Friday, April 29, 2011

Overview: On the Saints

Protestants don't know how to handle the saints.

It's not that we dislike them. Growing up, I read quite a bit about Eric Liddel and Gladys Alyward and other historical "Jesus Freaks" (DC Talk for the win). Admittedly, some of the biographies I read were so hellaciously boring (I'm looking at you, William Carey) that at times I was ready to cast such books into the fires of eternal perdition. But on the whole I looked pretty favorably on the saints.

Yet another instinct runs much deeper. Protestants churches embody a pervasive attitude of solus Christus and sola gloria Deo: Christ alone, and glory to God alone. I never even heard these phrases growing up, but I never needed to. At a unconscious level, these have defined the central Protestant instinct.  Protestants are terrified of idolatry. The line of demarcation couldn't be clearer: God is God, and we are not.  We fear giving to any creature any glory or honor or respect that properly belongs to its Creator.

Thus, it was quite a journey to arrive at a Catholic theology of the saints from this instinctive Protestant distancing.  The first point on my journey was through the Eucharist. We partake of the same Body of Christ, the same marriage supper of the Lamb, as every other Christian, both living and dead.  This is the foundation of the Communion of the Saints.

The next step in my journey was recognizing the Intercession of the Saints. When I have a problem, I don't hesitate to ask for prayer from one of the many little old ladies sitting faithfully in the back pews of the church. They are holier than me, they are older and more mature than me, and it is natural to ask them for prayer. Now, why does that not apply to the saints who are much older, much wiser, and much holier than me? That is, why doesn't it apply to the saints who now live in the unmitigated Presence of God? Why should I deprive myself of such stalwart company in the faith?

At this point, Protestants get a bit queasy: prayers to the saints?  Indeed, this teaching so disconcerted some of the early Protestant reformers that they actively denied that the saints are alive in Christ. Rather, they advocated a doctrine of Christian mortalism or 'soul sleep.' Yet even John Calvin opposed his fellow Reformers in this regard, and the doctrine could not withstand the combined testimony of all of historical Christendom. To this day, 'soul sleep' is only held by Anglicans and Adventists, and the Life of the Saints is upheld by Catholics, Orthodox, and almost all modern Protestant denomination.

One final point remains. Even if we can accept their intercession, and even if we can submit our prayers requests to the heavenly legions, many would still take issue with honoring them. The Veneration of the Saints is the most direct offense against sola gloria Deo. The instinct is undoubtedly good and God-honoring, yet it misses an important fact. All glory belongs to God; but God chose to honor us. He dignified us by creating us, sustaining us, and most important by becoming Man Himself and including us in the Family of God. He didn't hesitate to honor those faithful to Him, so why should we?  So long as we recognize that all glory is due to Him and springs forth from Him, there is no error and no evil in seeing that glory reflected in others.

Having dispensed with my objections to the saints, the next phase of my journey would be considerably more challenging. For however strongly Protestants wrestle with the saints, we object much more strongly to the teachings On Mary. That was the next necessary obstacle to overcome.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Overview: On the Eucharist

Ironically, it was an atheist who first pushed me to Catholicism.

Several years ago, PZ Myers (a fairly notorious "New Atheist") decided, just for kicks, to desecrate the Eucharist. There was quite an uproar after he posted the pictures online. When I first heard about this incident, I was sickened, disgusted, appalled... words don't do justice to it.

A few months later, I overheard something that affected me deeply. I describe it in my note The Eucharist. In brief: a mother described communion to her young daughter as mere "pretending." Obviously this wasn't an accurate presentation of Protestant views of communion. But this incident, along with the earlier one, forced me to a realization. For the first time in my life, I recognized that there was something unequivocally sacred about the Eucharist.

I also recognized that this instinctual understanding was not derived from my Protestantism. Consciously, my theology was informed solely by memorialism. Communion was a remembrance of the Last Supper: a symbol of the faith and an ordinance to the faithful.

But this was not sufficient. That was the moment I realized my Eucharist theology was entirely and wholeheartedly Catholic. I already believed in The Real Presence; I just didn't have the vocabulary to describe it.

This discovery brought me to another. If Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, shouldn't that be the focus of our attention? Shouldn't it be the centerpiece of our worship? Isn't the Eucharist precisely the foundation to the Communion of the Saints?  Indeed, isn't the Eucharist central to our identity as a Church, as the Body of Christ?

The Eucharist opened the door to Catholicism. My next series of posts, On the Saints, would dismantle the first major obstacle that had kept me out in the first place.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review: "Love Wins"

**One of my friends, Josh Chambers, posted a brief Facebook status on "Love Wins," a book he had recently finished reading. I, Publius, asked about his opinion of the book, and he responded with a number of comments that looked for all the world like a standard-length book review. I asked and received permission to post here.  Enjoy!**

I just finished reading "Love Wins" by Rob Bell. I see why it caused a controversy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the perspective Bell brought to the whole 'heaven and hell' scene.

