Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

Posted: July 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

1.  First the intellect marvels when it reflects on the absolute infinity of God, that boundless sea for which it longs so much. Then it is amazed at how God has brought things into existence out of nothing. But just as ‘His magnificence is without limit’ (Ps. 145:3. LXX), so ‘there is no penetrating His purposes’ (Isa. 40:28).

I want to note something in this text that’s somewhat tangential. I’ve often encountered a modern idea that the ancient “Greek” fathers twisted the Christian tradition they received into something else through the influence of  Greek philosophy. (I’ll note that St. Ephraim, St. Isaac, and many others weren’t actually Greek at all. They are called “Greek” fathers, I believe, because they wrote in Greek.) Yet above we see St. Maximos referring to the ex nihilo act of creation by God. That stands in sharp contrast to pagan Greek philosophy. Yes, they used the terms available to them in the language of their time. We do the same today. The words we have are our available tools. But they used that language to fight against Greek philosophy and Christian heresies in those areas where they did not conform to the faith that had been handed down to them. If you actually read the fathers, you can’t help but see that truth. It permeates their writings.

Reflecting on St. Maximos’ text for today, all I can say is go read Colossians. If your mind doesn’t marvel and your heart (nous) isn’t at least momentarily stilled in wonder, I’m not sure you’ve allowed yourself to truly understand what it says.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 1 – Series Intro

Posted: May 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I recognize that the topic of this series might seem a little odd. After all, I’m not a lot of different things. In fact, the list of things I’m not at least approaches infinity while the list of things I am is by necessity thoroughly finite. Nevertheless, the thoughts I will try to outline in this series have been bouncing around my head for several months now. It’s time to form them into words.

I think part of the reason a series like this makes some sense lies within the culture of our country. Christianity and atheism are often set as foils against each other. I have Hindu friends, but nobody ever wonders or asks why I’m not Hindu. (Actually, for those who know my story, it would be more accurate to ask why I don’t consider myself a sort of Hindu believer any longer.) I have Buddhist friends, but again nobody wonders why I’m not Buddhist. Over the years I have had a few Wiccan or neo-pagan friends but, again, the fact that I don’t accept or follow Wiccan beliefs never seems to be an issue. By marriage, a part of my extended family is Jewish, but nobody seems to wonder why I don’t embrace modern Judaism. And yet atheistic family and friends do sometimes express or imply a curiosity about my rejection of atheism.

I think, in our modern American culture, Christianity (in some shape, form, or fashion) and atheism appear to be our two default positions, considered by many as the two opposing poles. When arguments against atheism are presented, they are almost inevitably Christian arguments. (Frankly a lot of them, particularly of the fundamentalist variety, are really bad arguments. But that’s a different discussion.) Similarly, even if they aren’t wholly cognizant of the fact, many of the atheistic arguments are not aimed at religion in general, but at Christianity specifically. Christianity and atheism sometimes appear to be the only two philosophical positions that actively proselytize in our culture and their methods and approaches can also be surprisingly similar.

This series will not be an apologetic for Christianity — at least not beyond those particular distinctions that are personally important to me. I won’t be attempting any sort of exhaustive examination of atheism. Rather, I will focus on those facets that help form my perceptions and understandings. In other words, I won’t really be trying to address the questions that other people have about religion in general or Christianity in particular. Rather, I will focus on the things that matter to me and which have been formed by my personal experience.

If anyone reading would like to comment on some of the reasons they tend toward either atheism or something else or post any questions they might have, I’ll let you know if I already plan to touch on that point. And if not, I’ll consider it and see if I perhaps have any thoughts on the subject and use it to expand my series.

I don’t assume that atheists are unfamiliar with Christianity or religion in general. Some may be, but I have a friend and long time atheist who in his youth either was a Catholic seminarian for a time or considered and explored the possibility. I appreciate it when others don’t similarly assume that even though I have not embraced atheism, I don’t know something about it. I believe aspects of that knowledge will come up in my series. I will note though, that I do not plan to write much about the so-call new atheists. Frankly, I’ve sampled their work and tend to find it caustic, argumentative, intellectually dishonest, and philosophically shallow. In many ways, they strike me as the atheistic counterpart of a Mark Driscoll. (If you don’t know who that is, count your blessings.) And I find their work similarly repellent.

Since this series is more a personal exploration, it may be that neither those who lean toward atheism nor those who lean toward Christianity will find it particularly interesting or helpful. (Someone who leans in some other direction entirely will likely find it a pretty boring series.) But it’s within the realm of possibility that someone out there may find at least some of it interesting in some way. If nothing else, writing this series will help me organize my thoughts so they stop bouncing randomly around my head.

