Thursday, December 28, 2006

Generic Protestantism: A Brief History

Since Christmas, I've been reading Christopher Clark's recent book, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947, a gift from my thoughtful parents. Given that the book's subject matter is a nation that no longer exists, one would perhaps expect it to be a dry read, but Clark has written a surprisingly readable book. In particular, I have enjoyed his analysis of the various religious movements that shaped Prussian society through the periods of reformation, orthodoxy, pietism, and rationalism. Too often, histories either ignore the role of religion completely, or treat it as an irrational relic that was eventually overcome by the forces of enlightenment. Clark, in my estimation, avoids both pitfalls, which is a good thing because the post-Reformation history of Christianity in Prussia is far more complicated (and more interesting) than I previously thought.

Although Brandenberg-Prussia became predominately Lutheran during the Reformation, its confessional status was thrown into turmoil in 1613 by the conversion of Elector John Sigismund (the sovereign of the territory) to Calvinism. He then set about cleansing houses of worship of "the dirt of papal idolatry", including altars, baptismal fonts, crucifixes, and artwork. Strangely enough, the Elector naively assumed that his subjects would enthusiastically support these actions, as he believed the superiority of the Reformed faith was self-evident. But his plans for a "second Reformation" were met with stiff, and sometimes violent, opposition from both the nobles and the general populace. According to Clark, the conflict between the Calvinist and Lutheran camps centered on two issues: liturgy and the sacraments.
"[The conflict] was in part an aesthetic issue: to the colorful extravagance of a Lutheran church interior, with its candles and images graven and painted glowing with reflected fire, the Calvinists opposed the white space of a purified church, suffused with natural light. There was also an authentic apprehension that Catholicism remained a latent force within Lutheranism. A particular focus of concern was the Lutheran communion rite; Elector Sigismund objected to Luther's doctrine of the real presence in the Lord's Supper, calling it a 'false, divisive, and highly controversial teaching.' In the words of the Calvinist theologian Simon Pistoris, author of a controversial tract published in Berlin in 1613, Luther 'derived his views from the darkness of the papacy'... In other words, the Reformation remained incomplete."

Much to Sigismund's dismay, the people of Brandenberg-Prussia were rather attached to their ornate churches and communion rites, and thus there was no "second Reformation". From that point forward the monarchy of Prussia, along with most political elites, were Calvinist, while the remainder of the nation remained staunchly Lutheran. This was an awkward situation, to say the least, and to help ease the tensions the Prussian rulers to become some of the earliest advocates of "generic Protestantism". Their efforts culminated in the forced merger of the Lutheran and Calvinist churches into a single Prussian "evangelical-Christian church".
"The king himself [Frederick William III] was the chief architect of this new ecclesiastical entity. He designed the new United liturgy, cobbling together texts from German, Swedish, Anglican, and Huguenot prayer books. He issued regulations for the decoration of altars, the use of candles, vestments and crucifixes. The aim was to create a composite that would resonate with the religious sensibilities of both Calvinists and Lutherans. It was a further, final chapter in the long history of efforts by the Hohenzollern dynasty to close the confessional gap between the monarchy and the people."

As before, the King's designs aroused considerable anger amongst the people, who (justifiably) felt that their religious heritage was being stripped away. Several thousand "Old Lutherans" fled the country for North America and Australia, where they established confessional Lutheran churches like the LCMS.

If you're still reading, you might be wondering why this long story is relevant for us today. After all, such intense confessional antagonism is largely a thing of the past. The ELCA, for instance, has established full communion, including altar and pulpit fellowship, with several Reformed churches - PCUSA, UCC, and the Reformed Church in America. And no one seems scandalized by the fact that these churches do not believe in the real presence. That's because the real battle within Protestantism these days is between liberal and conservatives, and not between Lutherans and Calvinists. Thus, it's relatively easy for the ELCA to make common cause with mainline Presbyterians, even though the divide between Lutheran bodies like the ELCA and LCMS remains as wide as ever. But is it wise for the ELCA to enter into full communion with Reformed bodies that, while culturally similar, are theologically quite different? Likewise, is it prudent for more "confessional" Lutherans to mimic the behavior and attitudes of Southern Baptists?

Sadly, the generic Protestantism advocated by the Prussian kings, and resisted by their subjects, has become a reality for many Lutheran churches in America, both liberal and conservative. I wonder if this situation is a reflection our misplaced priorities, our tendency to put cultural issues ahead of theological ones. In the end, don't matters of sacramentology and liturgy, or predestination and atonement and Christology, lie at a more fundamental level of doctrine than homosexuality or the ordination of women? Surely they do, but it's the latter set of issues that stir the strongest emotions. Hence the temptation, as old as Christendom itself, to compromise one's theological heritage to secure political and cultural allies.

Concluding Unscientific Puppet

Since Lee at verbum ipsum is showing off his Archbishop of Canterbury ornament, I've decided to display a picture of one of my favorite Christmas gifts. That's right, folks! It's a Kierkegaard finger puppet, purchased by my wife from The Unemployed Philosopher's Guild. Soren looks appropriately melancholy (click on the picture for a closer look), but I'm sure he'd be disappointed to learn that his puppet is tough to distinguish from Hegel's.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Is There Freedom in Heaven?

James Wood has written a fascinating review of Sam Harris' book, Letters to a Christian Nation, in which he provides a brief history and explanation of his own atheism.* As is the case for many atheists, Wood finds it impossible to believe in God given the widespread presence of evil and suffering in the world. He also takes issue with the idea of heaven, by which believers let God "off the hook" for the evils of this world by imagining a perfect world in the next life. But Wood argues that, even if heaven exists (which he thinks is unlikely), it would not resemble our earthly lives in the slightest, because free will is not possible in heaven:
In heaven, it seems, all tears will be wiped away and we will be free of pain and suffering. We will also be free of freedom--necessarily so, because if freedom were to exist in heaven, we would merely replicate our lives on earth and start doing terrible things to each other again. Heaven, as an intellectual category as much as an "actual place," depends on the idea that the highest form of happiness--to be face to face with our Maker, and so on--is a state without freedom, or with severely curtailed freedom. But if this is the ideal state, the state that our Creator longs to have us in, then why was heaven not instituted on earth? Since heaven was not created on earth, we must conclude that our lives here are more or less painful experiments, and that the world is a training ground for heaven.

