Monday, March 19, 2012


I was checking facebook the other day when I saw a post rejoicing over the miracle of divine love. The poster says, "I couldn't live without Jesus," acknowledging the dependence we have on Christ first for mere existence, then for a fulfilling, meaningful life as well. However, this sense of dependence is then said to go both ways: "He couldn't live in a world without me so He chose to die and rise again." Unfortunately, such a statement, while stemming from a desire to honor and praise God, actually greatly decreases the wonder of the cross and the love God bears for us. It contaminates the selfless love of Christ with the selfishness that is inherent in even the best of human relationships.

The more I think about this, the larger the issue becomes. I am reminded of my time with jr. high children, and vague memories of my own time at that age: The class is asked, "Why did God create us?" The answer(usually coming from a boy, and, at one time, probably myself) is that God was bored. That God wanted someone to play with.

We are faced with two questions.Why did God create us? Why did God die for us? And the two given answers, though stemming from vastly different attitudes--one from a desire to make a joke, the other from a desire to give glory to God--share the same basic flaw. They push our sense of dependence onto God.

Although the child jokes when saying that God was bored, he is working from a very basic premise: "When I am alone, I am bored." Most humans are dependent on others, to one extent or another, for everything, from  food and housing to basic entertainment. The child then naturally extends this sense of dependence to God.

The poster on facebook, likewise, understands the very basic principal that we are dependent on Christ. "In him we live and move and have our being," and without him we would not exist. But even granting the common grace that Christ gives to all humanity and, indeed, all creation, we still cannot live, with meaning and joy and true purpose, without his special grace. The poster also recognizes that when we love someone or something, we often become dependent on that thing. I am dependent on my wife. My earthly happiness is wrapped up in her, and when she is not with me, it is diminished.  The poster then puts this same sense of dependence on Christ himself. "He could not live in a world without me." 

And this is where the poster is wrong. Because in saying, "he could not live in a world without me," the poster ascribes a certain motive to Christ's death. And this motive is not love, as it first appears. If Christ could not live without us, then his death is no longer in love. It is self-preservation. It is protecting that which he is dependent on. It is selfishness (and, indeed, most human love is contaminated by selfishness, as demonstrated by Lewis in The Four Loves, The Great Divorce, and 'Till We Have Faces)

God created us. He loves us. He died to save us... but that is not the same as saying that he could not live without us. Indeed, if he could not live without us, it would be no great feat of love to die for us: it would be mere self-preservation. And it is here that we begin to realize the true extent of his love for us. The greatness of his sacrifice, the proof of his unselfish love, lies in his complete self-sufficiency. He needs no one but himself... and still he dies to save us. To make God dependent on us in any fashion is to reduce his love to a merely human level... and that is so much less than the independent, self-sufficient fullness that he pours out on us for no other reason than his loving will.

Monday, March 12, 2012

To whose shame?

I was bored and reading some interesting-looking Washington Post articles today, when I stumbled upon one calling out a candidate for a "phony" catholic theology. It looked interesting, but I was immediately sidetracked by a quote very early on in the article. The author bashes certain theological attacks on President Obama, then says something quite strange: "To the shame of believers, wars have been waged over theology throughout the ages." Such an odd statement immediately caught my attention; and it was only very slightly less immediately that I knew I disagreed with it. Right then and there I knew I wanted to write on it, so I opened up blogger and wrote most of this intro paragraph, then I went back to read the whole thing.

"To the shame of believers, wars have been waged over theology throughout the ages." The author does not qualify this statement in any way. It is not explained before the statement, nor is it referenced afterwards. It stands on its own... and it's actually quite puzzling.

First off: what kind of wars is he talking about? Literal wars? Figurative wars? If he really means to speak about literal physical battles, then yes, there have been many wars that were motivated partly by theology (but largely by politics) that the Church should be ashamed to be associated with. BUT if, as I suspect, he meant figurative wars, wars of ideas and debates and worldviews with theology at the center... then I have to disagree.

And I have to wonder... How many believers did the author talk to? Was there some poll that I missed? Was I sick the day that they came to the churches and passed out the confidential questionnaire(1. Are you a believer? 2. If you answered 'yes' to question #1, are you ashamed of the wars that have been waged over theology?)? Which believers are ashamed of the theological wars that the church has fought since its very creation? Because I, for one, am not ashamed.

