Friday, February 18, 2011

Some Perspective

Ten days ago, I publishes this post, which linked to this post, what amounts to a quite literal telescoping shot from the Earth-Moon system out to a galaxy so many billions of light years away, it may perhaps be among the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang, and so massive the editors note that its very existence violates our current understanding of astrophysics. Just looking at the way stars we see as we gaze out to the night sky - Arcturus, say, or Betelgeuse - swallow not just our sun, but the entire solar system are enough to blow your mind. It is, quite literally, incomprehensible beyond merely repeating certain facts, that this really is as it is presented. The scale, beyond not just our experience, but any practical understanding of what would constitute experience, leaves me, as the title of my post said, dumb struck.

Reading through Freeman Dyson's review of James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, I came across the following that gave me another one of those jolts of perspective.
In 1949, one year after Shannon published the rules of information theory, he drew up a table of the various stores of memory that then existed. The biggest memory in his table was the US Library of Congress, which he estimated to contain one hundred trillion bits of information. That was at the time a fair guess at the sum total of recorded human knowledge. Today a memory disc drive storing that amount of information weighs a few pounds and can be bought for about a thousand dollars. Information, otherwise known as data, pours into memories of that size or larger, in government and business offices and scientific laboratories all over the world. Gleick quotes the computer scientist Jaron Lanier describing the effect of the flood: “It’s as if you kneel to plant the seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole town before you can even rise to your feet.”
Dyson, a physicist, also offers this somewhat slight aside on the information flood and what it means, in particular for scientists:
The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries. We do not know how much of Shannon’s theory of information will remain valid when quantum devices replace classical electric circuits as the carriers of information. Quantum devices may be made of single atoms or microscopic magnetic circuits. All that we know for sure is that they can theoretically do certain jobs that are beyond the reach of classical devices. Quantum computing is still an unexplored mystery on the frontier of information theory. Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The Internet is a wild, whacky place. One encounters all sorts of folk, and when you write about the Christian religion, without fail you will end up encountering that strange bird, the creationist. Now, quite apart from all sorts of reasons why "creationism" is really, really lousy Christian teaching, I could not subscribe to it if it were Christian doctrine because of . . . perspective.

The photos of our Universe, the sheer immensity of it, is beyond our brains' ability to process beyond seeing a few, two-dimensional photographs that compare sizes to which we can relate. It is possible to buy a device on the open market and put it in your home that contains more information that was created in all of human history up to sixty-two years ago. There are things on the drawing board, apparently, called "Quantum computers", a name I've heard but about which I know nothing at all, that will make pretty much everything we currently do not only obsolete, but the equivalent of Linear B, and it is happening so rapidly it is almost impossible to keep up.

For all that science continues to shrink our understanding of our place in the Universe, it is not designed to address very thorny issues. As the critics of logical positivism pointed out decades ago, there are all sorts of things, like freedom and patriotism and love that science just cannot address, let alone understand. These are the things about which human beings care most deeply, have killed one another, fought and are quite willing to die for (as we have seen on our TV screens over the past couple months). These realities, too, provide perspective that reminds us how small we are.

It goes without saying that one principle, perhaps one of the very few, I hold most dear and which guides what I do is - pretty much everything I have said, either categorically or otherwise, might well be quite wrong. Indeed, I expect most of what I know to be the case is, in fact, quite wrong. Furthermore, as a self-professed Christian, I hold that my confident statements on all sorts of things regarding faith matters is not only wrong, but almost comically so. Indeed, part of my own sense of what faith means is that I have no guarantees, for example, that I have been granted salvation. I certainly hope so, and I live my life in the faith that is so, and my reflections on matters of faith are rooted in a belief that is so. When all comes to an end, however, I may find out that, as the Emperor said to Luke Skywalker, I am wrong about a great many things.

