About theologian78

Soon to be Doctoral Student of Systematic Theology at Catholic University of America. My interests focus in doing contemporary theology drawing heavily on the ancient church and the Eastern Tradition. I'm also a huge fan of languages, video games, logic, and writing. I write game reviews and some thoughts on theology and gaming as well at http://warpzoned.com Twitter: https://twitter.com/JoshuaWWise

A Short Essay on Value


A discussion I’ve had with a few of my friends who are atheists over the last few years has led me to write this very brief consideration of the concept of value. It is an attempt to demonstrate the difficulties of a purely materialistic understanding of morality and value.

Morality is itself based around the concept of value. Certain things warrant certain treatment, and to act as if they possess less than their value is to do moral evil. This comes most obviously in the form of treating human beings as if they were merely objects. When a person is objectified, they are stripped of their dignity of personhood and regarded with a dignity far below that warranted by their value.

Differing systems of morality assign value differently. A racist morality would place the value of one race above another. A utilitarian morality places value in the greatest happiness of the largest number of people. In the first case, treating a “lesser” race as if it were higher is an offense to the moral system, and indeed treating the “higher” race as if it were lower is also offensive. Thus in the early half of the twentieth century in America, for a white man to drink from a black fountain was degrading, and for a black man to drink from a white fountain was more than presumptuous. So too, in a utilitarian system, if a lesser happiness for a smaller group is put before the greater happiness of a larger group, a moral offense has been committed.

This raises the question of where value ultimately comes from. In a theistic system, a person can turn to the creator of all things and hold that, as creator, God has assigned things different values, and thus given each thing a dignity that is appropriate to it. A rock has a very minimal dignity, an ape a very great one, and finally humanity the greatest. The reason for this hierarchy is either explained as simple divine fiat, or, an understanding I find far better, it is explained as having its root in the concept of likeness to God. A rock is somewhat like God in that it exists. An ape more like God in that it thinks, is social, lives, even loves. A human is most like God in that a human, by nature, creates, imagines, shapes, laughs, loves, has abstract thought, worships, and far more than these.

In such a system the theist comes up against the hard brutal fact that things have value whether or not she likes it. A person’s body has value whether or not I want to treat it only as a means to my own pleasure or for my own gain. A person’s will is valuable whether or not I want to override it. Indeed, even an animal or a tree has more value than is convenient for me. All of this is the case because behind the animal, or the person, or the tree is the final ultimate source of all value, the one who makes the tree and the person and says “This is its value.” Because God is outside of the system of things made, and behind them all, it becomes impossible to argue with God, since our arguments are also things that God has made[1].

Now, for an atheist, the situation becomes more dire.[2] For value, not coming from outside of the system of creation, it must be assigned from within the natural order. One of the things in the universe begins to assign value to other things in the universe. A human being says of other human beings “you are valuable to me.” She says of her pet “you are valuable to me.” She says of a piece of art “this is valuable to me.” He says of a bit of shiny metal “this is valuable to me.”

The origin of the value assignment is the person who, and this is the tricky part, has no intrinsic value or authority on her own, but only the value which is given to her by other persons. Thus, an atheist can be easily outraged by the enslavement of another person, because that atheist places value in that other person. But the person who is doing the enslaving may not place value in the enslaved person except as a slave. So who will arbitrate between them as to who is “right?” In an atheistic system, where value only derives from the individual, there can be no such arbiter, for the value of the person resides wholly in the mind of each individual.

Now, there may seem to be three recourses the atheist can take to shore up the strength of her values. The first is society, the second is the natural world, and the third is the fact that she can assign value at all. I want to consider each of these briefly.

The societal argument says that value can be derived not merely from the individual, but from society at large. I might not think that a bit of colored paper has any value, but society does, and so money is valuable. I might not think that a man’s will is particularly valuable, but society values it, so I should not override it.

Now the problem with this argument is that it confuses value and power. A society has power to enforce its views of value. Thus if society tells me that a painting is valuable, and I use it for kindling, society can punish me for treating the painting as if it did not have any value. But this does not actually give the painting value, it only allows some people to enforce their value judgments over other people who disagree. One can no more assign objective value in this way than one can make two and two equal five by popular vote. This is easily seen when the society breaks apart, or changes its mind about the value of things, there is no left over objective value to be dealt with. If we once thought that a particular painter’s work was worth millions, but decide suddenly that its rubbish, we do not make the argument that the thing has some objective value that it was once assigned and that now can’t be gotten over. Nor do we say of those who were once enslaved that they do not have any rights because society agreed at one point that this was the case.

Thus we are left with a simple fact of numbers and power. If enough people agree that certain things have certain value, then they can enforce those views. It does not make them “right” for in such a relative system, there can be no “right.” There are only opinions about what things have what value. A mass of opinions, no matter how large or for whatever span of time, never becomes objective fact.

Now this presents some very sticky situations for the atheist morality. And we must say straight away that there is no denying that atheists can have morality. People who say those kind of things have not thought the matter all the way through. But the matter is, admittedly, rather difficult when an atheist says something like “The law should change” or “society is wrong.” For what is meant by “should” and “wrong?” Society’s value system is a system of general agreement on what has and does not have this or that value. In an atheistic world, this fact of society giving value itself has only the value that the individual or society gives it. In other words, if I think society’s values are worthless, they are in fact worthless to me. But at the same time, if society thinks my values are worthless, they are, because they have been assigned no value by society.

When an atheist says of society “You should be different” what she is saying is “Your values should match my value” or, in other words “You should assign value to my own value assignments.” But where does the “should” come from? Is there an overarching value which she can appeal to and by which she can measure her values to see that they conform to it more closely than society’s?  No. There is only her own assignment of value. What she can say is “I desire that society’s values more closely matched my own.” And indeed, we all, to some great degree, desire this, for it would make all of our lives less frustrating. The danger, which I will not go into other than to mention it here, is that that often transforms into “I value myself above all others, therefore all others should value me above themselves.” Such a world is not workable.

Thus we find that there is no “moral ground” for an atheist to hold one set of morals above any other. If all value is assigned by the individual, then we live in a world where the best we can do is find other likeminded people and live in some approximate harmony. But we cannot, I do not say “should not” since that would be self-contradictory in such a system, claim a superiority of our own values over another’s if we hold to an atheist perspective and desire to be consistent. Now a theist can, without self contradiction. A theist can, though she may be incorrect, claim that her values match the ultimate underlying values of the universe. She can do this without self-contradiction, for her system holds that a human being has real intrinsic value that exists whether or not she likes it. She may be wrong. She may think that things have no value which have great value, or things which she assigns great value to may be almost worthless. But she is merely in error then, not in self-contradiction. Thus a theist can say to society “You are wrong” without entering self-contradiction.

The second thing an atheist might appeal to is nature. Evolution seems to have put forward certain traits that are useful for the building of society. Therefore we can look to these particular patterns as the most valuable for people to adhere to. One sees the problem with this perspective immediately. It requires numerous presuppositions.

