Friday, June 25, 2010

Reflection: Irreligion -- On Knowing God

I was doing what I do as often as I can – browsing the shelves of a local bookstore – when I happened upon irreligion by mathematician John Allen Paulos. I spent little time with the book, but I was intrigued by one reviewer’s comment: “[Paulos] is as sure-footed as a tiger as he prowls through the theocratic landscape, pouncing on sloppy thinking. To a large extent he succeeds in demolishing the arguments of believers” (Phillip Manning, The News & Observer, Raleigh).

Well, good for Paulos: to the extent that he demolishes false ideas about the God in whom I believe, may that same God in whom he does not believe bless him. This is, after all, venerable work, the same work – through not conducted in the same spirit/Spirit – as that of the Fathers, of the theologians and teachers of the Church, of the Ecumenical Councils and Creeds. It was the work of St. Paul, a work he described as warfare.

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every though into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:4-5, NKJV).

As believers, we inevitably formulate and express ideas about God. Those called to academic theology seek to systematize those ideas, to make connections among them – to build arguments, the review might say – to express a faithful worldview or body of Tradition. When this is done well, when the work passes the test of time and earns the general approval and acceptance of the Church, we believe it is the holy work of the Holy Spirit. It is not always done well, either personally or corporately. When it is not, the Church creates and bows before false conceptual idols. In its better moments, when the Church is truly the Church, it welcomes Elijah – even in the person of a skeptical mathematician – to cast down and destroy the false prophets of Baal with their false teachings and detestable idols.

I doubt, though, that Paulos was engaged in this type of holy work. Having read a few of his other books – all mathematically oriented – I suspect that in irreligion he seeks to destroy any notion of God, at least of any god other than human reason. I have seen such efforts before; they follow a similar tack: believers make foolish and logically inconsistent statements about God – here, let me show you a few – thus, the god in whom they believe – and, by extension, every god – must fail to exist. Since human reason has dethroned every false contender for the title “God”, reason must be the closest thing we have to god; let us, therefore, bow in worship unto ourselves and our marvelous intellect.

This process, this type of thinking, has a fatal flaw at its core: destroy every notion or argument believers have about God, notions true and false, and you still have not touched the essence of God, for God is not idea or argument but Person(s). The point here is ironically Cartesian: the fact that all thought may be erroneous does not negate the existence of the thinker. Likewise, the fact that all thought about God may be foolish and inconsistent – and certainly much thought is – does not thereby disprove the existence of God. Sloppy human thinking does not necessarily negate the Subject (I cannot say object) of that thought.

Of course, we – believers – are complicit in the error of such skeptical thought to the extent that we present God as idea and not Person, to the extent that we replace relationship with that Person with thought or talk about that idea. Certainly, we must think about and talk about God, but we must never mistake our thoughts or words about God for God himself; the map, after all, is not the territory, nor is the word the thing. A judicious, humble apophaticism – a “not knowing” intellectually – is often appropriate.

The Church is the remedy for these errors in thought and emphasis: in the faith it lives (as well as proclaims), in the Sacraments it administers, in the life of askesis it prescribes. All of these offer the real possibility of relationship with the real Person of God, a relationship that subsumes thought and argument. Water, oil, bread, wine: these host the real Presence of the real God. Word, prayer, fasting, service: these are not ideas, but gifts of God for the people of God. All of these are given to initiate and sustain our relationship with Him, until we become full partakers of the divine nature.

Those who are willing to engage only ideas about God through the agency of human reason but not God, himself, through His abundant gifts of Presence are unlikely to find God. Even our best ideas about God seem foolish when confronted with the cross and gospel of Jesus Christ.

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD” (1 Cor 1:26-30, NKJV).


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reflection: Eschatology and Catastrophe

I stood at the graveside of a good woman recently and watched her husband of sixty-two years grieve the loss of his better-half, the “brains of the operation” he called her. At the memorial service the evening before, family and friends told stories about her past and about the lasting impact she has made on those going forward into a future without her. And the minister spoke true and comforting words:

Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,
and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end,
the first and the last.
I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,
and I hold the keys of hell and death.
Because I live, you shall live also .

I like what The United Methodist Book of Worship calls the whole constellation of public events surrounding a Christian death: Services of Death and Resurrection. Indeed. It is not only at such services, but perhaps best there, that we are shaken from our myopic focus on the present – the clamor of the daily – and grasp again the fundamental and essentially eschatological nature of our faith. Our faith is a storied faith and we are a storied people: rooted in the past, sojourning in the present, and hoping in and heading toward a glorious future. It was not for nothing that Jesus described himself to John – exiled in the present – as the past and future One:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:8, NKJV).

