Friday, October 4, 2013

Essence and Existence

     Question 3 of Summa Theologica concerns "the simplicity of God." When we consider this question we are initially tempted to say (as we are of the Summa itself), "There's nothing simple about it!" That's because the medieval use of "simple" is different from today's usage. We think of simple as easy to grasp or understand, uncomplicated. They were thinking of oneness, or something that is a unity in itself. So, the question can be posed in terms of: "How is God one?" or, "How should we think about the oneness of God?"
     He starts out by telling us that we cannot so much as know what or who God is, as we can think of it in terms of what he is not. He addresses the questions of whether God has a body, or if God is made up of matter and form together. The answer to both is no -- God is not corporal, and he is not matter, for he created it. He has a unique form, his essence; he is God and he is godly.
     The question I am looking at here is (paraphrased): Are "essence" and "existence" the same thing in Who God is? Earlier, St. Thomas Aquinas has told us that God's essence and existence are the same thing, and we know this by his effects. For example, God is good to us (effect) because God is (existence) good (essence). Now he wants of dive deeper into why essence and existence are the same for God. I don't know if I've got all my ducks lined up in a row here; just think of it has mental gymnastics, and I probably won't get a 10. But these things are challenging to think about, and we all need to be challenged!
      An objection of his to this is: God exists, but that is separate from what he is. Today, we are prone to separate the fact that God exists from his characteristics. We think more in terms of  "God loves" than "God is love". God's very existence is viewed as just another of his traits. But that does not impress upon us the oneness of God. Although it is hard for us to do, we must think of God in greater terms than just what he does or what he is like. As God said to Isaiah, "I am the Lord, that is my name." (Isa.42:8) In response to this objection he gives a quote from St. Hilary, who opposed the Arian heresy in the 300's. "In God existence is not an accidental (non-substantial) quality, but subsisting truth." St. Thomas adds, "Therefore what subsists in God is his existence." St. Thomas then gives us 3 "proofs" for this concept.
     1. In the case of things or people, existence is different from essence because it is either caused by an outside agent or it is an element of one's overall make-up. (The existence of heat is caused by fire; laughter is a part of humanness, he explains.) But, God is the First Cause of all existence outside of himself -- he is uncaused -- he simply is.
      2. Existence makes things real, or, to use St. Thomas' word, "actual." Things are said to be real because they exist. Essence (the qualities of a thing) are part of its reality. If something that has essence is real, it must exist. (Apolo, my dog exists because he is a real dog. His doggyness is part of his reality. Apolo's doggyness is real (proven by his smell!), so he must exist!) In the world of things and people, existence can be real in a particular way (actual) or subject to change (potential). (Apolo is a certain age today, but he will get older.) But God, because his existence is (as in his name I AM), does not change; his reality is always constant.
     3. Something (X) that is not something else (Y) may participate in (share in, be involved in) the something else (X in Y). But the existences are separate. A frog is in the water and it is wet, but the frog exists separate from the water. Also, the essences of a frog and water are different. But the water has an effect on the frog; it makes him wet. But God does not participate in anything else. He is singular, he is one, he is the beginning and the end, he is all in all.
     So, God is God Who exists. Simple, but incomprehensible...    

