Why I Am Not An Atheist 3 – Societal Structure

Posted: May 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why I Am Not An Atheist 3 – Societal Structure

I have heard and read nominally Christian critiques of atheism that reach conclusions that state or imply that individual atheists have no moral basis for their ethical frameworks. The implication seems to be that atheists are essentially amoral.

Such arguments are ridiculous and do nothing but expose those who make them as fools. On an individual basis in our society, atheists are certainly no less moral and ethical than the anyone else and may be more compassionate and giving. That’s absolutely true of most of the atheists I know personally and I anticipate that it’s true as a group. Outright atheism remains a system of belief (or “non-belief” as the case may be) embraced by a relatively small percentage of our population. As such, it mostly remains an individual expression of belief. And when it comes to moral and ethical beliefs and behavior, I would generally expect smaller groups immersed (and dispersed) within our society to be more or less in line with the larger culture.

That is, after all, how culture functions. It shapes the things we believe “instinctively” are right and wrong. While any of us may focus on and examine a piece of that larger culture and may even react against it or otherwise alter it for ourselves, most of it remains assumed and unexamined. Culture can, of course, be changed, but it’s not something that’s easy to do. Culture has tremendous societal inertia.

A lot of Christians miss that point. The way Christians as a group care for everyone, not just people like themselves, even remaining in plagued cities when they had the means to leave, were actions of note in their ancient context specifically because they ran counter to the dominant culture. As acts of compassion and themes of self-sacrifice became more the cultural norm, they became less exceptional across the board among all groups.

In my mind, though, it remains an open question whether or not atheism is capable of creating or sustaining a society that enculturates the very values many modern atheists would also embrace. It is clear that while atheism itself is nothing new (though the modern strands of atheism flowing from positivism and other philosophical approaches have some new elements), no society has ever been built on atheistic principles.

There have been attempts of course. The ancient Epicureans promoted a system that while not explicitly denying the existence of the gods, placed them far away from humanity, uninterested and uninvolved in our existence. The Communist revolution in Russia (and extending to the Warsaw Pact countries) was explicitly atheistic and through totalitarian oppression attempt to stamp out and subvert a thousand years of Christian culture. They destroyed churches and monasteries, outlawed much Christian teaching and activity, imprisoned, tortured, and killed many for their Christian beliefs, established competing militant atheistic societies, and a host of similar activities that continued for decades. Their efforts ultimately failed, but the brutal totalitarianism with which they attempted to replace the existing Christian culture is not a societal model most people, including most atheists, would embrace.

I do think about these things. I have read Neitzsche and I find him quite compelling. Our interactions do tend to reduce to the will to power and the strong man. We see that overtly in failed states. We imagine it in our dystopian literature. We saw it acted out in the USSR and in other totalitarian states. And I’ve seen nothing in atheism that subverts the strong man the way Christ does. Many of the things we all tend to value as Western ideals were inextricably shaped and formed through the influence of Christianity. Some of the Western societies have become broadly and implicitly atheistic in recent decades. It will be interesting to see if they are able to maintain across future generations the cultural inheritance they have received, in large part, from Christianity.

While I find Neitzsche compelling, I do not want to embrace reality as he describes it. I do not wish to live in a world dominated by the will to power and the strong man. Such cultures inevitably become oppressive and totalitarian. I’ve explored many alternatives and explicitly ignored Christianity for as long as I could, but eventually I looked at its story.

Christ faced a great and often brutal empire in Rome. Neitzsche would have had no problem finding the strong man in ancient Rome. It was a power feared by all, including its own citizens. Challenges to that power and failure in duty to it were met quickly and harshly. The Pax Romana was often real, but it was peace flowing from beneath an iron heel. Christ faced the empire and its violence on entirely different terms and eventually subverted the empire.

Of course, that’s not to say that an explicitly atheistic culture could not produce or at least maintain something similar to our modern Western societies — at least in terms of values and ethical frameworks. I just haven’t seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that’s the case. I have not seen an atheistic subversion of Neitzsche. So even if you subtracted my personal experience from the equation, I would still hesitate to embrace atheism.

