Sunday, 27 December 2015

Nouwen on Christian Peacemaking

Peacemaking can no longer be regarded as peripheral to being a Christian. It is not something like joining the parish choir....What we are called to is a life of peacemaking in which all that we do, say, think, or dream is part of our concern to bring peace to the world.

-Peacework, Henri Nouwen 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Violence of Christmas

Christmas is problematic, perhaps more now than ever. Why? Well, what’s Christmas about? For most people it is not about the birth of Jesus. For most of us Christmas is a time where we get together with family and friends and exchange gifts. We enact rituals of togetherness and exchange and hope for connectivity, fun, beauty, safety and even a kind of romance- at least a romantic image of peace and love among those we are closest to.  You see the problem. At Christmas time we are devoted to a vision of a small kingdom where things go as we would like, where our feelings, our sentiments, our longings are king and treated like royalty- worshipped and obeyed. Yet the world is not designed that way. In fact the world seems designed to disrupt our petty kingdoms and point us toward the true King, whose kingdom is peaceable because his riches can be endlessly shared and because He is, as the gospel shows, a servant king.

The world is a veil of soul-making, as Irenaus asserted so long ago, and the soul we are to make is in the image of that servant King. When we swear fealty to that King of Kings, that humble master who gives up His life so others may live, than we enter the Kingdom of the cross. In this Kingdom we die to self so that we may live. The life we live is not the life of the flesh (ie. ego) but eternal life. This life is the life given by God, and is therefore endless. It is not a destruction of our true selves, but a revelation of our true name, written on the white stone given to those who conquer by the enthroned Lamb. Yet we only learn this name by letting go of the names whispered by the flesh, the world and the devil. This is not easy. As joyous and vital as it often is it is also painful and difficult, like a caterpillar’s journey beyond it’s birthing form.

When we try to establish our own Kingdom, even a seemingly innocuous one, we are led into violence. Our Kingdom becomes “of this world”. We may think we are seeking a simple, peaceful holiday: a nice dinner, to be loved, to be understood, to celebrate and be celebrated. Yet we are seeking our own Kingdom, and if we do not get our way we will fight for it. Our vision of “peace on earth and goodwill to all” will then take its nightmare turn, our vision blurring as if we’d taken that one drink too many. We will fight, and we will lose. How many families enter Christmas sidestepping the mines left in their internal theatre by the battles of Christmas past? How ironic that the holiday of peace invites war, spurred on by cranky, overfed digestions and a few too many armed and lethal eggnogs.

The fact is that we will be forever unhappy if insist on making Christmas about us. If we truly make is about others, about giving, not in any way about receiving, than the season will surely bless us. Even better, if we make it about Christ- about service, about God, about love- than we will leave behind the kingdom of the world and its violence and enjoy the peace of the cruciform Kingdom.

Monday, 9 November 2015

From Bonhoeffer

I am not posting these words for any reason other than I read them today and their beauty demanded that I share them:

"Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use us and persecute us. They certainly will. But noteven that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them. For if we pray for them, we are taking their their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition, upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicarouslyfor them what they cannot do for themselves. Every insult they utter only serves to bind us more closely to God and to them. Their persecution of us only serves to bring them nearer to reconciliation with God and to further the triumphs of love."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Advent Is Coming

Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as "a kind of vast joke whereby the creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers." He concludes, "Until we too have taken the idea of he God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demans to be taken."

-quoted in God is in the Manger (Bonheoeffer on Advent), p.53, notes.


Monday, 19 October 2015

The Imputation of Righteousness

Among the doctrines of many Evangelicals is that of "imputed righteousness" . This doctrine takes different forms. At its simplest it is the idea that the righteousness of Mashiach has been "imputed" or ascribed to those united with him by emunah/faith- that God the Father regards believers as possessing the righteousness of Yeshua himself.

There are degrees of this. Some believe that it means that believers possess, in every way, the concrete and personal righteousness of Yeshua. Some hold that it means that believers possess not Yeshua's personal righteousness but simply the quality of righteousness, which has been imputed to them as a result of their faith. Some believe that although all believers are thus "saints" and acquitted as righteous, God still sees their sin and rebukes and purifies them. Some believe, more extremely, that God does not see them any longer as sinners or as sinning in any sense at all. I have long been cautious and skeptical about this doctrine, but recently it has suddenly begun to make sense to me. I think the scriptural view is that God justifies the faithful, which does indeed, in both Greek and Hebrew (most clearly in the latter), signify declare, or regard as, righteous. 

