About Prayer

Prayer is one of those aspects of Christianity that is at once basic and yet mind-boggling. To a degree I can sympathize with naturalists (i.e. non-supernaturalists) who find prayer incomprehensible. I remember seeing a Readers Digest headline proclaiming the health benefits of prayer. How does one test the efficaciousness of prayer scientifically? You could find two people with the same type and stage of terminal cancer. One patient would be subjected to the prayers of ordinary and “holy” people. The control would be forbidden from receiving any prayer. If you wish, you could measure the length and intensity of individual prayers. Of course, you could never be totally sure that a great aunt somewhere wasn’t secretly praying for the control. Other problems arise. How do you quantify holiness or measure the intensity of prayer? Are certain techniques or formula for praying more effective than others? How does one determine if the prayer is simply acting as a placebo? There is also the question of God’s will. When a person’s prayer is not answered, the readiest explanation (or is it a rationalization) is that the object of the prayer was not God’s will. How could any prayer experiment account for the unfathomable will of God?

There are other problems. Would such an experiment be ethical? Proof of prayer’s efficacy would rest on the control dying and the recipient of prayer surviving. There is also the difficulty that scientists face in quantum physics. Observation changes results. Could observation by modern science affect the occurrence of miracles? Then again, should prayer be proved to cure cancer, some pharmaceutical company would be sure to patent a prayer formula and make millions from it.

This talk about prayer experiments suggest that we have a problem with the way we view prayer. Both those who believe in prayer and those who don’t tend to approach prayer in a mechanistic manner. In other words, “do x, get y”; simple causality. (Indeed many scientific experiments depend on the isolation of causes.) Certain traditions in Christianity believe that if your prayer fails to achieve its desired end, the fault is yours. Either you didn’t have enough faith or there is some secret sin that its hindering your prayer. Simply increase x and remove z and God will answer your prayer. I don’t doubt that sin and lack of faith can hinder prayer. Scripture makes this clear, but to reduce it to this is to perpetuate a half-truth.

Prayer does not operate in the sphere of mechanism, but relationship. When I use the word relationship, I do not mean to push prayer into the realm of mystery; if one defines mystery as that which is unknowable or a matter of blind acceptance (Mystery is another frequently misunderstood concept by believers and unbelievers alike. A definition of mystery, one which I am not fully satisfied with, is that a mystery is a matter of lived knowing rather than verbal articulation). Prayer involves relationship between a human and God and a human and other humans. A web of relationships is involved. Even when a person is praying about themselves to God, others are included (cf. Matt. 5:23-24, 6:15).

Take the marriage relationship as an example. We would not view a marriage relationship as healthy when one spouse simply does whatever his or her partner asks. The interchange in a healthy marriage is more complex than that. Requests arise from the intimacy and knowledge that exists in the relationship. Spouses take part in an ongoing harmonious exchange, where ideally the couple has moved beyond symmetrical reciprocity. (Symmetrical reciprocity gives each act a specific value and says that each person must give 50%.) Sometimes spouses fulfill each other’s requests before they are asked. Other times they delight to be asked first. When they do so they do it out of a knowledge of what their lover likes and dislikes. The more the partners know each other, the more their requests align with their shared life and will. It is less like a business transaction or chemical reaction and more like a dance.

In many ways this example is insufficient. I omitted other human beings from it. Each person adds complexity to a relationship. God is also the perfect lover, while we are the imperfect lover moving towards perfection. Still prayer, at its best, arises from one’s relationship with God.

There is also another difficulty when is comes to prayer. When we discuss prayer, we approach it from our own metaphysical perspective. For example, time for humans is a succession of moments and causality is linear. We try to understand prayer from this perspective because we know of no other. Certain people have reasonably suggested that this is not God’s perspective in regards to time and causality. My own inclination is to accept some form of Boethius’ proposal in Consolation of Philosophy. According to Boethius, all time is Present to God. This is the way he explains how God can foreknow the future without directly causing it and thereby destroying free-will. Merely watching does not cause something. Watching a quarterback throw a football does not mean that I caused him to throw it. Thus God see all time as present.

To give a simple example: God sees you praying at work for patience to deal with a coworker. One way he could “answer” your prayer is to give you a supernatural infusion of patience. This is the way we typically think of miracles working, a sudden intervention of God’s grace. But from another perspective, God has always seen you praying for patience. Through experiences years in advance, God has been building patience in you. Thus the moment comes and you don’t snap at your annoying coworker. The patience is not the result of a sudden intervention but a slow constant shaping. Of course, from our perspective, there may be no difference between the two. (Charles William’s fascinatingly plays with the idea of prayer operating in a nonlinear way in Descent into Hell.)

Similarly C.S. Lewis uses Boethius approach to time to explain how God can hear multiple prayers from people all over the world and yet be “present” to each individual. God is not limited by the need to deal with things one after another. Sequence is simultaneous and simultaneous can be sequence.

As with any relationship, it is far easier to talk about principles and ideals than it is to put them into practice. If prayer were mechanistic, it would be easy. You could read a book to learn the right formula or technique to make prayer “work.” Because pray is relationship it requires practice, living into patterns of behavior. It’s like the life of a vinyl record in reverse. Instead of a freshly pressed record becoming marred by scratches over time, we are to take the marred record of our life and wear grooves into it that will produce increasingly beautiful music. It takes time.

