Merry Christmas, Figure It Out

There are good Christmases, but none perfect, because the “not yet” of Christmas is never totally immersed by the “already”. Because the cosmic template of the feast, the original Christmas event, was a dire, frightening “not yet”.

Unwanted pregnancy. Destroyed love affair. Angels giving out impossible assignments. Reputations trashed. Futures gone. Leaving home, huge pregnant. Uncomfortable travel, to a place not chosen. A birth, horribly timed. No place to rest. No place to put the baby. Relying on the kindness of strangers in a strange land. Uninvited guests from foreign countries. The news that soldiers are searching for the baby to slaughter him.

What could be more “Not yet” than this story, against the background of some vague promises from angels that this would be a wonderful experience? There’s never been a more empirically disappointing Christmas than the first one, and that’s our template. We’re meant, by a mystical bond with the liturgical template, to experience the “not yet” against the longing of the “already”.

So the experience of Christmas never quite ascends to the vision of Christmas, which, like all visions, is made of just the bright shiny bits with the dark seams of the original, and even the disappointing memories of our past holidays, always dropping away. It’s o.k.; follow the star, and figure it out. .

So I snap back to the start of it all, where the angel appears with greetings – “Merry Christmas”. We now know that what the angel actually said was “Merry Christmas, figure it out.”

Like father, Like Father.

The devaluation of father and the death of God are the same thing.  Or, at least, they comfort each other.  They share an elective affinity.

I’m not arguing causality here, in either direction.   I don’t know that devaluing father causes the ideology of God’s death.   Nor do I know that atheism leads to a feeling that dads are optional.   I suspect neither relation is direct.  I suspect both of these arise out of a third thing, which seeks to destroy all father symbols, concrete and invisible.

Is it any more complicated than a “no” to father’s rules?   Milton’s Satan, the famous sympathetic figure at the fountainhead of rebellion for its own value, just prefers to rule in hell than serve in heaven.   And we’re still intended to think (I think) with Milton that this is a stupid choice, but the stupidity is only clear when the joys of friendship with the father are felt, so that the loss of choosing autonomy can be weighed.   And that loss Milton fails to show, rather than tell, for all his genius.   Ever since, “no” to father’s rules has not meant “no” to fathers eventual friendship, which is the only reason for the rules.

All this has been forgotten by the race.

Louise Erdrich and my prayers

`Louise Erdrich constantly indicts the Lord for His “silence”.   As if the expected next sound, after her line, would be God talking back.   And I agree.  Repeatedly expecting and then missing His approval is the ache in the core.   This hunger is not chosen.  It afflicts.

She would be happier if she could walk in the woods or see the daisies and not move instantly to dialogue with their maker.  But that would be weird:  you can’t have intact retinae and not want to talk with the maker of colors.  Our affection toward God happens prior to thought until it is forcibly suppressed, by the cruelty of parents, the horrors of history, or years of practiced numbness in the service of certain sophistications.

I sympathize.  And in Erdrich I’m thrilled to have another psalmist complaining that God is silent.  It’s useful employment for the poetic craft.  My complaints need better words.

If biblical psalms are anything they are complaints.  And we pray better as we let ourselves hear the expert unpracticed complainers.  Not complaints about other people (we lack standing), or toward “nature” or “life” (we lack jurisdiction), but complaints toward the Judge of all the earth.

Our complaint is not that He is unjust (we lack knowledge), but that He is not here, with me.   Here, complain; complain where complaint is valid, from the lonely heart.   That’s a complaint that holds standing, jurisdiction and knowledge and worth taking up into a chant at matins, with directions for the choirs-master.


I accept that complaining to You is an insult and sometimes angers You.  But I have nowhere else to go, and Your angry voice would be meat for starvation.  The creeds I believe.  The story makes sense, I buy it all: creation, fall, and how You came back from heaven to find us and take us home.

But I still feel like the child whose father read him a sweet story from the other end of the house but never came to say goodnight and kiss my forehead.


The Time Toggle

Work over a drawing or a poem and all sense of passing time is suspended.   The next day, watch television all evening, and you’re surprised at how fast the evening goes.   These are common observations, common enough to abstract into principle: when the senses are full but inactive,  time speeds up.  When the faculties are active,, time slows down.  When we are passive consumers of information or entertainment, irrespective of the quality of what we consume, time flies.   When we are producers, time stops.    The intensity of the creative mind is inverse to the perception of passing time.   (By creating, I mean most any active production, from origami to plumbing, as opposed to passive consumption, from reading novels to sitcom bingeing.)

After each of these experiences we sense how they are opposites.  When a session of creative work is over,  we feel integrated, whole.  Consciousness is fuller.   But when we come to our senses after hours of entertainment and realize the hours we lost, it feels like a loss of something we can’t quite say.  We feel a little less whole; the field of consciousness seems to have shrunk.    We feel alienated.

So we can actually punch the time button if we want, and suspend it.  Or, toggle it the other direction and lose time.

