Saturday, October 24, 2015

Waging War

Now, there are many kinds of battles and wars in life. The most intense and demanding is entering into the spiritual battle the Lord Jesus Christ calls us into.

Yes, the atonement and remission of sins is complete. Christ has bore God's Wrath (A Wrath that belongs to Father, Son, and Spirit) against sin, emptied death of its power and fear, and smashed the Devil's skull and his legion of demons with the Jaw-Bone of His own Humiliation. The Victory is for Christ and His Church. But the war is not over. As the Apostle tells us, we bear about the marks of Christ in our bodies. We are called into imitation, losing our lives so we may find them, bearing our own crosses towards Salvation's Hill.

We receive salvation, passively awoken by the grace of God (i.e. Jesus calling us). I think Augustine read the Scriptures rightly. But once we are awake, we are called into a life of battle, a repetition of Christ's victory over sin, death, and the devil. Some might call this the divide between justification and sanctification. I think that's poorly applying words to the reality. We are saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.

But what many have lost is the demand for this kind of battle. It's not a battle waged by moralism or propping up cultural practices. It's not a battle waged through passivity and searching for nirvana. It's not a battle of medieval ladder climbing, turning sacraments into magik. It's the kind of battle many Christians have seen and engaged in many ways. To be a Christian is to be a disciple, and to be a disciple is to move, out of the love of God and our neighbor*, towards healing. It is to become a Human as a Human is supposed to be, namely Christ, which is why we are the diminutive (Christian means 'little Christ').

We war against the machinations of many sins. St. Paul lists many of them and calls them the 'fruit of the flesh'. Cut off from life, cut off from the Source of Life, we turn inward and feed off ourselves. What we find is greed, pettiness, lying, vicious jealousy, idolatry, sexual immorality, violence, murder, cruelty, contempt, etc. The work of the evil in us is not merely head-liners. Sin working in us produces sneering, gossip, two-facedness, saccharine niceness without compassion, manipulation, word-breaking, passive-aggression, and many more.

The war is doing battle with these. How? By using the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. What does this actually mean? I end with a quote from the Desert Fathers:

A brother asked one of the Fathers, What shall I do? My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour’s respite, and my soul is tormented by it. He said to him, Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel; but it rests with you to welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts.

The brother answered the old man, What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?? He said to him, Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Then the brother said to him, Look, Abba, I meditate, and there is no compunction in my heart because I do not understand the meaning of the words. The other said to him, Be content to meditate. Indeed, I have learned that Abba Poemen and many other Fathers uttered the following saying, The magician does not understand the meaning of the words which he pronounces, but the wild animal who hears it understands, submits, and bows to it. So it is with us also; even if we do not understand the meaning of the words we are saying, when the demons hear them, they take fright and go away.

*By neighbor, I mean and don't mean how most people understand this. One's neighbor is not just anyone, but could be anyone. The particularity is important. This is the difference between liberal thought and Christian thought. I will expand on this in another post.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Predestined by Beauty

"What the Heart loves, the Will chooses, and the Mind justifies"- Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

This post will be part biographical and part dogmatic.

Most of my life I highly valued my will and my struggle to be (and remain) incorruptible. There was something that warmed me about Robespierre being nicknamed such. I high valued the stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius for their candid rejection of worldly pomp for the inner-solitude of being right and refusing to be touched by emotion. I was a vain pagan who will-worshiped.

Yet, having become a Christian and reading the Scriptures and many who followed them, I began to struggle with the remnants of my stoicism. Now, granted, Stoicism teaches a compatibility of the will with an already mapped Destiny. As one philosopher put it, "you can follow Fate, or be dragged by her". But I resisted this. I wanted to retain my emphasis on my free-will, unfettered and strong. Christ the Lord is many times merciful in when certain truths seize the mind.

But eventually I cracked as the question "how did I get here?" I could not reconcile the turns and twists of my past with the choices I made. I battled the logic of any kind of 'predestination', but it was futile. I squirmed as God placed this before me, haunting me with the implications. I tried to be an Arminian, I tried to be a Molinist, I tried to do some sort of bamboozled calculus. None of it could get around God as initiator. I was confronted with the simple scene from the Gospel where Christ merely says to Matthew, "Follow Me", and Matthew up and left his booth.

I was still up in the air. My only exposure with predestination was within the world of the Reformation. I was mostly disgusted with Calvin and his offspring. I had accepted their point of contention, that grace alone saved, it was the single-handed work of God from On High who condescended to those below. But it had ruthless implications that I struggled to come to terms with. I was merely exposed to bare-bones decretal theology and the arid rationalism that came with it.

I was aided in this quest by two things: a rejection of rationalism in a more dynamic redemptive-history, and a 'Barthian' redefinition of election. But these both really only spun me in circles. Redemptive-History is a must for approaching the Scriptures, and Barth is a titan, but neither helped me deeply understand predestination.

