Sunday, July 29, 2007

Gifts of the Spirit: Faith, Hope, and Love

My pastor once said that Pentecost is the longest season of the church year because we live even now in the days of history that are celebrated by the season of Pentecost, and that all the days of history since the first Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection have been part of the great unfolding of Pentecost throughout the world.

Yes, my pastor in a liturgical church said this. Some of my Pentecostal (denomination) friends are sure we short-change the gifts of the Spirit because we do not speak in tongues. I have written before about the greatest gifts of the spirit: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest mission of the Spirit: going into the world proclaiming Christ. I have even written about how some people have faked having gifts of the Spirit -- especially tongues and translations. (As explained before, this is not a comment on whether such gifts continue; only a comment on the sad state of self-deceit in places where there is much performance-pressure to have one particular gift.)

But self-deceit goes much deeper than babbling in tongues in order to satisfy performance pressure. It comes close to home even for Christians who do not attend churches where spirituality is measured by private prayer languages. Sure, the lesser gifts of the Spirit such as tongues and translations can be faked easily. But what happens when the same spirit of self-deceit turns to the greater gifts? What happens when people fake faith, hope, and love?

The gifts of the Spirit are not self-generated; they are gifts coming from outside, coming from the Spirit of God, not from the will of man. So as soon as we try to manufacture from inside us faith, or hope, or love, we have made a counterfeit. And few attest their own faith, hope, and love so stridently as those who seem to be trying to convince themselves. Someone who is deeply faithful does not spend much time worrying whether she is deeply faithful; she has other things on her mind. Someone who is deeply hopeful does not spend much time trying to remind himself that nothing can keep a good man down and things will get better: he knows that God's goodness does not promise that, so his hope does not depend on circumstance. Being perky can be a tiresome and shallow substitute for having something to be glad about. Those who are loving focus more attention on their beloved than on themselves. Someone who is constantly self-monitoring to see how faith, hope, and love are growing are almost sure to disrupt their growth by constantly turning inwards, away from the source of these gifts.

The way faith grows is by looking at the cross of Christ where we see that God is faithful, where we see God with us. The way hope grows is by looking at Christ's empty tomb and hearing Christ's promise that he will also raise us up from our own tombs at the last day. Hope grows also by hearing Christ speak those words of forgiveness, knowing there is healing and restoration for our souls. The way love grows is by looking at him who loves us and treasuring these things in our hearts.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Almost Persuaded ...

This is in response to Dr. P.'s invitation to write about another Christian group we admire. Anyone who has read my blog for any length will not be surprised that I am writing about Eastern Orthodoxy. (Anyone taking bets that Dr. P. is writing on Roman Catholicism?)

I'm glad Dr. P. stipulated that we're content where we are. I have trouble picturing myself leaving the Lutheran church. I love the emphasis on God's grace -- Christ -- in word and sacrament. I love the liturgy and the lectionary. Non-sacramental churches give me the willies and strike me as deist or secularized in worldview (more on that some other post). And Lutherans understand culture, not conceiving of the faith as some merely private closeted exercise. Great musicians and great theologians have come from the Lutherans. Probably the most famous modern Lutheran contribution to culture has been through one of our favorite modern sons, Dr. Seuss -- with that approach to life that is fun-loving, not ashamed of joy, not ashamed to be despised as foolish. And there is a longstanding affinity between Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox. The great Lutheran writer Jaroslav Pelikan, feeling that the Lutheran Church was no longer Lutheran but was succumbing to other pressures, was only one in a long line of Lutherans who have exited to the east.