Yet it is a rigged experiment, since the experiment already knows its own answer. Not just because God, being omniscient, must know what will become of each of us (the Catholic church tied itself up in knots over this issue, and eventually had to repudiate its own doctrine of "double predestination"), but also because a real experiment would put the existence of heaven itself in doubt. A rigged experiment simply puts our going to heaven in doubt. Yet if heaven must exist, if there is no doubt that heaven exists, then we know that we are being trained here on earth to exercise a free will that will not be needed in heaven, a free will the exercise of which causes immense pain to many people, but a pain that will be miraculously eased in heaven. This is nothing less than a definition of torture.

The issue of freedom in heaven is a very interesting one, which I had never really considered until this point. But I'm not convinced that Wood is correct. This is because the Bible primarily envisions heaven as the consummation of Creation, and not as a location distinct from this world (for more on this topic, please see Byron's excellent series, Heaven: Not the End of the World). The Christian hope is for the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul, as Wood seems to assume. Thus, the residents of heaven will not simply be "face to face with our Maker" in a spiritual netherworld, but will instead occupy a restored and renewed Creation. It is reasonable to assume that we will retain our creaturely freedom in such a world, although our perfect reconciliation with God will prevent us from sinning.** I think Pannenberg says it best in Volume 1 of his Systematics:

"In the renewed world that is the target of eschatological hope the difference between God and creature will remain, but that between the holy and profane will be totally abolished... The goal of the act of creation is the independent existence of creatures" (400, 420).

That is, in heaven, there will be no conflict between the freedom of God and the freedom of his creatures.

* Interestingly, Wood finds the "popular atheism" offered up by Harris and Dawkins to be quite lacking. He regards their writings as merely "guilty pleasures" for atheists - satisfying, but not substantive or serious.

** I realized after writing this post that the "we" and "our" in this sentence implies that I consider myself worthy of heaven. Of course, that may be presumptuous.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Carter, Israel, and Apartheid: How Can a Decent Man Get it So Wrong?

As a longtime fan of Jimmy Carter, I must say that I'm disappointed by the position that he has adopted regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as set forth in his new book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (which I haven't read) and in an op-ed piece for the LA Times (which I have read). In the op-ed article, Carter makes the audacious claim that the plight of the Palestinians is "more oppressive than what blacks lived under in South Africa during apartheid." This analogy is wrong for many reasons, as has been pointed out by numerous people (here, here, and here), and I agree with Michael Kinsely that it is "unworthy of the man who won—and deserved—the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing Israel and Egypt together in the Camp David Accords, and who has lent such luster to the imaginary office of former president." Does Carter really believe this apartheid nonsense, or is it merely a cynical attempt to sell more books? I hope it's the latter, but either way, I've lost a lot of respect for the former president.

Carter seems to have swallowed, without reservations, the Palestinian narrative of the conflict, which places nearly all of the blame on Israel. Absent from his op-ed piece is any acknowledgment that the Palestinians, through their relentless campaign of terror against Israeli civilians, are also responsible for the lack of a permanent peace (the word "terrorism" only appears once in the article, and it is not used in connection with the Palestinians). Carter also lauds the Palestinian community for their successful elections in 1996, 2005, and 2006, but fails to mention that the 2006 election brought to power Hamas, a terrorist group that has long advocated the destruction of Israel. Apparently, Carter's eagerness to smear Israel with the "apartheid" label has made him blind to the genocidal intentions of many Palestinians.

Judging from the op-ed piece, it appears that Carter has developed something of a persecution complex with respect to the mainstream media, which he believes is firmly in the grip of the pro-Israel lobby. He complains that major newspapers have generally shunned his book, and that "reviews have been written mostly by representatives of Jewish organizations". He is also bothered that most prominent Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, have distanced themselves from his writings. But he's not deterred: "out in the real world, however, the response has been overwhelmingly positive." What bravery! But if Jimmy should ever feel discouraged, he should remember that his anti-Israel screeds will be welcomed on just about any college campus, and in every European nation, and in the entire Muslim world (especially Iran). And if the people in these places get their way, soon there won't be any Israeli apartheid to worry about, because there won't be any Israel.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Immaculate Conception: An Overlooked Ecumenical Barrier

Last Thursday, Catholics observed the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of the IC, as set forth by Pope Pius IX in 1854, holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin." To mark the day, Pontifications posted an interesting excerpt from Balthasar, which traces the convoluted and fractious history of the IC doctrine, from the Church Fathers to its elevation to infallibility in 1854. According to Balthasar, the central issue at stake is this: "If Mary is to be the true Mother of the Redeemer, she must genuinely belong to the race of Adam, which stands in need of redemption; at the same time, if she is to be his Mother, she needs to be entirely holy, 'immaculate'." As Balthasar indicates, there has never been real agreement on how to solve this apparent dilemma, and he attributes this to the fact that Mary does not "seem to be really at home" in any theology. Thus, it perhaps isn't surprising that the three branches of Christianity - Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics - have adopted such radically different attitudes towards Mary.

Pontifications has since posted a lengthy quote from Newman, in which he expresses surprise that "so many learned and devout men stumble at this doctrine [of the Immaculate Conception]." Frankly, I'm surprised that he was so surprised. The IC doctrine causes such great offense among Protestants, not because we have a low opinion of Mary, but because so many of the worst characteristics of Catholic theology are evident in this doctrine. It is the product of rampant theological speculation completely unhinged from Scripture (the cited proof texts, Genesis 3:15 and Luke 1:28, are laughably weak) with its truth simply asserted by papal fiat, and it reveals an obsession with Mary that is tough for Christocentric Protestants to swallow. Moreover, as Balthasar's quote makes quite clear, there has never been a real consensus concerning nature of Mary's conception (in other words, the IC is clearly not something that has been believed by Christians at all times and in all places). Thus, it was somewhat presumptuous of the Catholic Church to raise the IC to the level of infallible doctrine, thereby creating a huge obstacle to future unity with Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

If nothing else, the doctrine of the IC should serve as a reminder to Protestants that several ecumenical barriers have been erected by Catholics since the Reformation, including the doctrine of papal infallibility. This fact is often forgotten by evangelical catholics who point to the (limited) agreement on justification as evidence that the Reformation divisions need no longer apply, as the central issue has been dealt with. Yet, in my estimation, the doctrines of papal infallibility and the IC (as well as the issue of Mary in general) are just as divisive.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Odds and Ends

The Cynic Librarian is hosting a carnival dedicated to my favorite theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, and he has kindly included my recent post concerning Fear and Trembling. The carnival also features a link to S.K.'s MySpace entry, which indicates that he has 250 friends - certainly more than he had in real life.