The fundamental meaning of "righteousness" is to be in right relationship to God, though there are definite implications here that that will mean an increase in right relationship to other humans as well. To be declared righteous is to be regarded as someone fundamentally in right relationship with God, no doubt with the expectation that that rightness will increase. Those in Mashiach are free of condemnation, given the spirit, regarded by God as righteous, and welcomed in friendship with God now and eternal life after bodily death. These are all the possessions of the character classically (and still to this day) known in Judaism as a tzaddik (righteous one).

Paul is very clear that the righteousness we possess is through faith, not our own actions or religious behaviour. The implication of scripture is indeed that we are united to Christ by faith and are thus regarded as sons, ie. as children in good standing, or as righteous. 

Does this mean that God does not see our sin? The answer came to me when thinking about how I regard my son. My son has flaws and will do things I disapprove of. Does that mean that at any time I regard him as a sinner, ie. as separate from me and outside of my love? No. Do I stop loving him then? Not if at that moment I myself am free of sin as God is always. The fact is that although I see my son's misdeeds and character flaws, he does not cease to be my son at that moment- I still regard him as beloved, as beautiful- as righteous. 

What if my son were to stop listening to me, move out of my house, and not answer my calls or letters? What if he were then to begin acting against his best interests, distorting his true beauty and becoming more and more miserable and neurotic, while also behaving selfishly and finally unethically and destructively. What would I do?Would I stop trying to reach him? No, I would certainly keep sending messages. But as long as he remained turned inward and away from me, neither listening to me or living according to the values I tried to teach him, could I honestly be said to love him? 

In a certain sense, the answer is yes. I would still think of him and try to reach him. In another sense, though, the answer is no. He would not feel like my son. I could not regard him as beautiful, and certainly not as righteous. I would not force him to come home and tie him to a chair while I pleaded with him (which would be unlikely to work in any case) and in that sense would, as scripture says, "abandon him to his wretched desires" (Romans 1:24). 

The messages that I send to my errant son are known by some Christian theologians as "prevenient grace", God's attempt to get through to those not in relationship with Him. If one of my messages gets through there will still be a lot of work to do. Trust and communication will have to be re-established. Something has to be done to make amends for my son's behaviour, and he will need support and love. He will need to have faith in himself, and in me. 

In Christianity the life and death of Yeshua Mashiach accomplishes all of this. God incarnates in the flesh and in his crucifixion takes upon Himself our sin and its effects, making amends and swallowing our debt. As well as justly making amends (albeit in a spectacular way) this demonstrates the depth of his love so as to generate love and trust in his errant children. When we read the letter from home that is Mashiach and believe it, our lives change. Living faith is not, of course, merely believing the letter, it is repentance, teshuva, metanoia, changing our lives around. If my son believes that all is forgiven, that I love him, that I am good, and trusts me again, than I will again regard him as righteous and love him fully, showering him with everything that I have to give him- even if he still has faults, still stumbles, still makes mistakes or doesn't listen to me on occasion.

My answer then is that God does see the sin of those with faith in Mashiach, but does not see us as sinners. We are the righteous, the saints who will sit at the messianic banquet at the end of time partaking of the love that dances inside the trinitarian God, even if as good children we still nevertheless sin. It is in that sense that we are simultaneously justus et peccator (just and sinners/ tzaddikim and resha'im). 

 There is another element of our righteous standing though that I have not brought out but is essential. As well as our trusting acceptance of Yeshua's sacrificial death on our behalf there is our loving union with Him as the Son of God, the one who makes God known, the embodiment of Torah, wisdom incarnate. Through baptism and loving faith we are spiritually united to Yeshua- we are in him and of him and His life is our life. Thus when the Father looks at Mashiach He sees us, and when he looks at us he sees Mashiach. It is Mashiach and humanity's election in Him that makes possible, in grace, our adoption. When we accept this in faith and are reborn in Yeshua then we take on Mashiach's status of the beloved. 

This is not two things, of course, but one mystery described in two aspects. In Mashiach we are God's beloved children, no matter how we stumble, as long as we persist in faith. Although God does see our sins and works to sanctify us and make us all that we were meant to be, God simultaneously sees us as righteous, as in His Son, and holds us in the omnipresent strength of His warm hands.



