Saturday, May 30, 2015

95 Theses, #12-14 - Solving the Riddle of Angels and Demons

(To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction)

Some of the elements of Theses 13-14 are my own speculation (specifically, the timeless nature of angels and demons, and what that means for their moral capacity); unlike most other theological arguments in this series, these thoughts rest on the work of no other authority, so they are to be taken as potentially fallible suggestions touching on matters of which we really cannot have full knowledge.

 (Painting: "The Fall of the Rebel Angels," by Luca Giordano, c.1660, oil on canvas; image is in the public domain)

12.) Non-Material Created Beings - God, being good and loving and creative, created all the kinds of things that could be created. This includes not only beings that are constituted by matter (and which, because of matter’s potentialities, are able to grow through the manifold processes of time and space into beings capable of choosing to become like God in his moral nature), but beings which are immaterial like God, existing as minds (“spirits”) alone, possibly also outside of the normal constraints of space and time (however, we must not assume that being outside of normal time-constraints would grant them infallible knowledge of all future events; such an attribute would also require a further ability of unbroken, all-encompassing perception, which we do not believe such beings have).

13.) The Moral Nature of Angels - What follows below is my attempt at an explanation for why such beings, though volitional, seem incapable of the sort of major changes that we would call “repentance.” These beings, since they exist outside of the materiality and progressive nature of the physical universe, are in a sense simpler beings, and more static. As with all living creatures, they are endowed with choice, but because they exist outside of time, their “choice” represents a more permanent orientation than is possible for time-bound creatures. These beings are usually referred to as angels or demons, though Christian tradition allows for the possibility of many different classes of such beings. Many of these angels have, in their own volition, oriented themselves in obedience toward their Creator. As such, they act as faithful servants to his ultimate purpose and mission in the universe. Christian revelation and tradition depicts them as intelligent and powerful, but somewhat simpler than humans in their moral natures—obedience (i.e., proper orientation towards God) seems to be their main virtue; I would speculate that since they do not have the benefit of the painful, progressive road of moral growth that we have access to in the material universe, they may not be capable of growing fully toward “love” as we can.

14.) The Moral Nature of Demons - Some of these angels, on the other hand, used their volitions to choose a timeless orientation away from God and toward themselves. (In answer to the question of how beings who, according to tradition, knew God’s nature and power so clearly, could actually choose against him, we might posit that perhaps not all spirit-beings of the angelic sort had as near an experience of God as we might expect; they too, like us, may have merely seen “through a glass darkly,” and thus the temptation to disbelieve, or to think they could succeed in disobedience against God, becomes more believable.) These are usually referred to as fallen angels or demons. Because of the limited nature of timeless choice, they are as consistently oriented against God as good angels are towards Him. Also intelligent and powerful, they are able to exercise their volition as adversaries of God’s purpose in the universe. Their “timeless choice” is one single act of volition, but for us time-bound creatures, we experience their act of volition as discrete events within our timescape (the same is also true for God’s one, all-encompassing act of volition—love). However, much as with the many forms of animals, demons are fundamentally good creations of God, and he loves them as he loves all creation. They are allowed to operate in this world, and, in fact, provide some of the “moral-progress-through-suffering” dynamic of this reality for us. They also, however, do a great deal of evil, and the fact that God consents to let them continue to exist and operate in this age (rather than having done with them now, or strictly barring them from interfering) hints both that God is completely able to undo all of the evil they cause (and that he will do so) and that God is probably not done with them yet.

Friday, May 29, 2015

(Another) List of Top Evangelicals You Should Know

Every so often, a major media outlet will put out a list of the "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" or some such thing. Last year, Christianity Today issued a list of "33 under 33"--"33 Christians 33 or younger to watch." Like almost everything CT does, it was very well done, and the young people they highlighted are certainly notable and inspiring. But it made me wonder, what would a list like this look like if God were putting it together? No doubt there would be some notable ministry leaders in that list, as there are in ours. But I'm guessing there would also be a whole lot of people that we've never heard of. So here's my attempt (using fictional names and stories) to describe a list of the "top American evangelicals" that we often miss (but whom God knows very well).

- Marjorie Smith, 79 years old, who sits in the fourth row from the back at First Baptist Church every Sunday, and who attends every Wednesday night prayer meeting faithfully. Her friends know her as a kind and gentle woman. God knows her as a prayer warrior the likes of which our churches have seldom seen, and when she prays, God shakes the nations.