The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil or the problem of pain is a frequent topic of theological discussion, one that any serious theist needs to wrestle with. Many atheists assume that they escape this problem because they don’t believe in the existence of God. That conclusion, I think, is premature. The logical implication of the existence of evil is not necessarily that there is no God. One could equally conclude that the God which exist is either not all-powerful or not all-good. A position like Open Theism sees God as good but neither all-powerful nor all-knowing. His power and knowledge are vastly greater than that of human beings, but he must still respond dynamically to human free-will. Evil exists despite God’s best efforts. Ancient philosophies such as Manichaeism go in a somewhat different direction. It proposed two equally powerful forces or gods. The good god and the evil god are engaged in a never ending conflict. The problem of evil is a problem, but one that theists and polytheist have been grappling with for thousands of years.

When most people hear that a child has been abducted and forced to fight for an African warlord, they feel that something wrong or unjust has taken place. We might even consider failure to feel this way as abnormal. Our reaction to stories about child-soldiers tells us something about human nature. Humans have a deeply buried concept of right and wrong, or even fairness and justice. This is not to say that people agree on what is right and wrong; they don’t. Instead, anyone considering the problem of evil must take this sense of justice seriously.

The atheistic explanation for morality is evolutionary and naturalistic. Moral sense and a concept of right and wrong enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce. Taboos against incest promoted survival by reducing birth defects. Primitive moral impulses concerning murder enabled certain species of early humans to pass on their genetic material more efficiently than those species which did not have the prohibition. In other words, responses to perceived right and wrong are subjective. They are nothing more than the conditioned actions of neurons and chemicals in our brain. Evil is that which displeases me personally whether the cause be logical, emotional, and/or evolutionary

The practical application of this approach to morality is that we can change inherent moral impulses. Certain moral reflexes that once helped us survival may in fact be hindering the development of the human race. Science and reason can help us rewire the moral portion of our brains in order to advance human evolution. For example, human greediness once allowed early human to survive in environments with few resources. In an age of plenty the greedy impulse causes certain people to acquire beyond their needs while others starve. The solution is not another sermon on the evils of wealth, but the elimination of this trait from our genetic and neurological make-up.

I will continue without commenting on the practical application of such a theory. It doesn’t take a science-fiction writer to see where experimentation in this area could take us. Neither do I necessarily want to make a direct critique of the atheistic approach to morality. Like most systems of belief, it forms a logically coherent whole. Of course, a coherent whole does not ensure veracity. One may draw a circle that is perfectly round, without a single gap, but do so in the wrong place. Instead, I will state why the atheistic explanation is unsatisfying for me personally.

When I see evil, I feel its evilness. There is something very wrong about the wrong. Perhaps this is just neurochemistry, a reaction caused by evolutionary wiring and my own childhood. (Then again, even the rationalism of the most determined atheist is also only a product of evolutionary impulses and his or her childhood environment. The argument cuts both ways.) I often ache inside because I know the world is broken. But to call something broken implies at state of unbrokenness. One is only aware of darkness when one has the concept of light. My recognition of evil suggests that I have an inkling of something called good.

Only with a source of good can evil actually be evil. Otherwise evil is just “the way things are.” Philosophers like Plato and the Christian theologians that followed him identified the source of goodness as God. God was in fact the Good. Only with a good God can evil be objectively evil, instead of mere neurons firing. Evil is the deviance from an standard of good. The fact that people can’t agree on what exactly that standard is does not dismiss the existence of a standard, just as the fact that no one hits the bullseye, doesn’t negate the existence of a red circle. We must ask why people are even shooting in the first place.

For a materialistic atheist, the anger they feel about someone dying of hunger is a subjective response caused by neurons and chemicals in the brain. Evil is nothing more than sophisticated displeasure or disgust. A theist looks at the same situation and sees something that is objectively wrong because it deviates from some kind of standard of goodness. This is one reason why I am a theist and not an atheist. Only theism make satisfying sense of the way I feel about evil. For me, the presence of evil in the world calls my attention to God. That is why C.S. Lewis calls pain God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I am also a person who believes in God’s omnipotence. My task, and the task of others like me, is to try to reconcile this with God’s goodness. However, the question in this enterprise is not, “Does God exist?” but rather, “What is God like?”

God’s Back

The passage in Exodus in which God shows Moses his back is one of the oddest in the Bible. In brief, Moses asks to see God’s glory and God says “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name” but warns him that no one can see God’s face and live. God promises to put Moses in a gap in the rock and cover him until he has passed by, then God will remove his hand and Moses will see God’s back. Questions surround this passage with no clear answers. Does God have a face, back, and hands, or is this merely anthropomorphism? Elsewhere in Exodus, Moses is described as talking to God face to face (Exod. 33:11). Why then does God say that no man can see his face and live? There are also rich connections made here about God’s nature. God will show Moses his glory by showing him God’s goodness. God’s declaration of his name, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” is powerful in what it tells us about how God sees himself. Though all these issue are important, I don’t want to touch on any of them in this post. Instead I want to consider God’s back.

God’s back is the only part of him that Moses sees (with the possible exception of God’s hand). While I do think that we see God’s face in Christ (which perhaps explains how Moses is both able and not able to see God’s face) I think there is still a sense in which humans only ever see God’s back. This doesn’t mean that God has “turned his back” on humanity. Rather it is a matter of our perspective. We are standing behind God, like someone standing behind a billboard. Someday we will be on the opposite side and then we will be able to see his face. Everything will shift from being in the foreground to God’s back to being in the background of God’s face. From that perspective things will look very different.

This brings up the question, why can’t we see his face now? To say that we would die isn’t a very satisfactory answer. It is a natural human reaction to assume that something is hidden because it is terrible. Spouses hide affairs, politicians hide corruption, businesses hide exploitation of their workers and the environment. We hide our bodies beneath clothes because we are ashamed of them.* What if the face of God is that of a monster? What else would we expect from someone who watches nuclear bombs level cities and humans burn in holocaust ovens without apparently intervening? The other face that we fear is the stern expression of a disappointed and disapproving parent? “Why can’t you humans get your lives together?”