Now, I am ashamed of some things that men have done in the name of God. Hanging people accused of being witches? Yes. Using doctrinal issues for political power? Yes. Picketing funerals and spewing hate? Most definitely. But that is not the point at issue here. None of these things are theological conflicts. And when we speak about the endless war of orthodoxy against heresies new and old... of that I am not ashamed.  When I think about the bitter conflict between Paul and the party of the circumcision, I am not ashamed. When I think of the war fought on one front against those who said that Jesus was not God, and on another front against those who said that Jesus was not man, with the Church firmly in the middle insisting that it must be both, I am not ashamed. And when I think about those under fire for insisting that babies are people and abortion is murder, I am proud to call myself a Christian.

Many people make much of the fact that theology is only words, after all, and what's the point of arguing about words? This is a common complaint: You argue about "words," while the rest of us adults will be over here doing things that actually matter. Now I grant that we are arguing about words: In some cases, we are only arguing about one word. But still I am not ashamed of the Church's theological wars. I am proud that the Church recognizes that one word can make all the difference: the difference between God and man, the difference between a person and a mere bundle of tissue, the difference between bloody murder and a sort of sterile termination... the difference, in some cases, between Christianity and something else entirely. As Chesterton notes, if words are important at all, they must be important enough to fight over.
"What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn't any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn't there be a quarrel about a word? If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears?"
'Chimpanzee' is but a word, yet many a liberal blogger would object to being called one. Many a liberal blogger would eventually argue about a word... and, indeed, they would use words to do so, as opposed to wiggling their ears in what would doubtless prove to be a most amusing fashion. So I am not ashamed of the Church's theological wars. I am not ashamed of wars waged over theology.  I am not ashamed of wars fought over mere words... because if words are not worth fighting over, then they are not worth anything. The right word in the right place makes the difference between maturity and immaturity, blasphemy and praise, and yes, in many (but not all) cases, between life and death.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Great Cynic, Defeated

Before I jump into Job, I want to say something really quick. Many of you have heard about Kony 2012 and Invisible Children. It's been all over Facebook for the last couple days. But I've also noticed a widespread, "worldly-wise" cynicism, mocking and disparaging those who are just now learning of the conflict, the naive and simple sheep, ignorant of both the subtleties of the conflict and the subtleties of any possible solution. Here's the thing:  These people, like myself, who don't know how to do any more than merely give to organizations in the hope that they can do something useful with it... we may not do much good, it's true. But cynicism accomplishes nothing. Ultimately, this kind of cynicism is nothing more than a way to feel smug about one's own apathy. And as we see in Job, cynicism ultimately fails. Satan, worldly-wise, older than the world itself, the greatest cynic of all, is outmatched by a short-lived, "naive" man of clay.

If you haven't yet, I would recommend part 1 and part 2 before reading this last section.

So once again Satan has been repulsed, but he is patient. Job remains strong thus far... but Satan has all the time in the world. Job is in emotional and physical agony, and Satan even deprives him of rest (7:3-4). He tosses and turns, tormented with visions and nightmares (7:13:15). And now his friends have come: His friends who are convinced that all misfortune is a punishment from God. It is here that we must be careful, for the words of God at the end (42:7) makes it clear that when these friends speak of God, they are not to be trusted. They are right occasionally, but they are often wrong, their words guided by a false understanding of God and how he interacts with us. In fact, it is exactly this false understanding that Job finds so horrifying.

Job receives his friends without words, but their presence has not gone unnoticed, and they are doubtless welcome (at first). When he finally speaks after seven days and nights of silence, it is to curse the day of his birth. He has lost everything, and even God seems to have forsaken him: Surely, in this circumstance, it would be better not to have been born. God has smitten him and closed him in, and he has no rest.

Immediately Eliphaz responds: Calm, patient, loving... and yet, he says to Job, you do know why all this is happening to you, don't you? "Who that was innocent ever perished?" No, Job, no... you know why you are being punished. Come, tell us your sin, confess it, and God will be merciful. But more cutting than that, I think, is one of the first things he says. "Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?" Job might answer with a resounding "Yes!"... and that is also the reason Job is so troubled. His fear of God, his upright integrity, is so exceptional that it is known to the sons of God and Jehovah himself. Why, then, has Jehovah forsaken him? Why has Jehovah set himself against Job, his most loyal and faithful servant?

That is the question Job asks, again and again. And each time he asks it, the angels grow more worried, and Satan give another leap of demonic joy. After all, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Each one starts off friendly to Job: But each one unintentionally wounds him to the core.

In 5:3-4, Eliphaz proclaims, "I have seen the fool taking root... his children are far from safety: they are crushed in the gate, and there is no one to deliver them." This, to a man who only days before had lost all his children as they were crushed to death by the very winds of God. There was, indeed, no one to deliver them... and Eliphaz does not even realize what he has said. Instead, he continues: the offspring of the righteous man is many, he says, forgetting that he is speaking to a man who is now childless. Each one of these friends does the same thing: Is it any wonder, then that Job, fed up with their arrogance and condescension, says, "worthless physicians are you all! Oh, that you would keep silent, and that be your wisdom!"

