He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Praying with Icons: Christ Heals the Faithful Woman

Lord, how we long to touch You
and be healed of our dire illness
of missing the mark of Your true
and divinely mysterious justice.

Lord have mercy on us, we who
sought the healing offered to us
by the powers of the world, who
found that only Christ saves us.

Lord, we pray that we be given
true faith in You by Your grace
which rains down from Heaven
upon us who seek Your embrace.

Grant this, O Lord, that we may
be healed by drawing near Your
Holy Body and Blood, and pray
boldly for mercy at death's door.

Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of the Gospel story of Jesus healing a woman suffering from a condition that caused her much bleeding.  This icon was purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Fair Questions: What are the implications of God's presence to all Christians?

Recently, it was pointed out to me that God is not limited to a specific group of Christians, and that God moves very powerfully even among those who may be, shall we say, doctrinally off-base.

Whoever one thinks that doctrinally off-base group of Christians is, the ancient Church, modern Post-Reformation denominations, or just everyone who isn't in our tiny house church down the lane, most Christians would agree that God is not limited to moving in the hearts of only orthodox Christians.

Indeed, I think we would all agree that the Good Shepherd seeks out all the lost sheep so that they might be healed and returned to His flock.  One implication of this is that there is indeed a flock to which we ought to return with Christ.

The question, then, is what it means for us that God moves very powerfully among Christians, even those we think have the wrong doctrines, the wrong practices, or terrible music for worship.

But before we answer that, I think it's valuable to take a broader perspective.  Is God limited to those who explicitly profess Christ as their Lord and Savior?  Does God not move powerfully in the hearts even of non-Christians?

If your answer to that question is yes (before or after reading this atheist's conversion story and this Muslim's conversion story, not to mention the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip the Apostle), then I think we're ready to begin examining some of the implications of this.

Does God moving powerfully even in the hearts of non-Christians mean that we shouldn't bother inviting them to become Christians?  If you believe that there's no reason to ask anyone to become a Christian, or that you have no obligation to become a Christian because God moves outside Christian communities, and you also think that there's no reason to change one's beliefs as a Christian, this is a consistent position to hold.

If, on the other hand, you believe that it is important for non-Christians to become Christians even though God moves powerfully in the hearts of non-Christians, then it makes sense to also believe that it is important to be so completely a follower of Christ that our minds, hearts, bodies, and wills be fully conformed to Him.

After all, if it's important to abandon the wrong beliefs about who God is and become a Christian, why isn't it important to continue to abandon wrong beliefs about God after becoming a Christian?  If a child believes that God gives them teddy bears in exchange for being nice, do we not rightly try to get them to a more mature understanding of who God is once they can better understand Him?

If we love someone passionately, we want to know everything we can about them.  And while we never know absolutely everything about someone, we who love rightly want to know as much as we can.  We desire to know our beloved as fully as we possibly can.  We do not stop learning once we know the basics about them.

The same ought to be true of our relationship with God.  The truth of His being should be something we seek for our entire lives, growing through knowing into an appreciation for the profound mystery of God just as we grow into a deeper appreciation of the mystery of a spouse through knowing them a little bit more as we live with them in love.

One of the implications of God's presence to all Christians might be that we ought to never think that God hates them all if they don't agree with us on doctrinal matters.  Another might be that we should always pray for other Christians and treat them as if God's presence is with them...because it is.

That said, one implication I think it would be very difficult to draw from the fact that God moves powerfully in the hearts of all Christians is that we don't need to continue to abandon our wrong beliefs about God, that we can settle into our current understanding and call it good enough.

I never plan to stop abandoning my wrong beliefs about God, His revelation, and His Church.  That may mean changing my religious tradition once again, and I'm entirely willing to do that.  Indeed, I long to abandon anything that keeps me from understanding the Way, the Truth, and the Life inasmuch as I am capable of doing so.

Note: The above is an icon of Christ depicted as the Good Shepherd which I purchased as a gift from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Other Side: In Praise of Pulpit & Pen

Recently, there has been a small tempest in the teapot of a certain corner of the Christian blogosphere.  It started with Hank Hanegraaff the Bible Answer Man's conversion, specifically his decision to enter the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion by way of the Greek Orthodox church.

Jeff Maples, who writes at Pulpit & Pen, wrote some articles about his conversion and how to handle it (by evangelizing Hanegraaff to return to the Christian faith).  Maples mentions that he has received some quite negative and uncharitable feedback as a result of those articles.  Specifically, he mentioned that folks were claiming that he misrepresented the Greek Orthodox faith.

I've read his articles, and he does in fact at various points either have a poor understanding of Eastern Orthodox theology or just flat out gets it completely wrong.  Instead of apologizing and doing several years of extensive research into ancient Christian theology to alleviate his lack of understanding, he doubles down on the strategy of doing at best cursory research and making claims which are far stronger than the evidence he's gathered will support.

He visits the church Hanegraaff is now a member of for the Pascha liturgy and writes what I will charitably describe as a reflection on his experience.   As an aside, his reflections are very similar to what a writer in the Church of Christ penned for Truth magazine in an article I read a few years ago.  Except that he wrote the reflection after visiting a Roman Catholic church once.

Let's suppose that I had read a few articles, gone to the Southern Baptist Convention website and read some of their basic beliefs and position statements, and then visited a Southern Baptist worship service on a Sunday morning and wrote something similar to Maples' reflection as if I had done my due diligence and now understood the Southern Baptist faith enough to critique it effectively.

Would any Southern Baptist intellectuals take me seriously when I wrote my polemic?  No.  And rightly so.  I simply would not have a sufficient understanding of their faith to launch a broad polemical attack on their beliefs.  It would be a waste of perfectly good writing time.

All that conceded, I think we should admit that Maples gets some important things right, and so does JD Hall in his article apologizing to the Eastern Orthodox for overlooking their "grave and damning heresies" and promising to more effectively protest against their heretical cult in the future alongside their protest against the Roman Catholic Church.

This consistency of protest is, I think, something they get right.  If they protest against the Catholic communion, they ought to protest against the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion as well.  And Hall is right to apply that consistency in the terminology he uses, calling our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters an "anti-Christ" along with the usual use of this term to describe the Bishop of Rome.

This is how the Church of Christ which produces Truth magazine views the Bishop of Rome as well, and they are not shy about articulating their opposition to "Romanist" heresies.   Indeed, "Romanist" is a term necessitated by their view that heretics are not actually Christians, and so a different term that is still recognizable enough to communicate the idea arose to fill the void.

Of course, because their view is that we who belong to the ancient churches are not Christians, we are  seen as not part of the Church (in the sense of being the mystical Body of Christ) and thus not saved, which means that from their perspective we are indeed damned to Hell unless we repent of our heresies.

This idea that outside the true Church there is no salvation is a very orthodox (and Eastern Orthodox) doctrine.  In traditional Roman Catholic circles, the Latin phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus is often used to denote the teaching of the early Church that "outside the Church there is no salvation" and that consequently, we ought to draw others into the Church.

