Saturday, May 27, 2017

God Hidden and God Revealed: Thoughts on Law and Gospel

I've always found the Lutheran emphasis on Law and Gospel seemingly contrived. It appeared as some systematic commitment that rearranged Scripture into some bizarre patterns. This is not a division between Old Testament and New, but rather a division between two kinds of speech acts by God: command and promise. The first direct man to act and follow God's will. However, in a world of sin, this is impossible and results in fear and despair, as God's judgement looms. The second is God's promise of redemption, rescuing man from his inability and corruption. Thus, the first exposes our reality, our inability, and the second brings healing relief.

Now, this has been interpreted, generally, in two ways. Some Lutherans impose a radical division between the two. The Law terrifies and represents a problem to overcome, which the Gospel ends with the unending fount of God's grace. This brings about freedom and a kind of transcendence over the moral order, which only damns. This interpretation leads to conclusions that smack, if not openly embrace, anti-nomianism and libertine social mores. When challenged with God's prohibition (say, against homosexual acts), this is dismissed with the charge of confusing Law and Gospel. This approach doesn't necessarily deflate sin, but it does this through perhaps hyper-pessimism where all Human action is warranted as sinful to its core. Thus, it really doesn't matter, because it's always sin when viewed against Law, and liberated when viewed against Gospel.

Another approach, perhaps labelled as more conservative, sees a dual kind of righteousness at work. In terms of God, the Law condemns are helpless and evil works, and the Gospel rescues us, completely and totally. However, in terms of Human relations, the Law still serves to instruct our disposition, judgement, and action. The Law does not justify man before God, for Christ fulfills the Law and brings His victory to the Human race, which we get joined up in when we mix our faith to this mighty act. But the Law directs us down and out towards our neighbor, who we must actively serve and love.

My own views reflect this second approach. While the first definitely revels in the Biblical revelation of God's sheer mercy, it tends to diminish and ignore, through theological manipulation, clear mandates. This first view is generally responsible for turning the Sermon on the Mount into ethically useless terror through a doctrinal matrix which appears rather foreign to the text.

Yet, I'm not convinced by the second view, at least as it is. The idea still seems lacking, as it rejects the idea, as St. James puts it, of drawing near to God. Now, I don't want to diminish the radical, world-turning, grace of God, nor do I want to diminish the fact that it is faith, even faith alone, that attaches us the transformative power of Christ, His person and work. But, as the Apostles learned, it takes not only faith to drive out demons, but fasting and prayer. Yes, even to the point that James can say that works justify.

I'm not sure I'm being novel, but my argument is what if this relation between Law and Gospel is still too antagonistic. What if this distinction highlights dispositional junctures in the life of the Christian, which continue to coexist and battle in This Age, afflicted as we are by Sin, Death, and the Devil.

Maybe the dispositions represent the difference between inside and outside we still experience of God. Outside of Christ, the Word of God that came, comes, and is coming into the world, we see only a dark shroud. The Creation reveals mixed messages that present us with unstoppable judgement and terror, a hostile and empty world of doom. The clear facts of reality are conflicted and assaulted: we were born to live, but we die; we were born for radiant and royal glory, but we are captive to demeaning and debasing spiritual darknesses; we were born for equity and righteousness, but are mired in inequity and sin. The whole creation seems to be in death pains, vomiting us from its crust. When God appears, we scurry in terror. For the gates of Pardise, our home and destiny, remained locked and protected by fiery angelic blade.

However, when we see Christ, in a vision of what is to come, per the saints of the Old Testament, or in the flesh He adorned for our salvation, after His incarnation, something new is opened up. We now hear a promise, and now see it fulfilled. We see mercy cascade, we see life vanquish death, righteousness vanquish sin, and the Lord of Glory vanquish Satan. We receive the promise of God's deliverance and might hand through faith. The whole world is revealed anew in our mind.

However, without the promise, we are left with the first view. Is this merely a bad thing? No, says holy Paul, who rejoices in even the perceived failure of God's holy things. The Law is holy and just, but how can we see it as God's work if it failed in making mankind just? It only condemned us! Yes, says Paul, and it accomplished its work even then. The Law magnified sin, revealing it as a light reveals the creepers and crawlers in the basement. Like many scenarios in the Old Testament, even when God is denied, rejected, humiliated, His Word accomplishes its work. Even when Christ is crucified, God's mission is victorious.