These friends, far from helping Job, only remind him again and again that his children are dead; his body is dying; God has apparently turned away from. And they tell him to repent... from what? There is nothing to repent of, as we see from the mouth of God himself--Job is blameless and upright. Satan laughs every time one of his friends opens their mouth: Every time he sees Job wince, the devil cackles. Any moment now, he thinks. Any moment, Job will break.

And at times he seems about to. He despairs of his life. He wishes to die, and then wishes that life was longer. He wishes the pain to leave him: He wishes his friends would leave him. But above and beyond all, he wishes for God to be near him. Because contrary to all his friends, and contrary to Satan, Job is no blasphemer. Job shouts at God louder and fiercer than any atheist... because he desires an answer. As Chesterton points out:
"He wishes the universe to justify itself, not because he wishes it to be caught out, but because he really wishes it to be justified... He speaks of the Almighty as his enemy, but he never doubts, at the back of his mind, that his enemy has some kind of a case which he does not understand. he in anxious to be convinced; that is, he thinks that God could convince him... he lashes the stars, but it is not to silence them; it is to make them speak."
He is confused and lost... but he is not hopeless. The pain and anguish strip him to the core... and there, at Job's very heart, we find the brightest glimpses of a hope that shatters, if only for a moment, all the pain and shadows of the world. "Though he slay me," Job says of God, speaking through his pain, "I will hope in him." Although he falls again into sadness and loss, he always rises. "Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he who testifies for me is on high." Again he slips. Again he cries out "All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me. My bones stick to my skin and to my flesh...Oh that my words were written," Job cries, "engraved on a rock forever, For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God!

Against all physical evidence, against all the signs of heaven and earth, against the testimony of all his friends, Job insists, again and again, that God is his Redeemer and friend. Job will not despair, though the whole world is against him: Job will not despair, though God himself is against him.

We may imagine the heavenly scene. Jehovah on his throne, the angels on one side, and Satan and his demons across from them, all looking down at Job. And Satan begins to lose his surety. Job will not break. Satan doesn't understand. What more does Job have to live for? Why does he cling to his faith in God when it has gained him nothing except pain and disease and loss? Satan does not understand. And with each restatement of faith he grows more and more confused. And finally, following Job's final statement of innocence and faith in the righteous judge, we might imagine Jehovah's voice breaking the absolute silence: "Hast thou heard of my servant Job? He is blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from all evil." And as Satan flees the heavenly court in shame, Jehovah himself descends to earth to bring the test to an end. 

And so the Great Cynic is beaten. Job loved God not for his wealth, not for his children, and not for his health. He loved God for God. And Job is not singled out for punishment or improvement. He is heaven's champion, dueling against Satan for the glory of God. But we must never forget that at any moment he might have fallen, just as we, Christ's champions on earth, might fall on any given day of the week. We are not required to perform so admirably as Job... but if  we fall, we must get up again, for the glory of God, to show that his faith in us is not misplaced.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"...of my servant Job?"

This is the second part of a three-part... series, I guess?... on Job. Read part 1 here.

Satan has been defeated, but he is nothing if not persistent. Job is stronger then he reckoned, yes, but that merely means that the ultimate cause of Job's faith must lie in his own person. Satan, of course, cannot understand love, so on further reflection he must have thought, "Yes, of course he would be unmoved by the death of his children. They were no good to him anyway: He cares only for himself, and that has remained largely safe."

He is, of course, wrong--but armed with this new plan he once again boldly enters the heavenly court, ignoring the "Hast thou heard of my servant Job" t-shirts that have since become extremely popular in heaven.

Finally he comes into the throne room of Jehovah. It begins exactly as before, as if nothing has happened... but everyone present knows that something has, indeed, happened. Satan is discredited, and God's faith in his human servant has been vindicated. God asks the same question, but with one sentence added: "He still holds fast his integrity: In vain you have set me on to destroy him."

And here Satan smiles, and the heavenly host shivers. Satan freely admits his error: He had forgotten that a man will give everything he has for his life. Touch that, take away his health, and then, then Job will fall. Immediately comes the reply from the throne: Job is in Satan's hand: Only his life must be spared.

