Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back at 2015

At the beginning of this year, I made a decision that I would adopt a different attitude to my life. I determined that I would be more optimistic, more confident in myself, more willing to try something new, more encouraging. I determined that I would adopt the attitude of an athlete training for a competition: I had to believe in myself and to work hard, and to trust in God that things would work out as they ought to. Indeed, I was going to take seriously the maxim of St. Anthony, who said that all things happen to us as they should and for our own benefit.

In truth, this year was one of the most productive years of my life. I got two papers published and I am close to completing a third one which I will submit for publication perhaps after this weekend. I was hired at Grand Canyon University, where I work as an Instructional Assistant -- really a dream job for me. It is the first time in my life that my line of work is personally meaningful to me, and I am able to use the four years of training and formal education I put in at Arizona State. I started lifting weights in January, and I have been to the gym at least three times a week for fifty of fifty-two weeks. (I missed two weeks because I was sick.) I began taking lessons in music theory and composition, something I've always wanted to study, with a member of my favorite band; and he told me that I have real talent and ability.

Most importantly, over the course of this last year, by God's help, I gained some very important discernment regarding the direction my life would take after I finish my MDiv. I didn't always want to do a PhD. Indeed, when I started at seminary and I saw that all my colleagues had families of their own, wives and girlfriends, jobs and careers, exciting church ministries, I felt very unfulfilled. I didn't have any of those things. I thought to myself: a PhD would mean four or five more years of this same unfulfilled frustration. What's the point? But without the prospect of the PhD, my future was a dark void with no clear direction. God answered my prayers in a very outstanding way over the course of the last year, so that now I know what I ought to do and where I ought to go.

Of course, my life has not been perfect. I have experienced numerous moral failures and shortcomings, and I am far from where I would like to be. But at the same time, through God's help, I have made some progress. I know myself a little better, and I know that I am moving forward, even if slowly and deliberately.

I am thankful to God for the past year, with its pluses and minuses alike. There were more pluses than minuses, and that is by God's grace. I am looking forward to yet another year in fellowship with God; I want to see where he will take me and what I will learn through my experiences. I wish everyone else a Happy New Year, and I encourage everyone to put their lives in God's hands. Walking with God, as Enoch did and as so many other heroes in the scriptures did, is the only way to live in this world. I can have no confidence in my life and its value, its worth, its meaningfulness, unless I walk the path that God has set for me alongside him.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The day after Christmas

On Christmas day, we sing carols and remind ourselves of the birth of Christ into the world. We are amazed at the wondrous generosity and the "great mystery" (magnum mysterium) of God being born in the flesh, the Infinite being wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Son of God being born of a virgin. The magnificence of the paradoxes entrance us, and we contemplate these things, like Mary did, in adoration and reverence.

But what about the day after Christmas? What life do we live in the world, knowing that Christ has entered into the creation which came into being by his own word and power? Certainly we cannot live the same, knowing now that Christ is in the world and that some unbelievable miracles took place when previously we had only known violence and darkness and chaos! 

Post-Christmas life is not the same as pre-Christmas life. If previously we walked in darkness, now we have seen a great light (Isa 9.2). Indeed, it is the Light of the World, who enlightens everyone, that has come into the world (John 1.9). Our lives cannot be characterized by the same confusion and hopelessness and wandering, if truly we have come to believe the gospel message of Christ's birth. Who can still be gloomy and sad and doubtful, if God himself has taken such incredible measures to bring his kingdom to the world?

The Virgin Mary sang it rightly: He has shown his strength with his arm (Luke 1.51). What to the minds of unbelievers is an absurdity and an impossibility, God has accomplished in the most miraculous manner: the Logos of God has come into the world, born of a virgin, the divine nature united with the human in a single person. In the light of this demonstration of God's capacity and wisdom, how can I entertain any doubts or fears that he will take care of me? Or that he will take of the world which he loves so much?

The Light which enlightens every man has come into the world. Whereas Christmas begins with adoration and wonder, post-Christmas life is a process of learning from the incarnate Wisdom of God. Rightly the scriptures tell us, Do not rely on your own understanding (Prov 3.5). This is why Christ has come into the world: so that following after the Light, none of us would walk in the dark any longer. If anyone wants to know what is right and what is wrong, he ought to pray in gratitude to God, because Christ has come into the world to teach us how to live before God. If anyone wants to know how truly to be human, and what sort of life is good for a human person, now the Creator Himself has stooped down to unite himself with the creature, so as to teach the creature what sort of life is good for him.

On the day after Christmas, filled with hope and eager anticipation of the arrival of God's kingdom, we prepare ourselves for that wonderful transformation of the entire created order by purifying ourselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3.3). Today we begin our first lessons in the school of Christ, the embodied Wisdom of God, who teaches us how to be.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christ our hope

The titles and names we attributes to God and to Jesus Christ or specially significant, because they inform the manner in which we think about theological issues. Unless we have the right idea about God, we are not going to relate to him properly, and our spiritual lives will suffer. If you talk to people who do not believe in God, they often times will describe God in ways that seem utterly unfamiliar to Christians. Many people do not believe in God because they have entirely the wrong idea about him.

For this reason, it is especially important to take note of the titles that the scriptural authors use to describe God and Jesus Christ. With this in mind, I want to bring to your attention the use of titles by Paul and his first letter to Timothy, which are especially poignant:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope (1 Tim 1.1). 

God is our Savior and Christ is our hope. This is the message of the holy apostle, and this is the message of the Christian religion. But the manner in which we receive this message is up to us: do we accept that God is our Savior, or do we instead trust in ourselves that everything is fine as it is? Is Christ Jesus our hope, or do we have no need of hope outside of ourselves? 

For those of us who are Christians, we too easily fall into the trap of trying to think about God in ways that are not provided us by the scriptures. Rather than thinking about God as Savior, out of fear of condemnation we think of him instead as Executioner or Terminator. Guilt and fear and a sense of personal unworthiness paralyzes us and keeps us from approaching God in repentance and confession. Or worse, we think we have no sins of which to be forgiven, and then instead of God becoming our Savior, we are convinced instead that he is just out to put us down and make us feel bad and keep us from enjoying life. 

Likewise, it is easy too easy for many of us to forget that Jesus Christ is our hope, and not anything else. Joseph Ratzinger says that Christ in himself is sheer salvation, and inflicts perdition on no one. In the same way, Christ himself offers peace and rest to any who come to him, and whoever believes in him has eternal life. We cannot allow ourselves to be deceived into fearing condemnation from Christ, which will paralyze us in our sins. Rather we must approach Christ in faith and in love, having no fear because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4.18). 

We have to make a choice whether we will accept the gospel message or not. Is God our Savior, or is he looking to burden us and shackle us? Or is he ready at any moment to zap us for trivial mistakes? Is Christ our hope, or do we have no need of anyone outside ourselves? 

Christmas is near, and it is worth it for all of us to reflect upon the truth of the holiday. What God is it who takes on human nature, is born in vulnerability and humility, and submits to limitations and weaknesses of human existence—even to a wretched death—in order to demonstrate his love for us? What further demonstrations of God's goodness and love do we need?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dread on the night before Christmas

Christmas celebrates the most miraculous and wonderful birth in the history of the world: the birth of the Son of God by a virgin, herself miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit. Inasmuch as all things were made for this Godman, Jesus Christ (Col 1.16), consequently the birth of Christ is the pinnacle and fulfillment of the purpose of the entire universe. Now, as Christ is born, the inheritor of the entire earth has come into life, so small and vulnerable and weak in comparison to the totality of existence which is rightly his. 

Yet the scene itself was probably not particularly grand and impressive. A young girl giving birth -- always a nasty scene -- in a manger, surrounded by animals and her fiance. She was certainly scared, as any woman would be in the pangs of childbirth. How could all of this have happened? Who am I that such incredible miracles should take place in my life? Perhaps these are the thoughts that went through Mary's head on the night she delivered. 

But imagine further what she might have been thinking and feeling on the night before. She has to travel to Bethlehem, and she knows she is near to childbirth. Probably she felt early contractions and worried about going into labor unexpectedly on the road. With all the signs and miraculous occurrences that had taken place, in light of the message she had heard about the future of her child, she certainly worried whether he or she might not die in delivery.

