Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


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 4 – Christian Relativism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Posted: November 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Resurrection affirms a simple truth. The physical material world around us is fundamentally a good creation of God — and that includes our bodies.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the way many American Christians perceive reality today. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of Christians perceive this body as a prison from which we need to escape. And at least some Christians see this world as something evil that God is going to one day destroy. Neither of these are accurate perceptions and are even reminiscent of some of the most ancient Christian heresies — which held (to oversimplify) that spirit was good and matter was evil.

Our bodies are not prisons we escape. Christianity does not promise a future as spirit like Plato’s happy philosophers. Rather, resurrection is the story of a renewed embodied humanity caring for a renewed physical creation. If we deny the goodness of the material creation, we deny the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. From the Christian perspective, our bodies will be ours forever and the physical, tangible actions we take in and through our bodies have eternal significance. Our actions matter.

Hinduism offers a very different and contrasting narrative. (I have to make my standard disclaimer. It’s not possible to truly reduce the Indian or Vedic religions or paths to a single convenient label. Nor is it possible to summarize without caricaturing that richly diverse and complex tapestry. So anything I write here will be vastly oversimplified. Still I think some of the underlying contrasts offer insights worth considering in this discussion.) It carries the sense that we are ruled by the illusion of a material world distinct from the spiritual reality. That illusion is personified as Maya. Now, Maya is not false or evil, just as Brahman would not be considered good or true. The illusion itself has its own reality, but we should learn to see through it truly. Spirit is the knower of the field and matter is the field. The former is superior and the latter inferior. In a sense, the material reality is illusion and through our inability to see truly, we are trapped on the wheel of suffering.

Once again, that’s so oversimplified it’s almost a caricature, but I think the contrast is helpful. What is real? In many systems, there is a division between spiritual and material. It could be the division of Platonic (or neoplatonic) systems in which the material imprisons the spiritual. Or the material could be more illusory and the underlying reality is purely spiritual. Or, in the case of materialists, all is material and the spiritual is denied.

The Christian perspective holds a different dividing lens to reality. The true division is between the created and the Uncreated — and only God is in the latter category. The created includes both the material and the spiritual. Moreover, it’s a good creation. Yes, it is marred and broken by the freedom God grants creation — the freedom to love and the freedom to despise. (It’s silly to assert that all was right with creation before some archetype of mankind sinned. We are told that even before man existed some of the spiritual beings in creation had turned against God.) It’s a freedom of response that appears woven into the fabric of creation itself. Christianity proclaims the fundamental reality and goodness of both the spiritual and the material. And resurrection is the crowning glory of its rescue and renewal.

If you are Christian, pay attention to the way your tradition speaks about creation and about our own bodies. What is the underlying thread? Is it affirmation or despite? Have we lost sight of what the Incarnation and Resurrection mean?


Reflections on Resurrection 2 – Immortality of the Soul

Posted: November 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 2 – Immortality of the Soul

It’s hard to decide how to organize this series. I know the outline of the topics I want to cover and the points I hope to make, but the topic does not readily lend itself to decomposition into blog post sized chunks. Nor is the best order in which to publish the various topics at all obvious. I picked the immortality of the soul as my starting point because this thread seems very strong in our culture today.

Of course, it’s tricky to even talk about the soul. What is the soul? What does that word reference? In ancient Hebrew thought (some of which we see in our Old Testament), for instance, the soul simply referred to the whole person. The center of the will was in the heart. The feelings were in the bowels. Life was in the blood. And human beings were also imbued in some sense with the breath from God. Human beings were understood as thoroughly embodied beings.

That’s not how the word is typically used today. Rather the soul is most often seen as purely spiritual. Moreover, this spiritual soul is understood as the real person separate from the body. Our bodies are then seen as mere vessels to contain our souls and separate from our being and identity. I once heard someone describe a modern neo-platonic professor they knew. Instead of saying that he was going for a walk, he would say that he was taking his body for a walk. While most people are not that precise in their language, I sense a thread much like that permeating a great deal of modern Christianity. Only if you perceive the true reality of a person as somehow separate and distinct from their body could you make the statement at a funeral that the body is not the person we have loved and that they have left their body behind like a discarded shell.

Therefore, it seems to me that when people today refer to the immortality of the soul, they usually mean the immortality of that disembodied spirit. And moreover, they seem to consider the spirit somehow naturally immortal. Then Christian faith is often reduced to a proposition regarding the fate of this naturally immortal soul.