As we are now, still trapped in Paul's lament in Romans 7, we still see both perspectives. Life according to the flesh tells us we live in the bleak night of terror, but life according to Spirit tells us otherwise. It's an internal battle, as the flesh is strengthened through fear of death and the instigation of demons. Thus, the Law enters. In the Spirit, to whom we are joined by faith in His Anointed, the Law becomes our fullest desire, our destiny, and hope. To be a Human, to walk with God, is to do the law of Christ, the law of Liberty. However, as much as we are still in battle, this Law also smashes through the pretensions of the flesh, scattering the demons.

In Christ, the Law fulfilled is our great treasure, we being joined to Him, becoming like Him by grace what He is by nature. Outside of Christ, and thus subjected to the hiddeness of God, we see nothing else. The struggle of the Christian life is to keep our eyes on Christ, like St. Peter on the waters, clinging to the Spirit against the flesh.

I think this is how best to understand the distinction, not opposition, of Law and Gospel. If it is confused, we wallow in despair or abound in arrogance. In the former, we see in Christ the Hidden God and hide in terror. He is no mediator, so we turn elsewhere and build an a-theology of faithlessness. In the latter, we find God in the Creation, rejecting Christ. This fantasy can only lead to disappoint and disillusionment, or become insufferably tyrannical. In both cases, Christ is not the Word, and verge on being some other faith. I won't list examples, I'm sure you can think of them.

This is what I believe to be the treasure of Luther's insistence upon this, which is neither innovative nor extra-biblical. It is simply the Apostolic faith.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Even the Demons Believe, and Tremble: Alien: Covenant and Space Puritans

This is a reflection on themes in the new Alien movie. There will be spoilers, but kept to a minimum.

Ridley Scott is a really awful theologian. His Kingdom of Heaven revealed a complete lack of respect for not only history, but for Human motivation, collapsed into two-dimensional portrayals of greed and blind optimism. Of course, this is what makes the Alien franchise so compelling, because Scott's portrait of Humanity is so dumb and incoherent, that it draws a stark contrast with his misanthropy. And for anyone who is familiar with the franchise, Alien is pure and simple Satanic and pours contempt of mankind. But for those of a Biblical mind, one knows that even Caiaphas was prophetic, even as he wickedly condemned the Lord of Glory. The Devil and his minions unwittingly reveal features of the truth.

Thus, the newest installment deals with this themes much more bluntly than any prior. This film is about origins and endings, or more precisely, creation and consummation. The android David (Michael Fassbender), who we find out is self-named from Michelangelo's art, is the architect of the life's end. Well, not quite. Without giving too much away, we discover David is the creator of the Xenomorph, who tinkered with a predatorial contamination to the point of manufacturing a beast that is the perfect killing machine. The Alien is the life to end all life, reflecting David's own self-realization that he is, in fact, superior to his maker. Mortality must be put to rest, while the new immortals, the android and the race of Xenomorphs, will succeed them. This is a twisted variation of St. Paul.

And this is intentional, for David is the anti-Christ. The film begins with a Renaissance painting of the Incarnation, Michelangelo's David, and Wagner's Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, which Weyland (Guy Pierce), the corporate CEO and creator of David, critiques the android's rendition of it. All of these together reveal the shape of things to come. David is immaculately born, without Humanity's frailty. He is perfect in form, like Michelangelo's contemplation of King David's naked body (though he mistook Byron for Shelley). And, per the opera, the supposed paradise is a necropolis. This latter theme is key to the whole film, though my limited knowledge of Wagner prevents further explication.

While these themes dominate, there is a subtle context surrounding them, and that is the sense that the movie is offering a black parody of the Puritans leaving for America. There are, of course, subtle clues. The name of the ship is Covenant. While this is a biblical phrase, English Puritans adopted the Reformed recovery of this biblical datum, but translated it into a new form of Christendom. The Puritans who set sail for America believed, like their brethren still on the Isle, that they could forge a godly society in covenant with God, blessed for obedience and cursed for sin. They lifted (or, more properly, Judaized) the Covenantal monarchy from Israel and applied it to their own times.

Like these pilgrims, the crew and colonists of the Covenant came in spousal pairs (rather unusual for our day and age). They land on a strange new world, and find themselves retreating to a city built on a hill (led there, of course, by David). The acting captain of the ship, Chris Oram, (Billy Crudup) is a weird, bland "believer", who drops cut-and-paste biblical allusions into his speech, while also trying to pass himself as pure rationalist, for fear that the crew will consider him a fanatic for his faith. Of course, the point is not whether he resembles anything like actual Christian beliefs, but he does represent a vanilla, empty, vessel-like, representative of a Protestantized theology of glory. Oram maintains a shaky faith-in-faith, a hopeful expectation for Human flourishing according to Human righteousness. He overly fixates on infractions of his crew, feeling a corporate responsibility.

