Saturday, December 20, 2008

Contemplations in Theology: #4

This is my controversial fourth "Contemplation in Theology." Most commentators took issue with my reading of Ephesians 5:23-28, on the issue of headship and marriage. I explored this issue and this passage in greater depth in my "Commentary on Scripture: Ephesians", which can be found here.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

I have recently taken to describing myself as a medievalist, and I'm often asked what that term means. It is far too involved for a simple answer to do it justice; that's why I started this series of notes. But here is a useful definition.

As a medievalist, I think, I feel, I believe in terms of hierarchies.

I am a rationalist; when I was younger, I would have described myself as an analytic philosopher if it were not for the strange looks I received. I think in terms of definitions, categories, discrete ideas and concepts. But categories in isolation are not sufficient; they must be placed in relation to one another.

This is the principle of hierarchy: placing things--ideas, functions, virtues, people--in relation to each other, identifying them by what is above, below, and beside them.

Man was created for the worship of God, for fellowship with others, and for stewardship of Nature. This is a hierarchy.

In marriage, Ephesians 5:23-28 outlines another hierarchy: "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.... Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.... Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies."

It would be fatal to stop at verse 24, to merely apply this command to women. It is preceded by a call for the entire Church to submit to one another; it is succeeded by a call for husbands to give themselves up and practice sacrificial love.

Hierarchy is not a static or rigid structure; it is essentially dynamic and flexible. There are different hierarchies operating even on the same things, if we are measuring for different qualities.

Hierarchy is not a linear relationship; it is fundamentally circular. It is not so concerned with authority and subservience as it is with understanding things in their proper relations, in their appointed places.

Hierarchy is not a uni-directional principle; it is necessarily reciprocal. By this I do not mean that if A is above, then B is below. True reciprocity means that if we place A above B in one respect, we must place A below B in another. It all depends on the scale we use.

Nothing can be more pernicious than a simplistic understanding of hierarchy: that is at the root of sexism, racism, Social Darwinism, imperialism--the great cultural sins of recent Western history. In fact, it may well be said that ignorance of hierarchy is the root of error. For, if we do not understand ideas (or worse, we understand them, but fail to understand the relation and interaction between them), how can we know Truth?

More pointedly, however, I believe that sin itself is fundamentally a rejection of hierarchy.

This ought to be self-evident in one sense, for sin--as an act of rebellion against God--is a rejection of the hierarchy of loyalty. But there is another truth to be found. In "Out of the Silent Planet," C.S. Lewis notes that Weston was corrupted by elevating the virtue of "love for humanity" to an inordinate level, to where it took precedent over any other virtue. Likewise, greed elevates the love of money--material necessities, security--out of proportion; gluttony elevates the love of food--material luxuries, comfort. Virtue is corrupted when it is taken out of the hierarchy; thus, sin is essentially a re-ordering of the hierarchy.

Earlier I wrote that error is more convincing to the degree that it contains elements of truth. Likewise, I believe, sin is more pervasive and dangerous to the degree that it incorporates elements of virtue.

The desire for intimacy and sexual satisfaction is undeniably a virtue--it has an entire book devoted to it (Song of Songs), and is often described in parallel to Christ's relationship to his Church. When the sexual desire is elevated out of proportion, it becomes the sin of lust. And this is why lust is so pernicious an issue: the greater the virtue that is perverted, the greater the sin that it becomes.

But I am called to write of something I cannot fully understand. Hierarchy does not merely help us identify the roots of error and sin. Hierarchy is itself the foundation of virtue.

Just as the greatest sin is in rejecting or replacing the hierarchy instituted by God, so the greatest and most all-encompassing virtue is in desiring one's proper place in the order of God's Creation.

I desire to submit myself before God, demonstrating with love, loyalty, word and deed my worship of the One Who Is. I desire to enter in fellowship with others, loving my neighbor as myself, as befitting equals. I desire to submit myself to those above me, in proportion to their prerogative; I desire to exercise my own authority with care and charity. I desire to acquit myself in stewardship of that and those under my care.

I am a man perpetually restless. I am not content; I am always searching for what I can do, what I ought to do. I yearn for rest. And if this were truly my desire--to be as I ought, to think as I ought, to live as God made me to live--would I not find my place there? Thus did the stoics and ancients speak of resting in God, of contentment, of peace.

Forgive my selfish prayer: may the peace of God weigh on me.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Contemplations in Theology: #3

Christians are often stereotyped these days. Christianity itself is stereotyped. Yet of all the caricatures, I believe there is one that is the most corrupting, the most harmful and perverse, and it is one shared by Christian and non-Christian alike. It is our stereotype of heaven.

How long must we suffer the delusion that heaven is a land of kindly-faced angels and soft puffy clouds? Leaving the question of angels aside for later, I must ask, from where did we find this image of an ethereal Paradise? Certainly not from the Book of Revelation, for St. John did not see us living as airy immortals in an immaterial land. Rather, he saw "a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away..." (Rev. 21:1).

