Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Learning to trust in God

In Romans 8, Paul writes that the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law -- indeed it cannot (8.3). At times this notion seems exaggerated to me. Are people really all that hostile to God? Don't we all seek the good and the true, even if we are mistaken about what those things actually are? Can it be that human persons actually are hostile to the source and fount of all goodness?

I was reading recently from Deuteronomy, and I came across one of the most fascinating passages from the whole of the Old Testament. Moses is speaking to the people of Israel just as they are about to enter the land which God had promised them. Remember that they had been slaves in Egypt, and they had seen the miraculous manner in which God had saved them from that place. They were witnesses of wonderful things which the LORD had done for them. And yet when they are on the threshold, ready to enter into the promised land, they are afraid and begin to blame God:

But you were unwilling to go. You rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; you grumbled in your tends and said, "It is because the LORD hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. Where are we headed? Our kindred have made our hearts melt by reporting, 'The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven!'" (Deut 1.26-8)

This is fascinating and deeply troubling: though God had done so many wonderful miraculous things for them, yet they are convinced that he is trying to kill them; the mere sight of adversity and challenge nullifies everything that YHWH had graced them with until that moment, and they are now convinced that God is not to be trusted. Far from acting out of benevolence and grace, he is acting out of malicious hatred and a determination to see us destroyed! -- Such is the thinking of the Israelites.

The human condition is fascinatingly complicated one. As Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in the Lord. We seek after goodness and life in everything we do, and yet this all comes from God who is the Good and the source of life itself. Yet while we are apparently structured and constructed to seek after God, at the same time we have a deep mistrust and aversion to him. He tells us that the things we like are actually not good, and that we shouldn't spend our time with them; he tells us that we are doing evil when we think we are doing good. He stands in the way of our becoming who we want to be, and so we see him as compromising our freedom and our very identity.

How can the dilemma be overcome? We naturally seek after God, and yet when we come across him, we feel revulsion. It would seem the problem is insuperable, except that God is good and he makes accommodations for our weaknesses. He knows that we have a hard time trusting him, so he does things for us that we can easily recognize as good: he gives us sunlight and rain, he gives us strength in our bodies and health and joy in our hearts (Acts 14.17) from the things he has created. Even more than that, he saved the Hebrews from slavery and oppression in Egypt. And to top it all off, he saves each and every one of us from sin and death by taking on a human nature such as our own, coming down from lofty heaven to die for our sins and be resurrected, assuring us through his victory over death that we too will enjoy life forever.

What more can God do for us before we will learn to trust him in everything? Something dark and twisted deep inside us is determined to make us question everything that God does. It works hard to prevent us from trusting him and from following his leadership. God does good to us over and over again so as to teach us that we can trust him. We need only to say No to that voice of darkness which keeps us from trusting him.

This should be one of my New Year's Resolutions: to trust God.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Answering the call of God

In Isaiah 65, we find a long chapter describing God's judgment upon a people who were unwilling to respond his numerous calls. He promises a restoration, of course, but of those who heard the call of God and gave the desired response; the others receive judgment:

I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
  and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
  and my servants shall settle there.

Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks,
  and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down,
  for my people who have sought me.

But you who forsake the LORD,
  who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune
  and who fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny;

I will destine you to the sword,
  and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter;
because, when I called, you did not answer,
  when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my sight,
  and chose what I did not delight in (Isa 65.9-12).

It is important to see in the passage that the "chosen" of the LORD are those persons who responded favorably to God's call. There are no grounds for supposing that they are chosen a priori, before any independent response on their part to God's message. The chosen are "my people who have sought me," whereas the rejected are those who "did not answer" and "did not listen" when God spoke. The evidence for this is the fact that God's well-intentioned call goes out to all, and God desired that all respond favorably:

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
  to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, "Here I am, here I am," 
  to a nation that did not call on my name (v. 1).

The LORD here presents himself as one favorably disposed to those who disregarded him, to all of disobedient Israel who had sinned against him. There is no basis in this passage for supposing that God might have chosen some to respond and some not. As far as the text is concerned, God's interest was that all respond favorably, but human beings act in some way independently of God's desires. Thus some of them responded favorably, and these are God's chosen, the ones whom he favors; others responded unfavorably, and these are promised a judgment.

What is a lesson to be gathered from this teaching? At least one important point is this: your choices have significance, and you must be very wary of choosing wrongly. You cannot sit back and cling to your election, as if this excuses your carelessness and unwillingness to put forth an effort. John the Baptist said to the Pharisees:

Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Luke 3.8).

The point is: as far as election is concerned, God can always choose some other persons; God can always fulfill his promise to Abraham by other means than by you. If now you have the chance and the opportunity and the calling to be holy, then do not ignore it! Don't be easy on yourself; don't leave room for sin to take advantage of spiritual laziness.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The theodicy of liturgy

Ps 73 is a lengthy meditation on the apparent injustices of the world. Though it begins with the confident affirmation that Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart (v. 1), yet it continues to describe the ways in which the wicked seem to have it good while the righteous go on in suffering. The psalmist describes some of the good luck of the wicked like this:

For they have no pain;
  their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
  they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
  violence covers them like a garment (vv. 4-6).

Not only that, but the wicked are not even recognized as such by the people:

Therefore the people turn and praise them,
  and find no fault in them.
And they say, "How can God know?
  Is there knowledge in the Most High?"
Such are the wicked;
  always at ease, they increase in riches (vv. 10-12).

The psalmist laments his own situation of suffering and travail, and considers that his efforts to live a good and upright life may have been pointless. His sufferings seem an unfitting repayment for his attempt to remain pure in conscience and in his relations with others:

All in vain I have kept my heart clean
  and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
  and am punished every morning (vv. 13-14).

Quite the depressing state to be in! And yet he doesn't remain in this place, because otherwise he would never have written the psalm in the first place. But what is it that convinces him? What is it that opens his eyes to the truth of the matter, and keeps from compromising himself with the wicked for the sake of an easy gain?

He writes:

But when I thought how to understand this,
  it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
  then I perceived their end (vv. 16-17).

Here we find what we might call the 'theodicy of the liturgy.' The psalmist goes into the house of God and there finds the answers to his troubles, because he is reminded of the judgment and justice of God -- a judgment which lifts up the downtrodden and casts down those who were haughty; a justice which rewards each person according to his due, and does not allow the evil to go unpunished or the good to go unrewarded.

Not that we needed any more reasons to go to church, but here we find yet another. The church service is designed (or at least ought to be designed) to remind us of the truths of God when experience in the world may incline us in another direction. Importantly, the liturgy ought to make us feel glad to be alive, it ought to remind us that the Creator is our Father and that therefore it is good to exist, good to go on living in the world. We meet with struggles and obstacles in our everyday existence and we find it troublesome to persist any further; but God is our Father and he created us for life, not for death. The liturgy and the church service ought to remind us of this, and provide us with a renewed strength and zeal for living over the course of the coming week.

The liturgy must also remind us of the moral order of the universe God has created. We must be reminded of the judgment of God on the wicked, which gives our decisions moral importance and significance; we must be reminded of the promise that Jesus Christ will judge, that we are promised mercy and understanding for our failings. We have to know and hear about Christ's resurrection, which is the evidence that God does not leave the victims of the world to suffer forever and be destroyed, but that the dead can be raised and every evil can be undone by God's power and goodness.

When we sing hymns about the salvation that has been given us, we are made to take our minds off the sufferings of the moment and to see the greater vision of an eternity in fellowship with the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. When we take the communion, we are reminded of the sufferings that Christ underwent for us, the righteous for the guilty, so that we may be saved from the death and doom to which we had been destined because of our sin. When we sing praises to Christ who died, we are immediately reminded of his resurrection, by virtue of which he can receive our praises, which is the proof that life has the final word and not death, good and not evil, God and not Satan. Our church services are a liturgical answer to the problem of theodicy encountered throughout the week.

We must go to church regularly because we have to be reminded of all these things. They give our lives sense; they make it worthwhile to continue living in this universe in which it would seem things often go haywire. We are reminded at our gatherings of the precious truth that God is our Father, and that he cares for us even in times of trouble and toil.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Human identity in light of Incarnation

When considering the title of this blog post, it should immediately appear obvious that there is much, much, much to say There is far too much to say about this in one blog post, so I am going to be limiting myself to one consequence that Incarnation has on human identity. I am going to speak specifically of human value.

