Human Parts, Wholes & Souls: Some Clarfications

This past Sunday at Christ Church South we had a really fun “Sunday School” (aka, “Christian Formation”) Class during the 10AM hour, right before the service of Holy Eucharist. Fun, and riveting. It was a lively discussion, and I admit that some of what I said, some of the “dopamine bombs” I dropped, may have caused a bit of confusion. Hence some clarification might be in order.

Let me back up a bit.

Last year at Christ Church South, 31 adults were confirmed (or received, or “reaffirmed”) into the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Way of following Christ. What a joy it is to “do life” and to walk with Christ, together with these brothers & sisters in Christ, these new friends who share in our Eucharistic community!

And yet, Christ Church (in Tyler, Texas) exists and functions in the midst of a particular cultural context. One dimension of that context is that East Texas is what you might call the “Bible Belt,” or a particular region in the “Bible Belt.” This means that the dominant cultural assumptions in East Texas are shot through and penetrated by (a watered down) conservative, Protestant life theology.

Now, this is not all bad. Even conservative, Protestant fundamentalists are sisters and brothers in Christ, and, as a fellow follower of Christ, I rejoice in our common fellowship in the Lord. To be sure, the purpose of this blog post is not to denigrate or to insult these fellow believers in any way.

And yet, in order for me to clarify a couple of points which came up in last Sunday’s class, I must differentiate my position from some convictions which are held in some quarters of the conservative, Protestant, evangelical world. There are two areas, in particular, which I have in mind: the relationship between the human soul and body, and the issue of dichotomy versus trichotomy vis-à-vis the human soul.

First, the human soul and its relationship to the human body. Now, I don’t have time to write an entire tome on this issue (nor do I desire to do so). The specific claim I made yesterday, in the context of robust discussion surrounding the question of what “happens” to the soul after the death of the individual human person, is that the Hebrew language—the language in which (what Christians call) the Old Testament was originally written—has no term for soul. (Ironically, during the liturgy, the congregation read Psalm 116:1-8 together, and in one of these versed the word “soul” is used!)

I do not deny that English translations of the OT employ the word “soul” to translate a certain Hebrew term. Nor am I arguing that such a move is an erroneous translation.

The Hebrew term which is often translated as “soul” is the Hebrew nephesh. As is often the case, here it is wise to go back to the beginning of our story, and to attend to the very first (or at least one of the first) instance(s) of this term in the Hebrew Bible. I have in mind Gen. 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The phrase “living creature” here is the Hebrew nephesh haya. (The term nephesh is the same term which pops up in Ps 116:8.)

Gen 2:7, by the way, is “riffed on” by Paul in 1 Cor 15:45: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Here Paul is saying that Christ is kind of like the “new and improved Adam.” Now, the word for “being” here is the Greek term psyche (as in “psychology,” the logos of the soul). Paul translates—or rather he quotes the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of—nephesh in Gen 2:7 as psyche.

Paul uses a Greek concept, that of the individual human soul, the psyche, to communicate the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures. This kind of thing happens all the time in the apostolic teaching of the apostles, contained in the NT. It is worth remembering that it is the Greek LXX which the apostles—including the Gospel writers—authoritatively quote.

But the point is that psyche is a Greek concept. It is different from the Hebrew nephesh, which really means something closer to “life” or “creature” or “living thing.”

This is what I mean when I claim that the Hebrew language—unlike Greek—contains no term for our concept of soul. There is an important point to grasp here, and it bears upon questions such as “what happens to the soul after one dies?” To “cut to the chase” in this brief blog post,  that the Hebrew Bible has no concept of the soul is a cautionary warning, in my opinion, that we ought to beware of certain overemphases on the idea of the soul “going to heaven” when one dies. This is especially true when it comes to the sustained stress of St. Paul, a brilliant first century Jewish thinker who understood the Greek mind and also sat at the feet of Gamaliel, precisely on the resurrection of the body, not least in 1 Cor 15, the very context in which he quotes Gen 2:7.

The second point of clarification has to do with trichotomy versus dichotomy.

It was Charles Schofield, associated with the history of Dallas Theological Seminary, in the notes of his Schofield Study Bible, who did much to popularize the idea that the human person consists of three fundamental “parts:” body, soul, and spirit. I am confident that Pentecostal and charismatic emphasis on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit also plays into this, along a separate but related trajectory of thought and Christian culture. The result: most folks in East Texas just assume this position—that the human person is trichotomous—to be true.

And yet, none of the church fathers held this view. Neither did Thomas Aquinas. Neither did CS Lewis. Now, maybe Schofield and the Pentecostals are correct, and the weight of premodern Christian tradition is wrong … but I seriously doubt it.

The truth, in my opinion, is that there are many “parts” to the soul: spirit, heart, mind, will, memory, imagination, etc. But this does not undermine the fact that, in its most fundamental constituent parts, the human person is dichotomous, having only two parts: body and soul. Just as the body has many “subparts” (head, neck, torso, kneecap, eardrum), so does the soul (will, memory, etc.).

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Verstand & Dianoia (in Bavaria)

I am having the most amazing time today in my room here at the Priesterseminar in Regensburg (though it is not completely free of various kinds of turmoil).

For years, I have noticed how the work or the process of dianoia is inherently taxing. It’s a ton of work. Not just that, but also it is stressful to the soul in a subtle way. For example, reading a dense text, or doing some kind of logical (or mathematical) proof, or learning a new language. It is the same kind of disturbing tedium involved in reading an owner’s manual when trying to assemble or repair some kind of appliance, such as a chainsaw, or searching Google to try to figure out how to do something on your computer such as editing a PDF or inserting the symbol for the currency Euro into a Word document.

Now, in my PhD coursework I became convinced that the opposite of this dianoia is in a certain sense what I call “intellect” or “nous” or “Verstand.” (CS Lewis has a relevant section in The Discarded Image; Also Plato’s divided line in Book VII [?] of the Republic.) For me perhaps the best way to characterize it is a “the moment of recognition.” It is when you have an “aha” experience and, either for the first time or in an act of remembering, you “see” something.

During my time in Munich, studying at the Goethe Institute, I was constantly oscillating between dianoia and Verstand. There were times in which I felt like I was existentially “in the weeds of William James’ ‘blooming buzzing confusion.’” During these times, for example, as I was trying to figure out the proper case ending for a dative masculine definite article, or trying to translate a paragraph containing many unknown words which I would then have to look up in the dictionary, I was unable—so it felt—to recognize anything. It was hell. But then, at other times I would have flashes of insight, recognition, in which I would suddenly “see” something, grasp something: a sentence from my instructor’s mouth, the dialogue of a video, etc. It was Heaven.

This whole dynamic—emerging from the blooming buzzing confusion into the state of recognition—has always reminded me of some scenes from the Matrix, just after Thomas Anderson’s celebral plug is pulled, and he slides down the tubular portals of existential chaos. By the end of the movie, though, not only can he dodge bullets; he can also kick the ass of the bad guy “on the back of his hand,” almost as if he is resting. This process is also, surely, closely akin to what certain thinkers mean by “waking up” or even becoming conscious.

When recently reading Nathan Jennings’s book, Liturgy and Reality (and discussing some things with him), and also while reading Returning to Reality and Bonaventure’s Hexaëmeron, I realized that, one of the riveting things about Verstand is that is occurs both before and after dianoia. (Actually, now that I think about it, I had realized this far earlier, since I have tried to teach this dynamic in various philosophy classes at UTT.)

The struggle for achieving the post-dianoetic Verstand—what Whitehead called “the simplicity on the far side of complexity”—is really the heart of my dissertation writing process. The goal of the difficult process of research is to achieve a vision of Ratzinger’s Bonaventure, for everything to “fall into place,” for the dissertation to “write itself.” I do think that this will happen—it has already begun to happen and it has happened in smaller-scale ways.

This pattern of dianoia—nous–dianoia characterizes:

  • the exit and return structure of neoplatonism & Bonaventure;
  • Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle;
  • “Meno’s Paradox” regarding anamnesis & searching;
  • Augustine’s divine illumination theory (exemplified in Bonaventure’s account of the creation of intellectual light on Day 1 in the Hexaëmeron).

This reality of Verstand, or Intellect, is also crucially related to faith, how Christian intellectuals historically have thought about faith. Faith is a kind of a recognition. It is the grasping of a gift, a word, a message, a vision … which originates not from one’s own mind or resources. It is not reason. Reason’s role—for example in both dogmatic and fundamental theology—is to take these gift-messages, and to work on them. To examine them, to string them together or synthesize them. To strive to approach “far-side” recognitions of simplicity. But the first move, that of Verstand, is the simple reception of the message, the recognition of it. This is the (the work of the) intellecus fidei.

On a more personal note: what I realized today in my Priesterseminar room is that, I can rest, very deeply, by engaging in Verstand, in particular the “pre-dianoia” Verstand. What I was doing was simply meditating on the Inhalt of a compilation of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. Even though I had to look up some words (such as “Vergänglicheit,” transcience) I felt like I was in heaven! Surely this is very closely related to the heart of true meditation, Christian meditation. Like the cow chewing the cud.

This is what I want to do with the Psalms, in multiple languages. This is what I want to do in the presence of God, with my heart, at the deepest level of my “ontological conscience,” openly, purely, freely, sensitively, listening.

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Desire above Reason (and Desire)

Any any student of philosophy knows, Plato and Aristotle both had accounts the human soul such that the soul can be seen as consisting of three basic “parts.” What’s more, even though the two renditions differ in important ways, in each case the respective thinker argues that, in some sense, human reason is “above” desire. That is, both Plato and Aristotle think that the flourishing of the human individual involves some kind of “program” in which reason’s  proper role is to somehow manage, control, oversee, or discipline human desire in all its manifold variety.

It has taken me a long time to grasp a certain way in which this picture, nevertheless, gets “tweaked” in an important way, at least by the mainstream neoplatonist tradition, and I’m shocked that I have not explicitly blogged about this before.

According to neoplatonism, and in particular Christian neoplatonism, while it is true in terms of traditional “faculty theory” that it is the  job of rationality to keep human desire in check, what’s equally true is that there is an additional kind of “desire” which is “above” both psychic faculties of reason (logos; ratio) and desire (horexis; epithumia; thumos). (Somewhat related to this is this.)

Now, why does all this matter, and why should you care? Two reasons: mythos and mysticism.

First, mythos. More and more, I’m convinced that for the Christian mythos is privileged over logos. That is, it is the Christian story into which we as Christians are called super deeply to delve. With the Feast of the Ascension ringing in my imagination (and its amazing collect), it is truly mind blowing to affirm that Christ ascended into the clouds, and then continued to rise beyond the ability of the disciples to see. Where did he go? The answer to this question, it seems to me, stumps rationality. And yet, it makes for a really good story, which is a way of saying that mythos is closely connected to desire. It is myth, over and over again throughout Christian intellectual history (according to folks like Bonaventure and CS Lewis) which supremely is able to stimulate (and satisfy?) Christian desire.

Second, mysticism. My nifty nutshell “definition” of a mystic is one who is convinced that God wants us to experience God. Not primarily to think about him, but to experience him. If this is the case, if the mystic is correct, then the central role of desire in the Christian life, occupying a position even superior to that of reason, is a very big deal.

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Yearning for Justice

This morning (Monday, February 19, 2018) is one of those mornings when my head is still spinning from the previous Sunday, that is, yesterday. You could say “my head is still spinning” or “my brain is fried.” You see, the work of pastoral ministry, the privilege to serve in this way, is as precious a gift as I can imagine. And yet, it is A LOT of work (blood, sweat, and tears)! Five services yesterday, scores of conversations / “life stories” with individual folks, two sermons, untold needs of people texting & messaging (some of whom are truly in dire straits). A wise priest once told me, in all seriousness, that a typical Sunday of active pastoral ministry is the equivalent of a 40-hour work week. What a joy, and what a burden. Throw into the mix the joyful responsibility of daddyhood and husbandom, and truly, it makes one’s head spin.

I suppose one reason for my heightened sense of being stretched today is the intensity of this past week: not just Ash Wednesday, but Diocesan Council (Thursday through Saturday, in beautiful Waco, Texas).

Ah, Diocesan Council.

I can tell you that, for me, every year this gathering is mainly an encouragement. I love seeing friends new and old. I (usually) love hearing the Bishop’s vision. Often Council is something of a mixed bag, though, and I suppose this year was no exception, for I witnessed, yet again, a tendency to reduce to the role of a priest (or, indeed, a Christian) to that of a “Social Justice Warrior” (SJW).

And yet, justice is a huge part of what we are called to as the Body of Christ. After a long day of Council presentations geared toward motivating us clergy and lay leaders to engage in social justice warfare (along the lines of community organizing and “Black Lives Matter”) I found myself sitting around the dinner table with trusted allies in ministry. One colleague wisely reminded us that, in the New Testament, the term for “justice” is the same exact term as that of “righteousness.” In the other words, in the mind of the apostles, there is no distinction between “righteousness” and “justice.” This is a truth which progressive SJW’s would do well to heed.

And yet, the kind of racial reconciliation on display at Council truly stirs up a deep yearning for justice within me. It is what my church planting (and yes, community organizing) work in Austin during my 30’s was all about. It is why, together with key leaders of Christ Church, I cannot give up on working with the Episcopal Health Foundation’s office of Congregational Engagement to bring holistic justice to Smith County, fraught with challenges though this work be.

Finally, it is why I’ve been so deeply encouraged by a recent development within our college ministry, which I would like to share with you, dear reader. Thanks to one deeply engaged leader in our parish, the leadership of our Episcopal College Community recently had a ground-breaking lunch with a leader of Texas College (among others). Then, this past Friday, Ian Hyde (our Christ Church College Missioner) along with Mr. Uriah Johnson (one of our gifted lay leaders, involved as both a youth mentor and a college mentor), met again with this Texas College representative, along with one of her local leaders. So, now, the ball is rolling with Texas College, a historically black college here in Tyler. God willing, this will bear fruit, resulting in many Kingdom centered relationships of love with our neighbors in North Tyler.

If that happens (and I’m full of biblical hope that it will), it will be an answer to a long and passionately held yearning for justice, indeed.

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Psalm 1 (Gender, Justice, Disenchantment)

Last Sunday the psalm appointed for the day (according to my church’s lectionary) was Psalm 1, which begins like this: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked….”

I want to call attention to that first pronoun, the grammatical subject of the first sentence, “they,” for this translation is not a literally accurate rendering of the original Hebrew, which says, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked….” Rather, the committee of scholars who decided to render the Hebrew ha ish (“the man”) by way of a gender neutral pronoun in English, “they.”

Many biblical scholars of Psalms hold that Psalm one, in the original context of the Hebrew Scriptures, was extremely important, in that it gave its readers (who were also worshippers, since the Psalter is something like the original hymnbook of the covenant community of God’s people) an imaginative portrait of the ideal Israelite, that is, of the Messiah, of whom King David—who, in the ancient Hebrew imagination, was a type or a kind of foreshadowing of the Messiah. Together, with Psalm 2, Psalm 1 stands at the head of the entire Psalter, and (among other things) says to the reader / worshipper: “When the Messiah comes, he will keep his heart pure; he will not participate in unjust schemes; he will be stable and trustworthy … and, just to give you a picture of what that is like, look at King David.” (Of course, the Psalter “knows” full well about David’s sin, and that is part of the point: we are to “look past” David to the true Messiah.)

