Sunday, August 31, 2014

Evening prayer for forgiveness, per Bonhoeffer

I am reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together for my Foundations for a Spiritual Life class. In the second major chapter, he discusses the religious schedule for a Christian family: morning prayer, reading from scripture, singing hymns in unison, etc. Especially appealing to me was his discussion of evening prayer. For Bonhoeffer, one important aspect of evening prayer is asking each other for forgiveness:

Then, too, the evening prayer of the family fellowship should include particularly the petition of forgiveness for every wrong done to God and our brothers, for God's forgiveness and that of our brothers, and for readiness gladly to forgive any wrong done to us (Life Together, p. 74).

In describing this practice, he makes reference to an old-time habit of the monks and the monastic orders:

It is an ancient monastic custom that by fixed order in the evening devotions the abbot begs the forgiveness of the brothers for all faults and defaults committed against them, and after the brothers assure him of their forgiveness they likewise beg the abbot's forgiveness of their faults and defaults and receive his forgiveness (ibid.).

The motivation for this is found in the Ephesians text: Let not the sun go down upon your wrath (Eph 4.26). Bonhoeffer comments:

It is a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that every dissension that the day has brought must be healed in the evening. It is perilous for the Christian to lie down to sleep with an unreconciled heart. Therefore, it is well that there be a special place for the prayer of brotherly forgiveness in every evening's devotion, that reconciliation be made and fellowship established anew (ibid.).

Imagine how fruitful a practice this must be in a number of different contexts, but especially in the marriage context! I am not myself married, but you often hear the proverb quoted to married couples: don't go to bed angry. At the end of the day to confront one another and to put aside all ill will, to refuse to go to bed unembraced and without having concretely expressed your love for one another -- that surely is an essential component of any happy relationship.

I think, too, that this practice is especially powerful once it becomes a habit. Even if I may not have done anything to my wife that day, it may still be important to ask forgiveness. Making a habit of asking forgiveness is important for at least these reasons: in the first place, it makes me less likely willingly to harm the other person when I know I will be confronting her later that night to ask for forgiveness -- the shame of apologizing will discourage me from hurting; secondly, I am less likely to hold a grudge against the other person knowing that they will come to apologize, in spite of the difficulty. The wounds seem less profound, less important, less worth keeping alive when we make a habit of apologizing and asking forgiveness of one another.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Blinded by sin

Jesus tells the chief priests, scribes, and elders in Jerusalem a parable about them. It's the story of the vineyard and the wicked tenants. The owner (God) of the vineyard (Israel) leaves some tenants (the temple authorities and religious leaders) to work the land and produce fruit. When he sends servants (prophets) to collect some of the fruit (justice and righteousness in the land), however, the tenants beat them and kill them. The ever-patient owner sends his son (Jesus Christ) to the tenants, believing that they will at least respect him. Instead, however, the tenants decide to kill him and thus to steal his inheritance.

What will the owner do in light of all this? Jesus tells us: He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others (Mark 12.9). In other words, Jesus is prophesying impending judgment upon the religious establishment because they will kill him; they will be destroyed, and the leadership of God's people will be given to others (namely, the apostles, bishops, priests, etc.).

It is fascinating and disturbing to read the response of the authorities: When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away (v. 12). It is fascinating because they hear the parable, they hear the threat of judgment upon their heads for the murder of God's Son, and yet they still want to do it all! Their sin, when confronted with the announcement of its own destruction, compels them headlong into their own imminent doom all the same.

There is a certain irrationality about sin. It makes the persons whom it oppresses suicidal -- if not by making them actually want to kill themselves, then at least by obliging them to act in ways that lead to their eventual demise. Its purpose -- if we may speak of sin having a purpose -- is clearly to destroy and nothing else. Of course, as human animals we have a natural instinct for self-preservation that oftentimes keeps us from doing the clearly suicidal thing. Sin's deceit operates by aiming for a destruction that is far off into the future, further than we can see or think about, while promising an enjoyable and pleasant life along the way. We are convinced that we are going alright, that things are good, because we are not plainly suffering or agonizing at the present moment. The suffering comes later, by the time when sin has been cemented in our bodies and our habits are nigh unchangeable.

The religious authorities were convinced by their sin that destroying Jesus would resolve their problems. They didn't see, even though it had been plainly spoken to them, the impending judgment to come upon them if they went through with it. Sure of themselves and the rightness of their cause, their own dogged hatred of Jesus blinded them them to the trap into which they were falling.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The LORD will save me

At the end of Hezekiah's song we find these wonderful words:

The LORD will save me,
and we will sing to stringed instruments
all the days of our lives,
at the house of the LORD (Isa 38.20).

While I was reading and praying, I came across these final words and was inspired to pray to God in thanksgiving for the salvation I have been given. What Jesus Christ did on the cross, he did for the whole world (2 Cor 5.14; 1 John 2.2) and therefore he did for me too! And when Christ was accepted by God and raised from the dead, there in his resurrection was my resurrection too, and when he went up to the Father, I was and am there with him (Eph 2.5-6; Col 3.1-3)! My salvation has been pledged by Jesus Christ himself, and what God begins he can complete as well (Phil 1.6).

It is important to think this way. One thing I appreciate about the Reformed theological tradition, and one thing severely lacking in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, is the focus on the assurance of salvation. It is spiritually devastating not to be sure of your salvation. It is emotionally and psychologically exhausting not to know whether or not you will be saved by God. Every sin invites the fear of hellfire; compounding guilt paralyzes us and impedes prayer and fellowship with the Holy Trinity.

Eugene Peterson reflecting on his childhood and religious upbringing recalls something like this experience:

At the same time, I also recall a lot of emphasis in our church on "making a decision for the Lord," and exercising my willpower in saying no to the temptations that surround me in school and neighborhood. I had many occasions to do that, making repeated decisions for Christ as evangelists and pastors took turns at sowing doubts about the validity of my last decision and urging me to do it again (The Contemplative Pastor, p. 96).

Because the evangelists would always call upon people to make a decision for Christ, the validity of previous decisions was called into question. This left the people in a perpetual sense of not belonging, of not being a part of Christ's body, of uncertainty with regard to their relationship to God. After all, you do not make a decision for Christ if you are already his; you make the decision only if you are not. Eugene and the persons in his church had no sense of the assurance of their salvation, since they were constantly being called to make a decision for the Christ they evidently had not yet effectively chosen.

This is toxic spirituality; it's no good. It keeps us focused on ourselves, always asking whether we have done enough to prove our discipleship or to win God's favor. We will never have done enough; if we could have done enough, we would not have needed Christ. What Christ has done is enough: we are to unite ourselves to him and to begin to participate in that new life, enabled by his Spirit.

But it is important not to focus on ourselves. Even the Reformed can go wrong here by supposing that the condition of Christ's work is our faith, as if what he did doesn't count unless we believe. I posit on the contrary that Christ's work is an actuality for all (cf. 1 John 2.2); our faith is the means by which we perceive it and are transformed by it, but it doesn't appropriate it as if it didn't already count for us, as if (say) our sins weren't atoned unless we believe. The Reformed may make a mistake by insisting on faith alone because oftentimes our faith is weak. More than that, the Reformed premise that works proceed from faith adds to the disaster, since the quality of our works will therefore be taken as a measure of our faith, and consequently of the efficacy of Christ's work for us. Because we find ourselves sinful, we'll doubt whether we really believe; and because we doubt whether we really believe, we will doubt whether Christ's work counts for us.

No, the focus is always on Christ and the efficacy of his work. This work is the atonement for the sins of the whole world, and it will make all people righteous (Rom 5.17-9) -- including myself! Thanks be to God!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Surely it was for my welfare

One of the themes that has been reoccurring in my mind is that of God's providence and its good end; that is, the idea that God guides and permits all things to happen as they should, for own sake and for our own good, as St. Anthony the Great teaches. And of course, if God guides all things for our good, then this includes the bad things that happen to us as well. We find this lesson again and again throughout scripture.

Consider for instance this verse from the writing of King Hezekiah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness (Isa 38.9):

Surely it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back (v. 17).

Hezekiah suffered a grave illness and was near death, but finds that God heals them. Speaking about his experience a posteriori, after the fact, he comes to find that it was for his own good! It was good for God to let him go through sickness unto death, for the sake of the healing and the lesson learned.

