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Archive for February, 2011

Some born-again Christians of my acquaintance remind me of “Agent Smith.”

They can tell me the date and place of their conversion.  But I get the feeling they have been simply born again in a form which is just a replication of their old self – plus a self-righteous smile or a judgmental frown.

American psychologist of religious education, George Albert Coe (1862-1951) wrote of the distinction between being born again and being born from above in his 1902 book, Religion of a Mature Mind.

The simplicity of the Christian life-principle has been obscured by … the employment of “born again” to represent Greek terms whose plain, literal meaning is “born from above” (John 3:3).  The disciple of Christ is one who is born from above.  That which is of the flesh is flesh, and that which is of the spirit is spirit.  The root-contrast here is not between what is before and what is after, but between a higher and a lower…  Our English “born again” has promoted and kept alive a misunderstanding closely parallel to that of Nicodemus (John 3:9).

The merely ‘born again’ date everything from an heroic past effort to throw off some single ‘secret sin’ or gross vice.  Their old victory has left them relieved but basically unbroken.  Unbroken because they interpret their moment of truth as a trade-off of sin-for-salvation. With this kind of trade-off the principle transaction is complete, and there is no pressure to seek a relation to the life that is from above until the life here below is over.  Instead of relation to God in Christ the merely born-again begin a relation to doctrine.  Doctrines like election and predestination, for example, which offer rationales for a low-octane religion supported by a poorly conceived idea of ‘perseverance’ unto salvation.

We have been looking for events and disputing about processes.  We have caused men to ask themselves, “Have I been born again? Am I sure that an event has taken place?” whereas, we should have pressed home to them the sharp contrast between a spiritual and an unspiritual content or quality of life.   What am I, qualitatively considered? Am I living the life that is from above, or that which is from below?  In the absence of the heavenly quality in the life, no experience of internal wonders is valid evidence of the birth from above. On the other hand, if I am really on the side of Christ, I am born from above, however this comes to be the state of my mind. (Ibid)

The Christian who finds no birth from above in the moment of grace gets a heart ‘born again’ as a carbon copy of his old heart, the old self, the old man – except with an urge to convince others of its own self-justifying theology (instead of the gospel of Jesus).

The habit of looking for newness instead of for heavenly quality works confusion in two directions.

First, persons who are able to answer the question of dates to their own satisfaction, meet the temptation to substitute a “has been” for an “is.” They estimate themselves by something other than the present fact; they would turn the mill with the water that is past. Something of vital power must always be lost when the spiritual life is measured by anything whatever except its own content and its fruits.

Persons of a different make-up suffer from the opposite error. Desiring to dedicate themselves to the Master, yet unable to put their experience of spiritual realities into the forms of book-keeping, they hesitate, postpone action, are harassed by doubts of their personal status. They, too, ask themselves “Have I been?” when they should rather ask “Am I?” They need to be told that whosoever prefers above all things that for which God gave us his Son, and Jesus gave his life, is born from above. The fundamental preference is decisive as to the inner quality, and the fruits are decisive as to the vigor of the inner life.

These mere born-agains will go to church often and be watching out for the 10 commandments in everybody’s life, but underneath they haven’t changed much.  As if they have the idea that living faithfully is just staying ‘judgmental’ toward themselves and others.  They may smile more often than before, but you can catch them in a big frown just as easily.

Professor George Albert Coe was born in Mendon, NY, March 26 1862 ; educated at the University of Rochester (A. B.), Boston University (S. T. B., Ph. D.) studied at University of Berlin, 1890-1891; professor at Northwestern University 1893-1909, Union Theol. Seminary, 1909-22, Columbia 1922-27.  Dr. Coe retired in 1927 and died November 9, 1951.

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Last week as I prepared to fill my tank at a gas station I noticed the pump price for regular was mistakenly set a full $1.00 below the advertised price ($2.49 instead of $3.49 per gallon).

The two other grades of gas at my island were set accurately, and I didn’t bother to check the regular price at the other islands.  I started pumping not knowing for sure which price I would get, but when the pump hit one gallon with the “amount of sale” figures whizzing past at around $2.49 I knew what I had.

My first thought was, I know this isn’t right.  I looked at the station but doors and windows appeared closed and I didn’t see anyone moving about.  The station often runs as self-service with no attendant, but it seemed too early for that and some indoor lights were on. Was I going to accept this windfall or try to report the error?

I’m afraid this is not a tale of human victory but of defeat.  The pump clicked to a stop at 9.5 gallons, netting me $9.50 in ‘stolen’ gasoline.  I hung up the hose and drove away.

