Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Month: April 2011

From The Doors of the Sea, by David Bently Hart

Jesus Christ: Extreme Humility

I love Hart’s take-down of the concept of theodicy in The Doors of the Sea.  Here’s a particularly good selection discussing one of the greatest challenges to faith (hint: it’s not science, but suffering and death).  Good preparation to preaching on Doubting Thomas tomorrow.

What makes Ivan’s argument [in The Brothers Karamazov] so novel and disturbing is not that he simply accuses God of failing to save the innocent; in fact, he grants that in some sense God still will “save” them, in part by rescuing their suffering from sheer “absurdity” and showing what part it had in accomplishing the final beatitude of all creatures.  Rather, Ivan rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds.  He rejects anything that would involve such a rescue–anything that would make the suffering of children meaningful or necessary.  he grants that one day eternal harmony will be established, and we will discover how it necessitated the torments endured by children.  Perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their children, and the serf child, his mother, and their master will be reconciled, and all will praise God’s justice, and all evils will be accounted for.  Or perhaps the damnation of the wicked will somehow balance the score (though how then there can be that final harmony, when the suffering of the victims has already happened and the suffering of their persecutors will persist eternally, Ivan cannot guess).  But still, Ivan wants neither harmony nor the knowledge of ultimate truth at such a cost: “for love of man I reject it”; even ultimate truth “is not worth the tears of that one tortured child.”  Nor, indeed, does he want forgiveness: the mother of that murdered child must not forgive her child’s murderer, even if the child himself can forgive.  And so, not denying that there is a God or a divine design in all things, he simply chooses (respectfully) to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom.  After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?

I am convinced that Ivan’s discourse–which he continues, as hardly needs to be said, by reciting his “poem” about “The Grand Inquisitor”–constitutes the only challenge to a confidence in divine goodness that should give Christians serious cause for deep and difficult reflection.  Those Christian readers who have found it easy to ignore or dispense with the case that Dostoyevsky constructs for Ivan have not, I submit, fully comprehended that case (or, alternatively, have comprehended it, but adhere to so degenerate a version of Christian doctrine that they can no longer be said to understand the God revealed in Christ).  The reason for this (which it is so vital that one should understand) is that, at base, Ivan’s is a profoundly and almost prophetically Christian argument.  In part this is true because, even in the way Ivan frames his arraignment of the divine purposes in history, there are already foreshadowings of a deeper Christian riposte to the argument.  Ivan’s ability to imagine a genuinely moral revolt against God’s creative and redemptive order has a kind of nocturnal grandeur about it, a Promethean or Romantic or Gnostic audacity that dares to imagine some spark dwelling in the human soul that is higher and purer than the God who governs this world: and, in that very way, his argument carries within itself an echo of the gospel’s vertiginous annunciation of our freedom from the “elements” of the world and from the power of the law.  Indeed, the tale of the Grand Inquisitor is in some ways a curious hymn of adoration to Christ as the one who is himself the truest “rebel,” entering human history with a divine disregard for its internal economies, disrupting it in fact at the deepest level by sowing freedom with almost profligate abandon among creatures who–with very few exceptions–are incapable of receiving it.

But these are only adumbrations and presentiments of a proper response to Ivan’s manifesto.  A fuller answer is woven throughout the hundreds of pages of the novel that follow.  Some critics doubt that any satisfactory answer is given at all (though I think them mistaken); but even those who believe that an answer is given have on many occaisons still failed to appreciate (it seems to me) how radical that answer is, principally because they have not appreciated how radical the question is either.  Whatever the case, for the Christian, Ivan’s argument–taken simply in itself–provides a kind of spiritual hygiene: it is a solvent of the semi-Hegelian theology of the liberal Protestantism of the late nineteenth century, which succeeded in confusing eschatological hope with progressive social and scientific optimism, and a solvent as well as of the obdurate fatalism of the theistic determinist, and of the confidence of rational theodicy, and–in general–of the habitual and unthinking retreat of most Christians to a kind of indeterminate deism.  And this, again, marks it as a Christian argument, even if Christian sub contrario, because in disabusing believers of facile certitude in the justness of all things, it forces them back toward the more complicated, “subversive,” and magnificent theology of the gospel.  Ivan’s rage against explanation arises from a Christian conscience, and so–even if Ivan cannot acknowledge it–its inner mystery is an empty tomb, which has shattered the heart of nature and history alike (as we understand them) and fashioned them anew.

