Seeking Church Unity

In the comments section of this post, I've been having a debate with a Roman Catholic about this whole Protestantism thing, so perhaps now is a good time to write a post about the unity of the Church.

I. My Own Testimony

I suppose I may as well start by discussing my personal history.  I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene (a Wesleyan denomination) but at various stages of my life I have regularly attended services with the Free Methodists (7 years), Baptists (3 years) and Lutherans (1 year), not counting smaller visits.  I also like stepping into Anglican services, and even Catholic Masses (though out of respect for their rules I do not take communion with the Catholics).

While it's true I'm the sort of Protestant who reads the Catholic Encyclopedia for fun, my adventures in ecumenism (interactions between different branches of Christianity) really started in earnest at St. John's College.  During my last semester there I attended Holy Trinity, a wonderful Antiochian Orthodox congregation in Santa Fe.  When I had first been invited to visit the church my freshman year, it seemed like a bizarre eastern cult that just happened to also be about Jesus, but over time I came to realize the commonalities and differences more clearly.  It had a profound effect on my spiritual and musical sensibilities.  Also, the priest (St. John Bethancourt) is the most visibly holy person I have ever met on this earth.  He cannot enter a room without caring about whatever person he meets within. I am eternally grateful for the treasures obtained during this time, yet after careful consideration of the differences in theology, I remain a Protestant.

As a graduate student I attended Layhill Community Church, where during the time for prayer any person could go up to the altar railing to pray with St. Wil, the associate pastor.  He was a man of great faith and I noticed that eerie coincidences would sometimes occur after I prayed with him for things.  (This is the kind of thing skeptics attribute to confirmation bias, but Christians attribute to Divine Providence.)

For instance, one Sunday I asked to be able to worship God better, and the following Tuesday, while opening a bottle of olive oil to cook with, I suddenly remembered all the passages in Scripture about anointing with oil and the Holy Spirit, and was full of joy and praise.  Only afterwards did I remember what I had asked for.   (Despite the potent significance of olive oil as an ingredient in several of the Catholic sacraments, the next example will be even more relevant for church unity.)

Another time I was praying at the altar with St. Wil for the unity of the church, and in the following week (or two at the most) my housemate St. Ray invited me to attend a new bible study for grad students at the Catholic Student Center just off the U Maryland campus!  So of course I went, and actually attended for 4 years which was longer than he did.  Each year the study was led by a different monk from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC (except one year we got a seminarian instead).

After Ray invited me, he suddenly got worried it would be disruptive if I started arguing with everyone about Protestantism, so I agreed to keep it cool.  The first meeting I was silent about that, but vocal about everything else.  The second meeting I confessed; they were rather surprised because they had thought I had been speaking in a particularly Catholic way about the allegorical meaning of Adam and Eve during the first meeting.  I was even invited (along with the others) to sometimes lead class discussions, which I tried to do with a minimum of controversy, focusing on commonalities except when absolutely necessary.

I got to see a lot of their struggles with various aspects of Catholicism, and sometimes tried to formulate ways of looking at the problems which combines the strengths of both types of theology, e.g. "Sacraments are not a way that we manipulate God, they are a way that God manipulates us!"  They were aware that I disagreed about certain important things, but even though we weren't in communion, there was still community and communication!  It was excellent practice for charitable discussion, and I am deeply grateful that they were Catholic enough (the word Catholic means "universal", after all) to include me.

As I said, I tried to avoid excessive controversy in the group, but after hours I had some vibrant discussions with the Dominican brothers about Catholicism, and when I visited the House of Studies I got to have a friendly intellectual brawl, of the sort that causes so much consternation among people who don't like arguments, since they associate them with hostility.  They gave me books by St. Cardinal Newman, whose epistemology ("theory of knowledge") I find a bit whacko, for the reasons mentioned in that recent comments section, the one in which I flagrantly violated Socrates' rule for good conversations.  To keep things shorter, St. Bayes or bust!

II. An Index of Communion

As is well known, Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church, on the night of his betrayal:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.  Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

for the unity of our love is one of the signs by which the world can see that our faith is real, thus fulfilling his command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

But unity is not easy.  Although in a sense we Christians are already one due to being part of the body of Christ and "members of each other" (Romans 12:5), and in this way we are part of the One Holy Universal and Apostolic Church and the communion of the saints, practically speaking the expression of that unity may be impaired.  Just as quarreling siblings may be one family genetically but not be united in affection, or quarrelling spouses may be one in flesh but divided in spirit.

So the expression of unity is something that requires us to all work together to exercise maturity of character, using the gifts which God has provided us.  As St. Paul says:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.” (Psalm 68:18)

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?   He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.   From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  (Eph. 4:1-16)

So, how are we doing on this front?

Well, the bad news is that the Church has splintered into numerous different denominations, not all of which regard each other as being really Christian.  And a few of them aren't really Christian, though most accept the basic truths of the faith as expressed in e.g. the Nicene Creed.  But as St. Lewis pointed out a while back, the commonalities are far more profound than the differences.

Let's try to be honest about how bad this problem really is.  The most common figure one hears (from atheists complaining about the fractiousness of Christians, Catholics complaining about the fractiousness of Protestants, or Protestants complaining about the fractiousness of everyone), is to simply count the number of denominations, getting some huge figure in the tens of thousands, but this is an absolutely terrible way to assess the state of Church unity!

First of all, a lot of these organizational splits were for historical reasons (based on how different groups got evangelized, or because of doctrinal differences or attitude towards slavery or something like that which is no longer a live issue) or were for administrative convenience (e.g. to deal with being in different countries, or because the churches have somewhat different organizational structures which would be difficult to combine), and are perfectly compatible with both groups thinking the other is really Christian and cooperating for the sake of God's kingdom.

It would be better to ask "What is the probability that two randomly selected devout Christians are in communion with each other?"  This gives a numerical measure, a "communion index", describing the degree of church unity.  The answer turns out to be about 1/3 (see below).  Could be better, could be a lot worse.

