Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The value of divine impassibility

I believe in divine impassibility. More than that, I believe in a particularly strong form of the doctrine of divine impassibility -- I don't believe God is causally affected by anything that happens in the world, and he doesn't literally react to anything that goes on on Earth.

To the minds of some persons, this sounds like a doctrinal dead-end for the spiritual life. What good is it in believing a God you can't have back-and-forth with? More than that, what good is a God who stands aloof, and who is not adversely affected by the evils and sufferings of his people on earth? Wouldn't such a God be a monster?

Not at all. These kinds of objections are naive and uninformed. Actually, a strong doctrine of divine impassibility is actually an eminently powerful motivator for the spiritual life of a reflective Christian with an interest in the doctrines of classical Christian philosophy.

In the first place, a strong doctrine of divine impassibility such as this one makes the central and crucial insights of the Christian religion all the more steadfast and stable. I've posted on numerous occasions, drawing from texts both Old Testament and New, that God's fundamental disposition towards the world is benevolent, loving, and a good one, even when his creation turns drastically and resolutely against him -- an insight which Christian tradition in the post-scriptural era has preserved, such as Athanasius in De Incarnatione, 6. If God is impassible in this strong sense, then nothing at all in the world or outside of it can change that fact.

Knowing this, that God is immutably "on your side," that he immutably loves you and desires your salvation and that nothing at all that you or anyone else could do can change this -- this sort of insight is spiritually empowering. It gives the sinner confidence to approach God and to ask forgiveness (which God is happy to give) in spite of whatever may have been done. And if God unconditionally and immutably desires that I be transformed to his likeness, then I can always and everywhere come to him seeking power to resist temptation to sin.

More than that, I can be assured of the inevitability of justice. The God who promises that the guilty will not go off scot-free so long as they do not repent is immutably and unchangeably dedicated to bringing about justice. Even better, however, precisely because he is immutably and unchangeably benevolent, for the creation, his punishment will never completely destroy but always save, however long it may take. Thus I may confidently pray and seek justice and restoration, knowing that God is impassibly dedicated to the same.

Far from undermining Christian commitments or theology, the essentially Greek philosophical insight of the immutability of God helps to strengthen and empower Christian convictions. I think it is a welcome addition to our philosophically informed doctrine of God. Yes, there is now a bit of mystery in understanding how our prayer is effective and how it relates to God who is immutable, but a bit of the ol' mysterious never did anyone any harm. On the other hand, it seems to me the spiritual benefits of divine impassibility, especially this particularly strong form I affirm, are weighty and significant.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Stăniloae on the necessity of the Trinity for salvation

In a discussion of the "Holy Trinity: Structure of Supreme Love" in the final chapter of The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Stăniloae notes that, in spite of the ultimate mystery and incomprehensibility of the formula of three persons in one substance, nevertheless if we do not speak about God as Trinity,

we would be left with the formula for an impersonal or unipersonal god who does not possess the spirit of communion with himself, and hence is neither apt for, nor disposed towards, communion with created persons (p. 246).

The critical insight here is that apart from introducing an element of community and fellowship within the godhead, there could be no grounds for positing that God desires or is even capable of communion with created persons like you and myself. The reason for this, I take it, is something like the following.

If God is going to be God, he must be complete in himself and lacking in nothing; his being and existence cannot be impoverished or characterized by need or lack in himself. This is a universally accepted premise of ancient and medieval theology, and goes hand in hand with conceiving of God as in some sense supreme. But if God is unipersonal or impersonal, then because he naturally lacks communion or fellowship, he can neither need it or desire it. If he desired it, after all, it would presume that he had need and lacked something -- that is the very nature of desire. Therefore a unipersonal or impersonal God could never be in fellowship or communion with us, since he could never need it nor desire it in any way.

But communion and fellowship are essential components of our lives as persons. This is a repeated theme in Stăniloae's work -- that our personhood demands that our perfection address our natural impulse towards communion and fellowship. Insofar as only God can save and perfect us, God must therefore have communion and fellowship within himself:

Moreover, only through the Trinity is our eternal communion with the infinite love of God assured as such, together with the communion among ourselves as those who partake of this infinity and yet remain distinct. The Trinity thereby assures our continuance and perfection as persons to all eternity (p. 247).

For this reason the doctrine of the Trinity is an essential component of a Christian doctrine of salvation: if Christianity is to propose the salvation and perfection of human persons, then it must have a conception of God that is amenable to the essentially and paradigmatically personal need and desire for fellowship. Otherwise the spiritual life would be as Plotinus said, a flight of the alone to the Alone (Enneads VI, 9, 11).

Monday, April 28, 2014

Stăniloae on God's special care for me

I love this passage from Dumitru Stăniloae's The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1:

In this knowledge I no longer see God only as the creator and the providential guide of all things, or as the mystery which makes himself visible to all, filling all with a joy which is to a greater or lesser extent the same in all cases; but I know him in his special care in regard to me, in his intimate relations with me, in his plan whereby, through the particular suffering, demands, and direction that he addresses to me in life, he leads me in a special way to the common goal (p. 118).

Stăniloae's emphasis in this final section of the sixth chapter is that God tries to make himself known to us in all the various aspects of our lives -- through the impressions of our conscience, for example, and as noted here, through the concrete circumstances of our lives. Stăniloae affirms here that God reveals himself personally, to me, through the way in which my life goes forward. God is leading me in a special way to a common goal I share with the whole cosmos -- the goal of union with him in deification, for which Jesus Christ acts as an exemplar and a model to be realized in my own case.

All of this is doubly impressive and moving in light of the very lofty and paradoxical descriptions given of God earlier in the chapter. Stăniloae regularly speaks of God as an infinite reality who, in my experience with him, always surpasses my capacity to perceive and comprehend him. This is apophatic knowledge for Stăniloae: an experiential knowledge of God which at the same time is of such a quality as to evade explication or formulation altogether.

Yet this Infinity of Being who always surpasses my capacity to understand and name him, this Infinity of Being which gives existence to everything else in the world, this Infinity of Being became like I am so as to bring me into fellowship and communion with himself! And this Infinity of Being exercises his special care for me and leads me along the path to this goal in the everyday circumstances of my life! This is the amazing and bewildering claim of Christianity -- that God who gives existence to the entire universe and conserves it in being, without whom nothing could exist whatsoever, is fundamentally for me and wants to unite himself to me in a special, salvific way.

How do I know that it is a good and salvific goal? Because of the events of last week, of Holy Week. As John says, Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4.8-10). This God who stands behind the scenes shows us his purpose is a good one because he comes to give life to the dead and to atone for the sinful.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Philosophy with differing epistemological centers

I think atheists and Christians do philosophy with different epistemological centers. What I mean by this latter phrase is this: an epistemological center is a cluster of beliefs, convictions, commitments, etc., which form a sort of critical basis from which proceeds the rest of a person's thought on some matter or other (or perhaps all matters whatsoever). For Christians, their epistemological center will be a commitment to upholding the testimony and tradition of Christian church regarding God, humanity, salvation, Jesus Christ, the eschaton, etc. -- the sorts of things you recite in the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Atheists do philosophy from a different epistemological center, and oftentimes I think they fail to understand that Christians do have a different epistemological center than atheists. This failure in understanding leads to a lot of misunderstandings and infelicities in argumentation.

For instance, in response to the skeptical theist objection to the evidential argument from evil, the atheist rejoins that such skepticism actually undoes the possibility of morality altogether. If God can be morally permitted in allowing grave evils such as the Holocaust, serial rape, etc., then maybe we are justified in failing to obstruct or prevent such things from occurring. Beyond the problem of putting God on equal footing with human moral agents, this line of response is abortive for another reason: it presumes that both the atheist and the Christian objector are responding to the problem of evil from the same perspective, from the same epistemological center. But this is not the case at all.

The Christian offers a skeptical theistic objection from her perspective as a Christian, which perspective already presupposes that she has adequate grounding for her moral convictions and practices in the teachings of Jesus Christ as passed down by the tradition of the apostles and the church at large. The Christian qua Christian doesn't approach the problem of evil from the same "neutral," uncommitted vantage point that the atheist does.

Rather the Christian qua Christian does philosophy from a prior commitment made to Jesus Christ and his church. The Christian takes herself to have had an encounter with God in Jesus Christ, an encounter which moved her to commit herself to him for life in response to a great, salutary act of mercy and benevolence accomplished in the cross and resurrection. She orients the rest of her life around this commitment, including her philosophizing, and so she doesn't approach the issues in the same way the atheist does.

Perhaps the atheist will rejoin that the Christian was irrational to do all that, that she lacked adequate evidence to make that kind of commitment. Unfortunately this line of response begs the question big time, because typically the Christian will not share the atheist's conception of what rationality, evidence, etc., amount to.