Yet we also hide gifts beneath wrapping paper, and this suggests a different possibility. Perhaps God hides his face not because it is so terrible, but because it is so wonderful. In his Silmarillion, Tolkien describes an island called Númenor. It was placed between the Blessed Lands and Middle Earth as a gift from the gods. Despite this generous gift of permitting mortals to live close to them, the gods forbid the Númenóreans from going too near the Blessed Lands. Naturally, some Númenóreans become suspicious that the reason for this ban is that the gods want the Blessed Lands all to themselves. In reality, the ban is for the good of the mortals. Humans are finite and can only take so much blessedness. Like a moth drawn to the warmth and light of a flame, drawing too close would cause it to combust. The goodness and beauty of God could be so great that no mortal could see it in full and live. A single instant of bliss and then puff like a moth in a flame.

Not all that is hidden is bad or terrible. Of course, according to Christian theology, we will not always have these bodies in their current form. They will be something different, though what they are even Paul struggled to express. I would like to suggest that with these perfected bodies we will be able to gaze fully on the face of God. Until that day comes, we must learn to live in the shadow of God’s back.

*(This is an observation of a false presupposition rather than a recommendation of a healthy approach to our bodies. God graced us by taking on a human bodies. The idea that bodies are inherently bad or shameful comes from Greek philosophy and too often has been absorbed by Christianity. The degree to which we choose to cover or reveal our bodies should not be driven by shame.)

A Personed Epistemology

For the last few months, I have been working my way through Esther Meek’s book Loving to Know. It has articulated many things that I’ve been grasping at about the nature of knowing. As I have digested the work it has shaken loose and informed my own thoughts on the nature of knowing. Though I only mention her a few times in this post, concepts such as “personed knowledge” and the transformative nature of knowledge are hers, and the use I make of them falls short of the full meaning which she gives them in Loving to Know.

Discussions about truth frequently revolve around acceptance of a set of facts. For example, we might say that we believe the earth orbits the sun because we have accepted the “facts” on the matter. But when we dig into the matter, we find that this is not exactly what is happening. No human has ever traveled into outer-space and looked down on the solar system in order to observe the earth moving around the sun. Heliocentrism was accepted long before a single satellite had been launched into outer-space. Instead, astronomers made innumerable observations of the movement of planetary and stellar bodies and then sought a theory which best accounted for all these observation. Even the medieval belief that the sun revolved around the earth did not come from people then being backwards or superstitious. Rather there was a consensus stretching back to Aristotle that the geocentric model best explained what humans saw in the sky. Early Modern and Modern observers challenged this when they recognized that the old model was insufficient to account for all of their observations. The belief of modern astronomers that the earth orbits the sun is a matter of finding the best way to account for all the data.

However, most people are not astronomers. Neither do most people understand the concepts that would enable them to interpret the data correctly. How many people in developed countries can even identify the planets in the night sky? The reason most people believe the earth orbits the sun is because they chose to believe someone. A parent, teacher, or friend told them it was true and they accepted it. Their decision was likely reinforced by the input of multiple trusted people. It is not so much a matter of accepting facts as it is accepting someone’s facts. (Fact is an incredibly loose word in English. In ranges in meaning from the etymologically grounded, “that which was done” to a piece of information akin to factoid.)

This is even the case when someone says that they accept something as true because “science” has proved it. Science as an abstract concept can’t actually prove anything. What we mean when we say this is that the research of certain scientists has proved something. Though usually we are not even trusting the research, but the scientist her or himself. When was the last time you sat down to read a new study on climate change, disease prevention, or weight-loss (the actual journal article, not some journalist’s regurgitation) and then attempted to replicate the results. In lieu of this, we assume that the scientist is competent, that she avoided mistakes, and didn’t skew his results for the sake of acquiring a research grant. This is not intended to criticize scientists. Most are highly skilled and interested in achieving accurate results and interpreting them correctly. We are right to trust them in most cases. The danger comes when we deceive ourselves into believing we are rational people simply because we accept the latest science when what this really means is that we are very trusting.

Most belief then is not logical or rational in the narrow sense. Rather it depends on trust and relationship. This is part of the reason why parents and other caring adults are so important to the shape of early belief. We develop implicit trust because they provide us with basic things like food, shelter, and affection. We accept as true what they tell us. On the other hand, having a difficult relationship with one’s parents will make someone more likely to question their parent’s “facts.” (This is not to say that a troubled relationship with ones parents is the only route to acquiring your own beliefs.) Most humans in their teens and early adulthood will question the knowledge passed on by their parents, sometimes acquiring different beliefs, sometimes similar. More than likely the deep epistemological assumptions that they acquired go unnoticed, silently influencing interpretation.

We would like the certainty of 2+3=5 to apply to all of life. However, this kind of certainty is almost exclusively confined to mathematics. There are also very few areas of our life where we can formulate explanations based on personal observation. I would like to be able to explain why it is that astronomers believe the earth revolves around the sun and a thousand other things, but my life span and intellectual capacity are finite. If the consensus of scientists, over a few hundred years, who have looked at the matter, is that the heliocentric model is best, than I am content to accept it. Whether the earth is the center of the solar system or the sun makes very little difference to my behavior day. My trust in this and other instances of knowledge is reasonable.

In sum, knowledge involves trust, trust in persons, and this a perfectly acceptable, indeed almost the only, way of knowing. Such personed approach to knowing has many practical application.

Apologetics: Some Christians see apologetics as a matter of out arguing the other side. One only needs to present an overwhelming number of facts or arguments in order to force a non-Christian to change his or her mind. The problem with this is that is misses the personed nature of knowledge. All the facts in the world cannot convince someone without the presence of trust and relationship. In many cases, the kind of person you are is as important as what you have to say, perhaps more so.