Respecting this principle means that Jeff Maples who, like all of us, believes that he has found the true faith, is correct to advocate evangelizing those of us who, like Hank Hanegraaff, have worked out our salvation in fear and trembling and studying the Bible until we ended up in the ancient churches.

I respect Maples' desire to refute the teachings of those he deems heretics, and whatever good arguments we might have about the effectiveness of his approach or the historical and Biblical evidence for his views, we ought to admire his sincere commitment to defending the truth.

Maples and JD Hall are, at the very least, not lukewarm in their faith, and that I sincerely respect.  I would rather dialogue or even debate with those committed to the truth than those who are willing to accept only a small part of the Truth, Christ who is the Truth and asks us to give all our strength, our mind, and our soul to love Him.

For this lack of lukewarm Christianity, perhaps we should take a moment to praise Pulpit & Pen, appreciating those who have a passion for the Way, the Truth, and the Life, regardless of whether or not we think them uncharitable toward those they deem heretics or sloppy in their research practices.

I will leave the particulars of the defense of the Eastern Orthodox faith to others who are eminently qualified to do so.  Alithos anesti!

*     *     *

Editorial Note: I was recently informed that JD Hall has a long history of bullying and lobbing insults in place of rational debate or dialogue, even with children.  According to the quotations from the Christian post article, he issued an apology for this adversarial behavior and suggested that he ought to have been more pastoral.

Apparently he committed to "walking away from these conflicts" in light of a teen's suicide that appears to have been at least partially motivated or influenced by Hall's bullying.  I'm not sure what conflicts he meant, whether it was social media verbal battles in general or the children of other Baptist intellectuals specifically.

Either way, I do not recommend engaging with him directly online unless you're prepared to slog through a lot of uncharitable behavior at minimum, even if you are a fellow pastor or pastor's wife.

Note:  The above is a picture of a Greek Orthodox cross icon I acquired recently.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Continuum of Anglican Prayer Beads

I was completely wrong in my assumptions about the origin of Anglican prayer beads.

My best guess, in the absence of having done the relevant research, was that the Anglican tradition had held on to the practice of using Catholic rosaries in prayer and had simply altered the prayers to suit Protestant theology after the fact.

It turns out that the advent of Anglican prayer beads was much more recent.  Only a few years before my birth, in fact, which stunned me when I learned of it.  Though it probably shouldn't have stunned me.

I've been aware for quite a while of a tendency among post-Reformation Christian groups to suddenly discover ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and incorporate them into their lives.  And the existence of Anglican prayer beads (which have been adopted by some other post-Reformation Christians and subsequently been called Protestant prayer beads), seem to fall under that general rubric.

Just as there are many different ways to pray the Catholic Rosary, there are many different ways to pray using the Anglican prayer beads invented in the later part of the 1900s.  I prayed a couple of those ways with some Irish Anglican prayer beads, and I generally found them to good ways of praying.  That said, the Julian of Norwich version wasn't one I was fond of.

Along the continuum of contemplative prayer using Anglican prayer beads, that's where I lost interest. I'm sure that there are folks who would really love it.  I just wasn't one of them.  It struck me as a bit too modern and sentimental.

But to be fair, the whole thing is apparently a quite recent development out of an Episcopal diocese in Texas, of all places.  Instead of returning to the tradition of wool prayer ropes or rosaries with 5 decades (segments of 10 beads), Anglican prayer beads have 4 weeks (segments of 7 beads).

And all references to Mary are omitted in the Anglican ways of praying with the weeks, which is not surprising given the strong tendency of American post-Reformation Christianity to avoid anything that seems vaguely Marian.

One of the limitations of having 4 weeks rather than 5 decades and shorter prayers seems to be that it's more difficult to stay in a mode of contemplative prayer for the same length of time as a Catholic rosary. This could of course easily be remedied by doing what is often done with the Komboskini (prayer rope) used in Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox circles: simply keep repeating the same cycle of prayers over and over.

This continuation of contemplative prayer is a valuable tradition, and I'm glad to see it being restored in part within the Anglican communities.  I'm not sure if the Anglican Continuum (those who hold fast to what they see as authentic Anglican tradition against the modernizations in the last few decades) would want to take up a decidedly non-traditional practice like Anglican prayer beads.

I will be watching with interest to see if the Continuing Anglican movement consistently finds value in the more ancient aspects of the continuum of Anglican prayer beads.

Note:  The above is a picture I took of Anglican rosary beads which I purchased from cordbands.com as a gift.  I highly recommend their rosaries to anyone who wants one that will last.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Praying with Icons: Michael the Archangel

Pray for us, St. Michael, that we might
ask with pure astonishment a question,
of which your name is indeed the right
and most glorious heavenly expression,
"Who is like God?" No one is like God.

O captain of the hosts of Heaven above
who is called upon to battle evil forces,
defend us on behalf of the Son of Love
against the force of the demonic curses
oft spoken against the children of God.

Mighty Archangel, prophesied to fight
for the impassible, immutable, eternal,
divinely simple, wholly transcendent
and yet truly immanent, all-powerful
God on the Last Day, slay the Dragon!

Note: The above is an icon of Michael the Archangel which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for a dear friend.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Praying with Icons: Saint Monica

Saint Monica, pray for us, that we might endure
these trials of loving others in spite of their most
grievous faults. Which cause them to reject Your
grace and hurt those who care for them the most
next to You, God, Lord of all who seek the truth.

Holy Mother of Augustine, pray for us, that our
tears and our pleadings before God would be an
offering of our little sufferings for the holy hour
of the conversion of those we love, our lives an
ever faithful sign of the fullness of God's grace.

Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon of St. Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo, which I purchased as a gift from legacyicons.com.

Praying with Icons: The Wedding at Cana

Lord, at the behest of Your mother Mary,
the finest wine was brought forth within
alabaster jars of water; may Your mercy
bring forth divine love from deep within
our hearts of stone, filled by Your grace.

Lord, may this wine of divine love You
poured out for us on the Cross rain upon
us the graces of the heavenly home You
have prepared for we who love the Son
of our Father in Heaven more than life.

Lord, grant that like old wineskins, our
old lives of sin be unable to hold a new
wine of divine love, and that at the hour
of death we may be made new by You,
becoming wineskins full of divine love.

Note:  The above is a picture of an icon which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for recently married friends.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Praying with Icons: The Last Judgment

Lord, let me remember Your words
about the Last Judgment, when the
sheep and the goats, bowing heads
before the King of Heaven, see the
Good Shepherd who tended them.

Lord, let my heart be open to gaze
upon all of Your least brothers and
sisters with tenderness in my eyes
just as You do, and offer my hand
to help them on Your narrow way.

Lord, let Your mercy be on all of
us who were made to be the sons
daughters of the great God above
in Heaven, He who takes the sins
of the world away, judging justly.

