The Desolation of Smug

The juxtaposition of Sunday’s daily lectionary Old Testament and New Testament readings is striking. In the Old Testament Job is getting his lecture from God in Job 38. God is telling him that Job does not know God’s ways and neither could he accomplish God’s tasks if he did.

  • Do you know the dwelling place of light and dark?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of snow and hail?
  • Oh yeah, and thunderstorms, do you understand them?
  • Etc.

I had just paged through the trending podcasts on my pod catcher prior to reading these texts and one that I had never heard of was high the list. Its list of guests includes Brian Cox, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott (I know, she’s dead, but that’s what it said), Bill Nye, etc. That’s a who’s who of atheist intellectuals who are so utterly self-absorbed in their own grasp of the truth it’s mind boggling. At least Brian Cox has the grace to be amusing about it. But my immediate thought was, “Wow, that must be one of the most smug podcasts going today.”

As I read the Job text I couldn’t help but think that this group would have had the arrogance to answer God on each of these points, because, after all, this group actually understands all this stuff.

In contrast to this text is the reading from Revelation 18:1-8. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Babylon is the symbol par excellence of the hubris and excess of the world system.

There’s a long history of empires fading from the scene. In the case of Babylon, it practically happened overnight. Rome, on the other hand, and the Ottoman empire faded over a very long period of time. As is discussed in many places, not the least being Isaac Asimov’s brilliant and fifty year old Foundation series, the American Empire is showing alarming signs of wear and there is no clear indication what may replace it. We may be looking at yet another “regime change” in the not-so-distant future.

In contrast to this, I was on the phone this week with a now retired representative of the Antiochian Archdiocese (sort of like my denomination). The occasion was the aftermath of the centennial of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, which was celebrated last weekend. The subject of some recent trouble in the Archdiocese came up, but the person I was talking to dismissed it out of hand. “We’ve weathered this stuff for 2,000 years and we’ll weather this too,” was the comment. There is some real meat in the comment. Antioch, after all has been an important Christian center for all of Christian history. The first Bishop of Antioch was Peter. The second was Evodius, who is less well known, but the third Bishop, who served that office from 70 to 107 was the well known Ignatius, who was martyred by the Romans. There is an unbroken line of bishops (some of them outstanding, some of them traitors, some of them heretics, but an unbroken line – with schisms and plenty of weirdness mixed in) from Peter to John, who has served since 2012.

On the other hand there was certainly a sense of smugness in the 2,000 year comment, but there is also a sense of history that says, “God will remain faithful to the church, even when the church is not faithful to God,” when you look at the history of Antioch, the place where followers of the way of Christ were first called “Christians.”

Babylon: a symbol of the ephemeral that looks permanent. Antioch: a symbol of obscurity which has actually endured.

I confess that I am generally a huge fan of the current crop of radical atheists, although many of my favorites are now dead. Richard Feynman is hands down my favorite physicist and world traveler. I am also an unabashed fan of Douglas Adams, who regularly used his fame associated with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to bash Christianity and other religions. I find Richard Dawkins to be an utter bore – an unforgivable sin if you are going to be an outspoken critic of the cultural norm. On the other hand, I’m an avid listener to The Infinite Monkey Cage, Brian Cox’s podcast and bully pulpit to tear down Christianity when he doesn’t have his handful of clerics on as guests.

I like these guys because in all their smugness they seem to recognize that they are also court jesters (with the obvious exception of Dawkins and certainly the once utterly earnest Eugenie Scott) pointing out in amusing ways that the emperor has no clothes.

But in reading the Daily Lectionary today it occurred to me that it is a dangerous game to actually laugh at the jester because they play a dangerous game. I will continue to listen to Monkey Cage and grin with the rest of the audience, but ultimately these people really don’t know what they’re talking about because they are only dealing with a small slice of reality, and one day, this whole world system that has given us smart phones to listen to podcasts, the unimaginable wealth to afford these shiny toys, and the leisure to even bother with it, is going to come crashing down. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

“And then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18: 4f).

Someday there will be a Desolation of Smug. Both the church and our culture will one day reap the consequences of our sins. It’s an excellent reason to take the earbuds out, turn off the podcast, and get down to the business of the life of repentance that we’re called to.

Baby’s Got the Blues

It’s been a long time since I listened to Larry Norman’s Stranded in Babylon album. It’s a hit you in the face sort of reality check and one of the most fascinating songs is “Baby’s Got the Blues.” If you’re not familiar with it you can find it here on YouTube with lyrics.

Many albums of this era were not simply a collection of songs, the album as a whole was an entity with each song adding a facet to that whole. This was just such an album. As an album it is profoundly Christian although not every song is (outside of the context of the whole album). “Baby’s Got the Blues” certainly fits into this category. It doesn’t even explicitly mention God, but instead uses euphemisms. The bridge is a prayer that begins, “Mercies and angels up above, / Heaven please help the one I love.”

But in the context of the song this sentiment is profoundly Christian if we use the term “Christian” to refer to the actual manner in which we live our lives down in the trenches. In the song Norman is watching “his baby” (wife? girlfriend? sister?) struggle with depression. He has no words to offer her and he has no words to offer God. When life hurts and the heavens are brass, it is often hard to fully believe in a caring God. In those moments it might be the only option to address “mercies and angels up above.”