In any case, a nice tu quoque can be made to the atheist as well. She has numerous -- numerous -- starting points and background assumptions from which she began without adequate evidence. Her assumption of the existence of the external world, for instance: this is something presupposed by her arguing from evil for the nonexistence of God, but when has she ever justified this belief for herself by recourse to the evidence? No amount of evidence could justify this belief if her demands for rationality are strict enough, and even if she did bring forth evidence, this would almost certainly be a post hoc rationalization of her belief in the external world. No one believes in the external world because of some great argument or an evaluation of the evidence; it's something we start with, so to speak, though we may try to justify it later. But if she loosens her standards for rationality, then it's not obvious the Christian couldn't be perfectly rational in having made the Christian (moral, epistemological, existential, metaphysical) commitment.

There is also a further point to be made. It just might be that a failure to behave strictly "rationally" at some points in time are not all ultimately objectionable in this grave way, as if "irrationality" were the gravest and most indecent of crimes. Especially if the Christian is right about her beliefs, her irrationality -- just as any number of other sins -- may be forgiven her. The rationality of her belief, for this reason, is less interesting and consuming a topic than the truth of it. She, on the other hand, offers an invitation to the unbeliever to faith, to participation in the Christian community as a means by which the atheist may come to see things previously unknown.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Evangelism and service

Paul defines the apostolic ministry and message in these terms:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake (2 Cor 4.5).

With this Paul sets up an essential link between evangelism and service: apostolic, evangelistic ministry is simultaneously the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus of Nazareth and the declaration of the apostles as the servants of others. The link is essential because Jesus as Lord himself was a servant. Paul elsewhere writes: Christ did not please himself (Rom 15.3). Rather, Christ himself defines his own ministry as service for the sake of the many, a service which involved his giving his own life for the sake of the life of the world (cf. Mark 10.45; John 6.51).

For this reason evangelism without service is dead and ineffective. This is one principal reason for which campus preachers do no good, like those at my alma mater Arizona State who hold up signs condemning "fornicators, masturbators, liars, cheaters," etc. to hell. Perhaps we may even dare to say that what they are doing is not evangelism at all. They don't serve anyone, they just make enemies for themselves and through their incompetent presentation of a false gospel they needlessly contribute to the hardening of so many undergraduate students.

True evangelism involves service; it involves offering yourself for the good of the persons whom you are evangelizing, showing goodwill and sincerity towards them. Apart from this, the persons listening to your message have no reason to believe you actually want good of them. You may just be one more religious person who wants me to come to your church so you can tell me what to believe and take my money from me. But if you put yourself at their disposal, if you are willing to care for them in a way that is meaningful for them, then you will have won them over. Christ himself won people over to his gospel through simultaneous proclamation and healing, providing, feeding, teaching, etc. The kingdom of heaven will be filled with masses of the formerly sick, blind, lame, paralytic, deformed whose bodies Christ healed and whose hearts simultaneously he won over.

At the same time, however, Paul does preach Jesus Christ as Lord, and not just himself as the slave of all. Service is one crucial element of evangelism, but so is the real, verbalized proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord. Otherwise it is merely service and not evangelism. There's nothing wrong with mere service, of course. Sometimes it may do us good merely to serve, an exercise in unconditional love of the other person who may even reject our gospel message. But evangelism requires an euangelion, a good news that is unavoidably verbalized and communicated. And this euangelion is not about us or our goodwill, but about the goodwill of God towards us in Jesus Christ. That is why mere service cannot be evangelism: all it communicates to the other is our goodwill, which is not enough ultimately to save anyone.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The honesty of the apostles

We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God (2 Cor 4.2).

Paul here as elsewhere insists on the sincerity and honesty of the apostles in the preaching of their message. They don't make efforts to trick people, they don't lie, they don't try to hide who they are, but instead they offer themselves for evaluation as they evangelize.

It seems to me that at the end of the day, when we are confronted with the gospel message we must make a choice: either believe what the apostles and their tradition tell us about Jesus, or else we call them deluded -- or worse, liars -- and go on with our day. But the difficulty of the latter choice is obvious: they are persons who have offered themselves to judgment, persecution, rejection, and ultimately martyrdom and death for no apparent earthly gain whatsoever. Where do we get the right the refuse and reject them -- a choice made in the case of many from a position of social privilege and comfort, a choice that for some costs them nothing at all and is actually socially expected?

More than that, the apostles of all people were in the right position to make a judgment as to the truth of their claims. This is not true of everyone who dies for some religious cause -- suicide bombers or whoever. The apostles are the ones who claim to have seen the risen Jesus Christ, or more properly said, to whom they claimed Christ appeared and showed himself. They were the ones in a position to know if they were right or wrong about the whole thing. And in spite of death, of rejection, or persecution, of anathemas, of excommunication, they persisted in preaching the good news. There is a point where doubting a person's sincerity, and along with it their proposals, is no longer appropriate. There comes a time when you ought to believe a person, and to refuse to believe becomes perverse.

The difficulty, of course, comes in when the choice of belief requires major sacrifices on our part. If the apostles are right, then everything about my life has to change. If the apostles are right, then I've got to give myself over to this Jesus and I can't leave anything for myself. If the apostles are right, I can't continue to think of myself as the center of my universe any longer.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Evangelism as gracious gift

Speaking of his apostolic ministry, Paul says it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry (2 Cor 4.1) of evangelism to the nations. This is a very interesting thought; I think it goes against the tendency of our thought at times.

Evangelism can seem more like a duty and a burden than a gift, something given by God's mercy towards us. After all, we have to tell people to change their lives, that in spite of how things seem to them, they are actually headed in a completely wrong direction. This can be uncomfortable in itself, but it is doubly so when the culture at large considers evangelical Christians to be these backwoods, bigoted know-nothings who deny science, who want to impose their sexual values on the rest of us, etc. All of this makes evangelism a burden, and sometimes we can be loath to do it.

Paul insists, however, that it is by God's mercy that we are able to bring the good news of salvation to others. And this makes sense, since it is by God's mercy that there is a good news of salvation in the first place! God saved humanity in Jesus Christ out of his mercy and goodness, not because we deserved it or anything of the sort. In the gospel of Christianity the focus is always on God's mercy and goodness towards the undeserving.

More than that, evangelism is a calling. God told Abraham that his offspring was to be a blessing to all the nations (Gen 22.18). We know that Christ is that offspring (Gal 3.16) and the blessing he gives is salvation, justification, life with God. But Paul insists likewise that if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring (3.29), and so we must be a blessing too! The blessing we give is not any salvation we've accomplished ourselves, but the message of Christ who has given himself for the life of the world (2 Cor 5.14; cf. John 6.51).

I think part of the difficulty of evangelism may come from employing an unnecessarily contentious and polemical style. Karl Barth says in Church Dogmatics IV/1 that the fundamental Christian message is "God with us" (p. 6). That is a perfectly fine evangelistic message to give people, one that adequately summarizes Christian thinking without being unnecessarily complicated or esoteric. We as Christians believe that we have fellowship with God through Jesus Christ, that he has given us this gift so that we can live forever with him, and we invite anyone and everyone to come and participate with us. It may invite further questions but it doesn't unnecessarily raise them from the start. Moreover it is an irenic rather than polemical message, one that will not necessarily put people on the defensive. At the same time it emphasizes that Christian religious life is a matter of faith -- We as Christians believe -- and so does not make a claim to knowledge impossible to justify.

A friend recently told me the story of when he saw a young guy trying to evangelize some teenage girls at a Starbucks. He was using Greek terms and mentioning sophisticated principles of theology. Then another who was present, evidently convinced that this would ultimately be for the good, decided to interrupt and correct him on the use of some of these terms. Then the two of them debated between themselves while the girls left. This kind of thing is utterly inept and ineffective, like those campus preachers who shout at fornicators, masturbators, etc.

Much better is Christ's message: the kingdom of God has come near (Mark 1.15). God is with us in Jesus Christ, and he invites all to come and have fellowship with him.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stăniloae on moral psychology and knowledge of God

The sixth chapter on the knowledge of God of The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1, by Dumitru Stăniloae is very good. It is worth reading again and again, because he covers much of great interest and sophistication in a short couple dozen pages.

One thing which caught my attention was his appeal to moral psychology as a means of knowledge of God. Stăniloae talks about a certain mystery of God, an experience of the mysterious presence of God, which is had through conscience:

But this mystery is experienced especially in those states of responsibility, consciousness of sinfulness, need of repentance, and in the insurmountable difficulties of life. The psalms of the Old Testament give particular expression to this knowledge of God. All these circumstances produce a sensibility and refinement in our very being that lead it to perceive the realities beyond the world and to search for their meaning. In such circumstances especially, the knowledge of God is accompanied by responsibility, fear, and trembling. They make the soul more sensitive to the presence of God (p. 118).

