Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Reflection on Angels

by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo via WikiPaintings
The grace of God is a terrible thing. Not in the more common parlance, but in the old sense of a thing likely to cause terror. For we, our faith tells us, have been creatures of the darkness who "loved darkness rather than light, because [our] deeds were evil" (John 3:19). The light blinds us, the message of God leaves us paralyzed.The Word of God, by whom we are made whole, is "like a refiner's fire" (Malachi 3:2).

Is it any wonder then, that throughout scriptures, the presence of angels, the messengers who carry the words of God, leaves men stricken with holy terror? Often, this is understood as a result of the angel's otherworldly nature, for they are indeed utterly eldritch in their appearance. Yet, might it not be they themselves that terrify, but the message they carry?

For though they bring good news, the message is also terrifying. We are called to give up ourselves, to raise crosses and be buried with Christ that we might live to God. That this is a scary thing should not be downplayed.

To those in darkness, the messengers of God seem to bring death. Yet, though we die, if it be in Christ we shall live. Like Isaiah, though we be men of "unclean lips," God will make us clean that we might become messengers of His Kingdom (Isaiah 6:5-7).

We will, and we should, fear this message of God, but more so should we hope. The messengers of God are but creatures, and the words they have brought us are not, ultimately, words of death, but words of life! Today, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, let us remember to whom their presence should ever point us. Let us, when we hear the message, like the blessed virgin Mary, declare to God, "Let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Let us receive Christ this day, that "as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen" (Angelus).

The Paradox of the Altar

By Giovanni Battista Tiepolo via WikiPaintings
Many of the desires we have are God given, for our Lord desires us to pursue our vocations, that by them we might make manifest His Kingdom.

Sometimes God asks us to give up our desires though, even the things He has seemed to promise us. That giving up, however, is frequently not a permanent thing. We offer up that which we love most that we might receive it back holy - "whoever loses their life for me will find it" (Matthew 16:25). Like Abraham, we put the child of promise upon the altar trusting in the goodness of God.

Yet there is a paradox, and one I am not at all certain how to live in. I have felt called to, at least for a time, sacrifice something dear to me. Nevertheless, I have a certain faith that God will give it back to me sanctified. How do I do this, though? How do I give up to God the promise, trusting all the while that He shall return it to me? How do I make God my end and not the thing I am giving up? For unless God is my desire, the Beloved who I yearn for with all my heart, then I cannot sacrifice this desire, and I will never then receive it back holy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Orthodox Way

I've always been an ecumenist. I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church, and believe that every creed professing person is a member of Christ's Church. A few years back, however, I had a few realizations that changed the form of my ecumenism.

The first was the realization that sola scriptura, when seen in the ahistorical way many modern Evangelicals view it, is an untenable position.

Second, I realized that the sort of ecumenism I had developed bordered dangerously on consumerism. Denominations don't really matter, they're like fashion. I put on liturgy, you put on anabaptism and none of it matters substantially. I truly believe that ecumenism is good, but when it reduces to matters of taste, it becomes dangerously individualistic.

These two realizations led me to the third. If I am to be a serious ecumenist, and not merely one who considers the diversity of the church merely a matter of fashion, then I need to take seriously the identity and claims of the branches of the Church. Moreover, since I could no longer hold to simplistic sola scriptura, I could no longer dismiss out of hand the claims of those branches of Christianity, namely the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, that depended upon the authority of tradition. At the same time, I was also reading much Medieval Philosophy, and beginning to see the coherence of some of the views of Roman Catholicism.

I had always thought that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers could very well be real Christians, just as easily as any Protestant could. However, this had always amounted to thinking they could in virtue of the fact that the core of what they believed matched what I believed. It was, in other words, a kind of patronizing ecumenism. They got in because, despite all their weird additions, they were in essence like me. Yet, both these churches claim for themselves the identity of being the one true holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The rest of us might be Christians, but we are so in virtue of being, as it were, accidental members of their faith. That's a serious claim, and I decided that if I would be a serious ecumenist, then I should give it genuine consideration.

