Sunday, May 29, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 7

Or do you not know, brethren, (for I am speaking to those who know the Law), that the Law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives?

Romans 7:1-3 ~~ The Law has jurisdiction over the living, though not necessarily over the second life (the resurrection).

Romans 7:5-6 ~~ In the flesh, sinful passions work in the body, aroused by the Law.  In the newness of the spirit, we are freed from the Law and dead to Law.

Romans 7:7 ~~ Sinful passions may be aroused by the Law, but the Law is not sin. It does not drive us to sin, but educates and informs us about the nature of sin. Here again, Paul speaks to the relationship between salvation and knowledge.

Romans 7:8 ~~ Sin takes advantage of the Law, and of our rebelliousness. Without standards, there can be no rebellion against standards.

Romans 7:9 ~~ "I was once alive apart from the Law": Paul's sin (or more specifically, his culpability) depends on knowledge.  Compare to Romans 2:12. "When commandment came, sin became alive and I died." Sin was present, but not in a morally culpable sense, and therefore not in the sense of "death" (as in, damnation).

Romans 7:10-11 ~~ "Sin... deceived me" by warping and distorting the commandment and "through it killed me."  Sin is by definition a corruption or deprivation of virtue.

Romans 7:12-13 ~~ The Law is holy; sin is proven to be sinful by its capacity to pervert the Good.

Romans 7:14 ~~ The Law of "spiritual" (in the sense of the Holy Spirit or 'spirit' of God), but sin is "of flesh."

Romans 7:15-16 ~~ "What I am doing, I do not understand" nor does Paul seem to want it...? This verse is extremely ambiguous.  Either this means that the Law serves as my better judgment and makes me do what I do not want or my fleshly natures drives me to sin, even though I want and desire the Good.

Romans 7:17 ~~ "No longer am I the one doing it [i.e., what I don't want to do?] but sin which dwells in me."

Romans 7:18 ~~ "Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not." I will to do good, but cannot do it.  Our humanity consists of our limitation and finite nature. Since evil is the absence of corruption of good, sin may consist of the ability to live up to the full life of virtue.

Romans 7:19-20 ~~ If I don't do what I want, I am not ruled by my will, but by sin.

Romans 7:21 ~~ Evil is present in me, in my "fleshly" nature, even though I by nature desire good!

Romans 7:22-23 ~~ Our renewed spirit desires God, but my members/body/actions do not.

Romans 7:24-25 ~~ Christ sets me free from the body of death, and the members of sin.

This seventh chapter of Romans contains one of the most confusing and confounding passages in Scripture. I've never been fully satisfied by the explanations I've read and heard of this, but I've never been able to offer a convincing alternative. One possible gloss on the passage: the "sin that dwells in me" consists of our finite nature, not our active rebellion against the Law but in our inability to act in a fully virtuous manner. I'd appreciate any other explanations or glosses of the passage in the comments.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"For all find what they truly seek"

In this passage taken from C.S. Lewis' "The Last Battle," the pagan Calormene Emeth describes his encounter with Aslan:

Then I fell at his feet and thought, 'Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, 'Son, thou art welcome.'

But I said, 'Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.'

He answered, 'Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.'

Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, 'Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?'

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, 'It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites -- I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?'

I said, 'Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.' But I said also (for truth constrained me), 'Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.'

'Beloved,' said the Glorious One, 'unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.'

C.S. Lewis, "The Last Battle." The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 7. New York: Harper-Collins, 1956. Pg. 204 (Chapter 15)
Hat-tip to Julie Robison at The Corner with a View.
To purchase this book, check out
The Last Battle (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 7)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rehabilitating Heaven

Every so often I write about heaven, and I can hardly keep myself from waxing rhapsodic. I find the ideas and imagery of the afterlife truly inspiring. Yet I also find it difficult to keep from waning snarkily (please forgive the semantic chimera). Heaven is one of my great comforts and joys, yet for many other believers, it seems to lead only to confusion or apathy. "Won't heaven be boring?" I can hardly believe my ears.

Many people -- even many Christians -- seem to envision of heaven of puffy clouds and plinking harps and halos a la mode. Yet how many of us would willingly resign ourselves to such a life?  Why do we imagine an afterlife devoid of joy, a paradise devoid of pleasure, a heaven devoid of humanity?

As I've said before, such a heaven is a heresy. There is no room in my theology for a God who would create man, call him very good, and forcibly remove from his eternal future all that defined him as human.

For one, heaven is not somewhere "up there." Christianity promises "a New Heaven and a New Earth" (Rev. 21:1).  The Apostles' Creed insists on "the resurrection of the body." The Christian faith and the Christian future are equally and essentially Incarnational.

Our stereotype of heaven is taken from the imagery of Revelation, which speaks of an eternal choir singing for the praise and glory of God. This is quite true: life after death will be in a perpetual state of worship. Yet God's glory is not confined to the nave! Even the most devout among us would have a hard time accepting an eternal existence in the choir loft.

Just as surely as we can whistle, so we can worship while we work.

