Sunday, February 27, 2011

Judgement Sunday


Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'”

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?”

Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Amos 2:6-8, 3:1-2

Thus says the LORD:

"For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined…”

Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:
"You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities.


Gregory of Sinai, On Stillness, 14

Many for long years may have been preoccupied with the spiritual life without exerting themselves, or may still be preoccupied with it in this way; but because they do not assiduously embrace hardship with heartfelt fervor and sense of purpose, and have repudiated the severity of bodily toil, they remain devoid of purity, without a share in the Holy Spirit…Instead all we have to boast about is the many profitless years we have spent in the wilderness, lazily cultivating stillness and imagining that we are somebody. At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life.


When I saw on the liturgical calendar that there was a Judgment Sunday, I admit that I was instantly thrown off balance. The idea of such a thing absolutely runs against my Protestant upbringing which focuses on unconditional forgiveness and an exceptionally soft view of love. Concepts like hell and judgment were sort of dirty little secrets, disciplinary switches that we tried to keep in our theological closet. We took them out only when necessary and never in front of company.

In reading about Judgment Sunday, however, I find that the idea is not nearly as ominous as the name makes it sound (especially not if you call it by its alternate name, "Meatfare Sunday"). Judgment is a prominent feature in the teaching of Christ, and hell is by no means absent either. Certainly the focus is on the coming of the kingdom, but judgment is an inexorable part of that coming. We profit nothing if we pretend it does not exist. It is no less perilous to ignore it than it is to overemphasize it.

St. John of Sinai speaks of three types of fear in his Ladder of Divine Ascent: fear for one's life otherwise known as cowardice, fear of hell, and the fear of God which is so pure as to be actually fearless. The first is meritless, the second has value, and the third is perfect. Like John, I see purpose in the fear of hell and of judgment. Reading Matthew 25 is a good reminder that salvation is not an invitation for us to rest on our laurels. However you want to explain it, Jesus is clear on more than one occasion that the way we act matters. Not only will our deeds come to light at judgment, but the principle expressed in Amos 3 suggests strongly to me that our lives will be judged by a harsher standard. To know God is to know the higher standard, and to know that standard is to be held to it.

In preparing for Lent it is important to realize three truths. First, our sins have always been inexcusable and our virtues equally insufficient. Second, God needed to offer himself on a cross in order to excuse those sins and to convey his all-sufficiency to us. Finally, neither the first truth nor the second absolve us of our responsibility to repent of our moral failures and to make efforts toward moral improvement.


When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,
All things shall tremble
And the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat;
The books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!
Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire,
And make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!
--Eastern Kontakion

*A note: I realize that Lent has not yet begun for either the Eastern or Western churches. Judgment Sunday, however, marks the beginning of the fast season for the Orthodox. This Sunday is the last when those observing the traditional Lenten fast can eat meat. It is followed by Cheesefare Week when dairy can still be eaten. The following Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday, is the last day when dairy is eaten. Clean Monday then begins the official Lent fast.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gearing up for Lent

I enjoy Lent, an ironic fact that I have agonized over and apologized for in the past. I will not rehash entirely why Lent fills my heart with joy in much the same way that Christmas fills my mouth with bile. Instead, I intend to bask unashamedly in my overwhelming good fortune that, for the second year running now, the Eastern and Western churches will celebrate Easter on the same day.

Why does it matter? Because when we celebrate Easter together, then we observe (for the most part) Lent together. Approximately 1.8 of the 2 billion souls that call on the name of Christ worldwide observe the Lenten season. The rites are different, the mood is different, and certainly the degree of importance is different, but like a giddy child on Christmas morning nothing matters to me except the almost magical wonder of it all. All I see is a time when Christians everywhere cry out in one voice, lamenting their sins and begging for salvation to come. (The best part of all, of course, is that we've all peeked at how the story ends. Salvation comes...spread the word.) The whole body of Christ, the church universal, undergoes a collective cleansing--be it moral, ritual, or merely metaphorical. It is like the Christian version of a New Year's resolution, only instead of resolving to do right for only one day, the Christian struggles with that resolve for forty days participating spiritually in the forty days of struggle that Christ underwent in the wilderness. Even though, as with New Year's resolutions, we know that all our finite efforts will inevitably fail, we know with equal certainty that our union with Christ and his wilderness struggles will unite us mystical to his equally inevitable and gloriously infinite victory. In a single and singular period of mystical penance, we all set our eyes on our inescapable need for redemption, on the certainty of that redemption, and on our own inadequacy in light of that redemption. We shun all frivolity that we have foolishly embraced as joy and elect to sustain ourselves with nothing more than the thirst for the true and pure joy which awaits us as the Son rises on Easter.