So, on and off for the last couple of years I have been giving Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy a serious look. This has not, necessarily, been with an eye towards converting, and I highly doubt I will. On the one hand, there is something about the two churches I find highly aesthetically compelling. At times I feel like Protestantism looks like a sketch of Christianity, while Roman Catholicism looks like a detailed Renaissance painting and Eastern Orthodoxy like one of its Ikons, with all the colour and symbolism it brings. Yet, there's too much about Rome and the East that doesn't sit easy with me, their absolute rejection of a female priesthood for example, so that even if some of their claims compel me, I'm not sure I could ever align myself with them.

Still, in the end I want to seek Jesus where He may be found, and I at times I think there is something of Him in the Old High Churches that we have lost, so I continue to look at them and learn from them, and only God knows what will happen.2

Researching Roman Catholicism has been relatively easy. They have many books that clearly lay out their views and apologetics, including their very detailed catechism. Searching the East, however, has proved more challenging. I have long desired to find a kind of Mere Christianity of Eastern Orthodoxy, and had so far come up empty. I was, thus, understandably excited to see The Orthodox Way in the list of extra readings for one of my classes, and quickly picked it up.

I am extremely happy with the book. It is beautifully written and clearly exposits the Eastern faith not merely propositionally, but as a living faith. I find that much written here I can wholeheartedly agree with, and those things that I don't agree with I at least find compelling. Most of all, the book fills me once again with wonder at God's glory and excitement about the future of my faith here on Earth, leading me in turn to fervent prayer. I have not been so wholly captivated by a work of theology since I read N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope several years ago.

As I said in my long preamble, I do not expect that I will ever go over to the East, but I am deeply grateful for this book, and it certainly gives me food for thought. If you are a Christian of any stripe, but especially one with questions about our brothers and sisters in the East, I heartily recommend a look at this book.

There is much more I could say about this book, and I may indeed write more posts on it in the future weeks reflecting on what I have read within its pages. For now though, I simply want to leave you with a glowing recommendation.

The peace of the Lord be always with you.
1. This is why I am so opposed to re-baptism. If there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism," (Ephesians 4:5) by which "we were all baptised into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13), then to re-baptise is to declare the other baptism unreal, and thereby to declare that all baptised in that other church aren't members of the body.
2. I certainly hope you will pray for me as I ask these important questions. I don't want my decision to be based on fashion, the sexiness of a certain theological view, or even my own limited reasoning, but on the guidance of God's Spirit.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism Review

Something is wrong with Free Church evangelicalism, or so D.H. Williams (I would say accurately) claims in Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. The Christian Church has gone through splits before, first in the Great Schism between East and West, and again in the Protestant reformation, yet the massive proliferation of splinter groups in recent memory is unprecedented. The Free Church isn't going away though, in fact, it's growing with incredible rapidity. Almost any Christian would say the growth of the Christian faith is a good thing, but the divisions D.H. Williams rightly finds troubling. The problem isn't just divisions either, but the theological free-for-all that feeds them. When it's every man for himself in theology, then every man's convictions can become a cause for division. Treating the Bible as an authority certainly doesn't seem to be enough either, as the long history of Christian heresies bears out.

So how to solve the problem? Williams doesn't think the end of the Free Church is likely, or even desirable (he is a Baptist after all), but he does think the Free Church can be revitalized and given a theological center. The key, Williams claims, is to reclaim the early Tradition. He does not mean by the Tradition the Roman Catholic Magesterium, but rather the guides to theology, such as the Creeds, that act as lenses through which to read the Bible. What Williams wants to argue in his book is that Protestants, even Free Church Protestants, don't need to fear the tradition. The Reformers were right to emphasize scripture, but they also saw the place of Tradition as an aid in understanding and interpreting it. Indeed, they even used the early Tradition as weapons in their battle against the Roman Catholic church. There is no reason, Williams thinks, that the Free Church cannot lay hold of the benefits of the Tradition and still remain the Free Church.

