"Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?" 'How should I not?' said the Lady, 'I am in love...in Love Himself.'
~C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Why Do We Study the Ancients?

Catherine asked me to address you all today on the topic of studying ancient cultures which is no small task and I will say upfront that there are a number of answers to this question which I will probably not even touch. The question is broad; but before I begin, let me say that I’m answering this question with two things in mind: 1.) that this is an objection that might be raised by a well-meaning Christian who thinks the Bible and a little American history are sufficient curriculum for a young believer. 2.) That the definition of “ancient” encompasses pre-Christian societies such as Greece and Rome.

The first reason we study the ancients is that the Bible is not the complete source of all Truth. I think that Christians are often prone to making the mistake that when it comes to questions of theology, philosophy, ethics, or anything you might study which isn’t related to our narrow definitions of math and science, the Bible is the starting and finishing place. What I’d like to suggest is that while we hold the Bible to be completely true, it is not the only source of Truth. We have the great privilege of special revelation through Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. But there is another path toward God, what we call natural revelation-that which can be discerned by examining nature and by virtue of being created in the Image of God. Because this is what the ancients relied on solely, they became awfully good at discerning Truth without having any special knowledge of what, or more specifically, who Truth was. Using the Light of Reason alone, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and other Pagans bequeathed to us a lively tradition of literature which explores the Truths of God, Humanity, Nature and so on.

For instance, let us consider Virgil. He was born some seventy years before Christ and is considered the foremost poet of Ancient Rome. Writing one of Western Civilization’s five great epic poems will earn you that distinction. But though he would be rightly famous for the Aeneid’s composition, it is another of his works, the Eclogues to which I’d like to direct your attention. In the 4th eclogue, Virgil discusses a boy who will usher in a golden age of peace; an age marked by lions who will no longer attack herds of sheep; a boy who would take away the world’s guilt; a boy who converses with the gods. Many of the church’s theologians regarded Virgil’s words as prophetic of Jesus’ coming-and indeed, the words of the poem certainly hearken back to the prophecy of Isaiah. It is for this reason that Dante chose Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to believe that we ought to examine Virgil’s other works for wisdom. That is why our 10th graders read the Aeneid.

It shouldn’t surprise us that an ancient pagan has things to teach Christians. Not only are they guided by reason, but if we accept the biblical account, we are all descendants of Noah. It is not long after the flood waters recede that men decided to build a tower that would reach to the heavens. It was here that men were scattered and their languages confused. Yet, while confused, would they not have carried with them the same oral tradition as those who were dispersed in another direction? The oral tradition which would have featured the Creation of God, the Judgement of God, and the Mercy of God? And so it is that cultures the world around are infused with elements of Truth that shine through the musings of their philosophers and poets.

Now, I briefly summarized the contents of Virgil’s eclogue as a way of showing the Messianic character of some pre-Christian writing. One might object though, it sounds like passages in the Bible already-why do we need to add anything? Well what about virtues that are latent in Scripture which are more fully expounded in other literature?

One such virtue, which repeatedly leaps off the pages of Homer’s Odyssey, continually inspires conversation and questions among my Great Books students. It is the virtue of Xenia-that is Hospitality. In the Odyssey it is not uncommon to read about a guest arriving at someone’s home and being offered dinner, entertainment, lodging, various gifts, and ultimately, conveyance to their next location. In some cases, this is done without even asking for the name of the recipient. Why is such grace extended? Overall, it seems that levels of mutual trust were much higher. This leads naturally to a conversation on what has eroded trust. The overarching answer to this question is “fear”. Whereas the Homeric characters are seen welcoming the stranger into their midst (with several notable exceptions) the modern American Christian shies away from the unfamiliar on the off chance they may encounter a serial murderer or rapist.

In the time the Odyssey was written, extending hospitality was not only expected by Zeus and the travelling stranger, but it was an opportunity for the host to sow goodwill. In an age where hotels were not as prevalent as they are today, any sort of trip required dependence on hospitality. Under this system, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the pilgrim would be refused since the host would count on the reciprocation of his kindness at a later time. It is equally difficult to see why the guest would commit a crime knowing that he would not be welcomed on future trips, thus prohibiting said trips. I don’t think I have to spell out for you the modern political issues that Homer is addressing-and I won’t since I have no desire for half the room to hate me when I’m finished speaking.

But I think Christians would do well to learn from the unfettered hospitality of the Ancient Greeks. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews echoes the sentiments of Homer when he writes“be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This is certainly a broad call to a more hospitable existence, but it is nowhere near as well fleshed our as the Odyssey. And so, I reiterate, the Bible is completely true, but by far, not the only source of Truth and that is a central reason we read and study ancient cultures and literature.