Still, with my feet firmly planted where they are, I definitely admire the Eastern Orthodox. Now is neither the time nor the place to mention why I won't be crossing the Bosphorus, but the time to mention why I admire them:

  • The combination of intellectual rigor and appreciation for mystery. Too often these traits have gone their separate ways in the western churches.
  • The embodied sense of beauty and holiness that pervades both their art and their liturgy. Whatever you might say about the Orthodox, they are not closet Gnostics. (Gnostics were the "physicality doesn't matter and is at best beneath our notice" heresy.)
  • Theology of art and beauty. Part and parcel of the Eastern Orthodox tradition is the willingness to focus the powers of mind and reason anyplace where God's presence makes itself known in the world -- not just in the analytical pursuits of dissecting and classifying God's attributes. This makes Eastern Orthodox theology far less dry than the western strain of scholastic theology. There are entire areas of theology hardly touched in the western churches that are well-developed in the Eastern Orthodox church.
  • The focus on Christ. They do a good job of appreciating God's grace as opposed to man's merits.
  • The church triumphant. To participate in the Divine Liturgy is to sense the company of the faithful who have gone before, to live in memory of the faithful all the way back to the primitive church.
  • Old Testament saints. There are icons of St. Isaiah and St. Jeremiah to go along with St. John the Baptist and St. Nicholas of Myra. The roots of Christianity are remembered to go back far beyond the incarnation and back to God's earliest revelations to humanity that the incarnation was coming, God's earliest revelations that his true identity is God With Us.
  • "Memory Eternal!" They are not ashamed to be different than the culture around them. Isn't that a prerequisite for holiness in an age like this?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Call for Submissions: Christian Reconciliation Carnival #7

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #7 will be hosted at Connected Christianity. There's an extended deadline this month: posts are due by Sunday, August 5.

The topic of the month is "Almost Persuaded".
I’m challenging Carnival participants to confess something they admire about a different Christian group or denomination so much they they would almost consider changing churches. Let it be stipulated that we are all very happy in our own faith communities and that our deepest theological convictions would keep us from going anywhere else. But whom do you see doing something so right that, if other more crucial matters could be resolved, you’d likely find yourself drifting their way?
Good topic; I have a couple of ideas there already. Write up your answers and send them in here. Other topics related to Christian Reconciliation are welcome as always. Remember that Pseudo-Polymath has a challenge out from last month:
If you do not pray to saints, why not?
Hey, he's baiting you -- any bites?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Möbius Logic: Puzzles that cannot reach binary resolutions

Have you ever seen a Möbius strip? It can be constructed fairly easily from a long, thin strip of paper. One end is taped to the other so that it would form a ring, except with one difference: there is a half-twist in the middle, so that "Side A" of the piece of paper at one end is attached to "Side B" of the piece of paper at the other end. It is now possible to go from one side of the paper to the opposite side of the paper without crossing the edge simply by following the circuit of the loop. One circuit around the loop will end you exactly opposite your starting point, and another circuit around will land you back where you began.

Building a Möbius strip with logic
This has real-life application to logic in that some conundrums have what you might call a "Möbius topography". The old logical puzzle
This sentence is false.
has a Möbius topography. Like the Möbius strip, it is self-referencing and self-reversing. Following forward without changing sides, you will find yourself on the opposite side from where you started after one circuit: If you assume "this sentence is false" is false, then it is proved to be true. If you follow the loop twice and assume it is true as shown, it then tells you it is false so that the second circuit around will land you back where you began. The joke shop version of the same is an index card which has a riddle printed on it:
How do you keep a fool occupied all day? (Over)
The same text is printed on the reverse of the card so as to complete the effect. That's the basic structure of a Möbius puzzle: self-referencing, self-reversing.

Examples of Möbius logic in popular culture
The time loop with a twist is the subject of much entertaining fiction, and whether the mechanism for creating the loop is a time machine or a prophecy. In ancient days, the Oedipus story has a man seeking to avoid his fate who thereby causes it; one of the themes is the logical conundrum of fate. The Harry Potter series has the villain of the piece trying to save himself from a prophecy of his destruction and setting in motion a chain of events that may very well cause his destruction.

