Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother . . . .

One of my tasks in the parish is to be a catechist: to prepare candidates for baptism and confirmation by teaching them the basics of the faith. It is my practice to do so through Lent, and to use the Apostles’ Creed (what Christians believe), The Ten Commandments (how Christians act), and the Lord’s Prayer (how Christians live and worship) as guides. This past year, it was my especial privilege to prepare my daughter to affirm for herself the promises Rachel and I, and Jason and Kara made on her behalf at the chancel steps of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in 2004.

As we were working through the commandments, we got to “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This is the fifth commandment and the first of the second table of the Law. It stands at the head of those laws that fall broadly under what it means to “love thy neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18). “What do you think this means, Sara?” came the fairly standard start-off question.

“It means that I should do what you and mommy tell me to do.”

“Why?”

“So that I can have a good life.”

Nothing terribly radical in that exchange. But as we talked further, some deep observations began to take shape between Sara and me. Ones that I (to my chagrin) had never thought before.

We had spent the first part of the previous lesson talking about the notions of covenant and mutual obligation (You will be my people and I will be your God). We talked about God’s act (deliverance from slavery) and promise (I will bring you into the land). And we talked about the people’s response (obedience in the land). All that came flooding back when we began to reflect on what it means to honor one’s parents.

As we talked, Sara and I came to the conclusion, first, that the fifth commandment was a mini-covenant. That is, it implied responsibilities on both sides. Children were to honor their parents, yes, and to do so in an asymmetrically related way to that in which the people were to honor God. If that’s the case, though, then there must also be some sort of obligation attached. It is this: parents are obligated to teach their children the covenant, to live it out in front of them, to talk about it when they lay down and rise up, when they are at home or on the road (Deut. 6). If children are to honor parents, then, of course, parents are to behave honorably. And teaching the covenant is what honorable behavior looks like.

The next conclusion then emerged easily: “that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” is not the individual promise of a long life, but rather has to do with the continuity of the covenant for the community in the land. God’s promise of the good, land-ed life is contingent upon the passing of the covenant from parent to child through successive generations. If parents fail to teach; if children fail to honor, then the covenant will collapse.

“Daddy,” came the most honest question yet, “is this why there are no kids in our church?” While her assessment of “no kids” was false, Sara had made a deep connection: our third conclusion. We have had two generations of failed catechesis in homes. Homes in which the faith was neither practiced nor taught, but farmed out to the ministry professionals to attend to. The covenant was broken. Parents have failed to teach their children; children have failed to honor their parents. I can’t help but wonder, after all the sociological assessments of millennials and their (lack of) religious affiliation are completed, a lot might be explained by a thesis as simple as this one. At some point, parents had nothing to pass on, and that’s exactly what their kids learned.

And finally the fourth: our youth oriented culture (no, not the bugaboo secular culture, but the youth-oriented church culture) has it exactly backwards. Making our primary goal attracting young families or youth or children may well end up being a recipe for a slow decline and death. Sara and I decided that we should belong to a churchy church, one that taught what it had received, one that worshiped in continuity with generations of previous believers, in the hope that the promise would not fail and that our days in the land would be long.

It might not be time to write ICHABOD over the doors just yet.

C.S. Lewis Logos Library: Why Logos is Different from Kindle

Hey folks:

A couple of you have asked why they should invest in the Logos C. S. Lewis Library instead of buying Kindle editions. Here’s my attempt at an answer.

The first thing to be said is that Kindle and Logos aren’t really competitors. They serve different needs and even different audiences. It comes down to you and your needs as a reader. So if your intention is simply to build an electronic library or to replace your paper copies as they wear out, Kindle (or another e-reader) might be a good way for you to go. It is fast. It is reliable. It is portable. And most of all, it is cheaper. One of the hurdles that I faced when I first started investigating Logos was cost. And you may balk at it, too. I have come to believe that its benefits far outweigh the price. I think you will, too.

If your intention, however, is not simply to read Lewis for enjoyment, but to actually research themes as they develop through his literary corpus, then Kindle (or another e-reader) is of no use use to you. In fact, it’s even less use than having multiple paper copies of books at hand. For research purposes (this is my opinion), Kindle (or another e-reader) isn’t a helpful tool. You have to close one book before you can open another one (you can’t have multiple windows open). Nor can you search words or themes across texts. (For instance, you can’t move from The Four Loves to The Allegory of Love to compare what Lewis writes about  “eros” in each).

Here is where the Logos library really shines. Yes, you will pay more than buying the individual titles for an e-reader. But for the extra money, you will be able to open multiple books; the texts are fully indexed and you will search easily through the whole corpus. In my next Lewis blog, I’ll take you through such a study. I have to confess that the Logos software takes some time to learn, but the investment of both time and money pays off!