It took the old African bishop, st. Augustine, to strike me in the deep. I became a predestinarian when I saw Augustine's explication of God's love. The overwhelming love of God, the grace offered and incarnated as Jesus Christ, is what defined and undergirded my election and, despite the appearance, affirmed my freedom. I was freed in my being called. I was in chains and had to be set loose. The initial nagging was both realized and completed. I had wandered through life into Christ's arms, but only at His beckoning.

Now, I understand that the presentations of Reformed theology may seem lopped sided. It is. But I am merely articulating the presentations I received, and this is important. It took Augustine, the theologian of love, to channel the passion and flames and confidence in such a doctrine. He was the one who provided the ideas to retool my imagination. The Holy Spirit used this saint's writings to turn my head upside down.

But here is why I would affirm being an Augustinian without necessarily proceeding to call myself a Calvinist on this issue. Augustine maintained a physicality in his writings, a deep sacramentality in the life of the Church. What I am saying is that Augustine's battles with his own Manichaean learning led him to affirming a Church that existed in material form, not according to magik, but in mystery. Augustine was able to maintain aesthetics in the life of the Church.

Aesthetics becomes a dangerous area to tread. I have since renounced my Puritan instincts, but the initial suspicion is not unwarranted. How are we to know if we are worshiping at God's Temple or at the High Places? I will write on this later, but the answer is that being able to affirm the Beauty of the Creation, especially embedded in the worship of the Church, is not evil but good and necessary.

Thus, thinking about beauty and enrapture is the only way to approach predestination and the call of God. We do not know why the Apostle Matthew got up to follow Jesus. But perhaps, as the crowds were, he was touched by the Holy Spirit. As they were moved to grief, overcome with the glory they had suppressed, perhaps Matthew was moved by joy. He saw a touch of the glory, the glory that exuded from His robe to heal the bleeding woman, the glory which Peter saw on the mount of Transfiguration.

Predestination, the election of the person into Christ, is irresistible. But it is irresistible like a beautiful artwork. It is irresistible like the smell of a delicious meal. It is irresistible like a warm embrace. This beauty is the defining feature of such a call. Salvation comes by our "doors" being covered by the "blood of the Lamb". But such a process touches all parts of us.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Nothing like the 50's: Nihilism and the Golden Years

I was a fan of the show Mad Men when it was on TV. I watched a couple seasons, but got warn out of watching Don Draper have affairs and I lost my attention for the tediousness of the drama. Maybe that reflects more on me than the quality of the show. But I was given a refreshing, though depressing, dose of what made this show piercing by seeing the play Bus Stop the other night.

The play is a chronicle in a bar in Nowhere, Kansas where a strange cast have a series of complex relations, all while waiting for a winter storm to pass by. The question raised is what love is. It reminded me a lot of the mood of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which dealt with purpose and identity.  None of the characters walk away satisfied, except in superficial ways. The closest thing to "love" is the marriage of a belligerent cowboy to a fearful, and searching show-girl. Their relationship could take up the rest of my post if I wanted. It's so full of biting irony and tongue-in-cheek insults that its substance is about as real as Hollywood.

Anyway, without getting into the details of the play, it, like Mad Men, reveals the utterly bankrupt way of life America the Beautiful is left with. The thing about this play is that it has no transcendental reference, it is a flat immanence. It is a world filled with luxury, peace, quiet. The only real goal it seems is to find someone to want and to be wanted by someone. I guess it's just me, I've never been able to allow this to drive my life, to stave off the empty gnawing that there is still something more.

The 50's is the era where this nihilism really set in. It's a world that is fully Christian, but it is a heretical and immanentized Christianity. What that means is that God is really nothing more than the sum-total of social movements. He is just a part of the motions one goes through. It is the eclipse of the bourgeoisie frame of mind, where nothing has any deep meaning. We isolate and yet are utterly lonely. In the play, the frankness of sex and promiscuity is not to scandalize. It's not even titillating. It's boring. It's, as one character put it, finding a man every once and awhile so she isn't so grouchy.

This isn't so far from the mores of the 50's. Though it's all kept in a traditional framework. The hypocrisy of the Golden Years caused the revolution of the 60's. The children of this generation were tired of the double dealing. They wanted to break out and find answers. Of course the Hippy movement collapsed under its own weight and gave birth to the Nihilism of the 80's, a synthesis between the status quo and the libertine attitudes. It was the era where faux praise to humility, chastity, fidelity etc. was trashed.

The Nihilism of all these works of art were best done when they were done in sincerity. The abolition of the transcendent, the functional 'Death-of-God' theology that the modern world had accepted, was not necessarily looked at as bad. And I say Death of God not in reference to Altizer who formalized such a movement. I mean the liberal merchants in Nietzsche's parable, the ones who murdered God and yet were not even aware of what they had done. A collective amnesia set in after they stashed the body.