A second reason I would like to posit is because the New Testament, particularly St. Paul’s letters, use the language of Plato and Aristotle. If Platonism and Aristotelianism undergird the writings of Paul, we should certainly be familiar with their ramifications for doing theology. And again, this should not surprise us, remember, what we sometimes refer to as “books of the New Testament” are mostly letters to specific regions-many of them, Corinth for example, in Greece, the place where Plato and Aristotle would be widely accepted and where, if St. Paul wanted to make an impact, he would have to speak “Greek”. One of the initial places we can see this is in the first letter to the Corinithians. “Since by man came death by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die,even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Paul, on first blush, denies the existence of the will and its corollary doctrine of Hell. Christ’s coming has made everyone alive whether they want to be or not. But this seeming difficulty is very easy to resolve if you understand Paul is speaking Plato. One of the integral themes in Platonic writing is the existence of Forms. The shortest way to summarize what these are is to consider beauty. Mountains and oceans may both be said to be beautiful even though they are obviously different. They are beautiful according to Plato, because they reflect or participate in a universal form of Beauty. Why does this matter for Theology? When Paul writes to the Corinthians-he uses humanity as a universal. As all of humanity is corrupted by the Fall of Adam, so too all of it is restored by the Perfect and True Form of Humanity-namely Christ. This is not universalism in the sense that all men are automatically going to heaven-but it rules out any notion that Christ’s death and resurrection are not sufficient for all-precisely because we are all linked together by the universal of humanity.

Paul also uses Aristotle. Aristotle is famous for talking about the “ends” of things. The most familiar example is that of the acorn. Built into the Acorn is the potential for an oak tree. It is the telos or the purpose of the acorn’s existence. Aristotle would jump from that to discussing humanity. We too have an end or purpose toward which we are striving. Paul latches on to this idea and language in his Epistle to the Ephesians. “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.”

What he means is that man has a telos, an end, or a purpose. Our destiny is comformity to the image of God and adoption into the family of Jesus Christ-that is our final Cause, our end. The predestination Paul speaks of is sometimes mis-interpreted to mean the inclusion of some and rejection of others-as some being chosen and others not. It would make sense if you didn’t see the Aristotelian language to interpret it this way. But knowing that Paul is aping Aristotle, we conclude that predestination has more to do with the end for which we were created than it does with God picking favorites

In all, we study the Ancients to better know Christ, to better understand how we ought to live, and finally, to better comprehend theology. Knowing this, the Scriptures are sufficient for our salvation, but superbly supplemented by other sources and traditions.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Sermon for 1st Sunday after Christmas/St. John the Evangelist

Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas/St. John the Evangelist
Billy Jenkins

Today, the church celebrates the feast of St. John the Evangelist. Which of course means, our readings, despite being the first Sunday after Christmas, do not sound particularly Christmassy. But that’s alright, we still have occasion to speak of the events of Christmas today. For the reason St. John’s feast is the 3rd day of Christmas is because he spent much time elaborating on the themes of light in darkness and that the Light of the world was the Incarnate Son of God. The Word, the 2nd person of the Trinity, took to himself a body and became God in the Flesh.

I hope all of you have taken some time to be lost in the wonder of this mystery over the last few days. I know for me it takes some effort; the seminary classes I teach spend a good amount of time talking about the Incarnation and I’m quite positive I could bore you to tears with some of the tedious thoughts that surrounded the person of Jesus Christ in the earliest church. But it’s more than that; I struggle because this idea that God came down at Christmas and was born of a Virgin in a stable has been so engrained in me that I take it for granted. I’d like us to consider a couple of thoughts; first, from C.S Lewis. In his book, Miracles, he spoke of the grand miracle being the Incarnation of the Divine Word. And he wrote, to get your mind wrapped around this event consider this analogy: God becoming man, is like one of us deigning to take on the existence of a slug. Think about that: a slimy, gross slug-small, living under wood and rocks. A creature I think many of us look at and either don’t think twice about, or who give a short and succinct exposition of our feelings by saying “ew”! And so, the Incarnation is a great condescension. We should reflect on that.
But it’s more than the humility of God’s Son. It’s also a mystery as to how it even took place. How does one who is eternal step into time? Micah’s prophecy tells us that his goings have been of old and that he is from everlasting. How does this work? Furthermore, this is the God who made everything, and as its Maker, exists outside of all his creation. We sing this somewhat regularly at communion “whom all the world could not contain”. And yet, he takes on the limits of space which is common to all men. To use the theological term, God becomes circumscribed in the person of Jesus, he takes boundaries to himself. Again, how is that even possible? I won’t pretend that I can explain it-but I want us all to marvel at this. We may not understand the “how” but with the blessed Mother, we too can ponder all these things in our heart.”

