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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

In defense of Lent: or, why outward rules help us avoid works-righteousness

Traditional spiritual disciplines and the observance of the liturgical year have been making a comeback among Protestants. This is, from my perspective, a very good thing. I may wince when United Methodists speak of an "Ash Wednesday meal," but I'm happy that they are celebrating it at all. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the growth of interest in Ash Wednesday and similar practices is causing some pushback. Brian Lee, a Reformed pastor in Washington D.C., has just written an article celebrating Ash Wednesday by denouncing it in time-honored Reformed fashion. 

Lee evokes the iconic moment of the early Swiss Reformation: the sausage-eating party during Lent held by followers of Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich in Lent 1522. As Lee points out, Zwingli defended the sausages on the grounds of "Christian liberty," and this rejection of traditional ritual practices remained the norm in Reformed Protestantism and its free-church offshoots (i.e., pretty much everyone except Lutherans and Anglicans) until quite recently. But as Lee acknowledges, the times are changing: Lent is popular. Lee suggests that this has something to do with the "emergent church," or maybe with religious pluralism and the acceptance of other people's traditions.  He suggests, with a thinly veiled sneer, that Lent is "cool." He ignores the basic reason why many Protestants are returning to these practices: the conviction that traditional practices are valuable embodiments of historic Christian faith, and helpful correctives to the secularism and subjectivism of our culture. More on that later.

Lee's main theological argument against Lenten fasting is that it is spiritually effective. That is to say, that it makes us feel more spiritual because we have met a self-imposed goal. This, he argues, is a legalistic trap: we don't acknowledge our deep-rooted sinfulness, because we treat sin as something superficial that can be dealt with through a spiritual discipline. We salve our consciences with ritual practice instead of acknowledging that the rot runs deeper than any action of ours can ever reach.

This is, of course, well-worn territory. In Reformed and other conservative Protestant circles, an accusation of "works righteousness" hardly even needs an argument to support it--the mere phrase causes good Protestants to cover their ears and run in horror lest they be contaminated. And Lee's argument has a good deal of merit in it--certainly what he describes is a temptation of Lenten fasting or any other spiritual practice. In my experience, liturgical Christians of all stripes are well aware of this danger and warn against it frequently. 

The Reformed argument as rehearsed by Lee conflates two separate but related issues, both of them a concern in the Reformation:

1. The proper relationship of justification to sanctification. That is to say, Protestants have historically said that a person's standing before God as righteous depends not what God does in them through the power of the Spirit (sanctification) but on the believer's acceptance of Christ's righteousness through faith. This is easily conflated with the question of

2. The sanctifying value or lack of value of actions not explicitly prescribed in Scripture. That is to say, a whole range of practices developed in the early and medieval Church which were intended to open people up to transformation by the Holy Spirit. In the Western Church in particular, these practices were often either required by the Church under pain of mortal sin (Mass attendance, yearly confession, observance of Lenten and Friday fasting), or encouraged by the Church and sweetened by the offer of "indulgences" which would lessen a person's suffering in Purgatory. The Protestant Reformers rejected indulgences, of course, but they also rejected the idea that the Church could require any practices not taught in Scripture as a condition for right standing with God. Since the Protestants also held to justification by faith alone (point 1), the question of whether "human ordinances" were necessary parts of the Christian life was easily conflated with the question of whether even Scripturally mandated practices made a person "worthy" of final salvation.

So, for instance, no traditional Protestant would deny that all Christians in right standing with God will pray, will do works of love to the neighbor, will repent of sin and strive not to give in to the works of the flesh, etc. In traditional Protestant theology, these truly good works are believed to flow "naturally" from faith. A believer will do these things, though not perfectly and never trusting in them for salvation. It seems to me that it is logically possible to say similarly that a true believer will want to obey the divinely ordained authority of the Church, and thus that adherence to those minimal fasting practices (and church attendance on holy days, etc.) mandated by the Catholic Church is similarly a mark of true faith. But since Catholics don't believe in sola fide, this point is moot. 

This is probably the best point to "confess" that I don't believe in sola fide either. Or more precisely, I believe that the distinction between justification and sanctification misses the point and fails to solve the real problem. There is no right answer to the question "how do I attain right standing with God," because it's the wrong question. The question is rather, "how do I open myself up to God's free and generous grace so that I can be delivered from the prison of myself and transformed into a spring of life-giving love for others?" This is relevant to the present discussion only because I find the general Protestant worry about spiritual practices to be silly. I don't think that there's anything wrong with engaging in a spiritual discipline in order to become closer to God, as long as by "closer to God" I mean "a more loving person" and not simply "a person who has nice feelings about his own spirituality" or worse "a person convinced of his own spiritual superiority."

Now back to the main point . . . . 

Historically, the position of more liturgical Protestants has been not that liturgical practices are mandatory but that they are helpful ways of doing things that we all agree true believers will do. We all know that believers pray: well, we have the Liturgy of the Hours (as in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) to guide us in doing so. We know that we are to worship together: well, we have a liturgical calendar and traditions to guide us in doing so. These practices aren't seen as necessary per se, but as helpful.