Education: Personing knowledge in education means that teaching is more than imparting facts, like pouring beans into an empty jar. It means that the character of the teacher is as important as the information they are communicating. Academia tends to favors head knowledge over personality and character, but effective teachers need both. Students are more likely to learn from a teacher who they respect and who has a solid sense of him or her self.

Furthermore, the personed nature of knowledge means that knowledge is transformative. Persons imply relationship, and relationships results in the transformation of the persons in relationships. Thus personed knowledge is transformative.

Science: I am not a scientist, so I will say little about about how trust, relationship, and personed knowledge could play a role in research (Meek has more to say about this than I.) However, I do think it has a bearing on the common complaint of scientists that there is a gap between the views of scientists and the general public, e.g. vaccination or climate change. The problem, I think, is that scientists operate from the same mistaken assumptions as apologists. All the findings in the world cannot convince someone without the presence of trust and relationship.

I will add that gaps between the views of those in a given field of research and those outside are not limited to the sciences. As someone who studies the middle ages, I regularly complain about common misunderstandings about the medieval era. The major difference is that no one will die from the incorrect belief that medieval people believed the earth was flat; they may die from failing to get vaccinated.

On the Sabbath

Christians had have a mixed and sometimes confused relationship with the Sabbath. I remember as a child associating the Sabbath, and the command to keep the Sabbath, with Sunday and going to church. At a certain point I became aware that the Sabbath had originally been on Saturday; that the Jews still consider Saturday to be the day of the Sabbath. Being a conscientious child, I wondered if my family should go to church on Saturday instead of Sunday. (I didn’t come across Justin Martyr’s explanation of why Christians worship on Sunday until college). Thus the significance of Sabbath was obscured under questions about special days (Rom 14:5-6, Col. 2:16) and going to church.

One of the difficulties in understanding the Sabbath comes from its connection with Old Testament law. Because the law is a part of Scripture, we believe that it is important. However, the Church has never come to a consensus on how it should interpret the law. Indeed, the law has been the subject of Christianity’s most creative Scriptural interpretations. What this means is that a brief explanation of how I approach the law will be necessary before I explain how I interpret the Sabbath.

The law takes the form of a contract or treaty between a king and his vassals. This structure is especially visible in Deuteronomy, which is a restatement of the law for the generation of Israelites about to enter the promise-land. Yahweh is the great king and the Israelites are his vassals whom he has captured from Egypt. Deuteronomy contains an introduction, conditions, and a statement of benefits and punishments that will follow if the Israelites obey or fail to obey the conditions. For this reason, I do not think the law applies to Christians. We are not the physical descendants of the Israelite people and therefore are outside the bounds of the original contract.

This does not mean that the law is worthless to Christians. After all, the law contains God’s instructions to the Israelites on how to form a just and holy society in their cultural context. We can learn a lot about the character of God and his expectations for human beings from the law. The interpretive task of Christians is to look for the reasoning behind individual laws; what God is saying about Himself and ourselves through them.

Thus Christians do not need to worry about wearing clothes with two types of fabric (Lev. 19:19). We need to understand why God would make such a commandment in that particular context. Two possibilities arise. One is that the mixing of two different kind of thread was a kind of sympathetic magic practiced by the tribes in Canaan in order to increase fertility. Another is that it is a concrete expression of the larger theme of set-apartness which God was trying to impress on the Israelites. Intermarriage between the Israelites and the native Canaanites almost always led the Israelites into idolatry and syncretism. A foreigner could join the people of Israel and acquire the full rights of a native Israelite, with a few specific exceptions (Exo. 12:48; Deut 23:2-7). Those who have interpreted this and similar passages as prohibiting interracial marriage completely miss the point.

When Christians approach the Ten Commandments, they tend to lift them outside of the surrounding context, to arbitrarily apply them differently from the laws which precede and follow them. My approach is to look at them in the same way as I would the other laws. For example, the commandment “You will not kill” was not given in a vacuum. It recalls the fact that man is created in the image of God. To kill a man is to violate the image of God and God himself. As Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Each command tells us something about God and ourselves. This interpretative approach is not perfect, but I think it is more logically consistent than other approaches I have seen.

This brings us to the fourth commandment. Why does God require the Israelites to stop working on one day of the week? Two reasons are given within the context of the commandments. In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, God points to his resting on the seventh day. If God rests, even though he does not need to, then man, who does need rest, should rest. The Deuteronomy version reminds the Israelites that they were once slaves in Egypt. The Sabbath commemorates their liberation from slavery by God. Deuteronomy’s version also uses this to emphasize that the Sabbath should apply equally to the Israelite’s servants and slaves. Unlike the brutal slavery of the Egyptians, the Israelites must give their slaves and servants rest.

Jesus comments on the Sabbath several times during his ministry. One statement in particularly cuts to the heart of the commandment. The Pharisees criticize Jesus for letting his disciples pluck grains of wheat to eat on the Sabbath. Jesus tells them that, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”(Mk. 2:27) The Pharisees had approached the commandment to keep the Sabbath as they did the rest of the commandments, in a strictly legalistic way. The laws were an end in themselves.

An example of this mindset is, “We must not murder because the law prohibits murder.” In other words, murder is wrong because the Bible says so. This ignores the underlying purpose of the commandment and its connection to imago dei. Jesus both criticizes and corrects this type of interpretation in the Sermon on the Mount. There he says that anger towards one’s brother can be equivalent to murder (Matt. 5:21-22). Both anger and murder are an attack on the image of God in man and by extension God (cf. Jam. 3:9). Jesus calls attention to the purpose behind the commandment. But back to the Sabbath.

