Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Areopagite and Urban Ministry

Looking south down into Sheridan Hollow from Clinton
Street in Arbor Hill.  The Cathedral is the red brick building
just poking out over the trees.
 Arbor Hill is an Albany neighborhood not too far north of the Cathedral of All Saints. The Cathedral is located downtown, and between us and Arbor Hill there is fixed a not so great chasm, a developed ravine cradling the little tiny neighborhood of Sheridan Hollow.  I usually walk down into Sheridan Hollow once a or twice a week, then up the other side, into Arbor Hill.

Arbor Hill is definitely an inner city neighborhood.  It is poor, and most of the residents are minorities. Though it has pretty places here and there, it's not a pretty neighborhood by any reasonable standard.  Block after block of cracked and uneven sidewalks on Clinton Avenue, the main thoroughfare, are littered with boarded up buildings, scraps of paper, black plastic bags and the occasional bit of rusted metal. Virtually the only businesses are derelict and disreputable looking convenience stores with sun faded advertisements pasted to grimy windows.  Few if any of these sell fresh produce.  Still, Arbor Hill is the real reason I came to Albany.

My wife tells me that every time I go to Arbor Hill and come back, I seem a little more animated and joyful.   When I am discouraged and frustrated by ministry (which happens even in joyful times) a walk in Arbor Hill lifts my spirits.  Sitting on a bench at the corner of a busy intersection, where the paper plates and plastic bags rustle with the autumn leaves around my feet, I am happy.  This is where God wants me to to be.  

I don't think this has anything to do with pity for a poor neighborhood, still less with 'white guilt,' two condescending emotions that have never had much motivating power for me.   As I have tried to articulate why I like Arbor Hill so much, and why I want to minister there so much, help has come from an unexpected source.  My friends know that I have, in the last year or so developed a strong devotion to the anonymous author who wrote under the name Dionysius the Areopagite.  They are probably growing sick of hearing about how great Dionysius is; they better get used to keeping the bicarbonate of soda about though, because I'm going to continue talking about him.  

Dionysius is a very abstract writer, who uses the language and a not a few of the concepts of Neo-Platonism.  He was not someone I initially read to be encouraged about urban ministry, but mainly to satisfy more academic and personal interests. 

He surprised me though.  I was in a laundromat one day in Arbor Hill, waiting for a load of clothes to finish the spin cycle, and I had brought along a book to read in case there was no one else at the laundry. I was struck by this passage from Dionysius' The Divine Names.  

The very Author of all things, by the beautiful and good love of everything, through an overflow of His loving goodness, becomes out of Himself, by His providences for all existing things, and is, as it were, bewitched by goodness and charity and love, and is led down from the Eminence above all, and surpassing all, to being in all... Wherefore, those skilled in Divine things call Him even Jealous... (Divine Names IV. 13)
The metaphysical background of this text is complex, and the meaning has to be carefully parsed, for certain.  But that background is not what I am interested in right now.  At the time, reading this was like having a light turned on.  It struck me, not as a theoretical description of providence or the relation that obtains between the world and God, but as a vivid reality; the terrifying and beautiful reality that God is ecstatically, extravagantly in love with what he has made.  

The rest of the afternoon walking around Arbor Hill, light might as well have poured through the cracks in those uneven sidewalks.  Dionysius had put words around something I already knew on an inarticulate level: God desires Arbor Hill. God longs for this neighborhood, and his longing makes it lovely.  God's is present to whatever he loves, with, in and through the objects of his love, transfiguring them with the light of Christ.  

Of course, this is true of any person, any place, any neighborhood.  Still, there are times and places when God shows us, vividly, intensely, the truth of what we already hold in some abstract way.  I think that's why I love Arbor Hill, myself.  God has let me get a little glimpse of his own love for this neighborhood, a taste of his desire and his delight, and so a sense of his transfiguring love for the place. That, in my mind, is the definition of my own call to Arbor Hill.  
As for the the Areopagite, I am not trying to suggest that every urban missionary read The Divine Names.   He is a generally controversial figure, and many theologians more learned than I are very critical of his thought.  Others simply find his writings too obscure and theoretical to be of much help. I know he wouldn't do so for everyone, but he did give me the words to think and talk about some of these things. Of course, that's part of why I love his writings so much; not just because they satisfy an intellectual enthusiasm, but because they seem to me to be written by someone who really was enthralled by the love of God, with a gentle passion to share that love with others.  For my money that makes a theologian worth reading and a saint worth imitating.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

New Blog

I have started a new blog, so that I can move some of my Kyoto School ramblings off this site.  I plan to continue this blog, of course, but I am also continuing to read and reflect upon the Kyoto school, in a much more systematic way.  Having a place set aside for these reflections will free up the space here, which I don't want to have filled with only technical theological and philosophical discussions.  My hope is to have this blog free for more spiritual meditations, reflections on urban ministry, etc.

Anyway, if the Kyoto School or Buddhist/Christian dialogue, have a gander over at the new site,
West of Kyoto.

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: