Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Friday, July 31, 2015

On Rights and Identity

There are two further points on issues in the gay marriage debate that I'd like to address. First we'll look at the idea of "rights" and then at the idea of "identity."

(Picture: Drafting of the Declaration of Independence)

On Rights--This is a tricky term in our modern English use, and made no less tricky by the now-current idea of positing a "right to marry." In reflecting on the matter, it seems to me that there are two different kinds of rights. First off, there are natural, God-given "rights." These are the sort of rights that Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Imagine a man who is completely alone, stranded in the desert or some such thing. Now consider what that man would be able to do, according to his own God-given powers. He would have life, and liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness within the scope of the life in which he finds himself. He would have the ability to worship in whatsoever way he pleased; he would have freedom to say whatever he pleased; he would have freedom of conscience to follow whatever he believes is right. These are natural rights, the sort with which all people are naturally endowed. But there is a second set of "rights," and these are socially-constructed rights--examples of this would be the right to bear arms and the right to a speedy trial--things which our society has determined are extrapolations of human freedom a step beyond natural rights, which uphold justice and personal liberty. We must remember that if there is any such thing as a "right to marry," it belongs squarely in the second category, not the first. A man, under his own powers, all alone in the world, does not have a "right to marry." This is for a very simple reason: marriage depends on more than simply the capacity of a man under his own powers; it requires the consent of a second party. Without that consent, no one in the world has a right to marry. To speak about a "right to marry" is rather like speaking about a "right to have a job"--naturally, we would hope that anyone who would like to have a job could get one, but few of us would consider it a right, for the very simple reason that it depends on the consent of an employer. This right to marry, then, as it now exists, is a social construct bound by the perspectives of our current culture and society, not something that we could consider one of the natural rights of man.

On Identity--Part of the difficulty of this debate is that our modern culture has accepted a theory of human nature which views sexual attraction as an essential element in what we call "personal identity." So, when Christians attempt to say that certain forms of sexual attraction are erroneous in view of natural law and Christian doctrine, and certainly ought not to be enshrined in such a sacred institution as marriage, it comes across as an attack on those people's very identity. It sounds to them as if we are saying that they themselves are hopelessly corrupt, perhaps even worthless. But that's not at all what Christians are saying. We are arguing from a tradition that begins with different premises than the ones accepted by current culture. The Christian tradition has never accepted sexual attraction--even heterosexual attraction--as an essential part of personal identity. Sexual attraction is part of human nature, certainly, but the Christian tradition views human nature as corrupt--not just in a small subset of the population, but in everybody. Thus, sexual attraction is something that is touched by that corruption, again, not just in a small subset, but in everybody. Further, sexual attraction is under the control of a person's reason and will--one need not follow it; one can dissent from one's own attractions and not follow them through into action. This means that it is not an essential part of personal identity, not on the same level as reason and will, spirit and soul. Sexual attraction is a natural appetite, given to us for the very good, God-given reasons of procreation and union. But we have other natural appetites, too, such as for food--again, an appetite that serves good purpose. Like sexual attraction, appetites for food can run in multiple directions based on which individual one is looking at. And, as all modern culture knows, appetites for food can also run awry from their natural purpose. And yet no one argues that a proclivity for fast food, leading to obesity, is an essential part of one's "personal identity"--not even if those proclivities are based in the ineluctable determinism of one's genetics. The Christian tradition has consistently held this very realistic position on human nature: most people have sexual attractions for the opposite sex, a few have sexual attractions for the same sex, and many people have sexual attractions, driven by their own human natures, toward pursuing multiple partners rather than practicing strict monogamy. And yet Christianity has never seen these trends as part of "personal identity"--rather, they are natural appetites which the person can either pursue or renounce, according to their reason and will. In fact, early Christianity felt that a person actually became more truly human--more truly oneself--when one submits one's attractions and appetites to the law of reason and divine commands. But unless the modern view of personal identity rediscovers the wisdom of natural law regarding human nature, we will unfortunately be fated to speak across one another rather than to one another; we will be operating under distinct premises, and, thus, we will be speaking different moral languages.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Divine Liturgy

(Icon: "The Divine Liturgy," by Michael Damaskinos, 16th cent.)

I have a copy of this icon in my church office. The basics of the image are clear: this is the Trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit, enthroned in glory, and all around them, worshiping, are various classes of the heavenly beings. They carry with them books of worship and incense and candles and a chalice and a literalized image of "the body of Christ." Below are two saints, looking down at the globe of the earth in prayerful contemplation. This is a vision of "the divine liturgy," the worship service of the Christian church, as it goes on in the heavenly courts.

