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 14 – Presentation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 14 – Presentation of the Theotokos

Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple

This feast is also called The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in Orthodox tradition and The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition. It commemorates the entrance or presentation of Mary as a child at the Temple in Jerusalem by her parents to serve as one of the Temple virgins. It’s celebrated on November 21.

It’s not clear to me exactly where this feast ranks in Catholic tradition, but it’s one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox liturgical year. (Four of the Great Feasts commemorate the Theotokos; this is the second one. As a note Pascha is not one of the twelve Great Feasts. Rather, it is considered the Feast of Feasts and stands alone and above all other feasts.)

Fr. Thomas Hopko has an essay online about the feast that’s well worth reading. As he notes, a central theme of the feast revolves around Mary entering the Temple to become herself the living Temple of God. As such, her entrance into the Temple celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God.


Mary 12 – Protection of the Theotokos

Posted: January 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mary 12 – Protection of the Theotokos

Icon of the Protection of the Theotokos

The Orthodox Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos celebrates an appearance of Mary, the Mother of God, at Blacharnae as recorded by St. Andrew, the Fool for Christ. (St. Andrew is depicted in the above icon wearing only a cloak.) The story of St. Andrew is available here. And the story of the manifestation of the Theotokos can be read here. The feast is commemorated on October 1.

The question St. Andrew asks his disciple, “Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?”, is an image which staggers me and yet, which feels right. Mary is always praying for us all.

An Akathist (particular sort of hymn) to the Protection of the Theotokos can be read here. I recommend reading it in its entirety, but I wanted to highlight the second prayer.

O my most blessed Queen, my all-holy hope, Receiver of orphans and Defender of the strangers, Helper of those in poverty, Protector of the sick, behold my distress, behold my affliction. On all sides am I held by temptation, and there is none to defend me. Help me then as I am weak, feed me as I am a pilgrim, guide me as I have strayed, heal and save me as I lie without hope. For I have no other help, nor advocate nor comforter, save Thee, O Mother of all the afflicted and heavy laden. Look down then on me, a sinner lying in sickness, and protect me with Thine all-holy Veil, that I be delivered from all the ills surrounding me and may ever praise Thy Name that all men sing. Amen.

Finally, the video below includes a slide show of many of the different icons of this feast as a hymn of the feast is sung.


The Jesus Prayer 13 – How to Pray

Posted: March 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 13 – How to Pray

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

Khouria Frederica next answers some basic questions about the mechanics of praying the Jesus Prayer. And one of those questions deals with how long to pray. Obviously the goal is to move toward learning to pray constantly, but the only way to begin moving in that direction is to have a specific rule that we can develop as a habit. Clocks and wristwatches (and cell phones!) have only become common fairly recently, so the traditional approach has been to measure the practice of the Jesus Prayer by its number of repetitions, typically in groups of one hundred. Beyond that, advice and practices have a wide range.

Personally, I’ve tried to incorporate fifty to a hundred repetitions of the Jesus Prayer in my morning prayer rule. Lately, my ability to consistently keep a regular prayer rule of any sort seems even poorer and more sporadic than it has often been. For me, the practice of stopping periodically throughout the day and praying ten to twenty Jesus Prayers has always been more important than a single lengthy period. I constantly need to redirect my will and attention. Some days, especially when I am under particular sorts of stress, I find the Jesus Prayer welling up into my conscious mind. I pause and pray and it generally alters the course of my thinking and behavior.

Khouria Frederica also mentions a prayer rope, an ancient traditional means for counting repetitions. I don’t have one personally, but have considered obtaining one. I have prayed the rosary and understand the benefits and order a tactile anchor can bring to prayer. She does mention that proper prayer ropes are fashioned while the one making them constantly prays the Jesus Prayer. And if their attention strays, they undo the knots and start over. I find it a beautiful thought that I might use an item over which so much prayer has been poured in my own prayers.

Finally, Khouria Frederica advises we have a particular place set aside for prayer. In Orthodox practice, that place is often one’s icon corner as icons also are an integral part of Orthodox prayer. I do agree that place is important and, as with any rule, consistency matters.