This is what our king is like. He is the source of our hope and peace and security. He is the one in and from whom my identity ultimately derives. He is the one after whom we are to pattern our lives, in mimetic love.

But notice what happens when the “he” at the beginning of the Psalm is transformed into “they.” This “they” which departs from the original “ha ish” not just in terms of gender (it is no longer masculine), but also in terms of number (it is no longer singular). Suddenly, the Psalm is no longer about a great king, an imaginatively construed messiah-like figure who is supposed to be the object of our contemplation. Suddenly, the Psalm is reduced to a mere moralistic formula for us to follow. It is as if it is now saying, “Do you want to be happy? Then do these things, and don’t do these other things.”

A formula which, of course, is true as far as it goes, but which is still a far cry from the original intent of the Psalm.

Am I saying that gender neutral pronouns are never to be implemented? No.

Am I saying that Psalm 1 is more applicable to males than to females? Obviously not.

What I am saying is that language (and translation) matters. It shapes our thinking. It forms our assumptions. By the providence of God, our thoughts are constrained by “the prison house of language.” We should admit that in making this shift, God’s people have lost something important.

Something which is no longer mysterious, no longer beautiful, no longer transcendent. Now, as thinkers like Henri de Lubac and Charles Taylor would say, things have become immanent and disenchanted.

Is it worth it? Is the justice which has been upheld in this re-translation worth the loss of mystical enchantment? Or perhaps might there be a better way?

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Elvis or the Beatles? Paul’s Cosmic Anthropology

For years I have said, in various contexts and to various audiences, that for the New Testament writers, there are only two kinds of humans: Jews and Gentiles. This, for them (being good first century Jews), is how humanity is carved up. (Yes, one can “slice & dice” it at a finer level: in addition to Jew & Gentile, you also have other political demographic types such as Barbarian & Scythians, etc.—see Col 3:11.)

If this sounds to you like a scene from Quinton Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction, where Uma Thurman’s character interviews John Travolta’s character with questions like “Are you an Elvis person or a Beatles person?” (although, technically, she never asks him this question), then you are onto something.

Nowhere is this division of the human race into two fundamental types, Jew and Gentile (or sometimes stated as “Jew and Greek”) more apparent than in Gal 2:15-16:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

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Ascension: All things full of Christ

This time of the church year is a rich one. Here we are, nestled between Ascension (my favorite feast) and Pentecost. Why did Christ ascend?

In one sense, it was to bring the entire world back to the Father. In other sense, it was to pour the Holy Spirit out upon the Church and “all flesh” on the Day of Pentecost.

But there is another sense, as well. One of the two collects for the Ascension in the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” What does it mean to say that Christ, post-Ascension, now fills all things?

Well, I don’t know, but I do know that when you look at your brothers or sister in Church, you are looking at someone filled with Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that when you encounter a stranger on the street, especially if they are down and out or strung out, you are looking at someone filled with Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that the “bread” and the “wine” of Holy Eucharist are full of Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that the Church father said that when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, he sanctified all water.

I don’t know, but I do know that St. Gregory of Nyssa said that, when Jesus gestured toward some bread and said, “this is my body,” he could have just as easily gestured toward a tree branch and said the same thing.

I don’t know, but I do know that a life of prayer, meditation, and “sobriety” (1 Peter 4:7) can train, sensitize, and condition one to experience the mystical reality of God, mediated by and through the things of creation, which mediate the presence of Christ.

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“Theos” as Conceptual Idol? (a 3-fold response)

This little essay, a practice exercise for my upcoming PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy & theology geeks, and for them alone!

For at least four decades now, one strain or type of “postmodern” theologian (such as Jack Caputo) has been arguing, following Martin Heidegger, that any purported conception of God, but especially any used by the (western) metaphysical tradition, is inherently idolatrous. In this regard, Caputo is also channeling the spirit of his friend Jacques Derrida (d. 2004), insofar as both the Gentile Catholic Caputo and the Jewish Derrida root their critiques in an allegedly biblical “idoloclasm.”

As I see it, there are three valid responses to this criticism, which show that our intellectual conceptions of God are not necessarily idolatrous.

  1. First one can argue that the best renditions of philosophico-theological accounts of God proceed on the basis of a kind of Pseudo-Dionysian apophaticism. That is, when thinkers from Augustine to Thomas (and one could possibly throw Aristotle into this list, albeit anachronistically, perhaps) develop their accounts of God in a philosophical or theological register, they are essentially saying what God is not. They are making denials about God. For example, with regard to the Aristotelian (and neoplatonist) point that God is “pure act,” one could argue that this is really another way of saying that God does not at all admit of any kind of potentiality, including and especially the potentiality of materiality.
  2. Second one could appeal to biblical revelation, which does two relevant things. First, it claims that God is being or “has” being (Exodus 3:15, inter alia), a claim which then gives license to the interpreter to imagine God, to describe God, to think God (conceptually). Second, though, Scripture itself develops multiple images of God which no one, not even the most hard core iconoclast, has regarded as idolatrous. Examples: God as a pillar of fire in the Old Testament; God as a dove descending on Jesus in the New Testament. I suppose one could even place Christ himself in this context: the incarnation establishes a new economy of images.
  3. Third one can appeal Thomas Aquinas’ the logic of divine naming, which he includes in his “Five Ways” in Summa Theologiae (prima pars, Question II). On this view, God’s naming works such that even terms or concepts such as “first mover” or “first cause” do actually refer to God. This position is ably represented by Denis Turner, for example here. (That Thomas thinks this, it seems to me, indicates something inscrutably profound about his thinking about God. Somehow, God is accessible both to natural human reason and to divinely bequeathed faith.)

In conclusion, however, one should also respond to this Derridian / Heideggerian point with salutary gratitude. Idolatry, for anyone purporting to stand within a biblical or theological tradition, is a real thing, and a pernicious problem. One must repent; one must be on guard. And yet, on the basis of the three responses above, I think we can legitimately disagree with Caputo / Derrida / Heidegger.

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God: Never Unmediated
What follows is adapted from an email I sent to a friend, who asked a question
about the “pagan” influences in the Bible (the Old Testament).

Dear Stephanie (not my friend’s real name),

Sorry for the late response.

I’m so glad you are asking about the “difficulty” of the Bible containing lots of material which seems to be influenced by “pagan” cultures. I feel like I’ve spent two decades trying to get ppl to ask questions like this, but most of the time ppl are just kind of like half-dead zombies with glazed over eyes!

Look, there are two things I want to say to you.

1. Your assumption, the assumption, that true biblical revelation must be free of cultural influence is not only wrong, but it is part of why we modern evangelicals are so fucked up.

2. When the Bible “retells the same stories,” it always does so “with a twist.” It tells the same stories that its ANE (ANE=”ancient near eastern”) neighbors told … but always with a “special twist.”

So, two points: 1) stupid assumptions, and 2) twist.

So here goes on point #1. Why on earth wd we think that, for example, if the creation story (better: creation stories, since there are 2 in Genesis, and others all throughout the OT) is “true,” it must be totally unique? Was Jesus totally “unique?” No! He spoke Aramaic, just like his neighbors. He was influenced by all sort of cultural assumptions, “ideologies” (to use your term), habits, mores, etc. Jesus and the Bible did not “pop out of heaven” as if they were totally non-inculturated. In fact, the God of the Bible has never operated that way: the God of the Bible always works through ordinary means, both natural (eg, evolution) and cultural.