In reflecting on God becoming man, it is not only his humility and the mystery of it all, it is the wonder of God establishing a way for men to return to him. I would like to stitch together several passages to help make this point. One of my favorite verses of Scripture is from Isaiah 40, where the prophet wrote “the Glory of the Lord of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” Perhaps, on the surface, this verse does not strike you as odd. But I have to imagine that any Jew who heard or read what Isaiah had to say would have been shocked. After all, this privilege of seeing God’s glory was not accorded to Moses, the man who stands next to Abraham as the two pillars of Jewish tradition. Do you remember that story? It comes from the end of Exodus 33. It is filled with anthropomorphic figures of speech to describe Jehovah, it is dark, it is mysterious and terrible. Listen to these verses:

And he (moses) said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.
19 And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.
20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.
21 And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:
22 And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:
23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

Moses, the meekest man on the earth, by all accounts deserving, if any man were, to see the glory of God, was forbidden. He was able to see a little bit of the back end of it, but the sheer weight and luminosity of God’s glory would have killed him according to verse 20. While this is certainly true and the clearest understanding of the text, I want to suggest that there is also an element of timing involved in God’s decision. First, St. John clearly teaches in his first epistle that there will come a time in the age to come, that men will see God “as he is”. At that time, the Glory of God will not be too much a burden for us to bear, but we will revel in it. Set free completely from sin, we will no longer feel the piercing of his holy eyes. That is why heaven has long been described in the church as the “beatific vision”, to behold the face of God. That is what we long for. But must we wait for death to attain the vision of God?

We return again to our Old Testament reading; “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” When is it that this glory will be seen? Does Isaiah say at death? Recall the verses that immediately preceded it: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the highway a desert for our God.” We’ve just concluded the season of Advent where we see this passage featured in the gospel and call to worship. We know this is the voice of John the Baptizer. So if we read this passage carefully we can determine that, after the Baptist, those of low estate would be lifted up, those who esteemed themselves highly would be made low, and those who were crooked and rough would be straightened and smooth by the call to repentance. And after this had been done, the glory of God would be revealed. Well what did John prophesy? Yes, he was a prophet in the sense of calling the people to repentance. But he also pointed ahead to something, or in this case, someone. We read just a week ago the words “there stands one among you whose shoe I’m unworthy to unloose.” When Isaiah said the “glory of the Lord shall be revealed” on the heels of John the Baptist, he meant Christ. Christ is the glory of the Lord. This is why on Christmas day we read that great verse from Hebrews 1 the Son is “the brightness [or radiance] of the Father’s glory”.

But as clear as the author of Hebrews may be, this passage is trumped, as it were, by the Gospel for Christmas day. What our beloved St. John teaches us at the end of his prologue is this: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” John teaches his readers that we have seen the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ. That which Moses was blocked from seeing, that which Isaiah some five hundred years later said would in the future be revealed,is manifested forth in the child of Bethlehem.
Friends, you should wonder at our Lord’s humility; you should stand amazed in contemplation of the mystery of the incarnation; but I urge you to step beyond this and consider that Isaiah says all flesh will see the Glory of the Lord revealed. In the older covenant, not even Moses, who shared intimate communion with God in the mountain, not even Moses, was able to see this glory. But we have that right! In taking humanity unto himself, God has made a way of access for us to the glory of the Father which we in our fallen state cannot behold. That is an enormous part of the beauty of living in the newer covenant.

You might ask, and fairly so, what’s the big deal? So God in his mercy chooses in the fullness of time to show his glory in a way he had previously not, why does that matter? I think the key to understanding this lies in Jehovah’s answer to Moses upon Moses’ request to see God’s glory. The Lord answered him “I will make all my goodness pass before thee.” Shortly thereafter, the Lord hides him because he can’t see this goodness. The puritan commentator Matthew Henry explicitly states, “the goodness of God is his glory.” Which means that the child in the manger is God’s goodness. And this makes perfect sense; in Exodus 33:19 as the Lord describes the goodness that will pass before Moses, he says “I will be gracious to those whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on those whom I show mercy.” In other words, goodness of God is the grace and mercy which saves us. While the older covenant had rituals which looked ahead to the coming of the Messiah, God’s glory, or goodness, were not yet fully revealed. Beloved, in the Christmas seasons, we rejoice that that which the holy seers and prophets saw not, has been revealed to us.
And that pronoun, “us” is interesting. In the limited vision God gave Moses, he made one thing absolutely clear: his grace and mercy would remain partially shrouded and would extend only as far as God deemed it should go, namely Israel. But Isaiah foresaw that “all flesh would see it”. When the Word took flesh to himself, the fullness of God’s plan was revealed. The limitation of salvation to the house of Israel would be blown wide open as the Gentiles would be welcomed in to the fold. Friends, we must eschew any sense of self-importance and deserving. The holiest man of the Israelites was denied what the most common of all Gentiles has now seen.

One of the unfortunately neglected saints in the Christmas season is Simeon. The end of Luke chapter 2 tells us that he was a holy man who was promised that he would not taste of death until he saw the Lord’s Christ. He lived in the Temple and when Mary and Joseph brought him, Simeon sang the most lovely of songs. “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For my eyes have seen they salvation.” Simeon looked upon the newborn and saw the salvation of God; which is to say he saw the goodness of God; which is to say, he saw the glory of God. And he knew Isaiah’s prophecy: which is why his song continues with the theme that Christ would be a “light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.” Simeon knew all flesh would be able to see what he saw.