Merely having administratively independent units is not the same thing as being divided in love, or in communion.  Even the Catholics have 24 nearly-independent administrative units (which appoint their own leaders and have their own customs and rules, but remain in communion with the Pope and accept his doctrinal decrees), while the Eastern Orthodox have about 15 "autocephalous" (self-governing) churches.  These two churches were in communion with each other until about 1054 when both sides started excommunicating each other over an arcane theological dispute.  These excommunications were lifted in 1965, but the churches are still not in communion for other reasons.

There are also 6 independent Oriental Orthodox churches, a group of churches including e.g. the Copts who did not accept the decision of the Council of Chalcedon.  Although I personally think Chalcedon provided the best language for understanding the Incarnation, in retrospect the "Monophysite" or "Miaphysite" group was probably just using different words to refer to the same thing, and were not really heretics in the same way that the Gnostics or Arians were.  Thus it was wrong to excommunicate them; and this is not only my own opinion but also the opinion of the leaders on both sides:

Hence we wish to reaffirm solemnly our profession of common faith in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, as Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Jacoub III did in 1971: They denied that there was any difference in the faith they confessed in the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and become truly man. In our turn we confess that He became incarnate for us, taking to himself a real body with a rational soul. He shared our humanity in all things except sin. We confess that our Lord and our God, our Saviour and the King of all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God as to His divinity and perfect man as to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united to His humanity. This Union is real, perfect, without blending or mingling, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without the least separation. He who is God eternal and indivisible, became visible in the flesh and took the form of servant. In him are united, in a real, perfect indivisible and inseparable way, divinity and humanity, and in him all their properties are present and active.

The subtext here is the thing which only really mature people are capable of saying, namely: "Oops, I'm sorry, we were wrong." (However, since this original schism, the Catholic church has developed their theology further, so the churches are unfortunately still not in communion.)

Protestants have a lot more sects, but then again most Protestants regard most other Protestant groups as being really Christians, and therefore part of the Universal Church founded by Jesus.  Nowadays the biggest disputes tend to be about the axis that runs from liberal/modernist to fundamentalist/literalist, rather than denominational loyalties.  (I'm somewhere in the middle, since I think miracles have really happened and the Scriptures' teachings on e.g. sexual ethics and so on need to be taken seriously, but I also accept the findings of biology and physics and don't think rigid definitions of inerrancy are the right way to talk about the authority of the Scriptures.)

With a few exceptions, most Protestant denominations allow all those who confess Jesus as their Savior and Lord to take communion in their church.  So does the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient apostolic church which was at one time known as the Nestorian church because the heretic Nestorius was received there, but it is now generally regarded as unfair to tarnish the whole group by his opinions.  (The Assyrian church is much smaller than the others, although historically it was very important and and even spread to China).

So for purposes of calculating the odds that two Christians will be in communion, Nicene Christianity is really divided into 4 large subgroups: 1) Catholics, 2) most Protestants, 3) Eastern Orthodox, and 4) Oriental (listed in decreasing order by number of adherents) plus some smaller groups.  Because the groups are not all the same size, the coefficient is closer to 1/3 than 1/4.

III. Three Kinds of Unity

Is the reconciliation of the major branches of Christianity even possible?  And what can we do to make a difference?

Catholics care the most about unity, and are willing to do the most in terms of practical accommodations.  Also, although they are a big institution which changes very slowly, they do change, and they know how to fall in line behind the decisions of the Pope.  The difficulty is that they think that their past official pronouncements are infallible, and that it is necessary to believe every one of them to be in communion with them.  So in doctrinal terms, it is impossible for them to ever compromise.  That sounds a lot like a deal breaker to me.  Of course, if the Catholics are right about everything, then the hundreds of Protestant denominations would just need to all recognize this fact simultaneously.  Right, that sounds plausible.

The Eastern Orthodox church is a lot closer in its theology to the Catholics, and it would be more feasible for them to hash out a compromise.  And I will wildly celebrate any such union should it occur.  But there's also a lot of bad blood between them as a result of various historical incidents (such as the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, which apparently some of the Orthodox remember as if it were yesterday).  Plus the Catholics made political attempts to take over various of the Eastern patriarchies, which succeeded in creating a bunch of Eastern Rite Catholics, but alienated them further.  Twice the two churches got a bunch of leaders together and announced they were reconciled, but both times the Eastern Orthodox back home refused to accept the decision.

So there's been so much entrenchment of the various sides, with enough bad history between Catholics/Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox etc. that the groups reuniting with each other seems to be quite impossible.

And it is impossible.  Impossible for human beings, that is.  Not impossible for God:

 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

“‘If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  (Mark 9:23)

There's always the option of fasting and praying, and genuinely asking God to shine light into our hearts.  Surely God is willing to act when the time is right:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  (2 Chronicles 7:14)

So the first step is to realize that it is something that God will do, not something we can do.  All of the parties to this dispute believe that there is a God in heaven who can act, so why do we so frequently act as though a negative outcome were inevitable?

The second thing is to recognize how far we've come already.  For a couple centuries, Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in order to try to come out ahead politically.  Until everyone got sick of that and decided to have an Enlightenment with secular republics instead.  The killings don't happen anymore, leaving aside Northern Ireland anyway.

Even after that, until quite recently (perhaps a century ago), many Catholics and Protestants seem to have believed that more or less everyone on the other side was going straight to Hell when they died.  This era too has passed.

And it wasn't my generation's doing, either.  It was the hard work of a few individuals in previous generations, who insisted on talking to each other and opening up honest communication, even when it seemed impossible.  Vatican II was a pretty big deal too, what with Catholics rethinking their attitude towards Protestants and accepting some Protestant ideas in the process (e.g. Mass in the language of the people).  Meanwhile, even if there are still some fundamentalists out there who think ecumenical dialogue is of the devil, for the most part Protestants also became more open to the idea that some Catholics have actual spirituality and relationships with Jesus, and that we can be allies in some ways.

 “Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.  I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:37-38)

In fact the wounds of division have already begun to be healed.  The first step was unity of love.  This step came about when different Christian groups became genuinely interested in the well-being of Christians in the other groups (even before they convert to our side).

