For the Love of God

Dear Ernest,

As, in my shameless, Victorian manner, I bemoaned and bewailed your long absence from our dialogue, in my lowest state of bereavement, when all hope had very nearly drained out from my lifeless heart, I began to imagine, though the very thought seemed to harrow me with an insurmountable consternation and perturbation, what would inevitably become of our nearly forgotten deliberation if, little by little, in small degrees, our letters became less and less frequent, less thoughtful, and altogether less interesting.  I quickly realised, as I evaluated this nightmarish fantasy of mine, that the whole situation would, without a doubt, be your fault entirely.  This was only a matter of elementary reasoning, for after all, you were the one who, in my imagining, stooped to writing a letter about the proper cultivation techniques for growing eggplants, and to so dully penned an expository, I could hardly be blamed for responding with a comment, however lengthy or tedious, on the economic and culinary benefits of owning a refrigerator.  I need hardly mention your spiritless droning on over the superiority of the colour blue to all others, and my response, a mere ‘sup’, was simply the best answer that I, or even the most masterful and creative intellectual, could ever muster.  In short, the gradual decline of standards, and the incremental deterioration in quality, while perhaps expressing itself in my letters just as much as in yours, was solely and unmistakably the fault of your own failure to provide interesting content, which, while bad enough in itself, also accounted in full for my own demise into an unending literary lifelessness.

In your last letter, when quoting a very clever gentleman: ““How can an earthly purpose point to a heavenly one?””

Anyway, now that so much is cleared up, I’d like to discuss something else: the love of God.  I recently had a conversation with someone about the theological doctrine of Penal Substitution (Jesus dying from the sins of man).  In an attempt to point out how ridiculous the whole idea is, my philosophical friend said something along these lines: “If John Somebody steals a cup of tea from Don Quixote, and for that offence, you sentence Sancho Panza to thirty years in prison, then you’re not upholding justice and mercy at the same time, you’re just being a jerk to Sancho Panza”.  In retrospect, I realise that the best response would have been to point out that everyone is a jerk to Panza, even Don Quixote.  But since this is an intellectual blog, and at that, one of certain standards, I’ll offer a more thoughtful response:

The problem with this quixotic situation is simply the choice of third-person narrative.  Penal Substitution is a doctrine based on the circular reciprocity of requited love.  By this I mean that if, for example, Romeo loves Juliet, then one of his greatest objectives in life is to keep her happy and healthy.  However, if Juliet requites Romeo’s love, then a large part of serving her means, for Romeo, taking care also of himself.  In this way, love is a lot like writing letters back and forth: the better one letter, the better its response, and if Romeo is well off, then Juliet will be also, which is the lover’s greatest concern.  By loving Juliet, Romeo has not taken away resources from himself—though it may seem like this at first—but rather, he has increased the over all purposes that he and Juliet collectively possess for staying alive.  Obviously, Shakespeare is a bad example, seeing that Romeo and Juliet were never actually in love, but it serves our philosophical purposes just fine.

Between God and man, there is a very similar drama, only man is not well off, and therefore, God will suffer.  And He does.  Penal Substitution doesn’t mean choosing a third-party at random to suffer for the crimes of another; rather, it means that, when man has turned from God, such that either he or God must pay, Jesus chooses Himself.  After all, in the third-person, it doesn’t make much sense that one man should need to die in order that another might live, but the situation does in fact arise, and the Christian answer to the conflict is different for each narrative.  In the first-person, the crucifixion illustrates that the proper answer is, ‘I die’, and in the second person, the resurrection tells us to answer, ‘you live’.  But if, as humans, we respond gratefully to both of these divine answers, saying back to Jesus, ‘I am dead in my sins’ (Ephesians 2:1), come, ‘you live’ inside of me, then the third-person narrative will have no mention of death at all: ‘He lives’.