If you are not part of a tradition that observes Lent--or if you are and you simply elect not to observe it--I would like to humbly suggest that you find a way to observe it anyway. You may elect to undertake a traditional fast with all its rigorous and "legalistic" requirements. You may embrace the more modern tradition of setting aside for forty days some sin or even some pleasure as an act of devotion to God. You may simply choose to remember the season and the hundreds of millions who will be observing it with you, to intercede for them and for yourself in your prayers. Whatever it is, I have never dedicated anything to God and regretted having given it up. I have only regretted failing to do so or not doing more. "Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (Jas 4:10).

However else I choose to observe Lent (and I believe you should "wash your face" when you fast), I will try to make this place a venue for reflection on the season, particularly as it is observed by the Orthodox Church. Beginning tomorrow, I hope to post a quotation from scripture, a quotation from church history, my own reflections, and a prayer on each major holy day in order to give clarity to my own thoughts and hopefully to facilitate the devotions of others.

May God bless you and keep you as you toil for Him, and may He find our living sacrifices pleasing, meager though they are.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn says this in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter. (I don't know if the same line is in the play on which it was based.)

How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war. Not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it, like syphilis, inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little? That's how peace begins.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

CO Follows Conscience

Stories like this are always nice to read:

A junior officer at a Connecticut submarine base has received an honorable discharge after suing the U.S. Navy, saying his religious beliefs prevent him from participating in the military.

Michael Izbicki, an ensign formerly stationed at the Naval Submarine School in Groton, was discharged Feb. 16 as a conscientious objector...

"I believe that Jesus Christ calls all men to love each other, under all circumstances. I believe his teaching forbids the use of violence. I take the Sermon on the Mount literally," Izbicki wrote in his application for conscientious objector status.

Izbicki, 25, a native of San Clemente, Calif., has said he was following his family tradition by enlisting in the military and entered the Naval Academy in 2004 with plans of becoming an officer. He began to question his goals after graduating from the academy and beginning submarine training.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Realizing Fears in Egypt

An acquaintance recently shared with me this news article by the Assyrian International New Agency. I cannot find it being carried by any other news agencies and so I am hesitant to accept it as fact too quickly. I do not, however, have any real reason to doubt it, and so I will pass it along for others to consider.

The article focuses on the abduction of a Christian teenager from her home but outlines a number of violent acts against Christians since the outset of the protests in Egypt. The includes a church being torched, Christians having stones hurled at them, three murders, a conspiracy to sabatoge a church construction, and just general violence against Coptic Christians. This was the most disturbing portion to me:

St. Mary and St. Michael church was the scene on November 24, 2010 of severe clashes between State Security forces and Copts protesting over the closure of their church, during which the forces used tear gas and live ammunition against the protesters, resulting in the killing of three Copts, hundreds of injuries and the arrest of 176 Copts...

During the protests in Tahrir Square which, culminated in the ousting of President Mubarak, a period which witnessed the complete absence of the security forces from the streets, the congregation of St. Mary and St. Michael church was guarding the church, which was closed on November 24. On February 6, as soon as a few security officers came back on duty, they stormed the church and evicted the priest and the congregation who were keeping vigil there and holding services praying for peace in Egypt.

I suspect that this will not be the last time my fears about the unrest in Egypt and its effect on Christians there will be realized.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Ethics and Act

At the end of this series on A Day with Ben Witherington (which has ironically lasted for a full week now), I would actually like to turn to ethics proper. In particular, I will argue that the ethicality of an act is not limited to the outward appearance of that act. I wish on this point I could engage Witherington more directly, either critiquing him as an opponent or drawing on him as a source. Unfortunately, he seemed to be occupying different opinions at different times. At least I can say that, regardless of where he stands, he acted as the catalyst for my formulating these thoughts more concretely.

At one point Witherington made the claim that he knew many good people who were not Christians. By this he meant that there were people who did not murder, who did not steal, who did not X (where X is some feature of the Christian ethos). It strikes me that the very fact that someone does not steal does not make their stance on personal property ethical necessarily. Ethics extends beyond the mere act. For example, a man who refuses to steal because it is wrong is generally considered to be more ethical than a man who refuses to steal because he fears he will be caught. The motive for the ethical act bears on the ethicality of the behavior.

This is the essence of virtue ethics, and later on Witherington would say that he believes that virtue ethics align most closely with the biblical view of ethics. The focus on the character and motive of the moral actor are legitimate, but they do not necessarily preclude the sentiment that there are many good non-Christians. Witherington, as a self-described good Weslyan, believes that grace pervades creation allowing for humanity to do good that would otherwise be impossible. It is possible for an atheist and a Christian alike to operate out of a genuine motive of self-sacrifical love.

