Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Divine Reprobation and Human Sin

According to Richard Muller, in Christ and the Decree, Calvin believed that divine reprobation occurred as part and parcel of God's elective decree outside the bounds of human history (and understanding).  He quotes him at length: 

"As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his own eternal and unchangeable counsel those whom he had determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction.  We assert that, with respect to the elect, this counsel was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth [emphasis mine]; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment [emphasis mine] he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation" (22).

A little later Muller says this:

"...in view of Calvin's emphasis on the knowledge of God, reprobation does not appear the exact coordinate of election.  It occurs apart from Christ [emphasis mine] and therefore apart from any mediated knowledge of God.  If those men who remain in the mass of perdition inquire into themselves they can only know their own sin and infer its penalty of damnation.  They cannot know of the decree of reprobation as a cause of their condition" (25).

Lastly:

"Calvin could state categorically that God had not 'necessitated the sin of men'" (24).

I'm a bit puzzled by all of this.  When I've asked pastors and teachers how it is just for God to damn to conscious eternal torment those whom He had chosen, not by their own merits but by His secret will, to be so condemned, the answer has always been: they justly deserve it because of their sin, which was freely chosen.  While I think that this can be gotten from what Muller has said about Calvin, I don't think it is logically necessary.  Since God has determined the destiny of the individual, but does not necessitate their sin, it is at least possible that a sinless human being could be condemned to Hell.  More than this improbability, though, is the fact that their sin has nothing to do with their reprobation or punishment: they are elected for damnation for no reason ascertainable by man, including sins of omission or commission.  The role of the conscience, then, is to provide a legal fiction for the damned to accept their predetermined fate.  There is no real, and can be no real, connection between the two, unless we were to posit that God predestined the righteous and so foreknows them, but foreknows the wicked and therefore predestines them.  This would, however, both introduce partiality into God and bifurcate the image of God (the reprobate could not reasonably be said to bear God's Image, Christ, since their destiny was determined "apart from Christ").

So, how is it just for God to damn to conscious eternal torment those whom He had chosen, not by their own merits but by His secret will, to be so condemned?  The only answer possible in this scheme is: it just is.  'Justice', in this case though, has no relation to the concept as it is presented in Scripture: there is partiality, it is not based on what has been done or not done in history, and it involves a verdict and sentencing to take place with no advocate/defense counsel.  In other words, Calvin will need not only to split the will of God into the revealed and the hidden, but also divide God's justice/righteousness into the same categories.  The frightening thing is that these wills and attributes need have no actual relation: the God revealed in the Scriptures does not need to be the same as the God who predestines.  While Muller is careful to say that Calvin always asserted that there is no God behind the revealed God, it is hard to see how his theological system does not necessitate such a terror.

Muller goes on to mention that, for Calvin, the Person of Christ and His Essence/Nature as the Eternal Son have no real relation either: His Personhood comes from the Father, but His divinity comes from Himself (autotheos).  How this makes any sense, or has any claim to Christian orthodoxy, is beyond my admittedly limited ken.  What it does allow for, though, is the same bifurcation in Christ Himself that we see in God's will and justice.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

A Dialogue about the Job of Christians

At his website, Ed Cyzewski has very recently posted a provocative little essay on the true essence of the Christian Faith (short form: loving others out of the loving presence of God).  I don't know Mr. Cyzewski, and my thoughts here are unsolicited, so I'll call this a dialogue rather than a response.

As I perused the piece, I often found myself agreeing with Mr. Cyzewski; many of the points are one's I've grappled with and come to myself.  The questions that I'm left with at the end, though, are worth taking some time to elucidate:

