Friday, January 25, 2008

For Light and Beauty

Holy Lord, of brightness ever-rising, in whose light we see light, divide the thick relentless clouds with strong sure strokes of glory, that we, who see but gloom, who know but trackless wilds, may rise from darkest wanderings to plains of boundless light, there to see and know the sure illuminations of your beauty. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

To the Ends of the Earth

Thoughts on Culture, History, and the Lordship of Christ, Through an Exercise in “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi”

Consider the collect from the Book of Common Prayer for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever.

Let me propose a thought experiment, based on this collect, to explore certain ideas concerning culture, history, and the lordship of Christ.[1] The impetus for this exploration, besides the explicit value of better understanding the meaning of the collect, is to correlate what we pray and what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of praying, and the law of believing). While there are many reasons to examine and employ the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, surely one is to enlighten our prayer and our belief, so that we more nearly pray what we believe and believe what we pray.

The thought experiment is this. Imagine that the anticipated state in this collect comes true some day—that Jesus is actually known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. For the purposes of the thought experiment, it does not matter when. It only matters that it comes true at a point within history. In other words, for the sake of the experiment, it only matters that we imaginatively posit a future point when it is true, and that such a reality does not require us to postulate the ushering in of the end of history and the start of the age to come. As we play out the thought experiment, certain implications of the collect’s meaning become clear.

The encompassing reign of Jesus Christ

The collect presents a big agenda. Succinctly, unambiguously, it calls for no less than the world-wide, encompassing reign of Jesus Christ. This collect, then, stands upon and neatly captures the long-standing Christian claim (from Jesus himself) that Jesus is the way, truth, and life, and that he alone is the savior and hope of creation in general and of human existence in particular. Only if we believe this about Jesus, would we earnestly desire and pray that Jesus be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Thus, if we believe the collect, if we believe Jesus is savior and light, it would seem an essential part of the Christian faith, that we Christians genuinely do intend the truth of this collect and desire that it come true.

As we pray the collect then, with its bold and bald agenda, and we imaginatively behold the reality anticipated in the collect, we really are confronted with the question of what we believe. Do we pray and truly mean what the collect says, that Jesus ought to be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth? The encompassing reign of Jesus Christ—this is a big intention, based on a big claim. Not a few within the Church, much less outside the Church, would take exception to the collect as, at a minimum, anachronistically naive about the pluralism of beliefs, and likely even insufferably triumphalistic.

Yet we make a great mistake if we assume that the claim underlying the collect is uniquely bold and dubious in our modern era, as many would have us think. Since the inception of the Christian Way, the claim of Jesus’ unique and necessary cosmic significance has been central to the character and dynamism of that Way. Further, since the inception of the Christian Way, the claim has always knowingly been made in the context of religious and cultural pluralism, with numerous and varied counter claimants to the status of the Way, or to the necessity and virtue of syncretism and religious laissez-faire. Hence, we cannot dismiss this collect as merely an anachronism, no longer relevant or credible to a different world or a different Christian consciousness of the world.

Rather, if we are awake when we pray it, the collect must startle and challenge us. Because of the widespread qualification and even rejection within Church structures of the uniqueness and cosmic necessity of Jesus—which qualification and rejection would make the collect tendentious at best—the collect may in our current situation uniquely highlight, on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, the divide between those who pray the collect with integrity of intention and desire, and those who pray it but cannot genuinely mean and desire it, however nice it sounds. And, lest we succumb to the temptation to think ourselves spiritually superior to others, which in fact seems utterly contradictory to superior spirituality, the collect may also throw into sharp relief our own belief commitments, forcing us to examine and answer what we truly believe, so that we can pray truly. For words have meaning. Or, perhaps more accurately, the utterance of words has meaning. Thus the collect cannot be prayed glibly and sentimentally. Imagine, really, the reality anticipated by the collect! Do we actually understand and desire, in God’s good time, the encompassing reign of Jesus Christ? What would it mean for human existence?

History, culture, and the encompassing reign of Jesus Christ

These questions move me deeply. Surely, even in the poverty of my imagining, the fruition of the encompassing reign of Christ would yield realities so splendorous and sublime for creation and human existence that I can scarcely begin to enumerate or even articulate them. Yet in this thought experiment, imagining the encompassing reign of Christ in some future, the questions also push me to deep wrestling with prayer and belief with respect to history and culture.[2] This is because it seems indisputable that, in the reality of Jesus being known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth, many cultures as we now know them would cease to exist. Certainly, cultural monism would not result. Yet much of all cultures would change and even disappear, and perhaps especially would this be the case for cultures that have less rather than more rootedness in Christian history and thought.

