Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Rome?

Part of my duties at Geneva is to teach the Humanities. I teach both the introductory course that deals with some of the perennial themes of human life (adventure, death, love & virtue, cultural change, and "calling") and the quick-and-dirty Western Civilization course (we cover from Homeric Greece to the Baroque period). It is because of the second course, in which my lecturing covers the early Church and Medieval periods, that I have been presented with a question that did not particularly bother me as an undergraduate, nor as a graduate student, but has begun to become somewhat of a gadfly in my adult life: why Rome?

Why is Rome so important? Why does the patrimony that has come down to us from them (and from the Greeks as well, although I'll argue that they are not as vital, culturally speaking, but that is for another time...) continue to affect us and our cultural longings and concrete expressions? Why does "Classicism" come so often into the discussions of Renaissance and Reformation works and thought? What is it about Rome, that Empire that doggedly persecuted the Christians and even put their founder to death, that Western civilization is so beholden to?

It isn't, as I've often heard, that they did this, or that, or the other thing well. While that is certainly true (I've been to the Pont du Gard and have experienced firsthand their matchless engineering and stochastic artistry), there is something else. Something that keeps pulling us back, especially Christians, to this strange Greco-Italian Empire. I don't quite know what that is, but I've got a hunch: it is us. It is our history, more than just dates and facts, but it is what connects us -- even disconnected, consumerist Americans -- to the world. History is important, not just for its lessons, nor for its cultural influence, but because it is part of what makes us human (note, for example, that the Old Testament is mostly history: God obviously thinks it important, important enough to shape all of history into a cruciform pattern).

In other words, the day Rome falls from our cultural conscience, the day we forget who we fundamentally are, is the day that the West really ends. I do not necessarily think that the West needs to encompass the world (colonialism and empirialism are unfortunate parts of our Roman heritage), but it does need a place in the world. It is worth preserving, even the nasty bits (we need to remember that the past was not "golden"), and -- more imperative -- it is worth defending: we are fighting for our own cultural identity in the midst of an encroaching colonialism of another kind, one just as insidious as own cultural history. We have made the mistakes, so culturally we should be able to meet this challenge with some modicum of maturity and tact, even as we continue to develop what it means to exist in this strange mixture of paganism, of Christianity, of reason, of the "virtues", and of history.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Shame of the Cross

One thing I've heard, but cannot currently verify, is that the Fathers are not strong on why the death of the Messiah had to be a death on the Cross (although I think Irenaeus might have something to say about that Tree). Sitting in a Christmas Eve service this week, though, I was struck with a connection that I hadn't made before. It is this:

The reason the Christ must die on the Cross is not because it is the most torturous, but rather because it is the most shameful. Adam became shamed by his disobedience; through the shame of the Cross this is defeated and reversed. Clothing ourselves in the shamed Christ, who deserved no shame, is what brings us to glory.

Shame must be dealt with, not by a legal fiction of "forgetting," but by defeat at its own game. It is not enough to circumvent the weapons of the enemy (and what is shame but such a weapon -- I will expand on this in regards to the Law in the future); those tool must be rendered null and void. Salvation is from shame, from guilt, from death -- this is why ethics are so vital for the life of the Church, for death must have no place in the Body of Christ, the medicine and hospital of immortality.

More needs to be said, but I am typing this on an iPad, which is a bit cumbersome for me. Once the holidays are over, I'll expand on this.

For His glory and for the ending of Adam's shame. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Psalms for the Fast

While reading Lauren Winner's delightful little book Mudhouse Sabbath, I came across this gem:
...I rang up my rabbi [after failing a required fast]. I asked him how important these minor fasts were. I asked him if I would ever get any better at them. I asked him what the point was...Rabbi M. did not roll back thousands of years of rabbinic instruction and tell me eat a bowl of Chex on the morning of Yom Kippur. Instead, he said the hunger was part of the point. "When you are fasting," he said, "and you feel hungry, you are to remember that you are really hungry for God."
Our true hunger is for God.

This led me to think about the purpose of fasting, at least one aspect of it. We are creatures created with a wonderful plethora of emotions, of desires, of loves. However, due to the corrupting influence of death and sin, our loves, desires, and emotions (among other things) are disordered and misdirected, which leads to all sort of addictions, neuroses, and (what the Tradition calls) passions. Fasting, purposeful denial of food and drink for a set period of time, is intended to make us watchful and aware of these disordered things, so that we might pray and start to redirect (or, to use Paul's wonderful and participatory language, to "mortify") these things back towards their proper place: God. It is not a denial of our creatureliness, but rather a "setting right" of that which has gone crooked. It is a symbolic putting to death, hence mortification, of that which has been corrupted by Adam, so that it might rise anew in the resurrection of Christ. It is an affirmation of our creatureliness, both as it was before the Fall and how it will be after the Resurrection.

Fasting, as a liturgical practice, also helps to make sense of some of the Psalms. I remember when I first encountered Psalm 73 in worship. David says there:
Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
I couldn't fathom what that meant, especially as my fiancee (now wife) stood next to me. It was hard to sing, since liturgical singing is a form of vowing or "covenanting" (as my denomination calls it): I desired her (in many ways, not just as a young man desires a young woman), so how could I sing that "there is none upon earth that I desire besides You"?

Part of that issue has now been clarified by fasting (I've been married now for almost a decade, so I've lived with this question for quite some time): any desire/appetite we have, no matter how strong, is a desire to be unified with God. However, this shouldn't be understood as a pseudo-mystical anti-creational thing. Rather, my desire for my wife is not to be one of possession, of lust, of selfishness, but rather my desire is to be one of thankfulness to God; this allows the desire to be one that unifies both my wife and I with God in the mystery/sacrament of marriage (Eph. 5). Note that the height of Christian worship, the Eucharist, literally means "thankfulness" that is participation (koinonia) with Christ and with one another. Our gratitude is the way that our true desire partakes of both God's creation and of God Himself in a proper way. By denying ourselves some part of the created world, we can rediscover that. It is easy to slip into either an incipient materialism that says the creation is good in itself or an incipient spiritualism that says no part of creation should be involved in our worship (I find both options in Reformed worship, swinging like a pendulum; it should be noted that these are the two poles of ancient Gnosticism). Rather, we enjoy God through our use of the creation (as Augustine might put it). Fasting clarifies this and redirects it.

The Psalms, then, reveal the spirituality of a faster. David (and others) constantly speak of these redirections. I'm endeavoring to memorize these so that I might remember, in the throes of a fast, where my desire truly is; and how, if we seek that which we truly desire, "all these things shall be added to you." If we have God, we have everything. If we gain the whole world, but have not Christ, we lose all, including our life.

Psalm 73: "Whom have I in heaven but You? There is none on earth I desire beside You. My flesh and heart may fail; God is the strength of my heart and my portion forevermore"

Psalm 42: "As the deer pants for the water brooks, So pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?"

Psalm 34: "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!"

There are, of course, more. I will post more as I come across them. Once again, it seems that an understanding of the life of the Church as the proper interpretive context of the Scriptures (in this case, regular fasting) reveals many important aspects of those Scriptures.