Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Wideness of God's Mercy

Barbara Crafton, at The Geranium Farm has a brilliant Almost Daily eMo for today. She says, talking about the present FUD that is troubling parts of the Anglican Communion:

The Church is the Body of Christ, we affirm, but it is the body of Christ among human beings. As fish swim in water, human beings live in history. For as long as we draw breath, we do not escape it. And history is always a journey. History travels from one place to another. Its beginnings are not its endings. Although the domain of God is timeless, life on the earth is not: it only moves forward. Whatever else the Church may be, it is not a way out of the pilgrimage of human history.

We may long for a way out, but we will not find one. You and I will move aside, will yield our places to those who wait to take theirs. Over time, we have seen that the company of those who claim a place at the table of the Lord has widened. Over time, we have seen that some of what was once unthinkable has become normal, and some of what was once normal has become unthinkable, and that the direction of these changes has been toward the wideness of God's mercy. Only rarely has this happened easily. Our assumptions, too, will yield - indeed, they are yielding at this very moment.

So we must go slowly in asserting the timelessness of our own customs, however dear they may be to us. Judging from what we have noticed about the widening movement in history, we must question ourselves with especial rigor whenever we cherish and defend any system that enshrines us at its summit. In the name of moral honesty, I must always suspect myself: perhaps it is not really morality I defend. It may only be turf.

Might marriage change its meaning? Might it move, a bit, from one place in the landscape to another? Most assuredly, it will, as it has many times before. Might the complexion of ordained ministry change as well? Certainly it will. It already has, many times. And are these things steps on a downward spiral that can only end in chaos and the death of faith, as some are absolutely certain they are?

Not at all. Fear not: faith does not die unless we choose to stop trusting in the love of God and serving the children of God. That airlessness alone kills it, and even then it only lies dormant, ready to spring to life again, given half a chance, a little sunlight, and half a cup of water.

Thank you, Barbara! That last paragraph is just what I've been trying to find the words to say, many times, to people who raise these concerns. The Church is God's church - he gathered it together, and he's certainly not going to let a few arguments between Bishops derail his purpose for it, no matter what the enemy might intend. We need to remember Romans 8.28 (for the nth time): "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The whole family of Creation

Friar Jack Wintz OFM has a wonderful article, St Francis and the Birds, in which he recounts St Bonaventure's story of Francis'

...deep personal dilemma: Should he retire from the world and devote himself entirely to prayer or should he continue traveling about as a preacher of the gospel? To answer this question, St. Francis sends brothers to seek the advice of two of his most trusted colleagues: Brother Sylvester and the holy virgin Clare and her sisters.

The word comes back very quickly from both Sylvester and Clare that it is their clear judgment that God wants Francis to keep proclaiming the good news of God’s saving love. No sooner does Francis hear their response than he immediately stands up, and in the words of St. Bonaventure, "without the slightest delay he takes to the roads, to carry out the divine command with great fervor..."

The typical reader at this juncture, I believe, would expect St. Bonaventure to portray St. Francis as rushing off to the nearest village or marketplace to begin preaching the gospel to the people gathered there. But where does Francis actually go? Francis’ very next stop, according to Bonaventure, is this:

"He came to a spot where a large flock of birds of various kinds had come together. When God’s saint saw them, he quickly ran to the spot and greeted them as if they were endowed with reason….

"He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying, ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.’…The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively..."

Bonaventure’s story of Francis preaching to birds was a minor shock to me and perhaps to you also. Had Francis not just learned from his special advisors Brother Sylvester and Lady Clare that God wanted him to continue his preaching ministry? And should we not assume that the primary audience of his preaching should be other human beings—and not bunches of birds? I believe that Bonaventure is trying to shock us into widening our horizons, and into learning with St. Francis that the whole family of creation deserves more respect and ought to be invited to praise God along with us human beings. Maybe just as Francis accused himself of negligence for not inviting the birds—and other animals, reptiles, and so forth—to praise God with him, so we need to admit the same kind of negligence, too.

The more St. Francis grew in wisdom and in his understanding that God’s saving love goes out to all creatures, the more he began to see that all creatures make up one family. The most important key to Francis’ understanding that all creatures form one family is the Incarnation. Francis had a great fascination for the feast of Christmas. He was deeply aware of that one moment in history in which God entered creation and the Word became flesh. In his mind, this awesome event sent shockwaves through the whole fabric of creation. The Divine Word not only became human. The Word of God became flesh, entering not only the family of humanity but the whole family of creation, becoming one in a sense with the very dust out of which all things were made...

