Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Christian life according to 1 John: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics

Consider this famous verse from 1 John:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God (4.7).

What does it mean to be a Christian, according to John? The answer has to do with metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics; in other words, part of it has to do with your being, your existence, and part of it has to do with what you know and believe and think, and part of it has to do with how you act. All three of these elements come together to comprise a Christian life, according to John.

From the point of view of metaphysics, John says that a Christian has been born of God. There has been a special kind of inner transformation and change brought about by God's causality. Just as a child is born and brought into life through the causality of the mother's body, so also in some mysterious way, God has brought the Christian into life. This might be called being "born again," which is the language Jesus uses in John 3.

This transformation also has an epistemological dimension. John says the Christian is one who knows God. A new understanding of ourselves and our relation to the world in which we live is born when we come to know God as he really is. I think to a great extent, our thinking about God reflects the way in which we see ourselves and other persons. For the Christian, there is a new familiarity with God and acquaintance with him.

Yet the metaphysical and the epistemological, according to John, serve the ethical. The inner transformation accomplished by God's agency and the new awareness and knowledge of God are oriented towards bringing the Christian into a life of love. All these changes take place so that the Christian will begin to live her life in love for God and others. We might say that love is the final cause of the salvific process.

The ethical is the ultimate element, according to John, and therefore serves as the criterion by which to judge a person's progress. He says, Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (v. 8). If a Christian fails to love, this is evidence enough that something has gone wrong in the process of her salvation; in the specific case considered by John, it is because she has a deficient understanding of God's character.

It would be interesting to ask whether the metaphysical is prior to the epistemological, so that an inner transformation brings about a new knowledge of God, or if the epistemological is prior to the metaphysical. But this is not the question which John pursues. His only concern is that the children are brought to life, that they are not stillborn. This ought to be our emphasis, too: to live in love, because this is what God saves us towards.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Resurrection means righteousness is worth it

Conditions in this world are not favorable for righteous living. To many people, it is obvious that survival means survival of the fittest: if you're going to make it, you have to be the most adaptable, the strongest, the most willing to sacrifice principle and morality in order to get ahead. Others won't go so far as that, at least not until circumstances really constrain them to choose between survival and "the right thing to do," but lots of people will just the same consider the costs of righteousness too high. For example, Jesus tells us that righteousness means turning the other cheek, rather than retaliating. That, for so many persons, is just too high a price to pay: after all, my dignity, respect, esteem, and public standing are at stake! How can I let someone just walk all over me?

I want us to consider this one lesson which we learn from the resurrection of Christ: resurrection proves that righteousness is worth it; it's worth living in keeping with God's commandments, because the righteous are resurrected to life. Consider what Paul wrote to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with Gd
  as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a  slave,
  being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
  he humbled himself 
  and became obedient to the point of death --
  even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted
  and gave him the name
  that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
  every knee should bend,
  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
  that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5-11).

Notice the order: first came the lowliness and humility of Jesus, obedience all the way to the point of death on a cross; then came the resurrection to glory, and the exaltation of Christ above everyone and everything else. If per impossibile Christ had attempted to exalt himself, he would have been brought low, because that is the order that God has established: the first will be last, and the last will be first. Yet no one can look at what happened to Christ, his crucifixion notwithstanding, and judge that righteousness is not worth it! Indeed, to suppose that righteousness is not worth it is to malign the goodness and justice of God, because he demands righteousness and promises to repay everyone according to their deeds.

Now what is the righteousness of Christ? We might say that it is his emptiness: as Paul says, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Christ was utterly empty of any self-will and any concern for himself which competed with the Father's will for him, namely his mission into the world to save sinners, and with his love for sinners, out of which love he is willing to welcome any who come to him: All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37). 

Joseph Ratzinger describes the understanding of Christ as "Son" in the gospel of John as follows:

The Son as Son, and insofar as he is Son, does not proceed in any way from himself and so is completely one with the Father; since he is nothing beside him, claims no special position of his own, confronts the Father with nothing belonging only to him, makes no reservations for what is specifically his own, therefore he is completely equal to the Father. The logic is compelling: If there is nothing in which he is just he, no kind of fenced-off private ground, then he coincides with the Father, is "one" with him. It is precisely this totality of interplay that the word "Son" aims at expressing. To John, "Son" means being from another; thus, with this word he defines the being of this man as being from another and for others, as a being that is completely open on both sides, knows no reserved area of the mere "I". When it thus becomes clear that the being of Jesus as Christ is a completely open being, a being "from" and "toward", which nowhere clings to itself and nowhere stands on its own, then it is also clear at the same time that this being is pure relation (not substantiality) and, as pure relation, pure unity. This fundamental statement about Christ becomes, as we have seen, at the same time the explanation of Christian experience. To John, being a Christian means being like the Son, becoming a son; that is, not standing on one's own and in oneself, but living completely open in the "from" and "toward". Insofar as the Christian is a "Christian", this is true of him. And certainly such utterances will make him realize to how small an extent he is a Christian (Introduction to Christianity, pp. 186-7).