Paul the apostle also understood this depth of despair. He said that at such times the Spirit “groans” on our behalf. No words here. No words needed. Such a groan no doubt says more than a whole collection of essays. And God hears the groan and understands what it means.

I confess that I despise Christian radio because the station manager – or whoever it is that puts together playlists these days – don’t seem to have the courage to play the music that comes from the trenches. Mostly its worship music. And I would argue that worship music, when that’s all we hear, paints an utterly bleak and depressing view of the world. … Not because the music is depressing but rather because it’s mostly a reminder of how short I fall from that mark set by the perky DJ who is praising God and gloriously happy, no matter what’s happening around them.

To hear a wordsmith like Larry Norman put his finger on the pain that is so deep and so confounding that there are simply no words is liberating in a way an old standard like “I Can Only Imagine” can never be. It’s a reminder that when the Son of God became human he suffered in the manner that humans suffer. His life was not a set of praise choruses! On at least one occasion he told the Father to just remove it all … if it was the Father’s will.

Given the fact that most Christian Contemporary Music is written by praise bands who got their start accompanying contemporary worship services, this sort of “down in the trenches” music is almost non-existent anymore. (No doubt there’s some out there, but it’s quite hard to find.) As a result I find myself increasingly dredging up the old stuff: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill (the old Randy Stonehill, when he was young and outrageous and hadn’t yet grown into “Uncle Randy”), Daniel Amos, Randy Matthews, etc. In my album collection I had two or three Normans, a Matthews, three DAs, and a couple of Stonehills.

Music streaming services have been a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I am hearing all the other music these folks did (along with other similar artists) that I never heard before because I couldn’t afford all those albums. A curse because I’m not hearing the songs in the context of their albums. I’m missing the gestalt while getting all the particulars.

So for those of you who are ready to move beyond the froth of CCM, I commend to you the above artists. Daniel Amos’ best albums were New Wave which is probably not everyone’s taste. (For instance, “Hollow Man,” on the Doppelganger album features their previous very strange song “Ghost of the Heart” (from Alarma!) played backwards, but with new lyrics over the top. I think it’s awesome … My wife? Not so much. But with that caveat in mind, dig in.

As a special recommendation I commend Larry Norman’s Something New Under the Sun (or SNUTS, as it was lovingly referred to). I love blues and it is, in my opinion, one of the five or six best blues albums ever put together. I love this album so much that twenty five years later, I named one of my dogs Snuts in honor of the album.

The Story of King Midas and The Gospel of Mark

After studying Tuomo Mannermaa and Galatians and Romans for the last couple of months I needed to get away from that particular narrow slice of Christian theology and focus on something else. I decided to turn my attention to the Gospel according to Mark (the oldest of the four gospels).

I was immediately struck by the fact that Jesus (you know, “fully human and fully God”) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery.

There is a theory promoted by numerous systematic theologies over the centuries (but most closely associated with Anselm, if you want a good historical reference point) that God’s holiness is of such a character that it cannot stand to be around sin and debauchery. If you only read the Old Testament an excellent case can be made for this theory.

Growing out of this theory of holiness is the idea that Jesus had to become human and die a brutal and horrible death in order to assuage the anger (or wrath) of God toward sin and evil. In short, God was really angry, he took it all out on Jesus, the result is that now Holy God can invite us into his presence as long as we accept what Jesus did on our behalf.

Reading through Mark’s Gospel, the idea kept coming to my mind that this picture of God is completely wrong because Jesus (who is fully God) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery. While not said explicitly, the implication is clear: The problem in this relationship is not on the divine side, it’s on the human side.

In both ancient Christian theology and contemporary Eastern Christian theology it is commonplace to say that love and judgment (or righteousness and wrath, to use Paul’s terminology) are essentially the same thing. Divine love is a consuming fire, and if we are not pure and were to attempt to approach God’s essence, that burning divine love would consume all that is not pure, which is pretty much all of our being. Thus, we experience divine love as wrath and judgment in much the same way a straw bale experiences a warm and merry hearth fire as a holocaust.

Imagine the “fully human” part of Jesus Christ functions as a very special permeable material that allows what we might call the “love” portion of holiness through while turning back what we might call the “consuming fire” portion of holiness. Thus in Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, the sinners of all sorts (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors) could approach and touch Fully-God-Jesus without getting consumed and destroyed by the fire of holiness.

In the ancient Greek myth, King Midas was given the gift/curse of being able to turn stuff to gold. Everything he touched (loved ones, food, etc.) turned to solid gold. But what if Midas had a special glove that did not turn to gold when he put it on that allowed him to touch that which he truly loved and desired without immediately and destructively purifying those loved ones into gold?

That’s the incarnation! Jesus’ humanity is that glove that allows God to come and rub shoulders and be with those he truly loves (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors). But because the burning brightness of holiness is veiled (i.e., gloved, but not absent), we are not immediately destroyed in the loving divine embrace.