This is an interpretation of conscience and the experience of moral consciousness which ascribes it greater significance than one might otherwise expect. Conscience is not just some voice in your head which prompts you to obey norms inculcated in you since birth, but with no greater reference or vantage point beyond the particular contingencies of your upbringing. Rather conscience is a means of making the soul sensitive to the presence of God who has a particular demand and expectation of you. Conscience is a way in which God opens your eyes to see him, and your mind to understand what he wants of you, in light of what you have done.

If this is so, than a neutral or indifferent conscience is an incredibly dangerous thing:

It is not within a state of indifference that God is known. He does not wish to be known in such a state, for indifference does not help me towards perfection. That is why God puts me in circumstances like those described, and through them makes himself transparent on account of the interest he takes in me (pp. 118-9).

The suggestion is not, of course, that your conscience must always be bothering you; that you must always feel worthless and immoral. I am doubtful that we could stand to live with a perpetual awareness of our own sinfulness. At the same time, however, a person whose conscience never bothers her is in a dangerous place, because in a critical way she has been cut off from a means of knowledge of God.

All of this suggests that much of human life, both psychological and religious, is oriented towards the moral. God wants us to exist in a certain way and to be perfected through our behaving in a certain way relative to himself, ourselves, and others. On a Christian view of things ontology is fundamentally ethical: it is not possible to be without being well or poorly, without being good or evil, and humanity is well when it is good. Conscience is a natural means by which God discloses himself to us, in order to direct us in the way we ought to go.

There is furthermore an essentially moral aspect to all genuine relations between God and human persons. God does not disclose himself in conditions in which a human person is not or will not be motivated to seek perfection in communion with him. A person with no desire or drive to change herself, with no conception that she ought to be differently, will never find God or experience him. Stated another way, a critical precondition to the genuine knowledge of God is a certain openness to be met and changed by him in a crucial way.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Not so fast: skeptical theism and moral skepticism

The argument from evil attempts to suggest the nonexistence of God on the basis of the existence of ostensibly gratuitous evil. If God existed, since he would be maximally good, he would not allow for the existence of gratuitous evils. Insofar as it seems there are many such evils, and we are justified in taking them to be gratuitous, we would have to conclude that God does not exist.

One particularly important line of response called "skeptical theism" attempts to undermine the claim to justification. The skeptical theist holds that we are not justified in judging any instance of evil gratuitous in such a way as would be incompatible with the existence of God, insofar as there is a huge intellectual chasm between ourselves and the divinity. Even if we can't see a reason for allowing the various evils that we see, it doesn't follow that God couldn't have a reason of which we would be ignorant. After all, he is omniscient and I'm not; he can see further and with greater detail than I or anyone else can. If anything, this would be expected.

The arguer from evil may rejoin that this kind of skepticism is difficult to contain; in fact it may lead to the undoing of morality altogether. For if God has a reason to allow some horrific evil to occur, then it may suggest to you that you are not under any moral obligation to help or assist or prevent evil. If God has reason to permit it to occur, wouldn't that justify you in allowing to it occur without dirtying your hands? Or worse -- by working to prevent evil, you may be working against God's will. In this way the suggestion is made, contrary to popular opinion, that it is actually theism and not atheism that is incompatible with morality.

This is nice and clever, but it doesn't ultimately prove too compelling. For I am not just a theist; I am a Christian. I believe that God has revealed himself and his will for humanity in the scriptures of my religious tradition, First and Second Testaments, as well as in the broader teaching of the tradition as it has been passed down through the ages. And God himself tells me to do good to all people (Gal 6.10), to be a neighbor in the manner of the good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37), and so on. So my morality is not undone; God himself has told me what I have to do.

It is a misfortune and tragedy of so much contemporary analytic philosophy of religion that it treats theism neutrally, as if anybody were merely a theist and not also a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or whatever. If I were merely a theist maybe I would have a problem here. But I'm not, so I don't.

On the other hand, atheists help themselves to morality a bit unfairly. How in the world should an atheist know what is right and wrong? Her moral intuitions, the base of her moral judgments at the end of the day, are themselves largely the product of two thousand years of Christianization of the Occident. For the vast majority of human history, people didn't think minimizing harm, caring for all human beings irrespective of tribe or nation, etc., were important moral values. If there's been any progress it's been had because of the spread of Christianity, and atheist morality, if there is such a thing, is largely drawn from the Christian impact upon history.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Those who have fallen are not enemies

In his epistle to the Philippians, Polycarp makes reference to a certain Valens. At one point he was a presbyter, but Polycarp notes that he so fails to understand the office that was entrusted to him (11.1). Evidently his downfall was an inordinate love of money, one which has affected his family as well (v. 4).

Impressively Polycarp calls his audience to a certain benevolent attitude towards the fallen brother: You, therefore, for your part must be reasonable in this matter, and do not regard such people as enemies but, as sick and straying members, restore them, in order that you may save your body in its entirety (ibid.).

It is all too easy to be resentful and angry when a person within the church is morally compromised. (Typically, however, we do not take the same hard stance against ourselves when we fall!) We may even grow to consider such persons enemies, as if they've betrayed us in their fall. Polycarp has the wisdom from the Holy Spirit, however, to know that this is not the right attitude to take. Rather Christians ought to perceive such persons as sick and straying members -- they are still a part of the body, even if they are sick, and therefore we ought to seek healing and restoration.

I take it that this echoes Jesus' advice in Mt 18.15-7, when he says:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

It's too easy to read Jesus here as calling us to an attitude of resentment, even hatred, avoidance, and shunning to the fallen members of the church. In spite of the initially intuitive plausibility or even obviousness of this reading, however, I believe Jesus' words ought to be understood otherwise.

Some of his audience for this very teaching would themselves have been tax collectors, maybe even Gentiles, who would have been impressed and moved to follow Jesus precisely because of his gentleness to them. At Luke 17.3 we read that Jesus was called a friend of tax-collectors and sinners because he dined with the scum and dregs of society, public enemies and traitors to the nation of Israel. When Jesus Christ shows such mercy to the fallen and the sick and the lost, it would be unreasonable and inappropriate to understand him as calling for the kind of exclusivist, shunning behavior he had previously condemned through his own mercy.

Jesus calls us instead to imitate his mercy and disregard for social disrepute. The lost are to be found, the sinful are to be saved, and Christ has shown us that this is accomplished through a way of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness, not shunning and hate and resentment.

Polycarp, then, is continuing this tradition when he recommends to the Philippians that they be merciful with this Valens and his wife, who have both fallen into the trap of love of money.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Death denial and naturalism's problem of evil

My friend Bill Vallicella recently posted on a problem of evil for naturalists. He argues that the fact of evil, much of which on a naturalist scheme of things goes unredeemed forever, compromises the naturalist's ability to affirm to life -- to say Yes to life, to consider life worth living, to judge that its goods outweigh its bads.

Bill's case can be strengthened, I think, by appeal to Ernest Becker's theory of the denial of death and recent psychological research on Terror Management Theory. I recently rewatched a documentary on these topics called Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality (available to watch on Hulu with ads here) in which Becker's theory and its later experimental substantiation are presented.

In a nutshell, Becker proposed that at the unconscious base of human activity is a fear of our own death. This consciousness of the fact that we will at one point in time die, as well as the fear which this awareness causes in us, motivate us to seek immortality in various forms. If we become convinced we cannot have literal immortality of the body, we may seek a sort of ersatz immortality in the continued existence of symbolic systems valuable to us -- our culture, our religion, our accomplishments in society, etc. When the mechanisms (or illusions) of death denial we choose for ourselves are threatened by the presence of another, we may respond with violence and destruction. Without some kind of belief or confidence in a death-denying illusion, we simply can't function, and so we become angry and violent when our illusion is compromised.

The psychologists and philosophers consulted in the film suggest that our illusions of death denial need not be so violent, however. We may seek to console ourselves and comfort each other in the face of our imminent mortality with cultural illusions while practicing tolerance, acceptance of the other, perhaps even through a conscious awareness that these are illusions to which we appeal.

If that's the answer the naturalist has to give to the problem of death denial, however, it is hard to see how life can be affirmable in Bill's sense. How can life be affirmed, if it may only be lived well by appeal to an illusion? How is life worth living if it must be lived as a lie, if at all? Isn't truth a fundamental value on which the naturalist and the theist can agree? Insofar as one values truth, it would seem that naturalism is very much afflicted by a problem of evil -- the problem of the evil of the necessity of death denial, a necessity which the psychologists and thinkers participating in the film openly acknowledged.

