Monday, March 28, 2011

I Am: Identity in Submission

Deacon Ordination by Eric Stoltz
Used under CC BY-SA 2.5 (Wikipedia)
Over at Political Jesus, Rod wrote a fantastic post entitled In Christ, neither Mainline or Sectarian: On Ecumenism & Identity: Towards a Postcolonial Orthopraxis of Reconciliation. In the post, Rod grounds the catholic nature of the church in Christ's physical resurrected body, saying, "Our unity in Christ is not the denial of bodily existence, but about the participation in the life of God Incarnate." I would add to this, as I have discussed before, that we come into this unity through the confession of the creed.1

However, a potential problem was raised by Rod himself in the comments, how do we avoid catholic Christianity becoming "another form of consumerism." That is, how do we avoid our choice of denomination becoming merely a form of branding? I wear Nike, you wear Adidas. I'm an Anglican, you're a Lutheran. If this is our approach, then our ecumenism, in attempting to affirm the unity and community of the Christian faith, becomes instead an affirmation of individualism and appetite.

The question itself came up when another writer at Political Jesus, Amanda, questioned hybrid terms of Christian faith "Bapti-costal; Congre-costal; Anglo-Lutheran; Pente-Catho; Cal-minian, etc. It’s like dogs. Once you have to hyphenate what they are, just call them a 'mutt.'"

In other words, how is a mixed denominational identity any identity at all? To a very great degree, I sympathize with this view, and the reason for that sympathy is tied into why I think we can have ecumenism without Christianity becoming pure commercialism.

I think that the answer to this lies in submission. As Christians, we submit ourselves to streams within the catholic tradition. So, example, I am an Anglican. In our submission, we take both the good and the bad of our stream. We take on its practices, it accomplishments and even its guilt. Thus, I can be proud of the fact that C.S. Lewis is an Anglican, but I also take on the responsibility for the martyring of Roman Catholic brethren at the hands of Anglicans.

Even if I do not understand a position of my stream, in entering into the denominational body I submit to it. For example, I do not understand the Anglican position that only a priest in the apostolic succession can bless the Eucharist, I nevertheless submit to it in praxis. I am an Anglican and I am not a priest, so I will not consecrate the elements.

It is because of this submission that consumeristic individualism is avoided. Because I have to take the good with the bad, it is not all about me. My identity becomes part of another identity.

This isn't to say the individual is completely subsumed by his denominational identity. Any individual is going to have things on which they differ from their denomination, and that's fine to a point.

For one, I think an individual is always free to critique her denomination, and seek change in it, so long as she remains in reasonable submission to its traditions while she remains a part of it. Tradition is a thing always in flux, and one should not think of submission to it in a static manner.

To bring Wittgenstein in again, any term is going to have "fuzzy" areas around the edge. At the same time, there is a point at which a thing can no longer be sensibly referred to by that term. A Roman Catholic who uses birth control is still Roman Catholic, but one who takes communion at a protestant church, rejects transubstantiation, apostolic succession, and the authority of the Pope, cannot rightly be called Roman Catholic.

Thus, there is a point at which one breaks with submission to one's denomination, though remaining part of the creedal body of which it itself is a part. I especially think this should be done if one comes to see some of its practices as grossly immoral (see for example Sinéad O'Connor's call for a new Roman Catholic Church).

What, then, of hybrids? Again, my first inclination, along with Amanda, would be to call them mutts. However, I think there is an answer to this, and the answer lies in why we submit to a denomination. The goal is always Christ. The Christian life is to seek fidelity to Christ, and to try and bring others as close to Him as we are able. We all do this, ultimately, by joining into His body by way of the creed. As part of this process we inevitably submit to a tradition, but that tradition can be that of the independent Christian. That is, we can come to think the best way to be in fidelity with Christ is actualizing ourselves through our own understanding of scripture, and acting what we think to be the best example of Christian life. We can decide that being a Pentecostal Presbyterian, as Eugene Peterson calls himself, is the best way for us to seek fidelity with Christ.2 I don't necessarily think this is the best tradition to submit to, but it is a tradition within our faith nonetheless.

In summary, we are Christians by our participation in His body, through our affirmation of the creed and in submission to a tradition, the end of which is always fidelity to Christ. It is in our submission to a tradition that consumeristic individualism is avoided, though paradoxically that tradition can be one of individual judgment.

1.More specifically, it is the capacity to recite the creed. Not all orthodox Christians actively recite the creed as part of their tradition, but all can affirm the creed.
2. Another interesting thing, though not what I'm dealing with in this post, is the overlap of different descriptors in Christianity. There's high church or low church, apostolic or non-apostolic, various denominations, etc. and these don't necessarily seem to me to fulfill the same grammatical "space."

