Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Sower

"Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold."
Where am I in this parable? The traditional interpretation says that I'm one of the soils, and I should try to be the good soil -- not that soil is able to choose what kind of soil it is! Still I've generally accepted the premise that I'm the soil, probably all the kinds of soil at different times in my life.

But today as I meditated on this parable a striking thought occurred to me. What if I'm not supposed to be the soil? What if I'm the sower? If the parable started, "The kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow..." I'd be certain of this interpretation, but even without that hint I think it's right. This parable isn't just a picture of Jesus' mission in the world -- it's a picture of what the kingdom of God is like, what are lives will be like when we're living the kingdom of God into the world.

So if I'm supposed to be the sower, what does this parable teach me? If I imagine myself as a sower, I'm probably going to be very careful with my seed. I'm going to watch where I sow. I'm going to make sure I only place seed on good ground where I know it will bring a good return. But Jesus says, "No! Sow your seed freely."

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Give without expecting anything in return. Sow your seed everywhere you go. Some will fall on bad ground and nothing will come of it, but some will fall on good ground, maybe ground you didn't even realize was good, and it will produce thirty and sixty and a hundredfold!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Hear Then The Parable

I thought as an Easter devotion I'd work my way through the parables. My intention is not so much to study them as to hear them. I know my hearing will be clouded by my preconceptions, and certainly by the commentaries on the parables I've read in the past. I also know that I'll slip into intellectual analysis as I go. But my intention is simply to hear the parables and kind of groove on them. We'll see how it goes.

I'm starting with Mark 4:

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables....
This is a fascinating image. People are crowding around Jesus, so he gets in a boat. Mark's gospel is full of accounts of Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat, leaving crowds behind. The image here is particularly vivid. Jesus sits in the boat, near the shore, while a crowd of people stands on the shore listening to him.

I can picture myself there. The water presents a barrier that keeps me where I am, but it's a soft barrier. As I strain to hear, will I venture out into the water a little? Perhaps, but there's a limit to how far I can go. The water separates us. For me the water is a barrier, but not for Jesus. He's on the water.

But he's not going anywhere. He's staying near, teaching.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Choosing Our Battles Redux

(The following is an expansion of an earlier post. If it sounds familiar, that's why.)

"When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army."
-Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun."
-Ecclesiastes 1:9

Things have changed a lot since Thoreau's day. America has abolished slavery, something which many Americans considered impractical in 1849 when Civil Disobedience was written. But old things have a habit of turning up in new ways. Today, a sixth of the population of the earth lives in extreme poverty, having less than a dollar a day with which to attempt to survive.

And once again while this grave injustice goes on, our country busies itself about an unrelated war. Now surely the war on Iraq is substantially different from the war on Mexico. Now we're fighting for "Iraqi freedom." Then we were fighting for the "liberation" of Texas. Maybe it's not that different after all.

The United States has now undertaken not just to be the refuge of liberty but the bearer of liberty to the whole world, but are we living up to this billing?

By one estimate, the U.S. will spend $500 billion dollars on miltary expenses this year. Meanwhile, we continue to fall well short of our 2002 promise (in the Monterry Consensus) to devote 0.7 percent of our GNP to foreign aid. We currently only meet about $16 billion dollars of a $70 billion dollar commitment.

In a recent poll conducted by MSNBC (thanks to Bob at I Am a Christian Too for the link), 90 percent of respondants said that churches should be involved in raising awareness about poverty. I can't imagine who the ten percent were who thought churches shouldn't be involved in this, but they were there.

I would have liked to have seen a follow-up question: how often is the issue of poverty raised in your church? My first reaction was to be critical of my own church. I don't hear the issue of poverty talked about a lot in my church. I certainly don't hear it from the pulpit. But then I thought about what is there.

My church has a food ministry to help the poor in our area. We've sent mission teams to help build a medical clinic in Africa. We regularly have Fair Trade items for sale in our narthex. The work is being done.

Then I thought, maybe the problem is with me. These things are going on. I know about them. I contribute to them financially regularly, and otherwise on occaission. But they don't jump out at me as what's going on in my church.

Then this train of thought reached out and grabbed hold of what I wrote recently about God's field. These things going on in my church are the result of Church happening. I'm even involved, though I didn't see it.