As if this were not enough, Friar Jack goes on to address the the thought that was immediately coming up in my own mind - how is it that, given such insight into God's mercy for all of creation, there are still many Christians teaching their children that animals have no "souls" and therefore cannot be expected to have eternal life. (That always seems a little Manichean to me, as though spirit were good, and flesh somehow base and suspect - which makes God's motives in the Incarnation seem a bit odd, to say the least.) He says:

Will we see our pets and other creatures in the next life? Only God can answer a question like this. But because of his preaching to the birds and his growing respect for other creatures, St. Francis seemed to be developing the insight that God’s plan of salvation is perhaps larger than most of us have imagined. Near the end of his life, Francis composed his Canticle of the Creatures in which he invites all creatures to praise God - Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, and our Sister Mother Earth and so forth. He seems to see more clearly than ever that all creatures make up one family of creation. And this leads to the question: If we, like Francis, are expected to invite all creatures to praise God with us during our life here on earth, shouldn’t they also be invited to praise God in heaven, as well?

In an article in St Anthony Messenger Magazine, Friar Jack gives us some words I'll borrow to sum up, words which show him truly to be my brother, and a man after my own heart:

...from all the evidence... I believe we can make a good case for the hope embedded deep in each human heart, namely, that the whole family of creation will someday share in the fullness of salvation won by Jesus Christ.

The more we see the full implications of our belief in the resurrection of the body and understand the biblical vision of God's inclusive love, the easier it is for us to give a hopeful answer to our children's question.

In the final analysis, how many of us are truly satisfied with a vision of heaven that does not include the whole family of creation? We take comfort, therefore, in St. Paul's words that "all creation is groaning" for its freedom and redemption (Romans 8:22). More than that, we embrace the great apostle's "hope that creation itself would... share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I get it...

Kelly Joyce Neff, over at Fioretta, has a just wonderful post all about the necessity of the Church, and how God uses the institutions of the Church to hold us, and keep us, despite our wanderings - like the paths of a labyrinth bring us at last to the still centre.

Actually, I'm not doing justice to Kelly's post. Just click over there and read it... now, before you forget!

Her closing words are priceless: "I was a little nonplussed at first at all this passion and traditio and Mozart's great C Minor Mass thundering in the back of my mind - I sound like such a conservative! - but, amid all the imagery, good and bad, glorious and ignoble. there was our little man of Assisi, smiling gently. Yes, Blessed Father Francis, I get it."


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Famine to Feast

Let me define what I mean by famine. Famine is the reigning myth. It is king and queen, emperor and president. As the kids would say, “It rules.” Myth one is that there is not enough. You will barely get through an hour anywhere in the first-world without the subtext of “there is not enough” coming up. “I would love to come but I am so busy.”

Myth two is that more is better. “When I get the promotion or the gig or the partner, then I will have the more I need to be better.”

Myth three is that there is nothing you can do about it. “I won’t get the promotion or the gig or the partner, and if I do it won’t work out, so there is really nothing to do but stay here and whine about it along with the rest of the culture.”

Myth four—and this is really a new one, straight from the Republicans—is that you are personally responsible. No pension? You must have invested your 401K wrong. No health insurance? You probably didn’t take good care of your health. No freedom from work? You probably went to the wrong graduate school.

These four myths are relatives. They all belong to the same family. They dine very well together every night. There is not enough. More is better. There is nothing you can do about it. You are personally responsible.

The story of the wedding at Cana is a striking alternative to the king, queen, prince, and princess myths. It says just the opposite: there is plenty, we have enough, there are lots of things you can do to change things, and we are positively personally responsible. There is not blame here—as in who ordered the wrong amount of wine—but there is hope. As they will say at the World Social Forum, over and over again, another world is possible.

I am a recovering famine freak. I am training myself to be a feast freak. I choose small strategic gifts. I choose a feast mentality (even though there are plenty of days of desperation and despair still left). I also choose a steady principled pace that has plenty of time for setbacks—as well as plenty of time built into it for my money to create lasting change. The better wine is coming. That is the first and central point of view I have on money. From there the rest is simpler.

From Living Well While Doing Good by Donna Schaper. A Seabury Book, an imprint of Church Publishing. Copyright © 2007. Used by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY.

[Courtesy of Vicki K Black]

Things are still slightly different here in the UK; but there are plenty, in and out of Government, who feel that the answer to the funding crisis in the National Health Service is private health insurance, and that the answer to the increasing cost of pensions as people on average live longer is to insist on privately-funded or employer-driven pension schemes. The culture of blame is spreading so widely that schools dare not organise school outings for fear of being blamed if something goes wrong, and hospitals dare not allow flowers to brighten the lives of patients for fear of being blamed for the spread of infection.

As Christians we may feel that there is little we can do to help a situation like this: that between the Press and the Government, the famine mentality is here to stay. Yet we can each live the feast. St Francis used to encourage his Brothers to preach the Gospel, and only to use words if necessary. Who knows what might not be achieved if we were to live, and to pray, the Gospel life in the midst of the culture of appetite?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Another good bit from Merton...

