Sunday, December 27, 2015

Augustine, Adoration, and Loving the Saints

In his Confessions, as well as elsewhere, St Augustine propounds a way of understanding love that may shed light on another, seemingly unrelated, Patristic concept.  His proposal, following Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius (as well as the Neoplatonists), is that the fundamental way we operate in the world is through love.  However, we were intended to love God, to "enjoy" Him (using the language from On Christian Doctrine), and, through that enjoyment, to love our fellow creatures (to "use" them -- a difficult term for us moderns).  Sin is loving something inordinately, improperly, or disorderedly, especially if they are loved instead of, or in place of, God Himself.  If ou loves are rightly ordered, though, there is peace.  If we love God properly, we can love others as they are to be loved.

Augustine's understanding can, I think, be fruitfully used in another context: the Iconoclastic Controversy.  St John of Damascus uses a technical distinction between latreia and proskynesis: adoration and veneration, respectively.  (It is important here to note that both actions fall into the larger category of what we call "worship."  The difficulty with this is that our contemporary use of "worship" is closer to that of adoration; one has to only go back to 1611 to see that it wasn't that long ago we had a broader understanding.  Moses worships Jethro, and so on.  Or look to the BCP Rite of Marriage: "with my body do I thee worship."). While God alone is worthy of adoration, the saints, the Theotokos, and holy objects are to be venerated.  St John faced stern opposition from his fellow coreligionists, as they understood veneration to be a form of idolatry.  However, St John (and St Theodore the Studitie after him) said, in effect, that one cannot honor the saints who crushed the idols by making them into idols -- in other words, veneration of the saints was not the same as adoration of them.  Rather, if one was to properly venerate, it could only be done in the context of adoring the Triune God.

The West, even though it technically adopted the distinctions as proper theological method, long struggled with them -- the Carolingian Franks viewed the use of religious art in a distinctly different light than the Byzantine Romans.  This came to a head, of course, in the Third Iconoclast Controversy of the Reformation (and, yes, not all Reformers were so inclined -- Luther's view seems to me to be a republication of the Carolingian understanding).  However, if we bring Augustine and Damascene together, we will find that they are speaking the same language.

Augustine's "enjoyment" of God corresponds almost perfectly with St John's "adoration."  God is the only One worthy of such actions, which involve complete love and devotion offered to Him.  "Use" then is analogous to "veneration."  This provides the clarifiying paradigm that we need to fully make sure our veneration (of one another, the saints, or the Theotokos) does not lapse into idolatry by adoring that which is not God by nature.  If we love God properly, that is as God, we will love His saints, His mother, and all other things in their proper place.  If our adoration is of Father, Son, and Spirit, then we actually can honor and venerate all other things in freedom and safety: our love of God, poured into our hearts by the Spirit Himself, guides us in this.

This, for us Protestants, is very unsettling language.  We are used to thinking that, even after the coming of Christ we are under the rule of the Law, instead of the freedom of the Spirit.  Certainly, we've seen many abuses by this who have claimed the Spirit -- but abuse does not negate the possibility of proper use.  If we actually have the Spirit, though, we have freedom to move and breathe, all the while never forgetting the Law we do live under: the Law of Christ, that we shall love one another and so fulfill the Law.

How, though, do we know we are adoring God properly, so that we might venerate with order?  It should give us pause to consider that this is the driving question behind all the various debates that led to the Ecumenical Councils.  Is Jesus God? (Nicaea I) Is the Holy Spirit God? (Constantinople I) Is Mary the Mother of God, or just a man associated strongly with God? (Ephesus)  Does the human flesh of Christ share in the properties of the divine Word? (Chalcedon) Is the humanity of Christ true and full humanity, complete with distinct will and activity? (5th and 6th Councils) Does the divine nature deify created matter? (Nicaea II)

It is Nicaea II, which declared iconoclasm to be of non-apostolic origin, that brings all this together.  If we properly venerate that which is venerable, through such we adore God.  Since we are creatures of matter, it is only through the mediation of matter that we can love God.  Can God so use matter in a way that opens up true and proper worship of Him?  If we confess the Incarnation in any sort of orthodox way, we must answer 'yes.'  The infinite God truly became finite man (without ceasing to be either true God or true man), so that we finite men might share in His infinite Life (or, God became man that man might become gods -- St Athanasius in On the Incarnation).  If that is the case, then can God share Himself through other parts of creation?  If so, then when we properly venerate where He chooses to share His grace (through bread and wine, through His saints, etc.), we are adoring Him through their mediation.

Augustine's proper ordering of loves, then, works in two directions: if we love God rightly, we can rightly love all lovely things.  If, as well, we love all lovely things in the way they are to be loved, then through them we can adore God.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Full Disclosure in Evangelism

This reflection does not arise, alas, from personal experience of evangelism: I live in a Christian bubble most days and so find little opportunity for it.  My own method, especially as I tend towards introversion with age, is to pray for those around me, with as much unceasing effort as can be managed.