I think what is present in these words is also a deeper spiritual truth about God's providence in the case of each of us. We may find ourselves bitter over failures and disappointments in our past. I know that this is often the case for me. For instance, if I see friends or acquaintances of mine with good jobs, working the domain they studied and love so much; or if I see Facebook photos of happy married couples during their wedding, or enjoying a movie night, or joking back and forth about silly things; if I find others are studying under famous professors and interacting with top scholars in some field of study -- it is easy, seeing all of these things, to be dissatisfied with my own state of affairs, which is a bit humbler than these. I might even get bitter over failed endeavors of the past: unrequited love; abortive personal projects; etc.

The message of this scripture here, I think, is that surely it was for my welfare. I think more often than not we are rather myopic, and we don't see the long-term consequences of certain things playing out as we would want. Certainly some persons have experienced this: the girl you loved so desperately turned out much later to be rather on the crazy side, or at the very least you have some sufficiently serious differences of personality. We say to ourselves, Boy I really dodged a bullet there!

Maybe we ought to think of everything this way. As I've cited before, Anthony the Great said that everything that happens to us, happens as it should. Thinking this way about the events of your life and the direction it takes has to inspire optimism and hope, since I am convinced that God knows what he is doing. The plan of my life is a good one; the path set before me is headed in the right direction, even if I don't know nor like all the twists and turns it will take. Perhaps a part of the bliss of the next world will consist in the perception and realization of all the different variables at play in the history of the world, and how everything had to happen just as it did.

Then, reflecting on our lives, we will say: Surely it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The act/potency distinction

One of the central elements of Aristotelian and Scholastic metaphysics is the distinction between two modes of being: act or actuality, and potency or potentiality. Act refers to a way a thing actually is, whereas potency refers to a way a thing is potentially. This distinction of modes of being is an important part of the necessary structure of a world in which there is change; in other words, if things did not exist in these two modes, things could not change.

Why not? I will explain drawing largely from Edward Feser's books, though I won't take the time to cite chapter and verse. I will give the broad idea.

Parmenides was an influential Greek philosopher who argued that change was an illusion because it was actually impossible. For Parmenides, there was a fundamental distinction: being and nonbeing; what is, and what isn't. Being is, whereas nonbeing isn't, and ex nihilo nihil fit -- from nothing, nothing can come to be. But change, Parmenides insists, would have to be a case of being coming from nonbeing. Consequently change is impossible.

Consider the case of a banana turning brown. At one moment in time (t1) the banana is yellow, and later on (at t2) it is brown. Now whence came the brownness? The whole structure of the banana at t1 was such that it wasn't brown. If anything about the banana could cause the brownness, it would have to have already been brown at t1. It wasn't already brown, however, and therefore it would seem the brownness came from nowhere at all. Since this can't be, change must consequently be an illusion.

It won't do, of course, to suppose that there is some underlying physical process taking place within the banana which accounts for its going from yellow to brown. This example is intentionally crude and undeveloped for the purpose of showing that it is universally applicable. At some point in that physical process, there would presumably have to be change. Parmenides' argument can be offered against any instance of change in the banana of no matter what sort, at no matter what interval of time in the banana's history.

The point of Parmenides' argument is this. If there is only actual being, then there cannot be any change. For a fully actualized being to lack a property or quality at one time and to gain it at another is for something to come from nothing. If there was any kind of causal relation between its actual properties and the property gained through change, it would already have had it, since those prior properties already existed within the object.

Now the Aristotelian does not deny the existence of change, but he sees the difficulty of the argument. The response is to grant that being cannot come from nonbeing, but to deny that all being is actual. There is also potential being -- there are the ways a thing is potentially, in addition to the ways it is actually. Change is a thing's potentiality being actualized, it is its potency being reduced to act.

The banana is actually yellow at t1 and actually brown at t2. But this change is a real phenomenon and not a case of being from nonbeing, because at t1 the banana is potentially brown even if not actually. The potential-brownness is a real aspect of the being of the banana, and it is actualized through whatever physical process. Being potential being is nevertheless being, there is no violation of the principle that ex nihilo nihil fit.

This distinction between actuality and potentiality, therefore, is a necessary part of any complete picture of the world. Apart from this real and not merely conceptual distinction of being, change could not really occur, since otherwise Parmenides' argument would succeed. The starting assumption of the Aristotelian, moreover, is that through our senses and our intuitive faculties, we are basically "in touch" with the world out there. Parmenides' argument supposes that our senses are not in contact with reality, that in fact they deceive us. In this way, the Aristotelian distinction is important to the practice of science, which presupposes we can come into contact with reality and genuinely know it through our senses. A part of that reality is change, for which the Aristotelian distinction is a necessary precondition.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An exercise in spiritualizing interpretation

Consider this prophecy from Jer 33:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

For thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time (Jer 33.14-18).

Now I want to offer what may not be too controversial a proposal (at least in some circles): this prophecy finds its fulfillment in the priestly work of our king Jesus Christ. He is the son of David who will sit forever on David's throne (cf. Jer 33:21), and he is the high priest par excellence who offered himself for our sins in the ultimate sacrifice ἐφάπαξ, once for all. But notice that this would be, at least in part, a spiritualizing interpretation: Jesus' offering is once for all, not again and again; and his offering was the offering of his own body, not a burnt offering or a grain offering or the offering of an animal. We would have to understand these phrases as they appear in Jeremiah's prophecy as referring in some spiritual sense to a different sort of sacrifice which Jesus actually did offer.

This is not a literal interpretation of Jeremiah's prophecy but an appropriately spiritualized one, the spiritualization of which was not a matter of our own invention but rather informed by the actual revelation of Christ. We saw and we learned how Christ offered himself for us, once for all, and how he is the Davidic king of Israel forever. After learning these things, we then found in these events the fulfillment of the Jeremiah prophecy in a spiritualized -- or perhaps better, a nonliteral way.

Now if we grant the possibility of such spiritualized or nonliteral interpretation of the scripture, I want to propose a resolution to the problematic debate on universalism along the same lines. For many people, the doctrine of universal reconciliation remains untenable because of the conviction that human persons have freedom of the will, which God does not coerce in salvation: so long as the will remains free, a person may say No to God, even ad infinitum and so remaining eternally damned. The universalist response may be an appeal to God's omnipotence: God is all-powerful, and consequently is capable of saving everyone while preserving their free will.

In support of a notion such as this, we might appeal to this fantastic line from 1 Sam 14: . . . for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few (1 Sam 14:6). Now in the context of 1 Sam, this salvific act has to do with the defeat of the Philistines; the salvation here described is a material one, the preservation of the body in battle. But we may understand this text in a nonliteral or spiritual way to refer to the omnipotence of God in salvation. When considered from the light of the Christ event, we might understand the text as affirming: nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by the One, Jesus Christ. God, in his omnipotence, is capable of saving all even while preserving their freedom of the will.

Or consider this passage from Jeremiah: See, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me? (Jer 32:27). Here God, by appealing to his own omnipotence and his sovereignty over all, affirms that nothing can stand in his way, nothing can obstacle him from achieving his plan. He immediately refers to the capture of the city of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans (32:28), but later even speaks of transforming the spiritual life of his people. He says: They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own goo and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me (32:38-40).

Here we find that the omnipotence of God extends even to the transformation of the heart and spirit of the human person. If we insist that human beings have free will that God does not violate, then evidently God's omnipotence is not limited to the manipulation of the earth and the material stuff of the universe, or of defeating armies; no, he may also transform the human person.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

He makes me lie down, he leads me

One of the points I made in a discussion about the line, The LORD is my shepherd, is that God as shepherd leads us with an eye to our good. He is our leader, certainly, and he has a certain authority over us, but his authority is a benevolent one. If God rules and leads us, it is so as to bring us to good. David expresses this notion with the lines of the second verse of the psalm:

He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters

This is certainly a powerful image. Imagine for yourself a shepherd leading his flock onto a green hillside; once they arrive and the situation is safe, the shepherd lets the sheep graze and he watches them, enjoying the sight. The shepherd leads the sheep to those things which will help them flourish, those things for which they have a natural need. Green grass and water are the sustenance of sheep, and the shepherd brings them to these so that they can enjoy them. There is also a certain pleasure on the part of the shepherd to see that the sheep are doing well.

I think that the same may be said for God. He leads us to those things which will bring us to shalom, to wholeness, peace, health, to those things which will help us flourish. Perhaps too we may even speak of joy on the part of God, when he sees us enjoying life and the gift of existence he gives us. 

Now there is another important aspect to bring to attention. The sheep don't begin their life and end it in green pastures the whole time; they don't spend every waking moment near still waters. There are moments of travel, when the flock has to be led from one spot to another. There may also be bears or wolves in the woods, and the shepherd has to protect them. The shepherd leads them to pastures and still waters, but this implies that they spend time away from these things.