First, one must value the data of evolution as relevant to one’s daily life. Many do, but it is also easy to simply say “that data is interesting, and it informs me about what human beings are like, but all that does is to help me to figure out how best to manipulate them, or to help them.” Data which may seem like the most important thing to one person can have absolutely no, or completely different value to another. The data is itself not intrinsically valuable because it has to do with our origin as a species. The argument for God’s objective perspective on morality is not based on mere origin.[3]  God’s objective moral authority is recognized by theists because God is not only the creator of the universe but is also alive, thinking, and indeed, moral Himself.[4]  God invents the idea of the tree and gives it value. Evolution does not.

Second, even if one were to acknowledge that the data is valuable for society, a person would have to assign value to society for a benefit to society to be valuable to him. You may say “X will help Y immeasurably” but unless I value Y, X has no importance.

Thus, unless I value either the data of evolution, or society, this system of value means nothing. Again, the majority might all agree, and they might be able to enforce their agreement, but they do not, by doing so, assign objective value to these things.

The third position is that, because we are able to assign value to things, we have intrinsic value ourselves. As sources of value, we must ourselves have value. Now, this is true in a theistic universe where God says to humanity “I will, in some way, value what you value.” But it is not true in an atheistic world, because unless I myself value your ability to assign value, it means nothing to me. In fact, from the outside, in a purely natural world, the ability to assign value has absolutely no intrinsic value. Rocks do not care that you can assign value to things, trees are indifferent. The cosmos at large and the smallest grub worm have no issue in smashing you to bits and crawling through your remains. Thus, even the ability to assign value has only the value given to it by those who assign it.

So where does this leave us? It seems that there are two positions then an atheistic morality must take.

1. To reject the total subjective nature of value and insist that there are some things which are really valuable. Anyone who thinks that the rape of a child, the enslavement of a race of people, or even verbal abuse on the street is objectively wrong, must fall into this camp or fall into self-contradiction. To acknowledge that some things have real objective value is to abandon the simple atheist camp and begins to approach theism by acknowledging that there is some objective assignment of value in reality that is beyond nature, for to say that it is in nature is to simply make it one more thing that we can evaluate as valuable or not, and thus not objective.

2. To accept the total subjective nature of value and recognize the inherent contradiction in their position if they try to insist that other people’s values should be different than they are. Thus, if all value is subjective, and one is in the minority, one must realize that there is contradiction in saying “It should not be this way.” Then the person must decide whether or not he values consistency. If he does not, he may shout as loud as he likes until someone shuts him up. But if he does value consistency, he will realize that to say that things “should” be otherwise is less true than simply saying that he wants them to be otherwise.

Of course, then, one must decide whether or not one values truth.


[1] We are putting aside here the complicated fact that we may easily argue with each other about what value God has given to things. While those arguments happen all of the time, they are about the particular objective value assigned to a thing, not about whether or not there is an objective value assigned to a thing. Thus when religious debates went on about value of Native Americans and later of African slaves, they were debates that argued about what kind of value these beings had. Were they human, and thus deserving of all human dignity, or less than human, and deserving of less than human dignity? It was always a question of objective value, not of subjective value. It is, of course, of great shame to Christianity, that any of its traditions and arguments could be used to treat humans as if they are less than humans, as continues today with the treatment of women in many Christian societies.

[2] It is important to note here that this description is a description of the facts of morality, not of the moral goodness of particular people. It is evident that a theist, confronted with the brute fact of the value of another person, can transgress that value and do horrific moral evil. It is also a fact that an atheist, acknowledging that a thing only has the value he gives it, can treat that thing with the utmost respect and dignity. There is no question here about theists being more moral than atheists. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that this is the case. Instead, this is a description of the position each of the two is in when faced with the problem of value.

[3] For then we would have to assign some level of value of objectivity to our parents, our biological ancestors, and eventually to non-biological elements in the sea, which presents the same problem as evolution: an amoral reality creating morality. By no means can a really moral person leave their moral structure to an amoral agent. One might as well then toss a coin or roll a pair of dice.

[4] This is not the place for a discussion of what some people think the Bible says about God’s immorality. Difficult passages are difficult, and they must be studied. But they are studied in light of the firmly held doctrine of God’s Goodness.

Thinking Clearly about Hobby Lobby

HLA friend just posted on Facebook about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. For the purposes of anonymity I will leave her name out of this post and simply deal with the argument. My concern here is very narrow, and only addresses the logic of the following arguments. The original post states the following.

A) A company who does or does not offer coverage for contraception has the “power of life and death” over their employees.

B) By not paying for contraception, the Employer has a say over whether or not women procreate.

C) A quote from Justice Sonia Sotomayor  “Is your claim limited to sensitive materials like contraceptives, or does it include items like blood transfusion, vaccines? For some religions, products made of pork? Is any claim under your theory that has a religious basis, could an employer preclude the use of those items as well?”

D) By choosing not to pay for contraception, Hobby Lobby, a for-profit company, is imposing its religious views on its employees.

E) That this stance by Hobby Lobby is the same as determining the religious beliefs for someone.

Comments on the post point out that Viagra is still covered, and that this is a double standard.


In response, I will first say that I don’t have any moral compunction against birth-control. I think that it is fully within the moral freedom of a human being to exercise, to the extent of his or her abilities, power over the reproductive act. I do not think that sex and procreation must always go together, any more than I think that taste must always accompany a full stomach. If one thinks that, by an act of power and will, humans should not experience the pleasure of Eros without the consequence of birth, they should also be lobbying very hard against chewing gum, which provides flavor with no nutritional value…and diet sodas….well, perhaps we should all be lobbying against diet sodas.

That being said, I think that the whole perspective of the original post is flawed. I want to put the argument as plainly as I can, so that if I am wrong, it will be easier to show it.

1. There is a difference between (a) forcing someone to do something/prohibiting someone from doing something and (b) not assisting someone in an act but also not prohibiting them. This is easily shown by observing the difference between stopping someone from crossing the street/making them cross the street at gunpoint, and simply not interfering or aiding them cross the street. The first (a) is an impinging on their freedom. The second (b) is an exercise of your own freedom. Now, it may sometimes be wrong to do (b) when the person needs help, but that is a different matter.

2. Hobby Lobby, as well as many other companies see the government as dong (a) forcing them to spend their money on something they find morally wrong. By insisting that they support birth control, the government is removing their freedom to act in accord with their ethics.

3. Critiques of this decision, like the one above, accuse Hobby Lobby of doing (a). In fact, arguments A-E all restate this in some way.

4. However, Hobby Lobby’s action of not covering birth control is actually the same as  (b) which is exercising their freedom to not help someone do something.

Why this is important:

Companies are run by people, and people, in general, have morals (the quality of their morals is not the issue of debate here). For a government or company to (a) force people to use their money against their morals would be an infringement on their freedom. In fact, many people do object to the way their taxes are spent on moral grounds. No one wants a government or a company to force them to do something they find morally reprehensible.

