Saturday, July 30, 2016

Be a star in the night sky

I have been reading from Origen's homilies on Genesis, and I was impressed by his allegorical interpretation of the creation story in the opening chapter of the bible. Each element of the creation is given a moral significance and an allegorical application to the moral life, something which resonates with me deeply.

Here I wish to quote his allegorical interpretation of the creation of the stars, after he had said that the sun is Christ and the moon, which draws its light from the sun to illumine the night, is the Church which draws light from Christ to illumine those lost in the night of ignorance. As for the stars, he says the following:
Just as the sun and the moon were indicated as great lights in the firmament of heaven, so also in us Christ and the Church. But because God also placed stars in the firmament, let us see which are the stars within us, that is, in the heavens of our heart. 
Moses is a star within us, glimmering and illumining us through his deeds. Likewise Abraham is a star, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and David, and Daniel, and all those about whom Holy Scripture has given the testimony that they pleased God. For just as each star differs in glory from another [cf. 1 Cor 15:41], so also each of the saints gives off his light in us according to its measure (Hom. in Gen. I, 7). 
I recall the whiskey priest's final words from Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory: all that really counts is to have been a saint. In context, that is the miserable retrospective judgment of a person whose life was a complete moral failure. To me, it was very powerful to read and echoes within my own heart and mind. Nothing matters ultimately except to have been a saint while you were in the body; a person can only bring her character with her before God after the death, everything else must be left behind.

And if we will be watchful over ourselves, if we keep ourselves by God's help from the sins which so easily tie us up and bind us to a meaningless life, then we will be true stars in God's sky. Like the prophet Daniel says: Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever (Dan 12:3). For any person who is a lover of beauty, this image has to be impressive. In fact, the imperative and invitation of God to become saints is a call to become beautiful like the stars in the night sky, by God's help to assume the beauty of Sirius or Betelguese or Polaris, each of us with a unique charm and place. God will not tolerate us to be ugly as regards our character; he wants us to be beautiful.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Origen on "on earth as it is in heaven"

I have a strange method when it comes to the theologians I read. Mostly what happens is this: I get a sense or intuition -- perhaps a prompting from the Holy Spirit -- that I ought to read some particular work by some particular theologian, and then I get around to doing it. More often than not after that, I find that my readings are very helpful and useful to me in the near future after that.

Lately I have felt the need and desire to read much from Origen, so I've begun a few of his different works. Most recently I've been reading from his On Prayer, which is very profound and contains numerous deep insights on the nature of Christian prayer. I specifically want to quote a longer passage, translated by me from the Romanian copy I've been reading while I'm out here:
Maybe our Savior does not command, through the words "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," that we pray for those who live on the earth to become like those who find their home in the heavens. [This because there are creatures in the heavens -- demons, etc. -- who do not obey the will of God.] He wants that all beings which are on the earth, that is, even those most deeply rooted in the earthly, to be similar to those which live in the heavens and which have become heavenly.
The sinner, whoever he might be, is earth and if he does not repent he will remain earth. Heaven is the one who does the will of God and fulfills the saving laws of the Spirit. And if we are still earth because of our sins, let us pray that God's will set us right just as it did with those who became heaven or who are heaven. And if in the eyes of God we are not earth but heaven, let us pray that "as it is heaven, let it be also on earth," that is, that the will of God be fulfilled with the wicked also and that they also become heaven, so that nothing will be left earth but everything will be heaven.
According to this interpretation, if the will of God is fulfilled on earth as it is heaven, the earth will no longer remain earth. Let us give two examples: if the will of God is done in the case of the temperate, then the intemperate will become temperate; if the will of God is done in the case of the unjust same as in the case of the just, then the unjust will become just. Thus if His will is to be done on earth as it is heaven, we will all become heaven; flesh (which profits nothing) and blood (which is related to it) cannot inherit the kingdom of God; yet they will be able to inherit it if they withdraw from earth, dust and blood to heavenly nature (On Prayer 26).
Interpreting "heaven" and "earth" allegorically as referring to those in whom the will of God is fulfilled or not, Origen understands the Lord's prayer as invoking the salvation of the whole creation. For God's will to be done on earth as it is heaven is precisely this: the will of God, which is our sanctification and our giving thanks to him (1 Thess 4:3, 5:18), reaches to every creature which is most far away from God, which is as far from God as the earth is from heaven (cf. Ps 103:11, Isa 55:9). It is a prayer for salvation which knows no end, which will not rest until everything is included within it -- of course, insofar as it assents to this through its own free will.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The poverty that separates you from God

Consider the following bit of wisdom from Agur:
Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the Lord?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God (Prov 30:7-9).
In these words is contained the wisdom of the happy medium: nothing overmuch; neither too much nor too little is good, but just enough. He asks the Lord to give him neither riches nor poverty, because in either way he could be led astray and succumb to the temptation of grave sin. How might this happen?

On the one hand, having too much, Agur may lose his sense of dependency on God and come to be prideful. This is what is meant in his words, Who is the Lord? Who needs God when I can manage things on my own? Jesus gives a similar parable about the person for whom things are going too well, who soon forgets about God:
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).
He was so preoccupied with the production of his land and enjoying himself that he forgot the inevitable certainty of his own mortality. He forgot that he was going to die, and that all these things he would leave behind; all that he would bring with him is his own character and disposition towards God -- one that is either a disposition of reconciled friendship, which means spiritual riches, or else one of enmity, which is spiritual poverty. This is the way that riches can make us forget about the Lord and take his name in vain: though we call ourselves Christians, yet our senseless preoccupation with amassing material goods leaves us spiritually impoverished to the point that we are rich in the world yet paupers before God.

But how can poverty lead a person to profane the name of God? How can poverty lead a person to take the name of God in vain? This is a more interesting question, because various theologians have observed that the poor apparently have a special relationship with God grounded in their vulnerability and poverty. For example, the prophet Isaiah relates the following words of God:
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them (Isa 41:17).
And it is clear that in Jesus, God himself demonstrates a special concern for the poor and for the needy. He so identifies himself with the poor that at the final judgment, our treatment of the hungry, thirsty, lonely, sick, and imprisoned will be the criterion by which we are granted entry into his kingdom or else excluded from salvation (Mt 25:31-46). And when he teaches us to pray, Give us this day our daily bread (Mt 6:11), it is clear that he expects us to assume a stance of poverty and recognition  of our own neediness before God. No one who has enough to eat for the rest of the week can seriously pray, Give us this day our daily bread. That's the prayer of a person who is lacking in even basic necessities unless God provides them. And if this does not currently describe us, then the prayer teaches us to understand our currently wealthy state as a gift and as not to be expected forever. Finally, though this is not a scriptural example, there is that wonderful prayer from the Didache which clearly does not express the concerns of the rich and powerful but rather of the poor and needy: Let grace come, and let this world pass away (10:5).

Christianity, in some sense, has always belonged to the poor and to the needy. God prefers these to the rich to some extent, because these are not afflicted by the illusions of self-sufficiency and autonomy afforded by wealth. But how miserable must a person be to be both impoverished and to be far from God! How can this happen?

