Thursday, December 30, 2010

The baptizing Christ

Notes on chapter three of Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition, "The Baptizing Christ".

  1. Jesus and the Water of Life. "Water has become the sign of salvation" (Isa 55:1; John 3:5; John 7:37-18; Matt 28:19). "Eastern Fathers, chiefly St Ignatius of Antioch, teach that the contact of our Lord's body with the water of the Jordan is the principle of the sanctifying action of water in the holy mystery of Baptism." The feast of the Baptism of Jesus (Epiphany or Theophany) has a special emphasis in the Orthodox Church. It is more important than Christmas, "which she regards as a comparatively private event". On that day they bless water for the faithful to drink. Water is associated with the mysteries of light and illumination, so that Epiphany is also called the Feast of Lights. Light is such an important aspect of Orthodox theology that "it could rightly be said that Orthodox mysticism is a 'Light-mysticism.'"
  2. Baptismal grace. "Baptismal grace is the 'first grace', i.e., the grace that communicates to man life in Christ." It continues throughout life. It can be lost and recovered. The Holy Spirit is given in baptism, though this must be distinguished from the Pentecostal grace of chrism, which will be discussed later. "Our Lord invisibly grants [baptismal] grace to souls of good will who, consciously or even unconsciously, are longing for the Water of Life. This has been called 'baptism of desire'." There is also a "baptism of blood" for unbaptized martyrs. The "baptism of fire" (Luke 3:16-17) is thought by some of the Fathers to be the "ultimate purification of souls and the final destruction of sin." Three fundamental elements in the Orthodox rite of Baptism:
    • Liberation from the yoke of Satan, or Christ forgiving and healing
    • The creation of the new man, or Christ conforming to Himself, the patter and archetype
    • Incorporation into Christ
    In each of these there is an ascetical (human effort) and mystical (divine gift) aspect.
  3. The forgiving and healing Christ. Repentance, baptism, and absolution are inseparable. First, the soul must be freed from the power of Satan, which is done in the rite of exorcism within the baptismal rite. This exorcism can be renewed throughout life. Types of Penance:
    • Inner penance, "being pricked in the heart"
    • Public penance, prescribed for idolatry, murder, and adultery, but seldom used now
    • Private penance (confession and absolution)
    Penance is a "new baptism". The priest hearing a confession is not a judge but a witness, and the absolution is imperative, not declarative. "Whatever form Penance may take it must always be a breaking of the heart at the feet of Christ." Tears may even be a form of baptism. Some Fathers even believe that sins committed after water baptism may not be forgiven without the baptism of tears. [Comments: This is far too close to justification by works for me. Granted, the tears are probably seen as granted by God, but they don't always come.] Monastic profession contains a penitential element and is considered a second baptism. The rite of second marriage is also penitential. [Comments: The details of the rite as related by Gillet are unduly harsh.] "The mystery of Unction, in the Orthodox Church, is a joint mystery of bodily healing and of remission of sins" (James 5:14-15).
  4. The re-creating Christ. "Baptismal grace takes away original sin, and penitential grace, the extension of Baptism, blots out actual sin. But the baptizing Christ performs yet another work. He restores the primitive order abolished by sin, and creates a new man." Jesus as the New Adam returns us to the "state of integrity" possessed by the first Adam. This is the true "state of nature". This re-creation is expressed with the "oil of catechumens" applied before baptism as a preparation for it. It differs from Chrismation, which comes later and communicates Pentecostal grace. The restoration of the state of nature, or better yet the nature of Jesus, is the grounds for asceticism. "According to Origen, asceticism is to make the nous [the rational mind, or heart] dominant over the whole man: the entire soul must become nous." Asceticism is "the good fight" against the main sins of gastrimargia (gluttony), porneia (impurity), phylargyria (covetousness), kenodoxia (vainglory), lupe (melancholy or acedia), katalalia (slander), orge and oxycholia (irascibility), pikria (bitterness). This are reducible to "the three fundamental lusts - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, pride of life [1 John 2:16] ... which are but various aspects of one egoism: the self-assertion of the separated." There are four main ascetical methods for the defeat of these sins:
    • The custody of the heart, i.e., "strict and permanent control of the imagination"
    • Continence. Sexual activity is good, provided it is "directed toward the multiplication of the children of God and controlled by the Logos". As a result of human weakness, however, this is rarely the reality. Therefore, the Orthodox Church considers "the way of continence as in practice a safer means to perfection ... [and proclaims] the superiority of virginity and celibacy over marriage", though she does, like Jesus, bless marriages. [Comments: I'm far too Protestant to accept this.]
    • Fasting and alms-giving. The Orthodox Church has strict rules for fasting, but, in order to heed Isaiah's warning in Isa 58:6-7, it does not separate fasting from alms-giving.
    "The whole asceticism of the Orthodox Church may be said to be expressed in the prayer of St Ephrem which is recited in all the Lenten services: 'O Lord and Master of my life, grant me not a spirit of slothfulness, of discouragement, of lust of power, of vain babbling. But vouchsafe unto Thy servant the spirit of continence, of meekness, of patience and of love. Yea, Lord and King, grant that I may perceive my own transgressions and judge not my brother.'"
  5. Our incorporation into Christ. "Christian life is more than Christocentrism: it is Christification." We are in Christ, made members of his mystical body. Mystical in this case means "secret" or "invisible", not symbolic. "Chrysostom insists: the baptized Christian is not only born of God, but has put on Christ; and this not only morally, through charity, but in reality. The Incarnation (ensarkosis) has rendered our incorporation into Christ and our divinization (theosis) possible." As St Gregory Nazianzen said, "What has not been assumed has not been healed."
  6. The spring of the soul. The Christian life is not "the full summer of spiritual life. It is the transition from the winter of sin to the spring of the redeemed existence. It is the morning dawn, not the splendour of noon. ... These times of Baptism, of Penance, of conversion, of healing and forgiveness, are the blessed times of the first meeting, or of a new meeting, with the Lord Jesus."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The essentials of Orthodox spirituality

Notes on chapter two of Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition. The essentials of Orthodox spirituality:

  1. Aim and means of Christian life. "The aim of man's life is union (henosis) with God and deification (theosis)." Deification is a sharing in the divine life (2 Peter 1:4) which causes man to participate in the love that flows within the Trinity. This union is the only way which humans can love God and neighbor perfectly. It is accomplished through the Mediator, Jesus Christ, and through the operation of the Spirit. It is a product of the action of God and not the natural effects obtained by human discipline. "The basis of the spiritual life is not psychological, but ontological."
  2. Divine grace and human will. "The incorporation of man into Christ and his union with God require the co-operation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will. Will - and not intellect or feeling - is the chief human instrument of the union with God. ... But our weak human will remains powerless if it is not anticipated and upheld by the grace of God." Orthodoxy has a synergistic view. They did not face Pelagianism (as in the West) and so do not speak the language that arose out of that controversy. Their fight was against an "oriental fatalist gnosis."
  3. Asceticism and Mysticism. "The 'ascetical life' is a life in which 'acquired' virtues, i.e., virtues resulting from a personal effort, only accompanied by that general grace which God grants to every good will, prevail. The 'mystical life' is a life in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are predominant over human efforts, and in which 'infused' virtues are predominant over 'acquired' ones; the soul has become more passive than active." These are not mutually exclusive lives, though one may be predominant in a particular individual. "Graces of the mystical order are not necessary to salvation", but many of the Greek fathers believed that they are offered to all souls of good will.
  4. Prayer and Contemplation. "Prayer is a necessary instrument of salvation." Cassian distinguishes three ascending degrees of prayer:
    • Supplication for oneself
    • Intercession for others
    • Thanksgiving or praise
    Contemplation is not necessary to salvation, but, like mysticism, is open to all. Contemplation is not "high intellectual speculations or extraordinary insight". It begins with the "prayer of simplicity" or "prayer of simple regard", which consists in "placing yourself in the presence of God and maintaining yourself in His presence for a certain time, in an interior silence which is as complete as possible, while you concentrate upon the divine Object, reduce to unity the multiplicity of your thought and feelings, and endeavor to 'keep yourself quiet' without words or arguments." A contemplative life is one that opens itself up regularly to these acts of contemplation. Contemplation can be acquired by personal effort (as the ascetical life) or it can be infused by divine grace (as the mystical life). In the West, St Theresa distinguished four states of contemplative prayer:
    • The prayer of quiet, silent concentration of the soul on God, which however does not exclude distractions
    • Full union, in which there are no longer distractions, and which is accompanied by a feeling of "ligature of the powers" of the soul
    • Ecstatic union, in which the soul "goes out of itself"
    • Transforming union, or spiritual marriage
    The Greek fathers do not have such a strict classification, but it does parallel their thought. The first two stages are degrees of hesychia and are "the normal end of any habitual and loving prayer-life", though, again, love is the perfection of the Christian life, not contemplation.
  5. The Holy Mysteries, i.e., (in Western terms) the sacraments. The Orthodox church believes "the sacraments are not mere symbols of divine things, but that the gift of a spiritual reality is attached to the sign perceptible by the senses." They are reluctant to give exact definitions of the mysteries, e.g., the eucharistic presence. "The Orthodox Church wants a mystery to remain a 'mystery', and not to become a theorem, or a juridical institution." They agree with the scholastic axiom that "God is not bound to the sacraments" and do not assert that those who are outside the Orthodox church are deprived of grace.
  6. The Communion of Saints. "The worship of the saints is not latreia, the adoration due to God, but douleia, service or sebasmos, veneration." In addition to the apostles, the martyrs, and the other saints, the Orthodox church also venerates OT saints and the angels. The Greek fathers particularly emphasized guardian angels. "At the summit of the celestial hierarchy is the Theotokos, the blessed Virgin Mary." The Council of Ephesus (431) was key here. The most Orthodox form of piety toward Mary is based on the Gospel texts themselves, e.g., Luke 1:28, 38; John 2:3, 5; Luke 11:27-28; John 19:26-27. Ikons occupy an important place in prayer. They are designed not as a resemblance of the subject but as a stylized symbol or hieroglyph. "While the likeness is for the West a means of evocation and teaching, the Eastern ikon is a means of communion."
  7. The stages of the spiritual life. The western distinction between the three stages of the spiritual life (purgative, illuminative, and unitive) has correlations in the Orthodox church. More authoritative, however, is the view that the three holy mysteries - Baptism, Chrisma, and Eucharist - represent the three stages in the way that leads to God. All the sacraments, sacramentals, prayers, and the liturgy itself are focused on these three mysteries. This does not mean that the spiritual life is "merely ritual life". On the contrary, these mysteries are signs of invisible graces, viz, Baptismal grace, Pentecostal grace, and Paschal grace. It is the realities behind the outward signs that are the essential thing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The historical development of Orthodox spirituality

I'm currently reading Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition by "A Monk of the Eastern Church". I thought I would post notes on the book here, in case anyone else is interested.

Six elements in the development of Orthodox spirituality:

  1. The Scriptural element. Certain books have been particularly influential:
    • The Psalms, through their use in both public worship and monastic life.
    • The synoptic Gospels.
    • The letters of Paul, especially as interpreted by St John Chrysostom.
    • The Gospel of John is sometimes thought to have been particularly influential, but this is doubtful.
    Traditions of scriptural interpretation include both the literal and historicist school of Antioch and the allegorical and speculative school of Alexandria. In addition to this there is the tradition of an evangelical spirituality, which stresses the values of the Gospel, on following Christ, and caring for the poor. Examples include St John Chrysostom, the rules of St Basil, St Theodore the Studite, St Nicholas, St John the Almsgiver. It also has a long tradition in Russia.
  2. The "Primitive Christian" element, i.e., the first three centuries before the conciliar and dogmatic fourth century. Martyrdom is central here. Asceticism also developed in this time as a preparation, or in some cases a substitute, for martyrdom. It is also characterized by a belief in the imminent Parousia.
  3. The Intellectual element. This is the Alexandrian school of speculative spirituality. Its main features are:
    • Dualistic view of matter and spirit
    • Leaning towards dialectic
    • Scriptural allegorism
    • Apophatic theology
    The dogmatic formulations of this era were also brought to bear on the spiritual life, e.g., in Maximus the Confessor's interpretations of pseudo-Dionysius. Orthodox contemplative spirituality was indeed influenced by Platonism/neo-Platonism. On the other hand, in ethics and asceticism, Orthodoxy has also been influenced by Aristotelianism and Stoicism. There is also present a "'sophianic' attitude which might defined as an acute perception of, and communion with, the spiritual beauty of the world. ... This spiritual-aesthetic element is very strong in Orthodoxy."
  4. The Early Monastic Element, i.e., the monasticism of the desert fathers. Desert monasticism differs from Benedictine or Basilian monasticism in several ways:
    • Separation from the world is rigorous. The only "work for the world" is prayer.
    • Life is directed toward contemplation and asceticism.
    • Individual forms of monastic life prevail, though there are instances of communal life.
    • Emphasis on fighting against the powers of evil. Demonology owes a great deal to the desert fathers.
    • Prayers of a few words, e.g., the Jesus prayer, is a favored method.
    • Apatheia was the supreme ideal. It is the "state of a soul in which love towards God and men is so ruling and burning as to leave no room for human (self-centred) passions." It is not apathy or Stoic impassibility.
    Desert monasticism still exercises an influence on Orthodoxy today. "An Orthodox can hardly conceive of salvation without a certain severance from the world, without a complete self-denial."
  5. The Liturgical element. General characteristics of Orthodox liturgy:
    • Dispenses both Word and sacrament
    • Elaborate, intended to convey spiritual truth and beauty
    • Public worship predominates over private devotions
    • Church calendar recollects the life of Jesus
    The liturgical practices are to some degree influenced by both the Hellenistic mystery cults and the Byzantine court, in addition to Scripture. Beyond these characteristics, the liturgy itself exercises influence over theology, most notably in the work of Nicholas Cabasilas (c 1371). The veneration of icons, relics, the saints, and the Virgin Mary are also essential aspects of Orthodox spirituality.
  6. The contemplative element, i.e., the "hesychast" tradition. Goes back to St Symeon the New Theologian and Nicetas Stethatos. Associated with Mt Athos and, later, with the theology of St Gregory Palamas, though it can be understood apart from Palamas' disputed theology. Four characteristics of the hesychast method:
    • The striving toward a state of total rest and quiet.
    • The repetition of the Jesus Prayer.
    • Practices designed to help the concentration of the mind, e.g., physical immobility, breathing exercises, fixation of the eyes on the heart or stomach
    • The feeling of an inner warmth and physical perception of a "divine light" or "light of Tabor"
    Points two and three are ways to achieve the state of total rest so that culmination of point four can occur. The hesychasts, however, are not offering an infallible technique. It is also important to place this tradition in its proper position. It "may be compared with the great Spanish school of mystics in the Latin church of the 16th century" in its attempt to make spirituality more practical and accessible. It does not surpass or supercede the spiritual traditions that preceded it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cut military spending, strengthen diplomacy and the economy

In his latest column, Nick Kristof says we must bust the taboo against cutting military and security spending. He cites some facts (the following points are direct quotes):
  • The United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It says that we spend more than six times as much as the country with the next highest budget, China.
  • The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?
  • The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.
  • The U.S. will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.
He goes on to say that we need a strong military, but that it must be balanced with strong diplomacy. The problem is that our military budget is wildly out of proportion to our diplomatic budget. In fact, House Republicans want to cut the State Department budget further.

The world and the problems it faces are changing. Traditional military solutions, as we have seen in our very recent history, are not always effective; rather, they sometimes worsen the problem. There are several proven ways of "winning hearts and minds" that have nothing to do with the DoD budget. (Kristof mentions several of these, and not for the first time.)

In a New Republic article, Paul Kennedy writes that American power is and has been abnormally huge and that is must, like every other great power, decline to a more normal size. He doesn't deny that America will remain enormously powerful, but that the level of power we wield today cannot be sustained. It will take on more normal proportions and we must prepare ourselves for this. Citing Joseph Nye, he says that American power is like a stool of three legs: soft power, economic power, and military power. Soft power (the ability to persuade other nations to do what we want) is clearly waning. Economic power has taken a serious blow. Military power is the only leg that remains strong. But, like Kristof, Kennedy says that military power is not an all-purpose cure.

