Speaking of God – A Good God

Posted: April 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – A Good God

For you are a good God and love mankind, and to you do we give glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, always, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. (Orthodox Great Vespers liturgy)

When we speak of God, it’s important that we remember always that he is a good God who loves humanity. I notice that aspect often seems to become obscured in modern Western discussions about God. Sometimes it’s obvious, as in certain Calvinistic strands that either explicitly or implicitly end up attributing both good and evil to God. A God who is responsible for evil is not a good God. It’s one of the more outrageous assertions that can be made about the God we find fully revealed in Christ. (Moreover, it’s only in Christ that the creation of the human being is finished.) I thoroughly agree with the Orthodox that any such claims about God are utterly heretical and contrary to the faith which has been handed down to us.

But it can take subtler forms. For instance, in the strands of evangelicalism within which I swim, it’s very common to hear “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” when tragedy strikes. It permeates thought, conversation, teaching, and song. The concept comes from Job and illustrates one potential issue with lifting verses and phrases at will from our Holy Scriptures and applying them without the guidance of a deep and apostolic tradition. Here’s the verse from Job.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:21.

The first thing that we have to recognize is that in his fatalism, Job is actually incorrect! (Though the next verse goes on to note that Job did not, in truth, charge God with wrongdoing.) Yes, in a broad sense God allows freedom in creation. That’s part of being a good God who does not deny any good thing to his beloved creation, even if that good thing can be twisted. In the context of the narrative, we have something of a “God’s eye view” that Job lacks. We know that God took nothing from Job. Satan did.

But Job’s perception makes perfect cultural sense. It was normal in the ancient world to ascribe all sorts of things to the gods. We see that in, for one example, Homer. At one point in the Iliad when, speaking of the son of Atreus and godlike Achilles, he asks, “Which of the gods brought them both together fighting?” It’s not a rhetorical or allegorical question for Homer. He has an answer. Apollo did. Job, from the context of the narrative, doesn’t worship multiple gods. He worships the one God. So when he loses everything, it’s natural for him to ascribe it to God. It’s also what his friends assume — which is why they spend so much time trying to explain why God must have done it and Job must have deserved it.

But we know from the story that God didn’t take anything from Job. God never really explains himself to Job, but as the reader that’s one of the things we must understand. (Job is also a type or shadow of Christ as the suffering servant in the narrative. But that’s another discussion.)

Moreover, that should not come as any surprise to a Christian. In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, it’s so that we might by sons of our Father in heaven. Why? Because God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. He is a good God who loves mankind without condition or reservation.

Ours is the God who makes all things new, from whom the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. We respond to evil by doing good, by blessing, and by acting to heal and restore.

Our God is a good God — a God of divine love. We must always speak of him in those terms when we dare to speak at all.


The Jesus Prayer 16 – Awe

Posted: April 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 16 – Awe

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica reflects on the tendency today to approach Jesus in prayer casually.

There was a misguided attempt in the last century to make God more approachable, maybe even more human (as if we don’t have enough of that already). But it was a misrepresentation. God really is more immense and majestic than we can begin to conceive. Most of us need a course in remedial awe.

This attitude is very common in modern evangelicalism. Sometimes the approach is respectful, the way we would approach a commanding officer or minor official. Sometimes, it’s as though the risen Christ, creator and Lord of the universe, is really buddy Christ. Yes, he took on our nature and suffered as we suffer. And yes, he is ever with us, as near as our next breath. But he is also our creator and our only source of life. And when we call Jesus “Christ” we are calling him King in the fullest sense of the word — and a King beyond and above all other kings. She includes a quote by St. Theophan which I think drives this point home. Without reverence, the Jesus Prayer and other practices could actually numb you to the presence of God.

With regard to spiritual prayer, take one precaution. Beware lest in ceaselessly remembering God you forget also to kindle fear, and awe, and the desire to fall down as dust before the face of God — our most merciful Father, but also our dread Judge. Frequent recollection of God without reverence blunts the feeling of the fear of God, and thereby deprives us of the saving influence that this sense of fear — and it alone — can produce in our spiritual life.

 


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

Posted: September 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

9.  The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful  experience of unsought sufferings God often abases and humbles an intellect conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When the intellect perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretensions of the heart.

The most important point I want to stress is that whatever we call the wrath of God is always an expression of his love. Our God is love and a love so sublime and unutterably wonderful that the divine Son — the Logos — the one through whom everything that is was made and in whom all is sustained, became fully and truly one of us. This is the God who is not willing that any should perish. This is the God who is life.

