Archive for December 2011

Resurrection and action

December 28th, 2011 — 8:08pm

An emerging new year’s conviction: I have not read nearly enough of Oliver O’Donovan. Witness this:

“When we think quite specifically about Christian action we have to single out the resurrection moment which vindicates the creation into which our actions can be ventured with intelligibility. In action the integrity of the world order is supposed, and that integrity is answered for by the empty tomb, where God has stood by the life he made and has not allowed it to be brought to nothing.” (O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, prologue to the second edition)

Comment » | Of Books and Beer

More vintage Chesterton

December 28th, 2011 — 10:17am

“A short time ago Mrs. Besant, in an interesting essay, announced that there was only one religion in the world, that all faiths were only versions or perversions of it, and that she was quite prepared to say what it was. According to Mrs. Besant this universal Church is simply the universal self. It is the doctrine that we are really all one person; that there are no real walls of individuality between man and man. If I may put it so, she does not tell us to love our neighbours; she tells us to be our neighbours. That is Mrs. Besant’s thoughtful and suggestive description of the religion in which all men must find themselves in agreement. And I never heard of any suggestion in my life with which I more violently disagree. I want to love my neighbour not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different. If souls are separate love is possible. If souls are united love is obviously impossible. A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship. If the world is full of real selves, they can be really unselfish selves. But upon Mrs. Besant’s principle the whole cosmos is only one enormously selfish person.”

Comment » | From the Dead Thinkers

Vintage Chesterton

December 28th, 2011 — 10:12am

This and a following post will offer extended quotes from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’m ushering in the new year with a review of his splendid little work, which only impresses more with each successive reading.

“It is one of the hundred answers to the fugitive perversion of modern ‘force’ that the promptest and boldest agencies are also the most fragile or full of sensibility. The swiftest things are the softest things. A bird is active, because a bird is soft. A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. The stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force. In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can maintain itself in the air. Modern investigators of miraculous history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints is their power of ‘levitation.’ They might go further; a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly. This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies. Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light and fluttering draperies, of quick and capering feet. It was the one thing that the modern Pre-raphaelites could not imitate in the real Pre-raphaelites. Burne-Jones could never recover the deep levity of the Middle Ages. In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man ‘falls’ into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

Comment » | From the Dead Thinkers

Christmas confession

December 25th, 2011 — 6:13am

An exhortation before our corporate confession of sin this morning:

Brethren, I’d like us to think for a few minutes, especially this morning, about the great sin of asking for more. It is not asking for more in itself that is sinful, actually (we will learn that today at the Supper); it is a heart that asks for more because it refuses to see what it has already been given. Most of us have been on either the giving or the receiving end of a Christmas scenario in which a recipient of a pile of gifts, having torn through them all in short order, immediately asks, “Is this all?” Perhaps some of us blush to remember asking such a question! We blush because, in its own way, this question is as grinchy as a refusal to give any gifts at all. The one who will not give has a heart (so the saying goes) that is two sizes too small; the one who will not thankfully savor what he or she has been given has an identical problem. The fabled spirit of Christmas is, biblically speaking, the spirit of God’s kingdom, the spirit of God Himself. Our God is fundamentally characterized by abundance, by an extravagant excess of goodness and glory and joy; there is a kind of playful prodigality (we might say, a wasteful generosity) in the way He dispenses His inexhaustible resources. The appropriate human response to this is to swim about cheerfully in the goodness, seeing it everywhere, delighting in gifts great and small, sharing generously with no thought of the cost, no fear of going hungry – for even were hunger to come, it would be freighted with the good grace of God (“it is good for me,” says the Psalmist, “that I have been afflicted”). The one who knows God as He really is can never ask, “Is this all?” because he can never quite get over the goodness of the Lord right in front of him, and all the promises of goodness still to come! One grinch clutches, because he needs what he has to fill the hole in his heart; another grinch demands because he needs what he doesn’t have to fill the hole in his heart. The child of God neither clutches nor demands, for the ice of unsmiling fear has been melted in his heart by the faithful love of the Father in heaven. If God spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not with Him also freely give us all things? Repent therefore, brethren, of an unthankful heart, one that demands, “Is this all?” And let us turn ourselves to see with joy all that the Father has given to us.