The night before the birth of the Savior of the world may well have been an experience of dread for Mary. Yet here we learn an important lesson about God's providence: God can accomplish even the most amazing miracles in the humblest of circumstances, and even in moments in which we feel dread and angst. The way we feel about things is clearly not always the way God feels about things; and our sense that all control has been lost is perhaps true for us, but an illusion in general. There is no way that God could lose control of the world, God who can do all things, and ... no purpose of [his] can be thwarted (Job 42.2).

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Playing football for God

I'm a seminarian, which means I study a lot of theology. I'm also a big Seattle Seahawks fan, which means I watch a lot of football. Lately, I've been more and more impressed with rookie wide receiver and returns specialist Tyler Lockett, who has demonstrated his value to this team both on offense and on special teams right away.

One thing about Tyler which especially impresses me is his mentality. In this autobiographical video, Tyler speaks about his experiences playing football under the shadow of his father and uncle at Kansas State University. His father Kevin was the best wide receiver in the history of the school, and his uncle Aaron was one of the best returners. The burden of his family name was heavy, then, and Tyler describes the initial despair he felt, knowing that the expectations for his play were so high. Yet he describes a critical change in his mentality which helped him tremendously: rather than playing to prove himself worthy of the family name, rather than trying to live up to the expectations of others, he says he started to play for God.  But what does that mean? What does it mean to play football for God?

This question invites us to delve into the under-explored topic of the theology of sports. What significance do sports have vis-à-vis our relationship with God? Does God care about sports at all? How does sports relate with our spiritual life? (I think that my meditations here will have application in other contexts, as well.)

Of course, there are references to sports and athletics more generally in the scriptures. For example, St.  Paul on a few different occasions compares his own attitude to the spiritual life to that of an athlete, training for a competition. For example, in light of the difficulties and responsibilities of preaching the gospel, Paul says: Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor 9.24-7). Likewise,  to Timothy he says: Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Tim 4.7-8). The connection between athletics and the spiritual life is a fascinating one, and worth exploring at a later time.

But in this post, I want to talk about the concept of playing football for God. What could that mean? I haven't spoken with Tyler Lockett about the topic, but I am guessing he would probably agree with what I am going to say.

Playing football for God does not mean playing so as to impress God, or to win over God's favor, as if God could only love you if you were an accomplished athlete. Far from it -- God loves everyone, athletes and non-athletes alike. On the contrary, I think playing football for God means playing football with a certain kind of consciousness and awareness of God's goodness. The invention of the sport of football was possible because God created human kind in his image and likeness, with rationality and intelligence and a creative spirit, which seeks to bring new and wonderful things into existence, just like God is the creator of everything. But also, playing football for God means playing out of gratitude to God -- gratitude for the gift of life, for the gift of health, for the gift of human community, for the gift of strength, for the gift of the opportunity and ability to enjoy oneself.

God created human beings with a body that is capable of wonderful, magnificent things. A football player like Tyler Lockett, who plays football for God, does what he does best out of gratitude for God's good gift of a healthy, functioning body. The football player who plays for God thinks like this: "Thank you, Lord, for the gift you have given me. I want to perfect it and use it excellently out of gratitude for you, to demonstrate to everyone your goodness and generosity in allowing us to enjoy life!"

It is too easy to think that God has no concern for football or sports or other "worldly endeavors." But that's not the impression that I get about God from reading the Bible. St. Paul tells the Gentiles in Lystra that, although they did not know the true God, he has been giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy (Acts 14.17). When the Lystrans experienced joy in their lives -- and this holds true for the rest of us, as well -- it was a gift of God, a demonstration of his goodness and generosity. So also, the joy that Tyler Lockett gets from playing football, and the joy that the rest of us get from watching him do amazing things, is a gift of God's and a demonstration of his goodness. God, being good and loving, is happy to see that his children are filled with joy, same as any other parent.

So this is what it means to play football for God, I think: it means playing out of gratitude to God for the good gift that he has given us, the gift of life and health and strength and movement and community. Playing football for God -- and doing anything for God, for that matter, whether it be sport or being a mother or something else -- means playing our absolute best, making the best use of the gifts he has given us.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

It is the last hour

1 John 2.18 says: Little children, it is the last hour.

John said this nearly two thousand years ago, and for almost as long as human memory stretches back, it has been "the last hour." How do we understand this? Is John simply mistaken, deceived by the naive apocalyptic expectations of the first generation of Christians? Or is there something deeper to be understood in this?

I am skeptical of the notion, of which some persons are so deeply and profoundly convinced, that we are literally living in the final days of the earth. Of course, in light of the potential for nuclear warfare and the utter destruction of the planet through our very advanced firepower, I think this claim is more plausible now than it was in previous years. Yet at the same time, generation after generation has been convinced that the world is going down the toilet within their lifetime, and yet it doesn't happen. So even if the world should end within my lifetime, I am not expecting it and I don't believe it will.

What could be meant by this "last hour," then? Because the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour (Luke 12.40), I think we should always live our life in readiness for and expectation of the coming Judgment. This means that we treat every hour as if it were the last one. This is a way for us to accord proper attention to our present actions, and to treat our life with adequate seriousness. If I am convinced that at any moment I will be subject to judgment, and there will be no making up for my mistakes or asking forgiveness at that point, then I will certainly not waste time and opportunities for good while I have them. [Evagrius] also said, 'If you keep in mind your death and the eternal judgment, there will be no stain on your soul' (The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, p. 118).

This sort of meditation is all the more appropriate in this advent season, in which we await the arrival of the Christ child. For Christ's arrival is not met the same by all: whereas for Mary and Joseph, the arrival of this child was a blessing, for Herod it is a curse and a stumbling block. As Simeon told Mary at the circumcision of Christ, This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2.34-5). So once more I present the question: how do we present ourselves before Christ? He, for whom all things were created (Col 1.16) and who is finally coming into the world that is his (John 1.10-1) -- how will he find us?

For meditation for the end of this blog post, I present this wonderful hymn:

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight,
And blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching,
And again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God,
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Christmas is the purpose of the universe

Paul tells us about Jesus Christ, the incarnate Godman, that all things have been created through him and for him (Col 1.16). Therefore, the moment when Christ comes into the world is the culmination of the history of the created order. Now, the proper inheritor and owner of all things has arrived, the true King of kings, to receive what is rightly his.

At the scene of his birth, the ox and the ass look upon him. They recognize their master (Is 1.3). The angels sing, because God has declared peace on earth on the people whom he favors. The blessed virgin mother looks upon her only child with wonder and mystery, amazed that she should have been chosen by God for such an incomprehensible honor. Shepherds bring the message of the angels to Joseph and Mary, telling them the celestial announcement that their son was the Messiah. After some time, magicians from far away lands recognized the significance of the event and came bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

But he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (John 1.11). Although he could say, The whole earth is mine (Exod 19.5), yet the very persons for whom he came did not recognize him. And likewise for us, living in the 21st century: Christ comes to us in different forms and we don't recognize him.

How do we prepare ourselves for this moment? Everything, myself and yourself included, was created for this moment: the arrival of Christ on Earth. How will I present myself before him? Are my clothes sullied? Do I love him, or do I fear him? I have to offer myself regardless; let me at least be the sort of gift he would be glad to receive. Just as Gregory of Nazianzus saidChrist is born; glorify him. Christ is from heaven; go and meet him. Christ is on earth; be exalted. O All the earth, sing unto the Lord.

And Christ in turn is happy to receive us. He says: Here am I, and the children whom God has given me! (Heb 2.13). In his goodness and unsurpassed mercy, Christ receives all who believe in him, granting them the power to become children of God in spite of their prior sinfulness (John 1.12), and he will never turn away any who come to him (John 6.37). So in the light of all this: Christ is born; glorify him! Christ is from heaven; go and meet him!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Do not love the world: a meditation on Christian identity

John writes: Do not love the world (1 John 2.15). What could this mean?

It seems obvious enough to me that "world" in this context doesn't refer to all human persons, or all human persons outside of the Church. That's not what he means, because the command not to love those persons doesn't make any sense. Christ offered himself on behalf the whole world in that sense (1 John 2.2), and Paul and John both make clear that God doesn't wait for a person to become a Christian in order to love them; rather he loves them even as they are still sinners (Rom 5.8; 1 John 4.10). Insofar as Christian ethics means assuming and developing a character in likeness to God's (Eph 4.22-4; Col 3.9-10), John cannot be suggesting that we ought not love people who are not Christians.