However, this is not what Hobby Lobby is doing. Instead, They are doing (b) which is that they are exercising their right not to help or hinder. If they are forcing people to do anything, they are forcing people to pay for their own birth control, or to see other sources of funding for their birth control, if they want birth control. Paying for one’s own birth control does not seem to be a morally reprehensible act. If it is, I have yet to see an argument that shows it to be.

Justice Sotomayor’s statement falls into the same error. While it would be important to know if your health insurance covers blood transfusions, which would be a valid concern if one was working for a company run by people who have a moral compunction against this (though those religions actually have a more complicated stance on this issue, as far as I know), no company could tell you not to eat pork. They might not serve pork, and they might even prohibit pork on their grounds, but in no way are they infringing on a person’s right to eat pork on their own time, or to buy pork.

As a side note, the Viagra comparison is also logically flawed. Viagra allows some men to have sex who otherwise could not. Birth control does not do this for women. Birth control attempts to control the unwanted procreation of offspring. It is not clear exactly how these two things are at all comparable.

Also, it is good to  note that there is a drug that allows some women to have sex who otherwise could not, and that drug is also Viagra. A faithful woman in a relationship with a man who cannot perform the sexual act without Viagra cannot have sex. An unfaithful woman could, of course, but that is neither here nor there.

And finally, as far as I can tell, there are no moral objections to Viagra. Is that because there’s a double standard trying to keep women down? Well, I could believe that if in fact the majority of men using Viagra were using it to have sex with each other. But, as it happens, I don’t think there is such a statistic. Instead, there’s no moral objection to Viagra because it restores a natural function of the body, it does not prohibit one. Birth control, for good or ill, prohibits what would take place in the course of nature. Ergo, some people have a problem with it. Again, I do not.

Finally, the slippery slope of this situation would be the idea that people give up their rights to be moral creatures the moment they work for a corporation. A person who is a CEO who is told, “I don’t care if you think it is good or evil, just do your job” is a person who is living in a culture that is not far from despotism. We may find other people’s morals to be inconvenient, or even damaging to our livelihoods. But the moment we start empowering the government to tell people, just because they are part of a company, that their morals don’t matter, is the moment we empower the government to tell us the same thing about our own morals.


An Easter Reflection with St. Athanasius


For that death is destroyed, and that the Cross has become the victory over it, and that it has no more power but is verily dead, this is no small proof, or rather an evident warrant, that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take the aggressive against it and no longer fear it; but by the sign of the Cross and by faith in Christ tread it down as dead. For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as naught, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ. For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually live, and become incorruptible through the Resurrection.  And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead. And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him. But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Savior has accomplished against it. For while still tender in years they make haste to die, and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it. So weak has he become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed. For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Savior on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old: O death , where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting”

– St Athanasius the Great, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 27.


This selection from the work of St. Athanasius must cause us to tremble in our modern world. Can we think of what those Christians must have been like? Set aside for a moment the thought that you may know a Christian who is like this now, in these later days of the world. Consider them, young and old, considering death a conquered and captive enemy. Consider the faith of those who, facing not only their own deaths, but the deaths of their loved ones, thumbed their nose at the once terrible enemy.

We may think that St. Athanasius is exaggerating the faith of the people of his own day. But is that the common trend of the ordained? Do they not usually decry the lack of faith in their own day and wish for the better days of old? Certainly, Athanasius could have called back to the time of the Apostles and thought, “See then the great example of faith. Behold the Apostolic Theater that the powers of the air and the rulers of earth were witness to. See how they, like a public display, laid their lives down for all that they would only believe that death had been overcome.”

But he does not call back to another day, but holds up the faith of his own day. We may think it sexist that he says “not only men, but women too,” but it was thought an ancient virtue of men that they were to be brave in battle and unafraid before death. Here Athanasius demonstrates that in Christ, “there is not male and female.” The virtue, once thought to belong to men, is shared by both sexes in Christ.

If we can set aside our cynicism, we might react to these Christians in one of two ways. The first, since we are modern people, wise in our technology, anthropology, science, and cultural superiority, might pity them for the uneducated bumpkins who thought that the myth of the dying god had actually come true. They mistook that ancient cycle of the dying and rising corn for the life of this man. Or perhaps they had been duped by the government, or satisfied some desire that the Gospel message met in their unexamined psychological makeup. Yes, with all that we know now, we may well pity them for their brashness in the face of that final destruction which death brings to us. We know the truth, of course, with our advances in knowledge. Men don’t come back from the dead. There is no hell under the earth, no heaven in the sky.

Yes, such a course is possible. But for me the second option. Instead of pitying them, I would worship them as far as is allowed by the God who makes them holy. I would revere them, fall down at their feet and cover my face for the pitiful faith of my own age.

I am among Christians, perhaps among the least likely to simply embrace such an attitude toward death with simple ease. I have suffered time and time again that existential angst that seems to crowd the mind with the unassailably certain knowledge that death is only ending, not beginning. I have sat in the darkness of the relentless voice that insists that I am only the barest collection of matter doomed to come to the same ending as my beginning: Disparate matter with no consciousness. The world, marching on for billions of years, will march on after I am gone, much as it marches on as I am here, without concern for my existence. The voice is relentless at times. The temptation to despair an endless drone of a senseless mechanistic universe.

But when this position has had its say, when it has made every case against hope of continued existence, every plea for despair, and when it has painted the darkness an ever deepening shade of black,  the Christian response remains.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

The modern darkness, the unrelenting pressure to relent to the nihilism of nothing, or the more comforting relative peace of the world that we make out of ourselves, is the very thing that the Gospel stands against. It is not the trump card played against the Gospel, but the bound and captured enemy that the Gospel drags before us and says “behold, you need fear him no longer.”

Death is swallowed up in victory.

Our modern situation is then no different than that of the ancient world. Athanasius wrote against those who, in his day, argued that Christianity was nonsensical, unscientific, and too mythical. He stood like a bulwark against tides of pagan, determinist, and heretic thought. His confidence rested in that “old time religion” of the Apostles. God has overcome death in Christ.

The faith of the Apostles is not dead. It still calls people, in this modern world, to proclaim that victory over death has been won. We simply need to be reminded that that is the central teaching of the Christian faith. It is not that Christ died, but that Christ rose. For it is only by his rising, that we who were disparate collections of matter,  and who will go back into this same dissolution, have any hope.


For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ – 1 Corinthians 15:53-54



The Two “How’s” – On Multiple Causality


“So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labor on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favoring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbor in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, I have saved the ship, but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labor to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labor, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.” – Origen, De Pricipiis, 3.1.18

One of the many criticisms laid at the doorstep of theists is that we attribute to God that which seems to be easily accounted for by natural factors. A person suffering from a great illness recovers after consulting a physician and undergoing the physician’s recommended treatments. A husband safely navigates icy roads to come home to his concerned wife. A student, after long hours of study, finally passes the last exam and wins for herself degree and title.