Let me make clear at this point that I am thinking from within an Anglo-American cultural perspective (clearly possessing commonalities with and antecedents in European cultural history and elements), a perspective that has as much basis as any culture to claim rootedness in Christian history and thought. Moreover, I am writing principally to people within this cultural perspective, and more particularly to people who adhere enough to the Christian Church to pray this collect on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, or to share its theological perspective, at least historically. While there are many diversities, tensions, and disagreements within it, this cultural perspective is cohesive and patterned enough to be distinct in significant ways from certain other cultures, such as Chinese culture, which has comparatively little rootedness in Christian history and thought.

Yet it seems reasonable to posit that Anglo-American culture would undoubtedly change in the reality of Jesus being known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth, for that would include Anglo-American culture, and Anglo-American culture surely has elements that are at odds with this comprehensive lordship of Jesus (even if we do not all agree what elements are at odds with the lordship of Jesus). At the same time, it seems just as reasonable to posit that Chinese culture, being little or not at all rooted in Christian history and thought, would change far more. In fact, it is possible that Chinese culture would change so much in the reality of Jesus being known, worshiped, and obeyed that it would largely or fundamentally no longer be Chinese culture as we now know it.

For the sake of the high ground in following this implication of the thought experiment, let us have in mind only those elements of various cultures that we take to be accomplishments or achievements of culture, as against those elements that we might argue are failures or monstrosities of culture. And more, let us acknowledge that human existence has been and is enriched by those cultural accomplishments, at least to some degree, even where religious perspectives and commitments divide and differ. Take, for example, works of art in China, deeply influenced, say, by Buddhism or Confucianism, which can be viewed as achievements of culture, in contrast to Nazi social and political philosophy and practices, which can be viewed as failures or monstrosities of culture. It is my supposition that one can experience and argue, as an example, the achievements of Chinese art and culture, with their enrichment of human existence, even while one disputes and counters certain religious and philosophical claims in the same art and culture.

What then will the encompassing reign of Christ mean for the many, various cultural achievements that enrich human existence, when clearly some of those achievements are not rooted in the reign of Jesus, at least not in any clear or direct sense? When Jesus is known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth, we will certainly enter new and sublime riches of existence. Yet, what losses will we also experience in the establishment of that world-wide, transforming reign?

Perhaps these questions of that imagined future can be understood and felt better by also extending our thought experiment momentarily to the past. Imagine that Jesus had been known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth from the beginning of human existence and the rise of human cultures (remember, this is a thought experiment), it follows that non-Christian cultural accomplishments would not have come about. Various cultures would certainly have developed, but across them cultural accomplishments would be Christian, directly or indirectly, in form and substance. Many things that have been accomplished in and through diverse cultures would never have come into being. However, we would not “miss” those cultural accomplishments outside of Christ because they would never have happened. We cannot miss what we have not known. Hence, the questions raised above would themselves not be known.

Yet in reality Jesus has not been known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Human history is in fact replete with the rise and variation of cultures and—notwithstanding their failures and even their false religious and philosophical commitments and influences—with the achievements of those diverse cultures, achievements that have enriched and continue to enrich the people of each culture and even people of other cultures. In this sense, keeping with the original direction of our thought experiment, the future reality of Jesus being known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth holds the prospect of those cultural achievements being dismissed, lost, and destroyed, and never being produced again. Then, I submit, it seems inescapable that we would truly miss those achievements, or some of those achievements, or at least some aspects of those achievements. That which has enriched would no longer enrich, and we would experience true loss in those transformations.

It may be objected that the loss in those transformations (of which I wrote in the first notes on the collect) would be offset by the heightened diversity and truthfulness of cultures more closely aligned with the Creator’s full intent.

The essence of this objection has much value. There would be immeasurable gain in the rise, development, and achievement of such cultures. Nevertheless, certain points must be noted to understand the full import of what is meant by loss.

