Disheveled

I was up before 7:00 as usual to fix my wife’s breakfast.  Normally it’s a hot shower right after, and then I fix my own breakfast and get on with reading/writing, after seeing her off to work.

But this morning I suddenly felt like skipping the comfort of the shower.  Not even a splash in the sink.  I’m a mess, a bit like a man rushed off from an all-night trial to the doom of a public sentencing.

It’s already noon and I haven’t even combed my hair.  I’m not fasting here – I’ve had coffee and all.  But I was right to think that skipping the hot shower would put me just far enough out-of-sorts to work like a hair-shirt, and keep me mindful.

So I’m home today, on Good Friday, with sleep still in my eyes and that overnight grungy feel – but this year I’m staying on point, and managing a little better at ‘keeping’ the awful memorial of my salvation.

Hell a big deal with pagans – with Jews not so much

Finding evidence in ancient texts for a future place of punishment for the unrighteous is much easier and more straightforward in pagan literature than in the Bible.  In fact, references to anyplace resembling Evangelical or medieval Catholic concepts of Hell are almost non-existent in the Bible.  What little we think we find there is almost nil compared to what we find in Plato.

Plato thinks nothing of including in his chief dialogue a lengthy remark by the father of Polemarchus regarding the man’s own beliefs in “the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there” (Republic 330d-331b). Cephalus is grateful that his wealth has afforded him

“no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men when he departs to the world below.”

He implies that an old man without wealth must be unhappy because:

“suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others.  And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings.”

This place in The Republic is not the usual stop for scholars discussing afterlife concepts in Plato (see Republic X., Phaedo, the end of  Gorgias, etc.).  But evidence right here for widespread folk-beliefs about future punishment among the Greeks seems to me more ‘historical’ in the everyday sense and less rhetorical than elsewhere.  At least it is clear that in the fourth century BC the belief was already ancient enough to be a commonplace of casual discourse.

My advice is to avoid trying to squeeze Hell-doctrines out of Scripture.  And you evangelicals who admit of Greek influences in the primitive church take note.

Yesterday I found a post by fellow Christian blogger, neglitz, who I think is trying to be honest about the problem of afterlife concepts in Christianity and their meaning for evangelical religion.

I hope I can get something up soon about why a Biblical and textual challenge of Hell-concepts does not necessarily justify that other questionable doctrine of predestination – universalism.

All too human!

I see a certain irony in Nietzsche’s reputation as a visionary.  Take, for example, the notorious section of Religious Aphorisms in his 1878 book, Human, all too Human. In this book we have a Nietzsche who admittedly cuts the figure of a kind of modern-day Jeremiah.  He offers great call-outs of Christianity for its outworn creeds and forms, pagan throw-backs, and ritual perversions.  On the other hand, I suspect I could find most of these same kinds of criticisms of ‘religion’ in the Bible itself.

Overall I think Nietzsche’s book fails to confirm his alleged prophetic credentials. When a Voltaire (to whom the book is dedicated) cries out “ecrasez l’infame,” we see that he refers to the superstitious abuses of a certain corrupt institution and walk of life – and rightly so.  But Nietzsche’s alienation from God is complete, and this explains what I see as his fatal flaw.  For he includes in one sweeping condemnation not only the oddities and obvious antiquities of religion’s outward form and teachings – he condemns the religious consciousness itself and the spiritual ground of religion. Dude.

The atheistic perspective on the human quest for God has one critical disadvantage in comparison to the spiritual perspective. Because the spiritually minded prophet enjoys the same insights into the farce of objective creedal and ritual trivia as the atheist – the prophets of Israel condemn these abuses with the same prophetic ardor as a Nietzsche.  The advantage of the spiritual eye is that it is able to see the folly of the sectarian and the secularist – both confuse these trivia of human religion for the substance of the quest for God.

In a new English translation of Nietzsche’s book (by Gary Handwerk, in The Complete Works, Vol. 3, Stanford 1995) I find the title of his infamous aphorism 113 is rendered, Christianity as anachronism.  In my unprofessional opinion I think this is a better rendering of Nietzsche’s meaning than was Walter Kaufmann’s “Christianity as antiquity”  (Viking, 1954, p.52). But herein lies the irony I mentioned at the beginning of my post.

The illusory holy grail for swashbucklers like Nietzsche is the notion that he will find (or has found) an omnipotent psychological explanation of religion, by which the religious consciousness is reduced to elements of illusion and self-consideration. I think Nietzsche himself must have looked for the dawn of a day in which it would simply be unnecessary for philosophers to distinguish between the reality of religious consciousness and the absurdity of some of Christianity’s (or any religion’s) peculiar expressions and outward forms. What he saw was the coming of just such a pseudo-philosopher as Richard Dawkins.