Let’s extrapolate  this insight:  as a society becomes more and more filled with opportunities to passively consume content,  the sense of passing time  grows more acute, individually, and enters the general air as a pop culture mood.    There are ancillary effects.   Hoarding, for example – here’s a phenomenon that has appeared in recent decades in the affluent West, like some emergent disease.  Hoarders collect objects that have touched their lives in a desperate attempt to resist the sense that life is passing away like a flash.   The piles of junk that fill hoarders’ homes are shored-up bulwarks against the empty present.   Mounds of memory.   Fear of death.   Physical nostalgia.

So, this oddity: nostalgia and entertainment culture go together.   I’d go so far as this:  individuals who spend their time creating do not feel much nostalgia.

There are many needed distinctions at this point, but I can only list them.  Each needs longer treatment.   One:  nostalgia and respect for the past are not the same thing.   Another:   reading can be active or passive, it depends on the larger context and not on the subject matter of the book.  Reading good books is to be praised and encouraged, but can be just as passive a lifetime as one spent staring at a screen.   The reader should do something with her reading – write something, sing something, use the information somehow, or let the poem inspire her to create in her own idiom.   Good writing deserves to be responded, and the healthy reader will be UNABLE not to respond to a good book with active production of some kind.  It’s not a rule, it just happens.   Further, none of this contradicts the common and healthy advice to “read for pleasure”, which is good counsel.   Read for pleasure, and with active engagement (but these are the same thing), then do what you will.

There are ancillary insights.   For example, in the same way that time stops when we make things, God, who is pure creative act, experiences literal eternity.

Speaking of theology….in many religious anthropologies, much is made of efforts to fix some supposed heirarchy of the senses, or other.  This effort is, partly, to make any sense other than the visual the one in charge, so it can slow or organize an increasingly fast and chaotic sensorium centered, typically,  around our sight.   Ellul wrote of “the humiliation of the word”;  Postman writes of the loss of the “typographical mind”; the Desert Fathers were concerned about the cognitive “image” obscuring the theoria (or contemplation) of the adept.

The recurrent impulse to make pyramids of the sense-organs is understandable as a reaction to the panic of speeding time, and has suggestions of biblical warrant, ever since Eve preferred a vivid vision (her own picture of her own future) over a fading verbal proposition (“don’t eat from that tree”).

But this mistakes the symptom for the disease.   There are indeed pathological rebellions of one sense over the others, and each unique person will have an idiosyncratic imbalance.   Pathology has random permutations.  But there is no prescribed heirarchy of the senses, either from God, or in historical experience.  None works.

Another impulse is physical solitude.   We sometimes want to just go apart, sit by the Walden pond or in the monastic cell or walk through Yosemite – just to get away from the kaleidoscope.  Fine, if we’re just shutting out most of the world in order to concentrate on work.  But if we’re just retreating from the distractions in self-defense, solitude isn’t the necessary solution.   Work is.   Work more on your own project, and you’ll find your sense-life has suddenly grown quiet and almost contemplative, in the middle of the traffic noises.

There is no correct hierarchy of sense.  There is no redemption in place.   There is only the active man, and the passive man.  As man acts upon the world, craftsperson acting on the material, artist acting on the medium, all the senses swing into perfect harmony automatically,  pulled into their proper roles and relations by the pressure of the external task.   The glorious external task of keeping the garden, building the city.

Modern man is becoming more passive as his world fills up with things to do and watch and he gets busier and busier,  and the dis-arrangement of his senses, culminating in actual mental illness, is a symptom of this entropy — not a cause.

Time will continue to speed up as the world fills with distractions.  In the end,  alienation is experienced more like a narcotic, like a not unpleasant buzz, with occasional startles from noticing the number of the year.

Straw Atonement Theories

One of the dilettante hobbies of the secular liberati is mocking a god who doesn’t exist and who Christians should hate if he did exist. But it is an amusing hobby, and so persists. These cheap thrills take many forms – for example, the atonement, as imagined by those who hate the very idea of law, sin, or rescue. Their idea of atonement would not be good news if it had happened.

The church has fed the scoffers by butchering its own message. Any given Sunday you can hear from Christian pulpits a cartoon of the biblical vision. Some words have meanings so poorly understood by the audience they should not be inflicted on the sleepy crowd. “Sacrifice”, “atonement”. Such words have only a half-life of meaning for the typical congregation. Each generation must refresh them as if they had never been heard.

I’m remembering an anatomy book from my boyhood. I’m not sure they are around anymore, but this one had multiple transparent pages that overlaid one by one deeper and deeper sections of the human body as you flip the pages. The first page shows the skin. Lift the page, and the skin is peeled away to show muscle underneath. Lift another clear plastic page and the muscle is gone, leaving internal organs visible. And so on.

The modern critics of atonement are looking at the top page and insisting the body could never stand erect because there are no bones. The reductionist mind, typically, strips the delicate tissue out of a concept then criticizes the corpse for being dead. They see the crudest satisfaction theory which would represent nothing new in the history of religion and never think to wonder why such a sacrifice would revolutionize an empire.

