Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Christian Reconciliation Carnival: call for submissions

This quarter has flown by and it is already 03/31, so I am slightly behind putting out the call for submissions to the Christian Reconciliation Carnival, which will be hosted here.

The topic for this month is: What would be the first practical, realistic step towards Christian reconciliation?

Thoughts on this topic or any other topic related to Christian Reconciliation will be accepted through a week from today (04/07/2009). Please email your submissions by the end of the day on the 7th. I am aware that that falls in Holy Week; I hope to have the carnival up early the week after Easter.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Gethsemane: Altered Lyrics

My pastor has mentioned a couple of times that one of my favorite Lenten hymns, "Go to dark Gethsemane", was one of his seminary professor's least favorite Lenten hymns because of its lyrics. I have to admit, when I sing it, the last lines of each stanza seem to lose the focus on Christ and put it back on us and, worse, turn Gethsemane, the cross, and the resurrection into an object lesson. The very last line of the hymn has always struck me as odd. "Savior, teach us so to rise"? Almost sounds as if Jesus is giving us resurrection lessons in a how-to kind of vein. Maybe I missed that lesson? ;)

So I have written new last lines for each stanza. If anyone cares to use these altered lyrics, I've made them Creative Commons. The altered lines are italicized.

Go to dark Gethesmane
All who feel the tempter's power
Your Redeemer's conflict see
Watch with him one bitter hour
Turn not from his griefs away
Humbly watch your Savior pray

Follow to the judgment hall
View the Lord of life arraigned
Oh the wormwood and the gall!
Oh the pangs his soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss
Follow while he bears the cross

Calvary's mournful mountain climb
There, adoring at his feet,
Mark that miracle of time
God's own sacrifice complete.
"It is finished!" hear him cry;
Jesus Christ was sent to die.

Early hasten to the tomb
Where the laid his breathless clay
All is solitude and gloom
Who has taken him away?
Christ is risen! He meets our eyes!
Savior, bring us so to rise.

Original lyrics James Montgomery, 1771-1854

Likely enough someone can do better than that on the alterations. But in the meantime, if someone wants to sing more Christ-centered lyrics for a Lenten meditation, this will be an inch in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What if ... ?

It was awhile back in conversation over a detective story that I had to explain to my daughter what a "plea bargain" is. Which is to say, I had to explain some of the stranger things in our court system. And as happens when you see the world through new eyes again, I found myself wondering:

What would happen if, in the bar association, it was considered a breach of ethics -- or even threatened your good standing as a lawyer -- to knowingly enter a "not guilty" plea for someone you knew to be guilty? What if, in defending someone known to be guilty, the only ethical option acceptable to a lawyer was to seek a more lenient sentence? If a lawyer was seeking the acquittal -- rather than the fair sentencing -- of someone known to be guilty, what if that lawyer was seen as obstructing justice? Would the change hurt anyone but the guilty? I suspect that, to keep down the nuisance and harrassment suits against lawyers, such things might be better handled by the bar or some such rather than leaving the policing of lawyers to the whim and initiative of citizens; otherwise the pendulum would swing too far the other direction and no good defense would be mounted. Besides, proving what a lawyer knew, and when, would not be an easy matter.

What would happen if a defendant's plea -- or rather, the honesty of a defendant's plea -- was considered during the sentencing phase of a trial? What if a person who made an honest admission of guilt could have his or her honesty considered during sentencing as some sort of incentive for honesty? Possibly it already is considered ... but when explaining "plea bargain" to my daughter, I had to wonder: how many people plead "not guilty" even when there is (say) a security video tape of a robbery, just because currently there is no incentive to be truthful?

These things would work best if we had better standards for convicting only the guilty. Granted, the majority of the guilty seem to walk free from our courts. But sometimes it goes the other way and someone innocent ends up living a nightmare. So speaking of "what if": What if every state undertook a study of convictions that were later disproved and overturned, then found out how the blazes that happened? What if similar cases were nominated for a review? What if juries were advised when any "red flag" situations arose that have been known to cause wrongful convictions?