I need to be clear, finally, that you don’t need to be a Lewis scholar or a professional academic to make good use of the Logos platform. Because I teach a fair bit of Lewis in a university setting, it’s a superb tool. But I can see it being used by Sunday School teachers, lay leaders, or just interested readers.

The Affectionate Church

These last few weeks, I have been re-reading one of my favourite books. The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis, is his description of the four loves that mark human interactions: Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity.

Affection is the most “organic” and “natural” of the loves, followed closely by Eros. Without the latter, none of us would have been begotten; without the former none of us would have survived.

Churches, as human (or maybe sometimes all-too-human) institutions, are marked by all four loves; indeed, they should be marked by all four loves, even the organic ones. Not least because God is more often presented to us in Holy Scripture as Father (Affection) or Bridegroom (Eros) to His people than as friend.

I don’t know that there has been a demographic study, but I sometimes wonder whether Affection is the least present of the four loves in many of our churches. And I wonder whether it is precisely because we strive to be friendly.

Let me explain. Affection is, for Lewis, the least discriminating of loves. It is often rooted in little more than familiarity. At its basest level, affection is what my wife feels for her old slippers and what my daughter feels for her guinea pigs. A bit higher up the ladder, affection is what we have for our family members because they are there and they are ours without our choosing them. (Indeed many times we would not choose to love them, but do all the same).

Affection, unlike friendship, is not deliberate. It does not depend on shared interests or common visions. Affection may even be deeply present without any visible sign of appreciation. It simply is there.

I wonder if our churches lack affection precisely because we have been so focused on being friendly. On building relationships with people with whom we share interests, whose company we enjoy, who are just like us. How many churches self-segregate according to race, political opinions, and wealth? No doubt, this is what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when he described Sunday at 11 as “the most segregated hour in America.” Insofar as churches strive to be friendly, they run the risk of becoming silos of self-reinforcing opinions.

Without diminishing the importance of friendship, I wonder what might happen if churches cultivated a more affectionate love. That is, on building slow, deep, familiar relationships that cross generational, political, gender, and other differences, requiring only a common love of Jesus to take root.

For example, what might happen to evangelicalism if “red-letter Christians,” actually committed to worshipping with “the Christian right” over a long period of time and stopped lobbing self-righteous “prophetic calls to repentance,” but which are in fact often only confirmations of their own prejudice (and, of course, vice versa)?

Here is one area in which the old parish model, where one attended the church closest, has a gift to offer. If the community is defined by something neutral like geography, the greater the likelihood of different kinds of people joining together for common prayer. As our urban areas change, the notion of the neighborhood parish or the village church may be in for a revival. If so, I hope the side benefit of bringing different people together comes, too. Certainly, it won’t be a reduplication of the older model. There’s no turning back the clock. But the notion of belonging to a church for reasons that had nothing to do with personal preference is one that surely needs revisiting.

This is not to say that Affection is the most godly of the loves. It can be unhealthily needy, even co-dependent. Affection needs to be tempered not merely by the presence of the other loves, but also by decency, courtesy, and reason. Affection too needs to be redeemed.

But for Affection to be tempered or even redeemed, it must first be present. And today, that’s a good place to start.

 

 

 

Pope Francis: Revisiting an Old Column. . . .

I was checking out ChristianWeek this evening and started looking through some old columns of mine. Here‘s one I wrote just before the election of Francis. In my column, I expressed a hope for reformer from the Global South, who could say something especially to Pentecostals in Latin America and who would speak out on Christian persecution in the Muslim world. I guess I got that one mostly right.

Christ With Us in a World Gone Mad

Here is my latest column at ChristianWeek. I am very fortunate to be a contributor to this fine publication. If you’re not already familiar with it, take some time to look at its stories and columns. It is an important venue for Canadian Christians to express themselves and listen to each other!

BTW, if the column strikes a chord,  comment, whether there or here!

Questions about the Good Samaritan UPDATED

Recently on Facebook, a friend (a real, live friend, not a fb friend) posted a link to a Gospel Coalition blog about The Good Samaritan. I’ve linked so you can read it. The author, Tullian Tchividjian, offers a neo-Calvinist reading of a pretty traditional (one finds it from the fathers forward) interpretation of the parable in which the parable is read as a response to the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” rather than, “Who is my neighbor?” On this reading we are to identify with the broken and beaten and robbed man in need of rescue by Jesus, who is, in turn, the Good Samaritan. (More elaborate allegorical interpretations on this line associate the Innkeeper with Saint Paul, the Inn as the Church, and the priest and levite as failed Jewish law keeping, tradition, and/or religion). My friend accused the post of eisegesis, non-sequitur, and most seriously, antinomianism. Could be. I will say that I did not, and do not, find Tchividjian’s reading convincing, regardless of the nobility of its pedigree