This image serves as theological reminder to me of a very important fact, one rooted in Scriptures (such as the worship scenes in Revelation) and in the ancient traditions of Christianity: when we worship, we are actually taking part in the timeless, eternal worship of God in the heavenly places. The Body of Christ is not limited to the four walls of my church in Calais, Maine--it is a trans-historical, international community that is mystically interconnected throughout time and space. As the Orthodox traditions of the church teach, the Christian service of worship is an event that actually occurs beyond the limits of time and space, connected with all the churches from all time that have worshiped in this way, and connected with the timeless courts of the Trinitarian God, where such worship is the very nature of reality itself. When we worship in our church every Sunday, we do it in the presence of all the angels and the saints. That is something worth remembering.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Come to the Table

Here's a poem I wrote back in 2005, as a reading for a communion service:

Come to the Table


Come to the table, Beloved;
Come and see what our God
      Has done for us.

We, who thought we were wise,
Condemned him as a fool.
And we, who thought we were strong,
Condemned him for being weak.
And we, who thought we were holy,
Condemned him as a sinner.

This is he who spoke wisdom into darkness
Before the fledgling universe was bathed in light,
Who wrapped himself in the words of prophets
      And of saints;
And now his wisdom has forever borne
      The foolishness of us all.

This is he who breathed life into unliving clay
And by his power called the world into being,
Who shook the earth with his footsteps
      And opened the sea with his breath;
And now his strength has forever borne
      The weakness of us all.

This is he who dwells in unapproachable splendor,
Whose radiance lights the courts of heaven,
This great and mighty Judge before whom
      All of creation will bow;
And now his holiness has forever borne
      The transgression of us all.

Remember these things, Beloved:
Though we lacked wisdom,
      He has taught us his truth;
And though we were weak,
      He has given us his strength;
And though we were sinful,
      He has made us holy.

The Ancient of Days
      Has made his dwelling among men,
            And we have seen his glory.

Come to the table, Beloved;
Come and see what our God
            Has done for us.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Photo of the Week

"The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God."
          - Romans 8:21

Monday, July 27, 2015

Quote of the Week


"If you see anything good in yourself, believe still better things of others and you will, then, preserve humility."

- Thomas a Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ

Friday, July 24, 2015

How Evangelicals Ruined Marriage

(Painting: "Wedding March," by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1919, oil on canvas)

 Amid the massive public debate about gay marriage, a few things have slipped through the cracks. Like the fact that much of our modern view of marriage is an over-romanticized daydream, and the fault lies in large part with evangelical Christianity. 

Here's what I mean. In the vast majority of cultures throughout the scope of human experience, marriage has been an arrangement between male and female for the purpose of raising up the next generation and for providing society with a stable base unit on which to build itself up (particularly helpful in questions of property, inheritance, and the legacies of family honor). In some of these cultures, a certain ideal of marriage would be favored above and beyond these most basic functions, an ideal which believed that marriage at its best should also be a union of love, of mutual affection. But in many cases, this was seen as just that: an ideal which all should pursue, but which few would ever fully realize. 

And even in those cultures that magnified love as the primary virtue of marriage, it was a rather different notion of love: a love that is mostly defined by self-sacrificial giving, by acts of other-centered grace, rather than by a feeling. This is the view of marriage that St. Paul takes in Ephesians 5, when he parallels the union of Christ and the church with the union of husband and wife--he doesn't talk about the love of marriage in terms of pure emotion, he talks about that love in terms of sacrificial action.

But somewhere along the way, our culture has transmuted this practical and realistic view of marriage and turned it on its head. Now, instead of viewing marriage primarily as the basic unit of society, brought together for the rearing of the next generation, it has become an icon of personal fulfillment. An emotive, romanticized notion of "love" has taken center stage over self-sacrifice and a fruitful brood of little ones. 