When the book was first publicized, "Love Wins" was portrayed by many evangelicals as a universalist tract. Indeed, Rob Bell makes some claims that are universalist-esque, mainly that all punishment is for the purpose of redemption and thus hell cannot be forever. His reasoning is chiefly based on attempting to ascertain the nature of God as loving and using that to argue that such a god would not change his nature toward an individual after death in exacting justice upon them when He has given him/her nothing but mercy and grace for the duration of his/her life. Bell argues that this trend would invariably continue, and that hell would only last as long as the individual therein continued to reject the grace God was continually offering him/her even at that point.

One of the things Rob Bell writes is that God wants everyone to come to Him, and poses the question "doesn't God always get what He wants"? I found numerous flaws with this logic, first and foremost because it is not our place to attempt to ascertain the nature of God, especially in our dealings with us. Secondly, God's justice is as perfect and as complete as his mercy, and the New Testament makes it very clear that eternal death is the just punishment for the things we do that separate us from God. I do not believe that anyone will experience that spiritual death as it were, unless they were shown the full extent of God's grace toward them, but there will be those who choose to invariably reject that grace and in thus doing accept the full brunt of condemnation by the One to whom they have turned their back.

His conjecture about the nature of hell suggests that the "eternal" aspect thereof refers not to an indefinite duration of time, but rather to an "intensity of experience" which he pulls out of a hat after some fancy Greek kung-fu, and that this intensity of experience coupled with the continued dispersion of God's grace toward the deceased in this "hell" constitute a fulfillment of God's justice, and allows them to then enter the kingdom of God.

All that said, a great deal of the book shifted the focus toward what's going on here on the earth right now. Jesus DID say that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and Bell argues that "heaven" or the "age to come" actually occurs when God fuses the spiritual realm with this one, and creates a perfect society. As such, strides we make toward a more fulfilled world without hate, dissension, hunger, disease and other such calamities is actually us letting God use us as instruments of His kingdom, bringing it closer and closer to right here, right now. I appreciated the focus on eternal life not being something that begins in the distant future and is comprised of angels in white robes with perfect voices and streets of pure gold, but as a reality that is being brought more and more into focus as His people make strides toward God's will for their lives, and for the world. It doesn't happen in the twinkling of an eye, its a process that is completed on the day of the LORD, when he returns.

The book was intriguing and thought provoking, but also fairly radical in its claims. I liked the questions it asked, not necessary the answers it attempted to supply. That said, I'd recommend that you read it for yourself and see what you think. It's well worth the time to read.

To purchase this book, check out
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedReligion & Spirituality Books)

This was originally posted at Worthy of Note.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Vicar of Christ

These days, the phrase "vicar of Christ" used almost exclusively within the Catholic Church. Among Catholics, it is applied almost exclusively to the clergy. Among the clergy, it is applied almost exclusively to the Pope.

This telescoping interpretation certainly has an impressive pedigree. As a papal honorific, it dates to the synod of 495 during the regnal years of Pope Gelasius I. As a general descriptor of the clergy (specifically the bishops), it dates back to the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of St. John the Apostle and the third bishop of Antioch, reportedly appointed by St. Peter himself. The doctrine can be found in both the Catechism and Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church.

But while this gloss of the phrase is certainly accurate, I find it rather inadequate.

The word "vicar" is derived from the Latin vicarius, meaning 'deputy' or 'representative.' We derive "vicarious" from the same root. A vicar stands and speaks on behalf of someone else.

But is this not the Church?  After His resurrection and ascension, Christ left His ongoing work of spreading the gospel to the twelve apostles. The twelve, and all who learned the gospel by their testimony, were commissioned (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8) as members of His Body and witnesses to His Gospel to baptize in His Name.

This is widely held as the meaning of 1 Peter 2:4-5, which reads: "And coming to him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." In a similar vein, after quoting Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, and Isaiah 8:14, the passage continues in verses 9-10 with a litany of Old Testament references: "But you are 'a chosen race' [cf. Isaiah 43:20], a 'royal priesthood' [cf. Psalms 110:4 and Isaiah 61:6], a 'holy nation' and 'a people for God's own possession' [cf. Exodus 19:5-6], so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light."

Certainly, this principle can be found through the Christian message. Adam sinned as a representative of humanity. The high priest stood vicariously for the people of Israel to offer the annual sacrifice within the Holy of Holies. Christ came as a 'second Adam' to redeem humanity by His vicarious sacrifice. The apostles were first deputized by Christ to act as His representatives during His public ministry, then commissioned and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve as "ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1). We participate vicariously in Christ's holiness as "sons of God" (Galatians 2), confess our sins vicariously to God through one another (James 5:16), and intercede on each others' behalf through prayer (1 Timothy 2:1).

The principle of vicariousness is at the heart of authentically Catholic teaching. Indeed, the foundational Catholic doctrine of sacramentality (the understanding that God dispenses grace through vessels of the physical world) is itself an expression of this very principle. Creation is the vicar of her Creator.