And this gets a little tricky since Christianity does in a sense teach the immortality of the soul. However, Christianity does not teach that we are naturally immortal as a disembodied spirit. Rather, through the power of God in the union of the Word and our human nature in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus’ defeat of death, it is no longer the nature of man to die. Hades or death has been emptied. But we have no being that is somehow separate from our bodies and our life flows from God. We have no independent immortality at all. Fortunately, God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation.

It’s a nuanced and, I think, important distinction from what I sense as the common understanding of our culture and that distinction will be important as we proceed through my reflections. That’s why I chose to begin here.


Funeral Reflections

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal, Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lately I’ve attended too many funerals and seen too many people in our family’s extended circle of relatives and friends die. You could respond that even one such death is too many and I wouldn’t disagree with you. I’ve recognized death as the enemy from that day long ago when my eight year old self watched my beloved stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to a waiting ambulance and my reconstructed life fell apart again. But as I’ve listened to and read the things people tend to say today when faced with death, I’ve reflected on what I would want said at my funeral.

There are a number of things I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I don’t want said. I don’t want those who might be grieving for me told that my body is not me, that it’s just a discarded shell. My body is most certainly part and parcel of who I am and is the only part of me with which anyone has directly interacted. No, I do not believe I am merely my body, but I also do not believe that my identity can somehow be extricated or separated from my body. I have believed things like that in the past, when I believed in the transmigration of souls, but that is not what I believe today.

Notably, I am not and have never been a Platonist, which is what too many modern Christians sound like. I forget who told the story, but I remember hearing one about a professor at a prestigious university. He was a thorough-going Platonist and, for example, would not say, “I am going for a walk.” Instead he would say, “I am taking my body for a walk.” When Christians speak of our bodies as vehicles that we discard and trade up for better models, that is exactly the sort of thing they are saying.

I also do not want my loved ones told that death is a natural stage of life, that I am happy now, and basically that it’s their own selfish pain and sense of loss causing them to grieve. Standing outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus not only wept, we are twice told that he was “groaning in his spirit”. He faced death and embodied God’s sorrow and anger at the death of the image-bearer. If anyone has loved me and is grieving, I want them to know that God grieves with them — that this isn’t how things are meant to be. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but we do still grieve in the face of death.

I want everyone to hear somebody give voice to the story of God’s victory over death. I want Resurrection proclaimed! However, the words alone are not enough today. The uniquely Christian understanding of resurrection has become so distorted and obscured that most people don’t even know what it actually is anymore.

Christian resurrection does not involve trading in our physical body for some spiritual body after death in another realm of existence. That sort of story was common in the pagan world and would have posed no threat to Rome. It would not have been a “scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” It would have just been another story about what happened to you when you died.

No, resurrection means the resurrection of this body in this world. Yes, the body will be transformed (as will the world), but it will be recognizably continuous with the body I have now. After all, the message of Easter is that the tomb was empty, not that Jesus left his old body behind and got a new one in a place called “Heaven”. Although Jesus was certainly different in resurrection and was not always recognized until he willed it, those who had followed him did indeed recognize him. His body still bore the marks of the nails and the spear. And once again, the tomb was empty! It was that same body which had hung on the cross and been buried that was raised and transformed. And the promise of Scripture is that as he was raised, so shall all humanity be raised. In the Resurrection of Jesus death, the last enemy, was forever defeated. The gates of Hades were burst asunder.

Moreover, Christianity does not proclaim some two-story universe with a basement. That’s a variation of some of the old (and new) pagan stories about the nature of reality. No, heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking aspects of our one reality. Heaven and earth are not intended to be separate, but for our salvation a veil currently stands between the two dimensions of reality. But heaven is never more than a breath away. And in places where worship has been valid, the veil can be thin indeed. In the divine liturgy, the Orthodox would say it has been pierced. One day the veil will be dropped entirely and the glory of the fire of God’s consuming love will be fully revealed as all in all.

As such, “heaven” is emphatically not our final destination. Yes, God sustains us in the interim between our deaths and the final resurrection. Yes, as John 14 says, Jesus has prepared rooms for us. But those are not our permanent homes. The Greek word used is the one for a temporary dwelling place, like a room in an inn. It’s a way station in our journey.

The language of Christian Scripture for death is the language of sleep. Our bodies repose until God awakens us again in resurrection. In the interim, God somehow provides himself to sustain us in lieu of our bodies. But that’s a temporary measure and one that Scripture says very little about. And in the context of the eschaton, the language of Scripture is also as clear as I find any of the Jewish apocalyptic writings. The city of God, the New Jerusalem, is seen coming from heaven to earth. And we have work to do healing and caring for creation. (The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.)