Man needs rest. The Sabbath is there for the benefit of man, not the other way around. The deeper question we must ask from this is “Why would God need to command humans to stop working? The answer, I think, will soon become clear if we examine our own lives. Humans are constantly in motion. The darker side of the “Protestant work ethic” is that we may come to find our worth in the work we do. We are always running hither and thither in frenzied activity. We will even work at a job we hate. If we have the luck to live a life of leisure we may force other people to work. In fact, our leisure may depend on the work of others. We (particularly we Americans) will wring as much profit out of 24 hours as we can. (I think there is an important connection between the command to observe the Sabbath and the command not to harvest to the edge of your field). This is the reason why we have labor laws in the United States. We will literally work ourselves and others to death if not stopped. If not death then there is the toll that overwork takes on our own bodies through stress and the harm it does to our personal relationships. If God who is infinite rested, than we who are finite and limited, must rest.

There are also spiritual dangers that arise from work. Work can distract us from God. When we are constantly busy, we are more likely to forget about him. Slowing us down gives us a chance to stop focusing on what we have to do and to remember God. Even pastors and ministers can fall into this trap, becoming so busy doing stuff for God that they forget about Him. Work is always in danger of becoming an idol. Because it is a source of security, if can become a source that rivals our trust in God. There is the often stereotyped character, usually a man, who buries himself in his work so that he doesn’t have to face personal and family problems. In other words, busyness can eat our souls if we don’t set boundaries. God places the fourth commandment as a giant stop sign in our lives. It forces us to trust on him. If we work less we make make less money. Our financial security decreases as does our freedom to do what we want. We are forced to rely on him more.

This is why I don’t think it matters on which day we observe the Sabbath or even if the Sabbath is a day. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” To work to exhaustion six days of the week only to be left catatonic on the seventh is to miss the point of the Sabbath because it makes the Sabbath an end in itself. The Sabbath is about rest, about stopping what we are doing. Were are not designed to always fire on all cylinders all the time.

Observing the Sabbath will look different for different people. There are obviously seasons in our lives when we are more or less busy, e.g. parents with a new-born, graduate students, retired people. The point is to set boundaries, limits, and margins. We may have time to do something, but that doesn’t mean we should. The result of this is that we may get less done. (Paradoxically, being intentional about rest can actually increase productivity by preventing exhaustion and burnout.)

The reverse side of this emphasis on the individuality of the Sabbath is the value of observing the Sabbath in community. A healthy life is going to take into account individual and communal practice. I have very little idea of what it would look like for a community to practice Sabbath together. It has been hard enough to work on incarnating it in my own personal life. Still I will put the idea out there for better minds than my own.

The Sabbath is a little like deep waters, one approaches the bottom only to find that the bottom is farther down. It isn’t even the only day on which work is prohibited in the law. There are several required feast days or celebrations in the Israelite religious calendar. However, I will content myself with one more application of the Sabbath. Isaiah 58 discusses fasting and then concludes with a few comments on Sabbath. Fasting and Sabbath are interrelated ideas. Both involve depriving ourselves of something, fasting usually of food, the Sabbath of work. In Isaiah 58 God criticizes the Israelite’s practice of fasting. They have the form of fasting down, eating less and wearing sackcloth, but have missed the point.

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist. (Isaiah 58:3-4)

The prophet then re-orients the Israelite’s understanding of fasting:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Fasting itself is a good practice, but not when we miss the deeper purpose. Ultimately, the fasting that God requires is a fasting from sin. The sins that he focuses on in this passage center around how employers treat their workers, personal conflict, and poverty. We need not limit ourselves to these, but it is enough of a start for anyone. Indeed, Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath and justifies “doing work” by calling it a releasing from burden. If one would untie a donkey on the Sabbath, why not release a human being from bondage.

The Sabbath should involve a break from sin. In this it looks forward to God’s final Sabbath, when God’s peace and rest are as established on Earth as they are in heaven. Only then will we have complete rest from sin. In celebrating the Sabbath we look forward to this greater Sabbath. May it come soon.

Inscape and “Dawness”

Recently I worked my way through the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Hopkins did not leave a large body of poetry, but what he did leave is unique. He experimented with techniques in his poetry that are in one sense old and in another ahead of their time. Hopkins had a particularly unique idea about poetry, one I have mentioned before, which he called “inscape.”

Hopkins’ idea of inscape comes from medieval philosopher-theologian John Duns Scotus. Scotus proposed the concept of “haecceity,” a Latin term which can be translated as “thisness.” Not everyone will see the value of haecceity. The ability to appreciate it probably indicates a susceptibility to philosophy in general. Haecceity is the quality of an object which distinguishes it from another object. It is what separates this oak tree from that oak tree or this spoon from that spoon. Hopkins translates this concept into poetry as inscape. Inscape communicates a unique environment or atmosphere in a poem. It is no easy task to do this in poetry because our language often fails to communicate “thisness.”

One technique that a poet can use to communicate inscape is to create new words. Borrowing is a common method for bringing new terms into a language. English is full of words drawn from Latin and French. Another method, which is common in Old English, the Germanic ancestor of modern English, is to form compound words. I don’t know how familiar Hopkins was with Old English, but his poetry is full of two and even three or more words crammed together. His “May Magnificat” speaks of a time “When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple / Bloom lights the orchard-apple.” In his introduction to his translation of Beowulf Seamus Heaney acknowledges how helpful an early acquaintance with Hopkins’ poetry was for his work.