This is the way the Church works. The big institutions are a red herring. The real work gets done from ground swells on the inside. People like St. Francis of Assisi show up and draw people to themselves and together they change the world.

This, as I understand it, is also the Republican model of how social problems like poverty should be handled. People of faith will rise up in our nation and make things happen.

But this is where I want to tie this back to the military issue. Why do we have a national army? Why is our army fighting battles around the world? Is it not because it takes a central power to make something like this possible?

And this is why Democrats want to push social issues onto the government. Faith-based groups can provide islands of help. They can fight off the tide of death. But the governments of wealthy nations, can provide a solution. In a recent article in Time magazine (exceprted from The End of Poverty), economist Jeffrey Sachs outlined what it would take to end extreme poverty in the world by 2025. It's possible, but only if our governments are willing to commit to it.

And what will make our governments commit to it? This is where the ground swell and faith based movements come in. We, the people, must demand it. To quote Sachs, "Great social forces are the mere accumulation of individual actions." This isn't a liberal issue or a conservative issue. It's a justice issue. It's a moral values issue. People of faith must join together and demand that our government do the right thing, do justice.

Click here to see what you can do.

We can fight to end terrorism, or we can fight to end poverty. Will we choose our sense of security over our neighbor's survival?

Monday, March 28, 2005

God's Field

You are God's field, God's building. Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?
-1 Corinthians 3:9, 16

Literary merits aside, one of the great losses we suffer in moving away from the King James Version of the Bible is the loss of ability to distinguish between singular and plural "you." In the KJV, "thou" and "thee" are singular while "ye" and "you" are plural. In the verses above, it is ye that are God's field, ye that are God's building and you in whom God's Spirit dwells -- all plural.

I think a case could be made that modern American English doesn't have a plural form of "you" ("yous" and "y'all" aside). There's just no way to say it. Whenever we read "you," each of us naturally assumes it refers to himself or herself individually -- unless, of course, it's a negative statement in which case it refers to the other guy.

So we read the above and think, "Isn't that nice. I'm God's field. I'm God's building. God's Spirit dwells in me." But that completely misses the point of these passages. In fact, it's counter to the point.

I was a little surprised to find something of this tendency in my own thinking. I think I am generally very conscious of the Church as a mystical entity of which I am but a cell. When I think about ministry, I think Church, but I realized that when I think about the spiritual life, I think me -- as if it's just me and Jesus sitting in the corner talking about these things.

There's a place in Portland that bills itself as the world's smallest park. It perfectly illustrates the problem with this kind of thinking.

When I think about bearing fruit, I think about myself as a single plant which must produce (but I can do it since I have the Holy Spirit, right?). But this weekend as I read the words, "You are God's field," it dawned on me that that must be plural. And so it isn't just me that must bear fruit. We must bear fruit. And we can do that because the Holy Spirit dwells in us. And I don't think this means in each of us individually, except in a secondary way. I think it's more of an collective effect. almost in a Jungian sense. Which one of my brain cells had this idea? None of them, but also all of them. That's what I mean.

It draws me to Luke 17:21, the oft-quoted "the kingdom of God is within you." But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that that is a wrong translation and that the NRSV's "the kingdom of God is among you" is much better.

We are God's field. Together we will produce much fruit.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Friday, March 25, 2005

Bearing Burdens

I participated tonight in my congregation's prayer vigil. This is one of the most meaningful opportunities the church offers me each year. As I knelt in the sanctuary working through the various prayer requests people had filled out, I had a sense of being connected with these people and crying out with them before God. It is such an incredible blessing to be able to do this. And yet it is also draining.

There are so many people in my congregation right now suffering from cancer, it breaks my heart. It's been a difficult Lent for our church. I've known it from various prayer requests that have been circulating, and I can feel it in talking with people.

Tonight as I prayed I felt a real sense that I was bearing the burdens of our church family before God. It was a blessing to be able to do it, but I felt what an incredible weight it truly is. When I came home, I shared with my wife how it grieved me. Then I added, "At least we have prayer." What would life be like without prayer?

