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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Cindy Crawford, Anselm, & Comps

Geek alert: this essay will be of no interest to anyone other than philosophy & theology enthusiasts.

A decade ago I was infatuated by “critical theory.” These days, not so much. I’ve become much more straightforwardly orthodox, agreeing with Chesterton on “the romance of orthodoxy” (embodied, for example in his quip that “the act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice”).

Still, I remain convinced that one “critical” theorist necessary for understanding our cultural moment is Jacques Lacan. And though I don’t understand him (yet), I am trying. Which is why I am reading Slavoj Zizek’s How to Read Lacan, and how, in turn, I stumbled upon the following anecdote (which Zizek calls a “low-grade joke”) with which I want to begin this blog post:

 [Once upon a time there was] a poor peasant who, having suffered a shipwreck, finds himself on an island, with, say, Cindy Crawford. After having sex with him, she asks how it was; his answer is, great, but he still has one small request to complete his satisfaction–could she dress herself up as his best friend, put on trousers and paint a moustache on her face? He reassures her that he is not a secret pervert, as she will see once she has granted the request. When she does, he approaches her, gives her a dig in the ribs, and tells her with the leer of male complicity: “You know what happened to me? I just had sex with Cindy Crawford!”

In the joke (the old-fashioned heterosexual promiscuity of which assuages my conscience, thus permitting me to include it in a publicly read blog post), the poor peasant has had an experience which he regards as profound, and which he must share; today I feel the same way.

My experience, however, unlike that of the peasant in the joke, is not a cheap and illicit one. Rather it has to do with the tortuous ardor that is studying for comps. This prerequisite for progressing on to my PhD dissertation often feels a curse, but then at other times (like this morning) it feels an exilerating blessing.

Here’s why. This morning it has finally “clicked” with me, after two and a half decades, what St. Anselm of Canterbury is “up to” in his works the Monologion and the Proslogion. In the closet of my study I have a 3-ring binder containing pages upon pages of class notes which I took in Philadelphia, in seminary, in 1998, on Anselm. (All these years later I realize more than ever that Dr. Claire Davis of Westminster Seminary is a brilliant man.) Yet, when I was in the class, or indeed when I tried to read Louis Mackey’s essay entitled “Grammar and Rhetoric in the Proslogium,” I was groping around in the dark.

I’d like to argue that what Anselm is doing, both in the Monologion and in the Proslogion, is tantamount to what Boethius is doing in his Theological Tractates, his opuscula sacra.[1] As Joseph Pieper suggests,[2] we find a description of this kind of rational thought in Thomas’ introduction to Boethius’ De Trinitate:

… just as our natural knowledge begins with the knowledge of creatures obtained by the senses, so the knowledge imparted from above begins with the cognition of the first Truth bestowed on us by faith. As a result the order of the procedure is different in the two cases. Philosophers, who follow the order of natural knowledge, place the sciences of creatures before the science of God, that is to say, natural philosophy before metaphysics, but theologians follow the opposite path, placing the consideration of the creator before that of creatures.[3]

Of note is the fact that both natural philosophers and theologians have knowledge of God, although this knowledge is delivered in different ways. For the natural philosopher, this knowledge of the divine (or of metaphysics) proceeds on according to Aristotle’s ordering of the sciences, proceeding from “that which is most knowable to us” to “that which is most knowable in itself.”

For the theologian, however, it is as if this heuristic process is short-circuited in a good way. The progressive ladder of scientific spheres is eclipsed, and the knower arrives immediately at the end of the sequence, having received, by the gift of faith, the knowledge of God. (Note that this knowledge of God, bestowed by grace through faith, has particular content, and is received by the intellectus fidei, that faculty which recognizes and grasps the deliverances of faith. In this sense it is structurally similar to the second-to-the-bottom position in Plato’s divided line: pistis. Part of what is in view here is that the content of faith, for premoderns like St. Thomas, does not stand in opposition to knowledge, but rather is a kind of knowledge.)

