Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Thirsting for God 13 – Not Just for Grown-ups!

Posted: January 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 13 – Not Just for Grown-ups!

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

In the last section of his book, The Way of Love, Matthew takes some of the issues and questions that are most controversial to those raised and formed within a particular sort of Protestantism and spends an entire chapter exploring each one in turn. Although I’ve really only been a Christian within those circles, I wasn’t particularly shaped by it during my childhood formation, so none of the particular beliefs he covers have ever been the bugaboos for me that they seem to be for many. I had “tried on” the beliefs when they were presented to me as I normally do, but most of the ones he covers, when I compared them to the Holy Scriptures within what I could learn of their historical context, had long since collapsed. Unless you buy into the idea that the Church went off-track shortly after (or even before) the Apostles died and we can now somehow reconstruct the “real” faith two thousand years later, the Protestant versions of the beliefs he covers in these chapters have no substance.

In this first chapter of this section, he works through the issue of infant baptism. I’ve covered my thoughts on infant baptism elsewhere, most notably in my post, Rebaptized?, so I didn’t find much that was surprising to me in this chapter. I noticed one thing Matthew confesses was normal for him was to excerpt particular snippets of Scripture. For instance, he would normally read the first part of Acts 2:38 and stop reading.

Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.’

Then he would make an assertion I’ve heard a lot. Babies can’t repent so babies can’t be baptized. (I would also add that babies don’t need to repent, but some strands of Protestantism would disagree with me.) Of course, the above is not actually what St. Peter said at the conclusion of that first proclamation of the euvangelion after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Here’s what he actually says in full with Matthew’s italics added for emphasis.

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Matthew then illustrates his point with the encounter by Peter and John of believers in Samaria who had been baptized but who had not received the Holy Spirit. They rectify it because the lives of these believers could not be complete until the whole process was complete. Matthew then points out that the argument usually hinges on the wrong question.

Thus the real issue that must be discussed, when it comes to infants, is not, “Can babies repent?” Rather, it is, “Can the Spirit of God dwell within infants?”

That’s not the way I phrased it myself in the past, but I like it. Of course, my answer to the correct question has always been an emphatic yes. If I can relate to and love an infant, and be loved in return, how much more can God do the same?

Later in the chapter, Matthew raises an interesting question I had never considered in precisely those terms.

But there is another important reason why God would take up residence in the lives of these infants. You see, unless He does, the child will never have the real opportunity to decide for himself whether or not he will follow God. Why do I say that? Well, if the Holy Spirit does not take up residence in the infant, guess who will. Does Satan give those whom he afflicts a free choice? Hardly. No, the only one who would ever allow a child to have free choice when it comes to following or rejecting Christ is Christ Himself.

Yes, every child will have to grow up at some point and will have to decide for themselves whether or not to follow Christ. In fact, it’s a decision each of us must make again and again over the course of our lives. The Orthodox try to give their children every advantage on that day through baptism, the seal of the Holy Spirit, communion, and by surrounding the child with the life of the Church. That strikes me as the wiser approach. I’ll add that the Orthodox Baptismal Rite still includes an exorcism and spitting on the devil to reject him. For those interested, this is the Greek baptismal rite. (There are slight variations from one country to another. For instance, I’ve heard an Arabic rite and after the seal of the Holy Spirit with the sign of the Cross in oil (on head, mouth, hands, feet, etc.) during Chrismation, everyone present cries out, “Seal!”) Normally the baptism is done within the context of a Divine Liturgy, from what I understand, and the one baptized is then also communed.


Thirsting for God 12 – The Light and the Path

Posted: January 12th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 12 – The Light and the Path

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

This chapter of the book reflects more on Matthew’s path toward realizing both the anachronistic nature of the idea that something had to be written down to be a teaching or instruction from God and the idea that reliance on a text alone could ever produce anything but unending fragmentation and division. A lot of his thoughts in this chapter would probably be more meaningful to someone with a history more like his, but I did find the idea around which the chapter revolved intriguing.

Matthew turns to the Psalter and Psalm 119:105 (Psalm 118:105 in the LXX).

Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path.