Having said that, however, I must depart from my friend’s (and if not his, then certainly most of those who followed-up on his fb page) reading, in which the parable is told as a straightforward response to the lawyer’s second question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is the one we are most familiar with (and the one that Tchividjian himself works against in his blog post). The parable is taken to mean, your neighbor is anyone you meet who is in need of help, regardless of race, religion, or any other socially defining boundary. Religious purity or holiness are not legitimate reasons to avoid entering into the lives of others to offer tangible expressions of aid. With Jesus command, “Go and do likewise,” we are all commissioned to be “Good Samaritans.” I depart from this reading, simply because, that’s not what the parable says either. For that reading, the reading that compels the crossing of all boundaries for the sake of neighborly aid, the “everyone is your neighbor” reading, to flow most smoothly, the man who is beaten must be the Samaritan in need of aid, not the one doing the aiding. The hook of the parable, however, is that it is a Jew who received aid from a Samaritan, that the outsider ‘gets’ neighborliness in a way the insiders do not.

So I find myself (having done almost 0 work on the passage) not drawn to either interpretation because I don’t think the parable intends to answer the “eternal life” question or the “neighbor” question. It aims, I think, to change the question altogether. What say you?

Update: Quite a kerfuffle over here (not sure if the link will work or not) over my query. I think Fr. Lee Nelson has persuaded me that the reversal of roles sharpens Jesus’ indictment of the lawyer for even asking the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The parable is not an answer as much as it is an indictment of the lawyer’s hypocrisy. To quote Fr. Lee, “even a Samaritan dog would treat a man dying in the Judean desert better than you hypocrites.” In other words, the question is itself a sign of disobedience to the commandment.

On Francis and Benedict

Well, Pope Francis’s America interview has caused quite a stir, again leading in some media sources to rave reviews, and triumphant pronouncements about how different Francis will be from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I am noticing a curious pattern emerging which has little to do with the Popes, and everything to do with their coverage in the Western media. In short, the media quickly (subconsciously, I expect) decide on the “papal narrative,” and then over-report the stuff that fits and under-report the stuff that doesn’t.

So, for example, during Benedict’s pontificate, any item that reinforced the narrative of “God’s Rottweiler” was accentuated (for example the investigation of American nuns) while other items that challenged the narrative went almost unremarked (for example, a speech from 2006 which included a very “Franciscan” section on segments of the Church’s excessive preoccupation on gays and abortion in 2006). Only once do I remember this narrative being challenged, when Benedict suggested (as an academic theologian well might) that the use of a condom, while less than entirely virtuous, may reflect a turn away from a greater sin and a turn toward righteousness. Headlines screamed that the Roman Church was revisiting its stance on contraception. Which, of course, it wasn’t. Once that became clear, Benedict went back to the dogs, so to speak.

Now Francis. We are hearing from pundits on the right and on the left that he is soft on gays, abortion, women’s ordination. Again, the entirety of his remarks suggest otherwise. For example on the hypothetical case of a gay priest, Francis says, “If a man is repenting of his sin and has a good will, who am I to judge?” What is reported: “Who am I to judge.” Or, when Francis says , “I will not talk as much about abortion, gays, or women’s ordination because Church teaching is settled on these matters,” the reports only cover up to the “because,” while the remainder, if it is reported at all, is buried several paragraphs down. At the same time, that Francis’s first encyclical was actually written by Benedict, completed by Francis and signed by both has been rarely talked about. Largely because this suggests a measure of continuity that runs against the grain of the narrative. As does, for example, Francis continuing the investigation of American sisters that his predecessor began. This suggests to me that the collective consciousness of the media has decided that Francis is the liberal anti-Benedict. Every quote will be filtered through this narrative and exaggerated or ignored accordingly.

Of course, the narrative can change over a long pontificate. Few probably remember how John Paul II was the darling of the media for his support of workers’ rights, Solidarity, and so on in Poland. It was only in the latter half of his papacy, as his body failed, and as he began to teach powerfully on matters of human sexuality that the narrative changed to the substantially less positive one now enshrined. For the briefest of months following his funeral, the original narrative seemed to take the stage again–who can argue with a million pilgrims shouting “Santo Subito!”?–but that is now a memory. I wonder whether there will be a narrative change with Francis. We’ll see.

A final thought. Much of the fawning seems to reflect a sincere attraction not to Francis, but to Jesus and to the Gospel. And that is good. At the same time, though, it also reflects a fundamental attitude toward Christian faith in the West these days: “I’ll become a Christian when the faith agrees with me.” So much for conversion. I am tempted to quote Flannery O’Connor out of context here. “If that is all it is, then to hell with it.” The fawning, in other words, reflects the truth of every human heart that instinctively knows the Gospel is good news, but recoils at the fact that part of that good news is the exposure of sin. It is therefore fitting to end with Francis’ own self-description–again under-reported outside Christian media. To the question, “Who is Francis?” he replied, “I am a sinner.” Just so.