In light of all of this it seems to me (and my opinion plus a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee) that we should cut military spending and direct it toward strengthening those other two legs, especially since it is increasingly clear that it is an ineffective way of solving our problems.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Pray for peace.

It's Christmas time - a time when Christians hear the angels proclaim peace on earth and our thoughts turn to the Holy Land. It is fitting then to remember and pray about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Here is a story about Iraqi Christians (like the one in the image above) fleeing in increasing numbers from their homeland. Here is a story about the institutionalized prejudice face by Coptic Christians in Egypt.

But we must neither limit our prayers to persecuted Christians nor direct our anger at their persecutors. That would be to ignore the command of Jesus to love our neighbors and pray for those who persecute you. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, yes, but pray also for the peace of the whole world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A God who turns the other cheek

In Patience with God Tomas Halik tells of a man who sent him a manuscript whose purpose was to disprove the existence of God. After advancing the usual arguments it suddenly turned personal as the writer expressed his rage at God for allowing the death of his granddaughter from cancer. It ended with the line: "You're a tyrant with bloody claws. I curse you!"

With his litanies of atheist arguments, was the man trying to take revenge on God for the loss he had suffered? Did he really want to trample God into nonexistence? Or had the vacuum left by the God whose nonexistence he had so intricately proved been immediately filled by the "tyrant with bloody claws," the very God he needed on whom to vent his rage, because yelling into a total void is even more wretched?

Am I to write to him that the "tyrant with bloody claws" really does not exist, that the arguments with which he'd just filled so many sheets of paper were all true as regards that monster? A god like that truly does not exist - we are in total agreement on that score! But what is his prospect now? Will it help him to think that the death of his granddaughter was just an "accident," an absurdity without any meaning at all? Will it help him to be advised not to seek any deeper meaning in her death, to simply content himself with the medical explanation of the malignant process that cause the death of such and such a number of people according to statistics, and simply suppress the unanswerable question: "Why me of all people?" "Why her of all people?" Did it come as a relief for him to find in God a culprit into whose face he could yell all his pain because he could find no other culprit? And even if he found one - a doctor who had diagnosed the condition too late, or the mother who failed to seek medical advice in time - could he use the same tone with impunity when speaking to them?

Is it part of God's service to humanity that he "turns the other cheek," that he puts up with a cry that is even harsher than Job's indictment - or had God really hidden his face from this atheist, so that he wrestled with only a projection of his own horror and pain?

Or had the man never in fact encountered the Gospel, so that his religious world was actually the world of ancient tragedy, where all events in the world of humans are directly controlled by gods, and implacable Fate rules over gods and man alike? A Promethean revolt against the gods may have made some sense there. But the God of the Bible is not a cold-blooded director of our destinies, hidden somewhere behind the scenes of the historical stage. He personally entered the history of our misfortune and drained the cup of our pain to its dregs; He knows all too well the weight of our crosses! Why revile a God who does not intervene in our lives like a deus ex machina in the dramas of antiquity, a God to whom we have access solely through the one who took upon himself the fate of a servant, "who came in human likeness," who "was accustomed to suffering"? After all, Christianity does not offer us a God who is to provide us with a life without adversity or who will immediately provide satisfactory answers to all the painful questions that adversity raises in our hearts, nor does it promise days that will not be followed by night. All He assures us is that, in those profoundest nights, He is with us, so that this assurance itself would give the strength not only to bear their darkness and burden, but also to help others to bear it, particularly those who have not heard or accepted His assurance.
He goes on to say that it is at times like these that we should simply "mourn with those that mourn", not offer contrived arguments. He concludes:
I still haven't replied to his letter, and I'm not sure whether it is due to cowardice, laziness, weakness, and the irresoluteness of my own faith and theology, or whether I judged correctly that any words in this phase could only pour more oil on the flames and salt in the wound. If I didn't live so far away, I expect I would have gone to see him and gripped his hand in mine. "Where was God when your granddaughter was dying? I don't know," I'd tell him truthfully. "But at this moment, I'd like you to feel Him in the hand gripping yours."

Monday, December 20, 2010

What have you learned?

Andy and I have been arguing for years - though it does seem like things have settled down recently. I don't know if that is because we've given up on each other or we've learned how to tolerate our differences.

At first, I merely wanted to win, that is, force him, by the power of my arguments, into agreement with me. Eventually, though, I started to actually listen to him. I attempted to see the world through his eyes. Once I did that I quit seeing his beliefs and questions as threats to be defeated. In fact, I not only came to question some facile assumptions - I actually changed in important ways.

Your ability to answer the following question will determine whether you and your "opponent" are simply arguing from entrenched positions or having a productive discussion: What have you learned from her or him?

These thoughts were inspired, in part, by the book I'm reading now, Patience with God by Tomas Halik.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

This mountain will be thrown into the sea.

Tomas Halik, in Patience with God, says that the "mountain" of Mark 11:23 (which will be thrown into the sea, if we believe) is actually the Temple Mount. I was fascinated by this interpretation, which sounded very N.T. Wright-ish. Sure enough, Wright says the same thing in Mark for Everyone. I'm dependent upon him for the following.

It's important to keep the flow of the story in mind. First, Jesus curses the fig tree, which seems odd since it's not the season for figs. This is a signal that this is a dramatic or enacted parable, not an outburst of anger from a hungry man. We understand the point of the parable in the next event, the Temple cleansing.

The Temple cleansing is not simply about religious commercialism - it is a condemnation of the Temple itself. As Wright says, "The Temple has always been an ambiguous thing." Israel knew that it could not be the full and final dwelling place of God. Isaiah and Jeremiah made it clear that Israel would be blessed through the Temple, but that if they used it as a cover for unjust or immoral behavior they and the Temple would fall under judgment. By bringing the sacrificial system to a grinding halt (even for a few minutes) Jesus was acting out God's judgment on the Temple system as a whole.

The next day they passed by the cursed fig tree, which had withered. What does this tell us about the Temple? Just as Jesus had cursed the fig tree and it withered, so would his curse against the Temple bring it to an end. It is at this point that he says:
"Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea', and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."
Judging by the context, the mountain Jesus is referring to is the Temple Mount. This is not a promise that if you pray in faith God will "move your mountains". This is about the passing away of the Temple system and the coming of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus. Read in this way, Jesus' statement reminds me forcefully of the words of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." In saying these words we are joining with Jesus in prayer for the coming of God's kingdom and, by implication, the casting down of all competing kingdoms. Since this is prayer according to the will of God we are assured that it will come to pass. But note that this is not to be prayed in a spirit of anger, but with humility and the acknowledgment of our own sins (v. 25). Again, we see the same model in the Lord's Prayer.

In context, then, this exhortation to prayer is not a way to get God to fix our problems (because, if nothing else, experience teaches us that God does not always do that), but a participation in the work of Jesus. As Jesus predicted, the Temple system passed away. Yet, other systems oppose themselves to the kingdom of God in our day. We have this promise that they, too, will fall.

Friday, December 10, 2010

War's a banker, flesh his gold

While Philip Vellacott's translation of Aeschylus' "Agamemnon" is, by his own admission, not very literal, it is powerful. Having just described the misery of Menelaus after losing Helen, the Chorus of Elders tells of the sorrow - and anger - of the Argive soldiers' families:
Such are the searching sorrows
This royal palace knows,
While through the streets of Argos
Grief yet more grievous grows,
With all our manhood gathered
So far from earth of Hellas;
As in each home unfathered,
Each widowed bed, the whetted
Sword of despair assails
Hearts where all hope has withered
And angry hate prevails.
They sent forth men to battle,
But no such men return;
And home, to claim their welcome,
Come ashes in an urn.

For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.
There by the furnace of Troy’s field,
Where thrust meets thrust, he sits to hold
His scale, and watch the spear-point sway;
And back to waiting homes he sends
Slag from the ore, a little dust
To drain hot tears from hearts of friends;
Good measure, safely stored and sealed
In a convenient jar – the just
Price for the man they sent away.
They praise him through their tears, and say,
"He was a solder!" or, "He died
Nobly, with death on every side!"
And fierce resentment mutters low,
"Yes – for another’s wife!" And so
From grief springs gall, which fear must hide
Let kings and their revenges go!
But under Ilion’s wall the dead,
Heirs of her earth, lie chambered deep;
While she, whose living blood they shed,
Covers her conquerors in sleep.

