Sunday, November 29, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #12

Hell is fundamentally an expression of God's love and mercy.

Most Christians would treat eternal damnation as a pretty clear instance of divine justice. God is perfect; we are not. If we are not redeemed by Christ's sacrifice, we are therefore outcasts from the Kingdom and doomed to eternal punishment.

This is all well and good, until we try to understand this doctrine in the context of a loving God. Questions abound: What sort of loving God would even allow for eternal punishment of His children? What sort of forgiving God would base such punishment on the choices we made based on incomplete knowledge in an imperfect world? Where is the justice in eternal consequences for choices made in a single lifetime? Wouldn't annihilation be more loving and more just than eternal damnation: finite suffering for finite sin?

I don't imagine I can satisfactorily answer these questions, but that is not my goal. I want to develop a positive, systematic doctrine of Hell, rather than a negative, piecemeal response to the doctrine's critics.

I can hardly keep myself from smiling when I consider some of the worship songs we sing regularly in the Christian community. Is it not laughably ironic that we sing about the "Refiner's Fire" in a major harmonic chord? I would imagine a rendition by Underoath or a screamo band would be more appropriate: something harsh, raspy, and unpleasant. After all, this is as close to a doctrine of Purgatory as most Protestants come: we are brought into the Presence of God and our sins and impurities are burnt out of us. Can we fathom the pain of this restoration? No, of course not, any more than we can fathom the joy and relief of coming out on the other side as new creatures who will judge angels and fully reflect the image of God.

Let us take this as our starting point: when we enter the Presence of God, we will be purified.

Some will object that this ignores the blood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a sacrifice that was sufficient to redeem us from sin, and restore us to a life with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Truly we have been made new creations. Yet it is no heresy to state that we are daily put to the test, that we walk through trial and tribulation, and that our faith is purified by fire and water. Therefore, I believe that the doctrine of Purgatory -- however we view it, whether in life or after death -- is no heresy, but falls squarely within our experience of our journey of faith. We will be purified.

Why do we endure these labor pangs of the afterlife? Because of our love for our Creator, because of the hope of salvation, because of the Joy of His Presence that is promised to us as children of God.

Yet Christ promised us that there will be some who reject Him, who are herded to His left with the goats. We must accept that some individuals are morally degenerate, others who are moral cowards, and some who are simply apathetic. There are heretics and nihilists, epicures and materialists, and a vast number of people who Just Don't Care. These individuals will not accept our reasons for accepting the pain of His Presence. They do not hold to the hope of salvation, and will not assent to the pain of purification. They do not participate in our love for God and each other, and will not pay the price of admission into His Presence. What happens to them?

Will Christ force them to endure the 'refining fire'? Will He drag them against their will, kicking and screaming, across the threshold of Paradise? Heaven forbid! My loving God is no tyrant; this bait-and-switch of salvation by faith supplanted by divine fiat is unworthy of a just God. True divine love dictates that, having given humans the dignity of free will, God allows them the freedom to exercise it and face the consequences of their decisions.

If we continue to defy God and resist submitting to Him with the words "Thy will be done," the day will come when God grants us our wish and says to us, "Thy will be done."

It is an expression of love that God grants us the dignity of creatures bearing His image. It is an expression of justice that God requires us to be purified before fully entering His presence. It is an expression of mercy that God allows us to choose an eternity of self-will outside of His presence.

For that is Hell: an existence outside of His Presence. God withdraws Himself sufficiently to allow these individuals respite from His Presence. It is a worse fate than we can imagine, for all the evil we can ever experience is tainted by the original goodness of Creation, and by the sustaining Presence of God.

It is also a mystery deeper than we can fathom, for God is the Substance and sustainer of reality, and nothing exists outside of Him. Evil is the negation of God, and has no substance; yet those damned (cast away from the Presence) continue to exist and enjoy the privileges of existing only within themselves. Perhaps this is due to the original creation of humanity, on whom God bestowed the image of God. God has given us unilaterally and unconditionally part of Himself. It is this image of God that allows us to see and seek God; it is the image of God that allows us to continue existing even outside of His Presence; it is the image of God that causes the torment and anguish of Hell, of an eternity separated from Him yet desiring the completion of His Presence and aware of the distance and pain between oneself and that completion. The fires of Hell are the fires of evil, of self-will, and of being divorced from oneself and from God finally and completely and without respite.

And this is mercy.

Only damnation honors us with the dignity of moral will and causation. Universalism conflicts with God's justice and annihilation would defy God's original love in bestowing His image on humble humanity. Hell is the most challenging of all expressions of love and mercy, but it is perhaps the fullest expression of that mercy as well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Commentary on Scripture: Philemon

To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker... and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Phil. 1-3 ~~ Paul's letter to Philemon was written at the same time as his letter to church at Colossae, and was delivered to Colossae by the same messengers: Tychicus and Onesimus (Colossians 4:7-9).

Phil. 4-10 ~~ Paul does not immediately mention the purpose of the letter, but tries to build rapport as a pastoral and apostolic authority over Philemon as a believer.

Phil. 4-5 ~~ Paul's spirit of thanksgiving arises out of Philemon's love "toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints."

Phil. 6 ~~ Fellowship of Christian faith becomes "effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in in you for Christ's sake." Fellowship and Christian community is reinforced and made complete not only by recognition of the value of others, but also by the recognition of the value of oneself ("every good thing which is in you")!

Phil. 8-9 ~~ Paul clearly states that he has "enough confidence in Christ" (i.e., enough moral confidence in his beliefs) to demand and order a certain course of action, "yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you." Paul returns to this theme in verses 14 and 21, speaking of his desire that Philemon will obey freely without coercion from a spiritual authority. Paul restates in verse 19 his authority to demand obedience ("you owe to me even your own soul as well").

Phil. 10 ~~ Paul finally comes to the point of this personal letter: "I appeal to you for my child Onesimus." This direct appeal comes only after Paul had build up his own credibility (ethos), and is followed by passages that demonstrate the logic of his request (logos) and that reach out to Philemon's conscience and heart (pathos). Paul was a well-educated Pharisee, who was familiar with the Hellenistic culture. The epistle to Philemon is a clear instance of classical rhetoric as developed by Plato and Aristotle.

Phil. 11 ~~ Paul makes a lighthearted pun on the meaning of Onesimus' name ("useful"). Wordplay was a common feature in classical rhetoric.

Phil. 12-14 ~~ Paul's reasons for sending Onesimus back: "without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will." This sounds noble, but is incredibly problematic. Paul is delivering Onesimus, a runaway slave, to the estate of his master Philemon, to face probable execution under Roman law. In sending a fellow Christian to the very teeth of persecution without security and only hope. Paul doesn't even exercise what leverage he has to ensure the safety of Onesimus. Paul expresses only his love for Philemon as reasons for his actions, but if that were the sole consideration for his actions, Paul would have failed to act lovingly towards Onesimus. Onesimus must have been consulted, and must have agreed to return to Philemon; otherwise, Paul's actions are indefensible.

Phil. 15 ~~ Paul contrasts the temporary deprivation of a servant with the eternal gain of a brother. "Perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forward."

