Princess Aesileif and the Fire Dragon

(A Fairy Tale on Demand)

Like all good fairy tales, this one begins at a particular point in history (upon a time) and, as far as things go, happened in singular fashion (once). Thus, like all historical events that have already transpired, we may say that it happened, Once Upon a Time.

 

Ahem.

 

Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Larger Ubridia, there was a princess called Aesileif.  This was a Germanic kingdom, and in those days, the name Aesileif was considered a very charming name for a young woman.  I have some knowledge of languages and history, and I assure you this is the case, and you really should be more trusting of your narrator.  This is not what you might call a “post-modern” fairy tale in the sense that you have an unreliable narrator.  I assure you, I am quite reliable, and this is entirely historical.

 

Aesileif was the kind of princess who dutifully did her work.  She sat at the distaff all day as musicians played on the lute or some other obscure instrument that a modern person would say “that looks like a guitar” of.  At times songs would be sung of the great heroes who had ridden into battle in the olden days, like Thorstein, or Hjolf Hjolf’s son.  And, as a lady of her time and culture, she was quite content with her lot in life.  You see, many modern stories would have you believe that every princess with a brain would have been a modern princess, bucking at social norms and demanding equality and the like.  But this is a historically accurate fairy tale which seeks to respect the cultural situatedness of our heroine.  She, like many other noble ladies of her day, thought her life was quite grand, not having to slop about with manual labor like a commoner.

 

Now, as it sometimes happened in those days, her father was a warlike man who wanted more than he had.  Greed, unlike bucking social norms, was as common in those days as it is today.  And so her father Ulf lived up to his namesake, and tried to swallow the territories around him in giant gulps.  But in doing so he earned the wrath of the war bands to his north.  They were warriors who, learning from the Romans centuries before, fought easily on mounted horse instead of simply on foot.  Now, until the invention of the pikestaff, it is well known that a mounted soldier would be worth ten men on foot.

 

So it is that Ulf’s people found themselves at a great disadvantage when they, simple walking folk who cleaved their way through the lands to the south and west of them, came up against the mounted soldiers of the north.  Now, some of these mounted soldiers were also noblemen of their clan.  Noble mounted men are called Knights.  The term Knight, really just means servant, but the idea of a mounted nobleman riding in service to the government, goes back to the old Roman days and a class of people called the Equestrians.  So, for all intents and purposes, these men were knights.  Again…trust me.

 

Now, Ulf’s warriors, though brave, loyal, and stalwart, were no match for these northern men and their galloping steeds.  And soon Aesileif, our lovely, happy with the status quo, princess, was an orphan.  The castle where she lived, which was really something like a hill fort, all staked round with wooden barricades and stockades, was soon to be overrun.  And Aesileif was rightly afraid, for in those days (and sadly in these days) warlike men are not always the most courteous to the women of a conquered people.  The gates were shut, and the doors closed fast.  But there were few of her father’s men still able to hold sword and shield in that hill fort that day.

 

Now, Aesileif was a Christian woman, as many of those warring Germanic peoples were in those days.  She held her virtue in high regard, and wanted no knight to endanger it without first entering into the bonds of holy matrimony with him.  And so, as the northern horsemen rode around the fort, calling out to the young princess with words that perhaps are among the most rude things that can be said whilst riding around someone’s home on a horse, she prayed fervently to the Lord that she might be delivered from her distress.

 

“Oh Risen and Conquering Christ, who has set the whole world under His feet, hear me and deliver your servant from this terrible fate!  Send a messenger to carry me far from here where I may remain pure and in your service.”

 

And, as is always the case, the Lord heard the prayer.  And, as is sometimes the case, He, in his wisdom, chose to answer it even as she had asked.  And so the Lord called forth his servant, a great fire dragon from the eastern mountains.  Up it rose from its dark and vast chambers in the roots of the hills, and spread its mighty red wings across the sky.

 

A terrible cry went up from the marauding men: “Wyrm!  Wyrm!”  And some of those brave horsemen fled immediately.  But those who were very brave crashed their swords against their shields and prepared for terrible combat with the fire drake.

 

But battle was not his call that day.  Instead, he descended down on the center most building of the hill fort, and lowered his tail to the princess’s window.  His voice, like the billowing of steam mixed with the roaring of a great fire, said “Lady, this day the Lord has heard your cry and sent his servant to deliver you.  Gather your ladies and mount the scales of my tail as a ladder that you might alight upon my back, nestled between my wings.  Hence I will take you to safety.”

 

And so she did even as he commanded.  And the dragon flew off to the mixed relief and disappointment of the northmen and set himself down atop the mountain where his own caves were hidden.  There a cave was prepared where the Princess might live with her ladies, and treat with messengers from more noble men who might wish to win her hand.  Again, being a lady of her day, she did not deign to choose her own husband, but left the decision to the great fire drake who was wise and full of the insight of his master.  And he, being a kindly dragon, and not enculturated into a wholly patristic society (for dragons are a very egalitarian people historically), sought her counsel on who she might like best to marry. And so a goodly match was made after a year of suitors coming to the mountain.

 

Her new husband was not a greedy man, nor a cruel man, but he was also a product of his time and place, and thought of Princess…or rather Queen…Aesileif as something of a subordinate to him.   She thought very little of this, except on the nights when she prayed and gave thanks for her deliverer, the great dragon of the east, who had treated her with great courtesy and fairness.  Perhaps then, in a small place in her heart, she did perhaps wish that things were a little different. But not so much as to be unnatural for a woman of her status and day.