The Communion of the Saints

Rehabilitating heaven is one of my passions, and there's a lot of ground to cover. I've been waiting to do a series of notes on Life After Death for quite some time. I'll post occasionally on the topic, while continuing my exploration of Catholic dogma.  I hope you enjoy the series.

If you aren't bothered by the potential spoilers, I'd recommend Dr. Peter Kreeft's essay on Fourteen Questions About Heaven. There are some points where I disagree, but I think it's a splendid resource.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Non Sola Scriptura

Thinking back over my shift to Catholicism, I find that there were four discrete steps. First, I discovered (much to my surprise) I was already mostly Catholic in my theology. Second, when I investigated further, I found that my objections were falling faster than the price of tulips in February 1637, and realized that the remaining few wouldn't last long. Third, I learned the truth of "you can't go home again" when I found that I could no longer assent to the tenets of Protestantism, most notably the five "Solas." Fourth, those final few objections to Catholicism were overcome and I entered RCIA.

I found that the process went quite swiftly, though not because of my own merits or demerits. I don't think of myself as intellectually fickle, and I'm sure that my persistence in doggedly seeking answers only slightly accelerated my pace. Rather, I believe the process went quickly simply because the foundation was already laid: I was already grounded in the Apostolic Tradition, I just hadn't given it enough though to see how it "fit together" with the other elements of my faith and theology. Once I made those connections, the dominoes started tumbling.

One of those key turning points was on the issue of tradition.  Tradition has long had a bad name among Protestants. Scripture is the heart of our faith and tradition is treated as a distraction, an unhealthy accretion of human error. Despite this, I had already become a traditionalist of sorts (thanks largely to my study of history and philosophy, and thanks specifically to C.S. Lewis). I also saw how absurd the Protestant distaste for tradition was, since Protestants have dozens of entrenched traditions among ourselves: the altar call, the Sinner's Prayer, the order of service, etc. Calvin's Institutes might even make the cut. Protestants intuitively grasped that such things have value, even as we derided them in the abstract.

The other thing that struck me was that the dichotomy between Scripture and Tradition was untenable. The Bible itself is an artifact of tradition -- it did not descend from On High, inscribed by divine printing press on pages of vellum. It is the product of humans, written by individuals with very distinctive backgrounds and personalities, though they all operated under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn't write anything, but His legacy was preserved in the witness of the apostles. It is from those Apostles, from their testimony and their authority, that we inherit both Scripture and Tradition. The only difference is whether the witness of the Apostles were conveyed in written or in oral form. I think it's safe to rank Scripture as the preeminent instance of Tradition, but it remains primus inter pares: "first among equals."

Digging deeper, I stumbled across a third truth: the infallibility of Scripture is not self-evident. Admittedly, Scripture often speaks of the Words of God being complete and without error; the New Testament often references and corroborates the authority of the Old; and there are references even within the New Testament to other books in the NT canon (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16, not to mention Luke 1:1-2 and the whole Synoptic tradition). But in no instance does Scripture provide us with its own canon; at no point does the Bible list the books of the Bible. Nor does it ever define Scripture as the sole infallible foundation of our faith to the exclusion of all else. Moreover, if Scripture did define itself as an exclusive authority, such a statement would be clearly tautological: simply as a matter of logic, the argument would be circular. If we ever wanted to mount a serious case for sola Scriptura, we would be obligated to rely on sources and an authority outside Scripture in order to demonstrate it.  We must identify what preceded Scripture, to establish how it proceeded from there.

In my next note, I'll return to this issue, of identifying the primary source of Scripture's authority. In the meanwhile, for an insightful analyses of Scripture and tradition, I'd recommend checking out Anthony Layne's six-part series on "The Sola Scriptura Problem" at his blog Outside the Asylum. His arguments have an impressive pedigree within the Catholic Church, so I'll probably borrow some of the same points. Nevertheless, it's still a great resource, and more comprehensive than I expect my posts will be.

Book Review: "Cities of God"

I've read and enjoyed a few books by Rodney Stark, so mostly on a whim I picked out another: "Cities of God," on the urbanization of the early Christian church. The subtitle of the book reads: "The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome." I'm guessing Stark wasn't responsible for the subtitle, because his thesis is 1) Christianity began as an urban movement, and 2) Christianity didn't conquer anything.

Rodney Stark is a professor of Baylor University who specializes in the history and sociology of religion. He is best known as the author of "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success," which is an unabashed defense of the Middle Ages as an deeply rational era. In "Cities of God," he tackles the question of Christianity's early spread, grounded in a statistical-sociological perspective.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Film Review: "I Confess"


"I Confess" is widely regarded as a mediocre entry in the Hitchcock canon. Certainly, in terms of the artistry and technical ingenuity, this film cannot compare to the greatest of Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre. Even so, the film wrestles with issues of truth, morality, honor and the Catholic practice of faith in an almost unprecedented manner. "I Confess" may be my favorite out of all the films of Hitchcock.

The premise is simple enough: a man is murdered and a priest hears the murderer's confession. Under Catholic canon law, a priest is barred from revealing any information disclosed under the seal of confession. To my knowledge, this prohibition covers all confessions, even those that involve a crime... and even if the priest himself is suspected for that crime.