Christ's existence, therefore, is defined as this two-way openness. On the side of God, Christ is utterly open in perfect obedience to whatever the Father sends him to do. He came to earth in order to do the will of his Father, and repeatedly throughout John's gospel, for example, we find statements such as these: The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works (John 14:10). And elsewhere he says that My food is to do the will of him him who sent me and to complete his work (4:34). Paul says to the Philippians that Christ became a slave, and became utterly obedient in everything, even to the point of death.

But Christ's life is open on the side of humanity, too, for Christ underwent death not for its own sake but rather for our sake: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3). Christ's emptiness consists likewise in his utter openness to every human person, his willingness to go to extreme limits in order to bring salvation to a wayward creation. Indeed, on the week of his death, Christ said: Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say -- 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour (John 12:27). Christ's concern for the salvation of the world so utterly characterized his whole life, that his disciples began to speak of him like this: he is the atoning sacrifices for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Not Christ's death in isolation from his life, but Christ himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. This is the identity and life and definition and essence of Christ: making atonement for sinners, working to reconcile them to God.

This dual emptiness and openness, an openness towards the Father in perfect obedience and towards other persons in total love, is summarized succinctly by Ratzinger as follows: Christ is the man who can embrace all men because he has lost himself and them to God (Introduction to Christianity, pp. 242-3). And importantly, in this manner, Christ is offering us an example of what it means to be truly human. When Paul says that Christ became a slave, he also says that he was born in human likeness and found in human form. The suggestion is an obvious one: the proper form of the human being is one of slavery to God, that is, utter obedience and love for God and for all other human persons. Paul says that we should have the same mind which was in Christ, because Christ's mind and understanding was truly human; it exemplified perfectly what it means to be a human in the image and likeness of God.

Now this seems so far beyond all of us. How can any of us hope to accomplish this kind of perfection in obedience and love? Like Ratzinger said, if we consider these things, we will see how truly far off we are from embodying that to which a Christian is called. It may seem nigh impossible for us. But Christ gives us his Holy Spirit precisely to make this possible, to empower us to live in this way, if only we put forth the effort to learn from him and to imitate his example. 

But it's also possible that we might find the sacrifice too great. Christ, according to Paul and Ratzinger, emptied himself utterly; he did not have any closed-off "I" in his heart, a space occupied by him alone and which placed a border on the claims that obedience to God and love for others could put on him. No, no such thing existed in Christ. But we love ourselves too much, and we are too much characterized by selfish will to look upon such a thing lightly. Can it be worth it utterly to abandon any concern for myself as an atomic individual and to live solely in obedience to God and love for others? Can I find my life by losing it? 

Christ's resurrection teaches us that it is worth it; it is not throwing yourself headlong into the void. To empty yourself utterly means profound sacrifice and willingness to die. But God does not abandon any such persons as obey his will, but rather is there with them. They are always with God, and so their life continues forever. He raises them from the dead to glory, and they will be with him forever and ever. Christians look upon Christ's resurrection and see that death poses no obstacle for them; as Athanasius said, they trample  upon death as something dead. Death poses no obstacle because righteousness has the final word in God's world.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

If you love someone, lead them to God

What is love? That's the question! We are told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. How are we supposed to do that? Does love mean that I affirm the neighbor in her interests and concerns, whatever they might be, provided that they are personally fulfilling for her? On the other hand, does love mean that I direct my neighbor towards what is objectively fulfilling for all human persons, even if she might not see this at the moment?

Augustine answers this question in a discussion about the impropriety of worship of angels. Is it proper to worship angels? If angels love us, would they require us to worship them? Augustine's answer is straightforward and clear:

We are commanded to love this Good [viz., God] with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength; and to this Good we must be led by those who love us, and to it we must lead those whom we love. Thus are fulfilled those commands on which 'all the Law and the prophets depend': 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind', and, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' For in order that a man may know how to love himself an end has been established for him to which he is to refer all his action, so that he may attain to bliss. For if a man loves himself, his one wish is to achieve blessedness. Now this end is 'to cling to God.' Thus, if a man knows how to love himself, the commandment to love his neighbor bids him to do all he can to bring his neighbor to love God. This is the worship of God; this is true religion; this is the right kind of devotion; this is the service which is owed to God alone (City of God, X.3).

For Augustine, then, to love the other person ultimately cannot be separated from leading her to love God, because this is the ultimate good for every human person. The good life for a human person has this ultimately objective element, even if it is appropriated differently by persons of different temperaments and capacities and abilities: the good life consists in clinging to God, loving God and living in obedience to his commandments.

If this is what the good life is, then I am not doing my neighbor any favors when I encourage her to do things which are incompatible with this! At the same time, if I fail to provide any kind of testimony to my neighbor that a life with God is worth living -- for example, if I do not trust in God in difficult times; if I don't obey his commandments even they are difficult; if I don't tell other people about God at all -- then I am doing a double disservice: I deceive myself in thinking that I actually live a life with God, and I provide a poor testimony to the Christian religion to my neighbor who doesn't believe.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The inward and outward aspects of sacrifice, according to Augustine

How should we worship God? Does our worship need to be expressed in some physical way, too, or is "inner" worship all that's required? Coming at it from another angle, does physical expression mean anything in itself, without any "inner" component? Consider the example of someone who goes through the motions of worshiping some being other than God; does that mean anything, assuming he is not offering himself to the being?