Yet, I would go further still and argue that a common motive or a common virtue still does not ensure a common rightness in an act. Just as the motive for the act must be examined, so too must the ground for the motive be examined. Motives of self-sacrifice can be derived from a belief in the virtue of self-abasement because the self does not truly exist. It is an illusion. Therefore, self-sacrifice is no more or less self-interested than selfishness, since there is no self. It is only more enlightened and therefore nearer to escape. Such a self-sacrifice is not truly ethical. The motive is grounded in a lie, which precludes the possibility of virtue.

In short, it seems to me that to achieve the belief that there can be truly ethical acts performed by non-Christians, we must be willing to admit one of two things. ON the one hand, God does not need to be the grounds for ethicality (which Witherington rejects), in which case our own ground for ethics has been undermined and we are undone. On the other, God must be the ground of ethicality but that humanity need not be conscious of it (which Witherington accepts), in which case we have allowed that we may be accidentally virtuous and eliminated any full volitional activity from ethics. The latter suggestion seems to run startlingly contrary to the Arminian views of Witherington.

Regardless, I have serious doubts as to whether anything can be said to be good without God and whether any activity born out of a ground which rejects God can be said to be ethical.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: A Brief Note on Women

It should not have really surprised anyone that Witherington, when asked, came out in favor of having women in all the same ecclesiastical roles as men. He is a Methodist, and their movement has historically been associated with championing the "rights" of women. I am not even sure why someone asked him his opinion, or why someone else asked him to defend it, or why someone else asked him to defend his defense of it. I suppose the presumptuousness of youth tricks us into believe that ideas which seem novel and irrefutable to us are in fact neither novel nor irrefutable. They are instead merely tired and flawed.

I would like, nevertheless, to engage a fairly common argument which Witherington employed with reference to appeals to creation as a defense for complimentarian gender economics. Witherington argued that all economic disparity between the genders is a result of the Fall and the curse which God placed on woman as a result. I do not agree with that, but let us accept it for the sake of argument. Witherington then argued that in undoing the Fall, Jesus inaugurated a society (the church) which erased the consequences of the Fall for gender relations.

The most productive way I can imagine to evaluate this is to look at the effects of the Fall as a group. They are these:

There will be enmity between the serpent (the devil) and humanity.
There will be pain in childbirth.
There will be a disparity in gender economics.
There will be toil as a prerequisite for food.

Looking at that list, if Jesus has undone the curse of the Fall, he seems to have overlooked every aspect except gender economics. Humanity still wars against the devil, and Paul exhorts us in Ephesians not to stop this warfare but to intensify it with spiritual weapons. There is still pain in childbirth. Humanity still toils for food. If we are going to reject complimentarian gender economics, I suspect we will need firmer grounds than simply because it was part of a curse which is no longer in effect.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Bad Arguments

After spending three consecutive days critiquing Witherington's concept of theosis and attempting to demonstrate ways in which a proper understanding of theosis would correct the deficiencies in his thought, I think it is appropriate to turn away for a moment from critiquing Witherington. Instead, I would like to use him as a vehicle to critique the way people interact with bad arguments.

I was surprised and excited (read "giddy like a little school girl") when Witherington "confessed" that he is a pacifist. I am always delighted to find scholars outside the historic peace churches who have come to an honest conviction about the necessity of non-violence as part of Jesus' ethos. In the deep South and at the new Harding--the one totally inimical to the ethical stances of both its namesake and its founder and totally ignorant of its history--pacifism is the kind of sin you can still be lynched for, if only intellectually in a coffee house by an irate undergraduate.

After the shocking revelation took the time to sink in, a student interjected with what he expected, I am sure, to be a damning argument: "That's all good in theory, but let's talk about practice. I mean, Tolstoy died penniless at a train station!"

I'll let the force of that impressive argument sink in for a moment.

Just think on it.

Has it sunk in?


I imagine not. In fact, the argument is bad on so many levels that I'm sure I could spend the better part of a day dissecting all the ways in which it is obviously wrong. Witherington, for his part, responded with a certain grace that Tolstoy was by no means the typical pacifist and that even utopian style pacifism was not typical pacifism. Witherington is, of course, right to point out that Tolstoy cannot be said in any sense to be a representative of all Christian pacifists. Judging the majority by the radical minority is the same way we came up with the rhetoric about homosexuals molesting little boys. It doesn't fly.

Of course, there are other angles that can be taken. For example, what is so bad about the fact that Tolstoy died penniless at a train station? Tolstoy elected to give up his wealth and to live an itinerant life. He expected to die penniless, and had you told him in advance that he would die this way, it would likely not have bothered him. The mention of the train station is particularly odd. Is there virtue to dying on a hospital bed? Death is inglorious regardless of its locale.