And while the present is an essential part of the story, it is, after all, only part of the story; so, Paul reminds us: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Cor 15:19, NKJV).

The eschatological understanding of our faith – the wrapping up of all things past and present in Jesus, all heading toward future fulfillment in him in the last day (eschaton) – is the antidote for both the unbridled optimism and the abject despair that plague our culture in about equal proportions. It takes only a catastrophe – either personal, as a death, or corporate, as a terrorist attack or an oil spill, to reveal these spiritual follies. In the days immediately following such a disaster, the Optimists often rule with their grandiose plans and their assurances of success.

Optimism is a way of staying useful and being hopeful without having recourse to God. It requires, of course, a much reduced perception of catastrophe if it is to maintain credibility. Optimism comes in two forms, moral and technological. The moral optimist thinks that generous applications of well-intentioned goodwill to the slagheaps of injustice, wickedness, and the world’s corruption will put the world gradually, but surely, in the right. The technological optimist thinks that by vigorously applying scientific intelligence to the problems of poverty, pollution, and neurosis, the world will gradually, but surely, be put right. Neither form of optimism worships God, although the moral optimist sometimes provides ceremonial space for him. Optimists see that there are few things left to do to get the world in good shape, and think that they are just the ones to do it (Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination).

Should the problem be less than amenable to the Optimists’ solutions, should it drag on interminably, then the Pessimists arise with dire predictions and a pervading sense of hopelessness.

In such a moment let the faithful of God come, those who inhabit the Story, those who are caught up in the eschatological vision of God. Let them come proclaiming the sure end of the Story: a world put to rights, all creation restored and renewed, the holy people of God in worship before him, the holy city – New Jerusalem – come down from heaven to earth with God dwelling in the midst of his people unto the ages of ages. In short, salvation. The holy, eschatological people of God must waste no time with optimism or pessimism; we must be the true realists who face every blessing or catastrophe with the same proclamation: Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. And because his is risen, we, too, shall rise, and all things shall be made new.

Admittedly, this vision dims from time to time. It is difficult to maintain, in spite of apparently copious evidence to the contrary, that God is even now brooding over the often dark and void face of the earth, renewing the earth and its people, speaking new creation into being through Christ and with Christ and in Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Yet, it is so. The church is, and must be, the evidence we offer for such a vision: a people being made new and whole; a people singing the eschatological hymn – Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come! – and giving voice to all creation; a people feasting on the eschatological banquet of bread and wine and inviting all to the table:

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely (Rev 22:17, NKJV).

Let the church hold fast the eschatological promise of its Lord: “Surely I am coming quickly.” And let the church answer with its eschatological prayer: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reflection: The Praying Life -- For the Salvation of the World

From The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton:

By this time [1939], I should have acquired enough sense to realize that the cause of wars is sin. If I had accepted the gift of sanctity that had been put in my hands when I stood by the font in November 1938, what might have happened in the world? People have no idea what one saint
can do: for sanctity is stronger than the whole of hell. The saints are full of Christ in the plentitude of His Kindly and Divine power and they are conscious of it, and they give themselves to Him, that He may exercise His power through their smallest and seemingly most insignificant
acts, for the salvation of the world.

As bold as Merton's meditation, I think it is understated. It is not only war that is caused by sin, but every evil on the face of the earth: personal, corporate, structural, natural. And, just as each of us is responsible for all the sin in the world, each of us has the capacity -- through purification and prayer -- to participate in the restoration (dare I say "salvation") of all the world. "Pray without ceasing," St Paul tells us. Amen.

Reflection: The Eucharistic Life

The eucharistic life consists of taking what bread and wine we have -- the hours and minutes of each "ordinary" day, our labor and leisure, our friends and enemies, our successes and failures -- taking all these and all else that we are and have and placing them on the altar before God with a prayer of great thanksgiving:

We pray you, Gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these your gifts that they, too, may be sacraments of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant, uniting us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

And, if this were not difficult enough, we must then accept that these gifts we bring -- the bodies we have presented as our reasonable worship -- now manifest the real presence of our crucified and risen Lord and that we go out into the world to do the work he has given us to do as living members of the body of Christ and heirs of his eternal kingdom. Alleluia.

Friday, June 4, 2010

George Herbert on Prayer


PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,

Gods breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th' Almightie, sinner's towre,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six daies world-transposing in an houre,

A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,

Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,

Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,

The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,

The land of spices, something understood.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Reflection: On Marriage

Christian marriage is a sacrament and thus a great mystery, as St. Paul recognizes:

In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body.* 31‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church (Eph 5:28-32, NRSV).