Monday, 5 October 2015

From Laudato Sii (The Encylical on Climate Change and Inequality)

Living our vocation to be protectors of God's handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience (218)


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Article Posted on Redemption Church Blog

What Is Our Daily Bread?

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

On Hell: A Jewish View

What is the Biblical view? The earlier parts of the Bible, and those most strongly based in Jewish experience, are unclear. The dead seem to go to "sheol", some kind of deathly limbo, but it is unclear whether this is doctrine or simply a middle eastern cultural accrescence or a poetic figure of speech. Later in the Bible there are frequent references to a type of "annihilation", "death" or destruction". This is said, for example, to be the fate of the wicked in the first Psalm, as opposed to the fate of the righteous, who are given life through intimacy with God. This understanding seems more truly Jewish, as it is just (why would all souls be sent to a dreary limbo by a loving God of justice?) and resonates with the central idea of God as the God of life- the creator of the good, of the orderly, of the beautiful- and the defeater of chaos, entropy and death (this theme is prominent in Genesis, Job and the Psalms). 

The later assumption of Christian theology (based partially on some New Testament texts we will discuss below) is that some souls will live forever in blessed and blissful proximity to God and some will be consigned to everlasting torment- a kind of eternal dungeon or prison filled with torture and horrors. Where does this model come from? Not from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). Eternal life is hinted at in several places, with a vague idea of celestial bliss, but eternal tortures are not. The text seems to imply, as said previously, either annihilation or (in its earliest layers) or some kind of shadowy half-existence. 

We can learn something, perhaps, by the justice system actually instantiated by God in the Hebrew Bible. What is the nature of punishment there? Well, an examination yields two possibilities: 1) making amends through paying a fine; 2) death.  One must also offer a sacrifice to God, though this is not a juridical matter. 

This matches the Biblical picture of God's justice. When we must either make amends, if possible, or if not (because our sin is too heinous) we will be destroyed. It is noteable that the two possibilities of Eden also match this: sin leads to death, whereas obedience would have lead to eating of the tree of immortal life. 

Notice that Biblical justice does not include prisons, torture, or dungeons. Where did these ideas come from? Rome. The Roman justice system sent people to dungeons to be tortured and kept people in prisons for long periods of time. Most often this was while awaiting trial or execution (even Roman justice didn't imprison people forever!) but still the Roman dungeon/prisons, which were horrific places, are likely the source of the idea of a "divine dungeon" that arises in late second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. Add to this Graeco-Roman mythology: here we find the idea of Tartarus, or Hades. As endorsed by Plato, unrighteous souls find their destiny here where they are tortured for eternity with "just desserts". The tortures of Hades match the crime with a horrible poetic justice, and there is no salvation from this relentless, eternal justice. 
This horrific vision seems to have influenced Judaism to some extent, and massively influenced Christianity. 

Later Midrashic literature (whether halachic like the Talmud or agaddic) contains the idea of gehennom, a firy place of suffering possibly modelled after the burning rubbage heaps outside of Jerusalem. Although some Rabbis seemed to have thought gehennom eternal the mainstream view was that it's punishment was purgatory and temporary. The destiny of most was olam haba (the world to come) though many would need to be refined in gehennom before going there. The mainstream view that developed over time was that of a spectrum: the average sinner would go to gehennom and than to olam haba; the very righteous would go right to olam haba. The very wicked would be annihilated. In this way the rabbis seem to have remained true to the Biblical witness while incorporating a modified hades/tartarus who purpose was both punitive and pedagogical, or just and reformative.

The New Testament

The New Testament's witness, it must be said, is not entirely clear. Jesus warns of "the outer darkness", "the relentless fire" and "eternal punishment". Jesus also warns against "hades/tartarus" and "gehennom". He seems, then, to be making use of the terminology and ideas of Hellenized Judaism in order to warn of types of suffering and death that await the unrighteous after death. One type seems to be a type of painful alienation from God pictured as "the outer darkness" outside of a place of warmth and light (the messianic banquet?). There there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth", which sounds like grief and regret. The time period they will be there, and whether there is any escape, is not spoken of, and this is a very vague and poetic metaphor which doesn't lend itself to picayune analysis. As George Macdonald pointed out, it may be that the purpose of the expulsion into the outer darkness is to provoke the grief and regret which will lead to repentance and restoration. We don't know.     