The romanticizing of marriage is not all the fault of evangelical Christians; Western culture has actually been working on that since about the 13th century. But modern storytelling has pushed that trend to a whole new level: from children's fairy tales that all end with a "happily ever after" wedding between prince and princess, to romantic movies that all end in exactly the same way: a wedding driven by emotive, feelings-oriented love, with a blissful sense that this plateau of fulfilled personal sentimentality will never wane. Now, of course it's to be hoped that couples going to be married will have some of the interpersonal joie de vivre  that "falling in love" accords, but the dangerous myth of modern marriage is that it will always be like that. Everyone who's ever been married can testify that that's not the case. Feelings come, and feelings go. Deep mutual affection can remain throughout all the seasons of a life, but this takes hard work and careful cultivation. The myth of over-romanticized marriage, unfortunately, has so poisoned the well of modern relationships that many couples give up when their initial wave of fond feelings subside. They have built their house on the sand, rather than on the firm bedrock of marriage as a divine institution, as it was meant to be--a covenant of male and female, sharing the strengths of both of the great complementary halves of our race, all aimed at serving one another sacrificially and building up our society through the begetting of children. As a pastor, unfortunately, I've seen and heard many stories of marriages breaking up, and it's almost always because couples have bought into the sham mythology of perpetual romance.

But, again, that's the overall culture's fault, not evangelical Christianity's. Evangelicalism, actually, has done a moderately good job, through pastoral counseling and marriage seminars and Focus on the Family, at making sure that Christian couples are not deluded by the over-romanticized cultural notions of marriage. Where evangelicals are to blame, though, is in the fact that we have magnified marriage as the supreme relational state, the union of humans that stands at the utmost center of God's plan for his people, and we have preached this message through pastoral counseling and marriage seminars and Focus on the Family. Most large evangelical churches will have something called a "family pastor." And many, just to make sure no one slips through the cracks, also have a "singles ministry." It's worth wondering why a large church might have this kind of a "singles" ministry that caters to young, unattached Christians (and often results in a fair crop of marriages), but I've never yet heard of a "celibates" ministry that honors the vocations of single people of all ages who have devoted their lives to the Lord. "Family ministries" are so much the focus of evangelical Christianity that single people have learned that they must adjust to living life on the margins. I've heard too many young Christian women say, "I know God has someone out there for me," and put their hopes in a future divine-sent Galahad rather than the possibility that God might have something even better in store for them.

As important as marriage is, as important as the nuclear family is, evangelicalism has gone astray in making these things the centerpoint of social ministry. We've elevated marriage into being the paramount relational accomplishment in a Christian's life, the social climax that everyone wants. Marriage is supposed to be where you're joined forever to your "best friend," and no other sort of one-on-one relationship is given the same sort of prominence for fostering depth and mutual spiritual growth. And, unsurprisingly, the wider culture has followed evangelicalism in these trends. If marriage is the ultimate relational accomplishment, the place you find the best social intimacy that is available to humans, then of course everyone will want in on it. It is we evangelicals who have raised up a myth of marriage to the point that our highest court has seen fit to enshrine it as a basic human right--after all, who are we to disqualify anyone from the experience of the greatest social intimacy in the world?

The trouble is, that pedestal that evangelicalism has built under the edifice of marriage--it's all ridiculous tripe. Marriage is not the supreme relational accomplishment in a Christian's life (that honor, I would think, ought to go to "loving one's neighbor"); nor is it the greatest social intimacy in the world (Christian tradition has always honored "spiritual friendship" above marriage for that particular purpose). What I'm saying is, we've actually lost the substance of the biblical message about marriage, singleness, and relationships by putting such an unwavering focus on marriage and family. A good case can be made from the New Testament that singleness is to be preferred to marriage (see Matt. 19:10-12, Luke 20:34-36, and 1 Cor. 7:6-8). Some streams of early church tradition took these words so much to heart that they developed their own Christian subculture of heroic renunciation of marriage--the stories of Thomas' first converts in India and of Paul's famous convert Thecla are both stories of fiancees being persuaded to renounce a future of matrimony in favor of celibacy. This trend became so popular that the early bishops had to keep it in check with pronouncements of anathema on anyone who tried to teach that either marriage or sex was unholy. Within the mainstream of early Christian culture, celibacy really was the honored vision of the truly great Christian life--the single man or woman who chose not to pursue marriage or family, but instead, like Paul, gave themselves completely to the Lord. This, not marriage, was considered the centerpoint of Christian society. In the early church, it was the "singles" at whom everyone looked up as being the paragon of Christian piety, not the happily married couple with well-behaved kids who practice family devotions, "daddy dates," and never miss Sunday School. 

Further, there is a broad stream of Christian thought and experience that has consistently shown that the very deepest level of intimacy--that of spiritual friendship--is best and most easily obtained between friends, usually of the same gender, rather than in a married couple. One ought to read Aelred of Rievaulx's classic, Spiritual Friendship, and then see if one can still make the claim that marriage alone represents the most intimate social connection a person can have. 