I have been married nearly thirty-three years and this relationship is no less mysterious to me now than on that early September evening when two foolish kids, having little clue what they were getting themselves into, said “I do,” and “I will,” to each other before God and a host of witnesses. Only grace has kept us together I am certain: God’s grace and the graciousness we have learned to show one another. I am grateful beyond measure.

Why do some marriages “make it” and others do not? Why, after forty years of marriage, do a couple like Al and Tipper Gore announce their separation, simply having grown apart? What counsel might the church offer – and I can speak only of Christian marriages – to a couple contemplating marriage or to a couple struggling to sustain one?

Wedding vows are secondary to and ultimately dependent upon baptismal vows. How fitting it would be for each wedding ceremony to include a renewal of baptismal vows prior to the making of marriage vows, for the primary human relationship is with God.

Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel
against God?
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and the creatures of
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer I do.

Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer I do.

Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer I do.

And then, following the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the bride and groom would join with the entire assembly in these commitments:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread,
and in the prayers?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent
and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of
every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.

Only a firm commitment to these primary vows, empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, will enable bride and groom to keep the secondary vows they make to one another. For better, yes, but for worse? For richer, certainly, but for poorer also? In health (and beauty and vitality), obviously, but in sickness (and wrinkles and disability)? Yes to all: because you have renounced Satan, the evil powers of this world, and the sinful desires that draw you from the love of God (and the love of neighbor and spouse). Yes: because you have turned to Jesus, accepted him as Savior, placed your trust in his grace and love, and promised to follow and obey him. Yes: because you have taken your place in the Church, pledged to resist evil and to repent having failed. Yes: because you have made solemn and holy covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons (even your spouse), to love your neighbor as yourself (and, by extension, your spouse as your own body), to strive for justice and peace among all people (even your spouse), and to respect the dignity of every human being (even your spouse). Wedding vows are simply one means by which and through which a man and woman live out their baptismal vows. Fail to take the baptismal vows seriously and the marriage is at risk. A failed marriage is first and foremost a failure to live in the light of baptism.

Related to this is a powerful truth I first heard expressed by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his work Life Together (HarperCollins Publishers, 1954): we must never relate to one another directly, but only through the mediation of Christ. Christ must always stand between me and you, even – and perhaps especially – between husband and wife.

Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.

Though written about life in the Christian community – life among brothers and sisters – Bonhoeffer’s insight applies equally well to husbands and wives.

Accordingly, I must never speak of my husband or my wife in the possessive sense as if the other is defined primarily in relation to me. My spouse is defined by his or her relationship with God, who has then placed my spouse in relationship with me for our mutual good, which is to say for our salvation. Attempts at direct human relationships unmediated by Christ are always distorted and often coercive and abusive, dominated by human selfishness and passion. My relationship with Christ, and my recognition of my spouse’s relationship with Christ, must always take priority over our relationship with one another; indeed, the relationship with Christ determines the nature of the relationship with one another. The other is Christ’s, and only in Christ, mine.

I am saddened, but not surprised, when a marriage of forty years dissolves. Christian marriage is a sacrament and thus a great mystery; we often think we can negotiate it on our own terms. We are often wrong.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Reflection: Oil and Repentance

Take a moment to view the images of human loss and environmental destruction caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Explorer oil platform . Who is to blame? I am, and you are, and we are, all of us together. There are many obvious ways in which we are complicit: we use -- and use extravagantly -- the petroleum-based products such an enterprise produces and we want them at the lowest possible cost, even at the cost of safety; we work in the oil industry or in subsidiaries made possible and profitable by the industry; we elevate energy independence to the level of national security and wage political and economic warfare over the issue; and so on.

But our guilt and complicity run far deeper still. We are -- individually and collectively -- the fallen image bearers of God. Our fallenness, our sin -- individually and collectively --is responsible for a humanity curved inward on itself through greed, self-interest, power and domination. Our sin -- individually and collectively -- has subjected all nature to a futilty under which it groans for release. In short, I have and you have and we have, all of us together, produced a world in which such disasters are not only possible but inevitable. It is a terrible dilemma for which the only answer is Jesus Christ -- crucified and risen -- and the only course of action is repentance.

Let the engineers and scientists look for technical solutions for the immediate problem. Let the politicians debate legislation to reduce the likelihood of future disasters. Let the lawyers assess criminal and civil responsibility. But let all God's people fall on their knees and cry continually: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.