Augustine considers a question like this in his City of God, X.19:

As to those who think that these visible sacrifices are suitably offered to other gods, but that invisible sacrifices, the graces of purity of mindand holiness of will, should be offered, as greater and better, to the invisible God, Himself greater and better than all others, they must be oblivious that these visible sacrifices are signs of the invisible, as the words we utter are the signs of things. And therefore, as in prayer or praise we direct intelligible words to Him to whom in our heart we offer the very feelings we are expressing, so we are to understand that in sacrifice we offer visible sacrifice only to Him to whom in our heart we ought to present ourselves an invisible sacrifice.

Augustine's point is that outward sacrifice is representative of the inward sacrifice. It is therefore still idolatry of a person were to go through the motions of sacrifice to a god, because that is the nature of sacrificial act: the outside is representative of the inside.

We might understand another corollary of this as follows. Many people want to worship God and live a spiritual life but don't want to go through anything involved with "organized religion." So they don't go to church, don't worship at church, don't belong to a group, etc. Though there are many things to say to such a person, Augustine provides us at least the following line of argument: your worship of God has to manifest itself in some way; and your actual behavior speaks to your inner convictions about God. So if you want nothing to do with God's people, don't seek the friendship and fellowship of persons who love him, don't make regular efforts to offer him any kind of worship or service, how spiritual can you really be?

Our spiritual life manifests itself in our physical life; that is our nature as embodied beings with a spiritual nature or soul. Our worship of God, then, in order to encompass all of ourselves, must have both this "inner" and "outer" aspect. To go through the motions of worshiping a false god is still idolatry, and to worship God inwardly only with no outward manifestations of worship is incomplete.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath

One day, Jesus and his disciples are plucking heads of grain to eat as they were walking through a field on the sabbath. The Pharisees get on Jesus' case about it, telling him, Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath (Mt 12.2). Jesus' response is effectively to point to other occasions in the Old Testament in which persons apparently break sabbath without incurring any guilt, he rebukes the Pharisees for not knowing the scriptures and for condemning the guiltless, and he ends with this fantastic line: For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath (v. 8).

What is so powerful about that line? What does it mean? It's meaning and significance are in fact tremendous, because effectively Jesus is offering himself as the definitive interpreter of God's moral law. He is the one who will tell us with authority whether we have rightly understood what God was getting at in giving us the law, or not. And what is so special about that? Because he is claiming special, privileged access to the mind of God, beyond what any mere moral teacher or rabbi could know.

To put it another way, we might say that in this manner, Christ presents himself as the logos or wisdom of God. As the gospel of John says, the Logos which was in the beginning with God, and which was God, has come to make God known (John 1.1, 18). This understanding of Christ as logos is explicit in John. But it is also implicit in Matthew, because that is evidently the way Jesus presented himself during his time on earth.

The Son of Man is lord over the sabbath. That means that Jesus Christ teaches us the proper understanding of God's righteousness, because we may say that Christ is the mind or wisdom or logos of God come down to earth, united with human nature, so as to communicate the truth to us. Anyone who loves God and wishes to know him, therefore, ought to consult with Jesus.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Imperfect love of God, according to Catherine of Siena

Reading Catherine's Dialogue is proving an immensely edifying exercise, because she analyzes the spiritual states of different Christians with sharp insight and subtlety. She describes a particular category of Christians who love God with an imperfect love—a description which many of us might satisfy.

These persons suppose that they love God and virtue, but really they love the consolations and pleasures that the spiritual life affords them. They enjoy the consolations that God send them in his love, but they love the consolations rather than the God who gives them. The evidence is in the fact that, when these pleasures are taken away from, their spiritual life sputters and stalls, like a car that's run out of gasoline.

The danger with these persons is that they do not really love God for his own sake, but only for what they can get out of him. Consequently when God no longer gives them consolations, they more than likely will turn away:

These [imperfect lovers] grow lax, resisting from the service they were giving their neighbors and pulling back from their charity if it seems they have lost their own profit or some comfort they had for merely found in them. And this comes about because their love was not genuine. They love their neighbors with the same love with which they love me—for their own profit. 

Unless their desire for perfection makes them recognize their imperfection, it is impossible for them not to turn back. To have eternal life it is essential to love without regard for one's own interest. Fleeing sin for fear of punishment is not enough to give eternal life, nor is it to embrace virtue for one's own profit (60).

Unfortunately this may describe many people who frequent the big, hip churches in America. They enjoy the emotional experience induced by the music, the sermons move them and encourage them, and even participating in community service might prove fulfilling to them. But so long as they do all this merely in pursuit of the good feelings they get, they love imperfectly and are in danger of falling away at the first sight of trouble and hardship.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The blind man's apologetic

In a pluralist culture such as our own, in which we have regular dealings with persons outside of our own religious tradition, apologetics can be a helpful and necessary tool. People want to know why you believe in Jesus, what good is there in the Christian religion, etc. This is especially important because stereotypes abound, and it is most probable that the average person on the street does not have a great grasp of what the Christian religion is all about.