Peace.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

Posted: March 15th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

53.  As the world of the body consists of things, so the world of the intellect consists of conceptual images. And as the body fornicates with the body of a woman, so the intellect, forming a picture of its own body, fornicates with the conceptual image of a woman. For in the mind it sees the form of its own body having intercourse with the form of a woman. Similarly, through the form of its own body, it mentally attacks the form of someone who has given it offense. The same is true with respect to other sins. For what the body acts out in the world of things, the intellect also acts out in the world of conceptual images.

This text further drives home the point of the last text. Our nous, intellect, or heart cannot be separated from our body. As one goes, so the other tends to follow. St. Maximos is actually refuting an aspect of pagan philosophy that held that spiritual is pure or good while the material is evil. Too many people today have brought that idea or similar ideas that our bodies and spirits are somehow discontinuous and have independent existence into modern Christianity. We are whole beings. We cannot do things with our bodies without affecting our spiritual selves and that toward which we attune ourselves spiritually manifests in our bodies. Over time, we become that which we truly worship. In that truth we see the reality of both salvation and damnation.


The Jesus Prayer 19 – Repetition

Posted: April 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 19 – Repetition

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

And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Mt. 6:7)

I’ve discussed Jesus’ exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount already in many of my posts on prayer because it’s often raised by those shaped within an evangelical or fundamentalist context. Khouria Frederica addresses it as well.

First, the prohibition is against doing what the pagans did when they prayed. I’ve noticed that many people who refer to that verse don’t actually ask the question that immediately occurred to me the first time I read it. What were the heathen doing when they prayed? If you don’t find the answer to that question, you have no context for understanding what Jesus means. And the answer to that is an interesting one. There was a common practice in many religions of the time of using grandiose, flattering, and often repeated titles and names in pagan prayer in order to get the particular god’s attention. That wasn’t particularly new (we see the same dynamic in the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal) and its particulars varied, but the idea behind it was similar to the way formal speech was addressed to powerful rulers. The flattery and roundabout way of speaking was designed to avoid giving offense, and were repeated over and over.

However, the prohibition was not directed at repetition, but at vain repetition. Jesus himself followed the Jewish practice of set prayers, and when his followers asked for a prayer, he gave them one to recite. And his prayer was simple and direct unlike the equivalent pagan prayers. A sincere prayer is never vain (though it might be misguided). Khouria Frederica offers a good illustration.

You can think about repetition this way. Imagine a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon. At a tender moment, the husband says, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Will the bride say, “I heard you the first time”?

Jesus wants us to pray. In prayer, we are mystically connected to him. And he is the bridegroom of the Church. He never tires of our prayer. They never grow old and stale to him. And for us, the Jesus Prayer can grow ever deeper over time.


Love Wins

Posted: March 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

No, I haven’t read the Rob Bell book, so this isn’t a review. I may or may not read the book at some point. However, the rather strange controversy over the promotion of the book has brought to my mind many things I’ve read over the years. I decided to write a post in order to share a few of them.

Fear of torment is the way of a slave, desire of reward in the heavenly kingdom is the way of a hireling, but God’s way is that of a son, through love. — St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain

I heard a professor from a Christian university ask Rob Bell what it did to evangelism if Hell was not an actual place and, I suppose, a looming threat. I had several thoughts when I heard that question. The first, of course, is that the idea of Hell as place seems to owe more to the ancient pagan Greek concept of Hades than anything identifiably Jewish or Christian. I’ve explored Hell elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that here. But, Dante aside, it’s not the Christian understanding that there’s some place under the ground where the dead go.

But even more I thought of St. Nicodemos. Fear should never be the driving force in Christianity. Yes, it’s true that fear can be the beginning of wisdom, but perfect love drives out fear. If our evangelism attempts to instill fear or motivate through a promise of future reward, then whatever it is, it is not Christian. If we are driven to evangelize from fear, then I would have to question our motives as Christians. Actions taken either to instill fear or motivate through the promise of reward also look highly manipulative to me. And manipulation is many things, but it is most emphatically not love.

How then should we proclaim Christ to people? The words of St. Isaac the Syrian are, I think, good ones.