At the same time, I was impressed by the way in which Christianity stands out among religions and death-denying traditions. The personages of the film proposed that more or less every bit of culture and religion, etc., is an illusion constructed by humanity for the sake of pacifying our fear of death in some way. Religion posits an immortal soul, so that helps us to avoid fear of our eventual extinction. But Christianity differs in that it posits its origins fundamentally in an outside source -- it is God himself who, for instance, approaches Abraham and calls him, and not the other way around; it is Jesus Christ himself who appears to the disciples to convince them that he had been raised from the dead, not the other way around. And Christianity posits, furthermore, that apart from this act of the resurrection of Christ, there would not be a resurrection of or immortality for the human race at all. As Athanasius appreciated, the premise from which Christianity begins is that humanity is doomed to destruction -- something upon which we can all agree. The solution to this doom is not something we've come up with on our own, but something given to us from above, so to speak.

The good message of Easter is that death-denial can be conquered, because God has conquered it for us in Jesus Christ's resurrection: Since the children have flesh and blood, [the Son] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2.14-5).

Christ's resurrection and the victory over evil

Christ's resurrection teaches us that the apparently inevitable victory of evil is only apparently a victory, only apparently inevitable. But God shows that he can bring great good even out of something as horrific as deicide. More than that, God uses the very evils perpetrated on that weekend to bring about a tremendous good for those complicit in the crimes, persons accused of murdering the Son of God -- it means the joyful and unrestricted giving of the Holy Spirit to all who ask.

All this shows us God's power -- that he is wise enough and able to bring about tremendous good even from the most heinous evils. When we see the example of Christ's crucifixion and what became of it -- the salvation of the world, its reconciliation to God -- how can we have doubts about the eventual redemption of any of the evils we have known and experienced? How can we doubt that God will save and restore the entire world, if he can make use of deicide for the sake of the salvation of the deicidal? All of our suffering has been changed by Christ's suffering. All of our suffering is just a participation in Christ's crucifixion, after which we await a glorious restoration in resurrection.

All this shows us God's love and goodness -- that he would sooner die than to allow that his creation be undone and condemned forever. God is quick to forgive, and precisely for this reason he allows that he be nailed to a cross, spit on, his head beaten with reeds, his naked body burned by the unforgiving sun. John says, This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4.9-10). God loves the dead and through his Son gives them life; God loves sinners and through his Son atones for their evil. God's love for the entire world cannot be in doubt, when he makes himself one of us and undergoes the worst any of us can undergo, in solidarity in love with us to the very end and for our sake.

Importantly, too, Jesus' resurrection is eternal proof that this good God is sovereign over the world. The resurrection of the dead means the arrival once and for all of God's kingdom, the goal towards which all things are headed one way or another. There can be no doubts about God's sovereignty in the world when he can undo murder and turn it into an occasion for life. Moreover, we participate in that new kingdom through communion and union with Jesus Christ the risen one in the context of the church. Here I quote Moltmann:

Now the proclamation of the Easter witness that God has 'raised' this dead Jesus 'from the dead' amounts to nothing less than the claim that this future of the new world of the righteousness and presence of God has already dawned in this one person in the midst of our history of death. . . . Believers no longer live in this unredeemed world of death. In that one man the future of the new world of life has already gained power over this unredeemed world of death and has already condemned it to become a world that passes away. Therefore, in faith in the risen Jesus, men already live in the midst of the transitory world of death from the powers of the new world of life that have dawned in him. There is already true life in the midst of false life, though only in communion with the one who had been crucified by that false life. 'The future has already begun' (The Crucified God, pp. 170-1).

Now Jesus' resurrection is the goal towards which humanity is headed, as I've said. But that goal comes about in two ways, mirrored by the two descriptions of the quality of Christ's death on the cross in the synoptic gospels. In Matthew and Mark Jesus' death is a rather terrible and violent one, and he cries out in abandonment by God on the cross. In Luke and John he dies confidently, like a brave martyr, obedient and confident in God's will to the very end. Here we see the two ways we arrive at the goal of God's kingdom: those who are united to Christ, who know the truth, who have submitted themselves to him -- all such persons go confidently into God's kingdom; those who are not, who've defined themselves in opposition to Christ, must first go through the hellish experience of profound abandonment by God. But the end result is the same: in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor 15.22).

Jesus' resurrection, finally, shows us that one can undergo the definitive eschatological punishment of God and be restored in the end. As for those who say that if hell is not eternal, there is nothing to fear about it -- they ought to "go to dark Gethsemane" and see the same Christ who knows he will be resurrected praying with hematidrosis.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The apparently inevitable victory of evil

As I was reading through the accounts of Christ's death in Matthew and Mark, I was struck by a particular feature of the narrative contained therein. More specifically what I am referring to is that horrific sense of the dreadful inevitability of Christ's death -- that sense that everything is going wrongly, horribly wrongly, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Mt 26 opens with Jesus declaring to his disciples that he will be betrayed and killed (26.1). There is also a secret meeting of the chief priests and religious authorities. They discuss when they might seize Christ and kill him, thought they don't want to do it during the festival out of fear of a riot (vv. 3-4). After the woman anoints him at Bethany Jesus declares that she has prepared him for burial (v. 12). Judas consults with the religious authorities to determine a price of betrayal (v. 14-6). Jesus tells his disciples during the final supper that one of them will betray him (v. 21), and speaks of the breaking of his body and shedding of his blood (vv. 26-9). He prays in the garden of Gethsemane that there might be some other way of accomplishing his task, but there is none (vv. 36-43). Then a band of armed men come upon them in the dark, and they take Jesus off -- but not before a spontaneous act of violence in self-defense on the part of his disciples, an act he notably condemns (vv. 47-52).

While Christ is being questioned by the high priests, accused of blasphemy and physically abused by those present (v. 67), Peter -- who previously swore to follow Christ even to death -- denies him and curses him when the allegation of a relation between the two is made. Upon realizing what has happened he goes off and weeps bitter tears (v. 75).

One of the most poignant moments occurs at ch. 27 of the gospel according to Matthew:

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself (27.1-5).

Judas feels regret for the grave sin he has committed, but when he returns to the religious authorities, they are even more reprobate than he is. He's sold his soul to the devil, but that is no concern of theirs -- they are too busy continuing in the work of Lucifer, anyway. Judas' end is a dark one, indeed: guilt for betraying his master having consumed him to the point of suicide.

Pilate, too, it would seem, makes some kind of attempt to prevent this death from happening. His wife suffers because of a dream she had about Jesus, and suggests that he have nothing to do with it (v. 19). Even he poses the question to the ravenous public demanding his blood: "Why crucify him? What crime has he committed?" (v. 23). He can't convince them otherwise, however, and washes his hands (literally) of the whole affair in public (v. 24).

Matthew does an excellent job in describing the sequence of events leading to Christ's death. A sense of a terrible determinism leading to a horrific death of an innocent man is skillfully and artfully invoked: Christ foretells his death and abandonment, though his disciples protest the thought and refuse to leave him; Judas sells him but later regrets the act, throwing the thirty silver coins on the ground in agonized frustration; Pilate attempts to reason with an irrationally bloodthirsty crowd, but to no avail. It is that back-and-forth between opposing forces, the pro and contra, that makes this sequence so interesting. The misfortune is that the pro always seems to win.

This is a sense we may have in our own lives, with respect to ourselves and to the world at large -- that things are going bad and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. And on this day, this Black Saturday, it would be well really to live this experience of the victory of evil. Christ is dead, he's in the tomb, the disciples are dispersed, and the enemy has apparently won. This is more often than not the perception we have of our own world: in a day and age characterized by the Holocaust and 9/11, it seems obvious to us that evil wins, that it is destined to win, and that there's nothing any of us can do about it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Christ's horrific death on Good Friday

Jürgen Moltmann's The Crucified God is one of the most personally influential books I have ever read. It helped me to appreciate and to understand the theological as well as socio-ethical importance of the utter godlessness of Christ's death on the cross. It inspired the title and tagline of this blog: a blog about the Son of God, abandoned by God.

Moltmann does a good job of noting the disturbing quality of Christ's death compared to the martyrs of history:

Socrates died as a wise man. Cheerfully and calmly he drank the cup of hemlock. This was a demonstration of magnanimity, and was also a testimony to the immortality of the soul, which Plato tells us he taught. For him, death was a breakthrough to a higher, purer life. Thus his farewell was not difficult. . . .

The Zealot martyrs who were crucified after the unsuccessful revolts against the Romans died conscious of their righteousness in the sight of God, and looked forward to their resurrection to eternal life just as they looked forward to the resurrection of their lawless enemies, and of the transgressors of the law who had betrayed them, to eternal shame. . . .