1) How do we define 'love'?  In the piece, the whole argument hinges on being centered and settled in God's Love, so that we might love as well.  So far, so good.  However, it is very easy -- and we are seeing this happen in the broad Evangelical movement -- to let 'love' mean whatever it is we think is good, just, and true.  If that is the case, though, we've let ourselves be swayed away from the love of God and into the love of the world; in the process we will have idolized the world in its fallen state, which always leads to its demonization and corruption.  This is one of the main issues facing Evangelicals in the realm of what might be called "sexual ethics": have we made romantic or sexual attraction a good in its own right, rather than seeking (yes, even -- or especially! -- married people) to bring it to the Cross and crucify "the flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal. 5:24).  In many Christian circles (including my own), we've valorized sex to the point where we have given it over to the "flesh with its passions desires," instead of seeing it as an ascetic way to become more like Christ and the Church (1 Cor. 7:2-9 and Eph. 5:22-33).  'Love' continues to be a tricky concept, an even trickier life: we need guides to become lovers in God.

2.  The entrance into the love of God that Mr. Cyzewski describes leaves me wondering about the ultimate place of Christ and His Body in the love of God: "I’m not here to tell you the only ways to experience the loving presence of God. I have found ways that help, but there certainly are many paths. The pursuit is what’s it’s all about."  I'm struggling with what question to ask about this -- it is a deeply unsettling set of statements.  What about the sacraments? might be a good start.  Opening ourselves us to God, doing centering prayer, or whatever avoids, it seems to me, the very character of the one path (narrow and difficult it may be: Matt. 7:14) given by Christ and His Apostles.  The one way to the love of God is the Cross -- how we partake of the Cross is through the sacraments (particularly baptism, per Rom. 6, and Eucharist, per 1 Cor. 10:17, although this passage is cryptic).  The necessity of the sacraments, however, points us to the necessity of the Church as bearer of such.  We cannot be saved alone; rather, it is within the context of mutual confession in the Body that we, through Christ, save one another.  That last phrase should shock us, but not much.  It is found in St James' epistle: "Brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the Truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (5:19-20).  It isn't for no reason that St Cyprian famously quipped, "he can no longer have God as his father, who has not the Church as his mother" (Treatise 1).  There is a path to experiencing the loving presence of God: it is the Way, the Church of the Son of God.

Now, one of the tools that the Church has at her disposal to direct her children (Gal. 4:26) towards the love of God is the Scriptures, which are "able to make [us] wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:15-17).  Here I think Mr. Cyzewski is onto something important: knowing Scripture without the love of God will not save us.  However, knowing the Scriptures is one aspect of the Way in which we come into God's love.  The attitude that he and I used to carry, that knowing Scripture, theology, church history, whatever is vital because it seems like the "Christian" or "moral" thing to do, is indeed error.  But it isn't the content that is erroneous; it is the method of reception.  If I study the Bible to be "right" about God, or because I confuse knowing Scripture with knowing God, then I have fallen into the trap of pride: I can know God intellectually without faith.  On the other hand, if we come to the Scriptures (and to the Churchly interpreters of the Scriptures -- let's remember that St Paul was talking to St Timothy, not just to Christians at large: he was given him pedagogical and catechetical directions in how to apply the inspired texts) seeking teaching, reproof, correction, instruction, then we will be complete and equipped for that one work, one job, God has called us to: love of God and neighbor.  As a benefit, these Scriptures are replete with concrete direction on what it means to love.

Mr. Cyzewski states: "I have one job and you have one job: find the love of God."  My whole point here is that we need help to find it.  The Church is our guide, just as a good mother should be.  She uses her holy texts for our maturation.  However, if our eyes are clouded by sin and the corruption of the world (1 John 2:16), how can we find the right path to God?  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8); "...let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1).  In other words (and passages such as these could be multiplied fruitfully), to find the love of God takes work, what the Fathers call "ascesis" or "discipline."  This was the whole point of fasting, of almsgiving, of Scripture reading, of prayer: training in the life of holiness that we might see God and be transformed in His Image (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 John 3:1-3).  The final verse in the last cited passage is instructive: "and everyone who has this hope [to see God and be like Him] in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure."  None of these activities is worth anything separated from Christ (John 15:5), but in Him they have great power.