In the Orthodox understanding, the Holy Scriptures are the light which illuminate the path, but they are not the path itself. The path is our life in Christ according to the way (or Holy Tradition) of the Church. If you try to focus on the lamp instead of the path, if you try to make that which is intended to provide illumination the center of your attention, you’ll be blinded instead of guided.

So, although both are critical elements of the journey, Orthodox Christians sharply differentiate between the light that shines above the path (the Scriptures) and the path itself (Apostolic Tradition). For the path by itself cannot show us its destination, or give us reason to walk it. Nor can the light that illumines the way provide the solid earth on which we may confidently tread. Both are required, and both are the gifts of God. So for Orthodox Christians, the Bible and Tradition are dear friends, not enemies!

Ultimately, of course, the Word or Logos is the eternal Son. The Son is both our illumination and our way or path, and we find the way through union with Christ. But the path of union is within the pillar and ground of truth, the Church, described as the actual body of Christ. (If you don’t recognize my references, Paul wrote both those descriptions of the Church in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.) I had never considered the difference between a light and a path in quite that way before.

When Matthew stopped trying to place the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church in opposition to each other, he saw that things with which he had struggled, like infant baptism, actually fit easily into the context of both. That’s one example he uses because it’s a fairly widespread issue today (though I’ve never really understood why it is an issue at all), but the same thing is true of a number of places where people try to set the Holy Scriptures against the Church. Many of the disputes are constructed and artificial, and that’s probably why they crumbled before the whirlpool of deconstruction within which I live.


Leo the Great of Rome, Homily 21, On the Nativity

Posted: December 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Leo the Great of Rome, Homily 21, On the Nativity

It seemed appropriate to me to share one of the great Nativity homilies on this Christmas Eve. May all who read enter into the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I. All share in the joy of Christmas

Our Savior, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord enters the lists with His savage foe not in His own majesty but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature, which shares indeed our mortality, though it is free from all sin. Truly foreign to this nativity is that which we read of all others, “no one is clean from stain, not even the infant who has lived but one day upon earth” (Job 19.4). Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred seed and to conceive the Divinely-human offspring in mind first and then in body. And lest in ignorance of the heavenly counsel she should tremble at so strange a result , she learns from converse with the angel that what is to be wrought in her is of the Holy Ghost. Nor does she believe it loss of honor that she is soon to be the Mother of God. For why should she be in despair over the novelty of such conception, to whom the power of the most High has promised to effect it. Her implicit faith is confirmed also by the attestation of a precursory miracle, and Elizabeth receives unexpected fertility: in order that there might be no doubt that He who had given conception to the barren, would give it even to a virgin.

II. The mystery of the Incarnation is a fitting theme for joy both to angels and to men

Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who “in the beginning was with God,” through whom “all things were made” and “without” whom “was nothing made” (John 1.1-3), with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate. Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with possible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.

Rightly therefore did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honor. Such then beloved was the nativity which became the Power of God and the Wisdom of God even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in manhood and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy, unless He were true Man, He would not give us an example. Therefore the exulting angel’s song when the Lord was born is this, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and their message, “peace on earth to men of good will” (Luke 2.14). For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world: and over that indescribable work of the Divine love how ought the humbleness of men to rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great?

III. Christians then must live worthily of Christ their Head

Let us then, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit , Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ” (Ephesians 2.4-5), that we might be in Him a new creation and a new production. Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member. Recollect that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism you were made the temple of the Holy Ghost: do not put such a denizen to flight from you by base acts, and subject yourself once more to the devil’s thralldom: because your purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge you in truth Who ransomed you in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.


Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


Rebaptized?

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Last week @writingjoy tweeted the following question.

Theology ? of day: What is baptism? If U R baptized very young & decades later awaken to genuine faith, should U B re-baptized?

In response to a question, she followed it up with the following explanation of genuine faith.

I mean more than acknowledging facts, actually loving God & living what those facts demand of a person.

I didn’t respond at the time since from my perspective it’s an extraordinarily complicated question in this day and age and I couldn’t think of anything vaguely meaningful I could say in 140 characters or less. But the question has been percolating in the back of my head ever since. Hopefully Joy won’t mind me using her tweet as the basis for a post on the topic. This won’t be a developed essay or theological analysis. I do, however, have a hodge podge of thoughts and reflections on the subject.