If I am to know the will of God, I must have the right attitude toward life. I must first of all know what life is, and to know the purpose of my existence.

It is all very well to declare that I exist in order to save my soul and give glory to God by doing so. And it is all very well to say that, in order to do this, I obey certain commandments and keep certain counsels. Yet knowing this much, and indeed knowing all moral theology and ethics and canon law, I might still go through life conforming myself to certain indications of God's will without ever fully giving myself to God. For that, in the last analysis, is the real meaning of His will. He does not need our sacrifices, He asks for our selves. And if He prescribes certain acts of obedience, it is not because obedience is the beginning and the end of end of everything. It is only the beginning. Charity, divine union, transformation in Christ: these are the end.

Thomas Merton. No Man Is An Island. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955: p. 63.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Jesus Prayer and Intercession

Since this last weekend, when all the things I was talking about in my post for Holy Cross Day came together, I've been thinking long and hard about the Jesus Prayer, and how the way that I've been drawn to it for nearly 30 years now fits with the longing I have to pray for our heartbroken and wounded world, and all who live in it with me.

You will recall that the classical form of the Jesus Prayer is: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I'm coming to realise that what is happening is that in the acknowledgement of myself as a sinner, so I am acknowledging not only my own sins, but also my utter identity with a fallen, broken Creation. There is nothing else I can do: there is no way that I can step outside of Creation, no way that I can regard myself as essentially different from every other created thing and being. What affects them affects me, and vice versa.

Increasingly, I am coming to realise that no one else's suffering is just theirs, and no one else's action is carried out in vacuo. I am hurt by that which hurts my sister, and I am implicated all that my brother does.

There is, of course, a flip-side to all this. In the Prayer I ask for mercy. I know that, as I ask it from, and in the name of, Jesus, I receive it in the very act of asking. But it's not just me that receives it. What affects me affects Creation. The mercy that is poured out on me overflows to all Creation. In some extraordinary way that I can take no credit for, the Creation is being loved through me.

Surely this is what Paul talks about in Romans 8.19-21:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

So somehow, if I can remain faithful to the practice of the Prayer, I remain faithful to both callings, to intercession and to the Prayer itself. I know of nothing, truly, that is for me more beautiful or more necessary than this.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Holy Cross Day

Today is Holy Cross Day, also called the Feast of the Cross, or the Triumph of the Cross. It is of course our patronal festival at the Church of the Holy Rood (Rood is an old word for the Cross), although this year it is being celebrated on Sunday, as part of the Flower Festival and general shindig for the 100th anniversary of the re-hanging of the bells.

Tomorrow, though, is the Stigmata Festival (our local Third Order area is celebrating with the Brothers at Hilfield Friary) commemorating St Francis' receiving the Stigmata - the first recorded case of someone receiving the wounds of Christ, in his case in response to his prayer that, before he died, he might know something of the sufferings of Jesus, and of the love that brought him to the Cross. The full story is here.

Dr Petà Dunstan wrote an article for franciscan magazine (January 1997) where she speaks of the stigmata we are all called to suffer as we follow our Lord on the way of the Cross. She writes:

Our adult lives are about choices: choices which may wound us. I believe the Stigmata challenges us about our wounds. We have to give up things – and people – sometimes. We have to choose one job, one home, one relationship, one life, over and above another. And a Christian life demands these certain sacrifices alongside giving certain joys. Those decisions leave us with our very own stigmata.

So where are your stigmata? They might have something to do with your own sense of vocation. They might be about a decision you took. They might concern a relationship you felt you had to give up, an opportunity you passed by, or a failure to achieve what you set out to do. Any life situation in which you took a difficult decision knowing that some hurt was caused to others and to yourself. You may have been wrong, but you nevertheless made your choice in good faith. And deep inside you still feel a pain about it. You still have a wound.

So, how do we Christians deal with our wounds? The first step is in recognizing that these wounds are there. That is not always an easy thing to do. For we live in a culture in which success is an idol. We are expected to achieve, to win, not be a ‘loser’. We should aim to ‘have it all’. It is all a matter of succeeding. In such a world, pain is unacceptable. It is seen as a sign of failure either in ourselves or others. So we are tempted to pretend. We act unwounded.

And then comes the time when we can not do it any more. We have to cry out. Our culture then pushes us fast in the opposite direction. We become ‘walking failures’, convinced of our unworthiness and uselessness. We agonise over the negative sides of our lives and become locked in self-doubt and low self-esteem. We chase imaginary failures and analyse quite trivial problems. We believe we are too fat, too ugly, too stupid, too slow. And chasing all these exaggerations is just another way of avoiding the real issues and looking at the real wounds.

