Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Defense of Tradition

"Apology" was originally derived from the Greek ἀπολογία, transliterated as the Latin apologia. The word is translated "speaking in defense," and it is from this root that we speak of "apologetics" as a discipline of argumentation and rhetoric. Nowadays, "apology" is much more often used as an expression of regret or remorse, an acknowledgement of shortcomings.

In this case, I feel both meanings are particularly apt. On the one hand, especially in a modernist society that attaches great value to individuality and originality, it sometimes seems necessary to apologize for advocating the ideas and institutions of the past. On the other hand, especially in a modernist society that has little respect for the wisdom and experiences of its predecessors, it must always be necessary to defend the ideas and institutions of the past.

A few days ago I posted G.K. Chesterton's famous defense of tradition as "the extension of the franchise" and as "the democracy of the dead." I think this approach is both necessary and effective. But the case for tradition extends far beyond mere egalitarian sentiment.

Tradition is not just democratic; it is essentially rational.

It should be obvious that every person has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. It should be equally obvious that this applies to both the whole as well as the part. Every society and culture carries certain advantages and disadvantages. This is not to say that all cultures are created equal -- I doubt anyone would volunteer to live among the Aztecs or Spartans -- but it is to say that no culture is perfectly utopian nor totally dystopian.

It also follows that every culture has its own peculiar blind spots. Certainly there is true of the early American republic, which preached freedom for all while enslaving the few. I think this principle can be safely applied for all people and for all times.

The only way to see past a blind spot is to change perspective. In order to be rational we must distrust our own reasons, and seek to view ourselves through the lens of other cultures, whether distinguished by time or by distance.. We who belong to the West ought to moderate our sometimes extreme individualism with the communal orientation of the East. Likewise, we who belong to the modern age out to recall the mores and traditions we inherit from the medieval ages.

It is wise to view our own culture through the lens of another, and that is the essence of tradition.

It often strikes us that many conventions and customs we inherit from the past seem to be quite non-rational. In the Whit Stillman film Metropolitan, the characters play a game where the loser must answer any question put to them, even if it betrays a secret. When one character, Audrey, objects, the others tease her and say they can't think of why they shouldn't place such a game. Audrey responds: "You don't have to! Other people have, and that's why it became a convention."

It is wise to abide by social customs, even when (and especially when) you cannot think of the reasons for it, and that is the essence of tradition.

On the other hand, it must be conceded that many of the ideas and institutions of the past are positively irrational, with something approaching contempt for reason. Yet this is not in itself an argument for their abolition. As a matter of history, almost all governments arose by an arbitrary concentration of power and prestige. Recorded instances of a "social contract" are vanishingly rare. Yet anarchists are few and far between. Despite the modern appetite for chaos in our art and originality in our ideas, stability is an essential good. In economic terms, it enables technological progress and capital accumulation; in personal terms, it allows us to plan for and anticipate the future.

It is wise to organize a society around the principle of stability, and that is the essence of tradition.

Finally, traditions are not limited to merely the realm of social convention. Traditions exist within intellectual disciplines and fields as well. The same principles above apply here as well, with still further benefits.

On the whole, intellectual traditions do not arise out of the input of common minds. Indeed, they do not even grow out of above-average minds. The paradigms of thought and the defining insights are almost always the product of geniuses.

We receive philosophy from the minds of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bacon and Descartes, among many many others. It is for this reason that my professional interest in economics began in the history of economic thought: by following the intellectual innovations through history, I trained myself to identify with and think like the great economists of history. I learned from the Greeks, from the Schoolman, from the Physiocrats, from the classical economists of Scotland and France, and from the modern economists of Chicago, Oxford, and Vienna.

In social circles, anyone and everyone contributes to tradition: that is its great democratic virtue. But in intellectual circles, only the brightest luminaries contribute to Reason's vast estate: that is its great aristocratic virtue. In such matters we follow tradition as the students of the medieval University would follow a teacher, eagerly seeking to learn from it, avidly scrounging for every scrap of wisdom it might dispense.

Tradition is not the sole good in the world. But I cannot deny that it is a very great good, and one that has been tragically underrated for far too long. This is my apology; here rests my defense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Reading maketh a full man"

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar.

They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores ["studies transform into customs"]. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like.

So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores [hair-splitters; literally, 'cutters of cumin seeds']. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind may have a special receipt.

Francis Bacon, "Of Studies," The Essays or Counsels, Moral and Civil
Hat-tip to Julie Robison at The Corner with a View.
For other essays, check out the complete text at Authorama.

Overview: On Mary

Of all the differences between Catholics and Protestants, the teachings concerning Mary are quite possibly the most contentious. They are also quite unfamiliar to someone like me, coming from a Protestant background. Yet I recognized that, while Marian devotions are often treated as de facto idolatry, it does not follow that they are intrinsically so, nor that we must reject them out of hand as spiritually deleterious.

Thus, after my notes on the Eucharist and on the Saints, a series concerning Marian dogma seemed to me a logical next step.

Mary, Mother of God introduced the topic by reference to the Marian dogma defined by the early Church: her role as Theokotos, "God-bearer." This dogma was asserted at Ephesus to counteract the Nestorian heresy that identified Jesus Christ as separately a human person and a divine person. On the contrary, Jesus of Nazareth was a single person of two natures; thus, the woman who bore him was not merely the bearer of the human Christ (Christotokos), but was the bearer of the full person, human and divine. Mary was the Mother of God.

This initial discussion clarifies several principles at the heart of Marian dogma.
  1. Mary's role in salvation history consists entirely in relation to Him; therefore, all Marian dogma originate in the context of Christology. We seek to understand the Son through His Mother, and to understand the Mother through her Son. It is for this reason that, in traditional Catholic and Orthodox iconography, Mary is always seen pointing to her child. It is her role.
  2. Marian dogma originated in the early Church and has been in a continual process of refinement ever since. It was not a late addition enforced by the authority of Rome.
  3. Marian dogma can be largely interpolated throughout New Testament passages -- that is, they have significant Scriptural support. These passages do not entail such readings in themselves, but that is not their function.
  4. Marian dogma developed largely in response to Old Testament typologies: that is, prefigurations of Christ and the New Covenant throughout Jewish history.
Mary, Ever Virgin outlined briefly the history of the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity. Its pedigree is from the earliest liturgies and writings of the Church, and by the fourth century it was so firmly grounded in Christian orthodoxy that it would not be denied until well after the Protestant Reformation. The dogma arose in response to a particular typology: the identification of Mary with the Ark of the Covenant. The old Ark contained three elements (the Decalogue, the jar of manna, and Aaron's staff) that were clear antecedents to Christ. From there it was simplicity itself to link the Ark itself (overshadowed by cherubim and bearing the figures of Christ) to Mary Theokotos.

Mary, Full of Grace speaks primarily to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This dogma was defined late in church history (initially in the fifteenth century, officially in 1854), but was grounded in the early Church. The Immaculate Conception is grounded in the typological reading of Christ as the second Adam and Mary as the second Eve. On this basis the Church inferred that Mary must have been in a state of innocence at the Annunciation, that she would be perfectly free to choose obedience, and that she would not be bound by a prior nature to sin.

Mary, Queen of Heaven primarily treats the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. The earliest marker lies in the nativity of Revelations 11:19-12:5, which speaks of Mary both as the Ark of the Covenant and as the Mother of God. But the imagery hearkens at yet another typology, from its regal imagery.  From the first verse of Matthew 1:1, Jesus Christ is identified as the Son of David and the rightful heir to the crown. Yet Solomon, who prefigured Christ, afforded great honors to his mother Bathsheba, and the Davidic line preserved the institution of Queen Mother for generations to follow. From this typology -- the relation of Mary to her royal Son -- the Church derived the dogma of her Assumption and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven.

Mary, Mother of the Church primarily concerns Mary's relation to believers today. This final note briefly touches on the typological connections between Mary, Israel, and the Church as the long-suffering servants and stewards of God (from which we derive the idea of Mary as 'co-redemptrix'). Indeed, the typology connecting Mary to the Church extends far beyond the idea of ongoing redemptive suffering. But Mary is not just a typology for the Church, for she is the Mother for another typology: Christ Himself. When Christ commanded the apostle John to take Mary into his own household and treat her as his mother, He addressed this command to all the faithful, all the disciples whom Jesus loved. Thus, Mary is entrusted to us as our own Mother, and receives our love and devotion in that regard. For we are the sons of God as we are brothers in Christ, and we are the children of Mary as we are the Body of Christ.