And I'm OK with that. I'm OK with the various perspectives that shrink my own worth to nothing. I'm OK with the notion that, before 2020, or perhaps 2030 (the year I turn 65), the world will look so vastly different than it does now, and the pace of change - not just in information technology but in so many other ways - will only increase, defeating my attempts to keep up. I'm OK with the reality that, at age 45, I am losing millions of brain cells every day, making my attempts to keep up with information and understanding increasingly difficult. I'm OK with the thought that, when the end comes, whatever is to be my lot, I did the best I could with the tools given me.

On Wesley's Perfection

Neither dare we affirm, as some have done, that all this salvation is given at once. There is indeed an instantaneous, as well as a gradual, work of God in his children; and there wants not, we know, a cloud of witnesses, who have received, in one moment, either a clear sense of the forgiveness of their sins, or the abiding witness of the Holy Spirit. But we do not know a single instance, in any place, of a person's receiving, in one and the same moment, remission of sins, the abiding witness of the Spirit, and a new, a clean heart.
Glory be to the the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries! Along with Wesley's sermons, they have made available, on-line, the final 1777 edition of "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection".
"QUESTION. What is Christian perfection?

"ANSWER. The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.

"Q. Do you affirm, that this perfection excludes all infirmities, ignorance, and mistake?

"A. I continually affirm quite the contrary, and always have done so.

"Q. But how can every thought, word, and work, be governed by pure love, and the man be subject at the same time to ignorance and mistake?

"A. I see no contradiction here: `A man may be filled with pure love, and still be liable to mistake.' Indeed I do not expect to be freed from actual mistakes, till this mortal puts on immortality. I believe this to be a natural consequence of the soul's dwelling in flesh and blood. For we cannot now think at all, but by the mediation of those bodily organs which have suffered equally with the rest of our frame. And hence we cannot avoid sometimes thinking wrong, till this corruptible shall have put on incorruption.

"But we may carry this thought farther yet. A mistake in judgment may possibly occasion a mistake in practice. For instance: Mr. De Renty's mistake touching the nature of mortification, arising from prejudice of education, occasioned that practical mistake, his wearing an iron girdle. And a thousand such instances there may be, even in those who are in the highest state of grace. Yet, Where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God's justice,~ but needs the atoning blood.

"Q. What was the judgment of all our brethren who met~ at Bristol in August, 1758, on this head?

"A. It was expressed in these words: (1.) Every one may mistake as long as he lives. (2.) A mistake in opinion may occasion a mistake in practice. (3.) Every such mistake is a transgression of the perfect law. Therefore, (4.) Every such mistake, were it not for the blood of atonement, would expose to eternal damnation. (5.) It follows, that the most~ perfect have continual need of the merits of Christ, even for their actual transgressions, and may say for themselves, as well as for their brethren, `Forgive us our trespasses.'

"This easily accounts for what might otherwise seem to be utterly unaccountable; namely, that those who are not offended when We speak of the highest degree of love, yet will not hear of living without sin. The reason is, they know all men are liable to mistake, and that in practice as well as in judgment. But they do not know, or do not observe, that this is not sin, if love is the sole principle of action.

"Q. But still, if they live without sin, does not this exclude the necessity of a Mediator? At least, is it not plain that they stand no longer in need of Christ in his priestly office ?~

"A. Far from it. None feel their need of Christ like these; none so entirely depend upon him. For Christ does not give life to the soul separate from, but in and with, himself. Hence his words are equally true of all men, in whatsoever state of grace they are: `As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me: Without' (or separate from) `me ye can do nothing.'