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

Gothic architecture

December 23rd, 2011 — 9:09am

“Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, ‘If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’ Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the facades of the medieval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Eternal Revolution”)

Comment » | Poets, Painters, and Playwrights

Out of the ghetto

December 14th, 2011 — 6:14pm

An urgent task before the church in the 21st century is to escape the ghetto it has constructed for itself and its mighty gospel.

The two great contemporary opponents of the church are secularism (modern and “postmodern”) and Islam. Neither opponent particularly cares about the church so long as it stays in its ghetto. A ghettoized church will not speak in absolutes, and so it cannot threaten the scientific dogmas of modern secularism, the more impressionistic dogmas of postmodern secularism, or the iron will of Islam.

But neither of these opponents can keep the church in the ghetto; the church keeps itself in the ghetto, and it must come out, in obedience to the gospel.

A starting point for the church must be to recognize that any human idea or practice governed by the dogmas of secularism or the unbending will of Islam is fundamentally at odds with the way the world really is, and therefore inherently self-destructive. This needs to be made clear again and again. There are those who want to say that every religion, philosophy, and ideology is simply trying to interpret the world; and that, because all interpretations are equally fallible, all are equally valid and equally suspect. A Christian who accepts this has already surrendered to the confines of the ghetto. It is simply not true that Christianity offers one more interpretation of the world in an already glutted marketplace of interpretations. The world is a certain way, and either human interpretation and practice accord with the way the world truly is, or they do not. To deny that the world really is a certain way is to accept wholesale ontological relativism, and surrender the Christian faith. It may be that as Christians proclaim the way the world really is, they will not be believed – at least at first – but that in no way changes the truth of their message, or the urgent necessity that they themselves believe it so they can emerge from the ghetto and proclaim it.

The world is fundamentally Trinitarian because the Triune God created it. Any ideology opposed to Trinitarianism is already shipwrecked interpretively and practically; it can neither think rightly about the world nor act rightly in the world, because it refuses to accept that the world is the way it really is.

A Trinitarian cosmos is a relational cosmos. The God who is in relationship within Himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit created a world to which He stands related and which stands related to Him; He made creatures in certain relationships with each other as well as with Him. Human beings were particularly placed within this tapestry of relationships so as to relate in particular ways with God, with each other, and with the lower creatures.

To say no more than this is already to be fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds with all forms of secularism and with Islam. But once again: to say anything else than this is not only to cease professing Christianity, it is to cease thinking about the world and living in the world according to the way the world really is, according to the way the Triune God created it.

A church that professes and lives in accord with Trinitarian cosmology will be a church that can turn the world upside down (or, more precisely, right side up). There is no sphere of human thought or activity that will not be transformed as it conforms to the grammar of Trinitarianism. A few examples, selected from a multitude, will suffice to illustrate.

Modernism is particularly enamored of its empirical sciences. Its unexamined premise is that one can intelligently study the creatures of the cosmos while totally disregarding a set of interpretive possibilities opened up by Trinitarian cosmology. Such possibilities it has ruled out of court long before it comes to any data. This seems impermissible on the first principles of empirical science until one considers that, in its dogma of macroevolution, modernism has managed to construct an entire cosmology that justifies its unexamined premise: if the creatures of the cosmos began in an undifferentiated mass, and only later developed relationships, there is no reason even to consider the possibility that they may have begun their existences already in a state of relational diversity, each with a purpose in the glorification of its Creator, each with a purpose in the service of His human image-bearers. Modernist science may claim that the unavoidable conclusion from its data bank is that macroevolution is true; but surely its conclusions are suspect when it rejects certain interpretive possibilities before even examining the data.

