Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I, You and It: Some More Kyoto School Ramblings.

This is a somewhat rambling reflection on some of the Kyoto School authors. I have been dipping into a little volume entitled The Buddha Eye, consisting of essays from The Eastern Buddhist, a prominent Japanese journal of Buddhist Studies.  The collection focuses on the writings of the Kyoto School 'founded' by Nishida Kitaro (about whom I have written before).  Sadly, none of Nishida's own essays are included, but there are several by Nishitani Keiji and Abe Masao.  

Abe in particular has been an important writer for me, as it was his essays that first introduced me to the Kyoto School.   He is generally able to write very sympathetically about Christianity and actually has something like a well developed (if heterodox) Christology.

In his essay, "God, Emptiness and the True Self" Abe approvingly quotes a number of Christian mystics, including quoting my favorite passage from St. Dionysius the Aereopagite*, the culmination of his mystical theology, where he concludes by hymning God beyond all names and categories.   I quote at some length below from Dionysius and Abe's commentary.

Ascending higher we say...
not definable,
not nameable,
not knowable,
not dark, not light,
not untrue, not true
not affirmable, not deniable,
while we affirm or deny of those orders of being
that are akin to Him
we neither affirm nor deny Him that is beyond
all affirmation as unique universal Cause,
all negation as simple preeminent Cause,
free of all
and to all transcendent.    
This is strikingly similar to Zen's expressions of Buddha-Nature or Mind... It may not be wrong to say that for [Pseudo-Dionysius] the Godhead in which one is united is the 'emptiness' of the indefinable One... Despite the great similarity between Zen and Christian mysticism we should not overlook an essential difference between them.  In the above quoted passage Pseudo-Dionysius calls that which is beyond all affirmation and all negation by the term him. Many Christian mystics call God "Thou." In Zen, however, what is beyond all affirmation and negation -that is Ultimate reality- should not be "him" or "thou" but "self" or "true self."  (Abe. "God, Emptiness and the True Self." in The Buddha Eye. ed. Frederick Frank. World Wisdom; Bloomington, Ind. 2004, 62-63).  
Abe does highlight an important difference here.  The person is an irreducible category, at least for most Christian mystics.  Eckhart and some others might be an exception, but in general, for Christian mystics ultimate reality is always personal, and in fact tri-personal.

Another way of thinking about this, especially in light of the last post I put up and yesterday being the feast of Catherine of Siena, is to note the prominence of marriage imagery in Christian mysticism, even in an apophatic thinker like St. John of the Cross.  Marriage represents a mystical union, but it is precisely a union of two who become one without being absorbed or annihilated.  This imagery simply does not occur in Zen.

Abe goes on to critique the personalism of Christian mysticism. His main concern seems to be that if we address Ultimate Reality as "Thou" or speak of "Him" we make that Reality an object, something external to the self which can be grasped.  From a Zen perspective even marriage imagery is trapped in a dualistic divide between subject and object.

I have a couple of thoughts on this.  First, I think Abe is historically correct about the difference between Zen and Christianity here.  Christian mysticism is personalistic, and any God who cannot be addressed as "Thou" or as "Father" is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Zen, like most of Buddhism, and many non-Christian systems, tends to regard personhood as a secondary, composite reality, that must be explained by reference to a more primary, impersonal reality.

Where I think Abe has a valid concern when he suggests that there can be a tendency to make Ultimate Reality into a object.  It is easy to fall into thinking of God as if he and I were two objects sharing space in a room, much as I share space with the chair I'm sitting in or the laptop I'm typing on.   This is not orthodox Christianity though, but simply bad theology.  God is not simply a very, very big object in the room with me, but the whole basis on which the room - or more technically, the possibility of the encounter - exists.  That's real transcendence, and I don't think it's anything a good classical theist would disagree with.

I think Abe would counter that Christianity wants to have it both ways.  We want to say God is ultimate reality, transcending all categories, while at the same time treating God as a person - an object with whom I share space.  If God is a person, God is an object and not ultimate reality.  Of course, this all hangs on the problematic presupposition that a person is a type of object.

If persons are objects in the sense Abe means the term, then they are certainly unusual objects, because they are precisely objects which are also subjects.  A "You" is never simply an "it" any more than an "I" is.  In addressing something outside me as "you" or "thou" I cede any right to treat "you" as a mere object, and recognize "you" as somehow equally a free subject. Thus, in the very concept of persons there is something which transcends a mere subject object divide. Is it not possible that it is precisely the personal which is actually able to transcend duality?  In the Christian faith, the dogma of the Trinity hints at this.  Sergius Bulgakov, by the way, seems to have some good things to say on the topic in his book on the Holy Spirit, but that's another post.  

In addition, it's not clear to me why he seems to privilege 'self' over other in the way he does. Why is the subject so much more primary than the object?  And is "self," even "True self" even thinkable without "other?" I don't have a worked out theory of the Person, but this seems to me to be an important point that Abe does not consider. There almost seems to be a latent sense that there's some kind of competition between self and other here, rather than Nishda's complex philosophy of absolutely contradictory self-identity.

Finally, I wonder why he is so uninterested in the idea of person, give Nishida's fairly deep reflections on personality, especially in his earlier works like An Inquiry into the Good, and his appreciation of "other power" and the Christian theology of grace.  In any case, I just would think as a student of Nishida's philosophy, Abe might be more sensitive to this.   Anyway, I'm not sure what this whole reflection amounts to, except that I find I am really suspicious of this tendency to privilege the self in this way.  It seems to fall short of the best in Kyoto School thought, and to fall short of a Trinitarian view of the self, in which self and other are not opposed but dynamically one even in difference.

*I know that the author of the Dionysian Corpus is not actually the Dionysius mentioned in Acts 17:34, but I don't like having to tack Pseudo onto his name all the time.  It is awkward.  It may be taken as a given that I mean Pseudo-Dionysius when I refer to him, unless otherwise stated.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Behold The Bridegroom...

I had a small thought about Holy Week that I could not resist sharing. By some blessed coincidence, I have been thinking a lot about marriage at the same time as I have been thinking about Holy Week, this year.  A number of things - like doing premarital counselling with a couple, etc., - have happened to come up around the same time that I have had to write a Good Friday sermon and been praying through the events of this week.  The Cathedral provides a quasi monastic setting at this time of year, with daily morning and evening prayer and daily Eucharist, so it is easy to enter into the flow of holy week very deeply.  

There is not any obvious external connection (to me) between the horrors of Gethsemane and Golgotha and the joyful celebration of marriage.  Still, because both were on my mind I realized, perhaps for the first time, something I am sure is obvious to many people. Christ so often speaks of himself as the bridegroom, and we his people, are the bride.  Revelation of course, strikingly and beautifully describes the return of Christ as a wedding feast  "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev 21:1-2 ESV)

It occurred to me that as Christ walks the way of the cross he is going to meet his bride, and the way of the cross is also a wedding procession.  Just as God's glory appears in the shame of cross, the joy of the wedding feast of the Lamb appears in the sorrow of Good Friday.  As Our Lady stands at the foot of the cross with St. John the Beloved disciple, Jesus brings them together as mother and son, establishing the new family of God through the cross.  

To my pleasant surprise, it turns out I am not the only one to think about this connection.  It is the primary theme of the Holy Week hymns in the Eastern Church.  
Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself crying: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God.  Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

The Cross is what Love looks like, and it is in the cross, the new covenant in Christ's blood, that God fulfills his promise to Israel "I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy" (Hos 2:19) This is the hidden joy of holy week, the joy that constantly underlies all the sorrow and horror.  It is the time for the Church, for us, to make ourselves ready for Jesus Christ, who comes as the bridegroom.   
The Icon of Christ "The Bridegroom"

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Night

Nicodemus talking to Jesus, by Alexander Ivanov.
A bit of metaphysical poetry for this Sunday.  Henry Vaughan meditates on Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus.  

The Night
                   John 3.2

      Through that pure virgin shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glowworms shine,
         And face the moon,
    Wise Nicodemus saw such light
    As made him know his God by night.

      Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
         When Thou didst rise!
    And, what can never more be done,
    Did at midnight speak with the Sun!

      O who will tell me where
He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?
What hallowed solitary ground did bear
         So rare a flower,
    Within whose sacred leaves did lie
    The fulness of the Deity?

      No mercy-seat of gold,
No dead and dusty cherub, nor carved stone,
But His own living works did my Lord hold
         And lodge alone;
    Where trees and herbs did watch and peep
    And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

      Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
         Which none disturb!
    Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
    The hours to which high heaven doth chime;

      God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
         His still, soft call;
    His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
    When spirits their fair kindred catch.

      Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent,
Whose peace but by some angel’s wing or voice
         Is seldom rent,
    Then I in heaven all the long year
    Would keep, and never wander here.

      But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
         To every mire,
    And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
    Err more than I can do by night.

      There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
         See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!

Friday, January 3, 2014


There have been some big ones this year, of the ontological variety (depending on your theology of ordination), and the personal, financial, etc.,  The biggest change on the horizon though is a change in ministry.

For just under a year I have served as deacon, then curate at Christ Church, Cooperstown and been incredibly blessed by the time there.  I love all the saints (and even perhaps a few Saints) at Christ Church, and I could not have asked for a better mentor in my first year of ministry than Fr. Michael, the rector of Christ Church.  So, it took some serious prayer, and it is a little melancholy to say that I will be leaving that parish to answer a call from the Cathedral in Albany, and to serve as Canon Missioner.

The Cathedral of All Saints in Albany has discerned the need for a renewed focus on evangelism and outreach to the people of the city, especially to some of the poorer neighborhoods.  In response to this, they have reestablished the position of Canon Missioner - a priest in whose job is to be a missionary in residence at the Cathedral.  There is a team in place that has already been doing some work and is very committed to this undertaking.

The Cathedral is located in a perfect spot for outreach, right by the NY state capitol and other government buildings, but also right within sight of Arbor Hill, a very economically depressed neighborhood, and the Lark Street neighborhood, that tends to draw an arts crowd.  Basically, there's a lot going on; a lot of need and a lot of opportunity. I have long had a sense of call to urban ministry.  Reflecting on the ministry of the 'slum priests' like Charles Lowder, has been a great inspiration to me and I have been praying for the opportunity to do something in that line, but was really uncertain of how or where that call would work out. Well, God seems to have provided an answer.    Starting in January, we will begin a phase of information gathering and discernment. This is going to be a challenging ministry, because the newly formed outreach team and I will be building it from the ground up, and its going to involve a lot of footwork, just getting to know people in the neighborhood and building relationships, praying and discerning what God is doing in this place. What are unmet needs in the area? What are services that are already being offered, and how can we articulate the gospel in Albany - by some measures the most "Post-Christian City" in the country?  It's going to be an adventure!  Officially, I start next Tuesday, the 7th.

A bonus is that I will be part of the Cathedral parish and staff.  I will be celebrating once a week during the week, preaching regularly, and attending daily Morning Prayer.  This is a good foundation to have, especially for a Prayer Book Catholic like me, who feels a real need for the stability of the Office and the nourishment of the Sacraments.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holy Cloud Bearing Mountain: An Opportunity to Help

As some of you know, I serve on the board of a Christian center for contemplative prayer, called Mons Nubifer Sanctus. Mons Nubifer Sanctus is Latin for “Holy Cloud-Bearing Mountain.” The name takes its inspiration chiefly from Exodus 24:18, which describes Moses’ ascent up the Holy Mountain into the cloud of the presence of God. This account is fulfilled in the New Testament passages dealing with the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.

These texts, and others like them, have consistently been read by the great spiritual masters of the Church in terms of the heights of contemplative prayer, heights to which all Christians are called in Christ. Christian spiritual classics such as Dionysius the Areopagite’s The Mystical Theology, and the 14th century anonymous English work The Cloud of Unknowing all follow in this tradition, as do numerous other writings through the ages of the Church and up the present day.

The goal of Mons Nubifer Sanctus is to provide a retreat and training center where men and women can cultivate a life of deep and transformative prayer, practiced in common and grounded in the ancient spirituality and fullness of the Christian faith. The center’s programs will be geared specifically for people living and working “in the world;” in other words, for active people in secular positions who yet seek a deeper spirituality than most church communities can offer.

The founder and president of the board, Mr. James Krueger expects be ordained to the Deaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany shortly, and soon after that to the priesthood. He has devoted a great deal of time, energy and work to get us to this point. We have gathered a Board of Directors and incorporated as a not-for-profit, Mons Nubifer Sanctus and are currently raising funds to purchase a suitable building and grounds to be located in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The property will be conductive to contemplation, adequate to house twelve to sixteen participants in dorm-style rooms, have room to grow if necessary, and have some decent land for sustainable growing. Donations will also be used to cover other start-up and initial operating expenses.

I’m writing to you to ask your help in making this center a reality, a center which will do its part to reinvigorate an authentic and truly transformative Christianity in the west, by making a donation to Mons Nubifer Sanctus. I would not normally be so bold as to ask this, but I am goaded on by a most wonderful opportunity presented to us by an anonymous donor who will match every donation made from now until the end of 2013 dollar for dollar up to $50,000! This means that every dollar you give will be turned into two! Can you help us, then, to reach our goal of purchasing a suitable property and beginning programs, however gingerly, in 2014?

Please visit for further information, seeing especially our “Vision and Feasibility” page, and feel free to contact us and keep in touch as this unfolds. Donations can be made to Mons Nubifer Sanctus, PO Box 568, Pine Hill, NY 12465. Please also find and follow us on Facebook!

In Christ, who is our peace,

Father Paul Hunter.   

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Birth, Death, Resurrection and the Buddha.

Nishida Kitaro 

This is a rather odd post, and I have to warn you at the outset, I don't know what it amounts to.  It was occasioned by reading Kitaro Nishida.  Nishida is one of my somewhat eccentric theological/ philosophical interests, like Bulgakov's Sophiology, or the odder reaches of Charles Williams' thought.  This may, therefore, be rather boring to those who do not share my quirky interests. Or not.  Who knows? 

Nishida was a the professor of Philosophy at Kyoto University from 1914 to 1927.  He was a Zen and Pure Land Buddhist, and close friend of D.T. Suzuki, but his main claim to fame was being the first Japanese thinker to seek a systematic dialogue between Eastern and Western Thought.  His work inaugurated the so called "Kyoto School of Philosophy," which is still important in Japanese thought today.  There is even a fair amount of Anglophone scholarship on these thinkers.  

Nishida particularly interests me because though he was a Buddhist, he was always fascinated with Christianity, and deeply sympathetic to Christian views.  His wife was a Christian.  He quotes as freely from the Bible and St. Augustine as from Dogen or the Heart Sutra, and was particularly an admirer of Karl Barth, even sending one Christian student to study with Barth.  Barth's theology dominated Japanese Christian thought until quite recently, so this is not terribly surprising.  Interestingly, Barth seems to have known a bit about Nishida and thought highly of him as well.  

Nishida is very comfortable speaking in a Christian idiom, although he tends to interpret Christianity in the fashion of an idealist Philosopher, rather than in anything like an orthodox manner.  Still, he is interested enough in learning from Christianity, not just using a few images or terms here and there, that I think he comes up with some rather profound and deeply Christian insights on familiar Christian doctrine.  He takes very seriously the concepts of original sin, grace, justification by faith, the Word of God (in a particularly Barthian mode) and the Trinity.  He can talk about Christian concepts in a very Buddhist way, and Buddhist concepts in a very Christian way.  It doesn't always amount to an orthodox reading of Christianity (I wouldn't presume to speak for Buddhism) but it's pretty darn interesting.   

I have just finished reading his last and perhaps most influential essay "The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview."  It's not easy reading, and I will need to go over it again, but a number of things struck me, particularly Nishida's consideration of death and eternal life. 

Death plays a pivotal role in Nishida's thought, in a way that I think is rather similar to Heidegger, although I don't know Heidegger's thought that well.   Nishida sees death, mortality, as a fundamental aspect of individual self-awareness.  Human beings, Persons in the fullest sense, come face to face with their finitude and so with the absolute, most of all in the awareness of death, the absolute negation.  Death then, is part of the very experience of our being, and the realization of mortality is perhaps the foundation of religious experience.  
In facing its own eternal death, the self faces the absolute infinity, the experience of the absolute other. It realizes its eternal death by facing absolute negation.  And yet even this realization has the structure of absolute contradiction... For to realize one's own death is simultaneously to realize the meaning of one's own existence.  A deathless being is not temporally unique, and that which is not temporally unique is not an individual... My existence involves precisely this dilemma of immortality and mortality. (Nishida Kitaro. Last Writings. Trans. David A. Dilworth.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. 67 -68.)
 Nishida believes this experience to be fundamentally religious, and indeed the foundation of religion. This doesn't mean Nishida is saying that religion is a way of denying death; rather "religion is about God," the absolute, who is encountered most clearly (although, not exclusively) in the experience of mortality.  