But if it is a category error to confuse the human quest for God with the antique or anachronistic forms of human religion, this quest cannot be explained or replaced by a scientific paradigm or a secular parody of consciousness. We need a return to a philosophy that recognizes that the scientific method by definition can function only on the ‘objective’ outskirts of religion, art, and consciousness (i.e. a return to Kant); the atheist only apes the method of science when he swaggers into the midst of the human quest demanding that it be judged in terms of a strictly physical or scientific humanities and psychology.

It is a false assumption that the student may approach the reality of man independently of an approach to the reality of God. This false start has contributed to the spectacle of our modern faculties of ‘Human Sciences’ – characterized by various irreconcilable schools of thought, each supported by a tissue of footnoted cross-references to great piles of like-minded studies. I suggest that this dreary edifice is the academic version of the ugly, dysfunctional modernist Pruitt-Igoe apartments inspired by Le Corbusier. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 has been characterized by Charles Jencks as “the end of modern architecture.” What is needed is a postmodernist critique that shall render the whole 100-year modernist cul-de-sac in the Humanities to the cool of library storage – where the fallacy of man without God can be studied as a curiosity of history – the supreme anachronism of the ‘modern’ age.

The early English defense of the Fourth Gospel

If you are someone who thinks modern New Testament criticism contains unanswerable arguments against the historical value of the Fourth Gospel, I think you have never studied the critical defense of John’s Gospel by English scholars of the nineteenth century.

Beginning about 1848, the British scholars who took up the task of refuting the negative German criticism of the Fourth Gospel followed in the footsteps of Germans who had already begun to counter the negative arguments point by point on valid historical and textual-critical grounds. But fundamentalists beware – the best of this early defense of John’s Gospel (both English and German) was not buttressed by special pleading for plenary inspiration.

So I’m saying that a ‘battle of modern scholars’ was fought over 150 years ago and was by 1900 fairly won by the side supporting the Fourth Gospel’s authenticity. I can’t blame you if you ask – Why then do we find so many scholars of repute today who hold the Fourth Gospel in less esteem than the other three? I can only urge you to consult the ‘British defense’ and judge for yourselves whether it has had a fair hearing among negative critics.

Here is a story told by archdeacon Henry Watkins, canon of Durham Cathedral in 1889, of a conversation he had with the Bishop of Durham, J.B. Lightfoot.

“One day while walking with the late Bishop of Durham, when we hoped he was regaining strength, I took the opportunity of asking him how he accounted for the fact of the frequent assertion that the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel was disproved by modern criticism, in the presence of the strong and accumulating evidence in its favour.” (Modern Criticism Considered in Relation to the Fourth Gospel, 1890, p.viii)

Lightfoot was age 61 at the time and suffered from an illness which was to end his life that same year. It was at the bishop’s urging that Watkins prepared a review in rough outline of the chief issues of the convincing 40-year campaign to defend Johanine scholarship against the negative critics. Bishop Lightfoot then gave the last effort of his life to securing the archdeacon’s appointment as the next Bampton Lecturer at Oxford.  “No subject,” he wrote before his death, “could be more useful at the present day, and I think that the time has arrived when it can be effectively treated”.

Last year I began a defense of the historicity of John on this blog, and I mean to keep pushing this point.  Last month I found Watkins’ 1890 Bampton Lectures in my favorite old seminary, and I want to get some results of reading posted in the near future.

It should come as no surprise that I feel the history of fundamentalist bluster against the higher criticism can play no real part in the issues at stake with John’s Gospel.  The evangelical mind seems to have neither taste nor capacity for this kind of argument – due to its habitual abdication of reason in the presence of texts conceived to be almighty.  Even the ex-evangelical mind seems unsuited to the task of positive criticism.  The negative German critics themselves were often ex-evangelicals who, after losing their belief in the Bible’s divine authorship, also lost their way in critical scholarship.

Empyrean Dialogues 8 – Temptations

In the Empyrean Moses and the Son discuss the transition to the public teaching career and some of the temptations which  might come up – both worldly and other-worldly.

MOSES:  Again, Sire, we know Father will announce his expressed approval of your incarnation in the presence of the Forerunner, but as to timing, he has not revealed whether this will come before or after your teaching mission, or during that mission.

THE SON:  Certainly it cannot come before I have proved my obedience to Father’s will in every aspect of the normal human walk with God.

MOSES:  Whenever it comes, the sign from Father is likely to present something of a crisis for you, Sire, from the perspective of your humanity.

THE SON:  So I understand.  The fullness of my human nature will be so complete that this sign will probably constitute my first real assurance of my divine pre-existence.

