People of the sabbath

March 8th, 2016 — 9:38am

Israel was the people of the Sabbath, the pagans were the people of the week. In art, science, statecraft, in everything belonging to the arena of culture, Israel was far inferior to many a pagan nation. But to her the words of God were entrusted. She knew the value and significance of personality, first of all of God’s personality, but then also that of his image, human beings. For that reason Israel kept in view first and foremost that dimension of a person whereby one would rest in and depend on God. By contrast, the pagans developed especially that dimension of human personality whereby one stood above and over against nature. But since true freedom lay in serving God alone, the freedom idolized by pagans had to result in bankruptcy. Israel’s destiny, by contrast, lay embedded in the requirement to be holy as God is holy. (Herman Bavinck, “The Kingdom of God, The Highest Good”)

Comment » | Gospel and Kingdom

Friendship and freedom

March 7th, 2016 — 10:36am

Some relationships in life we are “stuck with.” One can’t very readily change one’s blood kin, and until fairly recently one couldn’t break the bond of marriage for light and transient causes.

Historically, “being stuck” has widely been considered a good thing. It sets the stage for loyalty and faithfulness. One shouldn’t abandon one’s parents or siblings or children without extraordinarily good reasons. One shouldn’t cheat on one’s spouse. One should be loyal to family (by blood or marriage) through thick and thin. Cheats and traitors are nasty people; neglect and abandonment are vices.

There are/were advantages to having the back door sealed in certain relations. If your kids do stuff you don’t approve of, the proper first move is not to throw them into the street and disinherit them. They are yours, and you have to work with them. The same holds true for parents, siblings, and (again, till recently) a spouse. Filial or covenanted bonds hold a relationship in place – secure it, we might say – so people are forced, often against their feelings, to sort out their issues and do the hard work of loving.

At the other end of the spectrum of human relations stands the totally “non-stuck” variety. One is not bound by blood or contract to strangers. There are no ties here beyond that of mere human to mere human; there is no circle to which both the stranger and I belong, beyond that of humanity in general. Whatever one does for the stranger, one does voluntarily, not because of a particular preexisting and inviolable tie. This doesn’t mean relating with a stranger lacks moral entailment: there is great virtue in going good to someone to whom I owe, strictly speaking, nothing. Still, to “neglect” a total stranger is almost a contradiction in terms, for the simple reason that there’s no particular arrangement to be neglected. One should treat strangers as fellow human beings, with kindness and respect (especially where one finds them in need), but it would be hard to argue that one owes them something more.

Between these two poles – family at one end, strangers at the other – lies another sort of relation. In this sort, one is not exactly “stuck with” the other; but neither is one free of all obligations beyond merely treating the other as a fellow member of the human race. There is a real “circle” to which both I and the other belong, though it’s not secured by blood or contract or covenant (at least as modernly conceived). Here we find ourselves in the strange sphere of human friendship.

Friendship is voluntary, but anyone who’s ever experienced the bonds of deep friendship would affirm that rupturing them could never be a matter of mere choice: “Today I’ve decided not to be your friend.” To experience neglect or abandonment, or worse still betrayal, at the hands of a friend is crushing. Even to feel the cooling of a once-vibrant friendship is, in most cases, to feel that one or both of you has not behaved well – there is what feels like a moral summons not simply to walk away and wash your hands, but to seek reconciliation and amend your treatment of each other.

Oddly enough, great friendships work off the capital of great trust, and they do so without obvious warrant, such as blood or covenant might supply. This extraordinarily fragile relation, which cannot rely on the instincts of blood or stipulations of covenanted loyalty (though, as Wesley Hill and others have pointed out, it was not always thus), seems to work best when two friends demand little of each other because they assume so much. What is assumed is a fundamental wanting of each other, a desire for and delight in each other. Could anything be more subject to whim and the winds of change?