Lee does not claim, as some in the more radical wings of the Reformed tradition have done, that practices not explicitly mandated in Scripture are wrong. He accepts the legitimacy in principle of the argument that such practices may be spiritually helpful, and then he argues that Lenten fasting isn't helpful. Fair enough. But the question he doesn't answer is: how then should believers fast? Or should they fast at all?

To me it seems clear that fasting, like prayer and common worship and the sacraments and works of mercy and sexual chastity, is one of those basic elements of the Christian faith clearly ordained in Scripture. Jesus in Matt. 6 assumes that His followers will fast, just as they will pray and give alms. Mark 2:20 seems to say that Jesus' followers will (and should) fast after His ascension. I recognize that alternative interpretations of these passages are possible (as almost always with any passage of Scripture), but I don't know Lee's position. He says at one point that Jesus has reduced all OT practices to love, but he obviously doesn't think that this means that Christians shouldn't celebrate the sacraments, for instance. (In fact, looking up his church's website I found that they are actually very liturgical and celebrate the Eucharist weekly. I have a lot more common ground with Lee than my first reading of this article had led me to think.) 

Assuming for the moment, then, that fasting is something Christians should do, how should they do it? Lee makes a couple dismissive remarks about the practice of fasting based on one's own spiritual impulses, so he doesn't seem to be advocating that. So does he advocate the historic Puritan practice of calling a fast for reasons of ecclesial or national significance? I.e., a communal fast but one occasioned by some specific danger or sin rather than by a liturgical calendar? That seems to be the only option left, unless he's rejecting fasting altogether. But in this case we are simply fasting at the behest of church (or, historically in Reformed countries, national or civic) authorities. How is this actually better than fasting in obedience to the historic wisdom of the Church as a whole?

In fact, isn't liturgical fasting a lot less likely to give rise to the dangers against which Lee warns than either of the alternatives? If I fast to further my own spiritual journey, I may well see myself as spiritually superior. Communal fasts for specific reasons are better in that regard, but historically they have often given rise to a sense of communal self-righteousness and have led to violence or persecution against perceived ungodly "others" (as has liturgical fasting, of course). In other words, there doesn't seem to be any escape from the spiritual dangers of fasting except not to fast at all. (Which may be what Lee is advocating, but he doesn't state the case clearly.) Liturgical fasting has plenty of dangers, but at least in liturgical fasting we are humbly submitting to ancient and widespread practices that bring us together with other believers rather than setting us apart. Hopefully my liturgical fasting will further my own "spiritual journey," but that isn't really the main point. In fact, liturgical practices don't really have to have a "point." They are joyful expressions of faith--bodily ways of entering into the story of salvation. I trust that God will use them to my good and the good of others, but I don't have to sit around checking my spiritual temperature all the time. Such endless spiritual hypochondria is the deadliest form of "works righteousness," it seems to me, and it shows up among all earnest Christians, whatever their theology. 

But even granting all of Lee's basic theological points, his case against Lenten fasting still fails utterly, at least if my own experience is any guide. He argues that Lent is bad for us because we can fulfill it and thus delude ourselves that we are pleasing to God. 

Well, that's not my experience. Every Lent I fail. Every Lent I draw up ambitious plans of spiritual improvement and fall flat on my face. I have never yet met a Lenten discipline I couldn't manage to violate at some point. And in my experience this is more common than not among liturgical Christians. I don't know these people who are supposedly walking around priding themselves on their fasting prowess. These folks may exist, and perhaps they would be better off without Lent, at least for a while. But not only am I not one of them, I have never heard Lent taught or seen it practiced in a way that would be likely to encourage that kind of delusion. Marshall Shelly, a wise and eloquent Episcopal priest who served as interim vicar at the parish I attended in New Jersey, warned us all sternly that our Lent and Holy Week practices were going to be failures, and we should expect them to be. Jesus' disciples fell asleep when He watched in Gethsemane, and if we follow the estimable tradition of signing up to "watch with Jesus" on Holy Thursday, we will too. 

Indeed, that's one good reason for engaging in ascetic practices above and beyond those of our community, in spite of the dangers of self-righteousness. As with physical exercises or intellectual challenges, our spiritual exercises should always be a little too hard for us. If we can do them, we're not pushing ourselves enough. 

In Lee's own Reformed tradition, the law is generally held to have three purposes. The third is to guide us in our journey of obedience to Christ and love of neighbor, and I've argued above that Lenten fasting serves this purpose well. The second is to restrain evil in society. I'm not too interested in that purpose here, but arguably Lenten fasting does this too, in the sense that it promotes a culture of restraint and  (when combined with almsgiving) of generosity toward the poor, even if most of the people engaging in it are damnable hypocrites.

