Sunday, January 21, 2007

Augustine for 2007

It makes very little sense for a thirty-seven year old man like myself to commend to you the writings of someone like Augustine of Hippo, as if my endorsement mattered. But tonight, because I'm riding high on the Sunday-night exuberance of a day well spent, I will. Apart from Jesus, the biblical prophets and apostles, Augustine is the most influential person in the history of Christian thinking. Amazingly, such a statement would be largely undisputed, even by his critics, a full 1,500 years after his death. As all philosophy is footnote to Plato, all theology is said to be a footnote to Augustine. I just found a few new websites dedicated to Augustine's complete writings and secondary literature about him ( is one, though most of the site is in Latin or Italian). Did you know that a current biliography about this man runs to over 25,000 entries? If you've never read Augustine's Confessions, maybe this is the year to check it out. Arguably, it is the most published book in history other than the Bible, and is instantly enjoyable as an autobiography of a staggeringly smart man who encountered Christ as a great sinner, while in his friend's backyard. He was never the same after than night (nor was Western Christianity). The whole Reformation, as some have said, was nothing more than a debate in the mind of Augustine, with his view of grace triumphing over his view of the church. Grandiose statements aside, the Confessions is surpisingly intimate and warm. If you are a Christian, you will easily recognize in this book the voice of a fellow traveler, someone who may have little in common with you culturally, but many things in common spiritually. No one will blame you for skipping the last couple of chapters on the philosophy of time, etc., but the rest is gold. It you're a non-Christian, the Confessions contains an interesting account of how a man with plenty of intellectual ammunition against Christianity in the end found Christ to be more compelling than all his doubts.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Paul vs. the Gnostics: Who are the Real Environmentalists?

Here's an interesting quote I happened on in this week's issue of HopeDance, a free newspaper in San Luis Obispo County with a fairly sizable distribution. It's an excerpt from a book by John Lamb Lash called Not in His Image: Gnostic Vision, Sacred Ecology, and the Future of Belief:

If the human species is to survive in the near future, it will have to live in Gaia's way, not in the demented, self-centered willfulness to which we are accustomed. But what do we know, so far, of Gaia's way? With the eradication of the Mysteries, humanity lost the most important spiritual resources of the Western world...The process that began six thousand years ago, perhaps triggered by a vast climatic catastrophe in North Africa and the Near East, led to monotheistic religion with its suppression of the Goddess, and then, through the transference effectuated by Saint Paul, to the triumph of salvationism as the spiritual paradigm of the Western world...There is no more powerful ideology for oppression than redemptive religion.

I realize this is a fairly standard New Age analysis of how Christianity ruined Western culture, but what I appreciate about it (believe it or not) is its attack on the actual doctrine of Paul and Christianity, rather than just a vague stab at cultural Christendom, which has always been somewhat at odds with genuine biblical Christianity. Lash says that Christianity's focus on redemption and salvation makes it a dangerous religion that will ruin the world. Here, though, is the mistake in this accusation: Paul's religion was that the kingdom of Jesus Christ would bring in the restoration of the whole cosmos, not just human souls. In other words, Paul's doctrine of redemption included the redemption of the world, the freeing of even nature from oppression. In Romans 8:19ff. Paul says, "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves..."
Notice how the inanimate creation experiences its renewal alongside of those persons who also will be renewed by Christ -- their salvation becomes the cosmos' salvation. Paul's Christianity, therefore, has an extremely exalted view of the environment and its future, and those who follow Paul will not be haphazard in causing decay in very same world that God has said he wants to one day fully restore. Christian doctrine doesn't take the Gaia route to its positive view of the environment, but it gets there nonetheless. Of course, Christendom (the society of historical Western culture that has presumably based itself on the Bible) has not always lived consistently with these biblical values. But its worst blemishes arose when it abandoned Paul and redemptive religion, not because it followed it. Neither is Paul's teaching a fully formed environmentalism in a modern sense -- but it's still fair to say that texts like Romans 8 lean in the environmentally-conscious direction rather than away from it.
And here's the real kicker: if Paul's emphases on the created world were forgotten at times by Western Christendom, it was due to the ongoing influence of Platonic and Gnostic philosophy. While Gnosticism is diverse, most versions taught that the physical world was the vile creation of the evil Demiurge who was trying to distract humanity from the real God-beyond-creation. Those under the influece of such a system of doctrine, even when otherwise informed by the Bible, were more likely describe salvation in terms of jettisoning the physical body and this worthless world, and to get on to the ethereal heavenlies. While such ideas clearly have a home in Gnosticism, they would not have occurred to Paul or the writers of the New Testament who believed that God had made human flesh and the physical universe, and would one day restore both when Christ returns. So, one of the most natural religious foundations for a positive view of the environment turns out to be Pauline Christianity -- a redemptive, salvific religion, yes, but one that can conceive of the final location of that salvation in other New Testament terms as a "New Heavens and a New Earth."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Shouting, "Amen!" with John Knox

Some of those who occasion this blog come from the Reformed tradition of Christianity, and others, like myself, find our home specifically in Presbyterianism. To those of you from these "tribes," please take a moment to gird up your loins before reading the next few sentences. Folks like us are known for doing things "decently and in order" and are sometimes chided by our Christian friends from other traditions for our stiffness in public worship. Well, it wasn't always so. Apparently, the practice of parishoners shouting, "Amen!" and other exclamations during the Sunday sermon has its historical roots, of all imaginable places, in Scottish Presbyterianism. And not in some late manifestion, but during the time of the Reformation itself. On no less an authority than Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the magisterial and massive The Reformation, "Scotland..developed the community drama of the sermon to its height. It was preceded by the prolonged ringing of the church bells which had once rung the faithful to Mass...Once everyone was in, the doors would be locked. Scottish congregations might then be encouraged to participate in the sermon-drama, being urged to shout out responses, cries of praise or 'Amen', in the manner that has been inherited by American evangelical Protestantism" (p.586). Honestly, I really thought the "Amen!" "Praise the Lord!" business was the original property of Pentecostals and Charismatics. Didn't you? I don't know what might happen if this fact gets out, and I fully expect that a few folks from my own congregation might start pressing their historical rights the first Sunday after they read this. Well, bless them. Most Christian liturgy, ours included, is full of congregational responses -- so why not during the sermon? As somebody once said, "When the Holy Spirit falls on some people, they quiet. When he falls on others, they get loud." So, as far as I'm concerned, we Presbyterians might be currently runnng an "Amen" deficit, to the degree that might even surprise our own theological and ecclesiologial forebearers. I've always been encouraged when I hear somebody blurt one out, however timidly. Knowing we've also got John Knox nodding in approval is a welcomed twist of church history that I, honestly, never saw coming. Amen, indeed.