If the patient, man, and woman are theists and devout, they will thank God for the outcome.

This seems like foolishness to those who believe firmly that we live in a world of simple efficient causality. In a mechanistic universe where no room for freedom exists, no room for multiple causality can exist. But the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or any other religious person, need not hold to a purely mechanistic universe. And, even if we did, the causation of God’s intent would still by no means be ruled out.

Let us put aside the question of mechanistic/non-mechanistic universes and consider a thought experiment with regard to causation.  We will see if we cannot get at what theists mean when they attribute to God some good event.

Imagine a man walking down a mountain path, hurrying to bring medicine to his daughter which he has acquired in a nearby village. The man is suddenly set upon by a mountain lion, and prays to God for help. In what seems a miraculous event, a fall of rocks at that moment crushes the mountain lion, allowing the man to pass by safely and rescue his child’s life. And so begins the story of a young woman who grows up to save her nation from poverty, despair, and invasion.

In a mechanistic appraisal of these events, we might say that the events could not have happened any other way. What appears to us as a shocking and favorable coincidence is, indeed, just one of the many patterns that emerges from the complex interaction of the factors of the universe. Those rocks would have fallen at that moment whether the man’s prayer had happened or not. Perhaps they would have fallen even if the man and mountain lion had not been there. Perhaps the motions or weight or sound of the mountain lion shook them free. Indeed, we could trace the physical causes of those rocks, that lion, and that man back through billions of years of determined causality to the moment of the Big Bang and say that the “why” of that moment was the exact formation of the energy and matter that first expanded in that principal moment.

Yet, we may see the events in another way. The “how” of the rocks falling and killing the mountain lion is also that I, the story teller, have made it happen. I have told the story, not putting the Big Bang first and leading up as a result of its form and matter to the inevitable encounter between man and mountain lion. Instead, the man’s experience, or the daughter’s life of heroism, are the center of the story. The story goes outward from there, and we follow it back to give it context and history. The “how” on this level of the events is my will and act of creating the story. It need not “begin at the beginning” if by “beginning” we mean the first chronological event.

Both “how’s” can exist together, simultaneously, but the mechanistic “how” exists due to the “will and act” how. This leaves out entirely the question of “why.” The why is also my will, but perhaps then it is my will that the young woman should save her country, or that the man should save his daughter, or that the wife of the man might not be widowed. In each case, though, the efficient causes are human efforts, or natural events.  Each person would be right in saying that, though they did their part, the accomplishment of their goal was given by the author of the story.

Benedick and Beatrice spar their way toward each other, but it is the Bard that is to be thanked for their marriage. Frodo may put in the very last of his strength to climb Mount Doom, but it is Tolkien who has ensured that the task is complete.

That we live in a story and not an accident of random events is a matter of perspective. One cannot demand scientific proof that we are in a story any more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might. There is no experiment to run to tell us if we are in a narrative prepared with vast cosmic backdrop for our little lives of love, hatred, jealousies, nobilities, defeats and victories. One either considers the many elements and recognizes the master hand of the master storyteller, or one does not.

But it is clear that it is not contradiction or foolishness when, as the much maligned giant of Christian thought, the second and third century theologian, Origen, relates the situation of sailors above. For it is rooted deeply in the mystery of St. Paul’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13).

It is in the will of God that Christians identify their salvation in both mundane and spiritual things. This is not merely theologizing, for the idea itself is contained in the scriptures. For St. Paul speaks from the Areopagus speaking of God as the one “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).

I bring this last point up because some people who have not read much from the ancient world have an assumption that many of Christianity’s arguments are newly minted to defend an old system. But the argument for mechanism/fate is older than Christianity. The Stoics, as best I understand them, held a fatalistic view of a mechanistic universe. Origen, quoted above, lived at the end of the second century into the third century.

The debate is an ancient one, one that Christianity has been very active in from the beginning. And from the beginning we have maintained a very clear idea of (at least) two “how’s” of causality.



Subjectivity and the Hypostatic Union


One of the major difficulties in thinking through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the problem of single or dual subjectivity. The first holds that the subject of every action in the Incarnation is the divine Word of God. Thus we say that God is born, God eats, and God dies and rises. If we were to ask Jesus who He is, in His response of “I AM…” the “I” is the “I” of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity.

This causes some problems and seems to lead us toward a deficient humanity in Christ. The human “I” that each of us is, seems to be lacking in Christ. There is an “I” but it is a divine, not a human self. We find ourselves slipping into a kind of Apollinarian viewpoint in which the self-determining rational mind of Christ is replaced by the Logos.

To check this, we do all we can to buttress the humanity of Christ, insisting on a human spirit and mind, but then finding ourselves in a position in which we are now very close to seeing this collection of elements that make up a human person, doing exactly that. Jesus’ humanity, it seems, must be self-determining to be really human. The “I” of the human Jesus appears to need to be the “I” of a human person otherwise we lose the full humanity of Christ.

But of course, if we follow this well trodden road, we now have two subjective elements, the divine “I” and the human “I”. This falls into the serious problem of the nature of the union between God and our nature. How is it accomplished? If the “I” of Jesus is not divine, how does his life, death, and resurrection help us?

Doctrinally, of course, the Church holds to the Neo-Chalcedonian enhypostatic formula of the human nature of Christ being personal (a person, a subjective ‘I’) in the Logos. A single subject. Yet, if we are sympathetic, we can hear the validity of the concerns of the “two-sons” theology of Antioch.

Perhaps of course, the answer to our conundrum does not lie in trying to refine our formulas to try to explain which elements are maintained and which are lost in the union. Perhaps the answer lies in the deeper mystery of divine Subjectivity.

The “I” of human nature appears to be fundamentally exclusive. It is the “I” that says that I am I and you are you. I am I by not being the “I” that you are. This is, of course, a source of terrible suffering, for selfishness, domination, and abuse all come from the over emphasis of this distinction. But it also is the opportunity for all charity, altruism, and empathy. I cannot have charity if there are no others to love.

This firm distinction of self, however, may not be what is at the base of all creation. The Triune God who is the Father’s self-giving to the Son and Spirit, dwells as the root and base of all self. In the Trinity all self is wholly given away, nothing held back, and no boundaries set up. Distinction, not separation, is the law of love in the Trinity. While we must affirm the “non est” of the Father/Son distinction, we must also more firmly hold to the Dominical mystery that “I and the Father are One.”

One God, not three Gods who share a divine nature. One mystery of three interpenetrating selves giving themselves away wholly and with abandon, patterned on the Father’s foundational gift of self to the Son.

The Self then in the divine life is wholly integrated into the other, or the one who is distinct. We can see the pattern played out Christologically in the Dominical commandments to love our enemies, to give all we have to those who ask, and to love all as brothers and sisters. The divine broadness of selfhood is also revealed in the mystery of the last judgment in which all good and evil done to the least are done to Christ.