MOSES:  It’s going to be a lot to ‘take in’ in one afternoon.

THE SON:  Like I said, I hope to get away for awhile.

MOSES:  You will need both time and wisdom to decide whether to grasp or deny certain innate spiritual rights attached to your divine person.

THE SON:  Even with the dawning of my true self-awareness I doubt I will see the form of divinity as a thing to be grasped.  It should mean only a new phase of Father’s plan for the Incarnation.

MOSES:  The saints believe it will mean the beginning of the end, Sire.  Recognition of divinity will bring more problems than solutions.  Especially if there is resistance from the religious authorities.

THE SON:  We’re projecting a 1 to 3 year mission – probably no longer.

MOSES:  Right.  By the requirement of the No Thrones Rule you should always have in view some kind of fit termination of Father’s plan.

THE SON:  I expect to have this whole question of thrones thrust upon me soon after my recognition of divinity.

MOSES:  Sire, the issue of thrones will come up again and again.  Not only with your own self-recognition but every time somebody else recognizes your divinity – from the lowest demon to your closest follower.

THE SON:  But Moses, by that time, if anyone were to suggest that I go crashing kingdoms and playing messiah or prince, believe me I would get him behind me quickly.

MOSES:  I have no doubt that you will worship the Father eternally, and him only serve.

THE SON:  Even so.

MOSES:  There will also be immense pressure to satisfy human need by resort to your creative power.

THE SON:  Father has expressed a preference for No Bread and Circuses, but has not ruled out my discretionary use of powers.

MOSES:  if you get the people too miracle-minded, Sire, believe me you will lose control of the message in a hurry.  And miracles net you zero in the way of anybody’s saving faith anyway.

THE SON:  Right.  Well I wouldn’t think of it as far as a means of personal protection.

MOSES:  Good.  Don’t tempt the angels to get you out of a jam.  And no spectacles or crowd-pleasers.

THE SON:  It’s the ‘No Bread’ rule that’s going to be tough, Moses – tougher than Thrones, in my opinion.

MOSES:  Men do not live by bread alone, Sire.

THE SON:  Got it.  But I already feel compassion for the hungry and poor, and I’m not even one of them yet.

MOSES:  Look, Sire, if the people get a whiff of anything like mass feedings or the old ‘manna from heaven’ you are done, OK?  After that it’ll be earthly kingdoms all the way down.

THE SON:  You mean Father’s kingdom could be mistaken for a free bread program?

MOSES:  Oh verily, Sire.  And that is sure to pancake right back into Thrones.  You could get a popular groundswell to make you king, after which you won’t be able to show your face in Galilee without political harassment.

THE SON:  It really comes down to “No Circuses” then, doesn’t it?

MOSES:  Miracles and wonders are to be kept to a minimum, yes.  Solve that one and everything else should fall into place.

THE SON:  But Moses, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf..., it’s going to be hard to stay on point.

MOSES:  I can’t tell you what do do with your compassion, Sire.

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues 1 – the Annunciation

Note:  the Empyrean Dialogues is a recent experiment of mine to see if I can manage a piece of didactic fiction which both entertains a little and presents interpretations of the Bible I believe to be worthy of reflection and discussion from the standpoint of incarnation and divine pre-existence.

Empyrean Dialogues 7 – the First Sign

In the Empyrean Moses and the Son discuss possibilities surrounding the transition to Phase 2 of Father’s plan of salvation.

MOSES:  You have convinced me, Sire, that you can be a man in full and still live in obedience to Father’s ‘No dynasties’ rule – his prohibition of your leaving any progeny.

THE SON:  You say ‘his prohibition,’ Moses, but in fact my Father has left the ultimate decision, in this and in all matters, to my own free choice.

MOSES:  Oh yeah.  As if…

THE SON:  Nay, hear me out – for example the ‘No thrones’ rule.  Do you think I will not have power on Earth to take a throne if I willed it, and to have dominion over all the kingdoms of the world – and the glory of them too?

MOSES:  That’s a devil of a question, Sire.   But a Messianic kingdom after the second-temple ideal?  I just don’t see it.

THE SON:  I am only speaking of the sovereign power to make it so, Moses.

MOSES:  OK, if you want Israel’s acceptance badly enough you might be tempted in that regard.  But it is my understanding, Sire, that your sovereignty waits upon a day of Father’s own choosing.

THE SON:  Yes, he has appointed a day in which he will make known to me in full his satisfaction with my conduct of life in the flesh.

MOSES:  A day that’s on nobody’s calendars except his.  Some of the saints hold that this ‘day of sovereignty’ won’t come until you have been obedient unto death.

