I might like Pete Rollins on the Apocalypse

Pete Rollins is planning a talk in Belfast in September to explain that The Apocalypse isn’t coming – it’s already happened.

“Fundamentalist Christianity has long expressed a view of apocalypse as some future event that will consume the present world and replace it with a new one. Yet while this is a bloody and destructive vision, I will argue that it is inherently conservative in nature… For those who hold to such a vision are willing to imagine absolutely everything around them changing so that their present values and beliefs can remain utterly unchanged.  In contrast I will argue that a Christian apocalypse describes something much more radical, namely an event that fundamentally ruptures and re-configures our longings, hopes and desires…”

This resonates with me, although I’m waiting to see where Rollins will take it.  If he has not forgotten his Greek, he will oblige us I hope with a vision of a true ‘apocalypse’ – not earth-scorching destruction but paradigm-shattering revelation.

In January I articulated my own growing sense that the Apocalypse is already history when I called out the folly of Harold (“I did the math”) Camping’s predictions of a Day of Reckoning for May 21 of this year.

The Sower – how bad theologies delay the Kingdom

The parable of the Sower as a critique of church and theology?  I was surprised at how easily one might use the text to implicate varieties of Gospel-preachers rather than Gospel-hearers.

“…some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them…” (Mt 13:4)

Listen again to those words, and hear Jesus saying, “Anyone preaching a Kingdom that sounds like humdrum or humbug might just as well be pitching birdseed on the Roman road” – the issue in this verse is lack of understanding, a problem which implicates teachers as well as students whenever man-made doctrines lack the flavor of Christ’s spirit, and come off spiritually or morally flat or unintelligible – and therefore misunderstood.

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil…” (13:5)

Can it be that Jesus is saying, “On the other hand, if you use emotional hooks to frighten or entice the people with threats of Hell or promises of cheap grace, you are no better than the hardpan farmer who will not plow” – the issue here is lack of depth, and this implicates teachers as well as students if emotional appeals have cultivated shallow joyous puppets who are unprepared for the very tests of doubt and persecution in which their Savior must come to meet them.

“Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up…” (13:7)

Which is to say: “And it is just as big a mistake to pitch my own sublime cares and delights in terms which resemble too much the cares of the world and its delights” – the issue here is confusion of realms, and this implicates teachers as well as students where preaching strives to resemble the everyday wisdom of the world in so many ways that the Kingdom is confused for the world and the spirit is choked by unspiritual meanings and values.

New thoughts on providence in regard to evil events

What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points?

I was helped recently by some lines from American poet Walt Whitman while contemplating problems of prayer and providence which I addressed in two posts earlier this year.

Warning:  Whitman is famous for his optimism (and often criticized for it), but I like to reserve judgment on the ‘optimism’ of great poets, because they sometimes enjoy the prospect of horizons that lie beyond our own poor curve of earth.   The theological critic especially should check for signs of the optimism of the Gospel – the metaphysical ground of all really good news.

It was in the poem Assurances that I found this:

I do not doubt that the passionately-wept deaths of young men
are provided for,

and that the deaths of young women and the deaths of little children are provided for,

(Did you think Life was so well provided for, and Death, the
purport of all Life, is not well provided for?)

I do not doubt that wrecks at sea, no matter what the horrors of them,

no matter whose wife, child, husband, father, lover, has gone down, are provided for, to the minutest points …

Leaves of Grass,  Book XXX)

It was while reading these lines with my own recent questions about divine providence in mind that I saw how a useful distinction might be drawn between provision for and provision against evil.

The concept of provision for evil strikes me as profoundly positive and theologically different from the common idea that God provides against calamity. In fact, theories of divine intervention which posit the availability of a supernatural power able to fend off specific material evils seem to reflect a view of deity so ancient as to be arguably of origin in the pagan superstitions of the various pre-Abrahamic religions.

What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points?  Whitman’s concern is with the extreme case of innocent death – but taking the set of all possible evil events in a life, how would the distinction work?