The book offers some solid, concrete guidance in these sections and clearly tries not to assume that the reader already knows and understands the objects and practices mentioned. I think that’s one of the things that makes this such a useful and practical book. All the theory in the world concerning prayer doesn’t mean a thing unless we actually pray.


The Jesus Prayer 7 – Seriousness of Disciplines

Posted: March 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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

Khouria Frederica points out that Orthodox Christians, at least those who actively practice their faith, take a more serious attitude toward spiritual disciplines than a lot of what you find today in the other Christian traditions.

This rests on the assumption that life is serious, salvation is serious, and in every moment we must decide anew to follow Christ.

It’s not that there is any question about God’s love or his forgiveness, as we’ve said; our salvation was accomplished on the cross. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). But we retain this terrifying freedom: we are still free to reject him. Judas’ tragic story is a sobering example. The end of our own story is not yet written, and every day exposes us to new temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses, probably better than we do, and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

That is why there is in Orthodox spirituality a quality of urgency. We don’t assume that we have already made it to the end of the race, put “press on,” as St. Paul said.

I think I’ve always intuitively understood that the things we do shape us — that they matter — and I’ve always had at least some awareness that we become like what we worship. In fact, I think I’ve sometimes confused my fellow Christians when I’ve told them I’m not interested in their arguments about the correctness of their particular vision of God. I’ve understood the image of the God they describe and it’s not a God I’m willing to worship, much less love. Once I’ve made that decision, I no longer care about their arguments or their logic behind their vision and understanding of God. I reject their version of God whether they are right or wrong, so I might as well assume they are wrong. It makes perfect sense to me, but it often seems to confound certain sorts of Christians. They are so used to living within their arguments and logic — within the cogitative intellect — that they don’t seem to know what to do when someone refuses to engage the entire framework itself. “I don’t care about your arguments” doesn’t seem to be a response for which they are prepared. When I wasn’t Christian, I used to have fun from time to time deconstructing some of the arguments and leading people in circles, but as I Christian I see that was mean-spirited and ultimately destructive, not least for what it did to me. So I try to catch myself now and simply disengage. Or describe the God I perceive, however dimly, to the  best of my limited ability, and just continually return to that rather than engaging in arguments. Or say nothing to start with if I don’t think it will be helpful. That’s probably the hardest thing of all for me to do.

With that said, I think it’s important that I pass along Khouria Frederica’s warning. The Jesus Prayer is a tradition embedded within the entire context of the life of Orthodoxy and it can be spiritually dangerous to try to lift it out of that context and practice it alone. Spiritual disciplines are accomplishing something real or there is no reason to practice them. If that is true, then without the proper context and guidance, they can be particularly risky. A spiritual practice will generally change you, for good or ill.

When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you are invoking the name of Jesus of Nazareth. You are proclaiming him the Jewish Messiah. You are acknowledging him as Lord and God. And you are asking his mercy as both God and King. These are not light things. Moreover, it matters who you say Jesus is when you do this. The less your perception of Jesus aligns with his reality, the more distorted your practice becomes. If that were not true, then it would not have mattered that the Arians believed him to be a creature or that the Nestorians believed his divine nature had obliterated his human nature. A spiritual discipline undertaken wrongly can engender pride, among many potential pitfalls. I agree with her warning.

Obviously that’s an odd thing for me to say. I’m not Orthodox. I have no spiritual father or mother. Yet I practice the Jesus Prayer. That’s true, and I freely confess I may be foolish in my actions. I certainly don’t recommend that anyone use my practice as a guide.

The only thing I can say is that the Jesus Prayer came to me unbidden. It came when I knew practically nothing about Orthodoxy (even if I later discovered they believed and taught so many of the things I had come to understand and believe about God). The Jesus Prayer came to me when I hardly knew who Jesus was or which of these myriad Christian Gods described in modern Christianity was real. My rule of prayer remains a poor one, but I don’t think I could stop praying the Jesus Prayer now any more than I could stop breathing.

I accept it humbly as a gift of God.