It appears to me that material poverty can lead us to take the name of God in vain if it is coupled with an interior, spiritual poverty. In this respect, I want to focus on the initial petition of Agur: Remove from me falsehood and lying. At first glance, it would seem that Agur's petitions have nothing to do with one another. What is the connection between falsehood and lies, on the one hand, and a happy medium between riches and poverty, on the other? The connection is this: both riches and poverty can separate a person from God if she comes to believe lies and falsehoods about God because of them. In the case of the rich, the falsehood and lie is this: I have no need of God because everything is going well for me. But in the case of the impoverished, the falsehood and lie is this: God must hate me, since he has refused to provide for me to the same extent as he has provided for others, and so I want nothing to do with him. Material poverty is deadly and separates us from God if, in our material poverty, we also suffer from the spiritual poverty of having false conceptions about God. Indeed, Origen writes in a treatise of his:
It is he who associates the thought of God with wrong things that takes the name of the Lord God in vain (On Prayer).
The materially poor who are also spiritually impoverished come to believe that God hates them, or that he has forgotten about them, or that he lacks any concern for them whatsoever. Consider the story of the Russian orphan I met on the night of my birthday, whose impoverished childhood turned him against the idea of any friendship with God whatsoever. But any statement which denies or negates or clouds the salvific intent of God towards all people in everything that happens is a blasphemy and a calumny, as Isaac the Syrian has said somewhere. God permits everything according to his providence and for our benefit. In this respect, note another remark of Origen's from the same treatise:
...he that is content with what comes to pass becomes free from every bond, and does not protest against God for ordaining what He wills for our discipline, and does not even in the secrecy of his thoughts murmur inaudibly... (source)
If we are poor, it is because God wishes through our poverty to teach us and to lead us on the narrow path which leads to salvation. Material poverty is acceptable if it is given us by God; but what is not acceptable is spiritual poverty of the sort that leads us to attribute to God all manner of unworthy characteristics and dispositions. May God forbid me from ever thinking that my material lack -- whether it be money, or family, or work, or schooling, or whatever else -- is due to his negligence or even malice towards me! No, but he wishes to teach me through these things to depend on him in everything and to satisfy myself with the greater things, spiritual things, by which he raises me up to his level and can make use of me for his purposes.

This is how poverty can separate us from God and make us to take the name of the Lord in vain: when it is unhappily conjoined with spiritual poverty of the sort that comes from alienation and unfamiliarity with God. If we do not know who God is, if we do not know that he always wants what is good for us in everything that happens, then we are liable to take his name in vain by thinking all manner of evil things about him.

Now Agur also says that he wishes God to save him from poverty, lest he should steal and in this way take the name of the Lord in vain. Of course, we know that material poverty can lead a person to take what is not his. Interestingly, numerous Church Fathers taught that, inasmuch as the good things of this earth are given to us by God for the common use of all people whatsoever, the rich who horde more than they need while others go without are stealing what belongs rightfully to the latter. So it is possible to steal precisely through our abundance, if we are negligent towards the poor. And despite the fact that the poor deserve enough of what God provides us through the earth in order to survive, neither do they have the right to steal and to take by force what belongs to another.

But I leave these issues aside to address the problem of spiritual poverty. If this is the sort of poverty that the scriptures are really warning us about, as I am inclined to think, how then should we understand the potential for theft? I think this "theft" is what I described in a previous post: the theft of God's name and reputation, taken by those who associate themselves with him without really knowing him; the theft of the name of 'Christian' by those whose lives are characterized by sin and iniquity, and who are unknown to Christ himself; the left of a religious vocabulary and self-perception which has no basis in lived experience. This is the threat of theft: remaining spiritually poor, I might try to hide my poverty by claiming what is not really mine through a mistaken, baseless religious vocabulary that may fool others and even myself but not God.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The frightening voice of God

After the Hebrews had been freed from slavery in Egypt, they received commandments from God which would constitute the basis of their ethics and life lived together as the people of God. But the presentation of these laws was accompanied by various terrifying natural phenomena, fittingly so given the immensity of the God with whom they were now to deal, and this scared most of them. We read in Exodus 20:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (vv. 18-19).
They feared for their lives, because the power of God as demonstrated through these natural phenomena was so great. The effect of the reception of God's law was that they drew away from him! Rather than approaching him in fear and trembling and trying by every means to come to know him from up close, so to speak, they instead drew back. This was because of their sinfulness. A person whose heart is bent on evil cannot draw near to God, because he senses something too foreign to himself, too much unlike him.

Why did God show himself in this way? Why not take a softer approach? This is a question that comes up often when reading the bible, at least for persons with "bleeding hearts" such as myself. But Moses explains for us why this is so:
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (v. 20).
In other words, God had to frighten them first because he wanted to keep them from sinning. The God with whom they are now inextricably tied is not to be trifled with. They ought to take this new covenant seriously, because he has freed them from slavery and has important plans to be accomplished through them. What they are entering into now is not a game, by any means. And in light of their spiritual immaturity, God must present himself in a frightening light, seeking to keep them from sin through fear if not from love.

Of course, as I've commented in a recent post, it would be a mistake to think that anger, wrath, and punishment are on a par with mercy, goodness, and love as regards the nature of God's character. In other words, the divine nature is not an irreducible duality between opposing impulses and tendencies, some of them of favorable to mankind and others of them not. This way lies Marcionism if a person cannot stomach the contradiction for too long. On the contrary, as Origen suggests in his anti-Marcionite polemics in various places, God's justice is aimed at good: he punishes for the sake of bringing the sinner to repentance and restoring him to life, not simply for destruction's sake. In the same way, in the present context we can understand that God's threatening self-presentation before the Hebrew people is aimed at keeping them from sin. His goal is to bring them to spiritual maturity and to love, but in a way that is accommodated to their current maturity and adequate to the task.

Catherine of Siena
But people who have advanced in the spiritual life quickly recognize that this kind of state is meant for beginners, not for the mature. A life of perpetual fear of God's punishment speaks more of spiritual immaturity than of genuine pious religiosity. Catherine of Siena, in her Dialogue, writes about persons who try to abstain from sin out of fear of hell, but who do not love God nor their neighbors:
They have arisen with servile fear from the vomit of mortal sin, but, if they do not arise with love of virtue, servile fear alone is not sufficient to give eternal life. But love with holy fear is sufficient, because the law is founded in love and holy fear. The old law was the law of fear, that was given by Me to Moses, by which law they who committed sin suffered the penalty of it. The new law is the law of love, given by the Word of My only-begotten Son, and is founded in love alone. The new law does not break the old law, but rather fulfills it, as said My Truth, 'I come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it' (source).
This passage was striking to me when I first read Catherine's Dialogue. Efforts to avoid sin out of fear of damnation will not save anyone; the person who tried so hard to keep from evident and obvious sin because he feared the punishments of hell will find them at last, because he did not love. Indeed, love of God and love of neighbor are the summary of the Law which they tried to keep. Because they do not love God -- and how can they love God, if they are deathly afraid of him? -- they did not even begin to keep the Law.

Along this same line of thought, consider the following tremendous affirmation from Anthony the Great:
Abba Anthony said, "I no longer fear God but I love him, for perfect love casts out fear [1 John 4:18]" (Apophthegmata Patrum Anthony §32).
It is true that the beginning of wisdom and knowledge is the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7; 9:10). But this is the beginning of these. On the contrary, the greatest commandment of all is the commandment to love the Lord with absolutely everything that we have within us, and this cannot be mixed with fear. As the apostle wrote, and as Anthony recited for us, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). So it is evident that fear functions as a beginning and a pedagogue, the aim of which is to lead to spiritual maturity and love of God.

I draw the following conclusion: when we come across frightful expressions of anger and threats from God in the scriptures, we should understand this language as being accommodated to the immaturity of sinners, aimed at bringing them to repentance from sin but by no means as being adequately addressed to everyone at every stage of the Christian life. And in principle, I should not need to be threatened to be motivated to holiness of life. If that is the case, if I can only be brought to righteousness through threats and through the warnings of punishment, then I am still immature and a far way away from truly loving God.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Taking the LORD's name in vain

One of the Ten Commandments concerns not taking the name of the LORD your God in vain. What could this possibly mean? What does it mean to take his name in vain?