Having overcome my objections to Marian dogma, my next series of notes would treat the teachings on the Church, and the Catholic emphasis on ecclesiology.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Tradition... is the democracy of the dead"

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German history against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. the legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that in the past men were ignorant may go and urge it... along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils.

G.K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995 [1908]. Pp. 52-53. (Chapter 4: "The Ethics of Elfland").

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Property is merely the art of the democracy"

God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God must be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits. Man's pleasure, therefore, is to possess conditions, but also to be partly possessed by them; to be half-controlled by the flute he plays or by the field he digs. The excitement is to get the utmost out of given conditions; the conditions will stretch, but not indefinitely. A man can write an immortal sonnet on an old envelope, or hack a hero out of a lump of rock. But hacking a sonnet out of rock would be a laborious business, and making a hero out of an envelope is almost out of the sphere of practical politics. This fruitful strife with limitations, when it concerns some airy entertainment of the educate class, goes by the name Art. But the mass of men have neither time nor aptitude for the invention of invisible or abstract beauty. For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions--the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist; because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colours he admires; but he can pain  his own house with what colour he chooses; and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist; because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of Heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.

G.K. Chesterton. What's Wrong with the World? New York: Dover Edition, 2007.  Pg. 35 (Chapter 6: "The Enemies of Property").

Friday, May 6, 2011

I think I'm turning Catholic

Huh. So I think I'm turning Catholic.

My first encounter with Catholicism was not a positive one. When I was younger, I asked a girl if she was Christian. She replied: "No, I'm not Christian! I'm Catholic." Again, not exactly a positive experience.

My second encounter with Catholicism was quite a bit better. It was at a religion and economics conference, where I finally met an adult Catholic who knew about his faith and doctrine, and could explain why. His brief clarification on the subject of the saints resolved that issue before it even became a major objection for me.

Over my college life I met a number of other Catholics. The ones who actively identified themselves that way tended to be doctrinally orthodox and intellectually active, so I respected them a good deal. I even knew one friend who 'converted' to Catholicism in his senior year of college. At the time, however, I viewed it as I might view a switch between Baptist and Lutheran, not as a particularly noteworthy event.

When I was 17 I had my big spiritual experience, and the life of my faith has been (for lack of a better word) quite lively ever since. My primary mode of worship was in theology; my primary mode of pursuing God was by reason. I don't believe it's objectively better or worse than other modes (as Scripture tells us, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength") but it worked quite well for me.

Near the end of last year, however, I discovered something that came as quite a shock. My theology was over 50% Catholic. Without quite realizing it, my faith had developed within a substantially Catholic framework. I think I can blame C.S. Lewis -- the ostensibly Anglican but universally Christian apologist whose works are acclaimed by Protestants yet informed by a thoroughgoing Catholic worldview.

At this point I was not Catholic, for there remained quite a few hold-outs of Protestant doctrine. But at that moment I realized I needed to take Catholicism and Catholic doctrines seriously.

So I began my investigation, and my objections starting tumbling, one by one. The initial realization had begun with the Eucharist, and thanks to my earlier experiences I already had a firm grasp of the Saints. Mary was a bigger stumbling-block, so I started in on the Marian doctrines next.

The next step was the Catholic teachings on Salvation. I knew of the whole "faith v. works" debate from the Reformation years, and my instincts on the matter were entirely Protestant. But when I finally understood the Catholic perspective, I found it impossible to maintain my objection to it. Ironically, the same books that led Luther to reject Catholic teachings (Romans and Galatians) for me actually paved the way to the Catholic Church in this matter.

The next step was the Catholic understanding of the Church. Predictably, as I was a Protestant, my primary objections were to Tradition and to the Magisterium. On the other hand, my theology had been rooted for some time in a kind of traditionalism (mostly thanks to C.S. Lewis), so these elements had a sort of instinctive appeal for me. Nevertheless, these doctrines took the longest to accept.

In the end, out of a few dozen objections I'd started with several months before, I was reduced to very few. The two doctrinal points were the Marian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the ecclesial doctrine of papal infallibility. The other was much broader: the insistence on non-Christological doctrine as prerequisites for participation in the Eucharist. Over the next several weeks of focused study, these objections fell as well.

I don't fully understanding Catholicism -- if I imagined I did, I should be ashamed of my conceit. Nor do I deny that there are many sins committed and many errors believed by Catholics. Moreover, I can hardly deny that the Catholic culture is anything but foreign to me. But these are not objections. I question whether full understanding is ever in our grasp, I am hardly surprised to find that people sin, and my cultural shock will no doubt be overcome in time.

It boils down to this: the doctrinal objections that would keep me away have fallen like dominoes. My acceptance of Catholicism at this point seems like a matter of intellectual honesty.

I write this note as an open invitation. I will begin the formal process of becoming Catholic next week, by starting RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes at the parish. But while I can hardly help but treat it as a foregone conclusion, I don't want to ignore potential difficulties. If you have major objections to Catholic doctrine, I would love to hear them. I will continue posting my notes on Catholicism, and will continue to explore the themes and topics discussed in this note. But I trust in others to see where I am blind and to catch where I miss.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Christ the Bridegroom: #3

**This is the third of a three-part reflection on "Christ the Bridegroom." The essay was guest posted by a close personal friend of mine who was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. This section begins with an Orthodox Hymn for Holy Tuesday.**
I see your bridal chamber
All adorned, my Savior,
But I have no wedding garment,
That I may enter therein.
Make radiant the vesture of my soul,
O Giver of Light, and save me!

There remains one aspect of our marriage with Christ, however, which seemed to elude my understanding. Namely, if our relationship to Christ truly feels romantic love for us, and if this relationship is a true marriage, where is its physical consummation?

After all, the very reason that sexual temptation had been so hard for me to resist had been because I didn’t feel that I could have any sort of physical connection with God the way I could with another human being. By the point at which I was asking this question, I had already come to accept that my longing for physical union could not be separated from my desire for spiritual and intellectual union as well, but my relationship with God seemed only capable of existing on the spiritual and intellectual planes. How, then, were all three parts of my being to be united in Christ?

The answer to this question is more obvious if you come from a Catholic or Orthodox background.

It's the Eucharist.

In the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are literally partaking in (taking into ourselves) the Body of Christ. His flesh becomes one with our own, just like the physical consummation of a marriage. In that sense Christ’s Passion on the cross literally merges with His romantic passion for us, and the very act of physical union (the Eucharist) becomes in itself salvational.

As I said before, this truth is perhaps more intuitive if you come from a faith background that believes in transubstantiation because you are literally consuming the Body of Christ, but it makes sense on the metaphorical level as well. In fact even though the great English reformer John Wesley saw communion as purely a symbolic act, he still felt that partaking in communion had the power to save souls and thus allowed it even to non-believers.

If Christ is our lover, however, and we are His bride, doesn’t it follow that we should be in love with Him in the romantic sense as well? I realize that this may be especially strange for men to contemplate, but the obvious answer to that rhetorical question is yes. At first this seemed nearly impossible to me because I had never thought it appropriate for me to be romantically in love with God. To me God was a father, savior, brother, priest and confessor, but I had never before pictured him as my husband and lover in the fullest sense of the words. I had never before considered what it would look like to be in love with him in the same sense as a human lover.

That was when I had the epiphany that Christ is the ultimate romantic hero that I had always dreamed of meeting. He has all the virtues I yearn for in a soul mate, and He is passionately in love with me. Who could ask for anything more?

Once I had accepted the full implication of my bridehood, I began to see the evidence of Christ the Bridegroom all around me, and to understand it more fully. The Song of Songs with all its fleshly, passionate imagery—a book whose spirituality seemed vague at best to me—suddenly not only made perfect sense, but also became one of the most beautiful books in the Bible. It also proves that God has been our lover since the beginning of time, and that Christ’s Passion and his role as the Bridegroom is simply fulfillment of a relationship clearly lined out in the Old Testament.

