Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A great quote on Orthodox/Catholic unity

[...] reunion of the Orthodox and Roman churches has become an imperative, and time is growing short. I say this because I often suffer from bleak premonitions of the ultimate cultural triumph in the West of a consumerism so devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism. And it is, I think, a particularly soothing and saccharine nihilism, possessing a singular power for absorbing the native energies of the civilization it is displacing without prompting any extravagant alarm at its vacuous barbarisms. And I suspect that the only tools at Christianity's disposal, as it confronts the rapid and seemingly inexorable advance of this nihilism, will be evangelical zeal and internal unity.

-David Bentley Hart, "The Myth of Schism"

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Review of Marcus Borg's "The Heart of Christianity"

HI BLOG! Sorry to be gone so long... where were we. Oh yes...

I recently read progressive Christian Marcus Borg's book "The Heart of Christianity". I highly recommend it for any individual or small group as a piece of reflection. It's a book that probably better discussed than read in solitude. Many things that need to be said are contained in this work, and Borg manages to say them with a flair that I certainly cannot match. Yet, I also find much of what he says disagreeable. Below is my review. If you should ever choose to read the book then I would welcome any feedback:

I really appreciated his laying into the heritage of the Enlgihtenment. In particular, it was nice that he treated "traditional" Christianity - ie: the classic protestant and now evangelical formularies of faith - as relatively modern products (last 400 years) in the grand scheme of a 2100 year old religion. He does a very nice job of articulating a better biblical hermeneutic, which he calls "historical-metaphorical", a combination of historical context and metaphorical meaning that take precedence over historical accuracy. I would like to say that despite what some may say about his proposal, he is really just recognizing this reading strategy It pre-dateds literalism by several centuries. Furthermore, I have noticed that Anglican writers do some of the best work on the interaction between faith and science - Borg is no exception.

I also think that he is on point in terms of what is wrong with the modernist evangelical Protestant approach: bilical literalism, too much focus on the afterlife to the exclusion of the contemporary life, all kinds of 'ists' and 'isms' that arise as a result, and just generally the emphasis on 'faith' as a kind of will to believe those things which are patently unbelievable. These are indeed the cancers of normative Western Christianity.

On the other hand, I always wonder with the Borg's of the world if their remedy is not more destructive in some ways than the cancer (a bit like chemo). In particular...

Christianity has always been enculturated (as he redundantly reminds us), but it has also been a judge of cultures. It isn't true that the morals and ethics of the New Testament squared all that well with the Greco-Roman worldview into which it was born. In particular, the normal Roman imperial world had plenty of alternate sexual and family pratices, and the NT self-conciously took hard-line stances against them. Too often liberal Christians act as if Christianity was birthed into a world of religious singularity, but pluralism has been a reality from the start.

Also, the "scandal of Christian particularity" has been well-attested since the beginning, and early church writers are nearly unanimous in declaring the God of Abraham known through Christ as the pinnacle of human faith, not simply another mystery cult that could be "affirmed" along with the pagan cults. Even if we agree that the Bible may be God speaking metaphorically and allegorically (Borg and I do agree on this...), it does not follow that all other religions are therefore equally valid. God can be just as exclusive via a particular set of metaphors as He can be via literal historical happenings. I cannot accept that faiths which make radically opposing claims regarding the human condition are just people responding to God "in their own cultural stream" - that's a bit mediocre.

Finally, as always, I dislike the tendency to dismiss personal morality and accountability from issues of salvation. Oddly, this is the one holdover from the Reformation that Borg insists on maintaining. I see no issue whatsoever in affirming that faith is, in the final analysis, something of a work. The Reformation notion that we are saved "by grace, through faith alone" is reductionist in the extreme. I think that the tradition is solidly on the side (especially pre-Reformation) of explicitly claiming that a life pursuing the divine virtues is part of the saved mindset. Furthermore, Borg shoots himself in the foot by claiming that we "should" be good little social justice people without expecting that God will reward us. He calls the idea of trying to be righteous to earn God's favor "a religion of requirements and rewards." Simply put - I see no problem with that system. But then, I am not hung up on defending 'unmerited grace' in the form Borg presents it.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Words of import

Today the words before Eucharist were ground into my bones for reasons that I doubt I will ever be able to fully disclose: "For I will not speak of thy mysteries to thine enemies, neither will I give the a kiss, as did Judas."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Baptism with the spirit and fire