You might just have readily argued that thousands upon thousands of pacifists have died quite "respectable" deaths (whatever that is), at home in their beds surrounded by family and with their modest financial means in tact. Examples like Lipscomb, Harding, and Armstrong spring immediately to mind. None of them were rich men, by any means, but they lived full lives and died peacefully by all accounts. The thousands of nameless, faceless members of the historic peace churches who die all the time without consequence probably deserve to be counted as well. If we are really measuring the value of a person by the circumstance of his death, then we should say that pacifism is a delightful system. After all, a pacifist is less likely to die in the field of battle. And wars happen more often than Tolstoys.

I was tempted to blurt out, "Your savior had died penniless on a cross."

All of this, however, is actually my problem. Arguments such as these are so simple to refute that we do it automatically. There was no reason for Witherington to hesitate in distancing himself from Tolstoy. The comparison was made, and his immediate thought was, "I am not Tolstoy or even a disciple of Tolstoy." Yet, when you take time to refute the content of an argument whose very nature is corrupt, you legitimize the argument. If Witherington was a follower of Tolstoy, would the critique have then been applicable? If most pacifists died poor and ingloriously, would pacifism be undone? If Jesus had died rich, if utopian pacifism was typical, if some of the facts were changed, would the reasoning of the argument be valid?

The real problem with the appeal to Tolstoy is that it doesn't speak to the value of pacifism at all. It doesn't deal with the question of whether or not violence is ethical. How Tolstoy died is not directly related to ethics, or if it is, then that connection is not self-evident. Yet, every time we chase down an opponent's red herring, no matter how simple it is to prove wrong, we reinforce the practice of flawed argumentation. When that argument (so well crafted that it just had to come from the website of a right wing militia) finds its rhetorical niche among people who already agree with its unrelated conclusion, they will have no reason not to embrace and repeat it. We ought to be developing a culture of intellectual honesty, and the first step is to start calling bad arguments what they are. Stop refuting them as if they warranted our attention. The correct response to "Tolstoy died penniless at a train station" is "So what?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Theosis, Against an Anemic Christology

Theosis is so critical a doctrine in Orthodox theology that it is essentially impossible to escape it in any aspect of Orthodox thought. It relates to soteriology (obviously), epistemology, theology proper, anthropology, and, among countless others, Christology. In this final aspect, I think that once again Witherington would have profited from a fuller, better understanding of theosis. During a very informal Q&A, Witherington made the assertion that the human nature in Christ was identical for all intents and purposes to the unfallen nature of Adam. (I mention the venue in the hopes that it may merely have been that Witherington, without having prepared, misspoke or spoke imprecisely.) This creates a theological quandary: would human nature inexorably but unconfusedly united to divine nature really have not been any different than human nature not so united? In the Orthodox tradition, the divine nature divinized the human nature, not in a way which was supernatural (that is to say, not in a way that exceeded the potentiality of any other human nature) but in a way that made that humanity something functionally other than all other human nature. It is only by being somehow different, not merely by virtue of the volitional activity of the human nature in Christ, that Christ can truly represent the new man, the true humanity.

I think the appropriate language to speak about the difference between Adam's nature and the human nature of Christ, other than merely that one was united to divinity (which is theosis) and the other was not, is the language of potentiality and actuality. Adam always had the potential for increase, for union, for participation in the divine life, but that participation and its inevitable consequences had not occurred. He elected sin instead. Certainly, that participation in and union with divinity would have resulted in a radical change in him. Panagiotes Nellas has said that this potential was never truly possible before the Incarnation and argues that, even if there were no Fall, the Incarnation would have been necessary as a means of opening the path for union between God and man. Regardless of the merit of that argument, it was never beyond Adam's nature to be in union with God. In that sense, the human nature of Christ and Adam were identical in their potential. After all, the human nature of Christ was truly human and no more. The suggestion, however, that they were no different in any respect seems to suggest (as I have accused Witherington of suggesting before) that the encounter with the divine can somehow leave all or part of human nature unaffected. I cannot accept this.

I dare say that a Christology which views the humanity in Christ as unremarkable misses something of the promise which we have in salvation. We are being transformed into something remarkable by our participation in the divine life. Christ, as the living embodiment of that participation, was already something remarkable even in his human nature.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Theosis, Multiform Salvation

The series of lectures that Witherington presented were on ethics, and so it is unsurprising that his focus was on moral aspects of the New Testament. In fact, I would have been annoyed had it been otherwise. After all, I did not come to hear a lecture on the role of the intellect in salvation or on the eschatological hope for life. Unfortunately, Witherington did not merely ignore other aspects of soteriology but actively subordinated them to his moral agenda. After his rejection of theosis as a proper interpretation of 2 Peter 1, Witherington insisted that our participation in the divine nature was a moral participation: a grace-empowered imitation of the divine moral attributes. He spoke of knowledge as a means of understanding those characteristics but not as an area in which we partook of divinity. He explicitly rejected the idea that we should partake of any characteristic of divine being. It is precisely in these areas that I think theosis improves on the deficient Western means of understanding salvation.

