Promises, Calendars, & Eternity

Recently I’ve been reading (and being overwhelmed!) by Charles Taylor’s opus A Secular Age which tries to answer the question of why, socially and culturally, unbelief in any god or divinity is conceptually tenable, unlike 500 years prior. Why can we now call ourselves “secular” in a multitude of ways? I am not even half-way through the book, and while I disagree with some basic definitions of gods and religion and how this impacts his reading of society, I am reserving judgment until I finish.

But I want to bring up an interesting point he marks as a juncture between the pre-Modern and the Modern: Time. In Pre-Modernity, there was a distinctive division of time into the common and the sacred. Common time is mere linear progression, from yesterday into tomorrow. It is a mere movement forward.

Sacred time, on the otherhand, is a break through of the eternal. Now Taylor makes room for multiple definitions of what ‘eternal’ is (making a distinction between biblical eternity and Platonic, among others). But the point is a common agreement that on special days (or hours) there is some ‘other’ time breaking into what is merely Human.

Thus, in Medieval Europe, Easter was a moment that connected the participant into the eternal moment of when the Son of God was raised. It was closer in ‘time’ to this moment than, say, the day before. The event, the work of God, was connected through a particular set of rites. This was joint where the eternal plan of God met in the ordinary. This was the purpose of the Church Calendar.

In Modernity, the common time was maintained, but the concept of sacred time was abolished. This did not only occur in time, but in space and in object (the idea of shrines, consecration, and relics). Taylor charts this through the disenchantment enacted by the Reformation, which called the entire domain of ‘white magic’ (Rome’s Sacramental efficiency) into question. For the Protestants, either there was no magic (and this view became the dominant) or all magic was black, and therefore the Pope was acting as a Warlock against the Lord, trying to trap God’s domain into a series of spells and enchantments.

I’m not particularly keen on the use of the word ‘magic’, but this word is truthful. I think there is a way to maintain sacramental efficacy and presence but criticize the medieval practices. In fact, I think this was Chelcicky’s argument against both Romanists and the radical Hussites who made the power determinate by the participants state of faith. Man had no ability in an institutionalized mechanical ex opere operato or in good intentions to bring God down. Instead, it was rooted in the power of Promise.

And that’s where this question must go: Promise. I do not think that the Modern Project can ultimately coinhere with the Biblical projection of Heaven and Earth as overlapping exclusive domains. God’s Time breaks into the Human in strange and magnificent ways. Einstein has undone the Modern supposition that Time is basic, uniform and flat. There are strange complexities at work that man (and definitely I) do not understand.

So, as the Church, we need to recover a means to think about the “Sacred”, in time, place, and space. But this is not a call to return to medieval practice. Yes, like my medieval forbearers, I believe this world is the haunt of many spirits, both agents of the Divine (what we call angels) and the demonic. We are no impermeable, buffered, boundary-set selves that are maintained through mere inner practices. We can be afflicted by demons, or encouraged through angels, and we who are in the Lord are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, the Lord of all Spirits. Not every word in our mind comes merely from our own thoughts.

However, what do we do in such a world? The Apostolic practice is to find our root, per Chelcicky, in Promise.

We must ask: What has the Lord given to us? Well, the Medieval Abomination (I mince no words) came about by abusing the simple promise that the Lord will not abandon us, and will send us His Spirit while He reigns at the Right of Majesty. Thus came the flood of all sorts of condoned practices that made the Church into a Paganized preserve of ‘white-magic’. Now the Church was able to deign the sacredness of ‘time’, in a way that druids or pagans would.

Instead, we need a simple (but not simplistic) biblicism. In what time has Christ promised to meet us? He has promised to meet us in every time we take up bread and wine to remember His Death. This is the Sacred time, place, space. The Bread broken is the Body of the Lord, the Wine drunk is the blood of the new covenant. Here we meet the Lord because the Lord Spirit makes a way, based in His own Word.

But we have no such promises for any sacred time of Christmas or Easter. We have no promise for any bone or relic. We have no promise for offering any prayer up to this or that saint. This is the cut of the problem: whose authority? Does the Church have the ability to innovate in the provenance of the Lord’s Holiness?

While Luther was wrong about what the Pharisees were saying, he was right to call the Medieval Complex Pharisaical (though in ways, he embodied similar thinking). The Pharisees fixed new boundaries for God’s Commands and His Torah. Now God’s clear command (honor your mother and father) could be abnegated for an innovation (claiming your resources for the Temple, and giving the finger to your family). Rome instituted new traditions by which the People of God were held accountable. This is not the Tradition of the Apostles.

What if these traditions came from the Apostles (as the Unwritten Tradition argues)? Well, as Paul said, if he came preaching a different gospel, we have to reject Paul (even Paul!). We must evaluate everything said, counting character and past experiences. But we do not merely nod because of “who” speaks unless that “who” is the very Creator Himself (and yet even He gives us ‘rule-sticks’ for making sure it’s really Him speaking!).

So what I’m recovering is the notion of sacred-time, but we must respect what the Lord has given us. The Holy Spirit promises to meet us in the waters of baptism to initiate a son of Adam into the family of Christ. The Holy Spirit promises to bring us Christ in the sacrament of the Supper. The Holy Spirit promises to forgive sins in our confession of them. And many more.

This is what we call ‘holy’.

However, the Church’s liturgy does not belong to such. Our practicals differ, in the vein of the 39 Articles, on account of time and culture. How we orient ourselves may be more or less faithful to how we are to embody the Scriptures (i.e. James blasting the segregation of poor and rich). This, the disposition of our hearts towards God and each other, is holy. But not the forms (unlike the above promises). Therefore, if we have chairs or not is indifferent. But what matters is what we do with them.

So therefore, the application of counting days is fine, and we may do it in different ways. Let us celebrate the Incarnation in July (if we decide thus). The purpose of a Calendar, if anything, is to mark (as a community) times of intense focus. There’s nothing wrong in this. But these practicals are not holy, nor are they times of the sacred touching the mundane.

Sadly, churches that eschew this end up being captured by our culture’s liturgical practices without much reflection. The Church may interact with these cultural events, or ignore them, but they are not places of celebration. What has Christ to do with the American Revolution? It is not His Kingdom being built, but another revolution in the grand course of Human History. Empires rise and fall.

The Church needs a more robust calendar. The Church of Americana lionizes dead military as ‘martyrs’ who ‘sacrificed’ their lives for a ‘greater good’. What has become of the Church actually celebrating those who gave their lives in service of the Kingdom of God? But the subtle reality is that much of the Americana are, in fact, saying this. What a delusion that has afflicted American christianity.

I’ll stop here because this could go on and on. These are basic thoughts and still have many problems in implementation. But that’s ok. While it may be helpful in the formation of Christians, the majors need the majoring. We need a recovery, especially for evangelical Christians, of the sacredness of the Promises God gives and meets us in. The folk Zwinglianism needs to be eradicated. Why? Because it opens the door to alien and demonic sacralizations. It’s why (in my opinion) the non-conformist traditions ended up, in the end, becoming culturally Erastian.

May we, God’s People in the Name of the Christ, trust the very words He spoke. May we know His Presence in where He promised to meet us, and be open to surprises that His Spirit works. God bless us. God save us. God have mercy on us. Amen.

On Bible Translation

Just a prior warning – I’m a conservative evangelical who is going to talk about Bible translation.

My natural preference is for more literal (word-for-word) Bible translations. However, too many literal translations of the Bible (ESV, NASB etc) get caught up with the issue of original word order. But surely when translating into another language, the word order should reflect the most natural wording in that receptor language? When producing a Bible in French, for example, the translation should read as good French. Anything other than this is not really translation at all, it’s just copying and pasting the entries from a concordance whilst choosing the most appropriate meanings. No one translates that way in any other context.