On Facing East

Over the last four weeks now, I have enjoyed setting out the reasons for “facing east” during the Eucharist (for any readers from free church traditions, that means the congregation and the clergy all facing the same direction, toward the altar or holy table) in our church newsletter. I’m engaging in this teaching so that our parish can, once or twice / year celebrate this way, as is permitted by the Book of Common Prayer. Three of the mini-essays hang together as a Trinitarian reading of the sacraments and I present them here in succession, without attempting to massage them into one piece. Wondering what you might think.

—-

Last week I began a series of short reflections on facing east (the technical term is ad orientam—for the Jeopardy files) when celebrating the Eucharist. The theme last week was one of unity and identity. Just as the entire congregation faces east, so also does the priest, to remind everyone that the priest is also a member of the community of faith, and indeed has been set aside by the community to say and do things only as the community’s representative.

For the next three weeks, I’d like to consider the other side of the altar—what facing east says about God, about Christ, and about our communion with God through Christ. This week, we consider what facing east says about God.

In our usual practice, we “gather around the table.” We face the table and each other at the same time to share a meal. This way of celebrating the Eucharist calls to mind the immanence of God. We might think especially here of the risen Lord meeting with Cleopas and another disciple at Emmaus. They gathered at the table and Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it. And when he did, the disciples perceived him.

When we face east, without contradicting the encounter I just described, we emphasize God’s transcendence, God’s “otherness.” Here, we think of the Temple theophanies in the Old Testament—when God “appeared” in response to Solomon’s prayer or to the prophet Isaiah. A deep sense of “otherness” and awe pervades those stories. Think also of the disciples’ response when Jesus rebuked the storm. “Who is this man that even the winds and the waves obey him?” Christian worship is a risk-laden encounter with the transcendent God who by his Word created and sustains all that is.

When we think of God’s transcendence, we might also think that we need a mediator between this God and us! We might need something—Someone—who will bring God near and at the same time, keep us from being overwhelmed by that nearness. Of course, we do have such a Someone, as the Comfortable Words in the BCP liturgy so beautifully stress. But that is next week’s topic.

For today, we are wise to find liturgical ways to accommodate both God’s immanence and transcendence, for both are true. If immanence on its own turns God into our Anytime Special Supernatural Everyday Friend, transcendence alone turns God into a remote, detached, and finally uninvolved observer of all that is. It is only as we hold both together that our imagination is fired by the God who gives himself to us in the pages of Holy Scripture—the God who is at once closer than a brother and a consuming fire.

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A common complaint about celebrating Holy Eucharist facing east is that we are all “facing the wall.” Not really. We are not facing a wall so much as we are facing a person, and that person is Jesus Christ, our great high priest, our mediator. (The image comes from the New Testament book of Hebrews, which has been the source of our Epistle readings for the last few weeks).

We do so symbolically, of course. Though I must immediately add that symbolically does not mean that Jesus really isn’t present—more on that next week—but to acknowledge that Jesus’ presence is itself given through created things. One of the symbols is captured in the word, east. According to the compass, I won’t be facing east at all on September 29, but south. I will be facing what is called “liturgical east.” So what does east symbolize?

As the place from which the sun rises, “east” is where we turn to remember the place from which the Son rises. We face east to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Which is why there is a powerful depiction of the crucifixion in our (liturgical) eastern window, and just underneath it, on the reredos, a cross. It is important to notice that the cross is gilded, budded, and empty. No longer a symbol of torture and death, it is now a thing of beauty (the gilding) and life (the buds), a symbol of death undone by resurrection (there is no body). And it is all of those things because of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

Facing east is another way of expressing the unique place of Jesus in the Christian story. He is our priest, our mediator, and our buffer. As the Incarnate God, he is the one who brings God near, and by his death and resurrection, we have been made worthy to stand in that God’s presence. It is Christ who brings God close and at the same time keeps us from being overwhelmed by that transcendent presence. Many Christians are decidedly uncomfortable with the notion that the white-hot holiness of God might undo them, but it seems to me to be integral to the Scriptures and the Great Tradition which all branches of Christianity share.

The good news is, that white-hot holiness is not simply a consuming fire (again, to use the language of Hebrews), but is a holy love which pursues sinful creatures and provides the means by which fellowship, a genuine union, is accomplished. That union is effected by Christ.

But the death and resurrection of Jesus happened 2000 years ago. How does that past event become a present reality? How does the Jesus who walked the dusty paths of Palestine come to us today?

