a better word

Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)

Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’.  Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant.  The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.

Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ.  Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:

  • undesirable.  The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”.  God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’.  There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least.  But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
  • unbearable.  The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”.  Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
  • unapproachable.  Animals stoned, sandals removed.  The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are.  It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.

By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.

  • better joy.  The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke.  Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek.  Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
  • better transformation.  The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently.  Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
  • better memory.  The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin.  The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.

In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture.  God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.

It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ.  As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

on corporate worship

Two words: corporate and worship.  A few thoughts on each of those words that have been rattling around in my head.

Worship.  Worship is a thoroughly metaphysical and thus qualitative activity – and it is in between the lines of all that we choose to do.  What’s more, what is sometimes called the ‘rule’ of worship, is that “you become like what you worship”.  Keep on worshipping (or ‘giving ultimate worth to’) money (or any idol) and you will become the sort of person who looks at life through the lens of money.  Replace money with ‘x’ – you get the idea.  Worship is formative.  And the more a worship practice ‘seeps into our bones’, the more ‘a part of us’ it becomes, the more formative it is.  Like driving a car or riding a bicycle, you know a practice is ‘a part of you’ when you no longer have to give it much (if any) conscious thought.  The practice becomes automatic.

When it comes to riding bicycles, driving, making coffee or what have you, we appreciate ‘automatic’ practice as a good thing, that shows we have attained a level of maturity, competency or expertise.  You would want at least a few of the operative actions of a doctor to be a least a bit automatic!  (‘Let’s see, do I use the scissors or scalpel here..?’)  For some reason, however, when it comes to ‘worship’, some of us have been conditioned to see  an ‘automatic’ act of worship as being insincere, heartless, ‘dry’, or not genuine.  We call it ‘just going through the motions’ with no emotion.  I certainly do believe that an otherwise good action can be done poorly, and this includes doing it without sincerity.  But I am wondering if we throw out the baby (i.e. a specific type of practice) with the dirty bathwater (i.e. because it can be or has been done with little or no sincerity).

An example may help here.  Just last Sunday, the sermon was on Psalm 116, and after communion we sang a re-metered version of the Psalm to the tune of Amazing Grace.  The tune is so much ‘a part of us’ that we were able to sing the lyrics – which we had never even seen or read! – with a great deal of both heart and mind.  Because the tune (part of the form of the worship in this case) was ‘automatic’, our hearts and minds were more free to engage with the sentiments being felt and thought as we sung.  This is why when we are learning a new song, a new prayer, or any new form of worship, it is more ‘work’.  Naturally, we cannot join in immediately in a new form of worship that we do not (yet) know.  The more practiced we are, the more automatic the participation becomes, the more free we are to participate in the song, prayer, responsive reading, litany or what have you.

Corporate.  Corporate worship has similarities and differences with private worship.  It is the same God worshipped, and the same Gospel and same Faith that both are an expression of.  However, whilst private worship is primarily a personal, ‘you’-and-God expression of faith, corporate worship is about not just ‘you’ or ‘me’, but first God and second ‘us’.  Individual private worshippers will be able to use whatever words and forms (silence, free prayer, free song, etc.) that are helpful and relevant to them. Corporate worship, however, needs forms (songs, prayers, readings, gestures – even sights and smells!?) that everyone can participate in.  Corporate worship celebrates God, the Gospel, concern for the World, and the identity and mission of the Church in ways that are diverse and creative, but always in a form that the whole gathered congregation can share in.

I wonder if there is a tendency for the same forms that are perhaps most appropriate for all to join in, end up being the forms that are suspected to be the most heartless, insincere and dry?  After all, are we really to believe that every single one of these people singing this song all equally and fully ‘mean it’!!??  It is this concern which sometimes leads song leaders to discourage people from singing ‘if you don’t mean it’.  I’m not wanting to encourage hollow or false worship, but there is a rather obvious question lurking just beneath the surface here.  Do we ever ‘mean it’?  How can we tell, and who gets to say who can participate?  (Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for the exact reason – we must be in a ‘right’ standing.  Who, then, can ever take communion?)