For me, the real problem with most “thought for thought” translations (NIV, NLT etc) has nothing to do with word order. Here’s where I think the real issues lie:

(1) They often translate the same underlying words in too many different ways, such that it’s not clear when the author is trying to draw our attention to a particular theme or to draw a parallel between two things. A good example of this would be Deuteronomy 28:11, which poetically compares the “fruit” of the land, with the “fruit” of the animal and the “fruit” of the womb. Although the same Hebrew word is used all three times, the NIV and the NLT translate the word differently in each case, which ruins the poetic comparison between different kinds of “fruit”.

(2) They often fail to preserve ambiguity in a text where several meanings are possible. For instance, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 speaks of eternal destruction (or ruin) “from the face of the Lord and from the glory of His might”. This could be referring to separation from God – being shut out from His presence. Or, perhaps it could be referring to God’s presence and might as the cause of the eternal destruction/ruin. However, the NIV unhelpfully translates the last part of the clause as “and shut out from the presence of the Lord…” which forces the meaning in one particular direction when the text is actually more ambiguous.

(3) They often miss crucial allusions to other passages of scripture. Take for example 1 Peter 1:13, which says “Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind”. This curious expression is a clear allusion to Exodus 12:11, amongst other Old Testament passages. The “loins” have a clear connection with offspring and therefore, with the promise made to Abraham. Most translations fail to bring out this allusion, although it is admittedly difficult to understand the meaning of the phrase if you are unfamiliar with the Old Testament usages.

Obviously I’m no expert in Bible translation. And I do appreciate that there are some really difficult decisions involved in the process. But I do wish we could get the whole debate about Bible translation moving in a more helpful direction.

On Being an Alien in the City of Man

In this world there exists two cities, the city of God and the city of Man. As I’ve said elsewhere, the citizenship to each belong to the heart. In the former, one is born from On High, with a heart for love of God and neighbor as oneself. In the latter, one is still dust born, with a heart for love of self and advancement.

This is a simple paradigm employed by Augustine, and it’s not supposed to be flat or two-dimensional in its application. The one who is a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom is not so unwoven from his habits in the City of Man. We are all born under the curse of Adam, and afflicted with the sins of his dominion. We are wretched creatures, disintegrating and disordered, who are tortured from inside and out. We are doomed to die, we are under the throttle of spiritual darkness, and are corrupted in our hearts.

It is from this that we are imprinted with the Law of God, on hearts now made of flesh. The waters of baptism, the washings of regeneration, are where the Spirit meets us and reforges us, born again as new citizens. The battle, the struggle, is the growth into this new identity. And yet we have hope, for those who belong to the Elect (namely Christ, the true Israel), we are predestined to become His Image. Our hearts will be made to look like Jesus, full of true burning love.

As a side-note, this is one reason I have become a strong predestinarian. I don’t believe that God is a puppet-master, far from it. To say such would be making the Lord into something, creaturely though supreme. God can turn the heart, and yet we are making decisions, plotting choices. There is no interference.  But I believe that it is His hand that opened my eyes, unblocked my ears, gave taste to my tongue, and delivered me a heart that yearned for His presence.

It was not my choice, nor merely wallowing in contrition that earned me a place at His table. He ignited my hunger so that I might seek the Bread of Life. This is the only way I can act and live day to day. Without such confidence, I would be terrified of the shadows, my own feeble abilities.

Anyway, if we are freed to live, with refreshing hearts, renewing minds, and respiriting bodies, then what do we make of the Exile that we currently endure?

Allow me to qualify a few things.

The Church is the People of God, one that has visible and invisible qualities. I say visible in the sense that it has structures and order. When we see a congregation, when we see two or three meeting in the name of Jesus, when we see the bread lifted up and partaken of, we are seeing the structures of the Church. But there are invisible qualities. I’m talking the intentions of the heart. A congregation may meet in the name of Christ, but have abandoned Him. Jesus warns of false teachers, and Revelation depicts many kinds of false churches. We will not see the full order until the Day of Judgment.

The visible qualities of the Church are structures of Pilgrimage. We are a Kingdom whose King, while ascended, has not returned to consummate His Reign. We have His Spirit, who builds and grows us, who keeps us while the times continue. We have His Spiritual Presence, but await His Physical Presence (as Paul says, we wait to see Him face-to-face). Thus, our structures are reflective of living in a Creation that has not been liberated.

This is why I talk about the typology of Israel living in Babylon. God had not abandoned His People, but it was not time to return. We await the Anointed Conqueror (which the Persian Cyrus is called ‘christ'(!)) to overthrow the evils of Babylon. God is with us, but we do not have the Temple with us. God is with us, but we still await a return to the Land. God is with us, but we await the Son of David to lead us directly.

The Church is Political. But I mean this in the literal sense: we have business about the ‘city’. We belong to Christ first and foremost as our King, Caesar is a mere pawn, a rabid beast, that God maintains. The Lord’s ordinance do not validate or approve the Cities of Man. God allows disobedient and wicked evils to exist, which we are to resist in obedience to Christ. It’s certainly a strange providence.

This is where the question of exile appears: how do we live? As I said above, gatherings, leadership, sacraments etc. all represent visible structures of the Kingdom of God as Pilgrimage. Thus, all the order, leadership, gathering, and, yes, sacraments elsewhere represent the Cities of Men. These include from America to ISIS, from Holland to Mexican Cartels, from Tibet to Russia. All are attempts to create a ‘polis’, literally a ‘city’. All are visions of a political order.

It is my contention that if the Blood of Christ forges a new family, a new Body, then while we may belong to many Nations (with our own peculiar customs and languages), we have no need for building a new political order. If we were all Christians, the visible Pilgrim structures of Church would be all the government we need.

But that is a hypothesis never realized. We live in a creation afflicted with the world, the flesh, and the devil. The New Testament never promises us (except when Christ returns) an end to the ordained cities of men. These structures (orders, sacraments, gatherings) will continue to exist for their season of time. So how can we live?

Well, let’s consider the Jews in Babylon. They remained in the ‘city’ and did not leave to build a psuedo-Jerusalem for the mean-time. They maintained their distinct identity in a vast Empire. In fact, Babylon had tolerance for many gods and diverse cultures, as long as the Emperor, and the gods of Babylon, retained primacy. The Jews suffered for their insistence that they did not bow to any other god or king, yet they were instructed to not overthrown Babylon. The Jews never tried to conquer Babylon for Yah. That was not their task (though it was coming). Their task was to promote justice and learn to live.

Let it be said, before I continue, that this is not mere instruction, but typology. Of course, it’s not exactly the same. The Mission of God has expanded to include all people in the People of God. Preaching the Good News and expanding the size of the Kingdom of God is at work in a different way. We are not confused about who will rule us, He already rules. There are differences in the reality from the shadow (type).

In our own times, we can see parallels to the potential errors and begin to think out possibilities in how we, as reborn, might relate and live in the world.

The Amish, and other quietistic or separatist groups, have abandoned Babylon completely. They’ve misunderstood the concept of antithesis. In an attempt to remain pure, they’ve set up their own purity. This is the error of the Essenes, which when compared to the Greco culture around them, they don’t seem so bad. But it rejects God’s Sovereign reign and insists upon a false dualism.

Yet Constantinianism represents the twin error. This is trying to conquer, synthesize, or assume Babylon as a throne to be “won” for the Lord. Daniel is usually pointed to as a representative that God’s people may serve in the court of an evil king. But Daniel actually proves the Pilgrim life, not otherwise.