This reflection, instead, arises out of my existential experience as a Christian.  Or, maybe more, in the tensions I've noticed in the theology of broader evangelicalism of which I am a part.

In some ways, and maybe this is because our evangelistic context is America, our sharing of the Faith tends to sound like political campaigning: Jesus will "save" you from your sins, from your loneliness, from your brokenness, from your X, Y, and Z.  If only we will vote Him in as "personal Savior" or "Lord of our life," then...well, what?  Here's the tension.  We make great claims as to what Jesus accomplishes through that moment of decision (or whatever), but then are catechized into simul iustus et peccator, with particular emphasis on the peccator.  For some of the preaching that I have heard over the years, even after salvation we are just as mired in sin as we were before.  Our wills are inable, after conversion, to seek the good.  All our actions are sin, or as Luther supposedly put it, all our works are mortal sins.

It is a preaching of despair.

The point, as it has been explained to me, is to drive us again and again to Christ on the Cross.  Having forsworn works in the earning of our salvation, we must now be sure to not use them to maintain or prove our salvation.  (Yet, how do we know we are saved? Good works.). In other words, it is a continual chopping down of our Self, so that God alone may get glory.  God and man are locked in a zero-sum game: what is good for one necessarily takes from the other.  Our will, created by God to seek Him, is essentially or naturally at odds with Him, as salvation itself does not restore us to any Adamic (or Christic) freedom -- it only tackles the problem of legal justice and wrath.

It must be noticed, then, that the "salvation" offered is wholly eschatological: there is no actual deliverance from the power of sin and death until the afterlife.  It is possible -- nay, required -- that one become more moral, but there is no real power given with which (or by Whom) to accomplish and maintain it.  In this, again, our evangelism seems political: sure, we've got the right man in office, but he's unable (or unwilling?) to actually effect any change. We just have to hope that the future is better (which, of course, it will be, since the promise that this is so came from the same folks who promised us that we were going to be delivered from our sins...).

If this is, in fact, the Christian message and how it is lived out, is it any wonder Millennials are leaving the Church?  Especially when this message is juxtaposed with the optimistic narrative of Western materialism?

Could it be that our message of what salvation in Christ is, is too beholden to that dominant narrative? That the problem is primarily individual and legal (me and my sins), instead of ontological and relational?  Is the fundamental hope of our salvation fixing my broken actions and attitudes, or deliverance from what causes such things in the first place? (You'll notice, I hope, that I'm not "making light of sin" here: a doctor doesn't make light of the symptoms in treatment, even if they aren't worth mentioning in the context of the overarching disease.)

The problem, while exhibiting in every human individual, is cosmic: the whole of creation is under subjugation to Death and Satan.  As such, it is the environment in which, no matter how much we may want the Good, we cannot attain to it without egoism and violence against our neighbors: in the state of corruption, creation and man do get locked in a zero-sum struggle.  Here is where we find ourselves, without remainder, and so have a powerful evangelistic message: we are all confined under sin, in disobedience, but God has come in our form to deliver us from the bondage.  What must be remembered, though, is that as you leave the enemies territory, he will not let you go quietly.  He wants you to come back under slavery and will do everything in his power to make you return (why else would St Paul anathematize a different gospel, one that brought the hearers back into subjugation?).  Being delivered from bondage is only the first part: now you must train for war.  It is not that you can't please God -- far from it, as He now dwells in you and with you -- but you haven't yet built up the habitual defenses, the virtues, needed for full engagement with the enemy.  You will slip and fall from time to time -- the point is that you must resist becoming enslaved again.  For this God Himself abides in us, teaching us to say 'no' to ungodly and wordly passions and desires, and granting us access to His Body, the Church, where we labor with and for one another towards the fullness of salvation.

It seems, at this point, apropos to bring in the narrative of the Old Testament.  Here, again, we see its iconic nature, pointing beyond itself to God's larger story.  Israel, those who bear the promise, are under the heavy rigor of the Pharaoh, cry out for deliverance, and are released (set right, justified, etc.) by God the Redeemer.  However, Pharaoh pursues them until they go through the Sea, which St Paul connects to our passing through the waters of baptism.  Just because the host of Pharaoh is decimated, though, doesn't mean Egypt ceases to exist: there are many stern warnings in the Torah to not return to Egypt or take up Egyptian ways.  The Philistines, the perennial enemies of Israel who arise out of the Sea (sort of a Pharaonic redivivus), are descendants of ancient Mitzraim, Egypt herself.  Only King David will be able to fully subdue them...just in time for his son, Solomon, to make his chief consort the daughter of Pharaoh.  From there, his tragic story unfolds of looking more and more like Pharaoh himself: the conscripted labor force, the amassing of an army, the building of a 'large house' (the very meaning of the Egyptian title), and the accumulation of wealth.  It is possible, if we do not completely reject the corruption in the world, to fall back into it: the end will be worse than the start.