Looking at my own faith tradition, I realized that the Orthodox Church places such value on the image of Christ as the Bridegroom that they dedicate a whole day in Holy Week (Holy Tuesday) exclusively to that aspect of Him. In fact, Holy Tuesday in the Orthodox tradition is also called Bridegroom Tuesday. The services for Holy Tuesday focus on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and the congregation prays that we will remain vigilant, with hearts prepared to receive our King and our Lover. Then in hymns and odes we contemplate our own unworthiness to be united thus with Christ’s divinity. Continuing with the theme of repentance and building on the theme from the Old Testament of Hosea’s marriage to the prostitute Gomer as a metaphor for our own desertion of God, the Orthodox sing the Hymn of Kassiani (quoted in the last section), which tells of the prostitute who anointed Christ’s feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair.

Interestingly, it is an Orthodox man who gave us our only extended allegory of Christ as Bridegroom in fiction: Fyodor Dostoevsky , in "The Idiot." Indeed, the bridegroom allegory is the centerpiece of the novel. The majority of the narrative chronicles the romantic pursuit by Prince Myshkin (the Christ figure) of two woman: the tragic fallen Nastassya Fillipovna, and the beautiful and virtuous Aglaia. Some reviewers write that Prince Myshkin's 'love' for Nastassya Filipovna is only pity and Christian charity. After all, Nastassya is so embittered, so base in some of her actions, that it seems impossible for a noble prince to feel romantic love—that deep, abiding admiration and all-consuming passion—for a person like her. Yet a close reading of the text does not support that assertion.

In the first part of the book especially, Myshkin displays all the symptoms of a man deeply in love, complete with professions of adoration and stammering and blushing in Nastassya’s presence. Even when she completely degrades herself and involves Myshkin in her disgrace through their failed engagements, Myshkin still feels deeply enough for her to leave everything for her once again. Although he appears less passionate and adoring near the end of the story, his lack of zeal does not indicate any cooling of his romantic feelings for Nastassya but rather the natural concern he feels over the dangerous course of action she persists in and her seeming mental instability. The humbling thing we must remember, though, is that Myshkin’s love for the undeserving Nastassya is a direct allegory for how we are infinitely undeserving to be the bride of Christ. Thus, the fact that Myshkin’s love does not seem to make sense simply echoes the profound mystery of Christ’s love for us.

I began my journey towards understanding Christ as the Bridegroom and myself as the bride by lamenting my sins with Kassiani’s prostitute. On a certain level I will continue to lament my sins even though I know God forgives them and “remembers them no more.” But now I have moved beyond blank despair because I paradoxically know that despite my baseness, I am wedded to Christ, my true husband, and destined for the glory of being completely united with Him. Thus I pray the words of the Orthodox hymn for Holy Tuesday: that He may “make radiant the vesture of my soul,” so that I may enter the bridal chamber ordained for me.

Check out the rest of this essay at:
Christ the Bridegroom: #1
Christ the Bridegroom: #2
Christ the Bridegroom: #3

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Christ the Bridegroom: #2

**This is the second entry in three-part reflection on "Christ the Bridegroom." The essay was guest posted by a close personal friend of mine who was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. This section begins with the Hymn of Kassiani, justly acclaimed as perhaps the most famous (and most musically demanding) hymns in the Orthodox liturgy. It is sung on Tuesday of Holy Week for the matins of Great and Holy Wednesday.**
Sensing Thy divinity, O Lord, a woman of many sins
takes it upon herself to become a myrrh-bearer,
And in deep mourning brings before Thee fragrant oil
in anticipation of Thy burial; crying:
"Woe to me! For night is unto me oestrus of lechery,
a dark and moonless eros of sin.
Receive the wellsprings of my tears,
O Thou who gatherest the waters of the oceans into clouds.
Bend to me, to the sorrows of my heart,
O Thou who bendedst down the heavens in Thy ineffable self-emptying.
I will kiss Thine immaculate feet
and dry them with the locks of my hair;
Those very feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise
and hid herself in fear.
Who shall reckon the multitude of my sins,
or the abysses of Thy judgment, O Saviour of my soul?
Do not ignore Thy handmaiden,
O Thou whose mercy is without end.
I open this article with Kassiani’s eponymous hymn because the lament of the “woman of many sins” in that poem could very well have been the cry of my soul at one time in my life. Although not engaged in prostitution like the speaker in the hymn, I had let my fleshly desires alienate me from God in a more profound way than I ever dreamed possible. So diseased was the state of my soul that I became physically ill and mentally withdrawn for weeks.

Sadly, this was far from the first time I had struggled with sexual issues in my life, and through my battles I have learned that sexual impurity has become an epidemic among Christian women in my generation. Yet these sins are so personal and so deeply stigmatic that most Christian women suffer in silence, afraid to admit their problems even to their churches, who are supposed to be there to help them with just such issues.

I know I personally lived in dread of anyone knowing what a hypocrite I was, but I also knew I needed someone to pray with me and to keep me accountable with God. So by God’s grace, I finally had courage to confide in a friend about my struggles, and she gave me a rather remarkable book by Shannon Ethridge called "Every Woman’s Battle," which offers comfort and advice to Christian women in their struggle for sexual purity.

This book forced me to confront a fact that I had sensed for years but feared to put into words: namely, that the reason Christian women today make such horrible mistakes in their love lives is because they are searching for something they feel they cannot find in God. The reason that romantic love holds such an appeal for women is because being utterly adored in the romantic sense is the highest validation of our self-worth that we can have. This combined with the joy of union with the person we love above all others on earth creates an irresistible pull on the hearts and minds—and, through those conduits, the bodies—of most women. Yes, I saw this more clearly than ever in my own life. My sexual impurity stemmed from a perversion and obsession with romantic love, something I felt I could not get from God. I could sense this truth penetrating to the depths of my soul even as my mind tried to deny it.

In order to receive the healing I needed, I had to uncover my identity as the Bride of Christ, and I had to realize that this was not an arranged marriage but a love-match.

As I was trying to understand what being the Beloved of Christ meant, I first had to remind myself of all the things that romantic love entails, and then apply that to my vision of God. First of all, romantic love is an all-consuming passion for the beloved. I could picture that. I remembered being in love myself, and I could also remember seeing that blissful look of utter adoration of the face of lovers as they contemplated their beloved. Is that, I wondered, the look on Christ’s face as he gazes at each of us?

Romantic love is also a love that exults in all good while forgiving all shortcomings, a love that elevates the beloved above all else. Yes, I could see that as being true of God because it says in the Bible that Christ not only forgives our sins but also that He “remembers them no more.” There is no condemnation, therefore, in His love. In addition, He must also value us more than Himself or He would not have died a horrible death for us.

Romantic love, however, is not a love that admires from a distance. Rather, it is a deep desire for union with the beloved. We humans are communal creatures in essence, and romantic love is the deepest form of communion possible because connects us with the beloved in all three parts of our essential being: the spiritual, intellectual, and physical being. This kind of communion also exists within the Godhead because God is one in essence but three persons working in perfect harmony.

This means romantic love is more than merely consistent with the character of God. It means that the human ability to feel romantic love is not some base or biological instinct for procreation, but is rather a facet of the imago dei (image of God) which we bear.

All this made sense to me on a certain level at least, but when I looked at the darkness in my own soul—I, who had been a devout Christian all my life—it seemed to be nothing more than an exquisite but impossible dream.

It is truly one of the great mysteries of our faith that a wholly good, beautiful, transcendent, omniscient God could be in love with any one of us, let alone each of us, since we are so flawed, petty, and ugly each in our own unique way. Yet that would explain why He bothers to saves us all individually instead of letting His sacrifice automatically propel all human souls to heaven.

It is not mere immortality that Christ desired to give us through His death and resurrection, but rather a restoration of our intended union with God.

This also fits perfectly with the Protestant insistence that the Christian religion is a “close personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” There is no closer personal relationship than a marriage, which is literally the joining of two people into one. So Christ doesn’t just love us in a benevolent agape sense, nor is He the lover of merely our souls. In order to be our husband He must be our lover in every sense: soul, mind, and body.

Check out the rest of this essay at:
Christ the Bridegroom: #1
Christ the Bridegroom: #2
Christ the Bridegroom: #3

Monday, May 2, 2011

Christ the Bridegroom: #1

**This three-part reflection on "Christ the Bridegroom" was contributed by a guest author as a response to my earlier note on the Church as The Bride of Christ. The essay is subtitled: A Reflection on Spirituality, Sexuality, and the Implications of Our Mystic Marriage. The author is a close personal friend of mine who was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, and who has helped me considerably in understanding Orthodox beliefs. The epigraph is from Song of Songs 7:10.**

I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me.