The wise men of the Stoics demonstrated to the tyrants in the arena, where they were torn to pieces by wild animals, their inner liberty and their superiority. 'Without fear and without hope,' as we are told, they endured in freedom and demonstrated to their fearful overlords and horrified crowds their complete lack of terror even at their own death.

The Christian martyrs too went calmly and in faith to their death. Conscious of being crucified with Christ and receiving the baptism of blood, and of thereby being united for ever with Christ, they went to their death in 'hope against hope.' . . . 

Jesus clearly died in a different way. His death was not a 'fine death'. The synoptic gospels agree that he was 'greatly distressed and troubled' (Mark 14.33 par.) and that his soul was sorrowful even to death. He died 'with loud cries and tears', according to the Epistle to the Hebrews (5.7). According to mark 15.37 he died with a loud, incoherent cry. . . . Jesus clearly died with every expression of the most profound horror (The Crucified God, pp. 145-6).

Jesus' death was horrific because there he experienced utter abandonment by God. This is a crucial element of Christ's incarnation, because insofar as God becomes human he takes upon himself the accursed condition to which humanity had been condemned. But through his incarnation, through taking upon himself the burden of humanity's sin, through becoming sin himself (cf. Rom 8.3; 2 Cor 5.21), he offers himself to undergo that to which humanity had been condemned so that humanity might live instead. Through his incarnation, he confronts the curse of sin and death and utterly destroys it, even as he succumbs to it in death on Friday.

When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finite of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man's godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him (p. 276).

Christ's death is horrific because this is what being in the world apart from God amounts to. It is too easy to think of ourselves as "not that bad, really," as if human persons are fundamentally alright at the end of the day, because we don't regularly commit horrific acts of violence and terror. But the cross of Christ shows us that even those whom we would consider most godly -- the Pharisees and the temple authorities, in the case of 1C Palestine -- are capable of committing deicide if their toes are stepped on.

More than that, Christ's death shows us to what end humanity ought to be abandoned in light of its sin. Sin is a deeply rooted perverting force in human nature, and if we went on living forever as we are now, there is no telling what calamity might befall the creation. This is why sin must be destroyed: otherwise it will destroy everything else.

But God, the good creator of all there is, will not allow that his creation be destroyed along with the destruction of sin. As Athanasius says, it is beneath God's goodness that he allow the works of his hands to be undone, whether by its own fault or through the deceit of another. His way is one of repair and not just destruction. Therefore he incarnates, takes upon himself the curse and death and abandonment to which humanity had been condemned, and exhausts it and totally consumes it. But he also sanctifies human nature in his own person, he restores the imago dei which had been marred and lost by sin, and offers himself to all; through union with him, we too are transformed, the image restored, and we begin to exhibit and exemplify that life for which all humanity had been created -- a life in fellowship with the Holy Trinity.

Christ and the Father are one

John says this: Who is the liar, if not the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? That person is an antichrist, who denies the Father and the Son (1 John 2.22).

The apostles emphasizes that a rejection of Jesus as Christ is a rejection of God the Father, as well, which echoes a sentiment which Jesus himself expressed: No one goes to the Father except by me, and If you've known me, you know my Father as well, and Whoever sees me, sees the Father (John 14.6-7, 9).

There is an essential unity between Jesus and the Father, then, such that the denial of one entails the denial of the other. The Father is totally invested in mediating his communion with and salvation of humanity through his Son Jesus Christ; the Son has entirely dedicated his life to the service of and obedience to the Father for the sake of humanity. Their identities are intricately intertwined and interrelated, to the point that they can not be approached or dealt with in isolation from one another.

This is a critical piece of information for the debate regarding the salutary status of other religions: can a person who is not a Christian but a committed member of a different religion be saved?

Insofar as God the Father and Christ his Son are so closely related, there certainly can't be the pretension that we may approach by other means than through Jesus Christ. The problem then is raised: does this require explicit faith in Christ, or can Christ be doing some salvific work unknowingly in the life of a person who is not an explicit Christian?

These are interesting questions, ones which I am not intending to answer here. I wish only to emphasize John's point here that Jesus and the Father are one. If we look Jesus in the face and deny him, we have denied God the Father as well -- something I'm sure his fellow Jewish nationals did not take lightly, though Christ told them as much as well.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Love and walking in the light

And this is the message we heard from him, which we forward to you: God is light, and there's not one bit of darkness in him. If we say that we have fellowship with him and we live in darkness, we lie and don't live out the truth. . . . The one who claims to be in the light and hates his brother is actually in the darkness (1 John 1.5-6, 2.9).

Here John tells us a bit about the concrete effects fellowship with the Father and the Son (cf. 1.4) should have on a person. The "light" of God should be communicated to the person who lives in fellowship with him; if there is darkness, there is no fellowship with the light. To borrow a theme from a previous post on Stăniloae and deification, fellowship with the Holy Trinity should confer upon the human persons the characteristics and attributes of the divinity which lead to eternal life (cf. 1.2).

What sorts of things must we get from God, then, if we are in fellowship? John emphasizes here love: if someone claims to know God but hates his brother, then that person is a liar and in the darkness. As he says later: Whoever doesn't love, doesn't know God because God is love (4.8). We must become loving when we live in fellowship with God, because God is love and he confers his love to us; it is a part of God's light that he loves, and when this light casts out our darkness, it leaves in its place a vibrant love.

It is important here to note that, among other things, John envisions a concrete change in the life of the person who comes into fellowship with God. If you claim to know God, if you say that you have met the Holy Trinity, then there ought to be something different about you.

This is a tricky issue, since many of us know that change is a slow and arduous process. Oftentimes we may feel that some vices are "here to stay," so to speak, or at least for a long time. Certainly we can see others whose habits seem slow to change, especially if their habits are abrasive and bothersome to us. Interestingly, however, John envisions one concrete form of change as particularly important: love for our brothers and sisters. If we've come to know God, then we will love those around us, faults and vices and all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Stăniloae on deification

I really am enjoying reading The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1 by Dumitru Stăniloae. Here is a description of deification or theosis which I found particularly impressive, given in the context of the role of church dogma as a retelling of the plan and means of the salvation/deification of man through God in Jesus Christ:

We have seen above that there is no salvation for the human person apart from communication with the supreme Person. Apart from this communication, the power to strengthen oneself spiritually is nowhere to be found, nor the power to remain eternally as persons without being reduced to the level of nature, or virtually to that level.

The dogmas of the Christian faith specify, moreover, that the salvation of man is assured as an eternal, happy existence only if his relation with the supreme Personal reality is so close that the powers and attributes of God will be stamped indelibly upon him through what is called deification. For this deification makes man, together with God, a bearer of divine attributes and powers that completely overcome that tendency which the human body has towards corruption (p. 65).

In other words, humanity can only be saved if it exists in a sort of communion with God, who is the supremely Personal reality in the Holy Trinity. And this salvation consists in a sort of communication of attributes between God and the human person, by which the human person is made capable of living rather than dying, of being fulfilled and realized rather than corrupted. For Stăniloae, this is something accomplished through the incarnation, by virtue of which humanity in the person of Christ himself has been transformed and fulfilled and perfected; then, humanity receives the free invitation to unite itself to Christ, through his example in the word as well as through union with him in his real presence in the Eucharist.

This latter element is critical, however: there must be a free approach of Christ, not a compelled one.

Thus, the dogmas are necessary for salvation because they express Christ in his saving work. But Christ saves us only if we open ourselves to him, if we believe in him. Thus, the Christian dogmas express the powers of Christ in his saving action, provided only that we believe what they express (ibid.).

Apart from an openness to Christ as Christian dogma presents him, they can have no salutary effect on the life of an individual person. This is an obvious enough point, and accords with what Christ himself says in the gospels: unless you believe in him, unless you accept him and trust him, he cannot save you and perform any good work for you. Everything will be ineffective, you will second-guess and doubt everything, and you cannot be saved that way.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The experience of the apostles

1 John opens up like this:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life (1.1).

Critically important here is the apostle's repeated reference to the personal, first-hand experience of him and his associates regarding that which is proclaimed. Dumitru Stăniloae speaks of the preservation and explication of the apostolic tradition through scripture as a apart of testimony to the experience of that same pressure exerted by the integral revelation concentrated in Christ (The Experience of God, vol. 1, p. 64). The apostles felt this pressure, this presence of God's revelation in Christ and afterwards through the Holy Spirit. This is what they confer to us in their testimony through the gospels, the epistles, etc.: the content of that revelation as they received it in Christ. Note John's language here. Their fellowship is with Jesus whom they name Christ and the Son of God (v. 3), and their experiences with him first-hand have left such an impression on them that they go about telling the world about the salutary, life-giving fellowship they have. It's an eternal life (v. 2), a participation in quality of life of the expected eschaton of God's kingdom, and the forgiveness of sins through Christ's death on the cross (v. 7).

