Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Your Harvest Festival is Pagan

By Neznani slikar [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
So after a long period away, dealing with my day to day life, I'm finally back to the blogosphere.

This post itself is slightly delayed, but I'm sure you'll forgive me. I want to talk to you about Halloween. Specifically, I want to talk to you about a certain trend that's been around for quite some time. The trend goes like this, a church wants to have celebrations for kids that are safe and fun on the night of the year that Halloween happens. This church, however, believes that Halloween is pagan and decides instead to have a "Harvest Festival."

The practices of these Harvest Festivals are, on the whole, not much different from Halloween, except children and adults might be discouraged from wearing monster and witch costumes.

There's a problem with this though. The problem is they have it all backwards. It's true that Halloween has its roots historically in a pagan festival of the dead, specifically that of Samhain. The latter was a Celtic festival of the dead, and it literally means "summer's end."

The old church, with the understanding they applied to the creation of many of their holidays, used the summer's end festival to create a different and distinctly Christian holiday. This holiday would celebrate a distinctly Christian doctrine - namely that of the communion of all saints (which is one of those creedal doctrines that is essentially core to the faith). This day, November 1st, was All Saints Day, and celebrates the holistic communion between all the saints extended throughout history and geography - the catholic communion. There was another name for this day - All Hallows Day. The night before, then, was All Hallows Eve, which shortened is Halloween. Of course, the separation wasn't perfect, pagan rites did make their way into the celebration, and Halloween itself became a festival for the memory of those in purgatory. Naturally we Protestants wouldn't care for that part.

Call it a Harvest Festival, though, and at least in your name you get rid of the distinctly Christian element, and go straight back to the pagan celebration of seasons. To call it "harvest festival" is to be more pagan than to call it Halloween.

Don't get me wrong, what is pagan isn't necessarily bad. After all, to use a Medieval analogy, the gold of the Egyptians was pagan, but the Hebrews were able to take it and put it to better use in the service of God. To take a time of year dedicated to the celebration of the dead spirits, and baptize it towards the celebration of the communion of Saints is a beautiful and characteristically Christian activity. There is also, as I've talked about before, a sacramental quality to the macabre.

So celebrate Halloween. If you want to call it a Harvest Festival, fine, but don't think you're somehow making it less pagan if you do so. Most of all, if you call it a Harvest Festival, don't forget what it's about. Don't miss celebrating the communion of saints for a secular candy gorge (though don't forget to gorge on candy either, bodies are important and the celebration of the good material things in this world is also a very Christian thing).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

All Grace is Incarnation

Ilya Yefimovich Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
"You're sufferning." Todd Hunter said to me across the table at Dick Church's this morning.

Ouch. Yeah, that's it, I'm suffering. It's funny how sometimes when someone puts words to what you're feeling it can have such an impact. Much that I hoped on has been stripped away, people that I care about are in pain. I am suffering. It's not that I'm Job, I still have food on my table, I still have my family and friends who love me, and my body is not covered in boils.

But I am hurting. I am longing to hope, but afraid to in the face of disappointment. So, it's hard to see grace right now, in my life. Friends of mine have pointed to some grace, but it remains hard to see. It's also frightening to point to one thing or another and say, "that's grace." It seemed like grace when I got into Trinity College, it seemed like grace when I couldn't pay for my visa and my church did, it seemed like grace when I found a place to stay in the weeks before I was supposed to move into school. Yet, after all those things, something came up that meant I couldn't go. Of course, that doesn't mean those things weren't grace, it's just hard to see now. Still, I believe God is with me. I believe there is grace.

My aunt sent me a blog post entitled "So all is Grace?" She said it made her think of me, that they were things I might say, though in different words. I think that's true, one or to things aside, and I think it gives at least something of a picture of how I can find comfort now.

In the face of suffering, it's easy to try and explain how it exists in God's world. That's what we in the philosophy world call a theodicy. Yet, as I've said before, theodicies all too often do violence to the reality of human suffering, they strip the raw pain away, abstracting it to an intellectual problem to be solved. Likewise, they often fail pretty miserably at being specifically Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, etc), relying rather on a generic notion of God that is often far different from the one which has been revealed to us.

I honestly don't know what the reason for suffering is. I believe, ultimately, that God is in control. I believe that He is good. But why do we suffer? Is it because of free will? Perhaps some larger plan? Is it to teach us? To punish?

I don't know. I have my theories, but they're just that -theories, and in the face of real suffering they will always ring hollow.

But there is something that does not ring hollow. God became man. God incarnated Himself into the world of suffering, and in that very same incarnate Self He gave us the first fruits of the New Creation. I know that whatever the reason for suffering is, I can trust the God who stand over that suffering because He was willing to enter into it.

God the Father, in His eternal and unbreakable bond with Christ through the Holy Spirit, is with us in our suffering. And He is making everything new. I don't know why it hasn't come into its fullness yet, but I trust Him, for I once was blind, but now I see.

All is grace. Yes.

And all grace is incarnation.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith by Matthew Lee Anderson

Image taken from  Mere Orthodoxy
Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels, has been told through Twitter than I am terribly mean and know only how to bruise and destroy. Thankfully, the person who told Anderson this was joking, since I don't think I could live up to that reputation - most of what I have to say about Earthen Vessels is good.

In the first half of the book, Anderson lays out a basic picture of what he thinks the body is, and who he thinks his audience is. None of his reflections on the body should be earth-shattering to any biblically informed Christian who has spent time reflecting on the body, but that's okay because his audience probably hasn't. His audience is Evangelicals, who many have accused of being Gnostic, while Anderson, in defense of us, can at best call us inattentive.

If Anderson is right that Evangelicals have merely been inattentive, then this book will do a lot of good if its read. He establishes that the body is our place of personal presence in the world, the temple of God and the vessel of our worship, and then goes on to explore specific question in reflection of this anthropology. Should Christians get tattoos? What should Christian sexuality look like? What about homosexuality? Anderson approaches all of these questions carefully, and he's clearly given them a lot of thought. Unfortunately, the sheer breadth of the material he's trying to cover means his arguments are often rather thin. He seems to be touching on the topics rather than giving them the thorough analysis they deserve. In the end, the approach seems perhaps more blog-like than book-like. Once again, however, I don't think this is really a problem, because I rather think the point of these chapters is, in the end, a plea to at least think about these things. Think about the body and worship, think about tattoos and the Christian body.

Throughout the book, I found myself at times agreeing with Anderson, at other times disagreeing. Occasionally his critiques of liberal theological positions seemed to me to rather miss the point of those positions. Then again, he, like myself, is a conservative, and its hard to understand the opposing mindset if you haven't spent time immersed in it. There was only one point in the text where I was seriously bothered by anything Anderson said, which was when he discussed yoga. I am not a practitioner of yoga, but I found his view to be narrow and perhaps a bit reactionary even (I plan on writing a separate post on the subject, though, so I won't go into more detail here).

In the end, if you're an Evangelical Christian, or count any Evangelicals as friends, I recommend you read this book. It's true that if you've given much thought to the body nothing here will surprise you, but at the very least it should spark some ideas in your head, and it will probably give you some ideas as to how to approach the Evangelical community with this topic. If you haven't given much thought to the body, then this book is an absolute must read.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is Doubt Faith's True Method?: A Lesson for Michael Patton from Aristotle

By After Frans Hals [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Patton over at Credo House Ministries recently wrote a post that's been getting a lot of attention in the biblioblog sphere. In it, he argues that Roman Catholic scholarship is fundamentally an oxymoron.

