Thursday, December 5, 2013

Christmas In Utero

“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Luke 1:41-42

Jesus Christ, in utero, is, without question, the most popular fetus in the history of the world. Even the recent “royal baby”, for all of the attention granted him while he was still growing and forming in his mother’s womb, can hardly be mentioned in the same sentence. True, while still forming he was the subject of a fair number of front page stories and endless speculation, one can hardly expect Prince George’s birth to ever be celebrated as an international holiday. It would take some strange sort of madness to think that any nativity scenes will ever be replaced with ceramic figures of a Prince and Princess, giving birth in a modern hospital, surrounded, not by Magi or Shepherds, but by doctors, nurses, pain medication, and, of course, the flash bulbs of the media.

Jesus is hardly in danger of being overshadowed by any modern birth, for He was born. And perhaps one of the reasons for this is that we no longer see birth as we used to, but for isolated moments when it is a birth that extends some famous or royal bloodline.

Christmas is undoubtedly a season that is a celebration of childbirth—and as such, it is a time that really ought to make out society a bit more anxious. It is remarkable just how capably we can come together as a nation, erecting trees in our living rooms, hanging lights and gaudy, colorful ornaments upon every visible limb, without any semblance of recognizing the irony of a nation with no reverence for children, suddenly coming together to revere a child who spends much of His own story as a fetus.

Christmas is undoubtedly a celebration, not just of the birth of a child, but the anticipation, from the very moment of conception, of a child. It is not hard to believe that, if the miracle of the incarnation was to be repeated today, God would have to be exceedingly careful in deciding whom to bestow with the gift—should he choose another unmarried teenage girl, there is a very good chance that the child will never be allowed to come to term, as even an angelic announcement can be swept aside as a trick of the imagination or a schizophrenia-induced vision.

Do our modern sensibilities cringe when Elizabeth speaks of Mary’s fetus as if it was something more than a lump of tissue? If they do not, they certainly ought to. Do we think it strange that Elizabeth should call Mary “Blessed among women” when really she is just an unwed teenager who never really chose to become pregnant? We really should.

To those unable to fathom why anyone should ascribe any human value to a child in that murky area between conception and birth, it really would be best to simply ignore the story prior to Luke 2:6 and pretend it doesn’t exist. Forget the announcement of John the Baptist, who was destined to prepare the way of the Lord—until he is actually born, it is all just speculation anyway. Forget the angel coming to Mary and Joseph. Certainly forget the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, where the author (who had the audacity to consider himself a medical doctor) makes far too much over a couple of fetuses.

Until that very moment that the child is actually laid in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a bed of straw, there is no Christmas story—there is only the potential for a Christmas story. Nothing is real until then—the moment the story begins in earnest.

If it happened today, we might consider the fact that Jesus even survived long enough to be born one of his greatest miracles.   

And as the story progresses and the first couple years pass, the further Jesus gets from the womb the more valuable His life becomes. When Herod, in an attempt to destroy Jesus, orders the murder of every toddler in Bethlehem, it is recognized with universal scorn and contempt. It is called “The Massacre of the Innocents”, even by those who would take great offense to the same term being used to describe the present plight of the unborn.

The Christmas story is about new life, but this should only be a source of true joy to those for whom new life really is cherished. Christmas is a delight to those of us who recognize that Christ truly came into this world, not on the first Christmas morning, but 9 months earlier, where already He was recognizable, even by other infants.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christmas Unexpected

“Behold," said God through the prophet Malachi—the very last words He would give to an Old Testament prophet, "I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”  
Before the Christ would come to rescue Israel, God promised to send Elijah, perhaps the greatest of the Old Testament Prophets. His coming would herald the coming of the Lord, preparing the hearts and minds of Israel for their salvation.

The people of Israel must have anticipated something truly spectacular. Elijah’s first appearance, after all, was sufficiently dramatic. Israel was under the rule of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, a remarkably maleficent pair, who had turned Israel away from God and turned the Priests of God into priests of Ba’al. The story begins with Elijah calling upon God to cause a drought in Israel, and culminates in his calling down fire from the heavens to consume the enemies of God, restoring the power of God to Israel. How much greater, then, would be his second coming?

Surely Elijah would come in even greater power this time! He would perform miracles, perhaps even drive the Romans out of Israel as he had once driven out the prophets of Ba’al, and then Christ, the Messiah, would follow and take up His throne to rule over all of Israel and raise up the nation over all the kings of the earth.

It could never have worked this way. These expectations (as all expectations) spoke far more about the selfish desires of Israel than the truth of God’s plan for salvation. One ought to be very careful about their expectations of God, for He is bound to defy them.  

One can only guess at what Zechariah, as a priest of Israel, might have believed about all of this. Perhaps the fact that he was chosen of God says something about his character, or perhaps God was simply out to do something remarkable. But of this we can be sure: While alone in the holy place of the temple, an angel appeared to Zechariah and promised him a son: "He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." Zechariah could not have misunderstood. He certainly would have known that the angel was echoing the last words of Malachi. Israel may have been hard-hearted, but this promise could not have been clearer: the sign Israel had been waiting for had come at last! Elijah was on his way, and he would be born, remarkably, into the priesthood. 