In the end, if I have any critique, it is the same one I've made of myself and many others: we talk about coming into the love of God, but neglect the proper method for doing so.  The whole of the spiritual life, which has at its goal the love of God, is not meriting things for ourselves, or feeling morally superior, or placating some Zeus-like deity; it is taking up the Cross and becoming sacraments for the life of the world.  There is a Way and it has been opened for us (Heb. 10:19-22).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

OT as Icon: Literary Patterning and Christological Interoretation

In Genesis 1, many commentators (most famously Meredith Kline) have noticed a literary pattern of forming and filling:

Day 1:  Creation of Light                     Day 4:  Creation of Luminaries (Sun, Moon, Stars)
Day 2:  Division of Waters                   Day 5:  Creation of Birds and Sea Creatures
            (Upper/Lower and Sky)
Day 3:  Division of Waters and Land   Day 6:  Creation of Land Creatures and Humans
            (Creation of Vegetation)

Day 1 is the forming of the habitat and conditions necessary for the creatures of Day 4 to exist and flourish (in this case, flourishing means the luminaries' ability to "divide the day from the night and [to be] for signs and seasons, for days and years, and [to be] lights in the division of the skies to give light on the earth").  The same holds with Day 2 and Day 5, Day 3 and Day 6, respectively.  The first three days are collectively formation, with the subsequent days filling, finished off with the Sabbath day of rest.  By the seventh day, the earth is habitable and furnished, as it were, ready for the divine dwelling.

This pattern of forming-filling-dwelling is all over the Old Testament: Exodus 25-31 describe how the Tabernacle is to be formed, while 35-40 detail how it is completed and furnished, ending with the dwelling of the Lord in its courts (v. 34ff.).  Joshua 1-13 describe the Conquest of Canaan (making it inhabitable for the Israelites) with 14-24 detailing the filling of that land.  There is no dwelling narrative here, as the Tabernacle is among them.  The pattern appears elsewhere in the Old Testament, but this is sufficient for now.

As we come to the New Testament, we quickly run into the concept of the "fulfillment" of not only Old Testament prophecy, but also the recapitulation of its narratives: the Israelites go to the wilderness for a period of 40 after passing through waters, are tested by the enemy, and fail.  Jesus goes into the wilderness after baptism for a period of 40, is tested by the enemy, and succeeds (using the book of Deuteronomy no less!).  He reverses the failures and problems of Old Testament history, bringing them to completion and perfection in Himself, so that the oikonomia of God through Abraham's seed might be fulfilled.  St Paul discusses this principle in 1 Corinthians 10, using the Rock in the Wilderness as his guide: "Now all these things [the whole OT history and institutions] happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonistion, upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (v. 11).

One of the famous problems with this sort of interpretation is that it can seem to have no boundaries, the well-known example being St Augustine's interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It has also seemingly led some modern interpreters to say that there is no real historical content to the OT stories themselves (if Adam or Abraham or David were just types, why do they need to have actually existed?  They can be understood as myths or founding legends.  Both of these, though, are false trails: the former since there is a very clear boundary that guides all such interpretation -- the regula fidei, the rule of faith, that is the Life of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels and Tradition of the Church (the Creeds being understood as horos, guide rails, of the Faith).  Within those boundaries, though, there is plenty of room to breathe and pastorally apply the Scriptures (remembering that the point of the Bible is not information, but formation into Christ by the skilled hands of the Church's "apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers" (Eph. 4:11)).  The second trail is harder to deal with, and is beside my present point: we have not yet come to an understanding of history in modern biblical studies that corresponds to how the ancients understood the stories of the passage of their times (neither 'objective' nor 'fictional' as we understand myth): history is apocalyptic, showing the truth of, behind, and shot through reality, rather than a bare description of events (more on this later).

