Saturday, August 20, 2016

Change of domain

I am nearing 500 posts on this blog, but things are getting boring here. I want to change it up. So I am moving to this new domain: fides quarens intellectum. I will leave this blog up for now, in case someone wants to refer back to it (I doubt this will happen, though).

Recognizing Christ in the Gospel according to John

Sometimes people will appeal to the Gospel according to John in defense of Reformed understandings of the doctrines of predestination and election. When Jesus says, for example, that the Pharisees do not believe in him because they are not his sheep (John 10), these persons suppose that there is a fundamental distinction between classes of persons: there are Jesus' sheep, who will believe in him and who are chosen for salvation; and there are those who are not his sheep, who neither can believe nor will ever believe in him. And the distinction between sheep and non-sheep, furthermore, is taken to be established antecedently by the inscrutable choice of God: he alone has decided who is going to be a sheep and who will not.

This is the wrong way to read things, however, because there also exists in the Gospel according to John a recognition that whether a person recognizes Christ for who he is depends in part on the quality of life he lived prior to the advent of Christ. Those who sought after God with a pure heart, who were eager to know him, and who dedicated themselves to virtue and righteousness in obedience to his commandments -- these persons will recognize Christ for the Son of God, and will cling to him happily. On the other hand, sinners whose lives are characterized by distrust of God and disobedience to his commandments will reject Christ, because he condemns them. This is precisely what the following passage teaches in John 3:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God (vv. 19-21).
Notice what the Gospel says: those who do what is true come to the light, which is clearly Christ. If a person lives in the truth, then she will come to Christ; she will see in Christ that truth which she has been seeking after and obeying without realizing it. In this way, there is an inevitably synergistic and moral element to the process of salvation, not to mention the epistemological aspect of what it takes to recognize Christ as the Son of God. Such a recognition is something accomplished by God's help, but also through the cooperation and individual contribution of the person who comes to believe.

This does not mean that sinners cannot come to faith in Christ, which is self-evidently absurd. Rather, we cannot interpret "doing what is true" too strictly. If a person recognizes her sinfulness and comes to cooperate with that inner prompting which impels her in the direction of Christ, then she does what is true. Repenting of our sins and recognizing our guilt and spiritual poverty before God is doing what is true, as much as living a life of virtue and righteousness. What I reject, however, is a kind of determinism and monergism in the process of salvation which is inevitably accompanied by some Calvinist-Augustinian understanding of predestination and election. This takes salvation and personal destiny entirely outside of the realm of human freedom, except insofar as our damnation is our own fault -- and even there, we may have some doubts...

Friday, August 19, 2016

Teach me your ways

Ps 25:4 reads as follows:
Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
What is significant in these words is the passive attitude towards knowledge assumed by the psalmist. He must be made to know by God; the right way has to be taught to him, rather than discovered by him through his own strength. We might see here traces of that medieval epistemologies of illumination, which required divine illumination as a precondition of knowledge. There is something to this way of thinking, I reckon. Oftentimes we experience a sudden awareness or "illumination" with respect to something; it just "dawns on us" that something is true, and we find ourselves utterly passive in this whole experience. Something just "clicks." This may serve as a phenomenological corroboration of the illuminationist epistemological proposal.

It is important to note the moral quality of our psalmist, as well. He suffers no illusions about his own sinfulness: For your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great (v. 11). Therefore this appeal for divine illumination and understanding is coming from someone who is already a sinner and knows it. In light of this, what exactly is he asking?

I think there are different ways in which a person can "know" something. There is a kind of "knowledge" which is really just intellectual awareness of a proposition and various reasons in favor of it, but an awareness unaccompanied by any personal commitment to that proposition or any "sense" or "feel" that it is really true. This is what I think happens when people "knowingly" do what is wrong. They know various reasons why a certain thing might be wrong, but they do not feel deeply in their hearts that it is wrong; their convictions are otherwise. But there is also a kind of knowledge, more properly so-called, which carries with it a deep sense and conviction that this is true. This is a knowledge that grips you; this is a knowledge to which you feel impelled to commit yourself, from which you cannot turn away with indifference. This kind of knowledge is the sort that leads you to action, and which can reform your life.

I think this is what the psalmist is asking for. He doesn't just want to be told that murder is wrong; everyone knows that. He doesn't need to be taught that. Rather, he wants to be gripped by that sense and that vision of the world according to which God's laws are the proper way for a human life to be lived. He wants to see things clearly just as God sees them, and to be impelled by this clear vision to live in keeping with the Law. He wants really to know the ways of the Lord.

That is why his guilt is so great: because he did not see things aright, and out of his ignorance towards the truth, he lived in sin. And recognizing his own tendencies and inability in this respect, he pleads with God to illumine his mind and to fix the eyesight of his intellect. And that is what we ought to pray, as well, if we find ourselves utterly unmotivated and even ill-disposed to do what God requires of us. If loving our neighbors and our enemies seems too much for us, if we can't even sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the commands, then we ought to pray that God make his ways known to us.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Preaching to yourself

I have been reading through Origen's Homilies on Genesis lately, and I have been very impressed with him. In many ways, we are kindred spirits; our styles and outlooks are very similar. His sermon is typically heavily moralist, the focus of which is always moral and hortatory: the homily functions as a call for Christians to take more seriously the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14), as Paul refers to it. This is generally my own style, as well.

This sort of preaching is morally demanding, however, and it can make preaching in general not to be a particularly appealing activity. The reason why is obvious: the preacher finds himself deeply challenged and convicted by the very same words he is relating to others. I remember a homiletics class I took at Fuller, in which some preachers and pastors from local churches were invited to speak with the class and answer questions one night. I posed the following provocative question: how can you preach, knowing that you do not fulfill the same things you tell your audience? The response from the preachers was that their own sermons are not moralistic or hortatory in that sense. (I now think I should have asked this follow-up question: given that your sermon is not typically hortatory or moralist, what is the average moral and spiritual condition or state of the typical member of your church?) I can't relate with that, however.

