Thirsting for God 17 – Mary, The Theotokos

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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

Hail Mary,
full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus.

Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Amen

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin discusses something which I’ve noticed often leads evangelicals to act and react in strange ways, the veneration of Mary, the mother of our Lord. The prayer which I’ve quoted above is one I learned when I attended Catholic school (as a non-Catholic) and it has stayed with me across the decades. It’s a prayer I remember finding myself praying even when I considered myself more Hindu than anything resembling Christian. It would spring to my mind at odd times — sometimes when meditating, at times under stress, and from time to time during other activities as well. It was never constantly running through my mind, but I never forgot it and at odd moments it would surface.

I suppose that experience, as much as anything else, made me skeptical of evangelical critiques of Mary as I encountered them. While the factors that ultimately led to the completion of my journey into something like Christian conversion are many and varied, Mary certainly deserves part of the credit. Some part of me believed the prayer above long before I accepted anything else about Christianity.

Moreover, the evangelical aversion to Mary, the Mother of God, does not strike me as entirely rational. After all, the first sentence of the prayer above pretty much comes straight from the Holy Scriptures and the second sentence is simply a humble request for intercession. Mary, herself, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesied in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. It’s almost as though evangelicals have adopted the view that the Mother of God was nothing more than a vessel for the Incarnation and that if she had said no, any other woman would have sufficed. Such a view is actually a fresh expression of an ancient heresy, for it diminishes the humanity of Jesus. He was not merely inhabiting flesh and needed an impersonal vessel to grow that flesh. No, Jesus became fully human which means that Mary was an active agent in the Incarnation. Everything human that Jesus was and is, he drew from her.

And there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that God had a Plan B. Mary’s yes to God is poetically described in Christian tradition as healing Eve’s no. Mary is sometimes called the new Eve as Jesus is the new Adam. In this sense, then, Mary’s yes to God saves us all, for without that yes, there would have been no Incarnation and our salvation rests wholly in Jesus of Nazareth.

In a lesser sense, the same thing is true for each of us, though the magnitude and scope of our choices and their consequences are not as broad as Mary’s were. When we say no to God, he doesn’t go pick another vessel to magically replace us. If that were true, creation would not be as broken as it is.

Matthew opens with a poignant story of his brother, who died many years before.  I’m going to quote his next few paragraphs because I think they reveal a problem which has long bothered me in my Baptist circles.

Now, not one of my Protestant friends would think it strange if, while standing before that bookshelf [holding the picture of his brother], I were to pick up Barry’s photograph and give it a kiss. But what happens when I take two large strides to the right to my icon shelf, and kiss the icon of Mary, the Theotokos? Now, suddenly, I’m an idolater. What changed? What’s wrong with Mary, that she’s not worthy of the kind of love and respect I would give to my departed brother?

Or suppose I kiss the icon of my daughter’s patron saint, Vera. Just like my brother Barry, she died a violent death. Nineteen centuries ago, at the age of twelve, she was martyred for the sake of Christ, along with her mother and two younger sisters. But in Protestant eyes, showing her the kind of love I would give to my brother is a sinful thing to do.

Just what is the problem here? When I began to struggle with this issue, I saw something paradoxical in my old Protestant attitudes. On the one hand, I would condemn people who honored Mary and the saints; yet on the other hand, I saw nothing wrong with honoring respected Protestant preachers and teachers, living or dead. It was perfectly okay to sing the praises of these people, to watch videos and slide shows that recounted their deeds, and get all misty-eyed as someone performed “Thank You for Giving to the Lord.” But if I saw someone giving laud and honor to the woman who bore the Savior in her womb — why, the very act made that person’s Christianity questionable!

Is Mary special or isn’t she? Be careful how you answer that question, for one thing seems to me to be certain. Mary is at least as special to the one called Jesus the Christ as our own mothers are to us. But it goes even deeper than that. Mary is not called Theotokos (literally God-bearer) by chance or accident. Although the title can be traced as far back as the second century, it was affirmed in the Council of Ephesus in 431 over and against competing titles such as Anthropotokos (bearer of a man) and Christotokos (Christ-bearer). The competing views were not really about Mary, but about the nature of the child she bore in her womb. And the competing groups rejected the idea that Mary had carried and given birth to God. The affirmation of the title Theotokos was an affirmation that Jesus was fully God.

