On religious afflictions of the eye and ear

“Hearing, they do not hear …”

The hearing impairment to which Jesus referred, quoting Isaiah, was the same one which the Hebrew prophet had diagnosed in his own time – and it is no less prevalent in our day.

Diagnosis implies gnosis.  Jesus, like Isaiah, had a new truth (or more truth) to reveal to his listeners, but the words he had available for the purpose failed to penetrate the framework of every mind.  His choicest words were rejected as strange or irreligious in the context of old ‘tried and true’ principles which were in possession of their understandings.

The malady in question is worse than a physical ailment – with which Jesus had some success.  Instead it affects the listener’s inner attitude, the will, taking away the freedom with which they might break down the old shell of religious meanings from within.

“… and seeing, they do not see.”

It is likewise with the vision problem – the afflicted person has full use of his eyes, but lacks the insight required to get past conventional associations of meaning.

In the minds of the people of Galilee and Judea who suffered from these two afflictions  the man Jesus of Nazareth, qua Messiah, could not help but simultaneously evoke, disappoint, and offend their racial and religious hopes as long as he lived and breathed.  His fellowship with sinners was counted as sin, his healing was called Satanism, his forgiveness blasphemy.  His meekness was counted as weakness and, in our present age, his morality has been called the morality of slaves.

This sight and hearing failure especially affected matters of everyday appearances and social antecedents – things which ‘scientific’ historians most crave to know.  His place of origin (Nazareth!), family background (common!), accent (provincial!), formal training (or lack thereof!), apparel (unpretentious)  – all of the ‘facts’ only created, for his accusers (and for some modern historians), another layer of the unacceptable.

Does it seem unfair to suggest that the principle of interpretation used by believers to gain access to the Jesus of ‘history’ – then as now – must be different from that hermeneutic of suspicion used by the elders and others who rejected him (and by the ‘scientific’ historians who counsel rejection of his eternal truth today)?  How does one access the insight required to become receptive to a previously undiscovered truth?  What is the rational ‘order of love’ in a fruitful hermeneutic of faith?

This post is part of the promised continuation of thoughts posted on this blog last May.

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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.

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.

Kierkegaard – Praying to an unchanging God

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it”

– Soren Kierkegaard (1847)

We misunderstand Kierkegaard’s meaning here if we think he’s saying prayer doesn’t reach God.  Neither is he calling prayer a one-way street, or a futile method of venting hope and desire, or a technique of problem-solving by self-hypnosis.

We Christians know that ‘God does not change’ (Mal 3:6); ‘shows no partiality’  (Rom 2:11); ‘nor shadow of turning’ (Jas 1:17).  But we have also been invited to pray (Mat 9:38 & etc.).  How’s that going to work then?

The average person might admit the Bible teaching but not recognize the theo-logical importance of a concept of an unchanging God.  The point is that prayer  invoked with the idea that God may be changed or show partiality tends to move our worship in the direction of an imaginary being of our own creation – a man-made god.  A prayer made in expectation that God will fulfill our needs and desires is a wish to make God more like us.  This is opposed to that faith which would make us more like God.

Kierkegaard recognized the religious need to reach God – to be heard – and the theological value of the concept of an unchanging God.  He preached an address in May, 1851, entitled “The Unchangeableness of God” (Jas 1:17-21), in which he developed the religious sense of this paradoxical situation – the human need  for change from a God who must be – by the Bible and the best theological definitions – unchangeable in nature.

From the opening prayer to the 1851 address:

“… Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh; this moves Thee, O infinite Love!  But nothing changes Thee! O Thou who art unchangeable!  O Thou who in infinite love dost submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!”

I think Kierkegaard’s insight was to recognize that impassibility (freedom from suffering) was not a necessary quality of divine immutability when considered in the context of an unchanging love.

What God gets in this arrangement is a man who seeks in his prayer time the  next move in the continuous change he should be making in the direction of more and more God.

What man gets is a God that hears him, and even suffers affliction with him (if need be) in unchanging love.