We can imagine Satan entering hell and personally selecting the finest sickness the pharmacies of hell have to offer. He finds Job, still in mourning, still in torn robes, head raggedly shaved. Satan raises the sickness, pauses to savor the moment, and then strikes Job with it, watching in twisted joy as pustules break out from the crown of Job's head to the soles of his feet. Job, taking a moment to consider this new tragedy, scrambles around in the ashes until he finds a broken piece of pottery with which to scrap himself. His wife, beside herself with grief at her and her husband's misfortunes, tells her husband to curse God and end it. There is once again silence in the universe, and all the demons and angels anxiously wait for Job's next sentence. But Job rebukes his wife: All things come from God, and we should accept all things with peace.

This is a minor setback for Satan, and the angels breath a little easier. But Satan is playing the long game, and he knows all too well the frailty of humanity. And as he sees Job's three friends coming to comfort him, he sees yet another opportunity to break Job's spirit.They do not know God as Job does, and in that there is room to twist the knife a little more. To be fair, they are good friends: They come personally, they do not send a message and go about their day. They come, they sit with Job, and even as they rebuke him and argue with him, they only do so because they have his best interests at heart. Nevertheless, they are wrong, and as they speak it becomes increasingly obvious that they believe that Job is being punished by God.

I'm going to end this section with an observation. This is of the utmost importance. Job is not sinless: He admits his sin multiple times. But he is, by the very words of God, "Blameless and upright." His sins are merely that of frail humanity: As much as is in his power, he strives to serve God. There is nothing in here of punishment: Nothing even of improvement. Job does not need to build character. Too often we see punishment in the workings of God. Or failing that, we see a goal of improvement, which implies that one is weak to begin with. We must do Job justice. We must understand that inasmuch as this has to do with Job, it has to do with his goodness, his utter faith, and his insane mental and spiritual strength.

BUT: I think it's wrong to say that this book is even primarily about Job. Job is the instrument, to be sure, but the point is something even larger. When Satan attacks Job in the beginning, he is also attacking God. When he insists that Job only loves God for the stuff God gives him, Satan says just as loudly and directly that God is not loveable.

That is the heart of Satan's attack: he aims to prove that God, in and of himself, cannot be loved. And what better way to do that than to take the strongest, most godly man alive and break him: Because if Satan can prove that Job, out of all the inhabitants of the earth, does not love God as God, then he would count that a valuable victory indeed.

Check out part three here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hast thou heard...

In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton calls Job "one of the colossal cornerstones of the world," and in his introduction to the book of Job (read it, people), he calls it one of the most interesting of all modern and ancient books. Further research, including an awesome commentary that I first discovered in Oxford but have more recently discovered on teh internets, has only caused me to agree with this statement of vast importance more and more. The book of Job is extremely important, and remains to this day one of the most immediately relevant and applicable books of all time.

And it is not merely because of the ending. It is not merely because Job does not fail. It is because of the sense, inherent in the book of Job, that at any moment Job might fail. At any point in his dialogue with his friends, Job might "curse God and die." Everything hangs by a thread, and all the heavenly beings are on the edge of their heavenly seats, waiting to see what this man of clay will do.

The first interesting thing about Job, of course, is that it is God who throws down the gauntlet and Satan who picks it up, God who boasts of Job's faith and Satan who angrily (and defensively) attacks that faith. God initiates the heavenly challenge, the celestial wager. And Satan leaps at it. Satan believes that Job, like himself, is ultimately in it for himself. Faith in God has provided him with earthly wealth--take it away, and Job's faith will disappear. The angels chuckle and nudge each other when God brings up Job--they all know Job, especially those whom God may have tasked with rewarding Job for his faith.

And then the heavenly host falls silent as Satan angrily hurls his challenge: "Stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face!"

All eyes turn to the glorious, radiant throne. But immediately comes the response, and the angels gasp and the devil, almost disbelieving his good fortune, leaps: Satan's request is granted, and all that Job possesses, save his own person, is in the hands of the great Accuser. Satan wastes no time: Immediately he leaves the heavenly court and, upon arriving once again on earth, completely destroys everything that Job has--all his property, all his livestock, but more importantly, all his sons and daughters. The angels are struck dumb, the devils cheer, but the throne of Yahweh is silent. As MacFadyen says, Satan uses "not only the robber tribes of the desert, but the very lightning, the fire of God from heaven, and the mighty rushing wind that comes up from the desert. These calamities may be natural in their kind, but they are supernatural in in their intensity and in the rapidity of their succession." There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that this is the work of God. And all the angels in heaven and all the devils in hell watch as Job cries in pain, rips his robe, shaves his head, and finally collapses into the dust.

His lips quiver. His words catch in his throat. Finally he gathers the strength to speak, face streaked with tears and muddy dust. "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. Jehovah has given, Jehovah has taken: The name of Jehovah forever be..." There is complete and utter silence in the universe, as every unseen spirit huddles close around to hear what his next word will be. Satan is poised to begin his celebratory journey to Jehovah's court. The angels are nervous, comforted only by the still-radiant throne of Jehovah.