There are more layers to this, however.  After baptism, in which our enemies are thwarted and we are brought into union with Christ (symbolized by the covenant ceremonies in the Old Testament -- they point forward to the fuller union of theosis: covenant is iconic, not an end in itself).  However, the old way of life must be progressively overthrown.  Here is where the Conquest of Canaan becomes particularly significant.  We must, using the weapons of the Spirit, cast out and cast down all our passions, disordered desires, and sins, just as the Israelites were to do to the Canaanites.  We, of course, should add the exorcism of the demons, as a larger thread to this tapestry.  We should not, though -- and this is vital -- expect this to happen in a day: "and the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you little by little; you will be unable to destroy them at once, lest the beasts of the field become too numerous for you" (Deut. 7:22, cp. Ex. 23:30).  We are being trained up for spiritual war, which requires smaller battles until we are ready to enter our inheritance.  Or, as St Antony of Egypt put it, "Expect temptation to your dying breath."

What does all this mean for evangelism?  Certainly, Jesus has (not will) saved us from our sins, from death, and from the devil: once someone has been baptized and confessed the Faith, we can assure them that they are, indeed, free from that demonic dominion.  But, the work has just started, there is a practical eschatology: now we must be vigilant, must train and exercise, until we, through and with Christ, have conquered that and those which sought our enslavement and destruction.  That we are at war and expected to take part in it is an essential piece to evangelism.  Jesus has not died to make us comfortably middle class, but to deliver the whole world from its bondage to corruption.  Be free and enlist in the Kingdom that will throw down its enemies and bring the peace of which our satisfied, warmed, and filled human existence is but a shadow.  There is no room for despair here, for the King has conquered and continues to conquer: He gives us the eyes to see it and trains our hands for war.

Hallelujah, for this Lord is born as one of us and will lead us to the Promised Land.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why We Should Pray for the Salvation of All

I feel as if this should be uncontroversial.  Not only uncontroversial, but a universal practice, regardless of communal affiliation.  Maybe it is and I'm just too inexperienced with wider Christian practice.

I want, as I seek to enter this, to put aside all predestinarian polemic.  In the end, Barth could be right and God could have elected everyone -- we just cannot see it with our necessarily limited historical scope.  I won't argue one way or another.  What we must do, I think, is to pray for the salvation of all as if we can influence God in His saving work.  I don't say that idly, knowing that God does all His good pleasure; however, I also see that we are called to pray for all, for the will of God is the salvation of all (1 Tim. 2:1-6) and that we are to save our brother and sisters, acting as an atoning sacrifice, by turning them from the error of their wanderings (Jam. 5:20).  (That these passages can be interpreted only as a participation in Christ's Cross should go without saying.)

There is another reason why we should pray for the salvation of all: our own sin.  Follow the Bible's narrative: Adam, though he has the possibility to not sin, does.  As one of my Catholic friends put it recently, we shouldn't blame original sin for our own sin: Adam didn't need it as an excuse, neither do we.  Through this sin, though, we introduce death as a necessary component of human existence.  It becomes the fact of our existence: memento mori.  No one can escape from it, for the link of communion which Adam shared with God had been severed.  Since then, we are all born into death: not only born to die, but born in a state of corruption, violence, and misery.  We then recapitulate Adam's sin, except that where he had enjoyed the vision of God, we enter the world in darkness and continue blind.  We are creatures who were made to seek the Good, but in the absence of experiencing Him (or even knowing that He exists), we turn to all sorts of lesser goods and so turn every action into idolatry of some sort.  Instead of emptying ourselves out for others, knowing that the life of God is our inheritance, we hold back out of fear of loss or, worse, take with force from others to secure our right to the good against theirs.  Sin is seeking after a lesser good with fear, with ingratitude, and with violence.  No human is exempt from this situation.

In light of this, how can we not feel pity for our fellow man?  To vaunt ourselves up, as if we aren't capable of the same evil as they, is to forget our common slavery.  To exalt ourselves is to forget our complicity in their sin: for many of the things taken for granted in our world are built off of the sins of others, and on top of those sinned against.  How else shall we understand the Lord Christ's words "Judge not, lest you be judged"?  Or "if you do not forgive your brother his sins, neither will the Father forgive your sins"?  "Love your enemies"?  And, at the heart of the paradox of the Christian Faith, "be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect"?  Our God is, and always is, a humble God.  If we are saved, we are filled with the love of God poured out by His Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), which means compassion for those who have not found this purpose of man's life.  It doesn't not mean breathing threats of God's damnation on a recalcitrant massa damnata, but a humble plea to others to share in the liberation effected through the Cross.  It also means ceaseless intercession before the Liberator, who has judged sin and death, to save all those under the cruel tyranny of the demons.

