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Posts Tagged ‘calvinism’

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After showing that both Gentiles and Jews are under sin, Paul discloses faith as a new way to be declared righteous and then compares it to the law:

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

(Rom 3:27-28).

I wonder what the primary reason is for why the law cannot bring salvation. I had always thought it had something to do with not being able to fulfill the totality of the law’s requirements: although trying, always falling short because of sin. This is alluded to in Galatians 3:10: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law'” (cf. Rom 9:31-32). But I’m unsure if it’s the reason why Paul saw something other than the law needed. In light of this, his puzzling assertion of being blameless under the law remains (Phil 3:6). But all are sinful under the law (except Paul and a few others?) “for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). This is a major point of Paul’s, expanding on it elsewhere and noting that the although the law was good, sin took advantage of it to do evil (Rom 7:7-13; cf. 5:19-21). It is not fully developed in Galatians, however, but implied (Gal 3:21-22). What is also evident is faith as an alternative to the law which separates Jews and Gentiles, probably what is being highlighted here in Romans 3:27-28, as an answer to the first three chapters, but also elsewhere (Rom 2:14-16; 9:8, 30; Gal 2:15-16; 3:8, 28; cf. Eph 2:14-16).¹

Now, although it is not the primary reason for faith, the inability to fulfill the law through works remains to me in my context its most devastating critique. Works cannot save because they are always an incomplete expression of the law’s requirements. Works is a relative category. What makes faith an absolute category? I think this is where a Calvinist Paul would be very useful. Our faith is not an absolute category, but what Jesus has done on the cross is. The contentious pistis christou (e.g. Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16 (twice), 20), translated either “faith in” and “faith of Christ” carries an unnecessary amount of theological weight for two words! Although it would help to look at some of the literature on this, at this point I tend towards the latter for two reasons. Firstly, theologically I would find it difficult to fulfill faith if it were an absolute category, regardless how small the requirement. Faith is a relative category: though simple trust and belief is all that is asked, my trust and belief will always fall short, but this is somehow still enough, made absolute by the grace of God. And secondly, just that, that God’s grace, sovereignty and initiative are such a dominant Pauline themes (e.g. Rom 3:3-4; 4:4-5; 5:6-8, 21; 11:30-32; Gal 2:21; 3:18).

* * *

¹Maybe Paul was blameless in a sense to whatever interpretation of the law he subscribed, yet in this he was blind to the sinfulness of persecuting the church…?

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“What good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed?”

(2Esdras 7:120 NRSV).

* * *

After a short recess due to some unexpected lack of inspirations, I’m returning with a follow-up post on grace after It’s not easy being evilWhereas the former focussed on the necessity of entering grace through law, this will focus on some difficulties in law persisting after grace. I apologise ahead for the lack of footnotes and overuse of brackets. WordPress is not ideal for essay-like writings.

What makes grace possible? Certain passages in the bible that stress God’s omnipotence point out how nothing we do can ultimately sway his plan; because of God’s complete sovereignty, all redemption that a fallen world requires originates in him. For example, take the classic sermon attributed to Paul in Acts:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

(17:24-27 NRSV)

A photo of John Milton on Instagram.

If God is God then he has no need for us to contribute to the success of his plans. He’s got it sorted. In one of my favourite Milton poems (ie. in one of my favourite poems), Milton explores his now relative inability to serve God after becoming blind:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed[¹]
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

He complains that as he grows closer to God in his old age, his body prevents him from serving the Lord more fully. Yet his conclusion is akin to the description of God in Acts: The Lord is able to fulfill his will without the great works of Milton (cf. Paradise Lost, which is a great work, above that of Paradise Regained, ironically and quite tellingly making the Fall more central to being human than Christ’s redemption), only now requiring that Milton wait faithfully.

Isn’t this omnipotence partly what enables God to forgive sins? If freedom allows us to do otherwise than God intends (ie. sin) then the Lord’s omnipotence allows him to allow for that freedom independently of the fulfillment of his will. Paul expresses this asymmetry in a popular verse:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 NRSV).