Consider this passage from a homily on Genesis in which Origen allegorically interprets the difference between Pharaoh's priests and the priests of the Lord:
Do you wish to know the difference between the priests of God and the priests of Pharaoh? Pharaoh gives earth to his priests; the Lord, however, does not give earth to his priests, but he tells them: I am your portion [cf. Num 18:20]. Observe, those of you who know these things, all the priests of the Lord, and see what is the difference between the priests: those whose portion is in earth and dedicate their time to cultivating the earth and to earthly pastimes -- don't they seem sooner to be the priests of Pharaoh than of the Lord? For Pharaoh wants his priests to own land and to work the fields and not to cultivate their souls, to be worried about furrows and not about the Law. Let us hear rather what Christ, our Lord, commands his priests: So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions [Luke 14:33].
I am starting to tremble saying these things. For, before all, I, even I am my own accuser. I utter my own condemnation. Christ denies as being his disciple the one who saw that he owns something and does not renounce all his possessions. What are we to do? How do we read these things, how do we explain them to the people, we who not only have not renounced our own possessions, but we wish even to possess those which we did not have prior to coming to Christ? Can we hide them, can we fail to show the things which have been written, so long as our conscience testifies to our falsehood? I don't want to make myself guilty of a double crime. I testify, and I testify before the whole crowd which listens to me: these have been written, even if I am aware that I haven't fulfilled them until now (Hom. in Gen. XVI, §5).
Origen realizes that the scriptural text he has cited demands something of him that he has not fulfilled. But he considers it more important to speak what has been written, than to keep quiet and to commit the double crime. What is the double crime, except this -- to fail to speak the truth to a people living in sin, himself included, and those to ensure that they will not change their ways? Not only do you realize your own weakness and sinfulness, but through your silence, you make sure that others will remain in their sins too. That is the double crime, and it is a crime to be avoided at any cost.

Sometimes you have to preach that message which condemns you as much as anyone else. I find that just about every message is like this. But if we don't hear the condemning word, if we are not told that things are not alright with us, it will not do us any good to go on living in our ignorance of the truth and in sin. Christ came to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), and this truth is oftentimes against us at least in part. We don't do ourselves favors by running away from it or avoiding it. Certainly none of the apostles left us this example, since they regularly offer exhortations and denunciations of the darkness in their readers and listeners.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The fate of the cowardly

Rev 21:8 reads as follows:
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.
It is interesting to that cowards are numbered among those who are condemned to the second death. I can understand why sinners of various different sorts might be excluded from salvation -- murderers, rapists, and the such -- but what is the problem for cowards? Why were they excluded? What exactly is the nature of the cowardice which excludes a person from salvation?

It may be that the cowardly who are here being punished are those who denied Christ under the threat of death or persecution. Fear of pain and suffering led them to make a shameful renunciation of their faith. As Christ himself says, Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels (Luke 9:26).

There is another sort of fear or cowardice which might lead a person to damnation, too. Catherine of Siena, in her Dialogue, writes about persons who turn from sin out of fear of damnation and the punishments of hell. These persons don't repent because they feel contrite for having offended God; they neither love God nor their neighbors, but merely abstain from grave sins for the sake of avoiding the torments and an unfavorable judgment. Their servile fear, as Catherine calls it, is insufficient to save them, however, because the Law is summed up in two commandments: to love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. They haven't even begun to fulfill the Law, and they deceive themselves if they think that they can avoid hell merely by abstaining from sin.

These persons are cowardly, because the only motivation for their activity was fear of punishment. It is a cruel irony, then, that the only proper reward for their unrighteousness is that they should suffer exactly that which they feared so gravely, All that fear helped them naught, because fear is not properly a cause of righteousness. It is true, as the scriptures say, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps 111:10), but it must be emphasized that it is the beginning of wisdom. It is insufficient to make a person wise; it is insufficient to win a person a place among those wise who shall shine like the brightness of the sky (Dan 12:3) at the resurrection.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The temple of his body

Consider the following incident in the Gospel according to John: 
Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me" [Ps 69:9]. The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken (John 2:15-22).

I am fascinated by Jesus' consciousness of his own divinity. He proposes his body as the temple of God, and furthermore speaks of himself as raising up his body from the dead. Jesus is not presented as one who had no knowledge of his own divinity, nor of one who depended utterly on God the Father without any sense of his own authority or initiative. Rather, in the scriptural narrative there are moments such as these in which his sense of his own status stands out clearly. These occur in the other gospels too, of course, but at this moment and in this gospel it is particularly pronounced.

Jesus spoke about raising up his own body from the dead. He is the subject of that proposition: in three days I will raise it up. At the same time, John has no problem speaking about Jesus being raised from the dead, This tells me that we ought not read too much into the grammar of some scriptural assertions regarding the causality of Jesus' resurrection, because both formulas appear. On the one hand, Jesus was raised from the dead: this communicates a posture of passivity, receptivity, etc. On the other hand, Jesus also says that he himself will raise up his body from the dead. As he elsewhere says, No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again (John 10:18). In this sense, Jesus's resurrection is an active operation of his own power as God, since clearly only God has the power to raise up a dead body to life.

Jesus also considers his body to be a temple, a house in which the presence of God is especially present. He doesn't consider himself to be a temple, as if God were something outside of himself altogether but in some strange way present within him. On the contrary, he says that his body is the temple, signifying his human nature as a whole. Since Jesus clearly identifies himself with the divine nature through the assertion of his power to raise up his body from the dead, he does not view himself as a merely human receptacle for the divine presence. Rather, I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Here we see a scriptural basis for Athanasius' language of the Logos of God using his body as an instrument by which he accomplished salvation: the same instrumentality is implicit in Jesus' own language about his body as a temple which he inhabits.

There is also something interesting to note in the citation of Ps 69. John says that the disciples remembered that particular passage of scripture, and after the resurrection of Jesus, they believed it. Did they not believe in the scripture prior to that? On the other hand, interpreted merely as the sentiment of the human author of that psalm from long ago, there is not really anything to believe in. The psalmist is telling us what he will feel: zeal for the house of the Lord. Very well! For the disciples to believe that scripture, they have to had understood something more behind it than merely the autobiographical predictions of the author. On the contrary, behind the voice of the author, they discerned the voice of the preexisting Word of God: they sensed in the words of the psalm the voice of Christ, who was predicting this tumultuous experience in the Temple even long ago, before having taken a body. The apostles learned in this way to read scripture differently, certainly very differently from the modernist, socio-grammatical hermeneutic of our times. Behind the author of the scripture and his particular context is the Logos, who is speaking secretly, mysteriously about his imminent incarnation and salvific work. In this particular, embodied text is an eternal voice which speaks out from before time.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The wedding at Cana

In the second chapter of the Gospel according to John, we find the story about Jesus and his mother and disciples at the wedding in Cana. I want to consider this passage roughly verse-by-verse, and see what instruction I can find in this episode.