Saturday, March 26, 2011


The following poem is one which came to me suddenly last night as I contemplated questions of identity. These poems that come, that birth themselves, are my favorite.


he is that I am.
I am
that I am not
emptied like a chalice
upon the ground.
a libation

unto him
I am

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hail Mary, Full of Grace

Annunciation by Carvagion
Wikimedia Commons

Mary the Mother of God. Today is the Annunciation. Today is her day. As someone still feeling his way into the world of the liturgical church, this is something very new to me. But I think it's important, so I asked my friend Fernando, who has always been better at sacrament than me, to do a guest post. This post is for me, and for all those like me who don't get Mary. So, without further ado, Fernando:

During the Lenten season, it’s important that — in addition to praying for the end of suffering in the world — we focus our attentions on the work of Christ. While Easter may be proof of his divinity, the Passion seem evidence of his humanity. Indeed, it was necessary that Christ be human, for it is humans who suffer. And one cannot contemplate Christ’s humanity without contemplating the Annunciation. I’ve already posted some thoughts on the Annunciation on my own blog, but those were focusing on Gabriel’s role. This time, I turn to Mary.

I’ve long been persuaded of the belief that the acts of Christ is best though of as a single, whole work; in my mind the Incarnation, Baptism, Teaching, Miracles, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus are as intertwined as the persons of the Trinity are. But also intertwined with those, are the sorrows and joys of Mary: hearing the angel announce the pregnancy. The pain of childbirth. The rejection of her son by the people he was trying to reach. Seeing him after the resurrection. Being present at Pentecost.

Protestants are bad at Mary. Too often Christians just don’t know what to do with her. In response to the abuses that lead to the Reformation, we have become so afraid of Mariolatry that instead we say nothing at all about the Mother of God. Even that phrase, “Mother of God,” has a bad reputation among some circles for being idolatrous.

But it’s true.

We cannot separate Jesus’s humanity from his divinity. God became a man. God fasted and was hungry. God suffered and was cold. God’s feet hurt. God was whipped and beaten and nailed to a tree.

God died.

For Christianity to be true, all of those statements must be said. It’s the essential core of our faith, that God became flesh and dwelt among us as emmanuel. So here’s one more necessary truth: if God died, God was born. Therefore, if God was born, God had a mother. Yet even this simple title is denied by some. As a child, I was told that Mary was not the mother of God: she was the mother of Jesus’s human part, but not of God. As though they were separate! Or “human Jesus” and “God Jesus” had different beings instead of one person! I think people are uncomfortable with the title because they think it implies that Mary is the mother of the Father: Mary can be the mother of Jesus, sure, but not the mother of God. But this is a problem too: the Father is God. The Son is God. The Son is not less God than the Father. The Son became human, in becoming human, the Son has a mother. And so, whatever the reason may be, denying the Theotokos flirts dangerously close to any number of Trinitarian heresies.

In all our post-Reformation hesitation about Mary, we should remember that the words —
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed be the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus —
all come from the gospel of Luke. It is not the Roman Catholic Church, but from the Bible that we hear that all generations will call Mary blessed (St. Luke i.48). The Word of God, from the very cross itself, commands us to behold our mother (St. John xix.27).

How then do we honor Mary, without worshiping her?

God became a human. As I said, that is the heart of Christianity. And mysteriously, Mary is integral to that. In contemplating her relationship to the Godhead, we realize many things about the faith itself — or realize, at least, how little we can understand.

Dante, naturally, stated the mystery best:

“Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
      humbler and loftier past creation’s measure,
      the fulcrum of the ever lasting plain,
You are she who ennobled human nature
      so highly, that its Maker did not scorn
      to make Himself the Creature of His creature”
                                                  (Paradiso 33, 1-6)

There is so much paradox in Mary, but then there is so much paradox in the Incarnation as a whole. Dante can see it, even in the familiar paradox we hardly even notice anymore. Virgin mother. But also the more subtle position of Mary before God. Mary is necessary for God to enter this physical, temporal, fleshly reality. The walls of her womb are the first thing Jesus sees. Consequently, Mary becomes something like the firstfruits of Christianity, the first human to represent humanity before the God-man. Up to the Ascension, Mary was the penultimate priest of humanity.

And in her position standing before God, there’s another truth about Mary that is the simplest, but hardest to wrap our heads around: Mary loves God more than you or I do, maybe more than is possible.

All of us can say with the apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” when we contemplate Christ. We can even say along with John that we are the one Jesus loved. At our most holy, perhaps we can even dare to say of Jesus that we are our Beloved’s, and our Beloved is ours.

But none of us, ever, will be able to say of Christ, “my son.” If we could witness the Crucifixion, as life-shatteringly painful as it might be for us, it could not compare with the real pain she felt. When the nails pierced his skin, a sword pierced her heart.

And — making the hopefully uncontroversial assumption that Jesus was a good son — God has a special love for Mary. We are the Father’s children and Jesus’s siblings, by adoption, but few among us can claim to be Christ’s family by blood. We can only imagine what Jesus sees when he looks at her.

Not that we should be jealous. Faith is as important as blood, and we must remember we have our own special place in Christ’s heart: and it’d be very immature for any Bride to be jealous of the Bridegroom’s love for his mother.

She is one of us, too, after all, a witness to the resurrection and present at Pentecost.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

God's Will is Not a Triangle

William M. Connolley at the English language Wikipedia
[GFDL (]
 via Wikimedia Commons
I used to be to be an open theist.

I'm not anymore, and I decided I should do a series of posts as to why. Let me be clear, I think open theism is a valid interpretation of the Christian creed and narrative. I just think it's wrong.