 

The Relational Secret and the Eschaton

Judgment

This week I attended the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology’s conference this week, a conference which I heartily suggest to those even mildly interested in adding an ecumenically attended conference to their year.  The academic presenters range in tradition from Roman Catholic to Methodist, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran and more on common theological topics.  This year the discussion centered around the last things, or Eschata: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.  The last was left open due to the ecumenical nature of the conference; though I think it got very little play.  Both the papers and the discussions surrounding the topic were top notch, and well worth the time of anyone interested in theological issues.  The center’s page can be found here for both its journal Pro Ecclesia and to keep an eye out for next year’s conference:  http://www.e-ccet.org/

Now that I have done my part to bring more people to the conference, I wish to address a topic which was not directly considered in the papers presented (I place here the caveat that I did not attend the very last paper of the conference which was concerned with preaching about Heaven and Hell).  The topic in question is one of relationships as constitutive of being.  Here I am drawing on Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ proposal that the most fundamental category through which we are to understand God is not “being” but “communion” (Koinonia).[1]

Zizioulas’ understanding of persons as relational aims at undermining two of the three great sins of our reading of personhood in the last century, Radical Individualism, and Collectivism (the third being Objectification which is obliquely addressed by this theory).  Persons are persons, not individuals.  They are not particular instances of humanity existing on their own in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, they are radically related to other persons in a way that both explains and constitutes them.  From our very conception to our death, our identity is defined by who we are in relationship with.  It is not the whole of our being, of course, for we are still subjective “I’s” thinking our own thoughts, loving Celtic Music instead of Hip Hop, or vice versa, or both.  We have our own tastes, our own experiences, and our own particular existence in relationship to other persons with their own tastes, experiences, and particular existences.  This is the safeguard against simple collectivism.  I am I because I am related in some way to you, though I was I before I met you.

Some relations are of course, intrinsically constitutive.  My parents are my parents at the same time that I come into being.  In fact, they are coterminous realities.  My brother, younger than myself, has my brotherhood as intrinsically constitutive of his being, since I became his brother the moment he was conceived. This is somewhat asymmetrical, of course, because the same was not true when I was conceived.  There are of course, many ways we could examine these kinds of relationships, but it is enough to say that who we are is deeply defined by who we are in relationship with.

The Eschatological question here is one that concerns itself with the question of the resurrected identity of those in the Heavenly State.  (I use Heavenly State here to describe the state of the resurrected who are in communion with God, in whatever environment that entails).  A question arises about our identity as either whole or partial in the resurrection if those who are in some way constitutive of our identity are not present.  If someone who was either more or less central to the constitution of my identity is missing because they are ultimately and eternally in Hell, how can I be a full person?  How can I be really myself?  And if not really or wholly myself, how am I fully raised?

While this may seem to us, as we know ourselves now, to be a question about a very few number of people, I think the question is ultimately about every human’s relationship with every other human who has ever lived, or will ever live.[2]  We may not understand how we are shaped by the person who bags our groceries for seven minutes once in our lifetime, but it would be a strange thing to say that even the minutest relationships between two images of God are meaningless.  Far less can we understand how persons who lived in faraway places in times remote and perhaps forgotten, even sequestered from the flow of the rest of human history, could constitute our beings.  But once more it seems strange that any two of the myriad images of the Living God should not be in some way related in a meaningful way that transcends our perceived social and familial relations.

The question of being as constituted in some way by relation continues to plague us when we consider the imago Dei of each person.  Drawing on George MacDonald’s anthropology,[3] I would argue that the revelation of God’s own self is enacted in a special way through the personal relations of each person to God.  Your relationship with God is revelatory of the God who made you, and that relationship is unique.  MacDonald uses the image of the White Stone in the book of Revelation for this idea.  Each person is given a white stone on which is inscribed a name known only to the recipient and the Father (Rev 2:17).

The revelation of God then is personal in multiple ways.  It is a personal relationship directly between a human being and her creator, redeemer, sanctifier, and deifier.  But it is also a relationship with the images of that God who speak, though their very lives, secrets about God.[4]  It seems true that if God has revealed Godself in a particular and unique way in my best friend and worst enemy, like it or not, I must love my enemy as well as my friend to fully love God.

And so we come to the second problem that lies inherent in the question of relation as constitutive of our identities.  For my relationship with God, and who I am in relation to God, is reliant on my reception of the revelation of God given to me.  But that revelation is bound up in the images of God close to me or distant from me in space and time.  Should some of these be lost, that revelation is lost.  My knowledge of God will not, in fact, be complete, or even complete in an Epektasis model, going from fullness to greater fullness.

We may argue that if persons are lost eternally, God will indeed supply the missing bits of ourselves.  God might say, “I am all in all, and I shall give to you what you once had with those persons without their presence or consent.  I will be your brother, cousin, lover, friend, so that you need them not.  What I have bound up in them as revelation of myself, I free from them and give to you directly.”

But can God, or would God do this?  Perhaps the second question first.  Would God take what was revealed as particular persons in our history and say “ultimately, you needed them not, for I am all you need.”  Would the God who has instilled in us the command that the eye should not say to the hand “I have no need of thee” (1 Cor 12:21), say to us “you in fact did not need them at all”?  This seems out of character for the God who teaches us to model all of our behavior on the divine character and life.

The more difficult question seems to be, can God even do it?  Can we distinguish some inner principle of the revelation of God which is in my worst enemy from the person that is my worst enemy?  Can we say that God can abstract from that person some truth or fact that can be presented to me in some other way?  Or is it that the revelation is the person in relationship with God?  Is it that my worst enemy is the secret or truth about God that I must learn, and can learn no other way?  If this is the case, it seems that the only way then, once God has set this truth, this person, forth in history, for me to know this truth, is to know this person in the most intimate exchange of love in the Heavenly State.