Note:  Top quote,  Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (2. “Remorse, Confession, Repentance”) – ET D.V. Steere, 1938; 1851 address, in For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourselves! (Princeton, 1941)

Kant’s Religion and Schleiermacher’s Faith

I am inspired (again) by the mind of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – the occasion this time being my third trip through Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793, 2nd 1794 – ET 1934).  I’ve read and re-read a lot of Kant’s books since making my first attempt at the Critique of Pure Reason in 1975.  When my wife saw me paging through the Critique again about 7 years ago she asked, “Weren’t you reading that book when we first met?” (like, haven’t you finished that yet?).  But in my view Kant merits (and rewards) re-reading above all other philosophers.

My second solo study of the Religion was only five years ago (margin notes – no paper).  But this week I benefitted a lot from the discipline of a 25-page per day format and the knowledge that I was accompanied by three other students.   Before the new year started I found this very interesting 2011 reading plan in theology so attractive that I’m going to try to keep up with Jeremy and bloggers Wes Hargrove , and A.J. Smith  at least through April, catching the ‘Liberal’ works on his list.  A.J. will lead off the commentary on Jeremy’s blog soon, and I hope to add comments to their posts.

I think my old T.M. Greene translation served me well once again, but I found Werner Pluhar’s 2009 translation, which has some improvements – including an introduction by Steven Palmquist (which amounts to saying I’m bound to read this great work a fourth time someday and am actually looking forward to it).

Meanwhile I’m already embarked on the plan’s second volume, Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith (1820/31 – ET 1928).  You think you know what he meant by Absolute Dependence and God-consciousness?  Think again – and join us if you can for 25-pages a day (just started) in this classic work of theology (I haven’t read this one myself except for scattered parts of the text).

Paul’s two perspectives on Jesus

I hope it is not controversial to say that Saul of Tarsus before his conversion must have shared what was probably the majority view in Israel – that Jesus of Nazareth was an offender against the Torah and a misleader of the people, who had rightly suffered the death of one accursed.

Even our first record of Jesus’ early career (Mark) moves immediately from a 16-verse introduction to a string of 88 verses in which ten out of twelve stories portray Jesus transgressing the literal sense of seven different points of the Law:

1. Sabbath-breaking (Mk 2:24 & 3:6)

2. Neglect of fasting (2:18)

3. Neglect of family (3:33)

4. Contact with lepers (1:41)

5. Eating with sinners (2:16)

6. Blasphemy i.e. Authority to forgive sin (2:7)

7. Alliance with Satan (3:22) i.e. authority over demons (1:27, 34, 39, 3:11)

Mark’s source for the early career of Jesus clearly relies heavily on stories of apparent law-breaking, most of which are accompanied by Jesus’ own prophetic rationale for setting aside the Law.  Can it be doubted that many reports of the deeds of Jesus were circulating without benefit of the sayings attached by Mark?  I think Mark’s emphasis suggests that lawbreaking was an issue for Jews who criticized the mission of Jesus in his lifetime and after the crucifixion.

To an unsympathetic ear it would make no difference if these stories circulated with or without Jesus’ rationale attached.  Because it was I think a matter of common knowledge – also confirmed by Mark (8:11-12) – that Jesus had refused to provide the test-sign demanded by the religious authorities in proof of his authority.  This constituted for them a warrant of the Law itself for disregarding Jesus’ prophetic claims.

I think this is the perspective of the old Saul – knowing that Jesus, despite his alleged works, had after all refused to authorize his mission by the sign required by Moses, Saul had judged that the Law justly regarded his sin as worthy of condemnation and death.

The perspective of the new Saul is best seen from the standpoint of his brief and electrifying encounter on the way to Damascus (Acts 9:2-9).  I trust this report to represent not a dream or myth but a genuine revelation event.  Saul sees and hears for himself what the martyr Stephen had claimed to see – that this Jesus who for all appearances had set the law aside – who under the Law of God was made to be sin and was crucified – is now in the power of the spirit alive.

Saul’s revelation doesn’t give him faith in the fact of the resurrection (one doesn’t ‘have faith’ in experienced facts).  The true object of Saul’s faith is his rapidly-developing view of the meaning and value of the resurrection.  This view was illuminated by Saul’s faith in God, which was never in question.  In its light he comprehends that it is the God of Israel who has raised Jesus from the dead.  A corollary to this faith is the belief that the risen one is God’s anointed, the hope of Israel.

All of which will be quite formative and quite problematic for the future of Christianity.

Justification (or not): Can ‘classical’ views be unbiblical?