So, as Christians, our first step is to witness honestly, neither evading our wounds nor becoming obsessed by them. We then have to take a second step. We have to see our wounds as part of who we are. For these very wounds are one of the creative forces of our own personalities and of our own Christian commitment. They are not alien or separate, but integral to the human being we have become. They are a part of the whole person, whom God loves unconditionally, and so part of the whole we too must love. Healing is not about discarding but about accepting. We do not heal our wounds by cutting them out and throwing them away. We heal them by surrounding them with love.

And so to the final step. Christ teaches us that pain and suffering are not an end. We transcend them by transforming them into a beginning, and using them as an opportunity for growth. So if we have had to make a difficult choice, we should live out fully the way we have chosen. Think of our novice friar at the beginning. Whichever decision he makes, he should try to live it positively. For either path can be an affirmation. The pain of the initial choice can lead to the joy of commitment.

As an Easter people, we are proclaimers of the truth of the Resurrection. The power that gives us is that we know vulnerability and weakness are truly a strength. It is then because of our wounds that we can proclaim our faith. And we are no longer afraid of the wounds of others because we have a message of hope and love to give them. We can use our own experience to help and comfort others. Our wounds become a window to the truth of the Gospel for us.

I know that this is true. In my own life, the little sufferings I have had, the hard choices I have had sometimes to make, have in the end become a window, perhaps the only clear window, in my life through which it is sometimes possible authentically to witness to a Gospel which has something to say to a suffering world, and is more than just a shallow, glossy placebo. Without those small stigmata, I should have nothing to say.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Merton at his best...

The real difficulty in defining a Christian conscience is that it is neither collective nor individual. It is personal, and it is a communion of saints.

From the point of view of prayer, when I say conscience, I am talking of this consciousness that is deeper than the moral conscience. When I pray, I am no longer talking to God or myself loved by God. When I pray, the Church prays in me. My prayer is the prayer of the Church.

This does not apply only to liturgy: it applies also to private prayer because I am a member of Christ. If I am going to pray validly and deeply, it will be with a consciousness of myself as being more than just myself when I pray. In other words, I am not just an individual when I pray, and I am not just an individual with grace when I pray. When I pray, I am in a certain sense, everybody. The mind that prays in me is more than my own mind, and the thoughts that come up in me are more than my own thoughts because this deep consciousness when I pray is a place of encounter between myself and God and between the common love of everybody. It is the common will and love of the Church meeting with my will and God's will in my consciousness and conscience when I pray.

Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton in Alaska. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1988: 134-135.

This is Thomas Merton at his staggering best. When I read something like this I realise I'm reading the words of a man who was so steeped in the life of the Church that his every breath was a known movement of the Body of Christ.

Thinking about this post, it is really the validation I've known was there for the whole life and practice of contemplative prayer, but I've somehow never been able to find the words to truly understand it, let alone express it. "When I pray, I am in a certain sense, everybody." Yes! That is what happens!

"The mind that prays in me is more than my own mind, and the thoughts that come up in me are more than my own thoughts because this deep consciousness when I pray is a place of encounter between myself and God and between the common love of everybody." Now that is just what I keep trying to say when I continually quote (here and on The Mercy Site) Romans 8.26-27: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." It finds another echo in another of my favourite quotes: "The secret of Christian contemplation is that it faces us with Jesus Christ toward our suffering world in loving service and just action..." (Catherine of Siena)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

But of course!

You're Watership Down!
by Richard Adams
Though many think of you as a bit young, even childish, you're actually incredibly deep and complex. You show people the need to rethink their assumptions, and confront them on everything from how they think to where they build their houses. You might be one of the greatest people of all time. You'd be recognized as such if you weren't always talking about talking rabbits.
Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Mandaean Humanitarian Movement

Fascinating - I knew nothing about these poor beleaguered people whom time and war have forgotten. Do go and read their strange and heartbreaking story...  

The Mandaean Humanitarian Movement

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Love Does That

All day long a little burro labors, sometimes
with heavy loads on her back and sometimes just with worries
about things that bother only

And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting
than physical labor.

Once in a while a kind monk comes
to her stable and brings
a pear, but more
than that,

he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears

and for a few seconds the burro is free
and even seems to laugh,

because love does

Love frees.

(by Meister Eckhart, courtesy of the Joan Chittister Newsletter)

I thought I'd post this beautiful little poem to celebrate really good news from the hospital about Jan's health... Our fears, though not groundless, were just fears - there is not even any immediate need for treatment.

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Franciscan Obscurity - St. Rose of Viterbo

 I truly love the fact that:

The list of Franciscan saints seems to have quite a few men and women who accomplished nothing very extraordinary. Rose is one of them. She did not influence popes and kings, did not multiply bread for the hungry and never established the religious order of her dreams. But she made a place in her life for Gods grace, and like St. Francis before her, saw death as the gateway to new life.

Rose's dying words to her parents were: "I die with joy, for I desire to be united to my God. Live so as not to fear death. For those who live well in the world, death is not frightening, but sweet and precious."