The prophet Moses receiving
the Law from God
Most people, it seems to me, understand this prohibition as referring to inappropriate mention or use of the name of God in colloquial and formal contexts. I remember when I was a kid, being afraid to say "Oh my God" or "I swear to God" out of fear of breaking this commandment. Still others use God's name in curses and swears, which is even more common here in Romania than in America. Whereas I wonder about the sinfulness of saying "Oh my God," there is no doubt in my mind about the sinfulness of the easy and irreverent invocation of God's name in malicious uses of language. Still, I think that the prohibition against taking God's name in vain goes further than that.

I want to bring to your attention a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount which I believe function as a kind of commentary on this commandment. Consider:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:21-3). 
Notice what Jesus is getting across in this passage. A religious vocabulary is not enough to save one from the exclusion from God's kingdom at the judgment. It's not enough to have assumed a properly reverent tone towards God. In spite of all these things, you may nevertheless be lost! Indeed, there is a risk of self-deception for many of us who grew up in Christian contexts in this regard. Being around other Christians, you try to use the right words and talk the right way about God, even though in reality you are far away from him and are speaking about foreign realities, not familiar ones. The religious-pious façade of your speech acts as a cover for your irreligious interior, to save you from the shame of not belonging to God with all your heart. Your language will not save you; calling him "Lord, Lord" will not keep him from making the painful admission that he never knew you.

Of course, falsely religious language is not enough to make a person fit in. What's necessary is an appropriate and impressive religious activity. So we read that these unfortunate souls also engaged in various, relatively noteworthy endeavors: they prophesied and cast out demons and did many deeds of power. These persons, in other words, worked as hard as they could to convince themselves and others that things were alright, strengthening the effect of their religious language with hardcore participation in public, respected ministries. Yet even then, it was not enough for them to be saved!

The final judgment
The problem with these persons is that they took the Lord's name in vain. They spoke and did all the right things in the name of the Lord, i.e. they associated themselves with Christ. They took on the name of Christian and tied their own reputations with the name and reputation of Jesus himself. But they did this all in vain, in other words to no benefit whatsoever, because they were workers of lawlessness. This was their great downfall: they assumed the title of Christian but went on living in sin. In this way, despite their pious language and impressive ministry work, they sullied the reputation of Jesus through their sinful lives. I don't need to mention the various television evangelists and other famous Christians have done exactly this—may the Lord have mercy on them, and on me who am far worse.

Taking the name of the LORD in vain, then, is simply this: associating yourself with the reputation and name of God, but to no avail because of your sinfulness. Now why is this sin so grave?

It seems to me that this is a grave sin because God has chosen, in his wisdom and mercy, largely to accomplish the salvation of others through us, imperfect though we are. Dumitru Stăniloae emphasizes that every person comes to faith because of the example and preaching of another who believes. No one simply wakes up finding themselves believing; rather, through the mediation of you and me, God seeks to bring one person to faith through the faith of another. This is a great honor given to humankind, to be used as instruments of righteousness (cf. Rom 6:13) for accomplishing the purposes of God's salvation. But when you take the name of the LORD in vain, i.e. when you associate yourself with God but continue in sin, in this way sullying the reputation of God among people, you damn two people: first, you damn yourself through your sins; and second, you damn those persons who now refuse to believe in God because you've turned them off to the idea for good. That's why this sin is so grave, in the end. It's because it affects both you and the other person, whom God intended you to save through your word and example but who now is lost.

Paul writes that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you (Rom 2:24). What a dreadful thing to hear! But that is what happens if we take the name of the LORD in vain. God forbid any of us from doing that.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Trusting in the LORD

One theological question which comes up again and again in my life is that of the nature of divine providence. It is one of the theological-philosophical questions which I loved to discuss and ponder when I was doing my undergraduate degree at Arizona State, and it continues to fascinate me. It has its theoretical aspects which are charming and interesting, of course, but more than anything, I find myself concerned with this question because I have a hard time making choices. I don't know what I should do, how I should choose, and what direction I should take when going through life. Naturally in such a state, I look to God for guidance, and the question of divine providence becomes immediately relevant. Is God like an author who has written a book in which I am a character? Is he a guide, standing by, ready at any time to point me in the right direction if only I ask? Or does he stand back and give me freedom to make choices on my own -- more than that, does he want me to exercise my freedom and to try to blaze my own trail, within the appropriate limitations of his law of course?

In this respect I want to consider some lines and meditations drawn from Ps 25, which I read this morning. I start with the following verses:
Who are they that fear the Lord? He will teach them the way that they should choose (Ps 25:12).
One of the recurring themes of the psalm is the special relation of guidance which certain sorts of persons have with God. The opening petition expresses trust in God for the sake of one's well-being; the psalmist writes, O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame (v. 2). Implicit in the petition, it seems to me, is the recognition that the circumstances in which the psalmist finds himself are largely outside of his control. For that reason, he adopts an attitude of trust towards God, who presumably stands outside of them and above them in such a way as to be capable of making them favorable. God, in some way or other, is capable of resolving the problems of the psalmist so that he does not end up a laughingstock and a cause of amusement for his enemies.

The verse I quoted above suggests that this is a special relation which belongs to all those who adopt the proper attitude of fear, reverence, and trust towards God. At the same time, the psalmist is not naive, neither about his own state before the Lord nor about the experiences of those who do put their trust in the Lord. Notice what he says here:
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! (vv. 6-7)
It is interesting to me that he asks God to be mindful of his mercy and of his love on the grounds that they are of old, i.e. eternal. The thought of asking God to remember something that is as old as himself, more than that, that is a part of his very nature! These are the words of someone whose current confrontation and experience with God does not reflect the divine attributes of mercy and love. On the contrary, the repeated mention of the author's "enemies" suggests that things are not going well for him at all. And it is probable, too, that he sees his current conditions as in some way a payment or punishment for sins he had committed when he was younger.

(At this juncture I wonder if there is an implicit theology of mercy in this petition. He asks God to remember his mercy and love because they are of old. This is the cry of a person whose current experiences speak rather of justice and punishment, wrath even. But what sense could the cry have if wrath and justice and the rest are just as eternal as mercy and love, in other words, if they are on a par with these other, more favorable aspects of the divine character? Wrath and the such are temporary and hardly typical or even "natural" displays of who God is; otherwise, being "of old" like the others, the force of the petition is annulled.)

Those who trust in God, therefore, do not always and everywhere meet with favorable circumstances. At times, they have to remind God of his mercy and love. More than that, they recognize their own sinfulness. Consider the stark contrast of the following verses:
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great (vv. 10-11).
The psalmist's stark moralism leaves no room for sinners to take advantage of God's mercy. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, yes -- but for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. For sinners, it is right and meet for the Lord to respond with anger and with punishment, because that is what they deserve. And the psalmist has a sense, too, that in his own case, this is what is happening. Therefore, in the middle of his enemies' mocking, he prays: pardon my guilt, for it is great. This suggests to me that the first step towards righteousness is penitence: admitting you are wrong, recognizing your guilt, and throwing yourself on the mercy of God.

The psalmist, then, is a person who wants to trust in the Lord. He senses an implicit moral order in the world that has been organized by God: because of his sinfulness, he is now suffering appropriate consequences for his wrongdoing through the mediation of his enemies and the unfavorable circumstances which they've caused him. At the same time, he pleads to God to have mercy on him, to pardon his guilt, and to change the setting which at this point is beyond his control. What then is the implicit picture of divine providence in all of this?

God has arranged the world with a certain implicit moral order and structure, but not one in which justice and punishment are irreversible once they have been launched against some person. There exists the possibility of repentance, however, and in this act of repentance, there is an appeal to God who stands above this order and can make a favorable reversal. Guilt can be pardoned, enemies can be put to shame, and the one who trusts in the Lord can be brought a better place after the fact. This is not something that the human person accomplishes of herself, and in fact it would seem that the act of repentance means recognizing her own powerlessness to change her surroundings in a way that would prove better for her. The changes must be done by God, who stands above this created order and who can make things right. And this person who trusts in God is led by him and is not put to shame.