All of the fall-out from the ETS Atlanta meeting last week was a great clinic for me on new and old perspectives on Justification.  My blog reading since Friday includes numerous posts by Marc Cortez, especially his final reflections.  Also the thoughts of Collin Hansen.  And N.T. Wright checked in with clarifying comments at Denny Burk’s site.

Meanwhile I’m reading Paul again, and Wright’s 2006 paper, ‘Redemption from the new perspective?’, but am still far from answering a question that intrigues me in all this discussion – Do Evangelicals have an unwillingness to address the complexity of all the Biblical evidence for justification?  If such selectivity exists, I am inclined to suspect it may be explained as the result of a close association in the evangelical’s mind between a particular theory of justification and the alleged ‘facts’ of his own conversion experience.  It’s common enough in the sciences that an interpretation of one’s own experience can (temporarily) prevent one from seeing contradictory evidence.

I find that, 130 years ago, some similar and allegedly ‘classical’ Protestant interpretations of justification were called out by Albrecht Ritschl as ‘unbiblical’ assumptions:

It is unbiblical to assume that between God’s grace or love and His righteousness there is an opposition, which in its bearing upon the sinful race of men would lead to a contradiction, only to be solved through the interference of Christ.  The righteousness of inexorable retribution is not in itself a religious conception, nor is it the meaning of the righteousness which in the Old and New Testaments is ascribed to God.  God’s righteousness is His self-consistent and undeviating action in behalf of the salvation of the members of His community; in essence it is identical with His grace.  Between the two, therefore, there is no contradiction needing to be solved.

It is unbiblical to assume that any one of the Old Testament sacrifices, after the analogy of which Christ’s death is judged, is meant to move God from wrath to grace.  On the contrary, these sacrifices rely implicitly upon the reality of God’s grace toward the covenant people, and merely define certain positive conditions which the members of the covenant people must fulfill in order to enjoy the nearness of the God of grace.

It is unbiblical to assume that the sacrificial offering includes in itself a penal act, executed not upon the guilty person, but upon the victim who takes his place.  Representation by priest and sacrament is meant not in any exclusive, but in an inclusive sense.  From the fact that the priest draws near to God when he brings near the gift it is not meant that because the priest and the sacrifice come near to God, the others may remain at a distance from God…

Lastly, it is unbiblical to assume that a sacrifice has its significance directly for God, and only under certain other conditions also for men.  On the contrary, the sacrificial act is just what combines these two relations.”

Justification and Reconciliation, Vol. III (1874; 3rd 1888, ET 1900), p.473-74

What do Christian theologies look like without an inerrant Bible?

Recent publication of a book by Thom Stark has got my attention because it looks like it treats of the issue of scripture inerrancy by a method that is much more constructive than the kind of anti-Christian rantings we expect from Bart Ehrman or Sam Harris, or John Loftus.

I’m not sure – but short reviews of The Human Faces of God and a revealing interview of Stark give me reason to hope.

It was a recent two-part review by Kevin at Diglotting which got my attention in the first place.  Meanwhile Steve at Undeception has been busy in the same vein, and both writers have me thinking a little more systematically about the question: ‘What would we expect to see in a good Christian theology that explicitly rejects the dogma of Bible inerrancy?’ 

It’s no secret that many theologies have been written without support of the dogma of Bible inerrancy.  And I think all of the good ones have argued for a concept of Bible authority in which scripture remains normative for theology in a foundational sense.  Martin Kahler, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Dorothy Sayers, H.R. Neibuhr,  Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I believe all these thinkers and more have stressed the authority of the Bible without defending its inerrancy.  We see here a ‘Doctrine of Scripture’ or there a ‘Doctrine of Revelation’ or a ‘Doctrine of the Word of God’ which give greater breadth to a more mature and more promising theological approach to the Bible than the irrational restraints of inerrancy allow.

I notice that these kinds of theologies all tend to show greater development of the role of Christ himself  as Word of God – rather than alleging that the letter is identical with ‘the Word.’  And I think the question of the Holy Spirit’s testimony to Christ will see much-needed development any time the Bible is purged from the fetishism of inerrancy.  Because a theology’s rejection of the dogma of inerrancy should not change its need to treat constructively of inspiration.  The Spirit’s role in inspiring our fallible reading of the Bible becomes just as important and just as interesting as its role in inspiring the original (fallible) writer.