It is through these lenses then that we must consider the hypostatic union of single subjectivity that preserves and maintains the fully humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Only by thinking the whole self-giving and self-identification of the Trinity, and thinking the whole self-giving and self-identification of the Christian life, can we begin to contextualize the mystery of a single subject in Christ.

The subjective “I” of the Logos does not unite itself to any reality to expel that reality from itself. Grace comes to complete, not to destroy. Far be it then that the Logos, in its most perfect union with human nature, should cast out any element, even the human way of saying “I.” Indeed, the Logos unites itself so closely to our nature that our nature can say “I” in the person of the Logos in the way that it says “I” in every other human being. It’s psychology, though unfallen, functions as a human psychology, not driven out by the Logos, but in perfect union with it.

It is a mystery. The perichoretic selves of the Trinity, and indeed the perichoretic selves of Christians, tear down the diabolical demand that I and Thou must always mean different things, while resisting the misunderstanding that they must wholly collapse into each other. Distinction without division is the rule.

These, then, appear to me to be the tools with which we must work at our understanding of the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Let the doctrines of Trinity and Christian love shine a light on the doctrine of the incarnation so that it might shine greater light in return on them.

Why Suffering 2: After Goodness


Last week’s blog attempted to explain why, on a natural level, there must be some level of pain, if only very minor, in the process of becoming like God. This week I want to look at why I think that in our present state, it must involve more than simply that small act of letting go of our natural desires and involve real suffering. But first I want to revisit that transcendence of the natural desire for a moment.

We might imagine that for the first unfallen humans, not killing a particular animal or not eating the fruit was as easy as any other task. I think we would be wrong in saying this, for there are two kinds of commandment. The first, which we are more familiar with, involves keeping us away from doing what is really evil. “Do not murder” is always true everywhere. “Do not lie in court against your neighbor” is never untrue. However, “do not slay the white hart, for in the day you do Camelot will fall” is a different kind of command.

On its surface, it is a kind of magic. As long as the fruit is uneaten, or as long as the hart bounds through the forest, the magical land holds. When the rule is broken, the magic fades. But there is a deeper reality to the rule. It calls creatures onward and upward into God’s life. Each time the first people saw the fruit or the animal or whatever they were forbidden, there must have been a process of putting down a natural desire for it. That denial would have been an effort. It would probably not have been very hard, but it would have had to have been conscious for the magic to work. For in denying the natural good of this one thing, they see the better supernatural good of God.

But they did not do this forever. They fell. They broke the magic, and the garden fled. Or, perhaps, it is better to say that the garden was only a garden and not a wild jungle of dangers because those who walked in it were immortal gods for as long as they were obedient to the command. Lions will be lions, but their fangs mean nothing to Apollo. We need not claim that the world became wild only after sin, but that we, after long ages of evolution, came to be men and women with the immortalizing of our spiritual and rational elements as they were given to our newly immortal bodies. To such ones even the saber toothed tiger would be no more dangerous than the housecat . . . even less so.

However we say it, the gods became mortal, and sin entered the world. This sin, which is no different than the sin that lives in each of us, takes from us the easy joy in the other’s good, and sets us in fierce competition with each other. It makes the desire for things a terrible lord over our hearts. It sets jealousies and desires where there should not be. The lusts for sex and pleasure are set in a kind of disorder, but terribly worse is the lust for power and domination. To set our wills above the wills of others, to engorge ourselves by making others slaves or mere extensions of ourselves, is the direct product of our sin.

To be in this state is to be in a state opposed to God. And how can it not be suffering to turn from all of this? One might say that it would be only joy to do so, and in the end I would agree. But in the beginning it involves pain. Firstly, because it involves the giving up of that which we desire with disordered longing. Strengthened by sin, this desire is not only disordered but ravenous. The denial of such ravenous desire must be pain. We have gone beyond the simple natural desire for the fruit that we imagine must taste good, or the animal which would give us hearty chase. Those desires might be overcome with only a small denial of self. But these desires, these lusts after power, possession, and dominance, can only be resisted with effort and pain. Secondly, because we have identified ourselves with these desires, to turn from them is to turn, in some ways, from ourselves.

For a sinless person, a turning from things that are bad would be ease and joy. But a sinless person need not turn from such things. Her trial comes in denying the good things which have been forbidden her because better things have been offered. But a sinful person suffers greatly when turning from her sin. She reaches once more for the old evil, pulls her hand back, kills the self again, weeps, and cries out for aid. The process involves tears. They are the tears of the desperate, the one in need of strength, not merely the contrite. The hunger for evil does not simply go when she has “cried it all out,” but remains until it is cut out of her.

Here we must remember the distinction between “a sin” and “Sin.” A single sin, or a bundle of sins, may be set aside with contrition (here I do not stand with my Catholic brethren, for I do not think that attrition is needed, or, if needed, is wholly dealt with by the cross). However, Sin, that destructive power that lives within us, cannot simply be wept away. No, remaking is necessary there, and that process must involve some level of suffering, for it involves death. Who and what we were will be unmade to be made again. The unmaking of a thing certainly is not a pleasurable process, and that must come first. Perhaps it will all come in the cancer or fire that take our lives. Perhaps.

All of this has been theology of reason. It takes what has been revealed and what is in our experience and considers its ramifications. I want to turn next week to the tradition of the church. For it does not seem to be the consensus of those who have gone before us that the suffering that will purge us from all sin is simply our natural death.


Image: “Garden of Eden” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1621

Why Suffering – 1. The Natural and The Supernatural

My post “Jesus: On Our Side” generated a single question: Why am I so sure that the process of becoming like Christ’s idea of me will involve pain? Why will it not be, as it sometimes is, a delightful enfolding of love? I have been asked for a clear reason as to why I think the God of love will cause us suffering in the process of moving toward Him. Is God not the great healer? The great source of love? Why then shouldn’t God make the change one of, not suffering, but a kind of catharsis? When we are swallowed up in love, might we not weep away our sin until we are clean?

Intending to write a single blog post, I realized that this is in fact five posts. So I will be posting, perhaps once a week, a single reason why I believe the process of becoming like Christ involves suffering.

Week 1: The Natural and the Supernatural

Week 2: After Goodness

Week 3: Authority

Week 4: Spoken Aloud

Week 5: The Ever Higher Hill

The following is, I hope, if not a convincing argument as to why the process must involve suffering for us, a satisfactory explanation as to why I believe it must.

There is a debate, especially among my Catholic brothers and sisters, about the question of the relationship between nature and grace. If we can’t be fully satisfied by natural things, we are in some way owed God’s gracious gift of Godself (this is based on a philosophical concept from Aristotle). For a creature must be able to attain its own ends. However, if our own natural ends satisfy us so much, why should we care about God’s gracious gift? We could, it seems, reject it without any violence to our nature.