Just pondering. There may be holes in these ideas, but I wonder if they could help.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Origen and early textual scholarship of the Bible

Origen of Alexandria (circa 185-254 A.D.) was a prominent scholar in the early church. At times controversial -- whether for his rashness, his political missteps, his theological borrowings from Greek philosophers or his seeming universalism -- he was an uncommonly prolific writer and made lasting contributions to the scholarship of the church. His contributions were of such value that they were not outweighed by the controversy, and secured him both prominent defenders among early Christian leaders and a distinguished place among the scholars within the early church.

Perhaps his most impressive contribution to scholarship was the Hexapla. In the church of his day, there were variant translations of the Old Testament into Greek. In view of these variant readings, he undertook to review them, analyze them, compare them to the original Hebrew – and publish the results, creating a tool that enabled later scholars to pursue the same line of study more easily. The Hexapla was a ground-breaking work in textual scholarship of the Bible in which six (occasionally more) editions of the Old Testament were laid out side-by-side. I will pass along the description of the Hexapla given us by the church historian Eusebius:
So meticulous was the scrutiny to which Origen subjected the Scriptural books that he even mastered the Hebrew language, and secured for himself a copy, in the actual Hebrew script, of the original documents circulating among the Jews. Moreover, he hunted out the published translations of Holy Writ other than the Septuagint, and in addition to the versions in common use – those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion – he discovered several alternative translations. These had been lost for many years – I don’t know where – but he hunted them out of their hiding-places and brought them to light. These were wrapped in mystery, and he had no idea who wrote them; the only thing he could say was that he had found one at Nicopolis near Actium and the other at some similar place. Anyway, in his Hexapla of the Psalms, after the four familiar versions he placed in parallel columns not only a fifth but a sixth and seventh translation; in the case of one, he has added a note that it was found at Jericho in a jar during the reign of Antoninus, the son of Severus. All these he combined in one volume, breaking them up into clauses and setting them side by side in parallel columns, along with the original Hebrew text. Thus he has left us the copies of the Hexapla, as it is called. In a separate publication he put the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion alongside the Septuagint, in his Tetrapla. (History, 6.16)
In the days before word processing, the monumental work of creating the Hexapla and Tetrapla took years of Origen’s life to complete. This also resulted in a corrected critical edition of the Septuagint translation of the Bible, considered more authoritative by Jerome than the older translation which had not undergone critical review in comparison to the Hebrew received text.

Origen’s contributions – and the church’s unqualified gratitude for his textual studies – show that the early church was not interested in suppressing variant readings, but in studying them. Origen’s scholarly approach – and the recognition it received – was a mark of the intellectual integrity of both the scholar and the church that praised and welcomed his contribution to the field of textual criticism of the Bible.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Re-thinking the shape of the Trinity: Part 5

In the context of Trinitarian studies

It is true enough that this study could easily be placed in our understanding simply as favoring an economic understanding of the Trinity which understands God through divine actions, rather than an immanent understanding of the Trinity which seeks to understand God in his inner being. I view the image of God as he is in himself to be inherently incomplete and, taken by itself, to be essentially misleading about the nature of God – the very thing it intends to describe – and the nature of the world.

God as he is in himself has no actions and no intentions towards us. God as he is in himself does not reveal himself to us. God as we know him acts on our behalf, reaches out to us, and reveals himself. It follows that "God as he is in himself" is God as we hypothesize and imagine, rather than God as we know him. Our revealed glimpses into the life of God before creation are slim. In the act of creation, God disavows his isolation in favor of an outward-focused love of creation. Again in the act of Incarnation, God rejects isolation in favor of involvement. One more time in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God meets us within our own hearts and minds and comes to remain with us. In the intended future, the isolation of God – and the isolation of man – will be ended forever, with the people of God as the bride and with God himself as the bridegroom. Then the involvement of God with man will reach its consummation. This perspective is lost when we portray God in isolation.