But those who've studied the arguments for and against Christian faith also know that arguments do not always work to convince the other person. There are some characters who are so dead-set on opposing Christian faith that they are willing to accept any alternative, however absurd, just so long as it negates Christianity. So we have the "Jesus mythicists," who don't even believe that Jesus existed, and that the gospel stories are based on ancient pagan mythology -- absurd as that may obviously seem to anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with the gospel texts themselves.

There is a kind of apologetic testimony that is less academic and abstruse than some of the arguments the philosophers and theologians consider. It is a kind of argument from personal experience. This is amply illustrated in the story in the Gospel according to John, chapter 9, in which Jesus heals a man who was blind from birth on the Sabbath. The people took him to the Pharisees, who debated about the nature of this tremendous miracle:

Some of the Pharisees said, "This man [i.e., Jesus] is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And they were divided (John 9.16).

So the Pharisees debated among themselves for a while, and then asked the blind man to give his opinion:

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! [i.e., Tell the truth!] We know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see" (vv. 24-5).

The answer is short and sweet and to the point, but also poignant! I don't know whether Jesus is a sinner; all I know is now I can see, when I was blind my whole life! That is the kind of argument from personal testimony that might prove most effective, especially when it is used in discussions with close friends who notice your different way of life. Something about you is off, something about you is just different from the rest of us. What might it be? The answer, of course, is that you know Jesus, and this knowledge and friendship with him is transformative in a unique way.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Petitionary prayer, according to Catherine of Siena

The notion of petitionary prayer is philosophically controversial. I understand 'petitionary prayer' to consist in asking God to do various things, such as providing us with our daily food, or saving some other person from her sins, etc. The philosophical problem is this: if I am asking for God to do something bad, then of course he has sufficient reason not to do it; but if I am asking for God to do something good, then doesn't he already have reason enough to do it, independently of my asking? What good is there in my asking God to do it? Why bother?

I want to offer an answer to this question by drawing from my recent reading in Catherine of Siena's Dialogue. Specifically, I am going to address the question of praying for the salvation of other persons, which we are called to do (1 Tim 2:1-4).

Catherine makes the point that, as far as our life in this world is concerned, "we are all in it together," like Bernie Sanders says. She uses the image of a vineyard as an analogy for the soul:

Keep in mind that each of you has your own vineyard. But everyone is joined to your neighbors' vineyards without any dividing lines. They are so joined together, in fact, that you cannot do good or evil for yourself without doing the same for your neighbors (24).

So any action that we perform has a double effect: first, it affects us either positively or negatively, depending on whether it fosters love for God and neighbor or else it separates us from these; and second, it affects our neighbor in some positive or negative way, also. Interestingly, God suggests to Catherine that he has made things this way because our love for God can only be perfected in our love for our neighbor. Consider the following longer quote:

I ask you to love me with the same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I loved you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you. This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me -- that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me (64).

In other words, our neighbors function as the means by which our love for God can be demonstrated and perfected. God wants us to love him like he loves us, but this can't happen: he loves us gratuitously and without concern for repayment, but we love him out of duty. Therefore, he provides us with our neighbor, so we can demonstrate that same kind of love that God has -- utterly selfless and disinterested in gain -- and God considers it as having been done for him!

So God has set up the world in such a way that we cannot escape responsibility for our neighbors. There is no two ways about it: you must love your neighbor if you are going to show God the kind of love he expects from you. Effectively he has laid this responsibility on everyone: to love one another selflessly, without interest in gain or profit.

But where does prayer fit in? God elaborates to Catherine at length the ways in which people in this world misuse their free will, and rather than seeing their pains and sufferings as opportunities to develop virtue, trusting that these have come upon them out of God's goodness and his love, instead they react out of selfish desire. They seek the pleasures of the moment, which have been disguised by Satan as representing the true good when they actually do not. And though people have freedom of the will to repent of their evils so long as they are in the body, yet so many of them do not because they have been blinded by sin and by evil, through habitually living in darkness.

Now, Catherine affirms that it is compatible with God's justice and goodness that he leave these persons as they are, so that they should suffer the right consequences for failing to love God. The prime consequence, of course, is eternal damnation. It is right that they should suffer damnation for this, because they have sinned against the infinity of God's goodness and have utterly shut themselves off to the true values; they are merely reaping what they have sown. But God also wants to have mercy on the world. And so he calls upon his servants to pray for sinners:

You, my servants, come into my presence laden with your prayers [for sinners], your eager longing, your sorrow over their offense against me as well as their own damnation, and so you will soften my divinely just wrath. ... the medicine by which [God] willed to heal the whole world and to soothe his wrath and divine justice was humble, constant, holy prayer (19).