I find the debate to be difficult at best for a number of reasons, but primarily because, once you get into some of the higher philosophy and theology of it, it predicates of God distinctions that are not meaningful. The God presented in the debates is too anthropomorphic, making one decision “after” another, and setting divine freedom against divine necessity. (These are also the problems inherent in the philosophical debate about God’s freedom starting from Leibniz until today).

However, what is useful for our discussion is the focus on the distinction between human nature and God’s grace. I, siding with St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and many others and hold firmly that the human being is made primarily for fellowship with God. Our hearts are restless until we do. Yet, I also hold that the divine call to grace is a supernatural one. Nature points us in one direction, and the gracious call of God pulls us in another. There is pain in leaving the natural path; a giving up of many of our natural inclinations for supernatural commands. Indeed, following the commands will bring joy, or, when we are at our best, are joy themselves. But that does not remove the fact that by doing them, we are giving up something we would also like to be doing.

Anyone who has come from a relatively happy family, or at least a family of love (for a loving family is not always happy), and gone away to college, knows the feeling. You know you are doing what you must, what you should; even what you want. You know that joy waits just around the corner. But there is a wrench, a tearing, and a suffering that comes from that parting. You are leaving something natural, the home, for something less natural, the dormitory. Those of us who successfully went through the process will say without question that the process is worth it, and that untold joys have been the result. But that does not make the suffering not suffering.

Indeed, all steps away from the natural involve suffering. Christianity, or even religion, is not the only one to lay claim to such things. Let us take marriage for example. The Christian position on marriage is varied, but I will consider here the view held by Catholics, Orthodox, and most Anglicans: that marriage is a sacrament. As a sacrament, marriage is called to a supernatural level. It not only puts two people together in a binding contract with all due legal rights, but calls them to an “unnatural” relationship. They “forsake all others” and swear that the union will end only when their mortal  lives come to an end. This is an unnatural state for humans to be in, as we are constantly reminded by our culture. On the other side, we can see the growing movement of polyamory and open marriages (two distinct practices). These lifestyles, as best I understand them, hold that having only a single partner is not the situation that makes human beings the happiest.

In the middle is the system of the old Roman Republic. Two people make a contract together, and remain together as long as that contract is profitable to them. Hopefully the profit is joy, children, and a richer life, but that is not always the case. Then, when the contract is done, they go their own way to make another contract. Breaking of the contract is forbidden, but happens too often anyway. This system is very much like our own, and is, from a natural level, preferable to our own as it acknowledges that this kind of marriage is a purely natural institution that can and should be left naturally without much in the way of suffering.

What the Christian and the Open Marriage positions have in common is that they both call us to deny certain natural tendencies. The person in the Open Marriage must find his way through the jungle of jealousies and natural reactions to his mate being with other people. Sex aside, one must deal with the touch of the cheek, the affectionate hand holding, and the private jokes that, if all is well, they will be let in on but not in the same way as the two originators. There is a killing of the self that takes place in such situations that is done with the hope that, when these parts are dead, something better will be achieved on the other side. The Christian is in the same position, but on the opposite side of things. There is a death involved every time we meet someone truly wonderful who we might have loved deeply with Eros. We look at what might have been and we say “no,” knowing that we have committed ourselves to a choice. Our partner might be the best person for us, or he might not. Perhaps he is too loud, too angry, too lazy. And yet the Christian call is a supernatural call, one that calls us to deny our natural desires at times. Instead of killing the part of ourselves that wants exclusivity, we must kill the part that wants choices after our decision has been made.

Interestingly enough, both positions claim to draw their adherents to a kind of arch-natural state. Those who insist that human beings do not naturally have only one partner are no less claiming a “rightness” to their position than the Christian who claims a “rightness” to sacramental marriage. Both say that on the other side of the death of the “natural” level, there is something more natural and more life-giving.

The differences between these two positions are obvious and need not be gone into here in detail. But where they are similar is what is important. They both draw us away from our natural state, and this involves a fair amount of self-sacrifice and suffering. For no one has seen the one they truly love looking deeply into the eyes of another with equal love and not felt pain. And, conversely, no one has looked into the eyes of another and though “he . . . he would have made me far happier” and not suffered the shock of loss.

Another way of demonstrating this natural/supernatural dichotomy is from Scripture. The story of the Garden of Eden contains within it a special commandment. The man and his wife are not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a commandment given in a mythical setting, and I am fairly certain that the tree and commandment represent some other commandment given to humanity at its inception. Perhaps it was “do not kill creature X, for in the day that you do, you will surely die”. Or perhaps it was even a command not to eat a certain fruit. But whatever it was, it was not a natural commandment. If it lined up perfectly with the nature of the human creatures, it would have needed no commandment. God did not need to tell Adam not to eat rocks, Adam’s biological tendencies had that well in had. Instead, the command was itself a call to supernatural life: trusting that God is good, and that there is more for us than the natural world.

Obeying the commandment would have been almost nothing, a small self-denial for something much greater. But the self-denial must have involved some small level of suffering, else it could not be self-denial. Something must die in the giving up of what we want, even if the desire is small. If God had told us, “you shall not wear the color yellow” it would be only a small loss for me (though perhaps for others a deep loss). Yet, on those days when wearing yellow might seem best, it would involve a small, perhaps almost (but not quite) meaningless leaving of the self.

This plays out more obviously when we think about the demon of competition. We consider a good that we want, and that is not unlawful or harmful: a job, a friend’s time, a particular book on a shelf. We reach for the thing and find that another wants it. If it is someone we love, we naturally want them to have what they want. If it is a stranger, we may feel quite magnanimous to them. If it is an enemy, we may feel exactly the opposite. But how, even in the first two situations, are we to want their good if it conflicts with our good? How can I wish you to have the same job that I wish for myself?

The commandments of Christ demand from us that not only are we to wish good for all three of these people, our enemy not less than our loved ones, but that we are to give them the very thing we desire if they desire it. It is a giving away that involves suffering because, if we truly desired the job, or the treasured hour with a friend, or the hard to find book, we cannot lose it except with some level of suffering. Having worked for years to be ready to take the job, we find that another has it. How can we not suffer? Having been parted for a year, and having endured many sorrows, we find that the coveted moment is stolen from us when we might embrace our friend, and for a time hear his laughter and bad jokes again because another needs his time more. How can we not suffer?

Yet, we are called by God to go beyond these natural inclinations into joy. They can’t help but be suffering for us, and yet we must let them go. We must not stamp our feet and insist that the job is ours, or that our friend turn his back on someone in need. We must kill that part of ourselves and grow. I do not mean here into “mature adults” who can simply bear the pain, but into sons and daughters of God who give thanks that another has received good. This all involves pain.

But the fact that it involves quite as much pain as it does is strange. Should these things not be small “almost-nothings” that we give away easily? The fact that they are not will require another blog post.