Oram boasts to David, after killing a proto-Xenomorph, that when he was a child he saw the Devil. He tells this to David, who is horrified at the death of the creature, as if to boast. Oram proceeds to trust David to tell him what is going on. David then leads Oram to a facehugger egg, where Oram becomes the first victim and incubator for Xenomorph. This is the key point I want to focus on.

If Oram is the face (pardon the pun) of these neo-Puritans, his theology reveals perhaps, in a symbolic shape, the harsh critique and vile hatred Scott pours upon Humanity. Oram, like the Puritans, held a belief that a new start is possible. Seeing the Devil in the proto-Xenomorph, Oram thinks he knows evil, not appreciating that it is David that is the bringer of death and annihilator of life. He echoes the Satanic maxim in the prior film Prometheus, to the effect of: "Isn't it the dream of all children to kill their parents?" Oram doesn't recognize this and his shallow heart provides fertile ground, quite literally, for the dark anti-creature to be born.

It isn't that this form of Calvinistic theology was that stupid, but the assumptions of righteousness can be utterly blinding, mistaking the puppet for the puppeteer. Of course, the history of Puritan New England is mixed, with some blessings and some evils. But considered in types, it represents the dark vortex of the fiction of rebirth by Human initiation. It signifies all attempts to wipe the slate clean, start over, and do it right. David understands this, and finds it pathetic. As he comments, Humanity is trying to resuscitate itself because it is dying. This is contemptible and Mankind doesn't deserve the chance. Instead, it deserves total annihilation, the springboard for something else.

For Ridley Scott, it is clear that this is what he thinks Christianity is. But, per the typology, this is a theology of glory, the frail Human hand reaching upward, thinking it can usher in God's kingdom. This mistakes the fact that when the Word took flesh in This World, He was crucified. As Jesus never tired of reminding His disciples, this meant that in This World they would suffer His fate: misunderstanding, persecution, reviling, and death. They became, per the holy words of the Apostle, the filth, the excrement, of the World. Christians are not mere onlookers, as Christ was fully in the flesh, transfiguring Human nature. But in This Age, Christians, joined to the Word by grace through faith, will bear His marks.

New England Puritanism, like certain forms of Reformed theology, represents a theology of glory. Monergism and predestinarian emphases does nothing to ward against this. American Calvinism became a shell that Rationalism burst out of, after feeding on its intellectual entrails for generations. It was from this that the merchants of death of American capitalism emerged. Southern chattel slavery was nothing without New England ships and capital. I will leave this condemnation of American history here, but there are disturbing parallels. The Satanic philosophy of Masonic anti-Creator mirroring dances through the aether of the American air we breathe, even today. It is the same root that gives us the modern desperation to export Human generation and sexuality to artificial wombs and machine birth. This is only different in degree, but not kind.

As I've said elsewhere, a focus, yea even an obsession, on the cross does not mean one understands its logic. Substitutionary atonement, passion plays, hymns to the cross, none of this necessitates a theology of the cross. The world of Alien only sees our bondage and laughs cruelly. As we wither, our attempts at immortality will only bring about total destruction. We create gods to uplift and magnify us, but this results only in Human degradation and abasement. Weyland creating the Android in a pursuit of immortality only ends with the Xenomorph, sin crouching at the door. But even so, Christ became sin, crucified, so we might become the righteousness of God, being risen in His likeness. The universe of Alien rages against this truth, throwing Humanity's collective sin and hubris in our face. But what of it? Where Christ is so shall we be, trampling death by death and bringing life to the tombs.

We need not fear, for the Demons know the truth, and they tremble.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Church in China: Europa Redux

Christ is quite active in the oldest and most prestigious empire of the World: China. Truly, the Word is active, turning the Dragon cruciform, slicing through soul and spirit and manifesting His radical power. It's truly a fascinating tale.

But the dimensions I find most interesting is that China has seen a repeat of a number of European ecclesiastical conflicts, but in new garb. I'll list two of them.

1) Pope Francis has recently met with leaders in Beijing over the question of Chinese bishops. The PRC has been locking horns with the Vatican over who has the right to appoint bishops of the Roman church. There are two overlapping hierarchies between bishops consecrated by the Papacy and those consecrated by the Chinese government. Francis has been the first pope to visit China and attempt to work this problem out. The list of overlapping bishops has shrunk, but still remains a sticking point.