One final point: I find it interesting that the same phrase "vicar of Christ" was applied in the early Church not only to the bishops but also to the Holy Spirit itself, at least in the writings of Tertullian. For indeed the Holy Spirit is central and instrumental to the Great Commission and the Church's ongoing work. It enables the apostles to preach with boldness at Pentecost, and even today it enables us to confess that "Jesus is Lord" (1 Corinthians 12:3).

In our individual bodies, we are called "temples of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19). The corporate body of the Church may be considered a temple in the same way.

Just as Christ is the Body of the Church, the Holy Spirit is indeed her soul.

The Church is empowered and ensouled by the Holy Spirit. This is the root of Catholic teachings about Scripture and Tradition, at the heart of the Sacred Magisterium itself. But I leave that subject for the next series of posts.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Week: A Lenten Fast

As readers of this blog will know, I have recently been exploring the Catholic faith and practice. I grew up an evangelical Protestant but I've found myself drawn to the Roman Catholic Church.

Parallel to these theological explorations, I have been immersing myself in Catholic practice and discipline. One aspect of this has been my participation in Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week.

When I was growing up, I knew a number of people who did Lent-related activities -- some of my friends even organized 'prayer fasts' for several days at a time. I never participated, and never really understood the appeal of fasting. My faith has always been more rational than experiential, so it was almost like speaking a different language. However, many of them talked about the benefits and insights they gained, so over time my curiosity grew. This year, with the added incentive of immersing myself in Catholicism, I jumped in headfirst.

I organized my Lenten fast around the "Official Lenten Regulations for the Archdiocese of Seattle" (published here by St. Michael's Parish in Olympia). To briefly encapsulate: I would limit myself to a single meal each weekday, though I could add two smaller 'supplemental meals' if I needed to "maintain strength." I would also abstain from meats on each Friday of Lent. These restrictions would not carry over to the weekends.

This is what I learned:

1) Fasting sucks.

The first week of my fast, I felt terrible. Fortunately there were no restrictions on liquids, so I consumed a lot of those over the past few weeks. I also added multivitamins to my routine, mostly to ensure I wouldn't die of scurvy. It did get easier over time, but not by much.

2) Fasting recalls us to humility.

Before I fasted, I used to imagine that I could be pretty self-sacrificial if called upon. I loved God and I loved my neighbor, so the idea of casting my health, wealth, or personal security aside for the sake of another was not out of the question. After several weeks of fasting, all I can say is: yikes. There's a life lesson here: never imagine that you are more virtuous than you actually are. God might tell you to act like it.  Fasting was an excellent way to remind me that I'm still fallible, still weak, and still desperately in need of His strength and support.

3) Fasting moves us to solidarity.

For most of human history, there was always a question of whether you would have food on the table today, tomorrow, or for the next season. Even today, in many parts of the world, there is still starvation and malnutrition. By voluntarily depriving yourself of food, you suffer alongside others. Is there a more central command in the Christian faith, than to take up your cross daily? "Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

4) Fasting encourages self-control.

This is sometimes described as "mortification of the flesh." That sounds fairly barbaric, like an Inquisitorial rack, but the word pretty accurately conveys the Christian discipline. After all, we as Christians are constantly reminded of the need to die to ourselves and therefore live in Christ. The ascetics disciplined their flesh in more visceral ways as a reminder to suffer with Christ. Even the lesser degrees of mortification, such as fasting, help remind us to suffer with Christ and die with Him.

5) Fasting points us to prayer.

The first week of fasting was just awful. Prayer seemed to help quite a bit. It didn't make me less hungry -- certainly the rumblings of my stomach didn't decrease in volume or frequency -- but it helped me shift my attention to God. As I grow mature in my faith, I imagine I will identify considerable more meaning and importance in this aspect of fasting.

6) Fasting teaches us a 'vital rhythm' of Christian life.

The liturgical calendar tends to vary between fasts and feasts. During the weekdays we limit our meals, but over weekends we can enjoy three square meals, or even more. There are even a few Holy Days of Obligation (that is, feast days) during the Lenten season, such as the Solemnity of the Annunciation. This variance helps us realize that we are not called to enjoy a perpetual emotional "high" from our faith, nor should fasts continue without end. There are seasons for everything.  For many years I felt keenly the absence of God and the lack of an experiential component of my faith. When I was older, I realized that this was deliberate: I was supposed to yearn for that sort of experience, so that it would be more powerful and more preserving when I actually experienced it.

7) Fasting reminds us of the Passion of our Lord.