Of all the metaphors we have been given for Christ’s relationship with us (and His love for us), the one I think that we as Christians contemplate and analyze the least is that of Christ as the Bridegroom, Christ the lover. I would venture to guess that many of us feel more than vaguely uncomfortable picturing Christ as some love-struck character from a chick-flick, pursuing some romantic object. It seems almost sacrilegious. Our minds can associate Him with the loves philos and agape without problem, but romantic love, eros, seems too base, too fleshly for the eternal divinity of God. It’s one thing to say that Christ loves us, after all, but how can He be in love with any single lowly human in the sense of the all-consuming adoration that we associate with romantic passion? How can He be in a marriage with any of us?

Yet the image of Christ as a lover is deeply Biblical. Not only that, I’ve come to realize that if we do not consider Him in that light, we may obstruct the ability of Christ’s love to transform our lives in the way He intends for us.

I know that I personally had great difficulty comprehending that being "the Bride of Christ" was a work of romantic love, and that it was a love for me personally as well as for the church as a whole. I think in general it's much easier for contemporary Christians to view Christ as having a passion for humanity collectively because this seems more fitting for the Son of God and less like the kind of subjective whim we associate with romantic impulses—or the lecherous deities of Greek mythology. Of course Christ does love humanity collectively in the romantic sense, but this does not mean that He cannot love us each individually in the romantic sense as well. After all, he is and infinite God.

For me personally, associating Christ with romantic love seemed so counter-intuitive that it required me to clarify both my ideas about romantic love and the nature of God.  The first thing that came to mind when I thought about God is that God is love. That being the case, I realized that his essence must encompass all forms of love, including romantic love (eros).

Then I realized that -- though I had always considered eros to be a lowly human form of love -- eros in its true form is the highest form of love, because it also contains philos and agape within it. Since God is love, therefore, and romantic love is the highest expression of love, it must follow that God is not only capable of romantic love but that His very existence is a constant outpouring of romantic love for His beloved.

And of course whenever we hear the words "Christ’s beloved," we reflexively think of the Church. In fact I know I had personally heard the phrase “beloved of Christ” so often that it had lost all meaning for me. But perhaps that was because I had never considered it in a proper light. I had short-changed the nature of Christ’s love for us because I had never been taught to analyze the fact that His marriage to us implies romantic love, and that His romantic love is a love for us as individuals as well as communally. Had I only known the true nature of my bridehood earlier in my life, I could have saved myself a whole world of grief.

Check out the rest of this essay at:
Christ the Bridegroom: #1
Christ the Bridegroom: #2
Christ the Bridegroom: #3

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 6

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?

Romans 6:1-2 ~~ Paul issues the authoritative smack-down of the antinomian heresy.

Romans 6:3-5 ~~ Paul speaks of the atonement and the sacraments in this passage. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into that, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life." This passage indicates that the crucial moment of atonement, the prime salvific event, is not defined by the Cross. By dying Christ triumphed over death; by living, Christ ensured the future resurrection of the body. Baptism unites us to Christ in recapitulating the Cross, but it is His Resurrection that gives us eternal life.

Romans 6:5-11 ~~ An extended meditation on the passion and death of Christ, and how that transforms our lives by enabling us to die to sin by dying and living in Him.

Romans 6:7 ~~ "For he who has died is freed from sin." This is integral to the passage as a whole, but I can't help but think of it atomistically, as an general principle unto itself. This would have pretty serious ramifications to our theology of suffering and death, though I'm not sure if I could do such ideas justice here.

Romans 6:16-19 ~~ Paul applies the metaphor of slavery both to our prior condition of sinfulness, and to our redeemed condition of sanctity. He clarifies that "I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh." In Galatians, he contrasts between our slavery to sin and our sonship in Christ, which is a much more powerful and liberating analogy. On the other hand, that passage was primarily about the doctrine of liberty, whereas this passage seeks to counter the antinomian heresy (that advocates freedom even to sin) and therefore emphasizes our obedience.  When our heart belongs to God, all things are lawful (though not all things are profitable; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:23). When our hearts wrestle with sin, we must be very careful indeed.

Romans 6:22 ~~ It's a limited analogy, pertaining to our weakness in the flesh, but it still carries weight. "But now, having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive the benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life." The verse that follows is better known, but this one's pretty spectacular as well. It should be noted that the following verse only speaks to our slavery to God (and thus, only to grace received as a free gift) rather than our sonship in Christ (and thus to the grace and glory that has become our inheritance).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Overview: On the Saints

Protestants don't know how to handle the saints.

It's not that we dislike them. Growing up, I read quite a bit about Eric Liddel and Gladys Alyward and other historical "Jesus Freaks" (DC Talk for the win). Admittedly, some of the biographies I read were so hellaciously boring (I'm looking at you, William Carey) that at times I was ready to cast such books into the fires of eternal perdition. But on the whole I looked pretty favorably on the saints.

Yet another instinct runs much deeper. Protestants churches embody a pervasive attitude of solus Christus and sola gloria Deo: Christ alone, and glory to God alone. I never even heard these phrases growing up, but I never needed to. At a unconscious level, these have defined the central Protestant instinct.  Protestants are terrified of idolatry. The line of demarcation couldn't be clearer: God is God, and we are not.  We fear giving to any creature any glory or honor or respect that properly belongs to its Creator.

Thus, it was quite a journey to arrive at a Catholic theology of the saints from this instinctive Protestant distancing.  The first point on my journey was through the Eucharist. We partake of the same Body of Christ, the same marriage supper of the Lamb, as every other Christian, both living and dead.  This is the foundation of the Communion of the Saints.

The next step in my journey was recognizing the Intercession of the Saints. When I have a problem, I don't hesitate to ask for prayer from one of the many little old ladies sitting faithfully in the back pews of the church. They are holier than me, they are older and more mature than me, and it is natural to ask them for prayer. Now, why does that not apply to the saints who are much older, much wiser, and much holier than me? That is, why doesn't it apply to the saints who now live in the unmitigated Presence of God? Why should I deprive myself of such stalwart company in the faith?

At this point, Protestants get a bit queasy: prayers to the saints?  Indeed, this teaching so disconcerted some of the early Protestant reformers that they actively denied that the saints are alive in Christ. Rather, they advocated a doctrine of Christian mortalism or 'soul sleep.' Yet even John Calvin opposed his fellow Reformers in this regard, and the doctrine could not withstand the combined testimony of all of historical Christendom. To this day, 'soul sleep' is only held by Anglicans and Adventists, and the Life of the Saints is upheld by Catholics, Orthodox, and almost all modern Protestant denomination.

One final point remains. Even if we can accept their intercession, and even if we can submit our prayers requests to the heavenly legions, many would still take issue with honoring them. The Veneration of the Saints is the most direct offense against sola gloria Deo. The instinct is undoubtedly good and God-honoring, yet it misses an important fact. All glory belongs to God; but God chose to honor us. He dignified us by creating us, sustaining us, and most important by becoming Man Himself and including us in the Family of God. He didn't hesitate to honor those faithful to Him, so why should we?  So long as we recognize that all glory is due to Him and springs forth from Him, there is no error and no evil in seeing that glory reflected in others.

Having dispensed with my objections to the saints, the next phase of my journey would be considerably more challenging. For however strongly Protestants wrestle with the saints, we object much more strongly to the teachings On Mary. That was the next necessary obstacle to overcome.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Overview: On the Eucharist

Ironically, it was an atheist who first pushed me to Catholicism.

Several years ago, PZ Myers (a fairly notorious "New Atheist") decided, just for kicks, to desecrate the Eucharist. There was quite an uproar after he posted the pictures online. When I first heard about this incident, I was sickened, disgusted, appalled... words don't do justice to it.

A few months later, I overheard something that affected me deeply. I describe it in my note The Eucharist. In brief: a mother described communion to her young daughter as mere "pretending." Obviously this wasn't an accurate presentation of Protestant views of communion. But this incident, along with the earlier one, forced me to a realization. For the first time in my life, I recognized that there was something unequivocally sacred about the Eucharist.

I also recognized that this instinctual understanding was not derived from my Protestantism. Consciously, my theology was informed solely by memorialism. Communion was a remembrance of the Last Supper: a symbol of the faith and an ordinance to the faithful.

