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.