Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


The Jesus Prayer 1 – History, Scripture, and the Meaning of Mercy

Posted: February 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 1 – History, Scripture, and the Meaning of Mercy

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

It seems to me that a life of unceasing or constant prayer is very often dismissed as impossible by many Christians today. I’m not entirely sure why that’s so. For most of Christian history, the discipline of prayer has been one of the central practices of Christian faith. And it seems clear that St. Paul considered prayer extremely important. In no fewer than four places in the Holy Scriptures, he exhorts those hearing his words to pray constantly or unceasingly. If it’s captured that many times in the texts of Scripture, we can be certain it featured prominently in his oral exhortations and teachings.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Rom. 12:12)

Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance. (Eph. 6:18)

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with Thanksgiving. (Col. 4:2)

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

I think, to riff off Chesterton, the discipline of constant prayer has not been attempted and found impossible or wanting by so many Christians today. Rather it has been found difficult and left untried.

And it is certainly difficult. I’m the first to confess that my rule of prayer is a poor one and even so I fail to keep it as often as I succeed. My efforts at constant prayer still produce sketchy results at best. But I do believe that St. Paul would not have kept exhorting those under his care to pray constantly if it were not humanly possible to do so.

Moreover, the practice and seriousness of the ascetic discipline of prayer colors and shapes the whole of Christian history. I first encountered the Christian discussion of unceasing prayer through Bro. Lawrence, but the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries are the ones to whom Khouria Frederica turns in this chapter. We think we need novelty in prayer lest it become stale and we become numb to it, but the following story speaks volumes about that conceit.

Abba Pambo (AD 303-75) could not read, so he asked another desert dweller to teach him a psalm. When he heard the first words of Psalm 39, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue,” he asked the other monk to stop and then meditated on that verse alone — for nineteen years. (Asked whether he was ready to hear at least the remainder of the verse, he replied that he had not mastered the first part yet.)

We now live in a literate culture with easy access to almost any text we desire, including myriad translations of the texts of Scripture. Moreover, there are everywhere churches that claim to be “bible-believing.” But can we honestly say that we take the texts that seriously? What does belief mean in this context?

The particular form of the Jesus Prayer arose because so many of those who encountered Jesus in the Gospels asked for mercy. I’m not sure exactly why this prayer is the one that kept coming to me when I was searching for a breath prayer, but that likely had something to do with it. (And perhaps it’s also an example of the mercy of our Lord. He knew the prayer I needed, even if I didn’t.)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
      Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
            Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
                  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Khouria Frederica then asks a good question. What does it mean to ask for mercy? I never realized it was a good question until I read this section of her book. I had always read it the way we see it used in Scripture and in many contexts of history, literature, and life. Asking for mercy is a way of asking for help.

But a lot of Christians today think of mercy as something a prisoner begs from a judge — basically a plea for leniency. While that’s a limited, but valid, meaning of the term in English, that’s not the way it’s used in Scripture, common Christian usage, or even in general usage. If you take mercy on someone, you help them. I’ve always seen it so. But I realized that in my Christian context, a lot of my fellow Christians have equated mercy with the leniency of a judge, not with rescue.

God’s forgiveness is a gift bestowed on all humanity. We don’t need to ask for it. We don’t need to do anything to gain it. He is a good God who loves mankind. His forgiveness is abundant and free. The following quote captures the real problem better than anything I could write.

So this isn’t a question about whether we’ve forgiven. No, the problem lies elsewhere; the problem is we keep on sinning. Sin is in us like an infection in the blood. It keeps us choosing to do and say and think things that damage Creation and hurt other people — and the ill effects rebound on us as well. There can even be sin without guilt. Sometimes we add to the weary world’s burden of sin through something we did in ignorance or unintentionally, for example, by saying something that hurt a hearer for reasons we knew nothing about. Our words increased the sin-sickness in the world, yet we are not guilty for that unintentional sin (though we are still sorry for inadvertently causing pain). Sin can be recognized as a noxious force on earth without having to pin the guilt on someone every time.

In the Eastern view, all humans share a common life; when Christ became a member of the human race, our restoration was begun. The opposite is, sadly, true as well; our continuing sins infect and damage everybody else, and indeed Creation itself. It’s like air pollution. There is suffering for everyone who shares our human life, everyone who breathes, even the innocent who never did anyone harm.