That’s where we’ll turn next week.

—-

Last week, we began to talk a little bit about Jesus as he whose death and resurrection makes possible our reconciliation with God and we asked the question, how does that past event, which the New Testament describes using different metaphors—victory, verdict, sacrifice, loving display are the main four—become present to us?

Most Christians have traditionally believed that it happens through the sacraments, that the water, bread and wine, when received in faith, actually accomplish the act they symbolize. This was a matter of great debate in North African churches in the fifth century, with some arguing that the sacraments “worked” only if the priest administering them was himself a holy man and others, notably St. Augstine, insisting that the sacraments had entirely to do with God’s grace and not the holiness of the priest. And it was Augustine’s position that carried the day.

Anglicans have generally followed this Augustinian line of thought, though with our own emphasis. It was the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, who gave expression to the Anglican insight that it was through the agency of the Holy Spirit that Christ was made savingly present in the sacraments. We really do “feed . . . in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” not because the bread and wine are miraculously changed, but because by the power of the Holy Spirit these signs give to us the very life of Christ, who, as fully God and fully human, is the bridge that reconciles us to his Father.

Over the last three weeks we have reflected on the BCP Holy Communion service through the lens of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father calls us into fellowship, through the death and resurrection of the Son, to whom we have been united by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we eat and drink in faith, we really are united to Christ, really are able to name God as “Our Father,” as Jesus teaches us to do.

Why is this important? What does it have to do with facing east? It is important because it reminds us that in eucharistic worship, God is the actor from first to last. It is not something we do, whether because we are afraid that God will be angry with us if we do not or because we really are very nice people and want God to see just how lovely we are. God is the actor whom we can neither manipulate nor impress. God is the actor who acts out of sheer, unconditional, love to save us.

And facing east? Facing east reminds us (and let’s face it, especially the person up front) that the priest is, along with the congregation, coming to the altar to receive a gift that none of us, ordained or not, can ever earn. We are all in the same place, before the face of God, “whose property is always to have mercy.”

Answering Ivan, Or, Why the Church has No Theodicy

Here is a copy of the paper I read today at the Cranmer Conference, held at St John the Divine, North Bay, ON. It is an expansion of my initial reflections after Newtown, published here as “Where was God and Other Wrong Questions.”

Answering Ivan: Why the Church has no Theodicy

Two weeks after  the Newtown horror (“tragedy,” the default term for these events these days, is not nearly weighty enough), I wrote a short blog about the event that seemed to catch fire, generating over 1000 hits over 2 ½ days. This is not a huge number, but for a blog whose daily hits number in the tens, this is a significant increase. That blog essay remains the backbone of this short paper which I have entitled, “Answering Ivan: Why the Church has no Theodicy.”

Ivan stands for Ivan Karamazov and  I’ll get to him in a moment. First, let’s begin with the term, “theodicy.” Theodicy means, literally, the justification of God and it is the term used in philosophy of religion to cover the attempts to justify God in the face of evil. And in one sense, the title of my paper is obviously false: there have been many Christians through the centuries who have espoused many theodicies. The Greater Good defense that has its roots in St. Augustine. The Free-Will defense that also has roots in the fathers and such contemporary exponents as Alvin Plantinga. The defense from the imperfection of creation that ostensibly can be found in Irenaeus, and is associated with the recently deceased John Hick.

So, I don’t mean to say that there is no such thing as theodicy. There clearly is. Nor am I saying that such intellectual efforts are without merit. Though, as I will talk about in a moment, I find such exercises dubious in certain contexts, certainly, Augustine and Irenaeus, Plantinga and Hick are quite a quartet with whom to pick a fight. And I’m not going to. I have found and continue to find their works helpful as I reflect on this subject.

What I mean is, while there are many theodicies, the Church has not discovered in her Scriptures or enshrined in her Creeds one theodicy. And so while Christians may espouse one of many, the Church has none. (Ironically enough, the Church has enshrined the problem of evil in its creeds by insisting both that God is “Almighty” and the “Creator of all that is, seen and unseen.” But that is another paper altogether).

With that in mind, let us return to the internet explanations of Newtown. The same day of the horror, the internet exploded with advice to all concerned, advice that continued to be as offered as it was unsolicited for some weeks. The speculations, however, all seemed to coalesce around one question. Where was God while the shooting happened? In itself, this is a perfectly fine question to ask. It animates, for example, many lament Psalms in which the Psalmist cries out to God to intervene to end suffering and injustice, to bring victory over enemies and so on. It is a favorite question, also, of Job, who not only asks it, but also answers it with an audacious hope: “I know that my Redeemer lives and in my flesh I shall see God.” Of course, Job does not ask with the Psalmist for intervention. Job wants God to show up so he can put him on trial. It is, finally, the question of our Lord—his dying question in the Gospel of Mark. Where was his God? Why had he forsaken him?