Me? I tend to believe that Mary did, in fact, pray and intercede for me, even when I didn’t really believe in her or her Son, much less believe I was a ‘sinner.’ In fact, I believe to this day she is more likely to pray for us than many of the people who tell us to our faces that they will. I do the best I can not to tell someone that I will pray for them unless I’m sure I will, but even so my record is less than stellar. I have a sense that failing is not unique to me.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 2

Posted: December 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 2

13. Not even the grace of the Holy Spirit can actualize wisdom in the saints unless there is an intellect capable of receiving it; or spiritual knowledge unless there is a faculty of intelligence that can receive it; or faith unless there is in the intellect and the intelligence full assurance about the realities to be disclosed hereafter and until then hidden from everyone; or gifts of healing unless there is natural compassion; or any other gift of grace without the disposition and faculty capable of receiving it. On the other hand, a man cannot acquire a single one of these gifts with his natural faculties unless aided by the divine power that bestows them. All the saints show that God’s grace does not suspend man’s natural powers; for, after receiving revelations of divine realities, they inquired into the spiritual principles contained in what had been revealed to them.

This expands on the theme of synergy. If we do not have the natural capacity or predisposition for a gift, grace cannot impose it on us. I think the example of healing is a good one. If we do not have compassion, if we do not suffer with those who need healing, how can God’s grace give us a gift for healing of any sort? God does not overpower us and turn us into marionettes. He heals, completes, and empowers us to be fully human as we were created to be. God overflows with grace. In one sense, we lead powerless lives because we choose to don spiritual raincoats.


Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

Posted: December 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

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

One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism is sola scriptura. Actually, that’s not exactly true — at least to my eyes. I would push a little deeper than Matthew Gallatin does at this point in his book. The fundamental tenet of Protestantism is that each individual can and must decide for themselves what is or is not true. Whether a particular strand says they depend on Scripture alone or whether they say they depend on some combination of scripture, reason, and tradition, that tenet holds. Sola Scriptura is one way of asserting individual interpretation over against any other interpretive grid.

Now, in practice, every Protestant sect tries to teach its members its own interpretation of Christian faith and practice. But since every strand began by asserting that the group from which it splintered was wrong in some way, there isn’t really any way for it to keep the views of its own members from also diverging over time. As we’ve seen over the past five hundred years, that inevitably happens in every single Protestant group. And it happens pretty quickly. That’s how we’ve gotten to the point of having tens of thousands of denominations and non-denominations who all claim to worship the same God even as they hold wildly divergent and often contradictory beliefs about that God. Why?

The Scriptures alone can never show us what the objective truth about God is.

That’s not a new realization. One of the early Christian apologists wrote that the Scriptures (speaking primarily of what we call the Old Testament, of course) were like a mosaic showing us the face of Christ. However, the heretics took the tiles of the mosaic and formed them into a picture of a wolf or a fox instead. Christians have always recognized that you could assemble Scripture to argue for many different ideas, but most of those were not true. In fact, the heretics were often masters at that task. Arius, for example, had a convincing interpretation for every Scripture with which he was challenged. Ultimately, his interpretation was not rejected because it could be proven wrong, but because it was not what the Church in all places had believed since the time of the Apostles.

So what’s important to a Protestant believer is not just “the Scriptures alone.” What he actually puts his faith and trust in is his interpretation of “the Scriptures alone.”

It’s axiomatic to me that no text says anything without interpretation. So that’s not the revelation to me that it was to Matthew. The normal response, of course, is to assert that the Holy Spirit is guiding our individual interpretation. But can that be the case?

Is the Holy Spirit directing both of us? If He is, then that leaves us with a most disconcerting picture of the Spirit of God. For the Spirit, whom Christ calls the Spirit of truth, is busily at work sabotaging the longings of the Son! (that we be one)

Is the truth about God settled? Is there an underlying reality? Or is it up to each of us individually to determine the truth and reality of God? The foundation of Protestantism rests wholly on the individual. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not up for the task of being the ground of truth.