So also in our case. The spiritual life is a journey, and there is no escaping this fact. There are stages which are more pleasant, which are more joyful, which seem a lot like spiritual green pastures and still waters. Other times there are inner battles, there is doubt, there are confusions and uncertainties. We have to go through these phases as well, if we are to advance at all. Sometimes there are bears; sometimes there are rocky cliffs; sometimes there are doubts and impulses in different directions. In everything the LORD leads us to him, to what will bring us to flourish, but this implies that we may spend some time away from this as well. We may spend some time in darkness and uncertainty.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

I shall not want

In the first verse of the twenty-third psalm, David says: The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. To my mind, the second clause is an affirmation grounded in the first. Because the LORD is my shepherd, consequently I will lack for nothing. But now we have to ask the question: is this true? Haven't we all experienced times of lack, times of great need, when God did not exactly seem quick to provide? And yet David is confident that he will not be in need of anything, since God is shepherding him.

The other night during my Foundations for a Spiritual Life course, the professor asked us the question: what are the characteristics of a healthy intimate relationship? Among other things, I named trust -- trust that the other person will not do us harm or react poorly if we should say something unpleasant, etc. The professor added to this that there is offered the benefit of the doubt: if the other person said something or did something questionable, we give them the benefit of the doubt; we assume the best. For instance, if something in scripture seems questionable or outrageous even, we offer God the benefit of the doubt.

It may very well be that for us to have an intimate relationship with God, for us to have a healthy sheep-shepherd relationship with the LORD, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt. When David says I shall not want, that is not a scientific statement of straightforward and event empirical fact. It is a statement of faith, it is an affirmation of his trust in God. The LORD will take care of him and provide for him all that he needs in the right time. David trusts God.

We have a natural human tendency to assume that we know better, that we see enough of the relevant facts in any scenario to make a grounded and educated judgment about any matter. When we lack something we want (maybe even an essential of life) and we can see no compelling reason why we shouldn't have it, we draw the inference that consequently there couldn't be any reason why we shouldn't have it. We get angry at God, we may deny that he loves us or that he cares for us, and we may even deny his existence in the end.

If anything, I think one of the lessons of the scriptures is that we are not capable of making these kinds of judgments. God's vision is grand and all-encompassing as omniscient creator, whereas we are specks of dust swirling about on planet Earth. Why not rather trust him? Why not rather trust that there is a reason for the things that are happening to us? Why suppose that we should be privy to the reason if there were one? How many times has our assumption of better knowledge been proven wrong in the case of the actions of other humans? Let alone with God!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The LORD is my shepherd

This wonderful line from perhaps the most wonderful psalm is deeply meaningful. There are at least three lessons we can draw from it.

In the first place, we must learn that the LORD is our shepherd. Many times we may find ourselves powerless and lost in the face of the ambiguities of the world. It's not clear what's right, what's wrong, who to follow, who to avoid. Or it may be that the looming presence of evil compromises the future, that it saps us of any hope for what may come. In the face of these difficulties, we have to see that the one who leads us is the LORD. He is our leader, he is our king -- he who freed the Hebrews from bondage in Israel, who returned them miraculously through Cyrus from exile in Babylon, and who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. This same one is our leader, not Obama or ISIS or anyone else.

Furthermore, we must learn that the LORD is our shepherd. At least in my own case, the experience of sin and resultant guilt may bring along with it questions about God's love. Does God love me? Can God forgive a person who has done the things I have, a person as broken and sick as I find myself to be? The psalmist uses the indicative mood here: it's not that the LORD could be my shepherd, if only I could stop sinning; it's not that he might be my shepherd, but I'll have to wait and see. No, he is describing an actual state of affairs: the LORD is my shepherd, now and forever. I have no need to doubt it, nor do I need to do anything to try to win his favor. He is my shepherd already! He already cares for me!

Finally, we must learn that the LORD is our shepherd. If he is the shepherd, then we must be the sheep. Some persons have the conviction that they are capable of leading their own lives, of trekking their own paths, of blazing their own trails. They affirm their individual autonomy and their capacity to rule over their future. The image of a shepherd cannot but be unsettling for them. Sheep are animals which need a shepherd -- they can't lead themselves well, and they are vulnerable to attack. When David says that the LORD is his shepherd, he is acknowledging that he needs to be led, and that he cannot do things on his own.

Also important: the LORD is our shepherd and not some other thing. To speak of a shepherd is to assume the necessity of leadership. But it is also at the same time to ascribe that leadership a certain quality, a certain goal. Shepherds are benevolent leaders -- they take care of the sheep, they keep them from falling down the sides of cliffs or walking off in the wrong direction, they fight off bears and wolves and other hostile forces of the environment. It is so important to think of God as our shepherd because of the sin within us, sin which inclines us to ascribe malevolence and evil to God at every turn. I've written on this before. It is a tendency that requires treatment through the transformation of our mind. This transformation can be accomplished when we begin to understand ourselves as God's sheep, and God as our shepherd. The LORD is our shepherd!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Justice: merit and restoration

Sometimes persons debate competing understandings of justice. For some justice is about cuique suam, to each what is his due; for others justice is about restoration and rehabilitation. These two perspectives go back and forth and various arguments may be given.

Now for myself I find that attention to merit is an important part of justice. Giving each person what she deserves, whether good or bad -- that is being just. But the other day I had the thought that we might be able to justify the supposition of an intrinsically restorative element of all just proceedings precisely through an attention to merit. We would need the presence: it is a baseline merit of all persons that they deserve to be treated with an eye to their good; they cannot be treated in a manner without any interest or concern in their own well-being. This is what they deserve, and therefore justice as attention to merit may demand a restorative element.

Consider this passage from Gregory of Nyssa, in which he describes the fate of those persons who did not purify themselves of their sins through faith and baptism during their time spent on earth:

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 may be melted away in order that, after long ages, they may be restored to God in their purity. Since, the, both fire and water have  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 (Catechetical Oration 35).

For Gregory, those persons who did not repent of their sins and were not purified by baptism have to receive the end that is appropriate for them. Notice, however, that their appropriate place is one of suffering, yes, but a purificatory suffering. He uses the analogy of purifying gold. It is appropriate that sinners suffer; he doesn't deny that point. But appropriate would be for their suffering to be intrinsically purifying, which is to say that it is done for their own sake and with their own benefit in mind. They are sinners but they are not garbage; they are more akin to impure gold. You don't throw away impure gold, but rather you purify it. Likewise the appropriate treatment of sinners -- one which pays attention to what they deserve -- is one that is intrinsically directed towards their good.

In other words, attention to merit must not limit itself only to merit according to action. There must also be a consideration of the quality and value of the thing as being. Human persons are of such value that it is only ever appropriate to treat them in such a way that does not ignore their own good. We must always have an eye to their good in dealing out justice.

Does this conception of justice leave no room for grace? No, for it is obvious that one could (a) not cause the other person as much harm as they deserve, and likewise could (b) assist in the process of restoration more than the person would deserve, or even (c) restore the person to a higher position than deserved.

Does this conception of justice leave no room for the death penalty? Not necessarily. One of my professors told me of how they would enact the death penalty in Ireland some time ago. A priest would spend a significant amount of time with the person condemned to death, assisting in a process of repentance and reconciliation with God, all the way until the point of the extermination. In this way they would prepare the condemned person to meet with God without fear of judgment, even if this earthly judgment is inevitable. After all, physical death is not the end of the person, nor the end of God's dealings with her.

How do we know that all persons deserve this? We might justify this principle in a lot of different ways, but a fine basis for making the judgment would be Christ's death in atonement for the sins of all persons. This is a clear enough teaching of the scriptures (e.g., 1 John 2.2). If Christ died for all (2 Cor 5.14), and if God wants the salvation of all (1 Tim 2.4), then this tells us something very important about the value of the human person. She is so valuable that God himself is willing to die the penalty due her so that she may live. This ought to inform our systems of justice and our treatment of every person!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Return to me

Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you, you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud,
and your sins like mist;

return to me, for I have redeemed you (Isa 44.21-2).

Some times we live on the precipice of temptation to sin: it is a constant fight to keep from falling, to keep from distrusting God, to keep from succumbing to something we know is wrong. In difficult moments such as those, we may feel a certain powerlessness. There is a persistent whispering impulse within us to go in the wrong direction, and there may appear to be no tug in the opposite direction whatsoever. Occasionally we may even fall, regret it afterwards, but lack the palpable inner strength to effect a determined rupture with the past deed and to abort the nascent vice, to stomp out the embers before they grow into a blazing fire.