You see, satisfaction makes no sense if it means Person A, acting on Person B, for the benefit of Persons C. Structured like this, it is a deracinated version of the biblical truth; it is no advance over a hundred ancient myths. But the entire point of the biblical redemption is not that God acts on His Son for the benefit of the world. Rather, it is that God acts on His Son who is, in fact, somehow, Himself, for the sins of the world which have become, somehow, His sins. God does not act on an Other; He is the Other. God does not act to save a world that is Other; He has entered that world and is bearing the sin. There is no action on Others; God saves by assuming the ontological space of the Other and exercising justice and mercy at once, and this coinherent logic of agape is the entire point. If we were not asked to wonder at this new, radically new logic the Bible would be wasting our time rehashing the perennial religion in recycled images.
This unity of Actor, Agent, and Beneficiary doesn’t just drop out of the ceiling wires like a convenient plot device. The theme has already been played and played again in the magnificence of Incarnation and Trinity, those other chapters in the drama with Persons who are at once distinct yet not separate. So that when God in Atoning love both acts and receives on behalf of the world, this union of subject, verb, and object is not new. In Atonement, as the culmination and Grand Reveal, the one God in multiple Persons wills to discharge the burden of His own law by exacting and taking His own penalty.

The Christian drama of redemption hasn’t been pondered by the big thinkers, then rejected; it is typically too profound for them.

In the word, the thought

“the Son is in the Father . . . because the whole being of the Son is proper to the Father’s ousia, as radiance from light and a stream from a fountain; so that whosoever sees the Son, sees what is proper to the Father and knows that the Son’s being, as from the Father, is the Father and is therefore in the Father. For the Father is in the Son, since the Son is what is from the Father and proper to him, as there is in the radiance the sun, and in the word the thought, and in the stream the fountain: for whoso thus contemplates the Son, contemplates what is proper to the Father’s ousia, and knows that the Father is in the Son.

Leithart quotes Athanasius, and finds the nugget phrase: “in the word, the thought”. Now that’s full, but you can’t draw a mental picture of it. If you came to this passage looking for a more clear spatial metaphor for your Trinity category, you didn’t get it.

When the Fathers are doing this thing, this attempt to exegete theology, they are not doing what we’ve been doing since the Scholastics, and doing feverishly since the Enlightenment. They are not trying to draw a diagram. What they are doing is poetry — but not what “poetry” means to you.

Not “poetry” in the sense of “expression of feeling as opposed to thought” or “escape from rationality into mysticism” (yuck.) These are modern dichotomies. These are post-line-of-despair categories (cf Frances Scheaffer).

They are doing poetry the way David Hart fills out the word “rhetoric”…RATIONALITY THAT IS SO FULL AND GLORIOUS IT MUST SPILL OVER THE STRUCTURES OF PROSE. So the theological work is not intended to give you a diagram, but it is meant to help you understand it better, by giving you the same truth in a different language.

If you know the English word for “tree”, and the elvish word for “tree”, you are able to see the tree better. The two words are not the same nominal sign, they are two signs to the one thing. So, poetry is not translatable into prose, and theology is not translatable into diagrams. This does not mean theology is not true — least of all does it mean theology is directed at “faith” instead of at “reason” (yuck.) — but that theology is directed at the synthetic faculty, as opposed to the analytical faculty. God is bigger than your mind, so to talk of Him we must rhapsodize, so that He is not falsified to your intellect.


“Eternal Perspective”

“Eternal perspective” as used in evangelical preaching, usually amounts to docetism.  Only what is done for Christ will last, and so on.  The implication — intended or not, people imbibe it — is that only the ghostly souls of men will pass into the next age; spend as little work as possible on things like art, engineering, plumbing, which are Works of Hay and Straw, to be burned up on the last day.

Jesus, My Boyfriend

Loss of the capacity to believe in anything beyond the senses, leads to loss of belief in the universe as a moral construct, leads to all theories of salvation sounding abstract, leads to the poverty of having only romance as a filter to approach God, leads to contemporary worship music.

On The Summer Urge To Sit Outside

I can’t claim to understand my own urge to sit among the wildflowers.   Beauty?  Sure.  But even before the candied blooms pop, as soon as green shoots break the spring soil, I’m sure I’m missing out on a secret.  Before the beauty,  nature draws.  Why?

The cliches are many:  “the healing power of nature”.  Again, sure.  But what, exactly, is this “power”, and what is this “healing”?   It’s more than rest, more than just that we ‘feel better”.  There’s an existential longing before there’s any tiredness.

I can sit cross legged in the middle of a daisy field and feel vaguely that I’ve come home.   As I listen to the sigh of wind through the field, I don’t hear anything missing.  That moment is not a passage on the way to, for example, people.   People, even beloved ones, are not missing from this, though none are here.   This field is the means to no end.   Even the history of kingdoms and holocausts, here in the daisies and the wind, does not ask for redemption.   Why not?

It’s a feeling that something important is happening right here.   And that this importance somehow outweighs whatever is the chatter on the evening news.  Western culture adds one more brick on its Hell project, yet somehow the hummingbird sipping at the lantana on my porch seems more important.