Moving Day

Wow, I picked the worst possible day for my blog's moving day.  A few days ago, I transferred my blog to a new URL: I also added a Facebook page for A Sacramental World. Unfortunately, Blogger shut down shortly thereafter due to maintenance issues, and when it came back online, most of the changes had disappeared. I re-entered everything, so I'm pretty confident everything's been resolved, but feel free to comment if things fall apart.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Defense of Tradition

"Apology" was originally derived from the Greek ἀπολογία, transliterated as the Latin apologia. The word is translated "speaking in defense," and it is from this root that we speak of "apologetics" as a discipline of argumentation and rhetoric. Nowadays, "apology" is much more often used as an expression of regret or remorse, an acknowledgement of shortcomings.

In this case, I feel both meanings are particularly apt. On the one hand, especially in a modernist society that attaches great value to individuality and originality, it sometimes seems necessary to apologize for advocating the ideas and institutions of the past. On the other hand, especially in a modernist society that has little respect for the wisdom and experiences of its predecessors, it must always be necessary to defend the ideas and institutions of the past.

A few days ago I posted G.K. Chesterton's famous defense of tradition as "the extension of the franchise" and as "the democracy of the dead." I think this approach is both necessary and effective. But the case for tradition extends far beyond mere egalitarian sentiment.

Tradition is not just democratic; it is essentially rational.

It should be obvious that every person has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. It should be equally obvious that this applies to both the whole as well as the part. Every society and culture carries certain advantages and disadvantages. This is not to say that all cultures are created equal -- I doubt anyone would volunteer to live among the Aztecs or Spartans -- but it is to say that no culture is perfectly utopian nor totally dystopian.

It also follows that every culture has its own peculiar blind spots. Certainly there is true of the early American republic, which preached freedom for all while enslaving the few. I think this principle can be safely applied for all people and for all times.

The only way to see past a blind spot is to change perspective. In order to be rational we must distrust our own reasons, and seek to view ourselves through the lens of other cultures, whether distinguished by time or by distance.. We who belong to the West ought to moderate our sometimes extreme individualism with the communal orientation of the East. Likewise, we who belong to the modern age out to recall the mores and traditions we inherit from the medieval ages.

It is wise to view our own culture through the lens of another, and that is the essence of tradition.

It often strikes us that many conventions and customs we inherit from the past seem to be quite non-rational. In the Whit Stillman film Metropolitan, the characters play a game where the loser must answer any question put to them, even if it betrays a secret. When one character, Audrey, objects, the others tease her and say they can't think of why they shouldn't place such a game. Audrey responds: "You don't have to! Other people have, and that's why it became a convention."

It is wise to abide by social customs, even when (and especially when) you cannot think of the reasons for it, and that is the essence of tradition.

On the other hand, it must be conceded that many of the ideas and institutions of the past are positively irrational, with something approaching contempt for reason. Yet this is not in itself an argument for their abolition. As a matter of history, almost all governments arose by an arbitrary concentration of power and prestige. Recorded instances of a "social contract" are vanishingly rare. Yet anarchists are few and far between. Despite the modern appetite for chaos in our art and originality in our ideas, stability is an essential good. In economic terms, it enables technological progress and capital accumulation; in personal terms, it allows us to plan for and anticipate the future.

It is wise to organize a society around the principle of stability, and that is the essence of tradition.

Finally, traditions are not limited to merely the realm of social convention. Traditions exist within intellectual disciplines and fields as well. The same principles above apply here as well, with still further benefits.

On the whole, intellectual traditions do not arise out of the input of common minds. Indeed, they do not even grow out of above-average minds. The paradigms of thought and the defining insights are almost always the product of geniuses.

We receive philosophy from the minds of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bacon and Descartes, among many many others. It is for this reason that my professional interest in economics began in the history of economic thought: by following the intellectual innovations through history, I trained myself to identify with and think like the great economists of history. I learned from the Greeks, from the Schoolman, from the Physiocrats, from the classical economists of Scotland and France, and from the modern economists of Chicago, Oxford, and Vienna.

In social circles, anyone and everyone contributes to tradition: that is its great democratic virtue. But in intellectual circles, only the brightest luminaries contribute to Reason's vast estate: that is its great aristocratic virtue. In such matters we follow tradition as the students of the medieval University would follow a teacher, eagerly seeking to learn from it, avidly scrounging for every scrap of wisdom it might dispense.

Tradition is not the sole good in the world. But I cannot deny that it is a very great good, and one that has been tragically underrated for far too long. This is my apology; here rests my defense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Reading maketh a full man"

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar.

They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores ["studies transform into customs"]. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like.

So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores [hair-splitters; literally, 'cutters of cumin seeds']. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind may have a special receipt.

Francis Bacon, "Of Studies," The Essays or Counsels, Moral and Civil
Hat-tip to Julie Robison at The Corner with a View.
For other essays, check out the complete text at Authorama.