He goes on to say "Death involves a relative being facing an absolute.  For the self to face God is to die.  When Isaiah saw God he cried out: "Woe is me for I am undone... " When a relative being faces the true absolute it cannot exist but must pass into nothing" (Nishida. Last Writings. 68).  Nishida is not peddling the bromide that death is okay because it makes us aware of how precious life is.  Rather he sees the experience of mortality as far more fundamental to human existence.  It is not merely that we are living beings who observe that we die, but that to be living beings - at least self aware ones - is to have the awareness of mortality.  

I think there is an analogue in the thought of Aquinas, when he describes all created beings as composite, even if the only composition is that of essence and existence, a coming together of disparate aspects that need not have been.  Nishida places a great deal of weight on the experience of that contingency, and would say that at the heart of our existence is a contradiction; we are but that we might not be, that there was a time when we were not, and shall be a time when we are not again - not merely accidentally but because that is the kind of beings we are.  We are contingent. We are limited.  We are mortal.  To know that in a deep and immediate way, as we do in realizing our death, is to encounter the absolute.  

Nishida talks about 'eternal death' but he also talks about eternal life. "The self exists in that it knows its own death.  It knows that it is born to die eternally... my position is... that eternal life is gained at the point where birth and death (Samsara) and no-birth and no-death (Nirvana) are realized as one" (Nishida Last Writings. 87)  How does this realization happen?  well this is where Nishida does something surprising and starts talking about faith, grace and conversion.  
We know of our eternal death.  That is our existential condition.  At the same time, we already exist in eternal life.  Religious faith entails the the self realize its own contradictory identity of eternal death and eternal life; that is what is involved in religious conversion.  Since this is impossible from the perspective of the objectified self we must speak of the power, the working of God. Faith is the self-determination of the absolute itself. Faith is grace bestowed.  It is God's own voice in the depths of the self. (Nishida, 88.) 
I think Nishida is still more Buddhist than Christian here.  At the same time, I think he's on to something.  

In our current experience of reality, death and life really are correlative.  The whole system of creation depends upon what amounts to a cycle of birth and death.  We can imagine something that doesn't die, but for my part the more I try to flesh out what a world without death would look like, the more problematic it becomes.  

Of course, from the perspective of Christian theology, death is a result of the fall and of sin  (Nishida, interestingly, has a lot to say about original sin but I will save that for another post).  Still, even Athanasius says in the On the Incarnation that human beings are mortal by nature, like all of creation, but that we would have been held in eternal life by the grace of God if we had not sinned.  I think, in other words, that Nishida is correct to see death as a far more important part of our existential condition than it is generally thought to be.  Again, we could ask the question "But what if we hadn't fallen?"  I don't know, and I don't know how helpful it is to speculate.   I think that question is usually (but not always) a rabbit trail. The reality of our fallen condition and fallen experience is totally colored by mortality, and that is what I am talking about in this case.  

Death is also an inescapable step toward resurrection.  Granted, we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed (1 Cor 15:51). But we will only reach eternal life if we are buried with Christ, if we die with him and are raised with him.  In this sense at least, even if we happen to be among the few who do not die before the second coming, all those who reach eternal life and live in Christ, also die in Christ.  If you follow Hans Urs von Balthasar, then there might even be a legitimate way of talking about this as 'eternal death.'     

What this suggests to me, as I have been reflecting upon it, is that resurrection life must be a far greater change than we can actually imagine.  I believe in a bodily resurrection, of course; that somehow, when we are raised there will be a continuity not just of our spirits but also of our physical bodies, and that in our flesh we shall see God.  But whatever that means, I think it has to mean that we will live with the kind of life that has no possibility of death.  Not just that we will not die, but that the whole system of birth and death will somehow be transcended; even in continuity with our old life of birth and death we will have reached a place of no-birth and no-death.  Perhaps Nishida (and Mahayana Buddhism before him) is not too far wrong in saying that eternal life is when no-birth and no-death is one with birth and death.   Perhaps in the resurrection life this absolutely contradictory identity is realized.  I don't know, but I think it's worth meditating on. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On the Pastoral Uses of Depravity.

