Sunday, November 16, 2014

Seeing God ... and seeing anyone at all

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. - Jesus

The most beautiful of all blessings is reserved for the pure in heart: seeing God.

Here, among all the blessings that Jesus proclaims, is one blessing that I do not think could possibly be any other way. If we are small and self-centered, we don't even see the people around us, not really. If our lives are all about ourselves, then it's not just the words of God that we don't hear, but even the words of the person talking to us. "He who has ears, let him hear" could be a fair warning whenever anyone is talking to us. Whenever we are self-centered, we do not see our neighbor, we do not hear our own family, we do not notice the person sitting next to us. The beginning of a pure heart is to love our neighbor. The stronger we become in love, the more we are able to see what is around us -- to see who is around us. (There are ways in which love is blind, but hatred is much blinder. And indifference is nearly defined by willful blindness.)

As for seeing God: God's presence is all around us, but when we become impatient or frustrated we do not see it. It is in our quieter and kinder moments that we notice it. Even in this world, the pure in heart see more.

And in the world to come ...

Sunday, November 09, 2014

The God Who Sees Our Need

Before we've looked at the Beatitudes and Jesus' message of the God who blesses. The Beatitudes are also Jesus' message of the God who sees our need. The beatitudes show God's focus on the downtrodden and burdened, on those who mourn, on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness -- on those distressed by the injustice of the world, on the persecuted. Luke's edition shows God's focus on the poor and hungry. Jesus does not begin his preaching with a message of God's commands. He does not begin with a message of our guilt or our need for reform. He begins with a message that God knows our sorrows, that he sees our affliction. He proclaims God's concern and God's love. More than that, he proclaims God's promise of restoration.

The basis underlying so much of Jesus' teaching is the coming kingdom of heaven. One parable after another seeks to capture the image for us, to explain some aspect of what the kingdom of heaven is like. But here in Matthew's gospel, Jesus is shown beginning his teaching ministry by explaining the kingdom of heaven in plainer words. He proclaims a new creation, and a world filled with the blessings of God, where injustice and hunger and mourning are a thing of the past. For here and now, we have Jesus' word that God knows what it is we endure.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Controversies in the Church: Is there a purgatory? (The dilemma of indulgences)

In this post, rather than directly tackling the question of purgatory, I'm instead exploring how it ties into the related practice of granting indulgences. Why would I approach purgatory from the side issue of indulgences? Because the questions in my mind show that there are some things about the doctrines that I simply don't understand. It seems best if I should try to find understanding with the questions that I already have, before moving forward with a next step. 

So "purgatory" (roughly speaking) is a place where, according to Roman Catholics, those who die in the Lord go to be purged from the stains of earthly sins. I have heard it explained as a penalty for sin or as a purification to cleanse the soul (or both). We'll come back to that in a moment, after we look at "indulgences". I should also mention: Purgatory is often portrayed as unpleasant or painful. 

And "indulgences" are the Roman Catholic church's grant of remission or pardon, including shortening the time in purgatory for the dearly departed. 

Here are the things that don't make sense to me, looking at those two doctrines side by side: 

If "purgatory" is necessary in order to cleanse the soul, then how can that time be shortened and still do the necessary job of purification? If someone were released from purgatory before being thoroughly cleansed, could they enter paradise? Or if the necessary job of cleansing the soul were complete, why were they still in purgatory? We might even ask, if they were still in purgatory after being cleansed, was it simply as punishment? And if they remained as punishment, then where is the forgiveness of sins? 

Or if someone were to say that purgatory is not painful or unpleasant -- then where is the benefit of indulgences at all? Why would we want early release, if purgatory were not painful? 

So to sum up: If we say the time in purgatory is endured out of necessity, then how can there be any change in the duration? Or if a change in duration is a mercy that can be done and still meet the need, then why is that mercy not always shown, since we've already agreed it meets the need? If we say that time in purgatory is not endured out of necessity, then why is it done at all? 