"In every state we need Christ in the following respects (1.) Whatever grace we receive, it is a free gift from him. (2.) We receive it as his purchase, merely in consideration of the price he paid. (3.) We have this grace, not only from Christ, but in him. For our perfection is not like that of a tree, which flourishes by the sap derived from its own root, but, as was said before, like that of a branch which, united to the vine, bears fruit; but, severed from it, is dried up and withered. (4.) All our blessings, temporal, spiritual, and eternal, depend on his intercession for us, which is one branch of his priestly office, whereof therefore we have always equal ~need. (5.) The best of men still need Christ in his priestly office, to atone for their omissions, their short-comings, (as some not improperly speak,) their mistakes in judgment and practice, and their defects of various kinds. For these are all deviations from the perfect law, and consequently need an atonement. Yet that they are not properly sins, we apprehend may appear from the words of St. Paul, `He that loveth, hath fulfilled the law; for love is the fulfilling of the law.' (Rom. 13:10.) Now, mistakes, and whatever infirmities necessarily flow from the corruptible state of the body, are noway contrary to love; nor therefore, in the Scripture sense, sin.

"To explain myself a little farther on this head: (1.) Not only sin, properly so called, (that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law,) but sin, improperly so called, (that is, an involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown,) needs the atoning blood. (2.) I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality. (3.) Therefore sinless perfection is a phrase I never use, lest I should seem to contradict myself. (4.) I believe, a person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions. (5.) Such transgressions you may call sins, if you please: I do not, for the reasons above-mentioned.
The heart of the doctrine of perfection, or entire sanctification, or holiness of heart and life - these phrases are interchangeable in Wesley's writings - lies right here, although the entire pamphlet is much longer. Again, there is nothing in here with which I would disagree. Rooted in Scripture, in particular Paul's citation of the kenosis hymn in Philippians ("have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus") and the Gospel of St. John ("therefore be perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect"), the teaching on Christian Perfection sees the possibility of a cleansing of our life and will, the "heart" to use Wesley's terminology, from self-regard not through any work we do on our own, but as grace works in our lives, as we humbly follow the path and life of faith. This is not a "work", but part of that grace granted to us without merit, yet the life to which we are called, for which God in the Person of the Holy Spirit gives us strength and endurance.
26. In the year 1764, upon a review of the whole subject, I wrote down the sum of what I had observed in the following short propositions: --

"(1.) There is such a thing as perfection; for it is again and again mentioned in Scripture.

"(2.) It is not so early as justification; for justified persons are to `go on unto perfection.' (Heb. 6:1.)

"(3.) It is not so late as death; for St. Paul speaks of living men that were perfect. (Phil. 3:15.)

"(4.) It is not absolute. Absolute perfection belongs not to man, nor to angels, but to God alone.

"(5.) It does not make a man infallible: None is infallible, while he remains in the body.

"(6.) Is it sinless? It is not worth while to contend for a term. It is `salvation from sin.'

"(7.) It is `perfect love.' (1 John 4:18.) This is the essence of it; its properties, or inseparable fruits, are, rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, and in everything giving thanks. (1 Thess. 5:16, &c.)

"(8.) It is improvable. It is so far from lying in an indivisible point, from being incapable of increase, that one perfected in love may grow in grace far swifter than he did before.

"(9.) It is amissible, capable of being lost; of which we have numerous instances. But we were not thoroughly convinced of this, till five or six years ago.

"(10.) It is constantly both preceded and followed by a gradual work.
This teaching is, to me, the great gift of the Wesley's to the world - that God's grace works within us to make us strive in all our living and working out of a love for God, and only that. It is, in many ways, a working out of the following advice from Martin Luther:
Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.

Faith And Works (UPDATE)

We do not, therefore, reject good works; on the contrary, we cherish and teach them as much as possible. We do not condemn them for their own sake but on account of this godless addition to them and the perverse idea that righteousness is to be sought through them; for that makes them appear good outwardly, when in truth they are not good. They deceive men and lead them to deceive on another like ravening wolves in sheep's clothing.
The discussion of the relationship among the Bible, faith, what constitutes a life of faith over at Dan's continues. It has led me to turn back to some basic statements of Protestant faith. First up is Martin Luther's short pamphlet, "Freedom of a Christian". My edition is included in the Fortress Press publication Three Treatises, which also includes "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" and "To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation". Written as part of a last ditch effort at reconciliation between Luther and the Roman Church, at the behest of several intercessories sent from Pope Leo X, the tract, along with an introductory letter Luther penned to the Holy See, was really the final nail in the coffin.