When reading the OT Christologically (or Christotelically), the forming-filling-dwelling pattern becomes helpful, and a possible way to minimize the dangers of the first problem listed above.  The OT histories, narratives, persons, and institutions are the formation of salvation within history so that the Son of God might fill the whole world with His Presence and come to dwell among it. If the OT is the forming, that means that the whole of it can be "profitable for doctrine [teaching], for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16): it has been "breathed by God" for such a purpose, much like the Spirit indwelt the builders of the Tabernacle or the Spirit hovered over the waters of the primordial "welter and waste" (Gen. 1:2).  This means that the New Testament (at least) is the filling, or furnishing, of this reality for the dwelling of the King.  Here we see the construction of the Temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19 individually; Eph. 4:15-16 corporately, among many others), patterned out by the OT, filled by the Pascha of Christ, lived by the people of God: this will be finished when the Body reaches its terminus or telos: perfect love (1 Cor. 13:8-13, understanding the "perfect" of be God's Love, poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit).  We live, in other words, in the filling time, recapitulating in our own existence the filling of Christ of the OT forms: His Cross and death become ours in baptism, renewed in repetance, and completed in Eucharist.  As we move forward into history (the progression of time from one moment to the next), we see that the linear feel it has is more complicated: all events resolve in the Cross of Golgotha, awaiting their full share in the Resurrection, which we only take part in via firstfruits now.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 43

I was very graciously hosted and received at Chippewa United Presbyterian Church this morning.
-------------------------------------------

The words of Psalm 43, along with Psalm 42, comprise one song, held together with the refrain "Why are you cast down, o my soul? and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."  The Psalmist has expressed his desire to worship God, to be attendant to the festivals; yet the Lord's hand -- in the form of enemies -- is heavy upon him.  It feels, he says, as if "all Your breakers and Your waves have gone over me."  He is drowning, he who just a few lines earlier confessed that his soul was parched for God. We come to the center of the poem, then, and it is beautiful: "By day the Lord commands His steadfast love," His hesed, that love expressed through the covenant by which He bound Himself as Husband and Lord to Israel, "and at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life."  Still, though, the enemies taunt, saying, "Where is Your God?"  This causes the Psalmist, at the start of Psalm 43, to call for God's judgment: "Vindicate me, o God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!"  He feels trapped by the enemy, unable to make headway against the accusations of divine abandonment.  The vindication, the defense, and the deliverance are one and the same, found when God sends "out His Light and His Truth" which lead the Psalmist back into the worship of God, where he so longed to be, revealing the Hope his soul had panted after.

There are many ways in which we could interpret and apply this Psalm to our lives.  The most obvious, I think, is the psychological: we've felt the despondency that the Psalmist does -- the crushing weight of intrusive and persistent thoughts that claim the absolute absence of God.  Here the spiritual principle of speaking to our soul, reminding it that He is faithful, just, and good, is appropriate and helpful.  But let us go on to another way of looking at it.  The phrase "an ungodly people" could well be translated as "an impious nation."  We know the current cultural and social moment in which we live.  We've seen, in only a few months time, the normalization of pornography and sexual abuse with 50 Shades of Grey, the cultural exaltation of what Scripture and Church Tradition considers sin (in a number of ways), the continuing plague of racism, and the codification into law of that which leads us away from Christ.  Many Christians are in distress, wondering "where is God?"  It is easy, and arguably right, to be "cast down" and "in turmoil" right now.

The answer, though, is in front of us: prayer.

We often pooh-pooh prayer.  We say, "I feel like all I can do is pray" and other similar sentiments.  All we can do?  St James teaches us that "the effective prayer of a righteous person has great power" (5:16). Why, then, do so many of our prayers seem to go unanswered, especially as we pray for our nation and our culture?  James says, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (4:3), that is, we ask selfishly: we want comfort, security, prosperity, fame, exceptionalism, instead of God's will for ourselves and our nation.  James goes on to say "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."  We must, that is, seek after God's righteousness, who in turn makes us righteous, that our prayers might be effective and powerful.  "Submit yourselves, therefore, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (4:6-10).  There is hope, then, in our collective and persistent repentance.  Repentance is a form of judgment, looking at our own turning away from the Life of God, and turning once more, as the old Shaker song puts it, "for by turning, turning, we come 'round right." The Psalmist, then, surrounded by "an impious nation," does not call for their judgment, but his own: "vindicate me, o God!"  The Hebrew is a bit more striking, "Judge me!"  As St Peter says, "it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God" (4:17).  Once we judge ourselves by God's Spirit, taking particular care to remove the logs from our own eyes before helping to wipe the sawdust from our brother's, then we can pray effectively and powerfully.