Andy at Sinning Boldly has a great post on the different ways of praising God.

Ben Myers and Kim Fabricius both have profound posts on the theological vocation of people with disabilities. As Kim says, "It is not, observe, a question of the abled bringing help to the disabled – just the reverse: the disabled are the ones who bring help to the abled by showing that we are all, one way or another, limited, broken, and needy flesh, who are who we are only in interdependent relationships where asking for help is a sign not of our weakness but of our created and redeemed humanity."

Finally, as one with a rapidly receding hairline, I was naturally attracted to an article on entitled "Further Proof that God Loves Bald Men" (it's part of David Plotz's series, Blogging the Bible). I really like Plotz's take on one of the most bizarre episodes in the Bible, which concerns the prophet Elisha:

At last, we've reached the crazy, horrifying, inexplicable finale. As Elisha is walking to Bethel, a group of boys—"small boys"—start mocking him: "Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!" I've written before about the Lord's profound affection for bald men. Here He demonstrates that His fondness for cue balls has veered into dementia. Elisha turns around and curses the boys in the name of the Lord. After his curse, "two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys."

Yep, you read it right. The Lord sends bears to commit a mass mauling, all because of a bald joke.

After much head-scratching—bald-head-scratching, since I'm a bit of a ping-pong ball myself—I realized there's one possibly sympathetic interpretation of Elisha's behavior. He's new at this prophet thing. He hasn't learned his own powers yet. Until he picked up Elijah's mantle, he was a regular guy. His curses had no more effect than ours did. But now he has superpowers, and his every action has consequences. His passing curse—presumably tossed off the way you might give the finger to a tailgater—suddenly has potency it never had before. He learns the hard way—or rather, the 42 boys learn the hard way—that "with great power comes great responsibility." (Oh wait, maybe this is like Spider-Man.) You can't go around crippling every tyke who insults your haircut. In this charitable interpretation of the baldie-bear story, we must assume that Elisha is as horrified by the episode as we are, and that it helps him learn that he must only use his powers sparingly, and for good.

Friday, December 01, 2006

An Actual Conversation That Occurred Yesterday at Lunch

Imagine a few guys sitting around a table in an ordinary lunchroom:
Coworker A (holding up a small round corn chip): Hey look, this chip is just like a communion wafer.

Me: Communion wafers cannot be made of corn; they have to be wheat-based.

Coworker B (surprised): Really?

Me: Yeah, I think so. There weren't Tostidos or corn tortillas at the Last Supper, after all.

Coworker B: Of course, some people think that the wafer doesn't stay wheat-based. You know, transubstantiation - it becomes the body of Christ.

Coworker C: And if you believe that, you're a f*cking moron.

Me: You just called almost a billion people f*cking morons.

Coworker C: Well, so be it. There are a billion people who love Baywatch too. That doesn't mean it's good.

So which is more preposterous (or miraculous, depending on your perspective): transubstantiation or the world-wide popularity of Baywatch?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Iraq: What Next?

Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. I feel like I should say something, but what is there for me to say? My meager mind cannot begin to grasp the magnitude of this conflict, nor does it want to. I follow the news and analysis like everybody else, of course, but the impact on my psyche is always shortlived. There is no real connection, no point of contact, between my day-to-day life and the horror experienced every moment by our soldiers and the Iraqi people. I confess my callousness; most of the time, I just don't care.

In the most recent New Republic, seventeen experts try to answer the question "Iraq: What Next?". The answers, as indicated the titles of the articles, are all over the map. Robert Kagan wants to "Send More Troops", while David Rieff says "Bring the Troops Home." Peter Galbraith thinks the best approach is to "Divide Iraq", while Reza Aslan believes we should "Keep it Whole." Three articles focus on the troublesome Sunnis: "Deal with the Sunnis", "Crush the Sunnis", "Ally with the Sunnis". Leon Wieseltier, not ready to give up, but also completely out of ideas, says "Try Anything" - desperation as foreign policy. Apparently, the only consensus is that there is no consensus; all options are terrible.

Lately, the debate among our political and media elites has focused on whether Iraq is in a state of civil war. To which I say: who gives a f*ck? Why are we quibbling about semantics when the situation on the ground is so appalling? Does anybody really think that our troops care whether the conflict meets the technical definition of a civil war? The reality of Iraq is too messy for the textbooks, too ugly to fit nicely into anyone's political ideology, conservative or liberal. So let's forgo the bullshit and the talking points, as well as the ridiculous calls for "moral clarity". All the clarity is gone, and the morals of everyone involved are nothing but filthy rags.

Given that a satisfactory conclusion to this bloody struggle is now a human impossibility, there is nothing left for the Church to do but pray, fervently and unceasingly. We must pray for peace, but also for forgiveness. The Iraq war has revealed, as few events in our history have, the hubris and sinfulness of humanity, and we all deserve a portion of the blame: Iraqis and Americans, Republicans and Democrats, Sunnis and Shiite. Let us pray together for deliverance.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Scientists Prepare for Battle

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times that talks about the growing number of influential scientists who are itching for an all-out fight between science and religion. The article takes us to a conference in La Jolla, California, that brought together many of the leading anti-faith minds of the day, including Dawkins and Sam Harris, along with a few more moderate voices. The general tone at the meeting was one of anger and despair that so many people around the world continue to hold “irrational” religious beliefs. “I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,” said Mr. Harris, who has never been afraid to tar billions of people with the actions of a few. Why, oh why, are people so stupid, wailed the scientists.