I was annoyed at my performance, but my conscience didn’t bring me to the stage of remorse (true remorse would have effected payment in full for the loot).

However, the next day I was badly ‘shook up’ when I stopped for a traffic light across from the station on my way to the grocery store and noticed all four islands jammed with cars and people pumping gas like crazy.

The light changed and I continued on to the store with a dawning sense of the seriousness of my small, ill-gotten gain. Viewed in the light of its true potential for evil I saw that my act made me complicit in a situation in which the station manager might now be losing hundreds of dollars per hour.

I don’t know for a fact that the error was still ‘in progress’ – gas stations can be busy places any day of the week.  But I knew I didn’t like the idea of turning anybody in for doing what I had done the day before.  So my own act had wiped out all of my moral high ground in this particular case.

Isn’t this the way of things, when we go astray?

I had honestly failed to estimate this potential for evil consequences the day before, and I was still unsure it was actual, but just seeing this potentially costly situation for the station was enough to show me the injustice of my act and the paltry exchange I had made for my honor (a ‘mess of pottage’ at less than ten bucks!).

There is a famous ethical perspective which holds that my moral failure was absolute in this case even if I were the only one who had realized an unjust gain – if, say the station had discovered the pump error the moment I had driven off the day before.  by this perspective moral guilt is different from legal guilt, in that moral seriousness is determined not in the unjust act itself nor in the consequences of the act, but in the very moment of my unjust decision, before the consequences of my acts are realized (even if they are never realized).

In fact, this event has so many elements of the moral problem in it that it merits publication even though I am embarrassed to admit it as my problem.

As yet I haven’t coughed up the $9.50.  My bad, but if I did make amends I wouldn’t publish that fact here, because I believe that seeking human praise for amendment of ways is a moral-religious problem in itself.

The only thing that would change my mind would be if a reader were to suggest my recalcitrance proved I had lost my authority to judge of moral issues altogether.  Oh, the humanity!

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Is God so unaware of things, is he so ignorant of the human heart, that he has to discover a man’s character by testing it? By no means. But he acts in this way in order that a man may discover his own character…Therefore, dearly beloved, you have learned that God does not engage in tempting in order that he might learn something that he did not know earlier, but that by tempting (that is testing) he might make manifest what is hidden in a man. After all, a man is not so known to himself as he is to his Creator, nor is an ill person so known to himself as he is to his physician. Man is ill. He suffers. The physician does not suffer. And man expects to learn what he suffers from him who does not suffer.

-Augustine, De Scripturis, Homily 2, on Abraham, When He Was Tempted by God

Saw this superb thought today at a site new to me, called Absorption , during a wordpress tag search.

I thought it might be nice to grab some authority from Augustine for some recent thoughts on the difference between temptation and sin and the parts they each play in the economy of repentence and new birth.  I like Augustine’s thinking here because it suggests to me that tempation alone can accomplish quite a bit in the whole area of salvation and redemption without the necessity of actual sin.  

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God can neither order nor permit anything the end of which is desolation and ruin… We are sick because we are human; we are disappointed because we make mistakes; we sorrow for those who die; but God does not send mistakes; men die because they are men, and death knocks impartially at the palace and the cottage gate.

-The Age of Faith, 1900, pp. 154, 156

American theologian Amory Howe Bradford was pastor of First Congregational Church in Montclair, NJ.  He was an important member of the little-known American Institute of Christian Philosophy, which flourished in the 1880s and 90s.  Bradford’s earliest published work was entitled Spirit and Life, 1888.  He was the son of a congregational pastor and was educated at Hamilton College, NY, and graduated from Andover Theological Seminary in 1870.  Bradford was in the direct male line of descent from Governor William Bradford, of the original Mayflower compact.

No one is condemned to suffering in order that blessings may be realized by others. Even the most literalistic of the elder theologians taught that the sufferings of our Lord were voluntary…. A little child dies a horrible death, and the father asks: “Do you not think God is following me?” What idea can that man have of God? Does any sane person believe that God sends pain, sickness, long agony, death, to an innocent little child in order that a willful and vicious man may be brought to his senses?

No one is condemned to suffering for the benefit of another. The Almighty is not limited in His resources. My father would not ruin my brother to save me. (pg. 159)

During three recent visits to the seminary library I’ve had a chance to indulge my passion for forgotten theologians (like Bradford).  During each visit I spent good time among books from a single LC category, just pulling up a chair in the stacks in front of a great wall of books and going slowly across and down the book case, opening up every single book whose title did not absolutely offend me.  In fact it was the title of Bradford’s book, The Age of Faith, which compelled me to take a closer look, on the day I camped in front of category BR 121.