It is just barely possible to love a group of people and also think that they are lying scoundrels who will go straight to Hell, but we all know that love isn't what usually motivates this attitude.  It's not a coincidence that the word "charity" is used to mean both "Love in the Christian sense" and also "Not interpreting what other people say in the worst possible light".  When you care about people, you don't just want to see the negatives but also the positives.  As St. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper.  Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?  If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.  You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.  If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black.  Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

Compare to this attitude:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.   It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  (1 Cor 13:4-8)

There are always going to be silly, superficial reasons to condemn the other side.  (No matter how many good arguments there are for a position, there will always also be some terrible ones!)  But love does not look for reasons to condemn, but for reasons to rejoice.  If it criticizes, it does so not to boost its own ego, but out of genuine caring and out of respect for the good it sees is already present.  It is willing to investigate carefully before deciding that the other side are evil rebels.

The next stage is the unity of hope.  This step comes when people not only care for those on the other side, but also actually believe that their situation isn't hopeless, that if we form friendships and have dialogues and do good for each other, then it may actually make a difference.  This is the stage we are currently working at, in my opinion, although obviously one could always use more love to fuel the process.

With hope, we actually begin to desire to be in communion with each other, because we have begun to think it might one day be possible.  And even now, we can want this together (making due allowances for the fact that what complete unity would look like, is itself one of the theological controversies in question), and we can pray for it together.

“Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

I'm thinking this means, two or three Christians who have to work a bit to understand each other and agree about something!  (Not 2 or 3 self-satisfied Christians who are already primed to think in exactly the same way, and who don't care what anyone outside their group thinks.)  Real unity requires effort, but the reward is that it produces real community:

How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in harmony!

It is like fine oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down Aaron’s beard
onto his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon
falling on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord has appointed the blessing—
life forevermore.  (Psalm 133)

Of course not all of us are called to ecumenical work trying to understand other types of Christians—some of us are to focus on serving individual congregations (which can already present enough challenges for reconciliation!), or to provide aid to non-Christians, or to evangelize, or to serve the body of Christ in some other way.  We all belong to each other, and according to the law of our King, the Son of David:

The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle.  All will share alike.  (1 Sam 30:24)

And the final stage will be the unity of faith, when the love that is between us is enough that God can work through it so that we fully recognize and repent of the divisions that are between us.  I don't know exactly what a practical version of this would look like (and as I said, this is one of the very things which is disputed), but I can still work towards it.  Jesus prayed for it; it is possible.  Let's have it happen in this world rather than wait for the next one.

Speaking as a Protestant I would emphasize that this unity of faith does not necessarily require us to agree on the exact same list of doctrines.  When St. Paul writes:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

it is clear that for him, "one mind" does not actually mean "agrees about everything", for the theme of the entire previous chapter and a half up to this point (Romans 14:1-15:7) is about dealing with the situation in which two Christians disagree about disputable matters.

A doctrine can be true, or even important, without being an essential dogma which must be believed to be a real Christian.  (Even Catholics don't think everything is a dogma, but they do have a procedure for moving more and more things into the "dogma" category... thus making reunion harder and harder as time passes.)

There's a terrible idea called "secondary separation" in a few Protestant circles, which is that you should not only separate yourself from Christians who disbelieve in the doctrines you think are essential, you should also separate from Christians who fail to separate from such people... and so on ad nauseum.  Clearly, in the absence of a Pope, that can only end with a tiny schismatic group of self-righteous Pharisees.  Which is why we shouldn't think that way!

Instead, we need to accept one another.  This doesn't mean we shouldn't have any standards for what we mean when we call somebody else a Christian, since both Jesus (Matt 18:15-20) and St. Paul (1 Cor 5) taught that in extreme circumstances, the church can and should excommunicate people.  But it does mean that our standards for other people need to be less strict than our standards for ourselves.  To summarize in a picture:

Note what happens here if we allow the little circles to expand until they become as large as the big circles.  In that case, we will come out of communion, by refusing to accept somebody else unless they are exactly like us.  This is schism, in which a failure of love leads to a rupture in the bonds of faith.

Although I wrote "believe" in this picture, the same thing applies when we talk about which behaviors are acceptable in a Christian community.  Here it is even easier, since we have more control over our behaviors than over our beliefs.  To have a functioning community, we need to be strict with ourselves, but more accepting when it comes to the conduct of others.

People are always alert to hypocrisy, situations where somebody says that X is required but doesn't do X themselves.  You might think of this as a situation where the "small" circle is actually bigger than the "big" circle, and the person is condemned by their own standards.  But merely avoiding hypocrisy is not nearly enough.  If two people each allow themselves to do everything they personally think is OK, then unless they have identical beliefs, one will step outside the bounds set by the other.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  (Luke 6:37-38)

IV. How to get other Christians to accept you

It's fun to argue, and it may cause some individuals to move from one viewpoint to another, but I don't think it's where the most important work lies.  If you want to contribute to church unity, the way to do it is to serve.  The way to get other groups of Christians to recognize what you believe in, is not to fight them but to make yourself indispensable to them.

Think about St. Lewis' writings.  He led millions to Christ, and to a deeper spirituality.  He chose to write primarily about those things which Christians have in common.  And the funny thing is, Christians of pretty much every kind all have him as their hero.  For example, the Eastern Orthodox have a tendency to think that Orthodoxy is the One True Church, and many of them think that those outside of it aren't real Christians.  And yet an enormous number of them admire and respect St. Lewis, an Anglican.  Doesn't matter if it's inconsistent with their general views about the non-Orthodox, they're forced to recognize him as a Christian, because he is just too darn useful to their spiritual lives to anathematize.

“When Christ ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”

The communion of saints operates through the gifts we give to each other.  It has not been held back by denominational barriers.  I have heard hymns written by Protestants sung in Catholic Masses; I have seen books written by Catholic saints provide guidance for Protestants.  We are already one family, we just need to realize it.

So go and serve other groups of Christians.  Find out what they need, and then give it to them.  Make it so they can't help but see that the Spirit of God is moving you.  (We are all quite willing to believe that the people who help our team are inspired from above.)  At the very least, we are always able to pray for each other.  Make the Lord's priorities your priorities:

When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you?  You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.  I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)

Posted in Politics, Theology | 25 Comments

Inspiration and the Scriptures

A reader St. Willie asks a question regarding the transcript of my recent sermon.