It seems then, if Zizioulas is right, that our beings are constituted by relation, and the steps taken in this short essay are safe ones, that the result of a doctrine of eternal hell leaves us with both incomplete persons in the Heavenly State, and an incomplete Revelation to those persons.  This seems intolerable for a solid Christian Eschatology.

Finally, as a bit of speculation, we might also consider the human race as a body (a not unbiblical image).  If the body is also imago Dei, and not only each individual, then we must ask who the audience is for that image.  Might it not be that the angelic hosts wait with bated breath for the day when the full revelation of God in human form is set forth?  One might argue that this is already done in Christ, but while that may be true on the level of nature, it does not seem true on the level of the particular members of that body in relation.  If, as Dr. Paul Griffith’s suggested at the conference, the only things really important about us are the sacramental elements, we might say that the revelation of each human is rather like every other.  But this seems to me to be a rather deficient anthropology.  If instead, my most despised opponent is in fact, by the very fact that he hates the show Mad Men, loves Eggplant, and skiing, particularly revelatory of God, then his inclusion in the body of Christ with Christ at its head is necessary for the full setting forth of the revelation of God called the Human Race.

Perhaps then it would be that revelation that the whole of creation stands in wonder of as the very last Son of Adam comes forth from the hell of self to stand in new godhood before all things.  Perhaps then he will be in new and renewed relation with all others, and all will be made whole.  Perhaps then will the Son of Man say to all else that He has made, “Behold, I tell you a secret about myself.”  And perhaps then the sons and daughters of the earth will shine forth like the sun in the fullness of the glory that was set as their inheritance for all things to behold and rejoice in with not a single light missing, nor a single voice silenced.


[1] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion.

[2] We may also say this about the creation as a whole, which would not stray far from Zizioulas’ ecological intentions.

[3] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I.

[4] Once more we could also say this of the whole of creation.

Repost: Friday Resurrected

Author’s Note:  This post was written on April 29, 2011.  The internet has somehow done the impossible and made it totally disappear.  Thus I’m reposting it due to the response I received for the Harlem Shake article.  This is just how I think.

Here is the Fallon/Colbert reworking of Friday.

Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon – Friday by RofV

Original Post:

OK, so this is just bothering me now, so I need to blog it out.  I saw Rebbecca Black’s “Friday” for the first time yesterday, and…yes, well, it’s better left unsaid i suppose.  I was told promptly that I need to see the Colbert/Fallon version of the song, which I did this morning before work.

Now, my life is inundated with theology.  I think in those terms because: 1.  I always have, in one fumbling way or another. Which I take to mean that God has made me this way.  2.  I have conditioned myself to do so.  3.  I have been trained by very good theological minds to do so.

Thus, when I turned my mind to “Friday” as performed by the Roots, Colbert, Fallon, Hicks, and the Knicks City Dancers, the category that my mind slipped into was “Resurrection.”

It’s a hard thing to communicate, but the taking of of this rather middling piece of writing and musical arrangement (I place no blame on Black) and its reworking into something pretty amazing is an image of the renewal promised in the New Testament.  Each small stumbling thing that we do can be made new, given new life, and raised in an immortal body by God.

The principle is worked out in Jesus’ “Unless a seed fall into the earth” and Paul’s “it is sown a corruptible body…” You can find it in the Pauline teaching that the whole creation is groaning, waiting to be made new, and in the Divine “Behold, I make all things new.”

We are often quite silly in our daily lives, pursuing goals and making decisions that are just as middling and monotonous as “Friday.”  What can the Body of Christ do with them?  What can its head do?

The performance by Colbert & Co. was funny and serious, a joke and also very clearly hard work.  It lent a humorous dignity to something which would once have hung its head in shame among its peers.  So shall it be with our stumblings and trip ups and failed good intentions.  Christ will make them new in Himself.  It has been said by C.S. Lewis that “the serious work of Heaven is Joy.”

This is a principle Lewis worked on in the Great Divorce.  When a man’s lust in the form of a lizard, dies and rises in the form of a stallion, the lesson that Lewis derives is that if the Lizard of Lust can rise as something so magnificent as a stallion, what would a mother’s love look like?

We may then rightfully ask:  If something as simple, mundane, and trite as “Friday” might become something as wonderful as the Fallon/Colbert version…what might the efforts of charity, respect, ecumenism, and interfaith peace become?  In the hands of a Master…The Master…what will our silly efforts (perhaps even this silly blog post) be if they be made new in Him?

The Hidden Pattern: Jesus and The Harlem Shake

It’s a really simple model. You take a room full of people who are just going about their normal lives, sitting, reading, eating, or whatever. Then music starts, and at first it’s low but noticeable. More notable is the one figure dancing in the room. He has a strange helmet on, or a mask. He is dancing to the music, even though no one else is. The music plays for about ten seconds. Then the beat, as they say, drops.

The whole scene changes, and all of those normal people doing normal things, disappear and are replaced by the same people in insane costumes doing their best worst dance moves. Everybody is going nuts, and the first guy…he’s still doing that dance.

This my friends, a microcosm of every major Christian theological category dressed up in Darth Vader helmets and Spider-Man costumes. It contains the Incarnation, the preaching of the Gospel, the coming new Creation, the Eucharist, the Liturgy, the Trinity, the first Creation, and the Church. It displays Revelation, Interpretation, community and individuality. It’s a pattern that sits at the bottom of all things Christian.