Patton argues that Descartes method of doubt, though flawed, provides the basis for what constitutes scholarship. We doubt that we might know better. Since Roman Catholics, apparently, aren't allowed to doubt, they're simply going to end up defending preconceived notions. This, Patton says, is not scholarship, and if anyone who identifies as a Roman Catholic doubts, they obviously aren't a true Roman Catholic.1

There's plenty of critiques to be made of his argument, and indeed many have already been made. Rod at Political Jesus has critiqued the notion of intellectual freedom inherent in Patton's definition of scholarship. Jeremy of Unsettled Christianity criticizes his view of what Roman Catholicism is, and Brian of Near Emmaus argues that if Patton's notion of scholarship would also condemn Evangelicals. My friend James Arnold will also being discussing the post on Evangelical Outpost later today discussing Patton's notion of scholarship.

I'd would also like to discuss the notion of scholarship expressed here, specifically his application of Cartesian doubt. I will also explore an Aristotelian notion of sciences and apply it to the subject at hand.

I am no fan of Descartes, but Patton has, like many of his peers, misunderstood Descartes project. Yes, Descartes set out to doubt in order to find a firm foundation, but once that foundation was located, he felt secure in trusting it that he might build further upon it. Doubt for him was a tool, not a way of life as it was for the skeptics. This meant that doubt would eventually be left behind. Further, doubt only played a role in building up Descartes epistemology and metaphysics. It was not, for example, the driving force when he studied anatomy.

Descartes doubted everything he thought he could, came to the conclusion that he could not doubt his own existence, and using a very strange ontological argument moved from there to the existence of God. Once God was secure, Descartes felt he could securely believe in the existence of the outside world. On the basis of that security, Descartes could then rely on the apparatuses of that world (such as senses) without continuing to doubt them. Likewise, a Roman Catholic (like, say, Descartes) could begin by doubting the church, but after testing it come to believe in papal infallibility. Once that was done, papal infallibility could then be used as a firm basis for making other decisions about truth. I'm not saying anyone would be right to come to this position, nor that it could even be done. What I am willing to say is that we all do this in a myriad ways throughout our lives. The vast majority of things any of us hold to be true, we hold to be true on the warrant of others whose testimony we trust.

This brings me to the Aristotelian notion of science. Aristotle believed that there is a series of sciences, not just one, and that each had its own principles. The science of logic, for example, would depend on certain basic principles such as the law of non-contradiction2, while physics would depend on certain presuppositions about physicality. No science can critique its own principles, instead these are set by other sciences higher than it. For Aristotle these sciences existed in a strict hierarchy. At the top of all of these would stand metaphysics, and from that science you would derive the primary principles of the lower sciences. We might very well doubt the strict hierarchy of sciences affirmed by Aristotelian, but the basic principle seems firm. Good literary critique follows very different laws than good astrophysics.

We can even see the basic sense of how one science takes as givens what another asks as questions in modern physical science. A chemist, for example, will take as given the basic principles of modern physics, making use of them in doing his chemical work. Indeed, a given chemist will assume most things about chemistry to be true except the very specific things he is testing for.

So how does this apply to Roman Catholic Scholarship? For the Roman Catholic scholar, the major area of scholarship upon which his being a Roman Catholic could have any bearing would be theology. Theology, like logic or physics, is its own science and will have its own principles. But what are those principles? The fact of the matter is there's no easy answer to that question, and different faiths and denominations will have different answers to it. For the Protestant Evangelical, the primary principles for good theology will be sound exegesis of infallible scripture, likely coupled with certain basic Evangelical traditions and experience. The Evangelical can of course question these principles, but one can't rightly call him an Evangelical unless he accepts them. It is only once he does accept them that he is doing Evangelical Biblical scholarship. Likewise, the Roman Catholic confession comes with certain principles underlying its interpretation of the science of theology. This includes scripture, but also includes tradition and papal authority. The Roman Catholic can of course doubt these principles, but once he has accepted them he can freely use them, just as Descartes could freely use God in his philosophy once he was convinced of the existence of the divine. The Roman Magesterium leaves many questions in theology unanswered, and the Roman Catholic scholar can explore these questions freely, his method will simply be different and rely on dogmas established by the church (rather than scripture alone). This is a different scholarly method than the pseudo-Cartesian Evangelical one Patton favors, but it is no less scholarly than it. At least, it cannot be shown to be less scholarly unless we can discover a higher science that can show us definitively what the best principles are for theology.
1. Based on what he says in the comments, Patton's notion of what makes one a true Roman Catholic (or a true Evangelical, or a true atheist) is the specific propositional content of your beliefs. A Roman Catholic, on his view, has to believe everything the Magesterium teaches to be Roman Catholic. The problem is that this imports an Evangelical Protestant view of identity into Roman Catholicism. However, what makes one a member of the Roman Catholic faith is a much more ecclesial matter. If you are baptized as a Roman Catholic (in fact, if you're baptized in a Trinitarian format) you are a Roman Catholic. You may not be in perfect communion with the church, but your identity is set by the sacrament, not by the propositions you affirm.
2. An proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Graduate School

I have some sad news. Most of my readers also know me in person, and have probably already heard this, but a few of you that follow me don't interact with me much in other spheres.

I won't be going to England.

The details aren't important, just know that certain crucial details fell through at the last moment. With any luck, I'll be able to move forward with graduate school before too long, but in the meantime I'm going to do my best to apply myself to growing in Christ and in service of others here at home.

And hopefully blogging lots. 

The Lord be with you! 

My Body Before the Chasm

To say something painfully obvious - space is related to body. As embodied creatures, are mode of existence is inherently linked to the limits of physical presence, which in turn means our very identity is radically spacial. Yet, spatiality itself is hardly a fixed concept. Leaving aside issues of modern physics, the way we interact with space is shaped by the technological and cultural framework in which we find ourselves. The citizen of Rome, with access to its incredible system of roads, had a very different interaction with space than a medieval peasant who's life was likely to be constrained to roughly the same area in which he was born. Our modern world takes this to yet another extreme.

This fact was made very vivid to me on my recent trip to the Grand Canyon. The most striking thing was the raw experience of the canyon as an entity. This chasm in the earth, a mile deep and miles wide, was nigh incomprehensible to me, even as I stood before it. To say that I felt tiny before it is to make a nearly criminal understatement. And I don't just mean tiny in a physical sense, I mean existentially minute. Yet this very fact led to a distancing. My mind almost automatically tried to push the Canyon into familiar and manageable categories like paintings and photographs. I had to force myself very consciously to acknowledge the reality of the massive untamed space before me. And my friend's and I also turned very quickly to levity - planking near the edge of the Canyon, for example. I suspect this had a certain aspect of coping to it.

I've been reading Matt Anderson's book, Earthen Vessels and he relates in it his own experience of hiking in the Grand Canyon, and how it forced him to realize more strikingly his physical need for water. I suspect the act of testing your body against the size of the canyon would likewise help to make solid the reality of its massive scale. Yet, the very fact of my body prevented this experience - I am simply not fit enough to hike the Bright Angel trail.

At the same time as all of this was going on, however, there was also a shrinking of space precipitated by modern technology. For one, we left California on a Monday afternoon, spent all of Tuesday at the Grand Canyon (and even got a late start on that) then drove through the night at arrived back in California on Wednesday morning. All the distance from California to Arizona, which dwarfs the size of the Grand Canyon, became a matter of a couple of days and several cups of coffee. Likewise, all of us took a great deal of photographs, extending the moment of our time in the Grand Canyon forward in time, and seeking to share it with others. And I tweeted. And texted. For all the size and distance of my time there, it was largely collapsed by my ability to be in ready contact with others every instant.

I can't begin to imagine all the ways in which this expanding and collapsing of our bodily interaction with space has shaped us. We go about our lives in a world that is forever distancing us from our embodiment. We carry around the internet in the palm of our hands, the entire world never more than a click away. Yet, at times the world forces through, we encounter it in its raw untamable expanse and it humbles us, as did my experience with the Grand Canyon. The more technology advances, however, the rarer these experiences become. This is not an inherently bad thing, but it is dangerous lest we rush headlong into this future and forget what we are at our core. I think here of Thoreau's claim that "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us."1 This, of course, does not have to be the case, but if we don't stop to think about it, if we do not go into this future with a solid anthropology, then I very much think it will be. Man will not make machines, they will make him. The experience of our embodiment is one of the most beautiful things about our nature, and it is an inextricable part of our being. If we loose sight of it, it will be to our peril.
1. Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Friday, July 29, 2011

Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering by David B. Burrell

Image taken from Tower Books
I love this book. Let me just get that out of the way since this is going to be a quite lengthy review and exposition of David B. Burrell's Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering. I love it first and foremost because it is a beautiful exposition of one of my favorite books of the Bible and an adept exploration of an age old theological question.

In the text, Burrell does precisely the kind of theology that I strive to do - devoted to scripture while using the resources of philosophy, and even some outside literary and religious sources,1 to illuminate the text.2 Ultimately, Burrell perhaps strays further from the base text than I would want (always a danger with this approach) but in clinging to orthodoxy he avoids any egregious errors.

The central thrust of the book, as revealed by the title, is to show how the book of Job deconstructs the impulse to provide theodicies. A theeodicy, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the act of trying to "justify the ways of God to us" and explain "how there could be evil in God's world" (Burrell 13, 108).

Burrell begins with a detailed textual analysis of the structure of Job. The primary goal here is to show the contrast between Job's friends, who construct theodicies about God, with Job who directly addressed Him. From here, Burrell moves to an examination of the parallel figure of Ayyub in the Qur'an. This is ultimately a weak point in the text, since it proves to be almost entirely a tangent.3 His next step is to roughly outline Medieval commentaries on the text by Sadiah, Maimonides, Aquinas and Gersonides. Finally, Burrell uses arguments by Terrence Tilley and Marilyn McCord Adams to draw out the central thesis of the text.

Using the Medieval commentaries, Burrell builds up a picture of God I've discussed on this blog before. God is transcendent, yet immanent. God is in many ways a different order of being from His creatures, one who experiences eternity directly and can only be discussed analogically. Yet, precisely God's role as willing creator and conserver means He is also always present to His creatures. Because of this, we can always address Him, and the human mode of address is linguistic.

The arguments of Tilley and Adams then serve to do the titular deconstruction of the work.4 Tilley and Adams point out the emptiness, and indeed frequent cruelty of theodicies. Adams, for example, points out that the very act of theodicy can oftentimes miss the vibrantly real nature of people's suffering. The actual horrendous torment that human beings undergo becomes reduced to an abstract lesson. As Hume famously pointed out in response to the Augustinian explanation that evil is not an actual thing, but mere privation of the Good - that's a nice turn of phrase, but it does little to alleviate the reality of the pain experienced by sufferers, which is really the heart of the problem.5

Burrel then uses Adams's argument for his reconstruction. The very metaphysical immanence brought out by the Medievals, making God present to His creatures, provides the solution - the direct address and solidarity with the creator. This Burrell thinks, is what the structure of the dialectic in Job shows. As he puts it, 'even if Eliphaz and his companions are castigated for 'not having spoken of [God] what is right as [his] servant Job has'‎ (42:7), God cannot be commending Job for 'getting it right,' as we might say. For his cumulative outbursts are a far cry from attempts to explain his plight, never pretending to be more than bewildered complaints - despite the ways his "friends" often construed them.What the voice from the whirlwind commends is rather the inherent rightness of Job's mode of discourse: speaking (however he may speak) to rather than about his creator" (109).

The only major flaw with this argument is that at times in comes dangerously close to the infamous theodicy that waves off the problem by saying that "God moves in mysterious ways." As I once heard an atheist put it, this amounts to saying God is a "cosmic asshole". This is definitely not what Burrell is arguing however. Yes, God's movement is mysterious, and attempts to reduce it to simplistic theodicy will fall short, but we are not left with the distant jerk-God of mysterious movement. Instead, God is shown to be in sharp solidarity with us, and the correct theodicy is understanding that we can (and ought to) call on God and He will answer us.

The potency of this deconstructed theodicy is that it renders action, turning us away from the merely selfish explanation (read: excuse) of Job's friends. For the case of Job's friends is the case of many who engage in theodicy, it's motive ultimately selfish. Job's friends do not seek to aid him, they seek to justify the system as it is - the system which has (and continues to) benefited them. Rarely do theodicies do much for those in the midst of suffering, and often they do not even care to hear them. Yet when Job turns to God, crying out to his creator and even demanding an audience with him, excuse is turned to action. Evil is not explained away, it is confronted head on. Finally, it is radically personal, as Burrell shows in a denouement to his argument that traces out explanatory parallels between the central thesis of Job and Augustine's Confessions.6 

I will say that, while I do love this book, it is not without its flaws, the biggest of which is structure. If you follow through to the end, the whole picture of the book will become clear, the approach will seem haphazard until you get there. Part of this is that the central thesis of the book is only vaguely stated at the beginning and you have to wait to the end to get a clear picture of where Burrell is going. The other major flaw, of course, is the superfluous Ayyub chapter. Other than these flaws, the book is well worth a read, especially for students of theology and philosophy.

I would, finally, like to conclude where Burrell himself concludes, in a quotation from a sermon by Leo the Great for the feast of the transfiguration of Jesus (because I think it's beautiful):
The writings of the two testaments support each other. The radiance of the transfiguration reveals clearly and unmistakably the one who had been promised by signs foretelling him under the veils of mystery. As Saint John says: "the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." In him the promise made through the shadows of prophecy stands revealed, along with the full meaning of the precepts of the law. He is the one who teaches the truth of prophecy through his presence, and makes obedience to the commandments possible through grace. In the preaching of the holy gospel all should receive a strengthening of their faith. No one should be ashamed of the cross of Christ, through which the world has been redeemed. No one should fear to suffer for the sake of justice; no one should lose confidence in the reward that has been promised. The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death. Christ has taken upon himself the whole weakness of our lowly human nature. If then we are steadfast in our faith in him and in our love for him, we win the victory that he has won, we receive what he has promised. When it comes to obeying the commandments or enduring adversity, the words uttered by the Father should always echo in our ears: "This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him." (Sermon 51, 3-4, 8, Patrologia Latina 54, 310-11, 313). 

1.  There is a bit at the conclusion of the text where I think Burrell gets a little too close to collapsing the transcendent but eminent God of Aquinas into Hindu pantheism, though he does ultimately relieve this by stressing the uniqueness of God.
2. This is not to say that this is the only, or even the best, avenue with which to approach scripture, but simply the one to which I feel called, and sadly one that is hard to find today. One could certainly get to Burrell's ultimate conclusion by way of reading Job purely through the rest of scripture. The very fact of the incarnation creates the solidarity between God and creation that Burrell reaches through Medieval metaphysics and paints much the same picture of the text. The attempts to explain suffering in the way of Job's friends is fruitless, it is in calling on God, and in His answering in solidarity, that a kind of answer is found.
3. Using another literary or religious text to gain a fresh perspective on a scriptural text often mired in centuries of traditional interpretation seems laudable (the long tradition of trying to turn Job into a theodicy, for example). However, that isn't what Burrell ultimately does. Rather, he presents a condensed version of an essay on the quranic character he found illuminating. While I think its great that Burrell enjoyed the essay, and that he values respecting the central religious text of another faith, the chapter seems to me to add nothing to his argument and so does not belong here.
4. Deconstruction, as my friend Fernando would be eager to point out at this juncture, is not mere destruction. Deconstruction, rather, takes something apart in order to reveal something new.
5. I actually happen to agree with Augustine that evil is not a thing but a privation - I just think its rubbish as a theodicy.
6. This bit also motivates me to want to try and write a confession of my own some day, though one that would have quite a different view of sin, and especially bodies, from Augustine.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Image Taken from io9
Disclaimer: I received Robopocalypse as an advanced review copy. 

I didn't really enjoy Robopocalypse, which is strange. The truly terrible title aside, the book is honestly a well-crafted tale of a robot uprising. I suppose that, at the moment, I simply don't care about robot uprisings very much - I just find my own life more interesting. So, it took me awhile to read the book.

An initial hurdle for me in reading this book is that it is written in first-person present-tense, a narrative format I have great difficulty getting into. I'm not entirely sure why the author chose this format, as the story is actually being told after the events, but he does it well and eventually I was able to get into the flow of it. 

The actual story itself is driven mostly by a couple of big ideas, twists on the typical robot uprising story. I won't spoil them for you, though there's one at the beginning I wish the author had spent more time on. The book is also largely built upon a theme - humans triumph through adversity. It's not a new idea, but it receives a pretty good treatment at the hands of Daniel Wilson. Unfortunately, the general picture he paints is a very utilitarian one. 

All in all, I'd recommend this book only to people interested in the subject matter. It is well written, and there's plenty of action and drama, but if you're not concerned with how humanity might handle near-genocide at the hands of sentient machines, well... I'd give it a pass. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Road to Emmaus

Image taken from
The Incarnation, Resurrection and the Eucharist are three of my great theological passions. All of them are about Christ's presence, the affirmation of Creation through the joining of the glory of God to the world. They are beautiful. This morning, I was reading the Lectionary readings, and the gospel was Luke 24:12-35. The story here is that of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, a story which brings all three of these elements together.

Two disciples, unnamed, are going down the road to Emmaus, when Jesus joins them on their way. They do not recognize him, perhaps because His Resurrection body has changed Him so, perhaps because He chose to hide Himself from them. Who knows?

They tell Him about the death of Jesus, astonished that He has apparently not heard of it, and go on to tell Him that some of the women reported that He was missing from His tomb, and that angels had reported Him raised from the dead. Jesus, His identity still hidden, goes through the Scriptures and reveals to them all the prophecies revealing that the Messiah would have to die, but would be raised again. They then invite Him, still a stranger, into their home.

It is then, when the meal is being shared, and Christ breaks the bread, that He is revealed to them.

What I find fascinating here is that the presence of Christ in their lives is not revealed to them when He walks and talks with them, it is not revealed to them when He shows himself to them in scripture, but it is instead revealed when He breaks the bread. Christ's bodily presence is revealed to them by the Eucharist.

Now, I do not think that the Eucharist alone could have revealed Him. Christ first had to be Incarnate, and, of course, having died had to be Resurrected. What is more, to know His nature they had to be shown His presence in scripture. The Ministry of the Word and the Ministry of the Table had to come together to reveal the Lord, and both of these ministries had to be joined together by the incarnate God. It is almost as if, the Eucharist is here Christ-Fully-Man and the Word is Christ-Fully-God, and when both are revealed to the disciples, then they know Him as He is.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Rage Against God: How atheism led me to faith by Peter Hitchens

From Tower Books
Peter Hitchens, the brother of famed atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens, tells the story of his personal journey to faith in the pages of The Rage Against God: How atheism led me to faith. This story is a fascinating and brilliantly written one, and well worth reading.

That is not to say it is a perfect book. Far from it. It strikes me that Peter is definitely of the same seed as his brother, and at times The Rage Against God can certainly descend into polemic mirroring his brothers, though always filled with more charity. I do not think this book is the sort that would persuade anyone to faith, nor, in fact, does Peter. This is his story, and when it focuses on that it is at its strongest. As such, the beginning section where Peter tells his own story, and the final section where he reflects closely on the case of Soviet Russia (a world he lived in for quite some time as a reporter) are the best parts of the book. In the middle, Peter goes through a rapid-fire examination of some of the more famous arguments of the "New Atheists," and while it is interesting I doubt it could change anyone's mind.

The personality that comes across in the book also varies. At times, Peter seems the compassionate prophet, concerned deeply with the decay he has seen progress in his society during his lifetime, targeting genuine problems and weeping for his nation. At other times, Peter can come across as an old cranky man complaining about this new-fangled modern art.

But in the end, reading this book, I find myself quite likely Peter, and his command of prose is to be envied. I also share with Peter his largest concern, the fear over the totalitarian nature of the New Atheist rhetoric. On my good days, I like to think the best of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and their ilk. I don't believe they have any desire to harm the religious, though they certainly seem to fear us. Yet, their language carries with it the seeds of just such injustice. The world is broken, they rightly say, and it could be made better if only religion were gone. Of course, religion is not something that stands on its own, religion is only there because of the religious, and so they are the ones in the way of utopia. That is, as Peter points out, always the language of bloody revolutions, "the world would be perfect if only these people were gone." Again, I do not think Dawkins or the elder Hitchens want this, nor do I think Peter believes they do, but it's only a matter of time until the language they use inspires someone to think in just such a way.

 So, pick up this book if your interested in the heart and journey of a man so close to one of the vanguards of the New Atheist movement. In many ways, Peter is man Christopher might have been had he taken a different road. Don't expect to be persuaded one way or another on the questions he addresses, but enjoy the exploration of the man's heart and his skill with words.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd

Image taken from Cover Browser
It's no secret that the "evangelical voter" is a big ticket in American elections. I have no idea how much money is spent trying to win them over, but I'd bet quite a bit that it's a large sum. A large part of the rhetoric employed in this campaign involves the notion that America is, or was, a Christian nation. Of course, lots of ink has been spilled arguing that this neither is nor ever was the case (the founding fathers were deists, America was founded to be a secular nation inspired by the writings of Locke and Montesquieu, etc.) In many ways, Greg Boyd's book The Myth of a Christian Nation is yet another text of this sort. However, Boyd is not only arguing that America is not and has never been a Christian nation, he is arguing that it can never be a Christian nation.

The center of Boyd's argument is that Christianity is centered around living the example of Christ. Christ did not conquer through power or force, but instead overcame through the crazy, irrational act of submitting himself to death on a cross. Christians, Boyd argues, are to follow in his footsteps, changing others lives through the "power under" force of sacrificial love, instead of the "power over" force of the sword.

Boyd's argument here is strong. It is certainly true that all governments are held up by the sword, even those governments that use it sparingly necessarily have it. It also seems equally true that Christ commanded us not to resist evil, to love our enemies, etc.

It is important to note that Boyd doesn't think we, as members of a democratic nation, to refrain from participating (except in wars it seems), but that we should clearly understand the difference between the good work our government does, and the work of the kingdom. This is, perhaps, were things become less clear. I'm simply not sure how one is supposed to play both involve oneself in government, and yet treat it as something totally different than one's Kingdom calling. Ultimately, the Kingdom of God is supposed to be a redeeming power, making everything new, including, I would think, nations.

