Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Speaking of God – A Good God

Posted: April 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – A Good God

For you are a good God and love mankind, and to you do we give glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, always, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. (Orthodox Great Vespers liturgy)

When we speak of God, it’s important that we remember always that he is a good God who loves humanity. I notice that aspect often seems to become obscured in modern Western discussions about God. Sometimes it’s obvious, as in certain Calvinistic strands that either explicitly or implicitly end up attributing both good and evil to God. A God who is responsible for evil is not a good God. It’s one of the more outrageous assertions that can be made about the God we find fully revealed in Christ. (Moreover, it’s only in Christ that the creation of the human being is finished.) I thoroughly agree with the Orthodox that any such claims about God are utterly heretical and contrary to the faith which has been handed down to us.

But it can take subtler forms. For instance, in the strands of evangelicalism within which I swim, it’s very common to hear “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” when tragedy strikes. It permeates thought, conversation, teaching, and song. The concept comes from Job and illustrates one potential issue with lifting verses and phrases at will from our Holy Scriptures and applying them without the guidance of a deep and apostolic tradition. Here’s the verse from Job.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:21.

The first thing that we have to recognize is that in his fatalism, Job is actually incorrect! (Though the next verse goes on to note that Job did not, in truth, charge God with wrongdoing.) Yes, in a broad sense God allows freedom in creation. That’s part of being a good God who does not deny any good thing to his beloved creation, even if that good thing can be twisted. In the context of the narrative, we have something of a “God’s eye view” that Job lacks. We know that God took nothing from Job. Satan did.

But Job’s perception makes perfect cultural sense. It was normal in the ancient world to ascribe all sorts of things to the gods. We see that in, for one example, Homer. At one point in the Iliad when, speaking of the son of Atreus and godlike Achilles, he asks, “Which of the gods brought them both together fighting?” It’s not a rhetorical or allegorical question for Homer. He has an answer. Apollo did. Job, from the context of the narrative, doesn’t worship multiple gods. He worships the one God. So when he loses everything, it’s natural for him to ascribe it to God. It’s also what his friends assume — which is why they spend so much time trying to explain why God must have done it and Job must have deserved it.

But we know from the story that God didn’t take anything from Job. God never really explains himself to Job, but as the reader that’s one of the things we must understand. (Job is also a type or shadow of Christ as the suffering servant in the narrative. But that’s another discussion.)

Moreover, that should not come as any surprise to a Christian. In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, it’s so that we might by sons of our Father in heaven. Why? Because God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. He is a good God who loves mankind without condition or reservation.

Ours is the God who makes all things new, from whom the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. We respond to evil by doing good, by blessing, and by acting to heal and restore.

Our God is a good God — a God of divine love. We must always speak of him in those terms when we dare to speak at all.


How to Speak of God

Posted: March 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on How to Speak of God

In this post, I plan to continue the train of thought I began in Speaking Carefully About God and explore how we then should speak of God. I’m not an expert in any way, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. These are just some of the thoughts and ideas I have developed over the years — many of them the result of things I have heard and read from multiple sources.

I want to begin with perhaps the central Christian truth when it comes to describing God in human language. Nothing we say or think can ever truly describe God. Our God, the only uncreated and the one in whom and through whom all creation subsists, so far transcends us we cannot truly know him. We lack the capacity. That’s the central reason the Word, the only begotten Son, became human — to join God’s nature to our human nature so we would have a means through him to know and commune with God.

And that’s fine with me. A God my mind could compass would be too small a God for me to ever worship. But the fact that God so utterly transcends us means we must be exceedingly cautious in the way we describe him.

And thus Christians have developed a way of speaking apophatically about God. It’s really not that difficult. Every time we find ourselves saying or reading a description of God, we must always keep in mind that as much as that description may help us say something about God, at the same time the description so utterly fails to capture the fullness of our God, that we could also say that God is not like that at all.

For instance, we say that God is love. In fact, it’s a positive statement about God taken straight from the Holy Scriptures. This is not some attribute of God; it’s a statement about his very essence. And it’s important that we understand this truth for when we say that God is love we exclude many false descriptions of God — some of which, unfortunately, seem to be popular today.