Surely he understood this! And Mary, as well, seemed to understand her own role, as she boldly conveyed in her Magnificat the glorious things that her son was destined to do.  
Still, despite this understanding, they could not have truly understood. They knew it would be great; they knew that their children were destined to powerful things, that they were the fulfillment of centuries of promise. Mary was certainly even prepared to bow to her own son, to worship Him as Lord, but even she could not have predicted just how it was all to play out—for God continued to defy expectations at every turn (only in hindsight could it be seen that it had, in fact, all happened just as the prophets had declared).   
God is never above throwing his prognosticators for a loop.  
God seems to revel in irony, but the source of the irony is always our own failure to understand. When God defies our expectations, it only shows that our expectations were at fault, never God. It may seem strange to us that, though much of Jesus' future ministry would be spent demonstrating the abuses of the priesthood and the apathy into which Israel had fallen; the Christmas story begins with an announcement given to a priest, within the temple's holy places. But God was merely using the priesthood that He Himself had established in order to prepare the way for a far greater priesthood! And it seems counterintuitive that the promise should be given to Zechariah—old and childless, whose wife was equally old and barren. But what else could have been expected of the God who brought Israel about in the first place through an identical promise to Abraham? What else from the God who had never ceased demonstrating his power over the womb? Miraculous conceptions are one of God's great reoccurring miracles: It happened with Sarah, with Hannah, with Elizabeth, and, of course, with Mary it would take its greatest form. It is a miracle that has not ceased today.  
At Christmas, the assumptions of men were proven wrong at every turn: John would be the firstborn son of a priest of Israel, but he would not be a priest himself. He would eschew the glories of the priesthood for the infamy of life as an itinerant preacher, his priestly robes and food replaced with clothes of animal skins and meals of locusts and wild honey. Though Zechariah may have truly desired a son to whom he could pass down his own priestly duties, this was never part of God's plan. When God opens a womb, it is rarely for the benefit of the parents. Isaac was not born for the sake of Abraham, but for the sake of the promise (as Abraham was made to realize painfully on Mt. Moriah); Samuel was not born merely so that Hannah could have a son, but to be a servant of God and the beginning of a prophetic tradition; John was not just a gift for Zechariah and Elizabeth, but a gift for all of Israel; and Christ was not just a blessing for Mary and Joseph (for, under the circumstances, it really is hard to see it as a blessing in the traditional sense), but a blessing for the world and for all of eternity.   
The ironies continue: The circumstances of Christ’s birth could not have been more humble; and yet, after coming into this world in a stable, surrounded by livestock, and living his first three decades in anonymity, who could have guessed that he would one day have to flee from the crowds who wanted desperately to make him King over Israel? Surely no one could have understood why Herod should have been so afraid of a baby born in poverty and conceived, so it appeared, in adultery, but Herod was not wrong to feel threatened. The child was, indeed, an enemy, but an enemy that could not be defeated by the sword. 
In the Christmas story, the great and beautiful contrasts of the Gospel are first glimpsed in all of their beauty, and they would continue throughout the life and ministry of Christ. As James Stewart wonderfully describes in his book, "The Strong Name":  
He was the meekest and lowliest of all the sons of men, yet He spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God. He was so austere that evil spirits and demons cried out in terror at His coming, yet He was so genial and winsome and approachable that the children loved to play with Him, and the little ones nestled in His arms. His presence at the innocent gaiety of a village wedding was like the presence of sunshine. No one was half so compassionate to sinners, yet no one ever spoke such red hot scorching words about sin. A bruised reed He would not break, His whole life was love, yet on one occasion He demanded of the Pharisees how they ever expected to escape the damnation of hell. He was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, yet for sheer stark realism He has all of our stark realists soundly beaten. He was a servant of all, washing the disciples’ feet, yet masterfully He strode into the temple, and the hucksters and money changers fell over one another to get away from the mad rush and the fire they saw blazing in His eyes. He saved others, yet at the last Himself He did not save. There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts which confronts us in the gospels. The mystery of Jesus is the mystery of divine personality. 
These contrasts should be seen, not as frightening, but as beautiful. Contrast and irony are not the same as contradictions; they show us only that God has always understood better than we. They convey a breadth and scope to the story that are surely missing from every other so-called god or object of worship; they demonstrate a God who truly understands men; they demonstrate a Messiah who was destined to live and die as all men for all men. They are contrasts and ironies which continue to captivate and continue to be celebrated, drawing us each year back to first century Judea as the story is told, again and again and remembered fondly, even by those who don’t believe a word of it, which is, perhaps, the greatest irony of all.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Godless Congregants

Should I ever have the misfortune of becoming an atheist (you'll have to indulge me in a quick hypothetical flight-of-fancy), the first thing I should want to do is reclaim my Sunday mornings. I would want to sleep as long as possible and perhaps indulge in a weekly half-dozen donuts or some French Toast. If I decided that it would be a good day to spend with friends, I would want to wait, at the very least, until the afternoon. Second, even as an atheist I should want to immediately acknowledge that the Jews and Christians have gotten at least one thing right, and that is the beautiful idea of the Sabbath. Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, so also the God of Israel, fabricated pseudo-deity that He is, somehow got one thing right. Why would anyone argue with a religion that is dogmatic about the fact that its adherents ought to get some rest?