There are a few other places where I find his arguments to be problematic, if for no other reason than the tactics he takes. For example, he falls into the obnoxious tendency of seeing the pre-Constantinian church as some sort of idyllic model of what he thinks Christians should be - ignoring both its flaws and the possibility that the Church is a maturing entity.2

It is important not to conflate what Boyd is arguing for here with a simple notion of "separation of church and state." Yes, in the end, that seems to the practical import of it, but what drives it is quite a different matter. This is not about political or religious freedom, but about the nature of God's Kingdom.

In the end, I think much of what Boyd draws out here is true, and should be taken seriously. Governments are violent, nations are tribal. However, in the end, we think we should interact with them, we should never conflate them with the mission of God in this world. Doing so leads to the commitment of all kinds of atrocities. The job of the Church is not to preserve the moral fiber of an immoral world, but instead to love directly. And that, in the end, is I think the most important lesson of this book. It's far to easy to judge from a distance, to do "moral work" through the proxy of government. Of course, governments are moral agents, since laws are inevitably moral in nature, but our job as Christians isn't necessarily to police that agent. Instead, our job as Christians is to get into the trenches, to be there with the sick, the dying, the prisoners, the widows, the prostitutes and the tax collectors in face to face relationship. It is only when you know people face to face that you can even begin to know how to act.

So, I recommend picking up this book, if for no other reason that to shake up some of your perceptions of the world. It's certainly not timeless, and should be read with a critical eye, but it has some good lessons to teach.
1. While this is generally seen as a conservative problem, it can just as much be a problem for liberal Christians who seek to make the world more "Kingdom-like" through, say, wielding the power of government to crush corporations.
2. Which it quite clearly is, if you pay any attention to the development of things like the scriptural canon, or orthodoxy theology (Christology, Trinitarianism, etc).

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Words are Deeds

Image from Jemima's Journal

"Words are deeds." This quote from Wittgenstein adorns the door of David Kaplan's office in the UCLA Philosophy department. But what does it mean?

Words are deeds because words change the world. They are not simply resounding sounds, nor are they merely matters of intention. When I ask you to pass me a pencil and you do, my words have altered the world. When I say words that call certain thoughts to your mind, my words have altered you. Of course, this also means your words can alter me. Indeed, over time words can transform us.

This is because we are, in the words of my friend Josh Charles, "captivated by language." It's not simply that we speak and listen, words are our world. Indeed, I believe that, at least on a conscious level, we even sense and emote through our words. My visual field is filled with a wealth of sensory information, but I hone in on part of it, and this happens in a large part by how I identify it. That is a person, that is a chair. These categories are linguistic. When I feel an emotion, say fear (at least if it is rational fear), it is not mere affect, but has semantic content. There is something which presents danger to me. Once again, categories. Language.

A further truth is that these words often shape us in ways we don't even realize. Words, in their fullest capacity, are not private entities. Neither you nor I, through our intentions, decide the meanings of our words, if that were the case we could not communicate. Instead, words are born out of community, out of interaction, and they therefore, in some sense, have a life of their own. This is why, if I say something insulting, it doesn't necessarily make it not hurt that I didn't intend it to be insulting. Words have their own power.

I've believed this for some time, but something has recently called to my attention just how true this is. My friends Judie and Josh1 began to criticize me for calling my female peers "girls." I'd talk about hanging out with a girl, being interested in a girl, etc.

"You mean a woman," they would say. So, out of respect for them, I started to work on calling my female peers women. I didn't really think much of it, after all, it was just a word. I didn't intend by "girl" to mean that they weren't mature, it's just how modern Americans talk. But a funny thing happened, as I made this change, and it took some effort, as overcoming any habit will, I found my psychology starting to change. The way I looked at my peers genuinely altered. They are adults, not children. What is more, it helped me to recognize that I am an adult. They are women. I am a man.

Again, there was no conscious attachment of "child' to my calling them "girls," but on some level my very use of that word shaped my world. The transition to calling them "women" had a similarly powerful effect.

So when you use words, think about them. They are far more potent than you realize. Words are your world. Words are deeds.
1. I would very much like to thank Judie and Josh for getting on my case about my choice of words.

Friday, June 24, 2011


From the Patt Morrison page

Warning: The subject of this post is somewhat macabre. If you're squeamish, you might want to skip this one.

From ossuaries to urns, one thing is certain, humans care for our dead. Egyptians mummified their Pharaohs because they believed they needed their bodies preserved for the after-life. That doesn't seem to be the case in most cultures, however. Most people seem to think that whatever preserves the person after death, if anything does, is gone from the body with death. Yet, in spite of that, we seem to recognize that the now dead body is an important part of who they were, and we honor that. Some of us bury them in graveyards facing east, others scatter their ashes in the sea. But, in some way, we honor them.

It wasn't surprising to me, then, that when Patt Morrison discussed a new funeral process on her show, reactions were mixed. The new process,called Alkaline Hydrolysis, liquefies the bodily tissues of a body, leaving behind only bones. It is, reportedly, a much more "green" process, than cremation. 

Some callers metaphorically shrugged their shoulders - "if its better for the environment, then why not do it, I'm gone from the vessel anyway." One caller in particular, however, a Jewish woman, was incensed, saying it was one of the most disgusting things she could imagine. The body is sacred, created by God, and should be treated as such.

She isn't alone in this reaction, as the Patt Morrison page reports "Catholics across the nation have raised ethical concerns" regarding this new process.

So, what do we do with this? I have to admit I'm not entirely certain. As a Christian,  I believe not only that God created all things, but that He became incarnate. The very creation of man by God gives the body a certain dignity, but the fact that God Himself shared in it elevates that dignity immeasurably.  What is more, I believe in the Resurrection of the dead. This means I believe that one day my body shall be raised to live in restored Creation with God. This means I am intimately tied to my body.

Of course, I recognize that bodies decay. In many ways, Alkaline Hydrolysis is simply sped up decay. The body I am in the Resurrection will not be of the selfsame matter that my body now is. Heck, my body in ten years won't even be the selfsame matter as it is now. So, I'm not an ancient Egyptian, I don't believe my body as such has to be preserved. Cremation and urns seem fine to me, as do many other funeral processes.

Yet, I worry that we are already far too inclined to view our bodies as things external to ourselves. Far too often we draw a line between our identity and our flesh - seeing the latter as merely a vessel we happen to inhabit. This line of thought is wrong, and part of me things this process carries something symbolic with it that reinforces this view.

In the end, I'm inclined to think that this process is fine so long as we find a way to imbue it with dignity. If we liquefy the bodies, dump the refuse down the drain and throw the bones in the trash, that seems wrong to me. We have to recognize the importance of our bodies. But maybe we can restore the practice of using ossuaries? Or find some new an inventive ritual to show that we recognize we are dealing with one of the most fundamental elements of a human being. But I'm not sure.

What do you think?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The God that Walked the Earth

From Wikipedia
One of the inevitable effects of a liberal arts education is that one ends up leaving behind quite a few half-read books. Summer time, for me, is clean up time when I can finish up some of these wayside casualties. At the moment, I'm finishing up Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It's a book about the commonalities of our myths, particularly in the journey of the hero.

