Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best of the Blogroll: 2007

I'd like to ring out the old year by noting my favorite post(s) of the year for the blogs on my blogroll.
With my thanks to all of you for being bloggers!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

In memory

Shortly after my father died, I dreamed that I was at the Feast of Salvation. I was sitting next to my father, and on his right was his father, and so on with everyone's father sitting to their right all the way back. Looking down the rows was looking all the way back to the beginning of time. The room was filled with people, seated basically in the family tree of humanity. At the very center, at the end of all the rows, the Lord was there.

... Somehow, when I'm awake, I can never get the seating chart to work out. But in the dream ... you know how dreams are.

In memory of Dad, on the 7th anniversary of his death.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas: On taking human form

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
But emptied himself,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness,
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death
even death on a cross
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above all names
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.

God's opening salvo in our redemption was the biggest surprise of all: the Word of God, God's self-revelation, took human form.

I know the whole "Garden of Eden" thing is a source of argument among Christians, whether it should be understood as historically true or symbolically true. I hope you'll pardon me for not getting embroiled in that particular argument today, but just mentioning this: regardless of how you view the historical angle, there is still much common ground on the theological angle. What brought about the fall was grasping at equality with God. That was the core temptation in eating the forbidden fruit: not knowledge but status.

Paul's writing (some think he was quoting an early hymn) focuses exactly on this angle. We thought equality with God was something to be grasped even though we did not by nature have it; Christ by nature had it but did not claim it. We sought to exalt ourselves to gain our own status; Christ rejected his status in order to be with us. We let ourselves imagine that God exalted himself to keep himself above us. In our redemption, God showed us that the reality of the matter was the opposite: God humbled himself in order to reach us.

God is not too proud to be born into a poor family, not too proud to be put into a trough instead of a crib, not too proud to become human. Our original distrust of God is built on the fact that he is something we are not: that he is above us. The first action in redemption was to take away our cause for distrust: now God lays aside his glory and comes among us as one of us.

This turns our original temptation on its head. If we want to be like God, we reject status and exaltation; we choose humility and service. We accept being human. Christ, in taking our humanity upon himself, gave us back our own humanity as a gift.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #10

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #10 is up at Hyperekperissou. Please stop by and check it out. And a big Thank You to Phil for agreeing to do the toughest carnival of the year: right before Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Patristic Studies: Debugging Christian History

Sometimes my children are working through a problem in math and find, by looking at their final answer, that they must have gone wrong at some point. The approach I have taught them is a time-tested approach: go back to the beginning and start over. Rework the problem forward step by step. Show all your work. See if you can spot the mistake.

I think this is why there is such a renewed interest in patristic studies in the church. We can look at where we are, and it is very plain to most of us that Christian theology and fellowship have gone very wrong in some ways. So we go back to the beginning and trace forward.

It is very tempting in patristics studies to look at the details, attempting to locate what is the problem. We can trace through doctrines, views of Christ, views of Scripture, views of church authority, views of the sacraments, and any other difference that plagues us we can review in all its history. But patristics is a vast field, and our current differences in Christian belief are a vast field. So pursuits like that -- as informative as they are -- have so far been unfruitful.

Sometimes, when tracing through a problem, we think we realize how a mistake occurred -- we spot a mistake in method. I very nearly wrote this post on Vincent of Lerins' Commonitorium as a case study in how problems of church doctrine were solved in the middle of the patristic age. The idea is that once a method could be established and agreed upon, then it was a matter of tracing forward from the earliest days of the church using that method, and we could then determine exactly when and in what way we made a wrong turn in method. We could apply the right method and see what results should have followed. Still, the very matter of method -- of how problems should be solved -- has become part of the field of disagreement.

Sometimes, when there is so much disagreement all around, the first thing to do is to determine when a problem occurred. I think this is our first necessary step because it is often possible to recognize when a mistake occurred even before we identify what the mistake entailed or how it was made. For example, in my own field of programming, when a certain type of problem occurs and resists a quick analysis, the thing to do is debug the program: trace through step by step looking for tell-tale signs not of what the problem is or how it came to be, but of when the problem begins. Finding exactly when the problem begins is then the biggest clue in identifying the exact nature of the problem and setting things right.