On this night, when we remember how Christ bears the sins and sorrows of the whole world, I am so very thankful. I would not be able to bear these burdens if I weren't able to turn them over to him.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

"You Shall Never Wash My Feet"

My pastor came out to preach the sermon at tonight's service wearing only a T-shirt and a bath towel and carrying a bowl of water. "What did you expect," he asked, "a man in a white dress and a nine-foot necktie and a nice, polite sermon?" Meanwhile, I, sitting perilously close to the front, was terrified that he was going to call me up to wash my feet. I can only imagine how Peter and the disciples felt.

Pastor could have ended the sermon right there, and I would have already been much blessed by it, but he went on to preach a wonderful sermon about how Maundy Thursday shows us that God gives us what we neither expected nor wanted and it turns out to bless us beyond what we could have hoped for.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What God Has Done

I wrote the weekly devotion for my church's e-mail newletter this week. As always, it was a blessing to me to do so -- very likely more of a blessing than it will be for those who read it. The same is generally true of this blog. I think what I wrote this week is worth sharing, so here it is.

It feels strange thinking about Easter during Holy Week. I feel like I'm jumping ahead. Shouldn't I think about the sobering events of Holy Week before moving on to the joy of Easter? You have to go through the cross to get to the resurrection. But as I was thinking about this, I remembered that it all belongs together: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday.... These aren't three events. They're one event, and that event is our exodus.

The Bible shows this in an amazing way. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, we are told that Jesus' last supper with his disciples was a Passover meal. This meal is overflowing with imagery and meaning. As Jews eat the Passover meal, they tell their story, beginning with Abraham, "a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt." They remember the oppression of their ancestors in Egypt. And they celebrate how God delivered them from bondage and oppression and made them into a great nation.

As Jesus shares this meal with the disciples, he draws all of this imagery into the sacred events about to transpire and infuses the story with even more meaning. In what was about to take place, God struck the decisive blow against the oppression and slavery of sin, death and the power of the devil in the world. And as he prepares for this, Jesus shares a meal with his disciples that will become the focal point for Christian community.

John's gospel also makes a strong connection between Jesus' last days and the Passover, but John emphasizes a different aspect, a more mystical aspect. John doesn't speak about the connection between the Last Supper and the Passover. John shows that Jesus himself is the Paschal Lamb. He records that Jesus was crucified "on the Day of Preparation for the Passover" (John 19:14) at the hour that the lambs were traditionally slaughtered.

This presents the fulfillment of what John the Baptist had said of Jesus at the beginning of the gospel, that he is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." God delivered the Israelites from Egypt through death, the death of every firstborn in Egypt, of both man and beast. But God spared the Israelites from this death by having them mark their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered lamb. Even so, though death ravages the world around us, God has marked the world with the blood of his Lamb. He has delivered us.

Having seen this, we should not be surprised by Easter. God has promised. He will do it. And I think that's what Easter is about. It is the great proclamation. God has done it! A couple of years ago at an Easter service we were singing "Say It Loud." When we came to the words "Tell the world what God has done," it clicked for me. I saw, no, I felt what Easter means. "Death has been swallowed up in victory!" (1 Co. 15:54) I wept.

God has done it. The world is changed. Life, true life, the life of God, has broken into the world. And now the Lord invites us to join with him as he renews the world from the inside out.

Say it loud. Say it strong. Tell the world what God has done!

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Best Christians

Luther says in his lectures on Romans:

Not the most learned who read much and write many books are the best Christians. But those are the best who with ready willingness do what they (the learned) teach from books. But the willing doers can do those things only if through the Holy Spirit they possess love. For this reason we must fear for our time, in which, thanks to the publication of many books, people indeed become very learned men, but also very unlearned Christians.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Choosing Our Battles

"When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army."
-Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun."
-Ecclesiastes 1:9

Things have changed a lot since Thoreau's day. America has abolished slavery, something which many Americans considered impractical in 1849 when Civil Disobedience was written. But old things have a habit of turning up in new ways. Today, a sixth of the population of the earth lives in extreme poverty, having less than a dollar a day with which to attempt to survive.

And once again while this grave injustice goes on, our country busies itself about an unrelated war. Now surely the war on Iraq is substantially different from the war on Mexico. Now we're fighting for "Iraqi freedom." Then we were fighting for the "liberation" of Texas. Maybe it's not that different after all.