No, I have no theory to support this.   I’m not sure the Romantic movement ever produced one; did Wordsworth ever do more than say this in a thousand fine but redundant ways?   And the chance universe of the secular modern is just silent about the meaning of everything.  After all, if what we see around us just happened, then both hummingbird and hell are random collisions of particles.  No feeling means anything.  No thoughts will survive the sun.

Even my own Judeo-Christian and designed universe doesn’t fully account for my pre-cognitive intuitions,  intuitions surely common to churched and unchurched alike.   Unless I’m so audacious to say that the love of the Creator for every sparrow, for every blade of grass, is literally what you and I are feeling.   We feel His affections – His bowels, in that old Hebraic sense.  All nations, races, and tongues feel His pleasures but they don’t even know it.

We feel His paternal love for what He makes, and we mistake what moves through our depths for our own self, but He is in fact closer to us than we are to ourselves.  The Spirit within me longs with longings that cannot be articulated?  Longings for the daisy, the hummingbird, and the lantana, as well as for the hymns and the alms?     Is it You?  Is it really You?

The Flaming Sword

There is no return from exile unless transgression is undone.  Any attempt to return to the garden without a blood atonement cheapens the transgression.  It’s like a man who turns from a whore to kiss his wife.   The affront is as vile as the infidelity.  His wife should vomit in his mouth.

A sword then – precisely because swords shed blood.   Any return to paradise, the place where God and man were married, requires blood, because their union had been as real as could be.

The Moral Meaning of Individual Deaths

Some believe souls survive death, and some don’t.   The two premises are nakedly adversarial assertions: “there is life after death”, and “this is all there is”. These two religious positions are so far apart that discussion cannot bridge them.  These are the two camps that make up the human race, and many moral and political disagreements are really these two opposite visions warring with each other from guerilla disguises.

This gulf is hard to overstate. The believers and the deniers can’t finally even talk about the meaning of any particular death.  Despite the millions of words that will be spent today arguing over the meaning of suffering or of untimely death, none of this argument is of any value. The premises are too far apart. It’s like one person barking, then the other responding with a meow. No communication has occurred, though both may leave ruffled.

Of course, what is really happening in these conversations is both parties are arguing cloaked premises, which are impossible to reconcile, and always make conversations painful, even for the good-hearted.

You’d never evaluate the morality of any event while intentionally blinding yourself to the sequelae.   You’d never reach a final conclusion on a scene or character without seeing it all through to the curtain.   The ending colors the beginning and middle.

Yet these debates attempt to stop the play, have one viewer say “nothing comes next” and another say “there is an infinite number of scenes left” and then intelligently discuss the play.  They’re literally talking about two different stories.  Shall we  blind ourselves to the state of a person a minute after death, then try to talk about whether that death was good or bad, fair or unfair?  For believer or skeptic alike, this is stupid logic.

The only hope to make such conversations productive would be to actually talk about life after death. But this is seldom the topic, because there isn’t actually much material.   Christians accept a written report, skeptics do not. That simple.

Of course, even the believer doesn’t know enough about the condition of the individual dead  to talk about it, even to himself, and for the purpose of talking to the unbeliever he knows nothing (though he may believe much.)

In fact, the believer is rendered silent about individual deaths precisely by his belief in an undetermined eternity.   He can repeat what his scripture teaches about eternal states, but since the skeptic doesn’t accept his scripture this is futile, and often insulting to the skeptic.

I say “silent about individual deaths”….what we believers believe is that the dead behold the Creator an instant after death, and that beatific vision subsumes the entire life leading up to it.

I’m not objecting at all to traditional Christian comfort at funerals. “She’s in a better place…her suffering is over…etc.” These are believers talking to each other. Within their common vision their words make sense.

It’s just that non-believers can’t be expected to do other than scoff at assertions of “God’s will” or paradise after death.
But, by the same logic, believers will just never see the same meaning, or lack of meaning, in any moment of suffering. Even when your faith is strained, when suffering is no longer a word in a blog post but is your child in pain – even then you can’t pretend not to see the story continuing after death. It may be no consolation, you may even hate your own dogma, but you’ll still see the play from the balcony seat, while the skeptics are at ground level.

My point here is not about comfort or emotional truths at all. All the emotional days and nights we roll through, all the scenery in the story, is all hung on logical scaffolds, which are usually invisible. Those who believe the stage is infinite and those who believe it is not could save lots if time.
Either argue about the size of the play, or just hush.

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Christmas: Lights In Trees!

Christmas intensifies the “already / not yet” tension that makes us, at once, at home and restless in this world. More “already”, and more “not yet”. As the Kingdom appears here, we sense more of it that is beyond us. Thirst is slaked, but then the mouth is more dry. This experience comes and goes in normal times, fleeting, hinting, but the approach of Christmas condenses it. With Advent we nearly come apart with longing.

The Christmas symbols we’re given in the gospels are one thing: babe in manger, virgin and angel, choirs in the sky. But the symbols we’ve crafted for ourselves in the centuries since reflect the same increasing tension between Mundanistan and Narnia. They are suggestively but not clearly shaped. They teach us what we almost know.