It’s easy to see once you look. Let’s take the most obvious connection, the incarnation. The world, going about its business, looks rather normal. All of a sudden there is a man saying and doing something new that stands out from everything else. And then we are off like a shot, the scene jumps forward and human lives are changed from the mundane to the divine. The dance goes outward and sets normal respectable people off doing crazy, wild, and unpredictable things fueled by joy and informed by that man’s life and joy.

Consider the Church, that same community, all looking at the one man, his oddity and his difference, and patterning itself on him. Do you see his dance, his moves? You pattern yours on his, not as a simple copy, but as the interpretation of him that is your own very self. He might be Douggieing, but you are doing the Lawnmower, because that’s what he’s inspired you to do. And you’re not alone, that guy over there doing…um…something, is doing that something with you. He’s flailing about in what you think might be an attempt to do the running man in a way that is both in desperate need of correction and beautiful at the same time. Don’t worry, he’ll get it, and so will you. You, flailing man, and those three girls who all know exactly the same moves in perfect sync are all in this together. It’s the church patterned on the One. It is also a bunch of people that look totally crazy to everyone else. This is to be expected. If you won’t follow that one man’s crazy dance, then the people who do look really silly to you.

Or let’s consider the end of all things. There are the people in the world, going about as if it will never end. Then, in the blink of an eye, the world is changed, and their true selves are revealed. They are all images of that one who had been dancing the whole time, ignored by them, and now showing them how to be in a totally new and exciting way. The old is gone, and the Son of God’s words “Behold, I make all things new” break out in an eternal rapturous dance.

Again and again, from the boring nothing of pre-creation to the explosion of joy in the world’s making to the humdrum of life suddenly infused with the ecstasy of the Eucharist, the pattern of this passing (and probably very close to already passed) fad, unfolds and reveals the key to the Christian message. As well the fad itself, patterned on a single parody video, mirrors the Gospel. For each person can now be that silly one dancing amid the rigor and blah of the world, and can ignite a fire of foolishness that is wiser than all we can think up.

Such is the Gospel, not too proud to be boiled down to a simple YouTube Fad, not too great to become small and silly. But that shouldn’t be surprising, and should not offend those who think that the Gospel is too noble for this. For the Gospel is none other than the One who, though being God, thought it was best to become a silly awkward creature with arms and legs and hair who can dance Gangam Style.

Staring a New Explanation

Perhaps the most important role of a theologian, or even the defining characteristic of a theologian, is that she or he work to reveal the Father to the world.  This may seem contrary to general understanding, but it must be the case, for it is the mission of Jesus Christ to reveal the Father to the world.  In fact, the very being of Christ as both God and Human man is the imaging forth of the Father.  He is the First Theology, the first Study of God who puts Himself forward to speak about the nature of the Father.  Thus any Christian theologian must work with the primary goal in mind to reveal the Father to the world.  This of course does not mean ignoring Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit; but in fact means the exact opposite.  For it is in the Son and the Spirit that the Father is most faithfully revealed to us, and by being in both, we come to know the Father most completely.  In knowing the Father, we know goodness, truth, life, peace, love, mercy, and justice.  Thus, in this move to reveal the Father, we gather all things together.

This revelation of the Father must of course take different forms depending on those to whom we are speaking.  To Christians who accept the ancient received faith of the Apostles and Fathers, our revelation of the Father must often take the form of academic or spiritual explanation.  We are entrusted to search out the mysteries of God and hand them over to each other for testing and enjoyment.  To those of other faiths, we are to reveal the Father in a way that is recognizable to them in their own faiths, so that they might come to glory in the Father, and that we might hope that they might come to glory in the Son as well.  To those who are our enemies, the modern humanist or atheist, we are to reveal the father by academic rigor, logical consistency, and clarification of our points.  Finally, to the person who identifies with none of these categories, our task is to reveal the Father by clarifying the Christian teaching and position.  For it is only by a clear explanation of the Wonderful Announcement and the Christian position that our position may be either accepted or rejected with information and insight on their part.

This short essay is an introduction to a series of articles I will be publishing on this website that will attempt to address this last problem.  They will be articles aimed, not at converting, nor convincing, but in explaining the Christian position to those who are curious to understand that position beyond the popular understanding, especially that which has taken on the moniker of the “religious right” or “Fundamentalism” or “Born again Christianity” or “Evangelical Christianity.”  These will not be repudiations of this position, but an explanation of the positions held by the majority of the Christians in the world who do not hold to the positions most often associated with the popular understandings of these Christians (understandings which are both earned and often not earned). 

So starting next week I will be delivering short explanatory essays on topics like “Biblical Inerrancy,” “God and Creation,” “God and Science,” and “Jesus and other religions.”   If there are topics that readers of this blog would be interested in asking for an explanation of, please feel free to leave a comment below. 

The goal here is not to argue against atheism or fundamentalism, but to begin to bring some of the popular understanding of Christianity into line with the wider community of Christian believers.  Thus I will not be making arguments as to why God must have created the world, but will be showing what many of us mean by the belief that God creates the world. 

I invite other Christians, people of other faiths, atheists, agnostics, and those who have no idea where they stand, to ask questions and comment though e-mail as I will be turning off comments on the posts, since the idea here is to explain, not to argue.  You may contact me directly at JoshuaWWise78@gmail.com. 

Can God Make a Rock?