THE SON:  We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, Moses …

MOSES:  Well most of us, Sire, believe Father may reveal his first sign as early as the transition to Phase 2 of his plan – as a judgment of your successful completion of Phase 1.

THE SON:  It’s controversial, but the end of Phase 1 makes sense to me also, if Father truly esteems the early walk with God in any man’s life.

MOSES:  In any case Father has made it clear that at some point, in some manner, he will have it known in no uncertain terms that he is well-pleased with his Son.

THE SON:  I understand it won’t be generally broadcast.

MOSES:    If Father has to repeat himself, it won’t be for your benefit.  But it won’t be a complete secret.  He has indicated he wants the Forerunner present for it.

THE SON:  Yes, John will be witness to our fulfillment of all righteousness.

MOSES:  All righteousness in so far as that can be reasonably manifest in a man’s life.   But the full requirement of the Incarnation is not met until you have also died a man’s death.

THE SON:  To return to my original point, Moses.  Once I have this sign from Father, I can’t imagine I will not recognize therein a confirmation of my own divine identity.

MOSES:  I see where you’re going with this.

THE SON:  Self-conscious recognition of my divinity will entail both a realization of sovereign power and absolute freedom of action.

MOSES:  Sire, whether you attain command of 12 legions of angels early or late doesn’t change the need to do the divine kenosis right – especially if you have not yet been tested unto the shedding of blood.

THE SON:  Let’s keep this about the transition to Phase 2.

MOSES:  Right.  Before Phase 2 gets underway, you will have some monumental choices to make in regard to your conduct of affairs in the business of bringing Father’s message to Israel.  Especially if Father has already vouched for your identity.

THE SON:  I hope I can get away for a few weeks.

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues 1 – Annunciation

The last 2,302 words from the cross (Pss 22:1 to 31:5)

if Jesus was in fact praying the Psalms on the cross, Mark supplies the origin (Ps 22:1) and Luke the terminus (Ps 31:5) of the Lord’s final conscious string of prayer.

According to Mark, Jesus is heard by bystanders to have spoken from the cross words which are found in Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34).  Most commentators will admit (even if they disagree) that an old interpretation of this text claims that Jesus might well have been ‘praying the Psalms’ to himself in Aramaic during that last forsaken hour.

However, Mark further relates that these bystanders believed Jesus was calling Elijah, and offered Jesus a sop of soldier’s wine, waiting to see if Elijah would come for him.  It is not until after this interlude that physical death comes when, as Mark writes, Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last (Mk 15:37).

According to Luke, the addition at Mk 15:37 doesn’t tell the whole story.  Luke has reason to report that the last loud cry which Mark reports on the lips of Jesus just before he breathed his last was in the form of actual words:  “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”  Unbelieving Jesus scholars won’t like this, but I think Luke’s report of more speech is easier to accept than the idea of Jesus letting rip with one of those hideous screams that actors use when playing the bad guy falling off the cliff – AAAAUUGH!  Seriously?

Luke has given us a beautiful devotional window opening onto the mind of Jesus at the hour of his death.  Because these words reported by Luke are also from the Psalms (31:5).  This means that if Jesus was in fact praying the Psalms on the cross, Mark supplies the origin (Ps 22:1) and Luke the terminus (Ps 31:5) of the Lord’s final conscious string of prayer.

For Lent, then, it might be worth a shot to try ‘praying the Psalms’ with Jesus from the cross (Ps 22:1 – 31:5).  In faith imagine that you are experiencing a bit of what was actually passing through the mind of the Christ in the last few minutes of his material existence.  Put a little cheap wine on your tongue somewhere in the middle of it all.

PS – My word-count 2,302 is based on an English version I found online and copied to word processing for tabulation (minus choir directions and verse numbers).  I don’t know what it is in Aramaic.

Jesus was not illiterate, and he had reasons for not writing

[Revised 06 Mar 2011]

A year ago I mentioned that I thought arguments supporting the literacy of Jesus offered some surprising theological insights.  I touched on it again in May.  To me it is still a question with fascinating implications for the doctrines of faith, of spirit, of divine and secular history, and of the Word of God:

Granted a probability exists that Jesus was able to read and write – what might have been his reasons for deciding not to leave his own teachings, memoirs, etc., in written form?

My position has been that a literate Jesus could only have judged that the consequences of leaving such artifacts were potentially unfavorable for the spread of his Gospel.  That sounds paradoxical and counter-intuitive, but I think it is very interesting to ponder the negatives.