One of the perennial debates in my head concerns the attitude I ought to take in making important decisions. Do I seek guidance and a clear, unmistakable direction from the Lord? If not clear and unmistakable, at least some sort of strong direction? Or do I rather make a choice based on what I want, or what seems good to me, and hope for the best? The former option suggests I adopt a continual attitude of supplication and prayer, becoming an unassuming "follower" of God in every case. The latter option puts a bit more power in my own hands, and bids me to make good use of my free will in wisdom, without shirking the responsibility for my own life which God has given me by endowing me with freedom of the will. Which of these options seems better to jive with the attitude taken by the psalmist?

I am sure someone with a different personality than myself, with different tendencies and different impulses, can argue the contrary point, but my tendency is to fit the psalmist in the former category. He is one who chooses rather to act by the prior guidance of God, instead of blazing his own trail and doing what seems right to him. He wants to assume an attitude of trust before God, because for such people, God will teach them the way they should choose (v. 12). He recalls the sins of his youth which have landed him in the mess in which he currently finds himself. It is the hallmark of youth to act out of arrogance, thinking that we know better than we actually do, overconfident in our own judgment. I am still young and therefore still suffer from this treacherous malady. Now, in old age, having suffered and recognizing his own wrongdoings, the psalmist assumes instead a position of humility: Lord, I trust in you to set things right and to save me from these troubles; I trust in you to show me the right way, and I will follow what you set before me.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Origen on ethics and divine providence

I have been reading from Origen's Contra Celsum, an enjoyable and edifying experience, and have come across a particular passage which expresses a thought I've had on a few occasions, especially recently. Discussing Celsus's philosophical objection to Christianity, according to which it would be unworthy of Christ to suffer if he really were God, Origen says the following:
Perhaps, as it seems, [Celsus] did not understand the doctrine that Jesus was a man [in addition to being divine], and did not want him to have any human experience, nor to become a noble example to men to show them how to bear calamities. This seems to Celsus to be just lamentable and reprehensible, since [being an Epicurean] he regards pain as the greatest evil and pleasure as the greatest good, although this view is accepted by no philosopher among those who believe in providence and admit that courage, bravery, and noble-mindedness are virtues (Contra Celsum II:42). 
Notice what Origen says: no philosopher who admits the existence of providence (i.e. who believes that the events of history are foreseen and ordered by God) thinks that the greatest evil is pain and the greatest good is pleasure. No one who believes that all things are ordered and foreknown by God, in other words, measures all value and worth by reference to the pleasure or pain produced by a thing. Now why is that?

The line of reasoning which suggests itself to me is the following. Experiencing life in the world tells us that whoever ordered the events of history does not primarily care about giving us as much pleasure and as little pain as possible. On the contrary, evil things happen to good people and good things happen to evil people; some enjoy themselves for some period of time while others suffer seemingly uninterruptedly. The arrangement of the world, in other words, doesn't reflect the thought of a person who values pleasure above everything else and detests pain the most.

One might ponder this fact and come to the conclusion that there is no providence, since pleasure is the greatest good and pain the greatest evil. This is Epicurean atheism of the sort that Celsus believed, and which is believed by very many people these days, too. Origen suggests that it is hard to justify a morally robust sense of virtue on this scheme of things. On the other hand, one might observe the arrangement of the world and conclude that some other things besides pleasure and pain must be the moral ultimates. This is Christianity and other philosophical views like Stoicism and Platonism, etc.

The practical upside of this discussion is the following: we ought to keep a close watch on our thinking and values, lest an obsession with pleasure should turn us against God when things turn out painful for us, as they inevitably will. And we ought to beware of social trends and currents of thought which seem motivated by an amoral aversion to pain at any cost.

An example from my current experience: there are parenting trends becoming increasingly popular here in Romania which speak against any discipline or moral evaluation of children at all. You should not punish your children or correct them—so the argument goes—because this causes the child to experience distress, and at the end of the day, what the child is doing is not a big deal anyway. Neither should children be given grades or evaluated at school, etc. Behind these very much non-traditional suggestions is a certain philosophy, one which evidently seeks to avoid pain at any cost as the ultimate evil. But the truth is that only through pain can any progress be made, including moral progress. Unless you push your limits, you will never increase in athleticism and fitness. Unless you make an effort to do the right thing when it is difficult, and when your strongest desires are against it, you will never make moral progress. Pain and distress are the means by which progress is made; that is why providence permits them, because feeling pain is not worse than being morally bankrupt and vicious.

So also, the fact that Christ suffered greatly in the body for the sake of human salvation shows, as Origen writes, that providence considers other things besides pleasure and pain to be moral ultimates.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Son of Man as the Ladder to and from Heaven

Nathanael was impressed when Jesus told him that he had seen him under the fig tree, the place where Phillip found him to tell him that they had found the Messiah. He responded to Phillip with cynicism: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46). And so when Jesus claimed that Nathanael was truly an Israelite in whom there was no deceit, and that he had seen him under the fig tree uttering words of doubt about Jesus, Nathanael was impressed and responded with a declaration of faith: Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! (v. 49). Jesus replies with this mysterious affirmation:
Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these... Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (vv. 50-1).
I remember that this passage was always strange for me. What in the world could it mean to see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man? It never made any sense to me when I was younger; it was another one of those confusing sayings of Jesus which sooner confused me than edified me in any way.

Jesus here is apparently referring to the vision of Jacob in Gen 28. Jacob had tricked Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, his brother, and Esau was ready to kill Jacob for it. He planned only to wait until his father had died. So Jacob was sent away to find a wife from among his mother's family, lest he marry one of the Hittite women nearby. In this context, on a long journey to find a wife and now in danger of his life, Jacob lies down to sleep with a rock under his head. Not exactly the most comfortable conditions! That night he has a dream:
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen 28:12-15).
There is much to analyze in this picture. The angels of the Lord were going up and down the ladder, occupying themselves with the providential enactment of God's plans. This is evidently the way the ancient Hebrews saw the world to be run. For example, angels were sent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:12-13). And presumably the angels going up the ladder into heaven bring reports and perhaps prayers from the earth, just as God tells Abraham about Sodom: "I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me" (Gen 18:21). The angels, therefore, are ministers of God's providence and are involved in his ruling over the world, each presumably with its own function.

Implicit in all of this is the proposal of an orderly and providential universe. The events of Jacob's life are not random or haphazard, left up to chance. It is not an open and unsettled question whether Esau will succeed in his plan to murder his brother over the lost blessing. In the face of the confusion and uncertainty of every day events, Jacob's dream confronts him with the promise of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, on which angels of God ascend and descend, carrying out the will of God who is above all and who rules over everything.

The world, then, is an intelligible and providentially ordered place, in spite of the apparent chaos and nonsense of the events which take place every day. And with this background in place, God promises Jacob something tremendous: that he will be with him, that he will bless him, and that he will protect him, never leaving him until what has been promised will be fulfilled. God's promise is one of grace: I will be with you and protect you and bless you abundantly. Only if God is the providential ruler of the world, with all things under his foresight and command, can he make such a promise with any ounce of credibility and promise.

With this background in mine, Jesus tells Nathanael and Phillip that they will see the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man. In other words, Jesus, who is the Son of Man, becomes that ladder which connects heaven and earth. He now becomes the meeting place between the two dimensions, the place of mankind and the created order, and the place of God who rules above everything. In Jesus, these two worlds meet and have their interaction. Once more, we are talking about the mystery of the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. This meeting between the two worlds, this connection between the two worlds, can only take place if the two worlds are in some ineffable manner united in the one person of Jesus.