Saint of the Day

There is something so wholesome about obscurity in God - one of my favourite Scripture passages is Colossians 3.3, "...for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."

The private side of our life with God in prayer is to be a secret one: "...whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6.6)

We should really never long to do great things for Christ - we should long only to obey him, to do only those things our hand finds to do. The results may be unheard, almost unremembered, like St Rose's; or they may change the world, like St Francis' - that is not up to us. Isn't that a relief?

Obscurity is refreshing, like clear water on a hot and bothered day; it is nourishing, like good brown bread. When we live in obscurity, we live in wholeness, and our hearts are free to love.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Pelagius V

It didn't seem fair to keep tacking poor old Pelagius' name on to the whole discussion that's occupied me so far this month - I was going to change the title to "Free Will," and then I discovered a post by The Philosophical Midwife, entitled Between Augustine and Pelagius: A Middle Way, so I gave up...

He says:

Why would a Christian say such things as this [denying original sin]? Pelagius' reason was simple. He held that, if we come into the world with a nature ruined by Adam's sin, our later sins are inevitable and thus not culpable. The plausibility of this is difficult to deny. Do we hold someone responsible for something that could not help but do? Do we punish them when their act was inevitable?

I do agree with the claim that we are not culpable for that which we cannot ourselves help but do. Thus I think that a just God would not punish us for our sins if they grow out of an innate sin-nature. But am I forced to reject the doctrine of original sin? I am not. I embrace it. (Indeed I think that, of all bedrock Christian doctrines, this is the one whose truth is most clearly visible in the world around us. We are ruined creatures, as is plain to see.) But how then do I avoid the conclusion that God punishes those who could not help but sin? My answer is simple: in the end all are saved, and God punishes no one.

Now I don't think I am wholly with the good Midwife here: I am more in sympathy with Julian of Norwich, who held that wrath is not in God, but in our opposition to him. That being the case, it seems to me that salvation is a gift offered freely to all, but that it is possible consistently to refuse that gift, and thus be lost. The hell-fire and brimstone imagery may then be just that - picture language for an eternity without God - on which reckoning it seems to me more like understatement than hyperbole...

I am well aware that there will be those people who will want sincerely to remind me that Romans 8.28, which I was talking about yesterday, goes on to say, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." Vv.29-30 rub in that thought: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified."

It is possible to derive from this not only the doctrine of irresistible grace I mentioned yesterday, but that of double predestination, whereby:
The classic position of Reformed theology views predestination as double in that it involves both election and reprobation but not symmetrical with respect to the mode of divine activity. A strict parallelism of operation is denied. Rather predestination is viewed in terms of a positive-negative relationship.

In the Reformed view God from all eternity decrees some to election and positively intervenes in their lives to work regeneration and faith by a monergistic work of grace. To the non-elect God withholds this monergistic work of grace, passing them by and leaving them to themselves. He does not monergistically work sin or unbelief in their lives. Thus, the mode of operation in the lives of the elect is not parallel with that operation in the lives of the reprobate. God works regeneration monergistically but never sin.

Surely, though, if God were seriously into robotics, he could have saved himself, not to mention his Creation, a great deal of trouble by simple predestinating Eve and her man not to have anything to do with reptiles? The whole story of the Fall (Genesis 2:4b - 3:24) implies that free will was an ability humanity possessed even before eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And as CS Lewis says somewhere, what would be the good to God of people who had no choice but to love him and obey him? For those things to mean anything, there has to be the possibility to choose otherwise. To choose freely.

I know many Reformed theologians do claim to uphold the idea of free will. They say that "Man freely makes choices, but those choices are determined by the condition of his heart and mind (i.e. his moral nature)... Because man chooses according to his desires, he remains responsible for his actions. He may have chosen otherwise - given different circumstances - but his choice is the outworking of his desires." However, those desires are so deeply deranged by our fallenness that we cannot choose otherwise than to sin. Freedom on this basis is no freedom at all, it seems to me.

Of course, we must be careful not to caricature this point of view, even though under the name of hard determinism, just that conclusion is openly espoused by some Reformed theologians like Vincent Cheung.

RC Sproul, the noted Calvinist theologian, has an interesting article on the freedom of the will, where he states:

Some have approached the subject of God's foreknowledge from a different perspective. Their argument is based on God's relationship to space and time. The idea is this: God is eternal; He is above space and time. God sees all things from the vantage point of the present. There is no past or future with God. He sees all things as present. If God sees all things as present, then how He does it is completely beyond our comprehension. What God's ultimate relationship to time is remains a highly speculative matter. If what is future to me is present to God, then we know His knowledge of our future is perfect and that future is absolutely. certain. God can make no errors in His observations.