Examples of Möbius logic in popular philosophy
The classification of certain logical puzzles as Möbius puzzles has practical applications. The old puzzle "Can God make a rock so large he cannot lift it?" (or the Simpsons version, "Can God make a burrito so hot he cannot eat it?") are both Möbius-style logic puzzles, variations of "Can an unstoppable force stop itself?" In religious/anti-religious polemic, atheist champion Michael Martin advances a number of Möbius-style arguments on the irrationality of the concept of God (see section 5); for all of his entertaining examples he has not actually proven whether the concept of God is inconsistent or incoherent, only that crafting an argument about God's attributes to be self-referencing and self-reversing creates a Möbius puzzle. This particular technique does not demonstrate whether the concept of God is incoherent any more than constructing a paper Möbius strip demonstrates the incoherence of paper; that particular technique only demonstrates the "unresolvable" property of a self-reversing puzzle in an endless loop.

Some of the internal debates in religious philosophy are precisely about the power of God and whether an unstoppable force can stop itself. Religious philosophers debate whether omnipotence is unstoppable and therefore an inescapable deterministic chain and, if so, exactly how omnipotent it is to be stuck in a deterministic prison caused by the fact of such power.

In other areas of logic, the debate about whether our brains are merely physical and if so irrational is a nicely tantalizing exercise in asking "Have you ever considered how irrational you are?" In this debate, rational people mount rational arguments conclusively proving their irrationality, QED ... Except that if they were really that irrational, it's debatable whether they would have ever successfully proved it based on evidence and logic. A sense of perspective is occasionally missing from these discussions.

The Point
All of the debates used as examples here are debates well worth having. I would simply point out that when the debate is framed as a Möbius loop, it has been framed in a way that is entertaining but renders progress impossible. We have the tools to recognize such a logical structure. Once a presentation has been identified as a Möbius conundrum, we can know from the outset that no resolution can come from that particular way of framing the question.

(Graphics courtesy of the the shareables at Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Just for fun: 10 Predictions on Deathly Hallows

With the last book of the Harry Potter series due out this next weekend, I've been pondering my guesses for some of the open elements of the plot. Here are ten predictions along with the odds I'd give them. The odds I am offering are good for bragging points only.

  1. Snape is really a good guy : 9 to 1
  2. Snape had once loved Lily (Evans) Potter: 3 to 1
  3. There is an important clue still to be found in Snape's old potions book: 3 to 1
  4. RAB is Sirius Black's brother Regulus: even
  5. The trail to one horcrux leads through Burgin and Borkes: 2 to 1
  6. At least one piece of vital information is contained in the book Hogwarts, A History: 5 to 1
  7. The "secret Christian message" Rowling has hinted about includes redemption: 10 to 1
  8. The "secret Christian message" Rowling has hinted about is love of enemies: 20 to 1
  9. Harry is really a horcrux: even
  10. Harry is distantly descended from Godric Gryffindor (birthplace was Godric's Hollow): even

As a side note, I also suspect that Ludo Bagman is really a death eater and that Sirius Black was framed for Peter Pettigrew's murder by Cornelius Fudge himself, whose true loyalties I have always suspected. I also expect that one of the Weasleys will die. But I have no idea what odds to give those.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Psalm 19 and the Word of God

Many people treasure Psalm 19 as a favorite. The Psalm has plenty of depth and beauty that meets the eye, but more still when we stop and consider the outline of the Psalmist's thoughts. Just for easy reference, here it is with the verse marks before I mention some thoughts on it:
1The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
3There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
4Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun
5which is a like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.

7The law (Torah) of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
10They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
11By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
13Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then will I be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
14May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
The Psalmist first considers the general glory of the heavens -- the knowledge they proclaim, the light shining forth -- and progresses to the sun, with nothing hidden from it. The second section repeats the same pattern with the Word of God -- the knowledge proclaimed, the light being given -- and the hidden faults that may be uncovered.