But Satan has chosen poorly. The Great Cynic (as MacFadyen calls him) has met his match. "The name of Jehovah forever be blessed." And the cheers from heaven drown out the shrieks and howls of hell, and Satan staggers back, puzzled and furious. Job blesses God, despite his knowledge that God could have protected him. Satan can take Job's possessions, his livestock, even his family away: But he cannot take God away, and it is to God that Job clings. I'm going to end this section (I think there will be a part 2 soon) with a quote from MacFadyen:

Why do good men suffer? One answer to that is this: That through their suffering a divine purpose—we do not yet say what purpose, but some purpose—is being worked out. To the thinking heart life would be intolerable and history a chaos, were their seeming confusions not redeemed and illuminated by a sense of purpose. This is the faith that reconciles us to the mystery, and this is the faith which shines through the story of the council in heaven. The blows that shatter to atoms the happiness of Job are not dealt by chance or accident or any random hand: they fall by permission. They come, because "Jehovah had said to Satan, ‘Hast thou considered my servant Job?’” That is, the sorrows below find their explanation in the world above. 

Check out part 2 here.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ethical infanticide

Two ethicists in Australia have argued, in an international journal of medicine, that it is acceptable to kill a newborn baby soon after birth. Some of you may have seen this already, but for those who haven't, click here. If you just threw up in your mouth a little bit, I understand, Go spit it out and get a glass of water. I'll wait.

Ready? Ok.

They admit that a baby, even a fetus, is both a "human being" and a "potential person." But a newborn baby is NOT a "person," because a person is someone who "is capable of attributing to her existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her." In short, to be considered a person, and thus to merit "a moral right to life," you must possess the cognitive function to be aware of your existence and to attach value to that existence.

So newborns are not people. If the continued existence of the child would cause hardship to the parents or society (for instance, if the child had Downs syndrome),  then the "actual personhood" of the parents, or society as a whole, would override the "potential personhood" of the newborn baby. There is, therefore, no reason to keep the baby alive: the most sensible option is to kill him or her to eliminate the inconvenience to the "actual" people.

So here's another thing that isn't explicitly pointed out in the article: This type of reasoning is not limited to babies with birth defects. All newborns are merely "potential people"... and they remain potential people for a long time, until they develop the cognitive skills to assign value to their existence. So you could choose to kill your child just because it would cause you economic hardship. Because it would inconvenience you. As to adoption, the researchers state that here, once again, the rights of "actual people" supersede those of "potential people": they say that the natural mother suffers psychological distress from giving up her child to someone else--the natural solution being, of course, to merely kill the child out of hand.

Now here's the really important thing: Once you accept the moral goodness (or at least ambiguity) of abortion, you have no ground for arguing against this. This is the logical next step for those who support abortion. If a child who has not been born does not deserve life, then surely a child who has been just born does not deserve life. What is the difference between a child seconds before being born and a child seconds after being born? And what is the difference between a child seconds after being born and a child one year old? As the National Catholic Register has pointed out;

"Once you say all human life is not sacred, the rest is just drawing random lines in the sand."

Random lines. This is the next logical step... but it is not the last. If merely being human does not give you an inherent right to live, then what does? For now, the line has been drawn at being aware of the value of existence. But it is an arbitrary line, and it cannot ever be more than that. Where will the arbitrary line be drawn next? Mental retardation? A minimum IQ level? Once you accept that "personhood" is something that can be defined and redefined at will, there is no logical defense against moving that line still further. I cannot stress this enough. If you support abortion, then you support this kind of reasoning. Think it through. Try and find some logical, consistent way to justify killing unborn children and defending the lives of the newborn.

I'm angry, and sad, and disgusted and horrified right now. I can only say that this is the future secularism has led us too: It is the only path secularism can take, could ever take, and it will progress further and further down it until it destroys itself... or until God comes to make all things new.

EDIT: The ethicists have since done a radio interview to clarify their position, which is summarized here. I just want to post one excerpt: "She notes that after-birth abortions should be permitted if parents decide that they want to prevent their child from having a difficult or painful life. One of the reasons many people abort fetuses, she notes, is due to diseases or other deformities. But, some of these disorders are not detected while the child is in the womb. In cases such as this, Minerva and Giubilini argue in their paper, termination of the newborn should be allowed. This sentiment should also apply then to healthy newborns, she says, because some people abort perfectly health fetuses for a variety of personal reasons as well." Indeed they do... and none of them right.