In this short treatise on Christian anthropology, Luther defends the contradictory view he sets forth in the two theses at the beginning:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
While not worked through thoroughly, nor fully determined in any philosophical way - is the relationship temporal? ontological? ontic? merely heuristic? - the central point is summed up near the end, in a paragraph that begins, with some relevance to our discussion at Dan's, "[S]omething must be added for the sake of those for whom nothing can be said so well that they will not spoil it by misunderstanding it."
There are very many who, when they hear of this freedom of faith, immediately turn it into an occasion for the flesh and think that now all things are allowed them. They want to show they are they are free men and Christians only by despising and finding fault with ceremonies, traditions, and human laws; as if they were Christian because on stated days they do not fast or eat meat when others fast, or because they do not use the accustomed prayer, and with upturned nose scoff at the precepts of men, although they utterly disregard all else that pertain the toe Christian religion. The extreme opposite of these are those who rely for their salvation solely on their reverent observance of ceremonies, as if they would be saved because on certain days they fast or abstain from meats, or pray certain prayers; these make a boast of the precepts of the church and of the fathers, and do not care a fig for the things which are of the essence of our faith. Plainly, both are in error because they neglect the weightier things which are necessary to salvation, and quarrel so noisily about trifling and unnecessary matters.
The bulk of the pamphlet concerns a definition of faith, and the freedom the Christian is granted in faith. Luther writes: "Here we shall answer all those who, offended by the word 'faith' and by all that has been said, now ask, 'If faith does all things and is alone sufficient unto righteousness, why then are good works commanded? We will take our ease and do no works and be content with faith.' I answer: not so, you wicked men, not so."
Although, as I have said, a man is abundantly and sufficiently justified by faith inwardly, in his spirit, and so has all that he needs, except insofar as this faith and these riches must grow from day to day even to the future life; yet he remains in this mortal life on earth. In this life he must control his own body and have dealings with men. Here the works begin; here a man cannot enjoy leisure; here he must indeed take care to discipline his body by fastings, watchings, labors, and other reasonable discipline and to subject it to the Spirit so that it will obey and conform to the inner man and faith and not revolt against faith and hinder the inner man, as it is the nature of the body to do if ti is not hot held in check. . . .

While he is doing this, behold, he meets a contrary will in his own flesh which strives to serve the world and seeks its own advantage. This the spirit of faith cannot tolerate, but with joyful zeal it attempts to put the body under control and hold it in check, as Paul says in Rom. 7, "For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin," and in another place, "But I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified", and in Galatians, "And those who belong to Christ Hesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."

In doing these works, however, we must not think that a man is justified before God by them, for faith, which alone is righteousness before God, cannot endure that erroneous opinion. We must, however, realize that these works reduce the body to subjection and purify it of its evil lusts, and our whole purpose is to be directed only toward the driving out of lusts. Since by faith the soul is cleansed and made to love God, it desires that all things, and especially its own body, shall be purified so that all things may join with in loving and praising God. Hence a man cannot be idle, for the need of his body drives him and he is compelled to do many good works to reduce it to subjection. Nevertheless the works themselves do not justify him before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God and considers nothing except the approval of God, whom he would most scrupulously obey in all things.
For anyone not paying attention, I have been accused, in setting forth an understanding of the role of faith in the life of the believer, that would give license to any act whatsoever, because it is by faith through grace alone that we are made clean before God. This long quote, in particular, should be clear enough that, in fact, the exact opposite is the case. I wouldn't have included here the central point that works flow from faith, are a requirement of it, but are not necessary for salvation, if I believed in any manner, fashion, or form that faith gave us license.

Of course, I have never said it, have explicitly stated that I do not, and would never say, nor believe, such a thing. Yet, the accusation remains. I do so hope this clears things up.