A nation’s voice, enforced with anger,
Strikes deadly as a public curse.
I wait for word of hidden danger,
And fear lest bad give place to worse.
God marks that man with watchful eyes
Who counts his killed by companies;
And when his luck, his proud success,
Forgets the law of righteousness,
Then the dark Furies launch at length
A counter-blow to crush his strength
And cloud his brightness, till the dim
Pit of oblivion swallows him.
In fame unmeasured, praise too high,
Lies danger: God’s sharp lightnings fly
To stagger mountains. Then, I choose
Wealth that invites no rankling hate;
Neither to lay towns desolate,
Nor wear the chains of those who lose
Freedom and life to war and Fate.
Aeschylus, trans. Philip Vellacott, The Oresteian Trilogy, Penguin: 1964, p. 58-59.

The voice of the Lord speaks

I was looking through some old posts from my various defunct blogs and found this from five years ago. I am not a poet, but I'm at least not embarrassed by this attempt.

Inspired by Psalm 29

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   Leviathan plays in the sea,
   The sons of God shout for joy,
   Man awakes.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   Stars make obeisance,
   Oaks dance like dervishes,
   Waves clap their hands.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   The snake crawls on his belly,
   The cherubim draws his sword,
   Man dies.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   Children promised without number,
   A bush burns, unconsumed,
   The waters open like gates.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   His handmaiden sings,
   An Infant is laid in a manger,
   God cries.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   A mother’s heart is pierced,
   “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit.”
   God dies.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   The strong man is cast down,
   Angels speak to startled women,
   Man lives.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mister Rogers, the saint

Just watch this interview with Fred Rogers:

Isn't it wonderful how he starts asking Charlie Rose questions, with what appears to be such genuine concern? It's as if we're watching a private counseling session rather than an interview. (He was a ordained Presbyterian minister, after all.) I'll even admit to getting a little choked up as I watched it.

Brief thoughts on self-denial

We believe that God created the universe not out of any internal necessity but out of pure self-giving love. It was creation for the benefit of others.

God, not being subject to sinful passions, can fully and freely love in this manner. Humans, on the other hand, being subject to sinful passions, must first engage in self-denial before any self-giving is possible.

Here we must follow Jesus. The culmination of his life was the abnegation of his own will in his gift of himself for others. It was self-denial oriented towards love. Take up your cross and follow him.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Christmas wars are a failure of hospitality

It's almost Christmas, and that means it's time to start griping about people saying "Happy Holidays". Right?

It seems to me that the Christmas wars are primarily a failure of hospitality on the part of those Christians engaged in them. Hospitality is a prominent theme of the Bible. "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21, NRSV). "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2, NRSV). We are commanded to be hospitable, especially to those who are not like us.

In a country with a variety of religions, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds the practice of hospitality takes on a new importance. Our neglect of it has led to our annual conflict - conflict at the time of year when we remember the song of the angels proclaiming peace on earth. Hospitality, among other things, mean making room for those who are "other", welcoming them, even learning from them. A hospitable person will not be offended by others saying "Happy Holidays" in recognition that, for example, not all of their customers are Christians. A hospitable person will not demand that their ways dominate to the exclusion of others.

This becomes especially ironic when we consider that the Christmas story turns on the issue of hospitality. Mary and Joseph could find no room at the "inn". This could be, in the traditional telling, because the innkeeper was a nasty man who only grudgingly allowed the pregnant woman to stay in the barn. There is an alternate version, though, that portrays the "innkeeper" as a relative of Joseph who did what he could to give them a place to stay, possibly in the family quarters since there was no room in the guest room/"inn". (For more information see here and here. It looks like Kenneth Bailey, a respected scholar, is behind this retelling.)

However you take it, hospitality is an important Christmas theme. It is all the more urgent, then, to be hospitable at Christmas. This means more than opening your home to your family ("do not even the gentiles do the same?"). It means making room for those who are not like us. If hospitality in a multicultural society demands that we modify our holiday greetings then it seems like a small price to pay.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Angelus: A Christ-Centered Marian Prayer

I have heard people defend Marian prayers on the grounds that Mary is only revered because of her relationship to Christ, that is, strictly in her role as Mother of God. Nevertheless, I've never been comfortable with Marian devotion, for all the usual reasons - not the least of which is that we have no promise she (or any of the saints) hear us.

I have come to see that the Angelus, on the other hand, can be read in a Christ-centered way. Here is the text:
V. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived by the power of Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it done unto me according to your Word.

Hail Mary...

V. And the Word was made flesh.
R. And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary...

V. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray: Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, Your grace into our hearts, that we to whom the incarnation of Christ Thy son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
The context of the prayer is the remembrance of the Incarnation. We remember (in the versicle and response) and then we respond by asking Mary to pray for us that we may receive the word of God as faithfully as her. Read in this way, the Hail Marys are not prayers to an alternate, more compassionate mediator, but requests to an (the?) exemplar of faithful response to God to pray for us that we may also hear and treasure the words of God.

The lack of a promise that Mary hears our prayers remains as a real problem. There are plenty of standard answers given in any number of Catholic apologetics books or websites. One way of framing this, however, comes from Elizabeth Johnson:
Interpreting invocation of the saints within the companionship model of the communion of saints allows a measure of response to the criticisms rightly levied against its practice in the patronage model. To Reformation commitment that Christ not be overshadowed: the saints are not petitioned as intermediaries with a judgmental Christ but addressed as codisciples in a small act that strengthens bonds of fellowship in grace across the generations. To feminist passion for relationships of mutuality: rather than casting one into the dependent, subordinate position of petitioner typical of patriarchal elitism, invocation activates mutual regard and provides a vehicle for leaning on and being supported by the saving solidarity among all the friends of God and prophets. To postmodern spiritual agnosticism [with its doubts about the specifics of the “afterlife” and the relationship between the living and the dead]: read as symbolic rather than literal address, calling the other by name with a request for prayer is a concrete act by which we join our lives with the prayer of all who have gone before us in common yearning for God. Within the companionship model, invocation of any saint, in Rahner’s luminous words, “is always the invocation of all the saints, i.e., an act by which we take refuge in faith in the all-enfolding community of all the redeemed.” We dive into the whole company of saints through a single categorical deed.
The Angelus can be a way of imaginatively placing yourself in first century Palestine, witnessing the Annunciation and, later, the Visitation, and asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray for you. In this way it is a form of imaginative prayer, not a direct address to Mary, which sidesteps the problem of whether she actually hears our prayers. It is by framing it in this way that I've tentatively begun incorporating it into my prayers. Am I merely making arguments for a practice I already want to accept? Maybe, but you do it too.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Follow-up on healing and acceptance

Julie Clawson has an excellent post related to what I was saying a few days ago in "The suffering God accepts you". She speaks from experience, having been born missing her left arm below the elbow. Here is an excerpt:
I have church friends (and yes, family members) who let me know that they have been praying for years that God would grow my arm. According to their view, if I only had the faith of a mustard seed then some sort of miraculous arm sprouting would occur. I've learned to take such responses in stride, knowing that their rejection of who I am says more about their insecurities than it says about me.


Few people would deny that it is hurtful to tell a woman she must become a man or to tell a black man he must become white in order to be a full member of the body and experience wholeness. But some people still assume that people who are differently-abled need to become like someone else in order to be whole.

Our faith celebrates the idea of the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, yet we reject physical bodies that seem different. It is one thing to say that our condition as human beings is broken. It's another thing to assert that some people are more broken simply because they have only one arm, or use a wheelchair, or have different mental processes. We are all the broken body of Christ struggling to be in communion with God and each other.
Please, read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Marriage is a school of virtue

There's a fantastic statement of the theology of marriage in Andrew Peterson's beautiful song "Dancing in the Minefields". First, the video:

Now the text I'm particularly interested in:
"I do" are the most famous last words,
The beginning of the end.
But to lose your life for another, I've heard,
Is a good place to begin.
Cause the only way to find your life
Is to lay your own life down.
And I believe it's an easy price
For the life that we have found.
What I like so much about this is how he takes an old joke about marriage and turns it on its head, drawing out of it Paul's comparison of marriage to the love of Christ. He then alludes to the sayings of Jesus that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for another, and that whoever loses one's life will find it again.