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A beginning and an ending

     St. Thomas Aquinas is mainly known for the "median" of his life -- his great work Summa Theologica, which took him nine years to write and touches upon almost every area of Christian doctrine, and which, in the end, was never finished. But the beginning of the Summa, (i.e, the introduction, or prologue) and the way both the book and St. Thomas' life ended have much to say not only about who he was, but also about how we should look at the study of theology.
      St. Thomas made his introduction short and sweet and to the point. He intends to "instruct beginners" in the science of theology. We cannot resist a bit of a chuckle at this statement, although I'm not so sure St. Thomas would get the joke. (A thousand pages of simplicity? Seriously?) However, it's not really so much that the Summa is complicated as it is dense. It is packed full of concentrated truth, and in order for us beginners to get it, we need to unpack it. He really does deal in the basics of the Christian faith, but to grasp what he is saying, one must constantly rephrase it in one's own terms and words. The Summa must be made personal so that it may become worthwhile. Yet once we become familiar with this mode of discourse, it becomes fascinating and, dare I say it, hard to put down.
     St. Thomas also says that he wants to eliminate the useless questions and arguments and the repetition found in other theological texts. This seems a little funny as well, since his whole treatise is based on questions (423 of them!) and their accompanying arguments. But we must conclude, no doubt, that St. Thomas thought every single one was essential and practical! True to his word, he rarely repeats a thing, showing the amazing scope of his knowledge of spiritual things, his precise perception of truth, and his unfailing devotion to his task.
       But, I believe, the impact of the Summa is best understood by the story of the end of St. Thomas Aquinas' life. In 1273, while part 3 of the Summa was being written, he is reported to have seen a vision of Christ who spoke to him and said, "You have written well of me, Thomas. What will you have as your reward?" To which he replied (as we all should), "Only thyself, Lord." After this experience, he stopped writing, giving this explanation, "I can write no more; compared with what I have seen, all I have written seem to me as straw." A short time later, he died and left the Summa unfinished. (Kreeft, p.33) He profoundly echoed the sentiments of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, "...I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things." (Phil. 3:8) He articulates for all of us who teach the Gospel the paradox of discussing spiritual truth -- how do you say something for which there are no earthly words? How do you explain the incomprehensible? Somehow it all seems like a heap of straw when set beside "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" -- the treasure we hold dear in jars of clay. (2Cor.4:6,7)
     Whenever I consider the story of the end of St. Thomas Aquinas' life, I am reminded of the words of a song by the contemporary Christian singer and songwriter, Michael Card.
          That is the mystery
          More than you can see
          Give up on your pondering
          Fall down on your knees.
Or, as the Apostle Paul said, "Great is the mystery of godliness..."  It is, of course, good and right to study Scripture and to contemplate the order of theology. It is immensely important to know God and to learn about his truth. But, in the end, it is all a great and powerful mystery, something that is certainly not fully known here on earth and which will be, to our eternal delight, explored infinitely in heaven. Seeing the mystery is heart of Christian theology; a vision that will transform our souls and set us on a collision course with the wonder that only the Spirit reveals. Everything else is just so much straw.

Kreeft, Peter. Summa of the Summa. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1990.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Literary apologetics

     I first discovered literary apologetics when I looked up the blog Hieropraxis, written by Dr. Holly Ordway of Huston Baptist University. She defines literary apologetics as "presenting the truths of the Christian faith through literature." She also defines the mission of the blog as providing an "intersection of literature and faith, and of reason and imagination." Literary apologetics is a way for us to explore, think about and evaluate the truths of Christianity though the study of literature. Along the way, we use our minds to discover insights into the Christian life and find connections to Christian doctrine. The characters are our guides to right thinking; the plot lines our constructs for learning.
     The literature itself does not need to be overtly Christian, but it should express truth or discuss it in some way. And it should stand on its own as well-written and meaningful. Unfortunately, a lot of what goes under the name of Christian literature today (novels in particular) does not earn high marks in either regard. Sometimes Christian terms are merely superimposed onto the narrative, making the truth a very shallow part of the whole. The main point of the story is just the plot itself which moves along with Christian labels attached to it. In other words, a great deal of Christian fiction is superficial, "feel good" kind of stuff. I, too, cringe when I see the Christian fiction shelf in the bookstore, or worse, in the CBD catalog.
     Literary apologetics is also not necessarily the study of writings about the Christian faith, although it certainly includes this component. In fact, my husband, Michael and I started our journey into literary apologetics (long before we ever heard the term) by teaching a series on C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity in our Sunday class. And even before that, Michael taught a series on Pilgrim's Progress, probably the first class ever taught at our church on a work of literature, not a Christian lifestyle book. People were quite intrigued by it. Bear in mind that literary apologetics does not concern the study of the multitude of popular titles (or their ubiquitous cousins, the video series) devoted to the discussion of the Christian life.While these have their place, and may prove somewhat helpful, literary apologetics seeks to involve serious, thoughtful and engaging books which lead us to explore the truths, even the mysteries, of the Christian faith. Here's a list of a few of the books we have discussed in class, and their significance as literary apologetic works.