This text speaks against two common reasons given by nonbelievers against the testimony of the New Testament regarding Jesus Christ. One group, as exemplified by Fox Mulder from The X-Files, says that the NT is just full of parables and stories which are not intended to be interpreted as literally true. Another group says that the documents were written so long after the purported facts took place that they cannot be trusted to tell us anything about the "real, historical Jesus."

On the contrary, John and his associates heard, saw, and felt Jesus himself; this is what they tell us, this is the claim they make. They saw in him, moreover, the fulfillment of the Jewish eschatological hope in the sovereignty of God over the world; hence they call him the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us (v. 2). Their fellowship is with this Jesus Christ and his Father God (v. 3) -- and since this was written after Jesus' crucifixion and yet they assert that they have fellowship with him, he is putting himself forward as a continuing witness to the fact of Jesus' actual resurrection. Importantly, too, he calls others to have this same fellowship, too, so that they too can come to know this Jesus, the risen Son of God.

Against the "parable" objection, John here plainly takes himself to have come into contact with some actual aspect of reality. He appeals to the senses, claiming that he saw, heard, and felt Jesus, both pre-crucifixion and post-resurrection; and he takes himself to continue to have real fellowship, a salutary life-giving fellowship, with this Jesus and with God the Father. He is not speaking in parables. He is speaking plainly about the real world.

Against the "too long after the fact" objection, again, John here has testified both to a prior witness of Jesus' life, his death, his resurrection, as well as a continued fellowship with Christ. He speaks about the message they received from Christ during his earthly ministry (vv. 5-6), and he speaks about forgiveness through his crucifixion (v. 7). John and his associates take themselves to be in regular fellowship with this Jesus Christ, the one whom they saw alive and dead and then alive again. John puts himself as a witness to all the critical events of Jesus' life.

You may refuse to believe John. You may think horribly deceived about all this. But what you cannot do is try to soften the strength of his claim by making it all parables and myths. More than that, he makes a claim to intimate knowledge of Jesus -- he heard, he saw, he felt -- which you cannot make for yourself. Believe him, or call him a liar, but do not soften what he says so that his claim can just as easily be ignored.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Stăniloae against Godless Christianity

Lately I have been reading through Dumitru Stăniloae's series The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. I am really enjoying what he has to say about the function of the church, deification, the preservation of revelation through tradition, and so on.

In the course of a chapter addressing the topic of theology as an ecclesial service, he writes about various forms of theology which may prove harmful and damaging for the life of the church. One is a kind of liberal Christian theology that is effectively atheist and anti-traditional:

Even more damaging, however, is theology which entirely abandons the revelation in Christ which has been preserved in holy scripture and in the tradition of the Church in order to adapt itself to what it thinks representative exclusively of the spirit of the age. The Protestant Bultmannian theology which declared that all the essential events from the beginning of Christianity are myths was of this kind, as were the similar views of the Anglican Bishop J.A.T. Robinson, and the theory of a Christianity without God put forward by the "God is dead" theological movement in America (The Experience of God, vol. 1, p. 89).

Now I presume there are a few ways a theology could be Godless.

In the first place, it could be verbally Godless, as when the names "God", "Jesus", etc., are not used in any explicit way. In a second way, however, it would be more existentially Godless, insofar as it does not posit the existence of God, the deity and presence of Christ, etc., in any literal way.

The problem with both forms of theological Godlessness, whether verbal or existential, is this: they do not put people in contact with the only possible source of their salvation, the Holy Trinity. They don't orient their listeners in such a way as to come into contact with the deity. Instead, if there is any salvation at all to be had through these Godless theologies, it would have to be a kind of salvation you more or less realize yourself: e.g., through moral effort and a disciplined lifestyle of sorts, you come to a certain higher level of moral enlightenment which minimizes the harm you cause other beings, etc. The orthodox Christian insists, however, that humanity cannot salve itself, grand moral efforts on the part of a select few enlightened individuals notwithstanding.

Stăniloae emphasizes that Christian theology is only worth anyone's time if through it we come into genuine contact with a powerful source of salvation:

Christianity cannot be of use to any age, nor consequently to the present age either, if it does not bring to it what it alone can bring: the link with the infinite source of power, that is, with God become man. Only in this way can Christianity contribute to progress by means of an unending process of spiritualization (ibid.).

If there is to be a progress for humanity, if people are going to move forward, it can only be through contact with God in Jesus Christ, "the common Savior of all" as Athanasius names him.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

It's to your advantage that I go

At John 16.7 Jesus is recorded as saying this to his disciples on his last night with them;

But what I'm telling you is the truth: it's to your advantage that I go. Because if I don't go, the Comforter won't come to you; but if I go, then I will send him to you (my translation).

Of course he is talking here about the παράκλητος, the Holy Spirit. Why does Jesus say, however, that if he doesn't leave, the Holy Spirit won't come?

One way that I've understood this problem is this. The Israelites had made a covenant with God which contained various stipulations and conditions: they would receive blessing if they obeyed, but they would incur a curse if they disobeyed. Yet at Deut 30, we read that, once all the blessings and curses which the covenant described had fallen upon them, if they would repent, they would be restored in various ways:

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you (Deut 30.1-3).

Now, there is one promise which is particularly intriguing. It says:

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live (v. 6).

I understand this circumcision of the heart to refer to the new birth and the baptism of the Holy Spirit, such as the apostles experienced at Pentecost. It means a fundamental transformation of the human person into such a state as gladly obeys the law of the Lord and lives in fellowship with him.

It is important to remember, however, that this blessing comes upon repentance, as shown in vv. 1-3. Insofar as the paradigmatic description of the curse of the Law is social turmoil and oppression at the hands of foreign rulers (cf. Deut 28), we may reasonably say that Israel in 1C Palestine under Roman rule was still cursed. In fact Paul goes on to say that they are still under their curse insofar as they reject Christ (Gal 3.10). Evidently, then, an adequate and true repentance was not forthcoming.

Jesus Christ, however, in his participating in the national repentance to which John called Israel (see Mark 1.4-11) can be understood as offering up this repentance on their behalf. He fulfills the stipulations of the covenant (cf. Mt 5.17) and even offers himself to die the accursed death of the Law in the place of all (cf. Gal 3.13). Thus because he obeyed the covenant, because he offers that repentance for which the Law called, he receives the promised Holy Spirit and gives it to all who come to him (Acts 2.33).

So the curse of the Law has been exhausted, the obedience required has been offered, and the promised Holy Spirit is available to all who come to Christ! It was truly to our advantage that he go.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mercy, judgment, and the function of punishment

I was reading through 1 Clement recently, a letter from the leader of the church of Rome addressed to the church in Corinth. The problem with which the discussion opens is a detestable and unholy schism, so alien and strange to those chosen by God (1.1) which evidently has taken place in the latter church because of jealousy and other such vices (3.2-4). Clement then proceeds to recount past instances of righteousness and repentance which was rewarded by God with salvation, as well as instances of disobedience which were met with judgment.

After recalling these things, he writes:

Let us therefore be humble, brothers, laying aside all arrogance and conceit and foolishness and anger, and let us do what is written. For the Holy Spirit says: "Let not the wise man boast about his wisdom, nor the strong about his strength, nor the rich about his wealth; but let the one who boasts boast in the Lord, to seek him and to do justice and righteousness." Most of all, let us remember the words of the Lord Jesus, which he spoke as he taught gentleness and patience. For he said this: "Show mercy, so that you may receive mercy; forgive, so that you may be forgiven. As you do, so shall it be done to you. As you give, so shall it be given to you. As you judge, so shall you be judged. As you show kindness, so shall kindness be shown to you. With the measure you use it will be measured to you." With this commandment and these precepts let us strength ourselves, so that we may humbly walk in obedience to his holy words (13.1-3).

It is fascinating to me that Clement recommends mercy, forgiveness, and kindness as ways of avoiding the judgment and punishment of God. Why is it exactly that things which are effectively alternatives to judgment will save one from them, whereas the failure to be merciful, to forgive, and to be kind are met with unmercy, unforgiveness, unkindness? Doesn't God somehow work against himself, compromise his own standards, if he chooses to punish the persons who adopted a morality of punishment?

If we suppose God punishes for its own sake, exacts judgment purely for the sake of retribution, we might have a contradiction of sorts: for then he exempts those from judgment who take a moral stance which is opposed to judgment, whereas those who affirm punishment and judgment are then punished and judged for it. Either judgment and punishment are values or they are not! If they are, what is the matter with my taking judgment into my own hands? What is the matter with me refusing to forgive, if I have every right to be resentful? After all I couldn't even in principle be called to forgive if there weren't something to forgive, and if there is something to forgive, there is something to resent as well.