We are often presented with “unanswerable” questions by those who find the idea of God to be either ridiculous or self-contradictory. One aspect or another of the divine fullness is attacked by those who question every minute of every hour. Many of us, who believe that God is the God of traditional Christian expression, have had the question put to us “Can God Make a Rock that God can’t lift?” This post is a short exercise in answering this very question from a number of different theological perspectives. The first approaches the logic of the proposed situation, the second approaches the logic of the question itself, and the third approaches it from a specifically Christian perspective.

1. The Logic of the Proposed Situation

The question is aimed at attacking the omnipotence of God, or even the concept of omnipotence itself. The general idea is that because there are conflicting and mutually exclusive potential realities that an omnipotent God cannot exist, because both alternatives cannot logically be accomplished. Thus, the question asks whether it is possible for God to create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift. If the creation of the rock cannot be done, then God is not omnipotent. If the rock cannot be lifted, the same outcome results.

The question assumes a model of omnipotence that no theologian that I am aware of holds or has ever held in the Christian faith (though I did once meet a pastor who thought this way). The most famous statement on this is from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states “whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” (Summa Theolog. I Q25, 3). Thus, whenever Christians say that God is all powerful, we mean specifically that all intrinsically possible things are within God’s power. Thus, God cannot make a square a circle and also leave it a square. It is possible for a square to become a circle, but it is not possible for it to also remain a square during or after the change.

Now that fact has major ramifications for many questions of Christian theology. For those who hold merely to forensic justification or imputed righteousness, one must ask how a person can be saved, i.e. have the life of God, and be in the very likeness of God, while remaining what they were beforehand. These models seem to propose that God can make a circle into a square and leave it still a circle after the fact. Such a thing is impossible, even for a God for whom all things are impossible.

Thus the question of the rock and God’s power, proposes a logically contradictory situation. God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, not because it is a possibility that there can be rocks that omnipotence cannot lift, but because it is a sheer impossibility. A rock, being a rock, must have weight, even if it is by some miracle of physics, infinite weight. Omnipotence can easily create enough force to move the rock. The logical contradiction is if Omnipotence could not move the rock, for then it would not be omnipotence. Thus we are left with a situation in which God can create a rock of any size, but the fact that it could not be lifted by omnipotence is itself a logical contradiction, and as we have seen, nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God…or any omnipotence for that matter.

Now, if this means that omnipotence is impossible, in the sense that many of our detractors imagine it, then we must agree, and have always agreed. Omnipotence which implies the ability to do logically contradictory things has never been, to my knowledge, put forward as an attribute of God by any reputable theologian in the entire history of the Church. So, we may agree with our detractors in deriding this particular version of omnipotence. Thank goodness we’ve never actually proposed it.

2. The Logic of the Question

The question itself is structured in a way that most people do not notice. It essentially forms a double negative, and thus condemns God, not for a lack of power, but for actually being omnipotent. I found this answer while reading Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations, but the answer is so obvious that I’m embarrassed that I did not see it myself immediately.

On the surface, the question proposes two powers that God may have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size or weight. The second is the power to not lift a rock over a certain size. Immediately the problem comes out at once. The second is not a power at all, not an ability that God can have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size at all. The second, however, is not an addition to power, but a subtraction of it.

To say that God lacks the ability to not be able to move certain sizes of rock is simply a very complicated way of saying God can move any rock. The fact that God can move rocks is a power, the ability to find a rock, or even to create a rock, that God can’t move, is not an addition to God’s power, but a subtraction from it. The trick to the question it that it shrouds the proposed lack of God’s power as if it were an addition to it. This would be like proposing the idea that I am a poor writer because I cannot write a sentence that I cannot read. (One need not resort, incidentally, to such complicated means to argue for the weaknesses in my writing). If I were a great writer, I could write any sentence. But I must not be a very good one, if there are sentences from my own hand that I cannot read. This is, of course, nonsense.

3. The Christian Response

This will not be a “Christian” Response in the manner that it will attempt to be nice. Christians should in fact be nice, as far as that goes, but they should also be as accurate as possible, and as faithful to the truth as possible. This answer is Christian, in the sense that it comes only from a Christian perspective. The first two answers could be given by anyone of any faith with a little logic behind them. This, however, turns on that most peculiar of Christian doctrines, the Incarnation.

For, it is true that God has made many stones that God cannot lift. One might guess that any stone much over a hundred and fifty pounds would be too much for the God of the Universe. For we, as Christians, believe that God emptied Godself in the act of becoming human, and dwelling among us. God, with human hands and feet, could not lift the vast majority of stones in the world. The body of a carpenter or stonecutter is strong, and Jesus of Nazareth could almost certainly bench more than I can. But the range of human strength is quite limited. Human beings are small things when it comes to the vast weight of many stones. And this Jesus, though God of the universe, was also a man.

And thus the answer particularly from Christianity is, yes. God can, and has, made many stones that God cannot lift. And this too is no detraction from His power. For the God of all creation to empty Himself, a process called Kenosis, is a vast and mighty miracle. To bridge the gap from that which is not created, God the Trinity, to that which is, the universe, and that particular bit we call Earth, is a miracle that even dwarfs the creation of the Universe itself. So mighty is God that God can walk with human feet, and hold things with human hands. But then, those hands can only hold so much.

Of course, we remember as well that Christ knew very well about humanity’s rock problems. So he offered us the power to move them, to become like Him, and to be able, through faith to move mountains. (Mt 17:20)

So ultimately, the question is not, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot move it?” The question is “Can God make a rock so big, that those made to share God’s own nature cannot move it?” And the answer, thanks be to God, is no.