The Son of God assumed a human nature, divinity uniting itself with humanity in a single hypostasis, and so the relationship between humankind and God is now mediated through him. A person who meets Jesus is now meeting with God; a person who wishes to meet with God must now come to Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Therefore John will say that No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:23). They are inseparable because Jesus of Nazareth, this person to whom Christians claim their allegiance, is the true Son of God the Father, whose being and whose life is utterly inseparable from the Son.

Implicit in all of this, too, is the notion that God's providential control and the fulfillment of his promises to the people of Israel (promises which naturally concern all people as well) are to be fulfilled through Jesus. That ladder from heaven to earth through which the angels fulfill the plan and promises of God is Jesus himself, and he now becomes the fulfillment of those promises through his life. What Jesus is telling Phillip and Nathanael, in other words, is that they will see the fulfillment of all those promises which God made to his people in the Old Testament, coming true in the very person of Jesus himself.

This means that the Son of Man is the ladder to heaven. If a person wants to know if God is provident, if he cares for this world and if he establishes an order and structure to things, and if moreover he wants to know if God keeps his promises, he need only look to Jesus Christ. This person shows us that, in spite of common appearances, this world has a logic and an order to it. He shows us that God is control of things. He shows us that God does not lie about his promises but fulfills them all at the right time, even if it is not when we think it should be.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Origen on the power of Christianity over philosophy

For many people, Christianity and philosophy present opposing ways of life, between which a person must choose. Philosophy affords a life of reason and dedicated search for the truth, while at the same time refusing any pretense to have arrived definitively and finally at that which philosophers seek. Christianity, on the other hand, demands faith and commitment to this man Jesus of Nazareth, and to his teachings and those of his apostles and of his church after him, a faith and commitment which refuse everything that can't be reconciled with these. The philosopher searches after the truth without arriving, at least so acts the philosopher worthy of the name. The Christian, however, is better defined as a sage-in-training who has arrived at the truth and now commits to living it out.

Some persons prefer philosophy to Christianity, even if they might at the same time claim to be Christians themselves. They show this by sticking to what is acceptable to their reason above everything else, rather than being fundamentally committed to Christ as such. Much less are non-Christian philosophers interested or committed to Christ's person and teaching. They prefer the life of reason, or at least what they pretend is the life of reason (enough philosophers are significantly lacking in λόγος to warrant this qualification). But there is one thing philosophy can't claim to have, compared to Christianity.

Origen compares the power of philosophy to convert people from vice and sin to righteousness to that of Christianity as follows:
Now among the Greeks there was only one Phædo, I know not if there were a second, and one Polemo, who betook themselves to philosophy, after a licentious and most wicked life; while with Jesus there were not only at the time we speak of, the twelve disciples, but many more at all times, who, becoming a band of temperate men, speak in the following terms of their former lives: For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour towards man appeared, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed upon us richly, we became such as we are. (Contra Celsum I:64)
This is the unique strength of Christianity which makes it superior to philosophy: it can make the sinful man righteous, and the vicious man virtuous. Philosophy cannot do that, as even recent studies have found that ethicists tend to be less ethical than other persons. There is the example of Thomas Pogge, a world-famous ethicist who seems capable of getting away with repeated instances of sexual harassment. Then there is Peter Singer, who values the life of a pig over that of a mentally retarded human child, who justifies "consensual" sex with animals, and any number of different immoralities that go unmentioned in polite company.

There is one thing which diminishes the strength of Origen's point. In the olden days, the philosophers of most schools were distinguished by a concern for righteous living, and they preached virtue and self-control and the rest. These days, on the contrary, you will find "philosophers" who argue that right and wrong don't exist or are relative to culture or personal preference, or whatever other theories can be invented to justify a morally lazy life. So whereas he gives some credit to philosophy insofar as it deserved it in those days, not much at all can be given in our times. Philosophers are not morally outstanding in any way, and many philosophers I had to deal with during my studies were morally inferior to the average uneducated Christians I know.

Not that there aren't morally lacking Christians, the existence of which everyone is quick to point out as if it meant something. But the number of Christians who have turned their lives from vice and evil to righteousness, even though they are far from perfect, is greater than those who have changed because of philosophy. So if a person wants to become good, if a person is concerned to become better than she already is and to embody that goodness which she senses is real and is in some mysterious way drawing her to itself—well, such a person ought to become a Christian rather than a philosopher. Christianity's power to change a person demonstrates its true connection with God, whereas the moral cesspools that are some philosophy departments show that they have nothing whatsoever to do with a power for good.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Origen on the preponderance of Christian sects

In the Philocalia of Origen XVI, §1, which passage is drawn from his Contra Celsum, Origen considers the apparent scandal of the preponderance of Christian sects. There were then, just as in our own times, various different groups of Christians which differed among themselves with respect to some teachings. What they had in common, says Celsus rather naïvely, was only the name of "Christian." But their divisions and differences were, at least for some nonbelievers, a point in their disfavor.

Origen's response to this problem, at least the first part thereof, is an interesting and intelligent one. He notes that people are liable to have differences of opinion, and these differences may become heated and sharp, when they concern some matter of importance. Origen gives the following examples. Just as the health of the body and its treatment is a very important thing for the human race, so also various thoughtful doctors differed in that time amongst themselves and form different sects. So also there was a great number of philosophical schools, all of whom differed on how to define and live a good human life.

Origen argues that it would be foolish and unwarranted to reject the practice of medicine and healthcare simply because there are different sects of doctors. Likewise, philosophy can't rightly be ignored or abandoned simply because philosophers differ among themselves; the subject matter is too lofty and important to be treated with such indifference. In the same way, Christian sects differ among themselves because intelligent people were concerned to have a proper and good understanding of the scriptures, considering them to be genuine revelation from God. The divisions, in other words, owe to a sincere desire to know the truth of what God has revealed, rather than perversity or ill will. Of course, not every school can be right; the point is only that the basis of the differences is a sincere and good will.

This is an important reminder for us in times of scandalous and problematic divisions among Christians. Even if we differ one from another, we ought to remind ourselves that our differences arise from a sincere and genuine desire to know God's truth as it has been revealed. We do ourselves no favors in demonizing opponents and hardening our hearts against them, when we want the same thing in the end! This is not to say that there aren't persons of perverse will who do not really have an interest in the truth; but judging whether another person is like that or not is difficult and perilous, and it is perhaps better to assume the best and dialogue with good will when it is fruitful and edifying.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world

John 1:29-34 reads:
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
This passage is jam-packed with some heavy-duty theology, and some of it can be brought to clearer light by considering its structure. I discern a sort of chiastic structure to the passage which might be analyzed in the following:

A - statement of faith ("Here is the Lamb of God")
 B - commission by God ("I came baptizing with water for this reason")
  C - reception of the Holy Spirit ("I saw the Spirit descending from heaven")
 B' - commission by God ("I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize")
A' - statement of faith ("This is the Son of God")

More generally, a chiasm is a literary form which roughly resembles the form of the Greek letter chi, which looks like X. Of course, the words themselves need not be arranged in that order, but only the ideas: first one idea, then another, then a third; then something closely related or a reformulation of the second; and so on with the first. If this chiastic analysis is permissible, then I will draw the following inferences about some of the important theological language being used here.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Consider, for example, the implicit parallelism which is drawn between Christ's being the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world, on the one hand, and his being the Son of God, on the other. Ratzinger talks about this at length in his Introduction to Christianity, where he affirms that, for John, being the "Son" means simultaneously being from God and being for others. This is what John is getting across in the present passage, as well, where he records the testimony of John the Baptist. The same Son of God which is from the Father, and evidenced through the descent of the Holy Spirit, is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world through his own self-sacrifice. Being the Son of God, being from God, and being for other people, being willing to offer oneself for the salvation of the world, describes completely the two-sided essence of Christ.