Conquer evil men by your gentle kindness, and make zealous men wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of legality to shame by your compassion. With the afflicted be afflicted in mind.  — St. Isaac of Syria

When we believe that we need to threaten people with hell in order to evangelize, we are capitulating to our own will to power. We are manipulating the other person in order to convert them to our way of thinking. We can tell ourselves it’s for their good, but that’s a lie. We are satisfying our own lust for power and control. When we act in these ways, we dehumanize our subject, treating them like an object to satisfy our own passions. Yes, we clothe it in noble terms. We dress it up in piety. But that’s all lipstick on a pig. God does not treat us that way.

Ultimately, of course, this train of thought rends the Christian understanding of God as made known in Jesus of Nazareth beyond all recognition. Instead of a good God of love, we end up with a capricious God who cannot forgive and requires payment for all debts. And if you do not hide behind the payment offered by the Son to the Father, then you will suffer forever. Our finite offenses reap infinite punishment. This God is not only capricious, he’s a torturer of the worst sort. No, that’s not the language used, but that’s how it deconstructs.

St. Isaac saw that clearly. This is not a new discussion. Modern Christianity has not discovered much that ancient Christians did not consider.

The man who chooses to consider God an avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The aim of His design is the correction of men; and if it were not that, we should be stripped of the honor of our free will, perhaps He would not even heal us by reproof. — St. Isaac of Syria

The above is exactly what so many modern Christians do when they describe God as just. The justice they have in mind is vengeance and retribution and the God they describe is an evil God.

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?…How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us! — St. Isaac of Syria

Indeed. People want God to treat others justly according to their own personal sense of justice, whatever that might be. But the truth is that we cannot judge because we do not know and we do not love. But we cannot stop God’s love.

Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God’s wisdom, nor our infirmity God’s omnipotence. — St. John of Kronstadt

And, in turn, we are judged by our love.

Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. — Archbishop Anastasios of Albania

The drunkard, the fornicator, the proud – he will receive God’s mercy. But he who does not want to forgive, to excuse, to justify consciously, intentionally … that person closes himself to eternal life before God, and even more so in the present life. He is turned away and not heard. — Elder Sampson of Russia

As Christians, we should be praying always for love to win.


Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

Posted: January 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

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

In this chapter Matthew tackles another issue which is a common objection raised among some particular groups of Protestants, including Baptists (with whom I am most familiar). As with most of the other issues he tackles in this section, I have to confess this is one I’ve never really understood on a visceral level. The issue itself is straightforward. The non-liturgical churches largely do not use set prayers in either their corporate worship or individual discipline of prayer and consider such formal prayers a form of vain repetition. (It sometimes seems as though they believe there can exist no sort of repetition that is not somehow vain.)

Of course, there’s a bit of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more involved in that statement. In truth there is an expected structure and order to the extemporaneous prayers and it takes little time or effort to discern that structure in any church. And that, as much as anything else, reveals something about human beings which God and His Church have always known. We learn from those around us, we absorb tradition almost unconsciously at times, and we are creatures of habit — for good or ill.

There is not and never has been anything wrong with extemporaneous prayers. Prayer is one of our primary means of mystical connection with God. If we have something to say, we should say it and strive to learn to speak honestly. But prayer consists of so much more than merely talking to God. It is a means by which — both individually and corporately — we fill our lives with God. In and through prayer, we order time and days with the fullness of Christ. As we work to keep the connection of our true mind — our heart or nous —  centered in Christ, he is able to heal and transform us. If salvation is union with Christ, then true prayer is surely one of the means through which we achieve that union.

And extemporaneous prayers are not enough. They never have been. And when you look beneath the surface, those who advance in the Christian life all know it. Billy Graham mentioned in an interview I read that he works through all the Psalms and the Proverbs every month. The Psalter has always been at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition of set prayers.

I think many people are confused about the fundamental purpose of prayer. While we should intercede for others before God every day, prayer is not primarily about asking God to act or to do something specific. And yet, that seems to be a common understanding today within certain groups of Christians. We pray so that we can stand aware of the presence of God and be transformed and renewed by him. Prayer operates on levels we do not necessarily perceive. Even when we don’t feel like praying, we need to pray. In fact, it’s probably most important to pray when we don’t feel like it. And stopping to pray at set times will begin to alter our perception and experience of daily life.

It’s slow going. The reality is that I often don’t want God, not at the deepest levels of my heart. I want to order my days as I see fit. I don’t pray without ceasing because I often want to keep God at arm’s length. Set prayer slowly chips away at that wall and more than anything else, I think that’s why we all resist it.