  •      Pilgrim's Progress: (Bunyan, 1678) This is the classic, definitive work on Christianity as a journey, and probably one of the first to deal with Christian worldview, as Pilgrim encounters situations along the way when he must choose to live out his faith. It is also a wonderful source of encouragement when dealing with the ups and downs of the Christian life.
  •      Paradise Lost: (Milton, 1667) This book contains classic descriptions of the spiritual universe of angels and demons. Though clearly a work of Milton's incredible imagination, it helps us to see the power and significance of that world, to which we most often turn a blind eye. Milton's evaluation of original sin is truly masterful and gives us insight into its pervasive influence. An interesting sidelight in the book is the many references to the scientific thought of his day, teaching us to be well-rounded in our interests. 
  •       Divine Comedy: (Dante,1321) This book is much more that the Inferno section, which is taught today basically as horror genre. (Although I must admit it is fun to rank the frustrating events of the day according to their corresponding circle of hell!) I especially enjoyed the Pugatorio section because I saw in it so many parallels to our earthy journey. I also discovered the wonderful music highlighted by Dante at the end of each section and downloaded several pieces on I-tunes!
  •       Pensees: (Pascal, 1669) Pascal's brilliant and succinct insights into the timeless and universal condition of mankind are unequaled. His "all things considered" approach takes in reason and relationships, wretchedness and diversion, sin and salvation. Throughout, his devotion to Christ stands out as a shining beacon for his life and ours.
        Now that I have discovered it, I find that literary apologetics is a wonderful way for me to combine my librarian's love of literature with my Bible teacher's love of Christian apololgetics. In the future, I would like to do a series on Christian poets (eg. George Herbert and T.S. Eliot), some Hildegard von Bingen and The Robe by Douglass. The more books we study, the more we find that are worthy of attention. These books have become (as they should) not only our friends, but our teachers as well.  


Sunday, June 2, 2013

The current state of apologetics

     Awhile back, Krista Bontrager posted this question on her Facebook page, Theology Mom. "My humble assessment of the current state of apologetics: 1) a lot of hand wringing about young people leaving the church, 2) lots of repeating and recycling of old arguments, 3) not much happening in terms of developing new and novel arguments. I see these three items as related." Since my blog is about apologetics, I thought this would be a great statement to respond to, but since my response will be a trifle too long for Facebook, and since I'm so slow to getting around to doing things, I thought I'd give it a go here on Route 239.
     First, I do agree that many evangelicals are engaging in hand wringing over the departure of young people from the church, but far less emotional effort is being expended on the reason for their exodus. I don't think that young people are leaving church over theological issues. They may be changing churches/denominations over theology or practice, but not leaving altogether. In other words, these youth have given some thought to theological issue "X" and have decided to join a group more in line with their conclusions. The ones who leave the church altogether have not given theology much thought at all. They don't know much about it and don't see the value in it, probably because their childhood church and perhaps their parents did not do a very good job of teaching them the fundamentals of the faith. Catechism and even good solid Sunday school lessons have gone the way of the dinosaurs in many evangelical churches. 
     When many of these young people reach adulthood, they suddenly realize that they don't know why they are going to church. It doesn't have any meaning for them, because it has lacked substance all along. In addition, they have gone through inconsistent experiences and mixed messages while growing up in the church. For example, they have been taught that divorce is wrong, but they have seen family friends or church leaders go through divorce. Or, they have gotten the impression that Christianity is all about rules, so they embrace grace instead, yet not fully understanding grace, they think it means they can do whatever they want and still be "ok." As apologists, we need to do a better job of convincing young people that there's something about the Christian faith that's worth saving and taking to heart, and we need to explain exactly what that is. This generation needs to embrace the faith as their own.
     Second, I agree that there's a lot of repeating and recycling of old arguments. The most caustic of these (I think) is young earth creationism, because it keeps people trapped in an environment were they do not need to think. Arguments in this area are very cut and dried and delivered with a mind-numbing authoritarianism. I've had students who would never consider pondering another position on Creation, because they literally think they will get in trouble, so to speak, if they do. They are locked into that point of view by fear. Repeated and recycled arguments such as these indicate a lack of thought and the just-give-me-the-answers mentality. It's so much easier to cling to something safe than to spend the mental effort to learn something new or to see something in a different light.
     Evidence-based apologetics was all the rage when I was growing up in the 70's, but it is not very convincing to today's post-modern generation. They have no interest in proving anything, because, as they see it, there's no truth to prove anyway. Trying to use the patterns of science in apologetics was fine for moderns, but in the end, it only proved to be trendy. The defense of the faith needs to be rooted in the classic lines of reasoning that the church has long embraced; in the creeds, the catechisms, the writings of the church fathers and in the words of Scripture itself.
     Third, I'm not so sure that the problem is not the lack of new and novel arguments, because I think I've discovered many interesting ideas (floating about in the various forms of cyberspace) since I started writing about apologetics around five years ago. I think the greater problem is that the average church-goer has little exposure to new and novel arguments. Since my husband and I started teaching about apologetics and worldview about three years ago, we have had many people tell us that we talk about things they have never heard of before. But there again, people can't hear these things if they don't attend a class, and a lot of young Christians are not seeing their need for Christian education.
     One of the responses to the original post on Theology Mom mentioned "literary apologetics,"and said that it might offer an exciting new option in the field of apologetics. I had not heard that term before, so imagine my surprise when I realized that Michael and I have been engaged in that type of apologetics in our class! (but that's a story for the next post...)  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Defining "grace"