It’s true that the first two councils that we now recognize as ecumenical were primarily defending against attack on the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But that has been more the exception than the rule. From the late first century and second century docetists and gnostics to the heresies that were the subject of the other five ecumenical councils, it’s usually been the humanity of Jesus that has been attacked. I sense the same sort of spirit today in a lot of evangelicalism. It often seems that the Incarnation is reduced to little more than a form upon which the Father can vent his wrath. Everything centers on the Cross. The Incarnation is an almost pro forma precursor and the Resurrection is reduced to an afterthought.

The Cross is, of course, the instrument of our salvation, but it only has meaning in the full context of the wonder of the Incarnation and in the light of the Resurrection. But if Jesus was not fully human in every way, if he did not become fully and truly one of us in order to heal us, and if he did not defeat death — destroy Hades as it is poetically stated — in the Resurrection, then our nature is not healed or capable of being healed and we are not saved. That which is not assumed is not healed.

So every time we consider wrath, we have to consider it in that context. We have tendency to confuse giving someone what they desire (or getting what we desire) with love. But the two are not the same at all. As Dallas Willard puts it, if we love someone it means we actively will their good. And what they desire — what we desire — is often not that which is for our good. Often our will is in the grip of those things we suffer — our passions. A heroin addict is ruled by their addiction. They might desire heroin with all their being. But would any of us consider it loving to give them what they desire?

Of course, even if we truly and actively will the good of one we love, we often have a very hard time discerning what would truly be for their good. Even if our efforts are not thwarted or twisted by our own passions, we often make mistakes. We will good, but we end up causing at least some harm. “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” I know I have often done ill where I meant nothing but good.

God does not suffer from either of those limitations. He unfailingly wills our good. And he always knows what is for our good. His is love and all his acts are love — even if they feel like wrath. Thus, as I discussed in my series on Hell, the wrath and fire experienced by some is not actually anything different than the warmth and comfort others experience. Rather, that particular wrath is the experience of the fire of the unveiled love of God by those who do not want it.

Similarly, as St. Maximos points out in this text, the wrath we sometimes experience now is also God’s love. We experience it as wrath because we are not getting what we want. But if we are not getting what we desire, we need to recognize that’s probably because what we desire is actually our destruction. Sometimes (actually pretty often, I think) God is like a loving parent who allows us to experience the pain of our own choices so that we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Sometimes he does not mitigate the cross of undeserved suffering — but whatever it is, he has been there too and experienced it as well. Sometimes he does act to protect or heal. In neither case is it random or arbitrary.

The Christian recognizes that God is always acting from love and from his unwillingness that any of us should perish. We often cannot see the reasons. That’s especially true in the middle of suffering. Sometimes, perhaps years later, we can see the hand of God in hindsight. Sometimes we can’t. But if Jesus of Nazareth is who we believe him to be — the fully divine Son who becomes fully human in every way — then this is the God we worship.


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.


Original Sin 9 – The Adventures of Dumb and Dumber

Posted: March 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Let’s return to Genesis 4 and begin to consider the arc of the whole narrative. I think that’s important because often today, especially in modern evangelicalism, that arc is either abbreviated or almost entirely omitted.

If you listen carefully to the problem, the solution, and the narrative connecting the two in much of evangelicalism today, you will hear something like this. The problem, disobeying God’s inviolate and sacred Law, is established in Genesis 3. The story then jumps to Romans in the New Testament where, using a couple of sentences, the guilt for the sin of Adam is said to be inherited by all human beings and that guilt cannot (for reasons that are never really explained) be forgiven by God. Instead, someone has to pay the debt we owe, but since we are human and finite, we cannot pay an infinite debt. (Of course, the explanations for the manner in which either Adam’s single act or our finite acts become an infinite and unredeemable debt are a bit tenuous themselves.) And since we owe a debt we cannot pay, we are all condemned by God.

Therefore Jesus becomes human in order to die on the cross. As a human being, he can die. And as God he is able to pay the infinite debt we had no ability to pay. The resurrection demonstrates that God accepts Jesus’ payment. And finally, to the extent it’s considered at all, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost marks the seal on that payment. It cannot be revoked.

Beyond its overly simplistic nature — reality, not to mention God, isn’t that simple — the fundamental problem with that particular narrative is that it omits most of the actual narrative of Scripture. It distorts the shape of that narrative significantly in an attempt to make it somehow fit within the confines of the above framework. Even the climax of Romans, the text in which much of this modern evangelical narrative tries to root itself, loses its context and thus most of its meaning. What should be the climax of the text of Romans becomes a parenthetical discussion. The Gospels themselves tend to be reduced to narratives that exist almost solely to establish the historical setting for the Passion of Christ.