That is the Good News of Mark in a nutshell (or in this case, a glove)! Thanks be to God.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

In my previous essay about our inability to “go up” and grasp hold of grace, I was reminded of the oft misunderstood advice of John Climacus (a monk at St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai a very long time ago) in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The book is so important in Orthodox spirituality that there is a Sunday during Lent dedicated specifically to it and there is an icon depicting the ideas of the book that hangs somewhere in most every Orthodox Church. At first glance The Ladder of Divine Ascent may appear to be saying exactly the opposite of what I said in that essay. Since the icon, when viewed with a Protestant sensibility, looks suspicious, it’s worth looking closely at the icon so that we can see what is and what is not depicted there.

Divine AscentIn the icon one sees the surface of the earth, a monastery (there is an angel above the monastery, which is a sort of short hand saying, “this is a monastery, and not a government building and certainly not the abode of Satan) and a ladder. Approaching the ladder, climbing the ladder, and falling off the ladder are monks from the monastery. At the base of the ladder is John Climacus holding a scroll on which is written, “Ascend, ascend brethren.” Along the way are demons trying to pull the monks off the ladder (and often being successful) and at the top is Jesus the Pantocrator (i.e., Ruler of all, the Defeater of Sin and Death and the giver of life and grace) greeting the monks who have managed to ascend all thirty rungs.

John says he used the story of Jacob’s vision of a ladder as a metaphor for thirty things that monks ought to do as they seek to enter into closer union with Christ (compare the Rule of St. Benedict). It’s worth noting what’s not in the icon. Hell can be found nowhere on the icon. When the monks fall, they fall to earth, and no doubt they can then begin to climb the ladder again. Jesus is not depicted as being in heaven in this icon. To the left are a group of angels or saints. This is the heavenly host looking on at the scene from heaven and praying for the monks (essentially cheering the monks on). Jesus is separated spatially from that heavenly group. The point is that the monks are not going to heaven, but rather they are growing closer to Christ as the residents of heaven look on. In short, this is a depiction of our Christian life here on earth with it’s temptations, victories and failures.

While The Ladder of Divine Ascent has become foundational in Orthodoxy and very popular among Christians in general, it also needs to be said that it is a handbook for monks, and thus the advice sounds strange and sometimes outrageous to those of us living a secular life in the world. The Ladder, it must be remembered, is not a set of rules, but rather a set of monastic guidelines that should be seen as a sort of ideal.

How ought we to live our Christian life? I was hit up last Sunday by an Episcopalian asking if I wanted to join an organization that is seeking social justice in the world. After visiting with her it was clear that she’s sees this as her highest form of Christian life, that is a life of service that leads to systemic change and justice. When I was involved with a group called the Navigators, it seemed that memorizing the Bible, being in small group studies, encouraging others, and evangelism were the highest calling. In the Orthodox Church the highest calling is seeking our union with God in Christ. The icon (and the Sunday in Lent) are all reminders to us that this is the primary manner in how we Orthodox ought to approach our sanctification.

But whether we seek social justice, success at evangelism, or communion with Christ, all these efforts are not possible and make no sense if you don’t begin with Christ coming down to earth (incarnation, death, and resurrection) so that we can be made alive by the Spirit and begin our Christian journey through Christ and to Christ.

Works and Cicada Christians

Probably the most difficult thing to explain about Orthodoxy is its emphasis on effort and how that differs from salvation by works. I ran across yet another Martin Luther quote that helps to frame the question. (It’s hard to imagine, by the way, a theologian more opposed to salvation by works than Luther.) (And, yes, I’m still studying Tuomo Mannermaa’s Christ Present in Faith.)

The medieval scholastics (as well as the Protestant spiritualists, the original form of what we would call Evangelicalism today) described salvation as human love striving after grace. It was earthly human love striving upward (toward heaven or toward transcendence) to grasp hold of God’s grace. Luther rejected the idea as yet another form of works salvation. Luther insisted the direction was wrong; the only option is for God in Christ to come down to us.

That is indeed precisely the point of justification if it is to mean anything at all. We can’t strive for it; it must be a gift.

We are coming to the end of cicada season in northeast Nebraska. There is a cherry tree just off our back patio that the cicadas like to sit on. Earlier this summer I had the privilege of watching a cicada molt. It had to struggle mightily to work its way out of the too-small old shell. It would pause every now and again to rest and then struggle again. Eventually it worked it’s way free and then it spread its wings wide to let them dry. The whole process probably took an hour, and then it flew off to do cicada stuff leaving the old empty shell stuck to the tree trunk along with about a half dozen others.

There was nothing the cicada could do to make itself grow. It’s life and growth process was not of its own making but was pure gift. But for that gift of growth to continue normally, the cicada had to struggle mightily to work its way out of the old shell. I’m guessing if it would not have done that, the old shell would eventually constrict it so much that the cicada would die.