Witherington provided me with the pedagogical tool to lay out my opposition to his "moral only" view of participation in God, his ethics-driven view of salvation. He noted that in Scripture there are three predicates for God: God is love, God is life, and God is light. Witherington insisted that the first of these was most critical as it represented the moral character of God. I would suggest that there is a corollary between the way in which salvation grants increase and participation in the characteristics of God and these three predicates.

God is love, and I certainly do not mind Witherington pointing out the critical importance of this affirmation. Salvation does include moral perfection, as it should. Ours is a holy God, a God for Whom love is the highest expressed good. Our experience of the divine is one of love: love in the very act of creation, love in the governance of that creation, and love in the plan of redeeming creation. To encounter the divine is necessarily to be changed into the image of love, to love God and to love neighbor. The entire ethos of the New Testament is constructed on this axis and, if we trust the testimony of Christ, so is the Old Testament. To participate in God requires a holiness which manifests as love and a love which drives holiness. In the process of salvation, God cures us of the disease of sin, cooperates with us in keeping us morally healthy, and finally eliminates the potential for the disease altogether. That is an appropriate, even crucial, understanding of salvation. It is not, however, exhaustive.

God is also life, and life is not a moral characteristic of God. Yet, the most common images for salvation are those of the "new life" and of "eternal life." Unless we view this life as the mere absence of physical death and as a consequence of moral health--which I find to be a shockingly shallow understanding of the "life abundant" that we are promised--we must understand our being given life as being given a divine characteristic which is not moral. Life is a characteristic of being, and in that sense we may speak about it as an "ontological" quality of God (thought I realize how much qualification that would require). Salvation includes not merely a moral perfection and the elimination of evil, but also the elimination of sin's handmaiden, death, and a kind of perfection of our being. Salvation is not merely a process of God helping us to do good and forgiving us when we do evil, it is a an initiation into being good, not in the ethical sense of having good virtues which motivate good actions but in the metaphysical sense of having being which is being perfected by its contact with Being. Unless we view being as a static category which includes both Creator and creature, than we admit that a communion with a transcendent "being" can affect our very being.

Finally, God is light. In this we see that God is Truth and the revealer of truth. The fourteenth century hesychasts spoke of divine light as an object which was seen and the means by which that object was seen and the seeing subject by virtue of the transformative power of the light. This, I believe, is a fuller view of knowledge than Witherington suggests when he speaks of knowledge a means of revealing the moral character of God. Again, Witherington seems to limit knowledge merely to a possible bank of knowable facts. In Scripture, however, what the light exposes is not facts but Truth (a distinction which is both rhetorical and substantial, however trite it may seem). Knowledge is a means of encountering God, of unlocking or decoding the facts which are rationally perceived, and of combating ignorance which is a sinister force in the order of sin and death. Certainly as a part of this, we better understand both the moral and ontological character of God and of our own salvation, but knowledge has merit which transcends the auxiliary function Witherington wants to assign to it. To know is something in itself, provided that we understand knowing in a way that ignores the limitations that science is attempting to artificially impose on knowledge.

However artificial that schema may be, I think it appropriately conveys the point: salvation is comprehensive. When we encounter God, which is itself the means of salvation, the result is not merely moral perfection. It is not "merely" anything. The come into contact with the divine is transformative experience whose ramifications are total. It is perhaps even inappropriate to speak in even so broad of categories of moral, ontological, and epistemological aspects of salvation. In truly apophatic style, it may be best to keep silent as to the true scope of salvation. Certainly, however, a view of salvation which involves only the erasure of sin and the perfection of moral virtue leaves much of the human person unaffected by the intervention of the divine, something that contact with divinity would seem to preclude by its very nature.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Theosis, Vanquishing a Strawman

On the list of doctrines that Witherington took ever so subtle jabs at (so subtle, in fact, that the person sitting next to me in the lecture did not even remember it) was "theosis." I put that in quotes because the doctrine that Witherington opposed was nothing like the doctrine of theosis espoused by the Orthodox Church. Reading 2 Peter 1, Witherington scoffed at those who held to a view of "theosis," people who thought that we would become omniscient, omnipresent, and so on.