Phil. 16 ~~ Paul requests that Onesimus be accepted back and his offenses forgiven, and that Philemon treat this runaway with all of the consideration and love he would regularly extend to his fellow believers. Paul does not directly request Onesimus' freedom, but only his forgiveness ("no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.") As with similar passages in Ephesians and other NT epistles, Paul's emphasis is to redeem rather than replace social institutions. Paul addressed the individuals within the system and give them guidance to acting with virtue.

Phil. 17-21 ~~ Paul makes an emotional appeal to Philemon, appealing to feelings of gratitude, honor, and even Philemon's sense of pride.

Phil. 19 ~~ Paul restates his ability to command and demand obedience ("you owe to me even your own self") but appeals not to Philemon's humility but to his gratitude and to his trust ("I will repay it").

Phil. 20-21 ~~ Paul appeals to Philemon's sense of pride, not only in being in a position to "refresh [Paul's] heart in Christ," but also in being entrusted with Paul's confidence that he would exceed every expectation on his virtue. Sins and errors are dangerous in proportion to the value and impact of the virtue or truth they distort. Humans struggle with pride so often because the underlying virtue is so foundational: we were created in the image of God, and shall be raised to glory with Christ.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #11

Evil does not exist.

This at least was the assertion of St. Augustine, and I'm inclined to agree. In Platonic philosophy, God is identified with the Form of the Good, the realized Ideal. In Christian theology, God is viewed as perfectly good, a loving and benevolent deity. "God is love" is a foundational statement of our Christian faith.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose to rationally explain how the virtue of divine love can be found at the very heart or essence of God. For divine love is not self-love (we cannot say that God loves Himself), but the sacrificial love of oneself unto another (therefore we speak of the Three Persons of the Trinity, each of which participate in the perichoresis or divine dance, with the love of one for three and three for one). The doctrine of the Trinity is the defining characteristic of orthodox Christianity; therefore, we must assert that the doctrine of the benevolent and loving God is essential to Christian thought.

In Aristotelian philosophy, God is identified with the First Cause, the source and creative agency behind the universe. The relationship between Creator and Creation is sometimes treated in a deistic way by orthodox Christian monotheists. God exists above and beyond nature; He created it and then let it run freely, even if that means allowing sin to crop up. This treatment seems to diminish the sovereignty of God, not to mention His omnipresence (another essential doctrine of the Church).

Taking the doctrine of omnipresence seriously brings us to a theology closer to that of the Eastern Orthodox church, sometimes called 'panentheism' (though the term is quite problematic). Relying on such passages as Ephesians 4:6 (God "is over all and through all and in all") this doctrine asserts that God is the ultimate Substance ("sub-stance" = "that was stands below") underlying all reality, and that His Presence is required for anything and everything to exist.

God exists in the world, and the world cannot exist without Him.

Here is a separate tangential point, but an important one. If God is present within Creation, and God is love, then Creation must bear the fingerprints of its Creator. Therefore, Augustine argued against the Manichean heresy and asserted that nature and physical reality is first and foremost good.

This too is a core doctrine: nature is essentially good, and will be included in God's redemption.

But these arguments naturally leads to the problem of evil. How can evil be explained? For if God is both perfectly good and absolutely powerful (another essential Christian doctrine), evil should not exist. The existence of evil in the world demonstrates that either God is not perfectly good (for he is not willing to destroy evil) or God is not absolutely powerful (for he is unable to destroy evil). How shall we answer this syllogism?

Some choose to answer it by resorting to free will. God loves us and desires that we love Him, and therefore allows our free choice to obey or disobey, which leads to the existence of evil and sin and the corruption of nature. But while this answers the original dichotomy (God is perfectly good, but He expresses love in a different way than the philosophers would expect), it cannot answer a much more challenging question.

How can evil exist within the Presence of God? For if we take the doctrine of omnipresence seriously, and believe that God sustains all things in His being, then we cannot solve the problem of evil by resorting to free will. For even if God could passively allow evil to temporarily exist out of his love for us as creatures made in His image, no orthodox Christian could accept the doctrine that God sustains evil within His Presence. God is perfection; God is justice. Evil is fundamentally incompatible with God's being. How then shall we answer the problem of evil?

Augustine's answer is beautiful in its simplicity. He converted to Christianity after a brief fling with Manicheanism, which saw the spiritual Kingdom of Light and the material Kingdom of Darkness as the two cosmic force that would fight for all eternity. Augustine rebelled against this heresy, and argued that evil does not exist independently of the good, but is the negation of it.

Just as darkness exists only in the absence of light, so too evil can be said to 'exist' only where God does not. It is the absence of God. Evil is the vacuum in the fabric of space-time, the vortex in the middle of the sea. And if God is the ultimate Substance, the Presence that undergirds and sustains all that we know as reality, then evil does not exist. This does not mean that we do not feel its effects ; it only means that it has no independent substance and therefore will not endure. This is our source of hope and our hope for salvation; the good shall triumph and evil shall not exist.

This understanding will lead us to a doctrine of Hell, a doctrine that I (and, I imagine, most orthodox Christians) have wrestled with for quite some time. But with all mysteries, satisfaction can be found; with all challenges, growth follows. God is good, indeed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Commentary on Scripture: Colossians

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

1:4-5 ~~ faith in Christ and love for the Christian community are the products of "the hope laid up for you in heaven"

1:8 ~~ the phrase "your love in the Spirit" indicates that obedience to the will of God is itself a gift from God, for we are empowered to follow God through the workings of the Holy Spirit. This doesn't negate the concept of free will, but hints at a reconciliation between our will in following Christ, and Christ's sovereignty in redeeming us.

1:9 ~~ Paul prays that "you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding" so that "you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord" etc.

1:9-12 ~~ Paul lists the products of Godly wisdom, which correspond to the medieval Intelligence. "Knowledge of His will" (Mercury)... "bearing fruit in every good work" (Venus)... "strengthened with all power" (Mars) "according to His glorious might" (Jupiter) "for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience" (Saturn). This list hints at the relationship between these Intelligences. Mercury is the foundation ("wisdom and understand so that...") of the other virtues, especially Venus (beauty and charitable love). Mars (strength and courage) is the first and greatest servant and imitator of Jupiter (majesty and glory), but both exist and lead to Saturn (patience and humility).

1:11-12 ~~ the final item of the list "joyously giving thanks to the Father" corresponds to the symbol of the Sun, symbolizing Joy (the Presence of God) and its effect of us (a spirit of thanksgiving, redemption from sin, and shared inheritance "of saints in Light").

1:15 ~~ "He is the image of the invisible God" (cf. Genesis 1:27) "the firstborn of all Creation" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:22)

1:16-22 ~~ fairly comprehensive statement of Christology as it relates to the creation, humanity, the church, the nature of the resurrection, the anointing and mutual interpenetration of Father-Spirit-Son, the nature of the passion, the nature of personal conversion, the nature of salvation, and the Final Judgement.

1:23 ~~ reaffirmation of free will especially in light of Christ's soveriegnty.

1:25-26 ~~ word of God = a mystery previously hidden but manifested in the saints.