These are the two poles of Christology: on the one hand, Christ is from the Father in a special sense in which no one else can claim to be from God. This is why the Evangelist describes him as God's only-begotten, to distinguish the relation between Christ (the Logos) and the Father from all other possible relations to God. For this reason he is not a creature, either, since all things came into being through him (John 1:3). The relationship between Father and Son is so close, so tight, that while they must be distinguished in some sense, they cannot be understood as two separate beings, so that the relation between the two of them is one of creation. Here we have the starting points of incarnational and trinitarian theology, as is evident.

The baptism of Christ and
the descent of the Holy Spirit
But whereas those are the two poles of incarnational Christology -- Christ's divine origin, on the one hand, and his utter devotion to service of all men, on the other -- the underlying foundation of it all is clearly the Holy Spirit. The reception of the Spirit and its remaining on Christ during his baptism is clearly the center point of the chiasm (assuming, of course, that I have discerned it properly). Christ, the Logos incarnate, receives the Holy Spirit and is led in his human nature by the prompting of the Spirit in everything. And later on, of course, we read that Christ is the one who gives the Holy Spirit in Peter's sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:33; cf. John 16:7). In this way, the activity of the entire Trinity is involved in the whole salvific work: the Father sends the Son, who accomplishes his work through the Holy Spirit.

In the same way that the Spirit was involved in Christ's own human mission, it is also evident from reading the New Testament that the Spirit is what unites us to Christ and makes us children of God through grace, as well. On this matter, it is sufficient to cite from Paul's discussion in Romans 8:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:14-17).
The Spirit of God leads the children of God, who through the inner working of the Spirit adopt the position of Christ as child relative to God the Father. The Spirit unites us with Christ, gives us standing next to him as children of God through adoption, so that we might be co-inheritors with him. The Spirit brings us into the inner life of the Trinity through union with Christ, making us children of God.

But the ethical implications of this are now evidently clear. If for Christ, who is by nature the Son of God, being Son meant total obedience to the Father and self-sacrifice for all people, then it can mean no less for us, either. What kind of a son of God are you if you don't resemble the true Son in any way -- if you are not willingly obedient to the Father but only with much struggle and unwillingness, or if you don't care much about other people at all, to serve them and their salvation? Of course, we fulfill these conditions in various degrees, depending upon the level of faith given us and the effort we ourselves put into working out our salvation, etc. If a person at least wants to serve God and other people, this seems to me sufficient for being a son, since a person who is not a member of the family would not have even that resemblance the paradigm. But Ratzinger is worth quoting here:
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" [i.e., being from God and being for other people]. 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, p. 187).
 This is something from which we are all of us quite far away. But the same Christ who did all this through the Spirit also stands ready to give us this same Spirit, so that we can be true sons and daughters of God as well: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:7). So if I recognize myself as far away from this, and I sense a problem, I have to ask and I will receive! And then I too, through the help of the Holy Spirit and of Christ, can become a son of God and resemble Christ a bit more while still in the body.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The spiritual importance of hearing both sides of the story

Proverbs 18:17 expresses some truly sage wisdom:
The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.
Anyone who has studied some issue in even moderate depth can immediately relate to the experience described in this short verse. You think you know it all, until you sit down and read some books from authors who don't agree with you. Then you suddenly realize that the people who disagree with you are not hopelessly irrational or simply blind to reality, but really have thought out their opinions in some detail. More than that, they have noticed sides of the story about which you had never been aware, in light of which the contrary opinion suddenly gains a new light of plausibility.

Only at that point can a person truly say that she has thought deeply about some issue or other. Until she has come face to face with a contrary perspective and considered it fairly, on its own terms and in its own light, and attempted in this way to recreate within herself the experience of those who believe this contrary opinion -- until she has done all this, it seems to me, her treatment of whatever issue is still immature and lacking.

Now, as the proverb insists, considering an issue from two sides can often leave one in a state of uncertainty and ambiguity. That's what is evident in the proverb: everything sounded great until the first person's case was examined by the second, and now it's not so obvious what the truth is anymore. What should a person do who finds herself in that ambiguous state? What conclusion should she draw from the matter?

Some philosophers say that it would be better in that case to abstain from judgment; others suggest that it would be permitted to take a side, but with a dose of humility and recognition that others who disagree are generally not wildly irrational or simply blind to the facts. In my opinion, in some cases we cannot abstain from judgment one way or another: abstinence is the same as denial. For example, a person cannot in principle remain neutral on the question of God's existence: not to believe one way or the other most often translates into acting as if God did not exist, making it tantamount to atheism. But in other cases, it would seem right not to make a judgment (or at least not a very firm one) in response to a situation of such ambiguity and uncertainty regarding the truth of the matter.

Why is this such an important verse? Because too many people don't realize that things are never as certain and as clear as they seem. I will give an example from my own personal experience. In the Romanian Pentecostal community in which I was raised, the iconodulism of the Orthodox is obviously idol worship and a violation of the commandment against the worship of graven images. But the iconodule arguments pro are quite sophisticated, and show that the relevant scriptural issues are not as clear as they might initially seem. But so few -- so few, in fact, that I don't know of any -- of those who confidently denounce icon veneration as idol worship have read any favorable treatments of the issue, such as the treatises of John of Damascus.

This happens in theological circles of other sorts, too. How many young, restless, Reformed types do you know whose theological consumption is limited to the familiar group of authors and speakers (e.g., John Piper, R.C. Sproul, etc.)? They would be hard-pressed to name very many Church Fathers or non-Protestant theologians, and in fact, their constant exposure to more polemical, less ecumenical Reformed theology might even oppose them a priori to any such reading. And the same might certainly be true in my own case, as well: I mostly read Patristic theology, or else Catholic and Orthodox writers who draw from Patristic theology; I don't exactly spend much time digging into Calvin or Luther in greater detail. And yet I have the impression about myself that I have an informed opinion about Protestant theology! Things need not be the way I consider them to be.

Uncertainty and ambiguity is a defining mark of human existence. Lots of things are simply not as clear as they could be, and a person who has read widely enough on some particular issue will admit as much. There is important spiritual wisdom to be gained in recognizing this and refusing to live in the black-and-white Talibanish mentality of some for whom no questions or doubts are even possible.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reading the Bible requires faith

Oftentimes reading the bible can be a difficult enterprise. We might come across a passage which simply makes no sense to us, or of which the discernible message seems to be something less than entirely helpful -- to understate it. This happens to me, same as it happens to everyone else who undertakes to search and study the scriptures.

In this respect, I cite here the words of the great theologian Origen of Alexandria:
If at anytime in reading the Scripture you stumble at something which is a fair stone of stumbling, and rock of offence, blame yourself; for you must not despair of finding in this stone of stumbling and rock of offence thoughts to justify the saying, "He that believeth shall not be ashamed." First believe, and thou shalt find beneath what is deemed a stumbling-stone much gain in godliness. For if we really received a commandment to speak no idle word, because we shall give account of it in the day of judgment; and if we must with all our might endeavour to make every word proceeding out of our mouths a working word both in ourselves who speak and in those who hear, must we not conclude that every word spoken through the Prophets was fit for work? and it is no wonder if every word spoken by the Prophets had a work adapted to it. Nay, I suppose that every letter, no matter how strange, which is written in the oracles of God, does its work. And there is not one jot or tittle written in the Scripture, which, when men know how to extract the virtue does not work its own work (Philocalia of Origen X, §1).
I like Origen for a number of reasons, one of which is the unyielding confidence which he has in the Christian scriptures as divine revelation. Precisely because they are the oracles of God, for that reason any apparent problem in the scriptures is really a problem in us. Certainly God is without error and so is his word; and so if anything seems off about some particular passage in the bible, Origen tells us we ought sooner to find fault with ourselves than with the passage in question.  Certainly it is antecedently more plausible that I should be wrong about something than that God should be the one mistaken! But this attitude, of course, requires that I be willing to doubt myself and to put my faith in God, rather than in my own judgment.

