Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rambling Toward a Dogma of Forgetting

"In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important a function as recollecting." ~ William James

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” ~ Milan Kundera

"As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103.12)

We tend to automatically think of God's omniscience, but what if forgetting is as important to consider under the doctrine of God?

What if the Spirit's ordering of creation is simultaneously an act of ordering chaos and forgetting it?

If being is remembering, then is non-being forgetting? Do righteousness and unrighteousness forget in the same way? Is forgetting analogous to non-being? Is what is forgotten no more, or simply an inactive memory? If the former, then how can we do history, either our culture's or our own? What is our moral relationship to history?

What if forgetting is as important a spiritual discipline as is remembering? Is forgetting a practice of holiness? Do we image God in forgetting? And in wielding forgetfulness, are we turning nonbeing away from its sinful nothingness and redeeming it into a holy thing?

What if forgetting reminds all things that they are mortal and created? Forgetting as memento mori.

Does love forget all things?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Note From Class: Pilgrimage to Parnassus

Dear Friends,

In Green Hills there is a bookstore named Parnassus Books. You should visit it some time. Each book is hand-chosen by the store owners, and they invite authors to come and read aloud from their books. Parnassus has style.

Parnassus also has several owners. One of them acts as store spokesperson, the nerdy-famous author Anne Patchette.

Patchette wasn't always well known or successful. "My first stories and novels," she said, "were no more capable of supporting me than my dog." But success did eventually find her. And it is a good thing, because it is near impossible to start a bookstore (or any other business) without money.

As spokesperson, Patchette does interviews about her work and the bookstore. And, being a writer, she is often asked about writing. Here is something she said about writing a novel:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. . . . This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

This is a bold confession! Here is Anne Patchette, successful writer, disappointed with words. As she said, for all their usefulness, words can't communicate the "piercing color" of imagination. Words pin ideas to a page. They "run over a butterfly with an SUV." It sounds painful.

So why do writers do this? How can they bear seeing their beautiful ideas killed dead by words over and over again? Why do they do it?

I mention Patchette's writer’s frustration to recall again our trouble with words. We must use them, but they are only tools. And though a beautiful tool—for language is beautiful—they are no match for the real. But they are all we have.

In my last post, I talked about how this poses a problem for god talk. If Patchette can’t trust language not to kill her imagination, how can we use language to talk about God? If God is "of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature" like Patchette's imagination, then isn’t it wrongheaded to do god talk at all? Wouldn’t we be running over a butterfly with an SUV? And what about people who do this for a living? Are they butterfly murderers every one?

Let me ask one more question--a new question: Is it morally wrong to use words to talk about God? I mean, there is a word for taking a tool and setting it up between you and God. That word is idolatry.

Do we use words like some use gold or stone or wood and make a god out of them and pray to that god?

Yikes! god talk may be not only silly but dangerous!

Idolatry is a big topic in the Bible. Read it and you run into idolatry a lot. For example, right at the beginning of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself an idol." (Exodus 20:4).

Or, (and this is one of my favorites) we hear the prophet Isaiah /eye-ZAY-uh/ openly making fun of idolaters. Put on your best "I'm making fun of you" voice and read this:

The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses.

He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.

He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak.

Some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.

Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”

From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”

No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?" (Isaiah 44:13-19)

Isaiah's sarcasm always makes me laugh—though I doubt his hearers thought he was funny.

Yet are we them? Instead of wood, do we build gods of words? Do we make a god out of our ideas of what God should be like? Do we project our ideas onto the clouds and "bow down”?

I think we certainly can do that. Yes, we human beings can make idols of anything, including from the ideas in our heads. As the Swiss pastor John Calvin said, "The human heart is an idol factory."

So what are we to do, we creatures of words? Can we talk of God or to God? Should we? Can we pray and be sure we are praying not to our imagination-god but to the living One? Can we pray "Our Father"?

