Autumn … poof! it’s here

We’ve had an unusually cool  late summer early autumn and even managed a few record breaking temperatures and frosty mornings. (In September! That’s cold for Siouxland.) But for me autumn isn’t tied to the temperature; instead it’s revealed in the colors.

Up until yesterday the colors have been pretty drab, with greens fading to browns. The only thing particularly pretty has been the cornfield across the road which we see from our picture window.

Instead of just drying up and turning the classic broom yellow color of corn ready to be harvested, there has been an unusual mix of green, golden, and brown that is far prettier than normal. Given the fact that the other colors hadn’t developed, I’ve satisfied myself with enjoying the cornfield.

And then yesterday morning I walked into the office shortly after the sunshine popped over the house and discovered that the maple tree outside my office window decided to go all autumn on me overnight. (I swear it was just a dingy green-brown the day before.)

This picture is a bit misleading. The tree next to our neighbor’s house is still green and just beginning to turn yellow. A single branch of the maple tree is lined up directly in front of the neighbor’s tree.

I was blown away by the reds, golds and greens that came together in a perfect autumn combination. I suppose I can now start pulling out my flannel shirts. Autumn is officially here.


Sarah Palin gets kudos from the New York Times

Here’s a remarkable statement from Sarah Palin, as reported in the New York Times. And it’s remarkable because she is taking to task and essentially contradicting the rhetoric of the Republican Party (as well as the Democratic talking point). That’s a gutsy thing to do for a person who may enter the Presidential race.

“[American capitalism] is not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk,” she said of the crony variety. She added: “It’s the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest — to the little guys. It’s a slap in the face to our small business owners — the true entrepreneurs, the job creators accounting for 70 percent of the jobs in America.”

As spot on as the sentiment is, we must take her to task for her sloppy use of terms. As I have learned from serious economists (that is, economists who are not on the take from a politician, party, or government agency) and insisted upon on multiple posts on this site, what we have in modern America and Western Europe is not capitalism. It is the distant, inbred cousin of capitalism called mercantilism. Mercantilism is the collusion of government and business to control markets in such a way that the business people receive the profit, while the majority of the risk is taken on by the taxpayer. Gains go into the pockets of very rich and powerful private citizens; catastrophic losses are taken from the pockets of taxpayers.

Mercantilism is an immoral economic system based on greed and designed to take advantage of the weak and disorganized precisely by masking itself as capitalism and fooling “most of the people most of the time.”

If those who are willing to speak up about this (and here I have in mind Palin and Ron Paul) would get their terms straight it would certainly help clarify the debate.

Source: I got wind of this from Front Porcher, Patrick Deneen.

Divine Wrath as an Anthropomorphism

I’m still reading St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. In Book 1, ch. 11, he talks about scripture’s practice of anthropomorphizing God in order to describe his actions. The reason for this practice is “that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand of speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life.” I love that description.

He then goes on to say a few words about why things such as feet, head, hands, and eyes are so appropriate to describe God’s activities. The last two “body parts” he describes surprised me because I don’t think of them as part of our bodily existence but rather our immaterial existence. “His oath is the unchangeableness of his counsel …” and “His anger and fury are his hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat.”

Of course one’s oath and one’s anger are rooted in the will, and the will, while immaterial from a contemporary scientific perspective, is the body expressing itself. The human will does not contrast with the body but rather the body and will together contrast the immaterial heart or nous. So rooting one’s oath and anger in the material body – and thus treating them as anthropomorphizations in God – makes a great deal of sense. It also helps put the idea of divine wrath into proper context. Wrath is not an expression of God’s being or character; it’s rather an anthropomorphism that helps us understand God’s posture toward wickedness.

Some Thoughts on Divine Power

I’m reading St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. The following (from ch 8, “Concerning the Holy Trinity”) caught my eye: God is “a power know by no measure, measurable only by his own will alone.”

In the west discussions of the Godhead often begin with the omni’s: Omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc. And in Reformed speculative scholastic theology (taking its cue from Roman Catholic scholastic theology), the philosophical problem of the omnipotent God took center stage. At its worst (and here I have in mind the Dutch especially, and later the Westminster divines) divine omnipotence tended to become divine necessity. Authentic human freedom was compromised because the necessity of divine omnipotence.