In a little while, we will sing again the carol of Charles Wesley, Hark! The Herald. And we will sing that magnificent line “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail! The incarnate Deity.” The glory which St. John labored to explain , the glory now available for all men to behold, is there in the Christ child. O come, let us adore him. Alleluia. Amen.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why Classical Music Is Unpopular

This week, a colleague of mine summarized the work a portion of Joseph Pieper’s work “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” with the words “for the ancients…true and pure leisure is attained the moment we no longer have to work to conform our mind to truth, our will to goodness, and our emotions to beauty.” The implication in this statement is that our minds, wills, and emotions are not always naturally inclined toward the Transcendentals. In the place of truth, goodness, and beauty we gravitate toward lesser things. These lesser things may participate to some degree in truth, goodness, and beauty, but not in their fullness. What is it that that causes us to accept that which is less than ideal and substitute it with something less?

Perhaps one reason for this is that we often choose the simple over the more complex. This is not to say that simplicity is not sometimes to be preferred. Indeed, I have found it to be so. A Robert Frost poem and one by T.S. Eliot each have their place and I love both. And while my goal is not to demean Frost, he is, objectively speaking, much easier to understand on first blush than Eliot is. T.S, Eliot requires you to read, reread, and read again in order to even begin broaching the depth of his thoughts. The complexity of Ash Wednesday dwarfs that of the Road Not Taken. As such, it requires time, effort, and thought to appreciate its subtleties. My argument is that we are often not willing to give these and that that is particularly true in the realm of music.

Flipping through my radio stations is sometimes an exercise in futility. Rhyming phrases devoid of meaning, strong sexual overtones, or thoughtless drivel are common. These are then set to oft repeated chord structures, boring instrumentation, and melodies which lack creativity. Before I go further, allow me to say that this is not intended as a blanket condemnation of modern music. I’m more than happy to listen to Bastille’s Pompeii, I own Celine Dion’s greatest hits CD, and I’ve been known to say or sing “Turn Down for What” when I am excited about something. Musically and lyrically, however, these songs pale in comparison to what we broadly call “Classical” music. Yet, love for classical music appears from all my experience to be at an all time low. Why? As hinted at above, learning to love classical music requires time, effort, and thought. It is rarely easy listening. But I would argue that acquiring the musical knowledge necessary to enjoying this music and immersion in it will, in time, produce a deep love for its beauty which you will not always have to strive for; it will become natural.

Structure is important to classical music. And it isn’t as simple as “Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Key Change-Final Chorus” There are Rondos, Sonata Form, A-B Form, Theme and Variation and several other prominent forms which classical music takes. Understanding which you are listening to can help you organize in your mind what you are hearing. If you are listening to choral music, recognizing the process of text painting will enlighten your understanding. This does require study of historical musical trends and of basic music fundamentals, but again, appreciating the beauty present in this music takes time and effort. For instance, in Beethoven’s Mass in C in the Credo, three E-flat chords, each dotted-half notes, precede the line “Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine” that is “God of God, Light of Light”. The phrase is one which helps explain the Divinity of Christ. It is thus a reference to the truth that while God is one, he is also more than one, that is, he is Three Persons. Three chords, each three beats, one note in each measure, perfectly conveys the idea, through the music, that God is Three and yet One. Further, the fact that Beethoven used E-Flat is significant. For Beethoven it is the key of royalty. The Eroica symphony, dedicated to Napolean, was written in E-Flat. The Emperor Piano Concerto is written in E-Flat. This seemingly innocuous transition between phrases in the Creed is teeming with symbolism. It is a musical painting of the text. But gleaning this means years of study. In addition to learning various structures and text painting, one should also study the differences between homophonic and polyphonic music, the nationalism of Romantic music, and so many other aspects.

The likelihood of this though is small. For many, the work required to appreciate the beauty is overwhelming and admittedly, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if you have enough patience to immerse yourself in it, and can take the time to learn even some of the background and fundamentals that make up classical music, your appreciation for its depth, quality, and complexity will soar. My oldest son, whose musical tastes are generally not my own (and that’s alright) has, through repeated exposure, come to love the musical/pop opera Les Miserables. This music is not classical, but it is decidedly more complex and intricate than most of what he listens to. I have been listening to Puccini’s La Boheme of late and was listening to it in the car earlier this week with both boys. They’ve heard the section we were listening to before and I could tell, looking in the rear view mirror, that they didn’t mind what they were hearing. Their first choice? I highly doubt it. But one they are beginning to appreciate and even like? Yes. As they get older, I’ll explain to them the details that make these works great. I don’t think full comprehension of their beauty is possible until then. And, until as a culture, we make the commitment to love that which is beautiful and complex, classical music will continue to wane in popularity. But if the effort and study is made, over time beauty will be preferred and listening to and appreciating classical music will truly be an act of leisure.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Baptism: As Illustrated by a Little Story