Luther is correct that we cannot strive upward to get grace; that movement is all wrong. Grace happens only when Christ comes down and indwells us as Luther described. But when Christ does come down and indwell us, true life occurs and growth begins to happen. This is the place where Christian striving becomes a necessity. Like the cicada, we must put off that old shell so that the new life gifted to us has the opportunity to grow and expand. Spiritual growth and divine grace always remain pure gift, but the effects of that grace (ie, spiritual growth) creates a situation where we must strive in order to make room for it – and note: not to grasp it, but to make room for it. (A completely different biblical metaphor with a rather different emphasis, but compare to quenching the Spirit; one might think of it as a passive action – verb tenses simply cannot do justice to the process.)

2 Timothy 2:5 compares the Christian life to athletics. If you don’t strive for it, you don’t get crowned. This is the sort of striving the Orthodox are fond of talking about. It’s not striving for justification. It’s not reaching up to heaven to take hold of God, because we can’t; it is God that takes hold of us. It is rather the hard work required to let go, to work our way out of the old skin that constrains us so the new can grow and do what it is supposed to.

Let me be clear that this is not Luther’s view (nor is it the view of Formula of Concord style Lutherans today). Luther tended to view things in black and white and as either/or. My description of proper Christian effort doesn’t fit into that stark view of things. In his Lectures to the Galatians (Mannermaa, p. 40), Luther says, “This attachment to [Christ] causes me to be liberated from the terror of the Law and of sin, pulled out of my own skin, and transferred into Christ and into his kingdom.”

There seem to be no cicada Christians struggling to get out of their old skin in Luther’s view. They remain helpless until Christ “pulls” them out. Lutherans (and Protestants in general) and Orthodox differ on this point and I won’t pretend the difference doesn’t exist. But with the differences noted, there is a definite distinction between the striving upward after grace (ie, works salvation) and the striving to put off the old skin of death after new life and growth has been graciously given.

And thanks be to God that cicada season is nearly over!

What Is Death?

In the end death is one of those things we’ll never fully understand. It is inscrutable. From a theological perspective we can say that death is separation from God. This is one of the main points of the second creation narrative. God says, “If you eat of this tree you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve ate of the tree and they were sent out of the Garden (a picture of the presence of God) and thus separated from the Tree of Life. Since God is the source of life, to be separated from God is to be dead. In this sense, Adam and Eve were already dead.

From both a biblical and scientific perspective, death is corruption. Once we pass the prime child bearing age our bodies begin to break down. Many functions actually begin to break down long before that, but they are robust enough that they remain hardy and fully functional through the height of child-bearing age. Our telomeres become shortened. The gummy and elastic connectors of everything to everything begin to harden and dry up. Neurons begin misfire. Eventually all these tiny things begin to manifest themselves in a variety of ill health: sore joints, non-pliable skin, lengthened recovery time. Sometimes wires get crossed and things grow that ought not (cancer) or things that ought to be fully functional cease to function (brain function or cirrhosis).

These two things (separation and corruption) come together at an end point for living creatures when the corruption or destruction of the body becomes so extensive that the life force (the soul or spirit or just life) separate from the body. When that occurs corruption of the body (sans spirit) enters a radical new phase better described as decay. Microbes enter in and the dead body can no longer fend them off. They process the dead body and it eventually is turned back into earth.

But for everything we know about those processes, we still don’t really know what death is. We can postpone it, but we cannot prevent it. We don’t know know (on a scientific level) what happens to consciousness after death. If we’re honest there are far more questions than answers for the scientist when it comes to death.

This is also true on the theological side of things. Theologians have never come up with an adequate definition or understanding of death. Scripture often describes it as an active power, but none of us know precisely whether that is really true or only a metaphor.

The greatest of paschal hymns says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” That is a rousing hymn to sing on a black and cold Easter night marching around the outside of the church with candles burning against the gloom, but it doesn’t actually tell us much about death itself, although it tells us much about the Victor!

I suppose this next thing will tell you more about me and the fact that I am situated in the post-modern world than it will actually tell you about death, but it is Karl Barth’s description that speaks to me more deeply than anything else. He says death has no reality. It is “nothingness.” It is not merely the absence of light and life, it is the negation of light and life. That definition doesn’t actually tell me any more about death than the other descriptions I have offered, but it does speak to me at a very deep level.

It is therefore with a great deal of humility that I make the following observation: I believe that Martin Luther simply went too far in his description of death and how Christ relates to it. In my opinion he is wrong. (He certainly went beyond what the historic church has had to say, and that gives me some confidence in my critique.)

It is characteristic of the divine majesty to annihilate and to create. Therefore scripture says that Christ destroyed death and sin in himself and granted life. [Luther’s Works 40/1:44, 1-12. As quoted by Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith, p. 19.]

That I agree with. In Christ sin and death are destroyed. But Luther goes much farther than this:

Therefore where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world …” [Ibid., p. 45. p. 18 in Mannermaa]

Here and elsewhere in his Lectures on Galatians, Luther states that sin and death have been destroyed … no, annihilated … in the world. That’s a bridge too far. Death’s sting has been removed. Sin and death have been conquered. They have been destroyed in Christ, but that’s rather different than Luther’s idea that they are destroyed in the world.