While we may make able arguments for this perspective showing God in isolation, I would submit that this perspective cannot legitimately claim the place of the ultimate knowledge of God. The quest for the Immanent Trinity is a quest for God as he is in himself, without regard to creation. This is an attempt to pierce beyond this world, an attempt which shows our inclination to see this world as not quite real or not fully worthwhile, as fundamentally divided and separated from the realities of God. It is a perspective which assumes that the world is not essential to the understanding of God, and may even be an obstacle. Our solution is to strain beyond the world, beyond creation to find God there. God’s solution is the opposite: he draws the world to himself, and rather than draw us into an eternal abstraction, he draws the world –and himself – into an eternally realized incarnation. Our view of a world fundamentally divided and separated from the realities of God is precisely the kind of world that God’s actions seek to transform. The God that we know – the God who acts in history – acts to overcome that division and separation through his repeated acts of reaching out towards us and establishing fellowship with us, acts that he makes a lasting reality in the world.

This submission, then, is not only about these two approaches to knowing the Trinity, it is also about moving the proclamation of the Trinity forward from its veneration as dogma back out into the streets as kerygma: the proclamation of the goodness of God and the involvement of God as the foundation of the promise of the world’s redemption. It is difficult to proclaim or preach God as he is in himself; God as he is in himself has no interactions with us that need proclamation. However, the message of God in context, God in action is a message of the God who touches us, who transforms our lives. In a continuation of the act of creation, God transforms the world itself from something we need to get beyond in order to understand God, into something which bears and reveals the presence of God.

Thank you for the patience of all who stayed with me while I serialized this year's Trinity Blogging Summit submission. Many thanks to Nick Norelli for hosting and organizing the event; may there be many more!

As a footnote to the whole submission, I should mention that I am sympathetic to the goal of knowing God's essence, the persons and relations among them; and that I consider this to be an appreciably different enterprise from knowing God "as he is in himself" -- for reasons I hope I've explained. I hope that will be my topic at the TBS in a future year.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Re-thinking the shape of the Trinity: Part 4

Alternate image #2: Outward-reaching TriCircle

The next of the alternate images I would envision still contains three circles, but now concentric ones like the ripples in a pond. (Image public domain courtesy of Wikipedia, altered.) These circles do not remain still; they are ever reaching outward, ever expanding, ever sending forth the presence of God. This image emphasizes the origin of all things in the Father and the dynamic action of God. If we take the conventional ordering of the first person of the Trinity as the Father and the second person of the Trinity as Christ, the Word of God, then this image reflects the work of the Word being sent out into the world, in forming God's thought into created reality, into revealed thoughts, and into God incarnate where we meet the fullness of God in bodily form. Through the Word also the Spirit goes forth into the world. Here it is clearer that the Word and Spirit have their origin in the Father, and that through them God reaches out into the world, communicates with us, and shares his presence. In this concentric, expanding image, God now has direction and purpose and movement. The world to which God relates is now part of the picture. The approaching and outward-reaching movement of God also forms the promise of a future of God's presence throughout all things.

This picture too has its drawbacks. While a ripple shows the center as the origin and implies a world at the horizon, that smallness of the center is not quite what we want to say about God as the origin of all things. And there are still shortcomings such as the impersonal shapes in this particular image of God. Maybe someday a skilled artist might help us here.

Also, this image barely suggests what it should better portray: that as the Holy Spirit and the Word fill us, we become partakers of the divine nature, new centers of the outgoing ripple of God's presence in the world. Here we, like God, seek to accomplish the blessing of those around us, seek to draw others into fellowship, to convey the same love and human touch which God conveys, to relay the Spirit of God to others. The image of the Living God is inextricably bound up with the people of God. It is an image of God who breaks the barriers of isolation, loneliness, and separation, God who is always reaching and always moving forward, who has no boundaries.