In contrast to the natural philosopher, then, the theologian begins at the end. He takes God—note that here the God of Scripture and Christian Tradition is taken to be identical to the theos of natural reason—as given, and then proceeds to attend to what follows logically from that point forward.

Anselm performs this method 500 years after Boethius himself had performed it, and it is described aptly in the Augustinian phrases fides quarens intellectum and credo ut intelligam.

In his Scholasticism, Joseph Pieper clearly thinks that Anselm carried his project too far, falling prey to the temptation of rationalism, and I don’t disagree with this diagnosis. Nevertheless, I also agree with Pieper’s final appraisal, namely that Anselm’s method is a kind of historically necessary “experiment” which tries to “test” certain “possibilities:”

On these grounds Anselm’s approach may have been a necessary first step from which ultimately Thomas’ balanced view would later be developed: that necessary reasons cannot demonstrate the tenets held by faith, but can show that they are not contrary to reason; and that such a use of the wisdom of the world is not a mixing of the wine (of theology) with the water (of reason), but should rather be called a changing of water into wine.[4]

[1] Joseph Pieper, Scholasticism, tr. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1984), 36-37. Pieper describes Boethius’ project as “the rational examination of dogma.” Note that the last sentence of Utram Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus de Trinitate substantialiter praedicentur is an admonition to the later Pope John I to “join faith to reason” (“fidem, si poteris, rationemque conjunge”).

[2] Pieper, Scholasticism, 62.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Faith, Reason, and Theology, Questions I – IV of his Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, tr. Armand Maurer (Rome: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1987), 3-4.

[4] Pieper, Scholasticism 62, citing Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate, 2.1 ad. 5 and 2.3 ad 5.

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Athanasius & Difference

One area of thought in which I am perpetually trying to make progress is what you might call the philosophy of the body. Not only is this theme related to the gender politics of our contemporary cultural moment, but it also sheds light on the difference between the basic assumptions held by analytic philosophers (rooted historically in British Empiricism) and continental philosophers (owing a strong debt to Hegel & German idealism through Nietzsche and Heidegger).

Various texts which have shaped my thinking over the years include Judith Butler, _Bodies that Matter_ and Peter Brown, _The Body in Society_ (especially his chapter on Origen). It is much to my chagrin, therefore, that, only very recently have I followed CS Lewis’ advice to focus especially on “old books” and finally turned by attention to St. Athanasius’ _On the Incarnation_.

I am surprised to find that Athanasius’ emphasis is actually not on the body as such, at least not in the way I had hoped. Some quick lessons I’ve learned:

  • Athanasius, time and time again, quotes Holy Scripture to ground his positions.
  • He sees the Incarnation almost totally within the context of the sacrificial death of Christ. (He is very “Reformed” in that way.)
  • By “body of Christ” he means not just the soma typicon which walked the dusty streets of Palestine, ran the lathe over the wood, and was nailed to a cross, but also the corpus verum, or the body of Christ, post-Pentecost, the body of believers who trust in Christ. (He also speaks of the cosmos as a body in section 41.)

What interests me for the purposes of this little piece, however, is something he says in the first section after the Prologue. Speaking in the context of creation, Athanasius contrasts his own Christian view with that of pagan philosophers. Before dealing with the thought of Plato, he mentions in particular “the Epicureans:”

Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts. For if all things came into being spontaneously and without providence, as they claim, all things would necessarily have simply come into being and be identical without difference. Everything would have been as a single body, sun or moon….

So in opposition to the view of the atomists (Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, who taught that the only things that really exists are atoms and void, and that the emergence of “the appearances” in the world is due to the random, chance-driven activity of the swerve), Athanasius argues that if this were the case, then all that exists would be: one thing. Channeling the spirit of Parmenides Athanasius, I take it, is arguing that if the principle of the world as we experience it is random and “spontaneously generated,” then all that would exist is something like what William James called a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” and of course there would be no rational mind to be confused by it. “Everything,” he writes, “would have been a single body.”

What is interesting here is that Athanasius thinks that it is the divine logos, pre-existent in a disembodied way, that accounts for the differences in the world. Only the divine logos, for him, accounts for intelligible order in the world.