Christ lived so that He could die. We preach a resurrected Christ, but we preach a Christ who was first crucified. Fasting reminds us that Christ conquered death, and redeemed suffering. Indeed, by fasting, we can participate in and recapitulate the willing self-sacrifice of our Lord. Because of the Cross, suffering is tremendously redemptive, not only for ourselves, but also for others.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week: Tenebrae

"It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said 'Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit!' Having said this, He breathed His last." Luke 23:44-46

"And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen sleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many." Matthew 27:50-53

"Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl upon the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying 'It is done.' And there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth, so great and so mighty an earthquake." Revelation 16:17-18

A few years ago, in the weeks before Easter, I played a set of sonatas at my church, piano transcriptions from an orchestral work by Joseph Haydn, "The Seven Last Words of Our Redeemer on the Cross." For the Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday, I played the seventh sonata, inspired from the Latin Vulgate of the first passage above: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum. The piece is slow and somber, and the end of the movement fades away on a series of quietly repeated major chords. Then, out of nowhere, attaca subito: "attack suddenly," without pause.

This is perhaps the most physically demanding pieces of music I have ever played. From a majestic Largo we are launched abruptly into a movement marked Presto e con tutta la forza: "as fast as possible, with all your strength." But however terrifying this piece is at a technical level, it was even more demanding emotionally; for this is the fearsome Il Terremoto. Yes, you read that right: it is, literally, a musical earthquake.

The previous movement, the last of the seven sonatas, gave us a musical representation of Christ's last moments of life. We witness the heart-rending silence of His final breath. But suddenly the very stones cry out at His silence (Luke 19:40), and we witness the earth-rending revolt of the rocks themselves.

This is what we commemorate in the Tenebrae services of Holy Week; this is why we celebrate Good Friday.  For we worship a God who conquered death, and our God stoops to conquer. "But we preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23). We worship the God Who Died.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Week: The Body of Christ

I'm not sure there's a more fitting time to reflect on the Church as the Body of Christ, as specifically that day in Holy Week that commemorates the body of Christ broken for us.

Instead of my usual essay-length reflection on a single theme, I want to reflect briefly on multiple themes that are drawn from this single image.

The Body of Christ is Eucharistic. This is the heart of the sacrament, the essence of our communion. "Take, eat; this is My body" (Matthew 26:26). When we eat of the bread and the wine, we partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

It is for this reason that Romans 8:1 speaks of "those who are in Christ Jesus" and Romans 8:29 states that "those whom [God] foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn of many brethren." It is for this reason that 2 Peter 1:4 calls us to "become partakers of the divine nature." It is for this reason that Catholics speak of divine filiation -- our divine sonship -- and the Orthodox speak of deification and theosis -- literally "becoming God."

The sacrament of Eucharist is the centerpiece of our Christian identity: it defines us as a Church and as followers of Christ. Every other meaning and attribute given below flows from this central point.

The Body of Christ is empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the inauguration of His public ministry, Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. At this point, Scripture records that "while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Hi in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased" (Luke 3:21-22). In the same way, Catholics celebrate the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, Protestants celebrate the conversion experience of being "born again," and certain Pentecostals and charismatics elevate "speaking in tongues" (glossolalia) and "baptism in the Holy Spirit." There is a profound connection within the Church connecting the Body of Christ with the "soul" of the Holy Spirit.

The Body of Christ is invisible. We assert this at a Christological level in the doctrine of the Ascension. We also find in Scripture references to "vast cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) that demonstrate that the Church is comprised not merely of the Church Militant -- we who fight and persevere on this Earth -- but also the Church Triumphant that has entered eternal life. Even in the Eucharist, we bear witness to the "marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9) that unites all the saints, both the quick and the dead.

The Body of Christ is begotten of God. Jesus Christ was set apart from birth, born blameless and holy before God. To repeat a point from a previous note, this is why Catholics insist on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. She is preserved from the stain of original sin and is perfected by faith so that Jesus might inherit a perfect and fully human nature Himself. As far as this applies to the Church, we assert that the Body of Christ is spotless and without fault. The Church is clothed only in the righteous deeds of the saints (Revelation 19:8): our failures do not diminish it.

The Body of Christ is visible. As a purely historical matter, Christianity asserts the fact of the Incarnation. From an eschatological point of view, Christianity asserts that Creation will be restored: that we will enjoy eternal life in the New Earth. This principle, that the Church is essentially visible, may strike Protestants as a particularly Catholic notion. But even Protestants accept that the Church is defined in the visible communities of believers that abide by the Gospel. "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst" (Matthew 18:20).

In my opinion, Protestants tend to be fairly gnostic in this regard, though perhaps 'Neoplatonic' is the better word. We prefer the glorified Body ascended into heaven over the incarnate Body that is torn all to hell, as it were. We prefer an invisible Church, if only because the visible Church is such a mess. It is for the same reason that Protestants use crosses instead of crucifixes -- we emphasize the Resurrection over the Passion, and therefore point to the empty cross

Recently Pope Benedict issued a statement in which he referred to Protestants as "ecclesial communities" rather than a full "sister Church." Some Protestants take offense at the perceived slight, but I wonder if this isn't exactly what Protestants have defined themselves as being. Isn't this why so many Protestants go "church shopping"?  We don't consider the Church to be intrinsically visible, and must therefore search for a visible community in which to ground ourselves. Ironically, it is the Catholic emphasis on the invisible Church that lets us move beyond 'church shopping,' for we will readily endure horrid music, botched liturgies, and tedious homilies in order to celebrate Mass with the Church Triumphant.

