Saturday, June 29, 2013

"...bruised, broken masterpieces...." (Eschatological Vision, Part I)

"Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us. We hope for light, but behold darkness; for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes. We stumble at noon as in the twilight. Among those in full vigor, we are like dead men. We all growl like bears, and moan and moan like doves. We hope for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions are multiplied before You, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities...." Is. 59:9-12

"We are bruised, / broken masterpieces. / We did not make ourselves." -John Foreman

The first element you find in the Christian eschatological vision is the inevitable corruption, which means it assumes the Fall, and thus assumes that every human effort, no matter how noble or well-planned, will fail. We cannot bring about the ideals that we all have or hope in. Our utopias are just that: utopia, i.e., no place, nowhere, non-existent. Now, this does not mean that humanity is worthless. On the contrary, we are made in the image of God, and on that ground we are full of worth, and in that image we create in the likeness of our Creator. Thus, all the works of our hands (whether great or small, noble or vile) point to our Creator. Even the basest act of rebellion is an act of unintended worship to the God who gave you power to rebel and a God to rebel against. In the end, everything that has breath praises the Lord. Therefore, the Fall does not mean that humanity is worthless, only that it cannot be trusted. Our efforts and works can be incredible in their terror and beauty, but in regard to our salvation they are all futile failures.

Make no mistake: all of our actions are about our salvation, whether or not we think in those exact terms. Every man who has ever drowned himself in his career, every woman who has used and abused herself to a thousand men, every murderer seeking revenge, every rapist seeking satisfaction, every philanthropist exhausting themselves and their resources in good works, every tyrant seeking conquest and control, every artist seeking beauty, every child seeking acceptance, everyone seeking peace and relaxation on any given Saturday, every action of every person is about salvation. We are seeking the place of peace, of rest, of meaning and identity, of happiness and wholeness forevermore. We seek it in every place that we can: in places and people and things, in this man or that woman, in this project or that plan, in causes and crusades, in plots and schemes, in movements and agendas, in journeys and destinations. Everything we do revolves around this one goal of salvation, and thus everything we do is simultaneously significant and futile: our actions speak to our true identity, but nothing we do can ever bring us home. That is the truth and tragedy of the Fall.

That is the balanced view, a view that neither the pure optimist nor pure pessimist can stand or understand. For the optimist, everyone is full of potential, capable of achieving their own private paradise if they would just believe in that potential. People are fundamentally good; it is outer oppression and/or stimuli that make them go bad, and if we could only construct an environment conducive to goodness, then everyone would find happiness. It is a beautifully naive position, thwarted almost daily by every newspaper on the planet. We are not fundamentally good; we are fundamentally fallen, sinners, inclined towards sin. Whatever good we have is corrupted every time, and all of our "private paradises" (which is a contradiction in terms) either fail to materialize or fail to satisfy. In the end, we are incapable of producing our own happiness. We cannot save ourselves.

For the pessimist, the Fall is (ironically) their only reality. Everyone is either basically selfish or weak or (what is most likely) both. All of our acts, even the most altruistic, are self-centered, meant to pad our egos or line our pocketbooks or else quench some psychological wound or sense of guilt. Whatever the case, we are all narcissists out for our own, and if the chips were down we would eat each other alive. Now, there is something bracing about such cynicism, but also something adolescent. It has a healthy dose of realism about our tragic condition, but it does so without any sense of mourning or (what's better) repentance. Rather, its realism is smeared with a sneer of superiority. As there is something childishly naive about the optimist's outlook, so there is something childishly arrogant about the pessimist's outlook: it holds everyone in contempt as inevitable failures and blind idiots. It is a "boys' philosophy," as Lewis would say; it is simplistic and immature. It rightly assumes man's fallen state but goes no further. At best, it sits down in its arrogant angst; at worst, it falls deeper and deeper into a darkening despair that can only give way to stoicism or suicide. They are arrested at the tragic, because they have nowhere else to go.

