Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

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

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 22

Posted: November 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 22

64.  The passion of pride arises from two kinds of ignorance, and when these two kinds of ignorance unite together they form a single confused state of mind. For a man is proud only if he is ignorant both of divine help and of human weakness. Therefore pride is a lack of knowledge both in the divine and in the human spheres. For the denial of two true premises results in a single false affirmation.

This truth flows directly from the text on the two sorts of confession. When we fail to confess by giving thanks for blessings we bind ourselves in ignorance of the divine help we receive. And when we do not learn to speak the truth about our weakness to ourselves and others (and, of course, God) we will think ourselves stronger than we are. And when that happens, we suffer the rule of pride over our lives.

Pride is a passion that very easily binds us in our modern American culture. We are collectively so wealthy that it is easy for us to be ignorant of the divine help and blessings we receive. Even when we profess a thanks of sorts, it tends to be tinged with a sense of entitlement. Our Holy Scriptures warn us at great length about the perils of wealth. Wealth deceives us into believing we are self-sufficient.

At the same time, our culture is such that weakness or sin is often perceived as strength instead. I’m still trying to understand that Christian word – sin. Fundamentally, it means to miss the mark. And that mark, of course, is Christ. When I look at Jesus, I understand also that the mark we miss is love. All sin is a failure to love fully and truly. But pure, unadulterated love is also a hard thing to grasp — and a dangerous thing as well. We can see what it brought Jesus. Moreover, we lie to ourselves about our love — or lack thereof — more than any other thing.

We need to confess truly to escape our bondage to ignorance and pride.


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?


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 18

Posted: November 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 18

51. The first type of dispassion is complete abstention from the actual committing of sin, and it may be found in those beginning the spiritual way. The second is the complete rejection in the mind of all assent to evil thoughts; this  is found in those who have achieved an intelligent participation in virtue. The third is the complete quiescence of passionate desire; this is found in those who contemplate noetically the inner essences of visible things through then outer forms. The fourth type of dispassion is the complete purging even of passion-free images; this is found in those who have made their intellect a pure, transparent mirror of God through spiritual knowledge and contemplation. If, then, you have cleansed yourself from the committing of acts prompted by the passions, have freed yourself from mental assent to them, have put a stop to the stimulation of passionate desire, and have purged your intellect of even the passion-free images of what were once objects of the passions, you have attained the four general types of dispassion. You have emerged from the realm of matter and material things, and have entered the sphere of intelligible realities, noetic, tranquil and divine.

The nous (which is often translated mind in English translations of the New Testament) is a concept that does not seem to have a real equivalent in our language. It’s not really the rational mind or thoughts. It’s more the center of our being that can know God mystically, directly, and truly. It’s that part of us that can see reality as it is rather than as we imagine it to be. It’s the part in us that was dead and which was healed by Jesus. When Paul speaks of being “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” it’s the nous to which he is referring. Remember also that the passions are the things we suffer. The term here does not refer to feeling strongly about something but to be ruled by those things that bypass our will. The eventual goal is to see reality, that is to know God, not through our imagination, but truly and actually.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 16

Posted: October 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

41.  The first good which actively affects us, namely fear, is reckoned by Scripture as the most remote from God, for it is called ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Setting out from this towards our ultimate goal, wisdom, we come to understanding, and this enables us to draw close to God Himself, for we have only wisdom lying between us and our union with Him. Yet it is impossible for a man to attain wisdom unless first, through fear and through the remaining intermediary gifts, he frees himself completely from the mist of ignorance and the dust of sin. That is why, in the order established by Scripture, wisdom is placed close to God and fear close to us. In this way we can learn the rule and law of good order.

I was reminded, when I read the above, of a recent two-part sermon series by Shane Hipps at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI. The first one, Touching the Stove, explores precisely that positive aspect of fear in a way I had never before considered it. (The second part, Outside the Boat, is pretty good too.) Fear and any resulting abstention from evil is not wisdom, but it is the first baby step toward wisdom. That’s an important distinction. It strikes me that there are too many today who preach fear and treat fear as though it were the destination rather than that which is sometimes our first immature step toward union with Christ.


Jesus Creed 30 – At the Tomb with Jesus

Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24:13-35; John 20-21.

I think we tend to forget what a total and complete disaster the tomb was for Jesus’ followers. Scot explores that to some extent and relates it back to our experiences of loss. After disaster, we can still find new life. The tomb proved that. Scot draws a central point from it.

If we participate in Jesus’ resurrection by owning his story as our story, we find hope.

Let that sink in. We have hope through the resurrection or not at all. Paul says exactly the same thing. But I’m not convinced that’s truly where Christians today place their hope. I would rather be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Jesus’ life, from front cover to back cover, including the dust jacket, is a life shaped by the Jesus Creed. He learned the Shema from his father and mother; he amended it for his followers in the shape of the Jesus Creed. Most importantly, he lived it. We are called to participate in that very life, for it is that resurrected life that can form our lives.