There are a number of other elements and attributes that I might also cover, that are more explicitly salvific: for instance, the Body of Christ as both suffering and resurrected. However, I want to keep the discussion of Catholic views on salvation and atonement for a later series of posts.

May God bless this Maundy Thursday and the rest of your Holy Week.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Holy Week: Deicide

"And the people, everyone of them, shouted back, 'Let his blood be on us and on our children!'" (Matthew 27:25)
The verse above is often cited either as proof that Christianity is anti-Semitism or (worse still) as a proof-text for anti-Semitism itself. The Jews killed Christ -- they murdered God!  It doesn't get much worse than deicide.

On the contrary, the Church insists that this verse applies not merely to the members of the crowd, but to all people at all times. We are all responsible for the death of Christ, because He "bore our sins in His body" (1 Peter 2:24) and "takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29). No Christian can condemn the Jews without condemning himself in the same breath.

But consider this: the blood of Christ is not the blood of Abel. There is no voice of blood "crying out to Me from the ground" (Gen 4:10) for vengeance. If anything, the blood of Christ cries out to God on our behalf. Christ is our Paschal Lamb, who died to free us from death.

Oh blessed fault indeed!  We killed Him that He might make us innocent.

I would humbly suggest that perhaps there is another proper Christian response to Matthew 27:25. "Yes, you're absolutely right. His blood is indeed upon you and all your children. May we have some too?"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Of Gods and Greeks

Have you ever heard this one before?

"Why should I take the Christian God seriously? There are plenty of other gods and religions around, and you don't take them seriously. I don't believe in Yahweh for the same reason you don't believe in Ra or Zeus or Mithras."

This one's a stock argument from the ranks of the so-called "New Atheists." Some might find it convincing. I just find it vexing. It's a common misconception, borne out of a now-unremarkable ignorance of history.

There is no comparison between Jupiter and Jehovah. That's not because the one is true and the other false. It's because there, literally, is no comparison.

Polytheism is not a form of theism at all.

If you're looking for proof, looking at the genealogies of the gods. Zeus, "father of the gods," was the son of Kronos and Rhea. Kronos, "king of the Titans," was the son of Ouranos and Gaia: that is, he was the son of "Father Sky" and "Mother Earth."

The Greek gods exist within nature.  They are, in fact, the naturally-born children of Nature. Nor is this the exception, for this is true of every other mythology with which I am familiar -- Roman, Egyptian, Norse, and to a lesser extent Sumerian and Hindu.

The gods did not transcend Nature, but were part of it. They were not creators, but creatures like us. They were merely more powerful than we were. When the pagans offered them sacrifices, they were not being religious, but political. They sacrificed to the gods for the same reason they sent tribute to powerful neighbors: they didn't want to be crushed to a pulp.

This is the fundamental divide between polytheism and monotheism. Indeed, polytheism is largely silent on what we would consider theological questions. If pressed, pagan mythology is pretty divided on many of these issues. Some of the Greek myths indicate that Gaia (i.e., Nature) was eternally pre-existent, while Hesiod's Theogony states that Gaia and the other protogenoi (i.e., primal gods) were born out of a pre-existent Chaos.

Where the Greek 'theology' might be classified as pantheist or even materialist, Hindu doctrine is henotheistic, or even a kind of monotheistic pluralism. Certain passages of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita speak of Krishna as the avatar (that is, incarnation) of the One God who transcends nature and all creation. It is for this reason that many Hindus worship Krishna as Svayam Bhagavan (the "Lord Himself"). It is for the same reason that Hindu religious practice is typically henotheistic: practitioners focus their worship on a single god as the primary avatar of Svayam Bhagavan. While they may recognize other gods in the pantheon, those other gods are considered as secondary or subsidiary avatars of the One God's true nature.

Let's return to the original point. There is no comparison between Jupiter and Jehovah, nor between monotheism and polytheism generally. The polytheistic gods were not supernatural beings of power; they were natural beings with superpowers. The nearest modern-day relative of the pagan gods would not be the God of Abraham; it would be Clark Kent.

We should speak of the Greek pantheon in the same sense that we speak of the Justice League of America or the Avengers Initiative.

One final note on Hinduism: there may be no comparison between Jupiter and Jehovah, but there does seem to be a direct comparison between Krishna and Christ. At the very least, they both speak of (and claim to speak on behalf of) a single God who exists over and prior to the created order. This was one of the reasons for C.S. Lewis' sweeping claim in Surprised by Joy. Having dispensed with atheism, C.S. Lewis reviewed all of the theistic traditions, and found that he could narrow his choices down to two: Christianity and Hinduism. These two were the only viable faith traditions, for only these traditions were actually theistic.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Bride of Christ

In my last note, I introduced the quintessentially Catholic image of the Church as God's family. Considering that Israel is a type for the Church, we might treat the Biblical images of the Jews as "the people of God" and Israel as "the nation of God" in the same breath. In the same way, standard Catholic eschatology tends to incline towards amillennialism, so they would also identify the present Church with the immanent "kingdom of God" proclaimed during Jesus' ministry on earth. Each of these titles offers a slightly altered perspective on the nature of the Church, but those variances are too subtle to be done justice here.