However, the creation narratives are  in reality followed by the narrative of Genesis 4-11. There are varying ways to read these texts. I’ve found some intriguing insights at Just Genesis and if you are interested in such things commend that site to you. I’ve heard Scot McKnight describe Genesis 4-11 as “the adventures of dumb and dumber” and in some ways that seems like an apt summary description to me. But this narrative ends at Babel. That should not be overlooked. Instead of one people with one God, humanity consists of many peoples and nations with many gods. And this is the ancient state of man.

And though it’s a bit of an aside, that brings us to an important point regarding most of human history. Those of us in the modern West are highly conditioned today to regard faith or religion as an individual, private choice that each person must make for themselves over the course of their lives. But that image does not describe most of humanity. In the ancient world (and still to some extent in many parts of the world today) gods were largely tied to place and/or people groups and nations. If you were born in a particular place to certain parents, then your god or gods were largely determined by your birth. That was never an absolute, of course. From time to time, people did shift from one religion to another. And, of course, new religions did arise (though they too quickly became tied to some people or place).

Household gods (like we see in some of the early scriptures) were tied to the household and moved with the household. But if the gods were taken or if you left the household, then those gods were now removed from you and you needed other gods. It’s a very different lens for interpreting reality and if you try to read our Holy Scriptures through the modern, highly individualized spiritual lens, you will misread them.

If you have not read and understood one aspect of Pentecost as the healing of Babel, then I would suggest that you have missed an important part of the arc of the story of God and man. In fact, you may be too focused on the question of guilt and forgiveness and not enough on the themes of healing and restoration. I would suggest that the latter are actually more central to the narrative of the Holy Scriptures than the question of guilt. We’ll continue to explore the narrative arc of scripture tomorrow.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 7

Posted: February 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 7

Thomas Howard’s seventh chapter, Table and Altar: Supper and Sacrament, focuses on the Eucharist (the Thanksgiving) of bread and wine, body and blood. He opens the chapter with a strange statement that the word sacrament does not appear in the Bible. As I read the chapter, I thought perhaps he meant that the Thanksgiving, the “breaking of bread”, or the various other ways Scripture refers to what many Protestants call the “Lord’s Supper” is never specifically called “sacrament”. If that is the case, he’s probably correct (though John 6 strongly implies it at least). If that’s not what he meant, then I don’t understand his statement at all.

For those who don’t know, “sacrament” is the anglicized version of the Latin word “sacramentum”. Sacramentum was the Latin word chosen to translate the Greek word “mysterion”. And mysterion certainly appears quite a bit in the Bible. So I was left rather confused by Howard’s unqualified statement.

Mysterion is used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, the future reality of creation’s experience of God has broken into the present in Jesus. And, as Howard points out, “remembrance” as used at Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist carries the additional meaning of making the past present again in the moment. So in the Eucharist, we always have the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection rushing forward into the present moment as the future of the eschaton rushes back (from our perspective) into the same moment.  In the Eucharist, we do not live somewhere between two moments in time, past and present. Time instead collapses into the mystery of Christ’s body and blood, which makes all things new.

Howard points first to John 6 for the theology of the Eucharist, and that is always where we need to begin. It is, after all, the eucharistic chapter in the theological gospel just as John 3 is a starting point for the theology of Baptism. I’m familiar with the way John 6 tends to be “spiritualized” in evangelicalism. But Howard is correct. That explanation falls apart in the narrative of the text. If the “spiritual” meaning were what Jesus had in mind, his followers would not have all been so offended. As it is, he is left with only the Twelve by the end of the text, and they hardly offer a ringing endorsement.

Howard then traces a bit of the history of Christian writing on the Eucharist, which continues almost without interruption on the heels of the text of the New Testament. In my series on Baptists, Eucharist, and History, I covered the first couple of hundred years or so of Christian writing on the topic in a fair degree of detail, more than Howard has room to do in a section of a chapter.

However, Howard does later try to discuss the Eucharist using the categories of “natural” and “supernatural”. Those have never seemed to fit the sort of relationship between creation and God as glimpsed through Jesus to me, and I’m even less comfortable with that way of dividing reality after reading Fr. Schmemann. I would say a better description of the mystery is that it involves the union of the matter of the created world (bread and wine) with the divine reality of the Body and Blood of Christ without diminishing or destroying either. It is the union toward which we are striving and for which we consume our Lord.