Lights in trees. Lights in trees! What are lights in trees? Not biblical. But you must imagine seeing them for the first time, like a child, or hearing a stunned cry in the street – “Look, there are lights in the trees!” (We would hear this in angel voices every Advent, if we were not asleep.)
Light in the tree. The supernatural grafted onto the natural. Even half-aware savages, under the pressure of grace, create simple but enduring symbols.
And money! We bemoan the “commercialism of Christmas”, as if the money shooting around is some peripheral add-on, some alien barnacle encrusting our lily-white holiday. But the Magi brought gold! They brought wealth! Lucre! Smack! The separation between what we know as “money” and the stuff of life which it procures is modern and docetic. Money, or currency, is a modern and freeing innovation. It is an abstract, symbolic store of value which makes wealth mobile and standardized, which allows the production of more wealth. Which is all good. But this new distance between our currency and what it symbolizes is the historical accident that allows the pharisees in our pews to want to amputate wealth from celebration, when in fact there is no celebration without the consumption and gifting of wealth. In fact, wealth (in some form) is what is being celebrated, by means of wealth.
So, Christmas, which was started by God making us rich for no reason, cannot be anything, culturally, if people are not giving each other stuff bought by money. When God acts, earthly wealth must move.
But the man-made symbols are derivative. Light in the trees goes dark unless fed from somewhere. Wealth is moved by something. We are living through the death of Christendom, as the long, slow tide of faith recedes. The world has declared its majority and says it can build a civilization without infusions of supernatural. So: can Christmas survive without the Church’s perpetual proclamation of the Incarnation of the Son of God?
A festival of lights and wrapped presents? I don’t think it will survive.

The Main Point of John’s “Revelation”

2,000 years ago we were warned about the moment when 3 things come together: technology, participation in the system of commerce, and a test of loyalty to the State. This vision, written when commerce was still barter, and technology was the donkey, is the single most profound stroke of genius in literature.
St. John’s percipience has been drowned beneath stupid speculations about what this symbol or that one “stands for”. Christians have spent millenia labeling each other “the whore of Babylon” and fretting that each new technology is the “the mark of the beast”, to the point that they exhausted themselves and prompted deserved ridicule from the world. And everybody forgot the simple, breathtaking assertion buried under the symbols: when technology, commerce, and politics develop to the point when they can connect with each other, then the world WILL (not might, but will) begin to demand loyalty to a single leader in order to buy and sell, will have the technology to enforce it, and will kill everyone who demures. By the way, the document seems to insist that this end of the race is embedded in the genetic code of the race and is not avoidable. John’s view is not that believers should do something to stop the course of the spirit of antichrist. He simply predicts that the forces inherent in humans will follow a certain course. He is a prophet, not a giver of advice.
I maintain there has been nothing but empirical verification of the Apocalypse ever since it was written, and it matters not whether you believe, like Thomas Jefferson did, that the book of Revelation is the “ravings of a lunatic” – what other ancient writing has seen so far in advance and so accurately?
There are good, even unavoidable reasons that technology will be used to collect all data on all people. The reasons to do it will overwhelm the reasons not to do it, and the resisters will be overcome by moral arguments about how the race must save itself from the evils within us, (I’m not giving advice, just prophecy.) And because the technology, once invented, cannot be not used, the next step will be to require that no commerce can take place off the grid.
Then, the technology which allows commerce will not be available without an act of loyalty to the State. I don’t know what it will be (no man can interpret the symbols actually; they aren’t meant to be interpreted), but I know that it will be somehow offensive to those who believe that Jesus is the king of the universe. These people will not be able to perform the act (interestingly, other religionists of all stripes will be able). And then comes the end.
Think this is crazy talk? I’m not asking you to believe in plagues of frogs or angels with swords. Just track the trends of history and project the lines of technology, economics, and politics, and notice who, of all writers in the world, first trended the same lines and described their intersection. I defy you to deny that these three forces are coming together in unprecedented ways, and that this was described in ominous tones by a writer in about A.D. 90.

God is not in control and everything serves His purpose.

God is NOT in control of earthly events, and everything serves His purpose.  Let me say that again:  God is NOT in control of earthly events, and everything serves His purpose, because of the strength of His love.  

The Christian God, unlike all other conceptions of God in history, including the Aristotelian one most of you are now struggling with, accomplishes his end by love, which precludes control.  The story arc of the Bible shows Him gradually shifting from power to love alone, like every parent must do with every child.  So sovereignty, in the Christian universe, is not SIMPLY an issue of the silly calculus of free-will versus His action.  The question is more nuanced and interesting than that.  

He accomplishes His purpose without control?  Sure, the Bible actually opens by posing the problem, divests God of control as the story develops toward the Nativity scene (the least control you can have is to be an infant), and climaxes in the victory of the Apocalypse.  

Meditate on what God actually did in the first few moments of the world.   In the Garden, He:

1. indisputably, voluntarily gave up control, which

2. indisputably went badly, which

3. indisputably served His purpose. 

Extrapolate at will.

Bruce Charlton: “…continuous revelation…to sustain scripture, reason, tradition…”

[I’ve stolen the entire post.]

“This assertion is based on my experience, as well as my understanding of history.