One of the more prominent open theists is Greg Boyd. Though I often disagree with him, I think he's a fantastic theologian, so I follow his blog. Recently, he did a review of The Adjustment Bureau, and used it as an opportunity to discuss his views on divine sovereignty. During the review he said the following:
Indeed, both groups often wallow in the “mystery” (nonsense, in my opinion) of how determinism and free will are “two sides of the same coin.” ... free choices can’t be predetermined for the same reason triangles cannot be round and bachelors cannot be married.
That is basically true when things are put in those terms, but it's also a bit of a straw man. Specifically, in using the terms determinism and free will, Greg Boyd sets up two terms which are, it is true, definitionally opposed. This isn't, however, what those who advocate a "mystery" approach to the relationship between divine and human will are talking about. The divine will controls what happens in the world, we also, in some sense choose. To speak of our choice being logically determined by God's will is to miss the point of the mystery.

To understand this, let's look at one of the parallel examples Boyd gives - the round square. Generally speaking, Christian theologians have held that it would be impossible for God to create a round triangle. God is omnipotent true, but that doesn't mean He can do what is logically impossible. Or, put another way, the round triangle is nonsensical. It doesn't even make sense to ask if God could make it. The definition of triangle excludes round, and vis versa.

On face value, the same thing happens when we talk about wills. If I will to walk down the street, and you will to stop me, only one of us can get our way. Insofar as we understand wills, they can only be compatible if they are both going in the same direction

If God wills that I stop typing right now, and I will that I continue, only one of us can get our way, presumably God, since He is the omnipotent one. How then, is this any different than the case of the triangle? To answer this, I'll have to draw on the resources of Medieval Philosophy.

You see, the Medievals had a very robust doctrine of God's transcendence, perhaps sometimes a bit too robust. The question was, if God is so transcendent, how do we talk about Him? Various answers were given to this, and Thomas Aquinas's is one of my favorites.

Aquinas, borrowing from Aristotle, spoke of the different ways words can predicate. That is, the different ways in which a words can be applied to things. The first of these is univocal predication. When we univocally predicate, we apply the same word to two different things in the same way. When I say I am an animal, and the cow out by the roadside is an animal, I mean the same thing by animal.

Equivocal predication involves things like homonyms. We equivocally predicate "bank" of the side of a river and the financial institution.

Finally, there is analogical predication. A lecture I heard from historian of philosophy Thomas Williams put it this way. Imagine we're at a party, I take you over to someone and introduce him as "my rommate." Now imagine, instead, there is a picture open on my computer screen of a person, you point to it and as "who is that?" and I tell you "my roommate." The same predicate is being used in both cases, but it is being used slightly differently. In the first, the word directly refers to my roommate. In the second, it refers to a picture and through that picture to my roommate.

According to Aquinas, whenever we predicate things of God, we do so analogically. Our understanding of things is derived from the world, and so the meanings of our words derive from that world. God, on the other hand, transcends that world and cannot be spoken of rightly with the same words we speak of that world about. At the same time, that world was created by Him, and nothing exists apart from Him, and so we can speak of him in this analogical way.

The problem with the round triangle is that roundness and triangleness are two things existing in the same space, we're speaking of shape univocally when we talk about them. But things don't work that way with God, or His will. God's will is like our will, but just how that functions is a mystery. That what happens in the world is God's willing, and also our willing, is not impossible, because we do not mean the same thing when we speak of will in each case.

Small Blog Change

Those of you who follow my blog may have noticed that I tend to tag my post titles with their subject, such as "Theology: Lent Rocks" or some such. There were reasons for this, but I've decided it's time for them to be retired. A big reason for this is that the subjects I talk about, philosophy, politics, etc. are more and more starting to blur together. So, from this point forward, those title tags will no longer occur. This I decree.

Theology (Guest Post): We Believe, We Acknowledge, We Look

By Ingersoll
 via Wikimedia Commons
I've been thinking a lot about what makes the church Christian. What is it that separates the line between orthodoxy and heresy? This was not simply a reflection of current events, but those events have certainly had an effect on it.

Last week, I wrote a post on the subject. That post came out of a conversation I had been having with my roommate Josh, in which I had used Wittgenstein to elucidate my understanding of the creed. Josh, who's blog you can find here, expressed similar ideas, but did it through Heidegger. I asked him to do a guest post on the subject as a follow up to my post. This is it.

We Believe, We Acknowledge, We Look: the Nicene Creed as Dwelling by Joshua David Charles

“Building is really dwelling.” With this simple mantra Martin Heidegger in his later essay Building Dwelling Thinking poetically meditates on how building things, building our dwelling places (homes, offices, metro stations, etc.), is already dwelling. That is, in this world, we are creatures who dwell, and we primarily dwell by making things to dwell in. Heidegger intends this in a broad sense—we dwell not just in our homes but also in our workplace and in our work, in art, in thought. Building things, whether that’s an actual home or any construction (systems of thought, class systems, artworks, social roles, anything really) is our primary way of dwelling in this world—our primary way of making ourselves comfortable, making this “place” a home.