Some persons have trouble appreciating their value. I had this trouble for a while myself. It is a miserable condition to be in, not to see your own value and your own worth. It debilitates you, it paralyzes you by sapping any and all motivation to accomplish anything. But this is not what God demands or wants of us, and this is why too lowly an opinion of yourself is so spiritually dangerous. God demands us and wants us to work alongside Christ in bringing the Kingdom here; he wants us to enjoy fellowship with him, to repent of our sins, to help those who are in need, to be a light and salt to the world, to bring the message of salvation to all who can hear it. The depressed unmotivated paralysis that self-loathing brings impedes all of this.

I think a proper antidote to this lowly self-perception is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. As I've been saying, the goal of God from the beginning was to incarnate, to live among men and women as one of them while remaining their God as well. On Christmas Day we celebrate the fact that God has chosen to live among men, that his Kingdom has come to earth because his will to reign among us is being realized. But notice, too, something else about what the Bible teaches.

As I cited from Paul, Col 1.16 says that all things were created through him and for him, speaking of the incarnate Christ. Consider too what the epistle to the Hebrews says: that Christ has been appointed heir of all things (Heb 1.2). And the author of Hebrews goes on to describe Christ's reaction to being given the body of believers as his own: Here am I and the children whom God has given me (Heb 2.13).

Understand this: if all things are created for Christ, then this means that you are God the Father's gift to the Son. It was God the Father's intention from the very beginning to give you to the Son, that he enjoy fellowship with you for eternity. And the Son is glad and happy to receive you, because he loves you as the Father's gift.

When you turned away from God and lived a life of sin, when your mind was in the darkness and when you knew nothing of your true identity or purpose, God the Father did not see fit to leave you to be destroyed and to undergo death. Instead he sent the Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh (Rom 8.3). For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5.21).

When God gives a gift, he is determined to see the recipient enjoy it. You are the gift of the Father to the Son, and the Father did not allow that you be undone by your sin but instead, through the Son, secured salvation for you. What should you think of yourself, then, since you are the Father's gift to the Son, and God considered you worthy of being ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet 1.18-9)? How can anyone think lowly of himself and find in himself no worth, when God finds in you the worth of the Son of God himself?

In the Incarnation, we can see the love that God has for us, and the value that we have in his eyes. Like Gregory of Nyssa once said, we human beings are like gold with impurities; we are not thrown away but cleansed, since the impurities are not a part of us but foreign bodies which must be removed. We are not snow-covered dung, in that miserable turn of phrase often attributed to Luther, but gold in the sight of God. Christ says of us who gather to worship him: Here am I and the children God has given me (Heb 2.13)!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Day as the beginning of the Kingdom of God

In a previous post, I considered the question whether God would have incarnated had humanity never sinned. The answer I gave there was an affirmative one: yes, God would have incarnated anyway because his goal from the beginning was to incarnate and be among human persons. God's decision from the beginning was to be together with humanity as the theanthropos, the GodMan.

Now it seems to me that Christmas Day, in which we celebrate the birth of Christ, has important connections to the notion of the Kingdom of God for this reason. As I understand it, the Kingdom of God is that state or condition of things according to which God's will is being realized. Thus, the Kingdom of God means that things are going well for his creation, since he is good and benevolent; it means that humanity is obeying him and enjoying him and worshiping him, as well as living in peace with one another. The Kingdom of God, to my mind, means the sovereignty or rule of God, it means that what God wants is taking place.

If God's intention from the beginning was that he be among men and women in the incarnation, then on Christmas Day we can say that the kingdom of God has come near (Mark 1.15). This was Jesus' gospel proclamation, this was the good news that he brought to the people of Israel at that time: that the kingdom of God had come near to them, and that finally God was taking control of things and setting everything right.

But the Kingdom of God doesn't consist only in the healings, in the teaching, in the fellowship and fraternity of humanity, but also in the incarnation. The newborn baby crying in his mother's arms, the parents looking upon this miracle child of theirs, the young boy Jesus growing up and learning to walk and to speak and to read from Torah -- all of this is the Kingdom of God, too. The Kingdom of God was present with Mary and Joseph and the rest of Jesus' family from the very beginning; it accompanied them his entire  life until death and afterwards, as well.

So when we celebrate Christ's birth, we are not celebrating some necessary precondition for the Kingdom later to appear. No, with the very conception of Christ and his birth, the Kingdom is already present and has already begun.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Incarnation: the goal of God

In the Middle Ages, theologians would debate the question, Whether God would have incarnated had humanity never sinned? Different thinkers gave different answers: Thomas Aquinas for instance thought that he wouldn't, whereas John Duns Scotus thought that he would.

It seems to me that we might come across some biblical answers to this question in the affirmative. Consider, for instance, what Paul says in his letter to the Colossians. Speaking of the incarnate Christ, he says:

all things have been created through him and for him (Col 1.16).

Now if all things were created for the incarnate Christ, what else could it mean except that the goal of God from the beginning was to incarnate and live among men and women? Presumably Adam and Eve might not have sinned. But certainly there could not be an incarnate Christ without an incarnation, and if everything is created for the sake of this incarnate person, then it would seem that the incarnation was in the mind of God from the very beginning.

We get hints at this, I think, in what we read in Gen 3.8: They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Here it would appear that God assumed some sort of physical state for the sake of being with the man and the woman in the garden. Perhaps we have here a mysterious and obscure hint at the Incarnation, preceding it by thousands of years. Prior to Christ's coming, what this meant would have been a mystery indeed; but perhaps now, in light of Christ's coming, we can see what this 'walking in the garden' means.


But we have to consider the question: if humanity had never sinned, what would be the purpose of God's incarnating? Why would God do it, if there weren't any sins that needed atoning and which could only be atoned by God's Son?

The answer, it seems to me, is this: because God loves us, and wants to enjoy fellowship with us in a way that could only be had through Incarnation. It seems to me obvious that the Incarnation makes a difference for divine-human relations: it is one thing to relate with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, through prayer, through sacrifice and prophetic word, and so on; but it is another thing altogether to relate with God in the up-close-and-personal way we relate to other human persons. There is a level of intimacy and closeness that is not possible in any other way.

We're material beings, and our mode of fellowship is materially mediated: we come into fellowship with each other through spatial proximity and the five senses. Because we are in this way material beings, this means that the tightness of fellowship must be materially conceived. 'Out of sight, out of mind' is a proverb because it's true: we lack communion and concern for those who are distant and removed. Imagine if a person tried to hold a conversation with you while maintaining an exaggerated distance between the two of you; you might rightly feel insulted, as if you are not worthy of the other person's standing any closer. Spatial distance means a break in the fellowship, just as his subjects have to bow and stand off some distance when speaking to a king.

But God desires closer fellowship with us than that, and so he takes on human flesh and communes with us on our level. This is because God loves us, and wants us to know him in a manner suited to our capacity for knowing.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Recognizing God

We're approaching Christmas, so it was only natural for me to spend some time reading the famous prologue to John's gospel. Among other things, John emphasizes that the people of Israel did not recognize God in Jesus of Nazareth, despite the fact that it was the Logos of God standing in their midst. He writes:

He [the Logos] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (John 1.10-11).

This is a condemnation of the thinking of humanity: they did not recognize in Christ the Logos of the entire world, the rationality which stood behind creation and gave it its origin, its existence, its structure and its purpose. Humanity is in a position of utter ignorance and wrong thinking, so the Logos of God must come to bear witness to the truth, as he says: For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth (John 18.37a).

Within John's gospel, Jesus receives the greatest opposition from the Pharisees and other important religious groups of Palestine. They are the ones who pretend to know God, to be able to discern his will, and yet they don't recognize God right in front of them in the person of Christ! Thus they are told by the prophet John the Baptizer:

I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal (John 1.26-27),

They don't know him, but because they do not know him, they do not know God. Because they do not recognize the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15) in Christ, they don't recognize the true identity of the God whom they pretend to serve.

They don't know Christ because they don't know God; they don't know the truth, and therefore they don't believe. But Christ also says: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice (18.37b). This is another regular theme of John's gospel. Those who sincerely try to live by the truth, and try to listen to God's truth wherever they may find it, will find this truth in Christ. Thus he says to the Pharisees:

If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. . . . Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God (8.42-44, 47).