So why do I bring this up? So what if a pastor-theologians some 600 years ago said something a bit off the mark? Why pick on Luther instead of Calvin or Melanchthon or Aquinas or Joel Osteen, for that matter? Well, first because Luther is Luther, the first Protestant reformer who’s reform efforts actually took hold in Europe. Second, because Luther doesn’t need to say this. His theology of justification by faith (as expressed in the Lectures on Galatians) does not require this radical proposal. Karl Barth really needed for sin and death to be nothingness in the larger scheme of his theology; he was compelled by logic to take that position. Luther, on the other hand, didn’t have to go this far.

Let’s return to our initial point. None do or can actually understand sin or death. They are inscrutable. Even with his remarkable insights, Luther did not understand them either. But he did understand that (1) Christ truly and actually defeated them, and (2) because we are in Christ – truly and actually in Christ just as he is in us – then sin and death no longer have any hold on us.

How do you explain (1) something that we can not understand and (2) and that utterly ravages creation, but (3) no longer has any hold on us? I proposed that Luther, in his exuberance over this amazing reality, simply overstated it. You have to admit that hearing him say that death and sin are already annihilated is pretty breathtaking. It is certainly an exclamation point on Christ’s utter victory on the cross, in the grave, and upon his ascension.

So, even though I want to say, “Now hold on just a minute, Pastor Martin! …” I think I’ll forgo that and simply revel along with him his his exuberance for the moment.

The Bondage of the Will & Christian Liberty

I’ve been reading parts of Luther’s Bondage of the Will again to make sure I’m not misremembering his argument. Luther’s argument is quite similar to Calvin’s later argument that gets filed under “predestination,” although there are differences. In both cases I have no doubt that the Reformers are trying to figure out things that are simply beyond figuring out. They reached a bit too far.

The Reformers are certainly in line with classic Christianity when they declare that our will is in bondage. We do need to keep in mind that when we consider these ideas today there are a cluster of words which we tend to jumble together as vaguely synonymous that need to be distinguished when speaking of this bondage.

Choice, for instance still exists. I can choose to follow God or not to follow God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people they have to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). But just because the people chose God and thus chose life did not mean that they were actually able to make good on that choice. They failed over and over because their wills were in bondage. Being free to choose for or against God in principle is far different than the ability to actually follow God’s paths and do what God wants us to do.

Liberty is another one of those ideas that tends to confuse us. Paul says, “[C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). A cursory reading of this verse might lead one to think that bondage and liberty are opposite and if my will was once in bondage (reading Luther back into Paul) then in Christ my will is no longer in bondage but now has liberty (or “freedom” in the NRSV) to do what it chooses (reading pop culture back into Paul). But that reading misses the point.

Many years ago, in my first steps out of Dispensationalism, I discovered R.J. Rushdoony, a “theonomist” who believed that civil law should be based on Old Testament law (a Christian version of sharia, to put it into a contemporary context). In spite of his misguided attempts in this direction, he was a pretty good historical scholar. In a monograph entitled, “The Changed Meaning of Liberty,” he wrote the following: “Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law.”

Rushdoony is putting it into the civil context between the Christian church and the Roman empire, but originally this is what Paul was talking about in relation to the Old Testament law. As Christians, who are dead to the Law and alive to Christ, we have “liberty” as an immunity to the Law. We can no longer be charged as lawbreakers because those laws don’t apply to us in our new context. This is how the U.S. Navy uses the term. When a ship enters port most of the sailors are let off duty to go wander the town. They are “at liberty.” This means they are no longer under the strict rules of life on the ship, although they are under obligation to follow local law and if they are in uniform they still have to salute a uniformed officer, etc.

This sort of “liberty” is very different than actual freedom as we think of it today. Comedian Ron White, in his well known “They Call Me Tater Salad” story, said that when he was talking to the cops after a bar brawl he had the right to remain silent but he didn’t have the ability. Christian liberty is like that; it doesn’t imply we have the ability. Even with our Christian liberty, our wills are still bound. We can choose to follow God, but, like Ron White, we don’t have the ability.

Christian transformation is a mysterious process where Christ’s will operates through us to transform us in spite of our best efforts. Transformation requires our cooperation. We have to choose God on the level of choosing or rejecting that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy, but our wills are unable to follow through with our choice, so we keep on doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7). But in spite of all this bondage, Christ works in us to do that which we cannot do and transformation actually happens.

There is also a lifelong process of taking back the will and turning it to the purpose that God intended when he instilled it in human beings. But that process is not what you might think. Once Christ is at work within us, his will guides our hearts and directs us in what we should do and how we should think. (This is the ultimate goal, anyway.) So the correct way to battle our own stubborn will is to ignore it. Of course this is easier said than done. We will never win an outright fight over our wills. We can, in contrast, learn to ignore its insistent directions, and over time it becomes more and more quiet. The will lies at the center of what we must put to death in our Christian struggle, and the way we do that is to starve it by ignoring it. And as it dies, it simultaneously comes to life, but in this new life, it imprints on Christ’s will within us, and thus is tamed. Although throughout our earthly life, it will no doubt always have a tendency to rise up and say, “My will, and not yours be done.”