In fact, it is the Muslim faith (don’t get me wrong: I like Islam a lot!!) that sees Holy Scripture as unmediated. Literally, the Koran was supposedly dictated directly to the Prophet Mohammed. Downloaded into his brain, like that scene in the Matrix where Neo “learns” jiu jitzu.  Not so with the Christian Bible. It is always both the word of God and the word of man. It is both mysteriously divinely inspired, and the product of human language, human imagination, human creativity, human research (see Luke 1:1-4). The Bible is ALWAYS MEDIATED, always enculturated, never direct and unmediated, as if it fell out of heaven, straight from God.

In this, it is like Jesus: fully God, yes, but also fully human. (This it he point of Peter Enns’ book Incarnation and Inspiration, which I can lend you.)

So if our Bible is fully human, why would be expect it to be unaffected by cultural influences?

What stupid assumption, shared BOTH by secular, liberal anti-Christian fundamentalists like Bill Mahar, and Bible Belt fundamentalists like 99% of East Texas churches. I say, a pox on both their houses.

A much better approach is that of CS Lewis. He thought that if the Noah story has a lot of material in common with the Epic of Gilgamesh, then, cool! That strengthens, not weakens, the likelihood that it is true!

Point 2. The Bible tells the same stories with a twist.

The point of the twist is always to “further the agenda” (often a political agenda!) of portraying Yahweh as the “top god.” That is, the OT stories (the creation, the flood, the Exodus, the Torah) are tendentious. They have a tendenz; they have an agenda. They are basically saying to the Babylonions: “Your god Marduk is a joke. Check out our god, Yahweh. He does not create in the same low-grade way that your god does: our God creates by speaking! Our God Yahweh is the one true God, the Maker of Heaven & Earth!” (On Marduk & Enuma Elish, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/En%C3%BBma_Eli%C5%A1)

Same with the Torah of Moses. I think that the “twist” has to do with prostitution, which uniquely in Israel was outlawed, such that men were legally forbidden to treat unmarried young girls / women as mere tools or objects of pleasure. At the end of the day this has to do with marriage as an icon of the love between Yahweh & Israel. Very different from Babylon & other neighbors, where prostitution was legally regulated, and young girls were the property of their owners.

But, yes, the Torah of Moses is very similar to the Code of Hammurabi. Praise God that we was at work through that code (broken though it was), just as He was at work in the thought of pre-Christian philosophers like Plato & Aristotle before the advent of the Divine Logos, “in the fullness of time.” (Without their thought, we’d have no Doctrine of the Trinity!)

Hope this helps! Keep asking questions, and please hang out with fellow questioners & travelers!

Peace,

Matt+
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God: Beyond Emotion(s)
What follows is adapted from an email I sent to a friend, who asked a question
about whether God is angry.
Dear Beth (not my friend’s real name),

Sorry for the delayed response!

You wrote:

“Does God’s goodness require an emotive anger toward his enemies?

We at least see an active anger, right? I think I’m following your argument regarding “being” as incompatable with anger.
Some might argue that anger is a product of anxiety. And God is Not anxious or anxiety itself.”

I am going to answer your questions in a very tight, stodgy, crusty, cold, dry way, rooted in medieval metaphysics (of the Thomistic sort), but I think this is a very helpful approach, b/c “shocks” us out of our modern, secular, western, individualistic assumptions, particularly our assumptions about God.

In other words, I am convinced that we need to hear about how ancient & medieval Christians thought about God, partly b/c it reminds us that our thinking is so often too small, too constricted, too much like the capitalist, technocratic, managerial world we live in.

So here we go.

As you yourself indicate in your question, you are asking a question about emotion, specifically about whether God has emotion(s), including the emotion of anger.

Guess where our English word “emotion” comes from? It comes from the Latin, ex-motus. (The “x” drops out b/c the Romans did not like certain kinds of consonants between vowels.) Ex-motus: a motion away, or a movement out of. At any rate, emotions are a kind of motion. And motion is a kind of change, specifically change in location. (I’m simplifying a bit, but, still, I think I’m speaking accurately for the purposes of this conversation.)

Now, for someone like Thomas Aquinas (and the vast majority of the tradition, including Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Hooker, de Luback & Balthassar would agree with him), it is very important to realize that God does not change. In my opinion this position is also utterly biblical.

Here is where it gets kind of dense, and difficult for us to wrap our minds around.

The reason God does not admit of any change or motion has to do with what change and motion are–they presuppose and “rely upon” time. And time, whatever it is, is a created thing. Hence, if God experiences or undergoes emotion, then God is a temporal being.

Plus, if you say that God changes, then (to the pre-modern mind) this implies a state in God which is less than perfect. And this is something we want to avoid thinking of or believing. The reason an acorn changes into an oak tree (so Aristotle, upon whom Thomas relies, would say) is that it lack perfection. Once it achieves its status as an oak tree, however, then it becomes “perfect” (or at least more perfect), b/c it has now achieved its God-given purpose, packed into nature, to become an oak tree.

Similarly, if you say that an elderly person’s muscles have atrophied–and this is a kind of change or motion opposite that of the oak tree, a kind of “devolution” away from “perfection”–then you imply that the person is “not perfect” in the opposite way of the acorn. You might say that that the acorn is “pre-perfection,” whereas the old person’s muscles are “post-perfection.” In both cases, the reality of change implies a lack of “perfection” in time. But this is not applicable to God: he is never “less than perfect” in this way.

(Note: the Greek word for “perfect” is teleotos, or something like that. This word is cognate with the word telos, which means, end or purpose, as in “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” My point here is that, when modern ppl like you & me think about “perfection,” we bring lots of assumptions which the pre-moderns did not share. For example, when I say “perfect” in the paragraph above, I am not implying anything like John Wesley’s supposed idea of “sinless perfection,” a state of sinlessness in man. That is not what we are talking about. Rather, we are talking about a state in which a being is “living into,” or achieving, its purpose. This is what the ancients & medeivals thought of as perfection.)

So … that is my attempt to show that God does not have emotion(s). Hope it makes sense.

Now, having said all of that, I do agree that the holiness of God requires that, since man has sinned and the fall has happened and there is evil and injustice, etc., in the world, God is absolutely in opposition to all of that. This is one reason (not the only reason) why the Bible (and the liturgy) speaks of the wrath of God. That is true. However, a) There must be some sense in which God does not have enemies: every creature that was made was made by him! b) This “wrath” cannot be essential to God. It is not true of God, in himself, or from all eternity, or apart from the creation of the world.

One last thought. I’d argue that this way of seeing God is “beyond emotion” is what allows us to resist the temptation to make God in our own image, kind of a sentimental God. Banish that thought!

Also, this way of thinking allows us to see human emotion as a participation in something “bigger and greater” in God. Our emotions, joy, sadness, etc., are not the same thing as what happens in God, but they are analogous participations in the Triune Life of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Example: our experiences of pain are a faint, dim intimation of what the Father must “feel like” when the Son moves away from him in the Perichoretic Dance.

Perichoresis (from Greek: περιχώρησις perikhōrēsis, “rotation”) is a term referring to the relationship of the three persons of the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to one another. Circumincession (later circuminsession) is a Latin-derived term for the same concept. – wikipedia

Creation is “theomorphic” or God-shaped, but God is not anthropmorphic. We do not make God or conceive of God in our own image.

That’s it. God bless you today!

Peace,

Matt+

PS Yes, if we say that “God is anxious,” we must say that “God is anxiety himself,” which follows from the doctrine of divine simplicity. (The bulk of my email above is related to divine simplicity, but I’m attempting there to “break it down” a bit more for you.)

PSS Here’s a blog post about the term “emotivism” as well as emotion in general.

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God is not Angry

In a previous post, I wrote:

Thomas, in question 3 of the Summa, adumbrates the simplicity of God: that God’s existence is his essence, and that God has no (non-metaphorical) predicate that is not also his essence. If we can say “God is good,” for example, then it is necessarily true that God is goodness. So also for “one,” “beautiful,” “real,” etc.

Now given the doctrine of divine simplicity, the same move can be made with respect to anger. That is, if God is angry, then it necessarily follows that God is anger itself.

From here it follows that if God is not anger itself, then it is not the case that God is angry.

Now I’ve never known of a theologian willing to claim that God is anger itself. And there are many reasons for this, not least that this would “reify” or “hypostasize” anger, giving it an ultimate, uncreated ontological status completely independent of the Fall (of man & angels).

But do you see what’s going on? Since we know that it is not the case that God is anger itself, it necessarily follows that God is not angry.

Does Scripture (and the liturgy) speak of “the wrath of God?” Yes, it does. However, it is important to keep that strain of thought in its proper (marginal) place. It is true only in a distant and radically derivative sense. (I need to think more about this.)

One last note: notice that all of this presupposes the simplicity of God. In other words, it assumes the classical doctrine about God that, in particular, he is in no way subject to temporality (pace the likes of that “open theist” Greg Boyd and that “process theologian” Alfred North Whitehead and all their respective followers), which is wholly and completely a created thing. Otherwise, this line of thinking, which demonstrates that God is not angry, fails.

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John 1 (in medias res)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:1-3a)

Having soaked my mind & heart in the philosophical contemplation of John 1 this Christmas (both at the four Christmas Eve services in which I preached or presided), what has hit me afresh, or possibly for the first time, is that part of John is saying is that the story of the world begins in medias res. “Among the middle things,” or (more colloquially) “in the middle of things.”

That is, when the world popped into being (so the story goes), what was already there? In one sense, not nothing.

No. That which was already there is the Logos.

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Reformed Theology, Stoicism, & Virtue Ethics

In my transition from Reformed evangelicalism to a more catholic tradition of Christianity, one constant source of consternation which has plagued me for years (almost two decades) has to do with the “senior Ethics” course I had at Westminister Theological Seminary. In this class, which was supposed to prepare soon-to-be-ordained pastors with a basic grasp of ethical theory, all of the emphasis was on Scripture and the Law of God. The word “virtue” did not appear on the syllabus.

Now, I don’t want to go overboard here. I do have respect for the professor of this course as well as for the author of the primary text we studied (alongside the Bible): The Ten Commandments by J. Douma (undoubtedly a brilliant Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at The Theological University in Kampen in the late 20th century).

However, what I am prepared to say, with the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre ringing in my head, is that such an approach to ethics is more Stoic than Christian. In chapter 13 of After Virtue, MacIntyre explains how the Stoic approach to moral philosophy differed starkly with that of Aristotelianism. For the latter, virtue is the rational discernment of the natural human telos (which of course for Aristotle is also thoroughly cultural), and the cultivation of human desires, habits, feelings, dispositions in such a way as to form the human being into the kind of person who acts virtuously. For Stoicism, by contrast, what matters is the individual will, and its embrace of an externally existing law.

MacIntyre  goes on to argue that here as always philosophy is rooted in a prior socio-political context: the displacement of the Greek city-state by the Macedonian regime and then the Roman imperium serves to bolster the Stoic stance, since any communal agreement and embrace of the common good for man now becomes more problematic.

So it is that Stoicism “sets a pattern for all those later European moralities that invoke the notion of law as central in such a way as to displace conceptions of the virtues” (MacIntrye, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 169).

“What about Judaism?” one might ask. Does it not make the law (the Torah of God) central, apparently in agreement with Stoicism? MacIntyre quite insightfully provides a response to this objection: one reason why Stoicism was unable to occupy an even more dominant role in Western culture is that it was “outnarrated” by an “even sterner morality of law, that of Judaism.”

With this insight I completely agree, and would only add the following conjecture. There must be something within Judaism which allows for the inculcation of the virtues (even if this amounts to a marginalization of law). Surely that “something” is its historicism (which MacIntrye’s thought correctly connects with the notion of narrative or story), which in turn allows it to be developed into Christianity (by way of tradition), which in turn had additional resources which allowed it to embrace classical thought, including that of Aristotelian moral philosophy.

So it is that I am prepared to say that my Senior ethics class at Westminster, seventeen years ago, was more Stoic than Christian. (To Westminster’s credit, it itself supplied me with at least one tool to help me realize this: in the Old Testament Department we were constantly reminded that the Torah of Yahweh is fundamentally different from western and especially modern notions of law, not least in that the former is deeply woven together with the story of Israel, and God’s faithfulness to her.)

 

 

 

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Tears & Laughter, Plato & Christ

At the end of Plato’s _Symposium_,

… the faithful Aristodemus … falls off into a drunken sleep, but awakens to find Agathon, Socrates, and Aristophanes having a discussion, with only Socrates fresh and in full possession of his powers (223B-D). Socrates is forcing the two poets to agree that it would be possible for a man to be both tragedian and comedian, which each resists because Agathon regards tears as highest and Aristophanes regards laughter as highest, and they are opposites. For them there is no mean between the two that is as high as the two extremes. Socrates says that philosophy is such a mean and that a mixture of laughter and tears is the way to define man. Practically, Socrates is telling them that their two arts must be combined in order to depict him. This is the formula for the Platonic dialogues and perhaps for Shakespeare’s plays. The other two nod away, and one is never sure whether Socrates could not persuade them. It is with this doubt that the dialogue ends. (Allan Bloom, “The Ladder of Love,” in Plato, _Symposium_, ed. Seth Bernardete, 170.)

Socrates defines man in terms of “a mixture of laughter and tears.” Chesterton, who said that the wise man has comedy in his head and tragedy in his heart, would surely agree.

When it comes to classical Greek philosophy, my firm conviction is that the best way to view it is as a “propaeduetic of the Gospel,” as Clement of Alexandria held. When one reads the ancients’ texts for themselves, one is struck over and over by the ways in which the themes and teachings foreshadow themes in the New Testament.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more clear, however, than in the above quotation about tears and laughter, tragedy and comedy. Socrates says not only that they go together, but that they go together in the life of man. This is a suggestive pointer to, an intriguing foreshadowing of, the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

The Paschal Mystery is Good Friday (with all its pain and blackness) plus the Easter Feast (with all its luminosity and joy). It is the death of Christ, and his surprise resurrection on the third day after. It is tragedy plus comedy.

What’s more, in places like Rom 5:12-21 and I Cor 15:45-47 St. Paul argues that Christ is the “second _anthropos_ and the last _adam_.” He is the New Man, the Renewed Humanity. Socrates, then, is vindicated, for it is in the life of this most true human that we behold the Paschal Mystery. Death and life, sadness and joy, tragedy and comedy.

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Ministry, Margin, & Gleaning

The Old Testament from Last Sunday (the 5th Sunday of Easter) struck me deeply.

Here is a common experience for this preacher: after having spent (on Saturday and very early Sunday morning) hours of study, prayer, thought, and rhetorical preparation for my sermon in the 11:05 Epiphany Eucharist, I find myself sitting in the chancel pew in the Christ Church nave at the 7:30 Eucharist on Sunday morning. I’ve been focusing intently on my sermon, with its particular emphases rooted in a particular text, but now it is time to worship the Living God.

The faithful lay reader begins with the Old Testament lesson, and I begin to notice a different theme, a different image, a different tone than the one(s) I have been pounding home in my own sermon prep. Even though it often barely registers the first time through, this is the first nudge from the Holy Spirit that God is way bigger than I forgetfully assume. Then Father David (or Father Keith) mounts the pulpit. A typical experience is that those faint images from the lay reader’s voice–which had barely registered–are then handled deftly and persuasively by the preacher, and I am left undone. Often times tears begin to roll down my face.