I will note that I don’t “play” Orthodox as I’ve heard some do. My fast is the one required of me by celiac disease. I don’t try to follow Orthodox fasting rules. In some sense I’m just not very good at prayer. In another sense, I deliberately keep my prayer rule simple. I think I can be prone to pride and it’s better if I don’t foster it. I don’t have an icon corner. I take spiritual practices seriously and I recognize fully that I am not Orthodox. I try not to delude myself.

So yes, I practice the Jesus Prayer, at least to a limited extent. But absent spiritual guidance, you may not want to try this at home. I feel I would be remiss if I did not share this warning from the book.

Peace.


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.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 6 – Resurrection

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now that I’ve discussed death and the abode of the death, it seems appropriate to interject the Christian belief in resurrection, certainly one of the most central tenets of our faith. (If you missed my post on Rob Bell’s Resurrection video, now’s a good time to pause and check it out.) Resurrection means and has always meant a physical, earthly life with a body that is in some sense continuous with our present body. There seems to be a lot of confusion on that point today. As far as I can tell, prior to Christ’s resurrection, the idea of any sort of resurrection was unique to the Jewish people. And their belief was far from universal even among themselves and markedly different in a number of key ways from what became the Christian confession in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’ve practiced a number of non-Christian religions and explored many more than I’ve actually practiced. I’ve also studied a bit of ancient history. I’m not aware of any religion outside Judaism and Christianity whose beliefs include resurrection. Resurrection is certainly a central part of the view of reality that drew me deeper into Christian faith and which keeps me in it. There are a few facets of the Christian confession which I know with certainty if I ceased to believe they were true, I would abandon this faith and move on to something else instead. Resurrection is one of those key facets. I’m frankly shocked that Resurrection seems more like an afterthought or something peripheral to many Christians today. It’s not. It’s right at the very center of our faith. Without resurrection nothing about Christianity is appealing or even makes sense.

In Christ’s Resurrection, which is the first fruit of our own future resurrection, death was destroyed. Humanity was in bondage to death and God had to rescue us from the vice of its relentless grip. Moreover, death was the ultimate tool that Satan and the Powers used to enslave us. And in and through that dark power, sin swirled around and within us. One of the many images used by the Christian Fathers was the image of a baited trap. Death thought it had swallowed a man in Jesus of  Nazareth and discovered too late that it had swallowed God. Sheol/Hades was burst open from the inside and death was destroyed. The icon of the harrowing of Hades speaks louder than words. The abode of the dead now stands empty with its gates burst asunder.

It was only a part of the story and purpose of the Incarnation, but in his death and resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, healed the wound of death in the nature of mankind. It is no longer our nature to die! We see that in the language of the Church. In the NT, those who have died are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord. God has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish in order to rescue us. Jesus has joined our nature with God’s and flowing from him are rivers of healing water. We are no longer subject to death and we live within the reality of the forgiveness of sins.

But God will not force himself on us. Jesus has truly done it all and offers us the power of grace, which is to say himself, in and through the Spirit for our healing. It’s in and through the mystery of the Incarnation that God can join himself with each of us. But in order to be healed, we must cooperate and participate with the Great Physician. We have to want God. Or at the least, we have to want to want God. (Sometimes that’s the best we are able to do. Not to worry, God came to us in the Incarnation and he will keep coming to us wherever we stand.) And thus we live in this interim period where the fullness of the work of Christ remains veiled.

Christianity has relatively little to say about what happens to us when we die or our “life after death.” Off-hand, I can think of only three places where it’s mentioned in the NT with virtually no detail offered. Our faith, however, has a great deal to say about resurrection, new creation, and re-creation. I like Bishop N.T. Wright’s phrase “life after life after death.” The Christian story is that we do not die. God sustains us somehow until that time when all humanity is resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

In light of that reality, perhaps it’s clear why I chose to place the post on Resurrection at this spot in the series. Sheol/Hades are no more. So where “hell” in Scripture is used to translate either of those words, it must in some sense be understood as referring to an aspect of reality that ended with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The enormity of just that one piece of Christ’s work is overwhelming to me.

Truly we can now shout, “Death, where is thy sting?