1.  Jesus was reluctant to quench the Spirit

What could possibly be wrong with sponsoring a permanently fossilized, absolute specimen of truth, to be revered by the surviving community even before his death (and resurrection)?  I hope you see my point.  I think Jesus is always looking ahead to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.  A permanent and authoritative text in his name would be the one immovable historical force most capable of frustrating the higher mission of the great truth-seeking Spirit which was to come.

Jesus might even have seen at first hand the power of supposedly inerrant ‘scriptures’ to frustrate new life – in the negative effects of prevailing Jewish attitudes toward their scriptures upon his own mission.

2. Jesus was unwilling to risk corruption of the text

We might also postulate self-censorship for Jesus on the grounds that he recognized that no writing of the period could actually be safe from corruption over time.  Here Jesus would be making a very canny move to frustrate any chance that a document carrying the absolute weight of his personal authority might nevertheless be edited, manipulated, or falsified by later copyists and well-meaning editors.

Conclusion

Two things may be inferred from this one very non-miraculous feature in the life of Christ – that he could read and write his native tongue.

(1) Jesus was depending on the Holy Spirit for a kind of assistance that would be compromised by perfect character portraits and a verbatim transmission of doctrine.

(2) Jesus took a negative view of the suitability of ‘historical’ records (even scripture) to be direct purveyors of his transcendent Truth.

NOTE:  I’m celebrating the blog’s 1-year anniversary by starting a policy of revisiting topics from year-ago posts.  I think attachment of a ‘second chapter’ to some of those topics will allow me to develop my thoughts in the light of a year’s growth.  It will also keep me honest in some of those cases where I promised a ‘continuation’ which never materialized.

Empyrean Dialogues 6 – God’s plan; adolescence, manhood, women

In the Empyrean Moses continues to brief the Son on known elements of Father’s plan for the early phase of the Incarnation.  Moses wonders if Father’s ‘No dynasties’ rule will require too much of the Son as a youth ‘in the fullness of his humanity,’ and sees potential problems with temptations of the flesh.

MOSES:  I think it must be daunting, Sire, to know Father’s will in regard to your abstinence from marriage even as you contemplate a life in the flesh – including adolescence and young manhood.

THE SON:  So you are concerned that as very man I will be subject to temptation as to marriage?

MOSES:  It is difficult for me to see two things, Sire.  (1) how you will prevail without a direct revelation, and (2) if you avoid marriage, how your total experience will be compensated for this lack.

THE SON:  What you don’t see, Moses, is the wedding feast which Father has already prepared for me from before the foundation of the world.

MOSES:  I’m taking that to mean you’re fine as to compensation.  But it doesn’t tell me how Father’s will of abstinence for you gets into your human mind early enough to forestall the off-chance of a budding romance.

THE SON:  In almost every generation, Moses, we’ve seen young men forego present pleasures in the interest of a high destiny.  And my increasing awareness of my role and its dynastic implications should support my resolve in this matter as I get older.

MOSES:  But this whole business of ‘increasing awareness’ is really what has me flummoxed, Sire.

THE SON:  It’s a high subject, Moses.

MOSES:  I realize you’re not at liberty to divulge Father’s secrets in detail, Sire.  But I don’t see how he gets ‘very man’ in the flesh in a situation where you are so ‘very God’ that a cool-headed choice is assured in the face of any and all temptations, however early they might come up.

THE SON:  Honestly, Moses, what kind of society do you think the Jews are running down there?  The youth in the small towns are not off-leash.  With God’s help this kind of temptation ‘comes up’ with many young men without determining them to sin.

MOSES:  It is a fact, Sire, that with the present set of younger clergy and scribes we see a certain number married and some single.

THE SON:  And not all of them are transgressors against purity either inside or outside of wedlock.

MOSES:  Certainly not all, Sire.

THE SON:  So it’s not impossible for a man to order his life in accordance with the Law in this regard.

MOSES:  I agree that it’s not going to be an issue if you get enough time to realize it’s a matter of obedience.

THE SON:  Perhaps it is well then, that as the eldest son of a carpenter I will find duties of apprenticeship, and Torah study, and a dozen other interests close at hand.

MOSES:  All likely to postpone considerations of marriage.  And now you mention it, consider also the influence of your mother, Sire.

THE SON:  No doubt.  After her audience with our divine minister we cannot imagine she will not have something to contribute in terms of my self-concept and view of destiny.

MOSES:  A Jewish mother with an agenda is practically fool-proof, Sire.  I recall Hannah’s steady encouragement of Samuel, and his very early sense of mission.

THE SON:  I want to discuss issues of temptation and Father’s will in more depth in a minute, Moses.  But first, I notice you failed to see a second set of problems with my unmarried state.

MOSES:  Given that you can resist the usual temptations, what else could go wrong?

THE SON:  What could go wrong is that there are always going to be men driven to imitate me in externals.