1:26-27 ~~ "riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (cf. Colossians 1:15; Christ is the firstborn of all Creation, heralding the redemption and exaltation of humanity).

2:2-4 ~~ a poetic, rhetorical appeal for truth, to inoculate against error (following Plato's conception of a noble use of rhetoric, developed in the Gorgias and the Phaedrus).

2:8 ~~ "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary [first; or, secret] principles of the world." Traditions and wisdom, without God, is hollow and hollowing (cf. Heb. 5:12, "first principles" are systematized, and sin and theology are correlated).

2:17 ~~ "shadow" v. "substances" (OT laws are a shadow of the 'body of Christ').

2:23 ~~ "appearance of wisdom" in self-made religion, especially those that tend towards self-abasement and severe treatment of the body.

3:1-2 ~~ "keep seeking the things above, where Christ is... set your mind on the things above." Instead of denigrating the body and training our souls through our own will, our focus should be on Christ (the 'firstborn of Creation') who is the redemption of the flesh and restoration of the soul.

3:5 ~~ "immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry."

3:8 ~~ "put them all aside: anger wrath malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth." The command to change one's attitude is treated in the same list as the command to change one's words and actions.

3:9-10 ~~ "you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self, who is bing renewed to the true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him."

3:12 ~~ "chosen by God, holy and blameless" (signs of the elect); "heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience."

3:14 ~~ "love, which is the perfect bond of unity."

3:15 ~~ "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were indeed called in one body; and be thankful."

3:16 ~~ "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you" -- in wisdom, instruct and admonish; "with thankfulness in your hearts to God" sing with psalms and hymns.

3:17 ~~ "Whatever you do in word and deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father."

3:18-22 ~~ list of virtues involved in family life (for wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters) including submission, love, obedience, patience, sincerity, fear of the LORD, and love of justice and fairness.

3:24 ~~ "from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance."

4:1 ~~ reaffirmation of the meaning of hierarchy (masters act justly to slaves, thereby justified to their Master in heaven).

4:6 ~~ "speech always be with grace, [as though] seasoned with salt." See also Ephesians 4:29 ("no unwholesome word," edifying speech, "give grace to those who hear") and Isaiah 6:5-7 (grace to words, and "purification" of the lips -- salt was used as an antiseptic).

4:9 ~~ Paul sends Onesimus to Colossae (the letter of Philemon was sent privately alongside the letter to the Colossian church).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #10

Praise to the Giver of good things.

As Christians, we recognize the reality of the Redemption: the sacrifice made by Christ, not merely for the forgiveness of sins but for the restoration of souls. We believe in the promise of our future exaltation. As Paul writes, "Do you not know that we will judge angels?" (1 Cor. 6:3). Or, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, every human you have ever met will one day be either a sight worthy of nightmares, or a creature you would strongly be tempted to worship. As humans, we are sons of God, of whom Jesus was the firstborn. We will inherit the Kingdom through Him and with Him.

But exaltation in only one face of the Christian coin. The other is its necessary companion: humility.

In Mark 10, the apostles James and John approach Jesus to ask Him for a seat at His left and right hand when he ascends to glory. Jesus asks them if they are willing to share in the cup that He must endure. "'We can,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared" (Mark 10:39-40).

In other words, Christ promised them martyrdom, but did not promise them eternal glory. We know the reality of our future exaltation, but for now we must push that out of our minds as much as possible. There is forgiveness promised to all sinners, but that is not to be borne in mind when approaching the Throne. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ declared that the meek shall inherit the earth, but is it meekness that demands of God, "Here I am, humble before You; now give me my inheritance!" Heaven exists, glory and exaltation awaits, but we must not allow ourselves to be bribed by these things.

This point, incidentally, is the redemption of Saturn. I'd earlier tried to marginalize this divine personality as a symbol of tragedy that was ultimately defeated by Christ's victory on the Cross. Yet now I realize that was not complete. After all, though Christ conquered death, are we not called to take up our crosses and follow Him?

How can I reflect Christ's kingship? How do I come into my inheritance as a son of God? By recalling my nature as a son of Man, by humbling myself, by emptying myself that God may fill me.

I've been wrestling with these issues recently. I am tired of sacrificing myself; I'm tired of constantly being dependable and patient; I'm fundamentally tired of being humble.

I think one of the problems is that I've approached this virtue without relying on God, for a life of pure humility is impossible without the grace and joy of God that gives us strength to continue. Is this not the lesson of the heavens? God presides over the infinity of space, in the ineffable majesty of His Presence, while we are the inhabitants of a speck in that infinity, for whom a description as "relatively small" would be a exaggeration of the greatest degree. We are quite literally nothing before Him; even when we inherit His glory, we shall still be nothing before Him. Everything we do and can ever accomplish is with His grace; that is, God willing.

"In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).

Father, help me. Amen.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Commentary on Scripture: 1 Thessalonians

I have taken to storing leaves of paper between the pages of my Bible to take notes whenever I study Scriptures. Whenever I finish a book or large section of text, I compile these notes and publish them. This was my first "Commentary on Scripture" was posted as a Facebook note on August 29, 2009. Enjoy!
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1 Thessalonians 1:3 ~~ Note the apposition of virtues, between the deeds of faith, toil of love, and endurance of hope.

1 Thessalonians 1:5 ~~ Gospel arrives in word, in power, in spirit, and with full conviction, just as the apostles arrived when they first visited Thessalonica. Paul and his companions drew an analogy to themselves. Just as the Gospel was the full and complete revelation of God to man, so they were full and complete men (Heb 11:40 - "made perfect"?), born from the very Image of God and reflecting his glory among men.

1 Thessalonians 2:3 ~~ Truth is put in opposition to error, impurity, and deceit. Both impurity and deceit are intentional sins, in action and reason, respectively. But if error is on an accidental failing of reason, then this passage seems to exempt accidental failings of action, implying that it is compatible with the apostle's exhortation. Or does error indicate accidental failing of reason and action?

1 Thessalonians 2:5-6 ~~ Motives of the apostles neither flattery, nor greed, nor glory

1 Thessalonians 2:11 ~~ "We were exhorting and encouraging and imploring [instructing] each one of you as a father would his own children." This list parallels the list of goals of classical rhetoric, as defined by Plato: to teach, to delight, and to move (reverse the order and see).

1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 ~~ Paul identifies his "hope or joy or crown of exultation" in the fact that the church of Thessalonica would stand "in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming." Likewise...

1 Thessalonians 3:7-8 ~~ The faith of others provides comfort to the apostles in tribulation.

1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 ~~ "Increase and abound in love for one another... so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness." Brotherly love (phileo) appears as an antecedent to perfection (agape?).

1 Thessalonians 4:3 ~~ "For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality." This is as direct as it gets. Sanctification equals sexual purity.

1 Thessalonians 4:10b ~~ "But we urge you, Brethren, to excel still more..." The imperative to excel, to go beyond moderation in pursuit of virtue, is clear here.