UPDATE: After reading through Wesley "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection", I have turned back to Luther, in his epistolary debate with Erasmus on the free will and salvation. The edition from Westminster/John Knox Press is edited by Cambridge Church Historian E. Gordon Rupp, whose introductory essay on Erasmus is a treasure trove of information. Included are two quotes from the Acts of the Council of Orange in the late 6th century, which, Rupp notes, were lost to the High Middle Ages, only discovered during the Council of Trent.
Canon 5: If anyone says that not only the increase of faith, but also its beginning and the very desire for belief, by which we believe in Him who justified the ungodly and come to the regeneration of holy baptism - if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proofthat he is opposed to the teaching of apostles.
Canon 6: If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when apart from His grace we believe, will, desire, strive, labour, pray, watch, study, seek, ask or knock, but does not confess that it si by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, will or the strength to do all these things as we ought, and thus subordinates the help of grace to human humility or obedience, without acknowledging that our very obedience and humility is a a gift of grace itself, he contradicts the apostle who says, 'What has thous that thous has not received?" (1 Corinthians 4:7) and "By the Grace of God, I am what I am" (1 Cor 15:10).
Rupp notes in his introduction to these canons that they are both Augustinian and, proleptically, Lutheran, in their emphasis on the role of grace in turning the believer in to one such.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Living Out Loving Community

I was busy doing something on Facebook last night when a photo from a friend's profile popped up on my sidebar. I clicked on it - it was kind of small - and was greeted by a photo of four people who, at one time, were among my closest friends. I sat and looked at them, so long ago, each and all so beautiful they took my breath away. The photo reminded me of so many things, not the least that it was taken at a bittersweet moment. It was seminary graduation day, 1992, and the four folks pictured had just picked up their Master's Degree diplomas and were headed out to their separate lives. For the previous two years, they were among the people who embodied a reality that is part and parcel of the Christian faith - the blessed, loving community.

When I arrived at seminary, I knew exactly one person. I was starting over in my life after a period of drift, and some recent experiences that left me floundering, feeling depressed. Shoot, I arrived at seminary without any idea what I was really doing there, how I would pay for it, or much anything else! It was a Foreign Legion experience, running away, really. I chose Wesley for the simple reason that it was an excuse to do what I'd wanted to do since childhood - live in the nation's capital.

There, in the midst of so many questions, so much anxiety, doubts, fears, a sense of my own worthlessness I found a small group of fellow students who became not just friends, but mentors. I liked them, came to love each and all of them, but more important, I looked up to them, because from them I learned what it means to be in the midst of a loving community. First and foremost, it means a lot of laughter. Man, we spent a whole lot of time laughing together.

More important, it means living through the stuff that ticks you off. I am quite sure there were moments when each of us grumbled and mumbled about one or another of us. Yet, we had the strength and humility to speak of these things, to put the health and love we had for one another ahead of our selfish desire to revel in being pissed off.

The moment when I realized what "acceptance" - what embodied, lived grace - really means, came early on in that autumn of 1990. I forget who, but someone asked if I wanted to help hang some panels from the AIDS quilt that had been borrowed from a display at the National Cathedral. They were going to hang them in the chapel for use during a service the next day. I will never forget, standing there in Oxnam Memorial Chapel, as we figured out how to get those huge, heavy quilt panels to stay in place, that it hit me - they had asked me to come along and help them. Where I had been apart, now I was a part. Where I had been a stranger, I was now a friend.

For the next two years, this group of people taught me so much. At the feet of these wildly diverse, smart, funny, beautiful, faithful, dedicated people, I learned what it means to be in loving community with other people. As the end approached, I mourned because, while I knew that change is a part of life, it was this group whose friendship and counsel I cherished, who had sustained me in ways they will never know, that would now fracture.

The moment captured in that photo, for all that it signaled an end, also brought to mind so many other thoughts, not the least of them being that we were something very special together. To have been called friend, to be included as a part of this group is a blessing I will always cherish. I am grateful for having the opportunity last evening to recall, in vivid detail, a time when I learned from the best folks I have ever known what real friendship, real community, is all about.