It is one thing to say that God causes or coerces all things. It is quite another to say that God foreordains all things. If God forces or coerces all things, then He would have had to coerce the fall of man. If this were so, then God would be the cause, indeed the guilty perpetrator of sin. Not only would God be guilty of sin but His coercive actions would destroy the freedom of man.

To aid understanding we need to consider two models, two images of God, which lead to serious distortions of the divine character. First is the image of God as a puppeteer. Here God manipulates the strings of marionettes. The feet and the arms of the puppets jerk and dance as God pulls the strings. Puppets have no will. They have no heart or soul. Their bodies are filled with sawdust. If God were like this, not even the Wizard of Oz could make us truly free.

The second image of God is of the spectator. Here God sits on the sidelines of world history. He observes the game closely. He makes careful notes about the action and will turn in a scouting report. He is the ultimate armchair quarterback. He second-guesses the plays that are called. He roots for His favorite team. However, He is powerless to affect the outcome of the game in any way. The action is on the field, and He's not playing. This model of God destroys His sovereignty. The spectator God is a God who reigns but never rules. He is a God without authority. He observes history but is not Lord over history.

Neither of these images does justice to the biblical view of God. They serve merely to alert us to the pitfalls that lurk in the shadows. They represent borders over which we must not go.

  • We must be careful not to so zealously maintain the sovereignty of God that we end up denying human freedom and responsibility.
  • At the same time we must be careful not to so zealously preserve human freedom that we reduce God to an impotent spectator of world affairs.

The correct approach is to insist that God foreordains all things and that all future events are under His sovereignty. The future is absolutely certain to God. He knows what will take place, and He foreordains what will take place...

The greatest event of human history was at the same time the most diabolical. No greater shame can be tacked to the human race than that a human being delivered up Jesus to be crucified. Judas betrayed Christ because Judas wanted to betray Christ. The Pharisees pressed for His death because the Pharisees wanted Jesus killed. Pilate succumbed to the howling crowd, not because God coerced him, but because Pilate was too weak to withstand the demands of the mob.

Yet the Bible declares that the Cross was no accident. The outcome of God's eternal plan of redemption did not hinge finally on the decision of Pontius Pilate. What if Pilate had released Jesus and crucified Barabbas instead? Such a thought is almost unthinkable. It would suggest that God was only a spectator in the plan of redemption, that He hoped for the best but had no control over the events.

God did more than hope for the Cross. He willed the Cross. He sent His Son for that very purpose. Before Jesus was brought before Pilate, He pleaded with the Father for a different verdict. He begged that the cup might pass. Before Pilate ever raised his Roman scepter, the gavel had fallen in Gethsemane. The verdict was in. Jesus was delivered by the determinate forecounsel of God.

This is a very grown-up and persuasive argument, and even more so considering Sproul's later assertion that:

God is sovereign. Man is free. Man's freedom is limited, however, by God's sovereignty. God's sovereignty is not limited by man's freedom. This is simply to say that man is not God. God is free and man is free. But God is more free than a man. Man's freedom is always and everywhere subordinate to God's freedom. If we reverse these we pass from theism to atheism, from Christianity to humanism, from Christ to Anti-christ.

I can't argue with that - though it is remarkable how close it comes to the following, quoted in the Wikipedia article on Arminianism (a theological standpoint historically opposed to Calvinism):

Most Arminians reconcile human free will with God's sovereignty and foreknowledge by holding three points:

  • Human free will is limited by original sin, though God's prevenient grace restores to humanity the ability to accept God's call of salvation.
  • God purposely exercises his sovereignty in ways that do not illustrate its extent - in other words, He has the power and authority to predetermine salvation but he chooses to apply it through different means.
  • God's foreknowledge of the future is exhaustive and complete, and therefore the future is certain and not contingent on human action. God does not determine the future, but He does know it. God's certainty and human contingency are compatible.

I can readily accept the limitation of free will by our sinful natures; what I could never accept is that our free will is totally ineffective, and yet we are held morally responsible for our choices. God's grace is surely given freely to all, and is sufficient for all. We are then free to choose, or not to choose, to respond to the call of Christ. The fact that God, above and beyond all time (which is his creation anyway) foreknows our choices doesn't make them any the less our choices.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pelagius IV

I promised to explain a little of what I meant by referring to the Hesychast tradition in the context of thinking about Pelagianism vs Augustinianism.

To recap: a crude over-simplification of the two positions would be to say that Pelagius believed that we are born innocent, free from original sin, and though culturally we cannot avoid the bad influence of Eve's and Adam's sin, we can of ourselves turn to Christ, without absolutely needing grace to do this; Augustine, on the other hand, held that we are born irrevocably damaged by the genetic, sexually transmitted depravity of sin, and cannot even begin to want to have faith in Christ unless we are drawn by grace, often called "prevenient" grace, because it comes before any movement of faith within the human heart. (This concept was later developed by John Calvin and his followers into the doctrine of irresistible grace, that a person, once called, will be saved: they have no choice in the matter.)