1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 ~~ Aspire to a quiet life (frugality), attend to one's own business (self-interest), and work with your hands (vocation) SO THAT you will [1] behave properly to outsiders and [2] not be in any need. This passage is an extension of the command to love one another, in practical terms. If one wants to be able to give to others, and not be a burden on their resources, then one should aim to prosper. Thus, 4:10b strikingly associates "to excel" with material prosperity, while 4:11 is a straightforward economic statement of how one can prosper while maintaining virtue.

1 Thessalonians 4:18 ~~ Eschatology is first and foremost meant to be a comfort, a provision of hope for those who suffer.

1 Thessalonians 5:5 ~~ "Sons of light, and sons of day." As much as God is light (1 John 1:5) so too we are sons of light; likewise, as much as God is God, so too we are sons of God. We are created in imago dei; Christ was the firstborn, but we follow in his steps.

1 Thessalonians 5:8 ~~ "The breastplate of faith and love" (protection for the heart/will) and "a helmet, the hope of salvation" (protection for the head/mind).

1 Thessalonians 5:10-11 ~~ The command to "encourage one another, and build up one another" is rooted in our common hope for salvation.

1 Thessalonians 5:14 ~~ "Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak"... but patience is a universal command that applies to all.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-21 ~~ This passages lists the qualities of Mercury (joy, prayer, thanksgiving) in quick succession with the qualities of the Moon (Spirit, prophesy, discernment). These two Intelligences are rarely associated with each other elsewhere, which makes this passage a bit more challenging and paradoxical.

1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 ~~ We are called to not despise prophetic utterances, yet still examine them carefully. This is an interesting statement on the relation of prophesy and Spirit to conscience and general revelation. We are called to discern truth and value in special revelation by testing its moral coherence with general revelation ("hold fast to what is good," i.e., what is known to be good.) This is a comprehensive hermeneutic for the Christian church and for a personal faith journey, grounded in prior knowledge (one might even say, grounded in tradition).

1 Thessalonians 5:23 ~~ Sanctification (from the "God of peace") required for whole being, for "spirit and soul and body" is preserved in the Parousia (second coming).

1 Thessalonians 5:27 ~~ Paul adjures the elders (literally, he puts them under oath) to read this to the congregation. These words were meant for all believers, but particularly the inexperienced and "young" Christians immature in their faith.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reflections: On the Substance of Ideas

When reading an anthology on the philosophy of Jonathan Edwards, I came across a quote that really stuck in my mind. Perhaps you won't find it nearly as profound as I did, but I felt I ought to share it. It's an excerpt from an essay by Norman Fiering, from the anthology Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience.

This passage is a discussion of Edwards' epistemology, and it begins by listing the 5 primary models of epistemology considered by Edwards and his intellectual forbear, Malebranche (father of occasionalism).

The ideas we have of bodies, our knowledge of the external world, Malebranche argued, can be gained in only one of five ways: [1] the bodies themselves may emit "species" that resemble them, which was the prevailing Scholastic view; [2] the soul of man may have the capacity in some unexplained way to produce ideas of things out of the impressions made upon it by bodies, as though man were himself a God able to create and destroy real beings; [3] our ideas may be created with us from birth, and as needed appear to us with God's aid, which was the Platonic solution; [4] the essence of all things may be perceivable within the mind itself without need of anything outside; [5] or, finally, the soul may be united with God and thus dependent upon God all of its thoughts, which was Malebranche's view.

This is a rather involved passage, so a quick summary. Malebranche assumes, tellingly, that ideas have real substance. The substance of thought is non-physical (obviously?) but no less real than anything else in the spiritual realm. From this basis, the question is how humans are able to rationally absorb the ideas of physical objects, since our sensory perceptions are distinct from our reason.

Some ancient philosophers and medieval Scholastics thought that everything in nature possessed some limited kind of 'soulishness,' and could therefore emit that non-physical substance (like an aroma) to be absorbed by a mind. Their view is often ridiculed--Cicero mocked it by asking, "does the island of Britain emit an image of it that strikes me in the head every time I think of it?"--but it still strikes me as intriguing.

The second option, however, interests me the most. It asserts that, based on our perception of physical substances, humans are able to convert those into non-physical substances. Malebranche dismisses this as idolatrous anthropocentrism, as ludicrous as the statement that all men were gods.

But perhaps that's precisely the point. Man was created in the image of God, and inherited some of His creative capacity. Perhaps we are reflecting His nature when we think, because we are indeed creating real (if immaterial) substances by the fact of our reason. Perhaps the inspiration and fulfillment we find in constructing a work of art or engineering, is same inspiration we find in constructing an edifice of systematic thought. Perhaps our minds preserve the dignity of secondary causation, just as much as our bodies.

What do you think?

Are ideas real, in any sense? Are they, in fact, substances, and if so, what kind? Are they purely physical (neurological), purely spiritual, neither or both?

If ideas are real, how are they formed? By whom are they formed?

If ideas can be formed by humans, is this a mere dispensation or special grace given by God, or an intrinsic capacity of humans that attests to the imago dei and the dignity of our power of secondary causation and creativity?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Contemplations in Theology #9

I think I was self-centered, in my early desire to reflect God. But my early attempts trained me in the habits that continue to show me the path to selflessness, the way of humility. They gave me the instincts to desire to be a helper, a support and comfort to others.

I am a child of Mercury--at my best, I am active, purposive, and joyful. The natural desire of the Mercurial personality is to be the delight of Jupiter, the King. But this desire goes deeper. In a certain sense, children of Mercury desire to become Jupiter, to reflect His glory to such a degree that we find ourselves immersed in it. The desire to manifest God's majesty is what drives me to leadership, and to counsel my friends--not only to do good, but to show others how to do good as well. "The hands of a king are the hands of a healer."

More importantly, however, that desire is what drove me to the arms of Christ; it provided the foundation for my spiritual rejuvenation in recent months, and what continues to propel me forward even through days of difficulty and stress.

But that is for another story. For now, God bless ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. O, such tidings of comfort and joy!

Confessions: #3

An open letter to Ian, a kid from my first-grade class.

I hardly remember you. I never saw you after first grade, and I had almost forgotten you entirely by the third grade, when I started homeschooling. But a few years later I remembered, and those memories appall me even today.

I remember watching you cry. I remember making you cry. I remember enjoying it.

There were three of us in that first-grade class who were fleet of foot and mind: Alex L, Roger, and myself. You were not only a slow learner, but also overweight, and we teased you mercilessly for it. We taunted you in the playground during recess. If you tried to respond, we could turn your own insults against you; if you tried to catch us, we could outrun you. You were helpless.

Can you fathom how much this bothered me when I remembered this, in my fifth-grade Sunday school class? There was a time in the first grade when I had been a bully.

I never saw you after that year. Perhaps you moved, perhaps you found another school. I hope you recovered from us, but I'll never know. All I remember is that I had hurt you, and never had a chance to ask your forgiveness.

This note will not find you, so this apology is for my friends. Forgive me my sins against you, whether done knowingly or unknowingly. And to Ian, this is my penance for you: whenever I see another hurting, I would help them as though I were helping you. This is all I know to do.

Be strong in Christ,

I wish I could undo the past, but memory has made me who I am today. I am a better man because I remember and recoil from evil. This is no consolation for those whom I hurt, but the greatest consolation for me. God forgave my evil, and used it to teach me good. Glory to the King of Zion! How deep are the wounds of the Lion of Judah!