Likewise, John tells us that the commandment of God is this: that we should believe in his Son Jesus, and that we should love each other (1 John 3.23). Now it is obvious that the command to believe is given to a person who doesn't already believe. This means that the command to love one another is aimed at the whole world, at all persons, and not just as Christians. Christians have the obligation to love other Christians but also all people.

On the contrary, it seems to me that "world" in this sense refers to the culture and lifestyles and society of persons who live in sin. It doesn't refer to the persons themselves, but rather to the way that they live and the system in which they live, which is informed by sin and not by the truth of Christ. All of this is not to be loved, but the persons themselves are to be loved.

This introduces an interesting problem: how do you love the person, but not the lifestyle that they live, and the culture with which they identify? This is brought up in discussions regarding sexual ethics and gay marriage. How can you claim to love a gay person, and yet not to approve of their gay marriage, which is a fundamental component of the way they identify themselves?

Of course, we have the obvious counterexample: God loves us while we were still sinners, but he did not approve of or appreciate the things we did in our sinfulness, even if we identified with it. God loved Paul, but God could hardly have appreciated or approved of Paul's murderous zeal against Christians. Rather, it seems to me that the Bible teaches a different conception of identity than we are used to. Our identity is not something we create entirely ex nihilo, as if we start out blank slates. It must be that I am something beyond and prior to the life I decide for myself, the way I determine to live and the things I like to do and identify with.

What might this prior identity be? The obvious answer is drawn from the creation narrative in Genesis: the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-7). This is the true identity of the human person; this is what it truly means to be me, or you, or anyone else. Of course, in light of human sin, this identity is lost and we are convinced that actually we are something else. We construct various identities for ourselves, but inasmuch as these are not the image and likeness of God, they are a false identity. Rather, the true identity of the human person is demonstrated in Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15). Christ shows us what humanity truly is, and who we truly are.

Being a Christian means being like Christ (1 John 2.6). In light of the discussion above, we can say that being a Christian means discovering your true identity in Jesus Christ: he shows you who you truly are, beneath the cluttered surface that you might have constructed over time. What a human person truly is, Christ demonstrates: son of God, loving, benevolent, kind, good, righteous, fair, just, and so on. Everything is a false self that suppresses the image of God implicit in everyone.

Seiichi Yagi, in The Bible in a World Context, ed. Walter Dietrich & Ulrich Luz (Eerdmans, 2002), discusses the Christian philosophy of Katsumi Takizawa:

His basic thesis was: No matter what one is or is not, and unaffected by whether one has a religion, and which religion, one has an underlying foundation as the basis of being oneself. This is the primordial fact of "Immanuel," that is, "God with us." This primordial fact states that humanity is in God. Takizawa also called this primordial fact "unity of God and humanity" or "Christ." Not every human being is aware of this primordial fact. Only when one is awakened to it does a conscious religious life come about. Takizawa called this primordial fact "God's primary contact with humanity," and the religious life evolved by awakening to it he called "God's secondary contact with humanity" ... What is it in humanity that is awakened to it? Technically one could say: It is the human "I" that is awakened (p. 36).

We might assimilate this into the present discussion. Becoming a Christian means realizing the truth about one's status in the world; one's relation to God, who grounds our existence and keeps us in being from every passing moment; and although Takizawa would demur at this point, we can say that Jesus of Nazareth, as Christ, presents to us what it means to live in full awareness of this fact, in full awareness of the true identity of a human person.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

You have overcome the evil one

John writes to his audience and tells them some very lofty things about their current state:

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.

I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.

I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one.

I write to you, children, because you know the Father.

I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.

I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one (1 John 2.12-4).

Of course, John tells us I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin (2.1), so he must think that telling his audience all these truths about themselves must contribute in some way to their holiness and obedience to Christ. In fact, these words fit nicely with the general paradigm of obedience that John develops, which is obedience as a result of knowledge.

John is clear on numerous occasions: those who know Christ will obey him, whereas those who do not know him will demonstrate this ignorance through their hatred (e.g., 1.5-10; 2.3-6, 9-11). Obedience stems from knowledge and experience of God and Christ, rather than mere volitional compliance with some set of commands. And so it must be a part of Christian life to know these things, too, and it must be that knowing these things contributes in some way to our holiness.

And it isn't difficult to see how! Being told that we are forgiven of our sins frees us from their burden. No longer do our sins and vices characterize our identities; once they are forgiven, we are now free to be different sorts of people than we previously thought. Think of the freedom of the sinful woman from Luke 7.36-50, after being told that her sins are forgiven! No one in the world can tell her that she is good for nothing or a sinner, because the Lord himself has forgiven her and set her free from that.

Likewise, John tells the young people that they have overcome the evil one, and that they are strong. John is very optimistic about the possibility of Christian holiness, and he doesn't betray any sense that the normal Christian life is one marked by moral mediocrity and consistent shortcoming and failure. No, on the contrary: Christian life is obedience to Christ's commands, and love for our brothers and sisters!

Now I don't know how many of us can say of our own lives that John's words adequately characterize them. I don't think "You have overcome the evil one!" is always the way I feel about my own life. And yet John insists to tell me that this is true, and he is convinced that my understanding this contributes to my own holiness and obedience to God. How to understand this?

I think many Christians are like children who have been told their whole life that they are stupid or good for nothing, even though quite the opposite is true. Such a person, no matter how much potential and value others will see in him, will forever be convinced that he's not smart or that he's not capable of anything. Or consider the case of a girl who is convinced she is ugly when she's not. A whole life can be ruined and paralyzed because a person doesn't know the truth about herself!

In the same way, I take it that we ought to encourage one another with these words (1 Thess 4.18). To convince a person who's sure he's stupid that he's actually quite intelligent takes commitment and friendship and kindness. In the same way, in the context of our churches, we ought to be committed to reminding one another all the time that our lives are to be characterized like this: you are strong! the word of God abides in you! you have overcome the evil one!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Meeting a Russian orphan

Last week was my birthday, so I went to a restaurant with some friends at night. On my way out, I made acquaintance with a Russian man, about a year younger than me. He told me a bit about his life and about the difficulties of his upbringing in a Russian orphanage after his parents had abandoned him.

He told me some rather horrific stories about the way things were in the orphanage. For example, after one of the other children (9 years old at the time) had been beaten up by a gang from the city, some forty or so of the orphans got together and exacted revenge for the beating. He said that was the only time in his life he had felt sorry for someone he was fighting, as the more numerous orphans took turns kicking and stomping on the gang who had hurt their brother. On another instance, before he had been abandoned by his parents, some kids offered his younger brother some sunflower seeds if he would abuse and victimize his pet cat. Being hungry and dirt poor, his brother agreed to “kick the shit out of the cat” for some sunflower seeds.

His life was more or less a series of unfortunate and shocking events such as these, though in recent times, having been adopted here in America and having recently combated alcoholism to take control of his life anew, things are nowhere near as bad. He told me he was not religious, and I asked him why. He said there may be a God, for all he knows, but he only knows one thing for sure: he doesn’t want God to take care of him, and he doesn’t want anything to do with God. He had experienced far more bad than good in life, and he was convinced that he always had to fight to earn the right to exist. He refused to accept that God had any part in his own survival. He told me that he prays every day like this: “God, don’t look after me. Look after someone else; just leave me alone.”

It was late at night as I was speaking to him. Part of his face was in the light, and part of it was in the shadows. I thought this was interesting: he was a tremendously nice guy, and a good soul from what I could tell of him, but he had this radical opposition to God; he wanted nothing to do with God whatsoever.

What to say to a person like that? How to understand a person with more soul and kindness in his heart than many Christians I know, yet who is so attached to making it in life on his own that he would (by his own admission) sooner accept damnation than to admit his need for God and to worship him? How to convince a person like this of the goodness of God, when he has experienced no reason discernible to him to think that God is good?

It was like a conversation out of a Dostoyevsky novel. It was fascinating to speak with him and listen to him tell me his story. I am sure I will see him around again, because I frequent that restaurant. Next time I think I will ask him what he thinks of Jesus.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

People are lovable

It is fascinating that God commands us to love him and to love our neighbor as ourselves. On the one hand, love can hardly be demanded or commanded: doesn't love arise spontaneously, and isn't love a matter of free choice? Yet God commands us to love our neighbors. As I've recently commented, this shows us that we wouldn't do so otherwise. The fact that God commands us to love our neighbors speaks to our prior disposition not to love.