But this was not sufficient. That was the moment I realized my Eucharist theology was entirely and wholeheartedly Catholic. I already believed in The Real Presence; I just didn't have the vocabulary to describe it.

This discovery brought me to another. If Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, shouldn't that be the focus of our attention? Shouldn't it be the centerpiece of our worship? Isn't the Eucharist precisely the foundation to the Communion of the Saints?  Indeed, isn't the Eucharist central to our identity as a Church, as the Body of Christ?

The Eucharist opened the door to Catholicism. My next series of posts, On the Saints, would dismantle the first major obstacle that had kept me out in the first place.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review: "Love Wins"

**One of my friends, Josh Chambers, posted a brief Facebook status on "Love Wins," a book he had recently finished reading. I, Publius, asked about his opinion of the book, and he responded with a number of comments that looked for all the world like a standard-length book review. I asked and received permission to post here.  Enjoy!**

I just finished reading "Love Wins" by Rob Bell. I see why it caused a controversy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the perspective Bell brought to the whole 'heaven and hell' scene.

When the book was first publicized, "Love Wins" was portrayed by many evangelicals as a universalist tract. Indeed, Rob Bell makes some claims that are universalist-esque, mainly that all punishment is for the purpose of redemption and thus hell cannot be forever. His reasoning is chiefly based on attempting to ascertain the nature of God as loving and using that to argue that such a god would not change his nature toward an individual after death in exacting justice upon them when He has given him/her nothing but mercy and grace for the duration of his/her life. Bell argues that this trend would invariably continue, and that hell would only last as long as the individual therein continued to reject the grace God was continually offering him/her even at that point.

One of the things Rob Bell writes is that God wants everyone to come to Him, and poses the question "doesn't God always get what He wants"? I found numerous flaws with this logic, first and foremost because it is not our place to attempt to ascertain the nature of God, especially in our dealings with us. Secondly, God's justice is as perfect and as complete as his mercy, and the New Testament makes it very clear that eternal death is the just punishment for the things we do that separate us from God. I do not believe that anyone will experience that spiritual death as it were, unless they were shown the full extent of God's grace toward them, but there will be those who choose to invariably reject that grace and in thus doing accept the full brunt of condemnation by the One to whom they have turned their back.

His conjecture about the nature of hell suggests that the "eternal" aspect thereof refers not to an indefinite duration of time, but rather to an "intensity of experience" which he pulls out of a hat after some fancy Greek kung-fu, and that this intensity of experience coupled with the continued dispersion of God's grace toward the deceased in this "hell" constitute a fulfillment of God's justice, and allows them to then enter the kingdom of God.

All that said, a great deal of the book shifted the focus toward what's going on here on the earth right now. Jesus DID say that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and Bell argues that "heaven" or the "age to come" actually occurs when God fuses the spiritual realm with this one, and creates a perfect society. As such, strides we make toward a more fulfilled world without hate, dissension, hunger, disease and other such calamities is actually us letting God use us as instruments of His kingdom, bringing it closer and closer to right here, right now. I appreciated the focus on eternal life not being something that begins in the distant future and is comprised of angels in white robes with perfect voices and streets of pure gold, but as a reality that is being brought more and more into focus as His people make strides toward God's will for their lives, and for the world. It doesn't happen in the twinkling of an eye, its a process that is completed on the day of the LORD, when he returns.

The book was intriguing and thought provoking, but also fairly radical in its claims. I liked the questions it asked, not necessary the answers it attempted to supply. That said, I'd recommend that you read it for yourself and see what you think. It's well worth the time to read.

To purchase this book, check out
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedReligion & Spirituality Books)

This was originally posted at Worthy of Note.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Vicar of Christ

These days, the phrase "vicar of Christ" used almost exclusively within the Catholic Church. Among Catholics, it is applied almost exclusively to the clergy. Among the clergy, it is applied almost exclusively to the Pope.

This telescoping interpretation certainly has an impressive pedigree. As a papal honorific, it dates to the synod of 495 during the regnal years of Pope Gelasius I. As a general descriptor of the clergy (specifically the bishops), it dates back to the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of St. John the Apostle and the third bishop of Antioch, reportedly appointed by St. Peter himself. The doctrine can be found in both the Catechism and Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church.

But while this gloss of the phrase is certainly accurate, I find it rather inadequate.

The word "vicar" is derived from the Latin vicarius, meaning 'deputy' or 'representative.' We derive "vicarious" from the same root. A vicar stands and speaks on behalf of someone else.

But is this not the Church?  After His resurrection and ascension, Christ left His ongoing work of spreading the gospel to the twelve apostles. The twelve, and all who learned the gospel by their testimony, were commissioned (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8) as members of His Body and witnesses to His Gospel to baptize in His Name.

This is widely held as the meaning of 1 Peter 2:4-5, which reads: "And coming to him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." In a similar vein, after quoting Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, and Isaiah 8:14, the passage continues in verses 9-10 with a litany of Old Testament references: "But you are 'a chosen race' [cf. Isaiah 43:20], a 'royal priesthood' [cf. Psalms 110:4 and Isaiah 61:6], a 'holy nation' and 'a people for God's own possession' [cf. Exodus 19:5-6], so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light."

Certainly, this principle can be found through the Christian message. Adam sinned as a representative of humanity. The high priest stood vicariously for the people of Israel to offer the annual sacrifice within the Holy of Holies. Christ came as a 'second Adam' to redeem humanity by His vicarious sacrifice. The apostles were first deputized by Christ to act as His representatives during His public ministry, then commissioned and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve as "ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1). We participate vicariously in Christ's holiness as "sons of God" (Galatians 2), confess our sins vicariously to God through one another (James 5:16), and intercede on each others' behalf through prayer (1 Timothy 2:1).

The principle of vicariousness is at the heart of authentically Catholic teaching. Indeed, the foundational Catholic doctrine of sacramentality (the understanding that God dispenses grace through vessels of the physical world) is itself an expression of this very principle. Creation is the vicar of her Creator.

One final point: I find it interesting that the same phrase "vicar of Christ" was applied in the early Church not only to the bishops but also to the Holy Spirit itself, at least in the writings of Tertullian. For indeed the Holy Spirit is central and instrumental to the Great Commission and the Church's ongoing work. It enables the apostles to preach with boldness at Pentecost, and even today it enables us to confess that "Jesus is Lord" (1 Corinthians 12:3).

In our individual bodies, we are called "temples of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19). The corporate body of the Church may be considered a temple in the same way.

Just as Christ is the Body of the Church, the Holy Spirit is indeed her soul.

The Church is empowered and ensouled by the Holy Spirit. This is the root of Catholic teachings about Scripture and Tradition, at the heart of the Sacred Magisterium itself. But I leave that subject for the next series of posts.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Week: A Lenten Fast

As readers of this blog will know, I have recently been exploring the Catholic faith and practice. I grew up an evangelical Protestant but I've found myself drawn to the Roman Catholic Church.

Parallel to these theological explorations, I have been immersing myself in Catholic practice and discipline. One aspect of this has been my participation in Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week.

When I was growing up, I knew a number of people who did Lent-related activities -- some of my friends even organized 'prayer fasts' for several days at a time. I never participated, and never really understood the appeal of fasting. My faith has always been more rational than experiential, so it was almost like speaking a different language. However, many of them talked about the benefits and insights they gained, so over time my curiosity grew. This year, with the added incentive of immersing myself in Catholicism, I jumped in headfirst.

I organized my Lenten fast around the "Official Lenten Regulations for the Archdiocese of Seattle" (published here by St. Michael's Parish in Olympia). To briefly encapsulate: I would limit myself to a single meal each weekday, though I could add two smaller 'supplemental meals' if I needed to "maintain strength." I would also abstain from meats on each Friday of Lent. These restrictions would not carry over to the weekends.

This is what I learned:

1) Fasting sucks.

The first week of my fast, I felt terrible. Fortunately there were no restrictions on liquids, so I consumed a lot of those over the past few weeks. I also added multivitamins to my routine, mostly to ensure I wouldn't die of scurvy. It did get easier over time, but not by much.

2) Fasting recalls us to humility.

Before I fasted, I used to imagine that I could be pretty self-sacrificial if called upon. I loved God and I loved my neighbor, so the idea of casting my health, wealth, or personal security aside for the sake of another was not out of the question. After several weeks of fasting, all I can say is: yikes. There's a life lesson here: never imagine that you are more virtuous than you actually are. God might tell you to act like it.  Fasting was an excellent way to remind me that I'm still fallible, still weak, and still desperately in need of His strength and support.

