Sunday, November 30, 2014

The laws of the LORD are perfect

Psalm 19 has the following wonderful passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The LORD hears his Christ

In Ps 20 we find the following wonderful verses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Christianity is finding your true identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2014

Theosis and the new self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Baptized in the river Lethe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Anger and hate clouds your reasoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Do unto others as unto Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Eudaimonia as knowing that God loves you

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The surprises of the centurion

In Luke 7.1-10, we find the story of Jesus healing the son of a centurion in Capernaum. This is a fantastic healing story, but there are also a number of other important lessons to be drawn from the passage. More than anything, we will find that we can be surprised at the goodness in the hearts of others, even in the hearts of persons we might have expected to be hateful.

A centurion in Capernaum had a slave whom he valued highly, and went he learned that Jesus was in Capernaum, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to convince him to come and heal the servant. The elders themselves tell Jesus: He is worthy of having you do this for him (v. 4). It is amazing that the Jews should hold a centurion of the oppressive Roman army in such high esteem, considering that other Jews were ready to commit murder against members of the Roman army at any moment! They hold him in high esteem because he had done so much good for the Jewish people: he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us (v. 5).

This in itself had to have been a surprise! The Romans, being the oppressors and imperialists, did not hold human persons of other ethnic groups in very high regard. It is obvious that they thought them sub-human or at least seriously inferior, since they violated their autonomy and personal freedom in order to draw taxes from them. If you are a first-century Palestinian, on the other hand, you could very quickly grow to hate the Romans for treating you as an animal and taking away your freedom. Every human person wants to be free to lead the life he finds good, and oppression and imperialism steps in the way of that through violence. It quickly and effectively breeds hate and xenophobia of the extremest sort.

Yet here was one of the enemy, a filthy Roman centurion who not only did not oppress the Palestinians, but instead built a synagogue for them and won the respect of the people. The elders of the Jews in Capernaum, the leaders of the group, highly respected him and considered him worthy of the attention of a great prophet and man of God such as Jesus of Nazareth. This is the first surprise: that there can exist good, genuine good, even among the dreaded strangers of groups we've grown to hate.

But notice the language of the centurion, when he sends friends to meet Jesus on the way to his house: Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof (v. 6). Whereas the Jewish elders considered him worthy -- perhaps in contradistinction to other recipients of Christ's grace, e.g. the sinful woman in vv. 36ff. of the same chapter -- the centurion himself claims to be unworthy.

This is one of those recognizable traits of true goodness in a person: the truly good person doesn't acknowledge his own goodness so much as his own unworthiness. A person who doesn't call attention to himself, who is aware of his faults even as others praise him and esteem him highly -- that is a recognizably good person. It sounds strange and paradoxical, but it would seem that the better a person is, the better they can recognize and acknowledge their own faults.

Notice now, too, the explanation the centurion gives as to why he does not insist that Christ come all the way to his house: But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, "Do this,' and the slave does it (v. 7-8). Jesus is so amazed at the faith in this response that he exclaims to the crowd following him: I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith (v. 9).

Now what is this centurions faith, except a recognition of the utter authority of Christ? He doesn't work by magic, he doesn't work by psychosomatic suggestion and trickery -- he has authority over the very earth and course of nature itself. This is a very fine recognition of the close connection between God and Christ, even if it comes short of the specific details of say a Chalcedonian definition of the Incarnation. The centurion recognizes that a mere word from Christ -- recall to mind, at this juncture, that God created the world by his speech in Gen 1 -- and the servant can be healed.

This is a sort of faith that Christ had not even found among the Israelites. When he declared the forgiveness of sins of the paralytic man, the scribes and Pharisees began to question, Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone? (Luke 5.21). They question him later, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? (5.30). From many of the Jews, he received only questions and opposition and unbelief in spite of all the signs he had performed. But in this pagan oppressor of the evil empire, he found a faith that recognized Christ's true nature and authority. This was a greater faith than anyone in Israel had expressed until then!