Historically, of course, liturgical prayers for corporate worship and the practice of set prayers at set times flows straight from ancient Jewish practice into the life of Jesus and his followers as captured in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and through them into the life and practice of the Church. It’s one of the easiest historical threads to trace and permeates Christianity in all places and at all times until the modern era.

Personally, I was exposed to Roman Catholic prayers when I attended a Roman Catholic school growing up. I also practiced Hindu meditation and had some exposure to Buddhism. As an adult within Christianity, I’ve explored the tapestry and tradition of Christian prayers. And one thing I can say with certainty is that the goal of chanting or other repetition in the Eastern religions is vastly different from the purpose of set prayers in the Christian tradition.

Neither of those, though, are what Scripture have in mind when it refers to many words or vain repetitions. In many of the ancient pagan religions, flowery and grandiose language was used and often repeated in an effort to gain the god’s attention and, hopefully, favor. Even in the texts of the Holy Scriptures, examples of that specific sort of pagan prayer abound. One of the clearest examples can be seen in the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal. The priests were chanting, dancing, and even cutting themselves in their efforts to gain Baal’s attention.

Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are different. Repetition, either in group chanting or private meditation, is intended to clear or empty your mind in order to open your consciousness. In Christian set prayers (and particularly in short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer), you are trying to place your heart with Christ. Connecting yourself to Christ may be many things, but it is rarely vain.

In fact, I would say that in this particular instance, Hinduism and Christianity share more similarity with each other than they do with the sorts of ancient pagan prayers that are called ‘vain repetitions.’ Hindu chanting and meditation is the shape prayer takes if there is a transcendent, panentheistic ‘God‘ who is the ground of reality, but who is not personal (for lack of a better term). We need to free ourselves from the illusion which binds us and learn to perceive the divine within ourselves and which permeates everything and everyone. (I am not and have never been a guru, so I apologize in advance for mangling the concept.) The deep tradition of Christian prayer — from the liturgical prayers to the daily personal discipline to prayers like the Jesus Prayer — is the shape prayer takes when there is a transcendent, panentheistic God who is as personal as a perfect communion of ‘persons‘ or hypostases who have created each of us to join in that divine communion. (Never forget that in God we live and move and have our being and that He is the Creator God in whom all that is created subsists every single moment. If God were to withdraw himself from any part of creation, it would simply cease to exist.

With that said, Matthew Gallatin makes some intriguing points in this chapter in ways that I had not really considered. Some of those points, however, require a deeper understanding of what Christianity calls the nous. Nous is a Greek word that does not easily translate into English. It’s the word used, for instance, in Romans 12:2. Among modern Protestants of certain stripes, it’s common to see that verse referenced as evidence that we need to think the right things about God. While it’s true that holding wrong ideas about Christ — wrong images of God — in our intellect does interfere with our ability to truly know God, that understanding does not reflect the actual Christian understanding of nous. I’m not sure I can clearly express the concept, but I will do my best.

First and foremost, our nous is the center of our being created to live in communion with God. And it is our nous which is darkened by sin. It is our nous, as the foundation of our whole selves, that was dead and to which Christ came to give life. If our nous is not healed, nothing about us can truly be healed. With that in mind, Christianity normally divides our inner being or consciousness into two levels. One is often called our intellect. It is the seat of our rational thought and emotions. It’s of the same essence as the minds of the animals, though we tend to have more capacity. We now know this function is inextricably intertwined with our physical brains. The nous, sometimes also translated as heart, is the mind we do not share with the other animals. It’s that deeper level in which we stand before God in mystical communion. Formal prayers help us descend through our intellect into our nous. When we are “conversing” and formulating our prayer as we proceed, we are necessarily bound to our intellect speaking to our mental construction of God. Extemporaneous prayers are ultimately too noisy to allow us to meet God face to face.

Matthew opens with an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which I’ll include at the end of this post, but first I want to cover some of the other points he makes. The first is so obvious that I had never even noticed it. The same sorts of Christians who reject the set prayers and the prayer tradition of the Church think nothing of memorizing and singing hymns and choruses. Especially in corporate worship, there is a deep Christian tradition of chanting or singing prayers. While the tradition of hymns and choruses may not be as deep (though some hymns are ancient indeed), they do form a type of corporate liturgical prayer using memorized or written prayers. For surely if our songs are not ultimately prayers, what meaning can they hold?