MOSES:  I get it.  You’re worried that too many will imagine that a true ministry in your name requires they shun marriage.

THE SON:  I’m hoping to completely discourage the idea by calling married men as apostles.

MOSES:  Good.  And I also understand Father wants women in the ministry.

THE SON:  Absolutely.  Even in the days of my flesh – we see both ideas as a package which should provide unassailable proof that heaven has ordained not only a married apostleship but a woman’s ministry of equal status.

MOSES:  We’ll see how that works.

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues 5 – God’s Plan, Phase 1

Born from above? – or just born again?

Some born-again Christians of my acquaintance remind me of “Agent Smith.”

They can tell me the date and place of their conversion.  But I get the feeling they have been simply born again in a form which is just a replication of their old self – plus a self-righteous smile or a judgmental frown.

American psychologist of religious education, George Albert Coe (1862-1951) wrote of the distinction between being born again and being born from above in his 1902 book, Religion of a Mature Mind.

The simplicity of the Christian life-principle has been obscured by … the employment of “born again” to represent Greek terms whose plain, literal meaning is “born from above” (John 3:3).  The disciple of Christ is one who is born from above.  That which is of the flesh is flesh, and that which is of the spirit is spirit.  The root-contrast here is not between what is before and what is after, but between a higher and a lower…  Our English “born again” has promoted and kept alive a misunderstanding closely parallel to that of Nicodemus (John 3:9).

The merely ‘born again’ date everything from an heroic past effort to throw off some single ‘secret sin’ or gross vice.  Their old victory has left them relieved but basically unbroken.  Unbroken because they interpret their moment of truth as a trade-off of sin-for-salvation. With this kind of trade-off the principle transaction is complete, and there is no pressure to seek a relation to the life that is from above until the life here below is over.  Instead of relation to God in Christ the merely born-again begin a relation to doctrine.  Doctrines like election and predestination, for example, which offer rationales for a low-octane religion supported by a poorly conceived idea of ‘perseverance’ unto salvation.

We have been looking for events and disputing about processes.  We have caused men to ask themselves, “Have I been born again? Am I sure that an event has taken place?” whereas, we should have pressed home to them the sharp contrast between a spiritual and an unspiritual content or quality of life.   What am I, qualitatively considered? Am I living the life that is from above, or that which is from below?  In the absence of the heavenly quality in the life, no experience of internal wonders is valid evidence of the birth from above. On the other hand, if I am really on the side of Christ, I am born from above, however this comes to be the state of my mind. (Ibid)

The Christian who finds no birth from above in the moment of grace gets a heart ‘born again’ as a carbon copy of his old heart, the old self, the old man – except with an urge to convince others of its own self-justifying theology (instead of the gospel of Jesus).

The habit of looking for newness instead of for heavenly quality works confusion in two directions.

First, persons who are able to answer the question of dates to their own satisfaction, meet the temptation to substitute a “has been” for an “is.” They estimate themselves by something other than the present fact; they would turn the mill with the water that is past. Something of vital power must always be lost when the spiritual life is measured by anything whatever except its own content and its fruits.

Persons of a different make-up suffer from the opposite error. Desiring to dedicate themselves to the Master, yet unable to put their experience of spiritual realities into the forms of book-keeping, they hesitate, postpone action, are harassed by doubts of their personal status. They, too, ask themselves “Have I been?” when they should rather ask “Am I?” They need to be told that whosoever prefers above all things that for which God gave us his Son, and Jesus gave his life, is born from above. The fundamental preference is decisive as to the inner quality, and the fruits are decisive as to the vigor of the inner life.

These mere born-agains will go to church often and be watching out for the 10 commandments in everybody’s life, but underneath they haven’t changed much.  As if they have the idea that living faithfully is just staying ‘judgmental’ toward themselves and others.  They may smile more often than before, but you can catch them in a big frown just as easily.

Professor George Albert Coe was born in Mendon, NY, March 26 1862 ; educated at the University of Rochester (A. B.), Boston University (S. T. B., Ph. D.) studied at University of Berlin, 1890-1891; professor at Northwestern University 1893-1909, Union Theol. Seminary, 1909-22, Columbia 1922-27.  Dr. Coe retired in 1927 and died November 9, 1951.

Augustine on temptation

Is God so unaware of things, is he so ignorant of the human heart, that he has to discover a man’s character by testing it? By no means. But he acts in this way in order that a man may discover his own character…Therefore, dearly beloved, you have learned that God does not engage in tempting in order that he might learn something that he did not know earlier, but that by tempting (that is testing) he might make manifest what is hidden in a man. After all, a man is not so known to himself as he is to his Creator, nor is an ill person so known to himself as he is to his physician. Man is ill. He suffers. The physician does not suffer. And man expects to learn what he suffers from him who does not suffer.