Many of the scientists are fed-up, frankly, and they’re not going to acquiesce to religious belief anymore. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, thinks that “anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” When someone mentioned that we should respect people’s deeply-held beliefs, Dawkins went into one of his hate-filled tirades: “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion.” For Dawkins, religious people are “brainwashed”, and those who respect religion are “brainwashed.” Only those who have spent decades practicing science in the insular world of academic research are not brainwashed. Amazing!!

The scientists, or at least the ones in La Jolla, want a war, an apocalyptic struggle that will settle the science versus religion issue once and for all. A bizarre wish, in my opinion, as this is a battle that science will never win. The vast majority of the world’s people hold some form of religious belief, and have for thousands of years, and a tiny cadre of scientists is not going to change that, no matter how many books they write. Not to mention that a concerted campaign by the scientific community against religion would put an incredible strain on the thousands of dedicated scientists who are also devout believers. I, for one, already feel like something of an outsider in the scientific world, and an anti-religion crusade by the scientific establishment would probably send me fleeing the lab as fast as possible.

Interestingly, once of the strategies advanced in the meeting was to present science to the public as a religion:
Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church, with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister. She was not entirely kidding. “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” Dr. Porco said. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.” She displayed a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck called Earth.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, it’s refreshing to hear a scientist acknowledge that the product peddled by Dawkins & Co. really is another form of religion (scientism), and not simply disinterested science. Secondly, her statement that the “incredible richness and beauty” of the universe is “so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God” reveals a profound ignorance of how religious people view the cosmos. For the faithful, the glory of God and the glory of creation are not in competition. Quite the contrary, they feed off each other in a synergy of glory, with the beauty of the world testifying to the goodness of its Creator, and the love of God infusing every corner of the universe. The atheist presents a false choice: either love God or love the “real world.” But the believer looks at the rings of Saturn and loves both even more.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Is Death Evil or Necessary, or a Necessary Evil?

In my opinion, the challenge posed by evolutionary biology to the Christian faith is not that it refutes the so-called “argument from design”, but that it offers a narrative of nature that is at odds with the Christian understanding of Creation. Whereas Christians view the cosmos as essentially “good” and attribute the presence of death and suffering to the fallen state of humanity, Darwinists understand death and violence as intrinsic properties of the biological realm that predate the advent of the human species. From an evolutionary standpoint, there is nothing good or decent about creation; the story of life is one of brute force, of Nietzschean will to power, where all the spoils go to the strong and progress occurs by benefit of (and not in spite of) death. Nature exists only by virtue of its willingness to dominate; it has no purpose, no morals, no beauty (given this, it is somewhat surprising that so many evolutionary biologists are ardent environmentalists. E.O. Wilson, for one, has a strong sense of purpose to preserve this purposeless world).*

Christian thinkers have responded to this incongruity between the biological and Christian narratives in two fashions (here, I am greatly indebted to a series of excellent posts by Lee at verbum ipsum – please read them here, here, and here). The first approach, advocated by Keith Ward, holds that “destruction and death are built into the universe as necessary conditions of its progress to new forms of life.” That is, death and suffering serve to promote the greater good, namely, the evolution of intelligent life. The drawback of this argument is that is makes God the author of death and evil, and, for this reason, it has been strongly opposed by David Bentley Hart, especially in his book The Doors of the Sea. For Hart, death and destruction are alien forces in God’s creation to which He is implacably opposed. The advantage of this position, of course, is that God is no longer complicit in the existence of evil, and it more closely adheres to the traditional view that death is the result of man’s original sin. But, as Lee points out, Hart’s rhetoric can easily lapse into a kind of gnostic dualism wherein God is only the redeemer of the world, not its sole creator.

While I tend to think that Ward is more right than Hart on this point, I take issue with the assumption, implicit in both arguments, that death is evil. Isn’t it death that makes us creatures and not gods, serving as the most dramatic expression of our finitude? In particular, I find the notion that death only arose as a judgment for sin simply preposterous.** Perishability, after all, is what gives the world the possibility of true becoming and creativity, as well as its historical character (see Jüngel's excellent discussion of the positive aspects of perishability in God as the Mystery of the World). Moreover, the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrate once and for all that death is God’s servant, not his enemy.

It is man’s sinfulness, his lack of faith, that transforms death from something natural into something terrible, something evil. Humanity, apart from God, begins to have delusions of immortality, and then death becomes only an absurd negation. But the Christian understands that his life is never his possession, that he is always dependent on the higher power. His faith in Christ also teaches him that death has no real finality; it is God’s love that is absolute. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t mourn the passing of those we love, or try to heal the sick. We must always cherish and protect life. But we should never begrudge God death when it is He who so graciously grants us life.

So, in my estimation, the evolutionary biologists are right when they say that death is a necessary part of nature. But are they also correct in concluding that the world is not good, as the book of Genesis would have us believe? I think the answer depends on how one interprets the biblical statements concering the goodness of creation. Are these meant to imply that the world is intrinsically good, that is, good in-and-of-itself? Or do they mean that creation is only good when it’s in communion with its Creator? I think the latter answer is correct, which means that only a redeemed creation is truly “good”. We should never draw too sharp a distinction between God’s roles as Creator and Redeemer, as if He first made a supposedly good creation and then had to save it when all hell broke loose. Creation always involves redemption, and redemption always involves a new creation. Thus, it’s not surprising that a purely atheistic worldview like neo-Darwinism is incapable of seeing the inherent goodness of creation, since it cuts itself off from the salvation that redeems and restores this fractured world.

* The purpose of this post is not to challenge the scientific merit of the theory of evolution, which is quite simply beyond question. My target is Darwinism as a metanarrative, a sort of theory of everything, which is advanced by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett.