Nevertheless, we also must then say that God’s love is not like any love we’ve ever known. It’s utterly pure and unending. God’s love knows no conditions and no bounds. God is love and that transcendent love binds creation together and at the same time is so intimately personal that God is with me, around me, and within me filling every breath I take and every beat of my heart. It’s love without condemnation, but a love so fierce it can also be described as a consuming fire. If the image I have in mind of love is any that I’ve known, then I’m forced to say God is not that sort of love at all. So in that sense, God is not love.

And the same is true of anything else we might say. Jesus gave us a prayer in which we call God Father, but if, when we do that, we have in mind our father or any other father we’ve known, that image will lead us astray. Whatever sort of father we had, good or bad, our fathers are all still human. They still have failings and limitations. God is not like that at all. So we must also say that he is not Father in the way we have known fathers.

If we lose that tension and the caution it brings to the images and words we use to speak and consider God, we will inevitably distort our understanding of God in some way. When I find myself saying something about God, I try to remind myself that my description inevitably falls so short of the reality of God that it’s almost as false as it is true.

In and through Christ, we can however mystically know God. We can receive him. We can commune with God. We have access to the sort of knowledge that transcends language. In that sense, it’s not so very different from knowing another human being. We don’t get to know someone by learning a bunch of facts about them — even if those facts are true and accurate. We get to know others by spending time with them, by talking with them, and through shared experience. And so it is with God. Even though he utterly transcends our knowledge, yet we can still know him.

In my final post on this topic, I’ll discuss the Trinity. For whenever we speak of the Christian God, we must always speak in a triune manner.


Speaking Carefully About God

Posted: March 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking Carefully About God

Last week Sarah Moon published an interesting blog post, Our Mother who art in heaven… I read the post and its comments and, as such things tend to do with me, it started percolating in the back of my head. At one point, I started to comment on the post, but then realized the things I had to say would work better as blog posts than as comments.

I want to begin by noting that I agree with the central theme — or at least what I understood to be the central theme — of Sarah’s post. There are far too many strands within Christianity that attempt to turn God not just into an exclusively male figure, but into a very narrow vision of what it means to be male. While some strands, such as that loudly (and often angrily) proclaimed by Mark Driscoll, are openly misogynistic and hateful, many are more subtle, but nonetheless deadly.

When we assign gender to God in any way we must always recognize apophatically that as much as an aspect of our experience of God might be like a certain gender, at the same time it is also not like that at all. For God transcends everything we can possibly say about him, every metaphor we could use, and every analogy we could possibly draw. God is deeply and thoroughly personal, though, not impersonal, so I think it’s even worse to use a neuter pronoun (such as it) instead. But when we use gendered pronouns to refer to God, we must always hold them loosely.

I have noted in the past, as Sarah does in her post, that our Holy Scriptures are clear that mankind is created in God’s image, both male and female. And while yes, we must say that God cannot thus be defined as some sort of super-powerful man, I think sometimes people miss what it says about humanity. Our gender is an inextricable aspect of each of us, but it does not define our humanity or our nature.

Jesus, the God-man, became fully human, taking on all that we are in order to defeat death and evil on our behalf and bind our nature to the divine nature. And while Jesus became a human man, his work was universal in nature. It is a continuing act of cosmic new creation. In and through Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah, mankind — male and female — is now not only in the image of God, but shares through the Resurrection the unending nature of God and is able to participate in the divine energies of God. Jesus did not merely rescue humanity; he took us where we otherwise had no ability to go. So we all have a common nature that goes beyond gender, otherwise as a male, Jesus’ humanity could have only freed and made new the nature of human males, not the universal human nature.

I also believe it’s important that in our struggles with certain almost or even overtly misogynistic strands that we not read that struggle into places where it didn’t or doesn’t exist.  I read another post last week, On letting Junia fly, that makes that point well. It’s true that some Western Protestants attempt to deny that St. Junia was a woman and an apostle. It’s true that they can try to construct systems that cage women.

But St. Junia was never and is not now caged as a result. St. Junia does not need to be released. She does not need us to let her fly. She flew. She worked tirelessly as an apostle and accomplished much for the one she knew and called Lord and for his Church. And she has been venerated as a saint for centuries as a result. St. Junia flew. Nevertheless, as with all the apostles, her flight called her to tireless service of others for her entire life rather than personal glory or power.

So we do need to speak carefully about God in every way. I’ll explore how to speak of God in my next post.


Why Do We Pray? 2 – To Change God?

Posted: March 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 2 – To Change God?

It’s an interesting question when you think about it. As Christians, do we pray in order to change God’s mind or actions about something? Sometimes, I think it can seem that way. We may not want to express it that bluntly, but in practice is that not often the case?