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding (John 2:1-2).
Jesus and his disciples, along with his mother, were invited to be at this wedding. He was a respected rabbi who had amassed a small group of followers, and these persons who were getting married wanted to include the teacher of the Law and those who were religious at this event. They wanted their wedding to include the people of God and, in this way, God himself; they did not want to embark on such an important journey apart from the special presence and blessing of God, nor without his people. In the same way, I think, it is right for us to "invite" Jesus and his disciples to participate in our important endeavors as well, perhaps especially those which have to do with the family.

What does it mean to invite Jesus to participate in my endeavors? More than that, what can it mean to invite his disciples and his mother, as well? There are various ways to answer these questions, I think. Consider the following passage from James:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil (Jas 4:13-16).
The first way we can invite Jesus to participate in our endeavors is this: by recognizing that we can only fulfill our plans if it is his will. Apart from him we can do nothing, of course, and as the Proverb says: In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps (Prov 16:9). We might have all sorts of plans, but they may not be fulfilled apart from the cooperation and grace of God. For this reason, we ought to see if God wants us to do what we are planning to do; and if we think so, we ought to invite him to help us bring it to completion.

But there is another way of inviting Jesus to participate in our endeavors, and that is by heeding his commandments in everything we do. By keeping his commandments and in this way showing our love for him, we bring him near to us; we carry him about with us wherever we might go; we are working to bring the fulfillment of our prayer -- thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven -- that much closer. And when we learn from the teaching and the example of his disciples, all the holy apostles and those who have ever loved Jesus Christ and learned from him, and from his mother who especially in this episode will give us an example of faith -- when we do all this, then especially we will have invited them to come with us, as well. All the family of God will be participants in our endeavors if we learn from them and follow their example and heed their words.
When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine” (v. 3).
In most Protestant churches, there is very little talk of Mary except at Christmas time. They do not pray to her, they do not venerate her, they do not invoke her help in anything; they mention her when the most relevant texts are the conception and birth narratives, and that's that. But I think we have much more to learn from Mary, and she ought to be considered more often than she actually is among many Protestant churches. In this text especially, she gives us an important example of faithfulness to Jesus from which we can all learn.

This is the first aspect of her example: when others are in trouble, she notices and turns to Jesus for help. She is not indifferent to the problems which others face, but she takes notice of them in her compassion. Not everyone is like this: some persons are too concerned with their own lives and their own problems to be moved by the travails of their neighbors. But this speaks to a lack of love for neighbor, which is the greatest commandment and the fulfillment of the Law. The Mother of God notices that they had run out of wine -- understand this apparently, relatively trivial problem as representing the disasters your neighbors may run into, whether greater or smaller -- and her sympathy and compassion moves her to action.

What is her action, exactly? She goes to her son, Jesus, and informs him of the problem. Implicit in this act is an open and trusting faith in the ability of Jesus to solve all these problems. Mary trusts in God, and she trusts in the Son which God had miraculously given her. Her compassion and her faith work hand in hand, so that at the sight of suffering in the world she is not hopeless, nor does she simply cross her arms and refuse to help on the grounds that it is pointless. So long as we can pray to Jesus, it is never pointless, because he is all-powerful and he can help us in our troubles, whether great or small.
“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come” (v. 4).
Indeed, the hour of Jesus has not yet come. It is not yet the time in which his kingdom is fully established, as is evidenced by the preponderance of evil and sin in every direction. For a while we are still taught to pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done, because the kingdom is not yet here. So long as Jesus' hour has not yet come, weddings will run out of wine; i.e., times of celebration and joy which we have through the grace of God will be cut short by suffering and lack, by unexpected twists and turns of events.

In general, we ought not to be exaggeratedly optimistic. It is true that all power in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ, and that he will be with us to the end of the age. But may the Lord forbid us from ever thinking on this basis that we ought not meet with suffering for the reason that all power has been given to him. The power of Christ did not keep the apostles and all the martyrs and confessors throughout the history of the Church from suffering. Neither will it keep me from suffering unless he wills it; and in any case, We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

I ought to know, too, that I am part of the reason why his hour has not yet come. When I pray that his kingdom come, his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, but I refuse to obey his commandments, I am impeding his kingdom entirely on my own. When I make the choice to live in sin apart from Christ, I have no need to blame the devil or society or anyone else for any of my sins and for any of the evils that happen to me. I am crucifying myself by my own selfish desire, as Catherine of Siena says in the Dialogue of sinners: I have only myself to blame. And for that reason, the hour of Christ in which he will drink again from the fruit of the vine in the Kingdom of his Father (Mt 26:29) is delayed because of me and my sin. God help me!
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (v. 5).
Here is the second aspect of the example of Mary: not only is she compassionate and concerned for the troubles of others, and not only does she bring prayers to Jesus for the sake of others, but she also teaches us to do whatever he tells us. This is the perfect faith of the Mother of God, which ought to be ours as well: it is such a faith in the goodness and power of Jesus that she both prays to him as well as teaches others to do whatever he asks. It is isn't easy to to adopt an attitude of unconditional obedience to anyone. It isn't natural; our inclination is rather to obey others when it is easy and when it is convenient and advantageous for us. But Mary teaches us to be faithful to Jesus in absolutely everything.

The Virgin who said, May your word to me be fulfilled (Luke 1:38), teaches us now to be faithful to Jesus in everything. May his word to us be fulfilled! If he teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves, may this word be fulfilled; if he teaches us to love God with everything that we have within us, may this word be fulfilled; if he teaches us to give to others without expecting any sort of repayment, and to turn the other cheek to those who have struck us, may this word be fulfilled. In everything, let us learn to fulfill the word of Jesus. This is what Mary and all the saints throughout the history of the Church teach us, all those who have done exactly this during their own lifetimes and are now enjoying the rewards of their faithfulness.