Most of my children and I have been baptized once, though the actual circumstances are a lot more complicated than that simple statement makes them seem. In my case, I was baptized at a young age (though old enough to remember my baptism) in a Baptist church. However, my formative experiences and movements into and decidedly away from Christianity were complex enough that I typically date my conversion (whatever you might take that to mean) to sometime in my early thirties when I found my identity actually being shaped as something like a Christian. It doesn’t mean that any prior encounter or experience of Christian faith was somehow inauthentic (or that my embrace and experience of other religions was inauthentic either), just that life is often more complicated than any simple formula can compass. Although, within the Baptist narrative, it would have been reasonable and acceptable to be rebaptized, I never embraced the idea that Baptism meant nothing more than getting wet.

My wife, however, had been baptized as an infant within the Roman Catholic Church and we had had my younger son baptized as an infant in a Lutheran Church. Both of them were rebaptized in our Baptist church, each at the appropriate time in that context. I don’t think that introduces any deep crisis or problem. While I wouldn’t say that such things make no difference, I also find that this strange Christian God I’ve found is relentlessly loving and willing that none should perish. He is working constantly for our salvation and especially in our deeply confused and confusing age, I don’t see such particulars posing any real problem.

Nevertheless, baptism matters and it matters deeply. One cannot read the New Testament without encountering that truth again and again. It does not represent a commitment or symbolize repentance (though if you are an adult, repentance is necessary and the forgiveness of sins is certainly part of what is accomplished). The Orthodox question in the Baptismal rite drives right to the heart of what is happening: Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ? In baptism, that is what we do and why, from the pages of the New Testament until the modern era, most Christians have baptized their infant children. Why would anyone deny their children union with Christ and the seal of the Holy Spirit in this dangerous and perilous world?

There is also a conceit in saying that a child cannot be baptized (be Christian) that often goes unnoticed. After all, we can all relate to a baby. We can love a baby and the baby in turn can love and relate to us. So we can do something that God cannot? Are we perhaps saying that until a child can verbally express their thoughts, God cannot possibly relate to that child and that child cannot be filled with love for God? I’ve seen such faith and love especially in my youngest daughter. I cannot point to any time when she did not know God and love Jesus. We were in a Baptist church so her baptism was delayed, but there was no change when she could finally express her faith and love enough in words to satisfy the adults in the church. She was simply expressing what she had always known and lived. Was there any gain for her in a delayed baptism? I think not.

Of course, as the child grows and develops, that faith and love also need to grow and develop. Life is not static and so faith can never be static. I’ve been amazed at the core of faith and love my daughter has maintained now into her teenage years, but I also know that life is hard and I pray for her. We can grow in faith. We can also grow away from Christian faith and place that faith in different places.

And that begs the question of genuine faith. I am growing in faith or I am falling away. There is no standing still. As Molly Sabourin so eloquently put it, I was saved 2,000 years ago, I am in the process of being saved, and I pray that I will be saved. If the measure of my love for God is my love for my enemies (St. Silouan), then I’m not sure I love God very much at all. I want to love him, but love is a hard thing and I have to be healed so I can truly love. If we waited until we had genuine faith, until we were fully converted, until we were truly Christian, I’m not sure any of us would ever dare be baptized. That is not the measure. Baptism unites us with Christ so that one day we might become Christian.

When you perceive baptism through those lens, only a Baptism undertaken with deliberate deceit or a Baptism other than one in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, could be considered invalid. Have you been united to Christ? I’ve always understood Luther’s declaration, “I have been baptized!” In the end, what more can we say? Either Jesus is who we believe he is and we are united to him in Baptism, or he’s not and we just got wet somewhere along the way.


Jesus Creed 30 – At the Tomb with Jesus

Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24:13-35; John 20-21.

I think we tend to forget what a total and complete disaster the tomb was for Jesus’ followers. Scot explores that to some extent and relates it back to our experiences of loss. After disaster, we can still find new life. The tomb proved that. Scot draws a central point from it.

If we participate in Jesus’ resurrection by owning his story as our story, we find hope.