However, I perceive several issues with that train of thought. First, that was the purpose of prayer to many ancient gods. A prayer would often begin with many flowery titles for the god — trying to gain the god’s attention in a positive way. The request would be repeated over and over in an attempt to make sure the god heard it. We’re actually explicitly told by Jesus in the Gospels that we are not to pray in that manner. We are told God knows what we all need and that he hears all our prayers. We don’t need to appease him or gain his attention.

Moreover, if I can change the attitude of God toward something or someone, then that necessarily implies that someone else might be able to change God’s attitude toward me. Think about that one for a minute. I don’t think we really want a changeable god.

God is faithful and consistent. He treats us all with love. Period. God doesn’t change, though we do.

Finally, it seems to me that a God who can be changed by our prayers is too small a God to be worth worshiping.  In the prayer Jesus gave us, we ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is heaven. Certainly we are to participate in bringing that prayer to fruition, but we are not trying to change God in that prayer. We are asking to change creation.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed by the they name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
Amen.

 


Mary 9 – Hail Mary

Posted: January 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 9 – Hail Mary

In this post I want to look at one of the best known Marian prayers in the West, the prayer known simply as Hail Mary. It’s a prayer that’s so widely known and recognized that even those who weren’t raised Roman Catholic are often familiar with it. I learned it when I went to Catholic school for three years in Houston. It’s not a prayer I typically pray today, though when it springs to mind, I always try pause and pray it. As I’ve written elsewhere, I seem to be one of the people to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and that prayer, rather than any distinctly Western prayer, remains at the core of my simple and poorly followed prayer rule.

But I do appreciate this prayer and the entire rosary prayer rule that often accompanies it. For those unfamiliar with the rosary, it’s a devotional crucifix with a chain of larger and smaller beads. You use the beads to count prayers and over the course of the rosary eight different prayers are typically prayed as the person praying meditates on different mysteries from the lives of Mary and Jesus. The most often recited prayer is the Hail Mary, but over the course of the rosary the Apostle’s Creed is recited as well as the Our Father, the Glory Be and others. (By contrast, the Orthodox prayer rope is usually just used to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, sometimes with prostrations. And you aren’t taught to meditate on any mysteries; the ultimate goal is prayer of the heart.)

I suppose to those who had a less pluralistic formation than my own, this will sound strange. But I remember fairly often reciting the Hail Mary (mentally or verbally) during my Hindu oriented meditations. I had actually forgotten that tidbit until I was writing this post. I wouldn’t say I was praying as Christians understand prayer, but looking back it seems like I was heard anyway. I suppose that’s not surprising. If we truly believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the true and faithful man and became true humanity, joining our nature to his divine nature, then in some sense through her yes to God, Mary became the mother of humanity. And your mother always hears you, though she may not do as you intend or expect. I had never really thought in those terms before.

Anyway, the prayer itself developed in the West during the medieval period, with something at least similar to the form we have now dating back to the thirteenth century. That’s why it’s really only found in the Western Church. By that time, the rift between East and West was pretty much complete. The prayer itself is simple.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Though it’s a short prayer, it’s filled with richness. The first part of the prayer comes entirely from the Holy Scriptures. The first two lines contain the Gabriel’s initial greeting to Mary. Her state as blessed is then reinforced twice more. Elizabeth, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also calls Mary blessed among women. And then, inspired by the Holy Spirit in her Magnificat, Mary herself prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. The third line is also uttered by Elizabeth and surely it’s one we must all affirm. The fourth line of the prayer asserts a critical theological point. Mary did not simply give birth to a man who later became divinized. The baby growing in her womb was a human child, but he was also God before the ages. The prayer then closes petitioning Mary to pray for us, something she surely does anyway, but it’s still good to ask.

Truthfully, I’ve never understood why so many Protestants seem to hate this prayer. It’s mostly taken from the Scriptures which they hold in high esteem and is a rich and beautiful prayer that is easily remembered. But then, many Protestants today don’t seem to actually consider, much less call, Mary blessed. I guess we all pick and choose the Scriptures we want to honor and follow to one extent or another.

As I wrote this post, it dawned on me for the first time that I probably owe more to Mary for praying and acting in ways to bring me to her Son than I had every realized. And in my blindness, I never even said, “Thanks.”