We can see, then, the connection between prayer and love of neighbor. God invites us to pray for each other because in this way, we will be taking responsibility for each other, and thus demonstrating our love that God desires and expects of us. At the same time, it is not as if God would be obligated to intervene in the lives of others with increased grace already, because it is sufficient for his justice to leave people in their sin as they've chosen. It is already open to every person to repent and to be saved, given the conditions in which she actually lives; if God provides any further grace thanks to the prayers of some of his servants, he is going beyond what is required.

At the same time, it would seem God has reason not to intervene with special grace for sinners all the time, even if no one asked. After all, if no one had to ask for it, then our love for one another would grow cold and uninvolved: I don't have to worry about your salvation, because God is already going above and beyond the call of duty regardless of whether or not I pray. In other words, to believe in the inevitability of these special graces is profoundly demotivational; it saps us of any real zealous drive and yearning to take personal responsibility (in whatever limited measure we can) for the salvation of others.

So why should we pray for others? Why should we petition that God save others? Because God has made us such that "we are all in it together," and he wants us to love one another. God wants us to be concerned for one another and to take responsibility for one another, and therefore he leaves it up to us to petition him for the salvation of sinners. He would not be doing wrong, nor would it be a compromise of his goodness, if he were to leave sinners as they are: after all, they are freely choosing to refuse the graces he is already offering them, and it is always open to them while they are in life to repent. But he is willing to go far beyond what is required of him, and even beyond what his goodness would otherwise demand, if we ask him to do so, with tears and zealous fervor. If he were always to do this anyway, however, we would lose any motivation whatsoever to pray.

This has general application to the problem of evil. Why doesn't God intervene to stop every single evil thing that happens? One answer is this: the presence of evil offers us an opportunity to develop virtue -- for example, courage in risking death to help others in need during an emergency -- and virtue, being likeness to God, is far more valuable and good than pain and suffering are bad. If God stopped every evil before it ever happened, we would have no occasions to develop virtue freely. God takes a somewhat "hands off" approach precisely so that we can get our hands dirty, by taking responsibility for one another.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Damnation, according to Catherine of Siena

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be damned? Catherine of Siena received a revelation from God of the torments and sufferings of the damned in her Dialogue, and it's hardly a very enjoyable experience to think about, let alone to undergo it yourself.

As for those persons, God tells her, words could never describe the suffering of these wretched little souls (The Dialogue §38). Indeed, the descriptions that she gives are very disturbing, and speak to the wretchedness of damnation.

The first suffering of the damned is the fact that they are deprived of seeing God. They are without the beatific vision, and Catherine says that this is a tremendous misery: This is so painful for them that if they could they would choose the sight of me along with the fire and excruciating torments, rather than freedom from their pains without seeing me. Better a world with pain and suffering and at least some consciousness of God, than to be utterly alone, even in comfort and freedom from travail. the damned therefore lament the fact that they are removed from the sight of God.

The second torment is what Catherine calls the worm of conscience: damned persons are constantly tormented by their conscience, which is suddenly invigorated upon their death. Though in their lifetimes these sinful persons had dulled the bite of conscience and covered its voice with their sins, yet in death, when they are obligated to confront themselves and God and their eternal destiny, their conscience is newly awakened and torments them. They realize they have acted wrongly and have done what is evil.

The third torment, which to my mind is the gravest and most disturbing, is this: the sight of the devil. Catherine says that this sight doubles every other torment of the damned. To see the devil face to face, the hideous, evil, darksome creature that he is: this is one of the miseries of damnation. On the one hand, the damned are deprived of the beatific vision -- the sight that makes happy -- which is to see God. On the other hand, they are inevitably subjected to what we might call the malorific vision: the sight that makes miserable. Catherine writes:

At the sight of me the saints are in constant exultation, joyously refreshed in reward for the labors they bore for me with such overflowing love and to their own cost. But it is just the opposite for these wretched little souls. Their only refreshment is the torment of seeing the devil, for in seeing him they know themselves better: that is, they recognize that their sinfulness has made them worthy of him. And so the worm gnaws on and the fire conscience never stops burning.

Their suffering is even worse because they see the devil as the really is -- more horrible than the human heart can imagine. ... For my divine justice makes him look more horrible still to those who have lost me, and this in proportion to the depth of their sinfulness.

And finally, the fourth torment is fire, a kind of spiritual fire that burns the damn but does not consume them, because (at least until the resurrection) they are without body.

All these torments, then, will afflict the damned, as Catherine is made to know: the loss of the beatific vision; the gnawing worm of conscience; the malorific vision of the devil; and the fire. The thought of these things is miserable and induces dread in anyone who takes the threat of damnation seriously. But Catherine knows that God tells her these things not to satisfy a morbid curiosity, but for the sake of intercession. God tells her:

For the going there [i.e., in hell] is most wearisome and there is neither refreshment nor any benefit at all, because by their sinfulness [the damned] have lost me, the supreme and eternal Good. So there is good reason -- and it is my will -- that you and my other servants should feel continual distress that I am so offended, as well as compassion for the harm that comes to those who so foolishly offend me (§28).