Here is where the Church is called to shaky grounds. In strange times and circumstances, kingdoms of Men may call upon the Body of Christ to render aid. I think of Leo the Great (bishop of Rome) rebuilding the city, and negotiation with Atilla the Hun. I think of Augustine both organizing Hippo’s defense against the Vandals, and acting as a mediator so that the city won’t be destroyed. The examples are rare, and these are more ambiguous then I make them out to be.

Erastus, a Christian believed to be a public works official, represents the possibility that a Christian may still work in the structure of the City of Man without belonging to it. We render aid and promote justice, without any attempt to usurp or own.

Sadly, this logic can flow another way, which is where Erastus’ poor name has become a philosophy of ecclesial captivity to the World. Many time the Church has ceased to be an outpost of the Kingdom of God, and become a social service to the Kingdom of Men. This is like Daniel’s three friends never being thrown into the fire, they had no problem bowing before the idols of the King. This is the Church of England through most of its history. As Jacques Ellul put it, the Erastian church has been monarchic during monarchy, republican during republics, socialist during socialism. The list could go on.

Yet we are not to abandon our voice in the public domain. We don’t need to be pushy or lust for a seat at the table. But it doesn’t mean we need to hide the public implications of what we believe. Paul was more than happy to preach the Gospel and get arrested. He was more than content to let Festus burn as he complained that the Apostle was “turning the world upside down”. Paul was more than content to let officials in the City of Men see their religion and magic, as in Crete, be shown to be worthless. Paul was more than joyous to see the people of Ephesus reject their old ways and burn their scrolls. Yea, he even created economic disaster among the idol-smiths.

The Gospel has meaning for political arrangements and economics, but sadly Christians have failed to discern this role. Instead, many a church has become apart of the Great Whore who lays in the Emperor’s bed, inviting all kings to enter her. She is drunk on the blood of the saints and the oppressed.

Hopefully this littany of examples and errors can keep a strange balance. Can we trust in the Spirit of God to maintain us as we move through these structures of the City of Man? Can we know that the demons are powerful evils awaiting their destruction, and yet powerless before the Finger of God? Can we be content with our station amidst idolatrous institutions, and sing hymns to a different Prince?

May our Politics be a Politics of Pilgrimage, eyes set towards the Revelation of our King and City. Amen.

The Market Consumes

Let me start off by saying that the death of any man is sad, even wretched and evil men. This is not my natural disposition, but one that I am learning (yea, even trying to learn) because it is the attitude of my Lord. He wills all to repent, to come to Him, even the worst. So I do feel for those who celebrate Memorial Day in its traditional mores, as a day of mourning and remembrance. It is no easy thing to lose a father, a brother, a son, a friend etc. Death is the last enemy, the one Jesus overcame in His Resurrection.

Having said that, this day is even more reason to be disgusted with flag-waving and patriotic fervor. Those boys and girls who wore the uniform died for the greed of an Empire. The United States, as the super-power of the world, is a scheming geo-political titan, with its fingers in every pie, its tentacles all across the globe. Yes, I appreciate the liberties that are enshrined in documents like the Bill of Rights. Yes, I appreciate the material prosperity here. And yes, i appreciate the fact that there are social services (even if limited when compared to other Western countries).

However, we need to ask what the cost is. Why can we afford all sorts of cheap stuff at megastores like Walmart or Target? What has the United States done to effect these realities? Whose blood is on our hands?

One striking feature is that the United States is a kind of reincarnation of Rome. We truly are as ambitious, insufferably arrogant, unrelenting, and pragmatic as those rugged Italians. America was conceived intentionally so. We had slaves, but not quite anymore, and emphasis on not quite. Like Rome, we are incredibly violent. But it’s different, we have movies, and we’ve eschewed blood-sport (though UFC comes close). In a similar vein, we have slaves among us, but they do not look like victims of a salt mine. It is called economic slavery.

This is the brilliance of neo-Imperialism. We do not need to plant a flag anywhere. That is too much work and too bloody. The British learned the lesson before us. All one needs to do is control the market, and one owns another. So we don’t need slaves in plantations anymore. We just have Chinamen, Indonesians, Malaysians, Indians etc. labor and slave for nothing, exported to their own countries, endorsed (in some measure) by their own governments. Economics is the new Empire. We don’t need generals, only CEOs.

What has happened?

It’s because America, unlike Britain, had an apotheosis of its one and true god. The Market has developed and grown in strength, drinking enough blood off the altar, to become a completely comprehensive system. What am I talking about? This isn’t a Marxist screed, though informed by such, sneering at Capitalism. Yes, Capitalism is the Darwinian and Brutal face of the Market. But Socialism is just as enthralled to the Market. It’s why Marx was wrong, he couldn’t see that he was trapped within the same paradigm that his bourgeois factory owner compatriots were enforcing.

When I say ‘Market’ what am I talking about? Granted, there is no ‘thing’ called the market. It’s an invisible entity and more than that. it is an entity that is sublimated, no longer in existence as ‘something’ but an atmosphere. It is now vapor that we breathe in and exhale, without realizing what it is that we are believing and what it is that we are doing.

The Market is an ideology that creates value based upon trade, re-sale, pricing. It is the belief in a zero-sum game, between haves and have nots. It is an ideology based on necessity, where the Totality is all there is, and how to carve it up is subject to debate. The Market is the great commodifier, turning everything into trade. Whether it’s physical objects like books, food, houses, or it’s immaterial objects like affection, time, energy, we are born to think in terms of finitude and value. We speak of ‘wasting time’ as if it was mere expenditure.

The power of the Market is Mammon, the ikon of the god, his only begotten son. This may sound rather insane, and I’m not advising to burn your money and live out in the country. But it takes a certain death and resurrection to live to God in a world full of idolatry. We cannot so lightly consider these issues. Sanctification is a painful process, having the parasites and barnacles of worldliness ripped from our mind. Like the Sci-Fi horror Puppet Masters, we have ideological slugs on our spines, putting us in the backseat as they direct our bodies. Thank God for His Holy Spirit, lest we all be doomed.

But commodify is what the Market does and it turns all art into advertisement. This is the story of Don Draper in Mad Men. For him, he returns to the vortex of the abyss in a nirvanna of sorts, where Coca-Cola becomes the climax of the show. What this means is that Coke, a huge company and the greatest client for an Ad Man, is the engine that is able to enact the Market’s greatest ability: synthesis.

This is what Marx got wrong. Capitalism, as the most potent face of the Market, will not collapse. Counter-Culture appears, revolution stirs, and underground forms. But this does not mean the end of The Market, only a time of crisis. Mad Men seems to chronicle this crisis, seeing the 60’s go from the hollow facade of old-timey 50’s values to hippies, sexual revolution, and ‘progressive thinking’. But the Market can handle this. Rebel becomes a brand-name, hippy becomes a theme, untraditional sex becomes a product. The Market is wounded in the attack, but absorbs and grows stronger. The Grunge scene, again, was once a resistance, but now a genre. Goth is something you can buy at the store.

This is the horrifying evil at work across the Globe. The Earth is infected with it. The United States is not the cause of this, but she is the prime agent in enacting its spread. It turns everything into something that can be bought and sold, everything is placed with a price.

This is why I’ll never wave a flag on Memorial Day. Those poor kids were devoured for the sake of the Market. They didn’t serve anything noble, they didn’t die for anything. I won’t deny there are great acts of valor and brotherhood in war, but that’s no reason to bring about wars, violence, invasion. Horrible crises might bring people together, but you’d be a monster if you artificially instantiate one.