Let that sink in. We have hope through the resurrection or not at all. Paul says exactly the same thing. But I’m not convinced that’s truly where Christians today place their hope. I would rather be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Jesus’ life, from front cover to back cover, including the dust jacket, is a life shaped by the Jesus Creed. He learned the Shema from his father and mother; he amended it for his followers in the shape of the Jesus Creed. Most importantly, he lived it. We are called to participate in that very life, for it is that resurrected life that can form our lives.

In Baptism we have died and are risen again with Christ. We proclaim that when Christ came out of that tomb, he healed our nature such that it is no longer the nature of man to die. Without the Resurrection, Christianity has nothing of meaning or value to offer. Without the Resurrection, it’s ridiculous to live as Christians ought to live. But if it’s true, it changes everything and speaks to every aspect of our lives. It’s as simple and as radical as that.


Jesus Creed 25 – In the Jordan with Jesus

Posted: October 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 25 – In the Jordan with Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 3:13-17.

This last part of the book looks at the active obedience of Jesus as he lives a perfect life of love. McKnight starts at the Jordan, but it really starts at Jesus’ birth. We just don’t know a whole lot until the Jordan. But we needed someone to pave the way for us. Or as Scot puts it after an opening illustration, “Opening a path to a spiritual clearing is what Jesus does for us with his entire life.”

I’m not sure I fully understand why this aspect of the grace and atonement of Jesus is so very important to me. But I do not I’m not alone. Iraneaus writes about it in the second century. Paul mentions it more than once in the first. For a time recently, people have seemed to find it less important, but that time appears to be passing. I hadn’t particularly noticed this train of thought when I first read The Jesus Creed, but after reading Embracing Grace I’m able to connect it to my reaction. I used different words and found most of my examples in putting it together in the early fathers. But I’ve come to see it’s the same basic idea.

To get these theological terms in focus, we need to remind ourselves of what God asks from us. Here’s the mystery of the Jesus Creed: Jesus both loves God and loves others for us and he summons us to love God and to love others. Three theological terms clarify this. First, Jesus substitutes for us in loving God and others perfectly. The term ‘substitution’ tends to be a little too clinical for what the Bible is getting at, so it is important to observe that, in substituting for us, Jesus also represents us before God in loving God and others. Further, by representing us he empowers us to participate with him in loving God and loving others.

I’m not sure this can be stressed enough. I sometimes have the sense, with some of the things we say and some of the songs we sing that we have reduced the gospel to virtually nothing but the cross. And that’s bizarre for something that doesn’t even show up in Christian art until the fourth century or so. Is the cross important? Absolutely! But when it seems to overwhelm Jesus’ life, his resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, and his promise to come again, which it sometimes seems to do, I think we’re going too far. The whole picture is not just important, but essential. I don’t think I see any ‘most important’ aspect, unless you wanted to say they are all ‘most important’.

Scot then spends some time emphasizing the fact that John’s baptism was for repentance. Why? So he could explore it in this section.

John’s baptism is for repentance, but Jesus is sinless. So why was Jesus baptized? To begin with, we are no more baffled than John himself, for he does his prophet’s best to keep Jesus from jumping into the Jordan with this jumble of sinners. … According to John, never were two people more unequal: the sinful John and the sinless Jesus.

But Jesus is baptized anyway. John’s baptism is for repentance, and Jesus doesn’t need to repent. Clearly then, if Jesus doesn’t need to repent, then he must be repenting for others, for us. Why would he do that?

Because in so ‘repenting for us,’ Jesus begins to unleash the power of the Holy Spirit for his followers. John baptizes with ‘water,’ but Jesus will baptize ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ John is referring here to the prophetic prediction of the coming of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit comes upon Jesus at his baptism when it comes down as a dove, and it comes on all his followers on the great day of Pentecost when they are flooded with the Spirit.

With these considerations, the baptism of Jesus becomes clear: Jesus is baptized to repent perfectly so God can send the Spirit to empower us for our vocations. … The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person — and he would not need it.