And elsewhere Catherine notes that the medicine by which [God] willed to heal the whole world and to soothe his wrath and divine justice was humble, constant, holy prayer (§19). God even promises Catherine, after she receives a vision of the whole world contained in God's fist, that: [All people] are mine; I created them, and I love them ineffably. And so, in spite of their wickedness, I will be merciful to them because of my servants, and I will grant what you have asked of me with such love and sorrow (§18). And God himself enjoins her to pray and intercede: You, my servants, come into my presence laden with your prayers, your eager longing, your sorrow over their offense against me as well as their own damnation, and so you will soften my divinely just wrath (§17). Indeed, God says: I have one remedy to calm my wrath: my servants who care enough to press me with their tears and bind me with the chain of their desire. You see, you have bound me with that chain -- and I myself gave you that chain because I wanted to be merciful to the world (§15).

So the revelation of damnation is an unhappy one, hardly a cause for rejoicing. On the contrary, it inspires in us two things: first, a dread and a watchfulness over ourselves, lest we fall into the trap through negligence; and second, tearful and passionate intercession on behalf of a lost world, sot hat God might be merciful to it and save it from these terrors.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be the Son?

I have been reading through Joseph Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity, and I have found it very helpful and edifying. It is especially impressive and encouraging to see this brilliant theologian of our times expressing ideas and notions that I had thought of myself, prior to having read him. One particular idea comes to mind, and that is the way I have understood this verse from 1 John:

and [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2).

I found it significant that John here does say that the atoning sacrifice for our sins is Christ's death in isolation from his life, but rather it is Christ himself. He makes the whole identity of Jesus to consist in advocacy on behalf of sinners and making atonement for their sins. If you want to know what it means to be Jesus, the answer is simple: Christ's personal identity is to advocate on behalf of sinners and to make atonement for them.

Ratzinger shares the same understanding, even if he never references this particular verse in 1 John. In his book, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, he writes: Christ inflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation (1988, p. 205). As far as Christ is concerned, all he can do is save a person and offer her life. If a person is damned, it must be because that person shuts herself off to the saving influence and action of Christ towards her.

And in Introduction to Christianity, he goes into greater depth about this aspect of Christ's being. He says in effect that Christ's existence is fundamentally relational, not atomic, at heart: the Son comes from the Father and is totally obedient to him, and he is open to all people in his love which calls all people to himself.

To John, "Son" means being from another; thus, with this word he defines the being of this man [i.e., Jesus] as being from another and for others, as a being that is completely open on both sides, knows no reserved area of the mere "I". When it thus becomes clear that the being of Jesus as Christ is a completely open being, a being "from" and "toward", which nowhere clings to itself and nowhere stands on its own, then it is also clear at the same time that this being is pure relation (not substantiality) and, as pure relation, pure unity (Ratzinger 2000, pp. 186-7).

Christ is thus understood as having a purely relational being. For Christ, there is openness on both sides: openness to God the Father, so as to obey him perfectly in everything; and openness to all people, because he loves all people and makes himself available to them, at the same time willing that all should come to him and being unwilling to cast anyone away (cf. John 6:37). Ratzinger therefore describes Jesus' being as consisting in "from" and "towards": he is from the Father, so that his life consists in obedience to the Father's mission; and he is towards others, in the sense that he always acts for the sake of others.

All of this is implicit in the analysis I gave above of 1 John 2.2, for after all, if Christ's life consists in making atonement for sinners, he certainly does this at the behest of his Father: Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3.17). So if Christ's being is utter openness to other people, making atonement for them and working to save them, then it is also utter openness to the Father, a willingness to obey the Father for the salvation of the world even to the point of death on the cross (cf. Phil 2).

Jesus Christ, then, is he who saw the meaning of human existence, not in power and self-assertion, but in existing utterly for others -- who indeed was, as the Cross shows, existence for others -- to him and to him alone God has said, "You are my son, today I have begotten you" (Ratzinger 2000, p. 219). Christ is the man who can embrace all men because he has lost himself and them to God (p. 243).

Now what does this mean for Christians? Well it is evident that whoever says "I abide in [Christ]," ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2.6). Christ not only acts for our salvation and demonstrates his character for us, but he also gives us the model of what a true human life ought to look like. He gives us the example of how it is that we ought to live our own lives: in utter openness to God, submitting to his will in everything, and in utter openness to others, in love for all and willing to help all. Ratzinger writes:

To John, being a Christian means being like the Son, becoming a son; that is, ,not standing on one's own and in oneself, but living completely in the "from" and "toward". Insofar as the Christian is a "Christian", this is true of him. And certainly such utterances will make him realize to how small an extent he is a Christian (2000, p. 187).

So being a Christian, in a sense, is being empty -- empty, that is, of any substantial "I", a closed-off space which marks a limit on God's claims to our obedience, or others' claims to our love. Nothing like that exists in Christ: he is utterly obedient to the Father in everything, and utterly open to everyone in his love for all. And this is essential for Christian unity:

Our reflections have shown that Christian unity is first of all unity with Christ, which becomes possible where insistence on one's own individuality ceases and is replaced by pure, unreserved being "from" and "for". For such being with Christ, which enters completely into the openness of the one who willed to hold on to nothing of his own individuality (cf. also Phil 2:6f.), follows the complete "at-one-ness" -- "that they may be one, even as we are one." All not-at-one-ness, all division, rests on a concealed lack of Christliness, on a clinging to individuality that hinders the coalescence into unity (2000, p. 187).