You have kids who are lured with the promise of meaning and adventure, but the greater reward is the idea that you’ll get education, skills, and a great employer. The promise is thus: The Military will make you, a down-and out or a slub, into something Marketable. The Marines have resisted this branding (proud and brash as they are), but this MO is for the rest. It’s why you see the Military at job fairs.

I hope whoever is reading this is not too offended to begin to count the cost. The Church is the Body of the Prince of Peace. We believe in the Father of Jesus Christ, the One who gives Himself to us. He enters into the demonic realm, only to surpass it. When Jesus wipes out the accounting of sin, He is the redemption of the whole Creation, but that is not one to one. God is the Infinite God who can cross all boundaries. There is no limitation with Him, there is no necessity, there is nothing but grace (literally, free-gift) and joy.

In Jesus Christ, the Market is dead and we may live free. May we not become slaves to its thinking. May we become slaves to righteousness

Test the Spirits

I was dumbstruck by an insight that came through Slavoj Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (it’s not what it sounds like). He gives a scenario (and forgive the crassness): there are times where someone, in the midst of sex, will be disenchanted and be perplexed. Why am I doing this? Why am I engaged in these repetitive motions, acting almost machine like? There a sense of stupidity pervades, as we become aware of what we’re doing and its emptiness.

Out of my own sexual insanity, I can testify to this feeling and experience. It’s also the same pervading sense that drove me away from my pornographic addiction in High School. There is an overwhelming sense of emptiness and foolishness. As I put it above, the enchantment is gone and we’re left with barebones physicality.

Zizek has an explanation for this. What drives sex, for both a man or a woman, is what he calls the ‘phantasmal’ element. There’s a fantasy at work that colors the context of everything that’s happening. There’s a dream or idea that motivates the on-going story.There’s a psychological projection that maintains the romantic relation.

It’s perhaps why lingerie and the ‘act’ of disrobing is more attractive than sheer nudity. The former leave a mystery to be explored, a lacuna to be filled in with the imagination. These objects and acts encourage desire. They excite the imagination, Mankind’s creative reason, to compose and make sense of things. More on that another time.

Now for Zizek, these are abstractions and artificial constructions. Humans create these feelings, moods, stories, and symbologies. It’s what they need to give meaning. But Zizek is a materialist and an atheist. What if, instead, these are not mere Human projections but part of the outworking of another dimension of reality? What if the spiritual dimension is indeed present, the folded fabric of the world we already indwell?

Now I’ve always had to take, at some value, the Biblical reality of spirits, demons, angels, and pervading darkness. In our modern world, it’s a bizarre and alien conception. Some have banished it to the text, a world away from us where, for some reason, these kinds of things no longer occur. Perhaps it’s on account of a new dispensation. Or perhaps it’s apart of a mythologizing that we no longer believe in or need. Whether you take a more biblicist approach or a liberal one, both are attempts to disconnect.

But I’m convicted otherwise. We are not in a world come of age. We live in an age that is as superstitious as the days of the Apostles. We live in a world full of religious rite, sacred symbolism, and cultic celebration. Our age of science is a new highly religious age, full of the demoniac and spiritual. I still believe in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to combat the Darkness, and give His people weapons to topple strongholds. Of course part of that work is to see Scripture rightly, which is cannon. But I digress.

In the Trinity, the role of the Spirit is the purveyance of love between the Lover (Father) and the Beloved (Son). Whether this is a helpful description of the Unity of the Godhead, there’s something there perhaps to glean. What if we do not have or participate in relationships or groupings without the presence of a spirit? This is present in off-hand sayings like esprit d’corps , but what if this means that all of relations are mediated through the presence of a ‘third’?

What I’m offering is something distinctly Human, distinctly 3rd dimensional, that is apart of relationships. Unlike mere animals, Mankind possesses a breath from On High. We are enspirited creatures, which does not mean we are mere hybrids between beast and angel. However, this touches on something that we may otherwise miss. C.S. Lewis believe mankind was amphibian, able to indwell both a world of water and land, a foot on both Earth and Heaven. This may be too much as well.

Paul commands us to keep in step with the Spirit, to be ‘in the Spirit’, which is equivalent, but not merely collapsed, with being ‘in Christ’. Being in the Spirit is the means for producing life-giving fruit (c.f. Galatians 5) and being in the Light. All of these fruit are not mere individual traits, but have consequence for group harmony and as group dynamics. Church communities are to be kind, self-disciplined, patient, loving, etc. To obey the Law of the Christ means to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

Now I don’t want to make much of it, but even the titular name ‘Angel’ has connotations of messenger, a medium, a go-between two parties. If our actions, like Zizek’s example, become mere mechanical and meaningless, perhaps this is a moment of absence. Perhaps our relationships are not uninhabited. Whether good or bad relationships, there’s a spirit at work and one that needs to be discerned.

In the life of the Church, we can see the difference in either the presence of a ‘Candlestick’ (the angel of the Church), or what the Christ refers to as a ‘synagogue of Satan’. That is, a community that has betrayed the brethren and now turned against the grace of God. A Church Community that is laden in gossip, in abuse, in manipulation, in deep seated and commended conflict (I could go on), perhaps is one that is under spiritual attack. Then, of course, there is the possibility is has ceased to be a Church of Christ, and now belongs to the demonic.

We can all think of examples of this. Mega-Church pastors that act as dictators. Legalistic enclaves that practice shunning and shaming and are hostile to the outside. Quiet communities where abuse, sexual immorality, viciousness, goes on unabated and unspoken. Communities that have openly sold their soul (candlestick?) for a particular set of cultural mores, national allegiance, or practice. This includes everything from churches bedecked in American flags and full of patriotic fervor, open-and-affirming bedecked in rainbow flags.

Perhaps 1 Corinthians 10, about headship and headcovering, needs re-examining. Maybe Paul’s argument ‘because of the angels’ has more punch. But this is for another time.

Then maybe there are spirits working in personal relations. Perhaps abusive, fear-driven, controlling, cold relationships are the haunt of the demonic and under another influence than the stubbornness or cruelty of one of the two parties. Maybe loving and thriving relationships have an angel over them.

Relationships are not mere anything, we are never just with another person. There is a third-dimension to it, and perhaps this is where we are called to ‘test the spirits’. For both communities and for individual relationships. This is the charisma of discernment, reading whether the voice of a community is preaching the Lamb or speaking like the Dragon. This is where we see if a particular relationship is health or unhealthy.

This topic needs further investigation and thought. But we need not fear. For The Holy Spirit is the Lord of the Spirits, and it is He who raised the Christ from the dead. He indwells us, protects us, and teaches us. He will continue to do so.

Taste and See

I’ve started the long trek through David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite, a polemic/dogmatics against the Post-Modern mood of our era. One appreciative element in his introduction is how he scripts the narrative (though he dislikes the connotations of the word) as one of two cities. Depending on our vantage, when we look on Creation, we will see a theater of God’s Glory or a barren waste. Now, I am not talking at the level of the now or the visible, but of purpose and eschaton. A huge question of the book deals with the created world and what it is. Is it nothing but a violently conceived illusion, a means only to be transcended in a paradox of finitude? Or is this the good creation which the Lord brought into being through the Word, Jesus Christ?

I will report intermittently as I continue, but I wanted to stop at one point that struck me. One distinction in attitudes and suppositions is that of beauty and desire. Post-Modernity has struck at beauty as a synthetic violence forced upon others, an order that is inherently oppressive. Beauty is the realm of the elite, those who are capable of building empires and cultures. This is just a rouse for others to continue the dialectic of their own attempts of bringing order to chaos. According to the Bible, this is in line with how God created, but Post-Modernity sees this as a violent seizure of what, inherently, cannot be seized. I am speaking in a lot of broad-strokes.