This is why Ivan’s indignation and anguish have profundity that Voltaire’s cannot.  Voltaire’s poem, again, is no great challenge to Christian faith, because it inveighs against the ethical deist’s God of cosmic balance (and where have his temples been erected?).  But Ivan’s rebellion is something altogether different.  Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible.  Dostoyevsky sees–and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality–that it would be far more terrible if it were. (Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, Pg. 40-44)

From Holy Dying by Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy TaylorReflecting on a lot of different things as I prepared for my sermon tomorrow.  This bit from Jeremy Taylor likely won’t be in the sermon, but it jumped out at me nonetheless:

…we take pains to heap up things useful to our life, and get our deaths in the purchase; and the person is snatched away, and the goods remain.  And all this is the law and constitution of nature; it is a punishment to our sins, the unalterable event of providence, and the decree of heaven: the chains that confine us to this condition are strong as destiny, and immutable as the eternal laws of God.

I have conversed with some men who rejoiced in the death or calamity of others, and accounted it as a judgement upon them for being on the other side, and against them in the contention: but within the revolution of a few months, the same man met with a more uneasy and unhandsome death: which when I saw, I wept, and was afraid; for I knew that it must be so with all men; for we also shall die, and end our quarrels and contentions by passing to a final sentence. (Jeremy Taylor, Holy Dying)

Bible Study resources


St. Jerome in his Study

I’m in the midst of preparing materials for a new slate of Bible studies at St. Joseph of Arimathea. To begin with, I’m writing introductions to bible study methods as well as reviews of various Study Bibles such as the New Oxford Annotated, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, etc… listing their pros and cons. If anyone has any suggestions regarding annotated study bibles or reference bible editions, please let me know.


In addition, I’m looking through my books for some books to read with those who are interested before we get started in earnest. Here are a few I’m thinking of, suggestions are welcome:


Take ’em away Lord

Lent 4A, 2011
Scripture: John 9:1-41


JESUS MAFA: Jesus cures the man born blind

“Rabbi,” teacher, the disciples ask Jesus “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”

This is not an unfamiliar question to us.  I don’t mean that we are familiar with this account from the Gospel of John, but that we are familiar with the sentiment expressed by the question.  The sentiment–even if avoided in our more self-aware moments or overcome by our empathy and learning–to identify people first by their limitations.  In modern medical care this tendency can most clearly be revealed as a challenge.  When I did my chaplaincy training, one of the issues that came up repeatedly in the training I observed of doctors, nurses and others in the hospital was the tendency to refer to patients by their affliction, i.e. “the heart” in bed 1 or the “knee” or “leg” in another… To some degree this sort of thing is understandable, especially in a situation where one is dealing with a large number and quick turnover of patients.  But it is a distancing behavior that can easily and quickly become a method if dehumanizing–which is of course why the hospital was trying to stop it.

This is part of a broader human tendency to lump people into groups or teams.  Scientists who study group behavior for example, say that people will generally band together by ethnic group/appearance naturally–but that by putting diverse people in the same uniform, that natural grouping can be altered and people with naturally gravitate toward people with, say, the same t-shirt.  In other areas it’s added to the color of history, as we can talk about Charles the Bald or Pepin the Fat or my favorite Æthelred the Unready (uneducated, badly counseled).

When this tendency is unchecked, it leads to situations in which people are no longer seen as human beings of worth, but are only identified by limitation or difference, which can expand to the point of being used as a sort of negative icon or totem, which was the situation with those who were afflicted with blindness, various skin diseases etc… during the first century.  The antidote today, as it was then, is to first see the person (connect to and respect them as human beings).  And this is precisely what Jesus does.