 


Ancient Texts 3 – Scribes

Posted: December 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 3 – Scribes

There are a lot of modern misconceptions about the nature of the content of ancient texts. For instance, I’ve seen depictions of St. Paul or a Gospel writer hunched over a table writing by candlelight. That’s almost certainly not how the texts were developed. In fact, Luke/Acts are probably the only two New Testament texts that may have been directly penned by their author.

St. Luke was highly educated in philosophy, medicine, and the arts. In addition to working as a practicing physician, it appears that he also may have worked as a scribe. He may even have served as St. Paul’s scribe for some of his letters. (I’m using scribe in its more common ancient context and not in its specific first century Jewish connotation, which is rather different.) So it’s virtually certain that he directly penned his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

While it’s very likely that Paul, the other epistle writers, and the writers of the Gospels other than Luke spoke Greek, the lingua franca of the Empire, with varying degrees of proficiency (and as a Roman citizen, Paul at least almost certainly spoke some Latin), their native language was Aramaic. While Paul and possibly some of the others had training in rhetoric, it’s unlikely they had training in the more specific craft of capturing that rhetoric in written form. We know that Paul used a scribe for his letters because he mentions that fact in some of them. It’s safe to assume the other authors did as well.

It’s important to understand that an ancient scribe was not like a more modern secretary taking dictation or shorthand — trying to capture what is said word for word. Rather, the job of a scribe was to find the best way to convey the thought and intent of the speaker in written form. In the case of the epistles and three of the Gospels, the scribe was likely also translating from the author’s native Aramaic to Greek. Even when not translating, the scribe was often responsible for choosing the best written words to communicate the desired thought. The act of composing a text was more of a synergy between the author and the scribe than a mechanical reproduction. (Apart from the fact that I don’t believe we have sufficient text to determine authorship from textual analysis alone for any of the New Testament texts, I also think it’s a futile quest for this reason. The same author working with a different scribe would produce a text with a somewhat different “voice.”)

The author and the scribe would work together to produce a text and then the text would be sent with someone who had been trained to properly deliver it to its recipients. Nobody who carried a letter or other text of any complexity in the ancient world was a mere delivery agent. They weren’t the ancient version of UPS or FedEx. Rather, they were the ones entrusted with the task of correctly presenting it orally. So it’s important to recognize, for instance, the true role of the deacon Phoebe carrying the letter to the Romans. She is the one who would have stood before the Christians in Rome and orally traditioned Paul’s teaching to them. It was a very important and even crucial role.

When discussing the texts of the Holy Scriptures, I find many people tend to make pretty anachronistic assumptions about the way they were composed. Hopefully this clarifies some of that confusion.


Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

Posted: December 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

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

There is nothing reasonable about God’s love. Matthew begins by describing the closeness of his love and bond with his wife in order to make the point that God’s love transcends even that.

But in the great Mystery of Love, my bond with Alice is a pale and impoverished shadow when compared to the oneness that I can share with Christ. He illumines my soul and drives me to my unworthy knees in repentant gratitude and joy.

Of course, over the years of his life, he had experienced moments of that joy and love. If he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have remained Christian.

The truth is, most sincere Protestants I know have had similar experiences. They recall them with unique fondness and joy. Unfortunately, what makes those times so special is the fact that they are so rare. They are not part of the everyday routine of evangelical life.

We know that the earliest Christians lived lives of such love, joy, and devotion that even as they were tortured and killed — joyfully while forgiving those who were killing them — they converted an empire. The experience of the love of Christ and union with him was not an occasional thing. It was their constant reality. In Orthodoxy, Matthew found the simple, humble, and quiet path toward an ever-deepening experience of Christ — one available to any and all.

So what does Orthodoxy have that Protestantism doesn’t? Why can’t Protestant faith consistently Christ in the way it so devoutly desires? In becoming Orthodox, I discovered the problem with my Protestant faith lay in the fact that the way it taught me to relate to God just didn’t work.

You see, the Protestant way of living in Christ is thoroughly rooted in a system of thinking known as rationalism.

Now rationalism does not mean simply thinking in a lucid, intelligent, or sensible way. Rather, rationalism is a particular system of interpreting reality.

Its essential tenet is that truth is discovered through reasoning, not through experience (that is, through observations, feelings, or actions).

While a bit over-simplified, that’s actually a pretty good summary of the heart of rationalism. It’s actually hard to convey a complex idea in simple language, so I can really appreciate the elegant simplicity of that definition. Matthew illustrates the point with a pretty good example, though rationalism infects different streams in different ways.