All in all, then, our culture--both secular and Christian culture--has so muddled up the historic view of marriage that it ought to come as no surprise that everyone wants in on it. Unfortunately, the view we've painted is a mythology. It has hints of truth in it--marriage, the union of self-sacrificing servants of Christ bonded in mutual affection for the raising of children--is a glorious, almost an incomparable thing. But even the Bible would tell us that it's not something to be glorified over all other vocations and relationships. And in forgetting that we throw ourselves into three tragic consequences: (1) We end up selling marriage as "cheap grace" to anyone in our culture who might want it; (2) We're failing to call and affirm the gifts of celibates in our churches, and thus losing out on the radiant strength of their ministry; and (3) many of us are foregoing the very real possibility of building deep, powerful "spiritual friendships" with our brothers and sisters in Christ beyond our spouses. So, fellow Christians, it's time to rethink marriage.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book Review: The Roots of Christian Mysticism


Of all the formative influences on my theology and practice, none stands higher than the works I've read from the early church fathers--classics by Athanasius and Augustine, Basil and Nazianzus and Nyssa, Cassian and Irenaeus and Chrysostom. And I'm not alone in this: many young evangelicals are catching the spirit of the great motto of 20th century Orthodoxy: "Forward, to the Fathers!" But to a modern evangelical, perhaps a novice theologian, looking in at this movement from the outside, it can be a daunting proposition. Where does one start? Does one have to launch straight into the months-long work of reading City of God, or the mind-bending descriptions of Gnostic mythologies in Against Heresies

Although of course one ought to read City of God and Against Heresies at some point, I'm happy to tell you that there are easier places to start. One of the best and most accessible starting-points is in the great compilation put together by Olivier Clement, an Orthodox theologian from France: The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary. Don't let the yawn-inducing title fool you: this book is a gem. It carefully selects standout and representative texts, usually no more than a paragraph or two in length, from all across the spectrum of the early church fathers and mothers. It also gives one a sense of the major themes of early church theology, which is helpful because the early church fathers didn't really write systematic theologies as such, and so to truly get a sense for the overall theological system, with all its characteristic emphases, one would have to read representative works from at least a dozen of the biggest names, and even that would probably still result in a limited picture. But Clement does that job for us, sorting the texts he chooses into smooth-flowing chapters with clear theological trajectories, so that sayings from Basil and Augustine and Macarius all blend together towards one point of doctrine or practice. 

And if you're looking for pure, unadulterated doctrine, such as you might find in a Reformed systematic theology, you'll be disappointed. But for a very good reason--the early church fathers held to a much more integrative view of doctrine than we do, such that doctrines are inextricably connected with the mystical experience of the church as a whole and of the individual Christian soul. Thus it is The Roots of Christian Mysticism, because for the early church fathers, all doctrine was mystical in its application: it has to do with the mystery of salvation, which is still in motion, and which can be experienced by each and every one of us. Evangelicals will find insights on prayer and "the deeper life" such as they've never encountered before, and it will be an enriching experience.

To top it all off, Clement's own commentary weaves in around the quotes from the early church fathers, elucidating and beautifying the points in question. Clement's thoughts, of course, draw their inspiration from the original insights of the fathers, but in many cases it is Clement's words that put it best--he is able to draw out those ancient insights and put them in terms that are truly unforgettable. 

This is not a quick or a light book to read. It is a book to be savored, and a book to be lived.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Masterpiece

Today is the ninth anniversary of the day I wedded my love. So in celebration of that, I'm going to share a set of lyrics I once composed for her. The tune is that of Michael Card's song "Sunrise of Your Smile."




Masterpiece

When I was young, my heart would dream
Of worlds that no one else could see.

And in those lands of heroes bold,

My characters their stories told.

Adventures wild beyond belief

Where braver hearts won victories.

And when my journey beckoned me

I wondered what my tale would be.



Chorus:

If I could write down this life’s dreams,

Compose a scene of fantasy,

The masterpiece of all I’ve hoped would be—

To wrap in words a mystery,

My heart’s great longing to be free,

If I could write down this life’s dreams,

That masterpiece would tell of you and me.



In all the tales my heart would spin,

The hero found his heroine,

A trav’ler who would walk along

And lift her voice to join his song,

O’er all the weary roads they walked,

In all the story’s pages talked,

Till the journey left them at the end,

To share a smile and start again.



Chorus



I’m standing here beneath the sky;

I watch the bright stars spring to life;

I think of you; I see your face,

And thank God for this gift of grace:

That this wanderer at last should be,

Caught up in the embrace of peace.

And of all the heroines I dreamed,

None could match this glorious scene.



Chorus