As he is walking along, John tells us that Jesus “saw a man blind from birth.”  We might say that this phrasing is unimportant, except for the way that scene plays out.  Jesus sees the man, his disciples see the affliction.  Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we can say their question was motivated out of honest frustration with the predicament the man found himself in, but their frame of thinking wouldn’t let them see the man first.  Instead, the question is about the man in the role of warning sign: who sinned, this man or his parents?  It was obvious to them that someone had done something to result in this evil, and that the man therefore stood not as a person in his own right, but as a warning to others (it’s understandable that such a way of thinking would find its way into modern “demotivators”).

The phrasing of the question is revealing.  Often we leave off the first part, asking about the man’s sin.  But consider this: how could the man be responsible for his own affliction, if he was born with it?  Some scholars think that this part of the question demonstrates the prevalence of popular Platonic thought and the influence of Hellenistic culture among the Jews of the day.  For some, the man’s blindness would’ve been evidence in the “badness” of his pre-existent soul.  This understanding can be found, for example, in the Wisdom of Solomon 8:19-20: “As a child I was naturally gifted, and a good soul fell to my lot; or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body.”

The older, Hebrew perspective is revealed in the second half of the question, asking about the culpability of the parents, and whether the man’s affliction was attributable to their sin.  This understanding is revealed in the popular expression, challenged by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31:29 & Ezekiel 18:2).

Jesus refuses to affirm either presupposition: the challenge of the man’s affliction presents an opportunity for the grace of God, and finds it’s meaning in two things: the heart-breaking purposelessness of tragedy in the world, and the grace of God in being present with the afflicted, seeing them and offering hope in hopelessness, and bringing the possibility of meaning out of meaninglessness. The great Episcopal theologian, William P. Dubose wrote that God “shares and endures with us and in us, all the extremest conditions and experiences of human life and destiny” (The Gospel in the Gospel’s, cited in The Theology of William Porcher DuBose by Robert Boak Slocum, p. 64).

The God who is with and for us desires that we be with and for each other.  Christ enlists his disciples in the work of God before healing the man, saying “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4).  The call to work for the kingdom, to bring healing and hope to others, is nothing less than the affirmation of God’s love for humanity in all our frailty.

The work of God includes the alleviation of suffering, the healing of disease–all those works that Jesus did in his earthly ministry, which he then called his church to continue as his body.  To the degree that we participate in these things, we are participating in the work of God and the process of redemption through the spreading Kingdom of God.  But it is also the manner in which these things are done that is important.

Jesus refuses to acknowledge a view that would make suffering into a consequence of divine judgment for sin or other failings.  In rejecting the notion that the man could’ve been responsible, because of some quality of his soul, for his own suffering, Jesus lays the foundation for the later Christian rejection of the idea of the pre-existence of souls, and of the (Gnostic) idea that the body is a prison for the soul.  In contrast, the overwhelming biblical tradition is that the soul and body are intertwined.  One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that we are not Souls with Bodies, but that we are our bodies, imperfect though they may be.  The creeping gnosticism of our popular religion cannot snuff out the fact that God’s purpose is to redeem all creation, all flesh because we are God’s beloved dust.

We participate in this creation-wide process of redemption by following Christ, and by seeing other human beings as the image-bearers of God.  Because each person is invaluable to God, we should be invaluable to each other.  The first means of demonstrating this care is to actually see one another and ourselves as human beings beloved of God.

There were those at the time of our gospel lesson, as there are today, for whom this was and is impossible.  They could not break out of their habits of seeing afflictions and trials–their own as well as someone else’s–as evidence of sin, and of God’s displeasure.  These are those for whom existence itself, and not only trials, is seen as a prison, life as a series of chains.  The message of the Gospel is that we can endure the trial without giving up on life, or seeing it as a curse.

“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” they ask the man who had been blind, that Jesus healed, before they drove him out.

When Jesus heard what had happened, he went and found the man and said “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him (John 9:34-38).

We have received the grace of God in being saved and called to follow Christ, in being truly known and truly loved.  We are called to share that grace with others, but it all begins with really seeing one another as God sees us.  And the hope we testify to is that while God may not remove all our trials, he will be with us in them.  Amen.

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