It is a disturbing Nihilism because it is not the Nihilism of a mass-killer or an adventurous, sad soul. It's not someone who spray paints on bathroom stalls. It's a happy Nihilism. It is a calculated Nihilism. It's a completely flat world and a certain acceptance of it. The mood is very eery to me, and gives me shivers. It's the man who grows up, goes to school, gets married, has children, sends them to school, presides over his family, retires, and dies. It's the man who accepts the abyss as the foundation of his life. He is unreflective. He is exceptionally civilized and polite, and yet is more animal than human.

The 50's are praised in Conservative circles as the time when America was great. God have mercy on us.


Saint Kateri & Incarnation

I've been engrossed in reading recent monographs and historical work about Native Americans and Colonial Europeans. One fascinating thing that keeps popping out is the real power, and the effectiveness, of many Jesuit missionaries who came to the "New World" to bring the gospel. Especially when compared to other European nations who came to the United States, there is a hope that radiates of the page of even critical and analytical scholarship.

The Jesuit Missions sought to form communities that sustained themselves ('missions') and would provide the context of both hearing the Word of God, and growing into it. It is such a context in Kawnahwake in New France (south of modern Montreal) that Kateri, a Mohawk girl, would give her life for Christ and be venerated by Christians as a true saint of God. Here, both French and Iroquois would give praise to God in the life of this little girl (she died when she was 24).

This is not to vindicate French colonial behavior or France's imperial ambitions. Nor is this vindicating most Roman Catholic missions. Many were oppressive and acted as imperial outposts.  However, in contrast to the English, these French seem worlds apart. There's something telling that the early Puritan 'praying-towns' were an abysmal failure and were an abandoned project during and after King Phillip's War.

What was the difference? I'm not going to examine imperial policy generally or certain cultural suppositions, though these are important lenses. Instead, let's look at merely how these missionary engagements were arranged.

The Missions were places where cultures blended. The French and Iroquois who lived there would take from one another liberally and generously. One would find French architecture on Iroquois buildings. One would find Frenchmen wearing moccasins, deer-skins, and smoking the 'calumet' (peace pipe) with their fellows. These were not mere pragmatic adoptions to win over the Natives. There was a genuine breakdown of us-them. French and Iroquois would intermarry. Te Deum was sung in Mohawk. There was real sense of unity out of a shared Christian identity.

The Praying Town was instead a place where not only God was offered through word and sacrament, but a new culture was brought to those Natives who came. Englishness was next to godliness and thus became an imperative of conversion. Becoming Christian meant dressing like a Puritan, it meant learning English, and practicing English customs (especially in regards to the land).

What was different? I think an especial key point in these differing perspectives was theological. There was particular understanding of doctrine and liturgy between these two groups. The Puritans seemed to have reified their positions into a hard-nosed way of life. There was no place for difference or different station. There were authority structures, but every man and woman was called to the same ideal.

I think this is a main reason why New England Puritan theology is so repugnant (to me at least). First, we must recognize that one's theology has implication for one's "culture", how one sees and acts in the World. For the Puritans this was a deeply bounded set. It was sectarian vision that misunderstood Christ. It was a recapitulation of the Judaizing heresy. The typing done by Puritans reflects a group who does not see the New Creation opened through Christ. They were an Israel Redivivus who had to subdue, ward off, or exterminate their 'Canaanite' neighbors.

These people, on the other-hand, understood a better vision of New Creation. They saw how Christ came to call all Nations. It's the missionary impulse that would send Paul out to the Gentiles, willing to speak Greek to the Greek, utilize his poets to disarm him, and preach Christ to him/her in words he'd understand. It was an undermining of previous forms, but not by rejecting them. They were able to 'incarnate' the Gospel in a way that Iroquois understood.

But not only this. The Missions also provided a continuing way of life. Liturgy was brought to them in their own language. The Eucharist was not compromised, but cultural forms (i.e. dress, language, posture) might reflect a different people and group. It was in this mixing that a Church-community was able to be formed and maintained.

The New France Jesuits were not the only ones to do this. The Moravians, much later, were able to bring the same thing. The emphasis on blood by these particularly sacramental Christians resonated with Indians for whom blood was a powerful source and symbol. Thus the purity of Christ's blood "clicked".

For those of us Christians, we need to take these stories to heart. We cannot let the Gospel of our Incarnated, Crucified, Resurrected, Ascended Savior be circumscribed to one particular time and place. We can't let our theological terms and diction, our emphases and 'story-telling' be stagnated. I mean, we are all reading the Bible in English, are we not? The work of Wycliffe and Tyndale 'enfleshed' the Canon into English phrases, and yet invented new ones to convey the truth of the text (e.g. loving-kindness, long-suffering, atonement).

We are both catholic and apostolic. There is a world-wide applicability to the Gospel, but it is rooted in history, in the appointed Disciples who brought the truth to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the whole World.