This outward-moving ripple depicting the action of God in the world is related to our understanding of baptism, and not by the superficial coincidence that both involve water. In baptism, God immerses us in himself, cleanses us, gives us new birth, and in his Name transforms who we are. This mirrors what we have said about God's actions already based on the other images we have reviewed. In baptism we see God touching the world, touching each person in turn as we pronounce over each new person the name of Father, Son, and Spirit so that the circle of God's presence is felt in ever-wider contexts.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Re-thinking the shape of the Trinity: Part 3

Alternate image #1: TriCircle with Person and Content

The first alternate image of the Trinity I would suggest has God in context. This symbol starts with the basic and familiar layout, but adds to it some consideration that God can only be understood in context, and that the context in which God is known is not abstract and impersonal. The accompanying artwork plainly calls for someone with better artistic skills than I have - or at least better image editing skills! If the image gives at least the general idea, that will be all I can hope. The image now in the "Father" circle is God reaching for Adam, detail from the Michelangelo Creation of Adam fresco in the Sistine Chapel. The image in the "Son" circle is from Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, with certain elements arranged so that we see Christ's hand offering bread and wine. In the "Holy Spirit" circle we see some detail from Jean Restout II's Pentecost, with a flame of holy fire resting on a disciple's head.

In this arrangement the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seen as they are known to us: in actions that have become fundamental parts of the Christian understanding of God. While these actions of God are already iconic in their own right and have already taken their place in the Christian understanding of God, I would draw attention to some similarities among these actions. In all three cases, the action shows God reaching for or touching us, and in all three cases this contact with God fundamentally transforms us. There is a sense also in which these actions define the relationship of God with the world.

In Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, we see God the Father in a scene from the Book of Genesis reaching out to touch the First Man. Genesis relates that as soon as God had created mankind, in his next words he blessed them. If we read God's actions as indicative of God's purpose, then God created mankind in order to bless mankind. Again in the Last Supper we see images of God touching the world, and the down-to-earth physicality of the God who hands us bread and wine, vividly bound to his own body and blood in which he shared our humanity so that we, then, have an enduring taste of his divinity. In Pentecost, we see God coming to live within us, transforming his people so that we, too, can share the very mind of God.

It is no mere accident that these three images by which we so readily recognize God all portray actions in which God initiates and maintains fellowship with us. God's actions toward us are intimate and personal, approaching us at each turn, culminating with God's own Spirit living within us, with our becoming God's holy temple in which he lives.

Is this an accurate portrayal of God as he is in himself? If we are to consider that God's nature is unchanging, then "Immanuel" – God with us – is not a late-coming addition to the intentions and nature of God. In each of the three images here, God is revealed as God with us. If we take this as basic and fundamental to God's character, then it must be allowed to have its implications for our thoughts about God. God can never be God as he is in himself – God in isolation – if he has determined himself to be God with us. He can never be the distant, unknowable, impersonal power, the beautiful isolated perfection and untouchable, unapproachable holiness beyond our grasp. Each action that we consider shows God coming to us, blessing us, and seeking fellowship with us. God's approach to man is a recurring theme in the Bible, and God's fellowship with man is portrayed there in vividly intimate terms. It is not only the symbolic and visionary book of Revelation which shows God ultimately consummating a marriage with his people, but this marriage is a staple Hebrew image of God, one also seen in the New Testament not only in Paul but also in Christ as he repeatedly compares himself to a bridegroom. Here we see God who with a human touch restores our humanity, God who gives himself to us in a way that is intended to be permanent in our lives.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Re-thinking the shape of the Trinity: Part 2

The 2009 Trinity Blogging Summit is expected to be up soon at Nick Norelli's blog. The first part of my submission appeared on this blog earlier, near the original intended date of the summit, starting with the familiar image of three interlocking rings and using it as a launching point for talking about the Trinity. The remaining parts of my submission will be posted over the next few days.

Critiquing the TriCircle Symbol

An image is like any other analogy: it makes its point, but you can press it too far. At some point, the usefulness will break down. In the case of the classic TriCircle depiction of the Trinity, the point is that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct, in some ways alike, and inseparable. In this, it makes its point and has proved its usefulness. I expect this image of the Trinity will continue to endure.

The TriCircle symbol also partially reflects that God the Father is the origin of the Word and the Spirit: that they owe their very being to him. We might debate which of the two lower circles stands for the Son and which for the Spirit, but the upper circle is God the Father. In him and from him the Word and Spirit originate.