     One of the most basic tenets of Christianity is that Christians are sinners who have been saved by God's grace. And it follows, that if Christians are saved by grace, they should not be controlled by any kind of law or legalism. The word "grace" is often used by Christians, but not everyone is able to fully articulate what it means. It is not so much that it is misunderstood, but that it is non-understood; rather like understanding the processes behind turning on a water faucet. We don't really know why or how the water comes out -- our grasp of the situation is quite weak. We are simply content that the water flows. We look at grace in much the same way. We feel happy that it happens and do not think deeply about it. Buy we need to grasp the substance of grace, and to begin to do so, we need to define it.
    A good place to begin when defining Biblical terms is to look at the word in the original language. The Greek word translated "grace" is charis, meaning: a gift, a benefit or favor. In the New Testament, this word took on special significance as the divine favor bestowed upon us by God when he gives us salvation. Furthermore, this favor is viewed a being undeserved. It has been freely given to us by God with no strings attached, no prerequisites for us to fulfill, and without deeds to be done to win this favor. Mercy is very similar to grace in that it rescues the troubled soul from its desperate situation. But mercy may be shown indifferently. Grace always comes through love, and in particular, God's grace is always joined with his mercy as it flows from his love. "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are!" (1John 3:1) 
     Although we do not and cannot do anything to merit this favor from God, God works actively to give us grace. It comes into our souls by his power. We do not work to receive grace, but God works to give it to us. Once we receive it, its power is not drained or contained. It becomes the energizing force behind our daily experience of living the Christian life. The Apostle Paul centered his prayer for the believers around this truth: "I pray that out of his glorious riches" (one of which is grace) "he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith." (Eph. 3:16, 17) Because Grace only comes from God, we are entirely dependent on him for our salvation. But this does not begin and end with the act of conversion. It is an ongoing action. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." (Eph. 2:8) We are always receiving the gift of salvation, in much the same way as we are always receiving light and heat from the sun, and we cannot live without it.
     The saving grace that Christ gives us causes us to respond in thankfulness. When the church celebrates the grace that was given to us by the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, it is called the Eucharist or Thanksgiving. Receiving it and thereby recalling the story of redemption is a response or "work" of praise. In addition, when God gives us salvation, he gives us other gifts (charisms,) which we are called upon to use in order to be administrators of God's grace to others. We do not, nor can we work to receive grace, but we take grace and its accompanying power to do God's work through the Holy Spirit who works in and through us.
     The point we must always remember about grace is that it does not stop. If we think that we have been saved by grace at such-and-such a point in time, we have stopped. If we merely feel good because of God's grace, we have stopped. If we think that grace is not associated with what we do, we have stopped. Sometimes in our efforts to emphasize that salvation is all of grace (period,) we have forgotten that anything composed of grace is also a living, active dynamo of power, and it must act accordingly.
     Today we are quite intent upon criticizing the idea of legalism -- the idea that that what one does or does not do is vital to how the Christian life is lived out. But in this mode of thinking it is very easy to gravitate to the opposite end of things -- doing nothing, just feeling the feelings. God does not intend for us to work our way to salvation, or to work to maintain or keep our salvation. The price paid for his gift of grace was too great for that. But, once we are saved, we are expected to live a life of active thankfulness, as described in 1Pet. 2:9: "[you] declare the praises of him who called you our of darkness into his wonderful light." And when we begin to do these things, to practice the power of grace, to understand its definition, it will bring about a revolution in Christian living.