Overview: On Mary

Of all the differences between Catholics and Protestants, the teachings concerning Mary are quite possibly the most contentious. They are also quite unfamiliar to someone like me, coming from a Protestant background. Yet I recognized that, while Marian devotions are often treated as de facto idolatry, it does not follow that they are intrinsically so, nor that we must reject them out of hand as spiritually deleterious.

Thus, after my notes on the Eucharist and on the Saints, a series concerning Marian dogma seemed to me a logical next step.

Mary, Mother of God introduced the topic by reference to the Marian dogma defined by the early Church: her role as Theokotos, "God-bearer." This dogma was asserted at Ephesus to counteract the Nestorian heresy that identified Jesus Christ as separately a human person and a divine person. On the contrary, Jesus of Nazareth was a single person of two natures; thus, the woman who bore him was not merely the bearer of the human Christ (Christotokos), but was the bearer of the full person, human and divine. Mary was the Mother of God.

This initial discussion clarifies several principles at the heart of Marian dogma.
  1. Every Marian dogma originates in the context of Christology. Mary's role in salvation history is entirely defined in her relation to her Son, Jesus Christ. We seek to understand the Son through His Mother, and to understand the Mother through her Son. It is for this reason that, in traditional Catholic and Orthodox iconography, Mary is always seen pointing to her child. It is her role.
  2. Marian dogma originated in the early Church and has been in a continual process of refinement ever since. It was not a late addition enforced by the authority of Rome.
  3. Marian dogma can be largely interpolated throughout New Testament passages -- that is, they have significant Scriptural support. These passages do not entail such readings in themselves, but that is not their function.
  4. Marian dogma developed largely in response to Old Testament typologies: that is, prefigurations of Christ and the New Covenant throughout Jewish history.
Mary, Ever Virgin outlined briefly the history of the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity. Its pedigree is from the earliest liturgies and writings of the Church, and by the fourth century it was so firmly grounded in Christian orthodoxy that it would not be denied until well after the Protestant Reformation. The dogma arose in response to a particular typology: the identification of Mary with the Ark of the Covenant. The old Ark contained three elements (the Decalogue, the jar of manna, and Aaron's staff) that were clear antecedents to Christ. From there it was simplicity itself to link the Ark itself (overshadowed by cherubim and bearing the figures of Christ) to Mary Theokotos.

Mary, Full of Grace speaks primarily to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This dogma was defined late in church history (initially in the fifteenth century, officially in 1854), but was grounded in the early Church. The Immaculate Conception is grounded in the typological reading of Christ as the second Adam and Mary as the second Eve. On this basis the Church inferred that Mary must have been in a state of innocence at the Annunciation, that she would be perfectly free to choose obedience, and that she would not be bound by a prior nature to sin.

Mary, Queen of Heaven primarily treats the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. The earliest marker lies in the nativity of Revelations 11:19-12:5, which speaks of Mary both as the Ark of the Covenant and as the Mother of God. But the imagery hearkens at yet another typology, from its regal imagery.  From the first verse of Matthew 1:1, Jesus Christ is identified as the Son of David and the rightful heir to the crown. Yet Solomon, who prefigured Christ, afforded great honors to his mother Bathsheba, and the Davidic line preserved the institution of Queen Mother for generations to follow. From this typology -- the relation of Mary to her royal Son -- the Church derived the dogma of her Assumption and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven.

Mary, Mother of the Church primarily concerns Mary's relation to believers today. This final note briefly touches on the typological connections between Mary, Israel, and the Church as the long-suffering servants and stewards of God (from which we derive the idea of Mary as 'co-redemptrix'). Indeed, the typology connecting Mary to the Church extends far beyond the idea of ongoing redemptive suffering. But Mary is not just a typology for the Church, for she is the Mother for another typology: Christ Himself. When Christ commanded the apostle John to take Mary into his own household and treat her as his mother, He addressed this command to all the faithful, all the disciples whom Jesus loved. Thus, Mary is entrusted to us as our own Mother, and receives our love and devotion in that regard. For we are the sons of God as we are brothers in Christ, and we are the children of Mary as we are the Body of Christ.

Having overcome my objections to Marian dogma, my next series of notes would treat the teachings on the Church, and the Catholic emphasis on ecclesiology.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Tradition... is the democracy of the dead"

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

G.K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995 [1908]. Pp. 52-53. (Chapter 4: "The Ethics of Elfland").

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Property is merely the art of the democracy"

God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God must be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits. Man's pleasure, therefore, is to possess conditions, but also to be partly possessed by them; to be half-controlled by the flute he plays or by the field he digs. The excitement is to get the utmost out of given conditions; the conditions will stretch, but not indefinitely. A man can write an immortal sonnet on an old envelope, or hack a hero out of a lump of rock. But hacking a sonnet out of rock would be a laborious business, and making a hero out of an envelope is almost out of the sphere of practical politics. This fruitful strife with limitations, when it concerns some airy entertainment of the educate class, goes by the name Art. But the mass of men have neither time nor aptitude for the invention of invisible or abstract beauty. For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions--the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist; because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colours he admires; but he can pain  his own house with what colour he chooses; and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist; because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of Heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.