I wish I could interview Athanasius and ask him why he thinks this. In my imaginary interview with him, he connects language to concepts (by way of definition), and he argues that without concepts human beings would discern no intelligible difference in the world. So the issue becomes “whence concepts?” and Athanasius’ answer is the divine logos.

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Boethius for our Time

What an encouraging article by Anthony Esolen (scholar of Dante and of Lucretius, and of much else besides). Thanks, Theresa Kenney!

First, in addition to much helpful background and commentary, there is this Boethian wisdom (for anyone struggling with “why bad things happen to good people”):

But virtuous men are tried by God, for their good.  God protects some who are weak by giving them only good fortune.  He gives to some virtuous men the most terrible trials, that they may emerge victorious and shine as exemplars for their fellow men.  He gives an easy life to some vicious men, that penury may not prompt them to crimes even worse; or he may, as severe punishment, withhold from them the reversals that might prompt them to repent.  We do not know and cannot know what God may intend in his special providence for any individual.

Then there is this:

Boethius was the one man most responsible for bequeathing classical learning to the West, to survive the Dark Ages to come, until the Medieval world should burst forth in its wonderful light.  Yet I think that the Consolation may be meant for us now in a special way.  The barbarians are back.  Humane learning is forgotten or despised.  The Church is buffeted, while the gargoyles of the age caper and make mouths and laugh.  I imagine that the Gothic keepers of the jail cracked their jokes too.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kept faith to the end.  No one honors or even remembers his accusers; but the Catholics of Lombardy honored and remembered him straightaway: Saint Severinus.  His bones rest in the cathedral of Pavia, where the bones of Saint Augustine also lie.

It is better for us to wait with that man in his cell, than to enjoy all of the vast earth among men gone mad, quite mad.  God give us the courage to do so!

Perhaps what I love most about all this is that it allows a Christian (Esolen might argue “a Catholic”) to “keep calm” in the midst of the “culture wars,” even while admitting that western culture is crumbling. (I am likely more willing than Esolen, more in line with Radical Orthodoxy, to admit the “upside” to such crumbling, but it is still quite sad, possibly even tragic.)

As CS Lewis well understood (see his Discarded Image) we need Boethius today more than ever.

 

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Gospel for Doubters

It has been my great joy & privilege over the last few months to get to know Matt Magill of The Magills. My favorite Magills song by far is “Yes.”

Is there a love for me?

Can you deliver me?

Will you remember me?

Have you forgiven me?

The answer is always “yes.”

The answer is always “yes.”

If you’re askin’ … you’re already blessed.

What great news, especially for folks plagued by doubt & guilt.

Reminds me of Tim Keller: “A sense of God’s absence is a sign of his presence.”

And Thomas Merton: “Prayer is the desire to pray.”

And CS Lewis: “Do you doubt that you are one of the elect? Say your prayers, and rest assured that you are.”

And don’t forget Keller (again): we must learn to doubt our doubts.

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Lewis, Milton, & Solid “Spirits”

In _The Great Divorce_, Lewis’ heavenly beings – incredibly solid & blindingly bright – are called “spirits.” They stand in stark contrast to the less-than-fully-real, spectral travelers from the cosmic omnibus, newly arrived into the realm of the Real, who are called “ghosts.”

This metaphysical nomenclature is medieval, biblical, & correct, & hints at Lewis’ proper criticisms of Milton’s idea of material angels, expressed in his _Preface to Paradise Lost_.

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Delighting in the Arcane

I recently stumbled across something which truly animated my soul (to dabble in prolixity). ‘Tis the following, one of “twenty-four theses of Radical Orthodoxy:”

As much as the secular, most pietisms are disliked since, as advocating the ‘spiritual’ they assume there is a secular. Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.

Wow. I’ve long sensed myself to be something of an evangelist. Not the kind, of course, that stands on the corner of a crowded and intersection and preaches at the volume of many decibels (though I have done that … recently!).