In my brief time as a Christian I have tried – at times – to give my allegiance to a bottom line – whether scripture, reason, tradition etc  – and found it almost immediately impossible.

It seems that a living religion cannot exist on such an abstract basis but must be ‘believed’ in the sense of lived; which means that there must be communication with God and revelation at a personal level – simply in order to sustain scripture, reason, tradition.

Most obviously, because disagreements on interpretation always come to the fore, and cannot be resolved on the basis of anything other than interpretation – yet interpretation is shaped (almost wholly) by motivation such that it turns out there is ambiguity everywhere (in scripture, reason and tradition); such that when any church is cut-off from continuous revelation, the corruptions of the world will supervene.


And I was taught by reading Fr Seraphim Rose, as well as seeing for myself, that ‘super-correctness’ is no answer at all, but makes matters worse.

Super-correctness effects scripturalism (leading to line by line Biblical literalism and legalism), reason (leading to scholasticism) and tradition (leading to micro-level arbitrary ritualism and lifestyle rules).

Super-correctness leads to a particularly dangerous form of fake Christianity – prideful, zealous, punitive, negative, life-destroying, tyrannical and evil. It has everything that is Christian except the one thing needful: love.

Super-correctness is easy to perceive in other people, but very difficult to combat without advocating dilution, weakness, and ‘liberalism’.


What passes for modern Christian ‘devoutness’ (and is advocated by reactionaries) is, unfortunately, very seldom otherwise than mere super-correctness.


I think there is only one robust defence against on the one hand apostasy and backsliding into secularism; and on the other hand superficial and prideful super-correctness – and that defence is a living faith, a faith of frequent contact with the divine and in receipt of continual revelations.

The major mainstream branches of Christianity are mostly divided between a majority of apostates and a minority of super-correct – and the real Christians are trying to live off their glorious histories (I have tried this myself – tried to be a Prayer Book Anglican, in effect, to live from written history); but this won’t work – or at least it won’t work for very long, or in the face of difficulties.


I think that effective Christianity from now will absolutely require to aim for, and organize around, a direct personal contact with a personified God.

That requirement to subjective-ize the objective is (I think) the characteristic which is shared by all significantly large and thriving types of Christianity.

(It follows that what cannot be so appropriated by an individual must not be put at the centre of their faith – only that which they feel can be and ought to be a rock.)

Of course this is not enough – and by itself or when too dominant this is excessively individualistic, creates schisms, weakens and destroys churches – but I think Christians must be open to, indeed insist upon, a personal appropriation and experience of the Gospel, of the main tenets of their faith.


And it is clear that cool, detached, playful intellectualism can be a very significant barrier to this; which is why – in the modern world – intellectuals and intellectual activities are almost always anti-Christian in their effect (whatever their intention).”

via Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany.

Trinity, and Mathematicians Are Safe.

Christopher Hitchens, in his essay “Gods of Our Fathers, says of John Adams:

“…was prepared to be a little more engaged with theological subjects, in which he possessed a huge expertise…”

Christopher goes on to illustrate both Adams’ theological expertise and Adams’ rational enlightenment, thus:

             Human understanding, he [John Adams] wrote…is its own revelation, and:

[H]as made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one…Miracles or Prophecies might frighten us out of our Witts; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe 2 and 2 make 5.  But we should not believe it.  We should know the contrary.”

You can find these moments scattered everywhere in the journals of the 18th century.  “We’ve discovered logic, and its our secret, and nobody before us knew how to use it.  How stupid those earlier generations were.  Those bumpkins didn’t understand that “one” can’t be “three”.  By the way, have you seen these new-fangled rifled muskets?  They’ll kill from a hundred paces.”

You’ll still hear the same voice in the the prattle of most any sixteen year old boy who is intoxicated with the recent discovery of his own neurons.  We all go through that stage and most of us emerge.  I remember with fondness my own pronouncements to my elders of how silly they were to believe this or that.  It takes a decade or two to realize you defeated straw men.

Adams’ comment is a classic instance of mocking a thought you have not troubled to grasp.  Hitchens thinks Adams possesses a “…huge expertise…” in theology.  This is like one schoolchild on the playground appointing another their General in their make-believe battle.  These people are worse than dilettante.

In fact, Christian Trinitarian dogma does not say anything at all about the numbers “one” and “three”, either as discrete quantities or as representatives of the class “integers”.  Nor does it say anything about the relation between the quantity “one” and the quantity “three” (a quite distinct question from the first, as any medieval Schoolman would know).

The dogma of the Trinity says specifically that God is One in essence and Three in Persons.  This is no comment at all on “one” or “three”; it is no comment at all about numbers.  The mathematicians may proceed undisturbed.

A moment’s reflection, and you realize the Trinity generated so much talk, song, and art precisely because the theologians knew perfectly well that one is not three and three is not one.  If they thought, in Adams’ phrase, that one could be three, the Trinity would have been a commonplace observation and would have not become an article of faith at all.  I’ll try to say it in short words for the modern mind:  they said what they said exactly because they knew what Adams thinks they didn’t know.