I will add that we need look no further than the life of Christ to see the truth of that last sentence. If there was ever anyone who was truly innocent, it was he. And yet he shared in all our suffering. So when we cry to him for mercy — for help — Jesus understands in a way only another human being could. We keep asking for mercy because we continue to need help. At least, I continue to need help every moment and every day. I suppose I shouldn’t presume to speak for others who may need less help than me. Sometimes, if I stop asking for mercy, I begin to believe I no longer need any help. That rarely ends well.

I’ll close with another quoted paragraph from this chapter. It describes what has been slowly (sometimes imperceptibly) happening in my life.

Theosis is a vast and daunting goal even to imagine, so there’s something distinctively, sweetly Christian about using a prayer that is so simple. There have been plenty of other religions that taught convoluted mystical procedures for union with God, but for Christians it is as straightforward as calling on our Lord and asking him for mercy. As you form the habit of saying this prayer in the back of your mind all the time, it soaks into you, like dye into cotton, and colors the way you encounter every person and circumstance you meet.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


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.


The Jesus Creed 16 – A Society of Restoration

Posted: September 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 16 – A Society of Restoration

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 23:8-12; Mark 5:24-34; Luke 5:12-16.

If justice is really about restoring people to God and others, then it follows we are a society of restoration. So this is an obvious next step.

However, the chapter begins with a discussion of miracles. Scot McKnight explores the way many Christians think that miracles are proofs of various sorts. And while they do, in fact, prove that Jesus is God, the Son of God, and basically is ‘right‘, that’s really more of a side-effect. I hadn’t thought of it exactly that way, but it’s a strong thought.

God isn’t in the show-off business or in the convincing business. Miracles, again speaking generally, are not done to prove the truth about God or about Jesus Christ. They may reveal plenty about Jesus (as our next chapter will show), but their intent is often otherwise.

I must emphasize this: Miracles do reveal things about God and His Son. That is beyond dispute; that they are always designed to prove something is disputable. I’m on the side of those who think Jesus did miracles, and on the side of those who think miracles tell us something about Jesus and about truth. But I am also on the side of those who think the miracles had intents other than proving something.

Let that sink in for a bit. I’ll go further. I believe God is still in the miracle business today. There is little else that accounts for some aspects of my experience and life. But it isn’t about ‘proving something’. At least I don’t see it that way. What is it most often about? Restoration. And that, as the title indicates, is McKnight’s point.

It is quite easy to see the normal intent of Jesus’ healing miracles. Any glance at the many records of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels reveals what the miracles normally do: They restore people. Miracles are performed by Jesus out of love and are done to restore humans to God and to others. Miracles are what happens when the Jesus Creed becomes restorative.

Think about that. As we expect the Jesus Creed to restore, do we live in expectation of miracles? Not at our beck and call as some ‘Christian‘ sideshows would proclaim, but unexpectedly and when and where they are needed? It’s something to ponder.

Jesus heals to restore others into a society without the age-old classifications. He heals to knock down walls between people.

Scot then proceeds to examine two walls that are crushed by the restorative power of the Jesus Creed.

Wall #1: Women Join the Table.

He uses one specific illustration, but the evidence is legion. Jesus breaks down the societal classifications/walls that keep women from the table of God.

Wall #2: Lepers Come to the Table.

Lepers were the prototypical outcast. Unclean. Unable to participate in any of the functions of society. The functional equivalent of the Hindu Untouchables. Jesus restored them. Again and again. I’m not sure the implications can be overstated. McKnight describes Jesus as “a contagion of purity”. Meditate on that a bit. He wasn’t consumed with the fear that others would make him impure, but confident that by bringing them to his table, he could make them pure.

Which model are we called to follow?


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.


The Jesus Creed 11 – John: The Story of Love

Posted: September 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 11 – John: The Story of Love

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: Mark 10:35-45; Luke 9:49-56; John 13.

In John’s story we see the process of learning to love. John became the Apostle of Love, but he didn’t start that way. Not even close. In fact, not once during the gospels does John show any evidence of the love for which he would later be celebrated. Read them. They tell the truth. And the truth about John shows little love.

John does learn about love. He even ties loving God and loving others together, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” But John had a long way to go before he learned to live lovingly. In the gospels, John fails when he is tested in love. His failures are less celebrated than Peter’s denials, but I’m not sure that should be the case.

First, there’s John and James ‘request’ to let one sit on Jesus’ left and the other on his right. “If love is service (which is what Jesus goes on to explain to the brothers), then John fails in love.

Then John fails to recognize someone exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. John tries to stop them and ‘tells on them’ to Jesus. “To which Jesus gives the agelessly valuable response, ‘whoever is not against us is for us.’ Anyone following the Jesus Creed would not denounce someone who is breaking down demonic walls. Except John.