Today marks the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. By one estimate, the U.S. will spend $500 billion dollars on miltary expenses this year. Meanwhile, we continue to fall well short of our 2002 promise (in the Monterry Consensus) to devote 0.7 percent of our GNP to foreign aid. We currently only meet about $16 billion dollars of a $70 billion dollar commitment.

We can fight to end terrorism, or we can fight to end poverty. Will we choose our sense of security over our neighbor's survival?

Friday, March 18, 2005

Cheap Kindness

I noticed something unpleasant about myself today.

My wife's best friend (how do I say this?) lives a less materialistic lifestyle than my wife and I do. I know that probably sounds like a nice(?), but terribly condescending way, of saying she doesn't have as much money as we do, but it really is more than that. She has different priorities.

Sometimes this woman borrows my car while I'm at work (I take the train). It's the least I can do, right? Today, though, I saw just how "least" it is. When I got back to my car at the end of the day, I got frustrated by the fact that she always moves the seat. How petty is that?

So this is what I realized. I thought it was kind of me to let her use my car. Don't worry I have it in proportion. I knew it was just a small kindness. But I thought it was a kindness. And then after I overreacted about having to move the seat, I saw that I was only happy to do this to the extent that it didn't cost me anything. What kind of kindness is that?

What is this all about? I think I understand St. Augustine's reaction to stealing the pears.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Discipleship and Theosis

One of the great wonders of my life is that I go through periods where I can see that the Lord is trying to teach me something. I see it in the convergence of the same idea from several sources. I don't always know immediately what it is that he is teaching me, but I see enough to sit up and pay attention.

Right now, the idea of the presence of Christ in faith seems to be a channel for such teaching. I just read Tuomo Mannermaa's book, Christ Present in Faith, which was, of course, the seed. Then, no sooner has I started reading that book than I saw Dwight's posting (several weeks old by the time I came across it) on The Thinklings' blog suggesting that the same idea could be found in Bonhoeffer's Discipleship

Now this is no small piece of data because it marks the shift from a merely interesting theological idea to something of more direct use -- discipleship.

Then this week I was listening to George MacDonald's Getting to Know Jesus when to my great surprise, I found the same idea in MacDonald's sermon "Mirrors of Christ." And those familiar with MacDonald will no doubt know that I found it paired with discipleship once again.

In this sermon, MacDonald is preaching on 2 Corinthians 3:12-18:

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness from glory to glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Macdonald's key insight is that where this translation (and the translation he was using) says "reflecting", St. Paul really means something more like "mirroring" but "mirroring" in the phenomenological sense. That is, just as when you see a light in a mirror you see the light deep inside it, dwelling in the mirror, and so when we "mirror" the glory of Christ, it is because the light of Christ is inside us, shining out.

Now this is still a long leap from theosis, but bear with me and listen to some of the language he uses:

"The face of Jesus himself, as we behold Him dwelling in us, as light dwells in a mirror, is the spirit of Christ working in us and changing us 'from glory to glory' even by the Lord the Spirit."

"There is no doubt we shall reflect it, but you shall do better than reflect it. A man reflects it when he talks about it, but he is to be changed, he is to be transformed into the same image 'from glory to glory.' We become glorious by the presence of Christ dwelling in us and working in us until as He was in the world so we are in the world and are radiant with His light."

"I try to be honest but I know I cannot and never should be until [Christ] is absolutely supreme in me and until through His presence in my soul, I love my neighbor...even as Christ loved him."

"Let us open heart and soul to the divine presence of the Lord, the Spirit which works a change in men through His glory into a glory of their own which is His still and the same, originating from Him and yet theirs. Friends, we shall make no progress whatever until we set ourselves to do what Jesus Christ tells us."

"You will have what you call your plan of salvation. You will talk about the merits of Christ and the atonement of Christ, and you will do anything to set yourself to obey Christ -- anything but take the Living One himself. You are quite ready to take as much as anybody will give you about Him. Is it not with some of you all about Him and about Him while He Himself is not in you for you love the world and the things of the world?"