I had been focusing on X, but it was Y which the Holy Spirit wanted to press into my bones. It is not that X was bad or unworthy; it is simply that God is bigger than my heart/mind, and I that am not in control.

I don’t remember what X was for me last Sunday; but I do remember Y.

Y was: gleaning. From Leviticus 19.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.

What are the ways I tend to “strip the vineyard bare?” What are the ways I forget about margin? The margin which allows me to work less, which allows others to thrive? I think about my car, my body, my family, my ministry.

I don’t want to romanticize ancient Israel’s practice of gleaning, and I am still prayerfully listening to what this might mean. But I do want to become so mature in Christ (Eph. 4:13) that I have some good stuff left over. That I am not continually “spent,” so that others can enjoy. That I remember that while hard work is good, it is not ultimate. My hard work is an act of obedience and worship, but at the end of the day, God must grant the harvest. God must make things grow. God must make everything OK.

Not reaping to the edges of our metaphorical (or literal) fields is an action, a little ritual, which reminds us that our hard work, our astute planning, our laborious attention, is penultimate at best.

Maybe the Pentateuch knows that for most of us, “workaholism” is a bigger danger than laziness, or that we have a tendency to oscillate between the two, or that most of us assume the paradigm of “working for our salvation.” And so it wisely gives us a golden mean for which to strive: not too little work, and not too much.

May God help me, and all of us, to become more like an ancient Israelite in this way, and less like a 21st century, capitalist-individualist American. May God help me, and all of us, to practice in our lives the ancient wisdom of gleaning.

 

 

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Faith becoming Sight

I have been meditating lately on Psalm 48:8: “As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

You see, faith is a “hearing thing”: it comes to us, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 10:17, “by hearing.” His reminder that “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) confirms the same point. Yet even though all this is true, and even though the book of Hebrews reminds us that “faith … is the conviction of things unseen,” nevertheless Psalm 48:8 presents us with the opposite perspective.

Yes, faith is a “hearing thing,” and, yes, we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Nevertheless Psalm 48:8 reminds us that, in addition to all that, God desires that the contents of our faith also become visible. “As we have heard, so have we seen” means that the oracles of God, the promises of God, have now become manifest in the “real world,” the world of our sense perception, laid bare for all to see, to the glory of God. There is a time and a place for this, too. The heart of a Christian longs to see the things of faith become visible. The follower of Christ longs for the Kingdom of God—the reign of God—to become palpably present in the daily lives of men, women, and boys and girls. When this happens, faith has “become sight;” the word of God has become visible, palpable, seen.

I want to point to two examples of “faith becoming sight.” The first is Promise Academy, located in the building of New Days Community Church in North Tyler, near the corner of Broadway and Gentry. At this brand new school, in its very first year, the promises of God and the longing of God’s people are becoming visible. Here, at Promise Academy, hope is being provided for a handful of little ones (right now, the school only consists of Kindergarten; God willing, first grade will be added next year). At this school, a small number of mainly black and Hispanic kindergartners are learning how they are fearfully and wonderfully made, how God’s ways are the best ways, how trust and obedience in the God who loves them will bear fruit in their lives. All this is becoming visible: in their facial expressions, in the life of their families, in the physical beauty and orderliness of their lives (both in the classroom and out).[*]

My second example is a very different one, but one no less breathtaking: Christ Church South. The groundbreaking ceremony we experienced last week … this, too, is an example of “faith becoming sight:” a new Temple for the worship of God is being erected right in front of us! A new House of Prayer for all people and for a burgeoning community of friends in faith is being raised up, for all the world to see. Not only is God’s creation being transfigured from glory to glory, but sacred, sacramental space is being consecrated and set apart. Fr. David’s “message” at the perimeter of the construction sight “nailed it:” just imagine how many generations of lives will be impacted for the cause of Christ and the sake of the Kingdom.

All this in a contemporary world wracked by division, addiction, and heartache. A sign of visible hope, a leading indicator of Gospel victory. By the grace of God alone.

“As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

 

[*] To learn more about Promise Academy, please visit http://promisetyler.org/

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Ascension: the Fluid Body of Christ

I’ve been thinking about the Feast of the Ascension (celebrated this year on May 29) lately. The Prayer Book’s collect for Ascension reads:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ

ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:

Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his

promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end

of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and

reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory

everlasting.  Amen.

How do you think about the Ascension of Christ?

I think that, in the contemporary church, there are three different ways of thinking about this redemptive-historical event. First, most people are just confused. After all, it seems so weird that Jesus would start floating up into the sky, eventually transcending the ability of the disciples to see him.

Second, however, and better, many people assume that Jesus is going “up to heaven.” That is understandable, but this view is definitely strengthened when coupled with the idea that Jesus is ascending to his throne, which is “in heaven,” at the right hand of his father.

A third view, suggested by the liturgical calendar itself, is that when Jesus ascends, he is going away in order to send down the Holy Spirit onto the Church on the day of Pentecost. (Indeed the collect of the day on the seventh Sunday of Easter, after Pentecost, might encourage this view, with its petition to God to “send us the Holy Spirit to comfort us.”)

Notice, however, what the collect for Ascension above actually says: Jesus ascended that he might fill all things. I cannot help but think that this is sacramental language. Remember the ancient dictum which is utterly scriptural: “Christ is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ.” It is this Church with whom “he abides … on earth … until the end of the ages.”

Why did Christ ascend to a transcendent “place,” why did he ascend into a transcendent mode of being? Precisely so that he could fill all things. When his body disappears, it becomes all things. It saturates all things. All things in a mystical way become charged with divine presence. Not only does this point to the eacharistic elements as tokens of all creation, but it also suggests that all material creatures are divine. As the fathers of the church said, “When Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, he sanctified all water.”

I know that this is a strange thing to think about. But our collect for Ascension invites us to think about it, and to meditate on it. Christian truth is indeed strange. Strange and beautiful.

Note: this article is inspired partly by Graham Ward’s chapter “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ” in his Cities of God. See also here.

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St. Paul’s Foul Mouth (& Grace)

After a really rich & profound time of Bible study last night with some dear brothers & sisters, I got to thinking — it’s been a while since I’ve thought about this — about St. Paul’s penchant for strong, offensive language which crops up in the NT at least twice.

“… I consider [all that stuff I used to care about, before I met Christ] to be loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them to be shit, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8)

“But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.  I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:11-12)

Think about it. We have around a dozen letters which Paul wrote, and on not one but at least two occasions, perhaps in the heat of passion, he blurts some kind of acerbic overstatement which would have to be censored from the letter, if it were read in public today. (Granted, much of this has to do with our contemporary cultural sensibilities, derived as they are from cultural milieus such as Victorian England, but still.)

Does Paul have some sort of issue (anger, maybe?) here? Maybe.

But what’s interesting to me about both contexts above is that Paul is involved in a discussion about the grace of God which has come to him (in some sense) “apart from the law” (cf. Rom 3:21). Apparently he feels quite strongly about such matters.

The second implication for me has to do with language, and how those who follow Christ are to speak and write. The point is that what matters is not so much how successful we are in avoiding “four letter words” and so on, but rather, do we use our language and our words to promote goodness, truth, beauty, and the _shalom_ of others?

In this light it is helpful to think about Isa 64:6: “… all our ‘righteous deeds’ are like ‘bloody menstrual rags'”. Ouch. Really, Isaiah? Perhaps that’s a bit overstated? A bit unnecessary?

Not when it comes to the importance of the free grace of God, over and against the Pharasaical / Judaizing tendency we all have (it is the human condition; this is Luther’s — and Kierkegaard’s — “sickness unto death”) to depend on our own “righteous” performance.

There is no doubt in my mind that St. Paul, participating in the tradition we see in Isaiah, was speaking (writing) faithfully in the somewhat shocking language he uses in the references above.