And then finally there’s John wanting to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan town refusing Jesus hospitality because he was heading for Jerusalem.

John does eventually learn love. But key to that is that he was loved and loved deeply by Jesus. How does he describe himself? The disciple whom Jesus loved. John is a slow learner, but that constant exposure sinks in.

I probably empathize and connect more with John’s story of learning love than anyone’s, though Peter’s story of conversion is a close second.  I have always loved and desired family, but love of others was never my creed. At best, my perspective was that which fulfills the Wiccan Rede: An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will. At worst, my perspective was more along the lines of: Do unto others before they do unto you.

I still don’t think I would say that I’ve learned love.  I would say that I now desire to love — to truly love as Christ loves. While that’s quite a step for me, I don’t think it counts for all that much until I actually love. Until then, I pray for mercy as the least loving of all.

It occurs to me that scattered through my posts, I mention Wicca, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other spiritual paths. It’s unlikely that many who read will be familiar with the many threads that shape my thoughts and thus my references. As a rule, I’m more drawn to the more ancient religions. Even so, though I have never been Wiccan, I have had friends who were and it’s one of the modern spiritualities that has to one extent or another shaped my life. I still remember how struck my wife was at the final line of a Wiccan handfasting of some friends of ours many years ago. You have been married since you met. She said that line described how she felt with me.

With that in mind, for those who may have never read or heard, I’m going to share the full Wiccan Rede. I do not believe it reveals the fullness of truth or I would be Wiccan rather than Christian. But there are ways to shape your life that are much worse.

The Wiccan Rede

Bide within the Law you must, in perfect Love and perfect Trust.
Live you must and let to live, fairly take and fairly give.

For tread the Circle thrice about to keep unwelcome spirits out.
To bind the spell well every time, let the spell be said in rhyme.

Light of eye and soft of touch, speak you little, listen much.
Honor the Old Ones in deed and name,
let love and light be our guides again.

Deosil go by the waxing moon, chanting out the joyful tune.
Widdershins go when the moon doth wane,
and the werewolf howls by the dread wolfsbane.

When the Lady’s moon is new, kiss the hand to Her times two.
When the moon rides at Her peak then your heart’s desire seek.

Heed the North winds mighty gale, lock the door and trim the sail.
When the Wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.

When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss you on the mouth.
When the wind whispers from the West, all hearts will find peace and rest.

Nine woods in the Cauldron go, burn them fast and burn them slow.
Birch in the fire goes to represent what the Lady knows.

Oak in the forest towers with might, in the fire it brings the God’s
insight.   Rowan is a tree of power causing life and magick to flower.

Willows at the waterside stand ready to help us to the Summerland.
Hawthorn is burned to purify and to draw faerie to your eye.

Hazel-the tree of wisdom and learning adds its strength to the bright fire burning.
White are the flowers of Apple tree that brings us fruits of fertility.

Grapes grow upon the vine giving us both joy and wine.
Fir does mark the evergreen to represent immortality seen.

Elder is the Lady’s tree burn it not or cursed you’ll be.
Four times the Major Sabbats mark in the light and in the dark.

As the old year starts to wane the new begins, it’s now Samhain.
When the time for Imbolc shows watch for flowers through the snows.

When the wheel begins to turn soon the Beltane fires will burn.
As the wheel turns to Lamas night power is brought to magick rite.

Four times the Minor Sabbats fall use the Sun to mark them all.
When the wheel has turned to Yule light the log the Horned One rules.

In the spring, when night equals day time for Ostara to come our way.
When the Sun has reached it’s height time for Oak and Holly to fight.

Harvesting comes to one and all when the Autumn Equinox does fall.
Heed the flower, bush, and tree by the Lady blessed you’ll be.

Where the rippling waters go cast a stone, the truth you’ll know.
When you have and hold a need, harken not to others greed.

With a fool no season spend or be counted as his friend.
Merry Meet and Merry Part bright the cheeks and warm the heart.

Mind the Three-fold Laws you should three times bad and three times good.
When misfortune is enow wear the star upon your brow.

Be true in love this you must do unless your love is false to you.

These Eight words the Rede fulfill:

“An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will”


God Is Holy

Posted: April 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on God Is Holy

I was reading something this past week when I had a sudden epiphany. For the first time, I had a sense that I grasped something of what people tend to mean when they use that tricksy word, holy. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the word itself means something set apart particularly for religious purposes, something or someone who is other. And in that sense, God is wholly other from us.