So, from a few signals around here on the blog, you may have picked up that I am bit High Church.  I am not a Calvinist, although I don't have the visceral dislike of Calvinism that so many do, partly because in my undergrad theological training I was soaked in Augustine's Anti-Pelagian writings and his doctrine of grace. There are important differences between Augustine and Calvin that I think most Calvinists gloss over, but never mind that for now. Calvin is also a pretty helpful exegete when it comes to sermon preparation.

There is, however, at least one of the five points of Calvinism that I think is remarkably helpful, namely "Total Depravity."  The Synod of Dort, which formulated the five points of Calvinism defined Depravity as follows:
“Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation.” 
Or, as it is often summarized, every part of the human person is affected by sin.   Our appetites, our wills, our intellects, and our bodies.  I might have some minor quibbles with Dort's definition above because I believe in Baptismal Regeneration, but it's basically solid, biblical stuff.

Depravity bothers people as much as any of the other points of Calvinism like limited atonement or unconditional election.  It is often understood to mean that human beings are just as awful and bad as we can possibly be, and that there really is nothing good to say about us.  Perhaps we are not even in the image of God anymore.

If that is what depravity means, it's problematic to say the least.  It seems like a cruel doctrine that can be used to beat people over the head and scare them into submission and repentance. It also smacks of a certain unwholesome self-loathing.   There are, some Christians who actually seem to get a kick out of repeating to themselves what miserable worms they are, but that gets old for most of us pretty quick.

That is a parody though, and it's no fair arguing against a parody.   There is incredible virtue, compassion and even sanctity to be found among Christians and non-Christian alike, and to deny this is both so grim and so plainly contrary to experience that it ought to be offensive.  Believing in depravity doesn't mean denying that. Human beings can do lots of good things.  Depravity doesn't mean that everything we do is bad, but it does mean that we can't find a place in us where sin doesn't have some effect, doesn't leave some stain.

Well, why does this matter?  Depravity can become a cruel doctrine, but rightly understood, I have found that believing in depravity helps me to be more loving.  As one friend of mine said, when you believe in depravity, you know that all the difficult people you meet in your life did not get up in the morning and think "I shall be awful today."  In a very real sense, they can't help it.  Of course, that doesn't excuse them.  Just like an addict's behavior isn't excused by the addiction, but it is explained.  The people I meet who hurt me are struggling under a terrible weight of sin, and a bondage of the will.

Of course, I do believe in a certain kind of free will.  As Aquinas says, we can pursue rather limited created goods by the exercise of our wills, and I even believe that grace can be resisted in some sense if you want to call that free will.  What I do not believe for a minute is that I can, of my own volition, stop being a self-centered arrogant person, and be turned toward God and neighbor.  I am, as the 12 Steps put it, powerless over the sin in my life.  And so is everybody else.  That doesn't mean that we're not responsible for what we do.  Again, to return to the recovery metaphor, one of the 12 Steps is making amends, not to mention making a searching moral inventory and turning things over to God.

If I didn't believe that, I don't know how I could put up with myself, let alone the people around me.  The little voice in my head that says "Why don't you just shape up?" would be much louder.  I would always suspect that people were just not trying hard enough, and with a little more commitment they could do alright, and I would always be angry. The truth is we really can't do much better and we all are suffering, struggling and failing constantly.  The proper reaction is not anger, but compassion and love,  because our only hope is the grace and mercy of God, which can and does free our bound wills to love him.    

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury Addresses the Syrian Crisis

The Most Rev. Justin Welby spoke to the House of Lord's  yesterday, in opposition to a military strike on Syria.  His argument is based pretty soundly on the Just War Tradition as far as I can tell, and it is worth noting that he echoes the statements from the Christian leaders in Syria.  Come to think of it, are there any Christian leaders who do support military intervention in this case?  I haven't seen any, and I hope there are none.  Pray for peace.  

But there is a further point, talking to a very senior Christian leader in the region yesterday, he said,  “intervention from abroad will declare open season on the Christian communities.” They have already been devastated, two million Christians in Iraq 12 years ago, less than half a million today. These are churches that don’t just go back to St Paul but, in the case of Damascus and Antioch, predate him. They will surely suffer terribly (as they already are) if action goes ahead. And that consequence has to be weighed against the consequences of inaction.  - See more at:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Some Tools of Chaste Living, from Joshua Gonnerman

Joshua Gonnerman is a bit of a rising star in the world of moral theology, and writes occasionally for First Things on various topics.  His most noted articles have been on the issue of how to respond to LGBT folks in the Church, from the perspective of traditional Church teaching.  I am also blessed to call Mr. Gonnerman a friend, and probably the single most important influence on my views on gender, sexuality and the gospel.