But we can escape the contradiction of values if we reject that God is interested in punishment and judgment for their own sake. We may instead interpret the punishment and judgment of the unmerciful and unforgiving as educative, a way in which God awakens those who refuse to forgive to the gravity of their refusal. The refusal to forgive puts the unforgiven person in hell, just as all of humanity would be in hell if God had not forgiven us. It may be, therefore, that God engages in punishment and judgment precisely to show persons who do likewise that it's not good; it's not something they would desire for themselves, and consequently they ought not to impose it upon others (cf. Mt 7.12, the golden rule).

We may even strengthen the point by appeal to a more robust, realized atonement theology. Suppose you think that human sin and the like was actually and completely atoned by Christ's act of faithfulness, independently of the beliefs anyone might have about the matter. Of course, faith and belief in the message of this salvation is certainly a condition to experiencing it and benefiting from it, just as it may be a condition of enjoying some lottery money that you believe you've won it. But it wouldn't be the faith itself which realizes the atonement for your sins; it would just be a way of subjectively appropriating an antecedent objective truth.

Now on a picture like this, it may be that God expects Christians and others to forgive one another insofar as Christ has already accomplished atonement for all of human sin (cf., e.g., Eph 4.32: Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.) If a person were to refuse to forgive, to be kind, to be merciful, this could be understood to be a refusal or denial of the completion of Christ's work, as if Christ's act did not work atonement for all human sin. Therefore such a person is consequently approached and treated by God as if Christ did not accomplish atonement for her sins either: she is judged, condemned, and punished because -- as she should accept, given her behavior -- there has been no atonement for her sins. Of course there is no undoing Christ's accomplished work. There can be no changing that in Christ God has accomplished atonement for the whole world (1 John 2.2). But God acts as if there were no atonement when we act as if there were no atonement, so that we can be brought to treat others as we would like to be treated as well, and to be reminded of the truth of Christ's accomplished work.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Eating Christ the paschal lamb

For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed (1 Cor 5.7).

Lately taking the communion has proven to be a more significant and powerful component of my spirituality than it had previously been. Particularly I am impressed by the fact of eating the bread and drinking the wine: through this act of chomping and destroying, I take Christ into me.

There are two elements here: the misfortune and tragedy that the body has to be broken, the food chewed and the wine swallowed; and precisely for that reason, the tremendous kenotic grace and love of Christ who offers his body to be destroyed in this way for the sake of my receiving life and being transformed into the likeness of God.

On the one hand, the food has to be chewed and deformed and ground and consumed entirely. The body of Christ had to be beaten, his head had to be stricken with rods, his hands and feet pierced with nails, the flesh of his back open with the whips. The nation of Israel and the whole of the creation had incurred a curse because of sin, and the proper wage for sin is death (cf. Rom 6.23). And looking at the curses of the covenant depicted in Deut 28, Jesus' death on the cross by the Romans and Jewish leaders is a perfect summary of the death to which the law condemned Israel: an unnatural, early, and unjust death, at the hands of foreign oppressors in the midst of inter-Judean social strife. And insofar as the whole of humanity had been condemned to death, this especially paradigmatic accursed death of an Israelite for the sake of Israel is a death on behalf of a death-condemned humanity as well.

But on the other hand, Jesus willingly lays his life down for his sheep (John 10.11). He says: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (6.51). Jesus humbles himself to the point of death on a cross (Phil 2.8), one man dying for all men (2 Cor 5.14) and taking the burden of the curse of the law upon himself (Gal 3.13). Though it is costly, though it is unfair, though it means sacrifice and pain and suffering for himself, God is happy to give himself for the sins of his creatures because he wants life, not death (Ezek 18.23). Jesus Christ is the bread of God . . . which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (John 6.33), the bread that comes down from heaven, from which anyone may eat of it and not die (6.50).

The proper attitude in taking the communion, therefore, is one of reverence, humility, shame, and gratitude: I am ashamed and sorry, Lord, that my sin has brought this upon you; but I am eternally grateful, from now and to eternity, that you are willing to die for my sins so that I may live with you. Like one hymn says:

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature's sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Gay sex and the unnatural

The only compelling line of reasoning I know of for the conclusion that gay sex is immoral is one drawn from natural law morality: gay sex is in a critical way contrary to the naturally proper use of the sex organs, and for this reason it is immoral. The problem comes in when specifying why it is unnatural. The only obvious possible answer for this question, of course, is that it is in principle impossible to procreate during gay sex.

The reasoning, then, is like this: it is immoral to use the sex organs in a manner that goes contrary to nature; it is the natural function of the sex organs to procreate; it is impossible to procreate having gay sex; hence, etc.

The kicker is that the premises of this argument would likewise make sex with the use of contraceptives, as well as masturbation or anal or oral sex which terminates in ejaculation outside of the vagina, all likewise immoral -- a conclusion that many Protestants are not ready to accept. The problem for the Protestant, then, is to understand how to argue for the immorality of gay sex from its unnaturalness without likewise excluding sexual activity she may want to retain and permit.

Suppose someone argues that the sex organs have further functions beyond the capacity for procreation, and we may still engage in sex in such a manner as to allow for the realization of those functions. Now, however, if it is not immoral or unnatural for straight persons to have protected sex which fulfills these other functions, why would it be immoral or unnatural for gay persons to have sex which may likewise fulfill these other functions? Why is gay sex unnatural but straight protected sex natural, if both could fulfill these other functions beyond procreation?

Or suppose someone says that it may not be immoral occasionally to engage in sex acts which make procreation impossible (e.g., masturbation, terminal non-PIV sex), though it would be immoral and unnatural exclusively to engage in such sex acts. But then this would allow for the morality of occasional gay sex. The rejoinder may be: No, sex should only be had in the context of a committed straight marriage. But the obvious question to ask is: Why think that, unless sex were fundamentally and essentially about procreation and marriage it is the natural context in which children are to be raised up? Why else would you not allow sex outside of marriage, if not because sex is supposed to be had in such a way as produces children and marriage is the social context in which children can be safely reared?

Someone may attempt to avoid these problems by simply being a voluntarist about it: God has disallowed gay sex, but he has allowed straight sex, and that's that. But this is eminently unconvincing. Presumably we can ask why God has disallowed one and not the other; presumably God does things for reasons. And more than that, this kind of thinking requires that we abandon the argument from unnaturalness: if God simply declares gay sex immoral, then we can't argue it's immoral because it's unnatural; rather it's just the will of God. But I've concerned myself here with the argument from unnaturalness.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Abortion and universalism: an analogy of arguments

I think the most compelling argument for the immorality of abortion grounds the fetus' right to life in its potentiality to develop into a person. A fetus, just like a newborn baby or child or a sleeping person, is not a person in act, does not actually exhibit personhood while in that state. At the same time we generally do not find the killing of infants or sleeping persons morally acceptable: their potential personhood is sufficient condition to make their killing tantamount to murder. Hence, etc. in the case of the fetus.

Here's a similar line of reasoning applied to the theological doctrine of universalism, according to which all persons will be saved. The argument goes like this: all human beings do not actually exhibit that glorified, deified state which persons will have in the eschaton, but nevertheless, in spite of their actual sinfulness and only potential glorification, it is immoral to kill them. Presumably, however, this would make it immoral for God eternally to punish or destroy a person whose salvation he could have guaranteed: it would be destroying that which has the potentiality to develop into something of great and tremendous value; it would be akin to killing a fetus when it is a potential person.

If someone denies that a potentiality to develop a certain trait or mode of being can ground an actual right to life, then another argument has to be given against abortion. It's not obvious that there is any good one which does not ultimately ground the fetus' right to life in its potential to become a person. More than that, such a denial is just not plausible: a person in a deep sleep is not exhibiting any of the characteristics of a person -- e.g., consciousness, the use of language, moral agency, etc. -- but it would not therefore be moral to kill her. Likewise potential works of art, such as drafts of novels or songs or poems, are of great value to us even if they are incomplete and imperfect, because in them exists the potentiality to become something of great price. They receive a sort of derivative actual value from the potential value of their realized state.

For this reason, short of denying that the persons who are going to be damned have the potential be glorified -- a ridiculous and implausible position if ever there were one, since it amounts to denying that they are even human -- it would seem equally immoral and inappropriate of God (at least to fail to do his part) to realize the salvation of every human person.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A phenomenological approach to the hell texts

In contradistinction to universalists who may be pluralists or adherents to other religions, an evangelical universalist has to offer a method for understanding the "hell texts" of the Bible which both takes them seriously but is compatible with a dogmatic affirmation of the eventual salvation of all persons.