First, it is misleading to think in terms of offsetting the loss. It is one of the great temptations of theology, perhaps especially of Latin and later Western theology, when speaking of the significance of Jesus in terms of canceling or satisfying a debt. The depth of the problem (the “debt”) and hence the meaning of the divine response are not finally captured by an accounting ledger. In accounting, a debit, for example, can be precisely offset by a corresponding credit. No residue remains. They exactly balance or “cancel” each other. The “debt” of sin and the satisfaction of Christ are somewhat otherwise. Jesus does not cancel in the sense of leaving no “residue.” I do not mean that Jesus is less than the “full, perfect, and complete oblation and satisfaction.” There is no other needed. There is no more to be done. Yet somehow sin has changed matters once and for all. In Jesus, God forges a new humanity which is not a mere offset to sinful humanity, nor a mere restoration to pre-sinful humanity. Forgiveness does not equal amnesia. Nor does it return us to Eden. In Jesus, God takes sinful then redeemed humanity into the divine life in a new way, a new way at least in part precisely because it incorporates the reality that humanity was sinful, that God’s love for humanity “now” has a cross at its heart. Indeed, that is why a cross is and must be at the heart of the good news.

Hence, gain does not obviate loss or the genuine experience of loss. The way many Christians glibly and simplistically proclaim the gain and joy engendered by Jesus renders meaningless the cross (the suffering, loss, and sorrow) that Jesus bore and the cross that we must bear in Jesus. Otherwise, we underestimate the depth of the problem, the depth of God’s response, and the depth of our participation in God’s response.

All of this then begs the meaning of history and of the rise of cultures from a Christian perspective, and, in a humble sense, from the divine perspective (assuming for the sake of argument that, while not identical with the divine perspective, a true Christian perspective roots in and stems from the divine perspective). Several questions arise with respect to this.

Are history and culture outside of Christian history and culture meaningless or irrelevant? Or more, are history and culture outside of Christian history and culture inimical to “right, good, and joyful” human existence? Or, are history and culture outside of Christian history and culture distorted —“seeing through a glass, darkly”—but neither purely meaningless nor purely inimical? Indeed, a question prior to these questions is the following. What do we mean when we speak of Christian history and culture? (With respect to this last question, is it not theologically and empirically true, in the world as we know it, that all history and culture, even assuming the most Christian of cultures, is at best an admixture of Jesus being known, worshiped, and obeyed, and Jesus not being known, worshiped, and obeyed? Nevertheless, the fact of Jesus being known, worshiped, and obeyed— if widespread throughout a people, even imperfectly—would profoundly shape and inform their history and culture.)

Or, do all history and culture have meaning and relevance? And if so, what kind of meaning and relevance? Do history and culture outside of Christian history and culture have only corrective meaning and relevance? In other words, do history and culture outside of Christ have meaning and relevance only insofar as they show Christians and other humans what went wrong and what should be corrected for “right, good, and joyful” human history and culture? Or do they have meaning and relevance in true and laudable ways, albeit admixed with miscues, irrelevancies, dangers, and perversions?

In short, can we discern in all history—in true and laudable ways—true divinity and true humanity, so that all history and culture enriches, at least in some ways and to some extent?

If so, we can say that, when Jesus is known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth, culture will rise even richer than before, all the while retaining, catching up, and perfecting all that was achieved before? Or, does that future prospect mean not merely the death of history and culture as we have known them, but the utter obliteration and annihilation of all prior history and culture? What amalgamation of gain and loss will that dearly anticipated state involve? What does all of this mean for us, embedded in this here and now of history and cultures, prior to the encompassing reign of Jesus Christ, at least as the collect envisions it?

These are deep and complex issues. We cannot answer them comprehensively and definitively here, if at all. Yet from our consideration of this thought experiment we can derive certain significant principles with respect to history and culture.

In general, varieties of cultures are inevitable and good in the course of human history. The only alternatives are (1) to deny the value and significance of history or (2) to desire worldwide monoculturalism throughout history. Either alternative suggests that in creation God intended an essentially static and thoroughly uniform existence. Dynamism, process, and fecundity are denied. Yet this is unbiblical, and hence it seems unnatural. The account of creation clearly depicts process and fecundity in creation as part of its very God-given essence, prior to and persisting through the Fall. In other words, history is ineluctably essential to what creation is and what creation means. Therefore, even had Jesus been known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth from the beginning and for all time without interruption, varieties of cultures would have arisen in history. Cultures express that dynamic fecundity which is the very stuff of God’s good creation.

The particular varieties of cultures and their achievements, while in a sense resulting from the reality of Jesus not being known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth, possess a complex but true goodness in the wake of the Fall. It is not general variety in culture that we know, but this particular variety of culture. And without having to affirm every and all cultures and cultural elements, we Christians acknowledge and affirm this particular variety of cultures as the only ones we know and hence as the ones we must acknowledge and affirm in light of God’s sovereignty. Therefore, “blessed fault.” Only because of that first sin do we have the cultures we know.

