Pablum as Profundity (or Negative Thoughts on Positivity)

 

You may have seen them on social media -Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest- they are fairly ubiquitous. You may have a few friends or acquaintances that post them every day, or you may post them yourself: inspirational quotes over a picture of a field, sunshine, or stylized background. Usually you are invited to share the quote with everyone and sometimes they sound pretty good, but sometimes not so much.

This week I’ve been waging a one man campaign against the profusion of positivity quotes. On Facebook I have been posting faux inspirational quotes sourced from actual words and writings of select people and watching the reactions they garner (you can see them here: https://www.facebook.com/michaelalandsman/media_set?set=a.10152491981653169.1073741840.548908168&type=3). Sometimes they were shared with no comment and sometimes they started conversations. I even used three hashtags to indicate that the quotes were meant to be taken satirically. At first I started with absurd quotes from movies like Mystery Men or Big Trouble in Little China but soon moved on. I discovered in the tweets and resources of televangelists and Christian “life coaches” a world far more inane and unintentionally funny than I thought possible, so I started posting their quotes. Then I started thinking about the whole thing.

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A good friend of mine recently said in a sermon that life is not moon beams and sparkle ponies. I mention this because most of these motivational quotes exist in the world of moon beams and sparkle ponies. They are words of wisdom from a world where everything is expected to work in our favor and to our advantage. We desperately want to live in a world where our poor finances, familial crises, or poor health are magically relieved. These spin meisters take the scriptures and use them to create a world of moon beams and sparkle ponies and we buy their books, we ingest their sermons and life courses, fill their wallets, and eat their pablum. And thats exactly what it is: pablum masquerading as profundity.

These purveyors of pablum will make cursory comments about life’s difficulties, but the paths they offer ultimately lead to disappointment. They teach people to go around the long, slow march towards Christlikeness while trying to get out of the situations that God is using to make them more like Jesus in the first place. Telling someone “When you see what’s invisible God will do the impossible” or “A broke man is not a man without a nickel but a man without a dream” acknowledges difficulties but sidesteps completely any words or counsel on how to actually see the invisible or find a dream. And the sad thing is the scriptures do offer us help, they do offer us direction and comfort, but when God’s word becomes mixed with trite feel-goodisms the scriptures are robbed of their power.

The way Jesus offers us is infinitely better than anything we can possibly imagine, but we don’t get the fullness of it right now in the present. We get a foretaste, and believe me its the best thing you’ll ever taste, but it is only a hint of the glories to come. That foretaste, that hint of the world to come, is what motivated and empowered the early Christians to endure terrible times and that should be what motivates and empowers us. St. Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The context of that glory is the resurrection and the redemption of all things not finding a dream or seeing the invisible. As we anticipate that day lets not hit that share button before a few moments of reflection. Half-truths sound great, and may contain a modicum of good advice, but ultimately do not satisfy because pablum never does. 

Lent, Clint Eastwood, and a Prayer

 

The church calendar currently finds itself during the season of Lent. Lent is traditionally a season of fasting specific foods as laid out by the church as well as intensified prayer, self-examination, and repentance as we draw nearer to Easter and the joyful celebration of Jesus’ glorious bodily resurrection. During this season I have read a bunch of blog posts and articles on Lent from Protestant, non-denominational and denominational, and Orthodox and Roman Catholic circles and would like to offer a few comments of my own (though not to any one particular person or article).

The Orthodox and Roman Catholic blogs I read have been focusing on, obviously, what they are supposed to focus on, but I have noticed a thread in some of their writings and sermons. There is a general, and valid, denouncement of self-guided Lenten practices specifically among Protestants. However, I think it is important to note something: PROTESTANTS ARE OBSERVING LENT! This is a big deal especially considering that one of the key figures of the Reformation started his protest during Lent by letting his people eat sausages when they were supposed to be fasting meat. Lest one think though that the Orthodox and Roman Catholics are being sticks in the mud about this I’d also note that, from what I have read, there is a general appreciation of Protestants returning to the observation of some of the traditional practices of the church.