We have to adopt a certain attitude of openness and faithfulness towards God in order to think like this. Like Mary, I have to say, May your word to me be fulfilled. This means that I trust God in absolutely everything, even if by my own judgment, that which God tells me to do seems strange and doubtful, or excessive, or impossible. Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote:
Three things make the soul worthy of this way so that it recognizes it and walks in it. Firstly, that it wills to come to God, renouncing all self-will, joyfully welcoming God's grace and willingly accepting all its demands against human desires. The second thing which keeps the soul in the way is that all things are welcome to it save sin alone. The third thing makes the creature perfect in the way, namely, that it does all things to the glory of God, so that even its smallest desire will be as highly prized by God as if it were in the highest state of contemplation possible to humanity (The Flowing Light of the Godhead, 27)
This is the kind of faithfulness and openness which Mary had, to which she also calls us: to be open and welcoming to absolutely everything except sin. Sin has no place in our lives; but suffering or strange things or whatever else God might bring us in his providence are welcome, because we trust him and know that he is good and seeks our salvation in everything.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet” (vv. 7-8).
From this I infer the following lesson: in light of God's omnipotence, there is theophanic potential in everything around us. Who would have looked at jars full of water and thought that this could be the solution to the wine problem? Yet God can turn water into wine, he can make water flow out of desert rocks, and he can make bread fall from heaven to satisfy hungry masses if need be.

Look around, left and right, at the people who are seated next to you; consider all the people with whom you have to do throughout the course of the day. In those people, there exists a potential for something miraculous and amazing, a potential for God to make his presence felt in the world in a mode apart. You don't see anything, but if God wants, out of the dry land of your spiritually arid environment, he can make founts of water appear. You don't notice anything but plain water, but if God wants, and if we come to him with faith in prayer, he can turn the water into wine and rejuvenate us.

And there is potential for all this in you, too, because you have also been made in the image and likeness of God. You were created to be a living representation of God, a living presence of God as a bearer of his image. If you will purify yourself of everything that is foreign to this image, if you will cast out everything that obscures this image and impedes its full glory, then you will be an instrument for honorable use in the house of God (2 Tim 2:21). Consider here the words of Origen:
When, in the beginning, God created man, He created him according to His image and likeness, and he placed this image not outside of him, but within him. It was not possible for it to be seen in you as long as your house was unkempt, full of uncleanliness and grime. The fount of knowledge had been placed in you, but it could not give water, because the Philistines had filled it with earth and had drawn in you an earthly image. In the past you bore the earthly image; now, however, after hearing these words, being cleansed by the Word of God of all earthly heaviness and oppression, make the heavenly image shine out of you!
This is the image about which the Father said unto the Son: Let Us make men according to Our image and likeness [Gen 1:26]. The Son of God is the artist of this image. And because the artist is so important and so great, His image can be darkened, through apathy, but it cannot be destroyed through evil. For God's image always remains within you, even if you should paint an earthly image over it.
You paint on this canvas yourself: when pleasure has darkened you, you have put an earthly tone. If avarice burns in you, you have added another. When rage makes you cruel, you add yet another color. The blackness of pride adds yet another color, and still another color is added by the darkness of faithlessness. And in this way, through every sort of evil, just as if various colors had been mixed, you yourself paint this earthly image, which God did not place within you (Origen, Hom. in Gen. XIII, §4).
The potential to be a living representation and presence of God on earth is within me, if I will only stop painting the monstrous image of Satan over the image of God which was intended, and if through God's help I come to resemble Christ instead.
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now” (vv. 8-10).
When God works, we are always surprised at his generosity. God is generous because he alone is totally self-sufficient. When you can create the entire universe merely through the power of your word, without recourse to any preexisting materials which might limit your activity, you are able to be generous beyond the expectations of others. And so Jesus produces better wine now, out of water, than was previously available at the wedding.

In the same way, if we will follow the advice of Mary and do whatever Christ tells us, if we will invite Jesus and all his disciples into our lives to learn from them and to keep their salutary teaching, then we too will find ourselves surprised at the words of Christ on the day of judgment, when he tells us: Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Mt 25:34-6).  We will be surprised, because we will have thought ourselves unworthy servants who had only done what we ought to have done anyway. But Christ rewards us beyond our expectations or wildest dreams for doing what was a necessity, as Mark the Ascetic wrote:
The Lord, wishing to show that every commandment is a duty, while, on the other hand, that adoption is given to men as a gift for the sake of His blood, says: "When you will have done everything commanded you, you say: 'We are worthless slaves and we have done just what we ought to have done.'" [Luke 17:10] Therefore the Kingdom of heaven is not a payment for deeds, but the grace of the Master, prepared for faithful servants (On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: 226 Texts, 2)
 As Paul says: Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Gal 6:9-10). In this way, we will be surprised by the generosity of Christ when he welcomes us into his kingdom. Better this surprise than the surprise of exclusion, expecting to receive more than we deserved because we did not know ourselves and our true state.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Finding God in everything

When people find out that I studied both philosophy and theology, they sometimes ask me how the two can be reconciled. Don't philosophy and theology have different start- and end-points? Don't they approach issues from such different vantages that there can be no harmony between the two?

I've written on this matter before by appeal to Origen, who undoubtedly had to answer questions of this sort from people who were by far less educated than he was. He displays great erudition in his sermons and an awareness of different philosophical trends and beliefs. He knows the Greek philosophical schools, though he is not plainly faithful nor overly sympathetic to any one in particular; rather, his concern is above all to understand the revelation of God in the scriptures in harmony with Church Tradition, and he makes use of philosophy when it is helpful to this end.

In one of his homilies on Genesis, he offers an allegorical interpretation of an episode in which Isaac digs up some of his father's wells which had been filled by the Philistines. Isaac represents Christ, the wells represent the scriptures, and the Philistines are those who limit the interpretation of the scriptures only to the literal, "earthly" sense, and thus fill the wells with earth. Origen insists that, with Christ and the coming of the Holy Spiirt, the scriptures now ought also to be understood according to a deeper, spiritual meaning.

Then he considers the following potential objection from a person who is not a Christian and who takes notice of his manner of argument, his style, his rhetoric, and the rest -- all the products of pagan education:
Someone from among those who are now listening to me, one who has had a secular education, might be able to say: "What you are saying belongs to us, and the knowledge of such art is ours; even this rhetoric by which you are expounding and teaching is our rhetoric." Maybe such a person is trying to provoke an argument, like a Philistine, saying, "You are digging a well on my land!" (Hom. in Gen. XIII, §3).
Origen's response is quite impressive:
I will respond to this as follows: any plot of land has water, but whoever is a Philistine, whoever tastes earthly things, doesn't know how to find water in any old plot of land; doesn't know how to find in any soul rational thought and the image of God; doesn't know that he can find faith, piety, religion in everything. What does it help you to have knowledge and not to know how to make use of it, if you have the word and don't know what to say? These things are especially the work of Isaac's servants, who dig the wells of living water in any land whatsoever: they preach the Word of God to every soul and discover fruit (ibid.).
This is the fascinating aspect in what he says: faith, piety, and religion can be found in everything, even in the rhetoric and style of teaching and interpretation of the pagans. Origen's is a view of the world in which God has not been utterly removed from everything that has ever happened apart from his special interventions with the people of Israel. This is a viewpoint that some persons have, as I've shared before on my blog, but which is extreme and not worth taking seriously. On the contrary, following the general theme of Origen's theology, we might understand that God, being good, takes special providential care of people in general and of everyone in particular. He is never utterly far off and removed from a person, so as not to be accessible to him and present to him in at least some way or other. And precisely on this basis, there is something of God -- something of faith, piety, and religion -- to be found even in those places where the full revelation of God in the form of Christian faith and preaching is absent.