But the first purpose of the law, in both Lutheran and Reformed theology, is to hold up a mirror both of God's holiness and our own sinfulness. And Lent does this well. Not only do the Scripture readings and preaching in liturgical churches during this season focus on sin and repentance, and on God's gracious forgiveness, but the very practice of attempting to fast brings me face to face with my sinfulness. First of all, of course, fasting confronts me with my addiction to comfort and pleasure. But more disturbingly, it confronts me with the fact that if my comforts and pleasures are withdrawn, I'm not a very nice person to be around. I have been grouchy to my wife today. I have been impatient with my brilliant homeschooled daughter Catherine, who has inherited all my ADD and who just would not focus on her addition problems or practice her piano diligently enough. And I have responded with pompous anger to a sincere challenge by an earnest Christian pastor directed against a religious practice to which I'm attached.

So yes, this post is probably an expression of sinfulness too (though I still think what I'm saying is mostly right). We are all sinners. And even though I'm not one of those mythical ascetic athletes who actually keep their Lenten disciplines, Pastor Lee is certainly right inasmuch as I do think it's kind of cool to be a liturgical Christian. Indeed, in my heart of hearts or maybe nearer the surface than that I think I'm superior to mindless American evangelicals who think that Christianity is all about praise songs and private prayer time and don't revel in the richness of Christian tradition the way I do. 

But here's the thing: Lent didn't make me that way. I was a conceited, self-righteous Wesleyan Holiness prig before I was a conceited, self-righteous Anglican snob. (It is possible, after all, to think oneself superior because one doesn't practice "meaningless rituals" like Lent.) I dare to think (and most people who know me seem to agree) that I'm a bit less obnoxious than I used to be, but who knows? Maybe the historic spiritual practices of the Faith which I practice so imperfectly and sporadically didn't have anything to do with that. Maybe I'm just a bit older and sadder than I used to be and I would be just as nice or nicer if I were a Calvinist, or  a Pentecostal, or a Buddhist, or an atheist. 

And so, to round off my sinful Ash Wednesday, I'm going to go eat dinner with those United Methodists. No doubt I will be sneering inwardly at how much better Anglicans would do things. No doubt, if God were keeping score, I'll be racking up more negative points than positive ones.

But the only hope any of us has is that God doesn't keep score. 

And that is the point of Lent. (Well, other than the fact that it's cool, of course.)


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Some thoughts on monism and Christianity

A friend and former student recently asked me what to think about "monism." Is it compatible with Christianity? Are "monism" and "dualism" the only alternatives, or is there a third one?

I think we need to start by defining "monism" and thinking about just what the problems might be with it from a Christian perspective. And the best place to start for that is surely the very beginning--i.e., the doctrine of creation :)


There are three possible positions on creation from a broadly theist perspective:

1. God and matter coexist eternally, and God gives "form" to matter. This is the most clearly heretical, and the most clearly dualist. It is the version maintained by "dualist" versions of Hindu philosophy, by most of the ancient Greeks (including Plato, if I'm not mistaken!), by Mormons, and by modern process theologians. it is also, if you read purely from a historical point of view, the most likely interpretation of Genesis 1 (I think one can make a case for "bara" meaning "create out of nothing," but it's a case that really depends heavily on reading Scripture through later Christian tradition--which I think is the correct way to read, of course!) The problem with it from an orthodox Christian perspective is that if there are "two eternities" then God isn't the source of everything and thus one can say that there are two Gods. It's central to Christian piety to say that God is in fact the source of everything that exists. Which is, in a sense, a form of monism, whatever later distinctions we make.

2. Everything "emanates" from God. This I think is the position that can be called "monism." IN this view, it is true in some sense to say that everything is God. Ultimately God is the only reality and creation's distinction from God is not ultimate. This is the view of Vedanta philosophy--the version of Hindu philosophy best known in the West and probably most important within India as well, though that's harder for me to evaluate. It's also, of course, the view of modern "idealist" philosophers in the West, often influenced by Indian philosophy. And historically it was, as far as I can tell, the view of the Neo-Platonists (as opposed to Plato himself), though I may be wrong and they may still have been dualists with regard to matter. This is also considered unorthodox in the Christian tradition, and in fact most modern Christians would pounce on this as the most obviously heretical view--but in fact I think it's harder to explain just why this is wrong. More on this in a minute.

3. Creation out of nothing. This, of course, is the orthodox answer, clearly in the saddle by the time of Athanasius in the early fourth century. But it raises philosophical puzzles. Since "nothing" isn't a thing, how can you talk about something being "created out of" it? In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas argues that the word "of" ("ex" in Latin) has two possible meanings:
a. It refers to order: that is, it means that first there was nothing, and then there was creation. (To make things more complicated, Aquinas thinks that this is a logical rather than necessarily temporal order.) Or
b. It is included under the negation found in the word "nothing." That is to say, it means "not created out of anything." In this sense, the phrase simply denies that there is any material cause of being taken as a whole. God is not the material cause (indeed, since for Aquinas God is pure form, God can't be the material cause of anything), but there is no eternal material cause either. This does not mean that there is no cause at all (as in a silly atheist article I ran into the other day, which claimed that "creation out of nothing" means that creation just pops randomly into being). In Aristotelian philosophy there are four causes: efficient, formal, material, and final. The universe taken as a whole has no material cause, and God is the cause in the other three senses: God's will is the efficient cause, God's glory is the final cause, and God's knowledge of Himself as capable of being imitated is the formal cause.