I have been left utterly dumbfounded, therefore, as I have read (or skimmed) story after story about the sudden, unexpected rise in "Godless Mega-Churches" across the United States. At the very least, it is an admirable piece of publicity. Whenever a number of almost identical “news” stories about anything that is not really news begin appearing across the journalistic spectrum, one must really assume that it really has more to do with a sudden influx of capital into a marketing department than anything truly alarming. Further, I happen to know, from those who have had the misfortune to attend, that these sorts of congregations have been around for years, and though they may have grown, they remain just as inexplicably self-defeating as ever.

It’s not a particularly big deal, of course. It is not as if Christians ought to feel in any way intimidated by the fact that the godless have chosen to imitate them. Flattered, maybe, but confused, certainly. That a person should want to waste a perfectly good Sunday morning in celebrating something as incorporeal as a lack of belief is almost impossible for me to believe; as strange as if an historian suddenly began devoting a day each week to acknowledge that they refuse to believe in the War of 1812. I suppose it shouldn’t matter much to me that they refuse to believe in the event, but it is undeniably strange (and a bit sad) that they should feel like it is worth wasting a perfectly good weekend in celebrating.

But there is precedent for all of this. There was a strange tendency after the French Revolution, a time in which secularism seemed to have taken a foothold among the French (though only after the brutal murder of hundreds of priests and bishops—an achievement which ought to haunt the skeptic much in the same way the crusades haunt the Christian), to sell churches at public auction and to turn churches into “halls of reason”. Suffice it to say the effort was brief and destined for failure, though that didn’t stop it from being copied, first in Communist Russia and now, of course, in America.

Yes, these ill-fated “cults of reason”, after dying quickly in France (after their absurdity was realized), have been revived in America (and, according to many of the articles, in a number of other “progressive” nations), where it seems our godless communities are forever slow to learn the lessons of history.

I see only two possible explanations for the current influx of anti-god churches (and I suspect that the truth involves a combination of the two): First, I think that, in part, it is all intended as a parody, though as parodies are generally supposed to be funny, one can only assume that this particular parody has been either poorly considered or poorly executed (or both). As far as I know, having (thankfully) not exposed myself directly to these cults, there is nothing particularly funny about these services. Second, and far more important, I would suspect that there is a very genuine desire, even among the godless, to experience the beautiful things that have always been found perfectly naturally within Christianity, but which are only rarely tasted by those on the outside. It is about time, quite frankly, that the skeptic  should come around to understand this.

Christ told His disciples that they would be known for their love for one another, and this remains true today. The love of God, shared between believers, continues to be the defining feature of true Christianity, and it is often demonstrated in our Sunday gatherings. Indeed, this love has long been one of the forces most capable of drawing the wandering masses to the church. It was only a matter of time before someone outside the church considered that they might be able to fabricate this love by imitating the communion of the saints, even if it means leaving out both communion and saintliness.

I can only assume that these services have perfectly mastered some of the superficialities of the church—they surely have talented musicians leading the masses in hymns devoted to nothingness; they likely have inspiring “sermons” by talented motivational speakers. But I can only imagine that attending these services must be something like spending an evening at a movie theater, with arms full of candy and soda, only to find that someone has forgotten the film. I hardly envy someone being forced to stare at a blank screen.

It really should be the most obvious statement in the world, but God is the only thing that makes a church service worthwhile; without Him, there really can be no church. One may go for community, but it is only a belief in God that allow for a true community; it is only the example of His love that allows true love between brothers and sisters. To be perfectly honest, if it was not for the very presence of God, it would take a team of oxen to drag me to church. And yet, it is one of God’s great modern miracles that I do not merely go to church; I go joyfully, because He is there.

To make this phenomenon even stranger, it has been said that these new congregations have been known to draw, not just the purely godless, but also those who fall into the "spiritual but not religious" camp. But this is to be expected, for one can hardly imagine a sadder or more misguided camp than this, and while the Christian ought generally desire to see the Christian church filled with all types of people, these included, I have always found it difficult to understand or explain those who have lost all sense of truth and fallen into the deep, dark pit of “spirituality”; those who reject the objective, of whom God said, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth”.

Now, being aware of all this—that the Christian church is only worthwhile because of the presence of God, and that it only stands because it is built upon an objective truth—it is difficult to feel any fear or intimidation about these congregations. One can hardly compare a momentary, bitter, flash-in-the-pan imitation movement to the one, true, consistent Church that has been growing and thriving for 2,000 years, showing no signs of stopping. No matter how much momentary media attention they may garner now, the fad of secular churches and godless congregations is destined to destruction, for one cannot conceivably unite over a belief in nothing. Just as schoolboys may find momentary pleasure in forming clubs, uniting over the giddy simplicity of themes such as, "No Girls Allowed", it is inevitable that they will discover, later, that girls may not be so bad after all, so also will godless churches inevitably collapse under the realization that they were founded under a premise that could never carry any weight. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Expectation and Uncertainty