We have retained something of the Manichean heresy, from the days of early Christianity. It was defeated in orthodox theology by St. Augustine, yet it endured. The Manichees taught that spirit was good and matter was evil, that the soul was trapped in a prison of corrupting flesh. Therefore, their idea of salvation was in the release of man from its human bondage, in the redemption of spirit from the slavery of substance, in the ascension to a purely ethereal life.

This is our doctrine of heaven taken to the extreme, and I maintain that it is fatal to Christian faith. We need look no further than Genesis to find that it took both "dust from the ground" and "the breath of life" from our Creator before the Scriptures declared "and man became a living being." Both elements--matter and spirit--were present from the Creation, and both elements were good. Salvation does not require that man abandon his body; only that he abandon his previous life of sin.

Man is both spiritual and material. There will be a new Heaven and a new Earth.

Paradise is not something totally beyond our experience; it is the fulfillment of our original nature, in the blessing of God's presence and perfection. This assertion is vital to my theology. Christianity does not ask us to renounce our humanity, but to fulfill it. Heaven is not a cosmic bribe, created as a special gift to those in whom God delights. It is the necessary outcome of the Promise, for God had given man dominon over the Creation; after the Fall, God meant to redeem man and restore him to his place over a restored Nature. Just as God promised Abraham that through him (and the Jewish people) all the nations would be blessed, so God had promised Adam that through him (and the human race) all of Creation would be blessed.

Our misconception of heaven is fundamentally a misconception of the human person.

Here is another startling argument, for those (such as myself) accustomed to the Protestant assertion of human sinfulness. Man is originally good. Man was created in innocence, in the image of God, and man has retained that intrinsic goodness and virtue. The Fall was a corruption of the original, but it did not and could not destroy it. Salvation does not replace, but restores. It brings the individual human back to his original place, in worship of God, in fellowship with man, and in stewardship of Nature.

Do we realize what it means when we say that Christ was fully God and fully Man?

I find the early cinematic depictions of Jesus Christ almost comical, in that they treat him as utterly different than any man. He is aloof, almost dispassionate; as loving and gentle as Mr. Rogers, certainly, but not human. The Scriptures present Him in a totally different light. He is weakened by hunger before being tempted by the Devil, he gets exasperated with ignorance of his disciples, he shows a sense of humor in puns (as when he renamed the dimwitted Simon "the rock"--Peter), and he rages against the religious hypocrites of his day. The famous "shortest verse" (John 11:35: "Jesus wept") could be more accurately translated "Jesus broke down and cried like a girl." Scripture records that in Gethsemane, his tears were like drops of blood: this is a real physiological symptom of extreme stress, in which the capillaries behind the eyes burst and seep into the tear ducts. His cry to God in Gethsemane to "take this cup away from me" was a real one, from a man who knew the torture that awaited him. Jesus Christ was not only God; he was more fully human than any human we could know.

This is our inheritance. We are children of His image, of His beauty, of His might. We are the sons of a King; we are the sons of God.

A final word, not about heaven but about the angels. I really wonder how we ever came to this traditional concept of the heavenly creatures, as patient and gentle creatures, much like kindly old nannies but with wings and flaming swords. This is utterly inconsistent with Scripture. In nearly every instance of an angelic visitation recorded in the Bible, the unlucky witness is either struck dumb in terror or must be dissuaded from awestruck worship. Ask yourselves, how many times were the angels obliged to say "do not be afraid" to the patriarchs and prophets? Did they ever tire from it, or did they appreciate the easy audience, like a bad stand-up comic appreciates an indulging crowd?

In Exodus 33, Moses was only allowed to see God with His back turned away (a direct glance would have killed him), yet even after another forty days and nights his face was still lit up like a Christmas tree, and all who saw him feared to approach. Angels live eternally in the direct presence of God. They are the messengers of God; they reflect His awesome power, His timeless glory. These are not meek and mild creatures, nor would we find their gazes comforting. Only when we have come to our inheritance as sons of God will we find ourselves able to return their gaze. Only when we too reflect fully the glory of the King can we endure the reflection of that majesty from others.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Contemplations in Theology: #2

For all my life, I have struggled with my personal faith. I am a rationalist in almost every respect; my mind operates on words, definitions, and discrete thoughts. I think about God; I certainly believed in God. But I did not "experience" God, in the same way that others did; I could not "feel" the Holy Spirit. My faith was rational, not experiential. I was immensely jealous of those who could experience God's presence--perhaps it was a sin, I know not. My desire to feel God led me to a spiritual crisis about two years ago, and it hurt me to my core. I started to question my faith, because I did not relate to how most Christians (and almost all mature Christians who I respected) experienced God. I was insecure in my faith, and it hurt.

Two summers ago, I was reading some books by C.S. Lewis, and I was struck by a thought, an idea--I'll write about that idea in a future post--that drove me wild with Joy. I use that term deliberately, for I had been reading Lewis's spiritual autobiography, "Surprised by Joy." Lewis had related how, as a young child, he had been visited by this sensation of Joy--notably through the vision of a cold northern landscape--which drove him wild with desire for something. He later identified Joy as the fundamental desire for God. I actually disagree with his definition. Joy is not the sensation, but the thing itself: the sight through the glass darkly, past the veil, in the shadows, of God smiling at me--an obscured glimpse of God finding Joy in me.