Consider for instance the derision heaped on the idea of a young earth that gives the appearance of being very old. Trinitarian cosmology can offer one very simple interpretive possibility here: what if God, being Triune, wanted to create a world that, from its first moment of existence, was not only a complex tapestry of present relationships, but already from that first moment stood in relationship to a past? “Ridiculous!” Really? Even if God created a blob of undifferentiated mass and energy at the beginning of all things (which then took billions of years to evolve), someone could immediately have asked, “So where did this come from? It sure looks as if it has a past!” If one goes back to a “creation” at all – or even just some first moment without any Creator – one will always end up with something that looks like it has a past but doesn’t. (One might choose to believe instead in everlasting matter and energy, but one should be honest enough to admit this belief doesn’t fit anywhere within the parameters of modern science. But I digress. . . .) What can modern “science” say “scientifically” about this interpretive possibility opened up by Trinitarian cosmology? Nothing. It can spit at it because it rejects the cosmology, but what is such spitting but the venom of religious bigotry?

Take another example from the empirical sciences. There is various data that indicates man and other organisms share a common ancestor. Here again, Trinitarian cosmology offers an interpretive possibility that is ruled off the table long before modernist science gets to the table: what if God, being Triune, created man with significant genetic features linking (relating?) him to other organisms? What if He intended that man, when he finally cracked the DNA code, should marvel at the honor of bearing God’s image when, at his biological roots, he is so much like the “dumb beasts”? What if man were intended to see that, along with being “a little lower than the angels,” he is also just a tiny smidge higher than the critters of the world? What if God intended man to get a huge belly laugh out of this, and to walk a bit more humbly with his God? “Ridiculous!” Well, yes, we’ve heard that before. . . .

Farther afield from the ghetto, what might a church impassioned about Trinitarian cosmology say in the field of human ethics? If God made the cosmos a tapestry of relationships that mirror His own glorious love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, might we not say that certain human activities promote the relationships in which God created man to live, while others do not – and might we further say, then, that certain human practices are actually dehumanizing? Would this have any implications for our appropriation and appreciation of digital technology? Would a Trinitarian cosmology be able to mount economic proposals that preserve both the diversity of a free market and solidarity through true charity? Might it be able to rebuild urban neighborhoods without the iron fist of big government (Trinitarianism is fairly uncomfortable with consolidation of power) or the erasure of cultural and ethnic diversity? And so much more could be asked.

Or what might we say of the epistemology that flows from Trinitarianism? Maybe it’s easier to think about the epistemology flowing from anti-Trinitarianism. The man who rejects his relationship to his Creator – what of his thought world? He no longer thinks of himself as he really is, or of the world as it really is; and by his declaration of intellectual autonomy he has cut himself off from any authoritative answers to any questions (the mind of man cannot transcend the mind of man), or even the ability to ask authoritative questions. He is adrift in a sea of pure particularly – having begun with himself, how can he establish the definite existence of any “other” from which he might hear something other than his own mind – which is another way of saying he is adrift in bottomless relativity, which is to say, irrationalism.

It would be delightful to go on to aesthetics and explore whether, because the world is a certain way, some art is beautiful, while some “art” is mere distortion – rebellion against the true relationships of the tapestry we call the world. But this has run on too long already. God grant His church the courage and imagination to leave the ghetto and live in the world as it really is.

Comment » | Trinitarian Reflections


December 13th, 2011 — 2:04pm

I think some of us Protestants actually do believe in purgatory. Only we move it up a level. We live as if this life in this world is it.

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

What is man?

December 10th, 2011 — 1:21pm

The business of being human in God’s world is pretty complicated. Here’s an attempt to sketch out the main contours. Criticism invited:

Human life diagram

Comment » | Trinitarian Reflections

Christ’s and ours

December 8th, 2011 — 4:46pm

Christ’s self-offering for us is not simply the motive of our own self-offering to the Father; His is the self-offering to the Father in which alone ours is acceptably presented and joyfully received.

Comment » | Moses and Christ

Expected to enter

December 8th, 2011 — 9:05am

“Having set up His name and promises as a strong tower, God calls His people into His chambers, and expects them to enter and make themselves at home.” (William Gurnall)

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

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