Rather, I’m the kind of evangelist who cannot conceive of pastoral ministry, or any other way of being human, apart from building communities of worship in which people come to participate in “real social space,” centered on Christ, belonging just because they, we, are human. (How Holy Baptism relates to this must be addressed in a separate post.)

And yet I confess that I have always felt a certain tension between, on the one hand, this urge, this conatus, to commend a message and to invite into deeper community, and, on the other hand, my theology which resists the attempt to dumb anything down, to “be relevant,” or to make the Gospel easier or more palatable.

Hence my encouragement at the above quotation.

Suddenly it all makes sense. As CS Lewis reminds us, human beings are designed to praise and laud Something Bigger than Oneself, and this is necessarily a social phenomenon. We cannot sing the praises of a good film or a rich red wine by ourselves … at least not fully. We must tell someone else; we must share the experience.

And yet, the experience we must share must be “bigger than oneself,” lofty, grand, great, unattainable. It must be beautiful in mystery. It cannot be easily grasped or conveniently assimilated.

So it is that, paradoxically, the difficult, ineffable way of theology and the divine, advocated by such personae as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Rowan Williams, and those involved in Radical Orthodoxy lends itself most “naturally” to the zeal of the evangelist.

 

 

 

 

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Let It Slide (Everything But Christ)

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

Last night while driving home to Dallas I got a call from a dear parishioner who is struggling mightily with a personal situation. “Father, Matt,” he said through the tears, “you are my only friend. I need to talk to you.”

Now, last Sunday in the nave I preached a sermon based on Jesus’ interaction with the rich man in Mark 10. Jesus, the Great Diagnostician, immediately and astutely puts his finger on the one thing which is keeping this law keeper out of the Kingdom. For this man, the barrier happens to be money. His money is the thing, the idol, the “precious,” which is displacing the “one thing needful,” the Lord Jesus Christ, from the center of his life.

In the face of all this, Jesus lovingly (Mark is at pains to point out) looks at him and calls him to let his money slide. Just let it slide. For me the tragedy of this story is that, given the opportunity for true freedom, this law keeping rich man walks away in bondage. He is unable to the let the Lord of the Whirlwind turn his life upside down, thereby restoring true order to his life.

He is unable to let Jesus center and structure his life. He does not understand what our Old Testament less from Amos last Sunday says: “Seek the Lord and live.” He does not understand that God’s ways are the best ways because we were designed to “run” on God, like a car is built to run on gasoline (not chocolate milk). He fails to see that when we “seek the morning star,” to quote CS Lewis, we get “all things thrown in” like a gift.[1] Gifts, which are free, are given to (and by) free men & women, but this man walks away from Jesus in bondage.

What I did not have time to address in my sermon on Sunday was the “how.” How do we let Jesus de-center and re-center our lives?

Here is, again, where, I think of CS Lewis. You see, what we need to do is to fall in love with Jesus, and this happens by a kind of “good infection.” The whole reason we are developing a network of neighborhood groups at Christ Church (I continue to think that his is the most important work we are doing) is to create the environment for people to “get infected.” It happens, often over a period of time, in community centered on love.

Have you ever noticed that when you fall in love with someone (if you are married think about your spouse) your whole life is turned upside down? You begin to see everything in light of the loved person. He or she is not an activity or a task that you squeeze into your already-over-committed schedule. Instead, certain things slide, but everything gets better.

This is how it is with Jesus, and this, really, is what my friend who called last night truly needs. It is what we all need. A relationship with Christ, catching flame in the context of a community of friends centered on love.

Be careful, though: your world might be turned upside down. Such is the life of true freedom.



[1] This quotation comes from the book A Severe Mercy by Sheldon van Aucken.

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All Saints & The Greatest Pleasure on Earth

My wife (quite the Inklings scholar) reminds me that, while Tolkien wanted the circle of friendship between him, Lewis, and few others to remain small, Lewis wanted it to be large and expansive. It is tempting to want to read Anglican and Roman approaches to church into these postures.

Happy All Saints (the better to celebrate, I offer the following quotation)!