Four Hundred Texts on Love 8

Posted: April 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

30. You should know that you have been greatly benefited when you have suffered deeply because of some insult or indignity; for by means of the indignity self-esteem has been driven out of you.

Here we find another distinction in patristic thought that tends to run at a tangent to modern thought. It is true that there is a strong theme that, as icons of God, we should respect our nature. That is, we should have self-respect. The most important theme, though, is that we should try to see ourselves as we really are. And that is hard to do. On the one hand we want to think better of ourselves and thus construct that sort of false image. But the fathers also speak about the dangers of proclaiming how wicked we are, for that also is perversely a path of self-pride, especially when we exaggerate our wickedness.

Within that context, the fathers do not tend to value “self-esteem”. We tend to speak of a high self-esteem as good and a low self-esteem as bad. They would tend to say that there is a problem with esteeming ourselves at all, whether that esteem is high or low. We should esteem God and others highly. And we should strive to see ourselves truthfully.

Truth is hard. We hide ourselves from it because too much at once will crush us. We deceive ourselves as a defense. It is not true, as we often say, that truth — as in true knowledge — will set us free. More often than not, it destroys us. Truth is a harsh taskmistress. We attribute that saying about truth to Jesus, but that’s not actually what he said. Here is John 8:31-32.

If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

If we live according to the way of life, then we are truly following Jesus. And as we do so, we will come to know the truth and that truth is who will make us free. As Jesus says a few verses later:

Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.

Remember, one of the ways Jesus describes himself in John’s Gospel is as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As you can see from the full context, when he talks about knowing the truth, he is talking about knowing and relating to him. Yes, as we do so we will come to see the reality about ourselves more clearly, but through our communion with Jesus we will be able to bear it. The knowledge will heal rather than crush us.

He is a good God who loves mankind, and his purpose is to heal and commune with us, not condemn us. I think we too often forget that particular truth and it’s the most important one of all.


Original Sin 5 – Evolution

Posted: February 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

As I began to record my thoughts for today’s post, it dawned on me that the route this series is taking might seem to be a strange and circuitous one to some of those reading it. In part, I believe that is due to the way I’ve chosen to develop it. I’m writing from the perspective of my own personal interaction with this idea as I journeyed into my present Christian faith. As such, even though I am compressing and abridging that interaction, the shape of the series necessarily follows something like the shape of my own journey. And that also means that the series will explore problems and questions first; answers come later for I began to discover them later. It also means the issues, problems, and questions I encountered may not necessarily be the same ones someone else encounters in their journey. Though I mentioned my approach at the outset, I thought I should clarify. I realized that yesterday’s post and today’s might seem like a strange detour to some reading.

Yesterday I briefly discussed karma to illustrate how I was unwilling to exchange a framework with which I was pretty comfortable for an inferior one. That was tinged by an early recognition on my part that I could not continue to hold both. At a very deep level, the narrative of Resurrection is very different from and incompatible with the narrative within which karma functions. I would not say I suddenly dropped one and embraced the other. It was a lengthier process than that. But it did become clear from an early point — St. John the Theologian’s Gospel had a lot to do with that illumination — that if I continued my journey into Christianity, at some point I would shift narrative frameworks. (Although it’s not exactly relevant to this series, I’m struck by the manner in which so many modern Christians don’t seem to realize just how revolutionary, transforming, and counter-intuitive the narrative of Resurrection is.)

I was shaped and formed within the context of an extended family of scientists and artists. (I’ll also point out those are not mutually exclusive categories. Many in my family are both scientists and artists of one sort or another.) While I’m neither, at least in any realized form, I’ve always lived and breathed within the framework of both. My father is a geneticist and spent his career doing research. While, as I outlined above, I foresaw the need and was not unwilling to exchange my narrative framework of the broader context of reality (some might call it a metaphysical framework, but I’m not entirely comfortable with that word as it means very different things to different people) for a Christian one, I was never willing to adopt a framework that sat in opposition to the scientific narrative of physical reality. (Nor is there anyone who reasonably should. The larger frameworks — Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Atheist, etc. — operate beyond the scope of the scientific narrative.) It’s an unfortunate reality that so many modern Christians have allowed their Christian narrative to shrink either to an alternative and opposing perspective or to one which is smaller than and fits inside the narrative of science rather than the other way around. But I was never tempted in either direction.