An open letter to several of my college friends:

I don't even know why I write this, but words seemed necessary. I hardly even know why our paths intersected so strongly, but then again, actions seemed necessary there. To reflect Him, in word and deed, may God bless our enterprises.

At the beginning of the quarter, each of you struggled. In your own ways, in your own time, you wandered in your faith, and foundered in your relationships. For some reason--God knows why--I was placed at a crisis point in your lives. I felt compelled to make myself known to you, to speak and pray and offer counsel. I hardly even knew myself in those moments; it felt as though I were not at the helm of my own heart and mind.

Is prophecy possible? For a man whose lips have been branded by coal from the altar, it is still possible to cry out "Here I am, Lord, send me"? For it was in those moments that I truly understood the prophetic voice, and that I made my own that 'voice in the wilderness crying.' I understand the typology of the moon: that the star which in the daylight of reason breeds confusion, sheds at night just enough light to guide our feet to safety. I spoke in a different tongue than I knew before, a dangerous tongue, only suited for times when hope has vanished.

Yet my voice produced fruit. Some of you I know quite well; others, I pray Heaven I knew better. But for those I knew, my counsel helped them find themselves and find God; it had rejuvenated them, in some sense.

You cannot comprehend the blessing I feel to have been a part of your lives. You cannot understand the tremendous relief it is, to be the one upon whom others put their burdens. I need help as much as others--perhaps, as I see now, more than others--but it is characteristic of my personality to desire to be that bulwark and support of others. You gave me a glimpse of what it is to have that desire fulfilled, and I will not soon forget it.

I know not how you will read my words, but I pray they find fertile soil in your spirit. Go with God,

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reflections: On Tragedy and Comedy

This is the first of a series of parallel writings to complement my "Contemplations in Theology." These "Reflections" will concern issues that aren't really theological, or are only tangentially related, or are unsuited to any particular point in the discussion.
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In my eighth "Contemplation in Theology", I referenced a broad argument from literary theory.

In "Stranger Than Fiction" (a great movie, especially for English majors), one of the characters playing an English professor says tritely: "If it's a tragedy, you die; if it's a comedy, you get hitched."More broadly, tragedy signifies an end; comedy signifies a new beginning.

Dante's Divine Comedy begins and ends with the same tableau: a man alone, wandering in the woods. Through three volumes and 100 cantos, Dante relates the story of his odyssey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He recounts the seven spheres of each, the characters and stories which he finds there, the guides helping him and the angels showing him the path. Yet after a final climactic glimpse of the Presence of God, he returns to the same woods that was his departure point.

If we were to stop at any point in the Comedy, even if it were at the highest level of Heaven or in the midst of glimpsing the Beatific Vision, the odyssey would be incomplete, and the Comedy would be, frankly, tragic. It is only after that glimpse, once that sojourner has gone "There and Back Again," that the entire story dons the mantle of Comedy.

God's experience in the Incarnation was ultimately tragic if viewed from the perspective of His growing ministry and His sudden death. His life can be defined as comedy, broadly construed, if we consider the seeds He planted in his disciples, the rapid growth of the early Church, or (more theologically) the fact that He was resurrected and lives on eternally at the right hand of the Father.

Our lives are tragic is solely taken from the idea that we are mortal, that we will die. The story of civilization is as great a tragedy as ever was writ; for, as Nietzsche writes, by evolution we may reach the pinnacle of human potential, yet one day our sun will dim, the planets melt, and all that will remain is the Twilight of the Gods. There can be no more majestically tragic image that that, the fate of mortal humanity. Yet if man has an immortal soul, then tragedy is transient, and comedy is the fate to which man is called.

Tragedy is essentially defined by ending, by finitude. Comedy is defined by the infinite, the story without end.

Nor is infinite a necessarily progressive idea; Oriental cultures, among others, define infinity not as a straight line without end, but as a circle which doubles back on itself, reinforcing and informing its own past. Memory contains as great a portion of infinity as prophecy; history is as great an adventure as politics; infinity elevates the past, just as much as the future.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Confessions: #2

Man possesses an infinite soul; he transcends tragedy. Heaven help me, I know better than most the addicting satisfaction of a tragic mindset--the previous school year was immeasurably difficult for me for this very reason. I have always had a keen awareness of my intellectual gifts, and the distance between me and my peers that it caused. Yet I did not give glory to God for giving me this unique mode of worshiping him, but rather resigned myself to his service. I felt like the servant given ten talents during the master's absence; I was duty-bound to increase those talents until my King returned, yet never able to live up to His expectations. I did not "consider all things joy," but rather considered life to be a responsibility.

I cannot begin to describe how aesthetically satisfying this self-perception was, to consider myself a "tragic hero," a victim of the noble sacrifice.

Nor can I begin to describe how numbing and utterly soul-sucking this self-perception proved to be. My soul was weather-beaten, atrophied, consumed from within as though by disease. It produced both pride and self-loathing, excruciating despair and total apathy. I rarely (if ever) showed this side of my life to my friends or mentors--I wish I had not been so convincing an actor in this regard. But even had I wished it, I'm not sure I could have expressed my sickness. It was an ineffable sin, an inarticulable cancer of the spirit.

If there was any single cause for my spiritual rejuvenation, it was the decision to cast off this misconceived vision of my life. I still believe that it is the most deadly heresy into which we may fall. I should sooner curse the God who loves me and the Son who gave up His life, than fall back into that pit of tragic apathy. "I wish you were either cold or hot. But because you are lukewarm... I will spit you out of My mouth" (Rev. 3:15-16).
In the sphere of Venus I learned war;
In the sphere of Saturn, my heart leapt for Joy.
While bathed in light I accepted your mystery;
when wreathed in shadow my heart discerned God.
God, by your Word, grant me peace in your Name.
My heart is a King's, yet my soul is complacent.
Grant me, God willing, respite from this numbness.
Lord, judge me! Savior, forgive this lukewarm spirit!
Give me the freedom to care and to cry.

God, forgive my complacency. I know Your lovingkindness, that You have borne the weight of sin and defeated the power of death. I am witness to Your suffering, in bearing the weight of tragedy and the curse of the Law. From the instant of Creation You have endured the entirety of suffering that we might not be crushed, for You are the only One who could bear such things. Your hands are scarred; let me touch them! My soul is numbed to the potency of Your love. Console me, reignite my passion to live, place in me a pure heart, to delight and to feel.

Oh! God, my heart is searching Yours; grant me my prayer! Teach me to cry out to You!

Contemplations in Theology: #8

First, let me acknowledge my friends who have helped me through the last few chaotic weeks. To them, and to all who have consoled their friends, I send peace in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Before launching into my argument directly, I must mention the high degree of symbolism in medieval cosmology, particularly in the order of the planets.

Mercury is the nearest planet to Earth, meaning that the characteristics of Mercury are the divine personalities we can most easily grasp, and most easily recognize in Jesus Christ (God become Man). This is why John spoke of "In the beginning was the Word," for that was the characteristic of Mercury.