My wife is now eight months pregnant. Our first child is set to be born within a week of Christmas Day. One could certainly say that our state right now is one of eager expectation, and I would like to believe that this anticipation—which is what one must call that emotion that seems to turn hours into days and days into months as that blessed day grows slowly nearer—allows me to at least somewhat understand the expectation of Mary (or, more accurately, Joseph) as that first Christmas morning approached and the child grew steadily in that young womb.  
But expectation is not always joyful; often expectation is more clearly defined by uncertainty. 
In the case of Mary's cousin Elizabeth, whose own child was born perhaps just months earlier, the expectation was surely different. Mary was young and had not yet begun thinking of children; Elizabeth was old and barren, and all hope was seemingly lost. Elizabeth's life, like Mary’s and my own, was turned upside-down by a miracle—the miracle of conception, which, make no mistake, is as much a miracle if performed by human means as by the Holy Spirit. It is a miracle doubtless performed for good, but one that often leads to some disquiet, for human hearts are rarely prepared for the miraculous.  
Just as I have lately experienced a deep, often overwhelming, uncertainty over the changes to come in my life, so, certainly, did Elizabeth, who must have wondered if, at her age, it was even safe to carry a child. Mary, whose blessing was surely accompanied by an uncertainty the likes of which I can't begin to imagine, must have felt honored to have been chosen, but quite offended at what God had done to her. Her village must have shunned her; she was almost certainly treated as a harlot despite her alleged purity, even as God, the very embodiment of righteousness, grew within her. Both of these expectant births had been announced angelically (the announcement of my own child’s conception, sadly, came through more traditional means), though how much comfort this truly allowed is difficult to know. It is hard to believe that either expectant mother was truly at peace about her situation.   
Israel, meanwhile, was also expectant. She was awaiting her Messiah. Generations had come and gone since the promise was first made, just as generations came and went between God's promise to Abraham and the taking of the Promised Land, and yet, Peter could honestly write that "God is not slow in keeping His promises, as some count slowness...”. But what was supposed to be an age of anticipation had almost certainly turned into an age of apathy. Whether or not they truly believed in the coming Messiah—He who was to save Israel (though in a completely different sense than they understood)—there was little real hope left. Gone were the Assyrians and the Babylonians, in their place were the Romans. Year after year, decade after decade passed, and, while pockets of resistance still existed here and there, Stockholm Syndrome had surely taken effect and the situation was accepted. Maybe God would send his Messiah to save them... but who had the time to wait? Life went on. 
If only all of Israel was of the same mind as old Simeon, who “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’” 
We look at the days leading up to the first Christmas and we can almost imagine the tangibility of the anticipation. The time was ripe; the stars were, quite literally, aligned. Even King Herod—not even a real Jew—seemed to understand as much. And yet, apart from those few firm fixtures of faith like Simeon and Anna the Prophetess, the Jews were caught unprepared for the coming of Christ; but in this they are not uniquely guilty. They never have been. The sins of the Jews have always been the sins of all men.  
Today ought to be an age just as rich in anticipation as that of Judea in the years before Christ; and yet no sooner, it seems, did Christ promise His Kingdom than we began to lose sight of it.  
Today we continue, like an expectant mother and father, to experience both expectation and uncertainty. We are asked to wait in faith (though, it is worth remembering, God has never disappointed after asking others to wait in faith). We cannot read the mind of God, and His true heart has never been revealed to us. We cannot say for certain just how He will bring about His kingdom or what it will look like, just as the expectant parents simply cannot say how the coming of their child will change their lives. We know, in fact, that bringing about God’s Kingdom will be painful, for, as Paul wrote: “All of creation is groaning, as in the pains of childbirth.” But just as the pain of childbirth ends in the welcoming, at last, of a child, so to may we be sure that God will one day welcome us to His Kingdom. 
God is not slow in keeping His promises. 
In the weeks and days leading up to Christmas each year the anticipation of Christ’s birth is felt anew; it is felt, in fact, by those who don’t even believe in it, for it has conquered the world. The birth of Christ remains almost universally meaningful, even if, to many, it only means the selfish anticipation of gifts or the enjoyment of traditions. But as much as we ought to recall the anticipation of the coming of Christ, we also must understand that the age of anticipation is present rather than past, for just as those in Judea were anticipating the coming of the Messiah (and God, in time, fulfilled His promise), so we, in the 21st century, are told to anticipate the coming of His Kingdom. The coming of Christ did not mark the end of anticipation, but the beginning, and this anticipation ought to be renewed again and again as we enter into the season of advent.  
At Christmas it is important to remember that we are not merely asked to remember something that is past—we are called to anticipate something that is yet to come! We are asked to expect, and to participate, in something that is even now being slowly revealed, unraveled through the history of the church as a scroll. 
As I anticipate the birth of my own child next month, I pray that I can begin to understand more fully what it means to live, not just in expectation, but in eager expectation. We do not merely wait for the Kingdom—we long for it, as parched wanderers in the desert long for water. And we do so actively, not passively. It is no sin to feel uncertain about God’s promises—it is a human thing. And yet, we wait for it in eagerness.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Søren Kierkegaard: The Philosopher's Theologian

“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what then would life be but despair? If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond uniting mankind, if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of birds in the woods, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked hungrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches – how empty and devoid of comfort would life be!”
Søren Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling”

When one thinks of church reformation, one is likely to think of Germany in the 16th century. When thinking of reformers, one thinks, naturally, of Martin Luther, dramatically nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. There have been other reformations, of course, but these are certainly the most famous, and the one whose reverberations are still most broadly felt today. Certainly, when considering church reformation, one is hardly likely to think of the Danish church of the 19th century, and one certainly is not likely to consider Søren Kierkegaard among the great reformers.