Often the Bible compares the Word of God to light. And often the Bible mentions light in some form when speaking of the presence of God, whether the light is seen as fire or lightning or simply an emanation of God's glory. In comparing the Word of God to light, the Word of God is being proclaimed as a special case of God's own presence. The Word of God is God With Us. When we learn the Word of God, as we study and remember and proclaim the Word of God, the presence of God is there with us.

The first time God speaks in the Bible -- the first Word of God -- creates light. The wonders of creation are not seen as an unrelated revelation compared to the Word of God. Instead, the wonders of creation are seen as ways in which the Word of God has been displayed as creative, living and active. The Word of God is seen as the source of the natural wonders that parallel it and shadow it; they participate in proclaiming the same message.

The Psalmist does not leave it there. Praise is given to the beauty and knowledge and message of the heavens; more praise is given to the beauty and knowledge and message of the Word of God. Both declare the glory of God, both pour forth knowledge, both give light. But the Word of God renews life, makes the simple wise, and is more desirable than the wonders of creation. The wonders of nature proclaim God's wisdom to us, but the Word of God creates a measure of God's wisdom in us.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The greatest among the apostles

There are three gospels that record Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ. Matthew records Christ saying to Peter during this conversation , "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." It is soon afterwards that the gospels record the apostles arguing among themselves, asking "Who is the greatest?" When Jesus asked them about it, they were embarrassed; they knew that arguing over greatness was worldly. This period of time was full of conflict among the disciples. Not only do we see the argument about who was the greatest, we also see James and John trying to privately secure high positions for themselves, and Peter doing something that looks a lot like tattling on Andrew: "Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?" (I know it's traditional to interpret this as a figurative brother, and no doubt we should apply it that way for general purposes; but with Peter's literal brother at hand I doubt that Peter's original question was about some hypothetical spiritual brother rather than Andrew.)

It is interesting to note that when Christ hears the disciples wondering who is the greatest among the apostles, he does not say, "It's Peter, weren't you listening?" as if the question were answered by the earlier "You are Peter" comments. In answer, he does not name any disciple, but describes how to recognize the greatest, telling us that "the greatest" is proved by actions. What kind of actions accompany the greatest?
If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

It happened at Chalcedon

I have sometimes been asked by Roman Catholic friends why, exactly, I do not believe that the one holy catholic and apostolic church is the church of Rome; or some have put it the other way: if the church wasn't broken when Luther posted his debating points on the church door at Wittenburg, then when?

From where I sit, it looks pretty clearcut: it happened at Chalcedon. Let me explain why I say that.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
The ancient churches around the world founded by the apostles remained united for centuries afterwards, to the extent that we boldly confess in our creed that we believe in a church that is one (united), holy (of God and pursuing the things of God), catholic (worldwide and all-inclusive), and apostolic (with the same message of Christ brought by the apostles).

There were many ancient churches founded by the apostles, and these churches were in fellowship with each other in the early days of the church. Five of these churches had special prominence and gained reputations as centers of Christianity in their regions. Here is a brief introduction to the five major Christian centers of the ancient and undivided church.

Rome - The world's leading city in that day. Peter and Paul were instrumental in its eventual conversion to Christianity, and Rome was the place of their deaths. Home of some important early Christian writers. While all Christian churches produced martyrs, Rome may have had more than its share of confessors of the faith as it housed the throne of the pagan emperors.

Alexandria - Founded by Mark, the author of the second gospel and a disciple of Peter. Birthplace of monasticism, producer of the renowned writings of the Desert Fathers. Center of Christian scholarship in the early church. Home to an impressive number of the great Christian writers and leaders of the first four centuries.

Antioch - Founded by Peter and well-known to Paul; this may have been Luke's home town. The place where followers of Jesus were first called by the name Christians; base for an impressive amount of missionary work.