Note:  The above is an icon of the Last Judgment which I purchased from legacyicons.com as a gift.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fair Questions: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

Previously, I addressed the question asked by Michael Shermer: What would it take to prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

I did not think it was actually a very useful question, and so I would like to ask a better question that actually gets at the root of the issue: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

There's no particular reason that Shermer and other materialists and/or physicalists can't just assume that there's a natural, material explanation for someone rising from the dead and wandering around.  After all, that's what they assume about many scientifically unexplained events.

So it's not necessary for so many of them to reflexively deny that someone rose from the dead.  What is necessary for the materialist who believes that all things have a natural cause to deny is any claim that some phenomenon (or all phenomena) has a supernatural cause.

And this is, I think, precisely why they object to religions which claim that there are supernatural causes, whether for specific events, or as a first cause of all things.  It would also explain why, when I have asked them specifically what sort of evidence they would accept for claims about the existence of a deity, the responses have been...interesting.

One example from a dialogue I had many years ago with a very bright agnostic atheist.  I asked him what sort of evidence would be sufficient for believing in extraordinary claims.  He proposed video evidence (presumably with audio as well).

So, with some new additional details to make the story a bit more fully-fleshed, I described something very similar to the following scenario as a hypothetical example of an extraordinary claim with video evidence of it:

A woman's mother was dying from a very aggressive cancer, and all the doctors in the United States whom she had been diagnosed by said that there was nothing to be done except make her as comfortable as possible for the last few months of her life.
She found a clinic in Mumbai that was willing to try a new treatment on her mother, and so she and her mother booked a flight to India and got a ride to the clinic in Mumbai.  Because the patients were part of a study which was testing the efficacy of the new treatment, there were video cameras in the rooms.
After they had spoken with the nurses and doctor who was primarily responsible, her mother was placed in one of the rooms, where she would be prepared for treatment.  The day before the treatment was to begin, while the woman was there with her mother in the room, there was a flash of light which temporarily overwhelmed the video camera.
After the light faded, the video recorded a blue-skinned, four-armed figure dressed very strangely who had suddenly appeared in the room.  The figure identifies himself as Vishnu, tells the woman's mother that she is healed, refers to himself as the divine preserver and sustainer of the cosmos, and leaves with her a gold trinket in the shape of a lotus blossom.
There is another flash of light, and then the blue-skinned, four-armed figure is gone again.  The doctor is concerned when the woman tells him of these events that were captured on video, and he has the video checked.  He also has her re-checked for the cancer, and can't find any cancer remaining.
When the woman and her mother return to the United States, none of the doctors they've seen before can find any cancer either.  The woman dies peacefully many years later in her sleep.

So, I asked, in this hypothetical scenario, is the video of these events sufficient evidence to believe that a deity named Vishnu healed the woman of her cancer?

The answer I was given was a resounding, "No."  I was advised that the more plausible explanation is that an extraterrestrial intelligent and super-humanly competent life form had healed her.  Personally, I would accept such evidence as described in the above scenario as evidence of the existence of Vishnu, in the same way that I would accept similar kinds of evidence for other phenomena.

But given the assumptions of a person who believes that all things have natural causes, this is a perfectly understandable response.  It's quite coherent with that worldview.  And it shows us something important about the consequence of that belief: there is no room for any supernatural cause as an explanation for anything if one holds to materialist metaphysics.

For someone who believes that everything has a material/natural cause, there is no possible evidence that is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause.  They are simply not open, at least intellectually, to belief in supernatural beings or supernatural phenomena.

Even if such a person witnesses, at the end of the age, a bearded Jewish carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth coming with the clouds from Heaven and surrounded by angels with flaming swords, they would have to conclude only that they were suffering from a vivid hallucination, or perhaps that these were just extra-terrestrial life-forms whose origin is purely a natural process of evolution on other planets.

On the other hand, for those of us who have a common-sense standard of evidence, we actually have the ability to be open to evidence of both natural and supernatural causes of phenomena.  And I think that open-mindedness is valuable so long as we have critical thinking processes to help us mitigate our quite powerful and perfectly normal human confirmation bias.

Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com which is depicting Michael the Archangel in Heaven.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Fair Questions: What could prove that Jesus rose from the dead?

In the April 2017 issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer asks a pointed question just before the celebration of Easter.  What would it take to prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this question is just a distraction.  Why?  I'm so glad you asked for a lengthy explanation.

Let's start by thinking about other medically unexplainable phenomena.  There have been plenty of medically anomalous healings in human history.  Sometimes there was a plausible natural explanation.  Sometimes there was no plausible natural explanation.

In cases of healings and recoveries without a plausible natural explanation, people choose to believe one of two general options based on the assumptions that under-gird their worldviews.

  1. There was a natural cause and we just don't know what it was.
  2. There was a supernatural cause of some kind (generally one that fits their existing beliefs about the supernatural).

These are also two options taken with regard to belief in the death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  There are others, of course.  Some propose that Jesus didn't really exist at all.  Or they propose that the Gospel account of his death and resurrection were all lies.

To be fair, that's much easier than being honest and just observing that documentation of eyewitness accounts by people who were risking death by publicly professing Christianity and rejecting the imperial religion of Rome is indeed evidence for his life, death, and resurrection.

Some skeptics seem to think that accepting the Gospels as evidence is proof of the resurrection (and thus they want to claim that the Gospels don't count as evidence at all). But I don't think that's actually the case, which we can see if we carefully consider how evidence works to support a belief.

Let's take as an example the claim that the Earth is round as opposed to a flat plane.  I've seen ships suddenly appear on the horizon, which gives me an intuitive sense that the Earth is not a perfectly flat plane.  I have read written accounts of astronauts journeying to space and looking at the Earth, and I've seen pictures of the Earth looking awfully round from the perspective of one who is orbiting it or moving far away from it.  I've read physicists' accounts of the observational evidence.  Et cetera.

Of course, it's possible that the photos are doctored to give a false impression, that the written accounts are government propaganda, and that my intuition about the ships is wrong and their sudden appearance on the horizon is simply due to my poor eyesight.

I could be wrong about the earth being round, and I'm not sure I would say that it has been proven to be round given that the evidence I have is not the direct evidence of the experience of seeing it for myself.  Nonetheless, the preponderance of evidence I have available to me strongly suggests that the earth is round, and I believe that it is.

We can see from this example that evidence, even what we might think of as strong evidence, is not the same thing as a deductive proof (from geometry, for example).  A correctly-written proof cannot possibly be wrong, given the axioms of geometry.  This is not the case with the wider world.  It can be described in geometric terms, but this would be a paltry description of only a small portion of phenomena.

It would be wrong by being overly simplistic, not because geometry isn't quite valuable.  All this is to say that while we can't straightforwardly prove things in the wider world in the same way that we can in the confines of geometry or other formal logico-mathematical systems, it makes little sense to say that the kinds of things we generally count as evidence are suddenly not evidence at all when we find the claim implausible based on our experience and philosophical assumptions.

That makes about as much sense as many religious folks suddenly lowering the standard of evidence for belief when something strikes them as plausible given their philosophical assumptions and life experience.  After all, the benefit of having a consistent standard of evidence is that it allows us to check our beliefs even when our life experience and philosophical assumptions lead us astray.