Yet the command reveals a further truth: that people are lovable. This may news to many of us, especially when we think of the worst of the worst with which we are familiar: ISIS decapitators, or Hitler, or psychopaths, or just the more mundanely intolerable characters we run into in our daily lives. God commands us to love these people too. Now God doesn't command what is intrinsically impossible: he doesn't command us, for example, to draw a square circle. Therefore, these individuals, as evil and as despicable as they may be, must nevertheless be lovable. There must be some good in them which we can recognize and appreciate and value.

God certainly shows us that this is how he sees things. Paul told the Roman church that God showed his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for our sins (Rom 5.8). God loves the world, and demonstrates this love for it through the self-sacrifice of his sin on the world's behalf (1 John 4.8ff.). God consequently sees something lovable and worth valuing -- indeed, something of tremendous value -- in even the worst, the chief of sinners, as Paul calls himself.

Now, if God sees something lovable about all people, it must be that people are lovable. But we don't think all people are lovable. The obvious inference to make at this juncture is that there must be something about people we don't see. John says that people who obey Christ's commandments and who love are in the light and have knowledge of the truth; those who hate, however, are in the darkness and they can't see things clearly (1 John 2.11).

If we don't love people, if we don't see people as lovable, even the worst of them, it must be because there is darkness blinding us. We don't yet see things as God sees them. If we could see things as God sees them, we would see in every person an immense treasure, worth giving one's life for. But as it is, we are in the darkness and we still only see things that repulse us, without seeing the good that makes people lovable. If the veil were removed from our eyes, perhaps we would love just as naturally and as completely as God does. The most beautiful painting in the world will not move me if I cover my eyes or place it in the dark. The light has to turn on for me to see and to love!

Monday, October 26, 2015

God loves us, but do we love God?

Jesus and his friend
Perhaps the central theological affirmation about God in the Christian tradition, after the affirmation that he is incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, is this: God is love (1 John 4.8). Indeed, this is emphasized greatly especially in some circles, for a number of reasons. Among these reasons is the laudable concern that ordinary Christians, cognizant of their own disposition to sin and to fall short of the standards of righteousness, might not despair that God is ready to destroy them at any moment. Far from it! God loves you as a parent loves her children, and so wants your development and your growth, not your destruction: For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God (Ezek 18.32).

Yet I worry at times that the constant affirmation of God's love for even the worst sinners can be taken advantage of by the spiritually immature. Some persons might hear again and again that God loves them, and this provides a comfort for them when they will inevitably do some wrong. Yet constantly to seek assurance that the other person loves us when we will do something we know is wrong seems like a short distance from engaging in an abusive relationship with the other. It is close to abusive and disrespectful regularly to seek assurance that the other person, whom we will wrong, still loves us.

The question becomes: do we reciprocate this love? In fact, to love God is a commandment. Notice how Jesus answers the question regarding which of the commandments of the Torah is the greatest:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment (Mt 22.34-8).

It seems strange that we be commanded to love God. Isn't love something we engage in freely? Is it right to demand that people love God?

These questions are right on the money. The presupposition is that we don't need to be told to love God; either we will or we won't. Yet the fact that we have such a command tells us that there is need for it. But what might that need be?

To command that we love God tells us first that God is lovable. You can't be commanded to love someone who is not lovable, just as you can't be commanded to do something which impossible. So we infer from the reality of the commandment that God is lovable. And in fact the Bible goes out of its way to demonstrate to us that God is eminently lovable, that everything worth loving is found in God. Among other things, I point to this line in John's first letter:

... if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.1-2).

Notice what John says here: not that Christ's death is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, but that Christ himself, the person, is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The suggestion, as I understand it, is that to atone for the sins of the whole world at great cost to himself defines the very person Jesus Christ -- that is his life, his existence, his personality, his personally chosen identity. This is how Jesus Christ understands himself and how he understands his life: a continuous advocacy on behalf of sinners, even at great cost to himself.

Knowing that God is like this, how can we do anything but love him? How can you do anything but love the person who has made it the purpose of his life to ensure that things go well for you, to save you if you are in trouble, and do everything he can to ensure that you enjoy eternal life? Such a person can be reasonably met with no other response than love. But the bible teaches us that Jesus Christ reveals God's character to us, because he is God incarnate. Jesus' life is God's life! No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1.18).

Yet if we are commanded to love God, it must also be because we have to be told this. In fact, Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is closely related to the first one: And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mt 22.39). John connects obedience to God's commands with love for God: whoever obeys [God's] word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection (1 John 2.5). And what else are God's commands except commandments to love other persons as we love ourselves? The implication is clear: if we do not love God, we will not obey his commandments, which means we will not love others nor treat them as we should.

God commands us to love him because he knows that this is the only hope for the world. Only if people love God, and therefore love the people that he has made with the same divine love that he has for them, will there be hope of salvation for the human race. So he commands us to love him, because otherwise we won't do it, and therefore neither will we treat other persons with love.

Indeed, the bible suggests that our natural disposition is to hate God and to be suspicious of him. Consider the example of the Hebrews: after the miracles of the exodus, and after God's numerous provisions in the desert, they come upon the land promised to them only to find that it is inhabited by very powerful and stronger nations than they. The conclusion they naturally come to is: It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us (Deut 1.27). After all the demonstrations of God's favor and mercy, they are convinced that he is out to kill them!

God commands us to love him because we are naturally disposed not to. And if we do not love God, if we are convinced that we are alone in the world and we have to look out for number one at all costs, we will not love other persons, either. Instead we will mistreat them and abuse them for our own ends. So God commands us to love him, because he is perfectly lovable, he wants only our good, and realizing this, we will learn to love others as we should, as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Jesus Christ is only salvation

It's been a little while since I've posted anything here, so I thought I would rectify that with some meditations on this verse from 1 John:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

What I wish to focus on here is John's language regarding Christ. He doesn't say that Christ's death is the atonement for our sins. Rather, he says that Jesus himself is the atonement for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. The suggestion is that the very personal existence of the Godman Jesus Christ is advocacy for the salvation of the whole world! That is Christ's life summed up: atonement and intercession on behalf of the world.

As Joseph Ratzinger has said, "Jesus Christ is only salvation." His concern is not the damnation of the world, nor the demonstration of his glory through the rightful rejection of some antecedently chosen or overlooked reprobates. Far from it! His very life is an advocacy for the salvation of ὁ ὅλος ὁ κόσμος, the whole world. If we are not saved, it is because we have rejected Christ's offer and work of salvation, which was the very substance and essence of his life.

Why is it so important that we think about Christ in this way? I think we can see why if we take a look at the next verses John writes:

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

Here as everywhere else in the letter, John motivates obedience in his audience -- not by a threat, not by a warning about dire impending doom, but through an appeal to love. Perfect obedience means perfect love of God; apart from loving God, we might say, it is impossible to please him and to obey his commandments. On the other hand, if you love God, which is here equated with knowing him, then you will naturally and obviously obey his commandments.

But how can we love God, if we are not sure that he is for us? How can I love Jesus Christ, if I am not convinced that he loves me? I think John saw this clearly, and therefore his presentation of God is unanimously and always a positive and "friendly" one: God is love, God is for us, Jesus Christ is the atonement for our sins, he is ready to forgive us for anything, and so on.

This is why it is so important to know and think of Jesus Christ as salvation: it may be impossible to love him, and therefore to obey him, otherwise.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Aferim! (2015)

Aferim! (2015) is a recent Romanian movie which has been well received. It is about a sort of policeman from early-mid 19th century Wallachia who is hired by a nobleman to find a runaway slave, Garfin, who had slept with the nobleman's wife. The policeman brings along his son, with whom he has various discussions about life, about the world, about history, about what it means to be a man, and about what the future holds. It touches on themes of hypocrisy, racism, patriarchy, and social injustice.