One of the greatest writers on, and followers of, broadly, the hesychast tradition in our own time was the Russian-born monk of Mount Athos, Archimandrite Sophrony. In his book His Life is Mine (Mowbray 1977) he quotes approvingly the account of an unnamed former rabbi:

Why did I, a former rabbi, become a Christian? The question sounds strange in my own ears. Did I, of myself, become a Christian, following a plan, a purpose, after due consideration? No, the grace of God made me a Christian. My conversion is a mystery to me before which I bow my head in awe. It was the Holy Spirit, He alone transfigured me. When I accepted Christ, the laws of Deuteronomy ceased to be a means of drawing near to God... And so it was not I of myself who became Christian - it was God who sent down the grace of the Holy Spirit and made me so... This is the process: faith attracts the Holy Spirit, while the Holy Spirit strengthens faith, cares for you, sustains you, encourages your ardent desire for the Kingdom of God... I heard my soul speaking within me, telling me of my new birth in Christ; but she spoke in the language of silence which I cannot find words for.

Here we seem to have an interplay, a collaboration, even a dance. There is faith, there is acceptance, on the part of the nascent Christian; but there is grace, loving grace, powerful, protective, arousing - in a spiritual sense - grace, sent by God through the Holy Spirit. We cannot achieve our own salvation by means of an exercise of will alone; we do not merit it, or work for it through the due processes of the Law, but it is the gift of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. And yet it is our faith which "attracts" the Spirit; it is we who accept the gift, just as our Lady accepted the gift of Christ, saying, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Surely this is the faith of the Bible? Doesn't this glorious interplay, this dance of the Spirit and our spirit, this perichoresis, sound more like the kind of thing the Jesus of the Gospels was calling his disciples into, than either the grim fatalism of an Augustine or the proto-humanism of a Pelagius? Certainly it is much, much more like my own experience of conversion than either of those extremes. God is love: his greatest commandments are love, and from them depend all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22.37-40) Really, there is nothing much more to say than that!

Pelagius Part III

The Theopedia article on Pelagius neatly sums up what seems to have been the main problem with the man's teaching, at least as recorded by (largely Augustinian) church history:

Pelagius believed that the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin (the Fall) were restricted to themselves only; and thereby denied the belief that original sin was passed on (or transferred) to the children of Adam and thus to the human race. Adam's sin merely "set a bad example" for his progeny and Jesus "set a good example" for mankind (thus counteracting Adam's bad example). Pelagianism teaches that human beings are born in a state of innocence with a nature that is as pure as that which Adam was given at his creation.

As a result of his basic assumption, Pelagius taught that man has an unimpaired moral ability to choose that which is spiritually good and possesses the free will, ability, and capacity to do that which is spiritually good. This resulted in a gospel of salvation based on human works. Man could choose to follow the precepts of God and then follow those precepts because he had the power within himself to do so.

The controversy came to a head when Pelagian teaching came into contact with Augustine. Augustine did not deny that man had a will and that he could make choices. But, Augustine recognized that man did not have a free will in moral issues related to God, asserting that the effects original sin were passed to the children of Adam and Eve and that mankind’s nature was thereby corrupted. Man could choose what he desired, but those desires were influenced by his sinful nature and he was unable to refrain from sinning.

Now, common sense would suggest to me that by this account, Pelagius was guilty of some seriously wishful thinking. I know from my own experience how much I depend on God's grace. I know what a mess I should be in without it.

I know from my own experience that it is possible to choose things that, on the face of it at least, cannot be what God would wish me to choose. I know also that it is perfectly acceptable to translate Romans 8.28 as, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (NIV) That has been my experience too: when I have made choices inimical to what I understand to be God's overarching purpose for my life, he has always seemed to bring me back onto that course, very often through the very things that would have seemed to take me away from it.

In the NRSV, of course, the familiar translation of Romans 8.28 is, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (In a footnote the NRSV acknowledges "in all things God works for good" as an alternative translation.) Now the original Greek for "work together" is "sunergeo," and the NIV gives, "works together with those who love him to bring about what is good..." as a footnoted alternative.

This is interesting. If God might be thought of as "working together" with those who love him, then we come face to face with the doctrine of synergism, the idea that, "there are two efficient agents in regeneration, namely the human will and the divine Spirit, which, in the strict sense of the term, cooperate. This theory accordingly holds that the soul has not lost in the fall all inclination toward holiness, nor all power to seek for it under the influence of ordinary motives." (John Hendryk)

I must read some more on this, which I understand to form a considerable part of the theological underpinnings of the Orthodox tradition of hesychasm, and the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer. Watch this space!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

More Pelagius?