History and culture then possess a double goodness, so to speak. The first is that goodness endowed by God in creation. This is a pure, unalloyed goodness, though, as we have noted, not a simplistic, unvariegated, and static goodness. The second is that goodness derived from God as the medium and the means whereby God acts in and for creation to effect new creation. This most certainly involves variegation and dynamism, both in this existence and in the existence to come.

The test of what is good in culture is not solely (or even primarily) the degree of overt exaltation or acknowledgment or manifestation of Jesus. Because of the hiddenness of Jesus in creation—that is, in history and culture—the “at-one-remove” standard of truth, beauty, and goodness serves as a better test of cultural elements. We ought not expect—as necessary to genuine truth, beauty, and goodness—more of the hiddenness of Jesus to be removed than God has apparently deemed to remove through history.

Because of sin and the suffering of Jesus, the standard of what is good in culture will and must acknowledge and incorporate the realities and effects of sin, of alienation from and even enmity with God. Cultural elements representing, for example, resignation in the face of suffering, the transitoriness of beauty and of existence, sorrow and despair about existence, may well reveal, albeit in a hidden and incomplete fashion, genuine truth, beauty, and goodness, genuine depth in understanding and experiencing human existence, clear realism about human existence and creation (that is, both the heights and the depths, the joys and sorrows, expressible and inexpressible, mundane and transcendent), genuine passion for human existence and creation, and genuine yearning for truth, beauty, goodness, joy, and even the sublime. There is more Christ-like truth, beauty, and goodness in certain Chinese scrolls than in many “praise” songs.

Perhaps, in a particular sense, culture “outside” of Jesus being known, worshiped, and obeyed represents and provides a form of the via negativa by which we “know” divine and thus human reality.

Clearly, in the long tradition of Christian thought many great minds and hearts have wrestled with these and similar questions. Yet the collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany brings them sharply to mind for me and, I submit, for anyone who prays the collect with mind and heart truly awake. Acutely, this collect heightens the question of the relationship between prayer and belief—lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying and the law of believing). It points to the complex interplay between prayer and belief, with each having formative influence on the other. That relationship in turn heightens issues of integrity and intention in what we say and what we believe. Prayer, intercourse with the divine, even in the Sunday collect, demands no less than all the heights and depths of our minds and hearts—no less than our whole being.

I propose a thought experiment because of the potential value in such an exercise for extra-ordinary insight and understanding. A thought experiment involves an imaginative construction of a situation or action not practically possible in the realm of the here and now. A thought experiment can allow us to think beyond the possibilities of the purely practical. It can help us move beyond the blinders of pre-determined views and expected data. From the extra-ordinary vantage point of a thought experiment, we may be able to see matters in an entirely new way, yielding fresh and deep insights.

At the same time, we should recognize the risk in employing a thought experiment. To understand the risk, compare the use of a thought experiment to that of a metaphor. In communicating, the use of a metaphor can provide great value in conveying fresh and deep insights. Yet it is always necessary to keep in mind the nuances and true function of metaphorical analogy. For example, a metaphor works as much by what is unlike as by what is like. If one does not understand this, then gross misunderstanding can result. Similarly, one must keep in mind the nuances and limitations of a thought experiment. For example, a thought experiment runs the risk of proffering significant insights when in fact it is so impractical, so removed from verisimilitude, that it finally bears no relevance to our life in this mundane existence.

With these cautions duly in mind, I will proceed in the hope that this thought experiment is indeed truly fruitful.

For the sake of simplicity, I am not making a sharp distinction between history and culture, but viewing them as intimately interwoven processes and patterns.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What Makes a Martyr a Martyr?

For Christians, what makes a martyr a martyr?

As we may remember, on Sunday, December 9, 2007, a young man named Matthew Murray shot a number of people: first very early in the morning in Arvada, Colorado, at a Youth With a Mission Center; then about twelve hours later in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at New Life Church. Two of those shot in Arvada died – Tiffany Johnson and Philip Crouse. Others were wounded. At New Life Church, two also died – Stephanie and Rachael Works, teen-aged sisters. Their father and others were wounded. Matthew Murray, too, died at New Life Church before he could shoot others. A member of the church volunteering that day as a security guard – Jeanne Assam, armed with a pistol – confronted Matthew. She was quoted later: “I knew I was given the assignment to end this…. I give the credit to God.” (New York Times online article, Dec. 11, 2007; by Kirk Johnson and David Frosch.) Jeanne responded with deadly force against Matthew as he continued to shoot, and she critically wounded him. A post-mortem investigation indicated that the wounded Matthew actually died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Further investigation into these incidents led to the conclusion that Matthew Murray had come to a point in his life where, despite being raised in a Christian family, he espoused hatred for Christians. On December 9 he acted on that hate to hurt and kill any Christians he could.