So, in asking the question, the internet pundits were on solid ground. The foundation of many who went on to answer the question was, in my opinion, considerably shakier. Here’s one answer that I heard often.  “God was absent. Having scrubbed God from the public life of America, or North America, or the West (take your pick), we are now left to live with the consequences of our ‘cleanliness.’ God has indeed left and we are left to live with godlessness.” There can be no doubt that the callous way in which this answer was often set out invited ridicule from Christians and others. So I must confess right away to holding the content of this answer in some regard even if it is stupidly and insensitively presented by many.

It does, first of all, conform to the message of many of the Old Testament prophets when they are pronouncing God’s judgment on the people of Israel and Judah. The refusal to worship the God of Israel, the refusal to live in covenant with that God and with each other, would bring calamity on the land and its inhabitants. Eventually, the land itself would rebel against the people and spit them out. Cyrus would be presented as God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, sent to chasten the people who had broken covenant. Let us set aside whether we can move easily (or at all) from the denunciation of an Old Testament prophet on an ancient nation to a contemporary jeremiad on American public culture. Regardless of the exegetical nuancing required by such a move, we can still see can at least see that the move itself has prima facie biblical legs.

Further, we cannot plausibly argue that that prophetic motif is set aside in the New Testament.  It echoes both in the teaching of Jesus and St. Paul—we might think of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse or St. Paul’s condemnation of Gentile and Jew both in Romans 1-2. To reject God for other sources of life and security is to exchange the truth for a lie and to live according to that lie is to have oneself given over to social chaos and even destruction.  As I understand it, this word of the prophets, Jesus and Paul for our time (as indeed for every time) is simply, “the consequence of sin is more sin.” And that, even if inappropriately stated and therefore worthy of censure, is sadly true.

My objection to this answer, then, is not that it is false. Rather, it is the corollary that all too often came with that answer made my skin crawl. God is off in his heaven with a cosmic case of hurt feelings and now we’re here to tell one and all, on God’s behalf, “I told you so.” The message the prophets and Jesus delivered in anger, but also with wounded hearts and eyes that were “fountains of tears,” was here delivered with a glee that can only be called perverse. There was too much smug satisfaction. And that such pronouncements came from the followers of Jesus is a shame on all of us. We who are preachers have failed our people if this is what we have trained them to do. What would Ivan Karamazov say to such speech?

Before we reflect on that question, I want to turn to a second answer to “Where was God during Newtown?”, one that affirms just the opposite conclusion as the previous one.  Far from being absent, God was present through it all–weeping, perhaps consoling, hastening a departure for heaven. This answer is often given as a response to the more unkind versions of the first answer. This answer immediately evokes compassion, kindness, and every other human emotion so lacking in the previous one. That is its strength. But while it does tug at my emotions, I find its content wanting. It is hard, in spite of all the ink spilled on the notion of a God who suffers, from the popular work of Rabbi Harold Kushner to the more academic work of Jurgen Moltman, to find biblical and theological justification to make the argument that God is fundamentally like us: emotionally engaged but otherwise passive in the face of suffering.

Its main problem, however, is not its relative lack of theological weight or biblical justification. Indeed, after the initial pull of sentimentality subsides, the emotional response that this position provokes in me is anger. For it rests on an analogy that moves from human passivity to the divine. Where this analogy fails is over the matter of presence. I was not at Sandy Hook. My passivity is therefore justifiable by geography. I could not have done differently.  Were I ever to be in a similar situation, and I pray I never am, I would hope that I have the same courage as the principal and other teachers who died intervening to stop the gunman and to save children. Unlike me, God was present at Newtown, so the argument goes. And he did nothing. To stand by and cry while observing such a massacre is the definition of cowardice. Not divine love. How might Ivan Karamazov respond to this understanding of God?

Well that makes twice now that I have invoked that most passionate of atheists, Ivan Karamazov. Let us now turn to him. Ivan is a literary creation of Fyodor Dostoevksy so vivid that I, at least, can almost hear him when I read his speeches. Ivan does not believe in God. He does not believe in God passionately. Even if God exists, Ivan will not believe in God. And that is where we need to begin if we are going to try first to sketch out his answer to the Newtown internet theodicists and then, reflect on it ourselves. Ivan’s refusal to believe is a willful refusal to trust and no mere denial of God’s existence of. That denial, he says, grows out of his observations of the world God has created. It is a world in which children suffer. And in his conversation with his believing brother Alyosha, Ivan piles on example after example after example of horrific suffering drawn, we are told, from Dostoevsky’s own reading of the newspaper. It may be, Ivan reasons, that God will at the end of days, raise these little children to life and explain to them whey their suffering was necessary even as he welcomes them into paradise. But for Ivan, this is too much. A world in which heaven is attainable only on the condition that children suffer, even only one child suffers, is a world Ivan refuses. And as a result, he also refuses the God who would create such a world. He says, “I don’t want harmony… too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission [to heaven].… It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.”