Evangelicals need quickly to see this as the new world of honest religion – it doesn’t signify the end of the world for faith.  Faith remains the key to our salvation by the grace of God.  The current drama – what looks to be the fast-approaching end of the dogma of Bible inerrancy – would not even be necessary if it hadn’t been for the proliferation of so much fundamentalism among Evangelicals in North America during the 19th and 20th centuries – while the issues of working with a fallible text were being treated by responsible thinkers in the religious mainstream.

The belief and unbelief of the Apostles

“your disciples … were not able” (Mark 9:18)

All three gospel records agree that the epileptic boy and his father enter the picture immediately after the events described on the mount of transfiguration.  Whatever we believe about the mountain-top experience, this sequel has a strong historical flavor – indisputable even by the unbelieving Jesus scholar who knows nothing outside of his poor ‘embarrassment principle’ – because it certainly reports a shameful failure of faith and power in the alleged Messiah’s chosen men.

Jesus, Peter, James and John return to camp to find the other apostles overwhelmed by defeat.  Two or more of them had tried and failed to perform an exorcism in a case obviously complicated by epilepsy.

Confronted with the scene, Jesus lumps the chagrined disciples together with the crowd and the scribes as one and all “faithless” (Mk 9:19).  “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” These expressions reveal an almost sorrowful astonishment, a mingling of disdain and divine homesickness.

“Faithless.”  In the absence of Jesus the disciples have been tested and proven ‘unable’ – they have tried and failed to exercise one of the hallmarks of messianic authority (power over demons).  What form might this failed exercise have taken?  I think it is fair to assume for it a standard form of prayer in his name, something like: ‘In the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth, I bid you come out of him.’  Examples of the apostolic use of similar forms for healing are attested in the Acts.

But why had the authority of the messianic name been here invoked in vain?  Not because they lacked belief that Jesus was their Messiah.  These nine apostles had been present at Peter’s recent profession (Mk 8:29) of belief in their master’s messianic status.  And they had certainly seen wonders aplenty to confirm this special knowledge about Jesus.

And yet Jesus clearly viewed their failure as some kind of failure of belief, an example of faithless action, of unbelief.  In fact it looks very much like Jesus judges their current belief in his person and his mission not as belief but as unbelief.

“I believe, help thou my unbelief!” This cry of dilemma by the distraught father in Mk 9:24 is easily imagined in the mouths of the disciples later, when they asked about their failure privately (Mk 9:28).  And what did Jesus tell them they lacked?  Nothing but prayer (Mk 9:29).

So here is a group of logia with a strong warrant of historical authenticity which suggests two things:

(1) there are cases of belief about Jesus’ person and mission which are viewed by Jesus as a type of unbelief;

(2) there are forms of belief without which ‘prayer in his name’ cannot effect anything.

In a later post I will get some help from Martin Buber (Two Types of Faith, ET 1951) in further analysis of this story’s meaning for faith and belief – and unbelief.

The inadequacy of the materialist’s concept of existence

I found a theologically-minded blogger this week who is concerned with the state of the religious dialogue with materialism, and sees no harm in ending the logjam by making what at first seems to be a drastic concession.

The strategy may be seen in a nutshell in this definition of existence, which concedes to the materialist the point that – in strictly materialist terms – God does not exist, meanwhile returning to theologians the task of elaborating the meaningful essence of a being more fully worthy of living faith – the spiritual God-who-is.

God does not exist. This statement is both philosophically and theologically valid. Existence is that which we are aware of through our senses, and which continues to exist independent of them. In philosophical categories one must be careful to distinguish between existence and essence; a common confusion. Materialism limits existence to matter, and therefore whatever lacks matter lacks also existence. Theology, in order to share a common language with modern materialism, must adopt these definitions. Thus a theology which accepts the reality of God must also affirm the reality that God is not subject to existence and therefore does not materially exist.

I  think I get it.  The materialist’s categories of existence by definition equate material substance with the essence of all evidential things.  Meaningful discussion cannot take place unless the theist can analyze and resolve this fallacy of the identity of material substance with essence.  Until then he has no valid grounds for engaging the materialist in an argument for the ‘existence’ of a God who is clearly non-evident and therefore non-existent under material categories of essence and existence.

So we are not talking about a trite ‘whatever’ and a polite end to head-butting.  Because the real argument with the materialist has not gone away but may now shift to the logical and moral necessity of his recognizing the possible being of non-evident non-existents – initially, the commonly held ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Not because these values are to be set up instead-of-God, but because their claim to acknowledgment as real rests on an understanding of essence which is not equated with physical substance alone.