- Brian Williamson, 53, a divorced father of two whose marriage broke up because of his alcohol abuse. But for the last ten years he has persevered in his quest to stay away from his addiction, and every day for him is an act of courage, an epic battle of persistent trust in God. His long string of victories over grave personal struggles is a record of triumphant faith such as few people ever achieve.

- Philip Brouwerman, 28, a mentally handicapped young man who spends his life in a group assisted-living home. He has difficulty reading his Bible, and he can't articulate very many of the doctrines of Christianity in their proper form. But he has loved Jesus all his life, and he has loved him with such startling purity of motive that it doesn't even bear comparison to the spiritual lives of most other Christians.

- Mark Beeham, 35, a former pastor whose ministry collapsed after it was revealed that he carried on an extramarital affair with a woman from his church. In the years since that event, Mark has walked the road of repentance with great humility. He now practices a blue-collar job with extraordinary diligence and never resents it; he carries no bitterness towards those who revealed his misconduct or those who judged him for it. He has handled all of this with such humility that he now considers his fall from ministry the best thing that ever happened to him. He let God use it to slay the dragon of his prideful heart, and because of that, he has experienced a spiritual liberation, a new experience of God's presence, who gives grace to the humble, beyond what many other Christians ever get to taste.

- Maria Gonzales, 37, wife of an unbelieving husband. She has suffered the ups and downs of a turbulent marriage, often facing ridicule and dismissiveness from her husband. She has also had to bear with a series of difficult friendships--she continues to try to be kind and friendly and gracious, but somehow she often ends up on the receiving end of a lot of people trying to take advantage of her goodwill. She handles these hard relationships with perseverant trust in God, with continual attempts to understand and to love those around her, and to never cease trying to be a conduit of God's grace to others.

- Ramona Hinesworth, 22, a young woman who was raped a year ago. Not only was this terrible act done against her, but she has found that many people have seemed judgmental towards her because of it. She is walking a long road of forgiveness, and even though she acknowledges that she is not there yet, she is determined to walk that road to its end.

- Betsy Montgomery, 31, a mother to three wonderful but high-energy kids. She, like so many parents, has willingly given a large part of her time and talents to these little ones who will not truly understand the extent of her sacrifice until decades later, if even then. Nevertheless, she perseveres and allows the process, with all of its many trying moments, to slowly smooth away the rough edges of her character. She knows now, more than she ever did before, the self-centeredness, the anger, the resentments, the limited resources of our finite being--all these internal warts and blisters that we all have, but which many of us never give ourselves the opportunity to see. Betsy sees them, knows them, and she wrestles with them, like Jacob wrestling with the Lord, and she will not let go until he blesses her.

- Walter Jameson, 95, a widower now living in the nursing home, with children too wrapped up in their own affairs to tend to him in any substantial way. He is living out his final years with patient faith, even in the midst of crippling, persistent pain. Part of him has been wishing for the past ten years that the Lord would just take him home, but he remains--largely bedridden and wracked with pain. His resolution to rest in God's goodness, day after day, even in such times, is a quality of character that surpasses what most other Christians are capable of.

- Daniel Myers, 30, is not particularly good at anything. He is unremarkable in every way. He is a man who knows his own sinfulness, wishes he didn't sin quite as much, tries not to sin, and fails. Over and over and over again. He doesn't read his Bible as much as he should. He doesn't pray nearly as much as he should, and he's of too shy a temperament to really share his faith. But every time he falls, he comes back to the cross. On God's scale of things, he is a perfect "10," and so is everyone else, with all their failures, who come to the cross of Christ.

(All pictures are taken from the Wikimedia Commons and are part of the public domain.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Have You Been Over-Sexualized by Our Culture?

(Painting: "The Vision of St Bernard," by Alonzo Cano, c.1650, oil on canvas; image is in the public domain)

This is a painting of the Virgin Mary squirting milk from her breast into the mouth of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Quick--what's your first reaction to it? Is it amusing? Disgusting? Just plain weird? Or is it a holy and mystical event before which we should pause in serious reverence? Your answer to this question should help you gauge how much our contemporary culture has shaped the way you view a woman's body. It may also help you gauge how much you experience your spirituality in gnostic categories rather than finding the grace of God present through physical, sacramental realities as well. 