These are the questions in my mind about purgatory that are raised by the church's claim to grant indulgences. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Special: The Befriended Monster

There's a problem with writing "monster movies": there aren't that many monsters left. It's not that we disbelieve them too much; there's always that "willing suspension of disbelief" that is the entry price for a good story, and we gladly give it. But at this point, we've befriended all the major monsters. Friendly ghosts? That's been done long since; Casper was ages ago, and Nearly-Headless Nick is just one of the more recent entries in the series. Friendly vampires? Twilight has enough of them to make a vampire soap opera. Friendly werewolves? Definitely, Twilight and Harry Potter again have the territory well-covered between Jacob Black, the Wolf pack, and Remus Lupin. The old Adams Family and Munsters were just an early act in a now-expected storyline. Wicked has a sympathetic retelling of the Wizard of Oz's Witch of the West. Even Godzilla isn't that bad, once you understand his motives. (Godzilla as an apocalyptic vengeance on man has some small similarities to the beasties of the Book of Revelation.)

So what do you do when you need a monstrous character? Well, humans have enough monstrous traits, and the other monsters were often projections of our worst selves. So storytellers generally turn to humans for their monsters. Many a story contains a "surprising" revelation that the monster is, after all, human. Environmentalists tend to write stories where humanity or industrialism or capitalism is the monster, or man is the disease that needs to be eradicated. People of a political bent tend to create caricatures of their political opponents and show them as monstrous. Or (based on J.K. Rowling's statements), people she has personally disliked over the years appear in Roman-a-clef format as distasteful characters such as Gilderoy Lockhart, or odious ones like Dolores Umbridge. (Honestly, Lord Voldemort has more a sympathetic backstory than the stand-ins for some people the author once knew.)

But what if -- what if we haven't taken "befriending the monster" quite far enough? What if the human monsters also could be understood? What if, once you understand where they're coming from, they're not quite as monstrous as we supposed? What if prejudice has blinded us, or a personal bad experience has tainted our thoughts? Why is it, again, we're so certain we shouldn't listen and seek understanding?

Once we listen to "the monster" and try to understand, the monster tends to become more human. And if we decide not to understand or listen ... well, it's easy to miss the scarier point of the "surprise" revelation that the monster is human: the monster might be us.

So here's to Halloween. It's the night where we pass out lots of candy to all the ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches, dragons -- and neighbors -- that we might see. And for that, it may well be my favorite holiday.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"It is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself"

"It is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself" - Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III Chapter XV
When we talk about the question, "Is there anything that God cannot do?", sooner or later we come to the question: Are there things that are genuinely, absolutely impossible? For example, a thing cannot be both a triangle and a square; that is self-contradictory, and so it is impossible. If something is impossible, then even God cannot do it, and it is not considered any kind of shortcoming or limit to God. Instead, it is considered a property of reality: a thing is itself, and not something else.

Maimonides says it's "impossible" for God to produce a being like Himself. This is based on his assumptions about what it means to be God. But would a Christian share those assumptions? We'll leave aside, for the moment, any specific question of the identity of any other being or beings that might (or might not) be like God, and instead consider the hypothetical question: If it were possible, what it would mean?

So: Can God "produce" a being like Himself? God Himself has not been produced, so the very fact that the other being is "produced" would mean that this other being is, in some ways, not exactly like God. And the differences do not end there, differences that come simply from the fact of being produced rather than self-existing. In philosophy, God is sometimes spoken of as a Necessary Being, or as the Necessary Being. But for any being that God produced, that being would probably not be Necessary in the same way.

But imagine if God did produce a being like Himself in other respects. If God produced another being like God -- inasmuch as another can be like, while being produced, and not in the same way Necessary -- what would it mean for the concept of God, and what it means to be God? If He is no longer entirely alone, if He is now capable of fellowship and relationship -- then God has expanded what it means to be God. Has he altered the equation of the universe? Are fellowship and companionship now part of what it means to exist? Has he changed the foundation, whether the idea of Necessity has such a key place in our world and in our understanding of it, since he has done something so foundational that is so clearly not Necessary?

If God were to produce another being like Himself, and if the point is fellowship and love -- if the point is that it is not impossible to be like Him -- then that may alter what it means to exist in our universe, to be a part of our universe. It may also alter what it means to understand our universe.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Controversies in the church: The Basis of Doctrine

I have long wanted to return to the series on controversies in the church, but have reached a point where I do not know both sides equally well, having never seen some of them from the inside. This post is an attempt to move forward all the same, with a simplified format that makes some progress possible. The hope is that, if readers comment or later reading expands my knowledge, more could be added. 