Ivan’s atheism is powerful because it is existential. Unlike Leibniz or Hume or Mackie or Plantinga, his theodicy is not disengaged from actual suffering. It is not about solving a logical abstraction through appeals to “free-will,” “the greater good,” or “ultimate beauty.” Ivan thinks, as one commenter put it, “with his solar plexus.” His argument begins not in abstractions, but with this world and the real suffering it contains and moves from this world and our experience of it to ask troubling questions about the God who created it. The God who created a moral universe in which the suffering of one child is necessary to attain the greater good of heaven, is a God unworthy of belief, says Ivan.

So, what would this most passionate of atheists say to our internet theodicists who pronounced on God’s absence or presence at Newtown? I think he would heap scorn on both groups, and with justification. For the former, a God whose bruised feelings are at least partly responsible for the deaths of over 20 children and two adults trying to save them, is quite simply a God unworthy of belief. Again, belief here not in the sense of the mere assertion of existence, but of trust. Such a God, Ivan would say, is a moral monster. Even were this God, on the last day, to raise all these little children to new life and welcome them into heaven with the words, “your deaths were necessary to teach your culture a lesson,” that would not be enough for Ivan. Nor should it, I would submit, be enough for any of us. A God deliberately deploys the suffering of the innocent to utter a cosmic “I told you so,” is a God whose sovereignty remains intact at the cost of his goodness. Such a God is at bottom, Will without either Reason or Compassion. Such a God is unworthy of being God, so to speak. And with Ivan, we too must return our ticket if this is a true picture of God.

For the latter, I think Ivan Karamazov would skewer the idea of a God who is present but cannot intervene beyond offering emotional support. If anything, an impotent God, one who created all that is at the price of condemning himself to the role of some sort of divine spectator, weeping that the suffering of his children and impotent in the face of evil is, even more unworthy than the moral monster above. A God who willingly comes along side us, puts an arm around us, and, Oprah-like, offers to “feel our pain” with us but doesn’t really change anything, is, I think Ivan would submit, the idolatrous creation of a culture addicted to the therapeutic. A projection of our own imaginations necessitated to help us make peace with our own passivity, whether chosen or unavoidable, in the face of suffering. A God who is just like us—to the degree that he cannot prevent horrors like Newtown—is a God whose ticket also needs to be returned.

Ivan Karamazov would, I believe, passionately impugn both the conception of God that makes suffering a necessary condition of the good (we may think of Liebniz especially here) or preserves God’s compassion at the cost of his power (Rabbi Kushner). What is left?

Without challenging the academic exercise that is theodicy—I really do mean that—it seems to me that when confronted existentially (rather than theoretically) with the problem of evil, followers of the Crucified one must first recover the language of lament. This is hardly an earth-shattering conclusion. But as I look at the internet theodicies spawned in the wake of Newtown, the leap over lament into the quagmire of explanation and argument is striking. Why was lament not the first response? This is a striking question to me especially since in the language of the Bible, lament seems to me to be always the first response. Whatever explanations came, they came later. When confronted by suffering and injustice, the first response of the Bible is lament.

So it was a severe gift to me that the Psalm appointed for the Sunday after Newtown was Psalm 80. It is a Psalm of lament that derives its power from its strong convictions in the power of God. “Stir up your might,” begs the Psalmist, “and come to save us.” The plea is made in the conviction that the “Shepherd of Israel,” not only can act, but has acted to deliver his people from evil in the past (“You brought a vine out of Egypt,”). The Psalmist eschews explanation, presumes God’s power to deliver, and calls upon him to act. God’s refusal to act, indeed, is a matter of faith-shattering concern: “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them enough with the bread of tears. . . .” In lament, we do not presume to know the mind or purposes of God and so say nothing about the necessity of suffering. At the same time, the rationality of lament rests on the assumption that God can change the situation. So, we do not affirm God’s compassion at the expense of his power.

All too often, the theodicists seemed to feel that God needed them to come to His defense. This is as admirable as it is mistaken. However much for the sake of the integrity of faith, we might want to become God’s champions, God does not need us to defend him after Newtown. On the other hand, the people so shocked and grief-stricken by their encounter with the demonic evil unleashed that day certainly did and do. They needed and need words with which to give voice to their encounter with God’s enemy. And what they needed to hear was part of the Christian vocabulary that our culture has lost. The vocabulary of lament. If God the Son has so taken up our nature as to make the lament of Psalm 22 his own dying prayer, then it seems to me, this is where we should begin if we are to answer Ivan: eschew explanation; learn lament.