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[Barth] + [Catholic Ecclesiology] = [Bonaventure]

According Joseph Ratzinger, for Bonaventure the Bible, strictly speaking, is not revelation, since revelation is veiled within the “swaddling clothes” of the written letter of the biblical text. Rather, revelation is achieved when the reader by faith penetrates past the literal sense into the allegorical, and gains a _visio intellectualis_, which includes a God-given understanding of the “letter” / images of the text.

Now, 15 years ago, studying the Bible and theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, this would have sounded Barthian to my non-medieval, non-historical ears. And I would have chafed against the implication (an implication which Ratzinger raises in this very context) that such a view of revelation opens the floodgates of theology to the charge of individualistic subjectivism.

Enter Bonaventure’s (and Ratiznger’s) catholic ecclesiology, specifically their unwillingness to separate Scripture from the church’s interpretation of Scripture: “… the deep meaning of Scripture in which we truly find the ‘revelation’ and the content of faith is not left up to the individual. It has already been objectified in part in the teachings of the Fathers and in theology so that the basic lines are accessible simply by the acceptance of the Catholic faith, which — as it summarized in the _Symbolum_ — is a principle of exegesis. Here we find a new insight into the identification of _sacra scriptura_ and _theologia_.” (Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, 66-67).

Hence the problem with Barth is not his denial of the text of Scripture as the Word of God, but rather modern Protestantism’s creeping individualism.

Oversimplified a bit, but still ….

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Becoming a “People of the Book”

This is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, “The Crucifer.”

If you were to walk down hallways of Christ Church, through the nave from the guild hall, you would come to my office, where, on the wall by my office door, you would see the sign: “Matt Boulter, Assist. Rector for Evangelism.” I still have to rub my eyes every time I see it; it seems too good to be true!

Though at times I feel that such a title is an impossibly huge title to fulfill, I do have a deep longing to bring people into Christian community, into a Christ-patterned way of life.

The Bible, oddly enough, is both a barrier to and a catalyst for such an endeavor. It represents both a challenge to and an opportunity for authentic evangelism.

It is a barrier and a challenge for folks on the outside of Christian community, who Christ calls to come and taste and see that the Lord is good. To enter into authentic relationship, leaving their tired isolation behind. This is because for most people in our world, the Bible is boring at best. At worst it is stifling or even oppressive.

I feel much sympathy for people who hold this view of Scripture, for they are simply imbibing the presentation of the Bible which they have been given.   All to often in our modern world (both outside the church and inside) the Bible is presented legalistically, sentimentally, or reductionistically.

Legalistically, as if the Bible were primarily a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” rules to follow in order to earn “brownie points” with an angry God. Sentmentally, as if the Bible were a kind of therapeutic self-help book whose main purpose is to fill our hearts with warm feelings of blissful affection. Reductionistically, as if the Bible were a book which attempts to give an accurate history of the world or of certain peoples. (On this last view, both those who affirm the Bible’s historical accuracy as well as those who deny it fail to realize that historical accuracy is modern preoccupation which is quite foreign to the original writers and readers.)

Instead, what I’m all about is giving folks a taste of a very different kind of Bible. I believe (together with the great majority of pre-modern saints) in a Bible which is a world unto itself. I believe in a Bible which prefigures this community called the Body of Christ. I believe in a Bible which requires a life-long journey of learning to live well in order to begin to understand. I believe in a Bible which I cannot master, but which masters me, ordering and centering my life on the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ.

I believe that the task of evangelism includes inviting people to reimagine the Bible, and the life which it narrates.

 To learn more about how our fathers and mothers in the faith regarded the Old and New Testaments, join Father Matt on the 3rd floor of Christ Church for his class “People of the Book: a Biography of the Bible,”or podcast the classes at http://fathermatt.libsyn.com/

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Charles Taylor & the “Two Speeds”

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the issue of the “two speeds” in the church. That is, at least since the rise of monasticism & St. Benedict, there has been in the church a kind of distinction between the ordinary “lay people” (Lat. laicus) and the more “spiritually advanced” members of holy orders, religious and “secular.”

What Taylor is doing in this book is (among other things) giving a kind of genealogical account of what intellectual and cultural developments led to the kind of secular world in which we live, in which (for example) atheism seems more obvious to people than historic Christian faith. The question is “How did the secular world come to be?”

One of the developments which Taylor points to is the attempt on the part of various and sundry reform movements, particularly throughout the medieval period, to “flatten out” the various distinctions among “religious” people and the ordinary secular folk. Of course, a primary movement like this is the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Now anyone familiar with Taylor will know that he is not given to brash, unqualified positions. Rather, especially in a work like this one, he tries to be descriptive and nuanced. Thus it is at times a challenge to discern the precise role he imputes to such movements, let alone to detect his final evaluation of them.

And yet, it is difficult to resist the c0nclusion that such reform movements played a complicit role in the rise of the modern world, and to the extent, then, that this book is a subtle and complex critique of modern secularism, such movements are viewed with suspicion.

This account resonates with me. It is easy for me to lay much blame for the contemporary marginalization of theology and church at the feet of the Reformation in particular, although for many years I subscribed to the opposite view that the original Protestant movements (and subsequent communities which were loyal to them, such as British Presbyterianism) could be viewed as a kind of “counter-Enlightenment,” almost like a reformed & renewed version of medieval Christendom.

Yet this has not been my position for several years now, at least since my conversion to Anglicanism. I cannot now resist the temptation to view the 16th century Reformation as an essential ingredient of the rise of western modernity, and Taylor’s point about the Reformation’s attempt to flatten out the “two speeds” makes a lot of sense to me.

And yet, I do agree with John Milbank and others in Radical Orthodoxy that this is an example of a movement which – however destructive and ill-conducted – was in fact reaction against a real problem in the Catholic Church. That is, the ultimate cause or problem is, as always, within the Church’s “own house.” (Note that RO and similar movements are, when at their best, not just a critique of modern secularism but also of the conditions within the church and within Christendom which gave rise to modern secularism.)

In other words, even if Taylor is right to criticize the flattening out of the two speeds, it does not follow from this that the “dual speed arrangement” was legitimate in medieval Christian culture. Rather, the resources were always there in the Church, perhaps, to overcome this false dichotomy and to empower all the faithful to live the life of Christ to the fullest, in the deepest possible ways. (Two possible counterpoints would be what some would regard as the failure of halakhic Judaism, and Paul’s injunction to celibacy in I Cor 7.)

To this end, I appeal to Scripture, namely the Psalms and the “new covenant” which is described in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.

The psalms are replete with a celebration of delighting in the law of the LORD, and this certainly does not seem to be limited to some “higher class.” Rather, all people chanted such Psalms as Psalms 19 and 119 in the gathered assembly of the Temple (note that it is the simple who are made wise by the law in Ps 19:7):

Psa. 19:7       The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;

Psa. 119:1     Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD!
Psa. 119:18     Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.
Psa. 119:29     Put false ways far from me
and graciously teach me your law!
Psa. 119:34     Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Psa. 119:44     I will keep your law continually,
forever and ever…. (ESV)

In addition it is difficult for me to envision some kind of “remedial level” of spirituality as compatible with the “new covenant” language of Jeremiah 31, which implies a full penetration of intimate “cutting” in covenant with the Spirit of God.

“And they will not teach each other or say to one another ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Heb 8:11, quoting Jer 31:34, NRSV)

Seems like “one speed” to me.

 

 

 

 

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Strange Table Fellows (Real Social Space)

One of the deepest joys & privileges of my life is the opportunity to oversee the work of planting and growing a college ministry on the campuses of Tyler, working hand-in-hand with Robert Finney. What we are beginning to see in this ministry is that, sometimes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes very strange “table fellows.”