The vicious deconstruction and demolition by Post-Modernity is not something to be utterly rejected. Christ is the unassailable Word, but all other idolatrous words spoken against will collapse. The project of Apollo, which is the project of speculative philosophy and culture fabrication, won’t stand up against his brother god. Dionysus’ madness is an onslaught upon the shaky pillars of the Apollonian Temple. But thanks be to God that Christ is both True Wisdom and True Joy, overcoming all pagan conceptions with a deeper music and a richer wine.

And it’s for this reason that I ask, in defense of Beauty, if desire and appetite is mere fancy, subjective appreciation, and constituted only by belly and hunger? By this I’m asking: is Beauty an objective Outsider who seizes us, or is it internally generated lust for the passive object before it?

The reality, as I’d see it, is a qualified yes. Beauty is a Person, an objective movement that seizes us, whose imprint can knock us over. Yet, this is not inherent in fallen and sinful man. We have a belly-god who directs us to slobber and lurch. Both points are true, but not because of a Post-Modern deconstruction. Instead, Post-Modernism has shown how the Apollonian temple of refined taste is nothing more than dressed up and masqueraded hunger. Feurbach’s critique, that all talk of god is Human desire projected up, levels the land of all our attempts to reach up. We stumble in the dark looking for answers.

Our society’s embrace of Consumerism, becoming more and more comprehensive and internal, is an opportunistic embrace of the Fall. We are bombarded with images, advertisements, scenery, pornography, bloodshed, saccharine emotion etc. It is so overwhelming that our ability to taste changes as a result. It’s always been like this, but never at this level. Goebbels would die from glee in seeing the American Media-Complex.

We are recondition to think only in terms of buying, using, consuming. Man is only a complex beast of many hungers. Some are base (sex, food, drink), some are higher (family, fashion, sport) and some appeal to a synthetic climax of Humanity (spirit, god, ultimate concern). Tillich may have thought man is driven by an ultimate concern, an anxiety over death and destiny. Ad Men have flipped this in the guise of Oprah books.

While this is all true, it is only conditioned by the Fall. While Man’s attempt to universalize are, by nature, oppressive, this does not eradicate the reality of a true aesthetic. If God is the one whom we taste and see that He is good, the one who promises flowing rivers of milk and honey, then we are wrong to think man’s god is only the stomach.

In Biblical Typology, while the Land was fruitful and good to the Israelites, it pointed out to a fulfillment, which is revealed to be found in Christ. He is our bounty and our good, our portion and our plenty. And lest we be duped by our conditioning, He is God and is not able to be boxed. In finding Him and grabbing His robe, we are mastered. Desire is fulfilled in the Beauty He reveals.

Yet He comes as ugly and bloody. This is not contradictory, but rather, a paradoxical revelation. It is in sacrifice that we see the fullness of God. It is not emptiness as such, but seeing Christ, the Prince of Glory, take the shape of a servant, that sets our souls ablaze. Christ awakens us, allured by the honey-power of the Spirit, to reshape our twisted hearts around Him.

It’s not that Beauty is not real, He is. And we need Beauty Himself to teach us anew, reshaping our desires around what is true and what is good. This is true in the aesthetic, where we give glory to God in seeing the Creation worship Him. Whether it’s in the trees or the rocks, in a painting or music, we praise God for the shallow joy. This is not an endorsement for a particular culture, which is the Constantinian synthesis, Christ’s Church turned into an Apollonian Temple to demons. It is a wide and rejoicing evaluation. Whatever lifts our hearts and imaginations to the Lord Jesus, revealed in Scripture, ought to be received with praise.

But this sense of beauty also reaches over into the ethical and the true. The Fruits(!) of the Spirit are pleasing to God and to the heart renewed. We probably will never see this fully in this life, but when we rejoice to witness love, compassion, peace etc., we are appreciating the beauty of the good.

There are many other places this could be thought out and unrolled. But it is our work as God’s People to be mastered by Christ, to seek Him and rejoice in what He rejoices in. For God is the God of wine, salt, honey, breasts, hair, eyes, kittens, and so much more. To call this list vulgar is to deny a good creation. We live in a fall and our corrupted hearts twist these. Under the domain of Adam, even the fruits become rotten. Wisdom becomes deceit, peace becomes sloth, patience becomes indifference, faith becomes grasping, love becomes lust.

Let us taste Jesus, see that He is good, and live conformed to His life. He is the Lord of the Resurrection. He is the Light that opens eyes. He is Word that unstops ears. He is Bread and Wine that give us fullness. He is the Beautiful Lord. Amen.

Disagreeing with God…

We encounter problems when our moral sensibilities conflict with scripture.
Here are a couple of brief personal examples to illustrate:

I have always found the homosexuality passages difficult… left to my own instincts I would not understand homosexuality to be in any way wrong provided the relationship is honest, egalitarian, committed, exclusive and not manipulative or abusive.  I also find the genocide passages in the OT difficult… left to my own instincts I see the extent and quality of such violence as repulsive especially given the absence (even exclusion) of mercy, redemptive purpose and on occasion the targeting of persons based on the actions of their ancestors 400 years prior.

But rather than getting bogged down in specific examples, my aim here is to discuss the relationship between our moral sensibilities and our interpretation of scripture more generally.  I suggest that we can adopt either one of two interpretive approaches:

  1. I interpret scripture under the guidance of my own moral sensibilities re right and wrong. Here I can interpret difficult passages as unclear, contextually isolated, poetic, hyperbolic, metaphorical or even as errant (note that it is possible to maintain a belief in the “God breathed” nature of scripture without committing to its total inerrancy – after all I would hope my own life is “God breathed”, yet at no point would I equate this to inerrancy or infallibility).  However this approach is problematic for several reasons.  It allows our subjectivity to run riot over moral absolutes (which most of us wish to believe in), it ignores the problem of humanity’s very obvious moral confusion and it defeats the corrective function of revelation if we can mold scripture to suit our own sensibilities.
  2. I subjugate my own moral sensibilities to scripture. In this case my own feelings on what is good become redundant. I must take x as good/bad, irrespective of my feelings to the contrary.  This latter view gels with the idea that God is supreme and provides a counter-point to by which to address our moral confusion/relativism.

However (2), despite being more theologically appealing also comes with an assortment of problems.  Abandoning our own moral sensibilities means that absent specific examples and precise definitions of terms, general commands such as “do justice” or “act kindly” are emptied of meaningful content as they rely on my own subjective instincts as to what “kindness” is.  It might be argued that “love your neighbour as yourself” overcomes this problem by allowing us to define love in subjective terms.  However when Jesus comes he says “love one another as I have loved you” – insisting that love is defined by his example over and above our introspective assessment.  Jesus’ example however may not be clearly or straightforwardly applicable to all contexts – meaning that there is still a need for interpreting what Jesus-shaped love looks like in any given situation.  While we have guiding principles, the extension of these principles to our everyday lives require input from our own sensibilities as to what is ‘wise’ etc.