It’s not quite so simple, of course. The catalyst for friendship is always (at the risk of overstatement) something shared in common. Some sort of physical proximity – of shared place – is how it generally starts. It’s hard to become friends with someone with whom one has no contact. (The virtual world has dramatically altered our conception of place, but that’s for another time.) In the shared place, something mutually catches the eye – some shared experience or interest. Suddenly two people see each other, see themselves in each other, experience a kinship of loves, and from that day on they are friends. The bond that forms can carry over great distances, and seems immune even to the ravages of time. It’s not unusual for two friends to “reconnect” after months and years apart, and it’s as if they were never parted at all.

Here, then, is the rub: is friendship secure? Does it rest on anything more substantial than feelings, or the caprice of human choice? If you don’t like your spouse anymore, (at least on a “traditional” view of things) you should learn the discipline of faithfulness. If you don’t like your parents or your children anymore, that doesn’t mean you can just pretend they never existed. You have to work at the relationship, because there’s more to it than your feelings and choices. You belong to these people; that’s your blessing and burden to bear. Can anything comparable be said of friendships?

The question matters if for no other reason than that the bulk of our human relations are not those of blood and marriage, but rather varying degrees of friendship. Most of our neighbors are not kin, but a great many of these neighbors are far more to us than strangers. What do we owe them? What may we rightly desire and expect of them, and they of us?

There’s an odd symbiosis in friendship between trust and commitment. One must trust one’s friends, or else one may easily start applying pressure that actually erodes the friendship. No one enjoys a friendship where reassurances are constantly demanded, or in which proof of the friendship is made to lie in this or that performance. Friendship is not, and cannot be, transactional. With that said, a friendship in which commitment is lacking can go only so far and so deep. If one gets the sense that one is merely useful to a “friend” for a time, but there’s no real prospect of a rich and lasting bond, that’s not a relationship to which one can or should give too much of one’s heart. A friend loveth at all times – that’s what makes him or her a true friend. Friends are faithful. Friends stick by each other. Friends aren’t going anywhere, even when things get emotionally rocky. To be clear, friends are committed to each other as persons, not simply to a mutual activity or place or interest; so if the activity stops, or the place is no longer shared, or the common interest wanes for one or the other, this should create no anxiety about the durability of the friendship (assuming it is a real friendship). If you love a friend for who he or she is, that isn’t going to change because one of you moves away, or you don’t do exactly the same things together or share exactly the same interests anymore. Still (to turn the coin over once more), true friends don’t simply put their feelings for each other in the bank and stop all concrete investing in their relationship. By whatever means are available, and in proper proportion to their other callings and relations, they will seek each other out; they will affirm and give themselves to each other, not because they have to but because they deeply want to. And it’s this feeling of being wanted, as the wanting finds expression in tangible, meaningful ways, that makes friendship so enriching, so satisfying, so comforting amid the many uncertainties of life.

Because they are “freer” than family relations, friendships don’t hold up well under the burden of demands. A demanding friend is, candidly, a pain in the ass. Even too strong a sense of desire from a friend can begin to be worrisome, if not suffocating. Trust must grease the gears of a good friendship, allowing both parties to relax and work out their relationship without feeling that either is saving the other from drowning. On the other hand, however, trust in friendship too often proves to be misplaced in a world where we have more options, more mobility, and more “networks” (not to be confused with communities) that ever in the history of our species. Professed friends turn out to be flighty, non-committal, uninterested (the fashionable term is “too busy”), and unwilling to invest in ways that draw out the heart and provide opportunities for deep knowing and rich sharing of life. One would do well in modern times to be wary of assuming too much in friendships; faithful commitment and whole-souled investment are hardly relational hallmarks of our time.

It seems to me that friends who care deeply about each other might occasionally discuss together their respective views of the state of the friendship. Does each feel secure? Does each trust the other? Is there anything that either desires of the other that might reasonable be offered and received? Is there room for growth into new activities, new interests, or new levels of communication? Is either feeling pressured by the other? Is there a way to introduce healthy “space” without a decline in trust or affection? Good friends should be able to speak of these things openly, and without fear. If such a conversation is out of the question, that in itself says something about the quality of the friendship.