Friday, March 4, 2016

Ratzinger on faith in God today

I have been reading through Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, and it is really excellent. It is one of the most edifying and profound reads I have undertaken in recent times. I am especially sympathetic to Ratzinger's treatment of faith in God and creation theology, inasmuch as it seems very similar to that espoused by Dumitru Stăniloae in his Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă, vol. 1.


Ratzinger says that Christian faith in God means first the decision in favor of the primacy of the logos as against mere matter (p. 151). His language of "choice" is interesting, for it suggests that ultimately the matter regarding God's existence and the ultimate nature of the universe is perhaps not subject to strict philosophical demonstration; rather, we must make a decision about the way we are going to interpret things. He writes:

In other words, faith means deciding for the view that thought and meaning do not just form a chance by product of being; that, on the contrary, all being is a product of thought and, indeed, in its innermost structure is itself thought (p. 152).

Consider the matter in the following way. Is our capacity for thought and rational reflection merely a chance byproduct of the random and unintended arrangement of unthinking matter? Or rather is the basis of reality itself a Mind, which brings all the world into existence through thinking it? The intelligibility of the world is taken for granted in contemporary culture: we think we know a whole lot about the way the universe works through our advances in the natural sciences. But the fact that the universe can be understood, the fact that it corresponds to the categories of our thought, might suggest that it is itself a product of thought:

This decision in favor of the intellectual structure of the kind of being that emerges from meaning and understanding includes the belief in creation. This means nothing else than the conviction that the objective mind [i.e., the intelligibility] we find present in all things, indeed, as which we learn increasingly to understand things, is the impression and expression of subjective mind and that the intellectual structure that being posses and that we can re-think is the expression of a creative pre-meditation, to which they owe their existence (p. 152).

Stăniloae affirms exactly the same thing. For him, the intelligibility and rational structure of the universe speaks to its origin in a supreme rational Person, who creates it precisely through a creative act of thought. And when we engage in scientific research and discover the structures and laws of this universe, we are effectively thinking the thoughts of the Logos after it, reading its book, so to speak: This surely means that all our thinking is, indeed, only a rethinking of what in reality has already been thought out beforehand (p. 153).

Is belief in God possible in the modern age, then? Has science utterly removed any foundation for believing that a Creator exists? Not at all, Ratzinger would insist: on the contrary, the very success of science, dependent as it is upon the intrinsic intelligibility of the world, offers ample grounds for believing in the transcendent Logos, through which everything was created (cf. John 1).

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Meditating on God's goodness is spiritual sustenance

Today, if my count is correct, is the sixty-third day of the year. Consequently we will be considering the following lines from the sixty-third psalm:

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
  and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
  and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
  and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
  you right hand upholds me (vv. 5-8).

Ordinary experience tells us that there is an analogy between the strength and vitality of the body and that of the spirit. Just like hunger and malnutrition can affect the functionality of the body, making us lethargic and sleepy and good for nothing, in the same way our spirit can seem to dry up and wither if we do not feed it properly or at all. And yet feeding the spirit is not the same as feeding the body, not literally anyway; how can it be done?

Today's psalm suggests that at least one way in which we can feed our spirits is to sit back and think about the ways in which we have experienced God's goodness in our lives. Thinking about the way God has been our help, in whatever difficulties we may have experienced, is for David akin to eating a rich feast. Many of us have probably had meals so good that we felt compelled to say something, to compliment the chef, to express our supreme pleasure at the food we've just consumed in some way. So also David says thinking about God's help is like a rich feast, and it moves him to praise God with joyful lips!

David says that he does this at night, meditating on God in the watches of the night, and on his bed just before he's about to fall asleep. This is an excellent practice: rather than falling asleep with your mind on the day's problems, stressing out about the various difficulties and obstacles that stand in your way, or worse, to meditate on evil things which only darken our minds, we ought to think about God and about the graces and gifts we've received from him. It is a way of reassuring our hearts that we have not been abandoned. Even the grace of restful sleep -- a tremendous gift, as anyone who's gone without it can testify -- ought to be reason for gratitude and praise of God.

When we do this, when we regularly come into contact with God's goodness in our minds, I think we will find that it draws us closer to God. Just like David says, My soul clings to you: devotion to the Lord and a greater trust in him is a product of thinking over the good things he has done for us. Such meditation inspires in us love for God and a greater willingness to live life following him wherever he may take us.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The problem with pluralism

John Hick's theory of religions is very interesting, and to many people these days it may seem most plausible. For him, the different religious traditions in the world have more or the same essence or core: they call people to change the fundamental orientation of their lives away from Self towards this ultimate reality, which Hick calls the Real. This change manifests itself in an ethical transformation that is more or less common to many religions: the person this reoriented lives a life of compassion, love, goodness, and so on.