-Augustine, De Scripturis, Homily 2, on Abraham, When He Was Tempted by God

Saw this superb thought today at a site new to me, called Absorption , during a wordpress tag search.

I thought it might be nice to grab some authority from Augustine for some recent thoughts on the difference between temptation and sin and the parts they each play in the economy of repentence and new birth.  I like Augustine’s thinking here because it suggests to me that tempation alone can accomplish quite a bit in the whole area of salvation and redemption without the necessity of actual sin.  

Unsung Centennials – Amory Howe Bradford 1846-1911

God can neither order nor permit anything the end of which is desolation and ruin… We are sick because we are human; we are disappointed because we make mistakes; we sorrow for those who die; but God does not send mistakes; men die because they are men, and death knocks impartially at the palace and the cottage gate.

-The Age of Faith, 1900, pp. 154, 156

American theologian Amory Howe Bradford was pastor of First Congregational Church in Montclair, NJ.  He was an important member of the little-known American Institute of Christian Philosophy, which flourished in the 1880s and 90s.  Bradford’s earliest published work was entitled Spirit and Life, 1888.  He was the son of a congregational pastor and was educated at Hamilton College, NY, and graduated from Andover Theological Seminary in 1870.  Bradford was in the direct male line of descent from Governor William Bradford, of the original Mayflower compact.

No one is condemned to suffering in order that blessings may be realized by others. Even the most literalistic of the elder theologians taught that the sufferings of our Lord were voluntary…. A little child dies a horrible death, and the father asks: “Do you not think God is following me?” What idea can that man have of God? Does any sane person believe that God sends pain, sickness, long agony, death, to an innocent little child in order that a willful and vicious man may be brought to his senses?

No one is condemned to suffering for the benefit of another. The Almighty is not limited in His resources. My father would not ruin my brother to save me. (pg. 159)

During three recent visits to the seminary library I’ve had a chance to indulge my passion for forgotten theologians (like Bradford).  During each visit I spent good time among books from a single LC category, just pulling up a chair in the stacks in front of a great wall of books and going slowly across and down the book case, opening up every single book whose title did not absolutely offend me.  In fact it was the title of Bradford’s book, The Age of Faith, which compelled me to take a closer look, on the day I camped in front of category BR 121.

Bradford’s title struck me because BR 121 does not hold any books from the medieval period most people understand as ‘the Age of Faith.’  It’s a category for a type of apologetics in which the Christian writer attempts either to explain or explain away various aspects of the contemporary cultural scene in terms of his own vision of Christianity, and speculates about what the church needs to emphasize if it is to make headway in the modern world.   In a moment I recognized him as a writer on the inner spirit in man whom I knew something about.  This week I pulled the book from my pile of library check-outs and was inspired in my studies of providence and theodicy.

My special interest in this kind of theological writing focuses on the 30 years before and after the First World War (i.e. including writing from the second great secular catastrophe).

If all sorrows were penal, it would mean that others were being punished in order that we might suffer; that scarlet fever burns up a golden-haired child in order that a disreputable man may get his deserts; that cholera devastates a community in order that two or three dozen reprobates may be made to understand that they cannot evade the Almighty. The hollowness of such thoughts is exposed without argument… To assert that the innocent are made to suffer in order that the guilty may be adequately punished is to deny the sway not only of Fatherhood, but also of justice. (p.160)

Amory Howe Bradford; born Apr 14, 1846; died one hundred years ago on this day, Feb 18, 1911.

Empyrean Dialogues 5 – God’s plan, Phase 1

In the Empyrean the early phase of the Incarnation is discussed in its deeper implications and Moses asks a question about the possibility of the Son marrying while in the flesh.

MOSES:  Father has not revealed his objectives for the Incarnation in terms of specific events, Sire, but we have received a general plan in three main phases:

(1) your early life and walk with Him,

(2) the public mission on His behalf to Israel, and

(3) the supreme objective: dispensation of His saving grace to the world.

THE SON:  That first piece remains to me the most mysterious and wonderful of the three.

MOSES:  That’s because you have no idea, Sire.  Trust me, the early walk is no walk in the park.

THE SON:  But you know that in your own case, Moses, our Father’s spirit walked the walk with you, and was also afflicted in all your afflictions.

MOSES:  Except I didn’t know it at the time, Sire. I was over 30 before I had a clue what God wanted for me.  And I had already killed a man by then.  It can get complicated.

THE SON:  It was not necessary for you to sin to know your need of God or his will for you; but that fugitive thing did play into Father’s hand pretty well.