This is nothing less than the Investiture Controversy from the Middle Ages. In Western Europe, ecclesiastical functions were complicated, ambiguous, and convoluted. As orthodox Christianity spread among the Germanic barbarians, conquering Arianism and tribal paganisms, the role and rule of the church was divided. According to a Roman Imperial model, Rome had an Apostolic warrant as chief see in the West. After 476, when Odoacer conquered Rome and ended the Western Roman Empire, the promotion of bishops was contested. In many areas, where churches provided the rudiments of government, ecclesial functions fused with civil functions. As barbarian chiefs gained in power, and kingdoms formed, the most powerful offices were filled by newly crowned kings.

However, the bishops of Rome were in a process of transformation into what we know as the Papacy, a monarchical figure who reigns over the entire Church catholic. The Holy Roman Empire, which was forged in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans, countered this contestation to a rather standard practice. The war was over who had the right to determine filling episcopal sees, the Pope or the Emperor. This flared up into battles, but Francis and the Chinese government are replaying this same battle in cold war fashion. This is not merely an ecclesiastical affair, but attempting to increase the Vatican's geo-political weight. Of course, this is not done with halberds or armies, but with media clout and image. The Chinese government does not want to introduce possible subversives into influential positions. In addition, while Francis has been rather intransigent with the United States, there are powerful factions in the Vatican that certainly have a political agenda, and none look favorably on China's claim of imperium over East Asia. While this conflict has little spiritual weight to it, it's fascinating to see the same problems reemerge over two distinct and contrasting political authorities engaging in a complex dance of diplomacy.

2) The Three-Self church is one of the largest single ecclesiastical bodies in the world. It is broadly Protestant, having little distinct identity. Many consider it a tool of the Chinese government to monitor and harness China's rapidly growing Christian population. The major conflict is with the Underground, a somewhat diverse, indigenous network of churches. When the PRC gained ascendancy, Mao's ejection of all Westerners (especially missionaries) and legal persecution drove Chinese Christians underground. Some Christians emerged to submit themselves to the new government, arguing for a fully cooperative and patriotic church.

However, the Underground refuses to register with the Three-Self church because it does not want to fall under the government's thumb. Faithful to the bone, many pastors of the Underground cannot stomach the idea of censoring their preaching to government need. Submission of what may be a clear mandate of Scripture would be sin. It's clear in the Three-Self's creed, referencing "arbitrary" interpretations of the Bible, that it has a particular edge against the Underground's resistance.

This conflict is quite reminiscent of 17th England's ecclesiastical battles between dissenters and the Church of England, the established church by law. While in the early decades most Puritans, particularly the Presbyterians, wanted merely to reform the Church of England, after the disastrous Civil Wars, the Dissenters, as they were called, determined a new course. While some Dissenters still hoped for some sort of change of the established church, many grew hostile and skeptical of the established church. The Glorious Revolution created a reprieve from official hostility between the English state and Dissenting congregations, but did little to resolve the conflict. While some ecclesiastics on both sides hoped for Comprehension, a form of compromise where both sides could coexist with each other and maintain their scruples, the Revolution sunk this. The majority on both side wanted nothing of the sort. In 1689, the Toleration Act was anything but. It lifted official sanctions, but Dissenters still could not be office holders (the Test Act remained in force), they had to register with the English government, and keep their doors open when they congregated.

Many Dissenters complied with the English government eagerly. Post-1689, King William's Wars ushered in what some have termed the Second Hundred Years Wars, where English and French hostility sparked off-and-on in global, and extremely bloody, conflicts for global hegemony of European colonialist projects. The conflicts spurred English, soon to be British, patriotism. This was the slow transformation of English Christianity, from a state-church established by law to a general Protestantism marked by patriotic sentiment and anti-Gallican/anti-Popery. Of course, not everyone went along, but most English Protestants charged headlong into centuries of British imperial terror.

The Chinese Underground is akin to Dissent under Charles II, which generally remained hostile to the debauched, corrupt, and hostile policies of the Cavalier Parliament. However, if China changes tactics and foreign policy needs take a new turn, it's yet to seen as to what will happen. Will growing Chinese friction with the United States turn to a form of tolerance and patriotic fervor? As it is now, it's unlikely as many pastors in the Underground maintain friendly relations with American Evangelicals, but this could dry up. While the Voice of the Martyrs keeps this issue alive, it's easy to imagine this sentiment drying up among a majority of American Evangelicals. It's also possible to imagine a conciliatory Chinese government luring most through policy concessions and monetary benefits. The Church of England is very much like the Three-Self church with the exception that a lively Reformed on the Continent provided deeper wells of education. But beyond this, it remains a vaguely generic Protestant state-church with breadth to accommodate, contrary to silly myths of via media which was a rhetorical trick. It is yet to see whether the PRC will continue its present ecclesiastical policy, or try a new tack in the following decades. Like in England, the established church was powerful, but non-conformists grew in number and influence exponentially. Unless the Three-Self church has some sort of piety revival, its unlikely to keep those Chinese Christians who read their Bible and ponder the actions of their government.