I have often wondered how we should express the proper Christian view on Baptism. I found today's reading from John insightful, and remembered that Matthew was more elaborate in describing Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. Here it is, Matthew 3:11

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'

I think clearly there is a disconnect between Baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Clearly John is suggesting that Baptism with water is key in order to, as Jesus says a couple of verses later, 'fulfill all righteousness', but it is actually the reception of the Holy Spirit in blazing passion that is the gift of Christ. How to express this in the life of the Church?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Chesterton Reflection #5 - "Spiritual but not Religious"

Many well-meaning persons today wish to maintain the position that they are "spiritual, but not religious." Usually this is intended to indicate that the person wants to maintain a world that is still full of potential, if undefinable, ultimate meaning, without actually committing themselve to any particular creed, which they find to be a self-limiting demand. No matter that everyone from true believers like Pope Benedict to professional skeptics like Dr. Bart Ehrman have insisted that spirituality without religious content is vapid, they insist that this is their prefered outlook on the divine.

Simply put, transcendence, which is the beginning of meaningful mystical experience, requires one to go outside of themselves and come into a contact that is not only beyond themselves, but patently superior to themselves. God isn't much of a God if it does not challenge a person's self-understanding and pre-existing standards. Truly, the Bible would indicate that to say one is a "spiritual person" is redundant. In Hebrew the word for person means "embodied spirit". In John I it is simply taken for granted that "there are many spirits", the worshipper must test them, because only one is the spirit of Christ - the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the only divine force on the market, but rather one of many options. Further, a person is by definition an embodied spirit, so they have a spirit, and thus a spirituality, by default. The question is not whether or not there is a spirit presence, but only which spirit that may be.

Chesterton: "Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definately recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners."

Chesterton Reflection #4 - Vows and duty

I am continually amazed that our society lacks any sense of "vows". We are raised to believe that "I promise" is always contingent on changing information, and we dispense with everything from handshakes to blood oaths when we feel the slightest gust of fortune's winds. I suppose the place where this is obviously most true is marriage. Marriage, simply speaking, consists of a set of vows that one promises to live into. It is not meant to be a re-statement of the way things already are, in which case they would be called "articulations", but they instead create a new institution; they constitute a fundmanetally different identify than the couple had the day before. The ordain them into a certain office of a community, and enlist the community's support and oversight in helping the pair live into their covenant.

For the God of Christians and Jews, there is little worse than the breaking of a pact. It's not accidental that Dante put traitors in the lowest level of his Inferno, lower even than murderers and the like. It was God's very faithfulness to his covenant in spite of the people's actions that made him who He was. I often wonder why people take so many vows? If they realize that they cannot possibly live into them, it's nobler to simply opt out. Why be married if you do not believe in the marital vows that you are giving? Why be a Christian if you are crossing your fingers when uttering the creed?

It strikes me that vows are only formulated in difficult situations, and therefore should not be taken lightly. Why would we ever come up with a list of oaths and vows if we thought that an institution was going to be forever peachy? If marriage was supposed to be easy, if passion was always going to last, and if romantic mush frequently had the final say, then why would the church have ever felt the need to list out the particular hardships of the committment and forced members to sign on?

So again I am reminded of some anonymous pastor's sermon many years ago, which is forever etched in my shallow memory: "For Christians love is not an emotion, it's a committment."

Chesterton: "Whatever reason, it seemed and still seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserableit is the less we should leave it. [...] the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimist and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot. [...] For decoration is not given to hide horrible things; but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because she is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico (a run-down suburb of London) as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grown great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find then knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

[...] The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we loved England for being an empire, we may over-rate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a SAxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason - because he has a reason. A man who loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for being France will improve on the army of 1870, This is exactly what the French have done, and France is a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental your patriotism, the more practical are your politics."

Chesterton Reflection #3 - Liturgy

Ok, so actually Chesterton was not writing an apology for litrugical practice in this section, but I believe that his comments are appropriately applied to this topic. Why? Simply because one of the modern assumptions about liturgical practice is that it is a dead ritual. It's just a bunch of programmatic crossing, bowing, mumbling and genuflecting that has no "spirit" to it. For now I will ignore the little asides about the "movement of the holy spirit" in worship and focus solely on the idea of repetitive worship unto itself, and how it is that such things can have meaning. Before Chesterton speaks though, I feel moved to say something on this topic.