Marriage is the merging of two lives into one - "and they twain shall be one flesh". It is a school of virtue that teaches each partner to extinguish the need for supremacy by learning to submit to one another. When both learn to lay down their own lives they are given back a new, joint life that far surpasses the previous relationship characterized by striving wills. They learn to find their fulfillment in each other.

It's a risky business. We don't want to hear that we will be required to put aside our own interests, even sacrifice some things we think are necessary for our happiness, so that the relationship may flourish. We want it on our own terms - but it doesn't work like that. But, as Peterson says, "it's an easy price for the life that we have found".

(By the way, I recommend Peterson's entire album, "Counting Stars".)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"A tension within a deeper unity"

Near the end of his discussion of St John of the Cross in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, Andrew Louth says that the doctrine of the Dark Night is foreign to many Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Dark Night of the Soul, for St John of the Cross, is the experience of the full revelation to the soul of its sinfulness. It is the action of God entering into the soul and purifying it in preparation for union with it.

The Orthodox have a more synergistic doctrine that has the process of purification continuing throughout the mystical ascent to God. Louth cites Mme Lot-Borodine, who says that this difference is well illustrated in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic doctrine that states that Mary was preserved from the corruption of original sin (that she was "immaculately conceived") and thus enabled to give her assent to the Incarnation. The Orthodox reject this doctrine, in part because it is itself a rejection of the sort of synergism that is essential to Orthodoxy.

But Louth questions whether there really is a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern Christianity here. It's possible that the Eastern coolness to the doctrine of the Dark Night is a result of the monergism versus synergism debate - but perhaps the difference is a matter of emphasis:
For there is no fundamental contrast between the idea of our responding to God and the idea of our working with God. There would indeed be such a contrast if God were external to me, if God were not the One who has created me and holds me in being, if God were not interior intimo meo. But, in responding to God, "in whose service is perfect freedom", I find true freedom and so become a fellow-worker (synergos) with God. It is a paradox that St Paul lays hold of when he says, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure": here the ideas of your own effort, God's grace, and the fact that the fruits of our efforts in obedience are the work of God, both at the level of deed and at the deeper level of the inspiring will, are united. Here is true synergism that cannot be opposed to the idea of response.

There may, however, be a difference of style according to whether one is influenced by teaching on synergism or response as keys to interpret mystical experience, and these different styles draw out different areas of mystical experience. If East and West display different styles in the way they explain the same experience of the souls' engagement with God, this is but evidence of a tension within a deeper unity, and suggests that East and West have much to learn from one another here.
I find this convincing, but then I've always had a strong syncretic impulse. To me it seems to be a matter of missing the forest for the trees. All movement toward God is the result of God's prior action. Augustine's famous line, "Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee", locates the source of the desire for God in God's creation of us. In the course of our lives ("on the ground") our movement toward God seems to be an action of our own will alone. From another perspective, however, we can see that our movement toward God is in fact a response to the prior action of God - in Creation, in the Incarnation, in the institution of the Church and its sacramental ministry, etc. Maybe someone could show me where I am wrong, but Louth's assessment, that it is more a difference in style than fundamental disagreement, seems right to me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The suffering God accepts you.

Arni Zachariassen recently posted a video of a group of people claiming that a deaf man was healed (again, I don't approve of the captions inserted by the person posting the video)

A couple of days later he posted some further thoughts, part of which I want to quote here:
What I find deeply distasteful is how in some of the churches where divine healing is so focused upon there is a perverse undercurrent of spiritual alienation for those perceived to be in need of it - those who are sick, but most profoundly, those who are disabled. Not only the obvious problem of why, if God wants everyone healthy, the sick and disabled remain sick and disabled, but the deeper problem of sick and disabled not being accepted as they are and always being (kept) a few steps away from full acceptance. Acceptance by God, by the church and by themselves. The bitter irony is that far from being actually healing, this conception of divine healing is deeply destructive.
I know this is true, not only because I spent the first 25 years of my life as a Pentecostal, but from experience with my Dad. For the last several years of his life he suffered from Hepatitis C, then died as a result of complications arising from a liver transplant. He had many people praying for him in all those years. He went forward for prayer in the times set aside for the anointing of the sick. None of it worked - and not due to any lack of sincerity or earnestness on his part or on the part of any of the people who lovingly and consistently prayed for him.

For a number of reasons Dad always had trouble believing God loved and accepted him - a feeling that was exacerbated by the sickness of his final years. He believed that his sickness was punishment sent by God for his past sins and, further, that God was refusing to heal him because of some continuing, unknown sin. I and others would talk to him about the grace and love of God and he'd feel better for a while. Then the dark thoughts would return.

I don't blame anyone particularly for my Dad's spiritual torment. And I know that no one wants to claim that the sick and disabled are somehow second-class Christians. Nevertheless, the emphasis on and the expectation of the miraculous - and, crucially, the requirements laid on those who need a miracle - inevitably leads to this sort of despair. I wish that churches who emphasize the miraculous could learn what Arni goes on to say, "Maybe God loves disabled bodies, as they are, and the acceptance of that love is the only healing needed."

I don't know what I believe about the miraculous, let alone why some experience miracles and others do not. Frankly, over the past few years I've run screaming away from any claims of healing or supernatural action. Now I find myself more willing to accept the idea of the mysterious action of God. (I am, for example, trying to keep an open mind as I've been reading about the saints and mystical theology lately.) I cannot and will not, however, accept the idea that if a person is not healed the fault lies with them. That is indeed damaging theology, as I have experienced firsthand.

The Gospel is far more important than any miraculous claims. God is not dangling carrots in front of you. God is not playing games with you. God loves you and accepts you, whatever the state of your health. If it is your lot to suffer then the God who suffered on the cross will be with you and somehow bring good out of evil.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The likelihood of various threats to the planet.

In yesterday's post I said that we can do serious damage to planet even if we can't literally destroy it. Lee passed on to me this post from Byron Smith in which he lists various threats to the planet and his estimation of their likelihood.
  1. Destruction of the planet itself: Well-nigh impossible.
  2. Destruction of all terrestrial life: Very difficult.
  3. Destruction of all human life: Difficult.
  4. Destruction of our civilisation and of the conditions under which large-scale human civilisation is possible: Possible.
  5. Significant decline in human population and/or biological diversity: Fairly likely over the long term on our present path.
  6. Downfall of/significant departure from the present mode of our society: Likely and probably imminent in the next few decades.
  7. The ongoing catastrophe of history that we call progress: Presently underway.
If these things come to pass it will be because of our failure with regard to our responsibility of mutual care, which includes the restraint of our appetites. These are moral, not merely technological, issues.

What can we do? Byron Smith has another post that points us in the right direction: "Twelve responses to converging crises".

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Does God's promise to Noah mean we can dismiss climate change warnings?

Three points:

1. As for the text itself, as @jrhermeneut said, God's talking about what he will or will not do - not what we might do.

2. I'm not aware of any climate change expert warning about the destruction of earth (except in maybe a hyperbolic way). Some of the possible effects are rising sea levels resulting in flooding, a rise in species extinctions due to habitat loss, more extreme weather patterns, etc. These things, in turn, will also have political and economic effects. So, no, we may not destroy the planet but we could seriously screw it up.

3. This line of reasoning (i.e., God says the planet won't be destroyed so we don't have to worry about the "doomsayers") could be used to justify any number of atrocities. We don't have to worry about destroying the planet so we shouldn't worry about pollution. We don't have to worry about destroying the planet so we shouldn't worry about using nuclear bombs. And so on.

This particular justification for dismissing the arguments for climate change doesn't work. In fact, it's an irresponsible way of forming environmental policy. Tragically, this guy is in the running for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Note: The title of the video above is the responsibility of the person who posted it to YouTube and doesn't reflect my own attitude.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We can't go on living this way.

Our most serious problem, perhaps, is that we have become a nation of fantasists. We believe, apparently, in the infinite availability of finite resources. We persist in land-use methods that reduce the potentially infinite power of soil fertility to a finite quantity, which we then proceed to waste is if it were an infinite quantity. We have an economy that depends not on the quality and quantity of necessary goods and services but on the moods of a few stockholders. We believe that democratic freedom can be preserved by people ignorant of the history of democracy and indifferent to the responsibilities of freedom.