In the Protestant blogs I have noticed two tendencies: enthusiastic adoption of Lent complete with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday or warnings that Lent is okay to observe as long as you don’t think it saves you or become legalistic about it. In this I can see some things that annoy more traditional Christian traditions, like the Orthodox, in that the prescribed practices of Lent devolve into fasting of things like Facebook or chocolate instead of the rigorous asceticism Lent traditionally demands. On the other hand I see Lent making more conservative Protestants, usually of the Calvinistic variety, nervous because they see these practices as capitulation to tradition and would rather fight the battles of 16th century Tridentine theology rather than take up a practice that reeks of papism.

Personally, I really like the rigor of Lent. I’m part of a non-denominational evangelical group with ties to the charismatic renewal movements of the 1970’s so the only Lenten practices I can observe are self determined (much to the chagrin of more traditional Christians). On the other hand, my taking on of a more ascetically rigorous observation of Lent looks to be works righteousness to those on the Protestant side because heck, we’re already righteous so we don’t have to worry about self-examination, repentance, or asking for God’s mercy because all we have to do is let go and let God. I feel like Clint Eastwood’s character from A Fistful of Dollars when he says, “The Rojos on one side and the Baxters on the other, and me right in the middle…”

So what is a person to do? I say go for it, observe Lent. Yes, even you YRR/TGC guy. I’ve been fortunate as I have friends in the Orthodox Church who have been good guides and have encouraged me to, as much as I can in my own context, press into pursuing a life of holiness and serious spiritual self examination and prayer. My prayer during Lent for myself and for you dear reader is simply this: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

(In my use of Protestant I am referring generally to evangelicals of various denominations and not Protestants from the Anglican/Episcopal/more traditional side of things)

True Rationality and The Recreation of the Divine Image

 

A quick update before we get into On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. I finally turned in my final assignments and my theology comprehensive exam and graduated from seminary two weeks ago with a Master of Divinity. Going to seminary was one of the best things I have ever done and I’m better for going even if I will be poorer financially as I pay off my loans. It was worth it. I made some good friends and appreciate the time I spent there. My parents flew over from South Africa and were there at my graduation ceremony which made it incredibly special. I’m grateful to God for his good gifts to me.

Back to St. Athanasius, and we turn to the next few chapters from On the Incarnation. In chapter 11 St. Athanasius notes that God made humanity in the image of Jesus Christ and that they would be able to know God the Father through the divine image of the Word of God (Jesus). This results in humanity living a blessed and happy life. Unfortunately this is short lived and he points out that our ancestors despised God’s grace and turned away from him. They made false gods and fabricated idols and honored beings who do not exist, going to far to even sacrifice animals and other humans to these idols and false gods. He ends chapter 11 by saying that even though humanity no longer recognized God he still left methods by which they could know of him.

In chapter 12, St. Athanasius says that God was not surprised by what his creation had done and anticipated their carelessness. If they could not recognize God through themselves in the divine image they were created in they could still “see” God through the works of creation. Not only that but God also sends the law and the prophets so even if they did not see God in creation they still had instruction from other humans about the true God. Expanding on this he makes two points:

  1. The greatness of the heavens testifies not just to God’s existence but also to God’s providential goodness.
  2. God sends holy ones to testify of himself and that humanity needs to turn away from the false gods and idols they have made for themselves.

Sadly, even though God had anticipated the carelessness of humanity and had performed actions to show his goodness, humanity “beaten by the pleasures of the moment and the illusions and deceits of the demons were not able to raise their gaze to the truth but sated themselves with even more evils and sins, so that they no longer appeared rational…”

What I find interesting in chapter 12 and 13 is that St. Athanasius does not just tie in rationality with the general ability humans have to think and reason. For him the height of irrationality is not someone who cannot think, but someone, who because of sin, has not recognized God through his creation or through his messengers and has persisted in sating themselves with evil. This is a far cry from how rationality is commonly understood in our own context. For modern peoples, rationality is marked by the ability to think through ideas and to form arguments, hypotheses, and conclusions. But for St. Athanasius the height of irrationality is the one who has rejected the true God.