Spontaneous prayers also tend to be an expression of self. The more passionate and heartfelt they are the more that is true. And while there is benefit in exposing ourselves to God, that benefit lies primarily in learning to see and know ourselves truly. God already knows us. We need to know God, not the other way around. Moreover, we deceive ourselves more than we care to admit. When our prayers consist merely of expressing ourselves to God, we can deceive ourselves and turn our own selfish desires into “God’s desire” for our life. When we pray the prayers of the Church, including the Psalter, those prayers lay bare our self-deceit.

Matthew relates the following, which touched me deeply, though I’m not entirely sure why. The emphasis is mine.

The holy ones who pray in silence are those who, by the grace of God, have transcended even the need for the bridge of words. These blessed ones simply dwell in the nous, beholding like the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration the glorious Light of God (see Matthew 17). Since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve had the very humbling privilege of meeting some of those mystically sweet and eminently quiet souls who by the grace of Christ have entered that place. Their eyes seem as deep as the universe.

I struggle with even the simplest rule of prayer. I cannot imagine my meager efforts ever approaching such a point. But I recognize my heart’s desire in the description above.

And finally, I’ll close with the words Matthew quotes from old Screwtape. (For those who are unfamiliar with the book, Screwtape is an older demon writing advice to his nephew, a younger demon with his first charge.) I’ll include the emphasis Matthew adds. I find it strange that so many evangelicals today love C.S. Lewis. He writes a great many things that must be uncomfortable for them to hear.

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently reconverted to the Enemy’s party [ by “Enemy,” of course, the demon means God], like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised … in which real concentration of will and intelligence  have no part … That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.


Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the ways that modern Christians discuss and employ the Bible are highly anachronistic. In this series, I’ll reflect on the nature of ancient texts in general and the Christian Holy Scriptures in particular. I was going to do it in a single post, but then I realized that would be a long post even by my standards. At a minimum, this series will help me organize my own thoughts on the topic. It’s possible others will find it interesting as well.

Before we even begin looking at the specific ways texts functioned in the ancient world, we have to step back and look at the culture in which they were embedded. While ancient cultures varied greatly, they did all share one feature. They were oral cultures. We live in a highly literate culture so it can be difficult for us to imagine what that means.

First, it does not refer to how many people in the culture can read or write. That varied wildly. At some times and in some places, hardly anyone could read or write at all. In other times and places a large percentage of the population could read and write at least to some extent. Homer and Plato, despite their great literary works, developed them in the context of an oral culture. The primary feature of an oral culture is that forms of speech are the means of encoding and conveying knowledge across space and time. Oral cultures tend to have as many specialized forms of speech as we have literary forms.

Moreover, when the cultural means of conveying and preserving information is different, our brains actually adapt themselves to the task. We’ve learned a lot by studying members of some of the remaining oral cultures today. In an oral culture, our capacity to store large amounts of orally encoded information almost verbatim expands tremendously. Moreover, we become highly attuned to nuances of speech. As long as the culture itself remains intact, oral cultures seem to retain information across generations very well. Of course, when the culture fades, it leaves less of that information behind than a highly literate culture does.

That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult for us to reconstruct ancient history. We’re always working from bits and fragments. Much was never recorded at all. And time has damaged or destroyed much that was recorded. We actually know much less with certainty about the ancient world than many people today assume. Now that’s not to say that we know nothing or that the assumptions and patchwork with which we’ve filled in the gaps is wrong. Much of it is reasonable. But reasonable does not necessarily mean those assumptions are right. Ancient history is a fluid area of study. As we find something that seems to invalidate an earlier assumption, we have to reshuffle our conceptions.

I will note that ancient pagan religions of all sorts were largely mystery cults that were “traditioned” orally. When an ancient religion faded, that means very few markers were left about the religion. In most cases, we know very little about the religion itself. For instance, we actually know almost nothing about the Celtic Druids or any ancient Celtic religion. We don’t actually know very much about the inner workings of ancient Norse religions. We know a little bit more about ancient Greek religions, but still less than some would imagine. Moreover, the things we do know about ancient religions that faded in the mists of time are mostly confined to their outward forms and displays. The inner workings were never written down and thus died with the religion.

That’s really why I was never deeply attracted to modern neopaganism. I’ve had friends who were adherents and have attended some of the more open rituals. But I also knew that most of it couldn’t have any real connection to those ancient religions. Of course, a more accurate reinvention would have been completely repellent (and possibly illegal). Animal sacrifice, sacrifice of enemies, child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and many similar things were a part of many actual ancient religions — though again it’s hard for us to reconstruct specifics. That’s probably part of the reason I was always more drawn to the ancient Eastern religions that are still practiced today. There is a continuous thread of connection and practice.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that writing this series would help me organize my thoughts. That’s also something that’s pretty common in a literate culture. We write to organize our thoughts. We write lists to organize tasks. We write speeches before delivering them. We write essays and papers to develop our train of thought or to construct an argument. Oral cultures don’t work that way at all. If something is written down, it’s usually to help convey it to a distant destination or because someone else wrote it down as it was delivered (usually on behalf of someone who couldn’t be present). It’s not just the way our memories function that changes, the way we process and organize our thoughts changes as well.