I have read the text of the sermon of which, I guess, you prepared and delivered.
Do you think that your sermon was prepared under the inspiration of God?
I do think so.
What, if you disagree, is the difference between inspiration of your sermon and Scripture?

I'm glad the sermon packed a spiritual punch for you.  I was just trying to share the Gospel  in a way that is more faithful to the key ideas in Scripture.  But before I wrote it, I hoped and prayed that the Spirit would lead me to effectively present his word and his will to my audience.  And at times (as in this exchange) I have felt that I was writing God's truth better than I could have without God's help.  So does that make it inspired?

"Inspired" is a word that means guided or breathed-through by the Holy Spirit.  An inspired text or speech is one in which God is speaking, not just a human being.  Not that it ceases to be a human product; it still comes from the personality of the human author, which is being used as an instrument for communicating his message.

Now, obviously, there is a sense in which God does everything all the time, and that the wicked and the righteous alike are his instruments.  Yes, but this does not mean that the words we say to our neighbor are always graced by his presence, that they are the words which he would say.

Inspiration [in-spirit-ation] does not imply that the words are simply dictated to the human author.  (Although dictation can happen.  Some biblical texts, such as parts of the Old Testament prophets, seem to have been dictated with the direct voice of God, but other parts are clearly in the writer's own voice, and this does not make one text more "inspired" than the other.  Similarly, inspiration may be consciously known by the author, or it may be unconscious.)  God is speaking through an instrument, but that instrument is not a mere pen but rather a whole human life and personality as gathered into a particular moment of communication.  This makes sense because the true Word of God is Jesus, God come in the flesh, and so true prophecy will testify to him: "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10).

Now, Christians are to be like Jesus in that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity; the difference being of course that he was filled "without measure" whereas we Christians each have our own "spiritual gifts" or charisms which we exercise as part of the body of Christ:

Now concerning what comes from the Spirit: brothers, I do not want you to be unaware.  You know that when you were pagans, you used to be led off to the idols that could not speak. Therefore I am informing you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit.   There are different ministries, but the same Lord.  And there are different activities, but the same God activates each gift in each person.  A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial:

to one is given a message of wisdom through the Spirit,
to another, a message of knowledge by the same Spirit,
 to another, faith by the same Spirit,
to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
 to another, the performing of miracles,
to another, prophecy,
to another, distinguishing between spirits,
to another, different kinds of languages,
to another, interpretation of languages.

But one and the same Spirit is active in all these, distributing to each person as He wills. (1 Cor 12:1-11)

This is a major difference between the Old and New Covenants: in the Old only some very special people like prophets and kings were filled with the Spirit, but in the New the Spirit of God is poured out on the entire people of God.  Today is the feast of Pentecost where we celebrate this very fact.

Thus each individual Christian has the Holy Spirit inside of them, and is, to a greater or lesser extent, inspired by the Holy Spirit in their words and actions.  (When I say individual, of course I don't mean individual as opposed to the community of believers, for the Spirit of Jesus is present in a new way when two or three are gathered in his name.  But it would be quite heretical to say that the Spirit is only in the Church as an institution, and not in the particular individuals which compose it!)

OK, but this raises a potential objection: how does this compare to the Inspiration of the Scriptures?  Because the language we use to describe that is very similar:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Tim 3:16-17)

We see here that all parts of Scripture are (a) inspired by God, and (b) useful for the Christian life.  For this reason it is backed by the authority of God, and is (one of the) instruments which he uses to perfect us into the image of Christ, who is the ultimate Word of God.

(Note that this passage does not say anything about inerrancy, which I do not think is the most useful word to apply to the Scriptures.  I believe that all Scripture communicates some truth God wished them to say, and of course these truths are reliable and accurate when we have understood them properly, but I do not think it follows that the Bible is free from e.g. contradictions concerning historical trivia, or that passages like Genesis 1-11 must be taken to teach scientific truth.  Conversely, if I write 2+2 = 4 on a napkin, that napkin is inerrant, since it contains no falsehoods, but that does not make it inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Also, the word "inerrancy" isn't very useful for describing passages which don't contain factual statements, e.g. commandments or complaints or questions and so on.  I would rather stick closer to the language that Scripture uses about itself.)

Now pretty much all Christians believe that the canon of Scripture is closed, meaning that no new books are to be added.  In addition to the Old Testament books (about which there is disagreement among Christians concerning the exact scope of the canon), there are 27 New Testament books written by the apostles and their close companions, and nobody seems to expect any more to be added.  Except for some nutty groups like Mormons whose theology is way out of the mainstream.

Some Protestants (called cessationists), usually from Reformed traditions, believe that the overtly supernatural gifts of the Spirit (such as miracles, prophecy, and speaking in tongues) were only for the first generation of Christians and ceased with the death of the apostles.  But I cannot find anything in the text of the New Testament which suggests or implies that prophecy will cease.  Quite the contrary, the New Testament seems to treat prophecy as a normal part of the Christian communal life.  Now of course the NT was written during the time of the NT, but it was written to provide guidance for all believers through the centuries.  To postulate what would amount to a new dispensation (i.e. a period of time in which God interacts with people in a different way) but with absolutely no Scripture written to guide us during that new time period, seems absurd.

The main proof-text on the other side is 1 Cor 13, where St. Paul talks about the end of prophecy:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  (1 Cor 13:8-11)

But this is obviously referring to the Second Coming, not to the closure of Scripture, for St. Paul goes on to say that

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  (1 Cor 13:12)

However valuable it might be that we have all books of the Bible instead of some books of the Bible (back when the Apostles were still alive), it is clear that it does not amount to the radical change of seeing God face to face, "for nobody can see God's face and live".  So that moment when we all see him directly is yet to come.  Since that's the best proof-text they have, I think it's fair to say that there's no good evidence in Scripture for the position.