Jesus: On Our Side

Recently a very good friend of mine, Father Ben Wallis, reposed a “Coffee with Jesus” that he liked very much. The comic strip is here:


The strip references a few different theological ideas. First, the common perception that Jesus must be judgmental. Second, that Jesus did not come into the world to judge the world, but to save it (John 3:17). And finally, that Jesus, not coming to judge people, is indeed on their side.

Far be it from me to argue with the author of the Gospel of John. Indeed, I believe John’s gospel has a depth of understanding that comes from the decades of reflection on the man Jesus and the events of his life, death, and resurrection that the other three Gospels simply do not display.

Coffee with Jesus, on the other hand, does not quite have the apostolic authority that the fourth Gospel lays claim to. And it is their reading of the first two theological points, and their conclusion with the third that I want to consider and perhaps nuance.

First, the idea that Jesus judges people is something I’m familiar with only in Christian circles. Outside of those circles, it is Jesus’ followers that appear to be the ones whose judgment people do not want. If “Kevin” in the comic strip is meant to be a non-Christian, I think this whole message is off. He might, if he were like the non-Christians I know, say something like “Jesus, you seem OK, but your followers really suck,” or, “Hey man, I don’t even think you existed” or “strange how you and Mithras share the same birth story” (there may even be  Coffee with Jesus strips that do these very things, I don’t know). Indeed, amidst all of the criticisms of Jesus that I have heard, few if any have been about how judgmental that Jesus guy was.

However, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that “Kevin” is a Christian. He has been told that Jesus is coming to judge the living and the dead (something we hold as dogmatically true by the authority of the Nicene Creed). This man, “Kevin” doesn’t want any of that. Who needs judgment?

Jesus’ response, that he didn’t come to judge the world, is certainly johannine in origin. However, it does not tell the whole story about judgment in the New Testament. Indeed, also from Jesus mouth is the coming judgment of the world from Matthew 25. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:10 speaks of the judgment seat of Christ.

But more damning to this simplistic view is the rest of the Johannine witness. Jesus makes it clear that he does indeed judge in John’s Gospel. The fifth chapter speaks clearly about Jesus’ judgment coming from the authority of the Father. Even more confusing is John 9:39 when Jesus says he “came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’”

John’s Gospel then seems to have conflicting information. Jesus did not come into the world to judge it, but he also came for judgment. Clearly “Coffee with Jesus” is taking one side of a somewhat murky problem.

Another statement by Jesus in John’s Gospel adds more information, but does not really clarify the situation.

“I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” (John 12:47-48)

The word Jesus has spoken will judge. How Jesus’ word is both connected to him and distinct from him is not fully clear. However, we will leave the issue open, where it must be. Jesus judges, but has not come to judge.

So what then of Coffee with Jesus’ conclusion? Jesus’ last words in the comic “I’m on your side, Kevin” are very interesting. Those of us who do not hold to a limited atonement, who believe that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension were really for every person who has ever lived and will ever live, must believe that Jesus is really on our side.

But, while this is a beautiful truth, it is not the whole truth in a world stained and darkened by sin. Because the people we are, the people we identify ourselves as. the goals and opinions and self portraits we have, may be diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Insofar as we identify ourselves with those things, and not His love and teaching, Jesus is very much not on “our” side. Indeed, the thing we call our “self”, doing all it can to not love our neighbors as Christ loved them, to not forgive, to not hold our lives lightly, and to gather goods, money, fame, and power, and to beat down others so that they have less than we do, can never be said to have God on its side.

God must and will kill that thing. He will stamp it out; tread it underfoot even if it strikes him in the heel. He will cast it into a fire of hell until it dies the last death. All of this will be very painful to what we call our “selves”. While the process is going on, it will seem very much like God is on anyone’s side but our own.

Then, when that false self is slain, when the shade that hid the man or woman is banished by the burning light of judgment, which is to say the light of truth, for judgment is only calling a thing what it is, the true man or woman will stand forth before all of creation and declare rightly that Christ was always and everywhere on his side.

For Christ is for the woman or man as they are meant to be. He is for you in a way that you are not for yourself. He is for each person even if they would slay him to keep him from bringing out of them the good that they will be so that they can keep the evil that they are.

It is wrong to say that Christ is for the slightest sin done with the best intentions by the holiest of saints. Insofar as that saint is allied with the sin, Christ would pay the dearest price to have the sin out, and the woman who committed it no longer linked with its evil. He will have it dead and cast into hell. And insofar as she identifies with it, she must go to hell as well until it is out.

But it is right to say that Christ is for even Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers, and every rapist, child molester, and murderer. He is for the very humanity in these people and their dearest friend, for no power can save them from the evil that they have made themselves but His.

And as far as it goes, all who allied themselves with the sins of their fellows, which is all of us, are not really on the sides of those we call our closest friends. We are against them when we help them to become less themselves, which is to say less God’s idea of them, and become more the sin. In fact, insofar as we are all broken, all falling short, all complicit, we have never really been on each other’s sides. No one has ever had a true friend in the sense that every movement of every action was always for their good.

Except for this man, Jesus.

So yes, though it is over simplified, and perhaps easily misunderstood, Coffee With Jesus gets at one of the deepest truths of reality. Jesus is on our side. But we must remember and tremble at remembering, that while he is on our side, we may not be.


You can find all of the Coffee with Jesus strips here: http://radiofreebabylon.com/Comics/CoffeeWithJesus.php

We Won’t Stop

The Lyrics are pretty simple and shallow.  They are all about partying, dancing, getting high, and basically living for pleasure.  They are about a sense of self-ownership and freedom, with a repletion of the phrases “we can x” and “this is our x”.  “We run things/Things don’t run we.” We can’t stop. We won’t stop.

It is an anthem of youth that is concerning itself with asserting that it will not be stopped in its pursuit of the party.  At a very basic level, this is a song about sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

But it points to something more. Everyone who has ever been to a truly great party knows that the party is the people.  It’s the spirit that moves the gathering, the crazy friend who is busting out his dance moves too early in the night, the three or four people on the balcony who are getting too deep for everyone else, and the group getting way too loud.  It’s the moment when that song that everyone knows comes on, and, which is rare in our culture, all of a sudden our voices are one, singing together.  And anyone who has been in that moment knows that more often than not, we sing together against something.  This song has it.  If we sing along we are singing together against . . . what?  Responsibility?  Age?  Waste? Authority?


There is something wildly pagan about a good party.  There is the uplifting of the senses to the higher powers, the elevation of pleasure, the worship of the wild gods of drink and sex.  The little lights of men and women lift up their fierce celebration against the unknown and the solitude of individuality.  And, if they so deign, the natural gods descend to move amongst us with the spirit of the bacchanalia, and the orgy.

“We Can’t Stop” is another summer party song.  It’s a song that has been sung generation after generation.  As flagons, wine skins, red cups and 40’s are lifted up across time, the spirit of the party moves.  It rages.  We sing.