It's really a fascinating time to watch God's work in China. It reflects the same problems that occurred in European ecclesiastical history. Obviously it's not identical, Christianity in China is a minority in a multi-confessional state. However, it warrants contemplation. Perhaps, the Church in China will offer a sun-ray of hope that all stories need not end like those in Europe, whether in England or on the Continent. Keep praying for Chinese Christians, their protection both physically and spiritually. Kyrie Eleison. Amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

With Bible in Hand: Thoughts on the Pathetic Glory of Evangelicalism

Over the past years, I've been incredibly critical of Evangelicalism. And I still stand by that, there are many corruptions, but perhaps the bitterest of all is because there is still a gem that sparkles. Evangelicals, collectively, care about their Bibles.

I was recently visiting a local Evangelical church. My spirit groaned through most of it. The rock band concert eviscerates the point of congregational singing. The Lord's Supper is treated as a trifle. The sermon was graceless and was on a TV screen. While there was no flag, there was, like many Evangelical churches, a clear Christo-Americanism at work, with all the tropes one would expect. However, the teacher beat his flock over the head, to the point of guilt-tripping, with the fact that they needed to have their Scripture open. He berated his congregation with the need to always read the Bible, to check everything he said against Scripture, to take nothing for granted and to be watchful.

This is the sad glory of Evangelicalism, sad because it should be the obvious truth. I've visited many congregational settings, and one can palpably feel the attitudes among the people. And the fact is that, at the very least, Evangelicals read their Scripture. Not everyone mind you, but there is a collective attitude that this is the right disposition. The idea that the Bible contains the very living voice of God is a commonly accepted concept that drives the life of the congregation.

Again, this is truly sad. In many ways, a lot of Evangelical congregations are like Jews of the first century. They have the Scriptures open before the congregation, individually and collectively, but because a veil lies over them, they can't understand Holy Writ. There are all sorts of blasphemous, perverse, and idiosyncratic doctrines and practices that are tolerated. But, again and again, at least the problem is that they don't understand rather than to lack the very words of God.

I very much appreciate the eastern jewels of Orthodoxy, especially Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas, who remain mostly forgotten in the West. And I very much, aesthetically, enjoy the Divine Liturgy, recognizing that it contains a lot of biblical features of proper worship. However, a spirit of lead permeates even livelier congregations. The Scripture generally remains closed and left to the professionals, clergy and theologians. This isn't even a question of truth, it's a question of method. The same spirit that led Dositheos of Jerusalem, against Cyril Loukaris, to strongly warn against widespread reading of Scripture remains. Cyril wanted to translate the Bible in the vernacular, the Synod of Jerusalem in the 17th century looked darkly upon this.

Evangelical congregations tend to unleash the Scripture, even if it is not handled properly. Again, St. Paul warns against much of Evangelicalism, but they at least are in a position to be warned! Warnings against mishandling Scripture only apply for a people who handle Scripture. A veil over the hearts of a people only apply to those who are trying to look, even if they can't see. These admonitions don't apply to those who keep the Scripture closed. At least with the Evangelical you can reason from the Scripture. Not that it will convince anyone, but you can give someone a bad conscience with references to chapter and verse. There are many who wear the name Christian who are immune to even care.

Yes, Evangelical worship is by and large abysmal. The Roman Missal for the Mass is adorned with lectionary readings, psalm singing, congregational call and response from Scripture. By being present in that, one is fully soaked in a Biblical world. Thus, you are more likely to be exposed to the Bible sitting through a Roman Mass than going to most Evangelical congregations. But, again, if the Bible remains closed, than all of this is for naught. If the Scripture is treated as pious activity, rather than the very means to commune with the Word of God, then all of the liturgy is worthless.

There are quite a few Evangelicals who, after years of malnutrition and starvation, leave their congregations and convert to elsewhere. In new surroundings, they can appreciate the soaked liturgy, but can many times be totally oblivious to the spirit around them. They might cloister themselves with a select few, the devout or other ex-Evangelicals, and revel in what they see, while the majority of the congregation is mundane and impervious. Cate Blanchett's character, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, confesses that she, an elite and rich American who despises her money, only feels comfortable with other elite and rich Americans who despise their money. Even as she, a rebellious American youth, runs away to Italy, she does not become Italian, but forms a clique around the illusion of difference. The same is for most ex-Evangelical converts. They remain wealthy Americans in Rome, and the distance of wealth keeps the bubble sustained. Let those with ears...