In other words, for Aquinas creation out of nothing means that God knows that finite imitations of His infinite goodness can exist, and sovereignly chooses to bring these imitations into existence. They exist only by participation in the being of God. Indeed, Aquinas uses the word "emanation" (which modern Christians tend to associate with the second view of creation and think of as "New Agey") repeatedly in describing how things come into existence.

So what is the real difference between the second and third views? I think there are two big differences:

1. In the orthodox Christian view, a real relationship between creatures and God is possible.The goal is not to lose our identity in God but to know God as the source of our being and become eternally more and more like God, while remaining always infinitely less than God. I don't know that I'm willing to say that this is impossible in the "creation out of God" view. There are forms of Hinduism which start from Vedanta principles but try to find room for a real relationship with God. I do not understand these philosophies well enough to analyze or evaluate them, but certainly the concept of "creation out of nothing" helps give shape to the idea of a relationship between us and God.

2. A clearer difference is that in the creation out of nothing view, it is possible for human beings to be eternally separated from God. Even here, though, I think a case can be made that the orthodox Christian view actually has elements of "emanationism," precisely because annihilation isn't seen as an option. Creation out of nothing would seem to imply that if separated from God we would cease to exist, and there are those who have maintained this position. But the mainstream, historic Christian view is that those created in God's image who choose to remain separated from God will in some sense remain in existence. It looks as if, then, in the Christian view the gift of life in God's image is irrevocable, and this is best explained by the idea that there is something "divine" within us which cannot simply cease to exist once God has created us (and yes, that raises a lot of debates about animals that I don't want to get into in this post!). Yet we don't say that if a person is damned, part of God is damned. In fact, God has no parts in the classic, historic view.

To summarize all of this . . . it looks very much as if the orthodox Christian view comes close to monism, while maintaining the possibility of real relationship between us and God and the possibility that we will not finally be united to God.

How does this affect our relationship with our own bodies, which is the concern behind the original question?

I'm going against N. T. Wright and the whole trend of modern (at least Protestant) theology when I say this, but I think that a neo-Platonic, panentheistic, modified emanationist view of the kind I've been articulating does best justice to the question of how we relate to our bodies.

In this view, as articulated by Aquinas, God knows Himself as imitable in a variety of ways, arranged in a hierarchy: Angels (pure spirit, but created by God)
Human beings (embodied creatures capable of abstract thought and free choice)
"Brute" animals (embodied creatures capable of moving around and of sensory responses to their environment, including basic mental activity but not reason or free choice)
Plants (embodied creatures capable of growing and receiving nourishment)
Inanimate things (bodies with no life at all)

In this way of thinking, each of these "ranks" as you go down shares in less of the being of God (this was traditionally called the "Great Chain of Being"). In this view, humans are "amphibians" (to use C. S. Lewis' vivid term). They have a rational soul which, as with other living things, serves as the form of their bodies. But unlike other animals, not to say plants, human beings can think and love.

There are all kinds of problems with Aquinas' articulation of this, both in terms of the philosophy of his own day and in terms of contemporary concerns. For one thing, what does it mean for there to be wholly immaterial beings that are still created and finite? Furthermore, if angels are seen as "pure intellect," then are our souls, when "liberated" from the body, essentially the same as angels? That would be the pure "Platonic" view attacked by most modern Christians, but Aquinas doesn't think this. He thinks, with Aristotle, that the soul is the form of the body. It would seem to follow that the soul can't exist without the body. Aquinas thinks it can, but that it isn't a full human person in that state. He believes that form is made individual by matter, which means both that angels aren't individual members of a species (each angel is its own species) and that disembodied human souls are only individuals because their bodies have somehow put a stamp on them.

In contemporary terms, the biggest objection to Aquinas' view tends to be his treatment of non-human animals. Are they really incapable of reason and choice? Aquinas' view certainly wasn't as extreme as that of, say, Descartes, who thought that animals were just machines. But it clearly has problems.

So why would I hold to some version of this as my starting point for thinking about the body? I think the key point in this traditional view is the great chain of being--that everything exists by participation according to its degree in the eternal, infinite Being of God. Mind and body are different simply because we can say with qualifications that God knows and wills, whereas we can't say that God (apart from the Incarnation) has a body. In other words, our intellect, memory, and will constitute that part of us that is most directly like God. This doesn't mean that our minds are our "real selves" and our bodies are temporary possessions, and it certainly doesn't mean that our bodies are bad. Creation is God's gracious decision to make things that reflect Himself while being distinct from Himself. Both our minds and our bodies do this, but in different ways and to radically different degrees. The best thought is thought that is heavily embedded in our bodiliness, and the best bodies are bodies that are shot through with knowledge and love. The goal--the mission we have been given by God with our very being--is to unify mind and body, not separate them. One of the reasons Christians have reacted against the traditional view is that it's always been shadowed by the ghost of Plato's Phaedo, whispering "the real job is to separate mind and body." That's where the Platonic heritage does need to be sharply critiqued and even rejected. The fundamental distinction to be made isn't between mind and body, but between Creator and creation. All the distinctions within creation are just variations on a theme: the many ways in which God's glory can be reflected in that which God has caused to exist.



Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Yes, it is still Christmas until January 6.

This raises a possible solution to the whole Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays dilemma. Why not wait to say Merry Christmas until Christmas day, and then surprise people with it for the Twelve Days of Christmas? You might still offend people, but you would at least not be predictable.

Our society seems increasingly to be falling into a rut of empty, slogan-ridden conflict, in which people throw cliches at each other, or more likely pat each other on the back for accepting the same cliches.

We need to become more adventurous, mischievous, and persistent in challenging these false dichotomies and these empty slogans.

What if Christians stopped using the Incarnation of the Logos as a party shibboleth and instead took it as the occasion for riotous joy, generous love, and playful defiance of the powers that think they rule the world?

Monday, September 16, 2013

A flawed argument against contraception

This post arises from a discussion I've been having online with Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong. It began when Dave cited a passage from Calvin condemning contraception on the ground that it is a form of pre-emptive murder. As an offshoot of that discussion, Dave has posted a succinct statement of the "murder analogy" argument against contraception. The core argument goes as follows:


A) Contraception is a deliberate act of preventing the conception of Person X who would have been conceived had the persons been open to new life.

B ) Therefore, the goal or intention is to obliterate the (earthly) existence of Person X.

C) That is also the goal of a murder: to obliterate the (earthly) existence of Person X.

D) Therefore, in the deepest sense, contraception and murder are alike, and evil.

E) Contraception, however, takes it a step further and disallows even the *beginning* of Person X who might have been / would have been conceived, BUT for contraception.

F) Thus, it not only obliterates the earthly existence of Person X, but any existence whatsoever of the Person, in terms of having an eternal soul.

G) In that sense, contraception is even more anti-life than murder is.

H) Therefore, in a qualified, specific sense, contraception can almost be said to be as heinous and wicked as (and philosophically equal to) murder.
This argument doesn't work, because you can't commit a crime against a nonexistent entity. A hypothetical person who would have been conceived under some counterfactual circumstances or other is a nonsensical construct. I can prevent a particular sperm from making contact with a particular egg. But hypothetical people aren't people. I have no moral duties toward them whatsoever. Murder is wrong because it involves malice toward an existing person.


Step F makes the logical problems in the argument even more evident. You can't "obliterate" the existence of that which does not exist.


Furthermore, as someone pointed out when Dave originally posted this argument on his Facebook page, the argument proves too much, because a married couple who choose to go for a walk instead of having sex are also committing "murder" by this logic. If preventing the existence of "Person X" is akin to murder, then whether one does so by abstaining from sex or by engaging in non-procreative sex is irrelevant to the nature of the crime against Person X. You can't import other (much more solid) objections against contraception into _this_ argument, if the argument is to stand on its own two feet. Certainly _if_ non-procreative sex is wrong on other grounds _and_ preventing a person’s existence is wrong, then committing both sins together would be worse than committing only one of them. But if preventing a person’s existence is a crime against them, then it’s a crime no matter how innocent the thing-you’re-doing-instead-of-procreating would otherwise have been.


I can see two ways in which the argument might have some merit, logically:


1. If one could “mess with time” either through time-travel or foreknowledge. So, for instance, if you go back in time to prevent someone who does exist from being conceived, then you are motivated by malice against a specific person whom you know in your present. Of course, we don’t know if this is even possible. Perhaps prophecy could be seen as another example of “messing with time.” So when Merlin in That Hideous Strength tells Jane that she has failed to conceive a child who would have delivered Logres, that makes a certain amount of sense (though it may involve Molinist “middle knowledge,” which is a philosophically controversial concept), because Merlin is capable of prophecy. Even then, though, it makes no sense to say that she did so deliberately, since she did it before she heard the prophecy. Once she heard the prophecy, she could have intentions toward “the child prophesied.” I’m still not sure that it would make sense to say that she committed a crime against said child, though. Her crime, on Merlin’s premises, was rather against Logres.

2. More solidly, the “preformationist” theory to which Calvin and many other premoderns adhered allows you to talk about crimes against future people. If the "seed" is an incipient person or "potential person" then it makes sense to speak of preventing it from fulfilling its potential. Whether that's actually a crime against the future person is  a difficult philosophical issue, I think, but a case could be made that it is. And that's what I take Calvin to be arguing. Dave responded to my initial objections to the use he was making of the Calvin passage by saying that I was "failing to see the forest for the trees." On the contrary, I'm pointing out that the trees in this particular forest won't make the kind of lumber Dave needs. Without preformationism (or time travel) the “quasi-murder” argument fails utterly, because there’s no one to commit a crime against.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Christus Victor, Part II

According to Aulen, the "classic" view is superior to both the later Latin theories in part because it  preserves both "objective" and "subjective" elements, whereas the two Latin theories each stress one aspect at the expense of the other. Like the Anselmian/penal substitution approach, the "classic model" recognizes that there is something objectively alienating us from God, beyond our own subjective disposition. The classic view takes seriously the idea that Jesus' death is necessary in order for God to be able to forgive us. But whereas the Anselmian view sees the necessity as arising from the legal claims of God's honor, the classic view identifies the necessity with our subjection to the powers of evil and death. In conquering those powers, God is indeed satisfying His own justice, but in a richer and fuller and less legalistic way than that posited by the Anselmian theory.