** Of course, there is a form “unnatural” death that did arise because of man’s sinfulness: murder. But murder is not the same as death in general, and it provides no evolutionary advantage that I can think of.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Special Sufjan Christmas

While I normally forbid myself from engaging in any Christmas related activities before December 1 (or at least no earlier than the first Sunday of Advent), I've made an exception for Sufjan Steven's 5-disc Christmas Singalong,* which you can listen to here. While all the songs are terrific, I highly recommend "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (disc 2) and "Joy To The World" (disc 4).

*Thanks to Clint at Lutheran Confessions for the tip.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Every Phenomenon of Nature was a Word"

Since I've been bereft of original ideas lately, the purpose of this post is simply share some marvelous quotes from the 18th-century German theologian Johann Hamann (a.k.a., "the happy Kierkegaard"), whose writings I cannot recommend highly enough. Stylistically and theologically he is similar to Kierkegaard, but he lacks Soren's stridency and melancholy disposition. Moreover, one can find in his writings early traces of Jüngel's emphasis on language, Pannenberg's account of time and eternity, and von Balthasar's (and later Hart's) aesthetics. A truly remarkable combination for a humble bureaucrat from Königsberg.

The initial passage describes Hamann's vision of the original state of creation, and also expresses the eternal Christian hope for the consummation of the world:
"So Adam was God's: and God himself introduced the firstborn and oldest of our race as the bearer and heir of the world which had been made ready by the Word of His mouth. Angels, happy to look upon his heavenly countenance, were the ministers and courtiers of the first monarch. All the children of God lifted their praise to the chorus of the morning stars. All tasted and beheld, firsthand and in the very act, the friendliness of the Maker, who played on his earth and found delight in his human children. As yet no creature had fallen against its will into the vanity and bondage of the transitory system, under which they now yawn and sigh... Every phenomenon of nature was a word - the sign, symbol, and pledge of a new, mysterious, inexpressible, but so much the more intimate union, participation, and communion of divine energies and ideas. Everything that man in the beginning heard, saw, gazed upon, and touched, was a living word. For God was the Word. With this Word in his mouth and in his heart the origin of language was as natural, as near and easy, as a child's game."

Here we see how Hamann's thought is thoroughly imbued with a sense of the profligate and gratuitous Word of God; a Word that is not an abstract and ethereal idea, but something that can be seen, touched, and tasted. As he wrote to a friend: "To express my soul to you from the depths, my whole a taste for signs and for the elements of water, bread, and wine. Here is fullness for hunger and thirst." Hamann's motto was the Psalmist's saying: "O taste and see that the Lord is good" (34:8)

In short, Hamann was the epitome of an earthy Christian who never lost his awe for the sheer miracle of Creation:
"Just as man often pits his nature against his reason and makes his habit of action into a necessity, so too, in his worldly wisdom, he has often tried to pit nature against its creator by speaking of unnatural and supernatural works. We might ask how many miracles God has performed, that we should no longer regard anything as natural. And what is there in nature, in the most commonplace natural events, that is not a miracle in our eyes, a miracle in the strictest sense of the word?"

I absolutely love this quote, because it shows that Hamann was continually amazed that the world exists, and that he exists. He lived his life in pure receptivity, never failing to hear God's voice in Scripture, nature, and history. For him, existence was a perpetual conversation with the Creator, "the poet at the beginning of days":
"Our entire life is a history of divine mercy and love. When we complete the day's work, we praise and honor them if we accept love and appropriate it, the love which moved Him to be our creator and redeemer. This love alone can make us into creatures whom He views with favor and with the word of the second creation: 'It is finished.'"

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What was Abraham Thinking When He Raised the Knife?

I recently embarked on a second reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, hoping to suck more marrow out of this rich text. As a guide for this journey, I checked out John Lippitt’s commentary on F&T. But beware of commentaries; they can sometimes prove a distraction, preventing one from focusing on the primary text. This has happened here, as I find myself spending more time disagreeing with Lippitt’s interpretations than engaging with the book directly. Thus, this post offers both my thoughts on F&T and a critique of Lippitt's notion of faith.

The central theme of F&T is the Akedah - Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. Kierkegaard (via the book’s pseudonym, Johannes de silentio) never tires of praising Abraham, the father of faith. According to SK, Abraham’s faith involved a “double movement” - “infinite resignation” to the loss of Isaac, followed by belief “in virtue of the absurd” that Isaac would not be taken from him. To illustrate this concept, SK employs the example of a young lad who falls in love with a princess far above his meager social standing. As it becomes clear to the lad that he will never marry the princess, he becomes “the knight of infinite resignation”:
“So the knight [of infinite resignation] makes the movement – but what movement? Will he forget the whole thing?... No! For the knight does not contradict himself… The knight remembers everything, but precisely this remembrance is pain, and yet by the infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence.”

But if the lad had faith, like Abraham, he would make an extra movement, the movement of faith:
“Now we will let the knight of faith appear in the role just described. He makes exactly the same movements as the other knight, infinitely renounces claim to the love which is the content of his life, he is reconciled in pain; but then occurs the prodigy, he makes still another movement more wonderful than all, for he says, ‘I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.’… At the moment when the knight made the act of resignation, he was convinced, humanly speaking, of the impossibility… so the only thing that can save him is the absurd, and this he grasps by faith.”

It appears that Lippitt cannot understand this double movement, which, in his estimation, “involves simultaneously believing two mutually contradictory propositions”: that the lad will not marry the princess and that he will marry her (or, that Abraham will have to sacrifice Isaac and that Isaac will not be taken from him). In short, Lippitt does not understand why the knight of faith must first become the knight of resignation.

To solve this dilemma, Lippitt argues that “Johannes’ view of faith is inherently confused” and that it doesn’t represent SK’s true conception of faith. Lippitt instead advocates for Ronald L. Hall’s reading of the text, in which resignation is described as “annulled possibility.” Here, resignation is the antithesis of faith, not its necessary precursor; whereas the knight of resignation tries to transcend the pain of the world by refusing it, the knight of faith lives fully in the world. Lippitt, quoting Hall, writes:
Human existence is ‘intrinsically subject to possibility, and hence to anxiety, to vulnerability, to loss. The faithful self does not put these elements to rest, she plunges forward through them. The faithful self is continually called to embrace the world in all of its fragility, for she recognizes that it is, at any moment, in her power to refuse. The knight of faith knows that such a refusal would bring with it a form of existence that would be other than the human, and to this possibility she must continually say ‘no!’.