But having a consistent standard of evidence cannot serve us well in that regard if we conveniently modify our standard of evidence when it suits our desire to maintain our existing worldviews.  I'm not aware of any public intellectual who applies the same epistemic standards to events they deem extraordinary that they apply to events that seem ordinary to them.

But that's not a crazy thing to do.  It's probably the only way we can defeat our confirmation bias.  At the very least, altering our standard of evidence immediately upon encountering something that seems implausible is just giving confirmation bias an opportunity to work its magic, and it's a terrible way to do science as well.

So when I read of the principle of proportionality which Shermer invokes with regard to the ethics of belief, though I recognize that it's intuitively appealing as an axiom, I suspect that it just helps us confirm whatever we already believe by ignoring evidence we would rather not acknowledge.

Such is the nature of confirmation bias, a bias which Shermer has studied at some length among other cognitive biases.  Perhaps for this reason, he might be sympathetic to my concerns about suddenly changing our standards of evidence with regard to claims we believe are highly implausible.

So if we can't really prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the way that we prove other things,  rather than cooking up another standard of evidence that will be more difficult to meet, I think that we should use the standard of evidence that we use for evaluating other claims.

Depending on what precisely that standard of evidence is, we may end up believing that Jesus rose from the dead or we may not believe it.  But at least we would be intellectually consistent because we used the same standard.

All this is to say that there's no particular reason for anti-religion folks to try to claim that the Gospels don't count as evidence (because counting it as evidence doesn't mean one needs to be a Christian), and there's no reason to think that one could prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth inductively by way of textual evidence.  Or anything else, for that matter.

The real question at issue here is not one of proving that a specific event took place.  After all, we can just assume that the Gospel accounts are correct that Jesus was walking around after having been seen dying and dead by many eyewitnesses, and still account for that event by stating that it must have had natural causes (i.e. concocted illusions, eyewitnesses being drugged, et cetera).

The real question at issue here is the question of what sort of evidence could possibly be sufficient to justify belief in a supernatural cause.

Related: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of the Resurrection I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com a while ago.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Praying with Icons: St. Edward the Martyr

Pray for us, St. Edward, that we may emulate you
in striving for holiness from a young age, pouring
out our lives for Christ and His Holy Church who
support the souls who are ever zealously seeking
to rebuild the Church militant for the King's sake.

Pray for us, holy Martyr, that we may be granted
a holy death, the best defense before the dreadful
judgment seat of Christ, following a life suffused
with the grace of Love Himself, a more powerful
weapon than those wielded by an assassin's hand.

Have mercy on us, O Lord of Lords, that we may
be granted the strength to die nobly for Your sake
so that we might be borne up to Heaven, adopted
as sons and daughters of God the Father, granted
then the final gift of the glorious Beatific Vision.

Note:  The above is a picture of an icon of St. Edward the Martyr which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for a friend.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Love it to Death: Nothing Shall I Want

This past weekend, I was on a retreat at a Franciscan ashram.  From the fact that it's called an ashram, you might suspect that it's the home of friars from India, and that's true.  Like all Franciscans, they know how to have a good time enjoying nature and eating good food.

One of the exercises we performed on the retreat was putting a label on a candle so that it might continue the act of prayer for our intention.  We were told to write an intention that reflected something we wanted to gain from the retreat.

I was, because of my own mistake, without a pen with which to write out an intention.  And it occurred to me that this was very appropriate, that I was not able to write on it, that I was left to ask for nothing that I wanted.

After all, what I have been struggling with so much with is that I am goal-oriented.  I'm always wanting to achieve something.  This is, for the most part, a very good thing in my life.

It's good for my fitness level, my nutrition, my general work performance, the consistency of my prayer life, and many other things.  But like all good things, it can become an obstacle in our spiritual life if we rely too heavily on it.  This happens because at a certain point it takes an unhealthy precedence with regard to our relationship with God.

This may be because we genuinely place our own goals ahead of the ultimate goal of full communion with Love Himself, or because we rely too heavily on our own techniques for achieving goals and leave little room for the role of God's grace, which is ever being showered upon us.

As we hear it in the liturgy, the Psalmist says that when "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."  This is indeed a very difficult thing to live, and yet it is so necessary to the Christian spiritual life.

Christ further explains this in the Gospel of Matthew:

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;  and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

He exhorts us not to worry about anything, and to want for nothing, simply accepting what is given by God.  And the reason for this is that God will care for us in ways that we do not understand from our limited human perspective.

When we want nothing, it is then that we begin to realize that we already have everything that is important.  When we want nothing, we leave our hands and hearts open to receive everything that God generously gives to us.

It is in wanting nothing that we love to death our egotistical desires which keep us clinging to our possessions and fearing their loss.  It is in wanting nothing that we abandon the fear of death and enter into the divine life of love.

It is when we want nothing, instead practicing gratitude in all circumstances, that our souls are disposed to hear and know the voice of the Good Shepherd, speaking gently to us of the gifts of love which await us in the heavenly household, so full of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

Thus it is that in the end, when the Lord is my shepherd, nothing shall I want.

Note:  The above is an icon I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com as a gift.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Praying with Icons: Christ the King

Grant this, O Lord, that in your stately, humble
entrance to the city of Jerusalem we will see an
eternal procession of the Son from His eternal
Father whose heavenly household has mansion
after mansion prepared for those who love Him.

Grant this, O Lord, that we might gaze on Thy
crown of thorns and weep for You, anointed in
Your own precious blood, High Priest who by
the authority of God makes the sacrifice upon
the humble wooden altar for the sins of many.

Grant this, O Lord, that in venerating a Cross,
the honor I give to it shall pass to You who are
deserving of all my love, who taught that loss
of our lives for Your sake will save us, Savior
and fulfillment of both Law and the Prophets.

To thee, O Lord, we lift up our hearts, minds,
and strength, just as Your Son commanded us
that we love God and neighbor fully, loving
also our enemies, as He did, Christ the King.


Note:  The above icon is one I purchased from easterngiftshop.com as a gift.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Bhagavad Gita: The Meditation of Krishna

Listen to the embedded podcast version of this post or read the written version below.

Previously, in The Wisdom of Krishna, I examined what Krishna taught Arjuna about the nature and practice of wisdom.  Shortly after the teachings on wisdom referenced previously, Krishna goes on to teach Arjuna about the practice of meditation.  What we generally think of as meditation in the West is related to, but not quite the same as the meditation spoken of by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.

As I've mentioned before, the Bhagavad Gita is a discourse that strikes at the heart of spiritual matters, and it is a discourse that takes place on a great battlefield at the climax of the great epic known as the Mahabharata.  The battle is about to be joined by great warriors, and it is at this time of calm before the storm that Krishna helps Arjuna to understand his place in this life and the nature of spiritual fulfillment.

After Krishna has answered his question about how to live wisely, he speaks further about unity with Brahman and the nature of Brahman.  And later he moves on to the practice of meditation, which he recommends to all spiritual aspirants.