Frankly, I can understand why that concept of theosis would be unnerving for Witherington. After all, the Orthodox Church for centuries has worked deliberately to resist any understanding of theosis which would equate divinization with becoming God in any absolute sense. Witherington inexcusably confused taking on divine characteristics as becoming divine absolutes. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis does not allow for people to appropriate the absolute characteristics of God. In fact, it positively precludes it.

The doctrine of theosis is one of perpetual ascent, the expansion of finite beings into an infinite plenitude of God. It doesn't matter to what degree a finite reality grows, it can never fill infinity. The point at which a being reaches omniscience, for example, is the moment at which knowledge ceases to be finite and becomes infinite. Unless you view God's omniscience as merely His comprehensive knowledge (in some way analogous if not identical to our own mode of knowing) of things extant rather than as His infinite capacity to contain everything as cause, there is no reason to assume that without a dramatic ontological shift that the finite human should ever expand to a point where he has reached complete knowledge. Complete knowledge is not something absent in humanity merely from some lack of information. Absolute knowledge requires an absolute being who transcends knowledge and knowing as cause.

Theosis never allows for humanity to make that transcendent leap from finitude to infinitude. In fact, the idea of perpetual ascent absolutely excludes the possibility that we should ever arrive at an absolute. To be saved as creatures, we must remain creatures even as we are united with divinity. Notice the language is of "union" and not of "absorption." Perhaps Witherington had in view the doctrines of the Latter Day Saints, in which people themselves become deities, or of certain forms of Buddhism, in which people are absorbed into a universal Nothingness. That is not, however, "theosis" properly speaking. Theosis has its type in the Incarnate Word: a union of two natures without confusion, in which both retain their essential characteristics. (This Christological aspect of theosis is a problem to be dealt with later.)

Witherington in his brief and subtle critiques of theosis only managed to display and undo his own misconception of the doctrine. Theosis has always rejected the confusion of deity with humanity. It has nothing to fear from accusations that it will lead to omniscience, omnipresence, or really omni-anything in the way that God possesses those qualities.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Impressions of a Man

Great men are reducible to their great ideas. That, at least, is the way society and, even more so, posterity tends to interact with them. Every school child in a secularized country can recite Darwin's maxim "survival of the fittest," even if they don't know what it means. None of them (and I'm no better) can tell you how Darwin liked to unwind after a long day of looking at tortoises and doodling in his sketch book. What sort of man was he? What sort of man was Plato? What sort of man was Kant? That information certainly exists in the historical record. We know Emily Dickinson was an agoraphobe. We know that Barlaam was a litigious know-it-all (a sort of cautionary tale for my own life). Yet, those facts are relegated to introductory chapters of textbooks on the great thinkers and personalities of history. I believe that an encounter with a historical figure is an encounter with a person. That may, of course, be the contemporary emphasis on psychology bleeding subconsciously into my own expectations of history, but much of the value of the historical encounter is marginalized or done away with altogether when we dehumanize our history...even our intellectual history. Descartes was a person, not unlike me as I write this or you as you read it. He was not an ontological argument for the existence of God. His ideas have life and merit because of the "his" not the "ideas," which is to say that ideas as such are valueless unless they are human ideas. They did not arise in an impersonal void and we do not appropriate them in an impersonal void. It is only the presumption of omnipotence (at least in the realm of thought) that deludes the human mind into believe it can divorce a person from his thought.

It is in light of that revelation and with it in mind that I write the following. I came to Searcy this weekend to hear a daylong series of lectures at Harding University by Dr. Ben Witherington III. I naturally have a wealth of responses to his thought and to the thoughts of others expressed to him, but before I give my impressions of what he believes I think it will be profitable to give my impressions on the man. I do not, in this, pretend to know him in any real sense. I certainly am not qualified to write authoritatively about what sort of man he is. That is why I chose, very deliberately, the term "impressions" to describe what I am doing here. This is a Monet and not a photograph. I do not aim at scientific realism but at giving myself (and whoever my eavesdropping) a psychological context, a grounding in the world of concrete reality with which to read whatever intellectual interchange may follow.

Witherington was certainly, in my estimation, one of the top five New Testament scholars writing in English today. With that comes a necessary an admission that the New Testament is not my field of study and that I could very well have been entirely ignorant of who was truly at the forefront of New Testament scholarship. The moment he entered the lecture hall, however, my expectations were confirmed: not, of course, in some kind of academic glow that he carried around him but in the deferential way the professors (my professors) treated him. For all intents and purposes, they all had the same set of degrees that he did and yet he was quite clearly not their peer. They did not treat him that way, and he did not carry himself that way. His deportment was that of a man who both knew his own importance and the expectation that he should display it with dignity. He did not shy at the good professors' gushing comments that he "meant so much" to conservative academics; he only explained why he had undertaken the monumental task of commenting on every book of the New Testament (a fact which was repeated almost as though it were an official part of his title). His answers were, so far as he was concerned, entirely authoritative, and why shouldn't the be? After all, in the Harding classroom no one disputed his authority about anything.