Given its plastic nature and increasing flexibility (last I heard, Rachel Held Evans is still an Evangelical), Evangelicalism is becoming a worthless signifier. But it still maintains this 'sense' of the Scripture, that it's normal to own your own Bible and carry it with you to worship. This should shame all other Christians, but sadly, many have stopped up their ears. May God have mercy on such a sad state of affairs. And yet, as the Prophets and Apostles remind us again and again, God will save a remnant. May it ever be so. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Origen: A Holy Man of God Whose Brilliance Shone too Bright

This is an edited version of an older post. In the older post, I blamed Origen as the accidental starting point of compromise. I even compared him to Jeroboam, where the holy Word of God mixed with pagan metaphysics of Greek philosophy. This is not fair. Origen was one of the greatest Bible commentators, who pioneered much. This edited post reflects my changed assessment. I am sorry to have ever contributed to blackening such a righteous man's name in ignorance. Even when Origen is wrong, we should respect the spirit in which he did his work, namely Christ's Spirit, the Holy Spirit.

I've spoken highly about Origen elsewhere on this blog. He was a devout and pious man who dedicated his life to teaching and thinking the faith. He was highly educated in the best schools of Alexandria, engaging with the cutting edge of philosophy. He was thoughtful and patient. He dedicated his life to defending the Church and honoring Christ Jesus. His life was an example of scholarly piety, composing some of the first biblical commentaries, systematic theology (First Principles), and apology (Against Celsus). He set the standard for theology for centuries.

Origen set the standard for theology, but it was because he was truly a luminary. His brilliance sought to be led by the Word of God, first and foremost. It was this that led him through his study of Greek philosophy and even of Gnostic heretics. Origen sought to properly understand the glory of Jesus Christ and teach Him to all inquirers. For all teachers of the Church, Origen's breadth and depth should be honored.

In addition, this generosity of soul got him into trouble. Because Origen really took serious the Christian engagement in apologetics, he took to reading the heretics. This was something his bishop frowned upon, but Origen peaceably moved about the Roman world, seeking to understand and not cause tumult. His time in Palestine and Rome testify that Origen was indeed generous with his spiritual elders and fathers back in Egypt.

Origen was a faithful commentator of Scripture, and it was from such a vantage that he sought to understand the wonders of ancient knowledge. He knew Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, yet he never wore the philosopher's cloak, like some of his contemporaries. He believed first and foremost Christ was Wisdom who brought not only true knowledge, but saving knowledge. Origen's controversial life and increasingly controversial legacy left only fragments of his voluminous output. However, faithful and generous commentators have understood that while Origen sought to work out the Gospel with philosophical tools, he used them in creative and utilitarian ways.

Origen was truly brilliant and waded into hard territory. In the 3rd century Roman world, Gnosticism remained a battle which Origen tried to combat. In his commentaries, Origen pioneered language that would become useful for both the Arians and the Nicaeans. More importantly, Origen tried to articulate what would become the communicatio idiomatum, recognizing that Christ was Human and Divine in such an inseparable way that one could attribute elements from each to either. Origen marveled that indeed the Word of God died.

It is perhaps the brilliance, zeal, and nuance of Origen that led to confusion. Origenists, as they were labelled, would take their reputed master's teaching in strange directions. They broke a part Origen's deep and wide soul into competing systems. This was the later Origenism condemned repeatedly in the East, but this was not Origen's design, intent, or even problem. We may speak, in some sense, of an Origenist Problematic, but it is unjust to do so. While Origen may have become the source for Hellenized doctrines, he was also the inspiration of Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil's sister Macrina, who went on to teach their younger brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa. Origen truly taught the saints.

Origen's later treatment and condemnation, along with the spurious rumors of self-castration, perhaps should remind us of the Lord that he suffered for. For Origen was not only persecuted by the Romans, but was shamefully treated by his own descendants. David Bentley Hart is right to consider Justinian a "murderous thug", especially for blackening this man's character with his appended anathemas to the fifth ecumenical council at Constantinople. Origen's stout-hearted devotion to his Master led his name to be crucified. Origen believed that the Incarnation was not merely a one-time historical event, but that the history of the Word of God Enfleshed was revelation of how God the Word walked with many of the saints of Old, and continued to walk with those who were now saved according to the full revelation of the Truth. Truly, Origen walked the path of the Son of God.

Gregory of Nazianzus said that Origen was truly a whetstone, and may we all think that. It doesn't matter whether we ever read Origen, or try to puzzle out the brilliance of his language, we should all honor such a man for the incredible work he accomplished. Even if he was misunderstood, or that the subtlety of his thought was too much for students to handle, or even that Origen could not put together the solution he yearned for adequately, leading to confused and corrupting doctrine later down the line, we should honor him.