I was still thinking about Pelagius when today's Almost Daily E-Mo arrived from Barbara Crafton. Writing on Luke 14.1, she says:

[Jesus] wasn't in the world to save himself. He was here to save us.

But from what? From a God who, left to his own devices, was prepared to burn us all alive? From the possibility of sin in our lives? From doubt? From a doomed world, far too compromised to salvage? From our own appetites? Certainly, Christians have considered salvation in all of these lights.

But I think Jesus has saved us from something else: from a fear of death that arises from the deeper dread that life is meaningless. If I am a paltry thing -- and I certainly am -- and this is all there is, how can I regard my own passing with anything but despair: if this was my only chance, and I have frittered it away on nothing? I would have been better off if I had been born an animal, unreflective, unaware of a future.

Salvation means that we signify more than we know. That life is more than the sorry sum of all its half-baked events and stray intentions. That the shape of the divine love stamped upon us in creation endures in us, despite all our errors or the errors of others that have scarred us. That we are in a mystery, a large one, and that it is not a tragic mystery. There is a power beyond the power we wield, and we participate in it, much more than we know.

The hints we receive of this truth throughout our lives -- they are our certainty of salvation, and they sustain us as fully as we will allow. Although despair is an option for all of us, none of us is sentenced to it.

I remember when I was a young musician in London, before I became a Christian, before I discovered farming for myself, I used sometimes to sit in my flat in Putney with my heart aching for the impermanence of things. The best and the most beautiful that I or anyone else could make, the wonderful works of artists and writers and thinkers, the lovely city in which I lived and worked, the woman I loved, the children I dreamed we would have, would all crumble to nothing and be forgotten. Nothing would last, and in the end the dust of time would drift over all that mankind had made and done.

Despair would be a reasonable word for what I felt in those long moments. Don't underestimate that kind of existential despair, or think of it as some kind of intellectual fancy, not to be compared with real trouble as the world knows it. To truly feel TS Eliot's words, "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper" ('The Hollow Men,' 1925) as one's own is a horrible thing: more horrible, ultimately, than any physical pain or emotional grief I have felt in a longish and sometimes difficult life. A salvation such as Barbara Crafton describes is no cut-price salvation. Despair is as deep a hell as any fire and brimstone pit, and the freedom from it that Christ gives is the most glorious of gifts.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say,"“Look, here it is!" or "There it is!" For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among [or within] you.'" (Luke 17.20-21)

Pelagius - pro choice?

Pelagius is a fascinating figure from the early history of the Church, whose primary contribution to the theological debate seems to have been (much of his work seems later to have been suppressed by the followers of St Augustine of Hippo) centred around his sense that we are given free will as a gift to be used. We can choose to follow Christ, or we can choose to reject him. He died for us all - only some of us won't accept the salvation he died to obtain for us. From this it follows that we have moral freedom, freedom to choose good or evil, healing or harm, and that we bear before God the responsibility for those choices.

No matter what your own views on Pelagius may be (and I do encourage you to check him out, here too, and not just accept uncritically the traditional 'Augustine, he good; Pelagius, he bad' oversimplification!) this is a remarkable passage quoted by Vicki K Black:

There are two areas in which explicit criticism of Pelagius does begin to emerge: his practice of teaching women to read Scripture and his conviction that in the newborn child the image of God is to be seen. These issues are clearly related, for the desire to educate women was rooted in Pelagius’ conviction that God’s image is to be found in every person, both male and female, and that the goodness of that image is nurtured and freed largely through the grace of wisdom. The Celtic world was one that gave much greater scope to the role of women and more fully incorporated both the feminine and the masculine into its religious life and imagery.

The second, and much more controversial, feature of Pelagius’ teaching to attract attention was his conviction that every child is conceived and born in the image of God. He believed that the newborn, freshly come forth from God, contains the original, unsullied goodness of creation and humanity’s essential blessedness. This was in stark contrast to Augustine’s thinking and the developing spirituality of the Church in the Roman world, which accentuated the evil in humanity and our essential unrighteousness. Augustine, with his sharp awareness of the pervasiveness of wrong-doing in the world, stated that the human child is born depraved and humanity’s sinful nature has been sexually transmitted from one generation to the next, stretching from Adam to the present. Augustine believed that from conception and birth we lack the image of God until it is restored in the sacrament of baptism, and that conception involves us in the sinfulness of nature. The perspective conveyed by Pelagius, on the other hand, is that to look into the face of a newborn is to look at the image of God; he maintained that creation is essentially good and that the sexual dimension of procreation is God-given. The emphasis that would increasingly be developed in the Celtic tradition was that in the birth of a child God is giving birth to his image on earth.

From Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality by J. Philip Newell (Paulist Press, 1997).

It occurred to me, looking at the last few sentences, to wonder if a Pelagian view of the reproductive process might not shine a new light on the question of abortion. What do you think?