Our leaders have been for many years as oblivious to the realities and dangers of their time as were George III and Lord North. They believe that the difference between war and peace is still the overriding political difference - when, in fact, the difference has diminished to the point of insignificance. How would you describe the difference between modern war and modern industry - between, say, bombing and strip mining, or between chemical warfare and chemical manufacturing? The difference seems to be only that in war the victimization of humans is directly intentional and in industry it is "accepted" as a "tradeoff".

Were the catastrophes of Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez episodes of war or of peace? They were, in fact, peacetime acts of aggression, intentional to the extent that the risks were known and ignored.

We are involved unremittingly in a war not against "foreign enemies," but against the world, against our freedom, and indeed against our existence. Our so-called industrial accidents should be looked upon as revenges of Nature. We forget that Nature is necessarily party to all our enterprises and that she imposes conditions of her own.

Now she is plainly saying to us: "If you put the fates of whole communities or cities or regions or ecosystems at risk in single ships or factories or power plants, then I will furnish the drunk or the fool or the imbecile who will make the necessary small mistake."
(Wendell Berry, "Word and Flesh" [1989], What are People For?)

It seems clear to me that our American lifestyle is unsustainable. There is a limited, nonrenewable quantity of oil in the world. We cannot, morally speaking, continue to exploit third world labor to produce our goods. There is a limit to the amount of land we can turn into trash dumps (unless we become truly obscene and start trashing up outer space). The litany is long and familiar.

There is a lot of concern right now about burdening future generations with national debt. Tragically, however, we don't hear much concern from our political leaders about passing on a damaged planet and a corrupt, unsustainable lifestyle. This is because politicians know that Americans don't want to hear that they cannot continue living as if the world is their playground. Left and right promise solutions that cause no pain and cost no money.

But, as Wendell Berry says in another place:
The problems are our lives. In the "developed" countries, at least, the large problems occur because all of us are living either partly wrong or almost entirely wrong. It was not just the greed of corporate shareholders and the hubris of corporate executives that put the fate of Prince William Sound into one ship; it was also our demand that energy be cheap and plentiful.

The economies of our communities and households are wrong. The answers to the human problems of ecology are found in economy. And the answers to the problems of economy are to be found in culture and in character. To fail to see this is to go on dividing the world falsely between guilty producers and innocent consumers.
There is, to be sure, a need for government action on these problems. But what we really need is a change in cultural values on the scale of what was brought about by the civil rights movement. There are, of course, racists remaining in our nation - but they are the objects of society's disapproval. We have come to understand that racism is evil.

If our future is going to be sustainable we will need to learn an ethic of care. Exploiters will continue to exist, of course, but they, like racists, must become the objects of society's disapproval. We must learn to see ourselves as members of a community that includes nature as well as other humans. What we really need is to learn to love others as ourselves, but I'd settle for an awareness of mutual responsibility.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The saints: Friends or patrons?

There is a lot in Elizabeth Johnson's Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading Of The Communion Of Saints. It touches on several aspects of eschatology in addition to its discussion of the communion of saints. For now, though, I want to focus on her essential distinction between the patronage model and the companionship model of the communion of saints.

By the fifth century, the Christian church had begun to adopt the Roman system of patronage as a way to understand the communion of saints. In this understanding the martyrs and saints were seen as patrons, that is, someone with special influence (because of the holiness of their life and/or their martyr's death) who could intercede with God on behalf of their client/petitioner. Over time - and for a variety of reasons - the saints became understanding and effective patrons who interceded with a remote, even judgmental, Christ. The saints were pictured as courtiers in a hierarchy of importance, headed by Mary, gathered around the throne of Christ. Each was thought to have their own sphere of influence ("patron saints"). Mutuality was obscured or even eliminated. There were the saints and there were the commoners on earth, appealing to their betters for a favor.

The Reformation criticized this model, particularly as it manifested itself in the invocation of saints. They claimed that it obscured Christ's role as mediator and, worse, "it distorts faith, turning the 'kindly Mediator' into a 'dreaded Judge'". Furthermore, they said, there is not scriptural warrant for it and no promise that the saints can hear the prayers. The conservative, Lutheran Reformation retained the practice of remembering and honoring (though not invoking) the saints for three purposes:

  • to thank God for them
  • to allow our faith to be strengthened by theirs
  • to imitate them
Vatican II, according to Johnson, brought reform to the doctrine of the communion of saints that was very much in line with the Reformation criticisms. Broadly speaking (see the book for all the details), it moved toward a companionship model for the communion of saints. It recognized that the saints were fellow travellers - paradigmatic, of course, but part of the whole people of God. Ordinary folks in their pursuit of sanctity in everyday life were part of this same fellowship called to holiness. The system became more Christ-centered.

The companionship model is what we see in the New Testament and, according to Johnson, was the dominant metaphor for the communion of saints before the patronage model took hold. The phrase "cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews is the classic statement of the companionship model.

Johnson says that there is room in the companionship model for invocation, though she stresses that even in Catholic theology this has never been required of laypeople. Her concern, however, is to encourage those practices amenable to a companionship model of the saints. We should remember the saints and imitate them. We should thank God for them. We should lament their sufferings, which in some cases will inspire us to work for justice in our world.

Johnson did not mount a defense (or even much of a discussion) of the practice of invocation. In fact, she de-emphasizes it. As I was reading I also began wondering about Eastern Orthodox practice. I know they invoke the saints but I do not know whether they adopted the patronage model or if they work from completely different principles. Neither Peter Brown nor Elizabeth Johnson address this.

Apart from the issue of invocation, though, this is an excellent book. For those who might be concerned with the feminist aspect, there is no need to worry. She does criticize the traditional, patronage model for, among other things, its patriarchalism. I believe many of her criticisms are valid. Even if I did not, however, the critical aspects are not dominant. It is a remarkably helpful book.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tolkien's tragic conservatism

As I've been rereading Lord of the Rings (for the third or fourth time) I've become aware of how deeply conservative it is. (Perhaps this is because I have myself become less conservative.)

The most telling characteristic is the pervasive sense of hierarchy. Most people seem to know their place, even the bad guys - though for them it's a more servile awareness. Women play almost no role in the books. The chief exception, of course, is Galadriel. Arwen, who plays a larger role in the movies, more or less stays home - literally - sewing. Examples could be multiplied but I don't think it's necessary.

To my mind, its more distinctly conservative feature is its sense of loss and the diminishing course of history. Everywhere the travelers find signs of a lost, nobler age. Those with the greatest knowledge of the past - the elves - are the characters that elicit (in me, anyway) a sense of pathos or, more accurately, sehnsucht. They're painfully beautiful, especially because they know their time is passing away. The happiest of Middle Earth's folk are the hobbits, who have very little knowledge of history or the goings-on of the world around them. The wise are those who know that theirs is a lesser age.

This is encapsulated perfectly in Galadriel's idea of "the long defeat". The battle against evil is not a straightforward story of mounting victories. The number of defeats is large, perhaps larger than the number of victories. And even those victories are not complete. Evil is never fully defeated. The great battle between Sauron and the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, which looms large in the background of the story, isn't decisive. Sauron's spirit lives on and Isildur, who takes the One Ring, is overcome by temptation and refuses to destroy it. For those who fight the long defeat, battles must be fought without expectation of victory. It's not hard to make the connection to the conservative side of the culture wars.

All of this resonates with cultural and "temperamental" conservatives. Maybe not so much for mainstream conservatives, tied as they are to the fortunes of electoral politics. I suspect those types are less truly conservative than the cultural or temperamental conservatives anyway. Tolkien's conservatism is not that of the Tea Party or the neoconservatives. It's much more akin to the conservatism of Wendell Berry, who once said that he is one who mourns for what is lost. It's a tragic conservatism. I don't much admire the rigid hierarchy of Tolkien's work, but there remains in it what Lewis described as "beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Does resurgent polytheism explain the rise of the cult of the saints?

A confession: I have always assumed that the cult of the saints was a resurgence of polytheism within Christianity. Turns out, Peter Brown tells me, I'm not only wrong but I got that idea from David Hume.