In Christian theology, there is a distinction made between ‘over-realised’ and ‘under-realised’ eschatology.  Eschatology is the study of the ‘last things’ or ‘end’, and it is concerned with Heaven, or the “New Heavens and the New Earth”, and the final “Age to Come”.  Those with an ‘over-realised’ eschatological outlook will tend to be ‘idealistic’ and expect heaven to be ‘realised’ and experienced to a large degree now.  Those with an ‘under-realised’ view will tend to be ‘realistic’ and as a result not expect to see much at all of heaven to be seen in this dark world.  Theologians speak of a healthy ‘now-but-not-yet’ tension between the need to anticipate here and now the love and freedom and life of heaven, even though it will not come until it comes.  This distinction is seen in the topic of physical healing, but also in the question of do we ‘mean it’ when we sing or pray.  We will never ‘mean it’ perfectly, but we should anticipate what it would feel like to ‘mean it’.  We don’t have to ‘mean it’ perfectly to sing it – for who could?  But we also don’t want to slide into a lazy ‘it doesn’t matter if I mean it’ attitude.  Like riding a bike, ‘meaning it’ is a matter of practice.  There will be times where ‘meaning it’ might feel natural and effortless; other times it might feel false and laborious.  This too, is why corporate worship is so important.  Some days, ‘I’ may not ‘mean it’ very well.  At no time will ‘I’ ‘mean it’ perfectly.  Which is why ‘I’ need ‘we’ – ‘us’ – to be a community that seeks to ‘mean it’ together.

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

malleable will

Study, work and life have been keeping me from blogging much, but I had a ‘free will’ thought to scribble down, so here goes.

I just moved my finger back & forth from pointing straight up and straight ahead.  This was caused at one level by the muscles in my fingers.  Why did my muscles do what they did?  Well, at one level, because of another muscle, my brain and the tasks it was performing – namely, thinking about free will and bodily function.  What made me think about this?  Well, lots of things, including things I’ve heard, read, or thought about previously.  Does any of this mean I did not, in a very real sense, freely choose to move my finger?  Of course not.

I’m something of a ‘both/and’ thinker.  This makes me, perhaps predisposed to think of free will as involving a tension between dual realities.  On the one hand, restrictions on our abilities and ‘freedom’ to act result in behaviour that is quite predictable.  I don’t have the freedom (naturally!) to make my finger change length or composition.  On the other hand, I deny that we are slavishly bound to genetic or neurological factors, such that we remain free acting agents, meaningfully responsible for our actions.  No judge worth her salt would be too persuaded to find someone innocent if they explained shooting someone in terms of the neuro-chemical causality behind the movement of their trigger finger.

Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this simple outline.  But to be honest, all of this debate I find rather silly.  (And in my research this year on human nature and sin, I interviewed two non-religious university level neurologists who agreed!)  I’m becoming less interested in exacting philosophical speculation about how to describe (or defend) human ‘free will’.  I’m more and more interested in the transformation of our will.

Whatever state human ‘will’ naturally comes to us, however much our wills are shaped by nurture/culture, it remains simply true that to greater or lesser degrees, we can grow, train and retrain, exercise, shape and reshape, guide, bend, manipulate, coerce, force, coax, form, reform and otherwise transform our wills.  Just as steel can be formed for various purposes, so also our wills are malleable and can be shaped to help us achieve a goal.

Some goals will be unrealistic for human nature – such as to fly, spin webs like spiders or what have you.  But others are not only realistic, but also freeing.  For example, we have all kinds of genetic and cultural pressures constantly and quite ‘naturally’ pushing us toward certain kinds and amounts of uses of substances (food, sex, drink, language, etc.).  But rather than be a slave to these natural inclinations, we can train and retrain our wills and plan in advance how and how much we will use them.

To change the metaphor away from the metallurgical one of hammering steel to the athletic one of swimming in a stream, take a young adult who ‘going with the flow’ of his or her peers who are also ‘going with the flow’ of cultural trends reflected in music videos and a thousand other expressions of the abuse of alcohol.  Hook them up to whatever kind of device it is that measures their choices.  Send them to a party with their mates.  Have someone offer them their favourite beer.  Hooray! You were able to predict their choice by observing this or that neurological activity.  Yay for technology!  Humans are so predictable! But you didn’t need that device to predict their choice at all, did you?   Now take someone who is deliberately and intentionally oriented to stand apart from a culture of binge-drinking.  They will exist in that same situation in a very different way – or indeed, they may likely freely choose to not go.  Indeed, they may not find that particular kind of space as fun.  And you know what?  If we hook them up to the machine, we could just as equally (if not more easily!) predict their choice as well.  The point is not whether or not we can predict their choice, but what choice they will make.  One that takes them toward slavery to alcohol (under the cultural disguise of being ‘free’ from any rules on how much they can drink!); or one that is a participation in a personal trajectory that is being built toward a different kind of freedom (and yes, one which may indeed involve a very different kind of ‘slavery’!).