For Hall (and Lippitt), resignation is conceived as a form of temptation, or inauthentic existence – a possibility that must be forever annulled. But, in my opinion, this interpretation does violence to Kierkegaard’s concept of faith. For instance, in what sense does the faithful one, in Hall’s account, believe “by virtue of the absurd”? Moreover, how does Hall reconcile his reading with SK’s frequent remark that faith requires belief in what is humanly impossible? Where is Hall’s sense of paradox? The key problem, in my view, is that Hall is largely committed to a humanist reading of the text, and thus, for him, faith can never mean more than “authentic existence.” He is powerless to understand what SK means when he says that Abraham believed “in virtue of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.” In the end, the paradox that Kierkegaard was so determined to maintain is dissolved.

Even more problematic is Lippitt's argument that, if Hall's interpretation is correct, then “Abraham must not actually come fully to accept that his is going to have to kill Isaac: rather, such ‘resignation’ was what Abraham must continually fight against.” Again, I think that SK would strongly disagree. At one point in F&T he writes that “[Abraham] must know at the decisive moment that Isaac is to be sacrificed. If he doesn’t definitively know that, he hasn’t made the infinite movement of resignation, in which case…he is very far from being Abraham.” And yet, at the same time, Abraham believed that Isaac would not be taken from him, that "the Lord will provide". Lippitt is right to call Abraham's position paradoxical, but he seems to forget that that's the whole point! The text is emphatic that faith is a tremendous paradox, "a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off."

To fully understand Kierkegaard’s account of the Akedah, it’s important to remember the original promises that God made to Abraham: that God would make of him “a great nation” and that his descendents would as numerous as the stars. Given the age of Sarah, this promise was a human impossibility, and yet Abraham believed. He still believed in this promise as he walked up Mount Moriah, knowing that even if he sacrificed Isaac, “God could give him a new Isaac, could recall to life him who had been sacrificed. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function.” In other words, Abraham placed his faith in Him who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. He had a resurrection faith.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thoughts for Reformation Day

Today is Halloween, of course, but it is also Reformation Day in the Lutheran Church. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther, dressed as a monk, played a world-historical trick on the Catholic Church by nailing 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. What exactly he intended to accomplish with this act of vandalism remains unclear, but we are all aware of the consequences, both good and bad. Through the centuries, Reformation Day (now typically celebrated on the previous Sunday) has served as a sort of Protestant 4th of July, with multiple renditions of "A Mighty Fortress"” and a festive meal in the church basement. But perhaps the day calls for more reflection and less denominational patriotism. After all, the existence of a separate Lutheran church is not necessarily a good thing, and the freedom we gained in the Reformation will be in vain if we forget what motivated Luther in the first place -– the insight that justification comes through faith alone. Reformation Day is worthwhile only if it spurs the Church to renew its commitment to the articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae.

A brief aside: The Catholic author Flannery O'Connor was at a dinner party when "“the conversation turned to the Eucharist."” A lady remarked that "when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one." To which O'’Connor replied, "“Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."” She later wrote that "that was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

O'Connor's words often come to mind when I contemplate what the doctrine of justification through faith means to me. This article has come under frequent attack, especially in recent years, and the only defense I can offer is that it serves as "“the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable." It is a source of joy and my refuge in distress. To those who would say that it is merely a doctrine, one among many, my reply is nearly the same as O'’Connor's: "“Well, if it'’s just a doctrine, to hell with it”." As Luther said, "“nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls... Upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice."” In other words, justification is the Word that God has spoken to his Creation, and we must resist all attempts to obscure its radical message with caveats and evasions.

Ultimately, O'Connor's position is not that different than mine. The sacrament is, after all, nothing more and nothing less than the visible Word - "“my body given for you." Similarly, the justifying Word comes to us in the very human and very earthy language of Scripture. As Luther said, "The glory of our God is precisely that for our sakes he comes down to the very depths, into human flesh, into the bread, into our mouth, our heart, our bosom." Reformation Day reminds us that the Church and all its members live only from these two gifts of Word and Sacrament. Thus, the Church is never a finished product capable of standing on its own two feet. The Holy Spirit continues to work within the Church, justifying it through grace, and that is the reason why we celebrate today. Semper Reformanda!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Followers of the Antichrist, I Ask for Your Vote!!

Here in Minnesota, religion has been a major issue in two congressional races. Voters in the 5th district, which encompasses Minneapolis and nearby suburbs, are expected to send Democratic candidate Keith Ellison to Washington, thereby electing the first Muslim member of Congress. Not surprisingly, Ellison's faith has been a major point on contention in the race. In particular, his opponents have targeted his past associations with the Nation of Islam, the notoriously anti-Semitic organization led by Louis Farakan. Ellison denies that he was ever a serious follower of the Nation of Islam, and he has repeatedly disavowed the group's teachings. However, the stain lingers. I'm inclined to take Ellison at his word, but given his assured victory, and my disgust with the two-party system, I'll probably cast my vote for third-party candidate Tammy Lee.

More interesting is the 6th district, which pits Democrat Patty Wetterling against Republican Michele Bachmann. Bachmann has long been the standard-bearer for the religious right in the Minnesota Legislature, where she fought the "homosexual agenda" tooth-and-nail. This involved leading a "prayer circle around the desk of an openly gay state senator" and spying on a gay-rights rally at the Capitol while hiding behind a bush. She has also made it clear that God told her to run for Congress and intends for her to win (of course, such statements have become de rigeur for Republicans these days, so we shouldn't be too surprised).