He is rarely counted among the theologians, and only rarely would he be counted among those whose lives have made a real impact upon the spiritual health of the world.

“Of all of God’s spies,” opines Malcolm Muggeridge, “Kierkegaard is surely one of the weirdest. Interminably wandering about the streets of Copenhagen, one trouser leg shorter than the other, he had the people in the cafes nudging one another and exchanging significant nods and winks as he passed by.”

Born in 1813, Kierkegaard seems to have gotten some of his stranger qualities from his father, who, as one biographer writes was a “melancholy, eccentric and increasingly reclusive father, who lavished attention – if not affection – on his youngest, cleverest son... By the time Søren was seven years old, his father was teaching him logic by engaging him in conversation and then subjecting his responses to rigorous, critical analysis... Reflecting on his upbringing towards the end of his life, Kierkegaard writes that his father’s fault ‘consisted not in a lack of love but in mistaking a child for an old man.’”

Kierkegaard began by studying theology at the University of Copenhagen, hoping to become a Lutheran minister, but eventually abandoned his theological studies in favor of philosophy, for which he had a natural gifting, though he grew frustrated when philosophy grew too academic—he considered that the pursuit of philosophy ought to be no mere intellectual pursuit; it ought to teach one how to live life.

Though raised in the church, and taught to revere Christianity from an early age, Kierkegaard experienced some sort of religious breakthrough in 1838 (at the age of 25), just before the death of his father. Soon after, he met his life’s love, Regine Olsen, though after the two were engaged, he decided to break off the engagement (“perhaps,” writes his biographer, “because he thought it was incompatible with his spiritual aspirations, perhaps because he feared emotional and sexual intimacy, perhaps because he was too depressive to be a good husband.”)

Much of Kierkegaard’s writing was shaped, at least in some sense, by these events. He had experienced lost love and he had decided that faith was a thing that he ought to take seriously.

As an adult, Kierkegaard seemed to greatly enjoy time spent alone—he would have considered himself a recluse—and hardly cared what others thought of him. His voice, which was a great, booming voice, speaking endlessly on the condition of the human heart when taking the form of words on paper, could not be heard from behind a pulpit, nor from a street corner or upon a stage. He was no preacher—he was a writer. His influence has survived because it came through his words. Countless words. Journal entries that cover decades; newspaper clippings; articles; papers, and, of course, books.

For better or for worse, this is surely why I have found myself relating so easily to Kierkegaard—he was never more at home than when putting pen to paper, his words and ideas flowed easily enough when they could be uttered at his own pace. He was a private, aloof figure, willing to comment on society but rarely willing to engage it. He was more than willing to speak his mind on paper, but he would hardly have been willing to speak of his ideas publically. He hardly would have found any ability as a preacher or as a professor. So he wrote and he published and, through the written word, he offered both enlightenment and inspiration to his readers, many of whom surely knew nothing at all of his personal eccentricities.

Today, Kierkegaard is remembered, first and foremost, as a philosopher—one of the founding fathers of Existentialism. He wrote endlessly on philosophical matters, commenting on modern philosophy using classical philosophy, reinventing philosophical ideas to make them applicable to how one truly lives life... he wrote and wrote. He wrote himself, quite literally, to death at the age of forty-two, having produced, not merely more words than most of us will ever find time to read, but words of a higher quality than ought to be expected from anyone so prolific.

Having by no means exaggerated the scope of Kierkegaard’s outpouring, it goes without saying that I should hardly begin to scratch the surface on his philosophy here. He was a thinker, I think it is generally well-accepted, of unique depth of insight. His philosophy is seen as valuable (in some sense or another) even from the perspective of a secular student of philosophy. At the very least, he remains a figure in the philosophical tradition that cannot simply be ignored. Either/Or is considered one of the great philosophical works, as is his Philosophical Fragments.

But here I only mention his more purely philosophical works in passing, as my own appreciation for Kierkegaard came not directly through his philosophy (though I have found it interesting, as far as philosophy goes), but through his so-called “Edifying” works. That is, the vast body of work that is intended to be read by Christians, so building them up in the body of Christ. Even here, though, Kierkegaard does not exactly make things very easy on his reader (“The task has to be made difficult,” Kierkegaard said, “for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted”). His writing can be dense and monotonous, filled with repetition of the most important ideas.