The controversy: The Basis of Doctrine

One of the largest controversies in the Western church -- at the heart of the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics -- is the question of how the church forms its beliefs and teachings. On the Roman Catholic side, the view is that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching. On the Protestant side, the view is that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. In the earliest decades of the church there is very little difference between those views because the earliest decades were marked by the apostles and those who learned directly from them. But as the voice of the apostles faded from living memory and was preserved in writing, the two roads diverged.

The basics:

Roman Catholics

(From the outset I'd like to be clear: I would be glad for suggestions from Roman Catholic readers if there is any way in which I can be more accurate about their teaching.) On the Roman Catholic view that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching, it follows that the Church has the key position in deciding what is taught and how it is interpreted. The Roman Catholic church claims the continuing authority to develop teachings, and to teach them with the same authority as Scripture: the authority of the church.


There is some variety among the Protestant groups about the exact role of Scripture, but in general there is agreement that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. This is not to say that all books were written by apostles, but that all books were written in the earliest church and were faithful to what the apostles, still contemporaries, were teaching. The church has the duty to remain faithful to what the apostles taught, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.

The weaknesses:

Roman Catholics

Rome does claim the authority to go beyond what is written in the Bible. But does the Church have authority to go against something in the Bible? The question becomes more interesting if we view the Bible as a record of what the Church taught. If the Church wrote the Bible as a teaching instrument, then why would there come a time when the Church needed to teach something different? If the authority for the Bible is the Church, and if the authority for the later teachings is the Church, then how and when and why did the teachings of the Church change?

There are other kinds of questions too, that involve either questions of church practice or questions of actual historical events: Since Peter was married and is considered the first Pope, why can't other popes be married? Or if nobody ever asked Mary whether she remained a virgin until the end of her life, on what basis is there a teaching involving that?


The most obvious Achilles' heel of the Protestants is the doctrine of the Trinity. While it is easy enough to find verses that support the idea of the Trinity from the Bible, and it is common to extrapolate the Trinity from those verses, the fact remains that the Trinity is nowhere explicitly taught in the same way as things like the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. If the Trinity is accepted without being explicitly taught, why not other things?

Another, less obvious issue again has to do with questions of changing doctrine. Take, for example, the previous discussion of controversies over creation and evolution: many Protestants have decided that it is a mistake to believe in a literal six-day creation. Is that "literal six-day creation" to be considered a mistake in the Bible, or a mistake in the early church's interpretation? On the view that it is a mistake of some kind, how does someone hold that view without savaging those who hold to the ancient interpretation (or, as those groups would say, hold to the plain meaning of the text)? Is there any way to come to an authoritative agreement over interpretations of the Bible, if the authority resides in the Bible or the apostles or God but not in the church? Is there any way to preserve unity with those who disagree?

Common Problems

In the early years of the Christian church, the two views were not so different: whether the Bible teaches what the church teaches, or whether the church teaches what the Bible teaches. At this point, while Roman Catholics and Protestants have gone down their different roads, we are both meeting the same kinds of problems. Some problems have to do with changing teachings: the question of whether we should change, and on what authority. Other problems have to do with claiming that there is an unchanging basis, in the face of these kinds of changes. And the question of making a change is a question that both groups face: if we don't have some unchanging basis, then what defines us?

As Christians, we are ultimately Christ's people. But can we agree on what that means for what we teach?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dark Nights of the Soul

I cry out, O God, but you do not answer. I stand up, but you merely look at me. (Job 30:20)
It's easy to understand why Job had a "dark night of the soul". He had enjoyed many blessings: prosperity and family and health -- and respect. The blessings were all taken away. He suffered punishments or curses or destructions that he had not deserved. His accuser had wondered: Had Job only loved God because of his easy life? So every shred of ease and comfort was taken away from him. But there are those who have easy lives who still have the same despair:
Meaningless, meaningless. Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless! (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
This is often thought to have been written by King Solomon. He had wealth, power, ease, prestige, home, family. He had achievements to his credit. His name and reputation would long outlast him. He had every worldly blessing. And he found them all meaningless.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)
Now that may be the most famous of all the dark verses of the Bible. King David may have voiced it first, but most strikingly, Jesus voiced it from the cross.

When we don't talk about the "dark nights", I think we do ourselves and each other a disservice. We think we're alone. We don't realize that the dark nights may actually be where we have the most company.
A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3, on the Messiah to come)

(For those wondering -- the occasion for writing is a friend at church who pulled me aside this morning because he has been going through a season of dark nights. And he knows that I've struggled with that too, so he knows he can talk to me when he is going through it himself.)