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.

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.