In order to spot a problem, we need a flag to say when a misstep has occurred. If we take "one, holy, catholic (all-encompassing) and apostolic church" as our benchmark for spotting a problem with the church, then we look for when the church stopped being one, holy, catholic (all-encompassing) and apostolic; the problem must have occurred before then.

Tracing through step by step, I think we're on safe ground to say that the apostolic church was still one, holy, and catholic (all-encompassing) at the end of the apostolic age, roughly 100 A.D. Likewise, the church still met those criteria in 200 A.D. and 300 A.D. By the time we get to 400 A.D. I'm not quite sure. Inching forward from 300 A.D., we get to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and find the apostolic churches are still in fellowship. At the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. the apostolic churches are still in fellowship, but it is strained. The Bishop of Rome did not attend the Council of Constantinople and some of the decrees of that council were, to say the least, involved in later controversies. By the time we get to 451 A.D. the apostolic churches have split into at least three separate groups which still exist and have never reconciled. So I would, just in broad terms, place the date when serious mistakes were made no earlier than 325 A.D. and no later than 451 A.D.

But, given that there were such early splits, can't we set aside those and concentrate only on the more recent ones? Aren't the more recent ones the most relevant? What about the split between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic church, often dated to 1054 A.D.? What about the Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517 A.D.? Why focus on such early splits?

Again, it is tempting to trace the roots of the disagreements in those later splits back to the earlier disagreements between 325 A.D. and 451 A.D.; the roots are certainly there. But that would be a misstep for my present purposes; it is not necessary for later disagreements to be the same ones as those earlier disagreements in order for those earlier disagreements to be relevant, even for those earlier disagreements to be critical. No, the more pressing point here is that these later disagreements cannot possibly be resolved without first having resolved the earlier disagreements on more basic things. It is possible, in working a long and complex math problem, for there to be more than one mistake. But when there are two or more mistakes, fixing only the latest one does not fix the entire result. In fact, much work fixing a late mistake may well be wasted effort if there is an earlier problem underlying it.

So I would invite everyone reading along, and all those who would direct their studies towards the eventual reunification of the church, to rework the problem with me. The study of patristics is, in that sense, the record of the church "showing its work" as it worked out the meaning of the amazing things that happened among us.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

South City Midnight Lady

Sometimes when I listen to Christian responses to atheist attacks, I think I hear something like fear. If not fear, at least worry. Bear with me while I tell you about a Very Earnest Christian Song and then a song about a drifter and a prostitute, and I'll tell you why I think the worry about the neo-atheists is unnecessary.

The Doobie Brothers were a little bit before my time, but I always did like good music, and I wasn't a "current or nothing" snob; some really good music was written before I was old enough to notice, or even before I was born. The Doobies were a rock band whose members were Christians. Now, compare two of the Doobies' songs: "Jesus is Just Alright" and "South City Midnight Lady". On the surface, "Jesus is Just Alright" is the more Christian song. It's about Jesus. But it's awfully defensive in posture and awfully lukewarm in its witness to Christ (much like some of the current responses to the militant atheists, but I'm getting ahead of myself).

"South City Midnight Lady" is about a drifter and a prostitute. It's also a beautiful and powerful song with a theme of redemption. The song paints a picture of the drifter in the middle of another hopeless night at the end of another hopeless day.
Up all night, I could not sleep
The whiskey that I drank was cheap
With shaking hands I went and I lit up my last cigarette.
He looks over at the hired company for the evening, a prostitute -- and sees that she has fallen asleep. And all the sudden his hopelessness fades away as his heart begins to care for another human being. He has a tender moment that changes everything in his eyes:
I saw you sleepy-dreamin' there all covered and warm.
South City Midnight Lady
I'm much obliged indeed
You sure did save this man whose soul was in need
I thought there was no reason
For all these things I do
But the smile that I sent out returned with you.
I would contend that "South City Midnight Lady" is a more deeply and profoundly Christian song than "Jesus is Just Alright", because Christianity is at its strongest when things are hopeless, and our message for humanity's despair is that God's love is deeper. There is no situation so hopeless as to be beyond redemption.

God has stacked the deck: all good comes from him. So whenever anyone reaches out for good, they are reaching toward God whether they know it or not. God has woven his love into the fabric of all human relationships, woven his goodness into the fabric of the universe. From Satan's viewpoint, even the most desperate and debased of human relationships (like a drifter and a hooker) is in constant danger that someone will succumb to humanity as it was meant to be and actually love each other.