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles [Williams] is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a [specific kind of] joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true friendship is the least jealous of the loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend…. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in his own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. (The Four Loves)

Perhaps this is why Lewis, in another All Saints quotation, asks “Is any pleasure on earth so great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” (Letters of CS Lewis)

Perhaps, too, this is why ++Rowan Williams says that “It takes the whole Church to know the whole truth.”

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Tourist or Participant? (Religious Art & the Church)

At the gracious invitation of the Tyler Museum of Art, I recently gave a lecture there entitled “Christians Then & Now: Religious Art and the Christian Church.” This event was held in conjunction with the exhibit, “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

Abstract: “When it comes to approaching Christian art, there are really two different approaches. The first is the approach of the spectator, the tourist, someone viewing the art from the outside, as if the art were an object, an inert item. That is one approach, and it is an approach which I am going to suggest is connected with what one thinker calls ‘the disenchantment of the modern world.’ The other approach is that of the participant, the member, the one who belongs. What I suggest is that that approach … might have something to do with the ‘re-enchantment’ of the postmodern world.”

You can podcast the talk here.

(Note: the audio quality on the first couple of minutes is not great. My apologies.)

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Bell’s Hell (Rob Bell, Love Wins, ch. 3)

In the last chapter Bell’s main accomplishment was to show that heaven is something that starts now.

As for heaven, Bell argues, so also for hell.

First, though, Bell rightly begins with the several biblical words (in both Greek and Hebrew) which get translated or interpreted as “hell.”

He starts out with the Old Testament, and rightly points out that one won’t find much support for the “traditional” understanding of hell in the Old Testament, where, despite the common use of the word sheol (which means “the grave,” though admittedly in a more imaginative sense than we modern people are used to), “what happens after a person dies isn’t very well defined.”

Now, before we turn to the New Testament, it is important to be reminded that the New Testament is every bit as “Hebrew” or “Jewish” as the Old Testament is. Thus, if the OT is not really interested in the state of the human soul after death, then we probably should not expect the NT to be, either.

I  want to develop this point a bit. It is called “reading Scripture with Scripture,” and it allows us to illuminate obscure passages of Scripture with other passages which are more clear. That is, if we are confused or unsure about the meaning of various passages in the NT which seem to talk about hell, then what should we do? We should turn to the OT. We should let the obvious “Jewishness” of the OT shed light upon the (equally, but for us less obviously “Jewish”) NT.

This is what we would ordinarily do if we were reading in the NT about something obscure such as angels, or how to think about one’s enemies, or the relationship between suffering and obedience. In every case, it is tremendously helpful to turn to the OT and seek context and clarity.

However, when we do this with respect to the NT’s portrayal of “hell,” we find nothing in the OT but a reinforcement of the very Jewish understanding of sheol as a highly imaginative version of “the grave.”

What do we find when we turn to the NT? Two main words: Gehenna and Hades (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Sheol). (The exception to this is 2 Peter’s use of Tartarus, a term referring to a mythological abyss.)

Gehenna was the name of the city dump out side Jerusalem. Jesus speaks of it only while rebuking the religious leaders of his day, and never to folks we would ordinarily think of as “sinners.”

When Jesus speaks of Hades, it is in contexts such as Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Some notes Bell makes about this parable:

1.     The rich man is a stand-in for Jesus’ hearers, the religious types.

2.     The “hell” which the rich man created was the result of not loving his neighbor, and even in “hell” refusing to serve his neighbor.

3.     Jesus’ mention of “resurrection” (pointing to the resurrection he himself was about to undergo) shows that the meaning of Jesus’ story was “directly related to what he was doing right there in their midst.”

4.     When we interpret hades in this parable in light of the OT (and its use of sheol) one thing we notice is that the rich man is alive in the midst of death. He is dead, but he is also alive. “He is in Hades … but he hasn’t died the kind of death that brings life.” (page 76-77)

The upshot of all this, for Bell, is that Jesus is talking about hell later (that is in the next life), but also about hell now, and that we should “take both seriously.”