It’s important to understand just how different an oral culture truly is from a literate culture. Those of us who are thoroughly shaped by a literate culture will never truly be able to place ourselves inside the mental context of an oral culture. Still, if we are aware of the difference, it can help keep us from jumping to the wrong conclusions. It seems to me that many of the anachronistic ideas arise simply because people interpret something from the ancient world through the lens of their modern, literate formation and mindset. We almost can’t help but make that error to one degree or another, but if we keep the distinction always in mind, we can make fewer erroneous assumptions than we otherwise would.


Thirsting for God 7 – Truth is a Promise

Posted: December 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 7 – Truth is a Promise

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

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin begins by reflecting on Jesus’ own words about his church in Matthew 16:18.

The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

Do you believe that is true? Really? Because the vibe I get from many of the modern Protestant strands is that we can”t simply take Jesus at his word. Paul believed it was true. It’s why he did what he did the way he did it. It’s why he calls the church the “pillar and ground of truth” when he’s writing to Timothy. The early Christians did. They wrote of the Church as the ark of salvation and the end of religion. We now knew the truth. Pagans charged them with being atheists.

Jesus’ statement in Matthew’s Gospel is one of his clearer ones, but you wouldn’t think that was the case if you were to read most of the English language commentaries we have available for us today. Many of them explain at some length how Jesus really didn’t mean what he said, but meant something else instead. Matthew Gallatin’s reaction to that question, once he was able to ask it honestly, was straightforward.

First of all, I perceived this would mean that those teachings and practices I had previously dismissed as “Catholic” and “unscriptural” might actually be Spirit-inspired. The Faith as it was understood and practiced everywhere by millions of believers for at least a millennium would embody the truth Christ gave to the Apostles — if I believed that Jesus had the power to live up to His promises.

And that’s really the core of the matter. Do we believe that Jesus has the power to do what he said he was going to do or don’t we? It seems to me that’s the question most people never ask themselves.

How could I have thought my Lord to be the most powerless God ever worshiped?

That’s the point at which Matthew Gallatin found himself. It’s an honest and revealing question.

Now, that is not to say that the Church is or has ever been some perfect, utopian ideal. But then that’s not what Jesus founded. He was starting a hospital. As Jesus said, he didn’t come for the healthy; he came for the sick. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Moreover, the Apostles recognized from the outset that the principalities and powers were organized against them and that part of that threat would be from within. John wrote against the docetists in the Church and called them antichrists. Peter wrote about ravening wolves masquerading as shepherds. Jesus himself said that the wheat and the tares had to grow together and would only be separated in the end. Attacks from the outside have usually made the Church stronger. The powers have long recognized that it’s most effective to attack it from within.

And even absent outright attack, the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation. (Paul’s image of body is quite apt.) Jesus emptied himself and became wholly and fully one of us in order to rescue and heal mankind. His victory is manifest and worked out not from a throne, but from a body build from broken, imperfect, and often corrupt humanity. As such, the Church has often done great evil as well as great good. We must acknowledge and confess those wrongs, not excuse them or hide from them. Nevertheless, it’s in our weakness that we are made strong. Jesus has overcome and continues to overcome and he is the cornerstone on which the Church rests. Do we or do we not believe that he has the power to support and maintain that church — even with all its marred and broken stones?

Ultimately, Matthew Gallatin had the following thought.

By the mercy of Christ, I’d always somehow known that when I found the real truth, I would find real love. After all, Truth is no a thing; it is a Person. And that Person, the Incarnate Son of God, is infinite Love.


Thirsting for God 3 – Who is God?

Posted: December 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 3 – Who is God?

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

How can people who are so clearly divided in their beliefs possibly claim to be “one”?

Matthew was standing between friends who he knew had completely contradictory beliefs as they sang “In our hearts, we’re undivided,” when the above question dawned on him. It’s the introduction to the next section of the book. The following explores the nature of belief and trust.

After all, it is absolutely impossible for a person to place real trust in a doctrine that he believes to be false, or even just possibly true. When it comes to matters of my Christian faith, saying “I believe this” is clearly the same thing as saying, “This is the truth.”

