Monday, April 28, 2014

Christian Poets: John Donne, Holy Sonnets I

Thou hast made me,and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and death meets me as fast, 
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way, 
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only thou art above, and when towards thee 
By thy leave I can look, I rise again; 
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me
The not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art, 
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

     John Donne (1572-1631) is known for his love poems; first, for his poems about his love for women, and second, for his poems about God's love for him. The poem above is from those collected after his death in the volume Divine Poems, and is the first of the 19 Holy Sonnets. These poems address the universal questions of life and death, creation and decay, significance and loss. Eternal life is contrasted against mortal brevity; human pain against the joy that never ends.
     Donne begins by asking a question about mortality: Does what God has made (particularly in the case of humanity) ever truly pass away? It seems as if anything God has formed with his hands should innately have an eternal quality about it, coming as it does from the Father of Lights. Mankind was given the breath of life on the day of his creation, and this breath will never cease to be. In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher reminds us that God has "set eternity in our hearts." Our souls will never die, but our physical bodies are quite another story. We are on a collision course with death.
     But, even so, we have a bigger problem: because of sin, our souls have already died and we cannot, in or by our mortal life affect its repair. Only God, through the power of what St. Augustine called the "first resurrection" can give our souls the life they lost so long ago. As for the body, Paul writes, "What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable." Yet Donne finds, as we all do, that the impact of sin, though forgiven, still lingers, and is subject to Satan's subtle temptations. On our own, he laments, we cannot sustain a holy life for even one small hour.
     Yet here it is that God's great movement of grace, as strong as that cosmic force of magnetism, flows from him into the feebleness of our lives. His grace is strong enough to overthrow evil powers and influences. His grace causes us to cling to him because he has bound himself to us. But in the church today we have co-opted a faded view of this grace. The word is tossed about like a tennis ball, the universal answer to every problem, physical and spiritual. Grace is being worn at the edges and its true meaning and power are fading even in its over familiarity. 
     We must, therefore, heed Donne's lesson -- never make grace into something less than what it is, something spread in a general and whimsical way over the Christian landscape.We must fly on the wings of the Holy Spirit to the place where we may receive and understand the truth of grace for what it truly is -- the power and presence of God that covers all our sin. There, grace never lets us go; it binds us to the heart of God by a power that eradicates our sin and raises both body and soul from death's decay. 

Holy Sonnet I, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry

Friday, April 11, 2014

Apologetics 101-1: Does God exist?

     Since this is a blog about Christian apologetics, I have decided to write some posts about basic apologetic questions. Every good apologist needs to be able to respond to these types of questions; yet for people like me who have been steeped in the faith since birth, we rarely stop to consider these types of arguments. We assume, instinctively, certain fundamentals of the faith -- "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of us all" -- as Paul describes it. So I shall try to reason through some things which I find easier to assume.
     This first question -- does God exist? -- is particularly hard for the "life-long" Christian to address. After all, the knowledge of God has been a fundamental truth upon which our lives have been built. His existence has always been a part of our existence. We not only believe in God, but we have come to know him as well. To lose God, to enter a plane of being where God is absent would be incomprehensible. It's hard to imagine any life or any form of thought that excludes God. This makes it very difficult to address this question, for it is so foreign, so irrelevant to the thinking we have always known. Consequently, former atheists may be the ones to give better arguments for God's existence. They had to seek, and learned much along the way; we can only imagine their journey.
      The first thing that comes to my mind about this question is simply that the question is raised. Why are we asking the question in the first place? We do not (as those of normal temperament) ask if non-existent things exist. There is no reason to pose the question. For example, no one asks if,say, "oblonobos" exist. (Hopefully, this is a word I made up and not a real thing in another language! If it is, just bear with me.) The non-existence of oblonobos prevents us from spending our valuable time wondering if they're real. We ask existence questions about things that have proposed existence.
     Now, we may raise the question of whether or not certain imaginary things exist; for instance, we may inquire as to the existence of fairies. As children we are particularly able to frame such questions, for our imaginations are still pure and much of the realities of the world have yet to be sorted through. In our young imaginations, fairies dance among the flowers and hide in the grass; not to believe in them would rob us of a once in a lifetime wonder.The real question is: do fairies exist in flesh and blood reality? Is their reality of the same substance as mine? Things like fairies have a type of reality that enriches our imaginations, and this is necessary for a full life, but they do not have anything that is really real, no substance that possesses a life of its own.
     It follows, then, that the question of God's existence may be similar -- does God merely exist in the imagination? But right away we are confronted with the fact that the question of God's existence is universal, timeless and life-long. Practically everyone, everywhere and in all stages of life has asked this question. Are we all under some kind of universal illusion, as some philosophies suggest? Or, is there something that universally links us to God -- our very existence, perhaps? Solomon, the Teacher, exhorts us to "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth," implying that the existence of the Creator-God is something that was once known, but is prone to be forgotten, ignored or even lost. We were made by him, but our sin has driven us from his presence. The veil is drawn; we wonder if God was ever there at all.
     Hebrews 11:6 gives us a concise statement of how the question of God's existence is best addressed: "...anyone who comes to [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." First, we must make the effort to "come" to God. One must ask the question and sincerely seek the answer. Jesus said that those who seek will find, and this verse reminds us that an earnest search will be rewarded. Next, one must believe. The knowledge of God comes through faith, not observation. We do not collect the facts about God and see if they add up logically. Furthermore, faith is not a feeling; it is granted by God as "substance" and "evidence" of spiritual realities. (Heb. 11:1, KJV) And finally, the results of this search will be sound and substantial because we will be rewarded with confidence in what we have found, the connection with our Creator-God.  
     But the burden of proof for seeing or finding God does not rest entirely upon us. God had not kept his existence hidden; he has revealed himself or made himself known. The first verses of Hebrews tell us: "In the past God spoke...through the these last days he has spoken to us by his Son..." There would be no knowing God without his efforts to make himself known through Scripture and in Jesus Christ. So here we are given instructions for where to direct our search. We must study God's Word and attend to the teachings of the Saviour. (Nature also bears witness to God's existence, if one is willing to acknowledge his handiwork. Heb. 11:3)The Holy Spirit, whose mission is to reveal God's truth, will be faithful to open our eyes to the reality of God.
     Ages ago, the Old Testament saint, Job, responded to God's revelation by exclaiming, "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." He had discovered God in the glory of Creation and the agony of suffering. In both, God's great grace had shone into his life. His response was humble; he saw how he was nothing compared to the infinity of God's greatness, and this knowledge was rewarded with blessings from God. And the results are the same with all who come to seek for God on the pathways of revelation -- we are found, and God forever becomes our everlasting and true friend.