What can we learn from this, then? That we may be heartily surprised by the goodness we find in other persons; it may be the person we previously thought to be so terrible is actually quite good, better even than we are. It may just be that God works outside the borders of our own circle of friends or coreligionists or kinsmen. We ought to learn that we cannot judge another person before knowing him; each of us has a life of our own, a walk with God of our own, and we may be surprised in what we find in the other person.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sons of the Creator

In preparation for Sunday's sermon, I read from the discussion of baptism in Galatians 3. One of the most important verses in that discussion is v. 26: in Christ Jesus you are all children of God. This is surely very profound stuff; I want to focus on the reality that we are children of God from the perspective of the doctrine of creation.

Christians believe that God created the world and intended that it be inhabited by human persons such as ourselves. He made the world good, he made us to live in the world, and though things are a bit messed up at the moment, we know that God is going to fix things and make them like new. When we think to ourselves, then, that we are sons and daughters of the Creator God, what could this mean except that we feel at home in the world? By this I don't mean that the world as we know it now is more or less fine to us, familiar and hospitable. I mean that we love life and are happy to know that we are alive, that we exist.

God is behind the universe and sustains it in every passing moment. We too are sustained in existence by God's great power, and we wouldn't exist even for a second if he did not continue in this activity of existential maintenance. When we think, therefore, that the one behind the scenes (so to speak) is Our Father, to whom we can pray and bring all of our complaints and requests and petitions freely, and he happily hears us and only ever does good to us, we cannot help but be happy to be alive. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why Christianity has from the beginning been characterized as a religion of joy and happiness: because it makes one glad to be alive!

Think about it: the one who controls your very destiny is your Father who loves you and wants only what is good for you in everything. Who can despair of life when this is the way things stand? Who wouldn't be an optimist if they were impressed with conviction that the God of the whole universe is his Father who cares for him?

Christianity teaches people to feel at home in the world, by which I mean to feel at home in existence. Some philosophies and religions despair of existence. The Buddhists, for instance, consider life to be an apparently endless cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction; the only way out is to cut out all desire whatsoever, and the key to doing that is to realize that the self does not exist. Peace and quiet means extinction and self-annihilation through philosophical discovery. Not a very bright and happy view of things! But Christianity has a different diagnosis and a different treatment to the same problem: human beings are victims of this oppressing force called Sin, and the treatment for Sin is found in union with the Son of God who assumed a human nature fallen such as ours, redeemed it and sanctified and deified and transformed it, and now offers himself to all who wish to be healed. The answer is not to be annihilated; the answer is to be united with the Son of God and truly to begin to live thereafter.

Life is good, the world is good, and our situation is a good one insofar as God the good and loving creator is Our Father. When we have God as a Father, we can know that our end will be a good one, and though the road there may be a difficult one, we are glad for the opportunity to be on the journey.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The modern Platonists

I want briefly to comment on this short recollection from my friend Brittany's blog:

I can remember clearly in college when my professor had each of us stand up, say our name, and what we would do if we didn't become reporters. People were saying things like "go to law school, get my PhD, start my own company, Intern for Google" and when it was my turn I stood up and said,"I would like to be a Mom." There was a moment of silence and then a few laughs...then my professor said, "but what would you like to do with you life?"

These characters supposed the thought that my friend would want to be a mother, that motherhood is what she wanted to do with her life, was laughable and not worth taking seriously. But why would they think that? What's the matter with being a mom? Why isn't that honorable?

I think this attitude is tantamount to a kind of practical Platonism. Of course, we know that the ancient Platonists thought the real self was not the body but a soul which was unfortunately housed in the body. Being in the body is unnatural for the soul; thus Porphyry writes of Plotinus as one who lived as though ashamed to be in a body. Salvation for the Platonic philosophers consisted in discovering your true identity as soul and disassociating yourself from the body by dedicating your time and efforts to the contemplation of reality. This contemplation is the true and proper activity of the soul, not tending for a sickly, mortal body.