Interestingly, Bachmann is a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, which prompted this snippet from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Opinion page:
Much has been made of Democratic Fifth District House candidate Keith Ellison's alleged ties to the Nation of Islam -- or, as Scott at [the Power Line blog] put it, his "long, enthusiastic and devoted service to the Nation of Islam as the acolyte of a hate cult." Conservative bloggers have made candidates' ties to religious groups an issue, but now a liberal blog -- Faithful Democrats -- has adopted the same tactic regarding GOP Sixth District House candidate Michele Bachmann's church. It is affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which regards the Roman Catholic papacy as the Antichrist. "It's tantamount to hate speech," said Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The blog asked, "Can a congressional candidate whose faith says Catholics follow Satan win in a district that's 30 percent Catholic? ... This statement is one of only nine core doctrines listed on WELS's website, suggesting it is particularly important to the denomination. Might Bachmann disagree with this rabid anti-Catholicism? Perhaps, but WELS insists that members and congregations agree on the fundamental doctrines of the church in order to remain in communion with it."

After reading this, I visited the WELS website and, sure enough, their feelings about the papacy are loud and clear: "We reject the teaching that Christians should look for one individual to arise in the end times as the great Antichrist. The characteristics of the Antichrist as presented in Scripture have been and are being fulfilled in the institution of the papacy (2 Thessalonians 2:4-10). We reject the opinion that the identification of the papacy with the Antichrist was merely a historical judgment valid only at the time of the Reformation." In their defense, WELS does make a distinction between the institution of pope and individual Catholics, but it's a very slight distinction:
We thank God, that even within the outward kingdom of Antichrist, there will be some (the precise number known only to God) who escape the fate of the Antichrist because they believe the Scripture's teaching about Christ rather than Antichrist's lies. It was just such Christians within "Babylon" that made up much of the Invisible Church in the days before the Reformation.

Apparently, Bachmann has not visited the WELS website, because she claimed in a debate that her Synod says no such thing about the pope. I guess her particular church has done a poor job of teaching her the "right doctrine". Perhaps, for political purposes, she should quickly transfer to the ELCA (God forbid!) or the Missouri Synod, which, according to the WELS website, has gone soft on the Antichrist.

Some political experts think this issue has the potential to hurt Bachmann, and I hope it does. It would be delicious irony if Bachmann's over-the-top religiosity manages to alienate other conservative Christians, thereby costing her this very close election. Poor Michele. She thought only liberals and gays followed the Antichrist.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Nagel on Dawkins' Latest Book

Following up on my last post, Thomas Nagel has an excellent review in The New Republic of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion (subscription required). He describes the book as "a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument." While Nagel is not a religious person himself, he finds Dawkins' arguments for the non-existence of God unconvincing (incredibly, the book contains a chapter entitled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God". Well, then I guess we'd better cancel church this Sunday). According to Nagel, the primary flaw in Dawkins's thinking is a lack of imagination, in that he can only conceive of two grand explanations: a "physicalist naturalism" and "the God Hypothesis" (read, crude theism). But these "stark alternatives may not exhaust the possibilities". Moreover, Nagel points out that both perspectives require faith, notwithstanding Dawkin's outlandish claims for science:
"All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics."

Dawkins is clearly perplexed and angry that, 400 years since the dawn of the Enlightenment, so many people continue believe in God. So why aren't people satisfied with a purely scientific understanding of the world? Are they deluded? Dawkins certainly thinks so. But for Nagel, the explanation lies in the fact that the reductionist worldview offered by modern science simply doesn't do justice to reality as experienced by actual humans:
Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

That conceptual purification launched the extraordinary development of physics and chemistry that has taken place since the seventeenth century. But reductive physicalism turns this description into an exclusive ontology. The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical--that is, behavioral or neurophysiological--terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed--that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

Dawkins fails to realize that science will never be able to provide an adequate basis for a complete understanding of human existence. It can only give us abstractions which, however useful they may be, are not the substance of life. What Johann Hamann says of historical events is also true of scientific theories and the law of nature; they "are like that wide valley full of dry bones - and lo, they were very dry. No one but a prophet could presage that veins and flesh would grow on these bones and that skin would cover them. As yet there is no breath in them, until the prophet prophesies unto the wind and the word of the Lord speaks..."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

In Search of Better Atheists

"I guess it's obvious that Santa Claus is the kid's version of God. If you get to your twenties and you're still believing in God, which I was, I feel it's a state of arrested development, as if a child was twelve and still believed in Santa Claus." -- Julia Sweeney, as heard on NPR's To the Best of our Knowledge.

Although Julia Sweeney - former cast member of SNL - could hardly be called an intellectual, I give her credit for so succinctly summarizing the fall-back position of atheistic luminaries like Dawkins, Dennett, and Sam Harris. Anyone who has encountered the writings of these bold men is quite familiar with such "God as Tooth Fairy" attacks. Indeed, the idea that religion is no more than childish fancy is one of the most treasured and nurtured thoughts among secular elites, largely because it reinforces their sense of superiority over the benighted masses. But sadly, it's a simplistic approach that betrays the ignorance and shallow thinking of its advocates. The main problem is that it misses its intended target by a mile. Sweeney's argument is correct to this extent: if any believer's conception of God actually resembled the figure of Santa Claus, then they would certainly be in a state of arrested development. But very few of the adherents of the world's major religions - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. - have such a crude conception of God. The fact that Sweeney can say that "it's obvious that Santa Claus is the kid's version of God" indicates that she has no understanding of actual faith, and that the faith she thought she had in her twenties was only a sham, and not the real deal. Apparently, she has since come to think that all believers share her simplistic notions of God.

Likewise, Dawkins and Harris have sold a lot of books with their straw-man arguments, running down a caricature of religion that primarily exists in the minds of "secular fundamentalists" like themselves. These modern atheists are not interested in understanding religion, only attacking it. Thus, Dawkins can say that "we should devote as much time to studying serious theology as we devote to studying serious fairies and serious unicorns." He makes no effort to understand the best minds of the Christian tradition - Augustine, Aquinas, or Barth - probably because it's so much easier to beat up on the likes of Pat Robertson.