Bradford’s title struck me because BR 121 does not hold any books from the medieval period most people understand as ‘the Age of Faith.’  It’s a category for a type of apologetics in which the Christian writer attempts either to explain or explain away various aspects of the contemporary cultural scene in terms of his own vision of Christianity, and speculates about what the church needs to emphasize if it is to make headway in the modern world.   In a moment I recognized him as a writer on the inner spirit in man whom I knew something about.  This week I pulled the book from my pile of library check-outs and was inspired in my studies of providence and theodicy.

My special interest in this kind of theological writing focuses on the 30 years before and after the First World War (i.e. including writing from the second great secular catastrophe).

If all sorrows were penal, it would mean that others were being punished in order that we might suffer; that scarlet fever burns up a golden-haired child in order that a disreputable man may get his deserts; that cholera devastates a community in order that two or three dozen reprobates may be made to understand that they cannot evade the Almighty. The hollowness of such thoughts is exposed without argument… To assert that the innocent are made to suffer in order that the guilty may be adequately punished is to deny the sway not only of Fatherhood, but also of justice. (p.160)

Amory Howe Bradford; born Apr 14, 1846; died one hundred years ago on this day, Feb 18, 1911.

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In the Empyrean the early phase of the Incarnation is discussed in its deeper implications and Moses asks a question about the possibility of the Son marrying while in the flesh.

MOSES:  Father has not revealed his objectives for the Incarnation in terms of specific events, Sire, but we have received a general plan in three main phases:

(1) your early life and walk with Him,

(2) the public mission on His behalf to Israel, and

(3) the supreme objective: dispensation of His saving grace to the world.

THE SON:  That first piece remains to me the most mysterious and wonderful of the three.

MOSES:  That’s because you have no idea, Sire.  Trust me, the early walk is no walk in the park.

THE SON:  But you know that in your own case, Moses, our Father’s spirit walked the walk with you, and was also afflicted in all your afflictions.

MOSES:  Except I didn’t know it at the time, Sire. I was over 30 before I had a clue what God wanted for me.  And I had already killed a man by then.  It can get complicated.

THE SON:  It was not necessary for you to sin to know your need of God or his will for you; but that fugitive thing did play into Father’s hand pretty well.

MOSES:  It wasn’t until I was raised to the Empyrean (blessed be God) that I realized that a man could be tested in all things and yet remain without sin.

THE SON:  Human insight doesn’t easily grasp that message hidden in the Book of Job, that temptation alone – rightly encountered and defeated – renders the experience of actual sin unnecessary.

MOSES:  But even granted that your own victory, Sire, will require all of your efforts and most holy desires, it will not be possible without God’s help.

THE SON:  May it be his will.  My Father views the inner struggle with human nature in partnership with his spirit as a challenge worthy in full of his own Son.

MOSES:  I must say that all the saints know they have been honored beyond words in that one principle of the Incarnation.

THE SON:  I understand they even view my first 30 years as the centerpiece of my commission.

MOSES:  The commission to bear humanity’s imperfections, yes. Your handling of the day-to-day things, Sire, will be huge from the perspective of the saints.  They’ve been through it.

THE SON:  And I have not.  Am I not secure in the love of the saints, Moses?

MOSES:  Sire you know they love you.  But your lock on their heavenly hearts will be absolutely supreme if your sovereignty is proved at Nazareth – in the heroism of an obscure life of love and duty.  The stuff that makes for steady increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.

THE SON:  That squares with Father’s view as well.  He has never referred to the early walk as a “pre-mission” period.

MOSES:  Same with my experience – however mixed.  All my changes were before my return to Egypt – it makes my role in the Exodus seem a little over-rated.

THE SON:  And to be honest, Mo, wasn’t it in Midian, after your marriage to Zipporah, that you found the right path and whom to seek, and how?

MOSES:  She’ll be pleased you remembered, Sire.  Which makes me wonder – you know Father has prohibited your leaving any progeny, and this would seem to rule out marriage and family – advantage or disadvantage?

THE SON:  In some ways a disadvantage, of course.  But Father’s “No thrones” rule clearly stipulates  “No dynasties.”

MOSES:  I saw that too.  Father has again shown his sublime wisdom in forestalling by this measure the chance of theocracy and hereditary priesthoods.  But I’m thinking, with the inevitable female attention – and with you only flesh and blood – how’s that going to work for you?