I was listening to a short portion of a Christian radio program on my way home this evening. It was narrated by a man who sounded vaguely like the narrator in Disney's Charlotte's Web. He relayed a story about a young 1st grader who, as 6 year old's are wont to do, had a bladder accident at his school desk. Fearful of being called out by the approaching teacher, and subsequently humiliated in front of his peers, the boy began to panic internally. A young girl sitting next to him must have noticed him fidgeting. It happened to be show and tell day and the girl had brought her goldfish to class. Knowing that within seconds the teacher would ask what was under the boy's chair, thus potentially ruining the rest of his elementary school experience, the girl dropped her fish bowl between them. The water mixed with the urine, and while the smell must have still been slightly pungent, it destroyed any evidence of the voided bladder. The girl confirmed later that the dropping of the fish bowl was not an accident. The boy had been saved by water. Water, which you might say, had been poured over his transgressions. I Peter 3 reminds us "Baptism now saves us". The epistle to Titus confirms this teaching when it speaks of the "washing of regeneration." Other passages could be offered in support of the Baptism's effects, but the point here is not an in depth theological discussion. Rather, to point out the obvious. Water cleans things. Whether it be dishes or bodies, that's what water does. The spiritual application is the same: something is being washed. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer leaves no doubt about that which is washed. Almighty and everlasting God, who of thy great mercy didst save Noah and his family in the Ark from perishing by water, and also didst safely lead the children of Israel thy people through the red Sea, figuring thereby thy holy baptism; and by the baptism of thy well beloved son Jesus Christ in the river Jordan didst sanctify water to the mystical washing away of sin: We beseech thee for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this Child, wash him, and sanctify him with the holy Ghost, that he being delivered from thy Wrath, may be received into the Ark of Christ's Church, and being steadfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in Charity may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. How it is that physical elements communicate spiritual riches to us is a mystery all its own. Nevertheless, they do. May the story above remind us that the water which came from Christ's side is every bit as much a part of redemption as the blood. And may we take comfort in the Water which initiated us into the Kingdom of God and those other physical elements, Bread and Wine, which help us remain therein.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Detachment, Desire, and Death

My wife and I had a rather long talk with one of our sons about sharing last night. His attachment to certain toys and unwillingness to let others play with them brought this about. Easily, I could write an entire post criticizing him for this and list all of the things we taught him to help other parents struggling with the same thing. It's easy, however, to point out a stingy child and make him an example. What's a little more difficult is looking inward and seeing where you are either stingy or too attached. God is gracious to his children. When we are too attached to things other than him, he reminds us. On the surface, these reminders may seem like punishments. A piece of technology we love, breaks. The money we were saving (perhaps hoarding) has to be used for a car repair or medical bill. We may view these as chance events or as God exacting revenge on us, but ultimately I think God uses events like these to detach us from things that keep us from him. He does it because he loves us and wants us to love him. It's only when we have been torn away from the things in this life that we love, that our soul's desire can be properly focused. Insofar as things can die, death needs to take place in order for the true fulfillment of desire to happen. Today, I was thinking about my own earthly attachments. If I may be so bold, there are few things I'm overly attached to. My computer might be one (which, I suppose, makes this post supremely ironic). But really more than any thing, I'm attached to people. Specifically, I'm attached to my family and a few very close friends. I long for the time I get to spend with these people. I can't wait for the weekends when I actually see my wife, or my parents. Family and friends are wonderful blessings and I think attachment to them is of a different nature than that of material objects. But they can still keep us from God if we are more attached to them than the One who gave them to us. As I said above, God is gracious to his children. Sometimes death occurs in our families. Ones we love are taken from this earth. We grieve. Not as those who have no hope, but still we grieve. Yet, this can be a time to draw closer to the Lord. All believers will meet again in the Kingdom of Heaven. But we must get there first. This is the beautiful thing about proper priorities. If we put Jesus before everything, we get him and all the other riches of this life in the end. If we prefer even the smallest of trifles to Him, nothing, in the end, is ours. What is the point of all this? Attachment to anything other than God will not fulfill any of our desires. Our inordinate desires, our attachments, have to be crucified and our souls rightly focused on him who alone can satisfy. Death then leads to life. Sometimes this means something as simple as sharing what is ours (for it is truly only in the act of sharing that anything is ours) or it could be the cessation of breath in a human being we treasured. As painful as loss can be, it may be the removal of an obstacle to heaven.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Rethinking Artificial Contraception