Now the modern Platonists don't exactly have this complex Platonic soteriology. They do share one thing with the ancient Platonists, however, and that is a total disregard for the body as an essential component of our identity. Apart from this, there could be no rational justification for their dismissive attitude. Why should it be laughable and strange that a person would want to do exactly what their body is especially constructed to do? It is the grace given to women by God that they can bear children and care for them in a way that men cannot. This is something as close to them as their very bodies. Why is it laughable that a person should want to do this? The only reason to be given is that the body is no essential part of your identity.

I think modern people do think this way, even if they might not explicitly endorse such an anthropological stance. Certainly the disregard for the body is widespread. People fill themselves with drugs and drink alcohol to the point of vomiting, and they consider this fun and games, and can't wait to get together to do it again sometime soon! They work ungodly hours and don't give their bodies the rest they are aching for. These are only a couple of examples.

This attitude is a strange and unnatural one. We don't find it strange that animals of other species mate, try to take care of their young, and so on. If you listen to some persons talk, though, you'd think having kids were the worst thing to happen to a person! Somehow in the modern world, humans have begun to distinguish themselves from nature and to live as if they were beyond it, as if they weren't animals too, created with certain natural functions and ends and goals. To consider the same point from a different angle: the same persons who find it strange that a woman would make it a goal to be a mother might also be very encouraging and supportive of a man who determined that he wanted to be a mother, and all that entails.

I think much of this stems from a knee-jerk refusal of all that sounds traditional and Christian. Christianity teaches that God created a natural order of things, that it is knowable, and that it contains within itself a kind of natural normativity and teleology that ought to be followed. This conviction, as regards sexuality, is expressed in the traditional sexual ethics of the church: sex is essentially ordered to procreation (which, for God's sake, is not to say that there are no other essential elements of sex), and thus sexual activity in which the procreative function is in principle frustrated is immoral. The rejection of Christianity perhaps led to the rejection of this kind of thinking about nature and sex. Homosexuality and transsexualism, despite being rather obviously contrary to the natural order of things, are among the big issues of the day, and if you take an unfavorable stance towards such things, you could be branded a bigot comparable to the racists who did lynchings in the South in the 40s and 50s.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Samuel and Isaac the Syrian on YHWH's quick forgiveness

Continuing on the theme of YHWH v. Jesus, I was particularly impressed by a passage from Samuel's farewell speech in 1 Sam 12. At this point in the history, the people of Israel has asked for a king just as the other nations around them have, which effectively is a rejection of the reign of YHWH over them. This is a grave sin because it demonstrates a lack of trust in the leadership of their God; instead of God and the prophet, they want a king and all the pomp and circumstance that come along with him. Samuel says: ... you said to me, 'No, but a king shall reign over us,' though the LORD your God was your king (1 Sam 12.12).

God is willing to give them a king, namely Saul, but Samuel wishes to make it clear that they have done something gravely wrong in asking for him. Therefore he asks the LORD to make it rain and thunder during the wheat harvest, and it happens as he asked (12.18). When the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel (v. 18), they ask Samuel that he pray to the LORD for them, so that they may not die (v. 19). What is Samuel's response? He says:

Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless (vv. 20-1).

What is impressive to me here, as in many other places in the Old Testament, is how quick and ready God is to forgive the people for their sins. All that it takes is a recognition of wrongdoing, a confession of sin, and God gladly gives a person a second (or third, or fourth) chance. He tells them: don't be afraid, and don't think any longer about your grave sin; just go forth and serve the LORD from this moment, and don't give any more time or attention to useless things.

It's that easy! Admit you've done wrong and don't do it any longer; turn your life around, whatever and however grave your evil may be. YHWH is quick to forgive; it was not ex nihilo that the ancient Israelites thought to describe YHWH as a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod 34.6-7).

I am reminded in all of this what Isaac the Syrian says in Ascetical Homilies III/6. He says that [God] loves humanity, and does not love justice apart from mercy (32), and that This, therefore, is His will: to forgive any person for any occasion of sin (33). Speaking of how God justifies us by faith and not by works, he says: In any case, though He gives power to the will so that it may not give in to sin, and though He is the fount of all goodness, it pleases Him to call us righteous. As I was saying, He willed this [viz., that we be justified through faith and not by works] so that, making use of every possible strategy, He may enjoy everyone as righteous and that He might be able to embrace every man in the number of the righteous (36).