For Christians, what makes a martyr a martyr?

More particularly, what makes a martyr a martyr as against merely a victim? No diminishment or disrespect of what it means to be a victim, especially of violent action, is intended here. To be a victim of violence is a terrible and unjust experience. No one should have to undergo it. What happened to Tiffany, Philip, Stephanie, and Rachael – and to their families and friends – was terrible and unjust. We lament and grieve their violent deaths at the hand of the very troubled Matthew Murray. Indeed, we lament and grieve as well for Matthew, his family, and his friends.

Yet there seems to be a difference between being a martyr and being a victim. We get our English word “martyr” directly from a form of the Greek word martys, meaning “witness.” Written in Greek, the New Testament use of martys generally bears this meaning of “witness.” A martys or witness is a person who has seen or encountered something, and who may then tell others about what he or she has experienced. The early followers of Jesus were witnesses in that they experienced the blessings of Jesus’ life and love and communicated the good news of Jesus to others. Over time in the early church, martys came to refer not only to those who bore witness to Jesus by telling others about him. It especially signified those who bore witness to Jesus by suffering death rather than recanting their faith when persecuted. Many of the first Christians were witnesses also in this suffering sense of martys. They held to their faith in Jesus in the face of death.

However, from our vantage point many years later in a different context, we may ask whether those early church martyrs became martyrs in the suffering sense because they lacked the means to defend themselves against their persecutors? That is, did they die and thus become martyrs only or primarily because they lacked the means to defend themselves when attacked for their faith?

Consider it this way. If early Christians had possessed means of defense against persecution and used those means, and if they had thus succeeded in defending themselves by thwarting the persecution, perhaps even killing the persecutors, they would not have died. They would have lived, and they would not have suffered martyrdom as it came to be understood.

Even if early Christians had possessed means of defense and employed those means yet still died under persecution, then they would have died not because they stood for their faith but because they failed in defending themselves. If they had succeeded, they would not have died. The persecutors would have been thwarted, perhaps even killed instead. Hence, persecuted Christians would not have died for their faith. They would have lived. They might even have lived by killing “for their faith.”

Clearly, many early Christians did die for their faith. They suffered martyrdom. Did they die because they did not have the means to defend themselves? Did they die because they had the means and used them but failed in defending themselves? Or did they become martyrs because, whether they had the means or not, they refused to defend themselves by any means necessary, including deadly force, against those who despised, feared, hated, persecuted, and killed them?

I suggest that this is the truth and the true witness of those early church martyrs. I suggest that, in refusing to defend themselves against persecution by any means necessary, and in professing their faith in Jesus even if it meant suffering and dying for him, they enacted, even embodied, love for God and love for their persecutors, for their enemies, as Jesus himself did on Calvary. Is not this the true pattern, the true taking up, of the cross of Jesus? For Christians, is not this what makes a martyr a martyr and not just another victim of violence?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptism and Child-Rearing

In the rite and ceremony of Holy Baptism we encounter one of the most important tenets for parents to learn and practice – namely, to let go in love that child whom, paradoxically, the parents also hold in love.

I do not, of course, refer to an emotional or physical abandonment of the child, for neither of those acts involves love. Rather, I refer to a true love – a Christian love that nurtures the child. I do not have in mind a nurture that aims to produce a clone or an extension of the parent’s self, nor even a correction of the parent’s self. I have in mind a nurture that aims to raise and release the child’s self.

This Christian aim is not predicated on a sentimental confidence in the goodness and potential of the child’s self, nor on a libertarian solipsism of individualistic autonomy. It is predicated on the being and acting of the triune God: the Father, the creator; the Son, the lord of history; and the Spirit, the indwelling presence of the divine.

This aim consists in a loving nurture that, from conception and through all the moments of the parent-child relationship, seeks to commend the child to the power of God, who creates and sustains human existence. Such nurture recognizes and trusts that Christ, the lamb who was slain, is worthy to be lord of history, both cosmic and personal. It humbly attends to and gains sustenance from the divine loving presence of the Spirit, who dwells within and binds us truly to God and others.

Hence, with this nurturing aim in heart and mind, and under the tender mercies of our triune God, we confess and rejoice that our child is yet not ours (as no person is actually ours).

To be sure, parents are charged with solemn and sacred duties. However, lording over or possessing the child is not one of the duties, not one of the privileges of that relationship, and not even part of the nature of the parental role.