For this same reason, it is not useless for a Christian to study philosophy or rhetoric or whatever else. God, who cares for anyone and everyone, is not utterly removed from the philosophers. Even if they may be largely wrong, there is still a recognizable goodness and truth in at least some of what they said; and whatever is true and good ought to be celebrated wherever it is found.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Becoming worthy of God's work

I have been reading a lot of Origen lately, and a repeated leitmotif of his homilies and writings is that of worthiness: if a person will make herself worthy of this or that various grace of God, then she will enjoy it; but if a person doesn't make herself worthy of it, if she is idle and instead passes her time with other things, then she will not; and so on. In Origen's mind, I am sure, this is related to the notion of God's justice: because God is just, all things are dealt to us according to our merits. If we merit good, then we will receive God's favor; but if we merit evil, then we will be punished -- with the aim of being directed back towards the good and towards salvation, because God is also good, after all. 

This way of thinking makes a lot of sense to me, but it sometimes is met with resistance in the context in which I find myself. "No one is worthy but Christ!" is the most common refrain. Behind such language is a Protestant concern with maintaining the central role of grace in salvation, which seems hard to square with Origen's talk about merit and worthiness. How are we to understand this?

Consider what Paul says in 2 Tim 2:
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work (vv. 20-1).
Implicit in this analogy is a judgment of worthiness and value. A golden instrument is not for cleaning toilets nor a silver spoon for digging holes in the garden, not just because it happens not to be used for that purpose, but because it is intrinsically inappropriate for something of such value to be used in that way. It is beneath the value or worth of the instrument for it to be used for that kind of thing.

In the same way, I think, the work of the Lord is above some people. Paul warns Timothy earlier in the chapter to avoid godless chatter (v. 16), and he says that whoever cleanses himself of such things will be an instrument for special purposes. It is beneath the dignity of the work of God for someone who engages in godless chatter to try to preach the word, or to instruct others, etc. They are not worthy of such work, as their own habits and practices amply demonstrate, and so their work is apart from God's will and calling. 

This is what I think Origen means by his language of worthiness. If a person is worthy of a work, then such work is properly undertaken by her. She is the right person for that work; she will not undermine it through vicious living or bad habits or sinful actions. It will not be wasted on her. So also Paul says: I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service (1 Tim 1:12). He was worthy of being trusted with the work given him, in spite of his grave sinfulness, perhaps on the basis of some other virtues of his: fidelity, hard work, determination, and so on.

This talk about worthiness is important because we have to recognize the gravity of the things we are dealing with as Christians. To preach the word of God to other people, for example, is a huge responsibility: we are dealing with the reputation of God and Christ, as well as with the great story of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus, repentance from sins, etc. W are not dealing with small things but with huge things, the hugest things, and for that reason, we ought not to seek work or ministry that is beyond us. We ought sooner to make ourselves worthy of it by being disciplined, faithful, serious, etc. To entrust something precious to someone who couldn't care less would be foolish and unjust of God.

I have to take this message to heart, because I preach often. If I am not worthy of the work I am doing, or if I have disqualified myself from my calling through various sins and bad habits, then I am only doing myself harm in trying to steal a ministry of which I am not worthy.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Do you think you're better off alone?

I was enjoying a spirited theological conversation at an uncle's apartment yesterday afternoon when he brought up the following argument he once heard from a Jewish atheist he had met here in Cluj. This person told him that it would have been better for the Jewish people if God had left them in slavery in Egypt. After giving them the Law, the Jewish people sinned and were thus punished again and again throughout their whole history as a nation. If they had remained in ignorance of God like all the nations, they would have led an easier existence. It would have been better for them if God had never bothered them, than to have been tied to God in this way and to suffer because of it.

In general, the nature of an argument reveals the character of the person who offers it. This argument, too, reveals the depraved thinking of the person who offers it. The presupposition of the argument is that pain and suffering are the worst things that a person could suffer, and happiness and subjective enjoyment are the best things that a person can experience -- a kind of crude hedonism. This is an utterly anti-Christian way of thinking, as I've tried to explain before. A person who argues like this cannot but live a morally unimpressive life. You cannot become virtuous and rise above the ranks of ordinary mortals if your primary concern is to enjoy yourself and to avoid stress or pain. You will never muster up the motivation and strength to do what is right when it is especially difficult.

The argument supposes that it would have been better for the Jewish people to live in ignorance of God and to enjoy themselves like the nations, than for them to come to know God and to suffer because of it. Better to live like animals in ignorance of the truth and their place in the world, than to know the truth and to come to suffer because of it. There is nothing surprising about the fact that such an argument comes from an atheist, because it is difficult to see how you can continue to believe in a God who orders the events of history in his providence when there is so much suffering in the world. That also shows how much this particular atheist really values the truth: better to live in ignorance but to enjoy yourself, than to know the truth and suffer.

The reality of the matter is that God did not create human beings to remain in darkness and ignorance, but to know him. This is what they were created for: to know God and to live in friendship with him, not necessarily to enjoy themselves apart from him. There can be no lasting enjoyment of life apart from God, as is evidenced by the fact that everywhere in the world, people recognize and lament the existence of evil which keeps a person from feeling permanently safe and at home in the world. When God brought the Hebrews out of slavery and gave them the Law, so that they might know how they are supposed to live and they might come to be friends of God who created them, he did them a favor. He brought them that much closer to the fulfillment of their true nature, to the fulfillment of the purpose for which they were created.