I propose that pointing earthly purposes to heavenly one’s is all a matter of Imitation Christis.  If on Earth, we can experience this drama in the first person, not just reading about it in books and obscure theological doctrines, but actually knowing Jesus in the second-person—as a You, not a Him—then having been so deeply loved, we will find it difficult to respond in any other way toward others.  We are the recipients of an incredible letter, to which, if we offer any reply at all, everything we write thereafter will bear a resemblance, and gradually, by small degrees, our Earthly story will be transformed into something very near a Heavenly one; we will understand other characters in the text more thoroughly and love the more fully than ever before—and indeed, this entire literary revolution, the demise of the old and rise of the new, will be entirely and unmistakably His fault.

 

Your Servant,

TWM

Wandering out of Paradise

Dear Ernest,

When I consider how often I have, in light of careful observation, esteemed with high regard the astucity of your character, I then hold little doubt that you have noted, with equal wonder as have I, the astounding level of passivity with which many people appear to wander through the world, conducting their lives, it seems, as one heedlessly roams the streets of a darkened city, tending neither toward any purpose nor sense of destination.  Such people, we can only assume, are by no means exempted from the existential worries and struggles of an active mind, nor from any like burden, I imagine, that we ordinarily associate with an intellectual life style, for these supposed symptoms of the philosopher are really nothing more or less than the universal agonies of the human condition, and we find them inescapable in all modes of living, regardless of whether they are illuminated by the words of a scholar.  Contrary to what the new agers and postmodernists would have us believe, it seems that human nature is quite the same in any and all realms: the moment we engage with people, we find ourselves at war with them in some manner or another, but if we then retire to the secret worlds of our own minds, we will be equally at war with ourselves—move society from the physical plane of existence to a mode of being on the internet and shortly you will have the same defects pulsing through cyberspace as formerly infected the oceans and seven continents.  In short, there is no diversion from adversity, no respite from the enduring pains of human life, and no clever way out of the many problems and questions that are imposed on us from the moment we are born; all people are at all times and in all manners subject to the concerns that naturally come with being human.

In your last letter: “How are we to know about matters of ultimate faith?”

Commonly, faith is thought of as a kind of alternative to reason, a net to break the fall of a weary philosopher, or a blanket to gently conceal a difficult question from view, and by virtue of this cure for the disease known as philosophy, one is suddenly freed to rove the dark roads of this world without a care for reason or thought.  But such purposeless wandering seems to me neither desirable nor even feasible, for it is impossible to escape from the prospect of destination—as even wanderers end up somewhere else than they begin—and there must also exist a reason why any given destination is achieved.  So mustn’t faith be something more than this?  We seem to often lose the rich meaning of the original Greek whenever we talk of merely ‘believing’ in Jesus; the real issue is a matter of πιστεύειν, ‘trusting’ or ‘relying on’ him, which has less to do with determining that he should be trusted and more to do with the act of trusting itself.

Adam, the lover who follows his mate out of paradise, and Thaddeus, the fool who follows his mates off a cliff, have one thing in common: they are both forced to choose between two limited alternatives, to either satisfy their desire to live or else appease their fear of living without their mates, but they are no longer afforded the option of both.  When we meet Adam wandering out of paradise in the ninth book of Milton’s poem, we are confronted by a man who has already made a sacred covenant never to abandon his bride, so the moment Eve turns from him and from God, there is no longer such a thing as paradise; if Adam remains, he breaks his covenant and looses his integrity, but if he leaves, we already know what happens.  So considered, the decision is philosophically arbitrary—there is no intellectual reason that one kind of death should be preferred to another.  Adam is not deciding, at this point, where to place his faith, for he has already chosen, and wisely so, to entrust it in whole to a creature of perfection—Eve as she once was, but now this perfect being no longer exists, and the decision remains for him not as a question of what to trust, but whether he ought to trust at all.  He chooses πιστεύειν.  And this he does not as way out of relying on his own intellect, but even as the very exercise of that faculty.  Wandering out of paradise, very much like falling off a cliff, is something that people do reluctantly; no one marches forth from the garden of Eden with any show of confidence, nor do we often see people leaping from the tops of towering crags with great command—these are duties performed with a dragging of the heals or a covering of the eyes, not in the least with great zeal or assurance, but there is much reward for whoever is true to a good purpose, even if this means giving up everything or dying on a cross.