Heidegger goes on to elucidate how any building, and therefore anything, is a site of dwelling. He uses the example of a bridge and defines its capacity as a dwelling point by how it gathers—namely, how “the bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.” Before there was a bridge, there was no site for a bridge—these two emerged contemporaneously. Before, there were two strips of land and a stream that were in no way connected, nor disconnected; they were simply there. However, once the bridge began being built, the location at the same time started becoming a site. Suddenly the two strips of land became disconnected and “needed” a bridge in that “location.” What was once nothing becomes a thing—a site of dwelling:
“Before the bridge stands, there are of course many spots along the stream that can be occupied by something. One of them proves to be a location and does so because of the bridge. Thus the bridge does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.”

All fine and good. But what does this have to do with creeds? Well, the Nicene creed is such a site of dwelling, such a location that gathers what appear to be disparate elements of faith into one concise whole. Rightly speaking, there was no “outside” of the creed, i.e. heresy, until there was a creed as a location, just as there was no stream to be crossed until there was a bridge. There was no concise narrative of the “Christian faith” until there was a creed to articulate it—that is, these ideas emerged contemporaneously, just like the building and the dwelling-ness of the bridge emerged contemporaneously. There was no apostolic church, no catholicity, no spirit which bound these together, and no “looking for the resurrection of the dead” until there was the Nicene creed which allowed these things to emerge as such. Creeds, in short, gather disparate ideas and snippets of faith into a whole, a unity, in order that these things might emerge as doctrinal and orthodox—in order that the creed might gather those who speak it into a unity and a whole.

Just as building reveals itself to already be a kind of dwelling, so too we find ourselves dwelling with others by speaking the creed. We share a site with them, inhabit a space, side-by-side. This happens regardless of what interpretation we have of the creed we share—because it is not in our thoughts or beliefs about the bridge that we dwell in it (although our beliefs and thoughts matter), but in our mutual building of it, in our crossing of it. It is by saying a creed together that we inhabit the same religious site. It is in the speaking that the creed becomes what it is and we become what we are as those who speak it. It is in the building, in the speaking, we find a home.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Theology: The Right Way to Critique Rob Bell

Image from
There's sure been a lot of noise on the blogosphere this last week over Rob Bell's new book Love Wins. As those of you who follow this blog know, I've done my own part to contribute to that noise. My contribution has been in defense of Bell too. Not in defense of his positions, with which I don't agree, but defense of his validity against the accusations otherwise.

But I'm not in Bell's camp, if by that you mean I accept his theological position. I think good, honest critiques of Bell are called for. Not because he threatens to chop down the cross, as some seem to fear, but because we're all trying to get a bit closer to God.

John Mark Reynolds, over at First Things, wrote a post critiquing Rob Bell. And it's good. Here's a bit of what he says:

No means no, sometimes forever, and God is a great enough lover to know it.

I have never experienced greater pain than hearing “no” from someone I loved. Friends have heard “no” from spouses and that “no” never changed. Remarriage made reconciliation impossible, forever impossible, and these friends had to go on with life.

The hardest “no” I ever heard plunged me into depression and pain. There was no happy ending to that particular story, there could be no happy ending to that particular story. Love, however, found a way to heal me. The particular pain left scars, but the scars attracted pity. Pity gave me hope and hope led me to a new love.

Old loves have to die in the face of a “no” so that new loves can be born.

We only have analogies to understand the love of God. In his new book dealing with the after life, Rob Bell suggests that the best story of love is one that never gives up . . . that never takes “no” as “no,” but this is quite wrong. The best lover allows the beloved to go and knows that sometimes “no” is forever. 
You can read the rest of his article here.

No cries of heresy, no alarmism over the end of the Gospel, no false dilemmas.

Just good, reasonable, kind discussion of love. He meets Bell on his terms, shows where he's lacking, and does it with charity and grace. Moreover, his critique of Bell's book is larger than just the book, it's a lesson people can take away with them. It's a lesson that could transform a life.

Thanks John Mark Reynolds.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Theology: The Sacramental Horror of the Eucharist

By Hieronymus Bosch
via Wikimedia Commons
"As a kid growing up in Southern Indiana, I wasn't allowed to watch horror movies," Rev. Jonathan Weyer writes over at the Huffington Post. But, he tells us, horror can be sacramental, inviting us " to think about realities you can't see, touch or taste, but still exist." This works because horror shocks us out of our comfortable place, shows us that God is also the Lord of all things unseen. Weyer calls to our mind horrific medieval paintings, and he quotes Flannery O'Conner saying "that to reach the deaf sometimes you have to shout." Uncanny horror can open our eyes to the unseen and gruesome horror can take us through the reality of death to the greater reality of the Resurrection.

I agree, horror can be sacramental, but it goes further than that. The most fundamental Sacrament of all is a horror both uncanny and gruesome.

In the Eucharist, we come together at the Lord's Table, and we eat God.

We. Eat. God.

However symbolically or mystically you take that, it remains a horror. Bread and wine, wheat and grape, the sustenance of our earthly life becomes our God and we consume Him. Simple nourishment becomes cannibalism and deicide.

Yet, through that horror, we are joined with all the saints in an eternal feast, and secured in the Resurrected life of Christ. We go into the grave that we might be born again, to go out into the world as servants of God for the sake of others.

Today is Sunday. Either today, or some Sunday in the future, if you go to church you will partake of this highest Sacrament. So now, in this time of Lenten mourning, remember the horror, let it shout to your deaf ears, and let it turn you ultimately toward the beautiful truth of the Resurrection.