Today, as I was reading, something stood out to me. It's no secret to any of my friends or readers of this blog that I'm rather obsessed with the incarnation, the resurrection, and what these things say about our bodies and this material world we walk in. In Chapter 4 of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell relates how the heroes return from the divine realm separates him from those around him. He tells, for example, the story of the Irish hero Oisin, who after a time in the Land of Youth returns home. However, he can only do this riding on a magical horse than insulates him from the earth. If he touches the ground the horse will immediately return to the Land of Youth and Oisin will be left behind a blind old man.

Campbell goes on to say, "The idea of the insulating horse, to keep the hero out of immediate touch with the earth and yet permit him to promenade among the peoples of the world, is a vivid example of the basic precaution taken generally by the carriers of supernormal power... over the whole earth the divine personage may not touch the ground with his foot" (Campbell 193).

How powerfully this reinforces the distance of the divine, the unchanging spiritual realm that cannot be corrupted by the lowly degenerate flux of this dirty, earthy mess of a world. This spiritual state is what the Platonists called Being - the ultimate whole self-encompassing and never changing entity.

Yet the Christian story tells us something suprising. Being became. The God of the Universe did not despise the material world, but became one with it. This is not merely the sending of an Avatar, or the wearing of some special skin to insulate His divine self from the carnal world. Instead, the Word which was with God from the beginning, and through Whom all the universe was made, "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). He was born of a woman in a dirty stable. He walked the dusty roads of backwater Nazareth, he worked as a carpenter, ate fish and bread, drank wine and suffered the worst death imaginable. And in the end, He ascended into Heaven, still embodied, to dwell forever as fully man and fully God (for more on the Ascension and what it says about the earth, see the blog of Peter David Gross).

In so doing, God said something powerful about our bodies and about this material creation. It is good, so good that He saw fit to join Himself to it, to redeem it from its fallen state. The vast expanse between heaven and earth, Being and Becomming, collapsed to the space of a baptismal font.


Well, it's official. I am now a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles with a Bachelor of the Arts in Philosophy. It's been a long, interesting and rewarding road. Of course, this isn't really an end, soon enough I'll be on my way to England to study a year of theology at Trinity College in Bristol. Nevertheless, it is certainly a milestone.

Over these years I've grown and changed, built friendships and learned to see the world in ways I never imagined. I've gained new friends, grown in some old friendships, and parted ways with others. I've seen one sister move away to Napa, another to Mexico where she fell in love and married. It was also during my college years that I finally found my church home as an Anglican.

Through all this time my family has been by my side, and God has been my guide. Life has been good, and I look forward to the road that lies ahead.

To all my friends and family - I love you and I look forward to exploring the coming years with you, Lord willing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Crazy Weeks

I've had a couple of crazy weeks. My house was broken into, lots of stuff was taken, my family dog died. I've mostly dealt with that stuff, but now finals are approaching and they are probably stressing me out more than any finals ever have before. These are the final finals. This. Is. It.

Then I graduate.

So chances are for the next couple weeks this blog will be pretty quiet. I apologize.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Trinity Acceptance!

As many of you have probably already seen on Facebook or Twitter, the news is in.

I've been accepted to Trinity College, Bristol. This was my first choice by far, so I will definitely (God willing) be going there. I'm on my way England.

Trinity is, of course, a strong school academically, and the University of Bristol is one of the top institutions in the UK. Furthermore, the facilities are fantastic and the sense of hospitality when I visited was tangible.

Most importantly, there was a real sense of God's presence. Trinity is a place where I will grow spiritually.

I ask prayers as I finish up at UCLA and prepare for this new journey.


Monday, May 2, 2011

New Wine

By André Karwath aka Aka
(Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5]
via Wikimedia Commons
Colossians 1:18 says that Jesus Christ is "the firstborn from among the dead." That bit always confused me as a child. After all, Elijah raised the widow's son, and Christ Himself raised Lazarus. What could it possibly mean for Jesus to be the firstborn from the dead?

But at some point it occurred to me. The boy and Lazarus would eventually see death. They were given an extended lease on life, but for them death still reigned.

The Resurrection of Jesus was something different, and this is why you will always see me capitalize it. The boy and Lazarus were raised from being dead, Jesus was raised from Death itself. Jesus, in being fully man, was fully subject to the rule of death, but He went through that death and was raised again, nevermore to die.

This is important because it's a promise. Christ is the firstfruits, the sign that all who die in Him shall at the last day be raised. And we see in Him that the Resurrection that awaits us in a thing spectacular indeed. Just as the grape must die and be crushed in the winepress so that it might become the beautiful thing that is wine, so we must die that we might become a new thing.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

This means that war is conducted like a funeral

Human life is of infinite worth.

That's the message of the cross. That's the message of the Resurrection. God, in the person of the Son, became one of us. The divine nature was joined to the human, that life died, and rose again. Death was conquered. Life affirmed to be more than death.

The infinite value of human life is violated every time a life is taken, every time a person is abused.

That's why the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were such a horror. Thousands of people dead. Not thousands of Americans, thousands of people.

And now Osama bin Laden is dead. And it's a sad thing. It's probably a good thing, the world is probably better for it, but it's sad. Though it be good that he is dead, rejoice not. Gloat not. "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,
and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” (Proverbs 24:17). Or, as the Tao says, "This means that war is conducted like a funeral. When many people are being killed, They should be mourned in heartfelt sorrow" (Tao 31).

Or you know, Jesus, "Love your enemies."

As Rod over at Political Jesus said, "that Jesus, just such a party pooper."

Saturday, April 30, 2011

On the Differences that Unite

By Christoph Michels (Own work)
 [GFDL , CC-BY-SA-3.0
or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0
 via Wikimedia Commons
Today, Rod over at Political Jesus gave this blog a much appreciated shout out. In the course of that post, Rod said something that got me thinking. See, he mentioned the post I wrote a few weeks back on etiquette. The post, as you may recall, was about the moral core of etiquette, but I also talked about how etiquette can become oppressive.

Or at least, that's how I saw it.

For Rod, it was a post about "how sometimes being polite can be oppressive." What for me was a post about how etiquette relates to morality was for him a post about oppression. This isn't to say that either of our readings were off of the text, all of it was there. Still, we approached the very same text and came away with two different  readings.

And that's a good thing.

Our world is filled with people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all kinds of values. Inevitably we will bring our own lives to any text (including the world). This might be seen as something that divides us, putting a wall of separation between us and those around us, but it doesn't have to be. In this world of differing values, the text mediates. Rod's and my reading of my earlier post were different, but they were both grounded in the text. Any reading, so long as it's actually a reading (and not an imposing, let's say) will ultimately be anchored in the word that stands between us.

This is an especially salient point for those of us trying to understand church catholicity. As Christians we are bound by scripture, creeds and traditions, but all too often we read them in widely varying ways. Too easily, these differences can divide us, but that central text is the bond of unity between us.

We all interpret differently, because we are all (thank God) different people, but that we interpret means there is a thing interpreted. There is a text, and it unites us.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Bit of (Unintentional) Evangelical Propaganda

Recently, I found myself reading the TV Tropes article on Christianity. Within the article, quite a few mistakes were made regarding Protestant sacrementology, particularly with regards to the frequency of belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (the errors have been corrected, I couldn’t help myself). The particular error is question is the claim that a belief in Real Presence is largely a Roman Catholic phenomenon largely unheard of in the Protestant church. That TV Tropes made this error is not particularly troubling, it is after all a wiki without any particular checks on correctness. However, I find that this particular mistake is very common within Evangelical Protestant circles. I recently had a conversation with a friend (and not by any means an unintelligent friend) who was completely unaware of the fact that Luther had argued vehemently for the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It seems to me that it is a piece of unintentional and very successful propaganda we have told ourselves.