There is another set of images that run parallel to those given above: the Church as the Bride of Christ. John the Baptist hinted at it in his final sermon: "He who has the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made full" (John 3:29). Later, in responding to the Pharisees, Christ compares His actions to those of a bridegroom (Matthew 9:15) and later analogizes the day of judgment to a marriage feast for the bridegroom (in the parable of the ten virgins, Matthew 25:1-9).

The mystical union -- indeed, the marriage -- of Christ and the Church has its forbears in Jewish literature. "Song of Songs" has long been understood not simply as erotic poetry, of the longing of a lover and His beloved, but also as allegory for God's love of His people. It is for this reason that "Song of Songs" can boast of more commentaries than nearly any other book in the Old Testaments. It was and remains a favorite text of Christian saint, such as the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux (the 'mellifluous Doctor'), who composed 86 separate sermons on first three chapters "Song of Songs" alone.

The apostle Paul was also prolific in his comparisons between Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as His bride. Paul makes the comparison explicit in Ephesians 5:25-32:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, do that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the Church, because we are members of His body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" [Genesis 2:24]. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the Church.
It is precisely this imagery, of the Church as the Bride, that is at the heart of Catholic teachings on sexual ethics. After all, marriage is a reenactment writ small of our salvation history, of Christ's mystical union with the body of believers. A number of Christians mystics go further and apply imagery of marriage to the mystical union of the Trinity Itself, of the relation of God to the Son and the Holy Spirit. At the very least, Catholics define marriage as a sacrament, a vessel of God's sanctifying grace, completed through the marital act. Just as Catholics wouldn't dream of using the consecrated hosts of the Eucharist as snack food, so too the Church would teach us not to devalue the 'elements' of marriage: the physical act of sex.

One particular attribute of the Church as Bride deserves mention: its spotlessness. Paul is pretty clear on this score in the passage above, as is St. John the Seer in Revelations 19:7-9:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready" It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints. Then he said to me, "Write, 'Bless are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.'" And he said to me, "There are the true words of God."
This particular imagery, of a Divine bridegroom approaching a pure and spotless Bride, stands in pretty stark contrast with the actual conduct of both Jews and Christians throughout salvation history. God Himself commented on this to the prophet Hosea: "Go, take for yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord" (Hosea 1:2). Through the book, God laments the continued unfaithfulness of His people, yet still promises to redeem her: "Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods..." (Hosea 3:1). Hosea's marriage to the unfaithful Gomer is a sign of God and His people. Yet Christ's marriage to the spotless Bride is a sign of God and His church.

This is the paradox at the heart of Catholic ecclesiology. As Gomer treated her husband, we who live in Christ treat God pretty abysmally. We are often unfaithful. Yet the Church remains spotless, and while we remain in the Church we remain spotless ourselves. This is why Catholics find the Lutheran dictum simul justus et peccator ("both justified and a sinner") incomprehensible. This is the reason for the Catholic dictum extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside of the Church, there is no salvation."

For the Church is more than the Bride of Christ. She is the Body of Christ as well.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 5

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2 ~~ Justification gives us "peace with God," "grace in which we stand," and "hope of the glory of God." These seem to conform to the theological distinctions of imputed righteousness (right-standing before the seat of judgment), imparted righteousness (ongoing sanctification by grace through works), and divine filiation (participation in Christ's nature and glorification as sons of God).

Romans 5:2-5 ~~ Not only do we exult in hope for glorification, but we also "exult in our tribulations" --that is, our ongoing purification -- "knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance [brings about] proven character; and proven character [brings about] hope; and hope does not disappoint...." Because God has already poured out His love, we can rely on Him in hope of glorification (v. 2).

Romans 5:7 ~~ This verses relies on the distinction between "righteousness" and goodness introduced in Romans 4:4-5. Righteousness arises from faith; goodness is more associated with works ("to one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due." This is why God's love is demonstrated in His grace to sinners, just as our obedience to the law of Moses is better encapsulated in our treatment of enemies than our treatment of neighbors (Matthew 5:44).

Romans 5:8-10 ~~ Romans 5:8 is one of the better known verses in the Pauline epistles. However, look at how Paul applies it. If God loved us so greatly  "while we were still sinners," how much more will He preserve us "having been reconciled" to Him? This passage implicitly contrasts our former status as sinners with our new status as regenerate creatures; that is, as sons of God. As such, it seems to contradict the Lutheran dictum simul justus et peccator: "both justified and a sinner."

Romans 5:10-11 ~~ "...we shall be saved by His life. But not only this, but also exulting in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation." We can rejoice not only in our preservation from death, but also in the promise of our full sonship.