The "eternal punishment" mentioned is also not clear- the Biblical use of "eternal" is often hyperbolic and vague. It cannot confidently be interpreted as an eternal experience of punishment- it may refer to an unchangeable punishment, or one with eternal ramifications, which might refer to annihilation not eternal torture as in the Greek Hades. The "relentless fire" requires careful interpretation because we automatically imagine the eternal hellfire of later Christian imagination. This phrase must be balanced though with Jesus' warning that we should not fear humans but rather God, who can "destroy both body and soul in the fire of gehennom". The fire, then, does what fires normally do- it burns until it consumes its fuel completely, ie. it destroys. Even the soul is here pictured as annihilated. This fire is relentless because it will consume until the soul is annihilated. 

When understood this way Jesus' warnings are harmonized with the rest of Biblical witness and the general thrust of Jewish thought (surely a more congenial home than Graeco-Roman thought). To summarize: after death there are three options: eternal life with God; some type of purificatory/punitive/purgatorial experience; or annihilation. 

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

What is "the flesh"?

I was reading Romans 8 today and pondering that question. The understanding I have come to, and I'm not sure from who or where, is that "flesh" refers to the conditioned body- the entropy aspect of our physical selves which embeds habit, trauma, prejudice and addiction. It is also the aspect of ourselves which lives blindly for ourselves alone- what is called, in Jewish thought, the nefesh behema- the animal soul (eg. Tanya 1, R'Shneur Zalman of Liadi). This is not to disparage animals, who live beautifully within God's plan as innocent aspects of the image of His glory (Catechism of the Catholic Church). Human beings, however, are not intended to serve God's plan by blindly following the dictates of our physical conditioning. Having had a divine soul blown into us (Genesis 2:6) we reflect the image of God in a special way (Genesis 1:27). It is our choice to be continually open to this Spirit which was, is, and may be blown in to us, moving where it wills (John 3:8) and opening our eyes to ever new things. 

In Romans 8 Paul says that "those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires, but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (8:5)". The flesh desires the increase of itself, which is all that cells, neurons and ATP know how to do. In Chinese folklore this aspect of the self is called the "po", or "physical soul" and is said to die with the body. Thus Paul says that "if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (8:13)". The misdeeds of the body are living for what dies and in the momentum of the flesh instead of the ever new light of the Spirit, which brings life.

What is living? It is growth, vitality, vividness, wisdom, consciousness, expansion. When we live to the Spirit we are truly alive, and life is a bracing, challenging, heartbreaking and heart expanding way of never ending growth, or reaching forward into the future in a God-ruled becoming: "And if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised the Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of the Spirit who lives in you (8:11)." This is a spirit which conquers death, entropy, and the dead end. To return to Chinese folklore, this is the yang of new life, not the yin of stagnancy and finality (David Gelernter, Judaism: A Way of Being). It is not a return to primordial simplicity but an expansion into greater, more versatile complexity. As Spinoza said, the more complex our ability to feel and respond, the greater our perfection (Ethics p. 4, Appendix:27). Entropy and habituation limit our ability to feel, act and think for ourselves and thus in Spinoza's thought make us slaves of our passions and of the external world, or in other words, of the flesh. The way of the Spirit is a paradoxical way where the more we surrender to God and the gift of the Spirit within the more individuated and powerful we become, filled with a life that is simultaneously not our life but that gives us our life , as Jesus said (Matthew 10:39): "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." We "lose our lives" by continually dying to the flesh and living towards the Spirit.             

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Common Grace

Common Grace

The clear teaching of scripture, reason, and experience is that human beings who live their lives outside of Biblical culture are capable of both virtue and the knowledge of God. Those outside of Israel (Christians and Jews, though they are Israel in different ways) and Islam (being a biblically based religion as well despite its divergences) match and sometimes excel Abrahamic folk in our righteousness and communion with God. 

According to Refomed Pastor Timothy Keller (who is drawing heavily on Lutheran tradition), the virtue and genius of non-Abrahamics results from "common grace" and "general revelation" (Every Good Endeavour). Common grace is God's good provision for His world, with which he cares for all humankind and all creation. Through common grace God gives the gifts of insight, love, craft, strength, and discovery through which human life is filled with happiness and people have the knowledge and power to create culture and serve each other. Artistic genius, agricultural innovation, medical discoveries, etc. are all gifts of God's care and love for all people. This view implies that Abrahamics can and should find much to celebrate and learn from in all cultures and should not cultivate attitudes of disdain or isolationism.   