3) Fasting moves us to solidarity.

For most of human history, there was always a question of whether you would have food on the table today, tomorrow, or for the next season. Even today, in many parts of the world, there is still starvation and malnutrition. By voluntarily depriving yourself of food, you suffer alongside others. Is there a more central command in the Christian faith, than to take up your cross daily? "Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

4) Fasting encourages self-control.

This is sometimes described as "mortification of the flesh." That sounds fairly barbaric, like an Inquisitorial rack, but the word pretty accurately conveys the Christian discipline. After all, we as Christians are constantly reminded of the need to die to ourselves and therefore live in Christ. The ascetics disciplined their flesh in more visceral ways as a reminder to suffer with Christ. Even the lesser degrees of mortification, such as fasting, help remind us to suffer with Christ and die with Him.

5) Fasting points us to prayer.

The first week of fasting was just awful. Prayer seemed to help quite a bit. It didn't make me less hungry -- certainly the rumblings of my stomach didn't decrease in volume or frequency -- but it helped me shift my attention to God. As I grow mature in my faith, I imagine I will identify considerable more meaning and importance in this aspect of fasting.

6) Fasting teaches us a 'vital rhythm' of Christian life.

The liturgical calendar tends to vary between fasts and feasts. During the weekdays we limit our meals, but over weekends we can enjoy three square meals, or even more. There are even a few Holy Days of Obligation (that is, feast days) during the Lenten season, such as the Solemnity of the Annunciation. This variance helps us realize that we are not called to enjoy a perpetual emotional "high" from our faith, nor should fasts continue without end. There are seasons for everything.  For many years I felt keenly the absence of God and the lack of an experiential component of my faith. When I was older, I realized that this was deliberate: I was supposed to yearn for that sort of experience, so that it would be more powerful and more preserving when I actually experienced it.

7) Fasting reminds us of the Passion of our Lord.

Christ lived so that He could die. We preach a resurrected Christ, but we preach a Christ who was first crucified. Fasting reminds us that Christ conquered death, and redeemed suffering. Indeed, by fasting, we can participate in and recapitulate the willing self-sacrifice of our Lord. Because of the Cross, suffering is tremendously redemptive, not only for ourselves, but also for others.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week: Tenebrae

"It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said 'Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit!' Having said this, He breathed His last." Luke 23:44-46

"And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen sleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many." Matthew 27:50-53

"Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl upon the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying 'It is done.' And there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth, so great and so mighty an earthquake." Revelation 16:17-18

A few years ago, in the weeks before Easter, I played a set of sonatas at my church, piano transcriptions from an orchestral work by Joseph Haydn, "The Seven Last Words of Our Redeemer on the Cross." For the Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday, I played the seventh sonata, inspired from the Latin Vulgate of the first passage above: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum. The piece is slow and somber, and the end of the movement fades away on a series of quietly repeated major chords. Then, out of nowhere, attaca subito: "attack suddenly," without pause.

This is perhaps the most physically demanding pieces of music I have ever played. From a majestic Largo we are launched abruptly into a movement marked Presto e con tutta la forza: "as fast as possible, with all your strength." But however terrifying this piece is at a technical level, it was even more demanding emotionally; for this is the fearsome Il Terremoto. Yes, you read that right: it is, literally, a musical earthquake.

The previous movement, the last of the seven sonatas, gave us a musical representation of Christ's last moments of life. We witness the heart-rending silence of His final breath. But suddenly the very stones cry out at His silence (Luke 19:40), and we witness the earth-rending revolt of the rocks themselves.

This is what we commemorate in the Tenebrae services of Holy Week; this is why we celebrate Good Friday.  For we worship a God who conquered death, and our God stoops to conquer. "But we preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23). We worship the God Who Died.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Week: The Body of Christ

I'm not sure there's a more fitting time to reflect on the Church as the Body of Christ, as specifically that day in Holy Week that commemorates the body of Christ broken for us.

Instead of my usual essay-length reflection on a single theme, I want to reflect briefly on multiple themes that are drawn from this single image.

The Body of Christ is Eucharistic. This is the heart of the sacrament, the essence of our communion. "Take, eat; this is My body" (Matthew 26:26). When we eat of the bread and the wine, we partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

It is for this reason that Romans 8:1 speaks of "those who are in Christ Jesus" and Romans 8:29 states that "those whom [God] foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn of many brethren." It is for this reason that 2 Peter 1:4 calls us to "become partakers of the divine nature." It is for this reason that Catholics speak of divine filiation -- our divine sonship -- and the Orthodox speak of deification and theosis -- literally "becoming God."

The sacrament of Eucharist is the centerpiece of our Christian identity: it defines us as a Church and as followers of Christ. Every other meaning and attribute given below flows from this central point.

The Body of Christ is empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the inauguration of His public ministry, Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. At this point, Scripture records that "while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Hi in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased" (Luke 3:21-22). In the same way, Catholics celebrate the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, Protestants celebrate the conversion experience of being "born again," and certain Pentecostals and charismatics elevate "speaking in tongues" (glossolalia) and "baptism in the Holy Spirit." There is a profound connection within the Church connecting the Body of Christ with the "soul" of the Holy Spirit.

The Body of Christ is invisible. We assert this at a Christological level in the doctrine of the Ascension. We also find in Scripture references to "vast cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) that demonstrate that the Church is comprised not merely of the Church Militant -- we who fight and persevere on this Earth -- but also the Church Triumphant that has entered eternal life. Even in the Eucharist, we bear witness to the "marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9) that unites all the saints, both the quick and the dead.

The Body of Christ is begotten of God. Jesus Christ was set apart from birth, born blameless and holy before God. To repeat a point from a previous note, this is why Catholics insist on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. She is preserved from the stain of original sin and is perfected by faith so that Jesus might inherit a perfect and fully human nature Himself. As far as this applies to the Church, we assert that the Body of Christ is spotless and without fault. The Church is clothed only in the righteous deeds of the saints (Revelation 19:8): our failures do not diminish it.

The Body of Christ is visible. As a purely historical matter, Christianity asserts the fact of the Incarnation. From an eschatological point of view, Christianity asserts that Creation will be restored: that we will enjoy eternal life in the New Earth. This principle, that the Church is essentially visible, may strike Protestants as a particularly Catholic notion. But even Protestants accept that the Church is defined in the visible communities of believers that abide by the Gospel. "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst" (Matthew 18:20).

In my opinion, Protestants tend to be fairly gnostic in this regard, though perhaps 'Neoplatonic' is the better word. We prefer the glorified Body ascended into heaven over the incarnate Body that is torn all to hell, as it were. We prefer an invisible Church, if only because the visible Church is such a mess. It is for the same reason that Protestants use crosses instead of crucifixes -- we emphasize the Resurrection over the Passion, and therefore point to the empty cross

Recently Pope Benedict issued a statement in which he referred to Protestants as "ecclesial communities" rather than a full "sister Church." Some Protestants take offense at the perceived slight, but I wonder if this isn't exactly what Protestants have defined themselves as being. Isn't this why so many Protestants go "church shopping"?  We don't consider the Church to be intrinsically visible, and must therefore search for a visible community in which to ground ourselves. Ironically, it is the Catholic emphasis on the invisible Church that lets us move beyond 'church shopping,' for we will readily endure horrid music, botched liturgies, and tedious homilies in order to celebrate Mass with the Church Triumphant.

There are a number of other elements and attributes that I might also cover, that are more explicitly salvific: for instance, the Body of Christ as both suffering and resurrected. However, I want to keep the discussion of Catholic views on salvation and atonement for a later series of posts.

May God bless this Maundy Thursday and the rest of your Holy Week.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Holy Week: Deicide

"And the people, everyone of them, shouted back, 'Let his blood be on us and on our children!'" (Matthew 27:25)
The verse above is often cited either as proof that Christianity is anti-Semitism or (worse still) as a proof-text for anti-Semitism itself. The Jews killed Christ -- they murdered God!  It doesn't get much worse than deicide.

On the contrary, the Church insists that this verse applies not merely to the members of the crowd, but to all people at all times. We are all responsible for the death of Christ, because He "bore our sins in His body" (1 Peter 2:24) and "takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29). No Christian can condemn the Jews without condemning himself in the same breath.