"It is not those who lack energy or refrain from action, but those who work without expectation of reward who attain the goal of meditation.  Theirs is the true renunciation.  Therefore, Arjuna, you should understand that renunciation and the performance of selfless service are the same.  Those who cannot renounce attachment to the results of their work are far from the path.
For aspirants who want to climb the mountain of spiritual awareness, the path is selfless work; for those who have ascended to yoga the path is stillness and peace.  When you have freed yourself from attachment to the results of work, and from desires for the enjoyment of sense objects, you will ascend to the unitive state.
Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will.  The will is the only friend of the Self, and the will is the only enemy of the Self.
To those who have conquered themselves, the will is a friend.  But it is the enemy of those who have not found the Self within them."

After reiterating previous points about the contemplative life and the active life both being paths to union with the divine life, Krishna comes back to another familiar concept: Ātman.  This is the word being translated as "the Self" as distinct from one's self in the sense of the ego.  Unlike the self of the ego, that incorrigible pursuer of transient desires, Ātman is the most true and most real self, the enduring consciousness which can partake in the divine life.

The fullness of the ego and the fullness of Ātman are not compatible with one another.  We can see this clearly in the lives of those who have given themselves over to their addictions.  They become shadows of the true Self we know can shine forth from within them; the addict is lost to us, not because they have suffered physical death, but because they have pushed out the potential for the glory of human flourishing in favor of the next temporary high which does not ultimately satisfy.

Union with the divine means that our enslavement to the ego's constant call to the next pleasure, the next worry about what will happen to us, or the next attempt to avoid any small pain must be abolished.  Only our wills can be made strong enough to free us of the chains of desire which bind the ego, and only the consistent weakening of our wills can leave us trapped in addictions.

Strengthening our will in selfless service allows us to fight the ego's control more effectively, and as we release more of the ego's control over our lives, we can see more clearly the true Self, Ātman.  This helps us to meditate because it increasingly liberates us from our daily worries, and the meditation in turn helps us to overthrow more of the ego's control so that we can seek union with the divine.

"The supreme Reality stands revealed in the consciousness of those who have conquered themselves.  They live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame.
They are completely fulfilled by spiritual wisdom and Self-realization.  Having conquered their senses, they have climbed to the summit of human consciousness.  To such people a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same.  They are equally disposed to family, enemies, and friends, to those who support them and those who are hostile, to the good and the evil alike.  Because they are impartial, they rise to great heights.
Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation.  With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions."

Krishna teaches us that this conquering of the ego results in being able to transcend our previous constant focus on concerns about the material world, about the pursuit of possessions and wealth or social standing and prestige.  Paradoxically, it is precisely this detachment which leads people to become well-respected by many.

It is the person who participates in the divine life who can deal with people as they truly are, both recognizing their strengths and weaknesses and wondrous inherent value without performing those cold calculations made by the ego to determine whether our actions directly benefit us or not.  It is the conquering of the selfish instinct that leads us to be more like the divine sustainer of all that is: Vishnu.

Vishnu, whose avatar at this point and time is Krishna, speaking with Arjuna before a great battle, rains the blessings of life down upon the good and evil people alike, upon friends and enemies, and upon those who are supportive and those who are hostile.  This is part and parcel of the divine life: to give selflessly, even to those who hate you and set themselves against you.

Now that Krishna has expounded a bit on the benefit of meditation, he explains to Arjuna how to go about meditating:

"Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass.  Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts.  Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified.  Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.  With all fear dissolved in the peace of the Self and all actions dedicated to Brahman, controlling the mind and fixing it on me, sit in meditation with me as your only goal.  With senses and mind constantly controlled through meditation, united with the Self within, an aspirant attains nirvana, the state of abiding joy and peace in me.
Arjuna, those who eat too much or eat too little, who sleep too much or sleep too little, will not succeed in meditation.  But those who are temperate in eating and sleeping, work and recreation, will come to the end of sorrow through meditation.  Through constant effort they learn to withdraw the mind from selfish cravings and absorb it in the Self.  Thus they attain the state of union."

The description Krishna provides of how one ought to meditate is drawn from traditional Indian contemplative practices regarding seating and posture and one-pointedness.  But this meditation is not the meditation of contemporary mindfulness movements.  Rather than directing us to stand clear of our own minds, Krishna bids us to fill our minds with an unwavering contemplation of the divine life which is embodied in Krishna.

He warns us that the taking of ascetic practices to extremes or self-indulgence in transient pleasures will prevent us from effective meditation.  When the mind is addicted to seeking the next transient pleasure and avoiding the next feeling of pain, it cannot focus sufficiently in meditation.  And when the mind is distracted by constant hunger pangs and the pain of dehydration, it is also unable to focus sufficiently.

Effective meditation is less a matter of extremes and more a matter of finding a healthy balance.  To meditate is to walk a tightrope over the abyss of our own thoughts, and to feed our tendency for self-indulgence or unhealthy self-denial is to lose the balance necessary for perfecting the tightrope walk of the mind.

"When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place.  In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself.  Beholding the Self by means of the Self, an aspirant knows the joy and peace of complete fulfillment.  Having attained that abiding joy of the senses, revealed in the stilled mind, they never swerve from the eternal truth.  They desire nothing else and cannot be shaken by the heaviest burden of sorrow.
The practice of meditation frees one from all affliction.  This is the path of yoga.  Follow it with determination and sustained enthusiasm.  Renouncing wholeheartedly all selfish desires and expectations, use your will to control the senses.  Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self.
Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the Self.  Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind.  Freeing themselves from the taint of self-will, with their consciousness unified, they become one with Brahman."

Krishna teaches us that the cultivation of the ability to walk on the tightrope over the abyss of the mind leads to the freedom of being able to experience one's own eternal consciousness without the impediments of the worries and cravings that constantly intrude upon our attempts to find lasting joy.  A healthy asceticism, the balanced self-denial of one who does not indulge in excessive eating or drinking before a tightrope walk and also does not starve or dehydrate himself before the tightrope walk, is what will help us to find serenity within the landscapes of the mind's eye.

This balance allows us to walk the narrow path to union with the divine, to oneness with Brahman, the creative principle which underlies and suffuses all that exists, including our own consciousness.  This union with the divine is both a fuller participation in the divine life and a fuller realization of our own life.

"The infinite joy of touching Brahman is easily attained by those who are free from the burden of evil and established within themselves.  They see the Self in every creature and all creation in the Self.  With consciousness unified through meditation, they see everything with an equal eye.
I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature.  Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me.  They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me.  Wherever they may live, they abide in me.
When a person responds to the sorrows and joys of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union."

Once we have begun to see the divine life in ourselves, we cannot help but see it in others, how it suffuses the whole world and brings it to the flowering of terrifying beauty.  And we cannot help but see how inextricably bound up our lives are with the lives of others, how their sorrows become our sorrows and their joys become our joys.

This is a lovely response to Arjuna's question, but he still has doubts after Krishna's exposition of the power of meditation.  Arjuna asks, "O Krishna, the stillness of divine union which you describe is beyond my comprehension.  How can the mind, which is so restless, attain lasting peace?  Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent; trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind."