Thank you, Mary, for loving me even as I despised Christianity and rejected your Son.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 37

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 37

76. When a man sticks to the mere letter of Scripture, his nature is governed by the senses alone, in this way proving his soul’s attachment to the flesh. For if the letter is not understood in a spiritual way, its significance is restricted to the level of the senses, which do not allow its full meaning to pass over into the intellect. When the letter is appropriated by his senses alone, he receives it Judaic-wise merely in the literal sense, and so lives according to the flesh, spiritually dying each day the death of sin on account of his forceful senses; for he cannot put his body’s pursuits to death by the Spirit in order to live the life of bliss in the Spirit. ‘For if you live according to the flesh, you will die,’ says St Paul, ‘but if through the Spirit you put to death the body’s pursuits, you will live’ (Rom. 8:13).

I’m not going to pretend I understand exactly what St. Maximos intends in the text above, but I do think I detect a warning in it about the way a disturbing number of people today treat the Holy Scriptures. It seems such treatment is not an entirely new thing at all.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 34

Posted: April 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 34

72.  If always understood in the same way, none of the persons, places, times, or any of the other things mentioned in Scripture, whether animate or inanimate, sensible or intelligible, will yield either the literal or spiritual sense intended. Thus he who wishes to study the divine knowledge of Scripture without floundering must respect the differences of the recorded events or sayings, and interpret each in a different way, assigning to it the appropriate spiritual sense according to the context of place and time.

This text reinforces the prior one. I would add that we need a guide to understand that context. No text, after all, is self-interpreting. And while we draw from all available sources, including the insights of modern history, it’s the tradition of interpretation within the Church that provides the central guiding rail as we read the Holy Scriptures.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 33

Posted: April 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 33

71. Not all persons and things designated in Holy Scripture by the same word are necessarily to be understood in exactly the same way. On the contrary, if we are to infer the meaning of the written text correctly, each thing mentioned must clearly be understood according to the significance that underlies its verbal form.

I think this is a mistake many people make. In fact, I’ve participated in bible studies that seemed to operate under the premise that we could understand the text by nailing down the definitions and meanings of the words. Language doesn’t work like that and no text as rich and complex as our Holy Scriptures can be reduced in such a manner. But as St. Maximos’ text illustrates, it’s not a new problem. It’s a natural human tendency.


Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Greene on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Khouria Frederica has been giving a number of lectures on the Jesus Prayer recently. I wanted to share this lecture at Oberlin College in particular. In this talk, she provides a shorter version of her own personal journey, she explains the concept of nous, and she describes how some of the Western ideas about God look from an Eastern Christian perspective, especially to those who have been raised within an Eastern context.

I particularly appreciated some of the things Khouria Frederica said about Western atonement theories. She jumps to the heart of the matter and identifies their central problem. The Western theories describe a God who cannot forgive, but who must, instead, be paid. At one point, she says it’s almost like eating in a restaurant and being told that your bill has been paid. The owner of the restaurant was still paid. He didn’t really forgive your debt; he was just paid by someone else. I have actually heard people use exactly that metaphor to describe Christ’s work. And long before I knew anything about Orthodoxy, I apparently reacted it to it in an essentially Orthodox manner. The Western view of the atonement turns the parable of the prodigal son on its head. Instead of the Father embracing his prodigal son in love and forgiveness, it’s as though he tells his younger son that his offense is unforgivable. However, his older brother has never done anything wrong and has obeyed his father, so if he killed him instead, the father could accept that death as payment and allow the younger son to return.

Khouria Frederica uses an example in English to illustrate the language of sacrifice and substitution in Scripture. If a soldier were killed in battle, we might say that he paid for our freedom with his life or a similarly phrased statement. If someone was not a native English speaker, he might ask who was paid? But, of course, that’s not what we mean at all. In the same way, the language of payment or substitution in the Holy Scriptures does not describe an act where the Son pays our debt to the Father (as if we needed to be rescued from God), but rather the act of rescuing us from the grip of the evil one who used the power of sin and death to keep us in bondage.

I also really enjoyed one of her statements about the work of prayer and other disciplines. “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.” Yep. I’m confused when people act as though Christianity ought to be easy. How can anything as complex as the reality of our lives and relationships be easy? Orthodox Christianity does not try to hide the difficulty and struggle of our faith. Yes, God loves us. Unconditionally. Unending. Unchanging love. But most of the time, we don’t even really want God. At least, that’s true of me.