If they were punished by God because of their sins, that is their own doing, not God's fault. God does not force us to sin, neither does he want to punish us at all. But if we sin and we do not repent, then it is only right that we suffer: through the suffering, in fact, God wants to turn us from our evils and to draw us to him. Origen notes the redemptive purpose of punishments by appeal to Ps 78:34, where we read: Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. Because of the hardness of their hearts, they would only turn to God in times of punishment and anger, rather than when things were going well. But that is their own fault and not God's, and God's intentions are always good and salutary in what he does to us.

We are not better off alone, apart from God. That is a lie. And it is a certain spiritual laziness and deadness which might make us think that it would be better for us not to know God and to live and enjoy our lives, than to know God and to suffer for righteousness' sake, if not because of our sins. That is what we were created for -- to know God and to live in friendship with him. And if God enlightens us to realize our place in the world, may he forbid us from ever preferring the darkness of ignorance in which we could enjoy ourselves "in peace." Precisely because God is good and just, there must be a judgment of everyone who has ever lived, and it would make a mockery of God's justice if he were to leave us in ignorance our whole lives and to "reward" us with heaven when we did not know about it or care to make an effort to be there.

We ought to keep watch over ourselves. If we find ourselves sympathizing with a sophism such as I've considered in this post, we ought to repent and pray that God straighten our thinking.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Read the Bible like you mean it

For me, reading the Bible can often become a mundane and banal thing. I'm used to doing it, since I completed a seminary degree. (Believe it or not, at Fuller they had us read the Bible, too.) And too often, I see reading the Bible as a simple and ordinary endeavor, rather than the profound encounter with God that it really is. And when I come across passages that I can't understand, or when I find my readings to be dry and lacking in vitality, I give up easily, rather than battling as I ought.

Other people, too, give up too quickly on reading the Bible because they find it a fruitless activity. They don't understand what is written on its pages, and they decide their time is better spent doing something else. But this demonstrates a lack of faithfulness and zeal on our part. Whereas more often than not, we read the Bible out of spiritual laziness, take note of how Origen says we ought to do it:
But let us too keep watch, because we often laze about around the fount of living water, that is, near the divine Scriptures, and we get lost in them. We have the Books and we read them, but we don't touch their deeper spiritual meaning. And that is why there is need of tears and ceaseless prayer for the Lord to open our eyes: neither would the blind men who were in Jericho have regained their sight, if they had not yelled towards the Lord (Hom. in Gen. VII, §6). 
When was the last time you cried out to God to help you understand what you were reading? Such an act would demonstrate that you actually care to know what he has to say to you. But many people—myself included—read the Bible half-heartedly and give up at the first sight of adversity or difficulty. If we want to see results, Origen tells us, we ought to put our heart and soul into our readings. We have to recognize that we are like some blind men who need our eyes opened so we can begin to see the real world as God created it!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The apostle Paul's philosophical theology

Holy Apostle Paul
I was reading from Acts 17, where Paul explains his teaching to the philosophers of Athens at the Areopagus. I want to comment briefly on a few of his lines. Paul's primary focus seems to be the doctrine of God, since he spends more time talking about God's nature and his relation to the world than about anything else.
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (vv. 22-3).
The significance of this remark for inter-religious dialogue and a Christian theology of religions cannot be overstated. Coming into contact with the Greek pantheon and the full panoply of deities and divinities worshiped by the Athenians, Paul chooses sooner to identify his God with that which they do not know than with any of those which they do know. He doesn't accept the identification of God with any depiction of another deity, whether Zeus or whoever else. However, his position is more nuanced than this, since he later does give credit to some Greek poets who spoke about Zeus as the father of all humanity. From the start, however, Paul is skeptical of identifying the Father of Jesus Christ with any of the Greek gods. In this respect, he is in line with the Greek philosophical tradition which likewise thought much of popular religion at the time to be incompatible with a philosophically adequate understanding of the divine nature.
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things (vv. 24-5).
First Paul says that God made the world (τὸν κόσμον) and everything within it. In this way, he puts God absolutely prior to the existence of everything else, including the material world. It wouldn't be true that God made the world and everything in it, after all, if the material substratum of things was itself uncreated and without ultimate causal dependence on God.

Because of this relation of absolute priority, furthermore, it becomes evident that God is totally self-sufficient. If he needed to make recourse to outside sources of power or energy or inspiration, he would not be the ultimate creator of everything whatsoever. That is why he does not need to be served or assisted in any way. The ancient worshipers of the Vedic religions, for example, thought that sacrifices fed the gods in a way that helped them preserve the order and harmony of the universe. If they failed to make the requisite sacrifices, however, then the whole order of being would be compromised and chaos would ensue. This is far from Paul's Jewish-Christian understanding of the nature of God, who is self-sufficient and only ever gives, without receiving as if he needed anything. He gives to all mortals life and breath and all things, demonstrating his absolute priority to them.

Importantly, too, when he says that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, he affirms the doctrine of divine providence. Just as a king takes care of his territory and seeks to make it prosper and do well, preserving it from evils and protecting it from harm, in the same way God also takes care of the entire universe as his own property. With this, Paul counters the atheism of the Epicureans who denied that there was any providence. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, God the Creator of everything is the ruler of the universe and he cares for it.

The fundamental goodness of God is also implicit in what Paul says at the end: he gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. He gives all things, and since evil is not a thing but rather a lack, evil is not caused by God. I'll repeat the point because it may seem a bit complicated. Evil, properly understood, is really a lack of goodness, rather than a thing in its own right. As an example, consider how darkness is really not a thing in its own right, but an absence of light in a certain area; the light has being and substance, whereas the darkness does not. Therefore, if God gives us all things, then what he gives us is good. He does not give us evil, since evil is not a thing. Rather, evil must come from the misuse of our free will: if we reject the truth, or if we let ourselves be deceived, then we will do what is wrong.
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us (vv. 26-7).
Here, Paul affirms that God is not indifferent to the human race but rather is specially interested in it. And what he wants is that the human race grope for him and find him. In other words, he wishes to have a personal communion and friendship with the human race. For this it is necessary that the human person grope for him and find him, in other words, she puts forth her own effort to come to know the God who has created her. The relationship between God and the human person is not unilateral in every respect, even though Paul previously affirmed that God is absolutely prior to everything else as regards existence. At this critical point, in the relationship between the human person and God, there is now a two-way street: God approaches the human person, but it is also up to the human person to approach God.