Subjugating our own moral sensibilities to scripture also seems to conflict with the scriptural notion of conscience – that morality can be inferred from ‘the very nature of things’ (1 Cor 11:14).  I’ve always struggled with Paul’s statement here… it seems so profoundly naïve, as if Paul has zero recognition that the ‘very nature of things’ can appear radically different from one person to another.  Corinthians isn’t the only passage which speaks of conscience – Romans 2:15 says of the Gentiles that “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness… their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them”.  Putting aside the seeming contradiction with Jeremiah 17:9 (“the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”) Paul still seems confident that even apart from God’s scriptural revelation our thoughts/hearts still function as a guide to God’s morality – in which case our sensibilities might well be able to guide our interpretation of scripture per (1).  However, the necessary corollary of Paul’s comments is that all our moral disagreements are cosmetic and disingenuous; that beneath the surface we do in fact all agree on all moral issues. How on earth do we reconcile this with the fact that our moral sensibilities not only seem to differ inter alia, but also differ from scripture?

Finally, subjugating our own moral sensibilities to scripture also renders giving thanks and praise somewhat meaningless.  Thanks and praise rest on our ability to recognise God’s goodness – but on this model we are incapable of volunteering such an assessment. Praise and thanks become robotic rather than heartfelt – we thank God for things because he tells us they are good, not out of some heartfelt appreciation.


 

So what is the solution here? We either guide our interpretation of difficult passages by invoking our preconceived notions of right and wrong, or we dispense our preconceived morality and prioritise the prima facie meaning of scripture, accepting it as a corrective to our moral confusion.  Both approaches have deep problems.  If we use our own sensibilities to govern our interpretation of scripture we have in principle placed ourselves above God’s revelation, defeating its function as a corrective and abandoning moral absolutes in favour of subjectivity.  If however we abandon our existing sensibilities to scripture we are left unable to interpret general commands to “love” or to be “kind”, we are left unable to make sense of Paul’s comments re conscience, and we are left unable to credibly give heartfelt thanks or praise as we are incapable of volunteering our own appreciation of goodness.

Now one might try to resolve all of this by an appeal to the Holy Spirit.
It is argued that while Scripture remains authoritative, our own sensibilities need not be demolished but rather remade by the Spirit of Christ living in us so that, over time, our own moral assessments converge in alignment with scripture and with Christ – (a) dissolving our subjective disagreements (b) maintaining moral absolutes, (c) guiding our interpretation of general commands to “love” etc and (d) allowing us to give genuine praise and thanks.  However (will my inner cynic never die) this still runs up against the problem that in over 2000 years, Christians still wrestle inter-alia with moral disagreements (both old and new) and, despite subordinating ourselves to scripture in principle, we still find particular areas of scripture offensive and are forced to try and interpret them fairly without letting our repulsion override the process.

My only comfort is this…
That God’s seeks servants who are faithful not morally/doctrinally perfect.
Faithfulness looks to attitudes over outcomes… it’s about our attempt to deal with the mish-mash of scripture with our own hearts and minds in the best way we know how.  Thoughts?

The Sixth Sense

Don’t Worship Me

John Calvin would write about something common to all man, despite the Fall. He would call this the sensus divinitatis which has been translated in a plurality of ways. Literally, it means a ‘sense of the divine’, but this is taken in many directions. I hope today to elucidate bad pathways that have been taken, and a better reading.

At first glance, this might have been taken to mean that all Humans, despite our fallen minds and souls, retain still some sense of God that keeps us going. Let me say that this articulation still confesses that mankind’s fallenness effects our reasoning faculties, our perceptions, our abilities to sense and feel.

Pelagianism has reigned by maintaining a pure will, a pure mind, a pure intellect or some other soulish feature for man. Thus, while our bodies are fallen, we still retain a pure and good inner-man that knows right from wrong, no matter how much our flesh graves otherwise. This is quite popular for the optimists among us. Erasmus, the medieval polymath and reformer, taught it vigorously and it led him to his eventual split with Luther and the rest of the Reformation.

Erasmus believed that Rome was corrupt and sunk into superstition and vanity, but did not belief that the Roman Medieval complex had seriously erred. This Luther, among others, spotted and reacted angrily. Man, like a horse, is either ridden by God or the Devil, there is no neutrality. Perhaps this is too strong and denies God’s restraining providential graces, but nonetheless, he had no truck with Erasmus.

Yet Erasmus is still quite influential and his high-pitched moralisms come through Evangelicalism’s folk pelagianism of “making a decision for Jesus” and “taking America back for God”. It exalts man’s weakened capacity and makes us deceived.

But that’s not what this articulation would allow, despite it ending up creating similar effects. Instead we’re led to believe that we all have a notion of God that is wedged in us. This might lead to a Natural Law theology that grants all men are capable of understanding the basic foundations of the Moral Order. Romans 1 is appealed to in this regard. It’s this sustained ‘sense’ that allows a general understanding to remain.

This might also lead to a general lowest-common-denominator appreciation for ‘God’. Most people in the States, Christian or non, grant that there is some god above gods, some driving force in history and destiny. All peoples over the globe have appropriated the idea of god and woven it into their social fabric. There has never been a purely atheistic society, except in terms of reaction (e.g. USSR, PRC).

There’s something to this approach. Most people in all places have condemned murder and thievery, and condoned marriage and rule by law (even if law means the traditions of the tribe, or the word of a single man). Most people in all places have worshiped the gods. Does this prove the point? Does the sensus divinitatis an innate Human ‘feeling’ of the true God?

I don’t believe that’s what Romans 1 teaches us. In fact, the Creation (I abhor the baggage the word ‘Nature’ has) preaches the True God, but who is that God, other than the Christ, the Son of God? According to Jesus, none have seen the Father but He, the One who reveals the Father. My reading is that from Adam till now, we’ve only known God through His Word. We can, in the tradition of the Apostles, anachronistically say that Abraham, Moses, David et al. knew Jesus.

So if Paul remains in light of this tradition, then he is not saying that the Creation preaches the idea of God, but preaches Jesus. The Creation reveals the eternal nature and power of said Jesus, but does Paul say all people know this God? Not really! We’ve all suppressed such voices, we’ve stopped up our ears with all our evil desires. We can’t see or hear properly until The Spirit of Truth has enlightened us.

When Jesus looked at a seed, He saw His coming death and the harvest He would bring about. But what do we “naturally” (!) see?  We have Pagan notions of the eternality of the world, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. We see this in the captivity of Persephone, the horror of Death’s(Hades’) claim over our lives. We see this in the notion of Karma and the crushing wheel of reincarnation. Our Human senses are muddled at best.

So what of this Natural sense of a moral order and the god? Paul’s speech at Mars Hill was not applauding the Athenians for being so close. He was tormented by seeing all the idols in the city. It was a lament for the foolishness of what was considered the world’s wisest city.

We may have similar shells and forms for moral ordering and god, but these are shades and lies. All peoples condemn murder, but that word is flexible and illusive. What one people calls murder (i.e. sacrificing captives to Quetzalcoatl, putting your family to death, shooting a stranger on a neighbor’s property) another would call legal execution of death. It’s a synthetic grouping. There may be a Moral Order (and there is), but we are blind to it.

The Natural Law theologians end up baptizing our own instantiations of what is “right”. It is a conservative reflex to recover a better era. One man’s Natural Law says it’s just to overthrow a “tyrant” by will of the people (whose people? what will?), another by the will of a “lesser-magistrate”, and another that to attack the majesty of a sovereign is to invite anarchy and godlessness. And this is only the heritage of the Anglo-American political tradition!

What if the sensus divinitatis was rather an innate bend in us towards love? What is the highest form of love other than worship, and thus what we love is what we worship is what we become. That, I submit, is the logic of Romans 1. It’s not that we can detect, in a weakened state, but that in our suppression of what the Creation testifies (eternal power and being), we still go on worshiping. But we turn onto ourselves. We worship ideas, things, ourselves. We create for ourselves new moral reckonings and new gods to follow through. For the Human impulse, we want to worship, so we go about making things to worship. Does not the Golden Calf incident tell us a similar reading?