In Acts 13 St. Luke gives us a beautiful image of the church at Antioch. He tells us that, among the leadership of this missional work, there was a striking degree of diversity. The elders of this church consisted of a hodge podge mix of folks from one end of the ideological / socio-economic spectrum to the other, including “Manean, a member of Herod the ruler,” on the one hand, all the way down to “Simeon who was called “Niger”). Note that “Niger” connotes dark skin, which meant then largely what it means now: not just social difference, but social inferiority. (This pecking order of dysfunctional brokenness seems to be well nigh universal: my wife Bouquet can tell you how, in her home country of Laos, lighter skin is highly favored, and I can verify that the same thing holds in Mexico.)

And yet, here they both are in Antioch, both Manean and Niger, serving side by side as utter equals in Christ to build and extend the Reign of God in Jesus Christ.

Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller points out that we see something similar Acts 16, where the Gospel meets and redeems both a financially successful, single,  entrepreneurial woman named Lydia, and a slave girl being trafficked by her abusive pimp.

Sometimes you just have to laugh. Robert and I spent a few minutes “busting a gut” this week, just reflecting gratefully on the motley crew of young people God is bringing to us. Students from a frankly fundamentalist background who carry all sorts of assumptions about Christianity and the world, sitting right next to students who literally have never heard of King David or Abraham, and who flirt with alternative sexualities.

And yet I am utterly convinced that this is what ministry in this time and in this place must look like.

Theologian John Milbank calls it “real social space,” where you belong at the table, not because you agree on some issue (predestination, gay “rights,” vegetarianism, or whatever) but because you are made in God’s image and Christ Jesus shed his blood for you on the cross.

This is how the missionary activity of the apostolic era is portrayed in the Book of Acts; this is how it must be engaged in today, when the culture is in many ways remarkably similar to that of the Roman Empire of the first few centuries after Christ.

In our Epiphany College Community we are, by the grace of God, introducing students to “a new way of being Christian that is really, really old.”

 

 

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Anglican (Episcopal) Approach to Scripture

For years now I’ve been fairly obsessed with this issue of how Episcopalians regard Holy Scripture, especially in contrast to more standard evangelical views, patterns, and assumptions.

In fact a few years ago I posted a series of blog articles on this topic beginning here.

More recently, however, I have uploaded a youtube video (actually it is a series, since I “messed up” in the first video, and lack the necessary editing skills to correct the error … hence the additional video) which describes the Anglican approach to Scripture as liturgical, and hence viewed from the following four perspectives:

1. Community

2. Story

3. Context

4. Sacrament.

You can find the videos here, here, and here.

 

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No, I’m not “fine” (Lent)

Back in the day, when I was a little crazier than I am today, I preached a sermon at Emanuel Presbyterian Mission, a multi-ethnic church plant in which I was a founding co-pastor, in which I said this:

 When you walk up to me and ask me, “How are you doing?” don’t expect me say, “Just fine.” I’m not “just fine.” I’m worse than that, and I’m better than that. In fact, when you come up and ask me how I’m doing, don’t be surprised if I respond, “I’m dying and being resurrected.”

Turns out that this sermon created quite a reaction in our young and growing diverse congregation, and from that point onward, when someone would approach a member of our community and ask them how they were doing, it was not uncommon to hear, “I’m dying and being resurrected … it’s the only way to fly.”

The gospel lesson from this last Sunday (Lent III), Luke 13:1-9, is an unusual passage. There are a great number of passages in the four gospels which are intended to encourage the downtrodden, the comfort the afflicted, and to encourage the down and out. Indeed we have a Lord who is constantly drawn to the outcast, whose heart beats to lift up the lowly.

But the Gospel lesson for Lent III (in Year C) is no such passage. If you are feeling discouraged today, this passage is not for you, for this passage (one of a small number of such passages in the Gospels) is aimed at the upbeat, the successful, those who are meeting their goals.

Jesus looks at these people, and tells them to repent. What?! Repent from what? These folks are not like the woman caught in adultery (John 8) who is suffering some rather nasty consequences of her sin. These people have not robbed a bank; they have not even kicked the cat or uttered a four letter word!

So why does Jesus Christ tell them to repent? In this passage we realize that sin is not breaking the rules. When one breaks the rules (whether it in terms of drink, sex, anger, or whatever), this is a mere symptom of something deeper. It is this “something deeper” from which we are called to repent. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Sin is the attempt to build my life on any foundation other than God.” It is from this tendency that we are called to repent.

And, indeed, this is the point of Lent. Lent is the practice of weaning ourselves off of our dependence on false foundations. Lent is about repenting as a way of life, in the spirit of Martin Luther, the first of whose famous 95 Theses was “All of life is repentance.”

I’m reminded of what Richard Foster shared with some of us in his talk at the Renovation Tyler conference this last weekend. First thing in the morning, he lies on the ground, facing upward. He spreads his arms out in the cruciform shape of the cross, and recites Galatians 2:20 out loud:

 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered himself up for me.

What a powerful way to learn repentance not just when we are feeling down and desperate but in every day, every moment, of our lives.

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Lent: Saying “No” to the Divider

The following is an article I wrote for the newsletter of my church.

In the great 19th century German legend Faust, we meet the scholarly Dr. Faust in his study, struggling to figure something out, to discover some great scientific breakthrough. And then all of the sudden, a sinister and mysterious being called Mephistopheles appears out of nowhere in his study. Now, in the previous scene of the story Mephistopheles – a kind of Satanic or demonic figure – is seen in heaven dialoging with God, engaging God in a wager that he, Mephistopheles, can tempt God’s favorite human, Dr. Faust, and cause Dr. Faust to enter into a pact with himself, thereby betraying God.

And so here Mephistopheles is, in Dr. Faust’s study, and sure enough, Dr. Faust gives in: he agrees, by actually signing a contract with a few drops of his own blood. The terms of the contract? Faust will serve Mephistopheles for all eternity in hell, if Mephistopheles will just give him everything he wants before he dies.

Now, I won’t ruin the story for you by telling you how it turns out, but suffice to say that something similar is going in the story from Luke’s Gospel (chapter 4) about the temptation of Jesus, but with one key difference: the great tempter in this story today is not named “Mephistopheles;” he is named simply “The Devil.”

At first glance that might not seem too terribly important to you, but then you might notice that this character is explicitly named in this little story not once, not twice, but three times. It’s as if he is named three times, once for each of the three temptations which confront the famished Jesus … Jesus who is full of the power of the Spirit (having just been baptized in chapter 3) and who has just been led into the desert by that same spirit for the explicit purpose of being tempted.

What’s going on in these three temptations? Well, I think that by mentioning “the devil” 3 times, Luke is actually giving us a big hint, for the word “devil” in Greek has a very simple meaning: it means “the one who divides;” “the divider.” Who or what is the devil? Well, there’s a lot about the devil I’m not too sure about, but this I know: the devil is one who divides the things and the people that God has put together, and that, my friends, is a huge clue as to the nature of these temptations here in this desert in Luke chapter 4.

What is Jesus tempted with here? Three things: bread, power, and health. Now, let me ask you question: are these 3 things – bread, power, and health – are these bad things? No! They are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time. We are called to give up bad things in our baptism: this is the normal Christian life. During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus. God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

In Lent we are refusing the false dichotomies, the short cuts, and the cheap thrills of the Divider. We are saying “yes” to God, and saying “yes” to God’s gifts. We are saying “God, I want you now, and I really like chocolate and beer and all that good stuff, but I am willing to wait for it in your time, and in your way.” (And you know what? Chocolate tastes so much better when it comes as a gift and not something grasped. And it’s the same way with sex, with power, with health, and with everything else God has made.)

Don’t choose between God and God’s good gifts. Say “yes” to both, and wait for the gifts in God’s good time.

What God has joined together, let no one divide.

 

 

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