Among 19th century Christian writing, I consider almost no work greater than Kierkegaard’s 1847 masterpiece, Works of Love. While even here Kierkegaard does not make for the easiest reading, it is nevertheless easy to be inspired by the boldness with which he denounces a human conception of love while declaring, again and again, the eternal truth of love—that is, love from the perspective of God rather than the perspective of man; a love that he beautifully describes in his opening prayer:

“How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgotten, O God of Love, source of all love in heaven and on earth, You who spared nothing but gave all in love, You who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in You! How could love properly be discussed if You were forgotten, You who made manifest what love is, You, our Saviour and Redeemer, who gave Yourself to save all! How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgotten, O spirit of Love, You who take nothing for Your own but remind us of that sacrifice of love, remind the believer to love as he is loved, and his neighbor as himself! O Eternal Love, You who are everywhere present and never without witness wherever You are called upon, be not without witness in what is said here about love or about the works of love. There are only a few acts which human language specifically and narrowly calls works of love, but heaven is such that no act can be pleasing there unless it is an act of love—sincere in self-renunciation, impelled by love itself, and for this very reason claiming no compensation.”

Kierkegaard’s religious philosophy divided the spiritual life into three stages: First there is the aesthetic, which is the stage to which all men are in some sense inclined. This is the stage of sensuality and pleasure; it is the stage dominated by pure reason, where one is driven by stimuli, propelled toward desires and driven by greed, hunger and lust. One may, in whole or in part, move out of this stage and into the next: The ethical. This is the stage dominated, in part, by a common grace, where man recognizes that he ought to be doing good; where he does good works and strives to be a better person. It is also, in a sense, the realm of the Pharisees, where doing good is considered interchangeable with Godliness and one may actively work his way to greatness. It is in the ethical stage that all human conceptions of love reside.

The church, as well, is often mired in the ethical stage of spiritual life. This is the disease Kierkegaard saw eating away at the Danish church. He saw that the church (which was, ironically, the Lutheran Church—one wonders how Luther might have reacted when he discovered that his own namesake denomination would require its own reformation so very soon) had become, essentially, a replacement for God. At the very least, the church acted as a mediating presence between man and God. Denmark was a Christian nation, not because the Danish people believed in God, but because everyone born there was born, in a sense, into the church. They attended regularly, they tithed, they did all of those things that were required of them... and Kierkegaard understood that they had fallen into the same fateful trap that had stifled real Christianity for so long.  

Thus, the heart of Kierkegaard’s philosophy—a message that cannot help but continue to resonate, as this progression is a struggle for us all—is that every Christian, individually (for reformation of the individual must precede reformation of the church), must make the “leap” from the ethical stage to the religious stage. Of course, he did not mean “religious” in the same sense that it is used today (for we see religion, generally, as a negative word for an organization); he did not mean it the same was as Christ did, who spoke openly against the dangers of religion. He meant it as a sort of word transcendence. By passing from the ethical stage into the religious stage one is turning his gaze to God, rather than man.

Kierkegaard’s most famous example of this great leap to the religious stage is, of course, in the person of Abraham, who is the focus of Kierkegaard’s most famous work, Fear and Trembling. “My hearer!” Kierkegaard writes of the terrible thing God required of Abraham—that he sacrifice his own son: “Many a father has felt the loss of his child as the loss of the dearest thing he has in the world, to be bereft of every hope for the future; yet no son was the child of promise in the sense that Isaac was for Abraham. Many a father has lost his child, but then it was God, the unchangeable and inscrutable will of the Almighty, it was his hand that took it. Not so with Abraham. For him a harder trial was reserved; along with the knife the fate of Isaac was put into Abraham’s own hand.”

From an ethical standpoint, what was Abraham to do? That is simple enough. He was to refuse. By every human standard of morality and decency, he ought to have cursed God for his demand. To murder a child? That is not morally questionable, it is morally repugnant! By every conceivable human standard, Christopher Hitchens is right when he damns the Bible for, “honoring Abraham’s willingness to make a human sacrifice of his son... There is no softening the plain meaning of this frightful story.”

But Abraham did not refuse. He made the journey to Mt. Moriah. He raised the knife over his son and intended to kill him. Was this, then, an immoral act? It certainly was, by every human standard. But, Kierkegaard argues, it was a religious act. It was an act that cared more about the relationship with God than with the relationship with man. What was required of Abraham was something Kierkegaard called a teleological suspension of the moral. “It is not to save a nation, not to uphold the idea of the State, that Abraham did it, not to appease angry gods. If there was any question of the deity’s being angry, it could only have been Abraham he was angry with, and Abraham’s whole action stands in no relation to the universal, it is a purely private undertaking... Then why does Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof...”

The heart of Christian living involves this leap from the ethical to the religious, and it is on the tension between these two stages that he bases much of his work.

Kierkegaard continues to speak to me, continues to inspire me, not merely because he raises interesting philosophical questions (which he does)—for there are plenty of philosophers out there asking plenty of interesting questions. Nor is it merely that he writes with occasional eloquence about God—there are plenty of preachers and theologians who do that. No, there is something intangible in Kierkegaard that inspires me; something about how his ideas and his beliefs and his priorities come together and form a complete whole. It is the fact that the ideas that he presents are absolutely fundamental; they speak to almost every question a Christian could have, and they absolutely demand a response. And it is also, I suppose, that he presents enormous, weighty truths and offers extraordinarily difficult challenges, and he does so with absolute boldness, unwavering in his assertion that one must give all of themselves in order to follow God. The demands he makes of his readers, especially in works like Purity of the Heart is to Will One Thing, is not unlike the demand Christ made of the Rich Young Ruler: Go, sell everything and give to the poor. The demands are bold, but nothing is impossible with God.