Whoever has found his life shall lose it, but he that has lost his life for Christ’s sake shall gain it.

 

Your servant,

TWM

 

φίλει ἐμὲ for now

bible

I once had a professor who took great pleasure in whining about all the short comings of the Christian Church. “Christianity,” he often complained, “is a very nay-saying religion.”  He went to great lengths to illustrate how negative and oppressive the Church has been throughout history. It’s curious, but I can hardly remember him ever saying ‘yea’ to anything.

I believe there is, however, something to be learned from these sorts of people. For some reason, whether it be valid or invalid, a significant portion of the world has accumulated a great abundance of animosity directed toward the Christian Church. Of course, we might find it pleasant to focus primarily on the ungrounded reasons for this hatred, or the fact that Satan hates the Church and so it is most natural for his dominion to hate it too, but I find myself convinced that there is also some truth—and perhaps even more than we’d like to admit—in the accusations others lay on the fallen Body of Christ. I think a particular favourite of secularists today is the ‘self-righteousness’ or ‘holier than thou’ conviction. It seems the modern image of a Christian is that of a highly judgmental and proud individual who finds self-worth in following a set of moral principles, or even a set of mere rules, more closely—as that individual perceives it—than anyone else.

I need hardly mention how this image is the product of an unbelievably scrutinising world, the sort of world that perpetually scours the Church for flaws and inflates them to no end—in short, a ‘nay-saying’ world. As Shakespeare observed, “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar III.ii.74-5). Vice is always more quickly made famous among mankind than virtue. But we must nonetheless consider why the Church suffers from this vice, even if it is not as severe as the world may exaggerate it to be.

The most evident cause I see is the same thing that keeps all the secularists out of the Church in the first place—fear.  We Christians often fail to realise from the start that if you don’t store up treasures here on earth, you will end up without any treasures here on earth—it’s that simple. A virtuous scholar who spends his life honestly pursuing the truth rather than outputting bizarre liberalism for the sake of acquiring fame and admiration will most likely end his life without either of those treasures; a mother and father who devote their lives to raising children and loving their family rather than pursuing prestige and fulfilment in the work place or elsewhere will probably never have that fulfilment; and a lonely custodian who does nothing more than clean up and offer an understanding smile to the occasional passerby will probably never acquire anything valuable on this indifferent earth.

Human beings are very attracted to the idea of becoming poor for love’s sake, but they don’t like poverty itself. And so the last temptation of a disciple of Christ is to find fulfilment in ‘religious merit’.  Once a man is striped of everything he thought he owned and is left naked with nothing but a Bible in his hand, he begins to clutch that Bible and exhibit a possessiveness over it that has only been intensified by being frustrated. But as he stands there, trembling in the fear that he has just thrown away everything of value that he ever knew, he has arrived at the precise moment when his sacrifice ought to be consummated. After all, he didn’t become poor merely for the sake of being poor, but in order that he might become rich. So he is demanded to let go and realise that even his sacrifice is worth nothing in itself, for only the blood of Jesus can save him—and so indeed he has become poor merely for love’s sake. But for some reason, this is among the most terrifying moments of the human experience.  This is when we start to realise that the phantasmagorical Jesus-dream we’ve been chasing for so long better be more real than the very beating of our hearts, for all that we are is resting on it.

In John 21:15-7 Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  The Greek word that he uses the first two times is ἀγαπᾷς, meaning “Do you love me unconditionally?”  But Peter responds each time with, “yes, I φιλῶ you”, meaning “yes, I am fond of you”, or “yes, you are a friend to me”.  So the third time, Jesus asks “Do you φιλεῖς me?”, meaning “Am I a friend to you?”  And then something strange happens. The scriptures say that Peter was upset because Jesus had asked him three times “Do you φιλεῖς me?”  But this isn’t what Jesus did; Jesus first asked Peter twice if he loved him without limits—that is, if he loved him enough to give up everything for his sake—but it’s as if Peter never even heard this calling.