So freedom, as we think of freedom in the modern world, is never possible. We humans were not created to be free and we quickly get out of control if we try to act on our supposed freedom, like a balloon zipping around a room when we let go of it. We were created with the purpose of allowing God to drive, not us. Luther describes this as bondage to Christ (hearkening back to Paul’s imagery of the bond slave). That’s imagery that we naturally shrink back from, but it is there that we find true liberty – like sailors on shore liberty: freed from the concerns of the ships rules and free to truly joy in God.

Some Thoughts on Mannermaa the Ecumenist

I begin with a rabbit track …

I am rereading Tuomo Mannermaa’s little bombshell Christ Present in Faith:  Luther’s View of Justification. (Yeah, I know the original “little bombshell” was Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, but Christ Present in Faith had a similar effect on continental Lutheranism a century later.) This all came about because John Webster, best known for bringing Eberhard Juengel’s brilliant thought to the English speaking world, died a few months ago. In memory, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School released his 2007 Carl F.H. Henry lecture series on Soundcloud. I listened to the first one and Webster took a couple of cheap shots at Mannermaa, quoting him in just such a way and without context so as to paint him a heretic. It really ticked me off. On the other hand, it did cause me to dust off my copy of Christ Present in Faith.

But back to the actual subject …

Tuomo Mannermaa spent much of his career involved in the ecumenical dialog between the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. This experience led to a different reading of Martin Luther. Critics say he has read Orthodox theology (and specifically the ancient idea of theosis) into Luther. Allies say that because of an historical accident of timing (Luther was Medieval and the Formula of Concord and most Lutherans ever since are under the sway of Modernity) Luther’s theology was transformed into something that Luther never actually espoused. As Carl Braaten and Robert Jensen describe it, “[T]he Mannermaa school is revising a century of Luther interpretation dominated by German Protestant theologians, who notoriously read Luther under the spell of neo-Kantian presuppositions.”

So what’s the difference between Medieval and Modern in this context? The philosophers of  Modernity (and Kant is certainly part of this process), put distance between us and reality. Some said that what we experience is not reality itself but our interpretation of the experience of reality. This is why Kant’s famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” is such a big deal. It describes a human being one step removed from reality itself, with my brain (or my interpretation) standing between me and what actually exists.

In Protestant theology this same sensibility comes to us in how we separate the Creator and created. Modern theology has tended to say that we cannot experience the Creator (ie, God) directly because we are created beings. In classic Lutheran language, what we receive in the salvation process is not Christ in and of himself but rather the gift, which we might describe as “grace” which is not exactly the same thing as Christ himself. (And I offer a caveat here: While I consider myself a Reformed scholar, I am not a Lutheran scholar, so my language may not be a precise as some Lutherans would like.)

According to Mannermaa, this is not what Luther taught. This is a neo-Kantian reading of Luther. Being medieval, and thus having no problem with unmediated reality, he read Athanasius and the other classic explainers of the faith  and he interpreted justification as they did. But within a couple of generations, Luther’s words were being read through the Modernist lens and justification took on an exclusively forensic sense rather than Luther’s realist (or “ontic,” if you want Mannermaa’s term) sense.

It is important to realize that Luther (b. 1483) was born right on the cusp between Medieval and Modern. He also had a predominantly religious education and as a result he was steeped in a Medieval cultural-linguistic environment. John Calvin (b. 1509), on the other hand, was Modern, including his education, which was primarily in secular law rather than theology. It is literally true that by the generation after Luther and certainly the one following that, Lutheran’s assumptions about mediated reality (ie Modernity) would have shaped how Luther was read and understood.

Let’s assume for a moment that this is true (because Mannermaa’s critics vociferously disagree with his thesis). How is it that Mannermaa was able to cast off the blinders of Modernity, and for the first time in at least a couple of centuries, read Luther as Luther himself intended? This process is one of great gifts of authentic ecumenism. To be effective in ecumenical dialog (or political compromise, or statecraft for that matter … but that’s a rather different topic) one has to learn to “indwell” the other’s cultural-linguistic environment. Mannermaa spent years doing just that with the Russian Orthodox Church; and the Orthodox are definitely not Modern in their way of thinking.

As Mannermaa did this he was also reading Luther, and especially his lectures on Galatians. Reading Luther with these new eyes he recognized that Luther was dipping into the same well as the Russians (ie, the Chalcedonian fathers, and especially Athanasius), and Luther was understanding them in much the same way as the Russians. In essence, dialog with the Russians allowed Mannermaa to read Luther in his proper Medieval context rather than the Modern context in which he had been interpreted for generations.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I believe Mannermaa was on to something. But there is a profound weakness in this sort of ecumenical theology that I want to point out. The penultimate goal of ecumenical theology is to develop common language, ideas, and practice so that two communions (in this case the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church – so these would be called “bi-lateral talks”) can enter into communion with each and ultimately share Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (to use the words of the Faith and Order Commission). The ultimate goal is to totally break down the barriers between the various communions, but that is even more of a pipe dream than BEM! Even the Orthodox can’t manage that among themselves!!