One of my favorite lines from Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is, “Many a spear / dawn-cold to the touch will be taken down / and waved on high.” Forðon sceall gar wesan / monig moren-ceald mundum bewunden / hæfen on handa (ll. 3021-23). “Dawn-cold” is a compound striving to communicate the “thisness” of a particular type of cold. Presumably there are other colds, like winter-cold and water-cold. In this case the cold of the spear has the quality of “dawness.” Perhaps, from a scientific point of view, there is no difference between a spear cooled by liquid nitrogen and another by the night air, if the temperature is the same. Yet no so for the poet.

I remember getting up early on summer mornings to pick blueberries as a teen; the coolness of the air, the color of the sky, and the dampness of the dew all contributed to the special kind of coldness that I felt when I grasped the plastic handle of a bucket. There is a different quality to that cold than the cold of a gray Michigan afternoon in the dead of winter. As indefinable as that quality is, it is inscape.

It has been the goal of many authors to communicate haecceity in their writing. Hopkins, of course, labored at this. If he had not died at the age of 44 he may have developed it more. C.S. Lewis was aware of a similar idea in his own writing. In Spenser’s Images of Life he talks about the “Londonness” of London and the “Donegality” of Donegal. In other words, the haecceity of London or Donegal. Michael Ward draws on this in Planet Narnia to propose the concept of Donegality. (Readers of Lewis will naturally be suspicious of a book which proclaims to explain the secret pattern behind the seven Chronicles of Narnia books. Whether or not a reader agrees with Ward’s conclusion by the end of the book, I think they will still find it to be an excellent piece of Lewis criticism.)

Tolkien also experiments with haecceity in his work. In a passage from The Two Towers hobbits Merry and Pippin meet an Ent (something like a walking-talking tree) as he is standing on a rocky ledge. He tells them that some people call him Treebeard but then says,

For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate…For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

He then tries to tell them the name of the place he is standing on,

I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this, from this, from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burúmë. Excuse me: that is a part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages: you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the Sun, and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world.

Treebeard settles at last on the word hill but considers it to be a hasty word. Indeed the closer a person attempts to get to the inscape of a thing, the longer its name will be. The true name of something would be a story. (I would really like this to connect to the mysterious verse in Revelation 2:17, “I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Only we can know in full the true name of our lives.) Since ents live longer than many ages of man, they have the time to use lengthy language. Because human lifespans are brief, we are forced to abbreviate. We call a tree a tree unless we need to distinguish; then we talk of oaks, beeches, and aspen.

In spite of our short lives, I think inscape has value. Inscape and haecceity can re-vivify our language, make it richer and fuller. Pressures of life cause us to strip down language, to streamline it, to make it more mechanically efficient. In doing so we lose the ability to talk about certain things (even to remember that we have lost the ability), to express ourselves to the fullest, to follow the stress and “instress” of the contours of reality. Perhaps re-vivifying our language is a part of bringing life to ourselves, of coming to live in our full humanity.

A Few Thoughts on God’s Non-Contingency

Sometimes theologians call God a non-contingent being. By this they mean that God does not depend on anyone or anything for his existence. Nothing caused God to exist and nothing outside of God keeps him in existence. We, in contrast, are contingent beings. We need food to stay alive and owe our birth to the choices of other people. One implication of God’s non-contingency is that we are unnecessary to him. This is somewhat frightening. If God does not need us he might choose to end our existence. In another sense it is comforting. We have all acted sometimes as if we were necessary to God’s plans; if we didn’t do something God would be hindered by our non-action. The result was immense pressure on ourselves and people that were forced to interact with us. The fact that we are not necessary to God lifts the burden. God’s plans are never hindered by us. They may be different from what they would have been had we acted, but they are never stopped.

A further implication of God’s non-contingency is that God is not forced to love or use us. God does not begrudgingly love us. Rather God’s outpouring of love towards us is spontaneous and free. He chooses to love us. God also does not look at humans as broken tools that he is forced to work with. We are completely unnecessary, but he freely chooses to use us anyway. It is a remarkable thing that he does.

There is another interesting implication of this non-contingency. Most Christians, when asked to name God’s attributes, would include love. Some would go even further and say that love is one of God’s necessary attributes, an attribute that if God lacked, he would not be God. Now love has three parts. There is the lover, the object of love, and the love that passes from the lover to the object of his or her love.

A question arises from this. If it is necessary that God loves, who then does he love? One could answer, “Ourselves, his creation.” The problem with this is that before God created us he would have been incompletely God. God would be dependent on us for his completeness; he would become contingent. Another possible answer is that God loves Himself. God is lover and the object of his love. This is a better solution. God is no longer dependent on his creation for his completeness. And yet I think this answer feels unsatisfying. We consider a human who loves him or herself to be, if not narcissistic, then possessing a shallow kind of love. The fullest human love only exists between people. We might make an exception in this instance for God. He is far more complex and perfect than any human being. Of all that exists, he is most worthy of love. For some people this answer is enough. However, I have an alternate suggestion.

The Christian God is unique among world religions. We consider him to be one being containing three persons. The Triune God loves other people while also being non-contingent. God the Father loves God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, God the Son loves God the Father and God the Spirit, and God the Holy Spirit loves God the Father and God the Son. At the very core of the Christian God is a continual interchange of love that has no beginning and no end, existing before time began.

The Trinity and Multidimensional Mathematics

Not long ago I had a discussion with someone about the Trinity. He explained that he couldn’t accept it because no one had explained the Trinity to him in a manner that made sense. Now it is never a good reason to reject something simply because we don’t understand it. In this way we might end up rejecting a great many things that are true on account of our dullness. However, this man’s objection points to one of the Trinity’s greatest difficulties, its explanation.