Much to my surprise though, it seemed to me that his excellence was not a product of his exegetical aptitude (which is certainly not to dispute his exegetical prowess) or his striking erudition (which did not, as a matter of fact, strike me at all) but of his impressive skills as a rhetorician. He needed only to open his mouth and the room belonged to him. (In the case of many of the more obsequious professors, he did not even need to do that.) He began his lecture with a joke which by all rights should have been wildly offensive (after all, what is so funny about relating a story of a former Church of Christ student who was willing to commit crimes warranting jail time but, once in prison, refused to sing in the choir because it had piano accompaniement) but for whatever reason seemed to endear the crowd to him. He had a special gift for speaking in the vernacular in a way which showed that he was above you but not so far above you that he could not speak to you when necessary. He slid words rich in negative connotation imperceptibly into his speech about various forms of thought he did not embrace, all with the effect that those who already agreed with him felt righteously justified and those who did not felt inexplicably defensive and hesitant. He laced his lectures with humor and idiom and left the audience with a warm feeling that they had been entertained, whether or not they had learned anything.

I imagine that he would be a good person to converse with as a peer, though I doubt many people do. I confess, that may be as much a product of the intrinsic deference so many feel the need to pay him automatically rather than a personal belief in his own superiority. He knows precisely what he believes and was prepared to defend those beliefs. He at least made a show of meaningfully engaging positions that he obviously disdained. I think that if someone, anyone, had been willing and capable of pressing his points more fully the interchanges would have become much more interesting. That should have been the professors' job.

The look of him was unimposing. He was not too tall. Not too short. He was not overly thin or overly stout (certainly not for an American). He had a full head of hair and no outstanding facial features. He moved and behaved very normally, with the exception of a strange habit of blinking in way that looked very deliberate. In all, I think I would have been no less comfortable seeing him behind a cash register as a lecture.

The most genuinely endearing quality, and the one I will close this entry with, was that he truly has the air of a man who is a churchman first and an academic second. He preaches like a preacher. With the obvious exception of the actual content of his talks, he would have been totally at home behind the pulpit of a congregation every Sunday. He expressed concern about real (rather than purely theoretical) pastoral concerns. When personal problems arose from students, thinly disguised as academic hypotheticals, he immediately perceived the underlying issue and answered like a spiritual father and not like a scholar. I will never be that kind of scholar, and I recognize that as a personal deficiency. The church needs to return to a time when brilliant churchmen were at the helm of Christianity, steering it toward a better future.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Wisdom of Petru Dumitriu

I started reading Petru Dimitriu's To the Unknown God close to two years ago, but I set it aside to take up course readings. I have yet to pick it up again. What I read, however, was extraordinarily thought provoking, and I know I have referenced his thinking here before. Dumitriu was a Romanian thinker who witnessed the atrocities of communism behind the Iron Curtain first hand and fled to tell the tale. He had a remarkable life which showed through in his remarkable corpus of writings. In Uknown God, he struggles with the problem of evil, not from the position of constructing a theodicy but from the outpouring of deep personal anguish. Here are some quotes which struck me at the time and which I recorded from the portion I read:

Finally, to reduce all these questions to one: how can one love God when he obviously does not exist? And -- putting the same question in a different way -- how can one love human beings, when they are as they are, and when there is no God?

Ever since I reached the age of reason I have been holding a conversation with an unknown and perhaps nonexistent interlocutor. If there is no one listening to me, no one answering me, and if at the other end of this inexhaustible one-way communication there is not one living soul, then I have been cheated, and it has bee the biggest cheat in a life that has known plenty of them: a cheat that is the crowning proof of the nothingness, of the non-value, of the absolute destitution of my existence. The question must be propounded as implacably as possible. No pity for God: it is for him to have pity on us.

Except that spilt blood is never impure, and the hands that spill the blood are never pure.

After assassination and sadistic crime, what I detest most in this world is rape, that rape which is always the violation of someone's will. Women are not its only victims: for one sexual rape, there are a hundred non-sexual ones.

All those who hang themselves in the cells are Jesus Christ on the cross. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken us? But to our cry of distress he could reply: why have you forsaken each other? I granted you forgetfulness of suffering and forgetfulness of offences: why do you use this gift to forget your sins? Is it just so that you need not repent, that you need not learn from your experiences, and ever repeat them?

Then who are we to judge God? I am saying that we must take upon ourselves a part of Evil, but I am not attempting to justify God. Evil is more mysterious, more vast. It is our work; but we are not our own work.