"Friends, be honest with yourselves. Are ye beholding the open face of Christ? Do you lie with your whole natures like a mirror for Him to fill with His radiance? Are you obeying Him? Is the will of God the glory of your being, or are you merely ferreting about in this world to get something to have?"
You can see in these latter quotes where all of this has been leading. If I understand MacDonald correctly, he is saying that the will is the avenue by which the presence of Christ comes into our lives -- namely by yielding our will to his will.

Key idea: "Friends, we shall make no progress whatever until we set ourselves to do what Jesus Christ tells us."

As St. Augustine says in his Confessions, "This was the sum of it: not to will what I willed but to will what you willed."

Or as Jesus says in John's gospel, "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love."

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Spiritual Running

We must remember that a thousand years is as but a day in the eyes of the Lord.

In his Lectures on Galatians, commenting on Gal. 5:7 ("You were running well."), Luther says:

To us, of course, it sems that everything is moving ahead slowly and with great difficulty; but what seems slow to us is rapid in the sight of God, and what hardly crawls for us runs swiftly for him. Likewise what is sorrow, sin and death in our eyes is joy, righteousness and life in the eyes of God for the sake of Christ, through whom we are made perfect.
How much spiritual progress have you made in the past 10 years? In God's eyes, it was accomplished in a few minutes. What we must do, we must do quickly for our time is short, but what God is doing is done without rush. Even our failures teach us, and when the Lord builds the house, no labor is in vain.

This thought gave me some solace as I looked back at how Lent has gone as compared to how I had hoped. Perhaps it will be of some comfort to you as well.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Palm Sunday

According to Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, "the whole city was in turmoil, asking, 'Who is this?'" This always seems to be the question about Jesus, "Who is this?" No answer will quiet the question. Even we who follow him must continually ask ourselves, "Who is this?"

There's a tradition recorded in the ancient Jewish Talmud about the coming of the Messiah, seeking to reconcile the two prophetic traditions. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, "If they are worthy, he will come 'with the clouds of heaven;' (Dan. 7:13) if they are unworthy he will come 'poor and riding upon a donkey.' (Zech. 9:9)" (Sanhedrin 98a). This is a favorite Talmudic saying among Christians because we associate both of these verses with the coming of the Messiah also, but have we learned anything?

First of all, as Christians we should know that it isn't because the Jewish people weren’t worthy that Jesus came "humble and mounted on a donkey." We know that it is instead simply because that's the kind of king Jesus is. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me," he says, "for I am humble and gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." The Jews missed him, we say, because they were looking for the wrong kind of Messiah – because they had the wrong ideas about power and glory.

But have we really learned anything? Many Christians today are anxiously awaiting Christ's "glorious appearing" – we long to see him "coming on the clouds of heaven." We say that the Jews did not recognize Christ because they were expecting a different kind of Messiah – they were fooled by his humility. Do we do better?

Jesus describes what it will be like when he returns in this way: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory…he will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'"

We have prepared ourselves to see Christ when he comes in glory, but are we prepared to see him in the world today? Christ is all around us. He is there in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. All we need to do to see him is ask, "Who is this?"

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Praying the Psalms

I visited Mount Angel Abbey today to hear Konrad Schaefer speak on the Psalms. I love Mount Angel Abbey, and their "Christian in the World" classes are exceptional. This one definitely did not disappoint.

The problem with a lot of current scholarship is that you hear it and then say to yourself, "That's very interesting," but then the next step isn't nearly obvious. The wonderful thing about these teaching sessions at Mount Angel is that the scholars take that next step and discuss why what they're telling you makes a difference for your spiritual life. But I'm a theology geek, so I'm taking what I heard today back to the "that's very interesting level." (Though I will also use what I learned.)

Among his opening advice, Fr. Schaefer said that as a good way into the Psalms you should pick a single psalm and meditate on it every day for a week or more until you are familiar enough with the psalm that you, in essence, become the poet -- the psalm is your prayer. Later, discussing the liturgical significance of the psalms, he said that the psalms are the prayers of the church. When we pray the psalms, we are praying with the Church and as a member of the Church.

Now these are both ideas that I've heard before, but today the two connected in my mind. I am the psalmist. The psalms are the prayers of the Church. You are the psalmist. The psalms are the prayers of the Church. Do you see how big that is?