The concept of Joy is an important one, for more reasons than this. However, to realize that the Joy I felt was an experience of God... how to describe it? I had felt God's presence! Moreover--and here is the crucial aspect as it relates to my argument in these notes--I had felt God's presence not through prayer, not as a distinctly spiritual experience, but in the context of reason. My thoughts had given me Joy.

This is the phenomenon I call "The Aesthetics of Reason." I believe that the contemplation of a truly sublime and profound idea gives the same visceral aesthetic feeling, as experiencing the beauties of Nature, or standing before the majesty of God. Reason, taken in its highest sense, is an aesthetic experience.

The contemplation of God draws me closer to the presence of God.

Why would this be? How could this be? This argument seems to fly in the face of the rather central concept of philosophy and psychology--the mind-body dualism. Experience operates on the sensations; reason operates on the mind. The one is subjective, the other objective. The one is physical, the other immaterial. How can we equate them? Yet I believe we may.

I believe the God of reason is the same God of faith and experience. I believe the God of lights is also the God of mysteries. I believe the God of John 1 ("In the beginning was the Word...") is the same God of 1 John ("What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands..."). Praise be to Him!

There is one last thing which I wish to mention. This concept of the "aesthetics of reason" was a tremendously encouraging one: it was a Joy and a relief. But it is also tremendously practical. Several weeks ago, I was engaged in discussion with several college friends discussing medieval cosmology--the subject of a future note. The conversation lasted about three hours; the last hour of our discussion was almost solely focused on explaining a particular paradox which arose from our earlier discussion. We tossed around a number of ideas, any of which would explain the paradox. However, these did not satisfy; they merely fit, they were useful. At last we hit upon one that gave us those divine goosebumps, an aesthetic sensation of Joy, the feeling that we had hit upon something at the core of who God is. It was this last one that we decided was 'right'--though there was little logical difference between any of these ideas, the last one manifested the aesthetics of reason.

It sounds almost perverse, but we used aesthetic experiences (necessarily subjective) as proof for an objectively rational construct of Truth. It reminded me of John Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Reason is not independent, but is integrated into, our experience of God.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Contemplations in Theology: #1

This was my first essay on theology, posted on Facebook back in 2008. I've transferred the rest of my notes and posts to this blog, but here is where it all began. Enjoy!
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Error is persuasive to the extent that it contains elements or grains of truth.

Satan is described as "the father of lies," yet in his attempts to tempt the first humans and the Christ he relied heavily on Truth. He quoted the Bible three times to Christ in the wilderness; he cited a direct command from God (though subtly misquoted) when tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden. His greatest, most potent weapon comes from misconstruing and subtly perverting special revelation.

Augustine asserted that evil has no existence in itself, but is merely a negation of the good. Likewise, error is a negation of truth. But being without substance, error must rely on the remaining vestiges of truth to persuade others. Thus I assert that the more appealing and persuasive errors contain a greater degree of truth.

Can we not see this in philosophy? The revolutionary, dramatic heresies are quickly extinguished, but the subtle errors of philosophy tend to endure with much greater longevity. Moreover, Christian philosophers discovered great truth in the prevalent systems of philosophy that existed before Christ. Was there a more persuasive, more ubiquitous model of pagan philosophy than that produced by Plato and Aristotle in classical Greece? And it was in this model that St. Paul was educated--a Pharisee trained in Jewish law and Hellenistic (Greek) culture. It was the Platonic model that led to St. Augustine confessions, and the Aristotelian model that contributed to St. Thomas Aquinas's systematic theology.

We must look to the most prevalent errors to glean the greatest truths; we must search the deepest coal shafts if we wish to find diamonds. We must first purify these truths by fire, but having done so we need not fear them, for all Truth is God's truth.

I wish to start with the axiomatic, but let's take this argument one step further. Why is it that the single greatest and most prevalent error of the ancient world is uniformly rejected, neglected, and laid aside by modern theology? I am speaking of pagan polytheism. Nearly every primitive culture has some tradition of polytheism; nearly every ancient civilization believed that the world was ruled and controlled by many gods. Where is the truth in that? Yet if my previous argument holds, there must be some truth--for ancient peoples almost instinctively clung to this system.

The truth of polytheism lies in the uncontainable, unexplainable, unendurable multiplicity and complexity of a unified God. It is the same truth recognized by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity--that God is three and God is one--yet amplified to a level nearly unrecognizable to the modern world. Consider this: Genesis states that man was created in the image of God (Latin imago dei). The personality and characteristics of God form the basis for the personality and characteristics of humans--not only taken as a group, but taken individually. All the variety and complexity we find among individual humans is a mere reflection of the variety and complexity of an infinite God.

There is so much more to this argument, but I will save that for later. I will also add a caveat. This line of reasoning has led me to some rather heterodox beliefs, though I understand them supported by Scripture, reason, and past authority. I wished to present the foundation: I believe that the study of Creation and of human error can be a fruitful avenue of inquiry into the nature of God.