For instance, in one of the first sermons I can remember, the preacher held his Bible high over his head, waved it for emphasis, and cried, “When it comes to your faith in God, you can’t trust in your eyes. You can’t trust in your ears. You can’t trust in your feelings. All you can trust in is what you know from the Word of God!”

He relates other examples. For instance, at one point some of his pastor friends were considering taking courses in logic and critical reasoning. The felt that when most people struggled spiritually, the problem lay in their thinking, so they thought such courses would help them in their pastoral duties. The list of the ways such attitudes permeate Protestantism is endless. Faith is approached primarily as a matter for study.

Matthew came to realize what was glaringly obvious to me from the beginning and which I’ve heard others, such as Conversion Diary, mention in their journey toward faith. The standard mode of Protestant practice and experience through bible study has no connection to the early life of the Church. Those believers initially had limited access to the books that eventually became the New Testament. They also had limited access to what we now call the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament scriptures had been radically reinterpreted by the apostles in the light of Christ. Scrolls (and later the earliest books) were extremely expensive. And many people were functionally illiterate anyway. The Protestant approach to Christian faith is highly anachronistic. It doesn’t fit in the context of the ancient world and you can’t make it fit.

But instead, the Church held to a sacramental view of Christian life. Sacramentalism is the belief that truth is discovered by experiencing the living Presence of Christ, by participating with Him in specific acts of worship that He Himself ordains.

It’s important to note that feelings and actions are still considered to be important within Protestantism. Some strands emphasize them more and some less. But most of Protestantism would agree that right actions and right feels have to start with right understanding. The problem is that, even in the context of Scripture, that’s simply not how God works. It also leads to the problem of how you get from theological knowledge of God in your head to love for God.

Well, a Protestant takes it for granted that knowledge somehow becomes love. What’s in the heart must first be in the head. That’s rationalism, pure and simple.

….

You see, anyone who will stop for a moment and simply consider what love is will realize that turning knowledge into love is an impossible endeavor. Head knowledge cannot become heart knowledge! Knowledge cannot produce love. It may direct us toward love. But it is not the same as love, nor can it serve as a substitute.

St. Paul is so clear about this fact that I don’t know why I didn’t see it long ago. I’ve discovered, though, that my modern mindset often kept me from seeing the obvious. St. Paul tells his spiritual children that the love we experience with Christ “passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). The word “passes” is the Greek word that means “to transcend, surpass, or excel.”

Matthew illustrates that point with a thought exercise. He imagines that his wife and he have been separated by a door their entire lives. At some point, someone tells him about the lovely creature on the other side of the door and he becomes enamored with the idea of that person. He acquires knowledge about her and constructs a mental image of her. Even if he develops a completely accurate picture of her over time, he can’t be said to have a love relationship with her.

The simple fact is that I can’t have a real loving relationship with a mental image of someone I have not actually experienced — no matter how accurate that image may be. True love requires a live encounter with another person. It demands an interaction with that person that encompasses heart, soul, mind, and body.

I must open the door and embrace Christ as a Person, not as an object of my theological imagination.

Matthew Gallatin points out that it’s that desire that leaves many Protestants constantly seeking revival, seeking the next experience, seeking to be “fed” (a strange term I’ve heard that took me a while to understand), and essentially subsisting from one experience of Christ to another with long dry spells in between. Of course, God is not trying to hide. He is seeking to be known. Jesus has joined his nature wholly and completely to ours so that we might know him and have union with him. We construct the door that keeps him out, but he is always trying to get through it to us. As a result, anyone honestly seeking God will have some experience of him.

It’s at this point that Protestantism typically stalls. Those experiences remain occasional. And people get stuck trying to relate through a door to their own mental image of Jesus. It didn’t surprise me at all when Willow Creek discovered that the most dissatisfied among their membership were the most “mature” Christians (by typical Protestant measures). Reason can only get you so far.


Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

Posted: March 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

The question of how the idea of original sin as inherited guilt (along with other distinct differences) rose to dominance in the Western Christian world is actually a pretty interesting historical question. In order to begin to understand it, one has to step back into the ancient world within which Christianity formed and took root. For good reason, we tend to associate Christianity with the rise of Western civilization. The two are often so deeply intertwined in our minds, that we tend to unconsciously assume that Christianity is a Western religion.