The problem is really unavoidable. If a supreme, all-powerful God exists, his mode of being will be on a level far beyond our own. Whenever we talk about God we must, in a sense, bring him down to our level. We can only describe him in terms of human language, no matter how inadequate human language is at times. Most often this doesn’t cause any noticeable difficulty. We call God good even if, on reflection, we would be forced to admit that our idea of goodness is only a vague shadow of the Good. Are humans even capable of imagining perfect goodness, completely untainted by evil? The problem is more obvious when we describe God as fully merciful and fully just; two attributes which appear to conflict. Theologians throughout the ages have done excellent work in pointing to the Cross of Christ as the means by which God reconciles the two. A whole other set of problems arise when we attempt to describe God’s Triunity.

The Trinity exposes the distance between our mode of existence and God’s. There is nothing inherently impossible with three co-equal persons existing simultaneous in one being when the life of that being is of a higher order than our own. We, however, have nothing like it in the physical world. Any attempt to express a reality greater than our own in human terms is like being asked to capture the vibrant colors of a sunset with nothing more than a No. 2 pencil and a single sheet of paper. We immediately cry that our instruments are insufficient.

An example of a similar difficulty is found in the task of describing four dimensional objects. Take a tesseract for example. Besides the name for a comic-book stone, it is a four dimensional figure that is related to a cube in the same way that a cube is related to a square. Squares are two-dimensional objects. When extended into another dimension they become cubes. Tesseracts are cubes extended into another dimension. Thus a square is made of four lines, a cube of six squares, and a tesseract of eight cubes. Mathematicians attempting to make models of tesseract must always come up short of the real thing.

Here is one model of a tesseract. It is in some ways hampered by being a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional model of a four-dimensional object. The edges of a real tesseract would be of equal length as would all angles. The eight cubes which make up a tesseract are of equal size, not stretched or shrunk as here.

Theologians attempting to describe the Trinity face the same difficulty as a mathematician attempting to model a tesseract. Human reason cannot give an accurate description of the Trinity without paradox. However, it is a reasonable difficulty. Reason can point to where reason no longer works. Of course this does not prove that the Trinity or a tesseract exist. Rather reason shows that if some condition existed (a supreme God/a fourth-dimension) then such things (the Trinity/a tesseract) could reasonably exist.

Mystical Theology

For many contemporary Christians, the word mystical suggests images of New Age and Eastern religions. However, mysticism and mystic theology have a long association with Christianity. Threads of mysticism can be found at the very beginning of Christianity, which, in late antiquity and the middle ages, blossomed into full-fledged mystical practice. Plenty has been written about mysticism, Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism for example is an excellent and intelligent study of Western mysticism. Work of Christian mystics like Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich are not hard to find and read. Yet for many contemporary Christians mysticism is a tradition that has been lost or is even suspect. For this reason, I thought I would write a little about it.

Mysticism comes from a recognition that reality is greater than what we can humanly comprehend. If you have ever felt that language is inadequate to express what you are thinking or feeling then you have a sense of this. God, most of all, cannot be contained by the words and categories that we use to describe him. This is not to disparage fields like systematic theology. Rather it is a recognition that our descriptions of God are not God Himself; there are ways to know God besides analytical and hyper-intellectual study. Mysticism seeks to draw close to God on a level beyond that of the senses or the intellect.

Perhaps the most mystical writer in the Bible is also the one we tend think of as the most logical, the apostle Paul (Daniel and John are other examples). Paul describes what is clearly a mystical experience in 2 Corinthians 12. Transported bodily or out of body into heaven he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Whether he is forbidden to tell them or they are impossible to put into words is not clear. Mystical language and discussions of mystery crops up in various letters of Paul. Ephesians 3:19 contains his paradoxical prayer that the Ephesians might “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” There is also Paul’s mysterious trip to Arabia, mentioned only in the letter to the Galatians. Scholars have been unsure whether this journey a metaphor for some spiritual experience or a literal time of spiritual retreat in the Arabian desert.

Mysticism is not for everyone. Some people are more disposed to it than others. You may have noticed that the list of mystic writers above are mostly women. There is something in formal theological education which seems to hinder mysticism, education that most woman in the middle ages lacked (woman did have avenues of informal education). There are also traits that are more likely to appear in women than men which might contribute this disparity. So while medieval theologians recognized the value of mysticism, they were often unable to reach the heights of less educated women.

It should be noted that mysticism does have its dangers. However, danger does not imply that something is bad. Driving is dangerous, as is climbing a mountain or falling in love. C.S. Lewis has a great simile about the nature of mysticism in Letters to Malcolm. The mystical approach is like setting out on an ocean voyage. Though the setting out from the port may be the same for everyone, the journey and where we arrive can be vastly different. Mysticism isn’t unique to Christianity, but neither is singing. Orthodox Christian mystics of the past were well away of the dangers and how to guard against them.

I really don’t know if Christian mysticism will return to the prominence it had at various points in the middle ages. It seems like there are far more distractions today that are far more intrusive than once existed. Perhaps there have always been too many distractions. Anyways, I think the return of a mystic element to contemporary Christianity would not be unhealthy.

Reading the Prophetic Books

I think people have a tendency to be mislead by the application of the word “prophetic” to certain books of the Old Testament. The problem is not with the word itself, but with our understanding of prophecy. Prophecy in modern use almost always means prediction or foretelling of future events. Thus a reader of the prophetic books comes to Scripture expecting to be told about things that will happen in the future, whether future to the original audience or for themselves. The prediction of events after our own time is a further narrowing of the meaning of prophecy. This is prophecy in the sense of apocalypse, or the discussion of “last things.” There is certainly prediction and apocalypse in the “prophetic” books of the Old Testament. These books foretell the coming of Christ and describe the eventual destruction of nations. Yet these are not their only subjects. When approach a text, whether Scripture or other, there is always a danger that our expectations will divert our attention from things that we should notice. Coming to the prophetic books with the goal of discovering predictions and identifying their historical fulfillment can distract us from other things that lie in the text.