What is the content of our prayer?  The Psalmist tells us: "Send out Your Light and Your Truth; let them lead me" (v. 3).  When we pray for the leading of Light and Truth, we are not praying for pious niceties.  So often when we use terms like these, we take them as nothing more than metaphors; the Scriptures instruct us differently.  What is God's Light? "I am the Light of the world; whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of Life," our Lord says in John 8:12.  What is God's Truth?  "If you abide in My Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free," (8:31-32), in which our Lord tells His disciples, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (14:6).  "Send out Your Light and Your Truth" is the language of prayer to ask for the coming of the Son of God into our midst, that He might lead us to salvation.  As we see in the Gospels, though, this is a task best done in fear: the sinners -- prostitutes, tax-collectors, Gentiles -- expected the harsh wrath of God, while the Pharisees believed themselves to be "on the right side of history."  Jesus overturned this: those who were in sin repented, while the religious held on to their own righteousness, instead of seeking God's in Jesus Christ.  If we have humbled ourselves, seeking first God's kingdom and righteousness, He will lead us: where, though?

"Let them bring me to Your Holy Hill and to Your Dwelling!  Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise You with the lyre, O God, my God."  God's Light and Truth, Jesus Christ, leads us to Church, to worship Him "in Spirit and in Truth" (John 4:23).  Why?  Here is where God has made Himself present, in the Body of the Son.  Here is where we can be purified, made clean, forgiven of our sins, saved from the enemy, nurtured to health, and equipped for mission.  Here is where we learn to pray, and learn that prayer is the foundation of all Christian life.  We may not be able to do great works, in fact it is probably better if we don't, as pride can easily creep into our hearts and poison us; but we can, no matter our physical ability, no matter our intellectual attainments, no matter our capacities and capabilities, pray and pray together. It is no wonder, then, that the author of Hebrews admonishes us to "not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (10:25).

It is in the midst of worship, as well, that all things become clear.  We see all that is happening in the world, even our own nation: Ferguson, Baltimore, the burning of churches in the South, the emptiness of churches in the North, Chattanooga, and we are liable to take over the role of the enemy and ask, "Where is your God?"  We might even be tempted to say, "All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence" (Ps. 73:13).  It seems that evil is in the ascendency, what use is living the Christian life?  The Psalmist says, "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.  But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end" (v. 15-17).  Here, in the Church, we see the end of evil: we see the Cross, where Satan and the demons poured out the worst they are capable of, murdering the Lord of Light and Life; yet this Cross has become, for us, a symbol not of shame or defeat, but of unconditional victory: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself" (2 Cor. 5:19); "By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3).  Evil is defeated, even if it yet prowls around as a "roaring lion" -- for God's Light and Truth have been sent, leading us to worship Him, Father, Son, and Spirit for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world.  This is why the Psalmist can end, as we should today, by saying: "Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God."  Hallelujah, our God reigns!  Amen.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Spiritual War

It should not surprise us that the great spiritual war we must fight in our modern day and age is to love one another.  The world runs, it seems on war: whether between states or more commonly between ideological factions, or between businesses who compete not as fellows, but as enemies bent on market domination.  Our marriages are wars, our friendships are wars, we even war near constantly with our children.  That war is part of life in a world beset with sin and death should not surprise us; but we must find the root of these wars and do battle against it.  Is not the source of this trouble that we do not see each other, from the most famous celebrity to the most outcast homeless or most deranged criminal, as being made in the Image of God, as icons of Christ Himself, however damaged?  Can He not restore that which is His and was made to refer back to Him, the Source of all Good and Life?  It is strange, then, that we must war against war, but we must.  Life comes only through the death of God on the Cross; we must join in that war, but it is not a war fought with the weapons of world, whether those be material (guns, bombs, and so forth) or passionate (malice, hate, indifference, apathy).  Rather, this war is fought through prayer, especially with the Psalms, and through acts of justice, goodness, mercy, humility and kindness.  That our churches have spectacularly failed to train us for this contest is one of the greatest obscenities of our age: we must go to our pastors or priests or prelates and demand of them training in the spiritual life that overthrew Rome and Gaul and Persia.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Philosophy for the Young