Ethics Without Teeth

Mr. Zindler has written a post that outlines why Atheism can in fact have ethics without divine fiat (found here: http://www.atheists.org/content/ethics-without-gods).  The question has been addressed by numerous people, but bears some reexamination.  Mr. Zindler’s article can be broken down into a number of simple and worthwhile points.  I will address a number of these together immediately after, and then go on to some particular responses, following that.

1.  The ancient Greeks and Romans had ethics without divine fiat, especially some well known figures such as Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  These ethics were very serviceable at that time, though they would perhaps not be today.

2.  Religious people do not actually act good because they fear hell or hope for heaven.

3.  Our psychological makeup, formed by evolution, wishes to be surrounded by happiness, and thus drives us to make the people around us happy.  We are by nature, tuned to care for each other so that we ourselves will be happy.

4.  Altruism, or some form of it, is demonstrated by our near relatives in the animal world.  Heroism, is older than religion, and thus needs no foundation in religion.

5. Religious moral codes are stuck in previous times and places, and have not changed with the times.  Ethics are to be planted on the ground of scientific self-knowledge, and thus must change as our knowledge of science changes.

6.  Gods are not solid grounds of ethics anyway.  Either they decree whatever they will, and thus goodness is arbitrary, or they recognize universal truths outside of themselves, and then what do we need them for?

7.  Practice of Enlightened Self-Interest is the best way to gain prolonged happiness.

8.  Ethics is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but the practice of predicting outcomes and acting in the way that brings the most prolonged happiness to oneself.  Because we are social creatures, hard wired to find the most happiness when others around us are happy, then we would do best to keep as many other people as happy as possible to prolong our own happiness.

Each of these points is excellently made by Mr. Zindler.  However, the central theological question for Atheists is not, “can you have ethics without a God,” but “can your ethics have an imperative ground without a god?”  We may set up whatever rules for ourselves we like, but when push comes to shove, why should I do this or that?  For morality and ethics are the sciences of “should” and “should not.”  A man should not secretly murder a homeless man on the street, even if there is no chance of his getting caught, and every chance that the man’s death might make everyone on the street happier.  But by Mr. Zindler’s showing, there is no good evolutionary reason not to kill such a man, except that I should not do it too often and risk capture or reprisal.

In fact, the whole upshot of Mr. Zindler’s ethics is “if you do blatantly bad things too often, people will kill you.”  Yes, unless you are the strongest person in the room, or the one with the biggest weapons, or the one who has decided to make the other biggest, strongest, most well armed people happy and no others.  I may make a man with a machine gun happy, only to take the gun, shoot him in the head, and then be the man with the machine gun myself.  In a poor village with no one to stop me, and in a backwater that no world government cares about, who is to say, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, that I am wrong to rape and steal if I, or I and a few close friends, have machine guns, and the villagers do not?

There is no force of “should” to Mr. Zindler’s ethics, except “I should do this if I want to be happiest.”  But if the plunder of a village, and the rape of women and children makes me happy…as it seems to for quite a number of people in the history of the world, not simply the rare sociopath or psychopath, then where is the impetus to not do these things?  If, in fact, I do these things to increase the wealth of my own village, at the expense of other villages, I am not, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, being unethical.

Ultimately, Mr. Zindler has presented a method for treating human beings merely as objects through which we are to attain our own prolonged happiness.  But he has failed to show that there is any ground for me to follow these rules when they no longer suit me, or for me to make any claims against anyone else’s actions.  Nor has he shown good reason why rational sentient creatures should show the kind of heroism that he describes in his description of African Apes.  An ape may be driven by strong instinctual forces to die for those who can still reproduce, but a human can make a conscious choice.  And that choice, if driven by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, can never be made for the prolonged happiness of self if that choice leads to the death of the self.  In fact, when weighing between non-existence, and a semi-happy, or even miserable life, the life of any kind offers more chance of happiness than non-existence.  So, by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, anything at all should be chosen over the loss of one’s own life, since the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal of human ethics, and no happiness can come to a person who does not exist.

Thus, while Mr. Zindler shows that people can in fact have ethics, a statement that Theologians would not, I think, argue with, he fails to show that the ethics he can come up with are unworthy of the name.  In fact, he once more shows how weak such atheistic ethics really are when they are held up to simple reason and practical example.

Particular Responses:

Now, to some of his more interesting points.  (2)The fear of hellfire may not be the impetus for good action in many people, but can Mr. Zindler show that it is not the impetus in most or all religious people?  Certainly there are a vast number of religious personal accounts which contradict this statement.  One need only consider the piety of the late medieval period to find Mr. Zindler’s statement to be highly uniformed.

(6)His dissection of Plato is flawed as well, especially in a world where both Christianity and Islam have deeply considered Plato’s writings.  The Christian theological answer to this is that God, as the ground of being, forms all things in God’s own likeness, and therefore as a reflection of God’s own goodness.  Telling the truth is good because it reflects the Character of God who, being external to time and space, is not subject to predicates of condition.  Thus, we cannot say “God might have been a liar” because “might have been” is properly predicated of entities with a past and dependent on external conditions.  The Christian understanding of God is that neither of these apply, as God is external to time (Eternal) and unconditioned (no external power shapes God to be what God is).  Thus, ethics in Christian Theology are not merely the whim of a God, nor a God observing an external reality, but the very character of God, the ground of all being, reflected in the world that God created.  (5)  Thus, since God is unchanging, the structure of ethics and morals are unchanging.  If Christian ethics are stuck in an ancient time, it is not because they have merely been carried forward; it is because they reflect unchanging realities in the created world.  Therefore they carry the weight of “Should” because they are intrinsic to the very nature of the created reality.  We are made to follow them, and not following them does violence to ourselves and others, in either very practical ways (which he has shown through his explanation of our sociological and psychological norms) or in ways which we may call “Spiritual” that lead us further from these eternal moral realities.