He goes on in chapter 13 to note that since humanity was made in the image of Jesus Christ it would not be right for humanity to be destroyed. God’s response to all of this is the enfleshment of the Word of God (Jesus). So God the Word takes on humanity so that the divine image present in humanity could be recreated.

This is heavy stuff but it is basic for how Christianity views the world and the Incarnation of God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Athanasius provides, to this day, a better anthropology of humanity and the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation, and what the Incarnation means for the totality of our salvation, then anything thought up by modern theologians. The Incarnation matters more than just as a device by which God the Father sends Jesus into the world. It has a significant effect on the world and our relation to God.

(The icon used of the creation of Adam was found at http://wp.me/pYVj0-6H from a general image search)

The Faithful God of Careless People

 

If there is one theme that one can see highlighted in the Bible over and over again, it is the theme of God’s faithfulness to his people in spite of their faithlessness. In the Old Testament the language God uses to describe his relationship to his wayward people is that of a jilted lover. He gives them a vision of himself on the mountain, calls them into covenant and they break it. Often. However he does not abandon them and even in the midst of terrible judgment he still loves them and promises them he will redeem them. Those who complain about the God of the Old Testament being murderous and spiteful are only scratching the surface because his love and mercy is on display all throughout the old covenant. And this culminates with the coming of Christ.

In my last blog I spoke of how St. Athanasius explained how Christ condescended and became human, and why this matters in regards to our salvation. In chapter 9 of On the Incarnation he continues to expand on this idea. He notes that there was no way for the corruption of humanity to be undone except by the Word’s death. Herein lies the problem, the Word of God (Christ) is immortal and incapable of death because he is God. The Word then takes a human body capable of dying, dies for humanity, and through the grace of the resurrection abolishes all death from those who are like him (humanity). He notes that Christ’s death was a substitute in that his death “completes death” and the result of that is those who are in him are clothed with incorruptibility and the promise of the resurrection due to death being abolished. He writes, “Coming himself into our realm, and dwelling in a body like the others, every design of the enemy against human beings has ceased, and the corruption of death has perished.”

He notes in chapter 10 that this was appropriate due to God’s goodness. He draws a comparison to illustrate his point. He notes that a king after building a city will not remain on the sidelines after the city is attacked by bandits due to the carelessness of the citizens. The king will not abandon the city, he will do what he needs to do to save the city and the inhabitants. So too does God the Word not abandon his creation and creatures due their own carelessness, he enters into it and saves them. He cites 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Hebrews 2:9-10, Hebrews 2:14-15, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 1 Timothy 6:15, and Titus 1:3 and draws the following conclusions:

  1. It was necessary for God to be incarnate to bring us out of corruption
  2. Christ’s sacrifice put an end to the law lying against us and renewed the source of life
  3. We no longer die like those still in corruption, instead we wait for the resurrection

The next few chapters address how God made himself known but we will deal with that in the next blog. In the meantime, think about God’s faithfulness to you despite all of your carelessness towards him and be grateful that in his mercy he did not leave you where you were, but took on flesh to make you like him.

 

Icon from: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-fQePhgDFxlE/UT0pqU11FuI/AAAAAAAADVY/5RVFc897esU/s1600/nativity-icon.jpg

As Straw From the Fire (and a brief update)

 

It’s been far too long since my last update. I’ve been fairly busy since the holidays with work and school. I’m teaching twice a week now at my church, Tuesday morning and Thursday evenings, for our in house Bible school program. It functions as a sort of catechesis/discipleship group and I have a good group of students. The highlight of the past few months was my trip to Princeton to attend the Florovsky Symposium on the Patristic Doctrine of Scripture. There were some amazing lectures and I came away with much to think about in regards to how I read and interpret Scripture. I’ll be graduating from seminary in June with my M.Div and have begun to seriously contemplate my post graduate school plans. I’d appreciate any prayers you may feel inclined to offer. Ok! Back to St. Athanasius and On the Incarnation. (by way of reminder I’m reading and quoting from the V. Rev. Dr. John Behr’s translation published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