In The Natural History of Religion, Hume argued that monotheism is not humanity's natural religious impulse. Monotheism is, rather, an intellectual achievement resulting from a coherent and rational view of the universe. It is also always in danger of the corrupting influence of "the vulgar" - that mass of humanity that is incapable (for a variety of reasons) of such intellectual achievement. The history of religious thought is the story of the oscillation between the intellectual and the vulgar. Edward Gibbon picked up this idea from Hume and from there it became part of the intellectual furniture of modern people (including me, who have never read Hume or Gibbon at any length).

This "two-tiered" model has as one of its premises that popular religion is an unchanging collection of prejudices and superstitions permanently lodged in the brains of the unsophisticated. The religion of the intellectuals may change, but the religion of the vulgar does not. Another premise of the model is that changes in religious beliefs or practices can often be explained by changes in the power dynamics between the elites and the masses, e.g., polytheism increases as the masses grow more powerful (or the elites grow weaker).

It's easy to see how this model has been applied to the rise of the cult of the saints. One theory is that the elites lost much of their power in the crisis of the third century, which opened the way for superstitious fears and practices. Another theory is that mass conversions when Christianity was made the state religion forced the leadership to accept the pagan practices that the new converts brought with them. Whatever theory is correct, the idea is that the power of popular religion increased and the cult of the saints (as a form of polytheism, ancestor worship, etc) rose with it.

But what is known about the history of the cult of the saints does not conform to this model. First, as to the question of elites versus the masses, the Christian leaders knew that when they were formulating dogmas that many of the laypeople would find them difficult to understand. On the other hand, both the elites and the regular folk shared religious practices. There was no significant difference based on class or education. Bishops celebrated masses in the presence of holy graves and relics (something that was deeply disturbing to non-Christians - but more on that momentarily). In fact, the importance of holy graves was something that distinguished Latin Christianity from both Judaism and Islam. There were holy graves in Judaism and Islam, of course, and they were important - but they were to the side, so to speak, of mainstream belief and practice. They were never fully embraced by the religious leadership. That tension did not exist in Latin Christianity.

More importantly, though, the cult of the saints - far from being a resurgence of popular religion - represented a distinct break from traditional Mediterranean beliefs and practices concerning the dead. Brown describes those beliefs in this way:
One thing can be said with certainty about the religion of the late-antique Mediterranean: while it may not have been markedly more "otherworldy," it was most emphatically "upperworldy." Its starting point was belief in a fault that ran across the face of the universe. Above the moon, the divine quality of the universe was shown in the untarnished stability of the stars. The earth lay beneath the moon, in sentina mundi - so many dregs at the bottom of a clear glass. Death could mean the crossing of that fault. At death, the soul would separate from a body compounded of earthly dregs, and would gain, or regain, a place intimately congruent with its true nature above the earth in the heavy clusters of the Milky Way. Whether this was forever, or, as Jews and Christians hoped, only for the long hiatus before the resurrection of the dead, the dead body joined in the instability and opacity of the world beneath the moon, while the soul enjoyed the unmovable clarity of the remainder of the universe.
As Brown states, Christians also held this belief about the "fault line". The graves of the martyrs and saints, however, were places of contact between heaven and earth. The departed saint was believed to be specially present at the grave, as proven by the presence of a quality of holiness and power characteristic of the saint. The belief of the masses was that heaven and earth did not join in this way. The Greek and Roman cult of the heroes (to which the cult of the saints is often compared) isn't even that similar. The worship of the gods was kept distinct from the cult of the heroes, unlike in Christianity. And for Christians, it was precisely because the departed were human beings with a close relationship with God that they were effective intercessors for the living. That is an idea utterly foreign to the cult of the heroes.

The cult of the saints, which involved physical veneration of relics and bodies, also violated common taboos against the touching of dead things. Cemeteries were often located outside cities because the people wanted to keep the dead at a distance. Christians, on the other hand, started building shrines in the middle of these cemeteries, sometimes to the extent that they became cities outside of the cities. "Tomb and altar were joined." Shrines and graves of the saints became public places, as opposed to the common belief that graves were private places for the family of the deceased.

The cult of the saints, therefore, was neither a point of tension between Christian elites and commoners nor was it a resurgence of the "religion of the vulgar". Now, whether we accept the cult of the saints is another question - but at least we can be reasonably sure it wasn't mere polytheism.

Hopefully I'll have more to say on this subject as I make my way through the book.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Relinquish triumphalistic dreams

Douglas John Hall, "Cross and Context":
Instead of waiting for wave after wave of militant secularism, materialism, atheism, etc., aided and abetted by the growing public awareness of religious plurality, to wash over them, the churches should take the initiative in their own disestablishment. Instead of clinging to absurd and outmoded visions of grandeur, which were never Christ's intention for his church, serious Christian communities ought now to relinquish triumphalistic dreams of majority status and influence in high places and ask themselves about the possibilities of witnessing to God's justice and love from the edges of empire—which is where prophetic religion has always lived. Instead of mourning their losses or naively hoping for their recovery, Christians who are serious about their faith ought to ask themselves why all the metaphors Jesus uses to depict his "little flock" are metaphors of smallness: salt, yeast, light — small things that can serve larger causes because they do not aim to become big themselves. I loved what a onetime fellow student at Union Seminary, Albert van den Heuvel, once wrote: "The real humiliation of the church is its refusal to be humiliated!"

Such a message, which is of course nothing more nor less than the application of the theology of the cross to ecclesiology, is largely still an unwelcome one in churches that not long ago were at the center of things. But it remains, I believe, the existential challenge of the present and future. The greatest dangers to human welfare in today's global village are all of them products of, or backed by, religions driven by immodest claims to ultimacy. A Christianity that still hankers after Christendom, as nearly all of us did until quite recently, can only increase the reign of death that is tearing our planet apart. Only a nontriumphalistic Christianity, an ecclesia crucis, can contribute to the healing of the nations.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Religious reading vs. consumerist reading

In Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion, Paul J. Griffiths differentiates between religious reading and consumerist reading.

Consumerist readers "treat what they read only as objects for consumption, to be discarded when the end for which they were read has been achieved". Griffiths offers modern academic reading as an example:
Academic readers consume the works of others and produce their own; they are defined and given status by the body of literature they control and upon which they are accredited to give authoritative (expert) voice for proper reward; they cite and mention (rather than religiously read), and are in turn judged largely by the extent to which the works they produce (again, the industrial metaphor, the image of mass production) are cited and mentioned.
As you'd guess, Griffiths' book is a jeremiad (his word) snuck in under the respectable imprint of Oxford University Press. He makes it clear that he believes consumerist reading is destructive.

Religious reading, says Griffiths, "has to do primarily with the establishment of certain relations between readers and the things they read". Religious reading treats its object with reverence, as an inexhaustible treasure house which continually yields new objects of wonder and "always precedes, exceeds, and in the end supersedes its readers". Religious readers "are seen as intrinsically capable of reading and as morally required to read". The metaphors here are not industrial, but biological, e.g., rumination, eating, digesting.
For the religious reader, the work read is an object of overpowering delight and great beauty. It can never be discarded because it can never be exhausted. It can only be reread, with reverence and ecstasy.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Jesus is black

Apparently Glenn Beck went off on liberation theology a few months ago. I honestly couldn't care less what he says. It did, however, result in a good article discussing black liberation theology in The Other Journal.

To be clear, I know very little about liberation theology, particularly about black liberation theology. I have an introduction to liberation theology I plan to read sometime soon, but I'm not well-informed here. What interested me was James Cone's idea that Jesus is black.

David Horstkoetter, the author of the linked article, says that Cone was talking about "ontological blackness", not skin pigmentation. As the Suffering Servant, Jesus is "an oppressed being" - and "if Jesus were living in the United States in 1970 when Cone wrote A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone is saying that Jesus would be black, not white. It was blacks who underwent (and arguably still do) the oppression, sexual humiliation, and lynching that are all too similar to Roman occupation and crucifixion." Historically, Jesus was Jewish - but, more importantly, he was God come to identify with humanity, particularly the poor, the sinful, and the outcast. He rejected wealth and good reputation in favor of a life of social inferiority and subjection to imperial power. Given the historical status of African Americans, it is easy to see Cone's point.

This is a powerful image to me. It brings Jesus into our time by using modern analogies. It has become easy for me, as a white American man, to forget that Jesus is of "The Other". I have all the privileges and luxuries of a Roman citizen in Jesus' day. How would I have reacted to Jesus, a poor, would-be Messiah from a Roman province? If Jesus came today rather than two thousand years ago, how would I react to him if he came as an African American man?