Lord, have mercy, and save us all.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Advent Homily: 12/6/15

Chapel PCA in Brighton once again kindly offered me the invitation to give one of the homilies at their Advent service. My topic this year was "God the Spirit in the Incarnation"; my fellows preached on God the Father and God the Son.

One brief edit: I took out the disastrous joke about Peanuts from the first paragraph. It is best on the cutting room floor.


Around Christmas time, many families read the Christmas story, the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, from the Annunciation to the Birth. Here the Spirit of God figures prominently, for as the angel Gabriel says, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you; for this reason the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (1:35). For many of us, though, this is the end of the Spirit’s role. While necessary for Jesus’ taking on flesh, how does that Spirit affect our lives? What, in other words, other than the supernatural character of Jesus’ conception, can we learn from this? What does this story say to us about our salvation?

St Paul takes us a bit further in his epistle to the Romans when he says, “[God’s] Son Jesus Christ our Lord was...declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). St Luke had said that it was due to the virginal conception by the Holy Spirit that Jesus would be called “Son of God,” St Paul tells us that it was the Resurrection that would lead to the same appellation, this time with power. The Spirit has, in the life of our Savior, caused Him to be born in a womb that could not naturally bear (for she knew no man) and caused Him to be raised from the tomb that was meant to hold those who by nature would die. So the Spirit is as integral to the story of salvation as the Lord Christ -- and, of course, we could go farther in the Scriptures and see the Spirit descend at our Lord’s baptism, hear of Him compelling our Lord into the wilderness to be tempted, and His being breathed upon the Apostles.

But we must again ask, how does this go from the story of salvation almost 2000 years ago into our lives here and now? What was contemporary Pennsylvania to do with ancient Jerusalem? Hear again the Apostle Paul: “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5) to which he adds, “if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (8:11). In other words, just as the Spirit came upon Mary, pouring the love of God into her -- whom we know as our Lord Jesus Christ -- so He pours that same love into us, that we might cry out “Abba, Father” to our God. Because Jesus is the Son, we are sons.

And here is the key to rereading the Christmas story: what God the Father has done in our Lord Jesus Christ, He is also doing in us. Our Lord Christ, of course, is God by nature, something we will never be. But we have, through His grace, God Himself dwelling inside of us, giving life to us. Or, as St Irenaeus said so many centuries ago, “Because of the great love with which He loved us, Christ became what we are so that we might become what He is” (AH, V:Prologue). The Spirit is the One who accomplishes all this for us and in us.

Let us return, then, to that greatest story ever told and see how it applies to us through the Spirit. We hear of a betrothed, virgin mother bearing the Word of God. St Paul says that he intends to present the Church as a “chaste virgin” who has already been betrothed to Christ (2 Cor. 11:2), but also that she is the “Jerusalem that is above, who is free, she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26), the same heavenly Jerusalem to which all believers have come (Heb. 12:22) and which descends from heaven “having the glory of God” (Rev. 21:11). The Church, by the power of the Spirit who resides in her, is our virgin mother, bearing the Word of God in her children to the weary world.

Connected to this, as we saw, is Christ’s Resurrection. The one wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger will be wrapped in burial clothes and placed in a tomb, but the Spirit that achieved His conception will soon accomplish His resurrection. We who are born again by the Spirit of God will, before we know it, be raised from the dead by the same Spirit as the earth is released from her labor pains into the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:22).

In between the announcement of our adoption in Christ, our justification, and the fullness of it, the redemption of our bodies (8:23), we travel the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, expectant of what God is doing in us, but wary of the road we must travel: for as St John tells us, “the Dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:4-5). The promise is that Christ is our King, but many do not wish to see Him reach the throne. How much more, now that He has “disarmed the principalities and powers, making a public spectacle of them triumphing over them” through the Cross (Col. 2:15) and been seated at the right Hand of the Father in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20), how much more shall they now seek to persecute those who have been made to “sit together with Christ in the heavenly places” (2:6) for the very purpose of “making known the manifold wisdom of God” to those same humiliated “principalities and powers” (3:10), against whom we have even been marshaled to wrestle and struggle (6:12) using the spiritual weapons and armor of God.

Should we be surprised, then, that at the birth of our Savior “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men!” (Lk. 2:13-14)? The King has come with His army acclaiming Him, to fight the great battle, to overthrow the cosmic Pharaoh, and to conscript us in war that actually does end all war: “peace, goodwill to men.” We must seek the Spirit to prepare, to become like Christ, to put the passions and desires of our flesh to death -- for the Spirit is Life, life in Mary’s womb, life in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, and life in us for the salvation of the world. Amen.