The passage quoted above from Isaiah is a fine treatment for the sickness I've described. It tells us a few important things to understand and to remember in moments of weakness in the struggle with sin.

In the first place, there is an emphasis on remember. The things about to be related are things you should already know, things you have already learned. Your current circumstances have clouded your understanding and have taken your consciousness away from something critically important. You are currently laboring under an illusion. And what is it that you've forgotten? That you are my servant, and that I formed you. God was intimately involved in your birth, in your existence for every one of its moments, and even in the formation of your identity. You are not your own person, free to do as you wish with the risk that your life falls apart and you descend deeper into vice. Far from it: you are a servant of God's, and this is what you really are above all things.

Because you are God's servant, he says you will not be forgotten by me. This addresses the problem of our sin in two ways. In the first place, he tells us that we are his servants and so we do not belong to ourselves. We are not free to go on in any old way that we wish. Paul gives a similar injunction to the Corinthians: you are not your own. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6.19-20). We must dispel the illusion of autonomy and freedom of self-expression or self-formation from our minds. No, we are servants and we do our master's bidding. This is who we are; this is the identity given to us when we were bought with a price.

But there is a second point here, as well. The first point is a rebuke: you are a servant and you cannot do as you wish. But the second point is a consolation: precisely because you are my servant, and because I formed you, I will not forget you. Guilt subsequent to committed sin carries along with it a sense of abandonment by God, motivated by a conviction of personal unworthiness. We feel that we are not worthy of God, of his presence, of his favor, because of what has been done. All that is certainly true but it is only a part of the truth. Because we are not our own, because we have been bought with a price, therefore God does not leave us and abandon us. Because we are his servants, he attends to us and deals with our weaknesses and infirmities of the soul; he wants to see us get better, to assure us that we are his and that he will not cast us out. He does this by reminding us that we belong to him, and therefore we are his even if we sin.

He goes further, however, and he tells us that I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist. The problem which our sin raises, the problem of our unworthiness, has been resolved! Our sins no longer stand as barriers to our partnership with God because they have been dealt and done away with through the redemption of Jesus Christ. Upon him fell the punishment that brought us peace (Isa 53.5). This is the reminder given to us every time we participate in the Eucharist: we are greeted there by the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

In light of all this God calls us back to him. Stay no longer in the guilt and paralyzing numbness of sin, he says. Return to me, for I have redeemed you! Don't allow the deceit of sin to keep you away from fellowship with the God who has done away with your sin and who created you, who formed you, and whose servant he has made you.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jealousy, Girard, and the crucifixion of Jesus

It is really very interesting that Mark writes: [Pilate] realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over (Mark 15.10). Jealousy is the driving force that brought the religious leaders of 1C Israel to commit the murder of all murders, the murder of the Son of God.

I appreciate Rene Girard's insights in this matter. Girard is an influential French anthropologist who developed a certain understanding of the origins of violence.

Girard asserts that we learn what to desire -- beyond the basic impulses of nature for food, water, sex, etc. -- by watching and learning from others. Naturally we end up in competition with others as a result of this, since now a great number of people want the same things and supplies are limited. The force of desire may even lead us, out of this intense competition for limited resources, to commit acts of violence towards each other.

This is a very plausible line of thinking. For instance, to borrow an example from my own life, I never cared much for cats until I started browsing reddit; then I was suddenly interested in getting one. There may be other elements at play, too. Perhaps we have a desire to conform to the state of our community, to be a member, to fit in, and this means we share the interests and values of those around us. Inevitably this will put us in competition with them and provoke jealousy.

In any case, Pilate sees that the chief priests are jealous of Jesus. He has won the favor of the people: he cares for them; he teaches them; he works miracles for them; he provides them with teaching that empowers them; he draws huge crowds, sometimes even winning over Pharisees and priests and the like. Worse than that, the people are convinced that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and that means the Romans are going to come and destroy them. Having had enough of it all, they determine to kill Jesus and save their own skins.

We ought to be careful of what we want. We ought to be careful not to put ourselves in competition with others and so to open up the door for violence. Sometimes the violence may be grave and other times it may be subtle -- an angry look; contemptful disregard; whatever it may be. We must learn to desire differently, to try to fit in with a different crowd. We should learn to fit in with that crowd that tries to out-do each other in showing honor and love (Rom 12.10).

Monday, August 18, 2014

The cross and the groaning of the world

One of the more fascinating events asserted to have taken place during Christ's crucifixion is that of a darkness coming over the land for a span of three hours. Mark relates that When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon (Mark 15.33). This takes place during the crucifixion of God's Son, who'd become man to serve mankind and to give himself as a ransom for their sins (10.45). After the darkness, Christ cries out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (15.34)

The darkening of the whole land tells us that this is an event of cosmic proportions. Something infinite, ineffable beyond understanding is taking place in the crucifixion of this man Jesus of Nazareth. Even the elements are involved in what is happening, and it would seem the world is mourning, groaning at his death. Like Paul says, the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains (Rom 8.22).

This image of darkness over the land tells us that what we do as human beings is not disconnected from the world and nature at large. Too often we think we live above and beyond nature, as if we can do whatever we'd like, without thinking that we are affecting the environment in grave ways. This is not to mention the torture we put our bodies through, thinking we are invincible and can do whatever we'd like! Think only of the poisons we eat and consume: junk food; fast food; binge drinking; overeating; etc.

We are not Platonic psychai temporarily and unfortunately contained within prison-house bodies. We are a part of the natural order as human beings; we were created from the dust, and so we cannot expect to be able beyond the limitations of nature. Neither can we suppose that what we do has no connection with the nature we inhabiting. The darkness at the crucifixion shows us that everything is connected.

There's a Romanian hymn that captures this notion well. One verse reads:

Te plânge izvorul din vale,
Și raza de soare-n amurg,
Se scutură florile-n cale,
Și stelele toate se-ascund.

The valley spring cries over you,
And the sun's rays at dusk,
The flowers on the way tremble,
And all the stars hide themselves

This a powerful image! All the forces of nature respond with horror at the thought of the death of the Son of God: the springs of water are the earth's tears being shed over his murder; the flowers trembling in the wind are trembling with fright and sorrow; the stars don't even show themselves in the face of what is happening.

To close, Dumitru Stăniloae has said on this matter:

The economy of God, that is, his plan with regard to the world, consists in the deification o the created world, something which, as a consequence of sin, implies also its salvation. . . . Salvation and deification undoubtedly have humanity directly as their aim but not a humanity separated from nature, rather one that is ontologically united with it. . . .
Through the corruption, sterilization, and poisoning of nature, a human being makes his own existence, as well as that of his fellow human beings, impossible. Thus, nature is the condition not just of individual human existence, but also of human solidarity (The Experience of God II:1-2).

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Isaiah and Revelation on the open gates and the entry of the nations

Isa 60 is a prophecy about the return of the Israelites to Palestine after their exile in Babylon. Set free by Cyrus, whom a previous Isaian prophet called God's Christ (Isa 45.1), the Israelites are allowed to return to their homelands and intend to rebuild the temple. The prophecy at ch. 60 contains a lot of very wonderful promises about the blessings of God to follow.

Among other things we find this line:

Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession. For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste (60.11-2).

This obviously the source of the parallel description of the heavenly Jerusalem described in Revelation 21, which is a metaphor for the church herself. Nota bene: the angel tells John that he will show him the bride, the wife of the Lamb (21.9), which is obviously a reference to the church, and then he is shown the great city. Thus John the Seer interprets the heavenly Jerusalem as the body of believers.

John likewise says of the city that Its gates will never be shut by day (21.25), and that The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. . . . People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations (vv. 24, 26). Of course if they are coming into the bride of Christ, this implies repentance and faith. And for John, too, they are coming into the bride of Christ, into the body of believers, from outside. Since the judgment has already taken place (20.11-5), where else are they going to be coming from except the lake of fire? What else is there outside the city? It is clear that the nations and kings in Revelation are the enemies of the bride who perpetually persecute her. They are punished by God and destroyed, but evidently they return from this and are reconciled to the bride and join themselves with her. It is also clear that the kings are joined to the bride post-judgment because its state of being is eschatological and sanctified: Nothing accursed will be found there anymore . . . And there will be no more night (22.3, 5).