The establishment of the possibility that real essence is not necessarily dependent upon material substance reopens the discussion on the transcendental level, where the accessibility of values such as truth, goodness, and beauty allow for consideration of concepts of a God who similarly cannot be equated, in essence, with the material substance of mere existence.

“Why I believe again”

Today I found a link to a New Statesman article from April 2009 which I had completely missed, by A.N. Wilson, Why I believe again.”   Thanks to Studium et Liturgica for the link, and apologies to any who feel it’s way old news, but please indulge me in some observations about Wilson’s rediscovery of faith after 20 years as a convinced atheist. 

First, I appreciate the way he notices the differences between his conversion from and his conversion back to Christianity.  His conversion to atheism, he admits, had been like a Damascus Road experience, and yet he notes in retrospect that just such a rush of sudden decision had been very unlike him:

“By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience”… Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers.

“For months, I walked on air… For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse.  If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens, I did not have to feel out on a limb.”

Meanwhile, Wilson’s return to faith in God has been accompanied by just the kind of doubting and slow probing which make his reconversion, he thinks, all the more a genuine expression of his true ‘doubting Thomas’ nature – effecting a change which he feels is irreversible.

And isn’t it interesting that Wilson passed over the line into atheism just after publishing a biography of C.S. Lewis?  I love such counter-intuitive anecdotes (I sometimes find Lewis overbearing, even unbearable, but love him for the good I also find).

Wilson describes a public discussion of Lewis’s work in which he hauls the great apologist up for blame – but we get the usual litany of gripes after all:

“I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer – not just in Lewis’s version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world

And I loved this intimate scene with Hitchens from Wilson’s early atheist days:

Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world.”

The whole article is worth a look.

The new East Window

image by Tom Lowe, NMM 2010

It is an ancient practice to lay out a church building so that altars and great-windows are oriented to the east.  The original meaning of the word ‘orientation’ is derived I think from the architectural fact of this preference for an east-facing on the ‘business end’ of temples and churches.  There’s an obvious attempt to make the most of the morning sunlight, but there are other, more ancient associations which imply that east is the direction of divine presence and power.

Today, a higher cosmological perspective suggests (to me anyway) the need for a galactic rather than geographic orientation to divine presence and power.  The photograph above of the massive starry plane of our home galaxy shot from the White Mountains of California, might be called a view through the new East Window.  It makes no difference that the subject of the above photo may be lying to the west – the new ‘East Window’ always opens up in the direction of the galactic center.

I don’t think it idolatrous to view the galactic plane as a kind of focus for the localized universe presence of God.  Because it’s not easy to imagine how God’s existence could mean anything at all to the galaxy if no framework for sovereignty, ministry, mercy, or justice were stretched out upon it.  Moderns love to deny that God can actually be ‘out there’ somewhere – Sorry, for me this photographer captures, among the fingers of the ancient bristlecone pine, the starry path to the center of Light and Life and the eternal mansions of the God of love.

There are two primary theological orientations of ‘the eye of faith’, and this post is about only one of them – the outward, universe-oriented direction.  Augustine wrote of the other orientation in a well-known soliloquy which I will not here repeat.  And of course that second theological orientation tracks to an inward center rather than an outward center.

Various frightful and utterly spiritless depictions of the great outer centers (and the inner centers)  have been suggested by different human minds.  This is to be expected, since the measurable energies proceeding from the unseen center of our galaxy register (by definition) only a monstrous quantitative value – the instruments of choice are not made for the task of elaborating the strictly qualitative mystery of religious consciousness.

If some of our great scientific men suppose ‘a monstrous black hole’ or some other shocking thing at the center of their home galaxy, it is only their personal best in response to the quantities which dominate their analysis.  I would only expect that the theory by which they explain the numbers might sometimes resemble the featureless nightmare of a homeless child.

NOTE:  The photograph, “Blazing Bristlecone” is by Tom Lowe, the winner of the British National Maritime Museum’s 2010 competition for Astronomy Photograph of the Year in the Earth and Space category (the photo also gained him the award for best overall).  Thanks to Deskarati for the link.