A brief thought in the importance of philosophical training, especially for the lower levels of education:

Philosophy, especially post-Kant ("Kant" being a German name that can be roughly translated as "Satan"), has earned, for all philosophy, the reputation of dry, mostly incoherent thinking about impractical things.  Whether this is fair or not is beyond my immediate (practical?) concern.  The problem with this state of affairs is that philosophy, especially that stemming from Plato and Aristotle through the Church Fathers and Ascetics, is eminently practical.  One of its main concerns is to develop virtue, habits of heart, mind, and body that lead one (both the soul and the society) away from akrasia (acting against the will's natural desire for the Good) and towards hesychia (peace, stillness, ease in any situation).  In other words, philosophy seeks to enable the student to wisely engage in all aspects of existence without being overwhelmed by the allure of material, sensate things or the power of the emotions.

Having been a teacher for 8 years and a human for roughly 4 times that, I've seen the necessity in students to have developed these virtues by the time they reach college (or wherever post-secondary they end up: homemakers, tradespersons, artisans all need virtue, not just some educated "elite").  Many students I've known have been anxious to get "practical" training, yet suffer from debilitating emotional problems or attachments to transitory goods (such as the vast accumulation of wealth).  This is not, of course, to say that true, diagnosed mental illness can be treated or cured through Plato: these things must be competently handled by trained (and virtuous!) counsellors and mental health practitioners.  However, for many who do not have a diagnosable illness, a sturdy askesis of philosophy would help to reorient and redirect the errant passions, desires, and loves back to the Good.

A person, suitably and properly trained in virtue, can then take up any higher learning, or trade, or profession towards the end for which they are made.  That this needs to be accomplished before the state of adulthood (culturally defined here as 21, although most cultures historically have placed it much earlier) seems obvious to me, yet the lower levels of learning rarely address these matters (if, even, they can in our state of cultural and societal disarray).  Richard Rorty, if I remember correctly, once said that if a child isn't virtuous by the time he/she reached college, there was no hope for them -- they had calcified in a state of arrested development (and, Lord, I pray this isn't true).

This means, ultimately, that philosophical training must start in the home, as young as possible.  But, if you are like me and live in an almost constant state of akrasia and acedia (spiritual listlessness), this seems not only daunting, but despairing. Where shall we go to learn that which we desire to pass down to our youth?  It is here that, I think, the broader classical Christian tradition has something great to offer: 2000 years of handing down ("tradition") this life, refined away from the inherent problems of the Socratic tradition in all its variants.  I'm not speaking solely of the intellectual content of the Faith, either, but the life of the Church, her discipline or askesis: fasting, feasting, feria, alms giving, prayer, self-denial, love of God and neighbor.  These we must learn, or relearn, to build up our children to live virtuous lives.

Well, so much for brief...

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

An Address of Sorts to Geneva College Students

I've always wondered what would happen if I got the chance to give you all a valedictory address.  Sort of like a commencement speech, but to all the classes and lacking in the typical self-focused irrelevance.  As my memory fades from the institution (in 3 years once this crop of first year students graduate), this seems to me to be my only chance.  What would I say, though?

First, you have been and will continue to be loved.  If there is one overarching theme I see coming from young Christian students, it is this: you do not believe that God could love you, or could continue to love you because of your (real or perceived) faults in morality.  We all perpetuate this, as we are convinced that if we are really saved, we must automatically lead holy lives.  But, my joys, this simply isn't true.  God calls us, eventually, to wholeness.  But it is a wholeness that always bears Christ's Cross, just as Symeon of Cyrene on the Via Dolorosa.  We find Christ by entering His sufferings, not by "having it all together" or "being perfect."  Indeed, don't take this as a license to cupidity; rather it is a sterner call to the holiness that we feign and therefore fear.  God calls us, daily, to our martyrdom. As we turn from the shoring up of the self and the ego, we find that these are merely false fronts -- duck blinds -- given by sin to hide the fact that they lead to nothingness, to the nihil from which we were called into being.  Sin tells us that God cannot love us, for God reveals the horror of what sin truly is.  We are all disordered in our loves; we must walk together on the road, leaving no man or woman behind.