I’ve intentionally titled this lecture what I have to dispel any notions that my plan is to stand before you and condemn anyone who ever has or ever intends to use a contraceptive. While I firmly believe it to be wrong, it is in Anglican thinking one of the areas where the Christian conscience must make a decision to exercise its freedom or to not. What I hope to present to you today is a compelling case for abandoning artificial contraceptives and truly embracing a culture of life. To do so, we will examine relevant scripture on sexuality, the purposes of marriage, and the role artificial contraception has played in promoting the culture of death in which we all live. From a scriptural perspective, Genesis 1 &2 presents us with a fascinating picture of why men and women were created. “God created man in his own image in the image of God created he him, male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply.” We were made to be the image bearers of God; to be reflections of the divine. This image entails much that we cannot broach today, but it certainly includes the ability to make choices. Of these wonderful choices we are given to make, the conscious decision of giving oneself wholly to the other ranks very high. Indeed, this is what Genesis 1 demands of us. Adam and Eve were made with the express purpose of giving themselves to each other in order that human life might be perpetuated. Notice, the propagation of the human race is considered the priority within marriage, even before the broad ideas of companionship or friendship. In Genesis chapter two, we are told that there was a mate found for every creature in the garden, save Adam. It is there that we read the account of God taking the rib from Adam’s side and forming his wife, Eve. This passage has given rise to the oft quoted thought on Eve’s creation “not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near to his heart to be beloved.” Genesis two can be read as both heart-rending and heart-warming; Adam searching helplessly for a mate and, through an act of God, given one. In every way his equal, Eve emerged onto the scene of history to be the helper and lover of Adam. Yet it has been well said that marriage and conjugal love were instituted for two reasons, babies and bonding. There is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative cannot break, between the unitive and procreative significance” of sex. Genesis one and two support this thesis, but the priority is given to the procreative part of the formulation. In fact, the Book of Common Prayer supports this reading of the opening chapters of Genesis as well. When we read through the liturgy for the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony we find that marriage is not something to be entered into lightly but in deep reverence “duly considering the cause for which Matrimony was ordained. First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his Holy Name.” (BCP 490) Indeed, the ideas of companionship which we are most wont to associate with marriage aren’t even listed until third in the “purposes” section for marriage. As the liturgy indicates, procreation presents us with one of the greatest opportunities for evangelism and expansion of the Kingdom. The point is very simply this, while the dominion mandate of Genesis 1 does not specifically forbid the use of contraception, it clearly teaches as normative that marriages were made for the creation of children who would grow to love the Lord. We were made male and female to make this a biological possibility. Have you ever wondered why it is that God forbids homosexual unions? It is not because God is a killjoy. It is not because God does not want all people to have companionship. Rather, the most logical explanation for the injunction against homosexuality is that the Lord expects at least the possibility of life with each act of intimacy. This is not to intimate that heterosexual couples using something like the pill are committing the same sin as homosexuals do, rather it is to point out the priority of procreation within the marriage covenant. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, puts it this way, “Every marriage must be open to the gift of children. Even where the ability to conceive and bear children may be absent, the will to receive children must be present. To demand sexual pleasure without openness to life, is to violate a sacred trust.” Now as I said, this does not prove that God frowns upon contraceptives, just that procreation should be a significant consideration in marriage. I would like now to transition to a consideration of God’s people as Bride. Whether you consider the prophecy of Hosea or our Lord’s teachings in wedding parables, the Scriptures have established an analogous relationship between matrimony and the salvation that has been brought by Christ. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. After laying out the pattern of Christ as head of the Church and the husband as head of the wife, and the responsibilities this entails for the woman, Paul writes “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” By his description of marriage as a participation in the love of Christ for the Church, a paradigm has been set up. Christ gave up his own body in order that we, the Bride, may have life. Indeed, that is what we hear each time we come to communion “This is my Body broken and given for you”. And St. John reminds us that this Body is given “for the life of the world.” If our earthly marriages are to be reflections of Christ giving his Body so that humanity might have new life, so too the possibility of life must be present in the conjugal act imitating it. The husband and wife must fully surrender themselves to each other, imitating Christ’s surrender to death in order to bring life. He held nothing back. Husbands and wives should not withhold the ability to create life from each other. Doing so violates the paradigm set up in the Scriptures. It is also undeniable that the Scriptures present children as a blessing from the Lord. This is not an injunction against contraceptives, but a test of our opinion of children. The Psalmist, depending on your translation, refers to them as “gifts” or a “heritage”. It is truly baffling why we have chosen this area to deny the blessings of God-to turn them away. The Lord calls “happy” the man who has a quiver full of children. I am well aware of the stressfulness that children can cause. Whether it be through stubborn behavior, an increased financial burden, or a lack of space in your home, it seems that being open to children can be anything but a blessing at times. In response to these objections, however, I remind that the same God which calls children “gifts” promises to supply for our every need, and he gives perfect peace to those whose minds are stayed on him. Why then, in light of these promises, should we reject the blessings of God by intentionally trying to frustrate his purposes? Furthermore, since the Lord is ultimately the one who opens and closes the womb, can a couple practicing contraception fully say “we wanted this