(There are also some passages about prophecy ending in the Old Testament, but these presumably allude to the end of the period of Old Testament prophecy.  Also they do not generally seem to treat the end of prophecy as though it were a good thing.)

Experience suggests that, although prophecy is indeed rarer in later generations than during the time of the Apostles (being less necessary), it has never entirely ceased.  Indeed, as a result of the Pentecostal movement in the 20th century, those claiming to exercise this gift are more common now than ever.  And I myself have (very rarely!) been given a specific message by God for a church or another person.  That is prophecy, by definition.

What's really going on here, is that cessationists are privileging a theory about Scripture (that because it is closed, no future prophecy can occur) over the teaching found in Scripture (that the living God speaks to his people).  That's not a good way to do interpretation.

So if prophecy is still around, why don't we go around adding new Scriptures to the Bible?

Well, first, because most of what we do and say is merely partially inspired by the Holy Spirit, with an admixture of our own earthly opinions and wrongheaded ideas.  Whereas Scripture is totally inspired by God.  Even if e.g. some of St. Paul's crankishness or St. David's curses got into the final product, we still confess that even those parts are sanctified and hallowed by their role in God's plan.  They are intimately connected to the message conveyed by Scripture, so that they are still "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness".  Humility suggests that for most of us, our offering to the Church is not so thoroughly worked-over by the Spirit as what we know we experience when reading the Scriptures:

 Let the [false] prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord.   “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:28-29)

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  (Hebrews 4:12)

I see the Holy Spirit working powerfully in the writings of e.g. Sts. Lewis or Chesterton, but that does not mean that their every opinion should be enshrined as the very word of God; that would be terrible!  And I see that Plato anticipated many aspects of Christian truth, surely due to divine guidance, but that does not make his random opinions authoritative.  These writings are partially inspired, not completely inspired.

But this distinction is not sufficient as it stands.  Suppose God were to speak to me tomorrow in a voice clearly his, telling me to be a missionary to Zimbobia, or whatever.  If I wrote it down while adding nothing of my own, or adding things of my own only as appropriate while drunk on the love of God, it is clear that the end product would be totally inspired.

But it does not follow that we ought to print it in the back of our Bibles.  That is, I think, because there is a second criterion besides inspiration.   An act of communication is defined not only by its author but also by its intended recipient.  The books of the Bible are in the Bible because they are universal, that is given to the entire Church for purposes of being its foundational literature.  In short, they are not just complete in their inspiration, but also complete in their intended audience.  They are for everyone because they are our primary literature about the primary revelation of God, namely the preparation of Israel for Christ, his advent here on earth, and the resulting New Covenant, which is "the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all" (Jude 1:3).

While other Christians might be incidentally benefited by the words calling me to Zimbobia, to require everyone to accept and read it would be more likely to lead to division rather than unity.  It is not a text which was read aloud in the churches, and which organically grew up alongside of God's people in order to constitute its identity.

For this reason, we accept into Scripture only the writings of the Old Testament prophets (and the histories and writings which put them into context) and the New Testament Apostles who witnessed Jesus' Resurrection.  Any additional prophecy is to be tested by the words of the Bible, and rejected if it conflicts with it.

But as I said, there is no explicit promise of God in the New Testament that no new books of the Bible will be inspired.  Some think that the Apocalypse of St. John contains such a statement:

I testify to everyone who hears the prophetic words of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book.   And if anyone takes away from the words of this prophetic book, God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city, written in this book. (Rev 22:18-19)

However, at the time that Revelation was written it was a separate book in a separate scroll from the rest of the Bible.  It was centuries before the binding technology existed to put the entire Bible into a single codex.  So this passage probably refers to adding new material to the Book of Revelation, not the rest of the Bible.  It is also very similar to passages in the Old Testament:

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.  (Deut 4:2)

Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.  Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar. (Prov. 30:5-6)

but these were clearly not the final books of the Bible.  So while these words could potentially mean not to treat human traditions as being on par with divine revelation, they do not imply that there will be no new divine revelation.

However, it is very hard for me to believe that any new spiritual events could be sufficiently earthshaking to justify the publication of an additional portion of the Bible.  What could God possibly do that would be comparable in drama to the revelation already given?  (The Second Coming would be important enough, but presumably seeing Christ face-to-face will obviate the need for any written Scriptures.)

I can only think of one thing which is (a) promised in both Testaments of our current Scriptures, and (b) as important and universal as some events in the Old Testament and Acts (if not the Gospels).  And that is if the Jews converted as a group to Christianity.  As St. Paul says:

But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!   I am talking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry  in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.  For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?...

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in,  and in this way all Israel will be saved.
(Romans 11:12-15, 25-26)

So, if a prophet like Elijah or St. John the Baptist were to arise in modern day Israel, and if by his ministry the Jews as a group believed in Jesus and were saved, then I speculate that the writings (or youtube videos?) of that prophet might well be worthy of inclusion among our Scriptures, being clearly endorsed by God.  But that is for those who live at that time to worry about!  If indeed the world lasts long enough afterwards for it to matter...

Posted in Theology | 2 Comments

Why are Internet discussions less polite?

In the comments section of another post, St. Martel observes that:

Discussion fora on the Internet do have a tendency to make people a little less polite than they would be in person.  Not sure why that is...

[May I point out how glad I am that my readers are capable of noticing this and correcting for tone on their own?  Yes, I may?  Okay, I will then.]

I think there are 3 main reasons why internet discussions are less polite:

1) Anonymity.  People feel free to say things they wouldn't otherwise say when it can't be traced back to their "real" identity, so that there are no consequences (for those with limited capacity to feel guilt, anyway).

While this probably accounts for many of the worst abusers, I don't think it's all that relevant in the case of a) people like myself who blog under our real names, or b) people with robust consciences who don't like trolling and insulting people so much.

2) Lack of bodily interaction.  We human beings consist of both bodies and souls.  When we have conversations face-to-face, we aren't just communicating with words.  Our social instincts, evolved over millions of years, involve all kinds of subtle communications when we talk in person.  Even merely talking over the phone (by voice) provides subtle clues which are not present in internet conversations.  Whereas, on the internet we have a conversation between disembodied minds.  Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful technology, but it's missing a lot of color, the sense of the other person as a person, the embodied almost-sacramental aspects of human relationships.