My prayers, your prayers, aren't just mine and yours -- they are the Church's prayers. They're our prayers individually, each of us calling out of the depths to our God, but then they grow, and they become not just prayers that continue to be ours and the Church lets us toss in the bucket. Our prayers are the prayers of the Church. And the psalms are a vehicle for this amazing process.

Here's something else I connected it to -- Bonhoeffer says somewhere (in Life Together I think) that when we pray the psalms it isn't we who pray but rather Jesus prays the psalms through us. Now join that with the ideas above. My prayers, your prayers, are the prayers of the Church because as we live our lives, as we struggle, Christ is in us, struggling with us, and when we cry out to God, we are, each of us and collectively, crying out to God as Christ.

Praise the Lord O my soul.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Christ Present in Faith

I found out tonight that my church's adult education committee will, in fact, let me lead a class on anything I want. As of tonight, I'm on the schedule to lead a two week study on the new Finnish interpretation of Martin Luther's theology.

I've recently taken a hiatus from my journey through Fred Copleston's History of Philosophy in order to read Tuomo Mannermaa's Christ Present in Faith: Luther's View of Justification. It's quite a fascinating book.

The idea started when Dr. Mannermaa was asked to find a point of contact between Lutheran theology and Russian Orthodox theology. Now, it turns out that there is quite a lot of overlap to be found there, but for whatever reason, Dr. Mannermaa wanted to find contact specifically in the area of justification (probably because it is "the article on which the Church stands or falls"). And what he found was, that if you take Luther's words ontologically (for instance, when he says "in faith, Christ himself is present") you can discover throughout Luther's writings a harmony between his view of justification and the Orthodox view of theosis.

In the bit I was reading tonight Mannermaa was talking about the communicatio idiomatum (communication of attributes) that shows up frequently under various names in Luther's writings -- not the communicatio idiomatum between the two natures of Christ, but an analogous transfer of properties between Christ and Christians. This is the "happy exchange" taken to the nth degree. It's well agreed among Protestants that Christ took our sins on himself and we get his righteousness. But this isn't generally understood ontologically, which is the shift Mannermaa proposes. Christ is our righteousness!

Although Mannermaa doesn't cite this example in the book, the passage that jumped out in my mind is from Luther's later description of his "tower experience":

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: "The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'" I began to understand that in this verse the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the righteousness of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive righteousness, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: "He who through faith is righteous shall live." All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
The classical Protestant understanding of "the righteousness of God" is that of imputed righteousness, so that in the above passage we might just as well read "the righteousness of God ... that by which God declares us righteous." But notice that the rest of the passage doesn't make any sense read that way. God doesn't declare us wise, or declare us strong, or declare us to have worked.... On the other hand, if you read this as Luther talking about a kind of communicatio idiomatum, it all falls into place!

Monday, March 07, 2005

Budget Morality

Two very different views on Bush's budget proposal are provided by Myron Magnet writing on and Jim Wallis on

Whatever his personal beliefs may be, Mr. Magnet is not burdened by representing a faith-based organization and so can apparently speak as he wishes. When I first saw this article, linked to with little comment from the OrthdoxyToday Blog I thought it must be a parody. Nobody really thinks that do they? But apparently they do.

Mr. Magnet says, "What's called for is the traditional American 'opportunity society,' as much a boon to the poor as to everyone else." I thought our country stopped telling Horatio Alger stories decades ago.

The theme of his article seems to be that the poor are poor simply because they don't want not to be. If you're poor, implies Magnet, it's your own fault, and we shouldn't further burden you with a welfare worker that might "try to persuade [you] that [your] plight stems from an unjust economy."

One of the readers who left feedback on the OrthodoxyToday site said, "Sometimes I think that Leftism amounts to no more than ignorance of economics." I'll plead guilty to that. I am basically ignorant of economics. What's more, I don't really care about economics. I do, however, care about people who are struggling to make a living, and I'm not convinced that this class of people is going away. Individuals may manage to lift themselves out of poverty -- maybe even because of opportunities created by policies that favor corporate America -- but the lower class itself isn't going anywhere.