(4) Mr. Zindler claims that Heroism is older than religion. Where is his evidence of this?  Certainly Heroism is older than the oldest Monotheistic religions, but where is this historical record of pre-religious humanity?  The simple fact is we have none.  Mr. Zindler is making a claim that cannot here be backed up by anyone, but is simply fueled by a myth propagated by people who dislike religion, and thus believe, without any kind of historical evidence, that early humans did not have religion.

The Sweet Law

This post is specifically about an element of Lutheran theology that I find problematic.  For some, I believe, this will appear to be an attack on a central tenet of their faith.  It is not meant as an attack, but perhaps the beginning of a dialog.  For those who are not familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction, we may summarize it briefly to begin with.

In the Lutheran teaching of Law/Gospel, as I understand it, Law is defined as those teachings which convict, or command a person.  If a teaching places any weight whatsoever on a person, it is seen as Law.  Perhaps the epitome of the “law” teachings of the New Testament is “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect”  (Mt 5:48).  Over and against this is “Gospel” that good news that God has done all things for you, and you need not do anything.  God has you well in hand, and your salvation is assured through your Baptism and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Law treats things as if they are on your shoulders, Gospel reveals that they are really on God’s.

The problem with all of this is that the line between the believer and Christ is blurred so heavily in the New Testament, that these kind of distinctions are no longer valid.  While there is a distinction between the freedom of Christ and the Torah in the New Testament, there is no demonstrable theme of this kind of distinction between those things which call us to righteousness, and those things which reveal that such calls are already met by Christ.

Instead, there is a demonstrable theme of Christ’s commands revealing the life of God in the world.  Christ’s moral directives of the Sermon on the Mount culminate with the “Be ye perfect” line.  The whole of the Sermon on the Mount appears as Law in the Law/Gospel dichotomy, yet it stands as one of the centers of the Matthean account of Jesus’ public Ministry and teaching.  St. John has Jesus tell us that if we love Him, we will obey what He commands us.

The key thing to these and other passages is that these words are given in the context that the commands bring life and joy, not sorrow and weight that will be overcome by the Cross.  Christ is preaching Good News, and not Law in the sense of the Law/Gospel contrast.  In fact, it is very clear by a simple and plain reading of the Gospels that the Law of Christ is not opposed to the Gospel.  Christ is commanding us to live in ways that are liberating, life giving, and ultimately transforming.  The transformation that comes in obeying Christ is salvific in nature, turning us from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, the Law of Christ is the Gospel.

And we can see why this must be.  For God to command us to forgive is not a burden, though it may be hard in our fallen state.  It is good, it is “True” in the same way that the Hebrew writers said that the Torah is “True.”  One gets a sense of this from a section from Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

In the Law/Gospel distinction, the law is anything but sweet.  It is a burden to the soul from which we are freed.  Christ has done all, we need not.  But is that really good news?

The question revolves around the character of God.  For a God who does not demand that His children be righteous is hardly a righteous God.  A God who says, oddly enough “I am righteous, therefore you need not be” (which is the logic inherent in the statement that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us) is hardly a God we should rejoice at having.  We may be glad when we want to do something rather shady, or when we consider the shady things we have done.  But we can hardly be glad overall.

But a God who will not let us merely live as sinners, but demands righteousness from us, who will descend to our own fallen nature and lift it back up with Him into the Godhead, who will infuse us with His own life so that we might be made righteous as co-workers with God…this is a God worth rejoicing over.  For all who have not simply been sinners, but the victims of sinners, must rejoice at a God who demands that all victimization stop.  It is not “Law” that says that we must love without limit, it is Gospel that demands it.  The Good news to the poor, the freedom to the slaves, is not merely that Christ has won the victory, but that that victory conquers all sin in all hearts everywhere; and that that conquest continues today in the heart of the person writing, and in the heart of the persons reading.

Ultimately, the real Gospel is a Gospel that in fact does call us to be righteous, and will not leave us unchanged.  It calls us to be transformed into the living images of the living God.

Now, a word must be said here about historical context.  Lutheranism appears in history as a response to the tortured conscience of many late medieval Christians bound up in the piety of their age.  It offered relief to the beleaguered heart who thought that her salvation depended on her good works.  The doctrines of this tradition still offer such rest to people suffering from the same ills.

However, the very question of earning one’s salvation, or not earning it, is not a question that has arisen in our modern age.  It is a question kept alive by the mere fact that much of protestantism has carried forward its original arguments against Catholicism and other branches of Protestantism into the modern day ripped from their contexts.  People, it seems, mainly worry about earning their salvation or not because we have told them to worry about that.  (There are exceptions to this, I admit).

It is my desire that we set this question where it belongs, in the past.  The question of earning salvation or not earning it, is the wrong question.  We have been made, in Christ, fellow workers with God (1 Cor 3:9, 2 Cor 6:9).  Once we are in Christ, we begin the process of growing into the statue of Christ, and thus increasing in our salvation from sin day by day, and entering into the heavenly communion day by day.  This is not a state of waiting for our reward, or hoping for heaven, or even simply knowing that all has been done for me.  It is a state of having been given the power to be called the sons and daughters of God in Christ, and living as Christ on earth.