The fact of the matter is that even if we leave aside the Eastern Orthodox church (whose existence many Evangelicals seem to be unaware of), the doctrine of Real Presence is far from rare. According to Wikipedia, there are 752 million Protestants (if we include Anglicans in that number1) in the world. Of those, 337 million are Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist or Reformed, all of whom profess some sort of belief in Real Presence.2

I would imagine that this misunderstanding arises for two reasons. First, because almost all Protestants do, in fact, reject the particular formulation of Real Presence confessed by the Roman Catholic church – namely transubstantiation. This is not, however, the same thing as rejecting Real Presence and being a mere memorialist. Second, because the "lower" church Christians who reject Real Presence tend to have a greater number of denominations as a result of the fact that they tend to be more fundamentalist.3

This mistake is serious because Protestants, whether they should do so or not, will oftentimes reject doctrines seen as mainly Roman Catholic without even giving them consideration merely because they are “romish.” However, if they take seriously the fact that a huge number of Protestants, who uphold the sole authority of scripture, affirm Real Presence, then they should give the doctrine a real look.
1. Wikipedia does not, but I will.
2. This isn’t a scientific study, it’s quite possible that some of the sub-denominations of these groups don’t profess Real Presence. Regardless, the point is that around half the Protestants in the world profess Real Presence.
3.  It seems that the more fundamentalist a church, the more frequently it fragments.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Alleluia! He is Risen!

The king who was dead now lives forever. He reigns incorruptible. And now we, who have through the sacrament of baptism died in Him now live with Him, and at the last day we shall be raised. As my friend said on Twitter, You are risen!

I will have more to say on Easter later, but I wanted to put up this shout of celebration. Below is a song I have always loved as a beautiful celebration of this day.

Go, you who were dead, and celebrate that you now live.

Alleluia! He is Risen!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sitting in the Dust

The Entombment by Peter Paul Rubens
from Digital Images
Today is the day we call Holy Saturday. We call it so, because it is a remembrance of the day Christ body lay in the tomb, and His spirit "descended into hell." For us, this is a day of hope, for we know what is just around the corner.

But we must not forget the gravity of this day. We must not forget what Holy Saturday was for the disciples, whose hopes had been dashed. We must not forget what it was for his mother. God gave me this child, He told me He was the child of promise. How can this be? 

Holy Saturday is the day of Job, where we all lie in the dust of our lives, covered in boils, having lost all that is dear to us. 

We must not forget the gravity of this day, because it is in this day that many in the world live. They live day today only with death their only certainty, and hope but a memory. Even for many in the church, it is easy to forget the promise of the Resurrection when we see the horror of suffering in our world. 

Holy Saturday is important, because it is the day in which God sits in the dust with us in our despair. On Holy Saturday, God did not come in a whirlwind and speak of the wonders of creation. Instead, He was pulled down to the very depths of Hell. "I am in fidelity with you in your suffering" declares God. This is the first answer to the problem of evil. 

Let us never forget to sit with those that suffer, to be with them in the reality of what they face. If God did not see fit to trivialize suffering, but instead to take it upon Himself, let us do no less. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Three Good Friday Meditations

Tree of Life by Burne Jones
from V&A


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

And it was good.

And He walked with man in the garden.

And in the middle of the garden stood a tree, its fruit pleasant to the eye. God told man not to eat of the tree, but the serpent whispered to man "You will be like God."

So man took the fruit of the tree that day in the garden.

And man died.

Wherever he went, death followed in his wake. The earth did not give up food without toil, and the food bought with sweat would just as quickly rot away. Birth came with suffering and pain, and the children lived their lives in the valley of the shadow of death.

Then a Man came, a Man who was also God. This God-Man walked the wasteland of death. He knew His purpose, and with resoluteness He walked towards it. The God-Man took the wine, born of the rot and the bread born of toil, and declared it to be His body.

Then the God-Man went to the tree.

And God died.

Piss Christ (Vandalized) by Serrano
from Art Observed

They did not know what it was they were doing. They beheld a man, a dirty carpenter from Nazareth, and he called himself God.

Could you imagine? The Holy God of Israel coming into the world of dirt and blood and flesh. It would be as if the most holy found itself submersed in piss.

So they did what any one who honored God would do, the scarred that which desecrated their God.

Black Box
From Wiki Answers

God died, and darkness covered the land. 

God died, and the veil was torn. 

In time, we would come to see this for what it was. The death of death itself. The end of the separation between God and man.

But it was not this yet. The veil was torn, and it showed the holy of holies. It showed the place where God had once dwelt in His glory. 

It tore and it showed the temple which for hundreds of years had stood empty of His glory. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Liturgical Colors

If you actually read my blog on this site (as opposed to a feed reader) you've noticed that I've changed the design template to a red and purple one. These are the colors of Holy Week, and it seemed appropriate to reflect that on this blog. Depending upon how I feel about the change, I may create a template that reflects the Easter season, or I may return to my regular template.

Palm Sunday: The Duality of Holy Week

Today Holy Week begins. Today we are on the road to Easter, but first we must go through the cross. This is the most intense week in the Christian year. Not only in terms of the business of those who work in the church, though that is certainly true. This is the most intense week because this is the week when it all comes together. All the symbols of the Christian narrative are pulled together this week as the rhythm of the liturgy reaches its climax.

This is the week of Christ's death, mere days before his Resurrection. Sorrow and rejoicing, bitterness and light, wedded together by a mere span of days.

Today, Palm Sunday, is a sort of second Christmas. Today Christ is born, not to flesh, but to the people of Jerusalem. Today the people adore him as the shepherds and the magi adored his birth. Today we welcome him in, singing praise to him.

"Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."

But soon we will cry "crucify him," indeed many of us already have in the Palm Sunday liturgy.

Let us, then, approach the cross in silent reverence.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


I want to apologize to my readers for the lack of updates this week. I'm sick, and it has completely sapped my energy. I have a few posts planned for when I'm better. Cheers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Judging the Faith

From Wikimedia Commons
Growing up, I was given an understanding1 of what it was to be a Christian. There were points on which it was muddled, but the center remained the same - the Christian is one who has professed with his mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord. If someone has made this declaration and confessed their sins, they're heaven bound (of course, they must have confessed it sincerely).

This created a few interesting problems. The church became a tribe of those "in" whose mission was to reach those "out" by any means possible. Because of this, understanding who was "out" became very important. Clear identification and classification of the Other became an important part of the Christian education, and an utter isolation of the faithful from those to whom they were sent was the result.

On the flipside, the faithful too got left behind. The mission of the church was to get the others "in," so the needs and concerns of those already part of the tribe was at best secondary. And God forbid you have a mission to minister to those in the church. No, the mission of every Christian was solely to reach the Other.

Obviously, I think this was mistaken, but I don't want to be misunderstood, there is something very admirable in it. Afterall, the ideal of this system was a tribe of people wholly devoted to the benefit of the Other. Their entire existence was saving "the lost" from a sinking ship. It might be alienating and unsustainable, but the model of self-sacrifice advocated here is at the very least respectable.

I don't think its right, however. The call of the Christian life is fidelity to Christ. We live in a limited, imperfect world, and we're chasing after the Supreme Good.

And we're never going to arrive.

That's the beauty of it. Our God is infinite, His goodness without limit. Even after this life there will be, as C.S. Lewis puts in in The Last Battle, "Further up, and further in."

So we always seek, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to draw near to Christ, that through Him the Father might be revealed to us. And because we recognize this as the Supreme Good, we do our best to share it with others, to draw them as close to Him as we can. This means, in the end, that its a good thing if we can help them to recognize Him as the Good, but sometimes it means a cup of cold water or a shoulder to cry on.