And perhaps Paul says that the human person should grope for him and find him because it is not an easy thing to find God. Despite the fact that God is not far from each one of us, being the creator and sustaining principle of the whole of existence, yet coming to know God and entering into friendship with him (as is his intention and desire) is a difficult task. It requires a conscious effort on our own part. For this reason I am doubtful of persons who claim to be faithful or spiritual in some way, and yet their lives lack any rigor and spiritual discipline. If you are not striving against yourself to come to know God, how can you be groping for him and finding him? The same critique applies doubly to me, because I consider myself to be religious -- but how often do I pray, or read from the scriptures, or do good to others, or sacrifice from my time to draw nearer to God, groping for him?
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals (vv. 28-9).
Being God's offspring is fascinating to consider. On the one hand, human beings are clearly a part of the animal world, created by and dependent upon God same as everything else. On the other hand, human beings are distinguished from the rest of creation by their various powers as persons. Karl Rahner speaks of the infinite horizon of the human being as person: whereas a deer can't even stop to ask the question whether he should eat grass or multiply or whatever, the human person is uniquely capable of evaluating her own place in the world and making a judgment about the right way she ought to live. This is something unique to human beings because they are persons. In this way, they resemble God -- who is free -- more than they resemble the ultimately unconscious material stuff from which they are formed. There is something of God in them, in other words, which speaks (even if in a whisper) to his existence and their origins in his creative activity.
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (vv. 30-1). 
Here I want to focus on the appointment of a man by whom God wishes to judge the entire world in righteousness. What is impressive to me is the honor given to the human race. God not only wishes to enter into a friendship with human beings, provoking them to seek after him in the world, but he also wants to make use of them for accomplishing his purposes. This is what is impressive about the Christian doctrine of God: even though God has no need of absolutely anyone or anything to accomplish his will, nevertheless he incorporates human persons into his work -- not to help him, as if he needed help, but to honor them, because he is good. This is the grace of God: that he chooses to work through us rather than apart from us.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Set your mind on the things above

Reading recently from scripture, I was impressed by these words:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col 3:1-2).
In this injunction we find the importance of the nature and direction of our thinking as Christians for our spiritual lives. The way we think, and the sorts of thoughts that populate our minds, will have a major role to play in our progress along the "straight and narrow path." Paul encourages us to set our minds on the things that are "above," where Christ is.

A depiction of ancient Greek philosophers
in an iconographic style in a monastery.
These words have the appearance of a harsh and strict asceticism. A person whose mind is set on the things above -- can he have anything to do with the life of the ordinary human being on the streets? Consider the wonderful description of the philosopher by Socrates in Plato's Theaetetus:
The leaders [of the philosophers], in the first place, from their youth up, remain ignorant of the way to the agora, do not even know where the court-room is, or the senate-house, or any other public place of assembly; as for laws and decrees, they neither hear the debates upon them nor see them when they are published; and the strivings of political clubs after public offices, and meetings, and banquets, and revellings with chorus girls—it never occurs to them even in their dreams to indulge in such things. And whether anyone in the city is of high or low birth, or what evil has been inherited by anyone from his ancestors, male or female, are matters to which they pay no more attention than to the number of pints in the sea, as the saying is. And all these things the philosopher does not even know that he does not know; for he does not keep aloof from them for the sake of gaining reputation, but really it is only his body that has its place and home in the city; his mind, considering all these things petty and of no account, disdains them and is borne in all directions, as Pindar says, “both below the earth,” and measuring the surface of the earth, and “above the sky,” studying the stars, and investigating the universal nature of every thing that is, each in its entirety, never lowering itself to anything close at hand (Theaetetus 173a-174a).
Socrates' philosopher, who is present on the earth in body only, is a strict, ascetic type. His single-minded dedication to discovering the truth and understanding reality cannot be reconciled with the ordinary pursuits of the hoi polloi, let alone the extravagances and exaggerations which catch the eye and attention of so many. Such a person will hardly resemble you and me, and indeed would more likely be a laughing stock, as Socrates goes on to tell about Thales:
Why, take the case of Thales... While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy. For really such a man pays no attention to his next door neighbor; he is not only ignorant of what he is doing, but he hardly knows whether he is a human being or some other kind of a creature; but what a human being is and what is proper for such a nature to do or bear different from any other, this he inquires and exerts himself to find out... Hence it is, my friend, such a man [i.e., the philosopher], both in private, when he meets with individuals, and in public, as I said in the beginning, when he is obliged to speak in court or elsewhere about the things at his feet and before his eyes, is a laughing-stock not only to Thracian girls but to the multitude in general, for he falls into pits and all sorts of perplexities through inexperience, and his awkwardness is terrible, making him seem a fool; for when it comes to abusing people he has no personal abuse to offer against anyone, because he knows no evil of any man, never having cared for such things; so his perplexity makes him appear ridiculous; and as to laudatory speeches and the boastings of others, it becomes manifest that he is laughing at them—not pretending to laugh, but really laughing—and so he is thought to be a fool. (174a-d).
Instead of bothering himself with vain trifles, the philosopher is sooner concerned about becoming like God:
But it is impossible that evils should be done away with..., for there must always be something opposed to the good; and they cannot have their place among the gods, but must inevitably hover about mortal nature and this earth. Therefore we ought to try to escape from earth to the dwelling of the gods as quickly as we can; and to escape is to become like God, so far as this is possible; and to become like God is to become righteous and holy and wise (176a-b).
This is because, in the wisdom of God, the world has been constructed with a certain moral order. Righteousness is rewarded and wickedness is punished, and there is no escaping the proper punishment for the guilty if they do not change their ways:
Two patterns, my friend, are set up in the world, the divine, which is most blessed, and the godless, which is most wretched. But these men do not see that this is the case, and their silliness and extreme foolishness blind them to the fact that through their unrighteous acts they are made like the one and unlike the other. They therefore pay the penalty for this by living a life that conforms to the pattern they resemble; and if we tell them that, unless they depart from their “cleverness,” the blessed place that is pure of all things evil will not receive them after death, and here on earth they will always live the life like themselves—evil men associating with evil—when they hear this, they will be so confident in their unscrupulous cleverness that they will think our words the talk of fools. (176e-177a),
We see, then, the moral and social life of the philosopher, according to Socrates. He makes an effort to liken himself unto God, which means he lives in wisdom and righteousness and holiness, because only in this way will he be accepted into "the blessed place tat is pure of all things evil." Through an orientation of his mind away from the things of this world and the pointless pursuits of the greater mass of men, he focuses his efforts and energy on being made like to God. And through an association with God in what regards his character and thinking, he hopes to draw near to God at the moment of death, being delivered from the evils which inevitably haunt this world.