Here is the crucial contrast. The Isaian prophet foresees that peoples inimical to the restored Israel will be done away with and destroyed. If we allowed ourselves to be informed merely by Isaiah, we would have the impression that the enemies of Israel will be destroyed while those friendly will prove to be a great blessing to the nation. At the same time, however, we would be stuck believing that inhabitants of the promised, redeemed New Jerusalem will still die and eventually perish (Isa 65.20). The Isaian prophet lacks the completeness of vision of John the Seer, who lived in the time after Christ and whose understanding had been fundamentally transformed by the events surrounding Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, not to mention the destruction of the temple.

John arguably interprets this destruction of the inimical kingdoms as their judgment and subsequent repentance. In a manner similar to Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and others, we may understand the destruction of the nations and those in the lake of fire as a destruction of sin, rather than of the person. The person is saved though the sin and the sinful identity is destroyed.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Eight principles of Just War theory

For my Christian Ethics (ET 501) course at Fuller Theological Seminary, we have been reading Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (IVP Academic, 2003). In their chapter on three different Christian positions on the (im)permissibility of violence, they provide the following eight rules of Just War theory. These are rules by which the theory proposes a person may evaluate whether or not engaging in war in some particular circumstances would be just or unjust, permitted or impermissible.

There are seven rules about jus ad bellum, justice in deciding to go to war, and one rule about jus in bello, justice in war itself. The rules are grounded in the prior conviction and commitment that to kill is a grave evil and may only be done in certain circumstances and for the right reason. Because of this we may understand Just War theory as a means of upholding Jesus' decidedly non-violent ethic, since it allows for recourse to violence only in very highly specified circumstances. It becomes obvious that on Just War theory, violence is only justifiable when it means preventing much worse violence for as minimal a cost as possible.

1.  Just cause. The causes that can override the presumption against killing are stopping the massacre of large numbers of people and stopping the systematic and long-term violation o the human rights of life, liberty and community (p. 159).

2. Just authority. To commit a nation to make a war in which many will die and be maimed is an enormous responsibility. No one can do that without just authority. Constitutional processes must be followed, so the people who will pay with their lives and resources will be represented in the decision (p. 159). Furthermore, the approval of the United Nations or a representative international body or coalition should generally be sought, for two reasons. The cost in resources, wounded and dead will be borne by other nations as well. And nations that decide to go to war often are wrong (p. 160).

3. Last resort. All means of negotiation, conflict resolution and prevention must be exhausted before resorting to war. The logic is clear: what justifies the killing in war is that it is the only way to stop the great evil that provides the just cause. If the evil can be stopped by a nonviolent resort, then there is no just cause for the killing (p. 160).

4. Just intention. The only legitimate intention is to secure a just peace for all involved. Neither revenge nor conquest nor economic gain nor ideological supremacy are justified (quoted at p. 160).

5. Probability of success. It is wrong to enter into a war that will kill many people, depriving them o the right to life, liberty and community, in order to achieve a more important goal, if we will quite surely lose and not achieve that goal, and all those people will die in vain (p. 161).

6. Proportionality of cost. Proportionality requires that the total good achieved by a victory will . . . outweigh the total evil and suffering that the war will cause. No one should prescribe a cure that is worse than the disease (quoted at p. 161).

7. Clear announcement. The government that is about to make war must announce its intention to make war and the conditions for avoiding it. Stipulating the conditions for avoiding war enables the other side to know what it would take to avoid or stop the war (p. 162).

8. The war must be fought by just means (jus in bello). In a pragmatic culture like the United States, a frequent error is to emphasize the justice of the cause but then overlook the requirement that the means of fighting must be just. . . . This criterion of justice in war "forbids direct, intentional attacks on nonmilitary persons" . . . Individuals not actively contributing to the conflict (including POWs and causalities as well as civilian nonparticipants) should be immune from attack (p. 162). Because collateral damage may be inevitable, recourse is made to the principle of double effect: engaging in action which may result in civilian deaths is just so long as the intention is to attack armed combatants, and so long as its cost in lives is proportional to the gain (p. 163).

These days Just War theory makes more sense and is more plausible to me than a more committed pacifism, if only because the stated conditions of just war are so strict as prevent war except precisely in those cases in which pacifism is most implausible. For instance, Just War theory may have permitted intervention in the case of the Rwandan genocide, a case which is very difficult if not impossible for the pacifist to address.

(A small note: the authors write jus ad bello [p. 158] which is grammatically incorrect Latin. The preposition ad takes an accusative object, and the accusative of the neuter noun bellum, war, is bellum and not bello. The authors missed this and the editors missed this, and it is embarrassing. This is why everyone should study Latin, so that they do not make erreurs pénibles such as this. Schopenhauer said you are not educated unless you know Latin and Greek. He was right. See what Bill says here.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

The unconditionality of God's deliverance

Oftentimes you will hear the point made that God's forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance, that God does not forgive without prior repentance made on the part of the sinner, and so on. This point seems more compelling at first hearing than it actually is.

Consider, for instance, what the Isaian prophet says in Isa 57:

It shall be said,
‘Build up, build up, prepare the way,
   remove every obstruction from my people’s way.’ 
For thus says the high and lofty one
   who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
   and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
   and to revive the heart of the contrite. 
For I will not continually accuse,
   nor will I always be angry;
for then the spirits would grow faint before me,
   even the souls that I have made. 
Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry;
   I struck them, I hid and was angry;
   but they kept turning back to their own ways. 
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
   I will lead them and repay them with comfort,
   creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips. 
Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord;
   and I will heal them (Isa 57.14-19).

The prophet here is referring to the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. After relating at length the debauchery of the Israelites in exile (57.1-10), the prophet assures them that, though they have sinned in these grave ways, though they kept returning to their own ways, yet the LORD will heal them. He will bring peace and he promises a return from exile. From the fact that the prophet insists that the people continue in sin and yet God will heal them anyway, we infer that this deliverance is an unconditional one. It is God's act of grace for his people who seem unable to obey him in a way he wants.

The same point is made in the New Testament, of course, when Paul says that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5.8). The death for our sins occurs not after we repent and believe, but while we are still sinners. Consequently it is an unconditional act of grace. Faith and repentance do not win for us forgiveness and grace, but are the ways in which we accept the grace given and recognize what God has already done for us in Christ.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The foolish tenacity of sin

In the midst of a long discussion of the idolatry and wickedness of an Israel in exile, the Isaian prophet utters one line which is particularly impressive and inspired:

You grew weary from your many wanderings,
but you did not say, "It is useless."
You found your desire rekindled, 
and so you did not weaken (Isa 57.10).

This text contains some very profound truths which are worth considering.

In the first place, the prophet affirms that a life led in sin is unsatisfying. He tells the Israelites that they grew weary from their wanderings. They went back and forth, here and there, into the woods, into the cities, into back alleys, but all this accomplished was to tire them. They engaged in orgies in the woods and in child sacrifice (57.5) and worship of false gods (v. 6). All this merely wore them out.

In spite of the fact that the pleasures they pursued did not satisfy them, however, they did not change their thinking or adjust their priorities. They did not say, "It is useless to pursue pleasure. It doesn't satisfy me, anyway, since one the pleasure is gone I need it again, and I find myself enslaved to its pursuit. All this does is tire me; I'd better find something else." Why don't they say this? Because they find the desire awakens again, and again, and again. They've accustomed themselves to obeying the desire for pleasure; they've trained themselves to live in the pursuit of every object they desire. At this point they can't say No any longer to the desire they feel. When the desire is rekindled, they go back at it.

When we find that the pursuit of the satisfaction of sinful desires does not have a lasting effect, when we observe that persisting in sin leaves us unsatisfied and empty, we should learn the lesson that we are meant for something else. We're not made to live in sin; the evidence of this is that our lives are empty and miserable when we do. But the trap of sin is that our foolish persistence, our dogged tenacity, our conviction that "next time around it will be better" hardens within us vices of which we cannot easily rid ourselves. We become trained to pursue desire, even though every time we'd done so until now had left us unhappy.

What do we do? What can we do? The LORD says: I have seen their ways, but I will heal them (v. 18). We must go to God and learn from him what will satisfy us, how to live our lives, what things to pursue and what to flee. We have to retrain ourselves in the pursuit of God's plan for humanity and no longer blindly to chase after every fleeting desire and every pleasure.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mark the Ascetic on works and grace

What is the relation between our good works and salvation by grace? If we are saved by grace, then why bother with good works? This would seem to lead to a kind of lazy, powerless Christianity that doesn't result in any kind of change in a person's life. On the other hand, if salvation is by works, then we might fall into the trap of thinking that life in the kingdom is something we deserve.