Hence the email convention of including a smiley to say when we are joking. :-)  (That wasn't a joke, that was just an example of a smiley.)  Although, that doesn't always work either.  As my father St. Larry once said:

You know how people are sometimes rude on Usenet or on a mailing list. Sometimes they'll write something that can only be taken as a deadly insult, and then they have the unmitigated gall to put a smiley face on it, as if that makes it all right.

This helps explain why you should avoid quarrelling with somebody by email.  It seldom brings disputing parties into agreement.  Emotionally tense situations are best resolved in more personable settings, if you can handle it.  (Though sometimes email or a physical letter can be useful to broach a sensitive topic if you're too chicken to initiate the exchange in person.  But that's different from quarrelling.)

So on the one hand, arguing with somebody face-to-face can trigger an unpleasant sense of  Conflict! Conflict! with an accompanying adrenaline surge.  It's annoying if your body starts trembling with fear when your mind just wanted to have a nice friendly conversation about how somebody else is wrong about politics or something.  On the other hand, we instinctively know this and most of us adapt in order to be more personable and friendly when there's an actual face on the other end.   It's much easier to see what's going on and correct it mid-stream.  This leads to a 3rd point:

3) Long comments with a delay in responding.  If I speak to you in person, then if I put my foot in it and begin to misunderstand you, or say something insulting, you will immediately respond and I have the ability to self-correct before anything goes too terribly wrong.

But if I'm in an argument on the Internet, that's not how things work.  Suppose you read a long response from somebody and you start obsessing about in what ways it is wrong and needs correction.  So then you write a long response of your own, but it's pretty easy to get carried away.  If the tone is wrong, it won't be corrected until several hours or days later when an equally strongly worded message comes back, and that of course will itself generally be a disproportionate response (for the same reason) which triggers a similar reaction.

Of course, the whole thing can be nipped in the bud if both parties make a conscious effort to be unusually polite and respectful, but it's surprising just how much greater an effort it takes.

But even if the discussion is totally polite, there's a downside for philosophy.  Long-winded comments make it too easy to talk at cross purposes, without correction from the other point of view.  After all, when I'm writing a long argument I'm putting myself into the brain state where I am right and the other person is wrong, and one stays there for quite some time.  This is dangerous to one's sense of balance and fairness.

Psychological studies have shown that when people hear evidence that their own strongly-held political views are wrong, the usual response is to argue against the new evidence.  Paradoxically, this causes them to become more certain of their previous point of view [too lazy to find a link right now, but I promise I'm not just making this up].

From this perspective, arguments are rather dangerous things!  Simply by expressing an argument for X, one naturally causes somebody on the other side to compensate by arguing for ~X.  But this puts them in the position of a lawyer trying to make the best case for one side, not a judge disinterestedly weighing the evidence for and against.  And as we all know, lawyers have a tendency to come to believe that their own side is right (even if it was basically a coin-toss which side they would be assigned to in the first place.)

This is something I worry about quite a bit as somebody who enjoys arguing about religion on my blog (and in person).  Rational people should settle disputes rationally, but what if providing rational arguments don't tend to actually cause this to happen?  What does one do instead?

One could compensate for this by asking people to argue for the other side of the debate for a change (one implementation of this is the Ideological Turing Test, adapted to religious arguments by St. Leah Libresco.)  But this only works if we presuppose a strong interest in finding the truth.  The "debate team" mentality where the goal is to win by coming up with sophistical bogus arguments, is not really improved by the fact that the positions are assigned randomly.  That just makes it even more relativistic.

To try to get around some of these issues, the Socratic method of dialogue requires that the participants ask each other questions instead of arguing directly, and respond by making short speeches, not long.  The other rule is that you can take things back as needed without any shame, instead of getting stuck defending one's initial reaction to the question.  As St. Socrates says to Polus in St. Plato's Gorgias:

SOCRATES: Illustrious Polus, the reason why we provide ourselves with friends and children is, that when we get old and stumble, a younger generation may be at hand to set us on our legs again in our words and in our actions: and now, if I and Gorgias are stumbling, here are you who should raise us up; and I for my part engage to retract any error into which you may think that I have fallen-upon one condition:

POLUS: What condition?

SOCRATES: That you contract, Polus, the prolixity of speech in which you indulged at first.

POLUS: What! do you mean that I may not use as many words as I please?

SOCRATES: Only to think, my friend, that having come on a visit to Athens, which is the most free-spoken state in Hellas, you when you got there, and you alone, should be deprived of the power of speech—that would be hard indeed. But then consider my case:—shall not I be very hardly used, if, when you are making a long oration, and refusing to answer what you are asked, I am compelled to stay and listen to you, and may not go away? I say rather, if you have a real interest in the argument, or, to repeat my former expression, have any desire to set it on its legs, take back any statement which you please; and in your turn ask and answer, like myself and Gorgias—refute and be refuted.

So I guess the really philosophical way to argue on the Internet is chat!  Text chats (IM) are still disembodied, but they have a much quicker turn-around time, perfect for Socratic dialogue.  I use gmail chat all the time to talk physics with my physics collaborators, but I don't usually have philosophical discussions that way.  But maybe I should.

Posted in Blog, Ethics, Politics | 20 Comments

Flesh and Spirit III: Easter Sermon

The first two posts in this series were on the topics of Creation and Original Sin.

[This post gives the text of a sermon preached on Easter Sunday 2014, New Life Church of the Nazarene, Cupertino.  I tried to keep it short because it was being translated into Chinese.  I began with the following Scripture reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, 15:1-33]:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.  Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.  No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.  Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.  But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.  Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ.  When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?  And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?  I die every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord.  If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?  If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” [Isaiah 22:15]

Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” [This quotation is from "Thais", a Greek play by Menander, now lost except for fragments.]

Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.

Rejoice! Christ is risen!

I want to speak today about the Resurrection of Christ's body, and what it means for our own physical bodies.