Wednesday Randomness, Silly Love Songs Edition

I am bad about love songs. I know there are all sorts out there, but, being a sentimentalist at heart, I tend to lean toward schmaltz. It's really embarrassing. Shoot, I get teary-eyed over stupid country songs men sing about their children when I should know better. While I think Frank Zappa's saying that, with all the love songs out there, you'd think the whole world would be smothered in love, proving that music "makes us" do nothing is true enough; I also think that deeply felt love songs strike a chord because they give voice to things we feel.

So, I'm not gonna post any of my favorite love songs, except for this gem from the 1980's, because I like it, and the lead singer has an awesome mullet.

OK, fire 'em up!

Sister Moon - Sting
Sanctus, Mass #4 in C - Franz Schubert
Straight To The Top (Rhumba) - Tom Waits
Nine Cats - Porcupine Tree
Love Hangover - Diana Ross
Regret - Dead Soul Tribe
Satch Boogie - Joe Satriani
Guinivere - Crosby, Still, and Nash
The Holy Spirit Is Helping Us - Dresden Cathedral Choir
Zombie Eaters - Faith No More

Those last two show some breadth of taste as well as serious randomness!

Amos Lee's Mission Bell is the number one album in the country. It also has the lowest sales figures in the history of any #1 album. That doesn't mean it's bad. It means people aren't buying albums. I love this album. Here's "Jesus".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Herd Of Free-Thinkers

The recently finished Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which featured a straw poll won by Texas Representative Ron Paul has given me some pause to consider a larger phenomenon that was driven home to me, a quarter-century ago in college. I was taking a survey class in American History, and the professor, Gary Ostrower, asked the class for a show of hands from all those who considered themselves non-conformist, individualists, however we might want to consider ourselves. Of course, everyone raised their hands. Then he asked, "How many of you are wearing blue jeans?" The only person who wasn't was a young woman who was, as the term went in 1985, a Madonna-wannabe (seriously, this chick had it all, right down to the blown-dry peroxided hair, the lace gloves, the whole nine yards; I kept expecting her to break out in "Lucky Star" at any moment).

Since then, I have been quite conscious that even my own unique perspective is, really, not only not unique, but not even mine. I can trace pretty much anything I think or profess back to other folks who I hold to be smarter, more clear, and probably more consistent than I have ever been. I would never claim otherwise.

All the same, the mish-mash that is "the way Geoffrey Kruse-Safford thinks and lives" is, I believe, something uniquely my own. Rather than fall in to certain traps, including holding on to ideas I no longer accept (toodles, Richard Rorty . . .), I think finding a boringly orthodox Christian who is leaning ever and ever over the edge toward accepting large parts of Marxist thought is, in the experience of most human beings, interesting to say the least.

At CPAC, the triumph of libertarianism was tempered by a strain of homo-hatred and Islamophobia that was almost breathtaking. Yet, if there is any consistent theme that emerged, even and above the reflexive dismissal of pretty much anything Pres. Obama has done, it is the near-unanimity that conservatives represent the triumph of true freedom of thought.

One of the internet stars of the libertarian right is Pamela Geller. She gained mainstream attention this past summer for her nonstop shrieking over the non-existent "Ground Zero Mosque". A self-professed disciple of Ayn Rand (an odd thing to be, all things considered; her website is titled "Atlas Shrugs"), Geller is also one of those conservative Israel-lovers who will tolerate not a single breath exhaled in favor of possible compromise on matter relating to maintaining the murderous status quo. She combines this with a vile, ignorant bigotry against Muslims that is kind of anti-poetry in motion.

One right-wing activist whose work goes back to the Reagan years is Grover Norquist. His pet project is the elimination of income taxes. He is monomaniacal on the topic, but he is also a pretty funny, reasonable guy. For all he cops the outsider attitude, he is and has been for decades an Establishment player. He is also married to a Muslim. For this, the Muslim-haters like Geller and former National Security "expert" Frank Gaffney have insisted that he is actually an agent of . . . The Muslim Brotherhood.