If the Church is a social-alternative, a recovery program, an outpost of the City of God, then what does this doctrine tell us? It should, primarily, tell us that those who are pledged to King Jesus have no basic common-ground with people who pledge to other kings. What that means is that if, despite our wretchedness, our hearts are sealed on account of the Holy Spirit, we have a different love than those who slave for the Cities of Men. But, at the same time, we have a common-ground in that we are all still Human. We can perceive that they too want to worship, but they are without the Light of Truth.

In other terms, since we are all men, who have all bowed (or still) to the lusts of this World, our flesh, and the Devil, we have similar inclinations. This ‘original good’ is that, in a cliche I can’t avoid, we’re all looking for somebody or something to love. The position of the people of God is on our knees and in humility. We are beggars too, we’ve only been fed the Bread of Life.

In our interactions, this means that we can reject the Empire project of so many. Mankind who know not the light of Jesus cannot conceive of the Kingdom or the commands of Christ. They’re not working as partners with God in a Natural Kingdom (vis. two-swords doctrine). They’re blinded, but still used by God to order and maintain this deficient age. It’s a part of the strange Providence of our Lord. It’s not an article of empirical deduction, but of faith. We trust that Christ, in His ascension, is managing all things.

This also means that we can meet people wherever they are. They’re on the brink of suicide on a broken relationship, a lost career, a destroyed fortune? We get that. We all know what it means to love. I’m hesitant to pull out the language of idolatry, but that’s certainly the end-place of all such misplaced affections. In fact, we should say more than “I get it”. We’re not immune to such twisted loves. We too, on account of our Adamic virus, produce all sorts of evils. Being in Christ is an objective perfection outside of ourselves, and it is also a subjective orientation toward the Kingdom of Light.

Mankind was meant to be priestly kings and queens. We were to lead the worship of all of God’s Creation. And even fallen, this hunger to conduct, direct, and receive love remains. It is this that bind us together. It is this sense that haunts all of Humanity, even in the vilest of religions or reigns. It is this mechanism that is unbent in the pouring on of the Holy Spirit. May we who live according to such a Master continue in that most excellent way. Amen

Desires of the flesh…

I recently had an off-blog conversation with one of the fellow authors here – Chris.

The topic concerned how human desire plays out in God’s eyes.
How do our desires for pleasure, food, sex, friendship, attention, affirmation, status, wealth and power figure in Christian discipleship? Are these desires morally neutral until they are energised in a particular way for good or ill? Or are some desires inherently wrong?

The debate attached to Genesis 3 where God issues a penalty in response to humanity’s disobedience: child-bearing became painful, the ground became unproductive absent toil, and immortality was lost.  Curiously nestled in the middle of this Eve is told: “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”.  Given the surrounding context I moved to suggest (a) that marital desire and (b) female submission to male authority are, part of the curse of a fallen world and by reasonable inference not reflective of God’s original intent.  Chris countered by suggesting that neither the marital desire nor the female subjugation of Gen 3:16 need be seen as inherently bad things, but as corruptions of an originally pure marital desire and male headship. Whilst conceding this possibility I thought it unlikely given the absence of any such juxtaposition in the text (Hebrew literature is notorious for using juxtaposition as a device in order to emphasise a point).

Chris’ second counterargument was that marital desire is affirmed positively, not negatively, in scripture (in particular Song of Solomon) and that marital desire could not therefore be construed as inherently bad. After all… if God created marriage then how could it be sinful or wrong to desire it?

I made things worse for myself…
Not only did I argue that marital desire was part of the curse but I went on to adopt the wild position that all human desire (save desire for God Himself) is wrong because it fosters a tendency to prioritise the gift over the giver.  I did however distinguish this from the Gnostic position of disparaging all earthly pleasures.  To clarify – it is not that I think marriage itself is wrong or that food, sex, money etc are sinful – rather all these things are gifts to be received with thanks in their appropriate contexts. My position is that the desire or craving for these things is the malign element.  I wrote:

“to make other human beings the focus of desire is to risk emotional and psychological dependence which compromises our God given sense of agency. Desire opens the door for manipulation and abuse (whether accidental or intentional) […] my desire lands me in all kinds of entanglements and clouds my judgment EVEN when that desire is for otherwise good things […] I am aware that my position re desire is fringe and won’t be shared by many at all – but I do think our modern context has skewed our judgment on this and led us to be less discerning when it comes to distinguishing desire from thankfulness”

 

After this I left the discussion as I felt I had made the best argument I could and though unpersuaded by Chris’s affirmation of the potential good inherent in human desire I wanted to give the topic more thought.  Then I read Cal’s latest post on the Machiavellian tactics of Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards.  Cal writes: “We, as Fallen, are so easily tempted to keep building our towers, but we, as Christians, no longer belong to this world. We are people of the Risen Christ, living according to the Spirit. We have no part in investing in the Cities of Man, though we work among its forms and ruins.” The notion Cal presents vaguely parallels my own in that he highlights the opposition between (i) our material desires to build and control and (ii) the path of discipleship which shuns investment in human designs.  The parallel is only slight however… Cal was not arguing that all human desire is malign, only that the Machiavellian desire to control outcomes runs counter to the Biblical notion of a “city not made by human hands” (Heb 9:11). I have kept thinking…

Let’s examine the case for (A) a distinction between good and bad human desire and (B) the idea that desires need not be inherently bad  but merely corruptions of an originally pure desire which God affirms.

Good desires

  • The logic of: God created good things, therefore it cannot be inherently bad to desire them.
  • Song of Solomon seems on most readings to affirm human-on-human sexual desire
  • Philippians 2:13 – God works in us “to will [read desire] and act according to His purpose”
  • Deut 14 – the Israelites are commanded to buy “whatever they desire” and “whatever your appetite craves”.
  • Psalm 37:4 “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”
  • 2 Chronicles 1:11 – Solomon is praised for desiring wisdom over wealth and honor etc
  • Psalm 10:17 “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them…”

Bad desires

  • Deut 5:21 “You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
  • 2 Chronicles 1:11 – possibly implies that the human desires for wealth, honor and military conquest are malign
  • Galatians 5 – lists “desires of the flesh” (v16) as things to be checked… sexual immorality, selfish ambition, envy, drunkenness (excessive intoxication). Paul also lists “self-control” as fruit of the Spirit… implying by necessity that there are corresponding desires to be countered.
  • Romans 7 deals expressly with the internal conflict between the Spirit’s desires and those of “the flesh” – implying that all desire outside of the Spirit is necessarily fallen and sinful.

 

Romans 7 seems… perhaps…. to offer the best support my own view as stated earlier: “all human desire (save desire for God Himself) is wrong” There are indeed good and bad desires… but the distinction rests on whether desires originate in the Spirit or in our natural human tendencies, our “flesh”.  As such it is less about ‘corrupted desire vs non-corrupted desires’ (as Chris might argue)… and more about desire for God (Spirit inspired desire) vs all other forms of human desire whatsoever.

Now… to address specific examples.
Some cases are obvious.  We can see how the desire to care for the sick (for example) can be Spirit inspired. The distinguishing mark of the Spirit is that it testifies of Jesus’ Lordship (1 Cor 12:3).  Caring for the sick can testify of the fact of Jesus’s Lordship over creation (through the act of healing) but also of the affective nature of His Lordship (kindness, gentleness and mercy) towards those who acknowledge their need.