Rather, the chief – the first and last – of the solemn and sacred duties entrusted to parents consists in this, to give the child over to the power of God, the lordship of Christ, and the indwelling of the Spirit.

Giving the child to God is not to be understood principally or even largely in terms of treating the child in a Christian manner – for example, Bible reading and praying at home, sharing God’s holy love with the child, worship and Christian education at home and church, love-shaped discipline. Although these should well be a part of Christian child-rearing, they constitute but the forms of giving a child to God, not the essence. Indeed, unless the parents know and practice the essence of Christian child-rearing, the perverse fact is that even these forms can become unchristian acts of aiming to possess and dominate the child, thus contradicting faith in God.

The fundamental and principal giving of the child to the Lord consists in the inward movement of the parents in mind and heart to let go of the child.

This constitutes the essence of true and humble Christian love of parents for a child. This movement of love occurs not once, but continuously, inwardly in heart and mind, from the moment of conception through the moment of death, either or the parent or the child. Only thus can the outward forms and gestures of Christian child-rearing be what they ought to be, solemn and sacred duties entrusted to those stewards whom we call parents.

Here Holy Baptism – among its other meanings – bears great significance for child-rearing. It signifies our giving up of the child, our release of the child, not that the child may belong to no one, but that he or she may belong to God. We must no longer clutch the child to our breast. We must no longer cling to our notions of what the child needs and what the child must be. We must no longer claim the child by asserting the primacy or even the necessity of our love for the child.

For in Holy Baptism we let the child go. We give the child to God, who is the true parent – creator, savior, and sustainer. We cannot be those things for the child, and so we must not attempt them. When we do, we usurp the being and acting of God, thus contradicting our faith.

Only in the inward faithful movement of truly Christian love for a child – which we signify by the outward presentation of the child for the rite and ceremony of Holy Baptism – do we surrender our own selves and our child’s self to the sovereign and loving triune God.

The child, once ours (as we thought), is born again, now God’s (as the child ought). Thus, the sacrament of Holy Baptism, strangely enough, sets us right in child-rearing.

Why Bring Our Children to Holy Baptism?

I am struck by the ease and sentimentality with which we proffer our infants and children for Holy Baptism – as if the whole point were to give them a nice religious sugar-coating! In contrast, the austere proclamations of the baptismal rite swath the ceremony and the candidate in themes woven of sin, evil, death, rebirth, holiness, judgment, redemption, crucifixion, and resurrection!

In what other sphere of life do we commit our children so blithely – if at all! – to such things? We bring children into this American life and culture and dedicate their future to increasing comfort and complacency in their existence. Yet if we are faithful, and if we know what we are doing, we bring children into the Christian church that they may find themselves ill at ease and never fully at home in this existence.

For in baptism we commit them to imitation of and identification with a crucified Savior. We commit them to live in the way of the cross, to take up their cross daily, to lose their selves that they might gain their souls. We commit them to an existence so jarring with the way of the world that it brought our Lord to crucifixion, that it portends for each Christian the possibility of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom.

How is it we dare to bring them to baptism then? Let us bring them, yes, for it signifies true life, but let us rid ourselves of all ease and sentimentalism in so doing!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Taking to the Stream

Some people poise above the water, then elegantly, lithely launch themselves into the stream in arcing dive and supple stroke. Others, like myself, hesitate and stutter-step, trying to decide and act, then splash through the shallow water with feet stirring up the murk, clumsily hoping for clarity to settle, for vision and breath to take stream. So it is with writing.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Two Fundamental Realities of Our Common Humanity

In his book A Theology of Reading: A Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001; p. 57), Alan Jacobs writes of a passage in The Brothers Karamazov, with reference to Simon Weil in Waiting for God,

"Dostoevsky is appealing here - again, not with conclusive affirmation - to precisely the universal or common humanity that Weil appeals to and that has two sources in Christian thought: the doctrine of creation in imago dei ('Let us make man in our own image') and the doctrine of universal sinfulness ('All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God')."

This is an interesting remark by Jacobs about our universal or common humanity being known or experienced in two fundamental aspects or realities: (a) being made in the image of God and (b) being sinful. We possess a shared humanness in being imago dei and in being sinful. None of us is not made in the image of God. None of us is not sinful. As human, we all share these. This is not to say that God made us in his image and made us sinful. It is not to say that God makes us human by his image and by sinfulness. Yet in a world created by God but also fallen from that created goodness, the imago dei and universal depravity coordinate inextricably and uneasily (even painfully and sufferingly) in what it means to be human for each and all of us. If we could say nothing else to each and every other person in trying to identify how we are alike, we could and must say we are alike and identify with each other as humans in our being made in God's image and in falling short of that image. Thus, in a sinful world, we share a common humanity.