The doctrine of general revelation states that God also makes Himself known to all people. His image is stamped on our hearts, His laws in our instincts, and nature speaks knowledge of Him (Psalm 19; Romans 1:20). From this point of view knowledge of God, and even of the character and saving work of Christ, can be found in secular culture and non-Abrahamic religions and mythologies. This also includes other religions: Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs or Confucians have knowledge of virtue and God. 

In this regard Jewish and Islamic tradition goes even further: "God has sent prophets to all nations" (Midrash ); "We have sent a messenger to each nation" (Quran 16:36). This view has two fascinating implications: 1) it affirms that the great saints and founders of other religions may have been divinely inspired, and 2) it makes one wonder if other prophets who were more fully divinely inspired from an Abrahamic view may have been rejected or disappeared from history. 
According to the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) affirms that "Man's faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God (1.2.35)" and "God, the first principle and last end of things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the light of natural reason (1.3.36)". The "light of natural reason" is therefore capable of functioning well enough apart from Biblical revelation to affirm the existence of God. This perspective meshes well with the early Church's admiration for the best "pagan" philosophers, sages like Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.   

The Protestant view presented here and the view of the Catholic Church are practically speaking very similar. The CCC tends to view the capacity to know God and virtue as inherent to the human being, and the Protestant view as "from outside" and given by grace (a bifurcation which is obviously resonant with similar differences in their greater theologies). On a real life level the Catholic Church has been much more successful in engaging in interfaith dialogue and comparative theology than most Protestant denominations. This seems to me to be related to a tendency in Protestant circles to focus on "natural man's" alienation from God and incapability of virtue without the balancing doctrines of "common grace" and "general revelation" available to them.

Understanding these doctrinal resources from different streams of Abrahamic tradition can be immensely useful to us. They allow us to think on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable" as Paul advises (Philippians 4:8) while also retaining critical awareness. Just as when assessing our own thoughts and feelings the Biblical revelation is the ultimate authority, so also here when assessing the virtue and wisdom of other minds. 

These resources also empower us in our ability to engage with non-Abrahamics with authentic respect and love, and to see God's work in them. Lastly they help us to understand and make sense of both the virtue and genius of non-Abrahamics and the failings and idolatries of our own.   


Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Depth of Creation

"Now that Christ has come, we see the depth of creation. Now that Christ has come, we can see everywhere the exchange of love by which the world was made, and is, and becomes; each thing and each person taking what s given by every other thing and person; and, if it does not give back, descending into darkness. And in the end we shall see all things in God, as he does."

-Stratford Caldecott, The Radiance of Being p.280

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Resonances Part 1: Gleanings From The Field of Judaica

For some time I have been noticing, enjoying and sometimes collecting interesting resonances between Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament. I plan to begin sharing some of them here. These will not be organized discourses or essays but little samplers of a larger course I would eventually like to put together as a serious discussion of incredible degree of resonance between Jewish and Christian theology. Of the following samplers some of them will be, hope, profound, some entertaining and some minor but interesting. The first I am sharing is in the last category (not good marketing, oh well). I am nevertheless sharing it in order to kick off this new habit. Here we go:

Offerings to the Holy Man: Talmud Berakhot 10b:

In a discussion of the healing miracle of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:10, the Rabbis mention that the woman from Shunem put out a bed, a table, and a candlestick for Elisha. The Talmud says that Abaye, and some say Rabbi Yitzhak, said that a holy man who wishes to enjoy the contributions of those who honour him may do so, as Elisha did, or not, as in the case of Samuel from Rama (1 Samuel 7:17, which the Rabbis read as implying Samuel avoided accepting gifts).  The point the Rabbi seems to be making is that it is ok for a wandering preacher to accept and enjoy offerings, but also that is also alright to refuse them. This is a real question, as I can attest from my experience in Buddhist cultures where great significance is attached to whether or not one accepts offerings and in many instances t is not allowed to refuse for fear of causing offence or even spiritual harm to those whose gift was not accepted. Rabbi Abaye (or Yitzhak) affirms that the holy man is allowed to refuse.

This reminded me of Paul, who was averse to accepting support for his apostolic work. He affirms, nevertheless, that the worker has a right to his wages, ie. apostolic workers have a right to being supported by the churches. Yet he refuses that support when he can and maintained himself by his own work. Here Paul, both in his affirmation of the right of holy men to accept offerings and their right to refuse, follows the Rabbis.