MOSES:  It wasn’t until I was raised to the Empyrean (blessed be God) that I realized that a man could be tested in all things and yet remain without sin.

THE SON:  Human insight doesn’t easily grasp that message hidden in the Book of Job, that temptation alone – rightly encountered and defeated – renders the experience of actual sin unnecessary.

MOSES:  But even granted that your own victory, Sire, will require all of your efforts and most holy desires, it will not be possible without God’s help.

THE SON:  May it be his will.  My Father views the inner struggle with human nature in partnership with his spirit as a challenge worthy in full of his own Son.

MOSES:  I must say that all the saints know they have been honored beyond words in that one principle of the Incarnation.

THE SON:  I understand they even view my first 30 years as the centerpiece of my commission.

MOSES:  The commission to bear humanity’s imperfections, yes. Your handling of the day-to-day things, Sire, will be huge from the perspective of the saints.  They’ve been through it.

THE SON:  And I have not.  Am I not secure in the love of the saints, Moses?

MOSES:  Sire you know they love you.  But your lock on their heavenly hearts will be absolutely supreme if your sovereignty is proved at Nazareth – in the heroism of an obscure life of love and duty.  The stuff that makes for steady increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.

THE SON:  That squares with Father’s view as well.  He has never referred to the early walk as a “pre-mission” period.

MOSES:  Same with my experience – however mixed.  All my changes were before my return to Egypt – it makes my role in the Exodus seem a little over-rated.

THE SON:  And to be honest, Mo, wasn’t it in Midian, after your marriage to Zipporah, that you found the right path and whom to seek, and how?

MOSES:  She’ll be pleased you remembered, Sire.  Which makes me wonder – you know Father has prohibited your leaving any progeny, and this would seem to rule out marriage and family – advantage or disadvantage?

THE SON:  In some ways a disadvantage, of course.  But Father’s “No thrones” rule clearly stipulates  “No dynasties.”

MOSES:  I saw that too.  Father has again shown his sublime wisdom in forestalling by this measure the chance of theocracy and hereditary priesthoods.  But I’m thinking, with the inevitable female attention – and with you only flesh and blood – how’s that going to work for you?

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues 4 – the Mandate

Prayer, hard work, and God’s unchanging providence

With help from Kierkegaard I advanced some ideas last month about prayer to an unchanging God, and here I want to start some related thoughts about God’s providence.  A theology with no theory of prayer is a study without a method.  All real theologies describe and account for the function and object of prayer, and this always relates back to their theories of divine providence.

First principles should be simple and biblical, and I think a good theory of material providence can be founded on a saying of Jesus about the manner of God’s care for the birds.

“…look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26).

Most importantly for any good principle of providence, this one does not rule out hard work.  Because anyone who follows the advice of Jesus and actually takes a ‘look at the birds’ will see that they work their little tails off all day long seeking and finding all their free provisions.

An abundance of seeds and water, of insects and other prey are available to the birds by their habitual conformity to material laws as they find them.  This kind of material providence doesn’t feature a ‘system’ designed by the birds nor a being who is propitiated by the birds.  It is instead a system which supports the very possibility of material good.  In my view, God’s perfect material providence works for us in the same way (I’ll get to the spiritual later, and the problem of evil).

Why does Jesus give no place in his material providence to purposeful (anxious) work such as sowing, reaping, and storage?  Doesn’t God help those who help themselves?  But sowing and reaping are not despised – Jesus built plenty of teaching material around the whole subject of agriculture.  And yet no farmer brings in a good crop if his acts are not in conformity to the same unchanging laws as God has laid out for his feeding of the birds.

In the same verse Jesus asks, “Are you not of more value than they?”

Divine material providence (like competition between species) is one of those delicate situations calling for this kind of rhetorical question which invites us to join the teacher’s thought on the next level (i.e. we don’t take these words as justifying any dissing of the avian races 🙂 ).

For Jesus I think ‘the next level’ is the level of our material anxiety, especially our vain hopes and false fears for tomorrow.  But he’s not giving in to these.

1.  He doesn’t suggest that we have in fact a claim on God’s love to bind him to special provisions of material needs.

2.  He’s not suggesting that any laws are subject to change to suit these needs.

3.  And in no way is he suggesting that special consideration is due to any farmer as reward for ‘good behavior’ that is not related simply to good farming.

This providence gives no place to ancient pagan beliefs – that a farmer or his priest may request dispensations of rain, or sunshine, good germination, absence of pests, tall corn, efficient harvest, and a fine excess.  This providence suggests only gracious prayers of thanksgiving for God’s loving foundation of unchanging material and spiritual laws.

(to be continued)