The theological, ethical, and pastoral implications of this twofoldness in our humanity - in this life in this world - are wide, deep, and utterly incumbent.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Word Made Flesh

“And the Word became flesh…” This text means many things, but let us focus on one profound meaning. The Word made flesh – God’s gift to us – makes it possible for us to become children of God. As God created all things through his Word, God re-creates us through his Word made flesh. When we believe in Jesus – when we give our self to him in trust, allegiance, and devotion – God spiritually remakes us in Jesus. We become new people, at the very core of our being.

This new life is a rich life – rich with the splendor, love, and goodness of God; and rich with the beauty and goodness of God’s creation. The opening of John's gospel (chapter 1, verses 1-18) overflows with a sense of the fullness that comes to us from the Word made flesh, from God with us. “And the Word became flesh…we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.” “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Jesus gives us life, abundant life.

We may not experience a sense of fullness of life every day in every way. Life can seem little else than boredom, disappointment, struggle, or sorrow. Sometimes this is because of circumstances around us; sometimes because of habits, dispositions, and characteristics within us. Too often life simply does not feel full of the fullness of divine grace and truth.

This is hard, but is it so strange? The Word did not become flesh as a fully formed adult. The Word did not live the successful life touted in popular culture as the life we deserve, as the life we can achieve. The Word became flesh like we did – as a baby, small and vulnerable, needing to grow. The Word suffered like we do – longing for a better world. Is it so strange that, in Jesus, we are spiritually born as babies, needing to grow, and continuing to suffer the ills of this life?

Yet the claim in John 1, the claim at the heart of Christmas, the claim that Jesus makes by his words and actions, is clear and true: the Word made flesh, the Word crucified, the Word raised from the dead brings new life. Mysteriously yet truly we can become new people in Jesus and begin to live in the fullness of divine grace and truth. We may not be perfectly able to do this today in every way. The question is, “Are we better able to do it today than yesterday?” In the power of the Holy Spirit, are we better able to experience in our mind and heart, in our words and deeds, in our self and relationships, the fullness of grace and truth in Jesus, the Word made flesh?

In the power of the Holy Spirit, let us commit to living in the fullness of grace and truth better today than we did yesterday, and let us commit to do this every day, that next year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we are more like Jesus, as individuals and as a community of Christ, than we are today.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Far by the World's Wayside

Far by the world’s wayside
has God taken our way,
come to our side...

...that we may gladly take
the way of a Child...
rising, falling, rising...
home to God’s dear side.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Kingdom and Politics

“We, by contrast, are citizens of heaven, and from heaven we expect our deliverer to come, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (St. Paul, Philippians 3:20.)

In an epigraph to his poem “Politics,” William Butler Yeats quotes the writer Thomas Mann: “In our time the destiny of man presents its mean­ings in politi­cal terms.” This statement proclaims the great significance of poli­tics in our age. In a presidential election year Americans are particularly con­front­ed with the import of politics for personal and national life.

American Christians are also confronted with this significant reality. Within the context of politics, American Christians must seek responses and involvements which are characterized by obedience to our Lord and his Kingdom. We cannot abandon our existence in and concern for the world about us. Hence, we must care about the political realm, for in that realm we inescapably live. At the same time we cannot ignore our ultimate allegiance to Christ as Lord, for we are indeed citizens of heaven, of the Kingdom of God. Therefore in various ways, as American Christians, we must seek involve­ment in the politi­cal events of this society in an intentionally Christian manner.

However, a strong word of admonition must be spoken here.

The strategy and program of the Kingdom, if we may speak thus, cannot and must not be reduced to and identified with the strategy and program of any political party or ideology.

It is a disturbing fact that many American Christians do just that. Some consider a genuine Christian perspective in politics to be identical with nationalistic conservatism, whereas others consider a Christian perspective to be identical with every new advocacy of liberalism. Either identification suffers a tragic reduction and capitulation of the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God to a merely political vision.

In contrast, a faithful and consistent Christian involvement in the world and its politics will confound non-Christian political observers and participants, because sometimes Chris­tians will urge “conservative” positions and sometimes, “liberal” positions. This will be so, not because the Kingdom is chaotic, but because the Kingdom cannot be cut and pasted to the form and content of any political party or ideology. The “political” commitment of Christians must be to the Kingdom of God above all else, and this Kingdom is both the judgment and the transformation of the political realities and ideologies of all earthly kingdoms.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What is the Task of a Christian Liberal Arts University?