But it’s not. And the world of those first centuries was a very different one. In that world, what we call the West was the frontier of the Roman Empire. Within the context of Christianity, only one Apostolic See was established — the one in Rome. In the East, by way of contrast, there were four Apostolic sees or patriarchates: Jerusalem (the oldest), Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. (According to tradition it’s said that the Apostle Andrew founded the church that eventually became the See of Constantinople, but the actual elevation of Constantinople to the level of the other Sees probably stems from the same reason that Rome itself was originally included. They were both capitol cities of the Empire. And as the status of Rome declined, that of Constantinople rose. If the realities of political and geographic realities had not played a part in the status and importance of some of the Apostolic Sees, then one would expect to see Ephesus, for example, among them.)

By the time of St. Augustine, the division of language between the Latin West and the Greek East had become more pronounced than it had ever been before. The days of a sole emperor were largely gone and the Empire itself was more strongly divided into a Western Empire under Rome and an Eastern Empire under Constantinople than it had generally been before. The East had Persia as its biggest rival; the threat that Islam became did not yet exist. While Christianity and trade still tied East and West together, those bonds were growing weaker.

In that context, we have to add the fact that St. Augustine stood head and shoulders intellectually above anyone in the Latin West while the East retained many equal voices. Moreover St. Augustine did not write in Greek nor did he like to read Greek. Thus he did not interact with the Eastern Fathers theologically and it doesn’t seem that any of those in the East ever read St. Augustine’s theological works. It doesn’t appear that they were even translated into Greek until many centuries later. St. John Cassian (who I believe is the only Western saint with writings included, for example, in the Philokalia) did try to mediate some of the places where St. Augustine went too far, but his efforts were less appreciated in the West.

As a result, St. Augustine became the dominant interpretive voice in the West in a way that no single person ever became in the East. His interpretations eventually became the normative base for all Western theology. Protestantism rejected some of the late medieval practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but they remained rooted in an Augustinian perspective of reality. If anything, they went further along the path of that perspective than St. Augustine himself ever did. Thus we get ideas like ‘total depravity’ that certainly go beyond anything St. Augustine taught.

At any rate, those seem to be the primary factors in the tapestry of divergence to my eyes. Anyone think I’m missing or overlooking anything?


My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

Posted: December 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

The title of this post flows from the fact that a lot of the discussion within Christianity in the US sometimes seems to revolve around “modernity.” Now, I will not argue that the modern culture in (primarily) Western Europe and the US was not significant for Christianity. It’s pretty much the culture that gave birth to the entire Protestant tradition. And it shaped not only our part of the world, but greatly influenced the rest of the world. That influence was in part positive and in part negative. Our scientific advances have made life better. But Western colonialism and the sense of “Manifest Destiny” (strangely rooted in some sort of a “Christian” ethos) under which we conquered what is now the United States left scars across the world. And the 20th century demonstrated clearly how our ability to improve life went hand in hand with our ability to destroy it.

The 20th century began the “postmodern” turn in Western culture and societies. Although still developing or “emerging“, that’s the culture that largely formed and shaped me. A discussion of that turn is beyond the scope of this series, but obviously that turn highlighted a question among Christians in what is broadly called “the West” today. What would the cultural turn mean for the train wreck that “Western” Christianity had become? Within that somewhat limited context, a discussion of “modern” and “postmodern” Christianity made and continues to make sense.

However, I had a problem when I began to encounter another term: premodern. Whether you are speaking of cultures and societies in general, or Christianity specifically, there is no one thing definably “premodern.” We can speak of Christianity within the culture and context of the Roman Empire (East or West). We can talk about Christianity in the context of western Europe after the city of Rome fell and the Roman Empire essentially contracted to the East. We can talk about Christianity in the early (or late) middle ages in western Europe. We can talk about Christianity in Armenia after it had won its freedom from Persia. We can talk about Christianity among the Slavs following their dramatic conversion. We can talk about Christianity in what we now called the Middle East before Islam, after the development of Islam but before Constantinople fell, or after the fall of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The list goes on and on.