Romans 5:12-19 ~~ Here is an extended section contrasting Adam and Jesus Christ, both as moments in salvation history ("as through the one's man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous") and as typologies ("Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come..."). The first Man, Adam, was created in the image and likeness of God. Jesus was eternally begotten of the Father and born of the immaculate Virgin, in the perfect likeness of God and therefore in the true form of Man.

Romans 5:13 ~~ This verse is an important corollary to the Romans 2:12 and 4:15 passages on the connection between human knowledge and divine judgment. "For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no Law." We still suffered its effects of sin under the curse (e.g., "death reigned from Adam until Moses") but prior to the Law we were immune from its imputation as violation of Law.

Romans 5:14 ~~ Death is the natural consequence of sin as separation from God, not necessarily as transgression against the known will of God (i.e., sin "in the likeness of the offense of Adam"). That subordinate clause is particularly notable: "death reigned... ever over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam." This passage could be taken in a number of ways -- for instance, as referring to children prior to the age of accountability -- but the first implication should be clear: not all sins are equal (cf. 1 John 5:16-17).

Romans 5:15 ~~ A typological contrast between Adam's rebellion ("by the transgresison of the one, the many died") and Christ's obedience ("the gift by the grace of the one Man... abound to many"). This is repeated in Romans 5:18-19.

Romans 5:16 ~~ "On the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification."

Romans 5:20-21 ~~ God gave us the Law to increase transgression (purpose implied by the conjunction "so that"). But this increase in transgression corresponds to a parallel abundance in grace. "As sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

The bulk of Romans 5 is Christological, particularly with reference to the Adamic typology. (That last sentence might be a mouthful, but it was also really fun to say!) The initial verses are a continuation of the Romans 4 passage on justification. Even so, these verses seem to emphasize the hope of glorification over the initial moment of conversion, the realization of justification, or the ongoing work of sanctification (though the hope of glory is framed in the context of tribulation and purification). The latter verses focus much more particularly on the work of Christ in the context of His prefiguration and antithesis, Adam. Paul reserves his fiery denunciation of the antinomian heresy for the beginning of Romans 6, but in these verses he seems quite close to the Augustinian notion of felix culpa. This teaching may be best understood in the words of the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil: "O happy fault, that gained for us so great a Redeemer."

O certe necessárium Adæ peccátum,
quod Christi morte delétum est!
O felix culpa,
quæ talem ac tantum méruit habére Redemptórem!

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Family of God

In my study of Catholicism, I've come to a realization.  Having traced many of the innumerable differences in the schism between Protestants and Catholics, I believe there is one that defines the schism at its core, in its totality. Every other difference are traced to this root.  I believe the difference is this: Protestants emphasize soteriology, and Catholics emphasize ecclesiology.

What do I mean? Soteriology means "the doctrine of salvation." Protestants fixate on the event of salvation, the moment of conversion, when one comes to know Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord. Our faith is personal, our culture individualistic. We typically disdain church authority, because it might interfere with our connection with Christ. We shy away from Mary because we fear the honor we give her might eclipse the glory we ought to give to God. We do not call upon the saints because we have Jesus as our one mediator before God.

The Catholic response, in contrast, is much less atomistic. I do not mean less individualistic, for individualism (as with most of Western culture) is drawn from Catholic tradition. But while Catholicism does emphasize the dignity and worth of the individual, this is only the foundation, when Catholics would prefer to admire the cathedral built on top of it.

Ecclesiology means "the doctrine of the Church." It is in the Church that the Catholic lives and breaths. Catholics focus on the experience of salvation, the context of conversion, when one comes to live with Christ Jesus as Father and Redeemer. The faith and the culture are not tied up in an individual's relation to God, but in the relation of God to His family, and thereby to each member of the family.

Throughout the New Testament, Christ is referred to as "the firstborn" (Heb. 1:6), "the firstborn of the dead" (Rev. 1:5), "the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15), and perhaps most significantly "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). This is one of the titles of the Christ, hearkening at a deep-seated reality: that, as a result of the Cross and the Resurrection, we have been joined to Christ and can call ourselves true sons of God. In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul tells us that "you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.... And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to the promise."

This doctrine is one of the essential truths of the faith, retained by Catholics though in my experience forgotten by many Protestants. Salvation is bigger than forgiveness: it is our familial relation to God. We do not address God as "Our Father" simply because He's humble enough to listen. It's a statement of fact, a new reality that by the power of Christ He really is our Father. He descended, to raise us with Him.

Over the next few notes, I'll be exploring a few other Catholic images for the Church. However, this doctrine of divine filiation, and this understanding of the Family of God, is foundational to all the others, and indeed is one of the cornerstones of Catholic teaching.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Of Angels and Pins

I am something of an amateur medievalist. I love talking about the theology, cosmology, saints and scholars. I relish the culture, the politics, the architecture, and the history.

