Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Doctrine of Original Sin, or: "If we are lost, then we are lost together"

When Blue Rodeo wrote the lyrics to their song, Lost Together (quoted in the title to this post), they likely weren't thinking about the Christian doctrine of original sin, although considering a couple of the other lines, it does seem to fit quite well.  What "perfect world" is the singer referring to when he looks into his lover's eyes?  The world is broken somehow, for "so much [is] controlled by so few," and we are all "stumbling from one disaster to another."  It makes one wonder if the "shooting star" the singer sees near the end of the song, the sight of which makes him conclude that, "somehow it all makes sense," might actually be Satan plummeting from heaven.  Could the fact of these lover's relationship indicate that love is the force that ultimately does overcome sin?  "And I want all the world to know, that your love's all I need, all that I need.  And if we're lost, then we are lost together."  Nah, that's probably not what they were thinking when they wrote the song.  It was a fun thought experiment, though.

Alan Jacobs is talking about original sin, however, and its leveling or equalizing effect.  While not denying the equally biblical doctrine of humanity as created in the image of God, Jacobs posits an interesting theory: "that a belief in original sin serves as a king of binding agent, a mark of 'the confraternity of the human type,' an enlistment of us all in what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the 'universal democracy of sinners.'" 
 “By contrast [to the doctrine that all of humanity is created in the image of God], the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better.  It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though that person is not all he or she might be, neither am I.  It is true that not everyone can do this:  the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t.  (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) [Responding to evangelical teaching that everyone, regardless of class, is a sinner in need of repentance.]  But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word—to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others—than to lift up people whom our culturally formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves.  If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation.  That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.”
                                    -   Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History, p. 200-01

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Gospel, according to the gospels and the epistles...

If you can see past the Wrightian over-generalizations, there is a good corrective here:
     Christians, particularly in the Western world, have for a long time been divided between "epistles people" and "gospels people."  The "epistles people" have thought of Christianity primarily in terms of Jesus's death and resurrection "saving us from our sins."  The "gospels people" have thought primarily in terms of following Jesus in feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and so on.  The "epistles people" have often found it difficult to give a clear account of what was going on in Jesus's kingdom-announcement and his call to his followers to be "perfect."  The "gospels people"--or perhaps we should say the "beginning-of-the-gospels-people," since the line of thought they embrace usually screens out the last few chapters--have often found it difficult to explain why the Jesus who was doing these remarkable things had to die, and die so soon.  They have often found it difficult, in consequence, to relate to the central themes of Pauling theology. 
     This either/or split does no justice, in fact, to either the epistles or the gospels.  Still less does it do justice to Jesus himself.  For him, the kingdom which he inaugurated could be firmly established only through his death and resurrection.  Or, to put it the other way around, the main purpose of his death and resurrection was to establish the kingdom he had already begun to inaugurate.  The way the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus's death, with prolonged sections of preliminary teaching followed by quite detailed accounts of the "hearings" before the chief priests and the Roman governor, was chosen not for the sake of "local color" or mere historical reminiscence tacked on to the front of an event (the actual crucifixion) whose theological "meaning" must be culled from elsewhere.  The "meaning" of the cross, in the gospels, is that it is the execution of the kingdom-bringer, the one who gathers up the "royal" and "priestly" vocations of Israel and of all the human race, the one who at the same time embodies Israel's God coming to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven.  The famous passages which encapsulate what later writers have thought of as "atonement theology" (such as Mark 10.45: "The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many") are interpretive clues to understand one key dimension of what the whole story is about, not the superimposition of a supposedly "Pauline" theology (about Jesus "dying for our sins") on a narrative which is basically "about" something else.
     Likewise, for Paul the death and resurrection of Jesus did not accomplish merely a "supernatural" salvation having nothing to do with God's rescue of creation....for Paul the whole point of the achievement of Jesus and his death and resurrection is that, through Jesus, a redeemed people has come to birth, and that through this people the creator will ultimately set the whole world to rights. The point of it all is "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5.17; Galatians 6.15).  The gospels, the epistles, and Revelations itself "work" only when you see them as detailed elaborations of the large, complex, but utterly coherent story we sketched earlier: the call of Human to be God's image-bearer into creation, the call of Israel to be the rescuer of Human, and the vocation of Jesus to be the one who, completing Israel's task, rescues Human so that, through redeemed humankind, the whole creation can be liberated from its corruption and death and the project of new creation decisively launched.  Shrink this narrative, or leave out one or more key stages within it, and you will never understand the New Testament as a whole, still less its call to learn the habits of heart and mind that anticipate the final goal.
                                                                - N.T. Wright, After You Believe, p. 110-12.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Soul formation and care in the Psalter

"...the anatomy of all the parts of the soul, for not an affection will anyone find in himself whose image is not reflected in this mirror.  All the griefs, sorrows, fears, misgivings, hopes, cares, anxieties, in short all the disquieting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated, the Holy Spirit hath here pictured exactly."