Matthew has a funny quote from one of his Catholic friends that, I think, strikes true.

We Catholics have an old saying: ‘Protestants believe that everyone is infallible, except the Pope!’


Thirsting for God 4 – Christian Relativism

Posted: December 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 4 – Christian Relativism

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

The fragmentation of truth and confusion about God within Protestantism has led it to a curious place. The following captures it well.

You don’t have to be concerned that other people have a different understanding of the truth. You just have to be true to your own convictions. One’s relationship with God is an entirely personal thing. Just live up to “the light that you have,” to what you believe the truth to be. That’s what God expects.

Initially, that laissez-faire approach to God suited me pretty well. My thoroughly pluralistic formation combined with the inclusive nature of Hinduism had shaped me into something like a hard relativist. However, I remember one day hearing someone talk about “their” Holy Spirit speaking to them and guiding them and I remember thinking, “Wait. Isn’t there one Holy Spirit? Who is so united in essence with the Father and the Son that they can be spoken of as one God?” I was recognizing the problem with Christian relativism that Matthew Gallatin outlines.

First of all, such thinking makes sincerity of conviction the key to salvation. … We can be at once sincere, and sincerely wrong!

That’s not an idle point and I like the way Matthew Gallatin draws it together.

After all, how can I think that an Arminian and a Calvinist can both have a valid relationship with the true God, unless Jesus Christ can be a different Person to different individuals? St. James is quite clear, however: in God there can be no such “variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). The Apostles Paul assures us there is only one God, one Lord, one faith, one hope (Ephesians 4:4-6). How can there be room in the Christian faith for spiritual relativism?

Now, I feel again that it’s important to say that God is a God of love who wants to be known as he knows us. He is seeking to save, not to condemn. The Incarnation makes that as clear as it could possibly be made. It would not surprise me at all if Plato and Lao Tzu were among the first to believe when Christ preached to the spirits in Hades as he destroyed death. Within every faith, I believe there are those like Emeth in The Last Battle, who have served Aslan even as they thought they followed Tash. How much more must there be many like that in the modern fragmentation of Christianity?

But God is who he is and not who we imagine him to be. To the extent that we are trying to relate to the God we imagine rather than the God who is, we might as well be relating to an imaginary friend. Most Protestants today are Christian relativists. The core ideas of Protestantism demand precisely that result, even if it’s not immediately evident. And while that was initially comfortable for me, it became less so fairly quickly.


Rebaptized?

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

Last week @writingjoy tweeted the following question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reflections on Resurrection 9 – Burial

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 9 – Burial

I have gradually come to understand that our funeral practices reveal a great deal about our actual beliefs. I grew up deeply aware of death and experienced a variety of approaches to death. Personally, I believed that cremation was best and, looking back, I can see the influences that led to that belief.

From a scientific, secular perspective cremation makes a great deal of sense. It’s economical. Modern cremation is sterile. It avoids the problem of crowded cemeteries. And whatever you think does or doesn’t happen after death, the remnant of a lifeless body has no value and nothing to offer.

Cremation is also the funeral practice of the Hinduism of my youth. (I understand that burial is a common practice in some strands of Hinduism.) The soul quickly proceeds on its karmic journey after death and the remains should be purified by fire to break any remaining ties and then scattered on a sacred river. (All rivers are sacred in Hinduism, I believe.) The real you, however that may be conceived, has moved on and the rites aid that journey.

I was Christian for many years before I even began to understand that burial is the normative Christian funeral practice. In large part that’s because the strands of Christianity within which I move have lost their connection to the historic faith and burial or cremation are largely seen as a matter of personal preference with no intrinsic significance or meaning. I eventually came to understand, though, that burial was the normative practice specifically because of our Christian belief in resurrection. The body is treated reverentially and not deliberately destroyed because it is not a discarded shell. Rather, that body is our beloved and it is that body which will be resurrected.

Of course, resurrection is not a zombie-like resuscitation of a corpse. It is intrinsically an act of new creation. However, this act of recreation uses up the matter of our bodies and is continuous with them. Two of the key features of Jesus’ resurrected body are that the tomb was empty and that, though strangely different, he was still recognizably the same person. We are our bodies, though we are not merely our bodies. It is ultimately this body which will be resurrected and it should be treated accordingly.