The argument of the book is certainly unique and definitely compelling, but I'm not sure it's entirely successful. I'm not, of course, the audience of this book, as I'm a high church Anglican with a pretty positive view of the role of the Church's Tradition in Christian orthodoxy, but I'm entirely sure how persuasive the argument laid out in the book would be to his audience. Moreover, I'm not sure that the Free Church really can be what it is and at the same time respect the Tradition. I don't know the answer to that quandary, as my own understanding of the relationship between Christian orthodoxy, Scripture and the Church's Tradition is still something I'm definitely wrestling with, but I'm suspicious. For one thing, while the Tradition is a valuable thing, it too can be open to interpretation, so I'm not sure it solves the hermeneutical puzzle that troubles Williams. If all he wants to do is encourage Free Church protestants to at least converse with the Tradition, more power to him, but it hardly seems likely to solve, in and of itself, the individualism that plagues that expression of our faith.

Perhaps the biggest problem I see is a lack of clarity on the part of Williams as to what he means by Tradition. He makes the distinction, often made in certain circles, between Tradition and traditions, but I felt he did a rather poor job explaining what he saw as a difference.

Neverthless, not all is bad with this book. Certainly, Williams is bringing an important part of the Christian faith to the attention of those in the Free Church, and he is doing it as an insider. He does succeed in arguing that Protestants don't need to fear the Tradition, and successfully dismantles Anabaptist myths of the "fall of the Church" after Constantine.

So, there's certainly plenty of good material to be had here, but it's certainly not the earth-shattering book I was hoping for. Worth a read if your a Protestant, especially a Free Church Protestant, with questions about the Tradition, but it probably won't settle things for you.1
1. Another more detailed review of the book can be read over at First Things.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What's So Wrong About Apologizing?

By Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) (Own work)
 [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney said a lot of things, mostly benign, a times nice, and occasionally utterly terrifying.1 Some were also lies. This, of course, surprises no one. Politicians lie, we know that. I want to talk about one lie in particular, the claim that Obama began his Presidency with "an apology tour." As the Washington Post has pointed out, this isn't true at all.

What I want to talk about here, however, is not so much the lying, but the nature of the accusation itself. Let's imagine it was true that Obama apologized because "America ...had dictated to other nations." I ask, what would be wrong with this? Is it not part of being a mature, adult human being that when you think you've done something wrong, you approach the wronged parties and apologize, ask forgiveness and seek reconciliation? Imagine knowing someone who had continually acted in a selfish manner, and had, to top it all off, refused to ever admit wrong, always blaming others and pridefully boasting of his actions? What would you call such a person? Manchild comes to mind.

Now, America may not be like the selfish person described above. I actually do believe that, most of the time, the cases in recent memory where America really screwed up (i.e. Iraq) were still entered into with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, if you act with the best of intentions and you mess up, you apologize. Of course, it's another question entirely whether America did mess up, but if that's your point of contention, Mr. Romney, then say that. It's perfectly reasonable to say, "Mr. President, you apologized for dictating to other nations, but you shouldn't have apologized because we were right in taking those actions." To get upset merely over the fact of any sort of apology ever being made for anything, though, is backwards. Somehow though, it's gotten into the understanding of some Americans that any sort of admission of weakness is anti-American, a failure of patriotism.2 That's silly. America is not the Kingdom of Heaven, but a human nation. Human nations err.

I sincerely hope that Romney, should he become president, can find a place in his heart that will be okay with apologizing if the country, under his leadership, makes mistakes. I find it hard to imagine he will though, since doing so would mean admitting that America isn't always "the greatest country in the history of the world."3
1. However politically calculated, it's still nice hear a conservative emphasize the rights of women to have a political voice. On the other hand, calling optimism uniquely American is annoying, and promising to build up a military so powerful no one would ever dare to question us is horrifying.

2. Moreover, I think this emphasizes just how thoroughly not Christian the American nation is. To recognize wrong, address it and seek forgiveness is a central part of the lived Christian faith, but to apologize for American misdoings is, apparently, anti-American.

3. Quotes taken from NPR's transcript of Romney's speech.