Bell goes on (rightly, in my view) to interpret other passages (such as Matt 26 – “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”) as actually referring to the “hell” which would ensue if Israel continued to fight the Roman Empire with the weapons of the latter’s warfare: a hell which did ensue in 70 AD when Rome destroyed Jerusalem (as Bell rightly points out). (page 79ff)

Bell similarly (and rightly) dismisses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as having anything directly to do with Hell.

Then, in his last major point of the chapter, Bell argues the point that, so often in Scripture, the portrayals of God’s judgment so often include offers of restoration. This includes Jer 32; Jer 5; Lam 3; Hos 14; Zeph 2,3,9,10; Isa 47; Hos 6; Joel 3; Amos 9; Nahum 2; Micah 7.

In Isa 19, the prophet announces (in a passage resonant with Ps 87) that “in that day there will be an altar in the heart of Egypt” (Israel’s arch-enemy). “Things won’t be what they seem,” Bell writes. “The people who are opposed to God will worship God. The one who were far away will be brought near. The ones facing condemnation will be restored.”

Bell brilliantly then turns to the NT, reading Scripture with Scripture. He shows how this same dynamic of judgment leading to restoration is seen over and over in Paul, including in the passages in which he talks about people (such as Hymenaus and Alexander in 1 Timothy) “being handed over to Satan” in order that they might be restored.

Paul makes this explicit in 1 Cor 5 where he tells his friends to hand over a certain man to Satan “for the destruction of the sinful nature so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (page 90)

This “day of the Lord” imagery meshes perfectly, Bell suggests, with Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 (known as “The Great Assize”) when Jesus says that the “goats” will be sent into the aion of kalazo, translated by many English versions of the Bible as “eternal punishment,” but which can more accurately be understood as a period of pruning or trimming.

I want to point out two things at this point:

1.     Bell is not (at least not at this point) denying the existence of “hell-in-the-afterlife.”

2.     What he is denying here is that people “go to hell” against their will. That is actually the main point of the chapter, and this is absolutely consistent, for example, with the view of hell that CS Lewis imaginatively portrays in his book The Great Divorce. (And I don’t see an avalanche of controversy raging in the evangelical world about CS Lewis.)

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Irrational Drinking

In light of a good convo with a friend last night, and in light of our upcoming “Monster’s Ball,” I thought I wd repost this, from St. GK.

“The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other sound rules–a paradox. Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.” –”Omar and the Sacred Vine,” Heretics

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Lewis on Submitting to Death

This past weekend I went back and re-read Book IV of Mere Christianity (out of all four “books,” this is my favorite). I have probably read this material a dozen or more times in my life. It is so helpful though to keep going back to it. These are the very last lines in the entire book.

Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever really be yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. Book look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

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Saving the (Temporal) Appearances

In Radical Orthodoxy: a New Theology the authors write:

The great Christian critics of the Enlightenment — Christopher Smart, Hamann, Jacobi, Kierkegaard, Peguy, Chesterton and others — in different ways saw that what secularity had most ruined and actually denied were the very things it apparently celebrated: embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience, human political community. Their contention, taken up in this volume, was that only transcendence, whcih ‘suspends’ these things in the sense of interrupting them, ‘suspends’ them also in the other sense of upholding their relative worth over-against the void. (3)

In Praying Shapes Believing Lionel Mitchell employs this same (theo)logic when discussing how the liturgical year “saves” ordinary time by transcending it:

The Christian year is a mystery through which every moment and all the times and seasons of this life are transcended and fulfilled in that reality which is beyond time. (14)

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Rowan versus Richard Dawkins

God bless Rowan WIlliams. Few leaders in the church if any do I respect more. However, in this interview with Richard Dawkins, he makes a fatal flaw.

Rowan says that God, as creator, “shapes the entire process” of evolution. For the purposes of this discussion I have no real problem with this statement.

Dawkins then supplements Rowan’s comment by adding, “by setting up the laws of nature in which context the entire laws of evolution take place.” And Rowan nods his head in agreement. This leads to a further discussion about the laws of nature, or the laws of physics, in which both men tacitly agree that there is something called “the laws of nature.”