The lesson to learn from all this is that we must listen to Christ's words, and learn from him how we ought to think about God and about ourselves and about Jesus himself. A person whose heart is open towards God, a person who is "from God," a person who is of the truth will recognize the truth in what Christ tells him. He will see the truth in the Logos become man, the source of all truth speaking truth among men.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Finding motivation to pray

At 1 Thess 5.17  we find this injunction: pray without ceasing.

I can never be sure that my experience is all that similar to the experiences of others, but I find it difficult to pray often and with regularity. It's not difficult for any good reason; it's mostly because I am lazy or else for some inexplicable reason, I put it off until it never gets done. Sometimes I manage to keep a nice prayer schedule going for quite a while, but other times it may be a few days before I feel I have really prayed.

We cannot say we are without motivations to pray. We've got a motivation to pray in everything: every good thing we have is from God the Father, for which he deserves our thanks and gratitude; everything we need for life and sustenance must come from him as well, so that we always have need to petition him for our daily bread; we all have struggles and travails and burdens, too, which he tells us to cast upon him (1 Pet 5.7); beyond that, we must always live in gratitude and joy for the salvation that he provided for us -- a salvation that far outweighs any troubles or problems we might confront in this lifetime.

Yet sometimes even recognizing all these things, I find it too easy not to pray! Such is the evil that is inherent in human nature: we can see we have every reason in the world to pray to God, and yet we don't do it. 

There is at least this thing, however, which does motivate me to pray. I find that when I pray for other people, my friends or whomever, God answers those prayers in a manner that seems timely. When I pray for friends and family, married and unmarried, petitioning God to work for them in concrete ways that they have need, I see over time that God answers those prayers. I pray for them from the heart, because they're my friends and I want to see them do well, I want to see them flourish. I think that God likes these sorts of prayers and honors them.

Interestingly, prayers for myself don't always go answered as quickly as prayers for other persons. Perhaps the reason here is that I always want things for myself more than for other persons -- I'm not perfect, after all -- and the delay in response is to intended to make me patient. It's a difficult lesson to learn, certainly, especially given our culture of instant gratification. But here we find another great motivation to prayer: it makes us into the sorts of people that God wants us to be. It is like a fire through which vices and shortcomings are purified and removed, and the gold and silver of our true identities as children of God are allowed to shine more brightly, purified of everything unclean.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christians and austerity of life

While I was doing my undergraduate degree at Arizona State, I began reading much ancient philosophy. I especially enjoyed the ancient Greeks for their rigorous moralism and austerity. All the philosophical schools, even the Epicureans but especially the Platonists and Stoics, prescribed a simple, austere life of spiritual disciplines and self-control for the sake of a well-lived life.

This kind of austere living is right at home in some Christian traditions, especially in the monastic quarters of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. But other groups of Christians may find it morbid, an exercise in "works righteousness," or whatever. These persons insist on enjoying life and the good things of life. There's no need to be so strict and monkish!

What is the truth of the matter? What's the right way for Christians to live?

We certainly find the more this-worldly, life-embracing attitude in some portions of scripture. Consider for instance these fine sentiments taken from the Preacher of Ecclesiastes:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun (Eccl 9.7-9).

This is about as this-worldly as you can get! Drink your wine, eat your food, enjoy your time with your wife, because that's all you're going to get. This is the gift given to you: a life of toil with a few compensating pleasures. The Preacher's this-worldliness is motivated above all by a deep awareness of the inevitability and -- importantly -- the irreversibility of death. Death is a grave evil from which there is no return, and the worst thing of it all is that it happens to everyone, regardless of merit:

. . .the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone (9.2-3).

The reason why the Preacher recommends an "enjoy life" attitude is because death is coming, it comes to everyone alike, regardless of whether they are good or bad. If being saintly doesn't mean escaping death any more than being horrible, then why not simply enjoy the things God has given you? Why not simply enjoy yourself while you're here for the show? There's no coming back once you die: never again will [the dead] have any share in all that happens under the sun (9.6).

But it is obvious that Christians cannot share this same attitude towards death. Christ is risen from the dead; therefore we all live as well! We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and every person is going to be called to give an answer for the life they led (2 Cor 5.10). There is a return from death, and those who die will once more get a share in all that happens under the sun -- though it may be a good share or a bad share.

We might ask: how can you justify a comfortable life lived for enjoyment's sake, when others suffered and toiled pointlessly for much shorter a life than they would have liked, and it was within your power to help them? Beyond that, our inner disposition towards sin is tricky and deceptive; it may take advantage of the good things God gives us, through our intemperance and inability to control ourselves, and before long we may find ourselves using them to excess and sin all the while justifying ourselves by appeal to appreciation and gratitude for God's good gifts. A drink now and again becomes regular drinking becomes alcoholism -- it's not impossible.

Though I am far from fulfilling this standard myself, it seems to me the Christian cannot but live with a measure of austerity. Holding back, limiting oneself, denying oneself pleasures of the moment for the sake of avoiding a disastrous downfall into excess, all the while cognizant of the coming judgment where an answer will be demanded for every wasted moment -- that is Christian living in light of resurrection.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The theology of Blade Runner: death, the meaning of life, and autonomy

I recently had the distinct pleasure of rewatching one of my favorite movies, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). It really is one of the best movies, in my mind, and it is especially appropriate to watch in this advent season for its meditations on death and the meaning of life. One of the central lessons of Blade Runner, as far as I understand it, is this: death puts into question the meaningfulness of our lives and everything we do. How great to meditate on this, then, precisely during the time of year where we consider the incarnation of Christ -- that union of the human and the divine which forever defeats death.

I want to write a few brief meditations on the topics of death, the meaning of life, and autonomy as they are developed in Blade Runner.


"What. . . what seems to be the problem?"
"Death."

That brilliant little exchange succinctly summarizes the central philosophical problem of Blade Runner. The story takes place in a highly dystopian future, where the human population on earth has grown apparently beyond what the planet can handle. Humans have extended their dominion even into deep space, and to assist with their colonization and exploration they have developed impressive specimens of biological engineers. They are called replicants: they are biologically engineered entities which are like humans in every way except emotions, and they have super human strength. They are created for the purpose of doing dirty work that humans don't want to do themselves because of the dangers involved; some of them are created for purposes of prostitution, others for purposes of police work, etc.

Now the replicants only live for about four years, even though they are brought into existence at a fully mature adult state. Some of the replicants are created with false memories implanted into their brains, so they have the conviction that they have been living for a long time, that they have natural parents and enjoyed a normal childhood, when the truth is the opposite. The replicants are like humans in every respect, of course -- they have the same drive to live, the same capacity to make choices and choose a future for themselves; in other words, they are fully autonomous. What they lack is the lifespan and opportunity to make choices for themselves with regard to their future: they are forced to work, many of them not even knowing that they are replicants at all,

At some point some of the replicants became aware of all this. Knowing that they were inching closer and closer to inevitable death with every passing moment, they decide to come to earth (though it is illegal for replicants to be on earth) and to seek out the head of the Tyrell Corporation, who creates the replicants. He is the one who would know how to increase their lifespan. They search him out, leaving a trail of bodies behind them, When they finally meet their maker, however, they find there is nothing he can do to increase their lifespan; death is inescapable.

The complaint of the replicants is one we can all relate with: death stands in the way of our living meaningful lives. We are thrown into a world we didn't choose, guided until adulthood in directions we would not necessarily have chosen for ourselves, and by the time we can make a choice about how we are to live, we may lack the opportunities and abilities to realize those choices. Worse than that, we don't even know what to choose or what would be good for us. As one of the final and most memorable lines of the movie has it, No one ever really does live.

The replicants' lives are meaningless, and they feel a special resentment towards the Tyrell Corporation who brought them into the world to be used as means to an end that doesn't concern them or benefit them in any way. Therefore they kill Tyrell, since this is the only way to express the rage they feel at their creator.

There are obviously theological corollaries to be appreciated here. It is fascinating to note first the parallels between the story of the humans and the replicants in Blade Runner, on the one hand, and the creation of humanity by the Babylonian gods in the Atrahasis myth, on the other. In the latter story, humanity is created because the Igigi, the worker class of gods, decided they no longer wanted to do the hard menial labor to which they had been condemned. They start rioting and disrupt the sleep of the celestial bourgeoisie. The solution is the creation of mankind: "Let mankind bear the burden of the gods." Humans are created in order to do the stuff the gods didn't want to do themselves -- tilling the ground, working the soil, etc. The same is true for the replicants: they do the hard work to be done at off-planet sites, while humans enjoy their long lifespans in relative relaxation.