Christianity is not centered on the modern culture of western Europe and the United States and cannot be defined in relation to that one culture. Framing the discussion in terms of modern, postmodern, and premodern seems to try to do exactly that. Even when you limit the scope of the discussion to western Europe, there is no common “premodern” period. There were rather many periods, cultures, and cultural shifts before the advent of modernity.

Further, western Europe was not the birthplace of Christianity. Attempting to center the discussion on the cultural shifts of the west strikes me as … odd. I don’t approach history that way. I suppose I don’t try to construct some sort of unified arc within which I can fit the topic of Christianity. Instead, I approach the history of the Church within each of its cultural settings simply trying to understand what it was and how it operated within that context. Although I’m as prone to generalize and make broad statements as anyone else, when pushed I drop back into the story of the small.


On the Incarnation of the Word 52 – United In Peace

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 52 – United In Peace

I’ve spent no small amount of time reflecting on the Christianity Athanasius describes in today’s section of his treatise. The things he takes for granted are more difficult to see among Christians today.

Who then is He that has done this, or who is He that has united in peace men that hated one another, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Saviour of all, even Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation? For even from of old it was prophesied of the peace He was to usher in, where the Scripture says: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their pikes into sickles, and nation shall not take the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The above is a fairly consistent ancient interpretation of that famous Scripture. They saw the peace of Christ as something real already working itself into and through the live of those who joined the already present and growing Kingdom. These days, it seems that many Christians instead interpret the peace of Christ that passes all understanding as something internal, individual, and purely spiritual, not as something that has any real, tangible, communal reality. They view the description of the prophecy above as something that will happen in the future, not as something that is already in the process of being fulfilled.

And this is at least not incredible, inasmuch as even now those barbarians who have an innate savagery of manners, while they still sacrifice to the idols of their country, are mad against one another, and cannot endure to be a single hour without weapons:  but when they hear the teaching of Christ, straightway instead of fighting they turn to husbandry, and instead of arming their hands with weapons they raise them in prayer, and in a word, in place of fighting among themselves, henceforth they arm against the devil and against evil spirits, subduing these by self-restraint and virtue of soul.

Athanasius is saying this peace is breaking out among warring peoples as they turn to Christ. It’s not an ideal. It’s not hypothetical. It’s real. He was writing in a age in which wars were not at all unknown. Athanasius lived within the context of an empire that defended itself against those who warred against it and by the time of this writing, Christians were participants within the government of that Empire, sometimes the emperors were Christian, and many in those armies were Christian. His head was not off in the clouds and out of touch with reality. He dealt with those realities every day.

And yet, Athanasius still writes the above. What did he see and experience that we are missing?

Why, they who become disciples of Christ, instead of warring with each other, stand arrayed against demons by their habits and their virtuous actions: and they rout them, and mock at their captain the devil; so that in youth they are self-restrained, in temptations endure, in labours persevere, when insulted are patient, when robbed make light of it: and, wonderful as it is, they despise even death and become martyrs of Christ.

It was, of course, St. Paul who famously wrote that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. The weapons of the powers haven’t changed and the above captures some of them well in its list of things those who follow Christ resist and overcome. The threat of death, of course, remains the ultimate weapon. Death’s power over us may have been broken in the Resurrection, but we still often give it power through our fear.


Constantine and the Church 3 – What was the Church to do?

Posted: August 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Before I dive into Nicaea, about which myths seem to abound, I wanted to reflect on some of the implications of the earlier posts in this series. It should be clear by this point that the Church and those within it had no real input on whether they would be persecuted or not. There are some who accuse the early church of “capitulating” to the state to avoid persecution. But where’s the evidence of that capitulation? Where’s the evidence that Roman emperors even tried to engage the Church in their decisions to persecute or not to persecute?

What do people expect? That when an emperor decided not to persecute, Christians should have marched on the imperial capital and demanded to be tortured and put to death? Really?

Or when Constantine began his conversion and not only ended persecution, but made Christianity legal and looked to the Bishops to help stabilize the empire, what would we have had them do? They had never expected anything but persecution with sometime respite from time to time. When the emperor not only said he acknowledged Christ as Lord, but sought their help, would it have been somehow more Christian to reject him?

Is it not, after all, our proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord? Is it not our charge to care for all? Are we not told that the powers are ultimately instituted by God and responsible to him? Was it an unexpected shift? Yes. Were they suspicious? Probably.

But what else, exactly, would you have had them do?