But John of Damascus offers a very different tack on this subject. God’s power is “measurable only by his own will alone.” This is rather different than philosophical omnipotence. If God’s will is to be weak (as humans measure weakness) in the face of obstinate human will, then divine omnipotence is measured by that divine weakness. As a result, John of Damascus, and Orthodoxy in general, have no problem with the interrelationship of the divine and human will and are baffled by the Reformed solution as found in the Reformed version of the doctrine of predestination.

Just because God can express his power absolutely does not mean that God desires to express his power absolutely. If we are to understand divine power, we must begin, not with the idea of power, but rather with the idea of intent. Does God primarily intend the give-and-take of relationship or the logical process of a well-ordered creation? Relationships are rarely if ever well-ordered or logical. They involve give and take, losing as well as winning. Those are ideas that don’t fit comfortably with that grand philosophical term “omnipotent.” So let’s revise our thinking to something more in line with the scriptural exposition of John of Damascus. On a practical level, God is not all-powerful, but rather powerful to the extent that he desires to be powerful.

The Grandparents of God

September marks the beginning of the liturgical year on the Orthodox calendar. The church calendar, of course, is built around the birth, life, death, resurrection, enthronement cycle of our Lord Jesus Christ. But as I’ve said in various essays, in order to make the doctrine of the incarnation absolutely clear, that Christological cycle is “incarnated” into his mother Mary’s life. Thus the church year begins with her birth and ends with her death, and within those two earthly and human bookmarks the story of God’s incarnation unfolds.

Mary as the God-bearer is one of those utterly fundamental theological principles, enshrined in the Nicene Creed, which describes the full extent of the incarnation. It moves the doctrine beyond a mere idea and places squarely into the flow of history (in much the same way the phrase “crucified for us under Pontius Pilate” places his death in the historic0-political stream). In popular Orthodox piety the Roman Catholic term “Mother of God” is often used synonymously with the more theologically accurate phrase “God-bearer.” (While it is certainly true that by definition Mary is the “Mother of God,” it is a term that has some unfortunate and dangerous theological freight associated with it in the Roman Catholic tradition, so it tends not to be used in formal Orthodox settings.)

But there’s always a danger with fundamental theological terms such as “God-bearer” and the closely associated term “Mother of God.” When we think of a relational word such as “God-bearer” as a theological statement, it’s easy to forget the existential dimension of the term. Jesus has a mother! He grew up in a loving human family! While I don’t want to turn this into a romanticized recital of Jesus’ human lineage, the fact is that because of the vital theological principle rooted in Mary and the birth of Jesus, the more existential side of the story is often forgotten.

It therefore surprises me that one of the descriptions of Joachim and Anna (Mary’s parents) had completely passed me by in all the years that I’ve prayed the liturgy. But in the hymns sung this time of year they are occasionally referred to as the “grandparents of God.” What a felicitous phrase to describe the existential joy of God not only entering into human flesh, but entering into a human family.

Designed to Undermine, not to Overwhelm

Much has been written on this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Much of what I received in my inbax I ignored. Most of what I read wasn’t worth the time. People with average intellects merely manage to project their own biases onto world changing events. I suspect that only people with remarkable intellects and deep humility have the ability to see beyond their own sandcastles and recognize such transformative events for what they are.

Road undermined by drainage waterHaviland Smith, a retired CIA station chief who specialized in Eastern European and Middle Eastern affairs did say this (in the Daily Reckoning) about the 9/11 attacks:

It is critical to remember that terrorism is not designed to overwhelm. It is designed to undermine. In that context, whatever it does to cause or initiate anxiety in targeted populations and governments, it relies on the reaction of those populations and governments equally as much to achieve its final goals.

Rain (or fear) washing away the bedrock beneath a road ruins and closes the road (or society) just as effectively, albeit far more slowly, than a well placed mortar rocket. Smith’s words seem worth pondering, a decade after the deed.