I think this movie is more meaningful if you are Romanian than if not. Particularly familiar to Romanians will be the miserably pessimistic attitude which the policeman Constantin expresses: there's nothing you can do about injustice or about the disappointments of life; that's just the way things are, and as he says towards the end of the film, We live the way we have to, not the way we want to. At another point he muses: Oh, deceitful world! You first appear sweet, but afterwards are bitter. That is the kind of stereotypical pessimism that Romanian folk wisdom embodies. Romanians are generally not the bright, hopeful optimists you might find among Americans; they always think of the worst, expect the worst, have to make due with the worst.

The film very obviously is concerned with social injustices of 19th century Romania (which obviously stretch back to earlier times, as well). Gypsies are treated more or less like garbage, and they function as slaves for richer Romanian noblemen. They are sold in markets. Interestingly, one of the Orthodox priests from the film justifies the slavery on more or less the same grounds proposed by Americans during the same time of history: God's curse on Ham means that the gypsies, being darker skinned than Romanians, are only good for being controlled and owned like slaves. At the end of the film, the runaway slave Garfin is publicly castrated by the nobleman, even though the nobleman's wife admits that the adultery was entirely her own fault and the gypsy slave bore no guilt. The nobleman then demands that the slave be taken to the market pantless, so that everyone may see he is emasculated, and be sold.

One thing about the film which is particularly powerful is the clear class differences which obtain among people in the movie: peasants look like peasants, gypsies like gypsies, noblemen like noblemen, priests and monks like priests and monks, etc. Each class is easily distinguished by dress and appearance, as well as by speech and by stereotype. The noblemen wear ridiculous outfits with enormous headwear and multicolored robes in order to distinguish themselves from the villagers and peasants, who typically wear simple white tops with work pants and a belt and fur hat. This is a society in which every person has his own place: the noblemen above the peasants, the peasants above the gypsies, and the gypsies below everyone else.

Constantin and his son discuss what it means to be a man all throughout the film. To Constantin, being a man means: fighting, having sex with prostitutes and performing, being tough, killing, etc. Later on, the nobleman's wife complains to Constantin that he had beaten her very badly. His response was: he, being the man, has the right to beat his wife if she has done wrong -- although gently, with meekness, as our Christian law requires. This is another refrain of the film: the utter hypocrisy of a society which claims to be Christian and yet tolerates and even justifies such absurd inequalities and evils. The priests are all hysterical characters and drunks, who propagate absurdities to the parishioners and defend ethnic stereotypes, reinforcing racism and xenophobia in the Christian Romanian community rather than love and kindness. Interestingly, Constantin and his son happen across a priest in an open field whose wagon had broken down, and he offers to help him, since they are good samaritans. But later in the film, when they happen across a crashed wagon surrounded by naked, dead bodies, Constantin demands that they flee. When his son notes that one of the men was still breathing, Constantin refuses the opportunity actually to be a good samaritan, instead saying, "May God rest him in peace," out of fear that bandits would attack them as well.

Constantin is a hypocrite as well. When his son suggests that they let Garfin go before arriving at the nobleman's home, since the gypsy slave had done nothing wrong and would be punished unjustly, Constantin insists that he cannot go back on his word. His whole life he had done nothing wrong and had never committed an injustice against anyone. Yet he says this sleeping in an inn, in a small town where that same night he solicited a prostitute and admitted to his son to having enjoyed the company of multiple women beyond his wife.

The impression you would get of Romanians watching this film is not particularly favorable: they are absurd, self-justifying hypocrites, pessimists who accept the injustices of the world as immutable, yet somehow holding out for a better future despite not putting any effort towards reform. Things don't have to remain this way, however. This is precisely the sort of film which previous generations of Romanians would not have made and would not have appreciated. The very fact of this film's production inspires hope for a better future.

The word "aferim!" comes from Turkish, and it means bravo! Various characters congratulate one another with this phrase when what they have done or said is hardly praiseworthy. Certainly the director deserves a sincere aferim! for having made this film, which may yet enlighten many Romanians.

I think as a film, it is capable of being enjoyed by persons of any ethnicity. Certainly Americans (especially black Americans) will find much of its presentation of the treatment of gypsies profoundly similar to the treatment of African slaves in the colonies and in the United States. Still, as I've noted, there are certain things which you will only pick up if you are Romanian yourself.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The wisdom of Christ means: Don't Worry

I have been thinking often about my earlier reflection on Christian life as philosophy, as a pursuit of wisdom by learning from the Logos of God incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. This way of approaching Christian life, as least to my mind, is very helpful and puts things in a new light.

Consider the question of worry. Suppose you've learned that paying your bills for the next month or three is going to be very tough; you've lost your job, or your relationship with your wife is souring quickly; you have received a daunting and worrying diagnosis from the doctor. What are you supposed to do? The natural human reaction is to worry --  dreadfully to anticipate the worst possible outcome.

Worry, of course, means losing any energy and strength to face the day and to move forward. The person who worries is consumed by the horrible prospects before her. She has no will to live any longer, because she is constantly worrying about the bad thing that can come upon her at any moment. Worry zaps a person of the ability of live in the world.

Yet Christ came to give us life abundantly (John 10.10). Therefore, those who would learn from him about how to live truly should heed this word about the disposition to worry:

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Mt 6.34).

Why shouldn't we worry about tomorrow? Why shouldn't we worry about the future? Christ's example is drawn from an interpretation of the natural order, which he himself designed and brought to existence:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (6.26-33).

What should the orientation of our life be? What things should we seek above all else? We might think that self-preservation is our primary task, the first law of the jungle. For this reason, when we seem to lose access to the resources necessary to the end of self-preservation, we worry and dread the inevitable moment of our death.

Christ teaches us that God is in control of all things, and we find ourselves living our lives moving about in the palm of his hand. God cares even for sparrows, and he took the time even to make the lilies of the field beautiful, more beautiful than Solomon himself, even though they are transient and fleeting. Knowing that God is control of all things, knowing that the Father who loves us is behind the scenes in everything, and whose attention doesn't skip over even the most insignificant aspects of his creation, Christ teaches us to trust and to have faith.

Worry about nothing, but especially not about the future. Not only will your worry accomplish nothing as regards avoiding the dreaded outcome, you will find yourself having wasted precious time. On the contrary, Christ teaches us to trust that our Father in heaven knows what he is doing, and instead to strive after his Kingdom above everything -- to strive after mercy, justice, love, faithfulness, and embodying the benevolent rule of God on the earth.

Those people who don't know what God is like -- the Gentiles -- live lives characterized by worry. But Jesus came to reveal the Father to us, and his message here, as elsewhere, is: Don't worry! Have faith! Your Father is good, and he knows what you need!

This is the wisdom of God: do not worry, but instead trust the Father.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Assurance of salvation?

Oftentimes on my blog, I have posted about the contingency and uncertainty of the threats of damnation in scripture. Even though God may speak unambiguously about the eventual destruction of some persons, yet it may still happen that they will not be destroyed because they will have repented. For example, God tells Ezekiel:

Again, though I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right . . . they shall surely live, they shall not die. None of the sins that they have committed shall be remembered against them; they have done what is lawful and right, they shall surely live (Ezek 33.14-6).

Here God's words are certain and true: you will surely die. But the sinful person repents and turns from his evil, and rather than dying, he lives! God forgets all of his sins, and instead grants that person life. So God may speak quite unambiguously and candidly about the eventual destruction of some person or group of persons, yet those persons may nevertheless not be destroyed.

Yet it seems that the same principle works the other way around. Consider what God told Ezekiel just before this passage:

Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die (v. 13).

This is an interesting verse to consider in light of the debate among Christians regarding assurance of salvation and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. If you are a believer who has the Holy Spirit, have been baptized, your sins are forgiven, and so on, do you have a guarantee that you will be saved some day? Certainly there are a number of texts in the New Testament which seem to speak of the surety of salvation of believers. You might say that through these texts, God is telling believers: Surely you will live! . . . And yet, God says that even this word of certainty will not save the righteous if they sin.

This sentiment is not foreign to the New Testament, either, as far as I can tell. How many texts tell us about the necessity of perseverance and vigilance, lest we slip and fall and not be ready for the Lord when he comes? Paul in 1 Cor 10, for example, draws a long analogy between the Corinthians and the ancient Hebrews. The Hebrews were redeemed from slavery in Egypt (slavery to sin), they all passed through the sea (baptism), they were all baptized into Moses (baptism in the Holy Spirit), they all ate the same spiritual food and drink (the Eucharist). And yet they were destroyed in the desert because of their disobedience. The analogy to the Corinthians and the threat of their own perdition is obvious.