It also means there's no "in" or "out," just moving towards or away from Him. We minister to those in our lives, and Christ alone decides the rest.
1. I am primarily speaking here of what I was taught in church. As with many of the things in my upbringing I have rejected, I don't think this is really the understanding my parent's gave me.

Monday, April 4, 2011

You Ought to Ask Nicely: The Moral Core of Etiquette

Image from Legal Juice
Etiquette is a funny thing. We all act according to rules of etiquette, and are often somewhat offended if someone breaks them in our presence. At the same time, we've all run up against rules of etiquette foreign to us, and these often seem utterly alien, at times even offensive. I'll often eat with my elbows on the table, but from time to time I do so in the presence of someone brought up in a context in which that is not done. This experience of something being a thing we ought to do, combined with the realization of great variance in codes isn't something exclusive to etiquette.

On the one hand, the rules of etiquette seem to function something like a game. In games there are rules, you follow those rules so that the game is a good one, and infractions are a great offense. If I'm playing chess and I try and move my bishop forward horizontally, I'm breaking the rules of chess (at that point it might be questionable if I'm even playing chess anymore). Yet, etiquette seems importantly different than a game. Games have fixed points of beginning and ending. Outside of the game, one isn't held to their rules. No one forces the chess-playing Bishop to always move diagonally. Conversely, etiquette is a game all society plays.1

Yet, we generally seem to think etiquette is quite different on the other end from morality. There is a huge gap between "You ought to ask nicely" and "You ought not kill strangers." Though we vary on this, most people think that a prohibition against murder or slavery goes beyond society. If a society institutionalizes slavery, it has committed a moral infraction. It hardly seems possible for a whole society to breach etiquette.

So etiquette seems bigger than a game, and smaller than a moral law. It tells us things we should do, but those things often seem utterly arcane. To some, this means etiquette is at best a nuisance and at worst tyrannical fraud.

Why should we be polite?

I believe that there is a moral core to etiquette. Etiquette is a kind of language, specifically, it is a language that says "I respect you." This can work itself out in all kinds of ways, from not swearing to not putting your elbows on the table. The "grammar" of this language is always changing. You do violence to etiquette when you refuse not to swear in front of grandma, but you also do violence to it when you put it in a book and insist that these are the rules of polite society that you must always follow.

There's a darker side to etiquette though. The language of respect can become a language of despotism. Etiquette is good when the respect is equal, but it can set up one individual to be inherently over the other. It is this kind of etiquette that says the southern black man must always sit in the back of the bus. When etiquette becomes this it has subverted its purpose, it has become a moral monstrosity instead of a sign of respect.

You ought to follow etiquette, but do so only insofar as it shows respect. If etiquette in turn becomes a tool for bondage, throw it off. 
1. There are "mini societies" that have their own etiquette, such as clubs. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Am: Identity in Submission

Deacon Ordination by Eric Stoltz
Used under CC BY-SA 2.5 (Wikipedia)
Over at Political Jesus, Rod wrote a fantastic post entitled In Christ, neither Mainline or Sectarian: On Ecumenism & Identity: Towards a Postcolonial Orthopraxis of Reconciliation. In the post, Rod grounds the catholic nature of the church in Christ's physical resurrected body, saying, "Our unity in Christ is not the denial of bodily existence, but about the participation in the life of God Incarnate." I would add to this, as I have discussed before, that we come into this unity through the confession of the creed.1

However, a potential problem was raised by Rod himself in the comments, how do we avoid catholic Christianity becoming "another form of consumerism." That is, how do we avoid our choice of denomination becoming merely a form of branding? I wear Nike, you wear Adidas. I'm an Anglican, you're a Lutheran. If this is our approach, then our ecumenism, in attempting to affirm the unity and community of the Christian faith, becomes instead an affirmation of individualism and appetite.

The question itself came up when another writer at Political Jesus, Amanda, questioned hybrid terms of Christian faith "Bapti-costal; Congre-costal; Anglo-Lutheran; Pente-Catho; Cal-minian, etc. It’s like dogs. Once you have to hyphenate what they are, just call them a 'mutt.'"

In other words, how is a mixed denominational identity any identity at all? To a very great degree, I sympathize with this view, and the reason for that sympathy is tied into why I think we can have ecumenism without Christianity becoming pure commercialism.

I think that the answer to this lies in submission. As Christians, we submit ourselves to streams within the catholic tradition. So, example, I am an Anglican. In our submission, we take both the good and the bad of our stream. We take on its practices, it accomplishments and even its guilt. Thus, I can be proud of the fact that C.S. Lewis is an Anglican, but I also take on the responsibility for the martyring of Roman Catholic brethren at the hands of Anglicans.

Even if I do not understand a position of my stream, in entering into the denominational body I submit to it. For example, I do not understand the Anglican position that only a priest in the apostolic succession can bless the Eucharist, I nevertheless submit to it in praxis. I am an Anglican and I am not a priest, so I will not consecrate the elements.

It is because of this submission that consumeristic individualism is avoided. Because I have to take the good with the bad, it is not all about me. My identity becomes part of another identity.

This isn't to say the individual is completely subsumed by his denominational identity. Any individual is going to have things on which they differ from their denomination, and that's fine to a point.

For one, I think an individual is always free to critique her denomination, and seek change in it, so long as she remains in reasonable submission to its traditions while she remains a part of it. Tradition is a thing always in flux, and one should not think of submission to it in a static manner.

To bring Wittgenstein in again, any term is going to have "fuzzy" areas around the edge. At the same time, there is a point at which a thing can no longer be sensibly referred to by that term. A Roman Catholic who uses birth control is still Roman Catholic, but one who takes communion at a protestant church, rejects transubstantiation, apostolic succession, and the authority of the Pope, cannot rightly be called Roman Catholic.

Thus, there is a point at which one breaks with submission to one's denomination, though remaining part of the creedal body of which it itself is a part. I especially think this should be done if one comes to see some of its practices as grossly immoral (see for example Sinéad O'Connor's call for a new Roman Catholic Church).

What, then, of hybrids? Again, my first inclination, along with Amanda, would be to call them mutts. However, I think there is an answer to this, and the answer lies in why we submit to a denomination. The goal is always Christ. The Christian life is to seek fidelity to Christ, and to try and bring others as close to Him as we are able. We all do this, ultimately, by joining into His body by way of the creed. As part of this process we inevitably submit to a tradition, but that tradition can be that of the independent Christian. That is, we can come to think the best way to be in fidelity with Christ is actualizing ourselves through our own understanding of scripture, and acting what we think to be the best example of Christian life. We can decide that being a Pentecostal Presbyterian, as Eugene Peterson calls himself, is the best way for us to seek fidelity with Christ.2 I don't necessarily think this is the best tradition to submit to, but it is a tradition within our faith nonetheless.

In summary, we are Christians by our participation in His body, through our affirmation of the creed and in submission to a tradition, the end of which is always fidelity to Christ. It is in our submission to a tradition that consumeristic individualism is avoided, though paradoxically that tradition can be one of individual judgment.

1.More specifically, it is the capacity to recite the creed. Not all orthodox Christians actively recite the creed as part of their tradition, but all can affirm the creed.
2. Another interesting thing, though not what I'm dealing with in this post, is the overlap of different descriptors in Christianity. There's high church or low church, apostolic or non-apostolic, various denominations, etc. and these don't necessarily seem to me to fulfill the same grammatical "space."