Of course, as I've noted many times before, the Israelite creation mythology in Genesis paints a vastly different picture of divine-human relations than does Atrahasis. There we see that God creates out of his own word and without any need to do so; he simply speaks and things come into being. Moreover, he evidently creates everything for its own sake, that it enjoy life and flourish and be well. He doesn't create because he wants to relax and needs someone else to do all the hard work. He creates out of love and grace, with no ulterior motives in mind; the purpose is only to see that what he has created do well and flourish and enjoy a life in fellowship with him. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, the crown of creation in a way, for the purpose of ruling over the earth -- not despotically, tyrannically, but with the same love, the same disinterested, unconditional benevolence that God himself displayed in the creative act.

Humans in Blade Runner resemble the Babylonian gods more than they do YHWH. The replicants sense the injustice in creatures being brought into life with the capacities and desires that they do -- the capacity to sense injustice; the desire for freedom and a life well lived; the desire to enjoy the world in a way they can appreciate; etc. -- whose lives are perpetual frustrations of these desires terminated only in irreversible death. The replicants sense the grave injustice and abhorrent immorality of their creation under such conditions, and so rebel. We would feel the same way, if we found out that were actually created by the Babylonian gods and not by YHWH; we would feel cheated, abused, used, worthless. What is left except to rebel and hate the gods, if that it is the way things stand?

If we can sympathize with the replicants, however, and if we feel the injustice of their situation also, then we cannot but make similar complaints and objections to theological systems which paint God in more or less the same way. On some views, God creates a portion of humanity with no ultimately realized intention to see them flourish and enjoy a life freely lived in fellowship with God in conditions of flourishing. Some persons are created to be destroyed, to be persisting examples of the divine justice as they are punished for their sins in hell.

These persons suffer a fate like Rachel Tyrell in Blade Runner. She is a replicant with implanted false memories. When she discovers that she is a replicant, that her memories are false and that the pictures of her supposed childhood are not even pictures of her (they're pictures of Tyrell's niece), she is absolutely devastated. She is not who she thought she was. She doesn't have the life she thought she had. She won't have the life she thought she would have -- before long she'll be dead and there's no helping that.

These persons created by God for the purpose of being damned are the same way. They may have grown up thinking they were a certain way, convinced that they had a particular identity. At some point, however, they will find themselves confronted with an ugly reality: the truth is they are something far worse than they thought they were; their own constructed identities are false misrepresentations and exercises in the idolatry of the self. Really, they are miserable sinners who will now be rightly punished for their sins without end in hell. God himself will give them no other chance, because this is what he's made them for -- to be vessels of wrath fit unto destruction.

My argument is this: if we see the case of Rachel Tyrell and think that the Tyrell Corporation is cruel and unjust in creating her, allowing her to live her miserably short lifespan under the illusion that she is someone when she is no one at all, bringing her into the world with a desire to live and enjoy life and yet guaranteeing that this will never actually happen -- if the Tyrell Corporation is wicked for doing such a thing, then we have to part ways with that predestinarian picture of God that amounts to the same thing.

Blade Runner makes a very deep point about the value of life, the meaningfulness of life, and the evil of death. If we sympathize with the replicants even a bit -- and we should, since they are obviously a symbolization of the human condition -- then we must incorporate these insights and realizations into our theologizing as well. Does God have a respect for human life and autonomy? The Bible tells us that the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15.26). When God himself sees death as the ultimate enemy to be destroyed, and when we see that YHWH creates for the creation's sake and not for his own, in contradistinction to the Babylonian gods, it would seem we are not doing wrong in speaking a convinced "Amen" to the anti-death, pro-life message of Blade Runner.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christ, the shepherd of the world

In Revelation 12 we are presented with the image of a woman struggling to give birth, and a dragon who stands waiting to devour the child as soon as it is born. Of course the dragon does not succeed, and the child is taken up to heaven before God. It is an image of Israel bringing the messiah forth into the world, and the devil who wanted to destroy him but did not succeed.

Describing Christ, John writes: And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (Rev 12.9). I want to analyze briefly two aspects of this verse, which is talking about Christ: first, Christ is to rule all the nations; and second, he is to rule with a rod of iron.

Christ is supposed to rule all the nations, all the peoples of the earth. But what is the quality of this rule of his? How does he rule them? The Greek verb used here is ποιμαίνειν, which means to shepherd. This is the verb used in the Septuagint where David writes, The LORD tends me as a shepherd (Κύριος ποιμαίνει με), and I shall want nothing (Ps 23.1/22.1 LXX).

This verb is used because rulers in general were called shepherds, ποιμένες, because they were expected to make use of their rule for the good of their subjects. Just as a shepherd takes care of the sheep and brings them to food and water, so also the rulers were expected to do good to their subjects and care for them, making use of their power for the advantage of all.

Christ, then, is supposed to shepherd all the nations. His rule is both universal and good, because he is ὁ ποιμὴν πάντων τῶν ἐθνῶν, the shepherd of all peoples. His rule is a benevolent and beneficent one, the purpose of which is to bring all the peoples to salvation and to fellowship with God, as is their true purpose.

Now what is this business about the iron rod? What could the significance of it be?

Of course, there is here an echo to Ps 2, the coronation psalm about the newly chosen king of Israel. There he is told by God, You are my Son; today I have begotten you (v. 7) and he is told that he will dash the nations with a rod of iron (v. 9). This psalm was particularly important in the minds of the first Christians for understanding Christ and his role and mission, since the words of God to the king are also announced at Christ's baptism (e.g. Mark 1.11).

Christ rules with an iron rod, then, but does he break the nations with them as the psalmist sang? The king of Israel may have broken the nations with an iron rod, but the true Christ shepherds all the peoples of the earth with an iron rod. The shepherd doesn't strike and kill his own sheep with the rod, though he does direct them; rather, the striking is done against the wolves, bears, and other animals which would harm the sheep. Christ uses his iron rod to strike the devil and his demons, the forces of evil which conspire against God and against humanity created in the image of God. Christ's purpose as ruler is to bring humanity back to God, and to destroy the devils which oppose this mission.

In this brief passage from Revelation, then, we have a wonderful image of Christ as the shepherd of humanity. The iron rod by which he rules is strong enough to destroy all the enemies of humanity and of God, and in his goodness he is capable of shepherding all peoples back to God as is God's intention. The devil, the dragon, Satan does not have power to overwhelm him or destroy him! God is destined to win this battle!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Answering a fool according to his folly

Here are two very peculiar verses from the bible:

Do not answer fools according to their folly,
  or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
  or they will be wise in their own eyes (Prov 26.4-5).

Sometimes you hear people put this forth as an example of a contradiction in the bible, and of course those who suggest it is one will oftentimes take this as an example of why the bible is not the inspired word of God. If the bible has contradictions, then it can't come from God; it can't be describing reality, after all, since there are no contradictions.

Persons who reason in this way -- at least with regards to this present example -- are strange, indeed; it is as if they have never been at a loss whether to do a thing or no! Haven't we all had experiences where we had adequate reason to do a thing, and also not to do it? Haven't we all had times where the only solution seemed to be to flip a coin and assume the risks associated with whatever course of action we choose?

That is how I understand these two verses. There are reasons to answer fools according to their folly, and there are reasons not do it. Wisdom is recognizing the ambiguity of this situation and trying to make a reasonable judgment in every case.

You might answer a fool according to his folly so that he doesn't go through life convinced that he is right when he's actually wrong. We know persons like this: persons who not only are wrong, but don't know that they're wrong; they are actually convinced they're right, and perhaps they try to convince others of their errors. Persons like these can't go on uncontested ad infinitum, surely! They have to be answered according to their folly, so they don't think themselves so wise and so knowledgeable.