                           - John Calvin, from the preface to his commentary on the Psalms

"The canonical shape of the Psalter assured the future generations of Israelites that this book spoke a word of God to each of them in their need.  It was not only a record of the past, but a living voice speaking to the present human suffering.  By taking seriously the canonical shape the reader is given an invaluable resource for the care of souls, as the synagogue and church have always understood the Psalter to be."

             - Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 523

"...the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.  Those who use the psalms as prayers are often not aware of this aspect, but...this is one of the most potent forms of ethical indoctrination."

         - Gordon J. Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically, p. 2

"In the other books we are taught by both precept and example what we ought to do.  This book not only teaches but also gives the means and method by which we may keep the precept and follow the example."

                                                     - Martin Luther, from his Preface to the Psalter

"Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill."

               - from "The Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation
                          of the Psalms," in On the Incarnation

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Bonhoeffer for our cultural/political moment

"Through all this [his resistance to Nazism and the compromising German church], Bonhoeffer wrote theology - sermons, lectures, circular letters, and books.  In a very great degree his writing is characterized by beautiful iterations of doctrine, a sort of visionary orthodoxy:  'History lives between promise and fulfillment.  It carries the promise within itself, to become full of God, the womb of the birth of God.'  To understand his method, one must remember his circumstances.  He is asserting the claims of Christ in all their radicalism in order to encourage and reassure those drawn to what became the Confessing Church.  At the same time, he is chastising those who use Christianity as an escape from the evils of the world and from the duties those evils imply, and he is chastising those who have accommodated their religion to the prevailing culture so thoroughly as to have made the prevailing culture their religion.  His object is to make core beliefs immediate and compelling, to forbid the evasions of transcendence and of acculturation.  He is using the scandal of the cross to discover the remnant church among the multitudes of the religious."

                                            -   Marilynne Robinson, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer", from
                                         The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought,  p.115-16

Who is doing this today?   How are they doing it?   If no one is, who will and how ought it be done?

Saturday, 28 January 2017


“Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.”  
                                                                                                             - Stuart Murray

I would add a potential alternative reading:

Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian beliefs and convictions upon which a society was based are consciously rejected, even while that society retains the institutions built by Christianity and even many (or most) of the moral presuppositions of Christianity, but retains them at such a subconscious level that they are not apparent to that society.  The post-Christian society consciously reacts to and rejects the Christian foundations upon which their functioning society was built and to which they ultimately and originally owe their existence, but doesn't see that what they are replacing that foundation with won't support the weight of their society.  Something like an angry teenager yelling at their parents, "I don't need you", but continuing to receive an allowance while they live in the security of the house their parents built.  Its only a matter of time before the teenager leaves home or the parents die and the brutal truth dawns upon them:  homes like that don't build themselves. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

Darkness and Light

"There is sufficient light for those who wish to see, and sufficient darkness for those of the opposite disposition.  Enough clarity to illumine the elect, and enough darkness to keep them humble.  Sufficient darkness to blind the reprobate, and sufficient clarity to condemn them and make them inexcusable."
                                                                                     - Blaise Pascal

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Election time...

Came across this timely little gem in a used book discarded from the Vancouver School of Theology, the first English printing of a little book called Last Testimonies, by Karl Barth.  The quote below is from an interview and the discussion topic is liberalism in the classical sense, not the political sense.  After appropriate distinctions are made, including Barth's warning to always beware of anything that becomes an "ism", the interviewer asks about political liberalism and Barth's involvement in politics.  Barth describes himself as pragmatically, though not ideologically, socialist.  Then this exchange comes, which may or may not provide small comfort to my American friends. 
Interviewer:  Socialism and liberalism are presented as opposites, at least in Switzerland and just before elections.  I think this antithesis has become historical, to put it guardedly.
Barth:  Yes, at election time and when party leaders speak.  So there are in fact no longer any genuine or clear alternatives.  No great and basic ideas seem to be in conflict any more.  I am always at a loss as to which party to vote for, if any. *
Interviewer:  Would you say that being liberal has nothing or not very much to do with political liberalism but that it is more a human attitude which cuts across all parties?
Barth:  Yes, I could accept that if we are to use the term.  But I do not set much store by the word.  If it is to be used at all I would prefer that it be used, as in our discussion, for basic style, a human posture.  What is called and calls itself liberal today, as here in Basel, could just as well...
          Interviewer: called conservative?

          Barth:  I am glad you said it and not I.  We know whom we have in mind and
          what paper, don't we?  ...But let them go their way in peace.

 * Emphasis mine

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.