These conservatives, who pride themselves on their Randian individualism, are so confused on what Rand actually wrote and what it means they rush to denounce pretty much anyone who doesn't think like them (a trait they share with their founder who did not suffer non-sycophants gladly).

I would be remiss if I left my criticisms be solely of our right-wing herds of independent minds. The left, too, suffers from much the same thing; the difference is the left holds little power. All the same, try going to a large website like Huffington Post and writing sanely about the Christian faith, and watch what happens.

Where Their Hearts Really Lie

At least the anti-abortion folks in South Dakota are honest.
The South Dakota House is considering a bill that could “make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions.” The GOP-backed bill, which passed out of committee, would alter that state’s definition of justifiable homicide to allow killing if committed by a person “while resisting an attempt to harm” that person’s unborn child or the unborn child of a person’s spouse, partner, parent, or child.
Every time an abortion-provider is murdered, we wait in vain for all those allegedly "pro-life" Republicans to come out and say something about it. Crickets chirp, the wind whistles through the trees, the silence becomes deafening. Now, the last tattered remnants of "pro-life" are gone. We can see that it isn't "life" they support. It's the fetus. That's the only thing they care about. If some doctors have to die to protect a fetus, then that, apparently, is a price at least pro-fetus Republicans in South Dakota are willing to pay.

I wonder if any of the cowardly right-wingers who insist they think murdering abortion providers is wrong will stop over here and prove me wrong that (a) they aren't cowards; and (b) they oppose this bill.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Immoral Reformer

All this talk about grace and license and morality has turned my mind to the guy who started it all. While Calvin was both a far more rigorous thinker and offered a view of Divine love and the Christian love that, in many ways, I find far more appealing. Furthermore, Calvin's view of the relationship between the Christian and the state is more attractive than the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. As people, however, Calvin is distinctly unattractive. His decision to support the execution of Servetus for blasphemy - he denied the Trinity - is loathsome. He was largely apathetic to his wife and family, dedicated far more to writing his books, preparing his sermons, and the governance of Geneva.

Luther, on the other hand, once he had his breakthrough - which occurred not, as Erik Erikson claimed, on the john, but after a session with his ocnfessor in the monastery - Luther reveled in all the joys life had to offer. Garrulous, earthy, he was called a drunkard and glutton by his enemies (and a few of his friends as well). He was an attentive husband and father, and spoke of the joys of marital bliss with the tone of the convert from self-imposed asceticism. He and his wife, a former nun from the same monastery, grieved for the rest of their days the loss of one of their children.

In his history of the rise of Renaissance thinking, A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester is scathing in his appraisal of Luther. He notes, correctly, that one of Luther's favorite words was "shit". Historian Heiko Obermann, whose Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, is a marvelous account of Luther's life and thought, places Luther within the context of medieval life and thought. For Luther, the earth was the battlefield between God and the Devil, with the human race merely the most important playing piece in this supernatural game. The story of the Devil appearing to Luther in his monk's cell concludes not with the soon-to-be-Reformer tossing his ink well at old Splitfoot; he hurls feces.

The final volume of the English edition of Luther's Collected Works is Table Talk. Once he left the monastery, and living under the protection of the Elector of Saxony, he would spend his evenings in inns, surrounded by friends and sycophants. His tongue loosened by copious amounts of Saxon ale, those around him would scribble down his words on beer napkins, table cloths, whatever was handy, as if the words were continuing evidence of his wisdom and sagacity. In these deeply personal moments, we get a glimpse of Luther the man, the loving father and husband. We hear him revel in the sensual delights of the marriage bed, castigating the Catholic practice of castrati, insisting he would rather have three "balls" (he uses the word) than none. He proclaims the joys of living in word and deed, freed from the burden under which he had lived prior to his revelation, with help from his confessor, that God loved him, Martin Luther, no matter what he did.