Below:  The East Window of Glasgow Cathedral (for comparison)

How faith in Jesus can trump faith in scripture

“Our aim in the present study is to show that Jesus did not expect a speedy and supernatural destruction of the world.” (Lily Dougal and Cyril Emmet, The Lord of Thought, from the Preface, dated Sept. 1922).

At the time of their writing, these two New Testament critics were very much alarmed at a growing bias in NT criticism.  “It is now widely held that the whole thought of Jesus was governed by the belief that the end of the world was very near, or, at least, that this belief was a confusing element in his outlook.”  Of course the authors were discussing a 15-year trend inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book, Von Reimarus zu Wrede (The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

Schweitzer had claimed that the teaching of Jesus is inconsistent with itself except when everything is viewed from the perspective of a thorough-going eschatological frame of mind.  Except the problem with his view is that it makes Jesus inconsistent with reality – because some scripture texts make Jesus wrong about the proximity of the end, and his return in glory.

Dougal and Emmet agree with Schweitzer that the eschatological teachings attributed to Jesus are inconsistent with his higher teachings, but they reject Schweitzer’s means of achieving consistency for Jesus.  Schweitzer, they argue, has only created his own false pattern of consistency in Jesus teaching, “by forcing upon all his sayings and parables an interpretation in harmony with the more fanatical Judaism of his time.”  (p.2)

They offer a solution which can only alienate both fundamentalists and moderns:

“Considering the circumstances in which the Gospels were compiled, it is more becoming for us, in the first instance, to suspect the records of inaccuracy than to assume that the inconsistency lay with Jesus.” (p.9)

I’m fine with the authors’ rejection of plenary inspiration.  Trouble is, they imply a new principle which skeptical critics are sure to hate – the principle of an inerrant Jesus  But I like it! 

“In the history of any one of the canonized Christian saints, when sayings and acts are attributed to him or her which to us appear inconsistent and unworthy, our first proceeding is to suspect the accuracy of the narrator … on the hypothesis that the inspiration of the saint for goodness and wisdom was greater than the inspiration for accuracy enjoyed by the disciple.” (p.7-8)

Seriously, a hermeneutic principle like inerrant Jesus is unapologetically faithful – only it requires that our faith in the perfection of Jesus trumps our belief in the perfection of scripture.  There’s bound to be difficulty discriminating the inerrancy of Jesus from the inaccuracy of apostles and gospel writers.  But the result for eschatology is an important one – the axiomatic rejection of a merely human Jesus who is either self-contradictory or  a fanatic and delusional Jew yields refreshing fruit in a healthy critical skepticism regarding all assertions or allusions in scripture which suggest that a destructive end-of-the world scenario is a necessary adjunct to the true Gospel.

A theological aesthetics

“Beauty is … a word with which the philosophical person does not begin, but rather concludes … a word from which religion, and theology in particular, have taken their leave and distanced themselves in modern times by a vigorous drawing of the boundaries. … It is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.  Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.  No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Seeing the Form (1961, 2nd 1967, ET 1982, pp. 17, 18; vol. I of The Glory of the Lord)

I made a start on Balthasar’s opus this weekend, a good slow read of the long Introduction and on into “The Light of Faith,” in Part II.  Balthasar is one of those writers whose work seems to reflect the product of an immense luxury of both time and intellect.   Notwithstanding these summary lines from the Introduction, the author manages to indulge a rich style without descending to rhetorical flourishes to get himself around a difficult problem (a characteristic I dislike in both Karl Barth and P.T. Forsyth).  I’ve had the book from the library since March without much penetration, but was moved enough by brief glances to renew it a couple times.  Now that I have a glimpse of what he is up to, I feel I should persist at least as far as his discussions of faith and of revelation.  Failing in that, I fear I will be bearing his ghost around with that haunting feeling I buried him too fast.

“Yet if the philosopher cannot begin with this word, but can at best conclude with it, should not the Christian for this very reason perhaps take it as his first word?  And since the exact sciences no longer have any time to spare for it (nor does theology, in so far as it increasingly strives to follow the method of the exact sciences), precisely for this reason it might be high time to break through this kind of exactness, which can only pertain to one particular sector of reality, in order to bring the truth of the whole again into view … not only man’s truth and that of the world, but the truth of a God who bestows himself on man, the truth not only of the historical Gospel and of the Church that preserves it, but the truth of the growing Kingdom of God …”