That is why Origen's most essential advice is this: First believe. We cannot approach God in any favorable and salutary way except through faith, because without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). If we approach him with trust, and if we ask with sincerity that he enlighten us, then Origen assures us that in the very same words which trouble us, we will find much gain in godliness. That is the beauty of the experience of reading the bible, which almost certainly Origen is describing here on the basis of his own experiences: the very things which were so problematic for us at one point, when we were in ignorance, later become precious and valuable, after God opens our eyes.

Origen justifies his trust in the usefulness of every bit of scripture in the greater consistency of God's message. If God teaches us not to speak vain words which do not edify, then how much less can we accept that he might speak an unedifying word, a message which does not help in any way! No, but here I appeal to the description of the Word of God in the Gospel according to John as being full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Because the Word is full of grace and truth, it both tells us our true state but it also does this for our own good, acting in our favor. Grace and truth are thus reconciled through the doctrine of God as love: because God is love (1 John 4:8), everything he does is aimed at our good; and so when he tells us painful truths about ourselves, he also does this in a way that expresses his grace, because he warns us about our state for the sake of saving us.

But there is something else in Origen's words that ought to be noticed, as well. He compares interpreting the scriptures to the work of an expert in botany and healing:
As every herb has its own virtue whether for the healing of the body, or some other purpose, and it is not given to everybody to know the use of every herb, but certain persons have acquired the knowledge by the systematic study of botany, so that they may understand when a particular herb is to be used, and to what part it is to be applied, and how it is to be prepared, if it is to do the patient good; just so it is in things spiritual; the saint is a sort of spiritual herbalist, who culls from the sacred Scriptures every jot and every common letter, discovers the value of what is written and its use, and finds that there is nothing in the Scriptures superfluous. If you would like another illustration, every member of our body has been designed by God to do some work. But it is not for everybody to know the power and use of all the members, even the meanest, but those physicians who are expert anatomists can tell for what use every part, even the least, was intended by Providence. Just so, you may regard the Scriptures as a collection of herbs, or as one perfect body of reason; but if you are neither a scriptural botanist, nor can dissect the words of the Prophets, you must not suppose that anything written is superfluous, but blame yourself and not the sacred Scriptures when you fail to find the point of what is written. All this by way of general preface, though it may be applied to the whole of Scripture; so that they who will give heed to their reading may beware of passing over a single letter without examination and inquiry (§2; emphasis added).
 If a person comes across difficulties in the scriptures which are too hard to understand or make sense of, he ought to recognize that interpreting the scriptures well is not something which anyone and everyone can do equally well. On the contrary, so long as Paul says that Christ left some pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11), I understand that not everyone is equally capable of the task of profound study of the scriptures. Some are specially equipped for this task, and their job is to help others for whom it comes with greater difficulty. This provides grounds for humility for everyone involved: those who are not gifted to recognize their limited capacity and to trust in the judgment of Christ in leaving others to be teachers; and those who are gifted as teachers to recognize that they have to do with God's words themselves, and that even their own greater understanding is a gift from above to be utilized well in service of others.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Leaving every teacher to follow Christ: philosophy and Christianity

Consider the following interesting triplet of verses from the Gospel according to John:
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus (John 1:35-7).
These two disciples had been following John for some time, evidently, because they stood near him and kept close to him. With zeal they had observed his teachings and were with him as he was baptizing in the river. They wanted to know everything that John would say, convinced that this person was a true mouthpiece of God in the world, a genuine prophet. And notice what John says to them -- and this out of his faithfulness to his true calling, a faithfulness which precluded all pride and egotism: Look, here is the Lamb of God!

John points away from himself to Christ, and just as quickly, his two disciples leave him to follow Jesus of Nazareth. As I've said before, John had no illusions about his own calling: he was not the messiah and made this clear to everyone who asked him about it. His job was merely to prepare the way of the Lord, and when the Lord appeared, he knew to step out of the way. And so his disciples left him and went to follow the person who alone deserves to be followed at the expense of every other competitor.

These two disciples of John have the proper attitude: no teacher apart from Christ himself can claim our ultimate loyalty, and God forbid that any of them should think to compete with Christ for our faith. Any teacher worth his salt, in any case, points away from himself and to Christ, insisting that above everything we follow after Christ with all of our hearts. Christ alone is our savior, and not any theologian or teacher or preacher or pastor or any other human being whosoever. So if any should stand in the way of our approaching Christ or following him, let us set him aside and cling to the truth!

Origen writes about this in relation to philosophy in a letter addressed to Gregory, who would later become the Thaumaturge:
Natural ability, as you know, if properly trained, may be of the utmost possible service in promoting what I may call the "object" of a man's training. You, for instance, have ability enough to make you an expert in Roman law, or a philosopher in one of the Greek schools held in high esteem. I should like you, however, to make Christianity your "object," and to bring the whole force of your ability to bear upon it, with good effect. I am therefore very desirous that you should accept such parts even of Greek philosophy as may serve for the ordinary elementary instruction of our schools, and be a kind of preparation for Christianity: also those portions of geometry and astronomy likely to be of use in the interpretation of the sacred Scriptures, so that, what the pupils of the philosophers say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, viz. that they are the handmaidens of philosophy, we may say of philosophy itself in relation to Christianity (in Philokalia of Origen XIII, §1).
Gregory's natural capacity for philosophy and law are good, but they ought not be sought as ends in themselves. Being a philosopher or being a lawyer is not worth more than being a true and genuine Christian, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ who alone is Savior of the World. As for philosophy and the rest, these may be used and appreciated insofar as they are true and good and useful for Christianity. But if these stand up against Christianity and its teachings, they cannot be accepted by any true and faithful disciple.

In the next section, Origen compares the use of Greek philosophy and other sources of knowledge to the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt:
Perhaps something of the kind is hinted at in the command from the mouth of God Himself that the children of Israel be told to ask their neighbours and companions for vessels of silver and gold, and for clothing, so that by spoiling the Egyptians they might find materials to make the things of which they were told for the Divine service (§2).
 In the same way, the appreciation of outside sources of knowledge -- philosophy, science, whatever -- may be compared to a kind of borrowing from the Egyptians. What is useful and good and of value ought to be utilized to serve for the true and right worship of God. On the other hand, we ought to leave behind everything that is false and worthless and which cannot be used. For Origen, then, philosophy functions essentially as a kind of ancilla theologiae, a handmaiden of theology.

People that I've met while here visiting in Romania, when they hear that I have degrees in both theology and philosophy, often ask me how these two can be reconciled. Their conception is that the two are irredeemably opposed to one another, with no hope of compatibility whatsoever. I think Origen gives me a fine example to give in defense of the study of philosophy: just as the Israelites borrowed vessels and gold and the rest to serve God as they ought, so also a Christian can rightly study philosophy to find what is good and useful and to utilize it for the sake of his spiritual worship.

But the danger is being attached to Egypt, which is beyond utilizing Egypt's gold. It is one thing to worship God using Egyptian gold, but it is another altogether to want to be an Egyptian and to live and believe and think like they do. This is a true danger. I sense a fundamental difference of orientation between the Christian and the philosopher, even though the Christian is a kind of fulfillment of the hopes and desires of the true philosopher. For philosophy means the love of wisdom, and the Christian is the one who loves the Logos, Christ, the wisdom of God. But the philosopher qua philosopher arguably rejects revelation and insists on figuring things out all on his own, and believing only that which seems right by his lights. The Christian, on the other hand, accepts the truth as a revealed gift, and so does not trust in himself most of all.