The Lord be with you.

Theology: Not Even a Drop in the Pond

From Wikimedia Commons, by James Bromberge
This whole Love Wins fiasco has been quite frustrating for me. To see such key leaders in the Evangelical church accusing a man of heresy for his views on hell is absurd. I don't think there's a sensible view of orthodoxy under which anything Rob Bell is being accused of could be called heresy. Almost makes me want to be a Roman Catholic. To have a church with councils and bishops. A church where every tin pot bloke at the end of an unmarked street isn't the sole guardian of the Christian faith.

This also made something occur to me. Piper and his gang are acting like the publishing of this book will be the making or breaking of the Christian faith. What Rob Bell has said is some horrible heresy that strikes at the very root of the Christian faith.

And you know what? It won't even make a splash in the Roman Catholic Church. Or the Eastern Orthodox one for that matter. It will be a blip on the map of Christian history.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Theology: Islamophobia and the Myth of Security

I've recently been in some discussing with some hyper-conservatives over Islamophobia. They seem to fear that ever Muslim in the world is out to destroy them. First off, let me say that I don't have the expertise in the religion either doctrinally or politically to make real comment on whether these fears are founded. In the end, I suspect that the truth lies somewhere between the manic fear and the claim that "Islam is a religion of peace"... but I digress.

This post isn't about that. Rather, this post is about security, specifically the frequent call to sacrifice liberty in the name of security. To, for example, ban the hijab lest "those people" bomb us. During the course of a debate over the insane content of the linked post, someone made the following claim "Liberals don't understand that they will be beheaded like the rest of us." What follows is my response, edited slightly to be less bound by the context of that conversation.

It could be the case we'll all be beheaded. So what? We are called not to return "evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing" (1 Peter 3:9). Christ calls us to love our enemies, telling us "...not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also" (Matthew 5:39). We are to pour ourselves out, in Christ's example, even to death on a cross.

Admittedly, this is why no nation can ever be a Christian nation, because no nation can act in such a way, but the good nation is moderate. This is the benefit of democracy, the extremes don't get their way, the government is kept from becoming too much of a top down force for whatever vision of the good those in power have in mind. Part of moderate government is punishing criminals for crimes committed, not punishing people groups for potential crimes.

Even the most hate-filled, vitriolic people are (or should be) free to be what they are until they act out evil. Man is too frail, to fallible, to be trusted with guarding against potential evils. The thought that we can attain security is always an illusion. No earthly power can ever make us safe - just look at the horror natural disasters wreak.

In this life, the only security we can have is the security of the Resurrection in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the one thing promised to us by the Revelation of St. John. The world is a bad place, tyrants rule, the church will come under persecution. But love conquers, the Lamb Who Was Slain is the Mighty Lion of Judah. And in the end, as we labor in love, the Lord will return, the world will be set right, and "...God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4).

To build up prejudicial barriers of defense is to be like the rich man in the parable (Luke 12: 13-21), storing up grain for a day that may never come (James 4:14). I say again, security at the expense of liberty will always buy you tyranny.

Real people, who should be loved and respected, are being turned into symbols of fear in order to further an agenda. A woman wearing a hijab is being looked as as a potential suicide bomber, and the sight of a hijab as the importantion of sharia law.

There's a huge gap between sharia law and a dress of modesty like the hijab. Seriously, imagine if you were an American woman asked to go topless or stay out of public because the dominant power in your nation feared you might carry a bomb (or a gun, or a knife) under your shirt or bra. How humiliating would that be for you?

That is what the Cult of Security is calling for.

I believe in a God who is sovereign. I do not need to fear, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7) I will seek Christ, seek to shine His love to the world. I will stumble, but by His grace I will be raised up again. And in all things, in all places I will know that I am secure.

The blessing of Christ go with you.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Life: Tragedy in Our County

Today is a feast day, but, sometimes, even in the times of feasting, Lent breaks in to remind us of the brokenness of our world. Today in Costa Mesa, a city employee committed suicide by jumping off city hall. As my friend Fernando said in response to the tragedy in Japan, I am stunned to silence. May God's peace be upon this man's family, and may His love fill the city of Costa Mesa.

Theology: Applying the Creed

Earlier this week, I made a post discussing what I think defines orthodox Christianity. Since I wrote that post, I have been running into the huge storm of controversy surrounding Rob Bell's new book Love Wins. Various people have been accusing Bell's book of being heretical, and I think it's time to apply what I said. Now, let me start off by saying that I have not read this book, so in many ways my comments here are not directed at what sort of Christianity Bell has, but towards the reaction to it.

Rob Bell's book is apparently a book about God's love, that extends to thoughts about the eternal destination of mankind. Bell says, as I understand it, that God's love is so great, that he suspects it will eventually reach everyone, either in this life or the next. People will always be free to reject God, but eventually the time will come when God's love will reach everyone.

Enter the watchdogs of Christian orthodoxy, crying heretic at this apparent Universalism. Many have already addressed these accusations, so I won't do that here (Greg Boyd has a particularly good discussion of it on his blog).