Unlike politics, religion has freed itself from human sacrifices.

Nevertheless, I see what I see, and that is that the universe of living things is permeated with suffering, and that even the spectacle of that suffering is suffering. I cannot carry on my conversation with God and ignore the constituent suffering of life.

For nothing is simple, and the universe is mathematicable, but incomprehensible -- really incomprehensible, and really constructed according to a plan that is not a human one.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Church in Egypt (Update)

Someone over at USA Today must be reading this. There is no new information about intensified persecution in Egypt during the strife, but it is nice to know that my concerns (or, if forced to display a false sense of humility, the concerns I share with Joseph Bottum) are being published for a wider audience.

About 10% of the Egyptian population (and declining, down more than half over the past century ), these people have suffered discrimination under 30 years of rule by the now-embattled president, Hosni Mubarak. And they've seen that discrimination ratcheted up into open persecution during the current unrest, which began with a car bomb in Alexandria killing 21 at a Coptic church on Jan. 1 and continued through the massacre of 11 Christians in the village of Sharona on Jan. 30.

So why should they expect improvement from a new government? Particularly one in which the radical Muslim Brotherhood is certain to play a major role? The Copts are under the screw, and somehow, every time modern Egyptian history makes a turn, it ends up biting down harder on the nation's religious minorities.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Other News

Taking its cues from the Nobel Committee, the Orthodox Church has preemptively canonized President Barack Obama and pre-humously (totally a word) memorialized him with this icon:

Venerate it at your leisure.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pray for the Lord's Church in Egypt

For a number of reasons, it is atypical for me to issue a call to prayer. In this instance, however, the turmoil in Egypt has been gnawing at my conscience. Not for political reasons, obviously. I cannot imagine caring less whether or not the Egyptian people have a truly representative democracy. (Frankly, I don’t think there is anything inherently superior about representative democracy, and I would go so far as to say it is deeply flawed in ways that certain authoritarian forms of government are not…but that is a thought for a different time.) I am concerned about the church in Egypt getting caught in the crosshairs.

Though, from my perspective at least, it ought to be obvious to everyone, a lot of people do not seem to realize that Egypt has a substantial and diverse Christian population. There are well over ten million Christians in Egypt, accounting for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15% of the total population. While primarily the Coptic Church, there are significant groups of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. To put it in more accessible (and perhaps more offensive) terms, you are twice as likely to find a Christian in Egypt as you are to find a Jew in New York. Yet, in spite of being such a sizable minority, the church in Egypt has long been the target for persecution. When I say "long," I of course am talking in terms of centuries not years. This past year saw a number of noteworthy events culminating in the New Years Day bombing of a church that left 21 dead and approximately 100 injured. (The US Senate was kind enough to approve a "symbolic measure" (read "metaphorical fingerwagging" or "hypothetical disapproval" which all amounts to "impotent posturing") in which they officially frowned upon the bombing.) Christians reacted to the attack inappropriately (read "violently") on the grounds that the government ought to be protecting them.

Maybe it should have, but if it wasn't doing enough to protect Christians before then it certainly won't do anything now that the powers that be in Egypt can hardly protect themselves. I haven't heard anything about it yet-- though with the crackdowns in communication I wonder whether or not we will ever have a full picture of what is going on across Egypt right now--but I fear that the "temporary" absence of law and order will only increase the danger to Christians in Egypt. I hope that such violence never occurs, but more strongly even than that I hope that when the Church is persecuted in Egypt that its members keep the faith and their behavior testifies to the Christian message of love in the face of overwhelming hate.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Cow News

This news is relevant to my interests.

Molly B was among an estimated 1,200 animals removed from the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary and Rescue in recent weeks as part of a massive effort to bail out its overwhelmed owners.

Molly B's second retirement will start another chapter in an unlikely story that began January 2006, when a yet-to-be-named 1,200 pound heifer skipped her date with doom by leaping a 5-foot-5-inch fence at Mickey's Packing Plant in Great Falls.

The cow raced through town with police and animal control on her heels, reportedly running into a conflict with a German Shepherd, dodging an SUV and negotiating through a rail yard. She swam across the Missouri River and later took three tranquilizer darts before eventually getting corralled.

Mickey's Packing Plant employees christened the spirited cow Molly B and voted 10-1 to spare her from slaughter.

That has to be the greatest thing I have heard all year.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Bit of Wisdom from Gregory Akindynos

I don't expect to find a great deal of wisdom as I read through the literature of the anti-hesychasts, but there is a great deal of merit in what Gregory Akindynos said in his rebuke of Barlaam:

For you should have known not only how to write discourses and devise syllogisms, but also where to do this and who ought to do it and from what motives.