One approach that seems to me plausible is to understand the warnings of an eternal hell as specifically crafted with a particular rhetorical goal in mind, namely to motivate repentance and belief in Jesus Christ as Lord. In order to do this, the listener is put in a situation in which she must make a choice as to how she will develop her identity from this point forward, what sort of person she will be: either you pledge loyalty to Jesus Christ, or else you come under God's judgment. A person who constructs her identity in opposition to Christ, after having rejected him when presented with the choice, will not go on living indefinitely in autonomy and freedom in such an identity. There will come a moment when she will reap the consequences for her choice, for the person she has determined to be, and this will be in hell.

The universalist, then, will suggest that there are two ways of speaking of the experience, depending upon the perspective assumed. From the perspective of God, who sees something of value even underneath the surface of a falsely and poorly constructed self, it is a matter of purification and cleansing through fire. (Compare this to C.S. Lewis's suggestion that for those who escape hell, it will turn out to have been a purgatory of sorts, whereas it is hell for those who remain.)

On the other hand, it is destruction and unquenchable fire for the person undergoing hell, because she suffers punishment so long as she persists in her identity constructed in opposition to God. The language of the eternality of hell specifically is motivated by the phenomenology of the experience of judgment: it will be eternal because it will go on for as long as you do -- "you" here being understood as you-as-opposed-to-Christ. The "way out" of hell, so to speak, will have the phenomenology of death, insofar as it would mean the total abandonment of the conception of oneself that the damned person had constructed over the course of her life; it would be a sort of ego death or identity death.

The suggestion, then, is that the language of the eternality of hell is phenomenological, it is used insofar as it adequately describes the experience of hell that the damned person will go through. But precisely because it is phenomenological language, it need not describe a literal truth or reality right down to the T. There is the possibility of describing the reality in other terms which are not compatible with the phenomenological description taken literally.

In this way the universalist can see the value of using the language of eternal punishment, at least as addressed to unbelievers and the wayward and hardened hearts. For such a person the threat may be important. Importantly, however, that kind of language probably should not be used in the case of Christians, who have at least made the step forward in constructing their identity in favorable relation to Christ. Christians should not be threatened with hell but rather met with the grace and kindness of God who can lift them up.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Gregory of Nyssa on the appropriate place for sinners

For not all who are granted a renewed existence by the resurrection will enter upon the same new life. Rather will there be a great difference between those who are purified and those who lack purification. Those who in their lifetime here have already been purified by baptism will be restored to a state akin to this. Now purity is closely related to freedom from passion, and it is not to be doubted that blessedness consists in this freedom from passion. But those, on the other hand, who have become inured to passion, and to whom nothing has been applied to cleanse the stain -- neither the sacramental water nor the invocation of divine power, nor the amendment of repentance -- must necessarily find their appropriate place. Now just as the appropriate place for debased gold is the furnace, so the evil mingled with these natures must be melted away in order that, after long ages, they may be restored to God in their purity. Since, then, both fire and water have a capacity to cleanse, those who have washed off the stain of sin in the sacramental water do not need the other means of purification. But those who have not been initiated into this purification must of necessity be purified by fire (Gregory of Nyssa, Address on Religious Instruction, 35).

It is fascinating and compelling to me that Gregory uses the metaphor of gold being purified to describe sinners who go off into hell: they are creatures of great value, but they have been debase and need to be cleansed. This is why their time in hell cannot be infinite: because they are of value, the appropriate course of action is to purify, not to destroy, just as it would not be appropriate to get rid of gold if it were defiled. Presumably, moreover, their value comes from the fact that they are creatures of God, made by him in his image (or alternatively, that they contain, as might a fetus, the potentiality to exemplify his image). This fact -- that even despicable sinners are of infinite value -- is often forgotten or disregarded by many who argue against universalism.

In an article of his combating Thomas Talbott ("In Defence of Divine Retribution," I think) Oliver Crisp makes a statement to the effect that he sees no reason to think punishment enacted strictly on grounds of retributive justice with no hope or possibility of reconciliation and restoration is a "second best" to the eventual realization of restoration and reconciliation. In other words, he doesn't see why it would always be preferable to restore and reconcile if possible. The reasoning, however, is actually perfectly clear: people are of considerable value independently of their actual moral worth, and for this reason it is always better to restore them than not.

Consider an alternative scenario: is it not obviously preferable to restore, as opposed to scrapping, the classic car given to you by your grandfather as a birthday gift once it has broken down? So long as the car is of value to you and repairing is within your means, it's obvious that it would preferable to restore rather than to scrap.

So also in this case: people are gold, people are of tremendous value even in spite of their sinfulness and wretchedness, because (say) they are creatures of God made in his image. (If you denied this, say, in the case of the reprobate, you would be hard pressed to find some rational motivation for condemning the murder of a reprobate person.) And if God is God, then he not only knows what is valuable but also values it. And of course it is within God's means to save all persons. Therefore this is what is right for him to do, this is what it is appropriate and just for him to do. The alternative would be inappropriate: it would not be appropriate treatment of gold to toss it when it is defiled; likewise it would not be appropriate treatment of a person who is of infinite value to destroy her (or allow her to destroy herself).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Drawn by God to Jesus

Another favorite passage of mine is the "bread from heaven" discourse in John 6.22-59, though I think oftentimes it is very badly misunderstood.

Some persons take Jesus here to be affirming a kind of predestinarian particularism: God has chosen some persons to be saved, rejected others, and no one could possibly be saved apart from this sovereign choice of God. Moreover, a person may only believe in Christ -- such is the sorry state of mankind -- if drawn and in some way that faith is realized in her by God.

I don't see the text in this way at all. Rather I understand it, and all of the gospel of John, a bit differently.

Jesus tells the crowd that he is the bread come down from heaven, which gives eternal life. The people naturally object and wonder about this, given that they take themselves to know his earthly origins: Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can we now say, 'I have come down from heaven'? (6.42). But then Jesus answers them:

Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me (vv. 43-5).

It is certainly true that Jesus' language may immediately suggest the kind of predestinarianism I referenced earlier. But I think in fact a closer reading of the text will not allow for it.

There is a critical problem for the predestinarian reading. Jesus here affirms that no one could approach him unless chosen and drawn to him by the Father. The fact that the majority of his listeners abandon him after the discourse (v. 66) would lead us, on this view, to draw the conclusion that they had not been chosen by God for salvation. But Jesus is evidently interested in their believing and being saved, since he commands them to believe in him (vv. 26-9). More than that, there are affirmations of the universal scope of God's salvific work to be accomplished through Christ: Jesus will give his body for the life of the world (v. 51). The predestinarian reading puts a god behind the back of Jesus, so to speak, insofar as now Jesus' discernible intentions and motives are not necessarily God the Father's. Jesus may desire the life of the world, he may desire the repentance and salvation of his listeners, but God the Father has chosen differently. This puts a conflict of interests in the trinitarian relations and compromises what Jesus says when he affirms: Whoever sees me, sees him who sent me (12.45). So the predestinarian reading is to be rejected.

I take it that the gospel of John regularly affirms the freedom of the human will independently of God's will, and the exercise of that freedom is an essential component of salvation. Thus Jesus regularly calls out to groups of people to be saved and to believe in him who do not believe in him (e.g., 12.35-40). Short of positing hidden motives and actions on the part of the divinity, short of pitting Jesus and God the Father against each other, the only other option is to affirm that Jesus has no proximate control over whether they will believe. He insists that they do, he pleads that they do, but they must make such a choice on their own.

This is not to say that God has no work to play in bringing forth belief. Evidently he does, since Jesus says that no one can come to him unless drawn by the Father. But I understand this "drawing" on the model of testimony and attestation -- in other words, God draws through the miracles and works that Jesus does, and they form the basis of Jesus' call to believe in him (10.37-8). In fact Jesus makes appeal to his works precisely in calling forth faith from his persistent enemies, the Judean authorites; this suggests that it is God the Father's will as much as Jesus' will that these "reprobates" believe in him and be saved, since the works are the Father's testimony to Jesus.

Moreover Jesus affirms the possibility that a person hear God's voice and make the right choice: Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me (6.45); Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not of God (8.47). If a person lives listening to God's word, God's whisper, she will come to see God in Jesus.

Thus when Jesus says that no one can come to him unless drawn or enabled by the Father, I understand that drawing or enabling as referring to the works performed by the Father's power. The people are sinful and do not hear God's voice; they don't recognize the Son of God when he appears to them. For this reason, then, because God's will is the salvation of all, he performs numerous works and miracles so as to inspire belief. Yet there is the crucial element of a person's independent agency, over which neither Jesus nor the Father has proximate deterministic control. This agency means that the sinful person may see the signs and respond in a totally unfavorable manner (e.g., ascribing the miracles to the devil).