This leads, naturally, to the second point: we must love if we are to know love.  God loves us, but just because "the Bible tells me so" is insufficient.  Love is a mode of existence, not a sentiment or a feeling, certainly not just a claim made without support.  This is why St John says "God is love," not "God has love."  To really know, in a much deeper than rational way, we must enter that mode of existence.  We must forgive our friends and our enemies, then we will see that Christ's forgiveness has been there all along.  We must love -- warm and fill -- our brothers and sisters, then we will find the One who says, "When I was hungry, you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink."  We should note that the sheep in that parable are surprised: "When did we do this to You?"  Cultivate those surprises.  Never fail to hope and expect Christ in the other, even when they fail to live up to our world's standards of "where God is pleased to dwell."  We are to become, by graced askesis, God's Temple.  However, we must not determine where God in His Spirit may move, for He is "everywhere present and fulfilling all things." Those who refuse to see the Christ will "weep and gnash teeth," seeing that the Love was already there, but they had cut themselves off from it by not loving the brother they could see.

Third, this love is transformational, or better yet is is transfiguring.  When Christ shines out the Unceeated Light on Mt Tabor He is giving us a glimpse of our own destiny.  Loving one another is not a giving a place for continued sin: it is a call to suffer for and with those who need God's glory to indwell them.  It may take years, and seem to bear no fruit, but God gives the increase in His own time and often in the hidden chambers of the heart.  Love one another.  Love is cruciform, so you will suffer.  Count it joy when you suffer for the Kingdom in this way: your reward is greater than the whole world.

Know, my joys, that many have suffered with and for you already.  Your parents, your teachers, your friends -- we are, along with all the saints, the Great Cloud of Witnesses looking to the Lord Jesus, who begins our Faith and beckons us to the end in Him.  Take up this Cross -- light and easy compared to the glory which will certainly be revealed in us -- with us.  The Church, those gathering in Christ's Cross and revealing His Resurrection, is important.  Our cultural religion would have you believe that you can have all the benefits of Jesus without religion.  In a sense, this is true: if we mean by religion a set of more-or-less arbitrary rules meant to manage guilt and create exclusive tribes.  The Lord Jesus does not dwell there.  But if we mean that community who seek, over time and in obedience to those who have traveled the Road before us (for what else is Tradition, friends?), to inhabit the Cross and live that mode of existence I've called love, then where else would the Christ be?  This is true religion, this is the Church.  It will involve rites and rituals and other things we find, for a variety of reasons, distasteful.  Medicine is often distasteful -- that doesn't mean it isn't healthful.  True, bad medicine leads to greater sickness: we must cultivate a spiritual awareness that can tell when our spiritual direction is harmful, so that we might seek out the good.  The wisdom here is hard: what seems rough at first might lead to health, to the crucifixion with Christ of the false self.  That which placates our conscience, or enables us towards self-actualization, or whatever may feel good for a time -- and we may mistake it for the Truth -- but it leads to death.  How are we to tell?  Is the Cross there along with the joy and the peace?  Joy and peace are of no avail, they are the City of Man, without the Cross.  In the Cross, they are God's grace and light spilled out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  We need to find spiritual directors, fathers, mothers, and companions who know the joy and the Cross -- they can, through God's indwelling -- lead us in His paths and tend our souls.

Lastly, sing.  There is a reason that the whole ancient Church chanted every part of her liturgy.  Find that reason.  It must be sung.

God's blessings on you.  You have blessed me for 8 years in the classroom.

Yours in Christ,

Prof. Russ