But what about the fact that so many different religions describe God differently? And some religions are not even theistic at all—how can all these be essentially the same in reorienting people to the Real? Hick's answer is to adopt a kind of Kantian metaphysics and epistemological theory. On this view, reality in itself (called the noumena like realm) is utterly impossible for us to know. All we ever know is reality as it appears to us through the filter of our social-linguistic-cultural backgrounds; this is called the phenomenal realm, the realm of appearances. For Hick, all religions and philosophical traditions which attempt to describe the Real in itself fail, because the Real cannot be known. Their language is reinterpreted mythologically: their descriptions are not literally true, but instead are supposed to arouse certain reactions and dispositions in people.

Hick supposes that such a pluralist doctrine is preferable to exclusivist positions which claim their own religious tradition as definitively and ultimately true. He also thinks that such a pluralist understanding is also more conducive to toleration and dialog, because each tradition is not intrinsically superior to any other one. They are all getting at the same thing in the end, so this understanding ought better to foster collaboration and friendly dialog.

But is all this right? Gavin D'Costa begs to differ, and his arguments are very convincing. In The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity, for example, he argued forcefully that Hick's position is just as much exclusivistic as those positions he decries as intolerant and hopeless. For consider Hick's Kantian epistemology: by denying that any religious tradition can legitimately claim knowledge of the Real, he effectively tells them they are all actually false; he judges them all as false, and props up his own Kantianism as the true alternative, in good exclusivist fashion. Thus pluralism turns out to be a kind of Enlightenment exclusivism, not any more tolerant or conducive to dialog than an exclusivist Christianity would be.

D'Costa also argues persuasively that Hick's pluralism is imperialist and intolerant, despite its claims to be otherwise. For Hick effectively denies the religions of the world the right to exist on their own and in their own terms, if they insist on being genuine revelations of the real truth. Rather, theological language has to be reinterpreted in instrumentalist, mythological fashion, or else it is rejected as obviously false. Effectively Hick is telling everyone else how properly to understand their own religious traditions—as he does, as an Enlightened modernist Westerner!

One final argument ought to be mentioned too. Hick's claim that the Real in itself is unknowable ultimately reduces to agnosticism, because we can never get beyond the false appearances we confront to get the truth of the matter. If the Real is unknowable, then different religious forms and traditions are just a matter of taste; what ultimately matters is ethics and right living. But D'Costa, drawing from Alisdair MacIntyre, notes that ethics doesn't make any sense when it is divorced from a particular picture of the world. For example, the Christian notion that we are to love our enemies makes no sense and is impossible to justify apart from the affirmation that God himself, as ultimate reality and goodness itself, also is indiscriminate in his love. If an ethical system or theory cannot be justified by appeal to a true metaphysics, then ethics is just a matter of taste and sentiment, lacking objective validity. In that case, there can be nothing wrong with remaining an exclusivist, since the pluralist's own revulsion at the thought has no basis in an objective moral reality!

So despite the appearance of being tolerant and conducive to dialog, D'Costa demonstrates that Hick's pluralism is actually oppressive, exclusivist, and ultimately nihilistic about ethics.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

How do you know you are from the truth?

First John is evidently written to a congregation (or perhaps multiple congregations) into which some false teachers had entered, and which were being disturbed by the things they were hearing from these. So John says: I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you (2.26). And among the various problems and doubts raised by these false teachers, it seems also that persons in John's congregations were worried whether they really had come to know God in Jesus Christ through the apostolic preaching.

Obviously this is a problem with which many (if not all) of us can relate: we wonder to ourselves in moments of doubt and darkness whether we really have come to know God after all, if we are not deceiving ourselves in this whole Christian life we are trying to live. John has a solution for this problem:

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth, and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us (3.18-20).

For John, the evidence that you come into contact with the true God is that you love; for he says a little later on, Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (4.8). True knowledge of the truth, true religious life, has an intrinsically ethical aspect for John: to be from the truth means to have a certain orientation towards a particular kind of life, a demonstration of the intervention

But of course, this might seem far away from many of us. Who can say that their life is characterized by the kind of perfect love in truth and action that John calls us for? His standards are high: we ought to lay down our lives for one another (3.16). Can any of us claim that we are willing to do something like that for even the most annoying and most troublesome members of our congregations?

John's standards are high because he knows love as it was revealed in Jesus, but neither is he an unrealistic idealist. He knows from the start we that we have sin and we are not perfect: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves (1.8). It seems to me that John would include even those persons who want to love but do not have it at the moment as having had some kind of genuine contact with God.

After all, those who are utterly removed from God are without love, but they also don't want to love, either: they don't see the point in it, they can't imagine such a thing, they don't feel any attraction whatsoever towards a life of love. But if you at least want to love, if you see in a life of love something beautiful and worth aspiring to, you cannot be utterly removed from God; you have to had some kind of contact with God's grace -- and it remains for you to cooperate with this grace and to develop into the loving person you know you are being called to be.