Arjuna is very right here that the kind of meditation described by Krishna is extremely difficult to attain.  I know from experience that it takes great effort to gain the ability to find this kind of serenity for even a short while.  And Krishna acknowledges this:

"It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control.  But it can be conquered, Arjuna, through regular practice and detachment.  Those who lack self-control will find it difficult to progress in meditation; but those who are self-controlled, striving earnestly through the right means, will attain the goal."

This, however, does not completely assuage Arjuna's doubts.  He asks another question: "Krishna, what happens to one who has faith but who lacks self-control and wanders from the path, not attaining success in yoga?  If he becomes deluded on the spiritual path, will he lose the support of both worlds, like a cloud scattered in the sky?  Krishna, you can dispel all doubts; remove this doubt which binds me."

Arjuna recognizes that faith alone will not carry him through, at least not faith in the divine as a mere belief held in a philosophical way.  He sees instinctively that there is a grave spiritual danger in belief without having the self-control to live out that belief in the radical way described by Krishna.

Krishna exhorts him to let the belief push him forward until it is possible to gain the necessary self-control, to grow in the capacity for meditation rather than giving up because perfection in meditation cannot be acquired quickly.

"Arjuna, my son, such a person will not be destroyed.  No one who does good work will ever come to a bad end, either here or in the world to come.
When such people die, they go to other realms where the righteous live.  They dwell there for countless years and then are reborn into a home which is pure and prosperous.  Or they may be born into a family where meditation is practiced; to be born into such a family is extremely rare.  The wisdom they have acquired in previous lives will be reawakened, Arjuna, and they will strive even harder for Self-realization.  Indeed, they will be driven on by the strength of their past disciplines.  Even one who inquires after the practice of meditation rises above those who simply perform rituals.
Through constant effort over many lifetimes, a person becomes purified of all selfish desires and attains the supreme goal of life.
Meditation is superior to severe asceticism and the path of knowledge.  It is also superior to selfless service.  May you attain the goal of meditation, Arjuna!  Even among those who meditate, that man or woman who worships me with perfect faith, completely absorbed in me, is the most firmly established in yoga."

Krishna goes on to reassure Arjuna that his efforts, even if they do not lead quickly to perfection, are indeed worthwhile.  Krishna does not want Arjuna to make his reaching perfection the enemy of reaching what is good and closer to perfection than where he was before.  Krishna does not ask us to make perfection a matter of our unhealthy attachment to immediate gratification.

To indulge in our desire for immediate gratification with regard to the spiritual life defeats the purpose of the spiritual life and leaves us trapped in the cycle of reliance on transient pleasures from which Krishna is trying to help liberate us.

Though perfection in meditation takes time and consistent effort, union with the divine and fullness of life for ourselves is worth it.  And as Krishna advised Arjuna, to lose all selfishness in true and sincere worship roots us deeply in precisely this union with the divine and fullness of life.

This is the meditation of Krishna, the immersion of our consciousness into the ocean of the divine life, the strength of our faith propelling us into the depths of oneness with all that lives, buoyed up by waves of divine energy so that we might not drown in oneness, instead living fully within and inseparably from the ultimate cause of our lives.

The Yoga of Krishna - The Wisdom of Krishna - The Meditation of Krishna

Note: The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.

The Protestant Intuition: Divine Gifts & Human Works

In this follow-up to a previous post on some basic intuitions of Protestant thought, I will be examining some additional intuitions with which I was brought up and have now rejected.

One of the intuitions which those of us who were/are heirs of the Reformation have inherited from Martin Luther is a suspicion of any talk about human works in the context of discussion topics like justification or salvation.  Understandably, many folks want to steer well clear of the idea that we can merit salvation by our works.

This idea that we can ascend to the heights of heavenly virtue by our own works, that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross was only an instructive example of divine love rather than an efficacious atonement for the sins of many, is a very old heresy well known to the Catholic Church.  We call it Pelagianism, named after a personally very nice but doctrinally very off-base fellow named Pelagius who was a well-educated monk from the British Isles.

Like Pelagius, Martin Luther took some good points a bit too far and ended up in schism and heresy himself.  Perhaps the key point in all of Luther's theological expositions was that God's grace is a divine gift bestowed on us freely, a gift we accept through faith in Christ.  Luther thought that the Catholic Church's use of indulgences stood in contradiction to this truth of the faith.  And, in fairness, some people definitely did abuse indulgences offered by the Church.

Where Luther was wrong was in the nature of the connection between works and justification (or salvation).  He believes that the Catholic Church teaches that we can earn our way to Heaven by means of indulgences.  But that's not even what indulgences are as defined by the Church.

Indulgences just remit some of the temporal punishment for sin.  And no matter how much of the temporal punishment is remitted, from a Catholic perspective we could still choose against God and find ourselves in eternal punishment.  No matter how virtuous we are or how many indulgences we might gain, there is no ticket to Heaven according to the Church.

The Church teaches that our good works do not merit the grace of salvation in any sense whatsoever.  She teaches that our merits are far too little to accomplish such a thing, and it is only through the divine gift of the superabundant merits of Christ which are vicariously applied to the satisfaction of our debt of sin that we have any hope of salvation.

At the same time, the Church teaches that good works are a necessary part of the journey to salvation.  She does not seek to remove the Epistle of James from the canon of Scripture, which teaches us that:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.

Where I think some folks (like Martin Luther and those of us who inherited his thought) get hung up in reading James is on the idea that we need to perform certain good works as part of the salvific process. And I think I might be able to address those concerns by way of analogy.

Let's consider the gifts we might get from our parents. Maybe we are given a teddy bear when we're young, or a book, or a video game console. These require only minimal responsibility from us to take care of, but they do require some responsibility.

On the other hand, the greatest gifts which parents give to their children, such as a pet, or a car, or a trust fund for college, these require a large responsibility to take care of them as part of accepting the gift. If the greater gifts often have the greater responsibility associated with them, how much more the responsibility for the gift of salvation?

We don't suggest that the parent's child has earned the gift of the pet dog, or new car, or trust fund for college just because they're responsible for taking care of these gifts, do we? Would we suggest that they're even trying to earn these things if they do in fact take very good care of the gift they've been given?

Of course not. And neither should we think that the Christian who proposes that we have a responsibility to do the works needed to take care of the gift of salvation is trying to earn their salvation or that it's possible to earn their salvation by those works.

Related: The Protestant Intuition: Church and Empire

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Catena Aurea: The First Lent

The Catena Aurea is a work of Biblical commentary compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas.  It contains the verses of the Gospels immediately followed by the most relevant commentaries of the Church Fathers upon that subject and/or that specific verse.  As I read the English translation commissioned by Cardinal John Henry Newman, I will be providing information about what the Catena Aurea contains regarding certain questions that are generally controversial or interesting to me.