On the other hand, perhaps you have experienced a debate or discussion with a foolish person and seen that it quickly goes nowhere. The other person may not know how to reason, may not argue in bad faith, may simply say things to annoy you and anger you. Then you quickly get dragged down to his level because you lose your cool and try to respond in kind. In this way arguing with a fool is quite an unpleasant and fruitless exercise; arguing presupposes goodwill and the capacity to follow the argument, which many fools simply lack altogether. This is even worse when the fool pretends to be a philosopher and to have an enlightened opinion. Like Epictetus says somewhere, "God save me from people who know a little philosophy -- no one is harder to reach,"

So there are reasons to do it and reasons not to do it. Being wise entails being able to discern when it is appropriate and when it isn't. It is not a contradiction in the bible to advise a thing and advise against it, because human agency is very complex, and the world we live in is one of grey, not black and white.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Falling into the hands of the godless

I read a couple brief passages from the CIA torture report recently released. It is disturbing, to say the least. Consider some of the ways in which the detained underwent torture:

Beginning with the CIA's first detainnee, Abu Zubaydah, and continuing with numerous others, the CIA applied its enhanced interrogation techniques with significant reptition for days or weeks at a time. Interrogation techniques such as slaps and "wallings" (slamming detainees against a wall) were used in combination, frequently concurrent with sleep deprivation and nudity. Records do not support CIA representations that the CIA initially used "an open, non-threatening approach," or that interrogations began with the "least coercive technique possible" and escalated to more coercive techniques only as necessary.

The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah, for example, became "completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth." Internal CIA records describe the waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Mohammad as evolving into a "series of near drownings."

Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. At least five detainees experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation and, in at least two of those cases, the CIA nonetheless continued the sleep deprivation.

Contrary to CIA representations to the Department of Justice, the CIA instructed personnel that the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah would take "precedence" over his medical care, resulting in the deterioration of a bullet wound Abu Zubaydah incurred during his capture. In at least two other cases, the CIA used its enhanced interrogation techniques despite warnings from CIA medical personnel that the techniques could exacerbate physical injuries. CIA medical personnel treated at least one detainee for swelling in order to allow the continued use of standing sleep deprivation.

At least five CIA detainees were subjected to "rectal rehydration" or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. The CIA placed detainees in ice water "baths." The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because "we can never let the world know what I have done to you." CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families -- to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to "cut [a detainee's] mother's throat." (pp. 2-3)

It is very disturbing stuff. It is disturbing to know that our government agencies are comprised of such gravely immoral and mendacious people, who go to bed every night with things like these on their consciences (or perhaps not even that much), who have secrets they never want the world to know.

This is another aspect of sin and of God's justice. One cannot live a life of sin free of its consequences; if you commune with the ungodly and intend evil, you will eventually fall into the hands of the ungodly and the evil, who don't want anything but to destroy you. It is not worth it even to wade in slowly and slightly into sin's pool; before too long, the waves will pick up and pull you in, and the tide will be too strong and you will find yourself helpless at the bottom. This is an aspect of God's justice: those who live in evil eventually get what's coming to them.

The CIA detainees of course were not innocent. They played with fire in planning and perpetrating grave evil, and now they are reaping the consequences of their evil -- suffering at the hands of people just as godless as they are. But God only knows what awaits the CIA officials who tortured them and committed such disgusting acts of inhumanity.

In a sense, this is what hell is: to be separated from God and his people, to be outside the gates of the New Jerusalem, and to be at the mercy of people just as evil as you are. These CIA detainees, when they were captured, had died and gone to hell. Hell awaits these CIA torturers, as well, whether now or at a later time or perhaps both.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Christian ethics in a nutshell

Perhaps my favorite verse in the whole bible is found at Rom 15.3: For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me." I enjoy this verse so much because it seems to me to summarize in nuce the whole of the Christian gospel; God's selfless goodness and grace in Jesus Christ, who did not seek to please himself but instead acted for the good of others, to bring them life and peace and salvation.

There are plenty of examples of this available in the gospels. Consider the feeding of the five thousand recorded in Mark 6.30-44. The story begins with Jesus and his disciples, who've just returned from their mission throughout the villages (vv. 7-13). They want to retreat to a deserted place and rest for a bit, since their mission had probably exhausted them, and so many people were flocking to them that they had no time even to eat (v. 31). But when they retreat to a certain spot, many people recognized them and got there ahead of them (v. 33). Of course, since the masses arrived there before the disciples did, Jesus could not get rid of them.

Jesus and his disciples are exhausted and hungry; they want some time to themselves to relax and to regain their strength so they can go on serving the people. But they find a large mass of people has come to them when they wanted to take a break. What does Jesus do? Mark tells us: he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (v. 34). Christ looks upon these miserable people with eyes of mercy and cares for them, even when it is the height of inconvenience for him to do so.

Jesus thinks nothing of himself, cares nothing for himself, does not seek to please himself, but instead always seeks what is the good of those around him. The paradigm example of this, of course, is the crucifixion: Christ there died for our sins (1 Cor 15.3), giving up even his life so that we may live. This is why I think "Christ did not please himself" is the sum of the gospel.

For Paul, too, it is the sum of Christian ethics: We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself (Rom 15.1-3). This is Christian ethics in a nutshell; this is more or less how we ought to live among one another.

Imagine what it would be if this attitude were prevalent in our churches! Imagine what it would be if we took this command seriously even for a span of a week -- how much we would get done, how much good we would accomplish! To think nothing of myself, not to seek my own pleasure and enjoyment, but to do what is good for my neighbor: that is the essence of a gospel-informed ethics. It is a short path from this to sainthood and to God himself, if we would only do it.

What does this look like? It looks like: not judging the other persons in my church who don't live up to the standards I set for them, but instead seeking to help them and encourage them in all their ways; helping the persons in church whose problems are the gravest, praying for and with them, rather than gossiping about their failures and their sins; indeed, praying for persons who bother me and even who harm me and do me great evil, rather than fighting or speaking evilly of them or seeking revenge.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The one thing that counts

I recently finished reading Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. It was recommended to me by one of my professors after I had mentioned to him that I read Shusaku Endo, Silence. The former is a great read, a very fascinating story of the last Catholic priest in a southern Mexican state during a time of intense governmental persecution and anticlericalism. The Catholic Church was being suppressed, and this priest was on the run for his life, being followed by a godless socialist lieutenant of the Mexican army. (Spoilers ahead.)


The priest was not a very good one: he was ambitious, selfish, a drunk, he had committed fornication with a woman and left her pregnant, and he sought to make a profit from his priestly duties. He was a "whisky priest," a wonderful phrase coined by Graham Greene himself in this book. When he is finally caught and spends the last night of his life in a jail cell, he has the following realization:

What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless. I have done nothing for anybody, I might just as well have never lived. His parents were dead -- soon he wouldn't even be a memory -- perhaps after all he was not at the moment afraid of damnation -- even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted -- to be a saint (Penguin Books 1990, p. 210).

I really love that final line, because it embodies a kind of moralism that really resonates with me, even if I rarely live up to it. This is one of the repeated motives of the book: the inevitability of death, and the uncertainty of what comes hereafter. This priest had spent his life in pursuit of personal gain, enjoying alcohol and on one occasion a woman from his village. He felt a miserable guilt and heaviness about his vices and slip-ups throughout the final period of his life. Was it worth it? How difficult could it have been to say no to a drink of alcohol? How difficult could it have been to keep control of oneself in a moment of impassioned loneliness? During his last night on earth, he realizes: it would have been quiet easy to have been a saint.

Because death is inevitable and because there is no avoiding the judgment, we would all do well to share the attitude of the Apostle Paul: For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5.10). As Stăniloae says in one of his works, the inevitability of the inescapable judgment makes every decision meaningful and important; because I will have to answer for everything, therefore every word counts, every action counts, everything I do is significant and worth taking seriously. If I only I would learn this lesson!

Monday, December 1, 2014

What has God done with his life?

I want to comment briefly on what my friend Bill Vallicella (for whom I am thankful) writes about in a post entitled What Have You Done With Your Life, God?:

Thanksgiving evening, the post-prandial conversation was very good.  Christian Marty K. raised the question of what one would say were one to meet God after death and God asked, "What did you do with your life?"

Atheist Peter L. shot back, "What did you do with your life, God?"

Peter Lupu is another friend of mine for whom I am thankful, and this question is typical of him: clever, sharp, and fitting of a true Israelite -- of someone who struggles with God. It is obvious that the question aims to bring God to respond for the way the world has turned out: full of evil and ostensibly pointless suffering.

I don't bother answering this question from any other perspective except that of the Christian gospel, because the Christian gospel gives us a concrete answer to the problem of evil in a way that speculation about God's purposes for permitting evil do not. The answer is a very clear and simple to understand one.