But what about career ambition – the desire to work hard towards a promotion?
Although less obvious one might still attempt an argument that this can be Spirit inspired – career progression yields greater ability to look after one’s family (provided a work-life balance), something which testifies of Jesus in so far as the act of looking after one’s family mirrors God’s Fatherhood as we come to know it in Jesus.  Okay… but then deal with this passage:

“each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them […] Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so […] Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them […] Do not look for a wife” (1 Cor 7:17-24)

Paul applies this to a broad swathe of circumstances… while slaves should avail themselves of any opportunity to be freed, Paul seems to favour passivity over activism when he says “don’t let it trouble you” – the implication is to be content in one’s current position.  Equally while Paul says that marrying in not a sin, he does say that unmarried persons should not seek a wife.  He permits marriage as a “concession” (v6) in order to contain those pesky sexual desires which would otherwise run riot.  It is clear that whilst Paul doesn’t view marriage as a sin, he does view singleness as the ideal, characterising marriage as lesser option – a tool by which to contain sexual desires which he wishes people could simply suppress or escape entirely (v7: I wish that all of you were as I am).  When Paul then says “each of you has your own gift from God” the proper reading is not that sex is a gift to married people… it is that God’s gifts are provided to help counter sexual desire.  Paul’s gift is self-control (or perhaps asexuality) by which he suppresses/escapes sexual desire.  For others marriage is a gift which helps people contain sexual desire in the absence of sufficient self-control (v5 “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control”).  It is remarkable that nowhere does Paul – the champion of grace – praises sexual desire itself as a positive in its own right… neither does he speak of sexual desire as something which is good in the proper context… he sees it a problem to which God’s gifts of self-control, asexuality and marriage are applied as a remedy.

Elsewhere, following a passage in which he praises self-control – denouncing passion and lust – Paul says: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).  The thematic connection, consistent with his remarks re slavery and marriage  in 1 Corinthians, is that people should not agitate for or seek a change in circumstances or a progression.  It is not only sexual desire which needs to be countered, but wider desires/ambitions which seek to advance one’s present circumstances or which extend beyond “a quite life”.  So given the thematic at work… wouldn’t Paul say that working towards a promotion at work is a malign desire that needs to be checked? It certainly qualifies as a desire to advance one’s circumstances, it’s not essential for survival, it likely breaches “quiet life” requirement as in seeking a promotion you are seeking to set yourself apart.  Just as Paul nowhere praises sexual desire as something potentially positive, Paul would unlikely praise the desire to win a promotion as something potentially positive either.

But perhaps I’m labouring one example too much.
Rather than a promotion, let’s say that someone desires to achieve a 1:1 in their university degree.  This again is seeking a highly consequential advance in circumstances relative to their peers – so wouldn’t it fall short of Paul’s logic? What about desiring to go on holiday? Couldn’t it be argued that while holiday’s in themselves have biblical precedent in the form of God-prescribed festivals and Sabbaths for Israel, this contrasts with the self-initiated activism of booking a holiday – an act which demonstrates either a lack of thankful contentment with one’s present circumstances or a lack of reliance on God’s grace to sustain one through their labour?

To return to first principles…
Paul’s guiding thought is that our following Jesus is necessarily and exclusively energized and enabled by the Spirit which testifies of His Lordship.  The only desires which are good are those desires fuelled by the Spirit – all expressions of a core desire for God.  Save this one exception all other desires are necessarily fallen, are opposed to and in conflict with the Spirit.  This theme is well applied by Paul to the topics of marriage, slavery and any kind of ambition which seeks to advance personal circumstances.  So what about sexual desire, the desire for wealth and honour (which Solomon eschewed), what about the desire for leisure and pleasure, for honest career progression? Further what about emotional desires for affirmation, status, attention etc? “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16) …can you ask for a more global statement than that?

Eager to hear your thoughts?  Don’t go easy… I’d much prefer to not hold this position as it would make my internal life much easier were I not constantly aware of the necessity to question and contend with every desire I might have.  Attack my use of scripture, attack my thematic inferences, attack it from a macro-theological perspective.  Take apart my argument from its foundations.

House of Cards: An Expose on the City of Man

I recently finished watching the current season of House of Cards, and thought it was due to give my reflection on the series. The show is dark and sordid. It rocks your soul in seeing the capacity of deception and ambition combined in one man. It holds you in awe in the same way watching a rattle-snake lure its prey to its doom. You want to recoil, but there’s a chill in the blood that keeps your eyes glued. The scheme is horrifyingly brilliant.

Lest you think I am being lurid, Jesus Himself tells us that the People of God ought to pay respect to the Gentile rulers. The People of Light need to call a spade a spade and appreciate shrewdness in the children of this world (c.f. Luke 16). We can look at a Caesar and discerned his wicked heart, and if he is our contemporary, even pray for his redemption. But we can also appreciate a good story and a masterful scheme. It doesn’t change that Jesus is still the King, and will judge the living and the dead.

Anyway, the show portrays something that very few modern shows do: an ancient story. Despite what some have argued, House of Cards has nothing to do with post-modern scruples, distrust of authority, the partisan politics of today etc. It is a recast of Machiavelli’s Prince. Here is the story of man who seeks to become immortal. This is the Babel Project on full display.

And the People of God ought to learn from this. Frank Underwood (the show’s protagonist/antagonist) is an artistic representation of characters both ancient and modern. His story is the story of Julius Caesar or Napoleon, Pope Alexander VI or Josef Stalin. It’s how a man beat the system of his peers and tried to grab godhood.  It’s a straight shot of the libido dominandi, the lust of dominating, that Augustine articulated as the root of sin. It is raging, red-faced, pride.

How, you might ask, could this possibly be edifying?

The reason: we’re all Frank Underwood. We’re just not nearly well equipped, unscrupulous, and vicious in taking what we want. The care and provision of God keeps us from becoming such a monster. But when we such a beast appear, we ought to tremble. If such a man, who rose so far, was dashed to pieces, what hope do we have in all our plans and schemes? We might not aspire to an Empire, but we build our own little kingdoms. Frank Underwood’s personage condemns us as cowards, and God’s Spirit convicts us of our surging flesh, our Adamic sin-nature.

We, as Fallen, are so easily tempted to keep building our towers, but we, as Christians, no longer belong to this world. We are people of the Risen Christ, living according to the Spirit. We have no part in investing in the Cities of Man, though we work among its forms and ruins.

It’s instructive in the scenes that Frank interacts with God. The most profound is when he stares a giant crucifix in the eye and growls: “Love…that’s what your selling? Well, I’m not buying”. He spits on the face of Christ. This is unacceptable for the social mores, so he tries to clean off the statue. And, in a picturesque judgment, the crucifix falls off the wall and shatters. The implication: God will not be so tamed by the will of man.

As Christians, we live in a strange dualism within a singularity. We live in the Cities of Men as an alternative society, pledging our hearts to Christ as our Emperor, President, and King. Yet it is not an equal battle. Christ stands over the entire Cosmos as its rightful Judge. It is not our duty to topple these cities. It is our job to be faithful, combat the demons through prayer and preaching, and bring forth the Kingdom of God. We are in the world, but not of it.

The Frank Underwoods of literature and reality are a reminder of the complex web that Cain’s descendants have left us. But even though we travel and inhabit many cities and places, we await a city whose founding has no earthly maker. The eventual fall of Frank Underwood, and all would be caesars, should turn us to the cross of Christ, who plunged the whole enterprise into Hades. The things of this age will be burned up and turn to dust.

Let us set our hearts in Heaven, at the feet of Christ the King. Let us praise God for bringing us into the Kingdom of His Matchless Son, forever blessed, amen.