So, I was really excited when I saw that he would be doing a series of posts at the blog Spiritual Friendship on the practical aspects of chastity in the celibate state.  Okay,  that terminology may sound a bit medieval and unexciting, but stick with me.  As Mr. Gonnerman says
Before people are married in the Church, they receive marriage counseling...Similarly, when someone joins a religious order, they have to undergo intensive formation before becoming a full member... But it seems safe to say that, as a rule (though particular circumstances may make it untrue in concrete situations), the person who lives celibacy in the world has, in her or his life, the least and frailest support structures of all; yet he or she is expected to live chastity with the most general guidance and the fewest concrete examples. 

Spiritual Friendship focuses especially on the needs of LGBT Christians, but this post has a wide importance for all sorts of Christians, gay, straight or other.

Many of us hope to get married one day, but for whatever reasons find we are celibate for the time being. In evangelical circles the readily available advice is usually nothing more than "Get married as soon as you can." A nice thought, I guess, but not always as practical as might be hoped.  It also tends to produce a feeling of waiting (e.g. True Love Waits), that I think is unhelpful. I find myself in just this position. If I spent all my time "Waiting" for true love I would be miserable, feeling like my life has not yet begun.  We are called where we are, not where we would like to be or where we may yet be. That means that at the moment I am called to celibacy, and called to find ways of loving God and my neighbors in that state. So, rather than feeling like I am in the antechamber of life, I would rather have some tools for thinking about celibacy in a positive way.

I'm not sharing this to get all confessional, but simply because I think that my experience is fairly common among young single Christians, and to make the point that Mr. Gonnerman's reflections are relevant to all sorts of people, both to the permanently celibate, and to those who are only called to celibacy for a time. They may also be quite useful resources for those who are responsible for pastoral care.

So get thee over to Spiritual Friendship, and have a look at Mr. Gonnerman's posts.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

There'll Be No Butter in Hell!

A sermon on Luke 12:49-56
NB.  I think this sermon has some serious theological holes - I think I am unclear about the different sorts of suffering which can affect a Christian, conflating them a bit too much, and the kind of judgment that we undergo.  I would also want to emphasize, if I were expanding this sermon, that much of the suffering we undergo in the Christian life is purgative, but much is also suffering that we experience in solidarity with the world - because we are still in the world, its sufferings affect us too, just as Moses died with the wilderness generation outside the promised land, as Jeremiah went into exile, even though he was righteous, and finally as Christ died for us. Sometimes these two types of suffering overlap.  That said, I think the basic point I make is correct, and fits with the prophetic warnings against those who are too eager for the day of the Lord, which is "Darkness and not light" (Amos 5:18), and at the same time maintains the good news of God's judgment.  
Ye're all damned!

Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

This is one of Jesus' so called 'hard sayings;' sayings that are difficult or unpleasant to hear. This saying almost seems out of Character for Jesus. This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but a frightening Jesus mean and wild.These are not the sayings we expect from the prince of peace, and they are a thousand miles away from the comforting religion that we all enjoy and like to turn to in a crisis, all pastel colors and dewy eyed saints.

Or maybe I shouldn't presume – there are in fact some of us who enjoy these sayings, and preachers who get a perhaps not totally wholesome thrill from preaching on these hard sayings; preachers who love getting a rise from their congregations by preaching hell fire and damnation, and congregations who love hearing it. The comic film Cold Comfort Farm, based on a novel by the same name, presents a delightful and stinging parody of this kind of gleeful anger in preaching.

The character Amos, played by Sir Ian McKellen, is a farmer in the English country side in the 1930s who also serves as the minister of a tiny church, known as the “Church of the Quivering Brethren.” When asked by his well meaning cousin Flora what he will be preaching about on Sunday, he explains in his thick north English accent that he never prepares his sermons beforehand, but “I allus' know it will be summat about burnin'... or the eternal torment... or sinners comin' to judgment.” Amos then adds, just for good measure: “and ye'll burn with the lot of them.” I highly recommend going on youtube to see Ian Mckellen's rendition of this sermon to get the full effect. When Amos preaches he takes no end of pleasure describing each item in a catalog of hell's torments – perhaps the strangest, and in context the most comic, of which is his loud declaration that “There'll be no butter in hell!”. His congregation listens and cheers him on, taking no end of delight in hearing him declare with total assurance “Ye'll all burn!”