As we move outward--from Venus to Mars, to Jupiter and Saturn--we move away from the Earth, but closer towards the Divine Empyreum. This was the infinite heaven, beyond the sphere of the stars or even the Primum Mobile (the demarcation line of Nature, through which God directed all things to move). The Divine Empyreum signified the "third heaven" of 2 Cor. 2:12, the immediate Presence of God Himself. Thus, we should expect those more distant planets to be further removed from our reason--they will be more difficult to comprehend--yet at the same time contain greater and deeper mysteries.

The two planets furthest from us--closest to God--are Jupiter and Saturn.

Of the two, we instinctively identify God with Jupiter, the persona of King. We acknowledge Jesus ben-Joseph as Christ, Savior, Messiah; we worship God the Father, Author of Creation. Within the personality of Jupiter are found the Majesty, Omnipotence, Benevolence, and everlasting Glory of God. The redemptive power of God, too, arises from his kingship, for as Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings: "The hands of a king are the hands of a healer." The medievals recognized Jupiter as Fortuna Major--the Greater Fortune--for blessings were the province of Christ the King.

Almost immediately after reading "The Discarded Image" (C.S. Lewis's detailed summary of medieval cosmology, where I first encountered the complete model), I was struck by a paradox, a thorn in my intellectual flesh. For Jupiter is not the closest planet to the Empyreum. It is placed beneath Saturn.

And who is Saturn? Saturn is the Latin name of the Greek god Kronos: Father Time. In art, he is depicted with an hourglass and a scythe--symbolizing the finiteness of life and the necessity of death. Consider the adjective "saturnine": Saturn is the god of melancholy and morbidity, despair and depression, torpidity and tragedy. Is there any wonder why the medievals call Saturn "the Greater Misfortune"--Infortuna Major? Yet this is the planet they placed closest to the Divine Empyreum.

What heresy is this? The medievals based their cosmology on astronomical observation and classical polytheism. But how could they accept a model in which the planet astronomically closest to God was also the god theologically furthest from Him? In this model, the planet most reflective of God's personality is the planet we least wish to associate with Him. Can we really worship a God of tragedy?

This problem gnawed at me for several weeks. There are greater and deeper mysteries here; I can only hint at one.

At only one point in history has God entered the Creation; at only one moment did He chose to limit Himself to space and time. That moment was the Annunciation of Mary, the conception of Jesus Christ. And what was the Christ's experience while here on Earth? A promising youth, a growing ministry, the promise of greater acceptance by His chosen people... followed by utter disappointment. "He was despised and rejected by Men" (Isa. 53:3); He was subjected to humiliation, torture, and an excruciating death by asphyxiation. His life on earth epitomized the essential qualities of tragedy.

But His suffering was far greater, for he bore the full weight of sin upon Himself. Why do we rationalize His cry, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me"? The Father had turned His eyes away from the Son, that He might endure the full wrath of judgment. The moment of crucifixion was a moment in which in which God was utterly divorced from Himself.

If we believe in God's foreknowledge, then we must accept that the experiences of the crucifixion were known from the instant of Creation, when God first created the framework of space and time. Likewise, if we recognize the timelessness of God--the doctrine that He experiences all things in a perpetual present (reflected in His Name: "I AM")--then we must accept that if Christ was allowed to feel isolated from the Father while on the cross, God experiences that same feeling perpetually.

The Intelligence moving the planet Saturn is the highest servant of Christ, the greatest "steward of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1). It is the personality of God that exists in time, and the same that reflects the suffering of Christ, in the qualities of tragedy. How fitting that the Greek god Kronos--the polytheistic source of Saturn--is known from mythology as the firstborn of Gaia and Uranus (Mother Earth and Father Sky), just as Christ is known from Scripture as the firstborn of Creation.

Saturn is the planet most removed from our intellects and therefore the most difficult to understand. "We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:23). Yet it is also the planet closest to the Presence of God, and the source of the greatest mysteries and Truths.

But let us shed light on another mystery. Christ did not expire with the cry "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" No, it was succeeded by the triumphant call: "It is finished!" The spirit of tragedy was defeated by the spirit of divine comedy.

Do we need any more proof of that we may discern God's handwriting even among the Pagans? For the polytheists' account contains a type for Christ, and for the story of the crucifixion. Saturn, the suffering Son and firstborn of Nature, begot Jupiter, the everlasting King; and Jupiter overthrew Saturn.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #7

This is the second excerpt from my seventh "Contemplation in Theology," posted on Facebook on January 25, 2009. This section summarizes some of the essential aspects of the Intelligence known to medieval philosophers as Mercury. Enjoy!
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Mercury is the first and lowest planet in medieval models, the furthest from the divine Empyreum (the immediate Presence of God, cf. 2 Cor. 12:2) but also the closest to Earth, and therefore the easiest for us to grasp. In classical polytheism, Mercury is the messenger god, fleet-footed and quick-witted. He is associated with a kind of swiftness, which you might identify with playfulness. The character of Mercury is the source of Mirth (the delight we find in doing) and Joy (the delight we find in being).

There is so much more to the character of Mercury, that full explication is impossible. I would sooner write a treatise describing one of my friends, than attempt such a task. But I do hope that the open letters of the Confession provide some glimpse into this personality, for I strongly associate myself with Mercury and those letters describe the foundations of who I am and who I have become.

There is one last thought I wish to close with. Mercury is more than manifested Joy; he is also the personification of articulated knowledge. John was referencing this fundamental component of God's personality when he wrote: "In the beginning was the Word." God is the Logos: the anchor of Truth, and the found of Wisdom. Praise be to Him!

Confessions: #1

This is an excerpt from my seventh "Contemplation in Theology," posted on Facebook on January 25, 2009. In that Contemplation, I hoped to explore the nature of the "Mercurial" temper. I identify strongly with this personality type, so I decided to write in a more personal epistolary mode that, I hoped, would shed more light on the personality than a more abstract contemplation. It seems appropriate to break this up into a personal "Confession" and a separate "Contemplation." I will probably follow this template with future notes with substantial personal content. Enjoy!
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An open letter to a girl from my church:

From my youth I have trained myself in the art of articulation, that I might do justice to words and ideas in expressing them. How strange for me, that at the time when I have the most to say, I have the least assurance that I will acquit myself.

I am your age. Emotionally, I deal with the same issues as you and all my age mates. But the simple fact is that I think faster than my peers. I can more quickly connect ideas, identify solutions, articulate my thoughts. Intellectually, I found a home with my elders--graduate students, professors, people who could engage me on issues and ideas I cared for.

When we spoke, I was both pleased and ashamed when you described me as thoroughly confident. I was pleased that my attempts to exude an aura of self-assurance had been successful; I was ashamed that these vanities so little reflected who I was inside. How can you begin to understand my insecurity? My heart was in one sphere; my mind in another. Up until quite recently, I never felt that I belonged to any of the clubs, cliques, or social circles around me. I still deal with it today, this sometimes despairing hope to feel peace, this desire to "belong."

You were the exception. When I was younger I could only find a handful of people who could even approach the rapidity of my mind. You were one of them, and--miracle of miracles--you were my age.