Think about that for a minute. Isn’t that true? Or can you think of a time when it’s not? And that leads to a very important question.

The fact that people jointly claim “Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh” is not the true test of unity. To be one in their confession, they must mean the same thing by their words. … What specific part of this statement generates the variations in meaning? The most important word of all — God.

What sort of God do people envision when they use that word? And, assuming there is some actual reality behind whatever they envision, how closely does the God they imagine conform to the reality of God? This is not an idle question and is the underlying source for the ever-splintering nature of Protestantism. They do not imagine the same God.

For instance, when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” do I mean the Lord who reveres human free will, or the Lord who has no room for free will in His Kingdom? After all, they can’t both be the same God. When I say, “I’m saved by grace,” am I talking about a salvation and a grace that extends to every human creature? Or am I referring to a salvation and a grace that God will grant only to some restricted, foreordained group?

These are not idle questions if there is, in fact, a real God. And that led him to the following realization. It was somewhat earth-shattering for Matthew, but have always been an obvious conclusion to me. After all, Christianity claims that the fullness of the Godhead is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. That means that the extent to which we know Jesus as he truly is and not as we imagine him to be is the extent to which we know God. Christianity is not like Hinduism, within which there are many paths and not even a single view of the goal. (I hesitate to use the word “salvation” as Hinduism doesn’t really follow that perspective.) No, Christianity is much more like the conclusion to which Matthew came.

If God is not who I believe Him to be, then I have no God. … At last, I understood that the monumental question I needed to answer was not, “Am I right about my doctrine?” It was, rather, “Am I really a Christian?” … If the God I love and worship is not real, I am no different from the fervent, kind-hearted heathen or the pious, morally upright pagan.

Those questions matter. It’s not that God cares so much what I believe about him or that his love is conditioned by what I do or don’t believe. God loves us all and is not willing that any should perish. But love does not coerce. Fervently relating to my own mental image of God rather than the actual person of Jesus is as effective as a relating to an imaginary friend. Of course, it is possible to believe the wrong things about God and still know God. You can find those in every Christian denomination who clearly know and love God even though they have contradictory images of him. But I would tend to say those people have found God in spite of the divergence, not because of it. I don’t underestimate God’s ability to break through. But the splintering of truth makes that ever harder. We see that manifesting in a lot of different ways today.


Reflections on Resurrection 1

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Throughout this blog and in my comments elsewhere, I often focus on resurrection. In many ways, it is the Christian teaching of resurrection which drew me deeper into this faith and it is certainly one of the linchpins that keeps me in it. I can say with certainty that if I did not believe in Christ’s Resurrection and that it was the first fruit of our own resurrection, then Christianity would hold no interest for me. As Paul writes, if Christ is not risen then we are of all men the most pitiable.

However, there seems to be a great deal of confusion today, even among Christians, about Resurrection. Since it dawns on me that it is not possible to really understand some of the things I write without understanding what is wrapped up in that one word, I thought it might be wise to write a short series outlining my perspective on the subject. I’ll write, as I normally do, from a personal perspective. If you’re more interested in a comprehensive academic treatment of Christ’s Resurrection, I would recommend N.T. Wright’s big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. That sort of exhaustive treatment is not my goal.

When pressed, I normally describe my background and childhood formation as pluralistic. In order to understand what is behind some of the things I plan to write in this series, I think I need to explain what I mean when I use that term. First, I need to say that my childhood was not shaped within the context of a single non-Christian religion nor was it particularly non-theistic or atheistic — though there were certainly aspects of a number of different religions and non-theistic or loosely theistic influences. However, my childhood, whatever else it may have been, was not anti-Christian at all.

In fact, while I’m not sure anyone growing up in the American South in the 70s could avoid exposure to Christianity, my experience of it was, while pretty varied, largely positive. I was baptized in a Baptist Church at a pretty young age. At different times I attended both Episcopal and Catholic schools. (I also attended a bunch of different public schools, a nonsectarian private school, and was even home-schooled for a few months in Mississippi when my mother discovered the local schools were still segregated.) Over the course of my childhood, I also experienced a wide array of other Christian traditions and denominations. Ironically, though not raised strictly Christian, I probably encountered more of the diversity which constitutes Christianity in America than most of my peers.