However, as useful as the image is, it has its drawbacks. It is completely impersonal. Father, Son and Spirit are reduced to geometric shapes. The Being of God is shown to have certain attributes of perfection, but this image of God has relatively little content other than perfection and interlinked three-in-oneness; it does not represent much of what we know about God. Also, in contrast to all the thoughts of God we have known through the Bible, the TriCircle God is seen in isolation. He does not interact with creation. He does not interact with people. The TriCircle God shows no intentions, plans no future, describes no will, proclaims no salvation. The TriCircle image does not show God in action or God with a purpose: this image of God has no direction. Here we try to portray God as he is in himself, and we portray God as he has chosen not to be: in isolation from us. In this abstraction, we have removed creation and humanity from our understanding of God; here God has no context. If God desires or intends our ideas about Himself to include how he loves the world, then our attempt to be objective has fundamentally obscured the picture in that respect.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Jekyll and Hyde syndrome

Have you ever noticed how many people show two noticeably different personalities? There is a kind and friendly disposition -- it's typically reserved for those on the "approved" list. Then there is the other side. I think one reason people avoid discussing politics and religion in public is the number of people who have their Mr. Hyde button pushed by those topics, or by being in the presence of those who disagree with them on those topics.

I was recently around someone whose Mr. Hyde button had been pushed -- though I suspect another person around was trying very hard to push that button. (I saw this same thing happen with more than one set of people today.) I also suspect, if I'm reading cues right, that at least one of our Mr. Hydes very much enjoyed having his button pushed. Maybe some people suppose venting releases the dark side rather than simply exercising it. When someone pushes our buttons, I think that our inner Mr. Hyde is more like an athlete who has just had some strenuous exercise: he may rest well for awhile with a satisfied glow, but he becomes stronger and more accustomed to the exercise with each opportunity we give.

I wonder if people appreciate the extent to which hatred is corrosive and incendiary, the extent to which "provocative" conversations are throwing verbal Molotov cocktails. At what level of heat does conversation stop working? Once someone's Mr. Hyde button has been pushed on a topic, am I just imagining it, or does it take ever less provocation to switch over to Mr. Hyde the next time? Is there a threshold at which someone can't discuss a topic rationally again without some sort of intervention or healing?

The part that concerns me is this: how close are we, as a society, to the threshold at which rational discussion breaks down except among people who are already like-minded? What would that mean for democracy?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Blessing, promise, and the desires of God

In the beatitudes, each blessing is accompanied by a promise. Each one is tied to the good that God has planned. The beatitudes are a glimpse of the world to come, a glimpse of the future where the promises are fulfilled. Does heaven fulfill God’s own desires as much as our own? The beatitudes, then, show us God’s own desires. He is pleased to give us the kingdom of heaven. He desires to comfort us. He has always planned to give us the earth. He intends for us to be well satisfied with justice and righteousness, and he desires to show us mercy. He plans that the pure in heart shall see God, and has always desired for us to know him.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The foundation of blessing

When Jesus spoke the beatitudes, he proclaimed the blessing of God. On what does the hope of our blessing rest? What is the basis for the blessings?

Some blessings are grounded in God's compassion. God sees our mourning and honors our tears.

Some blessings are based on God's delight in the good. He takes note of the merciful. He remembers the pure in heart. He singles out the peacemakers for a special honor, and plans good for those who have honored his name. It follows that God is seeking out the good, searching for it carefully. We have learned that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who found a treasure in a field, or like a merchant who found a pearl of great price, and in this we see God as our treasure. But in a moment like this, contemplating the God who seeks us, we may remember the day that he saw us as the treasure in the field and no price was too great for him to pay. We may well be surprised at this, since he could have bought us at a discount in the condition we were in. The blessing of God does not only delight in what is already good, but he sees more in us than we have yet become.

Some blessings leave me wondering. Do the meek inherit the earth because God has compassion for the meek as he has compassion for the mourning? Or do the meek inherit the earth because God delights in the meek as he delights in the merciful and the pure of heart? And those who mourn -- are they only objects of compassion to be pitied, or does God also delight in them for the love they have shown?