What I'm going to address is whether or not what Bell is accused of saying can even rightly be considered heresy. Kevin DeYoung wrote an extensive review of it, which I have not yet read (hey, I have to work on finals). There is a nice summary of the review, written by Justin Taylor, here. Both reviews go through the various things Bell apparently says, but there's one thing I particularly want to focus on. Justin says:

Bell addressed an invitation-only meeting at Mars Hill Bible Church on Sunday night and began by saying that he is not a universalist, that he believes in heaven and hell, and that he believes Jesus is the only way to God. Kevin’s review will help you see what he really means in each of these three areas.
What I want to say is, what Bell apparently means when he says he believes in heaven and hell, and in Jesus as the only way to heaven, may be different than how these people interpret catholic Christianity, but it is certainly within the bounds of the creed. It is orthodox Christianity.

Christian doctrinal history is much more complex than these watchdogs acknowledge, and Rob Bells views definitely fall within orthodoxy (even if they really are the most extreme thing these people accuse him of).

Soteriology - how we under stand Jesus's atoning work - is important, but it is only interpretation. In the end, the atonement matters, how we interpret it is secondary. As C.S. Lewis said:
 "We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself" (Mere Christianity)
Those who accuse Bell of heresy have confused their theories with the atonement, and their interpretation of the creed as orthodoxy. I thank God they aren't the guardians of my soul.

P.S. I am not myself in Rob Bell's theological camp. What do I believe about hell? I don't know. It's there, because Christ "descended into hell," but that's about all I know. Other than that, I'm just confused.

Philosophy/Politics: Justifying Wickedness

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, a great nation was embroiled in a costly war. For every inch of ground gained against their enemy, the nation lost many sons. But they would not back down, they would destroy whatever stood in the way of victory, because God was on their side. And they won, they found the key to victory, they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the enemies men, women and children. They weren't soldiers, but it sent a clear lesson. We will do whatever it takes to win. The enemy surrendered, the great nation one. God was on their side.

When I tell this story, what is your reaction? Probably, you think the "great nation" acted monstrously. It killed civilians in the name of winning a war. It murdered to achieve its victory.

Unless of course you knew I was talking about the United States bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You're reaction might have been the same, but some of you will defend what the US did. I know because I've heard it. I know because, sadly, there was a time when I did it.

The logic goes something like this. It was sad, but it had to be done. More lives would have been lost if we hadn't. The Japanese were never going to surrender. They were going to give sharpened sticks to their women and children, fight for every inch of ground.

None of that matters. None of it matters because if using a weapon of mass destruction on a city can be justified, then any atrocity can be justified so long as the end goal is good enough (and presumably succeeds). Don't forget that the Nazi's committed their genocides in the name of establishing a lasting pax romana of German rule. If obliterating over 150,000 civilians in the name of wining a war is justifiable, surely murdering a few million Jews in the name of lasting world peace is. At the very least, surely torturing a few suspected terrorists or jailing a few uppity reporters is.

In the end, we justify the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not because they were right, but because they were done by us. We were the victors. God is on our side.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Theology: Confessing the Creed with Wittgenstein

In the year 390, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote On True Religion. Thinking of the true beliefs of religion was a part of Christianity from the start. However, it was a new thing for the Roman world. For the Romans, and the Greeks who so strongly influenced them, religion was a matter of cult. That is, it was not so much what you believed about the god, but what you did in worship to that god which mattered. Bring your fire offerings to Zeus, it matters not what you say about him. But Christianity had grown out of Judaism. While orthopraxy mattered for the Jews, that praxis existed within a covenant built around affirmations about God ("The Lord our God, the Lord is One") and His holy word.

Thus, as Christianity spread to the Gentile world, it brought with it this notion of orthopraxy within a covenant that affirmed an orthodoxy. This orthodoxy would eventually develop into the words of the Christian creeds, such as the Nicene:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
This creed affirms the fundamentals of what it is to be a Christian. If you can say the words of this Creed, then you are a member of the covenant, if not, then you are a heretic. It is the words of this Creed that bind the catholic Church together, from the Roman Catholic Church to the emerging house church.

Very well, but what does that mean? How does this creed bind, and what exactly does it mean? Once you get past the stage of "I affirm these words" things get very muddled, both in their meaning and their practice.

Take "is seated at the right hand of the Father" for example. The Son, Jesus Christ, became flesh and was resurrected. He exists as a man eternally, and the Creed tells us He is in Heaven with the Father. Yet, the Father is Spirit. How does one sit at the right hand of one who does not haven a hand, who exists outside of time and space?

On the practice side, look at baptism. Surely, we affirm "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins," but is it infant baptism? adult? sprinkling? immersion?

Such examples make it clear how difficult it is to see how the Creed unites the Church.

I contend that it is the submission to the language of the creed that is this catholicity. At first, it might be puzzling how this is even an orthodoxy. If the language of the creed is left "blank" isn't it open to just any interpretation? This is where Wittgenstein comes in.

Wittgenstein was a philosopher of language, but he did not think language was simply a matter of conveyed definitions (at least in his later period). Language, Wittgenstein would say, is something like a tool. Just as I can take a hammer and drive in a nail, I can ask you to bring me the hammer and you will (if you are kind). Words have genuine meaning - that they can be used in this way shows this. Yet, defining words is extremely difficult, if not impossible. One of Wittgenstein's favorite examples was that of "game." We talk about games all the time, but try to come up with a definition and you will end up excluding things that are definitely games. By what definition are chess, soccer and solitaire all games? Yet, at the same time, there are definitely things that are not games. If you called napping a game (in anything but a metaphorical sense) people would simply not understand what you meant. Wittgenstein referred to that which bound the different uses of a term together a "family resemblance."