Jesus had friends, and to His most intimate friends He opened the deepest joys and loves of His soul, around a common table (e.g., John 13:15). It’s not to be missed that His friends failed Him badly, or that He afterward sought them out when their hearts felt the breach, and restored the bonds of their fellowship. We have much to learn in following Him. There is no friendship without vulnerability, and it is not in demanding love from one’s friends but in faithfully loving them that the durability of friendship is to be found. How many of us need to look long and hard at the way we have treated our friends, and ponder whether we have failed Christ Himself in failing to care for the least of these?

Comment » | Life Together

Proof of God’s image

February 5th, 2016 — 12:07pm

Man can adhere to falsehood, but he never does it and never can do it save as he holds it to be truth, and thereby pays homage to the truth. He can be the servant of sin, but he never is nor ever can be, except as he reckons evil to be good and so pays his respect to the good. He can kneel down to an idol, but he never does it and he never can do it except as he thinks that in the idol he sees the only true and living God and confesses awe and fear of the Eternal Being. God leaves himself without witness to no man. (Herman Bavinck, “Creation or Development”)

Comment » | Science, Theology, and Priestcraft

Heirs rather than orphans

January 6th, 2016 — 9:09pm

It may appear as if the world now belongs mostly to the younger generations, with their idiosyncratic mindsets and technological gadgetry, yet in truth, the age as a whole, whether wittingly or not, deprives the young of what youth needs most if it hopes to flourish. It deprives them of idleness, shelter, and solitude, which are the generative sources of identity formation, not to mention the creative imagination. It deprives them of spontaneity, wonder, and the freedom to fail. It deprives them of the ability to form images with their eyes closed, hence to think beyond the sorcery of the movie, television, or computer screen. It deprives them of an expansive and embodied relation to nature, without which a sense of connection to the universe is impossible and life remains essentially meaningless. It deprives them of continuity with the past, whose future they will soon be called on to forge.

We do not promote the cause of youth when we infantilize rather than educate desire, and then capitalize on its bad infinity; nor when we shatter the relative stability of the world, on which cultural identity depends; nor when we oblige the young to inhabit a present without historical depth or density. The greatest blessing a society can confer on its young is to turn them into the heirs, rather than the orphans, of history. It is also the greatest blessing a society can confer on itself, for heirs rejuvenate the heritage by creatively renewing its legacies. Orphans, by contrast, relate to the past as an alien, unapproachable continent – if they relate to it at all. Our age seems intent on turning the world as a whole into an orphanage, for reasons that no one . . . truly understands.

(Robert Pogue Harrison, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, pp. xi–xii)

Comment » | The Way of All the Earth

Sensed irrelevance

January 5th, 2016 — 12:06pm

The sensed irrelevance of what God is doing to what makes up our lives is the foundational flaw in the existence of multitudes of professing Christians today. They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ’s merit account to ours, and to wipe out our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true—even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us.

It is left unexplained how it is possible that one can rely on Christ for the next life without doing so for this one, trust him for one’s eternal destiny without trusting him for “the things that relate to Christian life.” Is this really possible? Surely it is not!

(Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, p. 49)

Comment » | Gospel and Kingdom

Worship and leisure

December 13th, 2015 — 4:11pm

Divine worship means the same thing where time is concerned, as the temple where space is concerned. “Temple” means (as may be seen from the original sense of the word): that a particular piece of ground is specially reserved, and marked off from the remainder of the land which is used either for agriculture or for habitation. And this plot of land is transferred to the estate of the gods, it is neither lived on, nor cultivated. And similarly in divine worship a certain definite space of time is set aside from working hours and days, a limited time, specially marked off—and like the space allotted to the temple, it is not used, it is withdrawn from all merely utilitarian ends. Every seventh day is such a period of time. It is the “festival time,” and it arises in this way and no other.