Christmas time is upon us, and during this time of year we celebrate that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.14), that this Word in Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures so that as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.3, 22, 28).

What we see in this short sentence is this:

First, the Word became flesh. God does not stand aloof from us in all of our sufferings and evils, and as Athanasius says (De Incarnatione 6), it is beneath him and unworthy of his goodness to be unconcerned and uncaring when his creation is coming undone. For this reason he takes on human nature in the Incarnation, undergoing the suffering to which we are all condemned, the sufferings typical of a terrestrial life for a human: physical pains of various sorts, including a violent and torturous death; emotional pains from rejection and the experience of suffering; psychological pains such as fear and anger and disappointment. God takes on what is human and experiences it all in Jesus Christ. This step down to our level shows us that God loves us and cares about us, and makes our experiences and travails and toils his own. He even feels the same temptations to evil that all of us feel, though he never committed evil but only ever good (Heb 2.14-8, 4.14-5).

Second, Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. Christianity also teaches that human beings are in a wretched state because of the presence of sin in themselves. Their nature is corrupted and broken; they are like broken machines which don't function properly. The proper end for sinful human beings is death and destruction: this is the natural order of things, and it is a part of God's justice. God in his justice and holiness cannot tolerate that evil continue to exist ad infinitum; there has to be an end put to evil, and therefore human beings, who have evil in their hearts, are destined eventually to die. But as I cited from Athanasius above, it is beneath God's goodness to see the creation become undone and humankind annihilated. Consequently the Son takes on human nature and willingly undergoes death in the place of others. Humanity was condemned to die, so the Son by taking on humanity assents to this death. Moreover he intends his death to be a kind of satisfaction for the sins of the rest of the world, taking upon himself the condemnation and punishment due to the others, so that they may not undergo it. This is something that scriptures of the Israelites foretold long ago (see, e.g., Isa 53).

Third, as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. Athanasius writes that because Christ's human nature was united to his divine nature, consequently death could not keep him. The Incarnation guarantees the Resurrection; the power of life in the divine nature is greater than the power of death over the human nature. But the connection between Christ's human nature and our own is such that his resurrection guarantees ours. Human nature has been fundamentally and radically transformed so that it is no longer hopelessly moribund; we will still die, but not forever. We will be resurrected from the dead, too, and this is because of Christ's resurrection. It is important not to forget, also, that physical death and spiritual death are closely related to one another in Christian theology: we die because we are also dead on the inside, so to speak; because our spirits have the sin disease. Christ takes on a human nature like ours with the sin disease, but through his life dedicated to God and the service of his neighbor, he heals the disease and reorients his humanity toward its divinely intended life. This righteousness of Christ will likewise transform all others and make them righteous (Rom 5.18-9).

Fourth, God will be all in all. The end goal was that God fill all things, that God enjoy a kind of intimacy and close connection with his creation. This is the deification of the creation, the participation of all created things in the life of God. There will always remain a numerical difference between God and creature, but the creature will get to experience the blessedness of the life of God as a gift from God. And most importantly, this is the end for everyone! No one will be excluded forever from this glorious result. Every suffering, every pain, every tear shed will be redeemed and done away with, and there will be only joy and peace and happiness and bliss for all of eternity. Moreover, we have the opportunity to participate somewhat in that life here and now, through the means of grace God has provided for us: through baptism, through the Eucharist, through the scriptures, through the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, through the fellowship with the family of believers.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The laws of the LORD are perfect

Psalm 19 has the following wonderful passage:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb (vv. 7-10).

For some Christians, it may be incredibly difficult to understand these sentiments. How can a law like God's be perfect, reviving the soul? How can they be worth more than gold and sweeter than honey? Not a few persons are convinced that God is merely interested in forbidding them from doing the things they love, in keeping them from having any fun. How can it be good and perfect if you aren't allowed to enjoy yourself?

There are quite a few things wrong with that attitude, and it is not something that can be taught or trained out of a person in a few short minutes or hours or even days. The impulse to give in to our irrational impulses and live a life in pursuit of the pleasures of the moment is strong in every one of us, I think, even if we may not all give in to this impulse in equal measure. It is true that we may inevitably and ultimately seek enjoyment in what we do, but the question ought to be asked: might it be that the things we think will give us quick and easy enjoyment are not actually worth doing? And might it be that God's laws will bring enjoyment of a greater, lasting kind if only we would keep them with diligence?

I subscribe to what is called a natural law theory of ethics. I think right and wrong, good and evil are determined in accordance with the nature we have as human beings. We have certain natural impulses or goals that we seek to obtain, and the frustration of these impulses or goals is evil, as is obtaining them in an improper and unnatural way, whereas their satisfaction or obtainment is good. The natural law theory of Christian ethics teaches that God's laws are designed so that we fulfill the drives and goals we naturally have in the proper way.

Thomas Aquinas was perhaps the greatest of the natural ethicists, and he dedicates a lot of time and space, and spills very much ink, demonstrating how God's laws and a life of virtue are the fulfillment of our nature as humans. Consider, for instance, the many questions and articles of his Summa theologica! In all his answers, he attempts to demonstrate how our nature, or more specifically some impulse or drive that we have by nature, is fulfilled by obedience to God's law.

I think a more sophisticated understanding of God's laws in terms of the natural law is important for any Christian to understand. It's important because it helps us to see how God's laws make sense, how the Christian church's teaching is rational and reasonable. The logic may not be initially obvious, but upon study it becomes clearer and clearer. (The truth is that nothing is really at that clear or obvious without much study and dedication; it's foolish to think that we would just see the truth or that it would be obvious to us in these matters, with perhaps a few exceptions.)

I'll give one example. Why shouldn't a young Christian guy and his girlfriend engage in sex before they are married? They love each other, they don't plan on cheating on each other or taking advantage of one another -- what is the problem?

Thomas Aquinas would reason thus (compare to this discussion here, ST IIa IIae, q. 154, art. 2). It is obvious that the function of the sexual organs we have by nature is procreation: that is the result when they are made use of without unnatural interruptions (e.g., the use of contraceptives). But procreation demands commitment on the part of both partners: the woman is committed to having the child which has come into being inside her, and the man is committed to assisting the woman whom he has impregnated. And when that child is born, it is entirely helpless and in need of the presence of both parents for a normal and healthy upbringing. Marriage is what we call the proper context for the upbringing of children: two partners committed to one another and to taking care of the child which comes from their union. This means that sexuality is naturally paired with marriage, and to have sex outside of the context of marriage is to live outside of the direction that nature gives us. It is to go against nature and to attempt to live apart from its natural course. (The same is true of sex with the use of contraceptives, as well as masturbation, gay sex, etc., which is why these too are also immoral.) In this way, the law against sex outside of marriage makes sense and it is reasonable.

I'll also add one further point: to try to tinker with this natural law line of reasoning in one way or another is to compromise the rationality of the law. If it's not wrong to have sex with the use of contraceptives, if sex can be separated from bearing and rearing children -- as it is in the minds of many people these days -- then there is no obvious reason at all why it should be immoral to have sex outside of marriage. So I think the natural law theory of ethics is especially important for this reason: the laws of God quickly become unmotivated and apparently arbitrary apart from this line of thinking.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The LORD hears his Christ

In Ps 20 we find the following wonderful verses:

Now I know that the LORD will help his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
with mighty victories by his right hand (Ps 20.6).

Here the message is one of God's faithfulness: if God has chosen a person for service (thus, that person is the LORD's anointed), then God is faithful to that person and will be there for him or her in times of trouble. God does not leave his chosen one hanging, but is there ready to answer his or her prayers, and to deliver from any evil.

This was good news for the ancient Israelites, of course, because it meant that their king could appeal to God and could expect God to hear him. If God had chosen a man to lead over the country -- for instance, David -- then he would not forget about him halfway through his reign, or even after the king had sinned (of course, if the king repents thereafter). More generally, it is good news for the people of Israel as God's chosen nation, since they are the anointed means by which the LORD would save the world. Thus the LORD tells the Judeans who had been taken into Babylon in exile:

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you (Isa 49.15).

The people of Judah were convinced that God had abandoned them: But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me" (Isa 49.14). But God's response to their desperation and hopelessness was to affirm that he would remember them forever, that a woman would sooner forget her nursing child than the LORD would forget Israel, his own son.