The proper dividing line from a Christian perspective is not between the natural and the supernatural or between the religious and secular. No, the proper division is between the uncreated and the created. On the one side we have God and on the other, we have everything else. Thus God is the thrice Holy, the one who is completely other in essence from all creation. We use the word holy in this context as the linguistic marker for that which beyond our ken. It’s a tautology. We could as readily say that God is God.

That’s part of the beauty and wonder of the Incarnation. The uncreated, the holy (and wholly) other, entered into creation and joined his nature, being, and essence forever with the created. We had no way to truly know God if God had not only come to us, but become one of us. God with us is a name of beautiful mystery.

I realized this week that people were using holy as though they knew what it meant, as though it had a specific set of definable attributes. Thus when they said that God is holy, they had in mind a specific list of attributes and behaviors. God is like this and God acts this way because he is holy. Through the use of the word holy, a word intended to elucidate God’s transcendence, they were actually constraining God. That strikes me as a risky proposition.

Of course, holy in this context is not generally used by itself. And I think the way it is typically paired is illuminating. That was the central aspect of my little epiphany. God is holy and just. Have you perhaps heard that particular phrase before? It implies several things. First, God’s holiness, his apartness, correlates in some sense to some idea of justice. Moreover, I have the sense that people who use that phrase believe they know what it means to be just. I have the feeling that they equate justness with the application of reward and punishment according to some sort of set standard. Those who have wronged others will get their just desserts. (I also have a feeling that few people wish to have that same standard applied to them.)

Within the systems and structures of our world, that’s not even a bad formulation of what it means to be just. After all, we see the injustice that results from tyrants and within the setting of failed states. And we see how structures of order can reduce suffering — particularly among those whom they are designed to favor. However, in fairness, those structures tend to improve life for all.  Even those who tend to get the short end of the justice stick from the systems in the US generally suffer less than those at the mercy of the warlords in a failed state. But even in an unjust, but strong dictatorship, like the former one of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, most people tend to live relatively safe and undisturbed lives.

Certainly our God is a just God. I would not argue with that statement. I do, however, take issue with the idea that God’s justness conforms to our ideas about justness. I love Jonah. And this is one of the reasons why I do. Jonah ran from God and was angry at God not because he didn’t know God, but because he did. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and it was a long-standing and brutal empire. The Assyrians understood how empires had to work in order to endure. They were feared and hated and with reason. And Jonah wanted God to make them pay. Jonah wanted justice and his definition of it was pretty much like ours.

So why did he run? Why, when he could not escape, did he put minimal effort in his prophecy? “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That was it. And why, when the city — every man, woman, child, and even animal — repented, was Jonah pissed off at God? Was it because Jonah didn’t understand God? No. Jonah knew God. He knew God to be compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and abundant in mercy, and willing to change your heart concerning evils. God did exactly what Jonah expected him to do and Jonah just wanted to die.

God is a just God, certainly. But when we say that, we have to recognize that we don’t truly know what it means to be just. If we want to understand true justness, we have to look to Jesus. And if the gospels don’t stand everything you thought you knew about reality on its head, then I would suggest you might not have truly read them.

I will also note, for what it’s worth, that the phrase “holy and just” does not appear at all in many English translations of the Holy Scriptures. In the KJV and NKJV translations it does appear once in Romans 7 as a partial description of Torah. Nowhere that I know does that particular combination of words describe God.

As Christians, our Scriptures do tell us what forms the essence of the otherness of God. 1 John 4:8 says, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Of course, we don’t understand the reality of love any more than we grasp true justice. But we have the fullness of the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And as we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, we perhaps begin to know love.

I’m not sure exactly how it is that so many people envision God. But it is clear to me that they have constructed a framework and placed God within it. I think their holy and just God might be more similar to the Stoic God of perfect order than anything we find in Christ.

I’m also not sure what form God’s justice will take as he ultimately sets all things ‘to rights’ as the English would say. I’m prepared to simultaneously be shocked and surprised even as I say, “Of course. that’s how it had to be.” If I understand anything of Jesus, though, I am certain that justice will flow from the love which is his essence and I know it will be full of compassion and mercy. Until then, I will use the thrice Holy to describe God, but only in the sense that God is the only Uncreated, not as though I have actually described anything of the nature and attributes of God.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 2

Posted: April 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

2.  Dispassion engenders love, hope in God engenders dispassion, and patience and forbearance engender hope in God; these in turn are the product of complete self-control, which itself springs from fear of God. Fear of God is the result of faith in God.