However, I do agree with the overall arc of the chapter, even if I was inclined to quibble in a few places.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

Posted: February 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

The sixth chapter in Thomas Howard’s book, Ritual and Ceremony: A dead Hand or the Liberty of the Spirit?, opens with the note that when the early Christians met for worship, everyone present was a full participant.

Bishops, priests, deacons, and laity were the four orders in the Church that we glimpse in the New Testament and in the writings of the men taught by the apostles.  … It [worship of the Church] is an act, to which we come as participants, indeed as celebrants, if the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means anything.

I noticed early on that evangelicals called everyone priests, but seemed to have no conception of what it meant to be a priest. In a typical evangelical service, the laos or people, the first order of the royal priesthood of all Christians, effectively have nothing to do but be present, perhaps sing a few songs, and give money. There is no sense in which they are celebrants or even participants.

Howard also notes than until recent times the center of Christian worship was always the Eucharist. In much of evangelicalism, that has changed, so much so that the Eucharist, even in a diminished form, might be celebrated as infrequently as once a year.

It’s a common evangelical objection that ritual is boring and empty. Howard turns to C.S. Lewis to respond to that. After quoting Lewis, Howard comments on what Lewis had written.

Lewis touches here on something profound, which does not always present itself easily to people like us who are keen on expressing themselves and who have been taught that freedom lies in getting rid of structures. It is an idea especially difficult for people whose religion has taught them that structures are deadening. That ritual might actually be a relief, and even a release, is almost incomprehensible to them. That the extempore and impromptu are eventually shallow, enervating, and exhausting seems a contradiction to these people, who so earnestly believe that nothing that does not spring from the authenticity of the moment is actually fruitful.

As Lewis points out in this same context: “The unexpected tires us; it also takes us longer to understand and enjoy than the expected. A line which gives the listener pause is a disaster … because it makes him lose the next line.” Any Christian who has tried to stay abreast of impromptu public prayers will testify to the truth of this observation.

Of course, all of us build and follow a routine in the activities of our life. The routine may vary somewhat over time, or for other reasons, but then every liturgy has some variation within its structure. And the truth is that even the most “unstructured” worship will still operate within some defined framework. Even Quakers sitting in a room waiting for the movement of the Spirit are enacting a ritual, one that they will repeat time and time again.

I’ve never had a problem with ritual or ceremony myself. Again, I was not formed within an evangelical context and I don’t really grasp their aversion to and futile attempt to escape ritual, even after fifteen years as one. So in many ways, this chapter had relatively little to say to me, certainly little that was new. But Howard’s approach was more one of encouraging people to recognize the way ceremonies of all sorts permeate our lives and experience; trying to help them move beyond their cultural gut reaction against formal ceremony in worship. It’s hard for me to judge how effective the chapter was, but it seemed like a good approach to me.

I’ve noticed that evangelicals seem to have an aversion to the sign of the cross that has never made any sense to me. I liked the way Howard described one aspect of it at the end of the chapter.

By making the sign of the cross with our hands we signal to heaven, earth, hell, and to our own innermost beings that we are indeed under this sign — that we are crucified with Christ.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 2

Posted: January 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 2

The second chapter of Thomas Howard’s book focuses on symbolism. He recounts a childhood encounter with much richer Christian symbols than those typically found in evangelicalism and the impact it had on him. After reviewing the myriad ways symbols are intertwined and interwoven throughout our lives, including but hardly limited to our faith, he makes the observation: “It is difficult to eliminate symbolism.” Indeed.

I’ve never acquired the aversion to the material, to the physical, and to symbols that Thomas Howard describes. My formation was very different and if anything the question has always been, “Which symbols?” But I’ve been within the context of evangelical Christianity for many years and I know they have a deep aversion to some symbols. Mind you, evangelicals use a variety of recognizable, material symbols themselves. It’s not a rejection of all symbols, just some of them. I believe I understand the reasons for the selection and the rejection of a handful of symbols, but I won’t pretend to understand more than the little I do. This aspect of the evangelical mindset largely remains opaque to me.

As he moves into the heart of the matter, Howard points out that dividing the world into physical and spiritual is not and has never been Christian in origin. We are not Buddhists or Platonists or Manichaeans. We are also not like the early Christian gnostic heretics or other docetists who denied the materiality of the Incarnation. And, in fact, that’s what much of this chapter explores. He does a good job in a small number of pages connecting the rejection of the material to a rejection of Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation. I just recently completed the series stepping through Athanasius’ work on the Incarnation, so I won’t spend much time rehashing that here. At the end of the chapter, he points out that evangelicals are right to affirm the Incarnation, but in their rejection of the physical, the sensory, and the symbolic, they actually reject much of what Jesus accomplished in and through it. I’ll end with the closing paragraph of the chapter.