What can be done? Everyone who wants to be a Christian but also feels the pull of philosophy ought to follow the example of John and his disciples. Even the greatest prophet ever to come from a woman is not worth more than Christ, who is the Logos incarnate. Much less various philosophers and teachers who were not even prophets but just pontificators of differing capacities and talents! Take from them what is good, but orient yourself to Christ and worship him alone -- that is the right path.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Knowledge of God apart from the Bible

One of the important hallmarks of much evangelical Protestant theology is a distrust of sources outside of the Bible for knowledge of God, his will, right and wrong, and so on. This is connected with the Reformation cry of sola Scriptura, although this attitude might go further than many of the Reformers themselves would have wanted.

This attitude is problematic in many ways, but worst of all is this: the Bible itself doesn't take such a strict view about itself. On the contrary, there are passages in scripture which apparently take for granted that God and his will can be known wholly apart from revelation. In particular consider the following passage from Jesus' sermon on the mount:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Mt 5:43-5).
Notice that the point about God's goodness is something that can be observed and learned from natural phenomena: God himself is good to both the righteous and to the wicked, as is evidenced by the fact of both groups benefiting from the regularity of the rain cycle. This is a bit about God's character that can be understood by anyone who has even passing familiarity with the moral diversity of human beings and their dependence upon the earth.

Consider also what Paul tells the pagans about God:
In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy (Acts 14:16-17).
Paul affirms that God has not left himself without witness as regards his treatment of the nations, through the fact that he has provided for them through the natural world. But it would absurd to think that he could have left himself without witness, and yet it would be in principle impossible to realize the truth of the matter. What kind of a witness is that, which I could not discern even if I wanted to? I am hardly blameworthy for failing to be thankful in that case, since I had no way to know from whom the gift had come!

Finally, in the first chapter of Romans, speaking about the wickedness of sinners, Paul affirms: what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them (Rom 1:19). He is not talking about the Bible, but about the natural world as a means of revelation of God's will, however imperfect: Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse (v. 20). He makes the argument in that section of Romans that the various things about God and about right and wrong can be known to human beings, and indeed at some point were known. But because they rejected the truth and preferred a lie, God left them in the darkness of their minds and they were gradually, increasingly degraded through various perversions.

In these various passages, then, we see the natural world put forth as a means of revelation. It doesn't follow from anything I've said that the natural world is a perfect or complete source of revelation, since clearly it cannot be. However, it is clearly put forth as a genuine source of at least some of God's truth, which is enough  to defeat the exaggerated Bible-onlyism of much evangelical Protestantism. This is an important concession, because from this point forward a lot of theological changes follow. Now the material world is a means through which God reaches out to the human person and tries to relate to him; now the material world is a means through which God acts, rather than acting entirely apart from it only in revelation; now salvation and restoration to God involves the material world in which we live and through which God intended to relate to us from the beginning.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Evangelicalism and sexuality

Recently I watched a documentary called Give Me Sex Jesus (2015) about evangelical sexual ethics, the abstinence movement, "purity", sex before marriage, and the rest. It consists mostly of the testimonies of numerous personalities on their experiences in broadly evangelical culture as regards sexuality. There is an evident bias against the stricter sexual ethics of evangelical Christianity, which is variously implied to be excessively stringent, impossible to obey, harmful in different ways, contradictory, and so on. For example, at least a few persons complained that sexuality was simultaneously described as eminently enjoyable and fulfilling, on the one hand, but also dangerous and potentially life-ruining if engaged in before marriage, on the other.

The documentary was not particularly great, and anyone who has read more than a couple posts on this blog of mine on the topic of sexuality can probably guess where I stand on the issue. The thing which stood out to me the most is that there was almost zero discussion of the procreative function of sex by any of the evangelical representatives of the no-sex-before-marriage camp. Of course, in Roman Catholic sexual ethics, the fact that sexuality is ordered per se to procreation is part and parcel of the explanation why exactly the Church's sexual ethical stance is so strict. Sex is an act with a certain intrinsic goal which implicitly ties me to the other person and to the child we potentially produce, and this is all something that my body itself tells me, if only I listen carefully. I have written on this in greater detail in past postings, for example here. But there was nothing about this from the evangelical pastors being interviewed.

To be provocative: the problem is with evangelicalism's absurd Bible-only mentality which refuses to acknowledge any sources of genuine knowledge in the discernible structures of the natural world. they consciously and intentionally limit themselves to what the Bible says and refuse to admit any outside sources of knowledge, such as general revelation through the natural world. This is a general evangelical/Protestant principle which manifests itself different in different topics; in the present context, it manifests itself through the preacher telling his youth not to engage in sex before marriage just because that's what the Bible says.

Not all evangelicals are like this, of course, but this is certainly what is most popular. And even those who do not go to extremes to maintain a Bible-only mentality still will end up tripping over themselves as regards sexuality because they don't accept the clear natural law argument. The others, because they do not accept the notion of a natural law, these pastors are left with a bare Biblical mandate: don't do it -- which they all ironically recognize only incites the youth to want to do it out of a sort of perverse curiosity about the forbidden. An empty commandment with no additional justification is insufficient to motivate very many people, neither does it answer the important questions they may be asking themselves. And so you have droves of young evangelicals who either disregard the teaching not to engage in sexual activity before marriage out of a refusal to obey, or else who find loopholes like oral sex or anal sex to try to avoid breaking the commandment.

There is a further thing which confuses me. In previous generations of Christianity, people in times of spiritual revival and vitality used to forgo sex altogether, whether by becoming monks and nuns if they were single, or else by voluntarily vowing celibacy with their partners if they were married. Something like this is unheard of in evangelicalism, where the common experience of many (certainly in my own context) is an expectation of marriage and sometimes shock, confusion, and suspicion if a person remains single into late-20s and 30s. When did the sexual drive become so impossible to resist? Probably the Reformation had something to do with this, too.

It was disheartening for me to hear the struggles and thoughts of many of the personalities being interviewed in the film. Perhaps my remarks on this topic are not adequately sensitive and temperate from a pastoral perspective, but on the other hand, I am not a pastor and have no obligations to speak in that way. I want to see seriousness and zeal and firm conviction about the truth from young persons, and many of them simply lack this. I don't know what can be done about it, since it is at least partly a result of their own agency: if they dedicated time and energy and effort to the truth, they would make progress. Maybe young people are lonely and alienated, and their apparently irresistible sex drive is attempting to solve the problem. I don't know.

It is not the first time in my life that I've heard of persons who have drifted away from Christianity because of struggles with sexuality. The sexual impulse is powerful and the rules of the Christian religion are strict, and a troubled conscience can't remain troubled indefinitely: either the person makes moral progress, or else she eases her conscience by rejecting the norms which condemned her. And the guilt which troubles the conscience is proportionate to the desire and temptation which provokes it. For that reason, sexual ethics is perpetually a stumbling block. In this respect, consider the words of John of Damascus:
Should [man], on the other hand through his disobedience turn his mind away from his Author—I mean God—and tend rather toward matter, then he was to be associated with corruption, to become passible rather than impassible, and mortal rather than immortal. He was to stand in need of carnal copulation and seminal generation, and because of his attachment to life was not only to cling to these pleasures as if they were necessary to sustain his life, but also to hate without limit such as would think of depriving him of them. And while he was to transfer his attachment from God to matter, he was to transfer his anger from the real enemy of his salvation to his own kind’ (De Fide Orthodoxa II, 30).
A sinful person is inclined to hate without limit any as would think to deprive him of the pleasures of sex. John connects this with some kind of postlapsarian subconscious awareness of our own mortality. Whatever the explanation is, the phenomenon remains the same: the sexual impulse can prove to be an insurmountable stumbling block for many people to come to true faith and obedience to God. Evangelicals and others ought to be aware of this fact and to address it in a way that is realistic and honest. I should think this will require an adoption of the natural law sexual ethics such as the Roman Catholic Church has, because only then will you have something beyond a bare imperative -- don't do it -- to motivate a person to right living.