I truly cannot conceive of anyone reading and understanding Works of Love and not being immediately driven to love both God and others better; I cannot conceive of anyone reading Purity of the Heart is to Will One Thing and not immediately going away and trying to root out their own double-mindedness. The entire religious edifice around Kierkegaard had become a mediator between man and God, severing the God/man relationship, and Kierkegaard devoted his entire life—to the very day of his death—to seeing to it that the relationship was mended.

That devotion is something awesome. It is something inspiring. It is enough, certainly, to make one overlook a little oddness.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

C.S. Lewis – The Priestly Professor

Any decent autobiography only begins with the story of the author’s life. Sure, there are plenty of autobiographies that tell a decent story, but only in the same way that Kipling or Stephenson can tell a decent story. If an autobiography is going to be worth anything, it really has got to say something.

There are many moment in C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that have stuck with me since the first time I read it—moments where, in the midst of a life’s story, something was being said, and that something represented a truth far beyond the truth or falsehood of the events surrounding them.

At some point, Lewis, remembering (though not particularly fondly) the many years at school during which he would have considered himself a sound and stalwart humanist—I time spent desperately seeking to avoid falling back into the bottomless pit of belief—observed that, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” Later, much along the same lines, he reminds his reader that: “Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”

Now, Lewis should understand the feelings of atheism significantly better than I, for he experienced it, in all of inglory, from within, while the entire scope of my knowledge comes from reading and observation. From without. I would not dare complain, of course. While a Christian may, in fact, experience some tangible benefit from having experienced part of his life as an atheist, he will also have given up a perfectly good portion of time to endlessly futile pursuits. In the same way, I think there is certainly an argument to be made for a few years in prison as a character-building opportunity, but that doesn’t change the fact that going there is generally a waste of one’s time.

So I do not plan on embarking into an adventure in atheism any time soon (I am much too far gone for that), though I am grateful for a man like Lewis, who ‘took the bullet’, as it is said. He wasted years of his life so that I wouldn’t have to (comparisons to Christ here may be warranted, but I can’t help but feel that Lewis would disapprove, so I hold my tongue). He writes of time as an atheist like a spy reporting from behind enemy lines (though, in his case, an unknowing spy).

I wrote previously of Malcolm Muggeridge and G.K. Chesterton, each of whom experienced their own conversions somewhat later in life, though with Lewis it is different: He did not, as did Muggeridge and Chesterton, travel the short distance between uncertainty (or agnosticism) and belief. Experiencing a very nominal form of Christianity as a young man, which he quickly abandoned after heading out on his own, he was forced to travel the almost unimaginable difference between one firm, staunch, impenetrable belief (it would be a pity to call atheism a “lack of belief”) and another. The two might as well have stood on opposite sides of the universe. He is not the only Christian to have traversed this gulf, of course, though he is perhaps the one to have described it most beautifully (apart, one may certainly argue, from the Apostle Paul).

When Lewis writes that “a young atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully,” it means something entirely different than if I were to write the same thing, for with Lewis the truth was borne out by experience. And yet, I very much might write something similar, for the truth is one that can, indeed, observed: I have seen countless atheist individuals stumble over themselves to avoid being exposed to Christian ideas, as if they were made of poison gas, just as we have all seen atheist organizations pull out all stops in order to stop the world from being exposed to the horrors of Christian imagery. The attitude of atheism (and perhaps rightly so) has lately been one of absolute quarantine—only by preventing any exposure to the beliefs and ideals of Christians may one be made absolutely safe from them. The unwary atheist is very apt to trip over a misplaced cross and suddenly be wracked by guilt over his sin (I say this as if it were a joke, but in truth that is, often enough, not far from the truth).

Well, the joke is on them, because their attempts have never worked. The odd thing about Christianity is that, the harder it is struggled against, the more powerful it becomes, like a bacteria strengthened by penicillin. The Communists of the Soviet Union understood this well enough to ban the Bible, though they failed to ban Dostoyevski and Tolstoy, whose works are inseparable from their Christianity; and Christianity thrived in Russia. Absolutely thrived.

The point of this is that, in every way, it is the Christian who is free, while it is the humanist who must guard himself with censorship. They may be called slaves of God, but on earth they are the only ones who know freedom. Christians may read what they like without fear of being exposed to the horrors of unbelief; they may explore the truth in science while allowing for every possibility, while the humanist is restricted to the tiny little box of unbelief (it is not God’s fault that Christians often fail to understand this themselves).

Lewis, for example, made the tragic mistake, while still an atheist, of reading Chesterton (he was young and unprepared and did not guard his atheism as well as he, perhaps, should have). “Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man,” he writes, “and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive ‘apart from his Christianity.’ Now, I veritably believe, I thought – I didn’t of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense—that Christianity itself was very sensible ‘apart from its Christianity.’”