This text by St. Maximos revolves another idea we are prone to misunderstand. When we think of someone who is dispassionate, we tend to think of someone who is emotionless — either because they suppress or repress their emotions or because they have none. We most often associate dispassion, then, with the absence of emotion.

But that’s not what it generally means in ancient Christian writings. Since it is used pretty frequently, it’s an important concept to understand. The best explanation I’ve encountered is this one. Dispassion describes a state where, when you experience an emotion, you do not act on that emotion without a conscious act of volition or will. In other words, it describes a state where, rather than being ruled by our passions as we so often are, we rule them instead.

Dispassion does not mean that we do not experience emotion. It does not mean that we do express emotion. It does not mean that we do not act from that emotion. But it does mean that we do not think or act in response to that emotion without a conscious and deliberate choice.

Few of us ever attain this sort of dispassion even fleetingly. But I think it has to describe how Jesus lived his whole life. How else could he have kept his human will faithfully aligned with God’s if his every response was not under his conscious, volitional control? After all, he experienced the full range of human emotion and he often did so under more intense conditions than many of us will ever know. Yet even in the middle of his torture and execution, as he was reviled by all around him, he did not revile them in turn. Clearly, Jesus was a man who never “lost control” of himself.

I think we often interpret Jesus as though his thoughts and actions springing from his emotional responses mirrored our own. For instance, we often describe his actions overturning tables and driving out moneychangers from the temple as though Jesus became enraged and responded from that anger. But that’s not how it is described in the Gospels. Rather, it is portrayed as a prophetic act. Prophets didn’t just speak. They often acted in outrageous ways. And it was a Messianic act of cleansing and “rebuilding” the temple. And the leaders and the people understood it in that way. Efforts to eliminate him intensified.

No, Jesus didn’t fly off the handle and lose control in the temple. He acted faithfully in perfect accordance with God’s will. Was he also angry? Perhaps. It would have been a normal emotional response in those circumstances. But it was not anger that was driving him, whether he experienced it or not.

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one place where our Scriptures explicitly tell us Jesus was angry, and that was standing in front of Lazarus’ tomb. In Jesus we see the sorrow and anger of God at the death of the eikon. We know that Jesus experienced all that we experience, so we know that he felt all our normal range of emotions. But we are infrequently informed in our Scriptures about Jesus’ internal emotional state or experience at any particular moment. And while I see no harm in our attempts to see things from his perspective, we need to always keep in mind that even in his extremity his emotions never ruled him.

I also find the order of St. Maximos’ last thought interesting. Fear of God flows from faith in God and not the other way around. It strikes me that a lot of people today tend to get that one backwards.


Original Sin 12 – God & the Nations

Posted: March 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 12 – God & the Nations

So God doesn’t eternally condemn or separate from his people, but he called a specific people because he does condemn the nations, right? After all, they don’t worship him, but other gods instead. They are mired in practices God condemns and it seems like God completely rejected them when he called his own people. And whether we call the people of God ‘Israel’ or we call his people the ‘Church’, they are still his people. He loves them and condemns the nations, right?

That is actually a valid question. And even if it’s not expressed exactly in those terms, how often do you hear things in Christian churches today that fall somewhere along those lines? I think you’ll find that the sentiment is broader than you might have imagined. Does it help if we call the nations the ‘world’?

In the Old Testament, I find one of the clearest answers to that question in Jonah. God loved the nations, even then, so much that he sent a prophet to them. That was a highly unusual act. After all, as far as everyone was concerned, he wasn’t the God of the Ninevites. They had their own gods. Moreover, they weren’t even a friendly nation. They were enemies of the people of God.

We usually reduce the story of Jonah to one about trying to avoid doing what God wants us to do. And while it’s true that we should not fail to do what God would have us do (even though we really don’t like much of what the NT has to say on that topic), that’s not really the point of Jonah. The focus is less on Jonah trying to avoid acting as God’s prophet and more on why he was trying to avoid that call. Jonah is running because he hates the Ninevites and wants them to be destroyed. And, as he says again and again, he knows that God is “compassionate and merciful, longsuffering and abundant in mercy, and willing to change your heart concerning evils.”

Jonah knew God better than many Christians seem to know God. He knew God had no problem with forgiveness. And he was thoroughly ticked at God for that precise reason.

The story in the Old Testament is never about inherited guilt. It’s about what people (or collectively nations) choose to do or not do. And God is first and foremost a God of patience, compassion, and mercy. That makes sense, of course, if Jesus really is God because that is one of the things that marks the Gospels so distinctively.