I find this understanding of language quite compelling, and I think it provides a good way of understanding the creed. Catholic Christianity affirms the words of the creed, yet we often have different content we lend to those words. At the same time, not just any content can be given to these words. The creed, in many ways, is not a fence, but a clearing. Those who submit to the creed enter into a common bond of language that allows them to be part of the same covenant, even as their praxis and their propositional beliefs differ widely. The creed creates a language and a place for orthodox theology to occur, and that space is the orthodox catholic Christian church.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Theology: Why Feast on Sundays?

In the Western Church1, the season of Lent has "breaks" on Sundays. Every Sunday is a feast, when the disciplines entered into for the season are foregone. Some, often ignorant of these feasts being part of the tradition, complain that it is lame to take breaks during a fast. While this complaint is in many ways childish, there is some sense to it. Why commit to a forty-day fast and then take breaks? Certainly, if I were to do Lent my own way, I would do a full forty-day fast. But Lent isn't my own fast, it is a church tradition to which I am submitting.

So why then the feasts? It is because Sunday is the day of the Lord's resurrection. Sunday is the timeless day in which Christ was raised, the day where we celebrate the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Every Sunday is, in effect, a mini-Easter. The western tradition holds that it would be disrespectful to fast on such a day as this. “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?" (Mark 2:19).

Indeed, the entire Western Church calendar is built around this conviction. The fast of Lent is forty-days, but from the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday is forty-six days. The Sundays are excluded from the count that they might be days of feasting.

So join me today at the Lord's table. Eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we mourn.
1. The Eastern Church has different traditions, and a different calendar. There are no feasts during Lent, and from the beginning of Lent to Easter is exactly forty days.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Philosophy/Politics: The Justice of War

I believe deeply in the sacredness of life; it’s why I’m a vegetarian, it’s why I’m against abortion, it’s why I oppose the death penalty. It is also what inclines me towards pacifism, but I find myself unable to call myself a pacifist.

War is horrendous. Death reigns, atrocities are committed. No matter how robust our notions of just war, there is something about the act of war that makes us forget our humanity. Even World War II, that epitomous symbol of just war, saw much evil on both sides. The Nazis had to be defeated. They were murdering human beings by the millions. The Japanese empire wasn’t any better. And yet, the Allies share their own sins – Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, internment camps, to name a few.

Inevitably, our justifications for war end up treating human lives as mere statistics. Ten can die that a thousand might live. More would have died if we hadn’t nuked Japan. This sort of think, to me, is abhorrent. It treats life as a strategic resource.

War assumes a genuine separation of us and them. It feeds on tribalism. Your people attacked our people, so we will avenge ourselves on you.

Pacifism also makes sense to me as a Christian. The Christian way is to conquer through submission, to love even our enemies.

Yet, there is another side to the issue. I recently read a post railing against pacifism. The post itself was quite deplorable. It treated pacifism as a sort of childish immorality. It acted as if this were some kind of easy question. Yet, something was said which carries a lot of weight for me. It is the same argument that holds me back from pacifism every time I hear it. It talked about the current situation in the Middle East. Civilians are rioting, trying to overthrow tyrants, and are being brutally beat down. Those who cannot defend themselves are being subjected to terrible violence, and we have the power to do something about it. Is it not an ethical duty for the strong to defend the weak?

I think it’s something of an illusion to think that any war has actually been fought for these reasons, but it remains at least a theoretical possibility, and one that strongly compels. At the very least, wars not fought for these reasons have had these results.

This makes becoming a pacifist a difficult, if not impossible, choice for me, but it doesn’t negate what was said at the beginning of this post. War is wicked and evil. War treats life as a matter of statistics, of us and them. But war also allows the strong to defend the weak.

In the end, I find myself befuddled. Either way I go seems to me a great evil, and I do not know how to decide between them.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Life: Reading Augustine

St. Augustine is one of the great thinkers of the Christian Church. I do not always agree with him, but there is no denying his wisdom, intelligent and fervor for God. One of the things I have decided to do during this coming season of Lent is to read St. Augustine's Confessions.

The Confessions is a cherished book of both theology and philosophy. It is also, I understand, the world's first autobiography.

As I read this text, I will post here my reflections, and I hope you will join me on the journey.

Theology: Ash Wednesday and the Meaning of Sin

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. - Book of Common Prayer
One day, a man went out and bought a car. It was a beautiful car, fast and reliable too. The man would drive that car everywhere, and he loved it dearly. With time though, the car stopped running so well, it's brakes began to slip, it became a danger.

Sin is like the degradation of that car. Like the car, man was made for a purpose, created with a specific kind of life he was meant to live. But the First Man fell from that purpose, he degenerated and all his decedents after him. And this is where the analogy with the car breaks down, for it was, in the first place, a choice that led to the Fall. But sin is not a legal term, we are not thinking good and evil in terms of adherence to a law. Sin means missing the mark. Sin is falling from what we were created to be, and oftentimes, like the brakes on the car, that degeneracy becomes a danger to others.