Prior to his conversion, Luther was a dedicated flagellant. He would spend hours in the quiet of his cell, shipping his back bloody, the wounds never being given a chance to heal. Yet, he never felt it was enough to earn the love of God. He had asked, specifically, if he should add nails or some other thing to the whip, to score his flesh even deeper. His confessor, horrified at what he was hearing, was clear - God's love and forgiveness were not won, not through moral rectitude, nor its opposite, the guilt-ridden self-punishment that is still practiced. God's love meant that he, Martin Luther, was forgiven. Not because he deserved it, or merited it for any act he did.

Luther was far from perfect. Siding with the powers-that-be during the Peasant's Revolt, which was led by a former disciple of Luther's named Thomas Muntzer who took the Wittenberg doctor's teaching on the freedom of the will to a logical extreme, Luther might have mitigated the slaughter that followed; estimates place the number of dead around 100,000. He was a man of extremes, in his life and loves, but also in his hates. The Roman Catholic Church, which had nurtured and given him the opportunity for his insight, became the focal point of his rage. In particular, the Papacy of the time, while certainly needing someone to point out it was a sinkhole of depravity (this was the era of the Medici and Borgia Popes, after all), became the very personification of evil on earth, the Whore of Babylon about which St. John the Divine writes in Revelation.

I wonder what Art would make of Martin Luther, the man?

The Doctrine I Made Up

The discussion on Dan's post concerning a pastor withholding a congregational blessing on a child born to a couple not married has, it seemed, come to the nub of the issue - what is grace? Over the course of several comments yesterday, I made clear that grace is both the character of that love that the First Epistle of St. John says is God, and is the act within us that turns us toward God. Precisely because it isn't a "thing", but is the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity working within us to make that turn toward God. Without that divine act, that Divine Person, acting in us, we could not do this on our own.

The response I got was, in essence, that I was making this up: "your apparent notion [of] "grace"(emphasis added). I made the repeated observation that this was not my apparent notion, but was an ancient, revered doctrine, rooted in the writings of St. Paul, and fleshed out by, among many others, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. I should also point out that I have a thick paperbound portion of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas entitled On Nature and Grace.

This morning I picked up a slim volume by St. Augustine, two incomplete works on the Epistle to the Romans, edited and translated by Paula Fredriksen Landes. One is a set of propositions, essentially talking points rooted in St. Paul that Augustine set down over the course of his discussions and disputations with the Manichaeans, who were appealing to St. Paul for their dualistic cosmology. The only volume of actual commentary on Romans, covering, barely, the first few verses, was set aside due to various other obligations, and when he turned back to it, he realized the work would be far too time consuming. Furthermore, as Fredriksen Landes points out in her introduction, Augustine's mind had changed on the nature of human free will. Set forth in the propositions was a view of the will free to choose faith. Later, after thought and various experiences, particularly with the Pelagians and Donatists, he would change his mind, and see even faith as a gratuitous act of God for and in us.

Indeed, it was his controversy with the Donatists that, in many ways, echo the dispute at Dan's over congregational blessing of a children born out of wedlock. During the last, great, systematic persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, many not just laity but clergy and even bishops had renounced their faith in the Christian God at the point of Roman swords. After the persecution ended and the Church returned to legal status, the Donatists insisted that those particularly in the hierarchy who had renounced their faith should not be allowed to return to their offices, even after doing penance.

Augustine responded with a series of writings in which he affirmed that penance was necessary, but that once complete, those clergy who had renounced their faith should be welcomed to full communion with open arms to their previous offices. Not because what they had done wasn't bad or horrible. Rather, because God's grace overrode any human disgust at what the Donatists called "traditors". This expansive view of how we should live as a gracious community toward even those who deny their once-professed faith has been passed down, particularly through the Reformers.

So, it seems I didn't exactly make up this view of grace. In fact, it should be pretty clear that, having first been worked out in the white heat of controversies in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, yet rooted in the Scriptural witness of St. Paul reflecting on the work of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, it goes all the way back to the beginning, as it were.

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