Constantinople - Early Christian origins. Distinguished itself during the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the early church. The Nicene Creed in its present form was finalized in Constantinople (excepting the later Roman addition of the phrase "and the son" to the article on the Holy Spirit, an addition which is not universally accepted).

Jerusalem - All the apostles and also some family relations of Jesus founded this church, mother of all other churches. Home of the first church council, place of the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The birthplace of the church. Flourished for centuries (when not under siege) as a base for both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Held a leadership position in the earliest church.

There were other centers of Christianity which were accorded a great amount of respect, such as Ephesus and Nicea. Some of these smaller centers also had apostolic origins. The point in the sketch of the five great ancient centers is not to limit apostolic Christianity to these five sees, but to recognize the status they held in the early church.

If you start with this or a comparable thumbnail sketch of the ancient church, you can then find an objectively meaningful answer to the question of when the church's operation changed from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church: it happened at Chalcedon. The Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 A.D. saw the division of the apostolic churches. Alexandria and Antioch, though apostolic, were no longer recognized as part of the church by the other sees due to their disagreements with the decrees of Chalcedon over the finer points of how the divine and human natures coexist in Christ. According to the western churches, the church was no longer perceived in the same way as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic", but now was defined in practice as "those who agree with the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon." It was quietly assumed that no one who was truly apostolic could have legitimately disagreed with these findings on the subtle interrelation of human and divine nature -- no more than they could have legitimatly disagreed with the earlier councils affirming that Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate. I think that was the fundamental mistake that led inevitably to the now-common practice where we recognize Christian unity and limit fellowship by fine points of doctrine which may not be clearly taught anywhere in the teachings of Christ or the apostles.

So the year 451 A.D. was when the western church changed its own perception of the church. The decisions of Chalcedon were seen as the defining and unarguable arbiter of membership in the church. The phrase "one holy catholic and apostolic church" could no longer be used of any single church body beginning in that year: the apostolic churches were no longer in fellowship.

There have been no truly ecumenical decisions since then. There have been no truly ecumenical councils since then. All the doctrinal developments since then have been regional or sectarian. That is not to say that nothing worthwhile has happened; a great many accomplishments have been made all around. But the most necessary accomplishment has not happened: the reunification of the apostolic churches around the world. Earlier I said that, reviewing church history, there is an objectively meaningful answer to the question of when the church's operation changed from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I was careful not to say that the church's identity changed, but its operation. We are all the church by identity, whether or not we recognize that in our thoughts, words, and actions. The church is still holy, catholic, and apostolic -- and we are still one in Christ whether we recognize each other or not.

Until the apostolic churches speak with one voice, there is no single voice who can speak for the one holy catholic and apostolic church. But to unravel the mess we are in, we have to go back beyond Chalcedon, back to the source. We have to recognize one catholic Christianity wherever we find what is holy and apostolic.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Eight Random Things

Mark at Pseudo-Polymath tagged me with the "8 random things meme". The rules:

  1. Let others know who tagged you.
  2. Players post 8 random facts about themselves.
  3. Those who are tagged should post these rules with their 8 facts.
  4. Players should tag 8 other people and notify them they have been tagged.

So here are my 8 random facts:
  1. I'm way too fond of my fig tree. Early July is always full of fresh figs, and I've already put back a good supply of fig jam for this coming year. I don't even eat store-bought jam anymore.
  2. When I was a kid, my first TV-star crush was on Col. Hogan from Hogan's Heroes. Later I came to think that Newkirk was a much more interesting character.
  3. I'm fond of Jewish mysticism. I loved Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath. (Heschel was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.) In mysticism, Jewish thought often approaches Messianic and "Trinitarian" themes in an indirect way that Christians would recognize as the native soil from which grew Christianity's understanding of God and of Messiah as the Incarnate Torah.
  4. I've been known to use guacamole and baklava as proofs of God's goodness. (I heard later that Ben Franklin used beer as proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.)
  5. I have my kitchen and living room decorated to look like I'm outdoors because I'm not an indoor person. The tops of 4 consecutive bookshelves are lined with pine cones, the wallpaper border has seagulls flying overhead against a partly cloudy sky ...
  6. No matter how many bookshelves I get, it seems like I never have enough room for all of my books.
  7. Although most of my books are either theology, history or philosophy, I have read all 6 (so far) Harry Potter books, all 13 Lemony Snicket books, and all 54 Animorphs books with my kiddos. And I liked them all. And yes, I'm getting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the day it comes out.
  8. I enjoy embroidery as a creative outlet. My favorite piece that I've done so far is cattails in a marsh up (done on the edge of a pillowcase).