This was all good news for them, but it is especially good news for us! If the LORD will help his anointed and answer him, as the Psalmist writes, then can there be any room for despair or doubt when we know that the Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, prays for us and intercedes for us? This anointed man of the LORD who gave himself for all so that they might live (cf. 1 Cor 15.22; 2 Cor 5.14-5) -- could God fail to answer the prayers of his only-begotten Son? or to ignore his intercession? This Jesus Christ says to us: See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands (Isa 49.16). As the song says,

My name is graven in his hands,
My name is written on his heart.
I know that while in heav'n he stands,
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

The LORD hears his Christ; therefore you ought not despair! I need to hear this as often as possible, so I thought to share the message with the rest of you as well. If God has chosen you for some service or ministry, then trust in him and pray to him, and he will hear you; only do not defile yourself with worthless things that cannot save or help any.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Christianity is finding your true identity

Who are we? What are we here for? Are we of any value, do we have any significance, or are we meaningless, purposeless, valueless, randomly assembled conglomerations of atoms which will someday come apart never to be reconstructed?

Recently I've been talking about the process of becoming a Christian, which is the process of assuming a new identity. I've said that it involves forgetting your previous identity, and assuming a new one which is like God. There's another important thing to remember, however, and one which makes the process of becoming a Christian that much more exciting: it is also a matter of discovering your true identity.

I wrote earlier that Christian salvation can be understood by the doctrine of theosis: we become like God. I want to emphasize that this theosis is not a matter of our becoming something unlike or unnatural to us, but rather that it is merely becoming what God had intended for us from the beginning.

As I cited earlier, Genesis teaches that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-7). We were made to be living icons of God on the earth, to represent him and to embody his presence to one another and to all creatures. This is the purpose of humanity, this is the calling and direction that God gave it. We lost this image and likeness, however, through sin and through downfall of the human race. Rather than being loving and forgiving, we became hateful and angry; rather than having knowledge, our minds were futile and darkened (cf. Eph 4.17).

There is another thing to notice here, too. Those who live their life in sin and who think that this is the way for them to live, according to Paul, are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart (Eph 4.18). They don't understand things properly, and that means that they don't understand who they are, either. They don't know what they are, what they are here for, what is the right way for them to live, and so on.

Becoming a Christian is having your mind enlightened to your true identity, to your true calling, to your true place in the world. It is a matter of discovering who you really are, and finding that you are the image and likeness of God! That's the gift that God gave humanity: to be like him. Christianity is the lifelong process of discovering and enjoying this gift.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Theosis and the new self

How would you summarize the basic message of Christian salvation? If you look at the early theologians of the church from the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries, you'll find a lot of statements of this sort: "For He was made man that we might be made God" (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54). This is the doctrine of theosis or deification: God assumes human nature in order that humanity can become like God.

Of course, the ancient theologians did not imagine that we somehow merge with God to become a single being. There will always be a distinction between ourselves and God; but we will be raised from the lowly limitations and conditions in which we currently exist, and we will take on a mode of being that is more similar to God's. One of the ways in which we do this is by the resurrection: we no longer die after being resurrected, and in this way we participate in God's immortality.

Now I think the doctrine of theosis was so ubiquitous throughout the early centuries of the church because it is ubiquitous in the scriptures. One of the finest discussions of theosis comes in Paul's letter to the Ephesians:

For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.21-24).

Here we find that becoming a Christian, as I've said before on other occasions, is a matter of becoming a new person. Now what exactly does this new person look like? Paul says that this new person is created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. This is clearly to say that our new identity is one that is like God's, with a mode of being and a way of life that is similar to God's.  We become like small Gods in the world!

Of course, this is nothing new in the Bible; it wasn't invented by Paul, but it was taught in Genesis. There we read that mankind was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-7). Mankind was created to be like God. The Greek word used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis is εἰκών, from which we get the word "icon." Human persons are meant to be living icons of God in the world, representations and presences of God in the creation.

This is what happens as we become Christians. It is a lifelong process, obviously, because we do not reach the pinnacle of righteousness immediately after baptism. But just as we should forget what lies behind us and what we were, we also must look forward to what we are becoming; and when we look to our goal, what else do we see except Christ, the image and likeness of the invisible God (Col 1.15)?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Baptized in the river Lethe

An important of becoming a Christian -- perhaps the central and most essential part -- is undergoing a change of identity. Paul explains it like this in his letter to the Ephesians:

Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to cloth yourselves with the new self, created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.17-24).

There is very much upon which we could comment here, but I will limit myself to the notion that we are to put off our old selves, our old identities. Becoming a Christian is about becoming a new person. Of course, becoming a new person means that we must lay aside the old person, for which an incredibly important element is forgetting.

I remember youth meetings or services as I was growing up, and one of the more special occasions was when someone who was formerly in the world would give a testimony of how their life changed. They would recall all the things they had done: drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. Then they would publicly announce that all that was behind them, and we would clap and feel good. But I noticed over time that some of those persons who gave public testimonies turned back to their old ways. They were clean for a while but they didn't have the strength to stick with it. Perhaps they didn't cut the ties with their old friends, perhaps they thought of how much enjoyment they had living in the world, or whatever it might have been. In any case, what they didn't do, and what the public testimonies never allowed them to do, is: forget.

Paul puts it like this: Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it [viz., the salvation of Christ and perfection] my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenward call of God in Jesus Christ (Phil 3.13-4). We must know what we are aiming for; we must know what this new person we are to become looks like. But at the same time we have to forget what came before, and never think about it. That old person is long dead; a new person is now being born, who knows nothing of the former.

Baptism is a crucial and essential part of this change of identity. Paul says to the Ephesians that we are to be clothed with the new self, made in the image of God. He says to the Galatians that our baptism clothes us with Christ (Gal 3.27), and to the Colossians that Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15). Our new identity is Christ: we are united to Christ, and we become Christ, in a way.

This means that baptism must be accompanied by forgetting. In a sense, we should understand ourselves to be baptized in the river Lethe, one of the rivers of Hades in Greek mythology which made those who drunk its waters to suffer amnesia. At this juncture I'd like to link you to a song entitled "Lethe" by my favorite band Kayo Dot, the lyrics of which were composed by my friend Tim Byrnes who is a Christian. Notice the theme of forgetting in the lyrics:


All else consumed by a holy cloud of forgetting 
Build this man by the way attained 
Go forth into the warm waters, brother, 
Happy is he, healthy is he among the 
pulled out and pulled apart. 
He sat with them, but not in vain. 
He sat among the ones long-dead, 
A feast, a store, a partner, love; 
Encourage him in all his ways 
To help him to forget the time of disengagement... 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Anger and hate clouds your reasoning

The religious figures and leaders in the New Testament gospels are a fine case study in the rationally detrimental effects of anger, hatred, and misplaced religious zeal. Confronted with Jesus of Nazareth who only does good and seeks to turn people to the presence of God's kingdom, they respond with blind rage and a murderous disposition.

Consider the case of the man with the withered hand in the synagogue. It was a sabbath day, and Jesus went into the synagogue where he found a man with a withered hand. He poses a question to the people present, whether it is lawful to do good or to do evil on the sabbath (Mark 3.4). (Of course, the options here are not very generous: either you are doing good on the sabbath, or else you are doing evil; there is no other option. This tells us much about the sabbath and its significance for Jesus, perhaps worth writing about on another occasion.) Jesus finds that the people respond with silence and blank stares, which frustrates and angers him (v. 5). He heals the man's hand, and Mark tells us: The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (v. 6).

Jesus does good, and finds that the most important people in society respond with anger and hatred, and a desire to kill him. He does good, and receives evil in response. This is more or less the story of his life -- until resurrection, that is. His drive to do good and to save grows stronger, whereas the religious leaders' drive to kill gets more and more intense.

On another occasion, he comes across the following accusation from the scribes: "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons" (v. 22). Not only do they reject his sabbath-day healings, but they also accuse him of being possessed by the devil! In fact it is by the devil that he has power to cast out demons! Of course, this makes no sense, and Jesus is quick to offer the appropriate rejoinder: "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand" (vv. 23-4). It would not make any sense for Satan to be casting out his own demons, defeating himself in this way.