Furthermore, Aulen argues that whereas the Latin theories see atonement as primarily the act of Jesus according to his human nature (offering the atoning sacrifice or serving as the perfect example), the "classic" view sees it as God's act of redemption. Yes, Jesus is the perfect atoning sacrifice, and His humanity is central to His sacrificial work. But for Aulen's "classic model," the role of the divine nature is far more decisive. This is one of Aulen's most interesting arguments, though it's open to a lot of dispute.  One can question whether Aulen's either/or is really necessary, and one can also perhaps question the Christology that lies behind it (does it perhaps downplay Jesus' humanity too much?). But whether he's entirely fair to Anselm and other classic Atonement theorists, it's certainly true that modern Christians tend to think of the Atonement as Jesus-the-man (or Jesus-the-loving-Son) propitiating the angry Father-God. And certainly this misinterpretation is harder to fall into with the Christus Victor theory.

Aulen's stress on divine action in the Atonement is important because of his final move. He argues that Martin Luther departs from the typical patterns of second-millennium Western theology and recovers the richness of the classic patristic model. Luther's doctrine of justification, Aulen argues, rests on a "Christus Victor" atonement theology in which Jesus' death frees us from the power of Satan, sin, death, hell--and the Law. Aulen suggests that for Luther the Law plays essentially the same role that Satan played in patristic theology. Certainly he's right that Luther tends to identify Satan with the Law--the Law's primary function is to accuse us, and so is Satan's. (One of the most hilarious, though annoying, bits of anti-Lutheran polemic I've come across is a 17th-century Catholic tract pointing out that Luther admitted having gotten his arguments against late medieval Catholic practices from Satan. This because in one of his writings Luther describes Satan interrogating him on the Scriptural basis for the practice of offering private masses, and claims to have been entirely unable to answer Satan's Scriptural arguments. The polemicist, of course, missed Luther's rhetorical point, which was that Satan torments our conscience and if we aren't firmly rooted in the Word by faith, we will fall into despair and be damned by his accusations.) Aulen sees Luther's view as even more profound than that of the Fathers, since it deals more adequately with the fact that Satan's claims against us are indeed rooted in God's justice, so that God is, in a sense, overcoming Himself. (One could put this down, of course, to Luther's being far more a product of typical "Western" atonement theology than Aulen is willing to admit.) Alas, says Aulen, later Lutherans failed to maintain Luther's position in its integrity, reverting to a more typical "Western" atonement theology.

I've described Aulen's arguments in some detail, because I think they have a lot of value for people who are looking for alternatives to the "traditional" penal substitution view. (Of course, you should really read Aulen and not just trust my summary, especially since I'm finishing this review quite a while after having read the book!) Aulen's version of "Christus Victor" (and bear in mind that he invented the phrase--the Fathers did not go around claiming to believe in something called "Christus Victor atonement theology") contains far more elements of "penal substitution" than most people realize. It is not simply about God "overcoming evil," as some banal summaries of Christus Victor imply. In Aulen's hands, Christus Victor _is_ a form of substitutionary atonement in which Jesus satisfies the claims of the Law. But He does so not through legal fiction or through passively bearing God's wrath, but through actively defeating the forces of evil, taking the full brunt of the assault of death's powers and swallowing them up in victory. 

I find Aulen's portrayal fundamentally persuasive, and I think that the patristic model as he describes it is substantially correct as a historical portrait of what the Fathers taught _and_ as the most adequate theological model available to us to describe the mystery of the Atonement. But there are some legitimate questions to be raised. As I said above, it's not clear that he's entirely fair to Anselm in particular. The Orthodox theologian David Hart has apparently argued that Anselm actually _did_ remain faithful to the patristic understanding of Satan's role in Atonement theology. That isn't my reading of Anselm, but I need to read Hart and see if he convinces me. A more serious objection, from my point of view, is Aulen's almost Marcionite reading of Luther, and for that matter of the Scriptures. (Marcion was the early Christian theologian who wanted to throw out the Old Testament.) Aulen repeatedly identifies the Western view with an Old Testament, "Jewish" understanding of God in fundamentally legal, vindictive terms. He thus interprets Luther's "Satanization" (my term, not Aulen's) of the Law as a rejection of this Old Testament understanding. This is wrong on several counts. For one thing, Luther did not identify the Law simply with the Old Testament. According to Luther, the Sermon on the Mount is the perfection of the Law--it does not belong to the Gospel. For another, I can't see anything like the Western theology of Atonement in the Old Testament. Yes, of course blood sacrifice is there, but not in the same context or with the same significance as in later Christian theology. It was a ritual act dealing with ritual pollution. The prophets, who focus on moral and spiritual offenses against God, tend to criticize ritual sacrifice and certainly don't present it as the way of dealing with such offenses (well, maybe Joel does). I'm not saying that later Christian interpretations, which harmonize Leviticus and Isaiah, are wrong--in fact, I think one of the strongest Christian arguments (if we want to engage in argument with Jews, which is generally a bad idea at this point in salvation history) is precisely that we can harmonize Leviticus and Isaiah seen through Christ's sacrifice. But this _is_ a later Christian interpretation, and it's historically wrong to read such interpretations back into Old Testament Judaism. Certainly post-Christian Jews find Christian Atonement theology, particularly penal substitution, to be weird at best. 