This is the way, it seems to me, the Bible wishes us to speak about these things: take nothing for granted. Take neither your salvation nor your damnation for granted, but in perseverance work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2.12).

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The power of God's word

In Genesis, we learn that God's word is extraordinarily powerful. Merely through the utterance of a phrase or two -- fiat lux! let there be light! -- things come into being. It is enough for God to say the word, and the earth and the stars and the seas and the forests and countless animals and creatures come to life. Without lifting a finger, merely through the power of a creative verbal act, all the majesty and splendor of this universe takes being thanks to God's word. God is in this way unimaginably powerful. The theological and philosophical term for this attribute of God is omnipotence: the power to do it all, so to speak.

Yet it seems the Bible also recognizes, to some extent at least, a certain weakness of God's word. Whereas the mere command that there be light is enough for light to come into existence, yet in the case of human beings, God's word is not equally powerful. Numerous times throughout the scriptures, starting from Genesis and going all the way through, God speaks to human persons and commands them to do things: not to sin, to love one another, to go here or do that, not to go there nor to do this, etc. But in so many countless cases, the mere fact that God had spoken proved insufficient to bring into being the reality which God had ostensibly sought.

This is true in two ways. In the first place, it is true when God warns people not to commit certain sins or to do evil. At the same time, however, it is true when God speaks in no uncertain terms about the future judgment of evil people. For example, God tells the Ninevites through Jonah that after forty days, they will be destroyed. He doesn't give them the option of repentance, because they admit uncertainty as to whether repentance will do anything to change God's mind (Jonah 3.6-9). Yet God sees that they repent, and so he relents from the destruction he had proclaimed unambiguously. Likewise, in Ezek 33, God tells Ezekiel the following: even if I should speak to a sinner in no uncertain terms that Surely you will die, yet if he repents, I will forget all his sins and he will live.

These are interesting cases because, paradoxically, they seem to be instances in which God's word is powerful enough to undo itself, and thereby to accomplish what God had desired all along. Jonah and God both knew that the Ninevites would repent at hearing the message. I think that is precisely why he tells them in no uncertain terms that they will be destroyed: so that they repent, and God doesn't destroy them. Likewise, God tells the sinner that he will surely die precisely so that the sinner repents, and God no longer punishes him. In such cases, God's word -- mirabile dictu -- accomplishes its purpose precisely by undoing itself and, in a sense, showing itself weak and false.

God shows his power over the natural order through an overpowering word which works infallibly. A rebuke like of a child is enough for Jesus to calm the sea when his disciples feared for their lives. Yet in the case of human beings and their actions, God's word oftentimes seems unable to produce the result it desires. This suggests strongly to me that human beings have a kind of freedom and autonomy relative to God, so that they are not related to God in a purely objective way like the natural order; rather they are irreducible subjects with a life and volition of their own, which God respects. And yet through kenotic self-negating words like in the cases of Jonah and Ezekiel, God's word proves powerful enough to get what it wants precisely while it is undermined by reality.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Is salvation only for the elect?

This is one of those questions that comes up often in theological circles: is salvation for all persons, or only for an elect subset of all persons? Augustinians and Calvinists and other Reformed types typically affirm the latter position, whereas Arminians and the Orthodox and others typically affirm the former.

I want to consider this question informed by one particularly important passage in the Old Testament. I am referring specifically to one of the servant songs in Second Isaiah:

[God] says,
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
  to raise up the tribes of Jacob
  and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
  that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isa 49.6).

Here we see that the servant of God was chosen in order to bring Jacob back to [God], and that Israel might be gathered to him (v. 5). The servant's work, in other words, is the restoration of the chosen people of God to their creator and redeemer. Yet God tells him that this work, the restoration only of God's chosen people, is yet too light a thing. On the contrary, his work is much larger than this: now he must be a light to the nations, because God's salvation has to reach the very ends of the earth.

What is important about this? God's salvation is now no longer explicitly being limited to the people of God, or in other words, God's chosen elect. Now, those persons who are considered non-elect are objects of God's salvific will. Those persons who were normally outside of God's purview and excluded from the community of the elect are now being sent a light, so that they too might know the salvation of God.

Of course, we know that Christ is the true Servant of God. And his salvific work was for the whole world, not merely for the chosen people of Israel (cf. 1 John 2.2). Yet might not there still be a group of the chosen elect, for whom alone he is concerned? This is certainly logically possible and perhaps compatible with the strict letter of what is written. But it seems to me that the message and general tenor of this passage doesn't allow that. For within the Isaian context, Israel is the chosen and the nations are not. God's message to the servant is that his salvation now is aimed at the whole world, and not merely the company of the chosen. In the same way, I think, we should understand Christ's salvific work as aimed at the salvation of all persons, not merely a group of the elect but for all people.

Now this doesn't, by itself, entail that all people will be saved. But it is important to affirm that God wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2.4). God's intention and desire is that everyone be saved, not only some who are chosen to this end. In a way, we can say that God chooses everyone to be saved.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Christian life as philosophy

In Pierre Hadot, What is ancient philosophy?, there is a fascinating discussion of the figure of Socrates as philosopher in Plato's Symposium. Of course, the topic of the Symposium is the nature of Love: what kind of a thing is Love, and what is the nature of Love? Socrates argues that Love is a desire for the beautiful or for some other thing. But we desire only that which we do not have; if we had it, we would no longer desire it but merely enjoy it. So Love is a beggar, poor and needy, desiring the beautiful but not possessing it.

So also the philosopher is a person who loves wisdom (φιλοσοφία = φιλία σοφίας). This implies that the philosopher does not possess wisdom. Thus there is a threefold distinction between the sage and the gods, the philosopher, and the ordinary person. The sage or the god does not engage in philosophy, since he already possesses wisdom. On the other hand, the ordinary person believes herself already to be wise when in fact she isn't, and so her position is one of lamentable ignorance. The philosopher stands between the two extremes: he wants to be wise, he loves wisdom, but is also aware that he does not possess wisdom.

In light of this definition of the philosopher as a lover and seeker after wisdom (which implies that he does not possess it), we might pose the question: was Jesus a philosopher? Immediately, Christian theology would want us to deny this point. Jesus is not a philosopher in the same sense that the sage is not a philosopher: the philosopher does not possess wisdom though he desires it; Christ, on the other hand, is in Christian theology understood as the Wisdom of God embodied. Christ himself is the Wisdom, the λόγος which all the philosophers sought after but did not possess.

So Christ falls into the category of god or sage (or both), rather than that of philosopher. On the other hand, the Christian -- the person who desires to learn of Christ, and who finds in him the fount of all wisdom -- is the true philosopher. The Christian admits that she lacks wisdom, yet she desires it. So she goes to the source of all wisdom, which is Christ, in order to learn from him.

Christian life can therefore be understood as philosophy: a desirous effort to learn wisdom from Wisdom Itself, embodied in the person of the Godman Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Human freedom and Nebuchadnezzar, God's servant

This says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Jer 43.10).  

One of the persistent debates throughout the history of Christian theology concerns the question of the relation between human freedom and divine providence. How much control does God have over the course of history and human agency, and how does he exercise this control? Does God foreknow what human persons will do, and if he does, on what basis? 

The Bible seems to give a paradoxical answer to these questions. On the one hand, it seems clear enough that human beings often act and operate independently of God's control and wishes. Whereas God's word and utterance was sufficient to bring the whole world into existence (as described in Genesis, for example), it is not sufficient to get human beings to act in the way he wants. The evidence of this is the great number of cases in which God commands his people to repent of their sins, to obey his commandments, etc. This suggests that human agency has an existence and operation independent of God's control—or at least that God leaves some decisions for some persons up to them. 

On the other hand, there are also many cases in the scriptures in which it seems God can guarantee that certain actions will take place. Consider the text I quoted above. After Jeremiah tells the people not to flee to Egypt in order to escape the Babylonians, they disobey and go anyway. So when they are in Egypt, Jeremiah tells them that God will bring Nebuchadnezzar all the way to Egypt, in spite of what they thought they would accomplish. He even calls Nebuchadnezzar God's servant, as if he is always doing God's bidding. 