Magnet says, "The War on Poverty rests on a false premise: that capitalism creates a permanent class of poor." This may be true. It might not be capitalism that creates the permanent class of poor. Nevertheless, there they are. What are we going to do about it? Extend some help, or give them a stern lecture?

One of the reader responses asks when you've heard a liberal utter the phrase "personal responsibility"? Well, I heard a funny bit about it on Garrison Keillor's show a while back. It's definitely been more recently than I heard a conservative say "living family income."


Last week I bought a book on confessional Lutheran dogmatics. When my wife saw the title, she asked, "Isn't dogmatics a bad thing?" I explained that "being dogmatic" is generally a bad thing, but "dogmatics" as a field of study isn't. But then when I explained what it is (I can't remember the words I used), I had to admit that it did still sound kind of negative.

But last night this occurred to me. When you learn to play a musical instrument, one of the first things you have to do is master playing scales. And artists in training generally learn to master realism before moving on to abstract art. And I read once in an introduction to one of William Faulkner's novels that only great writers who are masters of grammar can really get away with breaking the rules the way Faulkner does.

Although I don't think I've heard this principle applied to theology, having interacted with many armchair theologians, the strength of the analogy is clear to me.

While thoughtful theology quite regularly requires us to release our tight grip on dogma, a theology that isn't rooted in the foundations of historic Christian tradition is apt to go quite far astray.

I suppose this is really what George Lindbeck is getting at in The Nature of Doctrine, but I had never made the connection before.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Da Vinci Rant

OK, so I recently finished listening to The Da Vinci Code on CD. I put in a hold request at my local library over a year ago, but I was something like 49th in line, so I didn't get it until last week.

I'm not really sure on what basis to evaluate it. I don't often read mystery novels, so I'm not sure what people expect. If you're looking for a book where it is possible to solve the puzzles before the answers are revealed in the book, then I guess it's probably OK, although I was occaisionally appalled at how utterly oblivious the "experts" in the book were to some things that I thought were obvious. I was pretty sure I knew the "main" secret of the book by disc 5 of 13 and wasn't shaken when Langdon explicitly ruled it out as a possibility. Still, the story did suck me in.

The history is, of course, awful. I feel like I'm going to get branded as a fundamentalist for saying that, but I think it's an objective fact. Most appalling, of course, is the scene in Teabing's library where Teabing "unmasks" Christian orthodoxy while Langdon stands by and nods like an Ed McMahon bobblehead doll, both treating Sophie with unmasked condescension. The dynamics of the scene are quite realistic, as anyone who has been in the company of two or more academicians will know, but what they actually say borders on ridiculous.

I know this book is meant as fiction, and as such I am prepared to give it a lot of leeway, but even in a book of fiction when an Oxford-affiliated British Royal Historian speaks and a Harvard professor stands by nodding, the reader ought to be able to expect something that is at least reasonable.

About a year ago, I was on an airplane and I overheard two women in the seats next to me talking. One was reading The Da Vinci Code. The other said, "It's just fiction right." The first woman replied, "Yes, but it's very well researched." I think that about sums up the popular consensus. It doesn't matter that it's just fiction, Americans don't understand realistic fiction that way. I've actually heard someone talking about the "close vote" by which the Council of Nicea "approved Jesus' divinity" as if it were a fact, without making any reference to where they picked up this "fact."

Between listenings, I visited Dan Brown's web site, which has some pretty interesting stuff, by the way. One of the things I was most surprised to discover is that Brown considers himself a Christian. He says that the novel isn't anti-Christian in any way (which is basically true), and that he is very excited about the way it is stimulating people to examine the basis of their faith (which is a very good thing).

The thing is, if people "examine the basis of their faith" without any reliable guidance (and this book most certainly does not provide reliable guidance) then there is a very real danger that they'll end up in a worse state than they started out in. If the blind lead the blind, both fall into a pit.

I don't know anything about the personal faith of Dan Brown, so I'll use his fictional character Robert Langdon as an example. Langdon stands by nodding his agreement as Teabing makes the quite ridiculous claim that before the Council of Nicea Jesus followers' regarded him as "a mortal prophet... a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless." So I would presume that Langdon shares this belief that Jesus was just a man. And yet the book closes with Langdon praying at the feet of Mary Magdalene.