Why does that matter? Long before I found the root of the idea behind the notion of original sin as inherited guilt in ancient Greek philosophy, I recognized one key weakness in it from a natural perspective. If all human beings who presently or have ever lived have inherited the moral and juridical guilt of the first man who “sinned” against God, then that means that all human beings must be descended from a single pair of ancestors (or at least from the original “guilty” one). And we now know, with near certainty, that that is not the case. The science is beyond the scope of this series. Moreover, it’s not a field in which I can claim any sort of personal expertise and I don’t trust myself to communicate my understanding of it clearly. Nevertheless, the evidence is pretty convincing and I encourage anyone interested to explore it on your own.

I had ample reasons from my perspective to set aside the idea of inherited guilt without even considering this particular issue. Nevertheless, I did see this problem early and was unwilling to adopt a “faith” that stood in opposition to pretty clear natural evidence. I don’t particularly care myself whether or not humanity originated with a single couple nor do I know many scientists with a vested interest either way. But the evidence does not seem to support such an idea, and I’m not interested in making something so shaky a “linchpin” of my larger narrative framework. Mine already don’t tend to be as strongly held or constructed as they seem to be for many people. I’m not interested in deliberately weakening it with such comparatively fragile pieces.

As an aside, I will note that it’s my understanding that the Roman Catholic Church, which is the tradition within which the idea of original sin as inherited guilt originally flowered toward the end of the first millenium of Christianity, does in some way reconcile scientific evidence with the overarching idea of inherited guilt. Although I have had numerous interactions with Roman Catholicism over the course of my life and have Catholic family and friends, I wandered into Christianity myself in an evangelical Southern Baptist context. So I must confess I don’t know how the Roman Catholic Church reconciles this specific issue. If anyone does know, feel free to share that information in the comments.

Finally, though not really related to the topic of this series, I will note that I’m also not tied to the idea that within the context of created time, there was ever a specific point in time when creation was not disordered as a result of sin. According to Christian faith, human beings were created as eikons (icons or images) of the uncreated God for the purpose of reflecting God into creation and for communion with God. Time itself is a creation of God, not uncreated. If we were created, in part, to reflect the uncreated energies into creation, then it seems to me that normal perceptions of causal effect might not apply in this regard. I’m comfortable with the idea that creation has been disordered and groaning from the beginning as a result of our failure to fill our proper role within it. And I’m comfortable with the idea that even as we are born into a “fallen” creation, “inheriting” death, we also participate actively in the fall of Man and the disordering of creation when we each choose to abandon our eucharistic (thanksgiving) role. I tend to view being “in Adam” or “in Christ” in more active than passive or static terms.

I will also note, however, that we see a marked increase in the disordering of creation as soon as man took an active hand in it. Even with very primitive tools, we hunted entire species to extinction and contributed (although mildly by modern standards) to climate change. And those are just examples that can be measured from a perspective that is millenia removed. Paul’s analogy of creation groaning is an apt one, indeed.

Tomorrow I’ll touch on some of the problems the idea of inherited guilt creates within the Christian scriptural narrative.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

Posted: February 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

The fourth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Prayer: Random or Discipline?, is devoted to his encounter with the Christian discipline of corporate set prayers that began when he returned to the University of Illinois for graduate studies. He began attending the daily Office of Evening Prayer at a small chapel across the street. He describes the building and makes the insightful comment that all buildings are icons. Indeed they are. In fact, I would say that everything we make, to one degree or another, is an icon of something. It seems wired into our being. That, of course, is the doom of every effort we might make at iconoclasm, even if iconoclasm were not itself a denial of the Incarnation. Howard points out again the essentially Buddhist or Manichaean nature of iconoclasm in general and its Christian manifestations in particular. There is also a false dichotomy and an improper perspective of creation that is manifested when beauty is pitted against faith or against “works” or against humility and simplicity.