How are we to understand this? What sense can be made of this paradox? It seems to me that, in spite of the temptation to systematizing everything the Bible says, we ought to maintain the tension as we find it without neglecting either side. Human beings normally operate independently of God's volition and desires, but it is possible that God makes use of the choices and will of human persons for his providential and purposes. 

Indeed, it may be that at times he even interferes in some way with the wills of human creatures for his providential purpose. Consider the case of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Origen argues that this instance in scripture demonstrates human freedom, for if Pharaoh's heart were naturally bent towards evil and disobedience, if goodness and obedience was naturally impossible to him, there would be no need for God to harden his heart. 

So this is a very tricky issue!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Make no provision for the flesh

Paul tells the Romans: Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom 13.14). 

Vices develop slowly and subtly. It starts with nightly drinking, and it ends with alcoholism; it starts with regular porn consumption, and it ends with sexual dysfunction and addiction; it starts with one lie, and it ends with a whole story fabricated. Sin has a way of pulling a person in, so that before long there is no easy way. 

Likewise, vices develop in a subtle way, so that we don't think there is any trouble or problem when there is. Of course you're not an alcoholic—yet; but you seem to put few if any limits on your drinking, and if you keep it up, alcoholism is not far off. And sure, you're not porn-addicted—yet; but engaging in that kind of intensely pleasurable behavior is not the kind of thing given up easily. And the more you do it, the more you are desensitized to the experience, and the more intense it must be to be as pleasurable as the time before. This is the recipe for addiction. 

I've used alcohol and pornography as easy examples of addictive behavior. But what is terrible is that most sins cement themselves in our character so subtly that we are less likely to discern that there's anything wrong. You don't forgive one person, you criticize another, you judge people as you pass them by during the day, you joke a bit aggressively with your friends, you get visibly frustrated with the shortcomings and weaknesses of others. Now you're a jerk and you're convinced everyone else is in the wrong. 

What's the solution? Paul says: put on Jesus Christ. You have to assume a new identity, change your way of thinking about yourself and others, follow a different example: that of Jesus Christ v

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Hope at a funeral

I went to a memorial service for a young person, my own age, who had recently died. This was his story, as far as I know it: raised in the Romanian Pentecostal church, he enjoyed a wayward lifestyle for many years, one which was characterized inter alia by dependency on very hard drugs; after cleaning up for a brief period (maybe half a year) and becoming a Christian, he relapsed and died by overdose on heroin, sold to him by a friend.

As far as the typical member of the Romanian Pentecostal church is concerned, this young man died in sin. Thinking back on all of the sermons I have ever heard in my life about being prepared at any moment to meet Jesus, including numerous threats that I would be left behind if the rapture occurred when I was in any number of compromising positions (including watching a movie at the theater!), it seems to me that for consistency's sake, the theology of the Romanian Pentecostal church demands that this person be judged as damned, and without postmortem hope of salvation. Indeed, the pastor of the church at which the memorial service was held said exactly that during his opening comments: we can no longer do anything for the deceased, but we can try to comfort the bereaved family.

Yet at the same time, I sensed in some small measure a dissatisfaction on the part of some with this verdict. The parents of the deceased were given an opportunity to speak briefly at one point in the service, and the young man's father spoke of a hope he had received studying the words of the apostle Paul, reading this wonderful passage from the epistle to the Romans: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8.38-9).

What can be said to such parents, who are suffering so deeply and profoundly for their departed child? As far as I know the guy, he died of a heroin overdose; but to them, he was their little boy, with twenty-five years of history and personality and a uniqueness as an individual that only they can appreciate; they knew his weaknesses but they also knew his strengths, his unique virtues, those positive elements of his character, rays of light which shone out even in difficult and troubling times.

I was very deeply troubled and moved by the whole thing. I was reading from Stăniloae's dogmatic theology on the particular judgment and I came across this uncharacteristically hopeful passage:

Without a doubt, in the first place [when issuing a person's judgment] He is attentive to the quality or intrinsic fundamental disposition which [people] have won for themselves in their earthly life, but this disposition is oftentimes so full of ambiguities, so mixed with impure elements, with weaknesses, that it leaves enough room for the free decision of Christ to manifest itself. Maybe Christ always gives a favorable verdict where he knows that, through this verdict, he can bring out sufficiently clearly the disposition of the soul in a good sense. Such a verdict is oftentimes creative, producing a fixedly good disposition, and only Christ alone knows when this can take place through His favorable judgment (Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă III, p. 297).

What can be said about the young man who passed? I think we are within our rights to pray for him, since Paul commands us to pray for all people, since God desires all people to be saved (1 Tim 2.1-4). Perhaps we cannot know with certainty, at least for now, what will become of him. But my prayer at the memorial service was, first, that God should comfort the bereaved family with a deep and mysterious hope beyond words, and second, that he should welcome this troubled soul into his fellowship, as Origen said, "in some way I do not know."

It seems to me the heart of a person who has the Holy Spirit within her cannot look at this situation, this tragedy, and feel anything but profound dissatisfaction with the suggestion that hell is the life he has chosen for himself, and so therefore it is just. Like Silouan the Athonite said, love cannot accept that. There is no certainty, perhaps, that this person will eventually be saved; but neither can the loving heart fold its hands and sit in tragic, melancholic total inactivity.

The joy of salvation

Recently I heard a song sung at church which I had not heard before in my life. My impression is that it is one of those old-timey classic Romanian hymns, written sometime in the early or mid-20th century during times of intense persecution under the communists. The lyrics of the song describe the joy of a person who has been newly saved by Christ.

Bucurie mare ce mi-a dat Isus,
Primul ghiocel din mâna lui adus,
Prima zi cu soare, soare-adevărat,
A fost ziua când mi-a spus că m-a iertat.

The great joy which Jesus gave me,
The first snowdrop brought by his hand,
The first day of sunlight, of true sunlight
Was the day in which he told me he forgave me.

(Not having been raised in Romania myself, I am not totally familiar with the custom of giving snowdrops at some point in early spring after the snow melts and they bloom. In any case, that's the culture there, and that's the reference of the second line.)

The day of salvation is the first day with true sunlight in the poet's life. The newest and most profound joy of having come to know God, and in the words of a later verse, of a new spirit having been born anew within him, are what characterize his life now. And yet this newfound joy cannot be contained and enjoyed alone, for the last verse reads:

Ultima dorinîă ce o am de spus
E să vină toată lumea la Isus,
Și când el ne-aduce sus la Dumnezeu
Vai să nu rămână nimeni, dar nici eu.

The final desire I have to express
Is that all the world should come to Jesus Christ.
And when we will take us up to God,
May no one be left behind, and not I, either.

I don't know very many songs or hymns which express a kind of universalist hope for the salvation of the whole world, but this is one of them. It is a song I have only ever heard once, but it was very beautiful and the lyrics -- despite the impression my poor, rigid translation would give you -- are quite beautiful.

The joy of salvation can't be contained and enjoyed alone: when you've come across a good thing, you want to share it with everyone else, too.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The liturgy as theodicy

Here's a paper I wrote for my Prayer and Worship class at Fuller. In it I argue that theodicy -- a concern to maintain faith in God's goodness and in the moral order of his universe  in spite of the ubiquity of evil in the world -- ought to be a central concern of our worship as a body at church. I touch on the regular preaching of the gospel and on iconography.

Psalm 73 tells the story of Asaph’s moral dissatisfaction with perceived injustices in the world. He says “my feet had almost slipped… For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (vv. 2, 3). Ethical protest at the apparent failure of the just God’s providence to maintain an intelligible moral order is present in various places throughout Scripture. The paradox is that, on the one hand, God’s holiness is perfect and supreme, calling to account everyone who sins “upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exod 34.7); on the other hand, we see plainly that the wicked “have no pain… they are not plagued like other people” (Ps 73.4, 5). Habakkuk formulates the problem strikingly: “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1.13).  So also Asaph felt within his spirit that something was not right about the successes of the lives of the wicked, in comparison with the travails the righteous. “Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches” (v. 12). The well-being of the wicked compromises the moral order and neutralizes any manner of moral motivation: “All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning” (v. 14). When wickedness doesn’t immediately meet with its just reward, what reason can there be for maintaining a righteous life?