Here’s the big picture and how baptism fits into it: the spiritually formed person loves God (by following Jesus) and others. Jesus loves God and others perfectly. We don’t love God perfectly, and we might as well admit it. We love God and others perfectly only when we follow Jesus through our piles of sin, which we do when we participate in Jesus’ own life. This expression ‘following Jesus’ that we’ve often used now gains full clarity: To follow Jesus means to participate in his life, to let his life be ours.

I know that was a long excerpt, but this strikes me as so important. Scot summarizes it in this following thought.

There is only one reason for Jesus to repent for us: We can’t repent adequately.

He proceeds to explore why, and we fail in all areas. We don’t know our own hearts perfectly. We never truly and completely tell the truth to God about sin, however hard we try. Our decisions or commitments to change are flawed and tend to contain that connector ‘but’, and we do not follow through with consistently changed behavior. Basically, we’re pretty lousy at repenting, so Jesus does it for us.

It’s also important to note that John’s baptism was one both of repentance and for forgiveness of sins. By participating in Jesus’ repentance, our sins are truly forgiven. The renovation of our hearts begins. One of the things Baptism today is still for is the repentance of sins. It’s one of a long list of things such as our adoption or entrance into the communion of God’s family and Jesus’ body, but still also for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus paved the way for us — with his entire life of active obedience.

That cannot be reduced to a single event or sequence of events within his life. His whole life paved the way for us. He blazed the trail through the impenetrable jungle. And it’s the only path that actually leads out.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 4

Posted: September 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 4

8.  If we perceive the spiritual principles of visible things we learn that the world has a Maker. But we do not ask what is the nature of that Maker, because we recognize that this is beyond our scope. Visible creation clearly enables us to grasp that there is a Maker, but it does not enable us to grasp His nature.

I think this is a particularly important point today. It is possible and reasonable to move to a position of general theism simply from our observation of the nature of reality. But that will not and cannot reveal the Father to us. We know the Father in and through the Son and to know the Son, we must experience his reality. Knowledge about him, even knowledge as revealed in the Holy Scriptures — even the Gospels themselves — is insufficient.

I’m drawing a mental blank on who said it, but I recently heard an excellent analogy. Picture the greatest modern authority on Abraham Lincoln. He’s read everything Abraham Lincoln wrote. He’s studied everything recorded by anyone who ever encountered Mr. Lincoln. There’s nothing about Lincoln that our hypothetical historian hasn’t uncovered, studied, and absorbed. He can safely say that he knows more about the 16th President than any other living person. Such a man would still not know Abraham Lincoln as well as Mrs. Lincoln did. In fact, he would be in position to say something like, “From everything I know about Mr. Lincoln, he was a great man. I wish I could have known him.”

How do we know Jesus? Experientially and mystically. We know him through his body, the Church, particularly when we are joined to it in Baptism. We experience him when we eat his body and drink his blood. We mystically commune with him in prayer. We know him as a bride knows her bridegroom.

Our observation and study of the material realm is important. It’s something we are created to do. In certain instances and with some people, such study can help us perceive that their may be a Creator or Maker. (Or it may not. Both are reasonable positions.) But Christianity says our God became flesh, became one of us in every way, so that we could truly know him and commune with him in the most intimate way. I think too many people today settle for knowledge of God rather than knowing God.


Original Sin 22 – John 3:5

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 22 – John 3:5

First, here’s the text of John 3:5 for us to consider.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

John 3:5 refers to Christian baptism. For almost the entire history of the Church, that has been its universal interpretation across traditions. Recently, of course, some sects of Protestantism (and much of what is typically labeled today as “evangelicalism”) have interpreted the verse to refer to physical birth (water) and some sort of inner, spiritual rebirth (Spirit). But if we’re discussing St. Augustine or almost anything recorded throughout the history of Christianity, then we must read the ‘water’ as the waters of baptism and ‘Spirit’ as the Holy Spirit. The waters of Baptism, accompanied by the seal of the Holy Spirit mark our entrance into the kingdom of God as manifested on earth in the Church.

As an aside, this even impacts the architecture of our churches today. Those of you who are “evangelical” are probably accustomed to seeing the baptistry at the front of the sanctuary, so that all those seated within the church are facing it. Traditionally, however, baptisms were performed at the back of the nave or in the narthex before the entrance of the nave. This was done because baptism marked the entrance of person into the Church. One was baptized and then one entered. Churches built in a traditional manner still reflect that design.