some thoughts from:
Easton, Burton Scott, "Grace." from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. by James Orr, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1939 (online edition)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

St. Augustine addresses the topic of "religious pluralism"

(Equip class 4/28/2013)
     I am always amazed and often surprised by the breadth and depth of St. Augustine's knowledge and wisdom on so many divergent topics. He seems to have been the prototype of the Renaissance man, long before the Renaissance. Not only that, he possessed the uncanny ability to discuss questions that are timeless; questions that keep coming up in every generation; the ones that we think are new to our times, but which have really been here all along. The one that seemed to leap off the page for me this week is the question of pluralism -- a question that asks whether or not everyone in the world can be saved.
     Just to be clear, the topic of religious pluralism has been framed in several different ways. It can deal with who Christ died for -- everyone or the elect? It can deal with who goes to Heaven when they die -- everyone, people who have "faith," or, only those who are saved by faith in Christ? Or, it can deal with whether or not Christianity offers the only true path to God. It is this last point which St. Augustine addresses. Having discussed our salvation through the sacrifice of Christ (who both made and was the sacrifice for our sins,) he writes, "This religion (Christianity) constitutes the single way for the liberation of all souls, for souls can be saved by no way but this." (p. 198)
     In contrast to this claim, St. Augustine cites the Neoplatonic philosopher, Porphyry, who lived about 100 years before Augustine's lifetime. He says that Porphyry "...[had] not yet come across the claim, made by any school of thought, to embrace a universal way for the liberation of the soul," adding that he was not able to find such a claim in any philosophy or religion, including the religions of India and the Chaldaeans. (p. 198) St. Augustine found it interesting that, for all of Porphyry's talk about the enlightening insights he had gained from studying other religions, he still had to admit that he had found no way that could liberate (save) any soul in any place in the world at any time. But, Porphyry believed, (Augustine suggests,) that a "universal" way must exist: "he does not believe that Divine Providence could have left the human race without this universal way for the liberation of the soul...he had not yet come across it..." (p. 199) St. Augustine adds that this was not surprising in light of the fact that Porphyry lived during the time of the great persecution of the Church, and therefore did not consider Christianity because he believed it would die out. (p. 200)
     St. Augustine is telling us here that there is a way for the citizens of the earthly city to be redeemed, for their souls to be set free and for them to enter the Kingdom of God. But all who come to God must come through this one way; salvation though the death and resurrection of Christ. This way to God opened up "by divine mercy" and at exactly the right time in God's plan for the human race. It began many years ago with the promise made to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through his descendants. It continued on through the message of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke with certainty of the Deliverer who was coming to set the souls of men free. And when he did come, and he died, and he came to life again, he instructed the apostles to take the message of salvation, the Way to God, to all the nations of the world.
     St. Augustine wraps up his discussion of the one way of salvation by emphasizing its unique yet limitless scope. He says the Porphyry and the other philosophers looked for the way of salvation in divination, soothsaying and magic but found these things to be meaningless. (p. 203) The real revelation of the path to God is found in Scripture and is articulated by the Gospel, of which St. Augustine gives a wonderful summary statement, very much like a succinct creed: "...the coming of Christ in the flesh...the repentance of men and the conversion of their wills to God; the remission of sins, the grace that justifies, the faith of the saints, and the multitude of men throughout the whole world who believe in His true divinity..." (p. 203) There is a way to God, and it runs through the narrow way of the cross, yet it is open to anyone who walks upon it by faith in Jesus Christ --  anyone, anywhere, any time.