*     *     *

The temptation of Jesus in the desert is briefly mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as set out in the Catena Aurea, and immediately follows His baptism.  Typically of Mark, whose Gospel is the shortest in length by far, he describes the events briefly, jumping from one key event in Christ's life to the next, as we see in this passage from the 1st chapter of Mark's Gospel:

9.  And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in the Jordan.
10.  And straightaway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11.  And there came a voice from heaven, saying, 'Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'
12.  And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
13.  And he was there in the wilderness 40 days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

So why did Jesus spend 40 days in the desert?  It seems like a rather arbitrary number, the same as the number of days in the season of Lent which is celebrated in honor of Christ's forty-day sojourn.

The Venerable Bede (672 AD - 735 AD), echoing some of St. John Chrysostom's thoughts, explains to us the general importance of Christ's temptation in the desert, and also the importance of the number 40:

Bede;  But He retires into the desert that He may teach us that, leaving the allurements of the world, and the company of the wicked, we should in all things obey the Divine commands.  He is left alone and tempted by the devil, that He might teach us, that all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution; whence it follows, And he was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights, and was tempted of Satan.  But He was tempted forty days and forty nights, that He might shew us, that as long as we live here and serve God, whether prosperity smile upon us, which is meant by the day, or adversity smite us, which agrees with the figure of the night, at all times our adversary is at hand, who ceases not to trouble our way by temptations.  For the forty days and forty nights imply the whole time of this world, for the globe in which we are serving God is divided into four quarters.  Again, there are Ten Commandments, by observing which we fight against our enemy, but four times 10 are forty.

The Venerable Bede is working here within a very long tradition of Judaic numerical symbolism that recalls the salvation history of the people Israel, but that's not his primary focus.  He really wants us to draw the spiritual lesson from the Gospel.

Bede;  There follows, and he was with the wild beasts.  Consider also that Christ dwells among the wild beasts as man, but, as God, uses the ministry of Angels.  Thus, when in the solitude of a holy life we bear with unpolluted mind the bestial manners of men, we merit to have the ministry of Angels, by whom, when freed from the body, we shall be transferred to everlasting happiness.

Our Lenten journey is not merely a matter of punishing the flesh in a sort of masochistic ritual, but rather a drawing away from transient pleasures as we are drawing toward the divine life of love.

The next couple of verses in the Gospel of Mark also harbor a deep spiritual meaning, and draw us to think about Lent once again:

14.  Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God.
15.  And saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the Gospel."

The words of Jesus here are the words spoken to me by the priest on Ash Wednesday as he makes the sign of the cross on my forehead with ashes: "Repent and believe the Gospel!"  We are reminded at the beginning of Lent of the purpose of the Lenten struggle, to prepare ourselves to believe and live out the Gospel message of Jesus Christ which follows upon our repentance.

Bede; Repent, therefore, and believe; that is, renounce dead works; for of what use is believing without good works?  The merit of good works does not, however, bring to faith, but faith begins, that good works may follow.

The Venerable Bede points out our repentance is demonstrated by the abandonment of our sinful works that lead to eternal death and the taking up of the works of righteousness, and he is careful to note, long before the Protestant Reformation, that good works are a fruit of faith, the supernatural virtue which is a gift from God, rather than a way of earning our way into Heaven.

He also explains over a thousand years in advance of Bart Ehrman's observations why the author of the Gospel of John didn't spend much time on describing the forty days in the desert.

Bede; Let no one, however, suppose that the putting of John in prison took place immediately after the forty days' temptation and the fast of the Lord; for whosoever reads the Gospel of John will find, that the Lord taught many things before the putting of John in prison, and also did many miracles.; for you have in this Gospel, This beginning of miracles did Jesus; and afterwards, for John was not yet cast into prison.  Now it is said, that when John read the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he approved indeed the text of the history, and affirmed that they had spoken truth, but said that they had composed the history of only one year after John was cast into prison, in which year also he suffered.  Passing over then the year of which the transactions had been published by the three others, he related the events of the former period, before John was cast into prison.  When therefore Mark had said that Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, he subjoins, saying, since the time is fulfilled, etc.

The Venerable Bede notes that the narratives in the various Gospels are compatible and indeed mutually reinforcing.  The Gospel of Matthew, for example, has more detail about Christ's sojourn into the desert where he was tempted by Satan.

And the commentaries of the Church Fathers on the Gospel of Matthew are likewise more detailed.  For example, St. John Chrysostom (347 AD - 437 AD) and St. Gregory the Great (540 AD - 604 AD) have interesting comments on the fasting which Christ underwent.

Chrys. But that you may learn how great a good is fasting, and what a mighty shield against the Deil, and that after baptism you ought to give attention to fasting and not to lusts, therefore Christ fasted, not Himself needing it, but teaching us by His example.
Greg.  The Creator of all things took no food whatever during forty days.  We also, at the season of Lent as much as in us lies afflict our flesh by abstinence.  The number forty is preserved, because the virtue of the decalogue is preserved in the books of the holy Gospel; and ten taken four times amounts to forty.  Or, because in this mortal body we consist of four elements by the delights of which we go against the Lord's precept received by the decalogue.  And as we transgress the decalogue through the lusts of this flesh, it is fitting that we afflict the flesh forty-fold.  Or, as by the Law we offer the tenth of our goods, so we strive to offer the tenth of our time.  And from the first Sunday of Lent to the rejoicing of the paschal festival is a space of six weeks, or forty-two days, subtracting from which the six Sundays which are not kept there remain thirty-six.  Now as the year consists of three hundred and sixty-five, by the affliction of these thirty-six we give the tenth of our year to God.

As we can see from these commentaries, the importance of fasting for Christians had not been forgotten by the Early Church.  Also, the Lenten Fast was well established in the first few centuries of Christianity, and was seen as an important part of taking up our cross and following Christ.  It was indeed the fulfillment of the Law of Moses as summed up in the Ten Commandments (or decalogue).

The First Lent, shown to us an example by Christ, is celebrated again and again by those of us who strive to follow Him, just as we celebrate His life, death, and resurrection each year in the liturgical cycle.

The First Lent - The Brothers of Jesus - Jesus Versus the Pharisees

Note:  The above is a picture of my copy of the Catena Aurea (Volume 2: St. Mark).

Monday, March 20, 2017

Fair Questions: How are we Christians saved?

Some time ago, a friend was asking questions about the old debate about the role of faith and works in our salvation.  It's pretty clear from Sacred Scripture that both faith and works are involved.  After all, we "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2) and we are "justified not by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ." (Galatians 2)

There are many good explanations of how we are justified and saved (examples here, here, and here).  These sorts of exegetical and philosophical explanations of justification and salvation are valuable, and we should want to have good answers to these questions as faithful Christians.

Nonetheless, for the person living the Christian life, the more important question is: how does this actually work?  Or, how do faith and works intersect in our lives such that we are justified and saved?

And can we understand it theologically without learning a lot of technical jargon?

I think that we can, and I hope my use of an analogy from natural relationships to supernatural relationships (while recognizing the limits of such analogies) will be helpful in doing so.