In chapter six, St. Athanasius concluded that it is right for God to not allow human beings to be carried away by corruption because this would not be worthy of his goodness if he did not do so. It is with this in mind that we move to chapter seven. He asks what was God to do in response to human sin? Should he demand repentance? St. Athanasius then notes that repentance can only halt sin, it does not recall human beings from the consequences of the fall. In order to answer this question he writes that since God the Word (Jesus) created the world, then the Word alone is able to recreate the universe, suffer, and intercede for humanity before the Father. He does this in order to make what has been corrupted into something incorruptible. This also saves the consistency of the goodness of God in relation to his creation.

In chapter eight St. Athanasius moves to The Word’s incarnation. Rather than try to summarize, I’ll post a piece of what he says because he says it beautifully, and more completely than, I can.

“For seeing the rational race perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption… and seeing the excessive wickedness of human beings… and seeing the liability of all human beings to death – having mercy upon our race… and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death… he takes for himself a body not foreign to our own.”

He comments on how the Word, though being the powerful creator of the universe, took on human flesh through the womb of Mary. He does this so that he can, in his love, offer himself in his incorruptible flesh on behalf of all humanity to the Father so that the law of corruption in all humanity can be undone. And the grace of the resurrection “banishes death from them (humanity) as straw from the fire.”

I like that last quote, namely that God the Word banishes death from us as “straw from the fire.” Fire burns through straw quite quickly and this makes a powerful image about how the work of Christ should burn through us removing all impurities as we turn our hearts towards God. We can only do this because God the Word condescended to humanity first out of his goodness and love for human beings. Because of this we can be healed and freed from our bondage to sin and death. Quite a profound thought and one worth meditating on this week.

(not sure if the fire picture is a stock photo. Found it at geringcitizen.com)

Paradigm Problems (aka Corruption vs Guilt)

Athanasius

I remember back in my Bible College days we watched a training video on the power of paradigms. It was a Joel Barker training video and in it he tells stories of how shifts bring about change. I had a bit of a chuckle when, 13+ years later I would watch the exact same video in seminary during a leadership class. Paradigms shifts can be good and we need to embrace them once we recognize they are happening. Reading Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has been shifting some of my major theological paradigms, to what end I’m not quite sure yet (I have some thoughts on that but I’m unwilling to share publicly at the moment).

In chapter four of On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius remarks to his reader that at this point they may be wondering why he is discussing the origins of humanity. He says it is necessary because our transgression evoked the Word’s (Jesus’) love for us, and this love led him to take on human flesh. He writes, “When humans despised and overturned the comprehension of God, devising and contriving evil for themselves… then they received the previously threatened condemnation of death, and thereafter no longer remained as they had been created, but were corrupted… and seizing them, death reigned.”Just like in chapter 3 he restates the problem of the human condition as corruption and death, not inherited guilt. He then says that humans are mortal by nature but if humans had guarded themselves through their comprehension of God then they would not have sinned and humanity would have remained incorruptible. If humanity had remained incorruptible then we would have lived like God, being made in his image, reflecting Psalm 81:6-7 which states, “I said you are gods and all sons like the most high..”

Saint Athanasius’ explanation of the problem makes sense to me but it grates against my Protestant upbringing. We read sin nature in the Genesis story and don’t focus on corruption, but God said, “Don’t eat this or you will die.” Actually, literally die. Not an instant death, but the introduction of corruption which cause all things to break down and die. This corruption makes all humanity susceptible to sin, but I may be getting ahead of myself. I’ve been reading through this slowly and though the chapters are short, their ideas are dense and contra to much of what my tradition believes about the Fall. So far there is nothing here that would denote a belief in Adam’s sin setting in motion guilt being passed to every single person, there is only corruption and death. I’m not sure when he will get into sin, though he mentions it when he said that man didn’t comprehend God, but when he does I’ll make a note of it.