Whenever I lost hope of ever 'belonging,' whenever I was driven to despair, you were the strongest beacon of light. You gave me hope that, just perhaps, there were people 'out there' who might be able to relate to me. When everyone else was a stick, you were the carrot. And when others were the carrot--when I was getting along fine with others, when I felt I could finally connect--you were the stick. You personified that nagging doubt that, just perhaps, there were more and better things waiting somewhere 'out there.'

Do you begin to understand why I treated you differently from all the girls at our church? Naturally, it didn't help that I was an immature teenage boy, or that you are an exceptionally beautiful lady. You did not deserve any of what you endured because of me; forgive me for it.

But there is more than merely contrition I wish to express. I feel such gratitude, as you may scarcely comprehend. You have contributed more to my spiritual development than you can possibly imagine. You were a constant reminder of that foundational confession of St. Augustine: "O Lord, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

You were my nagging doubt. You were a persistence reminder of hope and despair. You were the constant thorn in my flesh, and God be praised for it. I could never be complacent in my faith, while you were present, as God paraded tantalizing glimpses of More in front of me.

You did not mean to show me this Truth. You gave not by intention, nor even by your actions, but by the simple fact of your existence. God speaks to others through our actions, to be sure, but often He is reflected most in the mere fact of our being. You were simply reflecting the glory of your King. But I will not soon forget my debt to you, nor easily abandon my appreciation of you. You were reflecting and serving God, and may God honor you for it!

Go in peace,
~Your brother in Christ

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An open letter to a lady from my college:

It would be an overstatement to call our acquaintance brief. I have hardly seen or spoken to you this quarter. But our fleeting interactions at the end of last quarter affected me profoundly, in ways I'm not sure you can understand. I began this series of notes largely because of you, due to the waves of thought that your presence inspired. You were the immediate cause of my spiritual rejuvenation over break; may God bless you in equal measure to how greatly you have blessed me!

From the previous letter you should have some idea of my insecurity and restlessness. I am a child of Mercury, the messenger god, fleet of foot and thought. My mind is constantly active. This is a blessing and a curse. As I have said, I think more quickly than most of my peers; unfortunately, I also over-analyze just about everything, including my friendships.

So when I invited you to a informal 'date' with others on my floor, I had certain expectations. I knew I would over-analyze everything you said or did; I was fairly sure I would worry about whether you were enjoying yourself, and whether you enjoyed my company; and I was dead certain that I would leave that evening more entrenched in my insecurity than before.

How wrong I was! Your smile evaporated my anxiety; your joy lifted my spirits; your openness gave me freedom from my over-analyzing mind. In short, I felt the full and unmitigated peace of God descend on me that evening. Perhaps it was not the first time I had felt peace, but it was certainly the first time I'd consciously recognized it as such. And that realization blew me away.

I am a child of Mercury, but the desire of my nature is for Jupiter, the persona reflecting the Kingship of God. I wish to be the delight of His eye; I desire to rest within the peace of His Majesty. This is the basis of my capacity for Joy--which I'd previously defined as "an obscured glimpse of God finding Joy in me."

From that moment on, my entire being had a new center. My thoughts had been reoriented. The desire of my heart was nothing less than to revel in, and reflect, the glory and peace which I had found in Jupiter. I shall expand on that in my next note, but I assure you, this realization ended in a comprehensive re-examination of my spiritual life, and a re-dedication of my soul to God. You had showed me what I'd been looking for, what I had been seeking my entire life.

You did not mean to display this aspect of God, but He spoke to me through your very nature, and showed me precisely what I needed to see.

To the church at Corinth, Paul wrote: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth" (1 Cor. 3:6). He exhorted the Corinthians to give the glory to God. Be that as it may, the Corinthians did not soon forget Paul or Apollos, nor shall I soon forget you.

God bless you,
~Your brother in Christ

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #6

I started this series of notes to explain in what sense I called myself a medievalist. This is the note I wanted to write from the beginning.

In my last note, I wrote that "behind every common noun, there is a proper noun; behind every ideal, there is an identity; behind every category, a personality." I did not go further, simply because the next step in the argument would have sunk my last note in a sea of words. Here goes.

We know Christianity descended from messianic Judaism. The Hebraic Law emphasized the unity of God and nature, and man as the pinnacle (James 1:18 "first fruits") of Creation. Such monotheism runs parallel (and against) the prevailing attitudes of the Ancient Near East to treat nature as fundamentally chaotic, no more centered around man than it might be centered around a particular species of beetle (though, admittedly, the beetle did find its place in Egyptian polytheism).

A synthesis arose out of classical Greece in the writings of Plato. His teachings quickly rose to become the dominant paradigm of the Hellenized world, foundational to any proper education. Platonism was first transmuted to early Christianity by the apostle Paul, a well-educated Pharisee from Hellenic Judea, and was later systematized by St. Augustine. Early Christians took the Platonic emphasis on order, on unity of purpose over complexity of operation, to reconcile the opposing tendencies of Judaism and Paganism.

Judaism, Paganism, and Platonism are foundational for Christian theology. The first and the last of these are well recognized, at least among theologians. Yet I challenge anyone to find one mainstream theologian who will recognize the effects of Paganism.

Its influence is particularly evident in the medieval world, as Christianity spread through a formerly Pagan continent. The medieval philosophers freely integrated Paganism (particularly pagan astrology) wholesale into their vision of the universe. The medievals believed the planets had souls, called "Intelligences," and were the noblest servants of the One God within the material universe.

Here is one of the most sublime ideas I have ever had the Joy of contemplating.

Medieval astronomers operated within a geocentric cosmology--a universe with the earth at the center--and had developed incredibly intricate geometrical models to explain planetary motion. I won't go into details--it involves regressive motion, eccentrics, equants, epicycles, deferents, and much confusion--but they had calculated that if you were to spin 56 spheres around the same center point, an observer from that centerpoint would see a precise approximation of real planetary motion.

This was their model. 56 crystalline spheres carrying seven planetary bodies, all rotating majestically through a sea of ether, the most perfect element that flowed from the Presence of God Himself. If man could enter this space, if he could traverse the moon and enter the heavens, he would hear the vibrations of these spheres, each sphere at a different frequency, as willed by their governing Intelligences.

This doctrine, called the Music of the Spheres, is inherited straight from classical (Neoplatonic) philosophy, and is foundational to the medieval era. Consider it: the medievals believed that man would hear the heavens literally "declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of His hands" (Psalms 19)!

There is a harmony to the person of God--a unity of purpose, over an infinity of personalities.

In my first note, I wrote that "the truth of polytheism lies in the uncontainable, unexplainable, unendurable multiplicity and complexity of a unified God." But my argument goes beyond this. Fundamentally, I believe that polytheism recognized the truth that the qualities we associate with the divine are identified with a personality of God. The fundamental error of polytheism was irreverence: they could not fathom that all these personalities could reside in One God, any more than they could be fulfilled in one human. This error was expressed in the sin of idolatry: they invented many gods to fill the apparent void, and elevated these above the One God.

As a Christian, I do not need the security of polytheism. I accept (as mystery) the infinity of God, and can therefore contemplate (by reason) the magnitude of His being. Like the medievals, I utterly reject the idea that the planets were gods. But like them, I have no problem accepting that the gods were planets--that they directly reflect personalities of God.