St. Augustine used John 3:5 to say essentially that if one had to be baptized to enter the kingdom, then there had to be something in the nature of the unbaptized — even infants who had committed no willful sin — that kept them out of the Kingdom. He, of course, defined that something as the inherited guilt of original sin. Both his exegesis of the verse and his assertion that unbaptized infants are condemned run contrary to the predominant interpretation of the ancient Church.

To illustrate that, I would point to St. Gregory of Nyssa in On Infants’ Early Deaths. It’s only one example, but a good one. He first takes the time to pose the question well, pointing out the flaws in quick or easy answers. He then constructs an analogy of life around the choices available to two men with a degenerative disease of their eyes. One follows the advice and way of the doctors and purgation, however painful that might be, and is eventually healed and able to enjoy the fullness of light. The other chooses to follow what seems to be a broad path of ease and comfort, declining the necessary treatments and spending his time in comfort in the baths and eventually ends up blind, unable to perceive the light at all. From that, he says the following of infants.

Whereas the innocent babe has no such plague before its soul’s eyes obscuring its measure of light, and so it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness which comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all. Further, the present life appears to me to offer a sort of analogy to the future life we hope for, and to be intimately connected with it, thus; the tenderest infancy is suckled and reared with milk from the breast; then another sort of food appropriate to the subject of this fostering, and intimately adapted to his needs, succeeds, until at last he arrives at full growth. And so I think, in quantities continually adapted to it, in a sort of regular progress, the soul partakes of that truly natural life; according to its capacity and its power it receives a measure of the delights of the Blessed state; indeed we learn as much from Paul, who had a different sort of food for him who was already grown in virtue and for the imperfect “babe.” For to the last he says, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it.” But to those who have grown to the full measure of intellectual maturity he says, “But strong meat belongeth to those that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised…” Now it is not right to say that the man and the infant are in a similar state however free both may be from any contact of disease (for how can those who do not partake of exactly the same things be in an equal state of enjoyment?); on the contrary, though the absence of any affliction from disease may be predicated of both alike as long as both are out of the reach of its influence, yet, when we come to the matter of delights, there is no likeness in the enjoyment, though the percipients are in the same condition. For the man there is a natural delight in discussions, and in the management of affairs, and in the honourable discharge of the duties of an office, and in being distinguished for acts of help to the needy; in living, it may be, with a wife whom he loves, and ruling his household; and in all those amusements to be found in this life in the way of pastime, in musical pieces and theatrical spectacles, in the chase, in bathing, in gymnastics, in the mirth of banquets, and anything else of that sort. For the infant, on the contrary, there is a natural delight in its milk, and in its nurse’s arms, and in gentle rocking that induces and then sweetens its slumber. Any happiness beyond this the tenderness of its years naturally prevents it from feeling. In the same manner those who in their life here have nourished the forces of their souls by a course of virtue, and have, to use the Apostle’s words, had the “senses” of their minds “exercised,” will, if they are translated to that life beyond, which is out of the body, proportionately to the condition and the powers they have attained participate in that divine delight; they will have more or they will have less of its riches according to the capacity acquired. But the soul that has never felt the taste of virtue, while it may indeed remain perfectly free from the sufferings which flow from wickedness having never caught the disease of evil at all, does nevertheless in the first instance partake only so far in that life beyond (which consists, according to our previous definition, in the knowing and being in God) as this nursling can receive; until the time comes that it has thriven on the contemplation of the truly Existent as on a congenial diet, and, becoming capable of receiving more, takes at will more from that abundant supply of the truly Existent which is offered.

Yes, I know that’s quite a bit to digest, but it captures more of the essence of the common patristic view than St. Augustine did. St. Gregory also admits his ignorance.

Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.

Ultimately we don’t know all the answers, but we trust that God is good and that he loves us. This is what Jesus showed us in his life and it is what he taught us about God. Death is not good, but we trust that God is working to transform all things, even the evil things, into good. (Romans 8:28) And that certain applies when we face the deaths of innocent infants, baptized or not. They are safe in the hand of God and I reject any teaching and any teacher who says differently.