Even more fundamentally, Aulen repeats the typical mistake made by most Christian interpreters until recently, by ascribing to the Old Testament and to the Jewish tradition a belief in works righteousness. The consensus of most contemporary scholars is that this too is just wrong. Jews today do not tremble under God's wrath and desperately seek to justify themselves through the law. Nor is there any evidence that they did so in the first century. Whether Luther's understanding of the Law is right or wrong, it's radically different from the Jewish understanding. 

I don't think these objections are entirely irrelevant to contemporary discussions of atonement theology among "post-evangelicals." It's fatally easy for Christians to lapse into simplistic talk about the loving, gracious Jesus freeing us from the terrible burdens of Pharisaic Judaism, and then ascribe the supposed evils of first-century Judaism to contemporary forms of conservative Christianity. It's important, in the context of that temptation, to underline that Atonement theology is a Christian thing. Yes, it's rooted in Yom Kippur and blood sacrifice, but the connotations we read into those Old Testament practices are alien to Judaism. In fact, that's a major reason to _question_ penal substitution. It's so radically alien to our Jewish heritage that it's hard to see how it can be right. Christus Victor theology, to me, looks a lot more like a legitimate "development" of the Biblical tradition in light of the radical newness introduced by Jesus' saving work. Aulen really drops the ball here, in a way that weakens his argument. (In all fairness, though, his misreading of Judaism was common until recently and shouldn't be laid to his door in particular. Aulen helped promote a richer understanding of patristic theology among modern Christians, but the time for a similar revitalization of our understanding of Second Temple Judaism had not yet come.)

In spite of these weaknesses, Aulen's book is well worth reading. A lot of good books on the Atonement have been written since, but Aulen was the first Western Christian scholar I know of who questioned the Anselm/Abelard dichotomy and opened up the possibility that there might be a "third way," which was in fact none other than the genuinely "classic" view held by pretty much all Christian theologians of the first millennium.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Christus Victor

As I was writing about the Rob Bell controversy a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that one of the major issues raised by Bell's conservative critics is Atonement theology. One of the major examples of a doctrinal boundary that is extremely important to traditional evangelicals but not characteristic of the Christian tradition as a whole is the doctrine of penal substitution. For some conservative evangelicals, penal substitution is at the heart of the Gospel. And too often, the only alternative presented is a doctrine of "atonement" in which Jesus' death simply shows God's love or represents resistance to unjust political structures or something of that sort (wonderful as those things are, they don't do justice to the Biblical and historical themes of atonement and blood sacrifice).

Frequently, a third alternative is presented: "Christus Victor," in which Jesus redeems us by overcoming the powers of evil. This "theory" is generally ascribed to the Church Fathers. Unfortunately, I find that often people don't do justice to the richness of patristic atonement theology when they set up "Christus Victor" as an alternative to penal substitution. Defenders of penal substitution are right to point out that in fact substitutionary language is all over the Fathers. Early Christians did not simply believe that Jesus rescued us from evil, but that he offered Himself as a sacrifice to the Father and paid the penalty for our sins. This language is there in the early Church, and a "Christus Victor" theology that ignores it is a pale shadow of what the Fathers actually taught.

The use of the term "Christus Victor" to describe a type of atonement theology seems to derive from the English title of the Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustav Aulen's lectures on the subject, delivered at the University of Uppsala in 1930 and published in English the following year by the S.P.C.K., having been translated by A. G. Hebert. (I'm using the 1950 reprint.) Aulen contrasts both the "objective" and "subjective" views of the Atonement with what he calls the "classic" view found in the Fathers and Luther. Briefly, the first two views are contrasted thus:

The "objective" view, which Aulen finds first fully formed in Anselm, though prefigured in the Latin Fathers, holds that Jesus atones for our sins acting as a human being, paying on our behalf the debt we owed to God. This may take the form, as in Anselm, of Jesus paying the debt through His perfect obedience, or it may take the form of Jesus directly being punished for our sins (Aulen doesn't distinguish as sharply between these as I would like).

The "subjective" view, on the other hand, holds that Jesus saves us by his perfect obedience, which serves as an inspiration to us, changing our hearts rather than changing something objective about our relationship to God.