Mark the Ascetic wrote a work included in the Philokalia called On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: 226 Texts. He addresses precisely this issue in the opening statements. His perspective is an important one and offers us a way ascetics in the more strenuous and difficult strands of Christianity considered this question.

He opens up with a categorical declaration of the nature of adoption as grace:

The Lord, wishing to show that every commandment is a duty, while, on the other hand, that adoption is given to men as a gift for the sake of His blood, says: "When you will have done everything commanded you, you say: 'We are worthless slaves and we have done just what we ought to have done.'" [Luke 17, 10] Therefore the Kingdom of heaven is not a payment for deeds, but the grace of the Master, prepared for faithful servants (2).

To be obedient is already your duty; you are supposed to do it anyway. Nevertheless Jesus rewards those who are obedient with the kingdom because he is gracious. He gives a gift that far outweighs the worthiness and value of the work it is "rewarding." Thus we are called to be obedient and we have no other option, but we should not think that we earn our way into the Kingdom through obedience. No, we are merely performing our duties. The Lord, on the other hand, is happy to give us a gift for being dutiful.

To show just how gracious this Lord is, Mark affirms: The one who wants to do a thing, but cannot, is considered by the one who knows the heart, God, as having done it. Yet this is to be understood as much with regard to good things, as also with regard to bad things (16). We know that adultery of the heart is as good as adultery. But Mark insists that God likewise sees and considers the desire for a good which cannot be realized. This notion is present in Isaac the Syrian, too.

Mark comes down heavy on those who are concerned only to have right faith without works, as well as those who are confident in their works:

Some, without obeying the commandments, reckon that they believe aright. Others, obeying them, expect the Kingdom as a payment owed to them. Both the ones and the others err with regard to the truth. The master does not owe his servants a payment; yet nevertheless, neither will those who do not serve aright inherit freedom (18-19).

This is a way of thinking about the relation of faith and works which, to my mind, makes a lot of sense. It fits the Biblical data very well. The judgment texts in the Bible (e.g., Mt 25; Rom 2) uniformly depict persons receiving entry into the kingdom as a reward for their works. It is something given to them because of what they have done, not what they believed or anything of the sort. At the same time it is clearly not a reward proportionate to the quality of their work done, since they have only done what they are supposed to do anyway, and are being given a gift far beyond that. This is the humbling grace of God: he gives us the Kingdom, which we could never merit, for doing only what we were supposed to do, anyway.

Such is the depth and gravity of our sin! That is how crappy human persons actually are -- that they have to be motivated to perform the bare minimum of their duties by a gift that no one could ever possibly have imagined or asked for themselves. But that is also how good God is -- that he doesn't throw us away when we are found incapable and unwilling even of doing what is necessary, let alone what is supererogatory. Instead he offers us a fantastic gift!

Mark offers the following (very provocative) advice:

When you hear the Scripture saying that God "will repay each according to his works" [Ps. 62.12], don't understand it as speaking of an equal proportionality with Gehenna or the Kingdom, but that Christ will repay the deeds of disbelief in Him or of belief -- not as a money changer who weighs the price of things to be exchanged, but as God, our Creator and Redeemer (22).

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Balaam and the donkey

One of the repeated motives of the Bible is the importance of properly interpreting the world about us. Wisdom means knowing the times and the seasons, and being able to understand what is going on; foolishness is not knowing how to interpret events. For instance, if we sin and find we are not immediately punished, the proper way to understand our situation is that God in his goodness is giving us time to repent (Rom 2.4). But we might just as likely understand that there is no God and that we are free to do as we please (Ps 94.3, 6-7).

I think the story of Balaam and the donkey (Num 22) is something like this. Balak is the king of Moab around the time of the Israelites' entry into Canaan. He sees them coming powerfully, having dealt severely with the Amorites, and fears for his own kingdom. So he sends an envoy for Balaam the seer (or prophet or whatever), asking that he curse the Israelites.

Balaam confers with the LORD and finds that the Israelites are blessed, and so cannot be cursed. Consequently he rejects the request and sends the envoy back. The king is upset by this and so sends a second envoy, and once more Balaam confers with the LORD. The LORD tells him to go along but only to say whatever the LORD gives him; so Balaam agrees to come back with this single proviso. God told him to go, but still the whole thing angered him (Num 22.20-2). Perhaps the LORD was upset that Balaam didn't receive the first message given and insisted by asking a second time. So he sends an angel before Balaam as he was riding to Balak on a donkey.

This is where things get interesting. The angel of the LORD has a sword; it's an angel of death. The donkey sees the angel, but Balaam does not. Consequently the donkey walks away from it, straying from the path. He does this three times, each time inconveniencing Balaam even more than the previous time: once he goes into a field (v. 23); another time he scrapes Balaam's foot against a wall on the side of the path (v. 25); and the third time he sits down under Balaam (v. 27). Each time the donkey changed its course, Balaam struck it. After three strikes, Balaam's out: God gives the ability to speak to the donkey, and he asks Balaam why he keeps being stricken (v. 28-30).

After the brief (and impassioned!) conversation with the donkey, Balaam's eyes are opened and he can see the angel of death, who warns him that if the donkey had not gone off course, he would have killed Balaam (v. 33). Balaam recognizes his sin (v. 34).

What can we learn from this? It seems to me here, too, the lesson is one of wisdom and proper interpretation of events. Balak saw the advance of the Israelites as a threat which might be displaced and defeated through black magic and curses. The truth was that the LORD was leading Israel into the land promised it through Abraham its father; not only that, the peoples of the land themselves were being punished for their sins (cf. Gen 15.16). Because of his inability to discern the signs of the times, he found himself cursing the people of God and opposing an unstoppable force.

Balaam was to the donkey as Balak was to Balaam: Balak wanted to curse Israel but the LORD told Balaam that they were blessed; Balaam goes along to Balak to assist him anyway, but the donkey saw the angel of the LORD was standing against them. The experience of having been blind to death's presence, standing just before your eyes but out of your sight, was deep and profound for Balaam. From that moment he realized that it was not the LORD's will to curse Israel, and that Balak was fighting a losing battle.

This may happen to us as well. We may insist on doing something or accomplishing this or that, whereas we find that those around us are less than disposed to participate or come along. Sometimes you'll find people giving the following advice: "Keep on! Follow your dream! Don't let the negativity of those around you detract you from your calling!" This certainly may apply in some cases, but in other cases those persons whom you think blind may be like Balaam's donkey: they see something ahead of you to which you yourself are blind. Their resistance may be God's way of letting you know that you are not on the right track.

This is why in everything we need wisdom. We need to ask God to open our eyes to the angels of death which might be standing before us, if our plans are not good -- even if they seem so to us.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Doubt, ambiguity, and judgment

I saw it around the time it came out, but I recently rewatched the movie Doubt (2008), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis. I really did enjoy it. One aspect of the film I appreciated -- something I find I like about a lot of different films and series, actually -- is the relentless ambiguity of it all.

The story is a relatively simple one. The head nun at a Catholic school, Sister Aloysius (played by Meryl Streep), comes to believe that the priest, Father Flynn (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), has been engaging in an inappropriate relationship with the school's lone black boy, who also worked as an altar boy for some time. One of the nuns, Sister James (played by Amy Adams), brings some information to the attention of Sister Aloysius that sets her on a campaign to out Fr. Flynn. Convincing him that she has contacted a nun at a previous parish of his (she hasn't), he is willing to resign and move on to somewhere else. When she confesses to Sister James that she never contacted any nun, Sister James is surprised. Sister Aloysius takes Fr. Flynn's resignation as equivalent to a confession of guilt. The film ends with her confessing to Sister James outside the church in the cold and snow with tears and overwhelming emotion: "I have doubts. I have such doubts."

The story seems straightforward but throughout the film it becomes obvious that not very much is obvious at all. Very few things are said out in the open: there is mostly reference to "it", "that", "I don't believe it," "You know what I'm talking about," "There are things I can't say to anyone," etc. Few times is anything referred to by name. This ubiquitous ambiguity calls the characters of the film as well as its viewers to attention and careful judgment.

Part of why I like the film so much is that it offers us an exercise in moral judgment. Sister James is a representation of a kind of benevolent judgment which thinks the best of everyone and is willing to assume the most favorable and charitable interpretation of another's actions. Sister Aloysius suspects Fr. Flynn from the very beginning and has obviously been made quite cynical; she is hardened by the "experience" to which she refers at one point in the film when justifying her suspicions to Sister James. The uncertainty of everything in the film invites us to make judgments, but how will we make those judgments? Are we going to assume the best in charity, or the worst in cynicism and doubt?