To live as Christ on earth, and to hope in the resurrection, is salvation.  To claim that there is some distinction between the commands of this new life, and the freedom of this new life, is to misunderstand Christ on a fundamental level.  To claim that here is some distinction between faith in Christ and living as Christ, is to make the same mistake.

The Permitted Tactics

There’s all manner of things going on these days with the swelling support for gay marriage rights in the USA.  In the best situations, people on both sides of the issue are doing their best to stand their ground on what they believe to be the ethical sides of the issue.  But there seems to be, as well, a growing consensus that companies which take a particular stance on the issue should be subject to boycott, and in some cases actual governmental involvement, such as in the case of an Alderman blocking a Chic-Fil-A from receiving zoning rights.  These stances are taken on both sides, and we’ve heard about Evangelical Christians boycotting, or at least trying to boycott, companies for years based on their support of gay rights.  However, I think we’ve gone down the wrong road here on how we react to political stances, as well as how we have understood the proper use of the boycott.

For the purposes of discussing this topic, I’m going to put forward two hypothetical groups.  The first is the Inclusives, and the second is the Exclusives.  The Inclusives strive to bring in people and voices that have been excluded in the past.  They want equal rights under the state for all people.  The Exclusives think there are voices that do not need to be heard, and do not think that all rights apply to all people.  In our particular case, the Inclusives are striving for marriage rights for gay people, and the Exclusives are insisting that these rights belong only to the union of a man and a woman.

Now, what has happened, is that many avowed Inclusives have inadvertently become Exclusives through the conflict of these two ideologies.  The Inclusives want all voices to be heard, except the voices of the Exclusives.  They are fighting to get their point across, and to achieve goals, but in the midst of this struggle, they have advocated boycotts and what are essentially sanctions against the Exclusives.  Were these boycotts successful, these entities would cease to exist, and thus be effectively silenced by the exclusionary practices of the Inclusives.

Now, of course, the Exclusives are doing the same thing, and have been for years.  However, there is nothing particularly contradictory about the Exclusives doing this.  This is not a statement of support for the Exclusives, but only an observation that their position does not end up in contradiction if they maintain that there are voices which should no longer exist.  The Inclusives cannot maintain this position without some level of absurdity.  Thus, while we may not like it, it is fully consistent with the views of the Exclusives to attempt to silence their opponents through boycotts and the like, but not for the Inclusives to do so.

But then, there is the question of the rationality of the boycott itself.  I want to distinguish between two reasons for boycotting a company.  The first we will call a boycott for Teleological Reasons, and the second for Non-Teleological Reasons.  The Teleological Boycott is a boycott that is enacted because there is objection to the way the company does its business.  Thus the boycotts of the 1960’s regarding department stores and bus companies were Teleological Boycotts, as they aimed at the actual business practices of these companies.  They did business in an unfair and biased way.  The Non-Teleological Boycott objects to some element of a company that does not in fact have to do with how they do their business.  The repeated attempts by Evangelical and other Christians to boycott Disney for their perceived support of gay rights, is this kind of boycott.  There is no objection to how Disney does its business, making movies, running theme parks, but instead focuses on its stance on an issue.

Now, the boycott itself seems to be properly applied when it comes to Teleological Boycotts.  One may boycott Wal-Mart because of how they do their business, and not run into contradiction.  If one wishes that the company either ceased to do business in this manner voluntarily or not-voluntarily (through economic pressure) then this is fully consistent with the methods of the boycott.  However, if one boycotts Disney or Chick-Fil-A for their stances on gay rights, one seems to run into some confusion.

For it is ostensibly because of one’s ethics that one takes a stance on an issue.  The boycott over an ethical issue unrelated to the business of a company at best seems to be assuming that the ethical stances of companies, and the people who run them, are for sale.  At worst, it is bordering on a tyrannical tactic.  If their ethics are for sale, you simply give them an economic proposition that it will be in their best interest to change their stance.  As a tyrannical tactic, however it seeks to deny people money, and ultimately their living, home, clothing, and food, if they do not agree with one’s position.

Now in the first case, if the ethics really are for sale, then they are not really ethics.  They are merely economic maneuvering to take the position most likely to provide the most revenue.  However, if they are sincerely held beliefs, then no economic pressure will change them.

And here’s where the practical problem comes in.  For if we apply the Non-Teleological boycott to get our way, we assume that when a company agrees with our side of the debate their stance is a sincerely held ethical belief.  But when they are on the other side, we view it as an economic maneuver.  For if we thought that it was a sincerely held ethical belief, we would be monsters for denying people their livings for being in disagreement with us.  In fact, we would be extreme Exclusionists to the point of monstrosity.

Thus it seems that the tactics of the Inclusionists, if they wish to remain Inclusionists, must reject the desire to silence their opponents.  In fact, the tactics that we Inclusionists (because yes, I include myself as one who thinks that all people should have equal rights under the law, no matter what my theological views of the sacrament of marriage are) are free to use are much harder and much less tempting than those power plays that the Exclusionists use.  We are free to have everyone sit down at the table and to hear the voices of those who disagree with us, and to debate them.  And we are free to argue, and make our points known.  But we are not free, if we wish to remain Inclusionists, to exclude anyone, especially in a democracy.

Now, this short piece does not take into consideration questions of lobbying and those kind of elements of the situation.  But even taking those political elements into the discussion, we are still left with the economic or ethical motivations that either can or can’t be pressured by the attempt to silence the parties involved.  Ultimately, as in all struggles, to use the weapons of those you fight is to make you into your enemy.