Truthfully, most Christian churches have bastardized the entire concept of worship. They might be right in saying that liturgical worship does not "move" the person in the pews the same way that contemporary styles, with their constant plays on emotionality and sentimentality, are capable of doing. However, liturgical worship is also not trying to do such a thing. Ney, litrugical worship contends that worship is something different than these "seeker-sensitive" churches understand it to be. Namely, worship is 1. A duty and obligation of the believer to offer their sacrifice of thanks and praise, and 2. God-centered, not me-centered, worship.
Liturgy is in the style of the old Temple sacrifices. The people of Israel had a duty to offer the sacrifices in a set and orderly manner. The priest led the sacrifice and the people said "amen", which simply means "let it be", thus making it affective for them as well. Worship is a command of God, not simply an exercise in feel-good sentimentality meant for the exhaltation of the believer.
In order for liturgical worship not to become stale, the person must internalize a sense of awe at the ritual itself. The ritual must become an awe-inspiring act of worship, constantly guarded against vain approaches and the contempt of familiarity. I will now turn it over to Chesterton.

"All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumptions that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. a man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. [...] The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, no absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it agian until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we."

Chesterton Reflection #2 - Tradition

This is arguably the best single section of the book. It's the most cohrent defense of Tradition in the Christian faith that has ever been put on the market, and is put forth in about three extensive paragraphs. It's amazing how men of literature can say in a few sentences what it takes professional theologians volumes of painstaking research to produce. Unfortunately, with the appeal of learned men such as Chesterton we also have to accept the hacks. They are also men of popular language and common expression, but unfortunately they are very persuasive and economical in their expressions of falsehood and half-truths.

Chesterton: "I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. [...] If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our counsels. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nurses dominate

Nurses have been rated the most ethical profession in America for the seventh straight year according to a recent Gallup poll. And rightfully so I might add. Go nurses! See it here

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chesterton reflection #1

I have started re-reading GK Chesterton's book Orthodoxy. I had forgotten how many key lines it contained. He was a natural quote maker, and I am going to celebrate some of the most poignant passages with short reflections in the next few entries.

"The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Chrstian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone made because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful."

Here Chesterton is addressing something that has really only come to full fruition since his time was passed. Today we have the phenomena of benevolent secularism. That is to say, we see the majority of the industrial world following an ethos that can only be described as an emotionally dictated charitable Humanism.

Chesterton's point has become even more acute since these same people began collectively claiming to be more moral than their religious counterparts. Many of them will tell you, without pause, that they simply do not need religion in order to be good. Given that many of them are nice people, and do practice some fine personal works, it is a difficult issue to confront.

Yet although charitable Humanists are moral in their own ways, they can be painfully misdirected, and often entirely unintegrated. Their ideas of right and wrong are almost totally culturally conditioned without a religious system in place to cause any questioning of their assumptions.

Further, there are times when certain morals (such as pity) that are practised in isolation become problem causers. An example was given by Robert Bork, who pointed out how misguided liberal charity was when coupled with liberal moral allowance. As freedoms multiply and moral requirements and taboos are loosened, we see a greater inequality of outcomes. Those who use their freedoms for profit and progress profit more and more, while those who use their freedoms for vice and dead-end idealistic endeavors fall further and further behind. In the meantime, the insistance that society continually provides support for those who have fallen behind ensures that we have an ever-widening class of people who are supported after misusing their freedoms, by those who used their freedoms wisely, without the latter being able to put any stipulations on their money for future charity.

Bork's example is only one among many. I remember working for a charitable NGO and thinking of how disassociated their sensibilities sometimes manifested. For instance, they were all about liberating sexual rights for individuals and also in favor of providing for treatments should people encounter difficulties from their behaviors (pregnancy, STD's, emotional damage, etc). But the group was far less inclined to say anything on the matter of properly governing the sexual behaviors in such a way that people might not suffer as frequently from those problems. So were they really loving? i'm not sure.

What I would say is that people have become single-minded in their notions of virtue. For one person, hard work is the ultimate virtue. For another it is pity and charity. For yet another the apex of human accomplishment is a superior education, or money. What binds many of them together is the lack of balance, and this is at the heart of Chesterton's point. His entire first chapter was devoted to the idea of "lunacy" being the result of single-mindedly pursuing one line of thought to its rational ends, but without being informed by other lines of thinking; other disciplines that might challenge single-disciplinary conclusions. He summed it up this way:

"...the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name."