Here is the crucial point. Infinity, like quantum mechanics, is so far removed from our experiences that we simply cannot understand or realize it by ordinary reason. Might we not find value, then, in paganism? C.S. Lewis once wrote that every myth consists of divine, human, and diabolical elements; if we purge the last two, would the remainder not give us a glimpse of the Divine?

If we purify pagan heresy in the fire of truth, if we treat polytheistic imagery as a prism for God's nature, would this not help us understand God better than abstract contemplation of His essence?

Is it easier to realize God's glory in the abstract, or to work by analogy, envisioning a king on his throne? How much more, then, might we learn when we witness the majesty of Jupiter? Likewise, in my family, we often spoke of "God's sense of humor." The reason why we are so easily able to understand the quality of mirth and playful mischief, is due to our cultural images of Pan and Mercury.

There is strange insight to the pronouncement in 1 John that "God is light", for there are many parallels. God is infinite, God is unvarying, God is the standard by which the universe moves. Like the speed of light, there is a constancy to His nature; like the wavelength, there is an infinite variety. And of the entire spectrum of light, only a portion is visible to the human eye--the wavelengths seen by us as colors.

The myths, the planets, the polytheistic gods: these are the colors of the One True God.

One final note before I close. The medieval philosophers rejected the determinism of the pagan astrologers. However, they could comfortably accept that the planets had 'influences' in earthly affairs. If we view the planets as prisms, we shall not be led astray: the personalities of God directly affect the way in which we live. And those personalities have names.

For the remainder of my notes, I will often use the names of the planets--Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn--to convey certain ideas. This is part of my medieval instincts. I think, I breathe, in these terms. They have given me greater insight into the attributes of God than I could have dreamed possible; these thoughts have revolutionized the life of my mind, and enlivened my faith in God. But my use of these terms is not an ultimatum; you need not think of them by these names to realize the ideas behind them (and please ask me to clarify if I am ever unclear). But I have found them so useful and so immediate that I express my thoughts in these terms.

Certainly there are dangers to this doctrine--that should be evident from even a cursory glance at the history of pagan religions. But if their sin was in idolatry, and we rebuke the sin, will we fall into a new error? If we cleanse the polytheistic gods and consider them not as objects of worship but simply as prisms of God, as perspectives into theological reflection, I believe we shall see God much more clearly, and learn of Him in new ways.

This does not comport easily with modern theology. But if it were original, I should trust it less. I can accept this, because I know that the great Christians of antiquity accepted this model without misgiving.

Go in joy, in love, in perseverance, in peace, and in all humility that is found in the Presence and Person of God. Glory be to Him!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #5

What better way to celebrate the passage of time, than a celebration of the Timeless One? So, glory to God and a Happy New Year to you all!

First, a story. On the first day of classes, at my first quarter at SPU, I was asked point-blank by my professor: "Are you an Aristotelian or a Platonist?" Not knowing what the heck this meant, I blathered. It took me another quarter, but by the middle of winter quarter I finally understood the difference. Now, I can answer with confidence: "Both."

The foundational discovery of philosophy has to be the formulation of common nouns. The whole contribution of Plato and Aristotle may be circumscribed by this single phrase. Common nouns are not objects; they do not operate on experience or sensation. Common nouns are categories, and operate in the sphere of abstract reason. Common nouns enable us to move from discrete experiences to common descriptions; it moves us from external to internal; it enables language, communication, action. It is between experience and common nouns that our skills of inductive and deductive reasoning operate.

Plato taught that all reality is a corruption from the Ideal, a derivation from the Form. These are common nouns. Have you ever sat in 'a chair'? No, you've sat in a variety of physical objects that resemble the Form of a chair.

Aristotle disagreed. He asserted that the Forms were not the highest level of reality but were intrinsic to reality, built in to the very nature of things. Physical properties of motion were caused by natural sympathies within the objects themselves--the desire for perfection led to circular motion in the heavens, the desire for rest led to downward motion on earth. Every object was defined by four 'causes,' which encompassed all of its being. These causes are material, formal, efficient, and final. It is the final cause--the purpose or end for which an object was made--that concerns us here.

Ancient polytheistic system had gods for nearly everything: each region had a god, each labor had a god, each occasion had a god, and heaven help you if you didn't do the proper sacrifices. In classical polytheism (after Plato), there was a distinct trend towards order and harmony. The gods were not so arbitrary and ubiquitous; they represented ideals, virtues... in a word, final causes.

My first inspiration for this note is admirably obscure: have you ever considered C.S. Lewis's unusual usage of capitalization? I was reading "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold" at the time when I first discovered this.

I noticed that C.S. Lewis mostly used capital letters as he ought, for beginnings of sentences and for proper nouns. However, he also used them for certain words throughout the book: "Joy," "Beauty," "Truth," etc. C.S. Lewis was a consummate English professor, but his use of capital letters merely for emphasis seemed incorrect.

Then it struck me, what if Lewis's writing were following correct English usage? What if he capitalized these ideals because he thought they were proper nouns, because they were not merely the words for a category, but the name of an identity and personality?

In Aristotle, common nouns encompass every aspect of being; they provide a comprehensive hermeneutic of the universe; they are foundational to how we think and live. But this is the truth grasped by classical polytheism: categories are not enough.

Behind every common noun, there is a proper noun; behind every ideal, there is an identity; behind every category, a personality. And each of these personalities reflect a characteristic of God.

Philosophically, this is a staggering claim. I believe that the final cause of every objects reflects a quality of God. In other words, every object, every person, every thing we know and experience was created for, and is directed towards, the Person of God. This is straight from Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands."

This whole series of ideas came to me on a car trip to Port Townsend. Once we arrived, I walked by myself to the pier and looked around--at the water, at the sky, at the cliffs on the other side of Puget Sound. Every time I looked, a word came into my head; every time I considered the common noun, I realized the personality that lay behind it. There is a phrase that C.S. Lewis used in "That Hideous Strength" that is particular apropos: he writes of entering the very furnace of language, where words are created in the fire of His Presence.

That was my experience. I had entered the furnace where words were born. I encountered them in an almost physical way; I met words, just as I would have met another person. The difference was, these personalities were nonphysical, and they were merely prisms of the True Person, the One Who Is, the Great "I Am."

For the first time in my life, I experienced nature not as merely beautiful but as sublime ("Sublime" = "sub-" "-limis" = "beneath the threshold," as close to the house of God as we may come without entering it bodily). This was the experience that led me to my second note, the "Aesthetics of Reason." The rational and the experiential are not distinct. They overlap, they intersect, they are unified in God.

It is for this reason, more than any other, that I call myself a medievalist, for it is in the medieval model of the universe (the medieval cosmology) that Christianity fully integrated the rational and experiential elements, that it incorporated the insights of Greek philosophy and polytheism. But I leave that for my next note.
May the God of lights give you the joy of His Word,
may the God of love reveal the beauty of His sacrifice,
may the God of strength manifest the power of His name,
may the God of glory instill the majesty and peace of His crown,
may the God of humility teach you the victory of His suffering,
that the God of Gods might dwell with His Creation.