St. Augustine, City of God, abridged ed., trans. by Walsh, New York, Doubleday, 1958.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

More thoughts on Creation

(Equip 4/21/2013)
     St. Augustine wrote extensively on the subject of Creation. He writes about it in the last section of Confessions, in several books of City of God, especially Book 11, and in a book called The Literal Interpretation of Genesis. It seems as if he wanted to write a commentary on the Bible, but got stuck at the beginning -- there was just so much to think about, so much to marvel at. In this post, we will consider some of his interesting observations from Book 11(mainly) of City of God.
     One of the questions St. Augustine raises concerns how we know that God is the Creator. Even in his time, naturalism was alive and well. He cites a well-known writer, Varro, as believing that "...the soul and the elements of the universe are the true gods," and "...God is the soul of the universe or cosmos...and the cosmos itself is God." (p. 137) A popular philosophy maintained that the universe had always existed, and was perpetually renewing itself. In fact, he even mentions ideas similar to today's theories of the multiverse and evolution. (p. 258, 259) So to answer this question, St. Augustine begins by addressing the issue of how changeable physical things can come from an unchangeable God.
     The physical things we observe with our five senses are real, but God did not bring them into being by either literal physical speech or through "apparitions." God speaks in a greater way; he speaks truth: "But He speaks by means of the truth itself, and to all who can hear it with the mind rather that with the body." (p. 206) God has the power, by means of the truth (which he is) to "...[give] life to the dead and [call] things that are not as though they were." (Rom. 4:17) God "speaks" Scripture in the same way. His truth goes directly to our souls, where it can be perceived and believed. Therefore, Gen.1:1, "In the beginning, God created...," is not just a statement of fact using words, but a truth which is understood through the revealing work of the Holy Spirit. We need to get past the idea that physical things must come from physical roots.
     St. Augustine also says that nature itself reveals that it was made by God. "...the very order, changes and movements in the universe, the very beauty of form in all that is visible, proclaim, however silently, both that the world as created and also that its Creator could be none other than God..." (p. 209) Nature shows its divine origins by both the beauty it displays, because that beauty bears the stamp of God, who is truly beautiful, and by the way it changes. Today we think of change in evolutionary terms -- things change to survive or better themselves, as it were, but true change comes from movement, and the greatest movement acting on any living thing is the movement of God's love. This is why orthodox Christianity declares that God created out of his goodness. It was the force, so to speak, behind his creation of creatures to love. St Augustine reminds points out that God's declaration in Gen. 1 of all things as "good" does not merely mean that he was congratulating himself on a job well done, but " was one and the same to God to see that what He had made was good and to see that it was good to make it." (p. 227) God only does good things and gives good gifts because he is good.
    St. Augustine was very intrigued by the problem of creation and time. Much could be written about his discussion of this issue, but I will only mention a few points here. First, he says that time is characterized by movement and change, while eternity is not. Since we know God to be eternal, we know that he exists beyond time. Creation, however, moves and changes, from the love through which it came, as mentioned above, but also because it exists in time, the first of God's creative works. He writes, "Undoubtedly, then, the world was made not in time but together with time." And, "The fact is that the world was made simultaneously with time, if, with creation, motion and change began." (p. 212) He goes into some interesting discussions about time, here in City of God, and also in Confessions. He concludes that since God is outside of time "atemporal," if you will, or existing in "non-time," it really did not take any time for God to create the world, yet he used time in his creative process. Almost as if anticipating our confusion over the issue of the time-stamp word "day" used in Gen. 1, he concludes, "As for these 'days,' it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think -- let alone explain in words -- what they mean." (p. 212) Quite the master of understatement, there!
     Today we know that light (the speed of light) is the chronometer of time. In one of his many interesting and almost prophetic statements on this subject, he wrote, "Perhaps there is a material light in the far reaches of the universe which are out of sight. Or it may mean the light from which the sun was afterwards kindled." (p. 213) Billions of years ago, when the light from the Big Bang first blazed, at God's command, into the darkness of nothing, light became the marker both for what God did and when he did it. Through the voice of the Psalmist, God urged us to look to the stars in the night sky to learn about his mighty works, limitless power and enduring love. "The heavens declare the the glory of God..." (Ps. 19:1)