The Christian, however, has somewhere else to go, because it has the balanced view. It maintains the depravity of man without dismissing all humanity as a lost cause. It believes in the tragic nature of existence without despairing. It allows for the harsh realism of the pessimist, as bracing and awakening as a cold wind; but it also allows for the hopefulness and joy of the optimist. How it does is a subject for the next few posts, but for now understand this: Christianity is true because the truth is always a shock and Christianity is a shock. Anyone can be an idealist; anyone can be dreamy-eyed over what ought to be. Anyone can be a nihilist; anyone can dismiss all significance in a horror and great darkness. But to somehow find a place for both, to take all the glories of idealistic optimism and all the daggers of nihilistic pessimism and say, "Here you may dance and there you may mourn," asserting a beautifully broken, preciously corrupt world, that was to discover a strange need in human nature. It touches the very fabric of our reality, for we need hope because we know our world is mad.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Friday, June 28, 2013

In Defense of Everything Else (an introduction)

Every one has an eschatological vision. Every one has some idea of where things are headed, where it will all end up.

Naive optimists can only see an inevitable forward progression: yes, there will be occasional failures (sometimes major ones), but they are only bumps on the road to utopia. Every cloud has a silver-lining, people are fundamentally good, and all things work out in the end if you just believe. They extol patience and indefatigableness as the highest virtues: never give up and never surrender. Sunshine is their favorite thing, Rainbow sherbet is their favorite dessert, and their favorite season is Spring, when all things bloom in their season.

Meanwhile, naive pessimists can only see an inevitable downward spiral: yes, there will be moments of true success (sometimes enough to deceive even the elect), but they are nonetheless an accident, for all things are fundamentally rotten, and their natural "progression" is down and out. Cynicism and survival are their virtues: don't be taken in and don't be stepped on. Rainy Day and Darkest Night are their favorite colors, and their favorite season is Winter, where everything freezes and dies...just like the universe one day.

Still, others live in a hazy mid-point between these two extremes. They're never quite sure where the world is headed: some days they're an optimist and on others they're a pessimist. They hope everything will turn out all right, but they fear it will not. I think it's safe to say that this is the eschatological vision of the majority of men and women: uncertainty mixed with flashes of hope and despair.

Now, the Christian has an eschatological vision as well, and it has neither the naivete of pure optimism or pure pessimism, nor the insecurity of points in between. Rather, its vision encompasses all the strongest and most searing points of both optimism and pessimism, fusing them together in an amalgam so fantastic it could only be the truth, for truth is never the one thing or the other but all things true and good working together. There is a reason all points on the scale have their attractions: it is because they are all right (and thus, are all wrong). All truly "good" ideas from the world are simply Christian ideas divorced from other Christian ideas, and these amputations run rampant with good intentions, bowling over everything that does not fit into their reductionism. Likewise, all eschatological visions of the world simply contain Christian ideas divorced from the bulk of Christian thought, for Christianity is not a reductionism. It is the religion of the God who is True.

The Christian eschatological vision has three main elements: (1) the inevitable corruption, (2) the divine intervention, and (3) the unstoppable redemption. We shall consider this elements in order and consider their practical applications.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Monday, June 24, 2013

"It is not the one thing...." (The Perilous Balance)

Christianity is not love. It is not peace, nor justice, nor joy, nor goodness, nor beauty, nor moderation, nor wisdom. It is not about compassion to the oppressed or violence to the oppressor, neither the defense of the weak nor the defiance of the strong. It is not about truth. It is not about experience. It is not any one of these things. Rather, it is every one of these things all working in tandem to create a whole that is not reducible to its parts. To reduce it is to lose it; it is a perilous balance.

Orthodoxy is not any one thing. It is all ideals and virtues and good things working together in a tight, unbreakable, irreducible oneness, for it is the very truth of God, who is the summation of all ideals and virtues and good things in a tight, unbreakable, irreducible oneness. As our God is all good things working together in one person, and as the fruits of His Spirit are all good things working in our person, and as the Body of His Christ are many members with many gifts spread out across nations, tribes, and tongues all working together whether they realize it or not, so too Orthodoxy is an ingenious collaboration of all truth working together into a singular creed.