The idea that God provides for rather than against calamity suggests to me a divine intervention functioning not externally but at an existential level, as part of a deep inner experience of spiritual presence or ‘help.’ All that would be required is to posit its universal bestowal – at least a spirit aid that was there simply for the asking, and available strictly for the high task of overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21).

If God has bestowed a  spirit  of  presence  to be with  us  in all  our  afflictions,  even as  he  is  afflicted  with  us  (Isa 63:9), there is no need of vain doctrines about protective shields intervening between ourselves and all possible evil contingencies.

This is not a providence that is passively hoped for in advance of the evil.  But neither is it hoped for after the evil, as compensation.  It is instead available in the very moment in which we are literally swamped by the evil – after we have done every material and moral thing we possibly can to avoid it.  Such provision for evil brings a consolation that is hidden not beforehand or afterward but in the very moment of calamity.  This is a providence of  the present moment – where we find God truly meeting and providing for every time-space contingency in the only truly Godly way – with Himself, in his Son, and by his Spirit.

Surviving victims of catastrophe and terrible loss will I think vouch for this inner truth whenever they have been able to see the evil of the moment overcome by good.

(to be continued)

The gift of ears

“I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me”

Thus begins Book III of The Imitation of Christ (Book IV in some editions). The words are actually a paraphrase of Psalm 85:8 – restated by the author in the pure gold of personal inner experience. The Bible verse is more general:

“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,

for he will speak peace to his people,

to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

In my opinion, Book III of The Imitation is the spiritual heart of the whole work. It contains writing so high and unusually bold that it is easy to imagine that it was purposely placed after the admonitions and warnings in Books I and II – so that potential readers might be ‘screened’ for humility.

“Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking within her, and receives from his mouth the word of consolation.  Blessed the ears that catch the pulse of the divine whisper, and take no notice of the whisperings of this world.” (Bk III, Chap 2)

I want to suggest that ‘the gift of ears’ ought to be among the spiritual gifts listed by Paul – which of course it is not. But I think the New Testament does much to suggest the importance of inspired hearing.

What is most important to understand is that the “divine whisper” is never given for group prophecy – they are never a means by which a listener may lord it over neighbor or church. Always are they to be received as personal admonition and enlightenment.

For example, a prayer like this one, which the author makes, clearly evokes a level of responsibility which everyone must choose for himself. It cannot be forced upon members of the group who are not prepared:

Let not Moses, nor any of the prophets, speak to me;

Speak Thou, rather, O Lord God, the inspirer and enlightener of all the prophets;

For Thou alone, without them, can perfectly instruct me; but they, without Thee, will avail me nothing…

They give the letter, but Thou dost disclose the spirit.

They announce mysteries, but Thou dost unlock their secret meaning.

They declare the commandments, but Thou dost enable us to fulfil them.

They point out the way, but Thou givest strength to walk in it.

They work outwardly only, but Thou dost instruct and enlighten the heart.

They water without, but Thou givest the increase. (Book III, Chap 2)

 

I think the ‘gift of ears’ – rightly used – is a likely candidate for an expanded list of spiritual gifts – I would go so far as to say it is the master-key to all gifts of the Spirit:

Do Thou speak, O Lord my God, the eternal Truth,

lest I die and prove fruitless,

if I be admonished outwardly only, and not enkindled within;

lest I be condemned at the Judgment

because the word was heard and not fulfilled,

known and not loved,

believed and not observed. 

(Book III, Chap 2)

Albert C. Knudson – American theologian

The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.

Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.

The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910]. (Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)

Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953) earned his Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology and the premier theologian of the Boston Personalists.

Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school   (Dorrien, p. 286)

And, in honor of Father’s Day:

His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)

Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)

A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, also with a Ph.D. under Bowne.

The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.

The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.

“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)

American theology has always been limited by its division between competing sects. I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably created a certain indifference on the part of non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.