In all these ways, Isaac stresses that God's concern is to save all, and is ready to forgive anyone and everyone of their sins for even the slightest pretext. Likewise Samuel consoles the worried people simply to go forward in serving the LORD, and not to turn again to the useless things of their past. YHWH, as much as Jesus, is quick to forgive!

Friday, November 7, 2014

What we can do, and what only God can do

The other night at church, there was a video presentation about a program that collects goods and toys for children, as many as will fit in a shoe box, and distributes them to needy children from all around the world. One of the repeated lines of those speaking during the presentation was this: through these shoe boxes, these kids learn that God has not forgotten them or abandoned them, that he still loves them. In my mind, I was asking the question: how does a shoe box from me here in Arizona show a child in Africa that God loves him? Why doesn't God show that love in some direct way? Why mediate through me? This question can be generalized, of course. If God loves us, why doesn't he intervene directly when things are going bad and we suffer? Why let us suffer and still insist from afar, as far as anyone can tell, that he still loves us?

This was an evil line of questioning because I asked it in doubt; this line of questioning roused up doubts in my mind about God's goodness and grace, which ought never to be considered. But thanks be to God that the Holy Spirit did not leave me in that line of questioning for too long, but instead gave me the insight that solved the problem. What was this insight?

I realized, first, that God has acted in a direct way in order to demonstrate his love for us; he has gone and intervened without waiting for us to do something. This is the intervention of God in Jesus Christ, by which our sins are atoned and forgiven, our bodies and natures restored to immortality and glory, and our fellowship with God renewed and guaranteed. God in Christ has taken the curse and evil and sin of the entire world upon himself, done away with it all in Christ's death, and through Christ's resurrection has guaranteed a glorious resurrection to life with God for all people. This was something that was accomplished, as Paul says, by God's pure grace: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy (Tit 3.4-5).

The second realization was that there are things we can do, and things only God can do. When it comes to the redemption of the lowly and the fight against evil, God has done what was within only his power to accomplish. That is the salvation that we have through Jesus Christ. No one of us could stop the cycle of sin and death, no one of us could bring humanity back out of the ashes of its own impending doom. No one of us can say that we have conquered hell and the devil and share this victory with others! Therefore God did this for us, because he loves us. But there are things we can do, and these things God leaves up to us.

He leaves it up to us, for the most part anyway, to feed the hungry mouths of the starving. He leaves it up to us to work for peace in the face of approaching forces of evil, for example ISIS. He leaves it up to us to seek good for our neighbors who are in need. I wouldn't deny for a second that when we do these things, we are assisted all the while by God's grace. Of course that is true. But it is also true that, in contradistinction to the act of salvation accomplished by Christ, God does not work salvation or shalom in these other areas unilaterally and unconditionally.

Why does he leave it up to us? Because we have to learn how to be good; we have to learn how to care like him, and to do what is within our power for the sake of our neighbors who suffer. We want God to wave his magic wand and fix all the problems of the world, as if that will make everything okay. Far from it -- our hearts are sick, and even if everything were great, it is probable that we would only ruin it all once more. Perhaps the second ruin would be greater than the first! We have to make an effort, to make the requisite sacrifices, and dedicate ourselves to doing what is good. This is how we become like God, who does good to all and who did the greatest good of all in saving all of humanity.

Of course, I am writing this post from the comfort of my own suburban home on a nice laptop, and I have no intention to sell everything I have and give it to the poor. I have no intention to abandon myself utterly to the pursuit of the common good, forgetting entirely about myself. I don't think I can do what Christ did, not to think of myself or to please myself in some way or other (cf. Rom 15.3). I can at least make baby steps, however, and I can do what I can in every opportunity and situation that presents itself to me. And you can do the same!