In our Father's house are many rooms, rooms for many and all shades of His glory, all facets of His beauty. The pacifists are there as well as the militant, the Franciscans as well as the Dominicans. The apologist and the artist and the social worker are there. The high church and the low are there, the traditional and the contemporary. All good things, all things true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable and excellent and praiseworthy, all these things are ours for the taking, the thinking, the doing. All are acceptable to God. Let no mouth open to gainsay any of them. Let no brother gainsay his sister, and let no sister gainsay her brother. Let no pacifist gainsay the militant, and let no militant gainsay the pacifist. All belong in the balance; the absurdity called pacifism will balance the insanity called militancy.

Let all things be done in the image of our God, who is peaceful and wrathful, true and beautiful, compassionate and holy, human and divine. Let no heresy rise to reduce Him; let no ignorance rise to diminish Him. Not because He can be reduced or diminished, but because the reduction and the diminishment does damage to the heretic and ignorant (those terrible simplifiers), causing them to lose the whole that is God, for God is a whole. A single, simple whole who is irreducible and indiminishable. He is an infinitely faceted jewel, a stained-glass window whose design and beauty knows no end or paraphrasing, and is large enough to hold all good and true and beautiful things in His hands.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rob Bell and the Kinetic Force of Truth

"...the truth shall set you free." John 8:32

In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell uses an interesting metaphor to describe the Christian life (or "journey," if you prefer). He said it is like jumping on a trampoline. The jumping is your life experiences, propelling you closer and closer to God. The springs on the trampoline represent the various Christian doctrines, giving support and strength to your jumping. They keep it working, but (says Bell) they are not the point. The point of the trampoline is to jump. If we focus on the springs rather than on jumping, then we will never jump (or won't jump well). Likewise, if we spend all our time focusing on doctrine rather than knowing God, then we will never know God (or won't know Him well). If we lose a spring or swap it for a different one, it doesn't matter as long as we keep jumping. Thus, if we lose belief in a particular doctrine (i.e., the Trinity or the Virgin birth) or swap it for a different one, it doesn't matter as long as we continue knowing God, because that's primary. All else is secondary.

I sympathize with the image. Knowing God, drawing deeper in and closer to the Godhead in all His Beauty, is the fundamental purpose of our lives. To know God more is to love Him more, and to love Him more and more is how we glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Furthermore, we shouldn't let secondary (or even tertiary) issues bog us down. Some things are better left to preference; others to silence. God is primary, and all else is indeed secondary.

I agree with the image so much, in fact, that I believe it reveals two flaws in Bell's idea that doctrines, central doctrines like the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, are "secondary" things that can be easily discarded when we find them inconvenient.

You're doing it wrong.
The first flaw is that, while springs are secondary to the act of jumping, they are no less necessary, for without them you couldn't even begin to jump. Bell incorrectly assumes that "secondary" is equivalent to disposable, which is not always the case, and his trampoline image proves it. No one buys a trampoline for its springs; they buy it to jump. However, no one would buy a trampoline without springs, because that would defeat the purpose of jumping. No springs, no jumping. Likewise, no doctrine, no knowing God. God is not known in the abstract or ethereal, in secret or dark places (Is. 45:19). He is only known in some kind of concrete tangible, whether it be a word or a person. "No man has seen God at any time...[but] he who sees Me has seen the Father" (John 1:18; 14:8-9), i.e., God must be enfleshed if we are to know Him; the trampoline must be enspringed if we are to jump upon it.

The second flaw is that, while you may continue to jump even if you lose springs, you will necessarily jump lower. Bell also incorrectly assumes that losing (or even swapping) springs will somehow have either no effect or a negligible effect on your jumping, which is not true. To lose a spring is to lose part of the kinetic energy to jump. Lose enough of them and you lose jumping all together. If you want to keep jumping (and jumping well), then you need all the springs, working together. Likewise, to lose a doctrine (especially a central doctrine) is to lose part of the concrete tangibles that bring God into your life. Lose enough of them, and you lose God all together, disappearing into a cloud of vagaries and guesswork. If you want to know God, to have Him be real in your life, then you don't just need doctrines; you need a creed, a coalition of doctrines working together in a solid orthodoxy that will propel you deeper and deeper into God.