But consider this: the blood of Christ is not the blood of Abel. There is no voice of blood "crying out to Me from the ground" (Gen 4:10) for vengeance. If anything, the blood of Christ cries out to God on our behalf. Christ is our Paschal Lamb, who died to free us from death.

Oh blessed fault indeed!  We killed Him that He might make us innocent.

I would humbly suggest that perhaps there is another proper Christian response to Matthew 27:25. "Yes, you're absolutely right. His blood is indeed upon you and all your children. May we have some too?"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Of Gods and Greeks

Have you ever heard this one before?

"Why should I take the Christian God seriously? There are plenty of other gods and religions around, and you don't take them seriously. I don't believe in Yahweh for the same reason you don't believe in Ra or Zeus or Mithras."

This one's a stock argument from the ranks of the so-called "New Atheists." Some might find it convincing. I just find it vexing. It's a common misconception, borne out of a now-unremarkable ignorance of history.

There is no comparison between Jupiter and Jehovah. That's not because the one is true and the other false. It's because there, literally, is no comparison.

Polytheism is not a form of theism at all.

If you're looking for proof, looking at the genealogies of the gods. Zeus, "father of the gods," was the son of Kronos and Rhea. Kronos, "king of the Titans," was the son of Ouranos and Gaia: that is, he was the son of "Father Sky" and "Mother Earth."

The Greek gods exist within nature.  They are, in fact, the naturally-born children of Nature. Nor is this the exception, for this is true of every other mythology with which I am familiar -- Roman, Egyptian, Norse, and to a lesser extent Sumerian and Hindu.

The gods did not transcend Nature, but were part of it. They were not creators, but creatures like us. They were merely more powerful than we were. When the pagans offered them sacrifices, they were not being religious, but political. They sacrificed to the gods for the same reason they sent tribute to powerful neighbors: they didn't want to be crushed to a pulp.

This is the fundamental divide between polytheism and monotheism. Indeed, polytheism is largely silent on what we would consider theological questions. If pressed, pagan mythology is pretty divided on many of these issues. Some of the Greek myths indicate that Gaia (i.e., Nature) was eternally pre-existent, while Hesiod's Theogony states that Gaia and the other protogenoi (i.e., primal gods) were born out of a pre-existent Chaos.

Where the Greek 'theology' might be classified as pantheist or even materialist, Hindu doctrine is henotheistic, or even a kind of monotheistic pluralism. Certain passages of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita speak of Krishna as the avatar (that is, incarnation) of the One God who transcends nature and all creation. It is for this reason that many Hindus worship Krishna as Svayam Bhagavan (the "Lord Himself"). It is for the same reason that Hindu religious practice is typically henotheistic: practitioners focus their worship on a single god as the primary avatar of Svayam Bhagavan. While they may recognize other gods in the pantheon, those other gods are considered as secondary or subsidiary avatars of the One God's true nature.

Let's return to the original point. There is no comparison between Jupiter and Jehovah, nor between monotheism and polytheism generally. The polytheistic gods were not supernatural beings of power; they were natural beings with superpowers. The nearest modern-day relative of the pagan gods would not be the God of Abraham; it would be Clark Kent.

We should speak of the Greek pantheon in the same sense that we speak of the Justice League of America or the Avengers Initiative.

One final note on Hinduism: there may be no comparison between Jupiter and Jehovah, but there does seem to be a direct comparison between Krishna and Christ. At the very least, they both speak of (and claim to speak on behalf of) a single God who exists over and prior to the created order. This was one of the reasons for C.S. Lewis' sweeping claim in Surprised by Joy. Having dispensed with atheism, C.S. Lewis reviewed all of the theistic traditions, and found that he could narrow his choices down to two: Christianity and Hinduism. These two were the only viable faith traditions, for only these traditions were actually theistic.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Bride of Christ

In my last note, I introduced the quintessentially Catholic image of the Church as God's family. Considering that Israel is a type for the Church, we might treat the Biblical images of the Jews as "the people of God" and Israel as "the nation of God" in the same breath. In the same way, standard Catholic eschatology tends to incline towards amillennialism, so they would also identify the present Church with the immanent "kingdom of God" proclaimed during Jesus' ministry on earth. Each of these titles offers a slightly altered perspective on the nature of the Church, but those variances are too subtle to be done justice here.

There is another set of images that run parallel to those given above: the Church as the Bride of Christ. John the Baptist hinted at it in his final sermon: "He who has the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made full" (John 3:29). Later, in responding to the Pharisees, Christ compares His actions to those of a bridegroom (Matthew 9:15) and later analogizes the day of judgment to a marriage feast for the bridegroom (in the parable of the ten virgins, Matthew 25:1-9).

The mystical union -- indeed, the marriage -- of Christ and the Church has its forbears in Jewish literature. "Song of Songs" has long been understood not simply as erotic poetry, of the longing of a lover and His beloved, but also as allegory for God's love of His people. It is for this reason that "Song of Songs" can boast of more commentaries than nearly any other book in the Old Testaments. It was and remains a favorite text of Christian saint, such as the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux (the 'mellifluous Doctor'), who composed 86 separate sermons on first three chapters "Song of Songs" alone.

The apostle Paul was also prolific in his comparisons between Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as His bride. Paul makes the comparison explicit in Ephesians 5:25-32:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, do that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the Church, because we are members of His body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" [Genesis 2:24]. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the Church.
It is precisely this imagery, of the Church as the Bride, that is at the heart of Catholic teachings on sexual ethics. After all, marriage is a reenactment writ small of our salvation history, of Christ's mystical union with the body of believers. A number of Christians mystics go further and apply imagery of marriage to the mystical union of the Trinity Itself, of the relation of God to the Son and the Holy Spirit. At the very least, Catholics define marriage as a sacrament, a vessel of God's sanctifying grace, completed through the marital act. Just as Catholics wouldn't dream of using the consecrated hosts of the Eucharist as snack food, so too the Church would teach us not to devalue the 'elements' of marriage: the physical act of sex.

One particular attribute of the Church as Bride deserves mention: its spotlessness. Paul is pretty clear on this score in the passage above, as is St. John the Seer in Revelations 19:7-9:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready" It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints. Then he said to me, "Write, 'Bless are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.'" And he said to me, "There are the true words of God."
This particular imagery, of a Divine bridegroom approaching a pure and spotless Bride, stands in pretty stark contrast with the actual conduct of both Jews and Christians throughout salvation history. God Himself commented on this to the prophet Hosea: "Go, take for yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord" (Hosea 1:2). Through the book, God laments the continued unfaithfulness of His people, yet still promises to redeem her: "Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods..." (Hosea 3:1). Hosea's marriage to the unfaithful Gomer is a sign of God and His people. Yet Christ's marriage to the spotless Bride is a sign of God and His church.

This is the paradox at the heart of Catholic ecclesiology. As Gomer treated her husband, we who live in Christ treat God pretty abysmally. We are often unfaithful. Yet the Church remains spotless, and while we remain in the Church we remain spotless ourselves. This is why Catholics find the Lutheran dictum simul justus et peccator ("both justified and a sinner") incomprehensible. This is the reason for the Catholic dictum extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside of the Church, there is no salvation."

For the Church is more than the Bride of Christ. She is the Body of Christ as well.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 5

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2 ~~ Justification gives us "peace with God," "grace in which we stand," and "hope of the glory of God." These seem to conform to the theological distinctions of imputed righteousness (right-standing before the seat of judgment), imparted righteousness (ongoing sanctification by grace through works), and divine filiation (participation in Christ's nature and glorification as sons of God).

Romans 5:2-5 ~~ Not only do we exult in hope for glorification, but we also "exult in our tribulations" --that is, our ongoing purification -- "knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance [brings about] proven character; and proven character [brings about] hope; and hope does not disappoint...." Because God has already poured out His love, we can rely on Him in hope of glorification (v. 2).

Romans 5:7 ~~ This verses relies on the distinction between "righteousness" and goodness introduced in Romans 4:4-5. Righteousness arises from faith; goodness is more associated with works ("to one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due." This is why God's love is demonstrated in His grace to sinners, just as our obedience to the law of Moses is better encapsulated in our treatment of enemies than our treatment of neighbors (Matthew 5:44).