I could, if I wanted, frame a relatively typical Baptist conversion narrative. I don’t do so because that does not truthfully capture the reality of my experience. Yes, my encounters with and scattered experiences within a Christian context were authentic (whatever that means), but they were hardly my only spiritual influence. Moreover, my rejection of what I understood about and experienced from Christianity as a sixteen year old teen parent was just as authentic as any of my earlier experience. These were markers on my journey of conversion, but I don’t consider myself to have finally converted to Christian faith and practice until my early thirties when I unexpectedly reached a point where that label described something central to my identity.

Christianity, though, was just one aspect out of many in my formation. My family and thus our extended circle of family friends includes many involved in the scientific and academic community. Although, of the many things I’ve been or practiced, I never felt any pull toward atheism or even classical enlightenment-style deism, that perspective and manner of approaching life and reality has certainly been a part of my formation. I don’t find it threatening. I also do not find it antithetical to belief. I do find that this part of who I am is the part that’s mostly likely to make the determination that a particular religion (or one of the many different Christian Gods proclaimed today) is not worth believing or practicing, and its deity not worth worshiping.

The other most significant and formative spiritual perspective from my childhood was Hinduism. Why Hinduism? The simplest answer is that we had Indian friends and my mother was at least dabbling in it. It was just part of the air I breathed as a child, as present to me as was Christianity. Now, it’s important to recognize that the term itself is a broad label encompassing virtually any religious practice rooted in the perspective found in the ancient Vedic texts. It’s not really a single religion in the sense of a single set of beliefs and practices, though there are a number of consistent underlying perspectives on the nature of reality. Rather, there are many gurus, past and present, who teach different things.

I never really followed a guru. I’m not sure why, exactly. I just didn’t. I did spend some of my late preteen and early teen years actively practicing transcendental meditation, which does have a particular guru, but I never formally engaged it. I just practiced privately using a book as a guide. Beyond that, I explored various published writings including, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.

Hinduism, however, was not the only other part of my childhood spiritual formation. I don’t remember ever hearing the term New Age in the seventies. However, many of the things lumped under that heading in the bookstore today were part of my experience. My parents ran a small press bookstore in Houston for a few years and that gave me easy access to books on numerology, runes, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and many related topics. Even before then, I remember sitting with my mother when I was as young as six or seven as she brought out her tarot deck and did readings. I also clearly remember participating in a past life regression workshop my parents hosted for a friend when I was eleven or twelve. I was captivated by the modern myths of Atlantis. I also recall some interaction with Wiccan and neopagan systems of belief. (In my twenties I also had a number of Wiccan friends.)

After being rejected by and in turn rejecting the Christian aspect of my formation, I tended to operate from a basic Hindu perspective of reality, but I explored a number of different options. I read a fair amount of the Qur’an at one point, but Islam never held any appeal to me. We had had some Jewish family friends growing up and there were aspects of modern Judaism that did appeal to me, but it’s not a direction in which I was particularly drawn. I did explore Buddhism and Taoism, but at the time they didn’t really appeal to me either. (Ironically, I find some elements of both more compelling now after being significantly shaped by Christian faith and practice than I did at the time. If I was going to be anything else other than Christian today, it would probably be one of those two.) I looked a bit at Wicca and neopaganism, but they were just too modern for me, if that makes sense. I have a deep sense of history. You may have noticed that in some of my writings.

For most of my twenties, I settled into a sort of lackadaisical Hindu belief and practice. I didn’t seek a guru. I didn’t actually attend anything. But those were the beliefs about reality I privately held and, to the extent I practiced anything, I practiced Hindu meditation. I also continued to privately practice tarot, but I abandoned most of the other practices in which I had dabbled over the course of my childhood.

Why does this matter for this series? It’s really pretty simple. When we discuss Resurrection and the nature of the human being, a lot of people today — including many Christians — seem to believe something more like the other perspectives in my spiritual formation than anything identifiably Christian. And it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that’s the case. Now, I’m hardly anything approaching a guru when it comes to Hinduism or any other religion. In fact, after the last fifteen years during which I have consciously and deliberately embraced and explored Christian belief and practice, I’m pretty certain I know more about Christianity than I do any other belief system. I absorbed a lot from those other systems and explored them all to some extent, but never with the commitment or to the depth that I have Christianity. Nevertheless, I am conscious of these other perspectives on reality and see their influence (or the influence of some of their cousins) in American Christianity in ways that many, perhaps, do not. And it seems to me that the central point of dissonance lies in the all-important Christian proclamation of resurrection.

I’ll continue this series next week, but if anyone is reading this over the weekend and is willing to share, what thoughts come to your mind when you hear resurrection?