The intellectual laziness of modern atheism is a shame because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Christianity needs smart atheists to keep it honest. In my estimation, the best example of a "purifying atheist" is Friedrich Nietzsche (for a wonderful synopsis of Nietzsche's contributions to Christian thought, please check out Byron Smith's post here). The son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche had a deeper understanding of Christianity than the vast majority of theologians, past and present. And unlike modern atheists, he took the idea of God very seriously. He may have reached some of the same conclusions about religion as modern atheists, but he took a very different route. His writings bear witness, not to a simple-minded dismissal of God, but to a profound confrontation with his religious heritage. In the end, his struggle may have yielded a purer and more faithful account of the Christian faith. Thus, Eberhard Jungel could say that "[Nietzsche's] thoughts come very close to the Christian truth which he was opposing. They merit special attention." A hundred years from now, I doubt that anyone will be saying the same thing about Harris' recent book.

So here's a challenge to all those aspiring atheists out there: ditch the silly "Santa Claus" argument (you're better than that!) and start engaging religion with a little sophistication. May I suggest a certain German madman?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Is Forgiveness Only an Amish Virtue?

In the wake of the Amish school shooting, much has been written about the willingness of the Amish community to forgive the perpetrator and his family. Before the bodies of the children were even buried, the Amish "sent words of forgiveness to the family of the killer who had executed their children", and representatives of the community even attended the murder's funeral - not to vent their anger, but to forgive and mourn for the troubled man who has caused them so much grief. Needless to say, the eagerness of the Amish to forgive has surprised and confounded most Americans, who tend to view revenge as a perfectly natural, and even beneficial, response to such injustices. We have grown accustomed to the sight of victims' families testifying in favor of the death penalty – a practice supported by a majority of Americans. The Amish, however, have set a very different example.

Indeed, the Amish response to this tragedy is so outside the norm that it has sent the media scurrying to finds its source in their theology and way of life. What is it about these simple people that allows them to forgive so freely and so quickly? Donald B. Kraybill, an expert on Amish life, does a good job of answering these questions in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Amish roots stretch back to the Anabaptist movement at the time of the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe. Hundreds of Anabaptists were burned at the stake, decapitated and tortured because they contended that individuals should have the freedom to make voluntary decisions about religion... The martyr voice still rings loudly in Amish ears with the message of forgiveness of those who tortured them and burned their bodies at the stake.

The martyr testimony springs from the example of Jesus, the cornerstone of Amish faith. As do other Anabaptists, the Amish take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously. Without formal creeds, their simple (but not simplistic) faith accents living in the way of Jesus rather than comprehending the complexities of religious doctrine. Their model is the suffering Jesus who carried his cross without complaint. And who, hanging on the cross, extended forgiveness to his tormentors: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Beyond his example, the Amish try to practice Jesus' admonitions to turn the other cheek, to love one's enemies, to forgive 70 times seven times, and to leave vengeance to the Lord. Retaliation and revenge are not part of their vocabulary.

For me, Kraybill’s analysis is somewhat unsettling, as it begs the question: why don’t other Christians, myself included, behave like the Amish? Why is the media so impressed, and so surprised, by the radical forgiveness exhibited by this isolated community? Could it be that the willingness to “turn the other cheek” is not often seen, even in this supposedly Christian nation? Could it be that most Christians, unlike the Amish, fail to “take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously”? In a nation whose foreign policy has been motivated by a spirit of vengeance ever since 9/11, a tiny group of pre-modern farmers has shamed us by its extraordinary example.

We “conventional” Christians should be quite worried that, for many non-believers, the forgiveness exhibited by the Amish is considered a peculiar quirk of their brand of Christianity, and not of Christianity in general. That they could think such a thing is proof that they have not witnessed enough forgiveness from the rest of us.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Works of Love (Part 4): The Paradox of Forgiveness

By forgiveness, love hides a multitude of sins... This is a wonderful thought, therefore also faith's thought, because faith always relates itself to what is not seen. I believe that what is seen has come into existence from what is not seen; I see the world, but what is not seen I do not see; that I believe. Similarly, in forgiveness there is also a relation of faith of which we are rarely aware. What, then, is the unseen here? The unseen is that forgiveness takes away that which does indeed exist... The one who loves sees the sin he forgives, but he believes that forgiveness takes it away. This cannot be seen, whereas the sin can indeed be seen; on the other hand, if the sin did not exist to be seen, it could not be forgiven either. Just as one by faith believes the unseen into what is seen, so the one who loves by forgiveness believes away what is seen. Both are faith. Blessed is the believer, he believes what he cannot see; blessed is the one who loves, he believes away that which he indeed can see! -- S. Kierkegaard, Works of Love (294-5)

In this passage, Kierkegaard tells us that the act of forgiveness is a paradox in which the sin of our neighbor is both seen and not seen. And as with all other paradoxes, forgiveness requires the passion of faith - the faith to believe that what exists does not exist. Only in this way can love hide a multitude of sins.

Interestingly, Kierkegaard draws a subtle contrast between divine and human forgiveness. God's forgiveness is divine forgetting: "Forgetting, when God does it in relation to sin, is the opposite of creating, since to create is to bring forth from nothing, and to forget is to take back into nothing." Humans do not have this power to "uncreate" sin. But Kierkegaard recommends that we do the next best thing: following Isaiah 38:17, we should place the offending sins "behind our back":
"What is hidden from my eyes, that I have never seen; but what is hidden behind my back, that I have seen. The one who loves forgives in this way: he forgives, he forgets, he blots out the sin. In love he turns towards the one he forgives; but when he turns toward him, he of course cannot see what is lying behind his back." (296)

By placing the sin behind his back, the forgiver removes the obstacle that had come between him and the offender, and thus he opens the way for reconciliation. True forgiveness requires that we not see the sin when we look at the forgiven sinner. Of course, this is easier said than done. Too often, our forgiveness only goes half way. We say "you're forgiven" but, in reality, we continue to nurse our grievances. We may even remind the forgiven of their past sins in order to shame or manipulate them. In short, we refuse to put the sin behind our backs, and Kierkegaard points out that this refusal to forgive completely is also sin:
"Does not the one who unlovingly denies forgiveness increase the multitude of sins?... He enlarges the sin, makes it seem greater. Forgiveness deprives the sin of life, but to deny forgiveness provides the sin with sustenance." (297)

The unforgiving person multiplies the multitude of sins. Only forgiveness liberates both the sinner and the offended one from the bondage of sin.