In our most godly relationships, we give of ourselves freely to the other, rooted in a love purified by God's grace. We do this in imitation of God who loves us freely, pouring out His grace upon us whether we reciprocate His love for us or not.  In the godly relationships that we have with other people, we cannot earn their love, nor can they earn our love; it is truly a gift.

This reciprocal gift, given over and over again, is efficacious for our development in joy and peace and ultimately in holiness. The more holy the person with whom we cultivate this godly relationship and the more we give of ourselves in the relationship, the holier we become as we grow closer to them (albeit not perfectly holy).

No one has earned anything in these godly relationships.  It was all a gift made in the spirit of love. It's just that the natural result of relationships of mutual self-giving love is an increase in holiness in proportion to the holiness of the persons in the relationship and in proportion to their reciprocal self-giving.

God is perfectly holy, and so when we cultivate this reciprocal self-giving relationship of love with God, by the generous gift of His grace, the natural and supernatural result of this relationship of mutually self-giving love is perfect holiness (in proportion to the perfect holiness of God and the incomprehensible abundance of His gift of grace).

We are thus saved, not by earning it through our own works, but rather through accepting and entering into the natural and supernatural process which God has given to us so that we may finally rest our restless hearts in Him alone.

Our faith in Christ our God spurs us constantly to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling as we regard with profound gratitude the gift of His only-begotten Son who came so that we might be adopted into the Heavenly household as sons and daughters of the Most High.

Related: Does the existence of Hell contradict God's unconditional love?

Note:  The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Surveying the Moral Landscape Again

Back in 2013, I responded to a TED Talk given by Sam Harris about how science can determine human values by pointing out that even if he's correct, this has consequences with which he should not be pleased.

Though my argument about the consequences of his view may have been highly unusual, I was far from the only philosopher to take issue with Harris' claim that science can determine human values.  And he graciously responded by offering a challenge to other philosophers seeking to refute his position.

Ryan Born's surprisingly brief essay was the winner of that challenge (in the sense that his response was judged to be the best), though he definitely did not persuade Harris to recant his position that science can determine morality.  Nonetheless, his essay from 2014 is well worth reading.

It provides an excellent summary of the basic argument against Harris' claim that he has found a way to determine human values using scientific means.  Harris, of course, responded to the essay with one of his own to defend his position.  And, having read it, I found it very helpful.

At the very least, it makes his position more understandable, whether one agrees with it or not.  His rebuttal offered to Ryan Born's points is fairly effective, and I recommend that everyone with an interest in the topic read it at his blog under the title "Clarifying the Moral Landscape" for that reason.

Harris' response isn't intended to address my previous critique, and I don't want to re-hash that argument here even though my argument could certainly use some refinement.  Nonetheless, I do want to address some of his responses to Born's essay.  Harris writes:

I also disagree with the distinction Ryan draws between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” enterprises. Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Again, we have a navigation problem. To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.
Many readers seem confused by the fact that my account of ethics isn’t overtly prescriptive.

I don't find myself confused at all that Harris' account of ethics is first and foremost a descriptive account of how we experience various states.  It makes perfect sense if one's goal is to understand morality as a science in the general sense in which he uses the term "science".  Science is a descriptive endeavor, though its descriptions help clarify our sense of what the world is like and how to navigate it.

And in the same way, Harris thinks that the descriptions of science help us clarify our sense of the moral options available to us so that we can navigate them.  It's completely coherent with his general worldview, which tries to reduce everything to and ground everything in the descriptive methodology of science defined more generally.

The spuriousness of our traditional categories in moral philosophy can be seen in how we teach our children to be good. Why do we want them to be good in the first place? Well, at a minimum, we’d rather they not wind up bludgeoned in a ditch. More generally, we want them to flourish—to live happy, creative, meaningful lives—and to help make the world a better place. All this entails talking about rules and heuristics (deontology), a person’s character (virtue ethics), and the good and bad consequences of certain actions (consequentialism). But it all reduces to a concern for the well-being of our children and (generally to a lesser extent) of the people with whom they will interact. I don’t believe that any sane person is concerned with abstract principles and virtues—such as justice and loyalty—independent of the ways they affect our lives.

Harris is right, I think, that traditional categories in moral philosophy suggest clear distinctions that might not exist with such stark separation as they are often presented, though I do think they have more merit than he does (you can see why below).

I'm less sure that he's right that all these factors (moral duties and heuristics, personal character, consequences for ourselves and others) reduce to a concern for well-being.  Mature ethical reasoning on our part does seem to at least take into account well-being in some way, but I'm not sure why the consistent inclusion of well-being suggests that we can reduce those other factors to well-being.

What's the evidence for the claim that they all reduce to a concern about consequences?  The general attitude of parents cited by Harris doesn't persuade me on this point any more than Ryan Born's points persuaded him.

Ryan also seems to take for granted that the traditional categories of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics are conceptually valid and worth maintaining. However, I believe that partitioning moral philosophy in this way begs the very question at issue—and this is one reason I tend not to identify myself as a “consequentialist.” Everyone knows—or thinks he knows—that consequentialism fails to capture much of what we value. This is true almost by definition, because, as Ryan observes, “serious competing theories of value and morality exist.”
But if the categorical imperative (one of Kant’s foundational contributions to deontology, or rule-based ethics) reliably made everyone miserable, no one would defend it as an ethical principle. Similarly, if virtues such as generosity, wisdom, and honesty caused nothing but pain and chaos, no sane person could consider them good. In my view, deontologists and virtue ethicists smuggle the good consequences of their ethics into the conversation from the start.

Harris is correct that both deontologists and virtue ethics take consequences into account, though I'm not sure that it's fair to say that either group of ethicists are smuggling them in.  The difference between a consequentialist and deontologist is one of the order in which their principles are invoked.

For a consequentialist, the first principle in ethical reasoning is the consideration of consequences, and the consideration of intentionality because intentions often lead to consequences, and the consideration of virtues is performed because our character produces consequences for ourselves and others.

For a deontologist, the order is different.  The first principle in ethical reasoning is the intentional carrying out of our moral duty (the Kantian categorical imperative, for example), though we may need to cultivate various virtues in order to carry out our moral duty reliably, and the foundational moral duty may be defined in the way that it is (at least in part) because it reduces the harmful consequences of our behavior when it is carried out.

I used this example because I wanted to avoid presenting my own position (which is in the virtue ethics tradition) in a self-serving way, but we could understand virtue ethics similarly as positing that the first principle of ethical reasoning is to define and cultivate virtues, virtues being understood as habits of character which lead us to behave intentionally in ways that consistently reduce harmful consequences for others and for ourselves.

That is not my own theory of virtue ethics, but it has some important parallels with the other examples, and so I've used it here.  Regardless, what differentiates the various theories of ethics from one another is the order in which the various factors in ethical reasoning are invoked.

Of course, the differing orders of application of these factors can have serious consequences for our navigation of the moral landscape, and thus for our well-being, and perhaps Harris might see them as worthwhile distinctions to make for that reason.

Surveying the Moral Landscape - Surveying the Moral Landscape Again

Note: The above is a picture I took while running alongside a river.