That does not mean that God’s power of resurrection is limited in any way by the treatment of our bodies. It was not uncommon for pagans in the ancient world to threaten saints with the complete destruction of their bodies because they thought that would shake their confidence in resurrection. God can and will raise us regardless. Nevertheless, the way we treat the bodies of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord speaks volumes about what we actually believe about resurrection.

Christians also confess that the bodies of those among us who have reposed have been the temple of the Holy Spirit. They have been the abode of God. As such, they are no less holy ground than the ground before the burning bush or the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple. If we believe that is true, then we must treat the body as a holy object.

Funeral practices matter and I think much of the confusion in practice in modern Christianity flows from our confusion about God and about what it means to be a human being. As Christians, we have forgotten who we are.

I believe this post concludes my reflections on resurrection for now. I didn’t delve into the reasons a belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (which is the foundation for our own belief) is historically reasonable. For those interested in such things, N.T. Wright gave a lecture at Roanoke College summarizing his big book on the topic, Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? I recommend it. It’s very well done.


Reflections on Resurrection 7 – Creation and Matter

Posted: November 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 7 – Creation and Matter

In order to grasp the Christian narrative of resurrection, I think it’s necessary to understand the larger narrative of creation and the nature of reality within which it’s embedded. While that’s a lengthy and complex topic in its own right, I’m going to explore a few facets in this post which I think are particularly important.

Matter is not eternal and creation was not something God accomplished by shaping or forming already existing material. Nor is reality marked by an eternal cycle as it is in some religions. In the Jewish and Christian narrative, God is said to have created ex nihilo, which is to say out of nothing. However, that idea itself has to be unpacked to be understood. As Christians, we begin by saying the only eternal is the uncreated God. The Father, the Son — begotten, not made, and the Holy Spirit proceeding eternally from the Father have always existed in a self-sufficient, perfect communion of love. God did not create because he lacked anything or needed anything. Creation, rather, is an overflow of love.

I began to understand that truth, when I heard someone (possibly Fr. Thomas Hopko) say that describing creation as ex nihilo is an incomplete statement. When we say that, we then have to ask: Where did the nothing come from? Think about that question for a minute. Let it fill you with its wonder. While it’s true that God fills and sustains everything, from the Christian perspective we would not say that God is everything. No, out of his overflow of love, God has made room — made space for nothing and time to order it — within which a creation that is truly other can be spoken and can grow. This is a great mystery, but creation is not merely an extension of God, but rather is free even as it is wholly filled and lovingly sustained moment by moment by God. While the Christian understanding is often described as panentheist (not to be confused with pantheist), I remember hearing N.T. Wright once say that a better term might be the-en-panist (God in all).

The only other perspective I know which can be described as panentheist is that of Brahman within Hinduism. But that’s a very different sort of perspective. I can’t possible summarize it in a paragraph, but it does hold that all that can be said to exist is Brahman, even as Brahman is also transcendent, or more than the sum of all that exists. It’s also a cyclical view of reality in marked contrast to the Christian view. Moreover, there is not the demarcation between the created and the uncreated which exists within Christianity. It’s a fundamentally different narrative.

When you perceive reality as the free overflow of love of a Creator God, the Christian story begins to come into focus and make sense. Of course, the God who loves it would see this creation as fundamentally good and the ones who were created according to the image of Christ in order to be formed into his likeness are seen by God as very good. While they are no less awe-inspiring, the lengths to which this God will go to rescue his creation make sense. They fit. And we also see that the Word would have always had to become flesh for us to ultimately be united with God. We did not have that capacity. If creation had not turned from God, Jesus would not have had to die to defeat death. But he always had to become one with us so that we might be one with God. Salvation is nothing less than union with Christ.

So then we see resurrection for what it is. It is God’s act of new creation for the human being. Death has been defeated and God makes us new. But Christ’s act of new creation does not stop with us. “Behold, I make all things new.” All creation has been rescued and the image we see is one of a new or renewed humanity serving truly as priests within a renewed creation. Unless you glimpse that whole picture, I’m not sure the individual bits and pieces make much sense.


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.