So thorough does this degeneracy of sin run in the human race, so actual is its effect on us, that we cannot help ourselves. We have died spiritually and cannot return to what we were meant to be. God could have left us in that state, let us degenerate further, destroy ourselves, but instead He, in the person of the Son, became a man, and as a man He submitted to death and through Resurrection He conquered the power of sin and death.

Through this act, those who call on the name of Christ are sealed for the Resurrection. They are given an eternal inheritance, and the promise that at the last day they shall be raised with Christ. This healing is already breaking out in the world, but it is not yet complete. Though the seed of salvation is in us, we still live in a fallen world where inevitably we miss the mark.

Today is Ash Wednesday, it is the beginning of the season of Lent on the church calendar. During Lent, Christians around the world enter into a time of fasting, beginning on this day with the imposition of the ashes. These ashes symbolize the old Near Eastern practice of mourning in sackcloth and ashes.  To some, this may seem an odd tradition for Christians to practice. We have been forgiven, washed of our sins and given the guarantee of the Resurrection.

Yet, this season exists for a reason. Again, sin is not to be understood in a legal sense. Sin is degeneracy. And though in our spirits (our eternal nature) we are made new, yet still we live in the flesh (our corruptible nature). Because of this, we enter Lent as a time of mourning. We memorialize those who went before Christ, who lived in a time before He was raised from the dead, we remember our own lives apart from God, we bewail that we are still yet living this side of the Resurrection.

There is another purpose too, for though we are still in the Flesh, the Spirit is in us and we can grow. We will never attain perfection before we are made whole, but we can work to make ourselves and our world more like the Kingdom of Heaven. One day, Heaven shall be wedded to Earth, and the Kingdom work done in the here and now shall endure. As we fast during Lent, one of the things we do is discipline ourselves. We train ourselves in temperance and charity by fasting and reminding ourselves of our own faults. By God's grace, this work helps to transform our lives for the better, than we might be a blessing unto others. And all along, as we fast, we pray, and God answers.

I hope you join with me in this season of Lent. Fast, mourn, look towards Easter with hope, pray for the world around you, serve and be transformed.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review: The Accidental Anglican

The Accidental Anglican by Bishop Todd Hunter

I have some bias in reading this book. Todd is my pastor and my bishop, and I love and admire him in both roles, so am inclined to appreciate what he brings to the table. Still, his other books, while very good, have not stood out to me. This one, however, as an account of Todd's journey into the Anglican communion stands above the rest. Todd's story is a unique and beautiful one, going from Cavalry Chapel roots, through the Vineyard and the emerging church, Todd has accumulated a lot of church experience. What I love most of all is his willingness to sing the praises of where he came from, even has he has moved beyond it. There is no bitterness here. Truly, Todd is representative of the "sweet reasonableness" he praises Anglicanism for.

Book Review: How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by Francis Schaeffer

In some ways this isn't a fair review. It isn't fair because I simply skimmed through the book (how I came to do that is a story for another time). Still, I feel that skimming gave me a pretty good idea of the book, and it's not a very positive one.

There's no denying that Schaeffer is intelligent, in that he attempts to tackle all of Western civilization, and has obviously tried to gain a vast knowledge of it. The problem is that most of his understanding of what he has approached is wrong.

His analysis is also reductive. He seems to see all of human history as some sort of battle between placing God at the center of our worldview, or putting Man there.

The problem with this is that's it's horribly reductive. Things are far more complicated than this, and in forcing them into this mold they often become terribly distorted. For example, the question of the relationship between particulars and universals that was of great importance in Medieval Philosophy is somehow made into a quest to find meaning (i.e. purpose) for particulars, when it was a linguistic and metaphysical inquiry.

Also, God became man. This destroys his paradigm.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Philosophy: Smart Phones and Space

I love technology, computers especially. That isn't to say I'm the world's biggest tech geek, not by a long shot, but I'm a fan. I don't always rush out and buy the latest thing, but if I could afford it I probably would.

But I gave up my smart phone. Not only that, but I don't plan on ever having one again.

Don't get me wrong, I loved my smart phone. I loved being able to access the internet anywhere, play cool games, and all the like. It was an awesome toy, even if it wasn't the best smart phone, but something about it started to disturb me.

One of the things about human nature that I find incredible is our embodiment. Of course, this is something we often take for granted, and sometimes distance ourselves from, but it's an undeniable fact. We are bodies, we exist in a place and a time, and I think being present to that is immensely important. As I used my smart phone, I felt my connection to space and time slipping. I was always connected to the internet, I could always check my email or Facebook. Anytime I wondered about any random fact, Wikipedia was just a swipe of the finger away. These things in themselves were perfectly fine, but the accompanying loss of spatial and temporal presentness I felt was deeply disturbing to me.

Art: Nova Corps/Green Lantern Crossover

It's been awhile since I've posted any art up here, so it seemed about time. A friend of mine has been having me read Marvel Cosmic's Annihilation Event, which features the Nova Corps. Nova Corps is kind of like DC Comic's Green Lantern Corps, and so I was inspired to draw this crossover picture. I started with images of Green Lantern and Nova which I traced, modified a little, and colored.