St. Augustine, City of God, abridged ed., trans. by Walsh, New York, Doubleday, 1958.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

The question we always ask

     By now we've all heard the horrific story of the Boston Marathon bombing and viewed those frightful images again and again. (And, to make matters worse, many were awakened this morning, as I was, to the news of an explosion in Texas.) So, once again, in a tedium of "agains,"we've whispered the ultimate question, -- the one we hate to ask, but always do. Why does a good God allow these evil things to happen?
     This question, of course, has been tackled many times by better thinkers, theologians, writers and apologists than me. But it is one of the most often visited points of interest along the road of apologetics. Whenever anything like the events of this week happen, we are pushed backwards into doubt and frustration, and our faith seems to be drained of all that robust power upon which lean so securely when things are going well. At this point, it always pays to review our orthodoxy, asking anew, "what do we believe about pain and suffering?" Recalling this information can help us get our bearings back by reinforcing what we know, even if we only know it by faith.
     First of all, we need to realize that suffering is inherent in the physical world. I do not believe that death and suffering came about as a direct and singular result of the Fall of Mankind into sin. Every physical thing is subject to the laws of decay, and as such, it will degenerate, be acted upon by conflicting forces, and even give up its physical life entirely and die. That's just the way the universe works. I think that, even if Paradise (in the sense of the Garden of Eden) had been preserved, we would still experience our share of painful events and bodily death. Of, course, this experience would be very different. It would be (I think) without sorrow, emotional trauma or regret.
  Sin, however, took these natural traits of physicality and corrupted them, so that we feel intense sorrow, grief and physical pain when bad things happen. By sinning, we entered the "dark side" of the physical experience. Because each person is born a sinner, sin seems to multiply its negative consequences where people gather, in communities, families and society. Evil takes on a kind of domino effect; one sinful act sets off another and another, while simultaneously  spreading out and impacting all the people and places it touches.
     When we say that God is removed from the sufferings of the world, or impassively stands aloof while evil wrecks havoc all around us, we are forgetting that God is keenly aware of pain and suffering, because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, suffered acutely. The experiences surrounding his Passion clearly illustrate the fact that he was human, and to be human is to suffer. He did not use his deity to prevent the pain he endured.
     I find it interesting that Jesus addressed the very question we are considering here. In Luke 13, He mentions a  couple of contemporary tragedies that were being talked about in the public square. One was a deliberate violent act ( Pilate had the Galileans murdered,) and the other was a horrible accident (a tower fell on some men.) Jesus says that these events did not occur because the people involved were sinners and were therefore being judged for their sins. These things happened just because they happened; Jesus does not explain why they happened. But he urges us to stop and think -- we're all going to face the biggest tragedy of all, death. Jesus says, "Repent!  Make sure you are prepared."
     Finally, we must always remember that God loves and cares for all of us. He always provides comfort and hope in suffering. Surrounding every horrific act is an abundance of good -- heroic acts, selfless giving, tears shed together, and hands extended to help. God assured the prophet Isaiah with these words that still ring true today: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers,  they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. I am the Lord, your God, your Savior" (Isa. 43:2,3 NIV) The one who walks with us is the not only the one who cares and the one who consoles, he's the one who's been there, too, and the one who will, one day, make everything that went wrong right.      