This is my qualm with how Rowan proceeds. I think that a much better approach would have been for him, right at the point which Dawkins brings up this idea of the laws of nature, to say something like, “I am fine with that idea as long as what you mean is really just a convenient way of referring to patterns that we discern in the world that repeat themselves more or less consistently over time. However, I do believe that God is actively “behind” these so-called laws of nature such that every time an apple falls from a tree, it is God who is somehow willing or causing that apple to fall.” (This is not to deny the reality of secondary causation, by the way.)

He could have invoked GK Chesterton, who said that every time the sun goes up, it does so because God tells it to, and when it does, God excitedly says, “Oh, do it again! Do it again!”

To give too much ground to an abstract and distant (from God) set of laws of nature is to give the impression that Deism is true. Deism, the very topic of Dawkin’s book _The Blind Watchmaker_.

Much to Dawkins’ chagrin, Scripture and Christian tradition do not at all imply that the world is like a machine that God wound up and set in motion.

Rather, the world is an enchanted place, “charged with the grandeur of God” and God’s active presence. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it: “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

Incidentally, to see what one of Dawkins’ atheistic comrades Christopher Hitchens thinks of Rowan Williams, see here.

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Sex & Reality: “One Flesh Union”

In the past I have written about Lauren Winner’s Real Sex, and I want to do so again, as part of a larger conversation.

Bouquet and I have a pair of good friends who are in their early-to-mid twenties and who are in a dating relationship which is getting “pretty serious.”

They recently approached Bouquet wanting to discuss the issue of sexuality, in particular asking the question, “Based on Christianity, is it really the case that ‘sex outside of marriage’ is wrong?'”

Great question, and one that I am always asking myself, and so I want to blog about it.

I want to start with a line from CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, specifically from Book III entitled “Christian Behavior,” and chapter 5 of that book called “Sexual Morality:” “[t]he … Christian rule is “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or abstinence.”

First off, notice that Lewis is saying that marriage and not “a wedding ceremony” is a prerequisite for sex, on the Christian view. This is an important point because nowhere in the Bible is there a clear precedent for, or a clear teaching on, a wedding ceremony. Instead, what there is clear teaching on in Scripture is something called “one flesh union.” This is what is portrayed in Genesis (Gen 2:24) and in the sexual theology of St. Paul which always has the creation narrative(s) — or as Lauren Winner puts it in her book, the original order of God’s good creation which we see in the creation stories — in view (see I Cor 6:16 for Paul’s direct quotation of Gen 2:24).

In other words, even if the the Bible does not seem to have a lot to say explicitly about wedding ceremonies, it does clearly teach that sex goes with marriage. And so the question becomes, “What is marriage?” And the answer to that question is seen as elsewhere in the two verses cited above: marriage is one flesh union.

Now what is interesting about that is the word “flesh.” For, as Winner alludes to in her book, both the Greek and the Hebrew words (sarx and bassar, respectively) for “flesh” point in two directions are the same time. The word can mean “body,” and / or it can mean something like “the holistic life of the self” or the “one’s own life in its totality.” For the former meaning see I Cor 15:39 or II Cor 7:5, and for the latter see, again, I Cor 6:16. (There is a third meaning of the word which is less important for our purposes, though it is related to this second meaning: it can refer simply to the human person or to humanity as a whole, as in Jn 17:2 and Acts 2:17, and a fourth meaning can be “the sin nature” as we see in Gal 5.)

So when the Bible portrays the man Adam and the woman as “one flesh” it is referring both to both meanings. To quote Lauren Winner:

“One-fleshness … captures an all-encompassing over-arching oneness — when they marry, husband and wife enter an institution that points them toward familial, domestic, emotional, and spiritual [one might also add: financial, psychological, and social] unity. But the one flesh of which Adam speaks [in his “love poem” in Gen 1:23] is also overtly sexual, suggesting sexual intercourse, the only physical state other than pregnancy when it is hard to tell where one person’s body stops and the other’s starts.”