I think a perverse sectarianism infects much of American religious thought even today.  Each denomination has always had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in their own and in all other denominations.  Although each sect had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. I think the lack of community among different types of religious genius in this country has thwarted progressive Christianity.  Not until the rise of non-sectarian universities in the late 19th century did the American mind finally bear the fruit of its diverse genius – unfortunately by that time the advances were chiefly limited to non-religious concerns.

Pentecost – a truth hidden in plain sight?

when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace.

Has a great religion of the Spirit been obstructed by a Christianity of the flesh?

If the way of grace and truth bestowed by God’s Anointed was meant for the whole world, why after nearly 2000 years does more than half the world still remain aloof from its blessing?

I sincerely doubt those who say that this harvest shortfall was preordained. The tardy consummation of the church’s mission cannot even any longer be covered by the Son’s teaching regarding slow-growth (mustard seed, drop of leaven, etc) – because it is the number outside the church that is slowly growing.

The failure of the church cannot be of God, but of men. If the cause of all spiritual advance realized so far is of Christ, it stands to reason that the frustration of this advance is due to human errors which hang too heavily over that human institution which was charged with bearing God’s truth to the world. Can I get a pastor to agree with me here? I doubt it.

Instead of equating the human doctrines of Christianity with truth and orthodoxy, maybe we should check to see whether they have not been admixed with enough human error to obscure the whole truth revealed in Christ.

Instead of acquiescing in the church’s well-meaning attempt to symbolize the truth of Christ by sacraments, ritual, and old liturgies, maybe we should ask whether living truth has not been more deeply hidden, to less effect, by these mysteries.

The causes for the church’s failure might lie too close for us to see, “hidden in plain sight.” A good example is Pentecost itself, which the church has been pleased to celebrate as her own rather exclusive birthday party. She teaches that the Holy Spirit itself was given to her as a birthday present – always explaining that it is her members (only) who receive this gift. People visiting Jerusalem that day from other parts of the world, she says, were instructed about the death, resurrection and eminent return of the Messiah, and told it would be their doom unless they received membership with them through repentance and baptism.

I do not reject the idea that the church would have been unborn or stillborn without the aid of Christ’s new Spirit, but I think this Spirit can be limited in its effectiveness by false teachings which are alleged to determine its availability.

How well are we really able to see the true meaning of the day when the church insists on carrying on so? Tonight, when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace. Because I think the gift given on this day by God’s Anointed was meant to be a universal opportunity of atonement that transcends Baptism and orthodoxy.

If I’m right, it is the church’s failure to understand Pentecost that has curtailed her own effectiveness and obstructed the Kingdom.

“He is not here!”

“..you seek Jesus of Nazareth …  He has risen.  He is not here.”  Mk 16:6

I remember the Easter service, many years ago, in which I first heard these words of the tomb-angel spoken as if they were a prophecy against the church: He is not here.”

It happened during the sermon, in which the pastor was giving far too much time to his representation of what the world would be like – without the resurrection!

In fact, I think the Easter Morning Gospels present a perfect figure of the failed church: we read that some sincerely devoted women gather at a deserted place with gifts that our Lord is not disposed to receive.

Really? Embalming spices? And yet the churches persist in ‘spicing up’ this untidy idea of our Lord’s physical, bodily resurrection when varying scripture accounts give us a clear choice between a physical or a spiritual resurrection. I think we should be paying attention to those texts that say It was never about tombs or material bodies.  Did the risen Lord not ‘appear’ to his disciples at Emmaus and again in the upper room while the doors were locked? Does anybody think Paul beheld a material body on the road to Damascus?

What if the women had remained in hiding with the apostles long enough for the authorities to take back control of the spin by securing the re-opened tomb from inspection?  Do we think this would have mattered to – the risen Lord?

“He’s not here!”  Maybe the words were spoken today about you – when family and friends noticed your absence from church.  For you I have this advice:  Seek the truth again.  It may be obscured by all the outward stuff which the church is focusing on.  Don’t allow your negative feelings about any specific church to compromise your independent right to truth and your right to worship where and how you want – even to wait upon the Spirit in that inner place of meeting with “my Father and your Father.” (Jn 20:17)

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.

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

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.

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