Before approaching the prophetic books, one must be aware of the historical context in which they were written. The books of 1st and 2nd Kings and 1st and 2nd Chronicles provide this context. Most prophetic books were written before Israel and Judah were conquered by foreign nations. Whenever a prophet named a specific nation as the one to bring God’s punishment to Israel or Judah, he was foretelling. Yet the prediction of destruction of Israel and Judah by a foreign invader hardly needed divine “insider information” Reading the prophetic books in the context of the first five books of the Bible makes this outcome entirely predictable.

Looking back at the law books of the Old Testament (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) we can see that the its rules are presented to the Israelites in the form of a contract. Deuteronomy, especially, take the form of a legal document. It presents Yahweh as the God who rescued the Israelites from Egypt. This God promises to continue to protect and take care of the Israelites. They in turn must agree to obey a certain set of rules for their community, personal behavior, and worship. Should the Israelites obey these rules, God promises to blessed them as no group of people has every been blessed before. Their land will be extremely fruitful, their families large, and their enemies will fear them. Should the Israelites break this agreement, the reverse will happen. God will cause their crops to fail and their enemies will fall upon them and the take them into captivity. Joshua 8 shows the Israelites completing the ratification ceremony that Moses lays out in Deuteronomy 27. In the ceremony they agree to abide by the requirements of the contract, binding both themselves and their descendants to the law.

For this reason, whenever a prophet proclaims destruction and captivity for Israel and Judah because of their sin, they are in effect reminding the Israelites of the stipulations of the contract. “If you continue to disobey Yahweh, he will do exactly what he promised to do.” The call of the prophets is for the Israelites to return to the rules and regulations that their ancestors promised to follow, which is also a call to return to the promised blessings. Prophecy, in this sense, is focused on the past and the present rather than the future.

You might think of the prophets as signposts telling you that the bridge is out. “Keep driving down this road and you will end up in the river.” An even better analogy is that of a parent warning his or her child, “Keep hitting your brother and you will get a time out.” When the punishment comes after many warnings, there is nothing unexpected about it.

This understanding should help us re-orient the picture of God that arises from the prophetic books. Some people see all the warnings of divine wrath in the prophetic books as proof of an angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament. A picture that stands in stark contrast to the loving God of the New Testament. Instead, these warnings demonstrate the incredible patience and mercy of God. God does not desire to punish people. If he did he would send them warning after warning in the form of the prophets. Generally parents don’t enjoy meting out punishment. They can warn and threaten, but at a certain time they must follow through with the promised threat. To hold back is to allow a child to go on hitting his brother. In the prophetic books, God shows himself to be far more patient than any human parent is capable of being and also more faithful to what he has promised.

There are two major themes which occur repeatedly in the words of the prophets. One is Israel’s rejection of God. Time and time again, the prophets call the Israelites back to the exclusive worship of their God Yahweh. Such a call parallels the theme of the first four commandments of the Decalogue. More often than not, the Israelites did not reject God outright. Rather, they supplemented their worship of him with other gods. A farmer who sacrificed to Yahweh would hedge his bets for a good harvest by making offerings to a local fertility deity. Kings would sacrifice to Yahweh and the gods of their enemies before a battle to increase their chances of victory. If having one god on your side was good then having two was better. Thus the prophet Zephaniah writes about “those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom.” Yahweh, as is clear in the law, demands exclusivity. Furthermore, ritual prostitution and child sacrifice were often an integral part of the ways that Israel’s neighbors worshiped their gods. Both were strictly prohibited by Yahweh in his law.

The other theme that runs throughout the prophets is the concern for God’s justice. If the previous theme focuses on the vertical relationship between God and the people, this one focuses on the horizontal relationship between people. This is a theme found in the last six commandments. The prophets are particularly concerned with those who tend to lose out most when injustice flourishes, the poor and marginalized. Indeed the poor and those on the fringes of society are a sort of canary in the coal mine in regards to justice in a culture. Towards the beginning of his book Isaiah proclaims, “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

The law contains instruction for taking care of the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners. Loans were expected to be given without interest to fellow Israelites and all debts were to be release every seven years. For most of Christian history usury has been regarded as a sin by the church. There were always ways around this prohibition, but it was only with the rise of Protestantism that the charging of interest became a non-issue.

Another aspect of the law which was concerned with the needs of the poor was that any Israelite could sell him or herself into slavery. However, the law required that all Israelite slaves must be released after seven years. They weren’t supposed to be let go empty-handed. Their former master was supposed give them an abundance of provisions, presumably so they would not fall back into poverty Foreigners were expected to be treated well, though they did not received the full rights of a native Israelite. However, if they chose to follow Yahweh and, in the case of men, be circumcised, they could receive the full rights of an ethnic Israelite. These and other laws provided layers of safety nets for the poor and marginalized in Israelite society. Whether these were actually followed was, of course, another matter.

The prophets’ warnings about issues of justice reflected the fact that these things were not being practiced. In this way, God’s warnings through the prophets were not just about his own glory, but concern for the well-being of the Israelites themselves. This is ultimately what drives any good parent to punish their children. They want a child who will grow up without feeling that it is okay to hit anyone when they feel like it. On a higher level, parents hope that their children will be driven not simply by the fear of punishment, but by a genuine love for others. Often this full lesson can only be taught by example, not a series of rules. But until a child reaches the maturity needed to love others intrinsically, a system of punishments and rewards is often necessary.