Our permanent home is here, on this earth. And our bodies on this earth will, however transformed, be continuous with our current bodies. Once again, it is this body which is resurrected in this reality. That is the truly and uniquely Christian hope of resurrection. That is what was (and is) foolishness to the Greeks. If that is not true then, as Paul says, my faith has been in vain. I remain Christian because of its promise of resurrection. If there is no true resurrection, then I’ve been wasting my time.

I want Resurrection proclaimed at my funeral. I want everyone to hear about the life after life after death. But I’m not sure there will be anyone available who can or will do it.


Original Sin 18 – Seminal Reasons

Posted: March 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 18 – Seminal Reasons

I want to begin this post in the series with a disclaimer. I have had a deep love for the history of ancient and classical Greece, its gods, its plays, and its literature for most of my life. By the time I finished fourth grade, I remember having read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Illiad, the Odyssey, and Antigone. I was hooked. (That was also a somewhat more … interesting … year than some of the others growing up, so I may have buried myself in books a bit more than usual that year. And the reading wasn’t all on one topic. I know I read King Lear for the first time that year — and performed a scene from it in a talent show. Oh, and I have a memory of reading a ton of the Hardy Boys books that year as well.)

With that said I have to confess that that love never translated into a love for Greek Philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Over the course of my life I’ve read some of their work and have some general understanding of their frameworks. But in all honesty, I can’t think of any time I wouldn’t have preferred spending time with Lao-tzu or the Bhagavad Gita over any of them. I can usually tell the Stoics from the Epicureans from the Neoplatonists, but I hardly know much beyond the basics about any of them.

I say all that in order to say that when I speak about them, which I have to do in order to do justice to any series on the topic of Original Sin, I’m doing so from a state of qualified ignorance. I will undoubtedly make mistakes at some points. Hopefully they will be fairly minor. I believe I grasp the important points as they relate to my topic fairly well. But if you know more on this subject than I do and you notice a mistake, please let me know. It was probably made from ignorance not malice.

In this post I’ll begin to explore the history behind the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. And such a discussion has to begin with St. Augustine, and thus it also has to begin the Stoic and Neoplatonist perspective that shaped his perception of reality and from which he drew pretty heavily in his works. And one of the central ideas from which he constructed his view of original sin was the Stoic philosophy (also adopted by the Neoplatonists, I believe) of seminal reasons. That’s basically the idea that indeterminate matter has in itself the principles of all future manifestation and development. St. Augustine used that concept in a number of places, especially when it came to creation. But for the purposes of our series, this idea held that all future generations were present in the seed of Adam and, when he sinned, all future generations sinned with him.

That idea by itself is not exactly the same thing as inherited guilt, but in its effect it’s largely indistinguishable. When you combine it with the fact that St. Augustine appears to have held to some form of traducianism, which asserted that the soul as well as the body is derived in its generation from the parents and you can see how the idea that we all share the guilt for Adam’s act developed.

As far as I can tell, these philosophies — not anything specifically Christian — provided the structure and form to the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. I’m certainly not one to say that truths cannot be found in other religions and philosophies. I absolutely believe that they can be — and as Christian, when they are, I attribute their revelation to Christ. However, a lot of people seem to strongly believe that these ideas are rooted in the Holy Scriptures or were developed entirely from the tradition of the Apostles. And they weren’t.

I will look at the other driving forces to St. Augustine’s approach and the way he connected these ideas to the Holy Scriptures. But I wanted to tackle the philosophy behind the idea first. Hopefully I’ve done so in an understandable fashion.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 2

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

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

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

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

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


For the Life of the World 26

Posted: January 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The series now continues with the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

In this chapter, Fr. Schmemann weaves a look at the way our culture approaches life, death, and health in and around his exploration of the Orthodox funeral rite and healing sacrament. Death thrust its way into my life and consciousness at an early age, but as I’ve moved into and through middle age, it seems that funeral attendance has become an ever-increasing part of my life. Since my family and friends are spiritually diverse, that means I’ve been exposed to funerals and attitudes toward death across a broad spectrum of traditions, Christian and otherwise. Curiously, they have not actually been very different from each other when you scratch beneath the surface appearance.

In subsequent posts, I plan to walk slowly through this chapter. I found myself highlighting almost everything Fr. Schmemann wrote in it, so it’s going to take some work to trim down what I actually use. In this first post on the chapter, though, I’m going to capture and explore some of my encounters and reactions to the American attitude toward death. After all, one of the things that continues to draw me into Christianity is its outrage at death. It’s an outrage I’ve shared at least from that day when, as an eight year old, I watched my stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to an ambulance. Jesus weeps outside Lazarus’ tomb. And twice, John notes that he is deeply moved, he is outraged, he is angry. In Jesus, we see God’s response to the death of the eikon. We were meant to live. And in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus truly trampled down death by death. It is no longer the nature of man to die.

But you would never know that from attending virtually any Christian funeral or memorial service in the US today. Consistently, those grieving are told they are grieving for their own loss, that their beloved is happy now and “free” from suffering. However comforting they are meant to be, such sentiments are a denial of John 11, and almost a slap in the face of those grieving. Yes, it is true that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our hope and trust is in Jesus. We do believe that he has defeated death. Nevertheless, we grieve, and not simply for our own selfish pain of separation from our beloved. Jesus grieves at the death of his friend. God is outraged at the death of his icon. Death is an abomination. Death is the ultimate enemy. We are not selfish when we grieve and it dishonors those grieving when they are not given proper room to own their grief.

What about the picture of our beloved “freed” from suffering and “at home” with the Lord? What about the message that they are “happy” now and we should try to be “happy” for them? Yes, to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. (Though I will note that that is one of the very few things Scripture actually says about the period between the time our bodies sleep and the general resurrection of the dead.) I won’t argue with that at all. But to say that I would be perfectly happy and content even as I know that those who love me are suffering painfully from my death denies my own humanity and love! Would I not continue to pray for those I love? Might I not even be able to love them better? Might I not pray for some sign or other form of comfort for them? Would I no longer seek to help them? We need to listen to the messages we actually send with our words.

It’s also common to tell those mourning that the body is not their beloved, that their beloved has “left” it behind, that it’s just a shell. It’s probably this sentiment that has led to the modern acceptance of cremation among Christians. But such an idea is not even vaguely consistent with Christian faith. It’s nothing more than a form of ancient pagan dualism revived and given a veneer of Christian language. First, the idea that you are somehow not your body, that the material body is merely a container for the “real” you (usually coupled with at least a disdain for the “physical” as opposed to the “spiritual”) can be found in a host of non-Christian sources. But the one that probably most influences modern Western thought is likely Plato. Even if you’ve never read a thing he wrote or studied him in any way, some of Plato’s perspective on reality and the nature of things seems to permeate modern Western culture.

No. The Christian perspective is very different. While we are more than merely our physical bodies, our identity and personhood cannot be separated from those bodies. We are embodied icons of God created for a reality that is both physical and spiritual, intertwined and intermingled. Those we love have only known us in and through our bodies and we have only known them the same way. The promise of Christianity is not one of disembodied spiritual existence like Plato’s happy philosophers. No, Christianity rests on the hope of resurrection of which Jesus is the first fruit. We are our bodies and however God sustains us in this interim period while our bodies sleep, we will be resurrected. Like Jesus, our bodies will be more than they are now, but will be continuous in some manner with our present bodies.

Finally, if the beloved has been a Christian, then that body has been the temple of the Holy Spirit. When you look upon the body of a Christian, see it with the same lens as the ground upon which Moses stood before the burning bush, compare it to the presence of God with the ark of the covenant, see in it the shekinah glory of the Lord filling Solomon’s temple, see the clouds of glory filling Isaiah’s vision. If what we believe is true, then that body is as holy as any of the above and should be treated with the same honor and reverence. Even if the person was not a Christian, that body was still created as an icon (image) of the one true God, shaped and formed to reflect the love of God into creation. That reality does not suddenly change in death. Remember the story of Elisha’s bones, how contact with them raised the dead to life.

It seems to me that if we hope to ever exert any sort of Christian influence within our culture, we have to regain a Christian perspective on life and death ourselves. And right now, we seem to have largely lost that perspective.


On the Incarnation of the Word 47 – Christ Persuades All

Posted: October 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 47 – Christ Persuades All

As you read this part of Athanasius’ treatise, it helps if you understand something of the divine madness of the Delphic oracle or something both of Greek philosophy and the worship of the Greek gods. I’ll move straight to his conclusion.

But as to Gentile wisdom, and the sounding pretensions of the philosophers, I think none can need our argument, since the wonder is before the eyes of all, that while the wise among the Greeks had written so much, and were unable to persuade even a few from their own neighbourhood, concerning immortality and a virtuous life, Christ alone, by ordinary language, and by men not clever with the tongue, has throughout all the world persuaded whole churches full of men to despise death, and to mind the things of immortality; to overlook what is temporal and to turn their eyes to what is eternal; to think nothing of earthly glory and to strive only for the heavenly.

Even Plato convinced only a very few. Christ, on the other hand, used men who were not clever to persuade churches full of those who despise death.