acquired from human weakness.

These concluding remarks add a fantastic Christological aspect to the continuance of the scars into the resurrected body. They are an eternal reminder that Jesus has not only dignified humanity by stooping to unite with it but that he has carried that humanity with its infirmities into the heavenly realms. It is a physical witness to the principle that God became man in order that men might become God. All that we are was assumed by Christ, and all that we are has been redeemed by him, exalted to the heavenly realms.

In view of all this, I think to an extent I agree with Cabasilas when he declares that "this is the most astounding thing of all: not only did He endure the most terrible pains and die from His wounds, but also, after He came to life and raised up His body from corruption, He still...bears the scars upon His body and with them appears to the eyes of the angels. He regards them as an ornament and rejoice to show how He suffered terrible things."