This reminds me of those critics who point out to us that people don’t rise from the dead, and those rubes in the first century just didn’t understand that.  No, of course not, people don’t rise from the dead, which is the only reason to write and make a hubbub about it.  Again, short words: that they thought like you is exactly why they acted like them, and not like you.  Sigh.

The civilian skeptic might be excused for refuting what orthodoxy has never asserted, since our own pulpits emanate mostly doctrinal confusion, by our own standards.  But the greater lights among them – the Voltaires, the Hitchens’ – might be expected to have a read a book or two .

Light is both particle and wave.  Now, slow down – this is no proof of the Trinity.  It simply indicates the necessity of a stage of thought where two things are asserted simultaneously with no understanding of their relation.  Such a stage of thought is necessary in any advancing discipline.  A is B, and A is C, yet the relation between B and C is not understood.  In simple abstract logic, the conclusion would be that B is C; but we know that B is not C, so we know that though logic is a tool of thought, thought is larger than logic alone.

Light is both particle and wave.  A is B, and A is C.  It’s a simple observation.  If we were an 18th century rationalist, we’d object, and ridicule the physicist, and send everybody off in another direction for a century or two.

But the proper way to progress is to maintain both assertions – the “what” – together, knowing that further learning will fill in the “how” and the law of non-contradiction will be preserved, in whatever form it ought to be.  Thought leads the way, and logic fills in as more is learned.  Reverse the order, and thought shrivels.

The Trinity is exactly the same.  In the content of revelation we see that God is Father, God is Son, and God is Spirit.  This is a simple observation.  A is B, A is C, A is D.  So we, reasoners but not rationalists, assert all three identities, not knowing all the logical relations.  Logic will clean up later.

Illustrations are not proofs.  Examples from the physical world have been used for centuries by Christian preachers to illustrate or prove the Trinity, and usually they shouldn’t.  The illustrations sometimes work, but such proofs are always false, and just feed the skeptics.  That light is both particle and wave is a useful illustration of the pattern of thought the Cappadocian theologians used to articulate Trinitarian dogma, but the particle / wave phenomenon is not a good illustration of the substance of the Trinitarian relations, because we don’t know that level of detail about the divine Persons.  And such things like particle / wave, drawn from physics, PROVE nothing theological.  As more is learned about the physical properties of light, it will even cease to be a useful illustration.

The analogy breaks down, you see, because we can experiment on light, in order to learn more, but there is no additional knowledge about the Trinity available.  I’ve used the phrase “simple observation” about both, but they are observations about two radically different objects.  The one is an observation of the material world, the other an observation about the content of the New Testament. The epistemological act of observing is the same, and the logic, or suspension of logic in the interest of thought, is the same, even if you think the one object is real but the other is mythic.

There is no additional knowledge available about the Trinity, because we’re simply receiving statements from authority.   There is further knowledge about light, because our authority and source of information is our sense-perception.  The one is finished (by its own claim), while the other is never finished (by its own claim.)  So, as science progresses, the particle / wave duality will probably disappear.  The Three / One duality will not disappear, till the age ends.

Even if you think the New Testament is myth, this tells you nothing about the logic of the process of thought about its contents.  You’d have to prove the historical claim of the NT to be false, which is a discussion from a different day.   That many skeptics confuse the logic of observing with the nature of what is observed tells me we should not make them examples of intellectual rigor.

Gabriel’s Inhalation

Yoga class this evening.  This makes my people nervous.

No, I don’t believe that some crazed Hindu god owns the lotus pose, any more than I believe Darwin owns the bones of the brachiosaur.  It’s a little better if I don’t use the Sanskrit terms, but only a little.  In the end, most Christians in the pew are actually among those who, had they lived in Corinth, would have been sure that meat consecrated to idols actually was imbedded with demons.

On the contrary:  Jesus is lord.  Because He is lord, there are no others, and so there is only one Owner of it all: down-dog and crane and warrior, then, to the end.   “No mind” is just to pause for the next significant event, which, if I’m remembering correctly, will be the trumpet of God, when the Owner serves a search warrant on the world.

I sit.  Listen to the silence of the night sky, silence creeping into my muscles, silence calls to silence:  hold.  Hold.  Hold.  Know the thread of your breath inside the long angel inhalation before  reveille.

(revised, from September 2010)

To Isaac, On Your Baptism Day, October 7, 2012.

To Isaac, on your baptism day, October 7, 2012.

Isaac, Hear the words of your father.

All these dear ones, your mother and I – we can never be prouder of you, since today you said, to all the world, that Jesus is your King.

Baptism doesn’t forgive your sins. Jesus did that when you trusted Him. But He gave us baptism as a picture of His death and resurrection, and all pictures connect mysteriously to what they picture. We don’t know how this works, but we know it is true. So in this picture, somehow, you were buried with Jesus and raised with Him in new life. Hallelujah. The stone table is cracked, the law worked backward and killed the witch, the one ring is dropped into the fire of Doom. The sword is pulled from the stone and the grail is found. The princess has been kissed and the dragon has been tamed. The labrador retriever has turned sane. The corpse of the Lion is missing, for He is not here, He has risen.