But sometimes its hard to get people to take the Middle Ages seriously. "What, you want to revive the Inquisition? They persecuted Galileo, and halted the advance of science for hundreds of years! They thought the Earth was flat, for heaven's sake!" And so I despair.

If anything, look at the time-line. The Middle Ages are conventionally dated between 476 and 1453, between the abdication of the last Roman emperor and the fall of Constantinople. The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1480 and would only be abolished in 1820. Likewise, the trial of Galileo was held in 1633, nearly two hundred years after the Middle Ages were over. Moreover, the sphericity of the Earth was never seriously challenged during the Middle Ages, having been firmly established by the time of Ptolemy's Almagest, circa 150 AD.

Yet even beyond this sort of historical non sequitur (so often compounded by grotesque misconstruals of the events in question), the Middle Ages are subject to still lower forms of "chronological snobbery." The worst seems to me the wholesale mischaracterization of the medieval mind. People seem to fancy them as superstitious folk, woefully ignorant of the natural sciences and obsessed with esoteric minutiae. In reality, the Middle Ages could boast of the sharpest minds we can imagine, people whose mental acuity would outpace any but the elite corps of Mensa.

Besides, let's be frank, we're hardly the ones to talk about rampant ignorance. We don't just live in glass houses; we also work in glass offices and study in glass schools.

One particular example is commonly given as though it were sufficient proof of medieval ignorance: "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Let us dismantle this once and for all.

First, it is by no means certain that this question actually originated during the Middle Ages. Its earliest appearance comes from 17th century manuscripts by authors who wrote specifically to attack Catholicism and the medieval period. These are hardly reputable sources, and it's entirely possible the whole thing was a fabrication.

Even if it were authentic, however, these authors evidently failed to realize how ingenious the question actually is. A medieval philosopher would probably reason thus: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Scripture mentions that angels can be located in the physical world. Gabriel stood "there" when he appeared to Mary, as did Michael to Daniel and any other angels who might appear to a prophet. Yet angels are by definition incorporeal. They are not made of matter like us, but can only be seen as pure spirit. How could something without a physical body be physically present?  Ah, the medieval philosopher exclaims, it's a confusion of categories. Without mass, an angel cannot occupy physical space, but that doesn't prevent them from moving within and between such spaces. Therefore, an angel might be "located" on the head of a pin, without necessarily being "located" in the sense of occupying space there. Thus, an theoretically infinite number of angels could fit on the head of a pin.

If the question were authentically medieval, it could have been dispatched by anyone with even the simplest of training in the scholastic method. In all likelihood, it was questions like these that were used as 'practice problems' for students being trained in dialectic, the second of the medieval trivium. Yet we deride medieval ignorance for a question like this, even though we dare not admit it would be unanswerable to the great majority of people nowadays.

Imagine if a future generation, some hundreds of years in the future, were to unearth one of those time capsules buried by elementary school children. Now imagine those materials -- monochromatic finger-paintings, arithmetic problems, and scrawled letters -- were the basis for popular knowledge about our era of history. This was a scientific age, the specialists will cry, an age where great minds plumbed the depths of subatomic space! And the masses will laugh at us because we didn't know algebra.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Review: "Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace"

Scott Hahn is best known a former Presbyterian minister who converted to the Catholic Church. One of the major influences in his transition-conversion was the Catholic organization Opus Dei.  Founded in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escrivá and approved in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, the organization was made a personal prelature of Pope John Paul II in 1982 -- a meteoric rise that fueled speculation that Opus Dei had masterfully manipulated papal court politics. This notoriety was reinforced and publicized by the grotesque caricature of Opus Dei that appeared in the 2005 bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code."

For those seeking sensationalist details about the private lives of albino monks, this book is not the place to find them. On the other hand, for those seeking factual sensationalist details, I doubt you'll find them anywhere. Scott Hahn begins by depicting his initial encounter with members of the organization , but swiftly moves to present the doctrinal underpinnings of Opus Dei (a Latin phrase, meaning "The Work of God").

Opus Dei is a global organization (the term "personal prelature" simply means that Opus Dei isn't bound to a single geographic region) with a rather simple mission: to sanctify ordinary life. While there are numeraries who live in special centers, assisted by secular priests and non-clerical assistants, the vast majority of Opus Dei members are supernumeraries, Catholic laity with families and careers outside the organization.

The theology of Opus Dei is the theology of the Catholic Church, rooted in the foundational doctrine of divine filiation: that by the grace of God, we can take part in the life of Christ and can call ourselves truly sons and daughters of God. Hahn spends some chapters discussing this very idea, and tracing its implications throughout the ordinary life of Opus Dei members.

While this brief book isn't neither as explicitly theological nor as explicitly biographical as some of Hahn's other writings, I found some of the insights to be particularly valuable. I was inspired by reading how Opus Dei sought to apply the Christian call to sanctity to their ordinary lives and careers, and found myself remarking at the parallels with Protestant organizations seeking the same active walk of faith.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at
Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace: My Spiritual Journey in Opus Dei