After he suffered and died on the Cross, and his body was laid in the tomb, God raised Jesus up from the dead, and he appeared to his disciples.  He was not a ghost; he had a real, physical body which could be seen and touched, and he could be recognized as being the same person (although sometimes it took his disciples a little while to realize who it was).  But there were also some important differences: he was given glory and power and immortality, and he was able to appear and disappear at will, and to ascend up into Heaven to be with the Father.

Now why is this important for you?  The reason is that the Resurrection of the Body isn't just for Jesus!  When Jesus died and rose again, he also gave to everyone else the ability to experience his death and resurrection.

In the future, when Christ comes back, God will raise from the dead every single person who has ever died.  Men and women and children, tall people and short people, fat people and skinny people, people from every country and religion, righteous people and wicked people, all of them will come out of their graves!  Everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected from the dead, like Jesus was.

Good news for the sick and the disabled!  God will heal you from all your diseases.

God created the physical world and he created our bodies as well as our minds.  Our bodies are an important part of who we are.  That's why God wants us to have bodies for all eternity.

If God loves our bodies, we should love our own bodies. We need to treat our body with respect and care, because at the Resurrection it will be remade into the glory of Christ.  A lot of people don't like their bodies and they do everything they can to change them. But the good news is that God created our bodies and thinks we are beautiful... It's not a sin to make some small changes to our body be healthy and look good, but we should do it out of love and not because we dislike ourselves.

Every part of our body was created to be good.  The physical emotions that come from our body, including feelings like anger and anxiety and sexual desire, were created by God for a good reason.  They were twisted by the Fall, but their purpose is good.

Jesus felt all of these emotions, but he lived a perfect life without sin.  He sometimes felt sad or angry or afraid or depressed, and he didn't sin because he had perfect love for God.  (He chose not to get married for the sake of the Kingdom of God, but of course we know that it isn't a sin for Christians to get married.)

Now I will say something which may seem to contradict what I said before.  But it is very important!

Because of respect for our bodies, we have to resist all of the evil impulses that come to us from our bodies.  Our bodily desires were created good, but they were corrupted because we inherit a fallen and sinful nature—this is what Paul means, when he says that in Adam, we all die.

For example most people struggle with some kind of sexual perversion, something which is forbidden by the Bible, or anything else which you know isn't right.  Or perhaps you have an eating disorder, or a bad temper, or you're very lazy.  You're jealous when you see other people being happy, or you think it's funny when bad things happen to them.

But I don't need to tell you what things you struggle with.  You already know.

Partly these things come from making bad choices, but sometimes these sinful desires just come from our physical flesh. Our brain tells us that certain things will make us happy, and we have to do these things or else it feels like dying.

People are always saying, “I can't obey the Bible in some area of my life, because this is part of who I am. I didn't choose to be this way, and I can't change myself.”  It's true you can't change yourself.  But the Holy Spirit can change our hearts so that we want to serve Jesus and do his will.

Paul says that the Christian life is about dying and being raised from the dead.  That's why we get baptized, to say “I will die alongside Christ because I believe that those who are born of the Spirit of God will come back to life again.”  The blood of Christ has the power to heal us from all sin and transgression.  Some parts of our body will be healed in this life, other things will have to wait for the next life.

“I die every day,” Paul says in the passage we just read.  In other places he says that “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” [2. Cor 4:10], and that “those who are in Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its desires and passions.” [Gal. 5:24].

It's not just Paul; Jesus says the same thing: “If anyone wants to come after me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” [Matt. 16:24-25].

So you must treat your body with respect because it is good, but you must also allow the fleshly desires coming from your body to be killed, if you want to be saved.

I'm not talking about giving up just one or two things.  Nor do I mean treating your body harshly all the time, or never taking pleasure in life.  Not at all.  What I'm talking about is giving your whole self to God, and letting him decide what stays and what goes.  You can submit to death with joy and patience and hope, if you believe that the same God who raised Christ from the dead will raise you from the dead as well.

Even if it feels like you are giving up an important part of your identity, we have to trust him that he knows who we really are.  When you finally become the holy person that God created you to be, you will be more glorious than you can possibly imagine.

This isn't salvation by works.  It's trusting God to do what he promised by grace.  But you must submit to death; there's no way around it.  Don't be decieved.  The false Gospel says, “Christ died so that I don't have to die.”  The true Gospel says: “Christ died, so that I too can die and be resurrected along with him.  Those who suffer with him will reign with him in glory, and be happy forever.”

Is it possible that some of you, who who have been in this Church for such a long time, have never really understood or accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Even if you don't repent of your sins, God will still raise you from the dead.  But then I can't promise that you'll be happy forever.  Since our bodies are part of who we are, God will judge us in our new bodies for what we do with our bodies here on Earth.  So be reconciled to God.

So that is why Easter is important. It teaches us that God loves our physical bodies, that there is hope for the future, and that we can give things up with joy and confidence, because we know God will give our life back to us again, only a million times better.

Posted in Theology | 6 Comments

Questions about Adam

In the comments to my post on Flesh and Sprit II: Original Sin, a couple readers asked questions about the historicity of Adam:

1) A reader who goes by the pseudonym i like pizza asks:

i don't want to get too off-topic here, but i'm curious about your thoughts on whether or not adam was a historical person. and if you believe that he was not, what are your thoughts on paul apparently believing (and teaching?) that he was (rom 5:12-20; 1 cor 15:45-49)?

What counts as believing and teaching that Adam was historical?  I know a lot of conservative Christians use this argument: person or event X is mentioned by Jesus or an apostle in the New Testament and therefore X must have been historical.  Well that doesn't follow.  As an example, I don't believe Adam and Eve were necessarily historical individuals, and yet I still referred to their story in Genesis.

Suppose for the sake of argument that the Adam story was a mythical story, inspired by God, which illustrates a point about the human condition, and that St. Paul knew this.  Would it follow from this that St. Paul would never refer to that story in his own writings?  Not unless we think that St. Paul couldn't have found any value in the story unless it was historical.  But the rabbinic use of midrashim (fictional stories to tell a point, often about biblical characters) shows that they did not in fact think this way.