G.K. Chesterton. What's Wrong with the World? New York: Dover Edition, 2007.  Pg. 35 (Chapter 6: "The Enemies of Property").

Friday, May 6, 2011

I think I'm turning Catholic

Huh. So I think I'm turning Catholic.

My first encounter with Catholicism was not a positive one. When I was younger, I asked a girl if she was Christian. She replied: "No, I'm not Christian! I'm Catholic." Again, not exactly a positive experience.

My second encounter with Catholicism was quite a bit better. It was at a religion and economics conference, where I finally met an adult Catholic who knew about his faith and doctrine, and could explain why. His brief clarification on the subject of the saints resolved that issue before it even became a major objection for me.

Over my college life I met a number of other Catholics. The ones who actively identified themselves that way tended to be doctrinally orthodox and intellectually active, so I respected them a good deal. I even knew one friend who 'converted' to Catholicism in his senior year of college. At the time, however, I viewed it as I might view a switch between Baptist and Lutheran, not as a particularly noteworthy event.

When I was 17 I had my big spiritual experience, and the life of my faith has been (for lack of a better word) quite lively ever since. My primary mode of worship was in theology; my primary mode of pursuing God was by reason. I don't believe it's objectively better or worse than other modes (as Scripture tells us, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength") but it worked quite well for me.

Near the end of last year, however, I discovered something that came as quite a shock. My theology was over 50% Catholic. Without quite realizing it, my faith had developed within a substantially Catholic framework. I think I can blame C.S. Lewis -- the ostensibly Anglican but universally Christian apologist whose works are acclaimed by Protestants yet informed by a thoroughgoing Catholic worldview.

At this point I was not Catholic, for there remained quite a few hold-outs of Protestant doctrine. But at that moment I realized I needed to take Catholicism and Catholic doctrines seriously.

So I began my investigation, and my objections starting tumbling, one by one. The initial realization had begun with the Eucharist, and thanks to my earlier experiences I already had a firm grasp of the Saints. Mary was a bigger stumbling-block, so I started in on the Marian doctrines next.

The next step was the Catholic teachings on Salvation. I knew of the whole "faith v. works" debate from the Reformation years, and my instincts on the matter were entirely Protestant. But when I finally understood the Catholic perspective, I found it impossible to maintain my objection to it. Ironically, the same books that led Luther to reject Catholic teachings (Romans and Galatians) for me actually paved the way to the Catholic Church in this matter.

The next step was the Catholic understanding of the Church. Predictably, as I was a Protestant, my primary objections were to Tradition and to the Magisterium. On the other hand, my theology had been rooted for some time in a kind of traditionalism (mostly thanks to C.S. Lewis), so these elements had a sort of instinctive appeal for me. Nevertheless, these doctrines took the longest to accept.

In the end, out of a few dozen objections I'd started with several months before, I was reduced to very few. The two doctrinal points were the Marian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the ecclesial doctrine of papal infallibility. The other was much broader: the insistence on non-Christological doctrine as prerequisites for participation in the Eucharist. Over the next several weeks of focused study, these objections fell as well.

I don't fully understanding Catholicism -- if I imagined I did, I should be ashamed of my conceit. Nor do I deny that there are many sins committed and many errors believed by Catholics. Moreover, I can hardly deny that the Catholic culture is anything but foreign to me. But these are not objections. I question whether full understanding is ever in our grasp, I am hardly surprised to find that people sin, and my cultural shock will no doubt be overcome in time.

It boils down to this: the doctrinal objections that would keep me away have fallen like dominoes. My acceptance of Catholicism at this point seems like a matter of intellectual honesty.

I write this note as an open invitation. I will begin the formal process of becoming Catholic next week, by starting RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes at the parish. But while I can hardly help but treat it as a foregone conclusion, I don't want to ignore potential difficulties. If you have major objections to Catholic doctrine, I would love to hear them. I will continue posting my notes on Catholicism, and will continue to explore the themes and topics discussed in this note. But I trust in others to see where I am blind and to catch where I miss.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Christ the Bridegroom: #3

**This is the third of a three-part reflection on "Christ the Bridegroom." The essay was guest posted by a close personal friend of mine who was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. This section begins with an Orthodox Hymn for Holy Tuesday.**
I see your bridal chamber
All adorned, my Savior,
But I have no wedding garment,
That I may enter therein.
Make radiant the vesture of my soul,
O Giver of Light, and save me!

There remains one aspect of our marriage with Christ, however, which seemed to elude my understanding. Namely, if our relationship to Christ truly feels romantic love for us, and if this relationship is a true marriage, where is its physical consummation?

After all, the very reason that sexual temptation had been so hard for me to resist had been because I didn’t feel that I could have any sort of physical connection with God the way I could with another human being. By the point at which I was asking this question, I had already come to accept that my longing for physical union could not be separated from my desire for spiritual and intellectual union as well, but my relationship with God seemed only capable of existing on the spiritual and intellectual planes. How, then, were all three parts of my being to be united in Christ?