The question is most important in a Christian educational context. Its great virtue is in focusing on the very raison d’etre of a Christian university. In the scope of this kind of essay, it is not possible to answer definitively and thoroughly the question posed. Nevertheless, it is possible to point, in broad and fundamental terms, to certain ideas in answer to the question.

In beginning to contemplate this particular question, we should note that the question begs a prior question: What is the task of any liberal arts university, much less a Christian liberal arts university? In other words, does the particular question assume that we know and can state the task of a liberal arts university, and then that the question here is really about the qualifier “Christian”? This suggests a narrower answer, an answer that only seeks to determine what distinguishes a Christian liberal arts university from a “secular” (for want of a better term) liberal arts university.

However, it is possible to understand the question in more profound terms. In this possibility, the question is not why would Christians take an existing reality that exists in its own right—the university—and tinker with it to come up with a more or less different reality that is specifically Christian. The question is why would Christians establish any such reality resembling what we now call a university, whether or not we can answer that prior question about the task of a “secular” university.

This is a much more valuable and interesting question. We cannot actually escape the fact that we have some ideas—rudimentary at least—of what a university ought to be and do when we entertain the question of the task of a specifically Christian university. However, for the sake of inquiry as fresh as possible, we can try to entertain the question with as little as possible taken from prior concepts of a “secular” university. Then with fresh urgency and possibility we can pose the question: What is the task of a Christian liberal arts university?

Certain possible answers come fairly easily to mind that one could advance as the raison d’etre of a Christian university: the search for truth; the transmission of truth; or even, the vocational preparation of students. Each of those endeavors would be pursued of course within the context of the Christian faith. Yet, despite the limits of this essay, we can argue that those answers, each valuable to a point, are finally unsatisfactory to answer the question in more profound terms.

In brief, the emphasis on truth, on the face of it, suggests an answer too cognitive. A purely or largely cognitive approach to the task of a Christian university does not in itself adequately account for and address the nature of the human person. The human person consists of a complex that is both cognitive and affective at core. The human person engages realities uncreated and created in ways that are both cognitive and affective at once. Describing the task of a Christian university purely or largely in terms of the search for truth or the transmission of truth, albeit in a Christian faith context, casts the raison d’etre of a Christian university in terms too cognitive and hence too limited.

As for construing the task of a Christian liberal arts university in largely vocational terms, that understanding is simply too utilitarian and hence too limited, however useful it may be to a point. To be sure, existence necessarily involves work, found in many forms and fraught with many meanings. This seems basic to the nature of existence created by God and scourged by sin. Education should prepare for, support, and foster this profound aspect of human existence. Yet human life cannot and must not be subsumed by the category of work. A more fully human expression and experience of life transcends work to include such profound aspects as the moral and the aesthetic—aspects that cannot be simply reduced to or swept away by the criterion of “usefulness.” Education for true human life should prepare for, support, and foster, as far as possible, the fullness of human existence.

What can we then say in answer to the question: What is the task of a Christian liberal arts university? In the broadest terms, the question can be answered constructively in two ways. The two answers are not entirely the same, but they are certainly complementary and overlapping.

The task of a Christian liberal arts university is the exploration, development, and communication of a Christian world view. This way of framing the task emphasizes more the institution itself. It offers a fundamental perspective for envisioning, constructing, and integrating the components needed and desired to constitute a Christian university. It seeks to conceive the university in holistic terms as a grand and concerted endeavor toward a comprehensive and coherent understanding and expression—as far as possible—of a faith-grounded and faith-compassing world view.

Complementarily, we can say the task of a Christian liberal arts university is the formation of people in terms of vision, knowledge, and skills—in short, a world view and means to engage life well. This offers a holistic approach to the education or development of a person and the university’s role in that. This way of framing the task puts the emphasis more on the person—on the discreteness and integrity of the person, who then exists and acts individually and collectively. In other words, the task of a Christian university consists in the inculcation of a credible and faithful world view in students, with concomitant abilities to enter into life as far and as well as possible.

This emphasis on the task of a Christian university in terms of a world view raises as many questions as it answers. While fascinating and indeed necessary to consider, those questions would take us far beyond the scope of this brief essay. However, what can and must be said most essentially is this, that a Christian education must always seek to root in and stem from the uncreated and created realities that are the very stuff of existence. Hence, the endeavor of a Christian university toward a world view must begin and end with the being and acting of God in himself (as revealed to us) and in this knotty, creaturely existence that is our life.