So again, I’m becoming less and less interested in philosophical noodle-wrestling over what ‘free will’ means.  Rather, I think we all should be interested in what kinds of goals are good for us and others, and what kind of practices and networks help shape us (and our wills) to make progress toward those goals.  It all reminds me of some dusty old quote: “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  A verse that is followed by a breathtaking consideration of just that kind of transformed living: humility, community, service, teaching, leading, care-giving, un-hypocritical love, wise judgment, affectionate love, walking a mile in one another’s shoes, etc.

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.

random choice

Scenario 1: After instructing a person to make a random choice between two options in front of her, a computer detects brain activity in a human subject before she clicks the button to communicate her choice.  The experiment conductor, upon repeats of the same experiment, can predict her choice seconds before she is aware of it.  It is still a choice, for although the choice emerged from brain processes, she was not told which one to choose.

Scenario 2: After asking her son to choose between strawberry or vanilla ice cream, a mother detects a facial expression on her son before he verbalises his choice.  The mother, upon repeated instances of this scenario, can predict his choice before it is communicated.  It is still a choice, for although he has a tendency to choose vanilla, both flavours were on offer.

Scenario 3: Having eternally given to creation (humans in particular) the freedom to move toward good and order or evil and chaos, the omniscient Creator has full knowledge of the direction taken before, after and during the moment (from their perspective) it is made.  The Creator, in all places and times, can predict the direction taken.  It is still a free initiative, for although the result was known, both were live options.

beings that have – or havers that are had

(The excellent documentary that got my brain going down this – excellent or not so excellent – train of thought is ‘Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast‘) ((And no, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t notice the parallel language to John the Seer in chapters 17-18 of his Apocalypse!))

Erich Fromm is known in large part for his contrast between the ‘being’ and ‘having’ modes of existence, as expressed in his 1976 book (partial preview here), To Have or To Be?  The basic idea is that humans, having estranged ourselves from our environment or the other(s), try to restore this relationship either by way of some kind of dominating possession (‘having’) of the other, or by way of relating to or existing (‘being’) with the other.

The speculative thought I wanted to explore via blogging (one of blogging’s best uses) is thus: Only ‘beings’ can actually ‘have’; and ‘havers’ are actually ‘had’ by the things they think they ‘have’.

The haver is defined by the act of possession of the other, and is thus enslaved to his desire to have this other.  The being, however, is defined by, not possession, but relationship to other (and self), and is thus free of needing to have the other.

It is worth pausing and considering the many things we can desire to possess – the many things which can thus begin to possess us.  Status.  Wealth.  Comfort.  Knowledge.  Satisfaction.  Power.  Relationships.  Affection.  I reckon all of these things are good things which are nonetheless distorted when we seek to found our being upon having them.  i.e. “I am one who has knowledge, friends, wealth, etc.”

I believe the ultimate Being is the Creator, whose ontological (Gk. ontos = being/existence) status is wholly distinct from, and transcendent of, our world.  The Creator did not need to have a creation ((which would make the Creator contingent upon the creation!!)), but rather simply is a creative Being, and thus a) relates to creation as being the Creator, and b) therefore truly has it.

Thus, we most reflect this ultimate Being when our being is grounded by relationship to the other, rather than established by possession of the other.

had to be chance?

chance & necessity | random & planned | chaos & order | freedom & determinism

The phrase ‘by chance’ refers to an event/result happening without compulsion or determination – we say the situation/result ‘did not have to be that way’.

The phrase ‘of necessity’ refers to an event/result happening according to compulsion or law – we say the situation/result ‘had to be that way’.

So.  The universe or ‘the world’ or ‘things’ or ‘stuff’… Chance or necessity?

Interestingly, both answers can be used to argue for some form of theism. Continue reading “had to be chance?”

humane sex

Conversations about sexual ethics often are had without reference to assumed/unstated/unconsidered ideas about:

  • (in particular) goals for human(e) sexual acts – ‘what is the telos (end, goal, purpose) of human sexuality?’ (i.e. ‘what is sex for?’)
  • and (in general) the relationship between sexual acts and being a human – ‘what is the relationship between sexual actions and human identity?’ (i.e. ‘how dependent is human identity on sexual actions?’) Continue reading “humane sex”