The answer to this question is more obvious if you come from a Catholic or Orthodox background.

It's the Eucharist.

In the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are literally partaking in (taking into ourselves) the Body of Christ. His flesh becomes one with our own, just like the physical consummation of a marriage. In that sense Christ’s Passion on the cross literally merges with His romantic passion for us, and the very act of physical union (the Eucharist) becomes in itself salvational.

As I said before, this truth is perhaps more intuitive if you come from a faith background that believes in transubstantiation because you are literally consuming the Body of Christ, but it makes sense on the metaphorical level as well. In fact even though the great English reformer John Wesley saw communion as purely a symbolic act, he still felt that partaking in communion had the power to save souls and thus allowed it even to non-believers.

If Christ is our lover, however, and we are His bride, doesn’t it follow that we should be in love with Him in the romantic sense as well? I realize that this may be especially strange for men to contemplate, but the obvious answer to that rhetorical question is yes. At first this seemed nearly impossible to me because I had never thought it appropriate for me to be romantically in love with God. To me God was a father, savior, brother, priest and confessor, but I had never before pictured him as my husband and lover in the fullest sense of the words. I had never before considered what it would look like to be in love with him in the same sense as a human lover.

That was when I had the epiphany that Christ is the ultimate romantic hero that I had always dreamed of meeting. He has all the virtues I yearn for in a soul mate, and He is passionately in love with me. Who could ask for anything more?

Once I had accepted the full implication of my bridehood, I began to see the evidence of Christ the Bridegroom all around me, and to understand it more fully. The Song of Songs with all its fleshly, passionate imagery—a book whose spirituality seemed vague at best to me—suddenly not only made perfect sense, but also became one of the most beautiful books in the Bible. It also proves that God has been our lover since the beginning of time, and that Christ’s Passion and his role as the Bridegroom is simply fulfillment of a relationship clearly lined out in the Old Testament.

Looking at my own faith tradition, I realized that the Orthodox Church places such value on the image of Christ as the Bridegroom that they dedicate a whole day in Holy Week (Holy Tuesday) exclusively to that aspect of Him. In fact, Holy Tuesday in the Orthodox tradition is also called Bridegroom Tuesday. The services for Holy Tuesday focus on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and the congregation prays that we will remain vigilant, with hearts prepared to receive our King and our Lover. Then in hymns and odes we contemplate our own unworthiness to be united thus with Christ’s divinity. Continuing with the theme of repentance and building on the theme from the Old Testament of Hosea’s marriage to the prostitute Gomer as a metaphor for our own desertion of God, the Orthodox sing the Hymn of Kassiani (quoted in the last section), which tells of the prostitute who anointed Christ’s feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair.

Interestingly, it is an Orthodox man who gave us our only extended allegory of Christ as Bridegroom in fiction: Fyodor Dostoevsky , in "The Idiot." Indeed, the bridegroom allegory is the centerpiece of the novel. The majority of the narrative chronicles the romantic pursuit by Prince Myshkin (the Christ figure) of two woman: the tragic fallen Nastassya Fillipovna, and the beautiful and virtuous Aglaia. Some reviewers write that Prince Myshkin's 'love' for Nastassya Filipovna is only pity and Christian charity. After all, Nastassya is so embittered, so base in some of her actions, that it seems impossible for a noble prince to feel romantic love—that deep, abiding admiration and all-consuming passion—for a person like her. Yet a close reading of the text does not support that assertion.

In the first part of the book especially, Myshkin displays all the symptoms of a man deeply in love, complete with professions of adoration and stammering and blushing in Nastassya’s presence. Even when she completely degrades herself and involves Myshkin in her disgrace through their failed engagements, Myshkin still feels deeply enough for her to leave everything for her once again. Although he appears less passionate and adoring near the end of the story, his lack of zeal does not indicate any cooling of his romantic feelings for Nastassya but rather the natural concern he feels over the dangerous course of action she persists in and her seeming mental instability. The humbling thing we must remember, though, is that Myshkin’s love for the undeserving Nastassya is a direct allegory for how we are infinitely undeserving to be the bride of Christ. Thus, the fact that Myshkin’s love does not seem to make sense simply echoes the profound mystery of Christ’s love for us.

I began my journey towards understanding Christ as the Bridegroom and myself as the bride by lamenting my sins with Kassiani’s prostitute. On a certain level I will continue to lament my sins even though I know God forgives them and “remembers them no more.” But now I have moved beyond blank despair because I paradoxically know that despite my baseness, I am wedded to Christ, my true husband, and destined for the glory of being completely united with Him. Thus I pray the words of the Orthodox hymn for Holy Tuesday: that He may “make radiant the vesture of my soul,” so that I may enter the bridal chamber ordained for me.