If you know anything about history and Catholic devotion, then you can probably guess that this painting was intended to bring to view a holy and mystical event before which we should pause in serious reverence. The painter, Alonzo Cano, was not always a man known for his devout temperament (he had serious issues with his temper), but his works all reflect the dominant, reverential Catholic spirituality of his day. This painting represents a famous event in the spiritual life of Saint Bernard (12th century), one of the most influential Christians of the Middle Ages, who was known especially for his reverence towards Mary. 

But we live in a culture where women's breasts have been sexualized, where even breastfeeding (a thoroughly non-sexual act) is often attacked as being inappropriate when done in public. So this painting, though there is nothing overtly sexual about it, takes us by surprise. It's not the sort of painting that any of us would now think of commissioning to hang in our churches. Even though it shows poignantly the reverence of a great man of God to one of the greatest human exemplars of our faith, to the vessel wherein God's full being dwelt for a time, and though it shows us the nurturing, life-giving spiritual grace he receives from contemplating her faith, we 21st-century Americans have a tough time seeing that. At least, not at first. 

Full disclosure--my first reaction on seeing this painting was to chuckle. When we were looking for a print of a painting to hang in our dining room, I joked with my wife that we should choose this one just to see the reactions of our dinner guests. But the point is that my own reaction serves to make me aware of how much contemporary culture has affected my sensibilities about devotion, sexuality, and the human body. My quite natural reaction to this painting in a 21st-century context would have been offensive in the culture that produced it. So the question is this: have my sensibilities gone awry because of my cultural context (or perhaps because of my own wickedness of heart), or was Catholic Spain of the 17th century riotously naive in their estimation of what was an appropriate means of expressing devotion?

This is one of the great benefits of studying old paintings (and reading old books). They can, sometimes in remarkable ways, reveal to us our own cultural and intellectual blind spots. And once we know those blind spots are there, we can work on mending our worldviews, or at least taking into account a humble understanding of our own biases in the future. We need to remember that not everybody has always held the same sensibilities that we do now. And we need to at least entertain the possibility that we millennials might be seeing things askew, and the old reverences may in fact be right.

The Altarpiece

(This is one of my first devotional poems, written back in 2002, but never before posted to this blog. It remains one of my favorites.)

 The Altarpiece

In great cathedrals, empty and still

we sat…

Tiny tongues of flame cast feeble shadows

      through the vast, dark room—

      the prayers of the penitent

                                    the mourning

                                                the outcast

We look up, study that vast, ancient work

      that stands now behind the altar—

      its surface still shimmering with the

      sheen of the master’s brush.

O writhing man, pinned on that cruel frame!

      The pain in his face no language can tell—

      even the image bears only

      shadows of the truth.

His hands, though torn, reach out

      in weary, violent embrace—or is it

      the open plea of despair?

A weight greater than that cruel, crossed wood

      was borne on blameless back that day.

Yea, the figure below, his fingers

      still clasped ‘round the offending hammer

      as he scoffs upward—it is a face

      I know too well.  It is my own.

And now the tears come, welling up

      from deep within.  It is a cry

      of mourning, a wail of deepest hope—

      oh, that my sin should demand

      so high a price!

I have been in temples and shrines

      and seen the faces of other gods.

      They are content, blissful, and unaware.

      Basking in their serenity, the world

      slips by to the screams of the children,

      the death-cries of the starving

      as they lie wasted in the street.

      And the gods are unmoved.

No, this is the God for me.

      In agony and torment, I know

      He paid my ransom-price.

      Not in escaping life, but in surrendering

      to the tortures of this shadowland

      did he find peace.  And only there,

      in that twisted, pain-wracked visage,

      can the road of my peace lie.

      For only he understands.

I smile weakly and turn to my dear companion.

      The flickering light sparkles off the tears

      rolling down her cheeks,

      and I know she has met her God again,

      just as I have.

We rise together, silent, and shuffle

      hand-in-hand to the prayer table,

      where we carefully blow out

      the last dying flames.

And the cathedral is dark again.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Photo of the Week: Song Sparrow Singing

But I will sing of Your strength,
In the morning I will sing of Your love;
For You are my fortress,
My refuge in times of trouble.
          - Psalm 59:16 (NIV)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Quote of the Week: Oswald Chambers

"We have not to ask what the will of God is. We are the will of God."

- Oswald Chambers, Scottish Baptist and Holiness Movement evangelist, 1874-1917

(Image is in the public domain)