A final thought about lament from the book of Job. It is striking to me that throughout Job’s suffering, Job’s friends talk to Job to defend God while Job, ever more exasperated at the end of each speech cycle, circumvents his friends and appeals directly to the God who can deliver but, to Job’s deep confusion, anger, and near despair, has not. And Job, in his continuous appeal to God, his unceasing proclamation of his innocence, and his acknowledgement in the light of God’s response that the answer he seeks he lacks the capacity to receive, is judged righteous. It is Job’s friends, who have mastered God and his ways who are judged to have spoken falsely. Who need a mediator—Job himself—to offer sacrifices lest the wrath of the Almighty consume them.

I wonder whether some of the theodicists—and this is only a wonder—leaped to God’s defense, leaped to speech about God, because their own ability to speak to God had somehow gotten lost along the way. Of course, this is a pastoral and deeply personal matter and I offer here simply as a speculation. Does the writer of Job actually capture something of the “religious” imagination when he indicts those who speak on God’s behalf not simply for the sin of presumption, but for presumption’s attempt to mask the inability to pray?

Lament, however valid it is as a first response (and a second and third) to Ivan’s indictment of God, is only the beginning. We cannot remain in lament if we are to answer Ivan’s existential argument. Do we move on then from lament to explanation, to defending God? I don’t think so.

I read somewhere that Dostoevsky never really answers Ivan’s complaint and in so doing, even though he remained an Orthodox Christian, he ended up delivering one of the most powerful essays for atheism ever. I’m not sure that’s true. I think rather that the rest of the novel, which focuses on Alyosha and especially his relationship with a group of children, simply is the answer to Ivan’s atheism. The answer is not an explanation, but a life.

This suggests to me that rather than returning to explanation, we are wise if after lamenting or even while we still are, we continue our answer to Ivan with actions. To get at what I mean, let’s look at the outcome of another primary school shooting. In 2006, Charles Roberts shot and killed 5 Amish girls and wounded five others, aged 6-13 before turning his gun on himself in Bart Township, Pennsylvania. The immediate action of the local Amish community was to tear down the school and build another on a different location.  Inspired by the quiet decency of the Amish response to the horror visited upon their children, non-Amish residents of Bart Township and nearby Quarryville began to respond in remarkable ways, ways that included attending the gunman’s son’s soccer games, and providing his family with Christmas presents. This is what one local artist called “living forgiveness” looked like. Such a response, moreover, renders our lament intelligible in that it also rests on strong convicitons about both the goodness and power of God. Convictions that render God and God’s ways, if not explicable, then—possibly—trustworthy.

To move to loving, forgiving, trusting is not to deny lament, but to insist both during and after that God remains trustworthy and however much this world waits for his final salvation, the cross and resurrection and ascension give us a clue. Not an answer, a clue. A clue that suggests that God has not willed the suffering of any child for a greater good, but has himself taken on our nature, and with our nature engaged in a battle with all that would inflict horrors on his children. He has wrestled them to the ground and then held them up to ridicule. He has done so not because his suffering or theirs is somehow necessary to pull the disparate strands of human foolishness together into one finally beautiful tapestry, but, as David Bentley Hart has put it, “because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave.”

And now, we are called in trust to live not as though nothing has changed with Christ’s ascension—a keep plodding onward in stoic acceptance of all that comes. Rather we are called in trust to live as though everything has changed—to keep trusting, loving, forgiving in a holy refusal to give in to despair. To cling, if only by our fingernails, in trust to the one who embraced God-forsakenness for us and to live in joyful anticipation that his victory will soon be revealed to all.

So, the Church has no Theodicy. The Church recognizes full well the mystery of sin and evil. It is not blind to the suffering of evil. But the Church has no explanation for why this is so. The Church has no theory to mollify the rage of all the Ivans in the world. No explanation will work; no theory can stand with a parent at the grave of a child.

The Church has, instead, acts of lament. The Church has words to give to our grief when our words fail. How long O Lord? You have made us eat the bread of tears enough! Turn and save us. The Church has, instead, acts of love that persist in the face of suffering and evil. Acts of love that cannot be legislated or driven by rules. Acts, rather, that are entirely free. Acts that express trust in God, acts that embrace love of friend and enemy alike. Instead of a theodicy, the Church has a Cross to which it points, and about which it proclaims, here is where the problem has been solved and then lives as though that is true.

 

Thoughts on Benedict’s Successor

Here is a link to a few musings in ChristianWeek about Benedict’s successor and why evangelical Protestants should be interested in just whom he will be.