In Baptism we have died and are risen again with Christ. We proclaim that when Christ came out of that tomb, he healed our nature such that it is no longer the nature of man to die. Without the Resurrection, Christianity has nothing of meaning or value to offer. Without the Resurrection, it’s ridiculous to live as Christians ought to live. But if it’s true, it changes everything and speaks to every aspect of our lives. It’s as simple and as radical as that.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 13

Posted: October 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 13

36.  He who aspires to divine realities willingly allows providence to lead him by principles of wisdom towards the grace of deification. He who does not so aspire is drawn, by the just judgment of God and against his will, away from evil by various forms of discipline. The first, as a lover of God, is deified by providence; the second, although a lover of matter, is held back from perdition by God’s judgment. For since God is goodness itself, He heals those who desire it through the principles of wisdom, and through various forms of discipline cures those who are sluggish in virtue.

St. Maximos here describes a God who is truly “not willing that any should perish.” So many modern descriptions of God do not. This is a God who meets everyone where they are. If we desire communion, he gives us grace, that is himself, to give us the strength to move forward. And if we do not desire God, he uses loving discipline (not the borderline or outright abusive treatment many modern Christian parenting gurus recommend) to heal us.

Often God allows us to experience the natural consequences of our choices. Sometimes he might rescue us from them. Always God is drawing us to communion — with Him and with other human beings.


America’s Four Gods

Posted: October 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on America’s Four Gods

Two Baylor professors have published a book that is gaining a fair amount of attention. Baylor has been conducting a different sort of survey of religion over the last few years. These surveys go beyond the basic sorts of questions about affiliation and attendance and probe attitudes and specific practices. This sort of approach is more valuable and useful in our richly pluralistic nation.

In America’s Four Gods,  the authors note that across the spectrum of religious belief, Americans tend to divide into four different groups with very different basic images of the God they worship. On their site, they have a brief little quiz to identify the God in which you believe and compare you to your demographic. (I’m in a minority in mine — well below 20% in all demographics. But I knew that already.) And they also have a little test of your response to images. Both are a fun little diversion. America’s Four Gods has also gained some media attention on ABC News and in USA Today.

Of course, that’s not a new idea to me. My formation was more pluralistic than most, so I’ve always found it natural to listen to how someone describes their God, try to understand that God, and decide if their God was a God I was willing to worship or follow. I did that when exploring all sorts of religions and religious practices. I didn’t stop doing it as I’ve become Christian. Nor did I have a foundational assumption — as many seem to have — that “Christians” all worshiped the same God. Instead, I looked at everything they said about God and made the same sort of decision about the God they described.

That’s why I phrase things the way I do. When I say, for instance, that Calvin’s God repulses me and I would be something other than Christian if I believed his God was really the Christian God, I’m judging the God he describes and deciding whether or not I am willing to worship that God. In the case of Calvin’s God, it’s as clear as such things can be. There’s nothing about that God that I find the slightest bit attractive or worthy of worship. As a result, I tend to use Calvinism as an example when I write about this process.

However, I also recognize that however I try to mediate or qualify my statement, those who do worship Calvin’s God will hear me saying that they are not Christian. And that’s not really my intent. It’s my own personal judgment about the sort of God in which I am or am not willing to believe. In fact, if God is as I believe him to be, then I know that he is at work trying to heal and renew and restore all of us. Our image of him can certainly hinder our ability to cooperate with his efforts. And if we choose to wrap ourselves in delusion and reject healing God will not force himself upon us. God is not willing that any should perish, but he is also not a tyrant. The God we worship matters. But it doesn’t change God or in any way control his activity. I just don’t happen to believe that Calvin’s God, Brahman, or any of a host of ways of describing the ultimate reality of our universe actually exist.

The Four Gods that the authors identify are divided into four general quadrants: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. These are broad categories, but the professors found they are also predictive of attitudes and behaviors across a spectrum of areas. In other words, the general sort of God in which you believe shapes the way you live and act. I suppose that’s not surprising. As I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright say, “We become like what we worship.”

I wasn’t surprised that the Distant God, which is essentially the same sort of God that the Deist founders of our nation worshiped, is still widely followed. Roughly a quarter of the population, across all religions, believe in this sort of God. This is the God who starts the universe running and then mostly stays out of it.

I was, however, discouraged that so few Americans believe in a Benevolent God. Now, that does not mean that those who believe in a different sort of God don’t believe that God can be kind, merciful, and loving. They often do. It does mean, though, that they do not believe that love defines his essence. Most people do not truly believe that God is a good God who loves mankind. It’s hard to find an Orthodox prayer or liturgy that does not somewhere declare God’s goodness and love for the whole of humanity.

That does not mean that God is a God of enlightenment toleration. He’s not the good God who tolerates anyone and any behavior at a respectable distance. No, he is the God who seeks to heal us and who desires union with us. And sometimes the prescription for healing is painful. But he is the God who has suffered with us, who brings himself to us by becoming one of us in every way.

The deepest problem with Protestantism is that it makes it even easier for us to define God any way we please. If we don’t like one picture of God, we’re free to invent another. That’s always been a problem for Christianity, so the issue itself isn’t new. We have a desire to remake God in our image. But Protestantism, in which every person decides for themselves (or at least has the authority to decide for themselves) what sort of God they worship, exacerbates that tendency in us all. I think the deeper studies like this one simply reveal that underlying weakness. Yes, the majority of the people in this nation are Christian, but we can hardly claim to all worship the same God.

Lord have mercy.