What is marriage? It is a relationship of holistic unity with another person, and this includes at its center the bodily unity of sex. Because this holistic unity involves so much, because there is so much at stake — physical health, emotional health, economic health, social health, psychological health — it requires commitment.

The kind of lasting commitment one finds in biblical portrayals and descriptions of covenants. And it is here, in the need for commitment, where the actual marriage ceremony becomes a serious matter, and one which wise people will consider very seriously.

To summarize, does the Bible teach that one must get married before having sex? I am not sure if it does or not, but I know that it does teach that one must be married before having sex (although it requires this not as some abstract law, but rather as a way to protect the health or shalom of the person), and a wise person will recognize that the best way to start being married is actually to get married.

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CS Lewis on Richard Hooker

Thanks to Jeff Myers for pointing out this quotation:

Hooker had never heard of a religion called Anglicanism. He would
never have dreamed of trying to ‘convert’ any foreigner to the Church
of England. It was to him obvious that a German or Italian would not
belong to the Church of England, just as an Ephesian or Galatian would not have belonged to the Church of Corinth. Hooker is never seeking for ‘the true Church’, never crying, like Donne, ‘Show me deare Christ, thy spouse.’ For him no such problem existed. If by ‘the
church’ you mean the mystical church (which is partly in Heaven) then, of course, no man can identify her. But if you mean the visible
Church, then we all know her. She is ‘a sensibly known company’ of
all those throughout the world who profess one Lord, one Faith, one
Baptism (III.i.3)” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 454).”

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Irrational Drinking (GK Chesterton Style)

“The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.” – Broadcast talk 6-11-35

“Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal invented anything so bad as drunkenness – or so good as drink.” – “Wine when it is red” All Things Considered

“… The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as a medicine. And for this reason, If a man drinks wine in order to obtain pleasure, he is trying to obtain something exceptional, something he does not expect every hour of the day, something which, unless he is a little insane, he will not try to get every hour of the day. But if a man drinks wine in order to obtain health, he is trying to get something natural; something, that is, that he ought not to be without; something that he may find it difficult to reconcile himself to being without. The man may not be seduced who has seen the ecstasy of being ecstatic; it is more dazzling to catch a glimpse of the ecstasy of being ordinary. If there were a magic ointment, and we took it to a strong man, and said, “This will enable you to jump off the Monument,” doubtless he would jump off the Monument, but he would not jump off the Monument all day long to the delight of the City. But if we took it to a blind man, saying, “This will enable you to see,” he would be under a heavier temptation. It would be hard for him not to rub it on his eyes whenever he heard the hoof of a noble horse or the birds singing at daybreak. It is easy to deny one’s self festivity; it is difficult to deny one’s self normality. Hence comes the fact which every doctor knows, that it is often perilous to give alcohol to the sick even when they need it. I need hardly say that I do not mean that I think the giving of alcohol to the sick for stimulus is necessarily unjustifiable. But I do mean that giving it to the healthy for fun is the proper use of it, and a great deal more consistent with health.

“The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other sound rules–a paradox. Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.” –“Omar and the Sacred Vine,” Heretics

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Lewis on “the other religions”

“I have asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you on thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth…. But of course being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic — there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.” Mere Christianity, ch. 1

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Plato and Chesterton on the Sun, against Derrida

Anyone who has spent much time in discussion with me will know that I love to quote G.K. Chesterton’s analogy of the sun, in which he basically says that Christian mysteries (ie, the Trinity and the Incarnation) are like the sun: you cannot look directly at them, but they illuminate everything that we see.

Only now am I realizing how dependent this idea is on Plato. In the Republic (509b) Plato teaches (in the words of Catherine Pickstock) that "as the source of all light, the sun is more diffi-cult to see than anything else, but it is a beneficent mystery that lets things be seen in their true nature, while itself remaining but obliquely visible. As well as letting things be seen, the sun gives things to be seen, for although it is beyond being, it is the ground of all being(s)."

What this passage asserts, and what Jacques Derrida fails to see in his reading of the Phaedrus, is the transcendant, ecstatic nature of the good. It is beyond us (and all other beings), but it is particible. 

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