Jesus is black. Maybe I'll buy one of those "ethnic nativity scenes" for Christmas this year to help me remember.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: The Fundamental Values of Social Life

This will be the final post in the series on Catholic social teaching. There is much more to the Compendium, but I'm going to set it aside for the time being.

Underneath all the principles of Catholic social teaching are the fundamental values of truth, freedom, justice, and love.

Men and women have the specific duty to move always towards the truth, to respect it and bear responsible witness to it. Living in the truth has special significance in social relationships. In fact, when the coexistence of human beings within a community is founded on truth, it is ordered and fruitful, and it corresponds to their dignity as persons.
Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person. "Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person". The meaning of freedom must not be restricted, considering it from a purely individualistic perspective and reducing it to the arbitrary and uncontrolled exercise of one's own personal autonomy: "Far from being achieved in total self-sufficiency and the absence of relationships, freedom only truly exists where reciprocal bonds, governed by truth and justice, link people to one another". The understanding of freedom becomes deeper and broader when it is defended, even at the social level, in all of its various dimensions.
Justice is a value that accompanies the exercise of the corresponding cardinal moral virtue. According to its most classic formulation, it "consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour". From a subjective point of view, justice is translated into behaviour that is based on the will to recognize the other as a person, while, from an objective point of view, it constitutes the decisive criteria of morality in the intersubjective and social sphere.
Understanding the nature of humanity enables us to move beyond a "contractualistic vision of justice, which is a reductionistic vision". We must add to justice love - which is to say, in the social setting, solidarity. This is the way to achieve peace. "The goal of peace, in fact, 'will certainly be achieved through the putting into effect of social and international justice, but also through the practice of the virtues which favour togetherness, and which teach us to live in unity, so as to build in unity, by giving and receiving, a new society and a better world'."

The Way of Love
It is from the inner wellspring of love that the values of truth, freedom and justice are born and grow.
Love goes beyond justice. Justice alone can lead to its own destruction. Only love is "capable of restoring man to himself".
No legislation, no system of rules or negotiation will ever succeed in persuading men and peoples to live in unity, brotherhood and peace; no line of reasoning will ever be able to surpass the appeal of love. Only love, in its quality as "form of the virtues", can animate and shape social interaction, moving it towards peace in the context of a world that is ever more complex.
Love must not be limited to interactions between individuals. It must work for the common good, i.e., it must love the neighbor as he or she is found "in society".
To love him on the social level means, depending on the situations, to make use of social mediations to improve his life or to remove social factors that cause his indigence. It is undoubtedly an act of love, the work of mercy by which one responds here and now to a real and impelling need of one's neighbour, but it is an equally indispensable act of love to strive to organize and structure society so that one's neighbour will not find himself in poverty, above all when this becomes a situation within which an immense number of people and entire populations must struggle, and when it takes on the proportions of a true worldwide social issue.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: Solidarity

People in the modern world are interconnected in ways previously impossible - through technology, commerce, etc. - yet inequality persists. These inequalities must be met by the moral force of solidarity. The possibilities for interdependence created by technology and commerce must be used to achieve "relationships tending towards genuine ethical-social solidarity", which can transform "structures of sin" into "structures of solidarity".

Solidarity is far more than a "feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far". It is a "firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all".

Solidarity is key to the realization of the goals of Catholic social teaching. It is "a virtue directed par excellence to the common good, and is found in a commitment to the good of one's neighbour with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to 'lose oneself' for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to 'serve him' instead of oppressing him for one's own advantage (cf. Mt 10:40-42, 20:25; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:25-27)". It is the recognition and strengthening of the common ties that already exist between people. It is the realization that we are all debtors to the society in which we belong. We are the beneficiaries of a wealth of knowledge and culture, which we are obligated to maintain, increase, and pass on to those who follow us.

Our example here, of course, is Jesus:
The unsurpassed apex of the perspective indicated here is the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the New Man, who is one with humanity even to the point of "death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). In him it is always possible to recognize the living sign of that measureless and transcendent love of God-with-us, who takes on the infirmities of his people, walks with them, saves them and makes them one. In him and thanks to him, life in society too, despite all its contradictions and ambiguities, can be rediscovered as a place of life and hope, in that it is a sign of grace that is continuously offered to all and because it is an invitation to ever higher and more involved forms of sharing.

Jesus of Nazareth makes the connection between solidarity and charity shine brightly before all, illuminating the entire meaning of this connection: "In the light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimensions of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation. One's neighbour is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit. One's neighbour must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person's sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one's life for the brethren (cf. 1 Jn 3:16)".
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Monday, September 13, 2010

Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: Participation

Returning to my long-neglected series. The next principle of Catholic social teaching is participation, and it derives from the principle of subsidiarity. Participation is "expressed essentially in a series of activities by means of which the citizen, either as an individual or in association with others, whether directly or through representation, contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs. Participation is a duty to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good" (section 189).

If the common good is to be achieved then it is important that people do not restrict their participation to certain areas of social life. This is especially true of the disadvantaged, because of the danger that those with power may try to establish "hidden privileges".

The participation of citizens, of course, is essential for the health of democratic societies. In turn, every level of society must ensure that each of its constituents is heard.
The overcoming of cultural, juridical and social obstacles that often constitutes real barriers to the shared participation of citizens in the destiny of their communities' calls for work in the areas of information and education. In this regard, all those attitudes that encourage in citizens an inadequate or incorrect practice of participation or that cause widespread disaffection with everything connected with the sphere of social and political life are a source of concern and deserve careful consideration. For example, one thinks of attempts by certain citizens to "make deals" with institutions in order to obtain more advantageous conditions for themselves, as though these institutions were at the service of their selfish needs; or of the practice of citizens to limit their participation to the electoral process, in many cases reaching the point where they even abstain from voting.

In the area of participation, a further source of concern is found in those countries ruled by totalitarian or dictatorial regimes, where the fundamental right to participate in public life is denied at its origin, since it is considered a threat to the State itself. In some countries where this right is only formally proclaimed while in reality it cannot be concretely exercised while, in still other countries the burgeoning bureaucracy de facto denies citizens the possibility of taking active part in social and political life. (section 191)
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Friday, August 13, 2010

Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: Subsidiarity

The principle of subsidiarity says that "all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help ("subsidium") — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place" (section 186). Or, in the more straightforward words of the ever-trusty Wikipedia, "matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority."

The "intermediate social entities" are those organizations that grow naturally out of the social, economic, and political interactions of people:
This is the realm of civil society, understood as the sum of the relationships between individuals and intermediate social groupings, which are the first relationships to arise and which come about thanks to "the creative subjectivity of the citizen". This network of relationships strengthens the social fabric and constitutes the basis of a true community of persons, making possible the recognition of higher forms of social activity. (section 185)
Subsidiarity has both positive and negative senses. In the positive sense, larger entities should offer whatever assistance is necessary for smaller entities to flourish. In the negative sense, larger entities must not do anything that would prevent the smaller entities from flourishing. "The principle of subsidiarity protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfil their duties" (section 187).

A denial of the principle of subsidiarity "limits and sometimes even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative", which is why it is "opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms" (section 187).
In order for the principle of subsidiarity to be put into practice there is a corresponding need for: respect and effective promotion of the human person and the family; ever greater appreciation of associations and intermediate organizations in their fundamental choices and in those that cannot be delegated to or exercised by others; the encouragement of private initiative so that every social entity remains at the service of the common good, each with its own distinctive characteristics; the presence of pluralism in society and due representation of its vital components; safeguarding human rights and the rights of minorities; bringing about bureaucratic and administrative decentralization; striking a balance between the public and private spheres, with the resulting recognition of the social function of the private sphere; appropriate methods for making citizens more responsible in actively "being a part" of the political and social reality of their country. (section 187)
Various circumstances may require that the State step into what would otherwise be the functions of the smaller entities, e.g., to stimulate the economy or to address issues of injustice. "In light of the principle of subsidiarity, however, this institutional substitution must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, since justification for such intervention is found only in the exceptional nature of the situation" (section 188).

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
Wikipedia entry on subsidiarity

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.

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