I'm afraid we've worked ourselves into a tiny, dark box with no holes here, all alone with ourselves.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Why I Like the Filioque

I like the filioque. There is no question that it is a sixth-century addition to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. (It was officially adopted by the church of Rome in the eleventh century.) Nor do I dispute its tragic contribution to the Great Schism between East and West. Nevertheless, I think it better reflects scripture. I think it serves as an important soteriological stopgap against mystical efforts to obtain salvation through private, pneumatic theosis. And I think that it tilts the creed in the direction of soteriology and away from a kind of pure metaphysics. In other words, the creed is a statement about God's saving plan, not a blueprint of his godself. It's trinitarian structure is economic rather than immanent. The creed is not a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross. I'll explain these briefly in greater detail.

First, I like the filioque because it better reflects scripture. I say better because I am comparing to the admittedly older version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which said simply of the Spirit that he proceeds from the Father (τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον). Luke-Acts teaches that the Spirit could not indwell the church until the risen Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father and is glorified. Pentecost is a royal announcement and a Joel-invoking outpouring of Spirit new-creation power upon all flesh until he comes. It is the risen Son that pours the Spirit out upon his people. And the Spirit that he pours out is not its own but mediates the Son; Paul goes so far as to call the Spirit the Spirit of Christ (πνεῦμα Χριστοῦ).

Second, I think that the filioque closes the door on a second door of salvation, namely the mystical pursuit of theosis by means of the Spirit alone. If the Spirit proceeds to the church from the Father alone, then there is an avenue to the Father apart from the redemptive work of the Son. As I read it, the Spirit is always working through the Son toward theosis with the Father. And to say that one can work without the other is to tip the scales into either modalism or tri-theism. Moreover, Neo-Platonic contemplation has been part of the tradition of the church since Origen wrote in Alexandria. We still have Mount Athos today. We still have the pneumatic-centrist fervor of pentecostalism, and the "still, small voice" private revelation of American evangelicalism. So lest we give ground to an old temptation, I appreciate the stopgap that the filioque affords.

And third, I think the filioque reminds us that revelation is soteriological not metaphysics. As I said, the creeds are not theologies of glory but theologies of the cross. It is not ours to climb up and behold the naked God. The addition of the filioque to the creed, to my mind, is a necessary soteriological correction. But, then again, I like my christology at the center. And this leads to my last point.

My last point is about Trinitarian theology itself. My understanding is that one of the most important ways of differentiating the persons of the Trinity is by their origins. The Father is uncreate. The Son is eternally begotten. The Spirit is eternally aspirated from the Father. The Son and the Spirit eternally proceed from the Father, but not in the same way.

Therefore, if we remove the filioque, aren't we muddying the waters? If we remove it from the creed, then no differentiation is made about origin. (This is assuming the creed is a metaphysical statement, even though as I said, I don't see it that way.) The loss of clarity is at least unhelpful. Why would we want to do that? Indeed, why not amend the creed again to be more specific about origins?

I'm not a fan off innovation, or of keeping theology modern for modernity's sake. Nevertheless, for these few reasons, I like what the filioque is doing. Let's not be too hasty to throw it out.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thoreau's Prophetic Myopia

A recent article by Kathryn Shulz in the New Yorker, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia" has some great things to say about self-styled prophets and prophecy. I quote the following:

"One may reach good ends by bad means, and Thoreau did. ‘Not a particle of respect had he to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself,’ Emerson wrote of Thoreau. He meant it as praise, but the trouble with that position—and the deepest of all the troubles disturbing the waters of ‘Walden’—is that it assumes that Thoreau had some better way of discerning the truth than other people did.

"Thoreau, for one, did assume that. Like his fellow-transcendentalists, he was suspicious of tradition and institutions, and regarded personal intuition and direct revelation as superior foundations for both spiritual and secular beliefs. Unlike his fellow-transcendentalists, he also regarded his own particular intuitions and revelations as superior to those of other people. ‘Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men,’ he wrote in ‘Walden,’ ‘it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.’