The religion that attempts to drive a wedge between the whole realm of Faith and the actual textures of physical life is a religion that has perhaps not granted to the Incarnation the full extent of the mysteries that attach to it and flow from it, and that make our mortal life fruitful once more.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 1

Posted: January 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 1

I purchased Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard because Elizabeth Esther decided to host a weekly book club conversation on her blog and her description of the book sounded interesting. I’m sure it will be more interesting to follow the conversation on her blog (this week’s installment kicks off with a video), so I encourage anyone interested to read the conversation there. However, since I’m reading through the book, I thought I would capture some of my reaction to each chapter here as well.

Chapter One highlights some common distinctive features of the evangelicalism that shaped Thomas Howard in his childhood formation. He is not negative about that experience. Indeed, he adopts an attitude of thankfulness and points out the positive aspects of each distinctive without even really raising the less positive side of each. I think that’s a good way to begin a book like this.

Even though I can’t claim that this sort of perspective was a dominant feature of my childhood formation, I have been in a single evangelical church since the conclusion of my journey of conversion in my very early thirties. I could recognize most of the traits he outlines in my church. A couple of comments really stood out to me, though.

Evangelical spirituality centers, finally, on personal daily devotions, also called “quiet time.”

That nails it. If you ask anyone what discipline to practice, that’s what you’ll hear, and that’s pretty much all you’ll hear. I tried it, of course, for an extended period of time. It’s what I’ve always done within any sort of spiritual context. Practice it as recommended and see what happens. Personally, I’m stumped how this single discipline suffices for spiritual formation for anyone. I found it particularly ill-suited for me and began searching for anything with more depth fairly quickly. I suppose that’s one reason I simply haven’t read a great deal by “evangelical” authors. I still don’t grasp how this singular practice came to be the center and almost the fullness of evangelical spirituality. It’s one of those things that remains a mystery to me.

The acid test of vocal prayer came at the end of the prayer, however. If someone finished his petition or thanksgiving with a bald “Amen,” he gave everything away. He was not one of us. A true evangelical used the scriptural formula, asking it all in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, or, in the shorter phrase, “… in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

I had to laugh at that one. It’s one of those little things you pick up pretty quickly. I’ll also add that, even though we affirm the Trinitarian nature of the faith, heaven forbid if you close a prayer “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.” You also won’t hear prayers opened addressing the Holy Spirit. There are lots of unspoken rules regarding “spontaneous” prayer within evangelicalism.

I also found it somewhat interesting that the book was published in 1984. At that point in my life I was not very open to Christianity at all. In fact, I had a great deal of antipathy toward Christianity and Christians. If you had told me then that one day I would consider myself someone who was at least attempting to become Christian, I would have laughed at you. I probably also would have taken it as a major insult. And I held a particular antipathy toward the sort of Christian Thomas Howard describes as “evangelical” in this chapter. Go figure.

The opening chapter really just lays the groundwork to describe the outlines of what Thomas Howard is referencing as “evangelical” in the book, but he does so in a generous and irenic fashion. He is not angry about his upbringing as some who are raised within evangelical confines can be. He just eventually found that it was insufficient. It was not enough. The rest of the book explores the reasons why that’s true.


The Didache 18 – Confession

Posted: June 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 18 – Confession

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.

The Teaching emphasizes confession. As in James, the earliest records are of confession before the whole church. Historically, it developed to be just the presbyter listening as you confessed to the Lord because public confession tended to harm those who heard the confession and were not strong enough to bear it. Some would hear the sin confessed and be tempted by that same sin. Others would hear the confession and pride like that of the pharisee in the parable of the pharisee and the publican would begin to weave its way into their hearts. Yet it is important that we confess to someone or the confession simply does not have the same power in our own minds and lives. Silent, inward confession does not tend to lead to change.

Confession has all but vanished from modern evangelicalism. The “altar call” or “invitation” provides a poor substitute among those groups who use it. “Accountability partners or groups” feel creepy and sick to me the way they are typically presented. They seem to be more about artificial control-based relationships than anything else. There is no confession. And as a result we are not honest with each other, with ourselves, or with God.

How can we avoid the masquerade discussed in my previous post if we do not know how to tell the truth?

For that is ultimately what confession is. We tell the truth about ourselves to God in the presence of another human being. And in so doing, we begin to become human once more.

This marks the end of the Teaching on the way of life. It’s been a list of commandments to do and things we need not to do. All of it taken together forms the way of life.