There can be no such thing in the world of “total labor” as space which is not used on principle; no such thing as a plot of ground, or a period of time withdrawn from use. There is in fact no room in the world of “total labor” either for divine worship, or for a feast: because the “worker’s” world, the world of “labor” rests solely upon the principle of rational utilization. A “feast day” in that world is either a pause in the midst of work (and for the sake of work, of course), or in the case of “Labor Day,” or whatever feast days of the world of “work” may be called, it is the very principle of work that is being celebrated—once again, work stops for the sake of work, and the feast is subordinated to “work.” There can of course be games, circenses, circuses—but who would think of describing that kind of mass entertainment as festal?

It simply cannot be otherwise: the world of “work” and of the “worker” is a poor, impoverished world, be it ever so rich in material goods; for on an exclusively utilitarian basis, on the basis, that is, of the world of “work,” genuine wealth, wealth which implies overflowing into superfluities, into unnecessaries, is just not possible. Wherever the superfluous makes its appearance it is immediately subjected to the rationalist, utilitarian principle of the world of work. And, as the traditional Russian saying puts it: work does not make one rich, but round-shouldered.

On the other hand, divine worship, of its very nature, creates a sphere of real wealth and superfluity, even in the midst of the direst material want—because sacrifice is the living heart of worship. And what does sacrifice mean? It means a voluntary offering freely given. It definitely does not involve utility; it is in fact absolutely antithetic to utility. Thus, the act of worship creates a store of real wealth that cannot be consumed by the workaday world. It sets up an area where calculation is thrown to the winds and goods are deliberately squandered, where usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns. Such wastefulness is, we repeat, true wealth; the wealth of the festival time. And only in this festival time can leisure unfold and come to fruition.

Separated from the sphere of divine worship, of the cult of the divine, and from the power it radiates, leisure is as impossible as the celebration of a feast. Cut off from the worship of the divine, leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.

(Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, pp. 67–68)

Comment » | Of Worship and Work

What a king is

November 18th, 2015 — 10:18am

“Of what does the nature of kingship consist? What are its qualities in itself; what the qualities it inspires in those who attend it? . . . I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him. . . . That is a king, Your Majesty. A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.”

(Xeones to Xerxes, in Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae)

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Who am I?

November 8th, 2015 — 4:39pm

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July 1944)

Comment » | From the Dead Thinkers

The point of leisure

November 8th, 2015 — 3:07pm

Leisure does not exist for the sake of work—however much strength it may give a man to work; the point of leisure is not to be a restorative, a pick-me-up, whether mental or physical; and though it gives new strength, mentally and physically, and spiritually too, that is not the point. . . .

The point and the justification of leisure are not that the functionary should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that the functionary should continue to be a man—and that means that he should not be wholly absorbed in the clear-cut milieu of his strictly limited function; the point is also that he should retain the faculty of grasping the world as a whole and realizing his full potentialities as an entity meant to reach Wholeness.

Because Wholeness is what man strives for, the power to achieve leisure is one of the fundamental powers of the human soul. Like the gift for contemplative absorption in the things that are, and like the capacity of the spirit to soar in festive celebration, the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work. Only in genuine leisure does a “gate to freedom” open. Through that gate man may escape from the “restricted area” of that “latent anxiety” which a keen observer has perceived to be the mark of the world of work, where “work and unemployment are the two inescapable poles of existence.”

(Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, pp. 49–51)

Comment » | Of Worship and Work

Hard work and divine gifts

November 8th, 2015 — 2:55pm

The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.

We have only to think for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life depends upon the existence of “Grace”; let us recall that the Holy Spirit of God is himself called a “gift” in a special sense; that the great teachers of Christianity say that the premise of God’s justice is his love; that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes after something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift—we have only to think of all this for a moment in order to see what a chasm separates the tradition of the Christian West and that other view.

(Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, pp. 35–36)

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