Update: A good friend of mine, who has much more experience than I with the church fathers, left me a comment on Facebook about this post and has agreed to let me post it here. He writes, ” It’s been a while since I read “On the Incarnation,” but I think it would be fair to say that Athanasius doesn’t really see a sharp distinction between sin and corruption, precisely because sin is “missing the mark” (the literal meaning of “hamartia”), not “committing a crime.” As such, all corruption is sin, whether it is a deliberate act of the will or not. I am a sinner whether I have deliberately sinned, because I am mortal, imperfect, corrupt. This is how David can say he was conceived “in sins” in Ps. 50/51 (though it’s in the singular in the MT) without any sense that sexual reproduction is inherently evil (as per the error of St. Augustine, who acknowledged the need for children but said married couples should “descend to it with regret”). If I am diseased, while the cause and exacerbations of the disease are important, the real key is the nature of the disease itself and the cure.”

“One of the keys to reading the Fathers is that they always have in mind what is called the “soteriological motive” — that is, everything they write about dogmatic questions is precisely with the salvation of mankind in mind, not so they can “get it right” about doctrine. Of course they want to get it right, but the reason it has to be right is because it’s about salvation. And that’s also why getting it wrong is dangerous in their eyes. For Athanasius, On the Incarnation is not merely a treatise on what happened when the Son of God became man, but precisely what that means for salvation.”

I found this to be very helpful and a useful “grid” as I interact with the rest of the book. The comment was left by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Pastor of Saint Paul’s Antiochian Orthodox Church. He blogs at www.roadsfromemmaus.org and www.orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org and the content on both of those sites is worth a look.

What’s the Problem?

god_as_architect

G.K. Chesterton was once asked to contribute to a newspaper article entitled, “What is Wrong with the World?” He responded with, “Dear Sirs, I am.” Witty, but true. We all contribute to the state of the world, but how did it get to be such a mess in the first place? And what exactly is the problem? How did we get where we are and how do we fix it?

In Chapter two of Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation he delves into God and creation. He calls into question those who say that the world was created by spontaneous chance and notes that a cause preceded creation. Through this we can see that there is a God who created and ordered all things.

Athanasius then says that diversity proves creation and its providential care by God. This is interesting because, essentially, science’s proof for evolution is the same thing. Diversity, especially in the same type of animal, proves natural selection and mutation. He then deals with Plato’s idea that God made everything from pre-existent matter but then this begs the question how could Plato’s god be a creator? If God is using uncreated matter to create what underlies matter then he could only be a craftsman working with raw materials, thus making Plato’s god weak (and not God).

He concludes with a comment on the heretic’s notion of God. Some heretics say that the god that created all things is a different god then God the Father of Jesus. He quotes from the Gospel of Matthew in answering this and notes that there could not possibly be another creator. He then in chapter three immediately says that God brought everything into existence through the Word, the pre-incarnate Jesus.

He notes that God creates man in his own image, makes them to live in blessedness, and gives them free choice as well as “law and a set place.” In other words, God’s command to not eat of the tree and Eden. They then had a choice: to live in paradise without sorrow or pain or to break the law and be corrupted by death. He writes, “What else might it be except not merely to die, but to remain in the corruption of death?”

Two things interest me about the last part of chapter three. The first is that St. Athanasius does not say that man’s sin transmitted sin nature to us and that we are all guilty of the sin of Adam. The problem he lays out is that sin introduces corruption. The problem is not inherited sin nature, it is corruption and death. This is very different from a traditional Protestant reading of the Fall in Genesis. The second area of interest is his firm belief in the free choice of humanity. Later on Augustine will set the stage for the Reformers 1200 years later to deny the free will of humanity due to sinful nature, but we see belief in it here. Of course one could say, “Well St. Athanasius is wrong about that issue” but this book is the seminal work of Christian theology on Christ’s Incarnation so his view deserves serious consideration.