It is by no means clear that Fr. Flynn's relationship to the altar boy was inappropriate. In the first place, the boy does not seem to react in anything like the way I have read victims of sexual abuse react. I admit to a limited perspective on this matter, but my readings of the testimonies of victims of pedophilia suggest that children typically know that something is wrong when they are molested. They are well aware that what is going on isn't right, and they respond with the kind of fright and revulsion appropriate to that perception. The boy in the film, however, does not react in anything like that matter.

Furthermore, Sister Aloysius's lie about contacting a nun from a previous parish likewise proves nothing. Fr. Flynn was clearly concerned about some persons from past places of service, but this hardly entails that he was a child molester and that he had engaged in a sexually illicit relationship. Fr. Flynn confesses nothing explicitly in his encounter with Sister Aloysius; we have only to make ignorant guesses about what might have overwhelmed him at that point.

It is hinted at one point that the boy with whom Fr. Flynn is so friendly is a homosexual. It may have been that Fr. Flynn himself was a homosexual, and recognizing this in the boy, and knowing the torture and travails awaiting him in light of that fact, he intended to be a positive and friendly presence for him -- though not a sexual one by any means. We also learn that the boy's father abuses him because of his effeminacy. Fr. Flynn may have intended to be a kind presence for the boy without wishing to corrupt him by any means. It may be that word got out at Fr. Flynn's previous parish that he was a homosexual and did not want to be outed at his present church, either. That and not much more may have been the motive for his leaving.

But none of this is clear and obvious from the film. That is the film's charm, and that is its challenge as well: how do we judge others in the ambiguities and uncertainties of life? Shall we assume the best, or assume the worst? Is there a benevolent wind pushing everything from behind into a glorious future, as Fr. Flynn mentions in his final sermon, or may God not be watching over us at all, leaving us to do the work of maintaining the moral order in the universe -- our doubts and the impossibility of certainty notwithstanding?

One aspect not discussed often enough is the question of divine providence and its relation to the weather. In the movie the weather is terrible around the time of the events: it is windy, rainy, snowy, horrible. What interpretation can we give it? Is this is a divine wind pushing Fr. Flynn out of the parish -- for his good? for the good of children at risk? Do the incessant rains and lightning and thunder, not to mention the sleepless nights of both Sisters James and Aloysius, speak of God's displeasure with their pursuits? Are they crucifying an innocent man unnecessarily? When Sister James approaches Sister Aloysius to tell her about some suspicious events surrounding the boy believed to have been molested, they are twice interrupted by third parties and forced to relocate.Was the stream of interruptions a sign that these things are best not said?

It certainly isn't clear. I would imagine that our tendencies in moral judgment will influence our perception of (what might be) divine providence. If we are inclined to assume the best, then perhaps these small things here and there might be signs intended to dissuade us from moving away from God and into moral condemnation in the pursuit of the guilty. Indeed, Sister James tells Sister Aloysius before she confesses the precise causes for her suspicion: It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion. I feel less close to God. Perhaps that feeling of distance from God was a sign that she was not going down the right path in bringing these suspicions to Sister Aloysius. Perhaps Sister Aloysius's doubts were evidence that she, too, had taken a wrong turn at some point and was far off from where God wanted her to be. She had lost the sense of God and the ability properly to understand what was going on around her.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Miroslav Volf on divine violence

There are horrific things happening in Iraq at the moment. Christians are being persecuted by the demonic ISIS. Those people are truly under the control of Satan: they are beheading Christian children and putting their head on pikes in the park at Mosul; they compelled at least one Christian to affirm their creed about Allah and Muhammad his only prophet, effectively a recantation of Christianity, and then beheaded him anyway; numerous Christians having fled persecution are now awaiting their deaths on barren desert mountains.

What do we do? What is the response?

Mirsolav Volf, in Exclusion & Embrace (Abingdon, 1996) writes about the cross as a sign of God's embrace of the sinful and wicked, absorbing violence into himself. But what about the image of the Rider on the White Horse from Revelation, who afflicts such violence?

What about the Rider on the white horse who seems to deploy violence without any thought of embracing the enemy? Is he not the same suffering Messiah who was all along secretly dreaming of revenge and has now finally come to take it with a fury? . . .  

But who are those who suffer violence at the hand of the Rider? They are the people drunk with the blood of the innocent (Revelation 17:6) who make war against the Lamb and those who adorned themselves with righteous deeds (Revelation 19:19). Its imposing political order and economic splendor not withstanding, the imperial power o Rome is in the eyes of John the Seer a system of "political tyranny and economic exploitation," founded "on conquest and maintained by violence and oppression" (Bauckham 1993, 35). The violence of the Rider is the righteous judgment against this system of the one called "Faithful and True" (Revelation 19:11). Without such judgment there can be no world of peace, of truth, and of justice; terror (the "beast" that devours) and propaganda (the "false prophet" that deceives) must be overcome, evil must be separated from good, and darkness from the light. These are the causes of violence, and they must be remove if a world of peace is to be established. . . . 

There are people who trust in the infectious power of nonviolence: sooner or later it will be crowned with success. In this belief, however, one can smell a bit too much of the sweet aroma of suburban ideology, entertained often by people who are neither courageous nor honest enough to reflect on the implications of terror taking place right in the middle of their living rooms! . . . 

The key question is who should be engaged in separating the darkness from the light? Who should exercise violence against the "beast" and the "false prophet"? Echoing the whole New Testament, the Apocalypse mentions only God. But what does its silence about human agency in the apocalyptic violence mean? . . .

. . . [H]umans are not God. There is a duty prior to the duty of imitating God, and that is the duty of not wanting to be God, of letting God be God and humans be humans. Without such a duty guarding the divinity of God the duty to imitate God would be empty because our concept of God would be nothing more than the mirror image of ourselves.

Preserving the fundamental difference between God and nonGod, the biblical tradition insists that there are things which only God may do. One of them is to use violence. . . .

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God's refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

In a word, Volf proposes that human beings practice nonviolence but God does not; we call to God to be just and to bring vengeance when appropriate, but God is the one who uses the violence, not us. Human nonviolence is grounded and motivated by a belief in divine violence.

To speak for myself, my tendency and inclination is to think that we must respond to ISIS with violence. The biblical tradition likewise shows that God uses human persons as means of effecting judgment on others on at least some occasion. But it is not easy just to go to war and to sign off the lives of thousands of innocent persons; I certainly don't want to go fight anyone. It is not at all an easy matter. The least we can do -- and the thing we must do as Christians -- is pray for the persecuted, and pray for God to reveal his justice in shattering the oppressive forces of evil in defense of his people. The body of Christ is yet again receiving blow after blow from the hands of evil men.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Isaac the Syrian on divine immutability

That God is eternally the same in everything that pertains to His Nature, that He doesn't change as a result of what happens within the creation, are things that I imagine no rational creature will contradict (Ascetical Homilies II/40, 1).

So opens a discussion on the immutability of the divine nature for Isaac the Syrian. A classical theist right up there with the best of them, Isaac insists on the unchanging and impassible constancy of the divine nature. Nothing that happens within the creation can have any effect on God's divine nature whatsoever. Importantly, these are points that Isaac considers so obvious that no rational creature can deny them; he says that this doctrine of divine immutability is something obvious for all who have a rational intelligence (II/40, 1).

Now when Isaac speaks of the immutability of the divine nature, he is also clearly speaking about the immutability of the divine mental state, if we may put it that way. He makes this evident in the following paragraph, where he speaks of God's attitude towards the demons and sinners:

Neither can we say that the love of the Creator is lesser with respect to those rational creatures which are demons, because they have become demons; that it is less than the fullness of love which He has for those which remain in an angelic state; or that His love for sinners is less than for those appropriately called righteous. Because the divine Nature is not affected by the things which happen, nor by what resists It, and within It nothing happens which finds its origin in creation and which was not in Him from eternity; just as in It there is no love which has its origin in the events which take place in time (II/40, 2).

For Isaac, therefore, the immutability of the divine nature means that there is no change in God's love for his creatures, regardless of what they do. The divine love is not affected by what happens in the created order; it doesn't diminish or increase as a result of human action.

