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.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Christianity is not cool

A friend of mine asked me why it seems people are open and friendly to religious traditions other than Christianity, for example Buddhism or Daoism or whatever. Eastern traditions especially seem fascinating and worthy of respect and admiration, whereas Christianity is looked upon with disdain. Why is that?

The truth is that Christianity is not very cool, for a number of reasons. In the first place, in the West it is already very familiar. Europe has been Christian for something like 1600 years; America has been Christian as long as it has been a country. The majority of people in the country identify as Christian of some sort or other, even if they don't go to church. On the other hand, advaita Vedanta and Buddhism are unfamiliar and exotic, and people out of curiosity look upon the strange and foreign as better than what is ordinary and familiar.

More than that, Christianity has a degrading ethical focus that other religions don't have. Advaita Vedanta teaches you that your sense of individuality and separation from everything else in the world is an illusion; it teaches that your suffering, too, is merely an illusion, and that at rock bottom, you are identical with Brahman, the immutable, immaterial, eternal pure consciousness which is beyond all suffering and evil. Buddhism teaches you that your suffering is a result of your attachment to things through desire, and even that your sense of having an identity and a self which persists through time is an illusion. All this stuff is strangely enticing and empowering. Christianity, on the other hand, tells you that you are wicked and evil and destined for utter ruin unless you admit fault and throw yourself upon God for mercy.  Not very cool!

Of course, there are always two sides to every story. Advaita Vedanta effectively dismisses all suffering as an illusion; no wonder that so many Brahmins and other high-caste Indians have no problems treating the lower castes and the untouchables with utter contempt! Buddhism says the only way to be saved from the suffering in the world is utter extinction -- salvation by damnation, in a sense. These are miserable messages that don't jive well with the Western sense that evil is a reality that has to be opposed, and that salvation must always be to life, since life is not intrinsically evil but rather good.

But most people on the street don't know about all this and don't think about it in very much detail. Hoi polloi are not the best philosophers or theologians; they follow what seems right, what seems appealing, what feels "cool." So many of them don't take Christianity seriously, and prefer to dabble in a little bit of this, a little bit of that.