"Claiming special guidance by the gods is the posture of the prophet: of one who believes himself in possession of revealed truth and therefore entitled—even obliged—to enlighten others. Thoreau, comfortable with that posture, sneered at those who were not. (‘They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families—damn them!’) But prophecy makes for poor political philosophy, for at least two reasons.

"The first concerns the problem of fallibility. [Here Schulz addresses Civil Disobedience and the claim of conscience. But what if society is right and one’s conscience is wrong? How can you decide between them? This requires some standard of governance beyond private conscience.] It is the point of democracy to adjudicate among such conflicting claims through some means other than fiat or force, but Thoreau was not interested in that process.

"Nor was he interested in subjecting his claims to logical scrutiny. And this is the second problem with basing one’s beliefs on personal intuition and direct revelation: it justifies the substitution of anecdote and authority for evidence and reason. The result, in ‘Walden,’ is an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice. . . . To reject all certainties but one’s own is the behavior of a zealot; to issue contradictory decrees based on private whim is that of a despot. . . . [Thoreau is a man whose spirit resembles no one but] Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, elitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. . . . [‘Walden’ is] a book about how to live that says next to nothing about how to live with other people."

Monday, October 12, 2015

Poland's Cardinal Wyszyński on [Savage] Capitalism

"A new religion: money and wealth. Its dogmas: unlimited economic freedom, free competition, the division of capital and labor, its mercenaries are the laws of supply and demand and price mechanisms. Its morality: the lack of any moral superiority of human capital and labor or good production. Profits are its only good deeds. Its altars: a great plant, machinery, tools, cartels, syndicates, banks, where greed is satisfied by the price of human life. The final goal: blessed be the rich. Be rich at all costs, whoever can, and as soon as they can! This is the god of this world, a hurried capitalism. From now on all the world will encounter will be associated with that system because ‘abyss calls to abyss.'" ~ Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

A Note From Class: Can We Say Anything About God?

Dear Friends,

Based on your correspondence since my last post, clearly, we have a lot to talk about.

In our last class, you wanted to talk about several things: (1) the scroll and the codex, (2) Egyptian deities, (3) the New Testament as a collection or cabinet of books--and we started learning those books in order, and (4) genre.

These may seem quite scattered, but I assure you that they are not. These and other subjects join hands around the same center, which is the triune God revealed in the prophetic word, the Bible ("He has spoken through the prophets"). Like servants attending a king seated in his throne room, some are lowly workers while others are important judges and generals. Yet they all look toward the same face.

I've attached a photo of a leaf from one of the earliest bits of the New Testament that we have. It is the opening page of the letter (epistle) of 2 Corinthians (Corinthians B in the photo). You can tell that it was part of a codex because you can see the holes from the woven binding on the left-hand side of the page. You can also see that the "paper" is made of pressed papyrus leaves, as the stringy vegetable bits hang out where the page has been ripped or has gone missing.

It is part of the rich store of pages (and sometimes whole copies) from the Bible that have come down to us from cultures and languages all over the world. Together, they tell us something about the Our we talked about: the Our of "Our Father." We do not pray alone, nor are we the first to do so. We join untold numbers of others--a great family--who are invited to address God as Father.

Remember how I said C. S. Lewis described the church "spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners"? Or notice how John of Patmos describes the church in his vision, "Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (That whole reference is worth looking up, Revelation 7.9-17.)

That is the beautiful and forever fellowship that we are about. But such visions are certainly not what we see with our eyes.

Going back to C. S. Lewis again, the "terrible army" spectacle of the church is invisible to us. As Lewis, in his book The Screwtape Letters, has a senior devil say:

It is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided.
Interestingly enough, we are running parallel with the problem we talked about in my last post to you: the problem of knowing a word but not knowing its meaning. The church, says Lewis, looks like the face of the local grocer and the people one has so far avoided, even while it is really that innumerable multitude that no one can number.

Things are rarely what they seem to be on the outside. A boring, tired teacher at your school turns out to be a lover of the mystery of math who felt called as a young woman to help kids see that beautiful thing that she sees. That wrinkled, bad-breath-afflicted uncle in your family that no one talks to once took on German tanks and infantry in the Battle of the Bulge. Or, scientifically speaking, things--you, me, rocks, trees--are mostly made of empty space. We're all, from the perspective of the Earth's axis, standing sideways.