Someone might worry that the divine immutability is compromised by the doctrine of divine judgment. After all, how does God repay sins, if he is not affected by what happens in the world, if his perception of us does not change? Isaac's response is to deny that God repays sins and to insist on the immutability and impassibility of the divine love.

For Isaac, this truth is important for understanding the nature of Gehenna. If the divine love is immutable and impassible, then it would be ridiculous to suppose that the sufferings of those in Gehenna are imposed upon sinners as a payment for their sins, and that God intends that they remain there forever. Isaac denies numerous times that God is involved in any kind of payback for sins; such a thing is foreign to the divine nature. He says in the previous homily (II/39, 2) that to think that God is patient with sinners here because he plans on punishing them harshly for their abuse of his patience on the other side is childish, unspeakable blasphemy, and in the end calumny against God. He will have nothing to do with it.

No, the immutability of God's love means that his act towards the creation, regardless of its recipient, is always motivated by love and is not a calculated response to a person's right or wrong actions. Such are all things which come from [God], even if they may seem otherwise: with God they have nothing to do with payback [or vengeance], because He always looks to the advantage of those with whom he behaves himself thus [that is, in ostensible wrath or punishment] (II/39, 5).

An important evidence for Isaac that God is not concerned with payback or balancing the moral scales is found in the revelation of Christ:

So then, everything which comes from Him and resembles a punishment or condemnation doesn't come so as to make us pay for some past evil deeds, but for our own advantage which we may gain from them, because they make us conscious of the things that are past, only to plant in us a hatred towards sin. . . . If things were not so, what then does the coming of Christ have to do with the actions of the generations prior to it? Might this immense mercy be a repayment for those evil deeds? Tell me, then, if God is the One Who repays [our deeds] and if everything which He does is a repayment, what sort of fitting repayment do you see here, o man? Show me! (II/39, 15-16).

The mercy shown in Christ is anything but a fitting repayment for previous deeds. If God is concerned with justice and if a concern for fairness and attention to merit is what motivates his actions, then Christ could never have come. But if Christ has come, then this tells us that actually God is not concerned to repay according to merit at all. These are mere appearances; the reality is that God is always and ever concerned to do us good, and to have us enjoy life in fellowship with him in holiness. Nothing I can do can change God's intentions for me; nothing you can do will ever change the fact that God wants fellowship with you in eternity.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Some thoughts on Calvary

On Friday I watched the new movie Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson as Father James, an Irish Catholic priest. One day during confession someone comes to him and reports that he was violated numerous times by a priest as a child. That bad priest is long dead, so he will now respond to his violation by killing Father James, a good priest, in the span of about a week at a certain spot. The rest of the film follows Fr. James as he deals with the problems of his parish, as well as those of his unbelieving fellow villagers, all the while aware that he is inching nearer and nearer to his own death. In the meantime, too, his daughter who had attempted suicide comes to spend a few days with him.

I really enjoyed the film; it is an entertaining and enjoyable watch. But more than that, I enjoyed it because of the favorable portrayal of a Catholic priest. Though with certainty the film is right to point out the failings of the Catholic church in the past, at the same time Fr. James is perhaps one of the only characters in the town who's got a good heart and a normal, sane mind. He is insightful and Christian without spouting empty platitudes that everyone is expecting. He has a good heart and truly does no wrong.

Precisely because Fr. James is good, and the priest who'd violated his would-be murderer was bad, the film is therefore called Calvary. Is Fr. James willing to die for someone who was a heinous sinner? That previous priest got off without major consequence; he died old and happy, as far as anyone knows. Is Fr. James going to be willing to climb up his own personal Calvary hill and take the death of another in his own person?

Of course closely related is the question of faith. Is Fr. James's faith real? During the film, a Frenchman and his wife get into a horrific car accident. The Frenchman dies but the woman is unscathed; Fr. James performs the last rites for the man and then spends some time discussing with the woman in the chapel. They talk about how evil can occur randomly, seemingly without any reason whatsoever. Some persons, Fr. James notes, lose their faith over that. The Frenchwoman responds that such a faith must have been mighty weak to be so easily shaken and destroyed. Fr. James responds that some persons have faith only because of the fear of death; if that's all there is to a person's faith, it will no doubt easily be undone by the confrontation with death itself.

But then we pose the question to Fr. James: is your faith real? Is your faith a futile attempt to escape death, or is it something deeper than that? Will your own potential death be the end of your faith?

I very much enjoyed the film. It touches upon deep theological and philosophical issues, to be sure, but without becoming cumbersome or heavy-handed. It is entertaining, fantastically acted -- and I mean fantastically, especially in the massively impressive ending of the film -- and intelligently written. I highly recommend it.

δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Romans

Another subject of perennial debate is the meaning of the phrase δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, "the righteousness of God," as it appears in Paul's letter to the Romans (e.g., at 3.21). Some persons think of it as "a righteousness from God," believing it a reference to the imputation of Christ's righteousness acquired by faith. N.T. Wright understands in the phrase, however, a reference to God's covenant faithfulness. This has proven to be a controversial proposal. I am sympathetic to some extent, but I prefer Campbell's interpretation in The Deliverance of God (Eerdmans, 2009), namely that Paul means God's righteous act of deliverance.

One argument that won't work against Wright's proposal is a facile and puerile appeal to the lexicon. Yes, it is obvious that when you open up BDAG, δικαιοσύνη means "righteousness" and not "covenant faithfulness." Wright doesn't mean to offer so easily refutable a claim as that, however, as if he weren't himself aware of the typical lexical definition of the term. The point is rather that what Paul really means to get across by the term is something beyond the composition of the lexical definition of either item. Rather, when Paul refers literally to "God's righteousness," this phrase is more deeply understand as "God's faithfulness to his covenant."

In other words, the objection from the lexicon assumes that Paul doesn't mean anything more by these terms than merely to combine what the terms typically mean in other contexts. This is a bad objection because this is precisely the point Wright denies. He spends a lot of time demonstrating how the notion of covenant was a ubiquitous notion in Jewish thinking, how it was always in the background, how it was an essential component of the lens by which they interpreted the world. If this is right, then Wright has plenty of reason to suppose Paul does not merely mean to combine the two terms' ordinary lexical meanings when he writes about the "righteousness of God" in Romans.

Now my point is not to argue in favor of Wright's proposal but merely to defend it against a puerile objection. Like I said, I prefer Campbell's reading of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as "the deliverance of God," or "God's righteous act of deliverance." Campbell, too, supposes that the full meaning of the phrase as Paul intends it to be understood carries more than just the lexical definitions of either terms. In support of Campbell's reading and this critical supposition, I wish to point out a possible background source for Paul's phrase.

In Isa 51.5-6, 8 we find three uses of the word "righteousness" in parallelism with "salvation":

My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way. . . 

. . . But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail. . . .

. . . But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.

The parallelism suggests that the two terms are being used in a roughly synonymous way. Now it is clear that "salvation" in this context refers to some concrete act of deliverance that God is going to effect for the Jews in exile in Babylon. That is obviously what the prophet would have been talking about when he made public reference to salvation -- to some event in history, orchestrated and effected by God, which results in the deliverance of the Jewish people.

Evidently the Isaian prophet can speak of "God's righteousness" to refer to the same event, the same concrete circumstances of deliverance. This is because they have been accomplished because of God's righteousness; therefore he refers to them as God's righteousness, even though he is not talking about God's character trait so much as some things that have or will happen in history. This is called metonymy -- using the name of one thing to describe another. (This happens all the time; for instance, we refer to business executives as "suits.") The NRSV, picking up on the parallelism, directly translates "righteousness" in all these cases as "deliverance."

My suggestion in favor of Campbell's interpretation is that Paul's use of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is borrowed metonymy from Isa 51. In other words, Paul uses the phrase δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ to refer to an act of deliverance accomplished by God in his righteousness, namely the deliverance that came about by Christ.

This suggestion is already plausible because of the well-recognized significance that Isaiah has for New Testament theology. Mark says that the things which happened to Jesus are the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah (Mk 1.2), and in Luke 4 Christ identifies his mission with that of Isa 61. Furthermore there are a number of aspects of the Isa 51 text that are relevant for Paul: there is the pursuit of righteousness (v. 1); there is mention of Abraham and Sarah, blessed by God (v. 2); there is mention of the restoration to prelapsarian conditions (v. 3); there is mention of teaching and light for the nations (v. 4); there is mention of the removal of God's wrath (vv. 17, 21-22). I think, then, that Isa 51 offers us a plausible source and context for Paul's use of the phrase δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, and Campbell offers us the right interpretation of it.