It may just be that we are not supposed to live our lives trying to enjoy the eighty or so years we have at our disposal (if we are strong and lucky!) in as trouble-free a manner as possible. It may just be that the point is not to live pleasant and peaceful Epicurean existences until the inevitable moment of dissolution at death. It may just be that we are supposed to make the battle against the forces of evil and the restoration of this world our primary goal, and subordinate everything else to that.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Baptism and the body of Christ

Paul says that we are united to Christ in the likeness of his death through baptism (Rom 6.5). The phrase he uses to describe this union is σύμφυτοι γεγόναμεν, the critical adjective here being the nominative masculine plural of σύμφυτος, symphytos. What does this word mean, and what can it tell us about the nature of this union?

The word σύμφυτος is ordinarily used to describe things which grow together or have been planted together; it is an agricultural word in this sense. Thus, for example in the parable of the sower, some of the seed falls among the thorns and the thorns grow together with it. The verb for "growing together" here is συμφύω, where we get the adjective σύμφυτος from. This definition of the word is not immediately helpful for us to understand Paul's usage, however.

A closely related definition found in the classical Greek literature is "innate, congenital." We seem to be approaching Paul's usage to some extent, but we are not quite there yet.

There is an interesting usage of the adjective in Plato. In a passage from the Phaedrus 246a, Plato speaks of the human soul as analogous to the composite of a pair of winged horses and the charioteer (ἐοικέτω δὴ συμφύτῳ δυνάμει ὑποπτέρου ζεύγους τε καὶ ἡνιόχου). Here we get an understanding of σύμφυτος as a composite, a unity of multiple parts.

This is obviously closer to Paul's understanding of union with Christ in baptism. Effectively what Paul is saying is that we have become one thing with Christ through baptism; now, together with Christ, we form a single thing. In other places in the Pauline corpus, he refers to this one thing as the body of Christ or the church, of whom Christ is the head. But what exactly is the nature of this union?

Paul makes it clear in his discussion of baptism in Rom 6 that the union is a bodily one. It is hard to understand for us, perhaps, but this is the language he uses! He talks of us dying together with Christ, of being buried with him, and of rising from the dead too. He talks about us being in Christ, who has died to sin, and this is supposed to neutralize our sinful bodies (Rom 6.6). To my mind, what Paul is saying is this: our bodies -- which, in light of his Jewish materialist anthropology, means our very selves -- have been united to Christ's body in a mystical way through baptism, so that his history becomes our history, and the sinfulness of our body is neutralized through its union to his body.

In a way, we are returning to the more organic and agricultural definitions of σύμφυτος with this interpretation. We become part of Christ through baptism; we grow with him as a single body; we become innate to him as members of his body.

Some persons would rather see only forensic and juridical categories here and leave it at that. They may want to speak of a "mystical" or "spiritual" union with Christ without positing a bodily union. That all goes against Paul's language, however, which emphasizes strongly the bodily nature of our union with Christ. We are united to Christ in a bodily way because we take on his own bodily history in baptism. I don't deny, of course, that there are forensic and juridical elements in all of this. Certainly if we are united to Christ's body, then God likewise sees us as a part of him, and thus reckons to us Christ's own righteousness through this union. But it is important to respect Paul's bodily language of union and the role this plays in his theology.

Another blog post for another day would address the importance of a real bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements in light of our bodily union with Christ.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Walking by our own light

This is an interesting passage in Isaiah:

Who among you fears the LORD
  and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
  and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the LORD
  and relies upon his God?

But all of you are kindlers of fire,
  lighters of firebrands.
Walk in the flame of your fire,
  and walk among the brands that you have kindled!
This is what you shall have from my hand:
  you shall lie down in torment (Isa 50.10-11).

Here the prophet calls upon a people who are in a difficult and ambiguous situation. These may even understate the gravity of what they were undergoing; he says that they are walking about in the darkness and have no light. His audience, of course, was Judah in exile in Babylon. They were taken away from their home and led hundreds of miles away from the holy city, away from the temple of the LORD, to live among ungodly gentile heathens. They thought that the LORD had abandoned them, but here appears the Isaian prophet with a message that Jerusalem has served her term, that her penalty is paid (40.2), and that Israel will be gathered together once more in their homeland (43.1-6).