Dig deeper, son.
Furthermore, if you want to jump higher (which is part of Bell's overall image), it will certainly do you no good to lose springs, but it also won't do you any good to simply swap them out for different springs (or even not-springs). What you need is stronger springs, not different ones or none at all. You need springs that are thicker, tighter, capable of producing even more kinetic force. Likewise, if you want to know God more, then don't lose your doctrines or continually swap them out for different ones. Make them stronger, deeper, thicker, truer. Don't abandon them because them seem confusing or overwhelming; dive into them. Study and study them, find their logic, purpose, and application(s), and then make them your own. You will not get closer to God by simply abandoning your truths or swapping them around like a never-ending shell-game. You need to drill down into them, thickening them up, for truth has its own kinetic force. It alone has the power to launch you further into the heavens. It alone can set you free to fly.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Friday, June 14, 2013

Spider-Man and the Moral Force of Beauty

"Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work of our hands...." Ps. 90:17 (KJV)

Our God is beautiful. In an abstract sense, He is Beauty: the source, summation, and perfection of all that is beautiful. In a practical sense, however, He is beautiful to us: our senses, our hearts, and our sentiments. The Hebrew word used for "beauty" in this verse is "no'am," which means (amongst other things) someone or something that creates delight to the beholder. It is not beauty in the void but rather beauty beheld, gazed upon, contemplated, and desired (Ps. 27:4). It is not a static thing but a dynamic thing, because it drives us to do something. Something to please it. Something to make it proud. Thus, our delight in God's "delightfulness" is what establishes the work of our hands.

The parallels to romantic love are impossible to ignore. Naturally, I'm not referring to mere lust or affectionate infatuation (i.e., a "crush"), but a true and deep soul-stirring and -shattering reaction caused by one who can only be described as "beloved," the one who is loved. For the beauty of the beloved, the young man will make a fool of himself with sappy poems or silly treats or stupid feats; he will exhaust himself in charming idiocy. For the beauty of the beloved, the older man will not leave her for any other; who she is makes him whole. It's like that great American philosopher and film icon Peter Parker said in Spider-man about Mary Jane: "You know what kind of man you wanna be." Of course, I can only speak for men, since I am one by the accident of birth. However, I am sure that women can think of their own parallels to the theme: the beauty of the beloved establishes the work of your hands.

Remember, this is not about outward appearance; this is about delightfulness, which is something more all-encompassing. God is a Spirit and has no outer form, and yet He creates beauty in those who behold Him. The mystery of that paradox is deep, but the point here is that beauty is far greater than outward show; it is about finding deep, abiding joy in someone because of who they are. Everyone who's ever been and is still in love knows what I'm talking about: it's as if the other person fills up the whole room. Not necessarily because of their personality or their physical shape, but because it's them.  They are beautiful; you cannot reduce it to one thing, for to reduce it is to lose it and make an idol out of one of their many facets.

This is what makes beauty, true delightfulness, so important. Beauty has moral force, for good or ill. In the best case, it will create true love, which will drive you towards acts of true goodness. So in Paradise Lost, Satan himself is struck "stupidly good" when he sees the unfallen beauty of Eve (IX.455-66). In the worst case, false beauty (evil and error disguised as beauty) will create perverted love, which will drive you towards destructive ends. So in "Book I" of The Faerie Queene, Redcross is turned from the journey of holiness by the false beauty of Duessa. In either case, beauty has great moral power: it shapes our sentiments, which in turn shapes our actions, which in turn shapes our culture (esp. our arts and entertainment), which in turn shapes us further. It is an inevitable and valuable as well as perilous cycle, especially if it falls into the wrong hands: moral milksops with shallow views of everything, or moral perverts who have exchanged beauty for ugliness.

For the Christian, the beauty of God is our moral force. The beauty of who He is and what He has done creates delight and desire and love, which in turn constrains us to do (II Cor. 5:14-15; John 14:15). We do not "do" out of duty or fear but love, love for our beloved, the Beloved, who has called us His children and brothers and sisters and friends and lovers and every affectionate and intimate name and category that we have. In the name and for the love of our Beloved, let us go and do. Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and let it establish the work of our hands. Let our works be acts of goodness and compassion to the outcast and suffering. Let our works be acts of truth and reason against the skeptic and the madman. And (perhaps above all) let our works be acts of beauty and wonder and glory in our culture, filling it with songs and books and works of light. Let it season like salt our goodness and truth. They too must be acts of beauty, for the way to a man or woman's mind, soul, and body is through their heart.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