Many in the history of the church would condemn it all.  Others would simply dismiss it as harmless youth.  Neither is the right answer as far as I’m concerned.  Instead, we must ask what God can make of it.  What can the Incarnate One who has made use of the very small things of hands and legs and eyes and ears, make of the party?  What if the spirit that moved the party was, not replaced, but crowned with a new ruling Spirit of harmony and a new kind of elevation?  The Erotic, not cast aside, but transformed, still called us to each other.  The false high replaced with the true ecstasy too intense for the small imitations of our little drugs.

What if the Spirit reworked it all into something truly beautiful?

What Jimmy Fallon, Miley Cyrus, and the Roots do here is only a sign, only a hint, only the merest suggestion of the mystery that is the God who will take our human lives and shoot them through with eternal arrows of burning joy.  Something small is made large.

I imagine that the pleasures of this life are not even to be compared with the pleasures of the next, and yet they are a shadow.  This is so far from us when we understand the kingdom only as a set of laws, or a legal or forensic transaction between the Legal God and Himself.  The kingdom is ecstatic, each of us going out from ourselves in total love for one another. What we saw as the spirit of the party will be seen only to have been its herald.  The Spirit comes to make us love with a raging love and acceptance that brings us into wonderful harmony.  Not just one voice singing, for there is the hell of self.  But a harmony of voices, affirming and elevating, loving and healing.

It won’t be abstract.  The people who were in a line in the bathroom trying to get a line in the bathroom will find the very thing they were looking for.  It will look very different, of course.  But what they will find, what they will do in that coming party, will have been hinted at in the drug.  What we sought in sex and drunkenness will appear for real before us.  There will be newness and resurrection, but it is these old paltry things that will be made new.  One remembers the lizard of lust that becomes a stallion in The Great Divorce.

That coming feast which will be the biggest blow out that the universe has ever seen.  For we will not merely be stoic drones shuffling around talking about how Holy God is.  We will be our very selves made new, leaping and dancing with the divine life.  We will be gods whose music will take up the songs of earth and transform them into the anthems of immortal joy which they only hinted at here.

And then truly will we say we can’t stop.  Because there will be no end to the joy and ecstasy. The great enemy death will be cast away, and hell will be overcome.

Truly then we won’t stop.

Fire Upon The Earth


Sermon for Hope Lutheran Church in College Park, MD 8/18/2013

Texts:  Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews: 11:29 – 12:2
Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

Our age is obsessed with the natural world.  We have learned how to manipulate it, control it, and we have delved many of its secrets.

Of course there are many secrets which we have only just scratched the surface of.  But the fruits of the pursuit of scientific knowledge are obvious and abundant.

But we have become so transfixed with our knowledge of the world that we have mistaken this kind of knowledge for all kinds of knowledge.  This kind of reality for all kinds of reality.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel today do not make sense in a purely naturalistic world, where there is only nature, but no supernature.  Where only the natural exists, the Gospel fails.  For Christ did not come to organize communities, or to set up societies.

No, instead, Christ tells us exactly what he came to do in this week’s reading.  He came, it says “to bring fire to the earth.”  But no, that’s not right.  The Greek reads “I came to throw, or cast fire upon the earth.”  Christ comes with a violent intention, to burn with fire, and to break like a hammer.  He has come to cast fire on the earth.

Now, fire consumes, fire destroys.  Where there is only the weak, fire fully destroys.  But where there are things that are made, not to resist, but to be refined by fire, it purifies.  The fire that Christ comes to cast upon the earth is like this.  It burns to purify that which is eternal by destroying all that is too weak and temporary to belong to the kingdom of God.

As George MacDonald, the great Scottish Preacher and Writer announces, God “will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakable may remain: he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal.”

It is a supernatural fire that comes with Christ.  For He is the supernatural man.  He is supernatural in two ways.  First, in that he is God come into humanity to stand among us while remaining the living and Eternal God.  Secondly, He is man, come into the Godhead to make a place for us women and men.  He is the bridge that lays itself down that all might come to the Father.  And like all bridges he connects the two lands, and has some share in both.

The supernatural man, then, does supernatural things.  He heals, he raises the dead, he says to the storm “be still!”  He commands the earth as its rightful Lord, for he is above it, and greater than it.

And here, he comes to cast a burning upon the earth, and how He wished in that moment that it was already kindled!  Why?  What is this burning that he wants to send into the world?  Is it the Holy Spirit?  Well, to some degree that is right, but we know that the Holy Spirit was already active in the world from the very first day.  Is it the kingdom?  He was at that time preaching the kingdom that was to be an image of the very country from which He came where love rules and peace is permanent.

If not these, then what?  What is the fire upon the earth?

Look to your left and your right.  There, in the pew ahead of you, and the one behind you.  There is the fire that Christ has hurled to the earth to burn it.  The Church, set ablaze by the Spirit who was given at Pentecost, living the kingdom that He has established, stands as fire upon the earth.

We are God’s fire, for we are in the Son, the Word that is like Fire, as Jeremiah tells us.  The fire given to us in the Holy Spirit is the same fire that was in Christ, the heart and mind of Christ that sets the world ablaze.  The Church, for whatever we think of her, her failings, her stumbles, her empty pews and petty infighting, is under all of that, the very heavenly life that God has become human to establish here.

The fire that comes is the fire of the Trinity, lived supernaturally in the lives of natural people.  The computer programmer, the bank teller, the construction worker, the lawyer, the bartender, and the retail worker all are elevated to the life of the burning fire of God.

But lest we be deceived, we must understand the nature of this fire.  It is a relentless destroying fire, for it burns away all that is natural to replace it with that which is supernatural.  It conforms that which is passing away into that which is eternal.  And what does the eternal look like?  Is it a conquering majesty of armies, of haughtiness, of those who lord it over one another?

No . . . it is a kingdom of forgiveness.  It is the reign of love and mercy.  The supernatural confounds our natural desires.  The Lord Jesus does not come like the captain at the head of his legions of angels.  He could have, but that is not His character, for it is not His Father’s Character.  Instead, he comes meekly, calling us to the same humble life of service to one another.  Come and take up his yoke, come and obey him, come and follow, taking up your cross.  God is meek and lowly of heart, He forgives all offenses, he does not repay evil for evil, he has mercy  at every turn.

Come good people and live in the life of the trinity given now to you as fire upon the earth, and burn away all enmity, all hatred, all grudges, all judgment, all jealousy.  Be fire that burns with generosity and love, and convert the world with your peace.  We are to be a blazing light of obedience.

This is the good news, that God is beyond our petty quarrels, and has called us to his life.  Do you worry if you will be justified before him?  Cast that worry aside and cling to Christ in obedience.  For the Good Master is indeed Good, and no news is better than that He is Himself, this very man, Jesus the Christ.

Rejoice, forgive your enemies, and which may be harder, forgive those you love,  and be fire upon the earth until all else is burned, and only the eternal remains!