Romans 5:8-10 ~~ Romans 5:8 is one of the better known verses in the Pauline epistles. However, look at how Paul applies it. If God loved us so greatly  "while we were still sinners," how much more will He preserve us "having been reconciled" to Him? This passage implicitly contrasts our former status as sinners with our new status as regenerate creatures; that is, as sons of God. As such, it seems to contradict the Lutheran dictum simul justus et peccator: "both justified and a sinner."

Romans 5:10-11 ~~ "...we shall be saved by His life. But not only this, but also exulting in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation." We can rejoice not only in our preservation from death, but also in the promise of our full sonship.

Romans 5:12-19 ~~ Here is an extended section contrasting Adam and Jesus Christ, both as moments in salvation history ("as through the one's man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous") and as typologies ("Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come..."). The first Man, Adam, was created in the image and likeness of God. Jesus was eternally begotten of the Father and born of the immaculate Virgin, in the perfect likeness of God and therefore in the true form of Man.

Romans 5:13 ~~ This verse is an important corollary to the Romans 2:12 and 4:15 passages on the connection between human knowledge and divine judgment. "For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no Law." We still suffered its effects of sin under the curse (e.g., "death reigned from Adam until Moses") but prior to the Law we were immune from its imputation as violation of Law.

Romans 5:14 ~~ Death is the natural consequence of sin as separation from God, not necessarily as transgression against the known will of God (i.e., sin "in the likeness of the offense of Adam"). That subordinate clause is particularly notable: "death reigned... ever over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam." This passage could be taken in a number of ways -- for instance, as referring to children prior to the age of accountability -- but the first implication should be clear: not all sins are equal (cf. 1 John 5:16-17).

Romans 5:15 ~~ A typological contrast between Adam's rebellion ("by the transgresison of the one, the many died") and Christ's obedience ("the gift by the grace of the one Man... abound to many"). This is repeated in Romans 5:18-19.

Romans 5:16 ~~ "On the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification."

Romans 5:20-21 ~~ God gave us the Law to increase transgression (purpose implied by the conjunction "so that"). But this increase in transgression corresponds to a parallel abundance in grace. "As sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

The bulk of Romans 5 is Christological, particularly with reference to the Adamic typology. (That last sentence might be a mouthful, but it was also really fun to say!) The initial verses are a continuation of the Romans 4 passage on justification. Even so, these verses seem to emphasize the hope of glorification over the initial moment of conversion, the realization of justification, or the ongoing work of sanctification (though the hope of glory is framed in the context of tribulation and purification). The latter verses focus much more particularly on the work of Christ in the context of His prefiguration and antithesis, Adam. Paul reserves his fiery denunciation of the antinomian heresy for the beginning of Romans 6, but in these verses he seems quite close to the Augustinian notion of felix culpa. This teaching may be best understood in the words of the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil: "O happy fault, that gained for us so great a Redeemer."

O certe necessárium Adæ peccátum,
quod Christi morte delétum est!
O felix culpa,
quæ talem ac tantum méruit habére Redemptórem!

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Family of God

In my study of Catholicism, I've come to a realization.  Having traced many of the innumerable differences in the schism between Protestants and Catholics, I believe there is one that defines the schism at its core, in its totality. Every other difference are traced to this root.  I believe the difference is this: Protestants emphasize soteriology, and Catholics emphasize ecclesiology.

What do I mean? Soteriology means "the doctrine of salvation." Protestants fixate on the event of salvation, the moment of conversion, when one comes to know Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord. Our faith is personal, our culture individualistic. We typically disdain church authority, because it might interfere with our connection with Christ. We shy away from Mary because we fear the honor we give her might eclipse the glory we ought to give to God. We do not call upon the saints because we have Jesus as our one mediator before God.

The Catholic response, in contrast, is much less atomistic. I do not mean less individualistic, for individualism (as with most of Western culture) is drawn from Catholic tradition. But while Catholicism does emphasize the dignity and worth of the individual, this is only the foundation, when Catholics would prefer to admire the cathedral built on top of it.

Ecclesiology means "the doctrine of the Church." It is in the Church that the Catholic lives and breaths. Catholics focus on the experience of salvation, the context of conversion, when one comes to live with Christ Jesus as Father and Redeemer. The faith and the culture are not tied up in an individual's relation to God, but in the relation of God to His family, and thereby to each member of the family.

Throughout the New Testament, Christ is referred to as "the firstborn" (Heb. 1:6), "the firstborn of the dead" (Rev. 1:5), "the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15), and perhaps most significantly "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). This is one of the titles of the Christ, hearkening at a deep-seated reality: that, as a result of the Cross and the Resurrection, we have been joined to Christ and can call ourselves true sons of God. In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul tells us that "you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.... And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to the promise."

This doctrine is one of the essential truths of the faith, retained by Catholics though in my experience forgotten by many Protestants. Salvation is bigger than forgiveness: it is our familial relation to God. We do not address God as "Our Father" simply because He's humble enough to listen. It's a statement of fact, a new reality that by the power of Christ He really is our Father. He descended, to raise us with Him.

Over the next few notes, I'll be exploring a few other Catholic images for the Church. However, this doctrine of divine filiation, and this understanding of the Family of God, is foundational to all the others, and indeed is one of the cornerstones of Catholic teaching.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Of Angels and Pins

I am something of an amateur medievalist. I love talking about the theology, cosmology, saints and scholars. I relish the culture, the politics, the architecture, and the history.

But sometimes its hard to get people to take the Middle Ages seriously. "What, you want to revive the Inquisition? They persecuted Galileo, and halted the advance of science for hundreds of years! They thought the Earth was flat, for heaven's sake!" And so I despair.

If anything, look at the time-line. The Middle Ages are conventionally dated between 476 and 1453, between the abdication of the last Roman emperor and the fall of Constantinople. The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1480 and would only be abolished in 1820. Likewise, the trial of Galileo was held in 1633, nearly two hundred years after the Middle Ages were over. Moreover, the sphericity of the Earth was never seriously challenged during the Middle Ages, having been firmly established by the time of Ptolemy's Almagest, circa 150 AD.

Yet even beyond this sort of historical non sequitur (so often compounded by grotesque misconstruals of the events in question), the Middle Ages are subject to still lower forms of "chronological snobbery." The worst seems to me the wholesale mischaracterization of the medieval mind. People seem to fancy them as superstitious folk, woefully ignorant of the natural sciences and obsessed with esoteric minutiae. In reality, the Middle Ages could boast of the sharpest minds we can imagine, people whose mental acuity would outpace any but the elite corps of Mensa.

Besides, let's be frank, we're hardly the ones to talk about rampant ignorance. We don't just live in glass houses; we also work in glass offices and study in glass schools.

One particular example is commonly given as though it were sufficient proof of medieval ignorance: "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Let us dismantle this once and for all.

First, it is by no means certain that this question actually originated during the Middle Ages. Its earliest appearance comes from 17th century manuscripts by authors who wrote specifically to attack Catholicism and the medieval period. These are hardly reputable sources, and it's entirely possible the whole thing was a fabrication.

Even if it were authentic, however, these authors evidently failed to realize how ingenious the question actually is. A medieval philosopher would probably reason thus: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Scripture mentions that angels can be located in the physical world. Gabriel stood "there" when he appeared to Mary, as did Michael to Daniel and any other angels who might appear to a prophet. Yet angels are by definition incorporeal. They are not made of matter like us, but can only be seen as pure spirit. How could something without a physical body be physically present?  Ah, the medieval philosopher exclaims, it's a confusion of categories. Without mass, an angel cannot occupy physical space, but that doesn't prevent them from moving within and between such spaces. Therefore, an angel might be "located" on the head of a pin, without necessarily being "located" in the sense of occupying space there. Thus, an theoretically infinite number of angels could fit on the head of a pin.

If the question were authentically medieval, it could have been dispatched by anyone with even the simplest of training in the scholastic method. In all likelihood, it was questions like these that were used as 'practice problems' for students being trained in dialectic, the second of the medieval trivium. Yet we deride medieval ignorance for a question like this, even though we dare not admit it would be unanswerable to the great majority of people nowadays.

Imagine if a future generation, some hundreds of years in the future, were to unearth one of those time capsules buried by elementary school children. Now imagine those materials -- monochromatic finger-paintings, arithmetic problems, and scrawled letters -- were the basis for popular knowledge about our era of history. This was a scientific age, the specialists will cry, an age where great minds plumbed the depths of subatomic space! And the masses will laugh at us because we didn't know algebra.