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Beyond the gods

   (Equip class 4/14/13)
     St. Augustine begins his book, City of God, by addressing the argument that the city of Rome had been attacked in 410 by the Goths because the society had been dissuaded from worshiping their traditional gods due to the influence of Christianity. The Christians were being accused of contributing to the downfall of Rome, even though they had provided shelter and sustenance to both pagans and Christians during the attack. St. Augustine begins by encouraging his readers to take a closer look at the pagan gods -- were they really powerful enough to prevent an enemy invasion?
     He states (in his very forthright and blunt way) that the pagan gods were a sorry lot: "Just think of the kind of gods to whose protection the Romans were content to entrust their city! No more pathetic illusion could be imagined." (p. 42) He goes on to point out that it was not just the Christians who were critical of the gods; even the great poets had expressed their doubts as to the true power of the deities. The pantheon of gods had degenerated into petty, infighting, fictional characters, devoid of real virtue and strength. It seems that the ancient Romans worshiped their gods as a matter of habit or rote without taking them very seriously. But when bad things happened and the gods were expected to come to their rescue, they fully expected a mighty show of power. As Rome fell, and no answer came from the pagan gods, they began to blame the "atheists," the Christians who revered the one true God, believed to possess all power.
     This story reminded me of the question G.K. Chesterton poses in his book, The Everlasting Man. Did polytheism, the worship of many gods, arise prior to monotheism, the worship of one God? Or is it the other way around? Now, bear in mind that Chesterton did not consider himself to be an expert in these matters. He was, however, an incredible observer of human nature, and his observations were not limited to his own time and place. He was able to sit back and analyse history from the vantage point of timeless, orthodox Christianity.
     Chesterton contends that, behind the pagan mythologies, there stands a knowledge of the one true God, which mankind held for such a short time before the Fall into sin. But this knowledge was very "big," and it was remembered more by its absence than its remembrance. The knowledge of God was lost, abandoned, turned away from. Down through the ages, it has manifested itself in a great and profound "silence." (p.92) God had been among men, but when Heaven and Earth were torn apart by the Fall, a vast emptiness opened up and all the remembrance of God poured into it. God had planted "eternity into the hearts of men (Ecc. 3:11), but their recollection of it became a shadowy sort of de ja vue.
     Chesterton goes on to argue that mankind had to somehow fill up or block this abyss into which they fell, so they covered it with talk; contrived tales destined to divert our attention away from the silence of Heaven. These stories, found in every nation of the world, are known as folklore or mythology. The powerful, authoritative main characters in the stories emerged as the pagan gods. Personally, as a children's librarian, I find many of these stories delightful. My favorites are the tales of the Native Americans. Yet, beyond the gods of all mythology, there stands an unanswered and unutterable question -- who is the greatest God and why do we not remember him?
     Today we live in a world (or a city) very much like the one where St. Augustine lived and worked. Paganism, mystery religions and Christianity interact in a swirling, confusing melee. We are daily confronted by stories that try to gloss over the empty hole in the world. We try to use words to bridge the infinite barrier between heaven and earth while heaven bears down on us with all those great and troublesome questions that have plagued mankind for so long. And, now, with technology as our tool, we are creating a monstrous, unceasing buzz of words aimed at silencing the silence forever.
     Yet, there is and always has been a Word spoken into the void. It is the Word of revelation; the declaration of nature, Christ the Word incarnate, the Word of prophecy recorded and preserved. God speaks and tells us not a story, but the truth, a Word so powerful that it mends what was broken and brings Heaven and Earth back together again. This Word is Gospel -- "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried , that he was raised on the third day..." (1Cor. 15:3,4) This is the message that gives us power in an impotent world, the knowledge that imparts hope, and invites us into fellowship with the Lord of All.

St. Augustine, City of God, abridged ed., trans. by Walsh, New York, Doubleday, 1958.
Chesterton, G.K., The Everlasting Man, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2008.