Language both helps us and harms us in solving problems like this. We use language to describe nouns and verbs like tear and tear. But the bare words don't tell us which one is salty with grief. Language has its limits--and homonyms like light, letter, book, and duck demonstrate that. And what about cleave? Are we chopping something into pieces or joining together till death do us part? We must use language, but we can't always trust it.

So consider the theological problem of language. Poets, authors, explorers, and scientists may struggle to find just the right word for the right thing. But what if that thing is by definition indescribable? What if that thing is a person and more than person? What if we want to talk about God?

People are so free to talk about God. They run everywhere saying this and that about God and no one gives it a thought. We hear it so much--and especially in the south--that we get used to it. But this is a real problem. Severe even.

How can a creature talk about a creator? How can the limited talk about what is, by nature, unlimited? How can mortals grasp the immortal? Do you get what I'm saying here?

Skipping ahead: nevertheless, we do it. We talk about God. So given that, how do we know we're saying anything true? What gives us the confidence to say things about God using a thirteenth-century language like English and then act like we've done something? I hope you are getting this.

Let's get even more practical. Ministers--think of the ones you know--have jobs that require them to say things about God and on God's behalf. How can they do this? How do we know they aren't lying? How do they know they aren't misrepresenting God? And why should we listen to them? It stands to reason that everyone the world over who claims to speak for God isn't telling the truth. Someone is lying or self-deluded. So how do we know whom to listen to and whom to ignore?

The Greeks struggled with this problem. One of their solutions was to imagine their gods as human beings but bigger. Their gods, like Zeus and Hera, Poseidon and Aphrodite, argued and squabbled like superhuman babies.

It was a solution that didn't fly for long, even for the Greeks. Philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle, along with other educated people of their time, made fun of this kind of thinking. "You can't just blow human beings up like big balloons and say you've made a god!" they said.

Closer to our time, a German atheist named Ludwig Feuerbach said that Christians do the same thing. He said the God of the Bible is but the outward projection of human desires upon the clouds. We, like little children, imagine the parent or friend that we want and call it god. Of course, he used fancy, nineteenth-century language: "In the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature."

Certainly, atheism is a popular answer in our day to the problem of talking about God, "god talk" for short. Atheism takes a big pair of scissors and cuts any notion of God or gods or the supernatural or transcendence completely away. No more "gods" means no more god talk problem. Now then, what's for lunch?

But, I'm going on too long. Allow me one more subject: genre (pronounced /JHAN-ruh/). Whenever we take in information, we have to first figure out what genre we're working with. If we are going to listen to orchestral music, then we expect woodwinds and stringed instruments and forms like the sonata and the waltz. If electronica, then samplers and mixers and a laser-light show. I like going to the movies to see films in certain genres, like superhero movies or science fiction.

When we are in a certain genre, we expect certain things and not other things. In a comic book, I expect Iron Man. I do not expect the periodic table of elements, though the latter makes sense in a chemistry textbook.

Figuring out what sorts of ideas or actions (e.g. car chases, ghosts, tables of dates) go with each genre is important. It helps us know how to make sense of what is going on. It makes communication clear. The phrase "home run" is meaningless outside of the genre of baseball.

The New Testament, as I said, is a big cabinet of books, as is the whole Bible. Not all of those books are written in the same genre. Acts is a history, but James is not; James is a good, Jewish sermon. Hebrews is also a sermon. Revelation is a fancy genre called apocalyptic. (More on that another time.) Paul's writings, which make up most of the New Testament, are epistles, that is letters. The gospels are not history like Acts is.

Knowing the genre of something, be it some written text, a movie, a song, or any kind of communication, is almost as important for understanding as is knowing the language it is written or spoken in. Genre is important!