So, the objection which screams out to be spoken is, if Jesus was just a man, why on earth would it make any difference whatsoever whether his bloodline is preserved? I mean, if I somehow discovered that I was descended from Alexander the Great that would be very interesting to me personally, but it wouldn't in any way make me an important person. And, if Jesus does not incarnate the divine anything how does Mary Magdalene come to be the embodiment of the divine feminine???

And that kind of leads me to my next complaint. One of the Common Questions on Brown's web site begins with the statement, "This novel is very empowering to women." Now, I'm not a woman, so I'm supremely unqualified to say, but is it really? I mean, the female lead is a professional and occaisionally independent woman, but at other times she is the absolute stereotypical damsel in distress, and in the scene in Teabing's library she is a downright pile of jelly -- to say nothing of the fact that in the end there is innuendo to the effect that Langdon is going to bag her.

And then, as I heard Luke Timothy Johnson observe, there is the suggestion that Mary Magdalene might have been an important figure if she was Jesus' wife, but not if she were a prostitute (a position, incidentally, which is nearly always brought about by socio-economic misfortune rather than moral indecency). Is this guy Brown reading the same Bible I am?

Finally, an observation brought on by the fact that I am a geek....

King's College desparately needs a Google Search Appliance. According to the book, when Langdon and Neveu go to the King's College library and search the theological database for "LONDON, KNIGHT, POPE" the librarian could "feel the hum of the massive mainframe downstairs scanning data at a rate of 500 MB/sec." I performed the same search on Google, scanning the entire World Wide Web (certainly terabytes of data) and got back 328,000 results in three tenths of a second.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Heresy and Mystery

I was reading an article tonight on about The Da Vinci Code (still more to come soon) by Rev. John Sewell, and it raised an interesting point on heresy.

It seems to have become rather trendy of late to make the observation that the word "heresy" is derived from a Greek word meaning "to choose". Quite often this observation is the beginning of a typically post-modern spiel about how one choice is just as good as another, and orthodoxy is only orthodox because those who made those choices came into power. So when Sewell made this observation I let out a sigh.

But I was pleasantly surprised. His point wasn't that one choice is as good as another. His point was that the choice comes from a desire for certainty and this desire for certainty is the real problem. Sewell says, "The heresy is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable."

Mystery is the heart of Christian faith (and probably the heart of other faiths as well). When we grow weary of mystery and press on for precision and certainty, heresy is the only possible outcome.

“It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.”
-Albert Einstein
Sewell sums up his point nicely, saying, "The fact that the church chose the way of paradox and ambiguity as the most authentic way to live in the mystery of God revealed in Christ is the most telling reason for the enduring power of its life and message."

Unorthodox Icons

I just got back from San Francisco. It's quite a city. As I mentioned previously, I worshipped at Grace Catherdral, having chosen that over such available alternatives as, I kid you not, St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

A Love Supreme

I saw St. John Coltrane from a cab as we drove by, but now, having looked into it more I'm kind of sorry I didn't check it out. It was one of a handful of oddities I saw during my trip.

Back at Grace Cathedral, I found icons of John Donne and Martin Luther King Jr. and an icon of Mary Magdalene that looks like it could be straight out of "The Da Vinci Code" (more on the latter soon). I've since discovered that these are some of the tamer icons written by artist Robert Lentz. Browse around the and you'll find some things that could make all but the most syncretistic of Christians flinch.

I liked the King icon enough to pick up a copy. It does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of his message.

But the Golden Gate City wasn't all progressive Christianity. While I was there, I also visited the Haight. Visiting a shop after shop I found myself a pilgrim in an unholy land. Well...not unholy exactly...more like "spiritual but not religious". The shops are fully of religious artifacts from various eastern religions, incense and books on various mystical themes. In addition to the standard books on Zen and the like, I found books representing Sufism and Judaism, but, aside from the occaisional volume relating to Thomas Merton, Christianity was noticably lacking.

As I was standing outside The Gap at the corner of Haight and Ashbury (weep if you must)

Generation Gap

it occured to me that this area is ripe for a store representing the richness of Christian spirituality. It could offer the standard incense alongside icons, rosaries, Gregorian chant CDs and the like. Maybe a back room with frequent lectures on deep Christian themes.