All About Love (thoughts on Romantic Theology)

"He that has seen Me has seen the Father...." John 14:9

"He is the image of the invisible God...." Col. 1:15

In the Divine Comedy, Dante reaches the end of his journey in the last cantos of "Purgatory". I say it's the end of his journey because he finally reaches his true love, Beatrice. However, he will soon discover that this "ending" is only another beginning. He meets her at the top of Mt. Purgatory where she comes at the end of strange pageant: a train of creatures and people, all representing the books of the Bible, theological and cardinal virtues, and even Christ Himself (represented by a Griffin). Every element of the pageant is meant to symbolize a different sacrament, i.e., a means and point of contact with God, whether it be divine revelation, "the law written on our hearts," or Christ (who is the Sacrament).

Beatrice belongs to this train. She symbolizes how romantic love (when done properly) is yet another sacrament, a doorway to the divine, a means of ascension higher and higher into the love of God. This is not only the central conceit of the entire Comedy, but also a key component in the Christian view of marriage. Christianity has always viewed marriage as a sacrament, a means of contact with God where He administers and ministers grace to us. This is what Charles Williams called "Romantic Theology," though he never claimed the idea to be novel. Christian orthodoxy has always believed and taught that romance, though it can go awry like anything else, was always meant to be an avenue of communion with God through another person, which was the entire point of marriage: two people brought together by God to be used of God to sanctify each other. The grace of God given to us through each other---that is the essence of Christian romance, and it is a sacramental essence.

The Bible reveals the sacramental essence of marriage in some surprising ways. One of those ways can be found in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Now, First Corinthians is all about love (and not just the 13th chapter). "Let all things be done out of love" (16:14) is the summation and theme of the whole book; furthermore, if we love each other, then we will seek each others "well-being" (10:24) and do all things "for edification" (15:26). In other words, love should lead us to be a means of grace (i.e., a sacrament) to other Christians. If you belong to God, then you have been made a sacrament to others, especially those inside the Church.

What does this have to do with marriage? Well, in chapter 7, Paul explains how men and women can "avoid fornication": "let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband" (vs. 2), i.e., get married and have sex. That's right. Paul (that cranky old curmudgeon) is telling Christian spouses to have sex, and (get this) it's not just a matter of practical morality: "Let the husband render unto his wife due benevolence, and likewise also the wife unto her husband" (vs. 3). This is not just about keeping yourself sexually pure (and faithful) in marriage; this is also about showing "benevolence" to your spouse by not withholding sex (vs. 5). Thus, in marriage, sex is tied directly to edification. It is one of the ways a husband is a sacramental means of grace to his wife (and vice versa).

Is your mind blown yet? It should be. Who views sex like this? Not our culture. Whether inside or outside of marriage, sex is merely a means of domination: two individuals mutually working their will on the other. It has nothing to do with grace at all. Furthermore, I daresay that the Church in America does little better. Marriage is important, at least politically and socially, but what about theologically and sacramentally? All of marriage (whether it be sex or something else) is meant to be sacramental, i.e., about grace, about meeting God. That is why wives "submit" themselves to their husbands and husbands "lay down" themselves for their wives: it is a mutual sacrifice on behalf of the other, and into that loving matrix the presence of God comes into our midst.

That, of course, is the whole point: of the Divine Comedy, of Christian marriage, of Christianity and Christ Himself. God is a sacramental God. He meets us in the midst of our moments, especially (as Dante showed us) in our darkest moments. Love reaches out to us in the dark wood, and it will lead us home, even through Hell itself. It is what T.S. Eliot meant by "mid-winter spring": those moments of light and life in the midst of the cold, dead lands, the intersection of our time with God's eternity. This is not about abstractions; this is about love, about Christ, who is the fullest proof of God's love (Rom. 5:8; I John 4:9-10), a love that manifested itself in our midst, that was made flesh and blood and bones and veins and fat and walked into our winter with all the glories and colors of spring. The point of the story, of all good stories (whether Dante's, Christ's, your marriage, or your walk with God), is love, love manifested in our midst with all its surprises and its unapologetic, relentless and reckless sacrifice for its beloved.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013