Okay, then: I've raised some big questions in this epistle and given few answers. I do have answers, yes. But knowing, trusting, and following Jesus isn't a matter of checking the right boxes. So we will get around to some answers, but me giving you answers doesn't make you better disciples. Nor does having questions--often deep and difficult questions--and carrying those questions around for years and years make you less true disciples of Jesus and beloved sons and heirs of God.

How else do you get wisdom? Why does the Bible encourage us again and again to seek it, to quest for it, to dig and wrestle and search for wisdom? It wouldn't do this if wisdom were easy, or if the goal of being a Christian is to be a questionless drone.

My sons, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, Turning your ears to wisdom and applying your hearts to understanding, And if you call out for insight and cry out for understanding, And if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for buried treasure, Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:1ff)
In the next letter, I hope to do more on the Lord's Prayer, and I hope to have St. Theresa of Avila help me do it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Note From Class: Hallowed

Dear Friends,

Last week we began our class saying the Lord's Prayer, also called the "Our Father" and, in Latin, the Pater Noster /PAY-ter NAHS-ter/. (Please note that I list various names and the Latin name because you do sometimes run into them, and it is helpful to know that they all refer to the same thing.)

We discovered that there are words in the Lord's Prayer that need defining. And this makes sense because anytime you step into a new or special community, and the church is certainly that, you'll run into new clusters of words. In school, for example, when you start learning a new subject, you will see that there are always new words to learn.

A friend of mine, nervous because he was a new teacher, once asked me if he thought his students were learning anything. I asked him, "Are their vocabularies changing?" New words give us better tools for understanding and talking about our ideas. That is why new ideas and new words usually go together.

Now that I think about it, though, there is a more common issue that arises concerning new words. Sometimes new words are old words. What I mean is that we have learned a word--perhaps we heard someone use it, or we read it somewhere--but it is an empty container for us: we don't actually know what the word really means.

The twentieth century author George Orwell had a few strong things to say about this sort of thing, which we are all guilty of. He said it is "ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish" and that a sloppy understanding and use of words "makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Or, like a good cook might say, good ingredients make for good food; bad ingredients, not so much.

It is the work of a lifetime to pay attention to words. It is like exploring a vast, underground cave. Sometimes you wriggle through a hole and come out into awe and beauty. Other times, things can be boring or unpleasant, or even dark and scary.

So the word before us is the word hallowed as in "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name."

The first use of hallowed as we know it occurs before the twelfth century. Before that, going back into Old English and other Germanic languages, we find words like halgian, heiligen, and halagon, to make holy, to honor, to set aside as special or for a special purpose. Behind those words are Greek and Hebrew words: the Hebrew word is quodesh /koe-DESH/ and the Greek word is hagios /AH-yee-ohs/. These words refer to generally the same idea, the idea of separateness. Something or someone is separated out, made special, and set apart for some role or task.

In Irish legend, the hero Tuatha de Danaan possessed four treasures which were called hallowed or holy. These treasures were the Spear of Lugh, the Stone of Fal, the Sword of light, and the Dagda's Cauldron. They were set apart as special.

In the Harry Potter world, three objects, the Cloak of Invisibility, the Resurrection Stone, and the Elder Wand are called hallowed because they are objects that are very special and set apart in that world.

All Hallows Eve, from which we get Halloween, uses the word hallow, because it has to do with the saints, or those who are set apart as special examples to us of what it can look like to live a life in pursuit of and saturated with God.

So when we pray the Lord's Prayer, we are asking God to do something--to hallow his name. That means we are asking him, by his power working in the world, to set apart and make special his name, that is his reputation and authority. We ask God to make his name respected and honored in our world, just as it is in heaven. This is one of three things we ask God to do right in the first part of the prayer in a sequence that brings together God's heaven and our everyday earth.

Remember, we are asking God to do it. This is not something we can do. It is a request, such as one might make to a king or to an important figure or, more normally, to a parent.

And how does he do it? By putting his name in the throats of men and women from all nations who together will hallow it. This includes we who are praying this prayer. So let's be careful that as we pray for God to hallow his name, we are hallowing it as well in our hearts and in our lives.