Before I continue with my thoughts on Howard’s writing, if anyone is looking for something to read on prayer written by an evangelical, there are two books I would recommend (and they are the only two evangelical books on prayer I’ve read that I would recommend). The first is Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight. The second is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. (Obviously, the latter is on the spiritual disciplines in general and not focused solely on prayer, but it does cover the discipline of prayer well.)

Howard, flowing straight from the criticism of set prayer normally found in evangelicalism, immediately addresses the accusation that such repetition must become routine, bleak, and dead. I found myself nodded at the parallel he chose.

Yes, indeed it does dry up and die, if there is no taproot of life irrigating it. Just as the utter sameness of marriage dries up and dies if love departs, so will any routine. To the libertine accustomed to woman after woman, the man who returns day after day, year after year, to the same spouse, with no variety, appears unfortunate in the extreme. We must ask the man himself how things are. He will tell us that routine is the very diagram of peace and freedom …

Indeed. Interesting is a good term for describing far too much of my life. So much so that even when I was young I understood intuitively and immediately that the wish, May you live in interesting times!, first was a curse and then why it was a curse. This year my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. I’ve found tremendous “shelter from the storm” in the peace and freedom and safety of our marriage.

Howard then notes a fact that has long confused me. In their rejection of set prayers, evangelicals are rejecting the very practice of Jesus, the disciples, and the church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As I delved into Christian belief and practice, I never was able to understand how they did so.

Evangelicalism, encouraging a spirit of individual responsibility before the Bible, had made it possible for me to discount centuries of Christian practice.

Basically, if an interpretation of the Scripture of the New Testament that shows the practice of set prayers is not obvious to an individual’s own interpretation (or that of their interpreter of choice), set prayer can be disregarded, even if that particular interpretation is at odds with the overwhelming majority of historical Christian teaching and practice. (Apparently, the practice in the Old Testament or even what Jesus himself practiced makes no difference since that’s “judaism” and as such has been abolished.) I have to confess that I still don’t really grasp the nature of the mental gymnastics required for that particular chain of reasoning. I do grasp that an overriding focus on individualism seems to be the culprit.

As Howard practiced a daily office, he came to a realization that is perfectly consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian practice.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that once a day, far from being too often for devotion, was not enough.

Indeed. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Lawrence myself.

Howard next reflects on the way the discipline of prayer (a rule of prayer as it is often called) actually enables a person to pray consistently. The structure and order of the rule frees us to pray. Inevitably, if we approach it as an individual practice, it becomes subject to our moods and whims. Almost all of us will not always feel like praying. And even if we try to make ourselves pray, we’ll find we have nothing to say. Making prayer a rule using set prayers does not ensure that we will pray. But it does not place the burden entirely on our own mood and ability. It helps us make prayer a habit rather than something we struggle to do.

Howard notes that some people can pray freely every day of their life. Some people truly can be consistent with a daily free form quiet time. He even says that as far as he knows, his own father was such a man. But, Howard says, “He was an extraordinary man.” Most of us are not so extraordinary. It’s not just Howard and me. I’ve listened to youth and adults both describe their difficulties praying regularly and consistently over the long haul. This is a problem that permeates evangelicalism and other “enthusiastic” movements. And we do people no favors when we keep prescribing the same solution — an approach that has already failed them multiple times. Instead, we place a crushing load on them.

Howard describes in some detail a particular order of prayer. It’s worth reading, but there are many prayer books available. The first thing is to begin to pray using some sort of prayer book. You’ll still slip in and out of the habit of prayer. The merciful Lord knows I constantly fall away from my own rule of prayer. It’s not some sort of magical panacea. Consistent prayer is hard. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s called a discipline. It requires much effort to pray when you’re tired, when you’re irritated, when you feel distant from God, when you’re angry at God, when life grows hectic, or in a host of other life situations. Set prayer does not make prayer easy. Rather, it makes prayer possible.

I am thankful to the ancient Church for its wise and earthy awareness that we Christians need all the help we can get and for supplying us with so much in its Office and in its other forms of set prayer.