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues 4 – the Mandate

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With help from Kierkegaard I advanced some ideas last month about prayer to an unchanging God, and here I want to start some related thoughts about God’s providence.  A theology with no theory of prayer is a study without a method.  All real theologies describe and account for the function and object of prayer, and this always relates back to their theories of divine providence.

First principles should be simple and biblical, and I think a good theory of material providence can be founded on a saying of Jesus about the manner of God’s care for the birds.

“…look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26).

Most importantly for any good principle of providence, this one does not rule out hard work.  Because anyone who follows the advice of Jesus and actually takes a ‘look at the birds’ will see that they work their little tails off all day long seeking and finding all their free provisions.

An abundance of seeds and water, of insects and other prey are available to the birds by their habitual conformity to material laws as they find them.  This kind of material providence doesn’t feature a ‘system’ designed by the birds nor a being who is propitiated by the birds.  It is instead a system which supports the very possibility of material good.  In my view, God’s perfect material providence works for us in the same way (I’ll get to the spiritual later, and the problem of evil).

Why does Jesus give no place in his material providence to purposeful (anxious) work such as sowing, reaping, and storage?  Doesn’t God help those who help themselves?  But sowing and reaping are not despised – Jesus built plenty of teaching material around the whole subject of agriculture.  And yet no farmer brings in a good crop if his acts are not in conformity to the same unchanging laws as God has laid out for his feeding of the birds.

In the same verse Jesus asks, “Are you not of more value than they?”

Divine material providence (like competition between species) is one of those delicate situations calling for this kind of rhetorical question which invites us to join the teacher’s thought on the next level (i.e. we don’t take these words as justifying any dissing of the avian races 🙂 ).

For Jesus I think ‘the next level’ is the level of our material anxiety, especially our vain hopes and false fears for tomorrow.  But he’s not giving in to these.

1.  He doesn’t suggest that we have in fact a claim on God’s love to bind him to special provisions of material needs.

2.  He’s not suggesting that any laws are subject to change to suit these needs.

3.  And in no way is he suggesting that special consideration is due to any farmer as reward for ‘good behavior’ that is not related simply to good farming.

This providence gives no place to ancient pagan beliefs – that a farmer or his priest may request dispensations of rain, or sunshine, good germination, absence of pests, tall corn, efficient harvest, and a fine excess.  This providence suggests only gracious prayers of thanksgiving for God’s loving foundation of unchanging material and spiritual laws.

(to be continued)

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In my recent criticism of John Milbank’s frequent dissing of Immanuel Kant I forgot to say that I am completely sympathetic with the professor’s desire to embarrass the sloppy metaphysics of atheism.  I applaud Milbank’s aim to discomfit our current secular dogmatists who presume the model of ‘science’ is on the side of their own uncritical metaphysical materialisms.

But again, Kant has already shown – over 200 years ago – that the authority of the scientific method doesn’t carry over to the solution of the ‘hard problems’ of metaphysics.  True, the critical philosophy rejects apodictic certainty in theology’s intellectual determinations of its object .  But it also demolished the scientific basis of all claims that theology has no meaningful object.

I’m guessing Prof. Milbank has rejected Kant’s help against scientific materialism because he desires to do metaphysics himself in the grand style of Aquinas, which he knows is also disallowed by Kant.

But a part of Kant’s great service to philosophy makes it also a service to truth in science and religion – he never made the mistake of equating the method of philosophy with the method of science.  His ‘charter of autonomy’ for philosophy gave it independence from both science and religion, and this dual independence actually suits the role of ancilla (handmaiden) required by any theology worthy of a living faith – and by any science worthy of its name and methodology.

The impression I got from reading Milbank last year is that his criticism of Kant cites the Religion book much more than the Critiques.  This I think is the source of his negativity – and I will say I have never been satisfied with the grasp of religion shown by Kant in Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason (although I saw more than I had seen before in a recent reading of that book, remarked last month).

I don’t blame Milbank for seeing Kant’s specifically religious writing as too much akin to the old failed Natural Theology.  But Kant’s criticism of religion’s clerical and popular superstitions and fanaticisms is more cogent and cleansing than any that can be raised by the atheist.

I think a philosophy inspired by the three Critiques can certainly offer an ancillary role in the exploration of the relations of the object of faith to the real world – particularly its moral relations.  But again the one condition – perhaps hardest for Milbank to accept – is that the theologian who makes Kant his handmaiden must give up the attempt to construct a final metaphysics.

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