Well, I am not particularly that kind of preacher. I don't think you're particularly that kind of congregation. I would far rather talk about God's grace and mercy, met in Christ and about reconcilliation, new life and peace, than about fire from heaven and division. But both are in the gospel, both are revealed by God and an honest preacher is bound to preach both. So while I am not going to describe any of the pains of hell in detail, I am going to suggest that perhaps you will all burn, and perhaps it is good news that you will.

How can fire, and division be good news? What does Jesus even mean by “bringing fire on the earth?” That's not as easy a question to answer as it might seem, but I think that it is safe to say that this is first of all an image of God's judgment. This saying comes at the end of a long passage rebuking hypocrites and self confident sinners. It draws on a long history of biblical images of judgment, from Sodom and Gommorah destroyed by fire from heaven, to the prophets who said “who can endure the day of [the Lord's] coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap” (Mal 3. 1-2), or John the Baptist declaring that the Messiah will “burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The prophets and the psalms expected this judgment and they even looked forward to it. They understood that the judgment itself was good news, because God's judgment puts all things right. We often do not like to think of God as judgmental, but that is a bit short sighted. There are many things in this world that need to be judged. When the innocent are hurt, when children are abused by those they trust, when someone is punished for the color of their skin, when our leaders lie to us, or when we discover that a friend is dying of cancer... these things cry out for judgment.

When a wildfire sweeps through, it clears away everything dead, the brush and debris that have piled up. In areas that are prone to fire, there will sometimes be intentional controlled fires, litt to clear away debris. God's judgment is a fire like that, dividing what is dead from what is alive. That kind of judgment is good news. Of course, it looks like much better news when you think that its someone else who will be judged; when you feel like you and your loved ones are the ones who will be acquitted.

But the better we come to know God and come to know ourselves, the more we come to realize that we are not totally safe. There are weeds, dead things, selfish motives, cruelties and lusts in our hearts. When we realize that the fire is at our own door, it becomes much more frightening. Remember that in the context where Jesus is speaking, he is preaching to a lot of people – perhaps even some among his disciples – who feel very confident in their own righteousness, people who assume that God's judgment will not come near them. These are the people Jesus calls hypocrites.

Now, if this were a typical hell fire sermon, I would tell you about now, how you are all liable to judgment, but how you can escape it by getting your act together. I'm not going to do that though, because I don't think that would be quite true to the words of the gospel. Jesus does not promise to his disciples that they will escape the fire that he has come to cast on the earth. On the contrary, they will experience suffering, and  “five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.”

Jesus is not interested here in making it easy to follow him, and this passage sounds like altogether bad news if we get right down to it. And it would be, except for one fact, the fact that there is something worse than experiencing the fire of God's judgment. That, of course, is not experiencing God's judgment. I suppose God could have decided not to bring judgement on the world. But where would that leave us? It would leave us with all the same dead things in the world and in our own hearts, the greed, the selfishness  the anger, the violence and the cruelty. It would leave us dead ourselves.

Most serious diseases hurt when they are being healed. Undergoing treatment for cancer is a horrifying prospect, and no one would ever choose that, if it were not that the alternative is death. The cure for sin hurts too, but it is the way that God has provided for us to find life. We may have to be divided from many things that we love, from having our own way, from possessions  from our images of ourselves. It may mean that we are divided and cut off from our communities, even from family and friends when our relationships with them have become deadly to us and to them. This is painful, and it burns, but it is the way that God has provided to lead us into life.

It is a way that Jesus Christ has walked before us. He has shown and carried the full weight of our judgment on the cross. He has also shown that this judgment leads to resurrection. But the only way is through fire, through division, through the cross. Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps we don't need to go through fire – perhaps if we really want it, God will simply let us stay as we are. He will simply say, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” and give us a little space to go away and let our weeds grow uninterrupted by fire, till they choke us. I hope not though. I hope instead, that even if I understand the words a little differently than he did the fictional preacher I mentioned earlier was right, and that we'll all burn.
In the name...