This process, then, works primarily with the foundational documents of each communion. In the case of the Finnish Lutherans this would be the Formula of Concord and their specifically Finnish constitution. In practice, this means focusing specifically on Luther, and the question inevitably becomes, “What did Luther teach?” rather than, “What is the Gospel?” The effect of this subtle difference is that the process tends to focus on theology rather than transformation, on academics rather than the spiritual life.

But with that caveat in mind, I find this sort of thing (because the Finnish-Russian dialog is not the only significant bi-lateral discussion going on) to be one of the more fruitful and interesting things occurring in the Church today. And it is all the more reason to take the late Prof. John Webster to task for his small-minded snideness toward Mannermaa’s attempts to learn to mean the same thing when we of different communions say the same words.

Faith

I was reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s famous and oft misunderstood phrase, “leap of faith,” when I heard an Orthodox acquaintance talking about faith. The generally accepted starting point for an Orthodox understanding of faith is that it is a mode of perception. This is often a problematic starting point for us Romance Language people because our typical starting point is influenced by the Latin word fidere, which primarily means “trust.” Let’s just set aside “trust” for a moment; we’ll circle back to it momentarily.

God is not physical, so when we say, “God spoke to me,” or “I know God dwells within me,” we must necessarily mean something different than what would typically be understood as the literal meaning of those statements. God cannot “literally” speak and so you must mean that metaphorically, says the critic. And yet, our communion with God is far more than metaphor, or it is not Christian.

Ah, but we moderns have tended to reduce the world to that which we can study with the scientific method broadly defined. The physical world is subject to scrutiny with the scientific method and that study has been amazingly fruitful, so it is understandable that many assume that the physical world is all there is.

And indeed it is if we limit ourselves to touch, taste, smell, sight, etc. But the fathers have argued that there is yet another seat of perception that is mostly overlooked because it has atrophied as a result of sin. This is the mysterious inner being that we might call the heart, or soul, or innermost self. It is capable of perceiving and communicating with reality that is not physical, but real all the same.

Since faith, as a mode of perception, is atrophied (a consequence of spiritual death) it takes specific and intentional effort to develop it and to recognize what it is that the heart is perceiving. This is, by the way, where the spiritual tradition of Orthodox Church excels, and why there is such a heavy emphasis on the monastic life – not that everyone should be a monastic, but rather that monasticism be wide spread enough that everyone can engage with its fruits.

Once we begin to learn to perceive this otherwise hidden reality with our hearts, all the other facets of faith come into focus. We can trust because we actually know God, and are not merely hoping that he’s listening. We can hope – not blind hope, but Christian hope – because we know the actual faithfulness of God. Actual revelation of the Living Word of God (the favored title of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Orthodoxy) to us occurs because we have an actual mode of perception to to receive such revelation.

This is the stuff that Kierkegaard intuited and tried to express in his writings. His context was Lutheran pietism, and that severely limited his language set. Pietism spoke of the warming of the heart, the personal (and arguably, the emotional) attachment to God. But without a thorough knowledge of faith as a mode of perception, Kierkegaard recognized that the movement was built on shifting sand.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard said,

When we objectively investigate the truth, we reflect objectively about the truth as an object to which we are related. We do not reflect upon the relationship, but upon the fact that it is the truth – the truth to which we are related.

This is where his language set falls short. He recognizes that truth is not experiential in the Lutheran pietistic sense, but it has an inevitable and necessary relationship to experience. Because the Truth is living, it is not merely an idea that we incorporate, it actually changes us. And because this entrance into a new sort of truth that is not rationalistic or empirical is an utterly foreign experience for those of us whose (and here I must fall back on Orthodox language) mode of perception for such this is utterly atrophied, the first step is, in a sense, a leap into the unknown.

But it is not that it is actually “unknown,” it is rather that it is unknown to our tried and true modes of perception, which we can categorize as empirical evidence. So the leap is not into something utterly unknown, but rather a leap into something that we know not how to know. As Mary said when Gabriel told her that she was pregnant with our Lord, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The leap of faith is really just a matter of acknowledging that which we know, but we cannot know through “normal” means. It is a matter  of saying, “yes.”

Long before Kierkegaard, Anselm figured out the same thing. He called it “faith seeking understanding” (an active form of faith as a mode of perception). His explorations of this phrase proved to be bedrock for those that understood that Kierkegaard was on to something (Barth, the Torrance brothers, Alasdair McGrath, etc.). As an aside, Anselm’s slim book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) is brilliant exposition of this theme. His expositions unquestionably led me to doubt the whole foundation of Protestant epistemology … the consequence of which was my eventual move into the Orthodox Church, which embraces precisely what Anselm was trying to say on this specific subject. (His theory of salvation was not nearly as insightful.) It is sad that nearly all my Orthodox brethren condemn him vociferously and viciously. They’re reading the wrong the parts of the book! … but I digress.

It’s one of those sublime places where east and west meet: Faith is best understood as a mode of perception. That is the starting point into this mysterious way of knowing, an acceptance of what is and an acknowledgement that we don’t instinctively know how to get there from here. I would argue that “leap of faith” is not a particularly good way to describe it, but it seems that this is the direction Kierkegaard was headed when he said it. It is certainly what Anselm had in mind a few centuries earlier. It is the heart of the Orthodox understanding of faith.