Check out the rest of this essay at:
Christ the Bridegroom: #1
Christ the Bridegroom: #2
Christ the Bridegroom: #3

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Christ the Bridegroom: #2

**This is the second entry in three-part reflection on "Christ the Bridegroom." The essay was guest posted by a close personal friend of mine who was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. This section begins with the Hymn of Kassiani, justly acclaimed as perhaps the most famous (and most musically demanding) hymns in the Orthodox liturgy. It is sung on Tuesday of Holy Week for the matins of Great and Holy Wednesday.**
Sensing Thy divinity, O Lord, a woman of many sins
takes it upon herself to become a myrrh-bearer,
And in deep mourning brings before Thee fragrant oil
in anticipation of Thy burial; crying:
"Woe to me! For night is unto me oestrus of lechery,
a dark and moonless eros of sin.
Receive the wellsprings of my tears,
O Thou who gatherest the waters of the oceans into clouds.
Bend to me, to the sorrows of my heart,
O Thou who bendedst down the heavens in Thy ineffable self-emptying.
I will kiss Thine immaculate feet
and dry them with the locks of my hair;
Those very feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise
and hid herself in fear.
Who shall reckon the multitude of my sins,
or the abysses of Thy judgment, O Saviour of my soul?
Do not ignore Thy handmaiden,
O Thou whose mercy is without end.
I open this article with Kassiani’s eponymous hymn because the lament of the “woman of many sins” in that poem could very well have been the cry of my soul at one time in my life. Although not engaged in prostitution like the speaker in the hymn, I had let my fleshly desires alienate me from God in a more profound way than I ever dreamed possible. So diseased was the state of my soul that I became physically ill and mentally withdrawn for weeks.

Sadly, this was far from the first time I had struggled with sexual issues in my life, and through my battles I have learned that sexual impurity has become an epidemic among Christian women in my generation. Yet these sins are so personal and so deeply stigmatic that most Christian women suffer in silence, afraid to admit their problems even to their churches, who are supposed to be there to help them with just such issues.

I know I personally lived in dread of anyone knowing what a hypocrite I was, but I also knew I needed someone to pray with me and to keep me accountable with God. So by God’s grace, I finally had courage to confide in a friend about my struggles, and she gave me a rather remarkable book by Shannon Ethridge called "Every Woman’s Battle," which offers comfort and advice to Christian women in their struggle for sexual purity.

This book forced me to confront a fact that I had sensed for years but feared to put into words: namely, that the reason Christian women today make such horrible mistakes in their love lives is because they are searching for something they feel they cannot find in God. The reason that romantic love holds such an appeal for women is because being utterly adored in the romantic sense is the highest validation of our self-worth that we can have. This combined with the joy of union with the person we love above all others on earth creates an irresistible pull on the hearts and minds—and, through those conduits, the bodies—of most women. Yes, I saw this more clearly than ever in my own life. My sexual impurity stemmed from a perversion and obsession with romantic love, something I felt I could not get from God. I could sense this truth penetrating to the depths of my soul even as my mind tried to deny it.

In order to receive the healing I needed, I had to uncover my identity as the Bride of Christ, and I had to realize that this was not an arranged marriage but a love-match.

As I was trying to understand what being the Beloved of Christ meant, I first had to remind myself of all the things that romantic love entails, and then apply that to my vision of God. First of all, romantic love is an all-consuming passion for the beloved. I could picture that. I remembered being in love myself, and I could also remember seeing that blissful look of utter adoration of the face of lovers as they contemplated their beloved. Is that, I wondered, the look on Christ’s face as he gazes at each of us?

Romantic love is also a love that exults in all good while forgiving all shortcomings, a love that elevates the beloved above all else. Yes, I could see that as being true of God because it says in the Bible that Christ not only forgives our sins but also that He “remembers them no more.” There is no condemnation, therefore, in His love. In addition, He must also value us more than Himself or He would not have died a horrible death for us.

Romantic love, however, is not a love that admires from a distance. Rather, it is a deep desire for union with the beloved. We humans are communal creatures in essence, and romantic love is the deepest form of communion possible because connects us with the beloved in all three parts of our essential being: the spiritual, intellectual, and physical being. This kind of communion also exists within the Godhead because God is one in essence but three persons working in perfect harmony.

This means romantic love is more than merely consistent with the character of God. It means that the human ability to feel romantic love is not some base or biological instinct for procreation, but is rather a facet of the imago dei (image of God) which we bear.

All this made sense to me on a certain level at least, but when I looked at the darkness in my own soul—I, who had been a devout Christian all my life—it seemed to be nothing more than an exquisite but impossible dream.

It is truly one of the great mysteries of our faith that a wholly good, beautiful, transcendent, omniscient God could be in love with any one of us, let alone each of us, since we are so flawed, petty, and ugly each in our own unique way. Yet that would explain why He bothers to saves us all individually instead of letting His sacrifice automatically propel all human souls to heaven.

It is not mere immortality that Christ desired to give us through His death and resurrection, but rather a restoration of our intended union with God.

This also fits perfectly with the Protestant insistence that the Christian religion is a “close personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” There is no closer personal relationship than a marriage, which is literally the joining of two people into one. So Christ doesn’t just love us in a benevolent agape sense, nor is He the lover of merely our souls. In order to be our husband He must be our lover in every sense: soul, mind, and body.