These are ancient problems and questions which afflict every believer in God. (Of course, different problems of a related nature afflict those who reject that God exists.) And there is no coming to an easy answer, so Asaph throws up his hands in exasperation: “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task” (v. 16). Yet Asaph ends his psalm with a word of praise for God: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 25-6). What changed his mind? What could have moved the thoughtful person from flirtation with moral nihilism to a new devotion to the one true God? He tells us: “…it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end [viz., that of the wicked]” (vv. 16-7). This is a profound insight that merits further contemplation: a visit into the sanctuary of God, an approach of God in the house dedicated to his worship, proved a profound and transformative event for Asaph. He became newly convinced that, on the one hand, “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart” (v. 1), and on the other, “Indeed, those who are far from you [i.e., God] will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you” (v. 27). His faith and conviction in a moral order was reaffirmed because of his experience of God in the sanctuary.

Now it is clear that Asaph’s agonized questions about the injustices which pervade human experience are pressing for numerous people in our times, as well. Indeed, in light of the realities of globalization and the recent “shrinking” of the world, we are more aware than ever before of the atrocities and injustices which in numerous quarters have become positively quotidian and mundane, expected and ordinary and routine. On the other hand, the Christian religion proposes a hope of the restoration of this cosmos, which groans in anticipation of a coming liberation (Rom 8.19-22), and the atonement of all human sins in Christ’s self-sacrifice (Col 1.19-20); indeed, it dares to speak of what the Apostle Peter called the apokatastasis panton, “the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3.21). Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the problem of evil and all skepticism about the moral order of God’s world have been defeated definitively: through the gravest injustice, the murder of the Son of God, the greatest possible good has been accomplished—the salvation of the whole world (1 John 2.2; cf. 4.14)—an evidence that God can and will redeem every evil which in his providence he saw fit to permit. Consequently we can see that Christian theology has answers for the questions which seem so insurmountable to many a doubting spirit. Yet even within Christian churches, many find themselves at a loss when confronted with this question of evil. Recall that Asaph’s worries were resolved when he went “into the sanctuary of God.” I infer from this that corporate Christian worship, too, ought to address the problem of the apparent moral disorder of the universe by a constant reminder of Christ’s sacrifice which reestablishes this order and gives us hope.

There are a number of ways in which this can be concretely put into practice, all of which more or less involve the use of scripture: it may be regular scriptural readings, or it may be singing songs inspired by various scriptural texts dealing with Christ’s passion. Consider for example what Paul tells the Corinthian church: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2.2).  It seems to me that reminding ourselves of the passion of Jesus Christ often through our preaching is one particularly effective means by which we may be confirmed in our faith in God. Too often preaching falls into one of two extremes: it may be that some sermon or series of sermons fails to address Christ’s passion and the moral order at all, touching instead upon issues of financial responsibility or some other “practical” issue; or it may be that a sermon is excessively moralistic, amounting to little more than extended exhortation to living uprightly, perhaps especially in light of a scrutinizing and unforgiving impending judgment of God. Neither such message adequately addresses the problem of evil which can so deeply and profoundly plague the conscience of the believer: the first fails because it doesn’t take the moral problem of evil seriously at all, refusing to acknowledge its existence; the second fails because it gives listeners no hope or reassurance that God is on their side when it comes time to set things right. On the contrary, preachers must always emphasize and uphold the love of God, both as an assurance of God’s goodness in the face of evils as well as an anchor and stable foundation for the person who senses evil within her own heart, as well. A Christian message ought to sound like this: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4.10-1).

Only the firm conviction that God loves us—and this in spite of what we experience, in spite of the world as we often find it—can give us strength to live in the world in spite of evil. And only through the self-offering of Christ on our behalf to die for our sins can we be confident that God loves us: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4.9). Apart from the evidence which Jesus Christ offers, the notion that God is love—in the face of a world in which children are murdered and masses of miserable, impoverished peoples can be killed by senseless natural disasters—can be little more than a comforting delusion by which some number of primates on planet Earth attempt to make their hellish terrestrial existence more tolerable. Indeed, when many people try to think about the goodness of God in the face of so many evils, they find themselves without an answer and come to precisely this pessimistic conclusion, because they do not try to think about God through his self-revelation in Christ. For this reason, for the sake of edifying the Church “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4.13), we must constantly remind ourselves of God’s tremendous love for the entire world in Christ. Paul says that it is “in view of God’s mercies” that we are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom 12.1). To do this, we must “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (v. 2), which means we must begin to think in terms of God’s self-revelation in Christ, rather than independently and abstractly. This can be accomplished through the regular preaching of the good message of Christ’s death on our behalf.

There is yet a further way in which we may be reminded of God’s mercies and kindness and love in our worship services. Here I wish to make reference to the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. At the front of every Orthodox church, above the iconostasis or perhaps above the altar, and likewise above the altar of a Roman Catholic church, is an icon of the crucified Christ. There in the sight of the entire congregation stands a concrete, embodied reminder of the central message of the Christian religion: Jesus Christ and him crucified, by which we know that God is love (1 John 4.8). It is one thing, of course, to be reminded of Christ’s death through a sermon or through a song, but is another thing altogether to be confronted with a profound and impressive visual reminder of his death. When we look upon the limp body of Christ with nails piercing his hands and feet, with blood and water leaving his body through a piercing in his side, and the look of utter anguish and desperation on his face, then we are more deeply aware of the gravity of his sufferings and consequently of the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3. 18, 19).

Now icons are controversial, especially among most Reformation Protestant churches, because some are convinced that the scriptures unambiguously proscribe the use of images in any worship setting. But this is too quick. Moses is clear: “Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure” (Deut 4.15-6). The motivation behind the prohibition of physical images is this: the Hebrew people had not seen God’s form when he appeared to them, and so therefore they could not assume to create a form for him out of what they knew. Perhaps the worry was that they would inevitably misrepresent God in some way or other, because they had not been entirely confronted with his character and his true form. Likewise the Jews misrepresented the Messiah, thinking he would be a political liberator and a destroyer of the Gentiles. For this reason, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus insists numerous times that others not spread the word about him as Christ (e.g., Mark 1.24-5, 43-4; 5.43; 7.36), because inevitably they would misunderstand what his true calling as the Messiah would be. Only after he has taught the disciples that he must die in Jerusalem as a ransom for the sins of many (Mark 10.45), and after he has been publicly crucified and resurrected from the dead, does he commission anyone to spread the message about him far and wide. Now in the same way, in Christ we find the true nature of God revealed: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1.18). And Paul says that Christ is “the image [eikon] of the invisible God” (Col 1.15). Therefore, since God himself has taken flesh and made himself seen in the person of Christ, who is the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1.3), we can rightly claim that we have seen God—in the person of Jesus Christ, who is homoousios with the Father. For this reason, icons and depictions of Christ are valid. And above all, an icon of Christ crucified is the most fitting attempt to depict God in his human nature, since this image of the crucified God is the anchor and essence of the Christian religion and the message of the gospel itself. I see, therefore, no problem with Christian iconography and its use in worship; moreover, it seems to me there is a perfectly good reason in favor of its application, in light of the preceding discussion regarding the problem of evil and the gospel message.

What I am suggesting, then, is that we must take seriously the theodicy of liturgy: through our experiences of corporate worship, reminding ourselves by various means, visual and intellectual and otherwise, of the guarantee and proof of God’s goodness and love through the self-sacrifice of Christ, we can provide a concrete and impressive response to the questions of those troubled by the ubiquity of evil in the world. Christians and non-Christians alike wonder how it is that God might exist, in light of all the suffering that we see about us and experience for ourselves. The Christian response is that in the person of Jesus Christ, God himself has assumed human nature and all that means—suffering, disappointment, alienation, pain, agony—and has experienced the very things that trouble us, yet through his death has made atonement for our sins, because of which we suffer in the first place; and through his resurrection, death has been defeated and life has been promised for all, since “all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor 15.22). This is something that is arguably suggested to us by the scriptural texts themselves. And it is clear that a conscious use of some of the relevant scriptural passages—be it from the psalms or the prophets, or from the gospel texts or the epistles—can prove especially effective. There is significant freedom, it seems to me, in the manner in which they may be utilized: our sermons may reference these texts; our icons or images may have these texts written upon them, our songs may quote them or we may even sing the texts themselves. What is more important is that they are used in an intelligible way, that the problems of evil and suffering and injustice and moral disorder may be addressed and the resolution thereof in the revelation of Christ be heralded persuasively.