Failures, Bad Habits, and Addictions: From Shameful Baggage to Holy Gifts

“Devoted to the Lord for destruction.” Now that’s an interesting phrase! and it’s in Joshua:

For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers we sent. As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. (Jos 6:16b-18)

“Devoted to destruction” is how the NRSV translates haram or cherem (alt. transliterations of the Hebrew root hrm). It is the word used in the Old Testament when God commands the utter destruction of something, most commonly, Israel’s enemies as they were conquering the Promised Land. In the conservative Protestant tradition, which celebrates the wrath of God, and interprets it in a very modern, post-Freudian way to mean anger, or fury, or just generally being pissed, this Hebrew idea was proof positive that (as the 1970s bumper sticker read, managing to be simultaneously offensive and amusing) “Jesus is coming again … and this time he’s really mad!”

So,if that’s not the point, what do we do with the haram of Jericho? God told Joshua that “the city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” The NRSV insets that word “devoted” because haram has both a negative and positive usage. Positively, it refers to something that is set aside to the Lord. In order to make the parallel clear, the NRSV translates the positive use as “devoted to the Lord” or something similar.

The idea of the Hebrew term haram is that of a gift. But the receiver is not physically there to receive it, so the giver sets it aside to use it exclusively on behalf of the receiver. In the modern context things like the chalice and paten would be haram. It would be unthinkable to use them for coke and pizza at a Saturday night dance. They are “set aside” for a specific liturgical use. Thus the word “holy” (qadosh), while not etymologically related to haram, is quite similar in usage. The chalice and paten are qadosh (holy: what they represent metaphysically) and therefore they are haram (set apart: what we do with them physically).

But haram also has a negative sense. And to help us understand the negative sense we should consider the Hebrew sacrificial system. Certain things brought to the altar were haram and were given to God completely as true sacrifices. This “giving to God completely” was done by burning the whole sacrifice on the altar. Other gifts were “offerings” rather than “sacrifices.” A symbolic portion of the offerings were burned on the altar, but most of it was reserved for the priests’ and Levites’ use (analogous to clergy salary and building upkeep today).

God told Joshua that Jericho would be haram, and therefore destroyed completely. It was not an offering, it was a sacrifice given to God. This is the negative sense of haram.  Furthermore, those who tried to rebuild it – to bring it back “from the ashes” to use the imagery of the altar – would be cursed because Jericho was haram.

Let’s acknowledge that the story is deeply disturbing to modern sensibilities. If we treat it as a war story and apply contemporary rules of war, it’s a shocking scene where noncombatants are slaughtered and where there is no sense of proportionality. Put into the larger context of the conquest and haram of Palestine, we’re also dealing with intended genocide. But the story is thousands of years old and  moral superiority and the resulting condemnation based on a few thousand years of hindsight puts us into a sort of “mote and beam” quagmire from which we’ll never extricate ourselves, due our self-congratulatory modern moral superiority, so the Church has wisely bracketed the historical events as beyond full comprehension and focused on a christological/allegorical reading.

The Orthodox don’t worry so much about the literal/historical arc of the Old Testament. It’s not that it’s unimportant (for it is the necessary strong foundation for an Orthodox reading of scripture) or dismissed as faintly ridiculous (as in a liberal Protestant reading); it’s rather that the best way to mine the spiritual depths of the Old Testament is to read it christologically (Athanasius, et. al.) and thus allegorically, as Paul teaches us to read the Old Testament in his epistles. The literal historical reading may develop one’s intellect but does little for one’s spiritual development. The Christological/allegorical method, on the other hand, is all about Christian transformation.

So, how does this text apply to us today allegorically? One of the great difficulties in spiritual growth is what to do about the bad stuff. We want to give God our very best, but we are beset by failures, bad habits, and on occasion, even addictions. These can be shameful things and we tend to hide them from God. We may also worry that God will be angry or even judge us because we can’t get our act together.

So we need to change the model. We need to take seriously God’s charge to the Israelites: The Promised Land is haram. The gold, silver, and bronze are to be devoted to the Lord (positive haram). The rest is to be devoted to the Lord for destruction (negative haram). And thus our failures, habits, and even our addictions can be “gifts” from us that are devoted to God. If we understand that these sins are not primarily something to be ashamed of, but rather human corruption that are to be devoted to the Lord for destruction, then they can even become, in a sense, “holy” gifts. They are not holy in and of themselves, but the attitude with which we offer them to God, through confession, is indeed holy.

I suppose this is precisely one of the points of confession in the Orthodox tradition. Confession is not about admitting shameful secrets and groveling for absolution, it is rather coming to understand the human condition and devoting it to the Lord so that our very beings can be transformed from the ashes. And this is why we can enter boldly into God’s presence (Heb 19:10). We are not bound for destruction. We have things that need to be utterly destroyed or banished, but they are not weights dragging us down to the pit, they are haram that we can give to God, “devote to God for destruction.” Even our worst can be transformed into the best for God. Thanks be to him. Amen.