It's like the classic Christian philosophers said: all evil is a corruption of good. The devil is on borrowed territory. All his best weapons are precarious ones, always just an inch away from being redeemed.

I'm not saying I know the future of the new atheists. I'm not saying I know whether religious freedom will last or whether it will be taken away in the blink of an eye. I'm saying there are constants in the world just because God made it, and that one of these is that all good comes from him, therefore he will never be entirely lost or forgotten. And therefore the enemy plays only with borrowed capital, constantly at risk that someone will look up and see the good and see its source.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Call for Posts: Christian Reconciliation Carnival #10

Phil Snider of Hyperekperissou will be hosting Christian Reconciliation Carnival #10. Phil, who is a long-time advocate and devotee of patristics studies, puts forward this topic of the month:
How does our understanding of Early Christianity (here defined as the apostolic period to the end of the patristic age c. 750 AD) help or hinder our efforts at Christian Reconciliation?
Please submit your posts or nominations by midnight on 12/19/2007 to As always, posts on any subject related to Christian reconciliation are welcome.

And a big Thank You to Phil for his work towards Christian Reconciliation.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bonhoeffer on the culture war

The only way in which the Church can defend her own territory is by fighting not for it but for the salvation of the world. Otherwise the church becomes a "religious society" which fights in its own interest and thereby ceases at once to be the Church of God and of the world. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
The latest salvo in the culture wars is The Golden Compass, a movie based on an anti-Christian book by an anti-Christian author released for the Christian holiday season. If our response is to argue in our own defense, we may succeed in showing that the author has drawn a bad caricature of Christianity in general and of God in particular. But we risk being drawn into an argument and a defensive posture. If, instead, we continue about our business of fighting for the world's redemption -- of showing God as the one taking on our sins and healing our wounds through Christ -- then we answer the current round of atheist misrepresentations more effectively than if we were to let ourselves be drawn into an argument about them.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Question of Holiness

My friend C. used to go to a Pentecostal holiness-type church. She tells me this story of when she stopped going to church: It had been a long week at work. Deadlines, overtime, high pressure. And as she was standing outside the church after the worship service, telling her friend about her week and how stressed she was, her beeper went off.

"Oh shxt!" she said, and tended to her beeper.

"I'll pray for you!" was her friend's response. And she didn't mean she'd pray for her to have a better week, or for there to be less stress or less overtime. She didn't mean she'd pray for her office to leave her in blessed peace on the weekend. She meant that saying "shxt" was against their ethical code and that C. was therefore a sinner and her friend was going to pray for her to be more holy.

When my friend C. told me about this, I was floored. Our church has all kinds of faults, but if someone's beeper went off and they cussed, I don't think anyone would mention it. And if they had just been pouring out their hearts about how stressed they were about work, "I'll pray for you" would mean something like "that you have a better week".

Which is the gnat and which is the camel? To me, someone who saw and heard all that and thought the only part deserving comment was the one cuss word -- that's abusive. C. hasn't been back to her old church since. And I have no idea if the whole church is that way or if it's just a matter of "one in every crowd."

Meanwhile, I'm still praying for her. That she stops seeing herself as "not good enough" (she was always prone to that anyway) and stops seeing the church as "the place where that one lady is." Such moments cause people to turn away ...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Advent 1: The call of the world

In studying the presences of God, I have come to notice something: when God makes his presence known, it tends to be to those who are called, set apart, or sent on a mission.

God appeared to Abraham, the first of the called or chosen people that would become Israel.

God appeared to Jacob, ancestor of all the people of Israel. His life was not his own.

God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and Moses was sent back to Egypt. Even though he went grudgingly, he did great things. God had made himself known to Moses, and Moses had a mission.

When Moses led the people out of Egypt, God appeared to all of Israel in the cloud, in the fire, and again at Mt. Sinai where he had shown himself to Moses before. He made his presence known in the Tabernacle, then in the Temple, as the entire nation was set apart for God.

It seems like ripples in a pond as the call of God goes in ever-wider circles, as God's presence in the world becomes more enduring and gives rise to more knowledge of the Holy One.

Then "the word became flesh and tabernacled among us." The boundaries were removed on who could see God, who could know God. The call went out to all the earth.