It is not unbelievable that some persons would have a hard time accepting this message. They saw women eat their offspring, the children they have borne and priest and prophet . . . killed in the sanctuary of the Lord (Lam 2.20). It is hard to accept that YHWH could still have much to do with Israel after that! It has been seventy long years since they have been in exile! This so-called prophet may be nothing more than a trouble-maker, looking to get the people into trouble with the Babylonians.

This is a pretty plausible judgment, and surely many of us would think along the same lines if we were in their position. How many people give up their faith and trust in God after suffering calamity and hardship? How many people want nothing more to do with God, when they undergo the gravest evils and misfortunes a person can imagine? To them it seems obvious that either God does not exist at all, or else that he doesn't care much for their welfare and safety.

But God is not like us, as I have been emphasizing in numerous recent posts, and he doesn't think or judge like we do. He insists that we trust in his judgment and that we don't try to walk by our own lights. The prophet confronted many people who did not trust the word of the LORD, nor did they accept God's evaluation and judgment of things, but instead insisted on evaluating things as they thought obvious. God's only word for them is: walk by your own lights! You will see that your plans will fall apart, your judgment was false, and your end will be an unhappy one; indeed, your plan will cross paths with mine and it will only go badly for you.

This is certainly what the Sadducees and the temple authorities were doing when they persecuted the Christians. Gamaliel told them: keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God! (Acts 5.38-9) They did not heed his word, however, and found themselves wiped out and killed by the Romans, whereas Christians remained and now are more numerous than the Jews themselves. They were opposing God's plan even as they were going by their own lights, judging things as seemed obvious to them.

Of course, none of this is to say that our judgment is always faulty, or that we do not ever see things aright. The Bible does not ascribe utter ignorance to humanity, but it does teach us that at times, we are poorly mistaken and in a bad place. What seems obviously true to us may not be what God knows. In such cases, the call upon us is to trust God and his goodness. We have a fine ground for doing so: the goodness he has demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ. Knowing that God is good and that his intentions for all are good, therefore, we can walk by his commandments and obey the word of his servant.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

God makes us patient

It is no secret that the authors of the New Testament had the impression that Christ's second coming was going to take place soon, perhaps even within their lifetimes. Paul says the time is short (1 Cor 7.29). And yet Christ has not returned, so far as any of us can tell, and two thousand years have past, Christians being taught all the while that the time is short. What is going on here?

The deepest, darkest doubt which may appear in the heart of a person is that Christ is never returning, and that this whole Christianity thing is poorly mistaken. But that view has a very difficult time maintaining plausibility when we think of the origins of Christianity. We have the eyewitness reports and testimonies of the disciples and apostles and the first generation of Christians who saw Jesus during his ministry, who saw him after he had resurrected from the dead, and who saw him ascend into heaven. There is no doubt about all this. I think the lesson to learn is a different one.

I have been thinking recently about God's timing and God's patience. The Bible shows again and again, as does personal experience, that God's timing is nothing like our own, and God does not get things accomplished on our schedule. He tells us that the time is short and yet we have been waiting for two thousand years now. What could this mean?

Now I understand the essence of the Christian doctrine of salvation to be theosis: as so many of the Church Fathers would say, God became a human so that humanity can become like God. Our telos as a race is to embody the image and likeness of God, which Christ has (Col 1.15) and which we gain when we are united to him (see Athanasius, De Incarnatione). God does everything for our sake and for our benefit, St. Anthony affirmed (see On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life). This means that even the delays and tarrying must be for the sake of making us like God. But how?

The answer must lie in the transformation of our minds and understanding (cf. Rom 12.2). If God sees two thousand years to be a short amount of time, then we should begin to see it as a short amount of time as well. If God is patient almost ad infinitum with sinners, just as he was patient beyond what is believable to us with the Israelites (2 Kings 17.5ff.), then he must want us to embody the same patience and become like him. The lesson to learn is that we must be patient like God is patient. This is a patience that is willing to forgive a sinner seventy times seven in a single day (Mt 18.21-2).