Reading Lewis—particularly his allegorical novels and many of his essays—one can understand quickly what he appreciated about Chesterton. It was the unique and astonishing tension (but not contradiction) between the academic and the fantastic; between reason and myth, history and poetry. It was a Christianity that could be reasonably defended—logically, historically, scientifically—but at the same time a Christianity that set itself as a fixture within the soul—the seat of myth and fantasy. In Christianity, one has the freedom to look at Lewis’ Narnia books and proclaim, without hesitation or qualification, that they ought to be seen as works of non-fiction; that they might find a better home in the “History” section of the library than in “Children’s Fiction”, for hidden within their stories is a history of the world that carries far more truth than Gibbon or Herodotus, and far deeper insight into true humanity than Kant or Descartes.

But before he would ever come to write these books (and many others), Lewis struggled mightily against the pull of Christianity; he felt, to use a phrase borrowed from Francis Thompson’s poem, that he was being pursued relentlessly by the Hound of Heaven.

Thompson knew the struggle well:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

Lewis’s own story is, primarily, the story of his flight and of his internal struggle; a fierce battle with the truth that was welling up inside him. It is a strange thing, the atheist who is compelled toward Christianity, for with every last gasp he will cry out that he is only fighting to preserve truth, to preserve reason; that he is fighting, facts against faith, when in actuality he knows (else he would not be fighting) that they are fighting against truth rather than for it (or there would be no struggle). Further, it is only by faith that the atheist may to ignore the truth and remain an atheist—but only the worst, blindest sort of faith, the sort that allows one to hold fast to some ideal, even if a greater, truer ideal has presented itself. It is something far different from the faith of the Christian.

Lewis’s own journey culminated, of course, in his eventual conversion. Little by little the truth chipped away at the walls of protection he had built up around himself, until at last they crumbled. But it was not, as are so many superficial, temporary conversions of today, a matter of a momentary decision, where one is stopped suddenly in their tracks. Nor was it particularly dramatic. No, it was far too genuine for that.

“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning,” Lewis wrote of the first moments of his new life. “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. ‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. And it was, like that moment on top of the bus, ambiguous.”

It is telling that Lewis should have titled his autobiography Surprised by Joy, for this is precisely the thing that can only be understood by someone after discovering Christianity. It was, in part, an intellectual understanding that began Lewis on his path to religion, and a reasonable, sensible, logical sort of faith. He accepted its truth because he realized that it was true; not, particularly, because of the good it would do for him. Lewis would remark later that it is a grave mistake to become a Christian believing that it will make life easier; one believes in Christ because of His truth. That being said, what Lewis discovered in Christianity, after the Hound of Heaven had caught up to him after all, was that, despite the difficulties, despite the requirements, despite being made into a servant of God, Christianity means true, lasting joy.

“I call it joy,” he wrote, “which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from both Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”

Lewis knew well that what he found in Christ was the same that Thompson had foreseen as he concluded his poem, as at last God catches up to the Prodigal and offers him a word of comfort:

“All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home :
Rise, clasp My hand, and come !”
Halts by me that footfall :
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest !
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest me.”

The fundamental appeal I have felt toward Lewis’s theology, which he espoused again and again in form after form after coming to Christianity, is similar to that which draw me toward Chesterton and Muggeridge, and that is its devotion toward truths that are universal; ideas that might be capable, if taken seriously, to unite Christendom at last. It wasn’t as if Lewis wasn’t himself part of a particular sect of Christianity (he was a devout Anglican, much to the dismay of his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, who hoped that he would become a Catholic), but as he wrote, he wrote of truths unquestionable. Whether in his apologetic works (Mere Christianity stands almost alone among 20th century explanations of God, while The Problem of Pain is a beautiful take on a particularly vexing question), his allegorical stories (The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces) or his more straightforward theological works (Refletions on the Psalms, The Four Loves, The Weight of Glory), the true beauty, the true joy, is that the truths are primary. Lewis expresses the core principles of Christianity, without being bogged down by sectarian nonsense.

(it deserves note here that, as he grew in stature as a Christian writer, he continued to hold a chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University; it is fair to say that today’s universities would surely never stand for such a conflict of interests)

The root of Lewis’s mainstream popularity is due in part to his highly accessible works—particularly The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. Like Chesterton, however, it is not difficult to argue that at least part of Lewis’s longevity may be attributed to the fact that the pages he composed are filled—at times over-filled—with perfectly composed phrases that almost seem made to be removed and used elsewhere (some Lewisisms, such as, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” sounds suspiciously like something Chesterton himself would have said). It is almost as if one could tear apart his books, sentence by sentence, and then put them back together in a different order, without losing the heart of his ideas. He is, in short, endlessly quotable—enough so that one is likely to forget that the many phrases for which he is famous are perhaps even more powerful in their original contexts.

Words, Lewis knew, carry the potential for power greater than any wizard’s wand or witch’s cauldron if wielded rightly. God, after all, was in no way stingy when he chose the languages of men as a means of revelation. It was no accident that the scripture came down to us as a book. Words are often the weakness of men—they have a way of finding their way into the soul—and Lewis, better than most, wielded the weapon rightly; in part, because he had come to truly understand the lostness of man and the stark disparity between the kingdoms of God and man.  

Indeed,” he wrote in one of the most enduring passages from The Weight of Glory, “if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”