May we all pray for God to grant us more Origens, whose life and teaching remain an inspiration.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Resort to Paul: Romans 13 and Post-Facto Reasoning

This post is a response to Leithart's blog post: here

This will be probably one of my last responses to a Leithart blogpost, because I've realized that he is basically lazy with numerous presuppositions he holds to. I'm always amazed at how he will read and analyze subtle nuances in Scriptural chiasms, but utterly fail in noticing the bizarre dichotomies he sets up. It becomes frustrating because, as he smugly notes, "Absolutists are willing to enjoy the benefits of what they call 'violence' but are too pure to dirty their own hands." That is to say, those who reject Christian service in the military, the police, or even the modern state apparatus. But, of course, this completely misses the point. Sophisticated peace advocates, particularly Mennonites, are not so dense to do this. They ask genealogical questions about these institutions and look for alternatives.

As Leithart begs the question, does he not know there are alternatives to the modern military, the police, or even the nation-state? Why does he stupidly compare the Justinian Code to the American prison-industrial complex? The whole post seems mean-spirited and foolish. He acknowledges the Church has superior, spiritual, weapons befitting a society of the Age-to-Come, but then seems to completely abolish them by appeals to the "weak" who need defending. What about Origen's defense of Christian non-violence by arguing that Christian prayers do a better job defending the empire than swords? Not only does he beg the question of whether these institutions are needed to "defend the weak", or if they even accomplish it, he ignores completely a counter that then maybe all Chrisitans ought to be at prayer then, and less concerned with using inferior, temporal weapons. It all sounds like bad faith to me.

And there's the completely lazy sense that since the holy apostle Paul recognized the civil authority as bearing the "sword" and a "servant" of the Lord, it's ok for Christians to participate. But the prophet Isaiah reports the same language applied to the Nations besieging the Land, threatening Jerusalem. Is Leithart, therefore, saying it would be just for Jews to sign up with the Assyrians and pillage Israel? But wait, wasn't it God's will to chastise Israel? Romans 9-10 is a stumbling block for many.

At the end of the day, these arguments are dirty and full of post-facto reasoning. It is only because Christians exist in these institutions, or that these institutions exist and exert power, are these arguments even being made. And for someone whose goal is to gain power for the Church in civil affairs, it makes sense Leithart will make these arguments.

Again, I'm not a pacifist in any strict or doctrinaire sense, nor do I think Scripture advocates any such position. But it's clear, in these instances, to see how the lure of power warps the mind. If Leithart can't see how many counts of question begging he commits in such a stupid and simplistic article, it only confirms that, indeed, self-justification is at the heart of many of our delusions.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trampling Death by Death: Transhumanism and Cruciform Anthropology

This post is responding to an essay on Mockingbird about Transhumanism: here

The above article deals with the growing fantasy of immortality among tech gurus and Silicon Valley CEOs. Having watched my fair share of Robocop, Terminator, and the Matrix, I always shake my head and wonder how anyone could even fathom this sort of thing anymore. Don't we know that there will always be some crucial flaw? Of course not. But it did get me thinking about Christian eschatology, anthropology, and even the notion of life.

At the present, I'm in a kind of dialectical limbo over what constitutes that greatest doom to Mankind that Christ set us free from. For you see I was once a bright-eyed Evangelical who clearly saw Humanity as doomed by sin, which was simplistically understood as law-breaking and set in moral categories. I grew into this, allowing my existential temperament to think this out in all the deep forms of evil that we do. However, as those who have a similar character know, existentialism and self-reflection can be a very strange form of hedonism and masturbatory self-indulgence. It doesn't actually explain anything, but is mere vain imaginings. Then, I saw that perhaps the greatest problem is nothing less than death itself. I was caught with that "Eastern" wind that sees the victory of Christ in the conquest of death and ushering in life everlasting. But this too has its deficiencies.

A major problem is that this approach can cover-up the fact that Christ's death was victorious in someways. Clearly, this cannot be detached from the resurrection, and the two must be held together. But, and this is important, it was in the moment of death that the Centurion cried out: "This was truly [the] Son of God", the import being kerygmatic and not merely a strange slip from an amazed Gentile. What exactly was it that this Roman saw? Why didn't the Jewish crowd see it?

It is perhaps safest to agree with the Apostolic injunction that Christ defeated sin, death, and the devil, ruler of This World, and not attempt to ascribe one or the other as being more key than the other. The triad rises and falls together, and hence Christ's death undoes all three: by dying He defeats Death, by becoming sin He wipes it out, and, perhaps strikingly, by becoming the clearest form of Satan's dominion He breaks Satan's power once-and-for-all. The last point is perhaps a link between the former two. Christ, battered and humiliated, is victim of all the dark powers of This World, and yet they become the mechanisms that undermine and break them all. The Victim conquers.

What does this have to do with Transhumanism? Because immortality can only be good in the guise Christ reveals it in. The triad of sin, death, and devil can only be broken in one move. Immortality without the cross, without the becoming like sin and bringing out all the dark powers of This World, is not only terrible, it is Death. The Transhumanist fallacy of conquering Human finitude and mortality does not actually Death, but seemingly forestall it indefinitely. But the accent is on the 'seemingly', because this does not defeat Death but enthrone it permanently. It is the dream of Death's final stroke on the covenant between it and Humanity. Sin becomes the Law and Satan becomes God when Adam lives forevermore. This arrangement would permanently seal the First Adam who is bound to murder like Cain and blaspheme like Saul.

An additional note is to consider the birth of the Modern on slavery and our current obsession with technology. The modern world could only tout liberal social philosophy on the backs of a slave class. As Hegel pointed out, the Master Subject found freedom by seeing the Slave Object-Other. This never went away in the 19th century, it was merely transmuted into colonialism and wage-slavery. Technology has helped abolish slavery by footing the weight of labor. In other words, the machine becomes the new slave. This is not a condemnation of technology, per se, but the philosophy of technology. It is one thing for the machine to be the tool, the physical extension of the Human agent. It's another thing for the tool to be an Other, a self-contained, self-functioning, different entity. The Hegelian dream has always been fusion, synthesis, where the Subject fully dominates the Other. This is not about picking up a hammer, because the hammer is never a possible I, a potential Other to be assimilated into the I. The slave who does the will of the master now has become a functional double. Humanity always seems to never be satisfied with the first philosophy of the tool, and always lurches towards the second. This same impulse is manifest in the possible idolatry of familes and prodigy. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 makes this latter point pretty clear, though it has its own problematic philosophy as well.

This sub-conscious recognition of the machine-as-slave has manifested through Sci-Fi works which see uprisings of AI against Human masters (whether I-Robot or The Matrix)*. Liberalism's unique form of mass chattel slavery still remains, and it should disturb us when we then consider the machine to be the mechanism of immortality. To put it in really ugly terms, go watch Get Out, which puts this impulse on display in the traditional guise of the negro instead of the machine. It is the same social technology of Liberal slavery. In this, Transhumanism immortality truly depends upon a kind of slavery and domination.

But none of this is new. Transhumanism, like Marxism, is a Christian heresy, a secularized set of doctrine. But the problem is not merely that it is a heresy because it is secular, rather it is a secularizing of a pre-existing heresy. This is nothing less than Luther's tirade against a theology of glory, one that imagines salvation consists in riding on a bed of roses. Now, nowhere does this imply that such a theology is not hard. Luther was a monk like others, he knew the rigors. But it was secure and stable. The walls of the monastery were sealed from the cruel, putrid, and horrifying life outside of its walls, a life that was perpetuated by so-called Christian princes and prelates. Salvation was possible for those who could commit, the feeble Human hand reaching up to a Divine abyss. It was an attempt for Humanity to leave its Humanity behind to reach the Divine.

Luther uncovered the theological signature of the Heresy which took its first fighting form in the Gnostic. The problem is not Gnosticism, but the claim buried beneath the maze of doctrines, myths, and practices of this ancient movement. There are no modern Gnostics, but the Heresy has continued on through the ages, mutated, translated, transformed, and adapted.

Now granted, there's something respectable about the Transhumanist, bearer of this Signature, though its respect one has for the enemy one faces. There are too many who've buried the weight of sin, death, and the devil's reign beneath silly cares, hardened hearts, and stopped ears. Per Dostoevksy's Inquisitor, it seems the Devil can either enslave or recruit; he has peons and apprentices.  The latter reach out to rectify Humanity's problems, making do with the Age in which we live in.

However, in faith, we see Christ on the cross as no failure, but victory. It was there where the King ruled and passed His verdict: mercy, life, and the end of the Devil. The Resurrection was, if nothing else, when King got to work enforcing His declaration. Like the Lord, the Christian must too pass his/her judgement on the evil triad. Our deaths become a sweet fragrance of victory. And as Transhumanists, and whoever else bears the Signature, toil to build their Babel, the Christian has the Lord's Promise that His work was indeed finished.

* I got this idea from Adam Kotsko's post on modernity and machine fantasies: here