The point here is this: the scribes' blind rage and hatred for Jesus of Nazareth leads them to reason in this very obviously fallacious way. Their minds are clouded by the hardness of their hearts, and this leads them to come up with an explanation for everything that certainly satisfies them -- but it is clearly mistaken, and more than that, they are so darkened in their minds that they cannot even see this.

Anger and hatred clouds your reasoning; the Pharisees and scribes in the New Testament gospels provide fine examples in this respect. We ought to be careful, then, and watch over ourselves when talking and thinking about others in our anger. It may just be that, though our explanations and reasoning convince us in our anger, we are actually poorly mistaken and cannot even see how this is so. Glen Pettigrove has a fine article on this topic: "Meekness and ‘Moral’Anger*." Ethics 122, no. 2 (2012): 341-370.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Do unto others as unto Christ

A week ago I attended the Saturday night service at the church pastored by one of my seminary professors. During the sermon my professor made reference to the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. There Christ welcomes some into the kingdom while excluding others, and famously the reasoning given is this: those who are welcomed had done good to the needy, which Christ takes as having been done to him himself; those who are excluded had neglected the needy, which Christ takes as having been a neglect of him himself.

My professor then posed the question, When we see another person in need, how do we think and react? If we saw that Christ was hungry, would we not gladly give him something to eat? Or if we saw that Christ was thirsty, would we not quickly provide him with some water to sate his thirst? Or if he were naked and in need of clothing, surely we would give the shirt off of our back!

Then he posed an interesting question: If we saw that Christ himself were leading a life of reckless sin, in addiction and self-harm, how would we react?

I think the point of the question was lost on some of the persons in the audience. A person behind me answered softly, "Well, he wouldn't be doing all that anyway." I think this is an irrelevant response, however, because the real point of the question lies in considering what we would think if per impossibile we found Christ living a life of that sort.

It seems to me that, confronted with the thought of Christ living a life of (say) drug addiction, our thought in response would be this: You can't do that! This is not who you are; your identity doesn't permit you to live like this! But if we following the reasoning of finding Christ in others that is present in Matthew 25, it seems to me the point of my professor's provocative question is this: just as we find it absurd to think that Christ would live like that, we must also find it absurd, and contrary to the fundamental identity of the other person, if we found her living a life of addiction and self-destruction.

The image and likeness of God, as Christ himself embodied (cf. Col 1.15) -- that is the true identity of every human person. All else is falsehood and lies, a distortion by the devil of what God intended for the human person. This is how we ought to think of other persons: all their sins and vices and evils are not part of the real person; all that is false, and the true is the Christ within them, the Christ that can be within them.

We ought to think the same way about ourselves, too. Paul tells us over and over again, in a million different ways, that we ought to consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ (Rom 6.11). We have to begin to think differently about ourselves, and to understand our true identity, our true self is not the sinful one who is a slave to vices and evils of various sorts, the one who doesn't trust God and who doesn't obey the word; the true self is the self we find in Christ Jesus, the telos of all humanity.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Eudaimonia as knowing that God loves you

Aristotle argues in Nicomachean Ethics that true human well-being (eudaimonia, in Greek) consists in the performance of that activity which is most proper and essential to humans, or in other words which only humans out of all of nature's creatures can do. For Aristotle that activity is understanding, using our minds to understand things. So the good life, for Aristotle, is a scholar's life dedicated to understanding the world, oneself, and God.

Isaac the Syrian, perhaps in the same spirit as Aristotle, likewise claims that true human happiness consists in knowledge. For Isaac as a Christian, however, this is especially a knowledge of God, and more specifically knowledge of a particular quality of God. In contrast to legalists and Stoics everywhere who try and find their joy in their own moral performance, Isaac insists that true happiness only comes from knowing that God is truly good and loves all:

For if a person's joy depends on his own behavior, it will be a disappointing joy. More than that: it will be an impoverished joy! And not only will his joy be impoverished, but also his understanding. For whoever finds joy because he has understood that God is truly good, that person finds a consolation that never passes, and finds true joy; this because, as I've said, his spirit has been made wise, and he has understood that truly, God's goodness is limitless (Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies III/6, 22).

These wonderful lines come from a discussion of justification by faith. For Isaac, God justifies by faith and not through works because he knows that our nature is weak, and that it is impossible for us to be without sin. Thus, God is willing to justify us, to forgive our sins and ascribe to us the fullness of righteousness, for even the smallest turn towards him in faith. Isaac says that God will reckon as righteousness the faith present in the (failed) attempt to do a good work, or even in the thought of repentance in a person who lacks even the desire to do what is good. He does this because what God wants is to enjoy fellowship with everyone as righteous, not reasons to torture people.

For Isaac, then, we might say that true happiness comes from knowing that God's goodness has no limits, and that he does everything so that you can enjoy life with him as righteous. Why should this be a cause of happiness for us? Because we realize that ultimately, everything is going to be good, more than good for me, for my loved ones, and for the whole world. God's goodness is unlimited and nothing can hinder him from saving (1 Sam 14.6). Indeed, the salvation of the whole world is God's joy! And we will get to enjoy that salvation.

Knowing this -- that the end is an incomprehensibly good one -- is a source of constant joy and happiness for the person who truly understands God's limitless goodness. In keeping with Aristotle, then, Isaac will say: Yes, true happiness and well-being comes from knowledge, and more specifically, the knowledge that the goodness and love of God have no limit in any respect, and that they are an irresistible force which is leading everything to a glorious end.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus

Paul writes to Philemon about the slave of the latter, whose name was Onesimus. Paul had come across Onesimus during his time in prison, and in that period Onesimus had become a Christian. Now Onesimus seems to have been separated from his master Philemon, so Paul writes a letter to Philemon about how he will now return Onesimus to him. Yet he returns him to Philemon with a request, namely that he willingly allow Onesimus to return to Paul to help him (13).

Of course, this presupposes that Philemon will accept Onesimus upon his return. In the ancient world, runaway slaves were not always treated very kindly. Sometimes they would have the letters F U G branded on their forehead; these letters came from the Latin word for fleeing, fugare, which indicated that they were runaways. A runaway slave was hardly a very honorable or respectable person, even if his flight was justified and reasonable. Some of them would even join gangs, bandits, pirates, etc., because they would not fit in among polite society. On the other hand, some masters would even kill their slaves upon return if they had fled.

Paul calls upon Philemon to accept Onesimus kindly. Yet it seems he does even more than that; arguably, he wants Philemon to accept Onesimus, and furthermore to give him freedom, so that he can serve Paul. He writes:

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother (15-6).

Now it is controversial whether Paul is asking Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom or not. But to my mind, that is the most likely explanation. He explicitly says that Philemon might have Onesimus back "no longer as a slave." If he is no longer a slave, then he is a freedman!

Some persons think this goes against Paul's words to slaves and masters in his other epistles. For instance, in Ephesians and Colossians he tells slaves to obey their masters, and masters to treat their slaves well. There it would seem that Paul does not want to undo the slave-master class system, but only to teach the two parties how they ought to behave in light of their salvation in Christ. But that is too easy an explanation, since in many ways what Paul tells the slaves and masters does undo the slave-master system. If masters are to think of slaves as equal to themselves, since they too are slaves of Christ and God (Eph 6.9), then they are no longer masters over their slaves. If they are not given freedom to do as they please with their slaves but must see them rather as brothers and sisters, as fellow members of the body of Christ, etc., then they can't think of them any longer as slaves -- as mere human property.

What Paul does in those letters is plant seeds for the undermining of the system of slavery altogether. He does not explicitly demand that every slave be freed, but what he does command is crucial for guiding the growth in understanding of his Christian audience towards the realization that slavery is anti-Christ. But in Philemon he arguably does command Philemon to free Onesimus. Perhaps he does this here and not elsewhere because he knows Philemon more personally.

Someone might want to object that Paul does not demand Onesimus' freedom so much as his acceptance and forgiveness as a Christian, while remaining a slave. They might say that Paul wants Philemon to accept him as "more than a slave," which allows him to remain a slave while being treated more honorably than expected. But the phrase "more than" is not always inclusive: if I am more than a boy, but a man, then I am not a boy at all; if I am more than an ordinary worker, but a CEO, then I am not an ordinary worker at all; if I am more than a slave, but a freedman, then I am not a slave at all. Sometimes one thing is more than another while not including it. And for me it is rather obvious that Paul's language -- no longer as a slave -- suggests he means to use the phrase "more than" in an exclusive manner.