And you, Isaac, are in Him, like a tender branch in a great tree.

There will be dark days. Long in the future, I hope, when most of these dear ones have gone into that silent cloud of witnesses, you may feel alone. You may even feel like Jesus is far away. It may not always feel like you are in Him, but you always will be.

Take this golden cross, placed around your neck now with your mother’s kiss, as a picture of your baptism. Let it be a picture to you that you were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

It’s real gold, it’s not just a trinket. Your mother and I wanted to give you something worth treasuring the rest of your life, because this day is as important to us as any of your birthdays.

Let this be a picture to you when days are dark that He bought you with His blood, that He, the Great King, said He would be with you till the end. Touch this cross, and remind yourself that you belong to Him.

There will be dark days. Soon, I fear, you’ll feel that you’ve failed Him. Touch this cross, turn away from yourself. Tell Him freely how you failed, take His forgiveness in, and be at peace.

There will be dark days when you’ll be tempted to betray Him, like Edmund betrayed Aslan, and your mother and I will not always be here to encourage you. But your baptism will stay with you forever and will whisper to you that in Christ an old Isaac died, and in Christ the real Isaac lives. Timothy Isaac Smith, Jesus is your King, and He is stronger than Aragorn the heir, nobler than Theoden of the horse-lords, braver than Peter of Narnia.

You are baptized into this King of kings. Live in Him forever.

The word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

The Necessary Oomphalos

Apparent Age is a fringe thought. From the view of the typical secularist it is one of the craziest uncles in a crazy family of religious ideas. When the evidence of an old universe first put pressure on the literal reading of Genesis, some sincere creationist argued that Adam must have had a belly button, that he must have appeared 30 years old right down to his inny oomphalos a minute after he was made. So then, goes the argument, the universe might appear 13.5 billion years old, but it is really 6,000 years old, but with a belly button, put there by God’s finger to fool us.

Is it surprising that this Oomphalos idea has been ridiculed? It’s been characterized as arguing that God builds trickery into His creation. And Christians weren’t pepared to defend that systematically, so we took to ridiculing our own uncle. Even though we believe that God made the world by His word, we wouldn’t be associated with such an unsophisticated notion as that “apparent age” nonsense. But it won’t do. Us supernaturalists need to think this thing through and admit that any belief in miracles is also a belief in apparent age. There is no such thing as a miracle that does not alter the apparent age of the object of the miracle.

We need to embrace our inner kook. We need to move our crazy uncle from the closet under the stairs out onto the front porch and paint OURS on his forehead. Not because he is useful, but because if you believe in miracles at all you are an Oomphalist. You can’t conceive of an act of special creation which doesn’t involve apparent age. It has nothing to do with trickery, and everything to do with the character of things as reified time. Time is what things are. To make a thing, or alter a thing, is to manipulate time, or nothing at all.

I don’t know if Adam had a bully button — I don’t know why he would — but if you think he existed you must picture him with human parts of some Hair, then. And if you could pluck one hair from his numbered head and analyze it scientifically, how old would it appear? Can you even conceptualize a hair that appears 10 seconds old? Isn’t a hair, by definition, a thing that has grown over time? Isn’t the age of the thing intrinsic to the thing? I mean, everything is a product of a certain process, and it is not also something else alongside that. The essence is in the elapsed time, not, again, somehow alongside it. Take another miracle story: Jesus turns water into wine. Look at the wine five minutes after it was created and tell me how old it is. The physical process of fermentation is the very definition of wine. I’m sure there are chemical measurements that can quantify the amount of fermentation and elapsed time. That wine looked like old grape juice or it didn’t look like anything at all. Jesus wasn’t trying to trick anyone; He was just making real wine.

The most accurate imagining of creation in literature must be the creation scene from The Chronicles of Narnia. Read it again: trees don’t just materialize out of thin air (materializing from air is a modern, jejune innovation), they grow, but quickly. After all, isn’t the meaning of “tree” a certain product of light, air, water, and dirt? If God would try to make a tree that was not a product of light, air, water and light it would not actually be a tree. How many rings could you have measured on the trees of Eden, the morning they were made? To think you are obligated to imagine an Eden tree without rings is an insult to God’s work. Whether they grew in a nano-second or a minute or in a fashion such that sequence itself is not applicable, I don’t know, but let’s not imagine them without rings, nor imagine Eve without glorious shining tresses. God saw His work, and thought it good.

The age of the wine at Cana is not apparent; it’s actual. There’s no meaning of the word “age” outside some physical metric. When the metric equals five, the age is five. That’s all the word means.

So it isn’t that the age is an appearance or a trick: the Cana wine really is 5 years old a scant 5 minutes after it was made. It is actually, literally, chemically 5 years old. If you manage to recover from the docetism that has been baked into your neurons by our post-enlightenment sun, you would be unable to imagine a thing apart from its accumulated physical metrics.

But this is not an argument to offer to skeptics or scientists, because it can’t be used in their work. If the universe appears 13.5 billion years old on a scientist’s instrument, it is actually that old. We can believe that God made it 6,000 years ago if we want, but it is not accurate to say it is now 6,000 years old. It is not.