Check out the rest of this essay at:
Christ the Bridegroom: #1
Christ the Bridegroom: #2
Christ the Bridegroom: #3

Monday, May 2, 2011

Christ the Bridegroom: #1

**This three-part reflection on "Christ the Bridegroom" was contributed by a guest author as a response to my earlier note on the Church as The Bride of Christ. The essay is subtitled: A Reflection on Spirituality, Sexuality, and the Implications of Our Mystic Marriage. The author is a close personal friend of mine who was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, and who has helped me considerably in understanding Orthodox beliefs. The epigraph is from Song of Songs 7:10.**

I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me.

Of all the metaphors we have been given for Christ’s relationship with us (and His love for us), the one I think that we as Christians contemplate and analyze the least is that of Christ as the Bridegroom, Christ the lover. I would venture to guess that many of us feel more than vaguely uncomfortable picturing Christ as some love-struck character from a chick-flick, pursuing some romantic object. It seems almost sacrilegious. Our minds can associate Him with the loves philos and agape without problem, but romantic love, eros, seems too base, too fleshly for the eternal divinity of God. It’s one thing to say that Christ loves us, after all, but how can He be in love with any single lowly human in the sense of the all-consuming adoration that we associate with romantic passion? How can He be in a marriage with any of us?

Yet the image of Christ as a lover is deeply Biblical. Not only that, I’ve come to realize that if we do not consider Him in that light, we may obstruct the ability of Christ’s love to transform our lives in the way He intends for us.

I know that I personally had great difficulty comprehending that being "the Bride of Christ" was a work of romantic love, and that it was a love for me personally as well as for the church as a whole. I think in general it's much easier for contemporary Christians to view Christ as having a passion for humanity collectively because this seems more fitting for the Son of God and less like the kind of subjective whim we associate with romantic impulses—or the lecherous deities of Greek mythology. Of course Christ does love humanity collectively in the romantic sense, but this does not mean that He cannot love us each individually in the romantic sense as well. After all, he is and infinite God.

For me personally, associating Christ with romantic love seemed so counter-intuitive that it required me to clarify both my ideas about romantic love and the nature of God.  The first thing that came to mind when I thought about God is that God is love. That being the case, I realized that his essence must encompass all forms of love, including romantic love (eros).

Then I realized that -- though I had always considered eros to be a lowly human form of love -- eros in its true form is the highest form of love, because it also contains philos and agape within it. Since God is love, therefore, and romantic love is the highest expression of love, it must follow that God is not only capable of romantic love but that His very existence is a constant outpouring of romantic love for His beloved.

And of course whenever we hear the words "Christ’s beloved," we reflexively think of the Church. In fact I know I had personally heard the phrase “beloved of Christ” so often that it had lost all meaning for me. But perhaps that was because I had never considered it in a proper light. I had short-changed the nature of Christ’s love for us because I had never been taught to analyze the fact that His marriage to us implies romantic love, and that His romantic love is a love for us as individuals as well as communally. Had I only known the true nature of my bridehood earlier in my life, I could have saved myself a whole world of grief.

Check out the rest of this essay at:
Christ the Bridegroom: #1
Christ the Bridegroom: #2
Christ the Bridegroom: #3

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 6

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?

Romans 6:1-2 ~~ Paul issues the authoritative smack-down of the antinomian heresy.

Romans 6:3-5 ~~ Paul speaks of the atonement and the sacraments in this passage. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into that, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life." This passage indicates that the crucial moment of atonement, the prime salvific event, is not defined by the Cross. By dying Christ triumphed over death; by living, Christ ensured the future resurrection of the body. Baptism unites us to Christ in recapitulating the Cross, but it is His Resurrection that gives us eternal life.

Romans 6:5-11 ~~ An extended meditation on the passion and death of Christ, and how that transforms our lives by enabling us to die to sin by dying and living in Him.

Romans 6:7 ~~ "For he who has died is freed from sin." This is integral to the passage as a whole, but I can't help but think of it atomistically, as an general principle unto itself. This would have pretty serious ramifications to our theology of suffering and death, though I'm not sure if I could do such ideas justice here.

Romans 6:16-19 ~~ Paul applies the metaphor of slavery both to our prior condition of sinfulness, and to our redeemed condition of sanctity. He clarifies that "I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh." In Galatians, he contrasts between our slavery to sin and our sonship in Christ, which is a much more powerful and liberating analogy. On the other hand, that passage was primarily about the doctrine of liberty, whereas this passage seeks to counter the antinomian heresy (that advocates freedom even to sin) and therefore emphasizes our obedience.  When our heart belongs to God, all things are lawful (though not all things are profitable; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:23). When our hearts wrestle with sin, we must be very careful indeed.

Romans 6:22 ~~ It's a limited analogy, pertaining to our weakness in the flesh, but it still carries weight. "But now, having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive the benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life." The verse that follows is better known, but this one's pretty spectacular as well. It should be noted that the following verse only speaks to our slavery to God (and thus, only to grace received as a free gift) rather than our sonship in Christ (and thus to the grace and glory that has become our inheritance).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.