Basically the argument is circular: you should take Genesis literally because St. Paul did, and we know St. Paul was, because no reasonable person could get meaning out of the Adam story unless they themselves took it literally.  But that is exactly the question which is at stake.

Did St. Paul in fact believe that Adam was a historical person?  I doubt he ever considered the issue, but very likely he assumed he was (Acts 17:26 is probably better evidence for this than his epistles).  Did he teach that he was historical?  Well, we have to decide what do we mean by this...?

If the question is, does St. Paul's teaching collapse as meaningless if Adam was not historical, I think the answer is clearly no.  The point of the references to Adam in Romans and 1 Corinthians is to establish the existence of a sinful human nature to illustrate by comparison the new human nature which comes from Christ.  But this purpose is served just as well by a mythical Adam representing some pre-historical rebellion against God with unknown details; since the resulting Old Human Nature is in any case a real thing that exists in the present and needs redemption.  In any case, St. Paul also emphasizes the differences between the two figures:

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if by the one man’s trespass the many died, how much more have the grace of God and the gift overflowed to the many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ.  And the gift is not like the one man’s sin, because from one sin came the judgment, resulting in condemnation, but from many trespasses came the gift, resulting in justification. (Roms 5:15-16)

We could also ask, did St. Paul make it explicit that one could not disbelieve in a historical Adam and still be a Christian?  This is not a silly thing to ask, because earlier in the 1 Cor 15 passage he did do exactly this, when it comes to the question of whether Christ really rose from the dead.

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.   And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  (15:12-9)

There is no similar statement that the Christian preaching and faith are useless unless Adam was really historical.  St. Paul's teaching is relentlessly Christological.  Everything, including Old Testament stories, is important only for the light it sheds on the Christ-event.  Christ is the center, so it matters whether he was historical.  Adam is peripheral; his story is there to teach us more about the meaning of Jesus and the Church (who is the new Eve, the spouse which was formed from his pierced side after he had fallen into the temporary sleep of death).

If Adam's story is of great and irreplaceable value in explaining the true meaning of Christ's sacrifice, then for that very reason, the Holy Spirit was justified in putting that story in our Bible, regardless of whether it happened literally.

2) St. Declan writes:

I've been reflecting on my belief in evolution and Christianity as a whole and realized that there are many questions to think about that I can't appropriately answer.

You mentioned evolutionary psychology as an explanation of why we have sinful inclinations. Yet some advanced mammals like chimpanzees seem to demonstrate an ability to go against their evolutionary instincts by demonstrating kindness to a wounded chimp when other chimps don't. Does this demonstrate that animals too, can sin?

And if animals can sin, then it would seem that Pauline soteriology is pretty false: Sin didn't enter the world through one man. What do you think Dr Aron?

About a year ago I read a very interesting book about The Moral Lives of Animals, by a zoological writer named Dale Peterson.  It had a bunch of very interesting examples of moral-like (and immoral-like) animal behaviors.

One could quibble whether many of the examples should really qualify as ethics: if an animal mistreats another animal and the other animals get annoyed, so the first one stops, is this really ethics or just obvious social behavior?  Granted that chimps engage in e.g. rape, do they actually feel guilty about it?

But it seems clear enough that there exist social instincts in animals which could at least be called proto-ethics.  I don't think Christians have any need to deny this.  Why shouldn't God provide the early animals with some moral-like instincts, especially if he intended one of them to evolve into a species capable of bearing his Son.  It would be a much worse world if no animals ever felt affection for each other or for us.  But recall what I said in my previous post:

Or if we were still just animals, who had never known better, we would still have the innocence of animals.  A cat is morally innocent when it plays with a mouse, not because that is morally wonderful but because it doesn't know any better.  But now we know better (or else ought to know better but are in denial), and it pains us to experience our own worst impulses.

Do animals sin?  A sin is an offense against God (Psalm 51:4).  For something to rise to the level of sin, the organism in question needs to be high enough to potentially be in relationship with God and feel guilty for disobeying.  (Or to deny the possibility of any such higher authority in order to avoid feeling guilty, which is a different manifestation of the same issue.)  I don't see any evidence that any animals are sinners in this sense.

An animal may loosely be said to commit an ethical (or more accurately social) violation against another animal, but human beings don't usually morally condemn them for this because we don't consider them morally responsible because they are animals.  So presumably God doesn't either.  No animal is smarter than a 4 year old human, and we barely consider 4 year-olds to be morally responsible (we treat them as if they were in order so that they grow up to be morally responsible, but we don't consider them e.g. criminally or spiritually responsible).  We have Reason, a qualitatively greater capacity for abstraction, which allows us to recognize a Law which comes from somthing above us.  (Even if not all of us humans conceptualize that Law as being related to a divine Lawgiver, we still tend to act as if it did.)

So far as I can tell, animals are not capable of belief in God.  I would be extremely interested in whether humans could teach chimps about the existence of God, but I doubt the type of scientists who currently do chimpanzee-learning experiments would countenance that one.

The closest an animal ever comes to sinning, is if they are domestic pets, and they rebel against a human being in authority over them.  Cats and dogs are both capable of adoring human beings as a higher order of creature, though cats are rather weak on the concept of obedience.  So let's consider a bad dog who disobeys and then feels shame after being scolded by his master.  Since human beings are created in the image of God and are his priests to the animals, this is like sin.  But it is only an analogy, since sin, properly speaking, is a spiritual offense against God, not a social offense against Man.

(Of course, for us humans, who have been raised to the divine image and can recognize consciously the value of human beings in the abstract, for us to sin against other human beings is to sin against the God who made them.)

So understood in this theological sense, the first sin must, almost by definition, have come after the first moment that a being recognized their Creator as being in authority over them.  There could have been plenty of affection, cooperation, violence, or theft before that time, but this was the moment that human beings in a spiritual sense came to be.

Of course, my speculations about the actual course of pre-historic events are just that: speculations.  But if there is going to be a speculative field of secular evolutionary psychology, I don't see why Christians shouldn't join in the fun.

Posted in Ethics, Theological Method | 35 Comments