Paul's theology is not exactly the same but it is very similar, and for this reason, it is no surprise that so many of the early Christian apologists thought that Plato must have read Moses, or at least that Greek philosophy functioned as a kind of praeparatio evangelica, a preparation for the gospel. In his letter to the Colossians, he exhorts his audience to keep their minds on the things above, where Christ is. Their thinking must be differently oriented. No longer are they to think about the same things as their neighbors, whose lives are disorderly and sinful, and who are calling upon themselves the wrath of God through their sins. On the contrary, Christians, through the reorientation of their mind, are to "put to death what is earthly" within them:
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient (Col 3:5-6).
In light of this same impending judgment, the inevitability of which places a responsibility upon every person to repent and to accept the offer of salvation which God has given humankind in Jesus Christ, the Christian is also to put to death what is "earthly" in her. The point is not an unthinking opposition to everything bodily -- which was not properly characteristic of Platonic ethics, either, by the way -- but rather a purification of the character. Thinking constantly about the things "above," she puts to death the "earthly," which means her vices and her evils. What else, then, are the things "above" except the virtues of Christ which are given to us as an example to be followed? His love, his mercy, his obedience to the Father, his faithfulness in everything, his kindness towards the weak and the vulnerable: these are the things "above" which we have to keep in mind at all times, so that we can liken ourselves to them. When we do this, then the appearance of the Lord in glory will really be our own revelation as well (Col 3:4), instead of the wrath of God coming on those who are disobedient.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The bread that gives eternal life

Consider the following words of Jesus, related to us in the Gospel according to John:
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:48-51).
These words are difficult to accept in what might be considered their literal sense. Totally apart from the issue of cannibalism which was such a scandal to Jesus' original hearers, there is a problem in understanding how it is that the bread which is offered here can keep a person from dying. The ancient Hebrews ate manna and still died; Jesus says that whoever eats his flesh will not die, and yet all the apostles and all other Christians throughout the ages (with the possible exception of Mary, if the Roman Catholic Church is to be believed) have died. Are Jesus' words therefore falsified by historical example, or do they require some other interpretation, perhaps a more spiritual one?

There are two possibilities of interpretation, as far as I reckon. Either we grant that the word "die" is being used differently when it describes the ancient eaters of manna and the ones who eat the bread from heaven, or else they are being used in the same sense but not in a physical one. Let us consider both possibilities in turn.

First, Jesus might be referring to the death of the ancient Hebrews as a physical one. The generation which ate the manna died before they reached the promised land, despite the very many great and wonderful miracles performed for their sake by God after the Exodus. On the other hand, the person who eats the bread which has come from heaven, viz. the flesh of Christ, will live forever and will not die. At this point we are no longer referring to a kind of physical death, as if Christ's flesh were the equivalent of a fountain of youth which might keep a person in life indefinitely. On the contrary, the idea is rather as the apostle Paul said: Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16).

There are at least two aspects to the being of a human person, the inner and the outer. The inner is the one which is enlivened and granted new energy and vitality through a spiritual communion with Christ, whereas the outer one may fall apart and die. Christ is speaking about the inner, spiritual life which his disciples have, and which will not be taken away from them so long as they remain in communion with him. This contrasts with the kind of spiritual death which Paul speaks about to the Ephesians: You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived (Eph 2:1-2). When he says that the Ephesians were simultaneously dead as well as alive, dead in the sins in which they lived, it is plausible to understand him to referring to the state of their "inner man" or "inner nature" as being dead.

On this reading then, Jesus wishes to emphasize the spiritual life which is granted through the bread come down from heaven, viz. his flesh. One argument in favor of this interpretation is the admonition with which Jesus begins his discourse. He apparently wishes to draw the attention of his audience from the physical to the spiritual:
Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you (vv. 26-7).
They are less concerned with the signs -- with the demonstrations of divinity, with the presence of God, with the coming of the promised Messiah -- than they are with being filled with food. Their gaze is "downward" rather than "upward," so to speak. Sensing this, Jesus wants to reorient them towards spiritual matters of which they had previously been ignorant or indifferent.

On the other hand, the argument against this interpretation is that it requires to understand Jesus as using the same word in two different senses in close proximity, and this may be too much. For some persons it smells of eisegesis. For this reason, we may prefer to interpret Christ as referring to spiritual death in both cases. The manna which came from heaven was of no ultimate use to the ancient Hebrews because they were still spiritually dead: in the hardness of their heart, they were separated from the Lord and did not benefit from their Exodus. The manna did not help them, but Christ's coming down from heaven will help all those who believe in him.

Of these two interpretations, I personally prefer the first one. It seems to me best to think of Christ as referring to the contrast between an obsession with material existence and a full stomach, which can only lead a person to death in the long run, and an acceptance of Christ as the ultimate gift of God, which gives us eternal life. This is a timely message for many of us living in affluent countries like America. In my time visiting Romania this summer, I've seen persons who are quite poor, poorer certainly than many persons in America, who were happy to receive a bit of bologna and a loaf of bread as food for the week. I have much more than I need; indeed, in comparison to these poor souls, I've eaten like a king since I got here. But how much time have I spent feeding the hunger of my soul in communion with Christ? That is the crucial question for all of us.

Another thing occurs to me as I think about Christ's words: Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. Since I've arrived here, I gotten into theological discussions and disputations with family members of mine who are interested in studying the Bible and understanding what it has to say. One of the topics which came up is that of the state of the dead: do they share some activity, are they conscious in any way, or do they simply "sleep" till the resurrection? There are various Old Testament passages to which we might appeal in resolving this question. But the thought occurred to me that Christ's words in this discourse might also give us some insight. Once the life that the bread from heaven gives is understood in spiritual terms as a kind of "inner" life and vitality through communion with Christ, what could Christ mean when he says that such a person will live forever and will not die? To my mind, he might very plausibly be understood to be teaching that, for those who are united with him in any case, physical death does not quash or inhibit or impede the inner life of a person. They continue in their spiritual life, in their consciousness, in their personal relation to God, in their concern for the whole world, etc., through their communion with Christ, the bread come down from heaven. If the Old Testament texts describe death as a kind of sleep or inactivity, that is because Christ had not yet come to give unending life to those who are in communion with him.