blessing”, when the contraceptive fails? I know many babies are conceived this way and their parents love them dearly. But without an openness to God’s gift, would not some of the joy of the new life be diminished? Wouldn’t it necessarily be an intrusion, albeit one that ultimately would be welcomed? We should want children. I hope that, in reflecting on these passages, you have seen that sex between married persons should be open to life. It is here that we have to call to mind the story of Onan. Onan was commanded by his father to go into his brother’s wife, Tamar and conceive a child. But you may recall that during the sexual act, Onan intentionally spilled his seed on the ground. The author informs us that this angered the LORD who slew Onan for his act. Now this is clearly a case where Onan failed to be Tamar’s kinsman redeemer. You can ascribe many sins to Onan here including disobedience and selfishness. But I think it is impossible in the light of other Scripture to see God winking at the act of spilling the seed. This was the thought of John Calvin who wrote in his commentaries on the tenth verse: I will contend myself with briefly mentioning this, as far as the sense of shame allows to discuss it. It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is double horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family, and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born. This wickedness is now as severely as is possible condemned by the Spirit, through Moses, that Onan, as it were, through a violent and untimely birth, tore away the seed of his brother out the womb, and as cruel as shamefully has thrown on the earth. Moreover he thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime. Onan was guilty of a similar crime, by defiling the earth with his seed, so that Tamar would not receive a future inheritor. Calvin is clear even though many have tried to hide his thoughts on this matter. His commentary has been edited in virtually all modern editions, omitting his thinking on verse 10. But no words are minced, Onan did what he could to destroy a human life, which leads well into the next part of our discussion: Contraception has fostered greatly the culture of death. In his encyclical letter Evangellium Vitae Pope John Paul II, while distinguishing between the evils of birth control and abortion, nevertheless demonstrates how closely they are tied one to another. He asserts that “the pro-abortion culture is especially strong, precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected.” The rationale behind his statement is not particularly difficult to figure out. When having children is seen as an evil to prevent, in order that an almost hedonistic life-style can be continued unfettered, what recourse other than abortion is available to those who have been failed by contraceptives? John Paul II had the advantage of hindsight. He was able to see the havoc wrought by wide-spread acceptance of artificial contraception. One of his predecessors, Paul VI, wrote his encyclical letter entitled Humana Vitae in part as a warning about what would follow a society’s practice of contraception. It would not just be an increase in abortions, though that has certainly proven to be the case. Rather, a general decline in sexual ethics was what he foresaw. How many of his predictions have proven prophetic? Paul VI was clear that this would lead to “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.” It would be hard to dispute that these claims are in many cases a reality. Again, you could argue that sexual immorality or abortion can be divorced from a discussion of contraception. Birth control can be safely practiced without falling into any of these grave errors. But it is undeniable that separating sex from procreation has, at the very least, conditioned our cultural mindset away from life and toward sin, and in many cases death. We’ve discussed the culture of death in terms of abortion only. It extends far beyond that. “Unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed.” This statement from Humana Vitae is a reminder that once we take control over something we shouldn’t, it is only a matter of time before someone else (the public authority) will wield this same power we’ve taken, over us. It is precisely this topic which C.S. Lewis addresses in his lectures turned book, The Abolition of Man. In speaking on contraception, Lewis writes “Each new power won by man is a power over man.” The freedoms of scientific progress always have a cost. In this case, by dictating who will be born and when, artificial contraception means that we have the power to withhold existence from a future generation. Indeed, the powers that be could bind us to do so. How close does the HHS mandate of the Affordable Care Act come to doing this? Lewis seeks to make plain that taking this power over nature will, in the end, result in natural forces and impulses taking power over men. You see Lewis was concerned about changes in the education models of post WWII England. Believing these changes would usher in a new era of Subjectivism and a rejection of Natural Law, Lewis feared what would govern man in the future. Once the Natural Law was gone, only the aggregation of power would matter. One of these powers was the ability to manipulate future generations. Through selective breeding, a race of men would be born wholly subservient to the generation which had permitted them existence. You see, man would be exercising power over man. This combined with a lack of Objectivity in education, would allow the generation practicing contraception to produce children who were slaves both to the men who allowed them existence and to the impulses of their nature. In short, humanity would be stripped from their posterity. It’s not simply that artificial contraception can lead eventually to a culture of death by abortion. It is all by itself a culture of death because it seeks to prevent life and the life that is eventually allowed is not free, but born a slave. It seems that everywhere we turn we are confronted with sexual sin. The explosion of pornography, aided by the rise of the internet, the widespread problems of marital infidelity, homosexuality and other aberrations from the biblical norm, all speak of a culture saturated in sex. While there have been some successes, on the whole the Church has failed in responding to this tide. Could it be that the reason we have such trouble countering the sexual revolution is that we have nearly without question, accepted one of its central tenets? The Anglican Church was the first branch of the Church to officially condone the usage of contraceptives at the Lambeth Conference of 1930. I think if we heed the biblical evidence, the tradition of the Church (both Catholic and Reformed) and look at the very clear consequences the contraceptive culture has produced and will continue to produce, we will see that it is high time the Anglican Church and all men of goodwill reconsider and rethink the usage of artificial birth control.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Electoral College Projection