Who to tag? Some people I'd like to tag have mentioned they don't usually do memes *(though I'd be glad if you played). Some of my blogging friends have very serious blogs where a meme might seem out of place (though again I'd be glad if any of you played). A few people have already played, and a couple of people I'd like to tag are out of pocket for vacation. So if you're on my blogroll and I didn't tag you, it's because I think you fall into the categories above. If I'm wrong on that, consider yourself tagged. People I'm officially tagging:
  1. Jeff Pinyan
  2. Dan and Elle
  3. Codepoke
  4. Proclaiming Softly
  5. Barb the Evil Genius
  6. Bryce Wandrey
  7. Singing Owl
  8. Kansas Bob

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #6

Hi all and welcome to Christian Reconciliation Carnival #6, 4th of July edition where the topic of the month is politics, nationalism, and Christian unity.

I neglected to put out a timely call for new hosts this month, so pardon this being a re-run here on this blog. Anyone interested in signing up for a spot hosting, please drop me an email; it's an easy Carnival to host. The host has the added benefit of being able to name a topic of the month, if you'd like one.

Questions (from one denomination to another)
Mark at Pseudo-Polymath asks, Can Squabbles Be Good? He thinks the conversation could use both heat (in moderation) and light, and drops some enticing bait: "So if you do not pray to saints, Why not?" He also seeks comments on reverencing Mary. Mark is Eastern Orthodox (i.e. prays to saints and reverences Mary). As they say, read the whole thing ... then give it a spin if you want to answer. Guaranteed link from next month's Carnival for civil answers.

Topic of the Month: Politics and the Divided Church
Why does Christian fellowship rarely reach across the U.S. political divides? Why are Christians in different nations so distrustful of each other?
Your host of the month considers where political divides have been allowed to trump Christian fellowship in Your will be done on earth: God, Politics, and Sinners.

Mark answers on how his church reaches across the national divides that tend to be visible in an Eastern Orthodox parish.

General Interest
Dr. Pursiful evaluates a scheme for understanding, assessing -- and possibly accepting -- differences in Threefold Witness 1: Is Louis Markos on to Something?

Kyle Potter speaks about ecumenism and respecting differences rather than whitewashing them in Ecumenism Revisited.

Alistair at Adversaria has blogged quite a series and touched off a number of responses; it starts here discussing the The Denominational Church.

Justin Taylor of Between Two Worlds writes on The Ethics of Controversy.

Phil at Hyperekperissou considers St. Cyprian and Protestant Ecclesiology.

iMonk considers a Baptist move towards a more robust view of the Lord's Supper.

Peter Leithart considers an Ecumenical Reading List. Anyone who considered the topic of the month last month might find some good recommendations here.

The Singing Owl continues an in-depth series on inter-church disagreements in The church versus the Church.

Bryce Wandrey considers Christian Unity on the Feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul. (Wonder if he's been reading Dr. Pursiful's series linked above?)

William Weedon, a Lutheran, watches with polite interest as Rome considers a return to the Latin Mass.

That's all for this month's Carnival. Someone who can host in early August please drop an email and claim the date for the next Carnival. I'm hoping to build a base of 12 people willing to host one time per year; if you haven't hosted yet and are interested, let us know.

Take care & God bless