Aulen argues that these two views, while opposites, are two sides of the same coin. They share a number of features that distinguish them from the "classic" view. First of all, according to Aulen they are theories which attempt to explain the atonement through some sort of key idea, whereas the traditional view is a "model" but not a full-blown theory--it has room for a number of different emphases and permutations and allows for more mystery than the two later theories do. The most important feature common to these two theories, however, is that they see Atonement as something Jesus does primarily as a human being, rather than as something Jesus does as God. Atonement, while certainly God's work in the sense that God initiates the chain of events and in the sense that Jesus is 100% divine, is in a formal sense the activity of a perfect, sinless human being. Jesus' divinity allows the human being Jesus to atone for us--in the "objective" view by giving His sacrifice infinite value, and in the subjective view by making Jesus a perfect representation of the Father's love who had no inner alienation from God to content with on his own behalf. But in both theories, Jesus' humanity holds center stage, whereas in the "classic model" the Atonement is above all else the act of God Himself.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Sunday, August 12: Visit a Gurdwara Day

Two days ago a gunman killed six Sikhs at their place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

And the response of America so far seems to be: "What's a Sikh? Oh, never mind--tell me about the Olympics."

Well, I'm happy to tell anyone who cares (and even those who don't) everything I know about Sikhs (which is much less than I'd like).

Here's a starting point for anyone reading this blog who doesn't know about Sikhism (I beg indulgence from folks who know about Indian religion and know how much I'm simplifying here):

Sikhism is an Indian religion which most scholars would describe as an offshoot of "bhakti" Hinduism. Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, usually focuses on some particular manifestation of God--often involving myths, images, elaborate temple rituals, etc. The idea is that by focusing on this particular "form" of God (who is ultimately beyond all forms and images) you stir up your emotions and move toward ultimate union with God.  So typically in Hinduism you have "bhakti" religion which is highly personal and colorful, involving practices that Christians, Muslims and Jews tend to see as idolatrous, and then you have the philosophers who say that God is beyond form and image and is ultimately the one source of everything in the universe.

But in the late Middle Ages some "bhakti" poets began to say, "Why not just worship the God who is beyond form and image? Why should only the philosophers know this God? Why stop at particular forms and images and incarnations when everyone agrees that these are just symbols of the ultimate Reality?" So various devotional movements developed which promoted personal devotion to the one God recognized in principle by pretty much all Hindus.

Meanwhile, Muslims had conquered much of India, and Sufi Muslim mystics were saying things about God that were very similar--that ultimate devotion to God consists in union with Him in love; that God is beyond all form and image; and so on.

Many of these bhakti poets (and some of the more radical Sufis) began to say that a true lover of God would neither be Hindu nor Muslim. One of the most famous of these devotional poets was Kabir. Another was Nanak. Nanak is considered the founder of Sufism, but poems by both Kabir and Nanak made their way into Sikh Scripture.

Nanak's basic teaching was that God is the ultimate Reality, beyond any form or image, and that human beings (no matter their caste or religion) could reach union with God through love and devotion to His Name. He differed with Islam's harsher teachings about wrath and judgment, as well as Islam's insistence on the Qur'an as God's final revelation and on particular ritual practices such as pilgrimage to Mecca, etc. At the same time, he rejected Hindu ritual practices and the worship of particular "deities" as manifestations of God, and he rejected the caste system with particular vehemence. A basic Sikh practice from then until now is a communal meal to which all are invited, called the "langar."

And this brings me to the practical point of this blog post. I urge anyone who is able to make this next Sunday, August 12, "Visit a Gurdwara day." You can call ahead to let them know you are coming (particularly given last Sunday's events, I suppose some might be a bit nervous if a random non-Sikh shows up), but any gurdwara will welcome visitors even if you don't let them know in advance. And don't forget: free Indian food.

The gurdwara I normally visit, on Lower Huntington Road in Roanoke, Indiana, meets biweekly and they don't appear to be meeting this Sunday. However, there's another one near Illinois Road in Fort Wayne that also meets biweekly, on the Sundays when the one in Roanoke doesn't meet. I'm trying to confirm right now that they do have a service next Sunday.

If you don't live in the Fort Wayne area, you can find a gurdwara easily on the Internet. I think most of them follow pretty much the same practice: they start to gather around 9, but the service is long and isn't usually over till after 1. The meal follows. They are fine with you showing up late--most of the Sikhs will do so as well. And from my experience with one gurdwara and what I've read about Sikhs generally, I think I can guarantee hospitality. Just make sure to take off your shoes and cover your head.

Sikhs do not use any images in worship, though they do revere their Scriptures, which you will find under a kind of canopy in the front of their worship space. They will distribute a kind of sweet paste called "prasad"--I have no problem partaking of it, but other Christians may feel differently about it. The food itself is served in a separate space, in my experience, and is very explicitly offered to any members of the community, not just Sikhs.

I'm sure there are other, perhaps more practical ways to respond to last Sunday's atrocity. But this is at least a place to start.