While I've not had time to write as extensively on the election as I did in 2008, I have been following very closely. Below I would like to give my electoral college projections for tonight's election. I will start with the same phrase virtually every journalist has in the last week, I'm not sure who is going to win tonight. In 2008, my final projection was a "best case scenario" for John McCain, which still had him losing. I couldn't see a way to 270 votes for him. 2012 is very different. I still think Obama is the favorite to pull this out, but Romney created a path for himself in the first debate. Without further ado, here are the projections. Romney will win comfortably in the heartland, Big Sky country, and the Deep South. He will also claim Arizona and the Tennessee Valley states totaling 191 electoral votes. Obama will carry the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast (New Hampshire possibly excepted, see below), the west coast, New Mexico, Illinois, and Michigan. Bringing his total number of EV to 217. Obviously, this makes the road to 270 easier for the president, which is why I think he is still the favorite. I basically see 10 states in play. I do not buy any chance of a Romney win in Minnesota or Michigan. Nor do I see Obama picking off the 1 electoral vote from Nebraska's Omaha district. Here are my thoughts on the ten states below, with a winner picked in each one. North Carolina-From the beginning of this election, I thought Indiana and North Carolina would go solidly for the whomever the Republican candidate was. The states were too red in 2004 to support a democrat in a non-wave election. Obama carried both states by less than 1 percent in 2008. However, the president has had some impressive staying power in NC. While he will probably not win here (I think owing to tamped down enthusiasm among young voters at NC's expansive university system) the fact that he made Romney spend time and money here is strategically important. 15 votes for Romney. Florida-The state that so many predicted would slip the president's way after the Paul Ryan VP pick had other ideas. Florida was again a state that the president did not win definitively in 2008. Just 2.5 percentage points separated he and a very weak candidate, John McCain. Recent polling has been fairly consistent that Obama will lose this big prize. 29 votes to Romney Virginia-Several weeks ago there was a flurry of articles indicating that the Obama campaign was conceding losses in VA, NC, and FL. This meant a much closer race than prior to the first debate. Romney had a real shot at winning the electoral college. But while Bush won VA in 2008 by 8 percent and it is a traditionally red state, Obama has maintained a narrow advantage in state polling. He has lead in 9 of the last 10 polls of the state...albeit barely. However, that kind of consistency has to mean something. A number of columnists have pointed out to low early voter turnout in democratic strongholds of Northern Virginia. But I think that, while this might be the closest vote in the entire country tonight, Obama wins. 13 Votes for Obama. That would give Romney a 235-230 vote lead in the electoral college. New Hampshire-The one Northeast holdout (unless you count PA) is set to go Obama. Romney should be doing better here. This was his firewall in the primaries. He owns a house here. He spends his summers here. But he simply has never been able to close the deal. The polling here again shows a small but consistent lead for the president. 4 votes for Obama Iowa-This state has been a trap for Romney since 2008 when Mike Huckabee came out of nowhere, upsetting Romney's tremendous organization in the state in the GOP primary. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul again kept him from garnering all of the Iowa delegates in 2012. Along with New Mexico, Iowa was one of the traditional battleground states where everyone knew John McCain never had a chance. The state was Obama's then, I believe it is now also. 6 votes for Obama Ohio-Much ink has been spilled on the importance of this state. Republicans have never won the presidency without it. The auto bailout seems to have put Obama in position (possibly helped by Romney's 47% comment) to win Ohio. While I thought Catholics in Ohio would turn on Obama (and they have) and that white working class voters might think twice about pulling the lever for Obama, it has not been enough. Like New Hampshire and Virginia, the state is close but I think it's Obama's. 18 votes for Obama Colorado-This week's polling has shown Obama re-emerging with a very small lead. However, the president's team weeks ago wrote off Colorado as a sure thing. In fact, they seemed less certain of a win here than in any of the southern 3, FL, NC, or Virginia. Some of Romney's rallies here have also been overwhelming. I think Colorado will shift back to the red column for this year. 9 votes to Romney That would mean a 258-244 lead for the president in the electoral college. IT also means that Romney would have to win both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Wisconsin-I think Romney pulls off the upset here. It's close. Romney's internals, released last night, show him tied with Obama. Paul Ryan represents a democratic district in a democratic state. If he can carry his district, I think Romney wins here. Wisconsin has certainly jerked rightward with Scott Walker winning his recall election and Russ Feingold being booted from the senate. It'll come down to the wire, but I predict a narrow win for Romney. 10 votes for Romney Nevada-Those afore mentioned Romney internals showed him trailing in Nevada. I'm not aware of any public polling showing Romney ahead and early voting in Clark County, the democratic stronghold has been on pace. The expansive Mormon vote in the state will keep it close, but I think Obama by 5 or 6 in Nevada. 6 votes for Obama Pennsylvania-Romney has been making a strong effort here in the closing days of this election. The race for these 20 votes has narrowed much in the last two weeks. Most public polling still shows this race as Obama's to lose and the fact that no Republican has won this state in the last 5 elections casts doubt on Romney's hopes. I believe that Romney knows that his chances in Ohio have waned. He needs another state. This seemed like the best shot. I would not be shocked if Romney wins, but I would be surprised. 20 votes for Obama 284-254 in favor of the president is my projection. I will point out, that of the 10 tossup states, I truly feel 100% confident in only North Carolina, Florida, and Nevada. The other 7 states could go either way. If Romney were going to win, the most likely paths would be a narrow win VA combined with a win in either NH or IA. I could actually see that. But I'm sticking with the 284-254 projection. Let me know your thoughts.