* * *

This alone makes me cynical of Zizek and Rollins’ atheistic enthusiasm towards the Christian legacy. God or the infinite, the Beyond, etc does not exist; he died on the cross. All we have now is the material Christian community, and the agapeic love thereof, which accepts us unconditionally (love the sinner, hate the sin). How then is this grace possible? The immutable alternative to sin and death, God’s ultimate and unchanging plan which exists in the infinite, has been shown to be wishful thinking, an illusion. Grace always was, and now knowingly, expressed in finitude, through imperfect believers.

I’m no scholar but humour me here. Say what Paul is saying in Romans is that it is impossible to fulfill the law through obedience to it, for various reasons, one being the universal sin of humanity (Romans 3:9ff), made known through the law (3:20), even taking the opportunity given by this knowledge to further assert itself (7:7-8). I think this can be possibly erroneously supplemented (in a good way) by some passages from the Messiah himself, and some good, commonsense examples. The Sermon on the Mount is a helpful place to start:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire[…]

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

(Matthew 5:17-23, 27-30 NRSV).

Jesus cannot be seen here as just creating other absolute categories. The problem with law here is that its requirements are never absolute. Jesus points this out by relativising them. A lot of people could boast that they never committed adultery or murdered anyone. But how many could say they never indulged feelings of lust or hate for anyone? The temptation of people approaching this passage is to miss the point of what Jesus is saying by creating new absolute categories: No longer is it just wrong to sleep with the newlywed next door, it’s wrong also to think about doing so. I cannot dismiss that Jesus’ words righfully challenge smug law-abiders who think they’ve ticked all the boxes, yet in reality they missed the point of the law. Yes, taken. But we need to take our hermeneutics one step further. But what can also be taken from this passage is that Jesus is asking of us something impossible. It’s now wrong to think about committing adultery. What if it’s wrong also to want to think about doing so? This is all to easily dismissed as an untouchable depth of the depraved heart, which is not equal to ‘willful sins’ simply because we wake up with it in the same way we wake up hungry. Anger and lust are part and parcel with our humanity. Jesus asks us to not be something which cannot not be.

Perhaps this is why Paul cites ‘covetousness’ as an example of failure to live up to the law (Romans 7:8). With the possible exceptions of worshipping Yahweh alone and honouring your father and mother, covetousness is the law in the Decalogue most immediately obvious as an internal sin. As is already evident in the Torah, and then in later Rabbinic literature, case law and a whole range of imaginative possibilities were devised to determine what was and what wasn’t transgression in externally measurable circumstances: “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12 NRSV). Coveting occurs internally where things like husbands, genitals and hands don’t exist. It is not entered into with externally measurable circumstances but lurks in the infinite subconsciousness and coexists with the desires to drink water, yawn when you’re tired and scratch an itch. Of course, you don’t need to respond to those desires, but to be told not to desire in the first place, this is difficult.

Coming back to Jesus’ sermon, what is worrying (although I tend to always feel not somehow worried but inspired when I read this passage) is that he calls us to live so highly, to “be perfect” (v.48), as a part of adhering to the law, to the extent that if we neglect to live up to this perfection then we “will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.20). Jesus presents a potential disciple with a similar conclusion, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 NRSV). The same language of perfection is used here. Although this “someone” had kept all the commandments (v.20), Jesus required yet more of him. The same/a similar theme appears elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel (12:1-14; 15:1-20; 23:1ff).

Not only are the requirements of the law infinite for internal things like lusting and coveting, both of which cannot be measured empirically (this is why psychology is a soft science; real scientists make conclusions about gravity and the structure of atoms, etc), but there is no way to way to live up to external requirements either. The Sabbath is for resting but that doesn’t mean you can neglect your bone-brokened donkey. If you’re walking along and see a piece of rubbish on the ground, you can put it in the bin nearby, but then you might see another, and then another. Is it right to spend the rest of your life cleaning up the streets or is it right to pick up one piece, ignore the others, and move on? Using violence to solve problems goes against who Jesus is, but what about in self-defense? It’s not needed. I can forgo the protection of my body to maintain my peaceful ideals. What, then, about defending vulnerable individuals? How do you intervene between an adult smacking up some kid? When do your actions become no longer defense on the part of another but unneeded violence? What we need now is a bunch of Rabbis to take Jesus as the new Torah, and then to meditate on the infinite extensions of “turn the other cheek”, producing a two volume commentary on Christian non-violence and every conceivable situation where the moral responsibility of the subject would be called into question. Peter Rollins’ parable, The third mile is useful here:

* * *

Back into the big picture, Jesus is pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious elite who hold a privileged place in society, along with access to the interpretations of the law, and therefore access to God. Paul takes the same kind of idea and shows how not just the religious elite but wider Israel had an exclusive status through the law that barred the Gentiles access to God (I’m here indebted to N T Wright for his gloss on Romans 2 — not hearers of the law (Jews) but doers (some Jews and Gentiles) will be justified at the judgement). What Paul and Jesus have in common here is that they are both criticising groups who bar others from access to God, which is not just an abstract, between-me-and-God spiritual superiority but a social superiority with far-reaching material consequences (eg. Matthew 15:5-6; John 4:9, 8:1ff; Acts 6:1; Galatians 2:12). It’s easy to get off topic when discussing the proper context of the passages. But Paul and Jesus’ presentation of an alternative to the law (while, of course, upholding the law) needs to be understood with what that offers, universal access to God and the material reality that comes with that.

Can Paul’s universality of sin and Jesus’ infinite requirements of the law then be removed from this context? I’m not qualified to give a proper answer. But, I can’t see, after first acknowledging the bigger picture, why not. Universal sin and impossible obedience are just that, universal. Paul sees this and presents an alternative, namely trusting/believing/having faith in God (Romans 3:21ff, 4:16ff; cf. Galatians 3:5) and living life in the Spirit (Romans 8; cf. Galatians 5:16-26). As Kierkegaard notes, in Christianity the definition of sin has shifted, “This is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith” (making reference to Romans 14:23, where Paul has now put his theology into a practical context).

Faith, after Abraham and the passages cited above, appears to me to be believing that God will fulfill his word(s). I tread carefully in giving a definition of life in the Spirit because of my Pentecostal background, which focusses on the response of the individual to the internal leading of the Holy Spirit, immediately connecting both faith and Spirit, although I will mention that this individualism² is not without biblical support (eg. Romans 14:5-12; Exodus 25:2; 1Corinthians 12:4-11). I am also aware of the emphases of Calvinist pneumatology, which hold some stakes in this definition, that is, that because of our total depravity (I actually get some sort of sick kick out of ascribing that to humanity, which no doubt some will cite as itself evidence of the doctrine) we cannot do good, let alone accept the message of the Gospel in faith, so that it is the Holy Spirit who works in our hearts and enables us to believe, also connecting two of Paul’s qualifiers for life in Christ. What appeals to me here is not our absolute dependence on God even for faith (which I disagree with, because it leads to determinism) but the framing of the Holy Spirit as God’s initiative, the topping up of what is incomplete in faith.

This brings us back to where we started, which is to acknowledge that Paul’s sermon in Acts continues with the words, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30 NRSV). And this is to acknowledge that while Milton could not serve God as he previously could with his sight, the Lord asks him now to “stand and wait”. These are expressions of faith, universal access to God through simply believing what he says. But faith in itself is art for art’s sake. It falls to the same fate as our flawed obedience to the law. This then is the Holy Spirit, who works with us through faith to overcome the infinite requirement, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 NRSV). God is pleased with what we do. Under law we were incited to sin, yet under faith the Lord uses us through his Spirit to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31 NRSV), even, as with Paul, become a necessary part in his plan by sharing the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15). Now the asymmetry of the omnipotent Creator and the finitesimal created is topped up and mediated through Holy Spirit in faith.

Under the new dichotomy of faith/sin against the old of virtue/sin (better, obedience-to-the-law/sin; Kierkegaard was dismantling Socratic, not Judaic understandings of sin), we are protected from the accusations of the law because by our faith God declares us righteous. This is not simply being acquitted from the responsibility to uphold the law, especially justice, but that through faith we now enter, with the Holy Spirit, into a new expression of law (Romans 8:2; 1Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). We uphold the law. Yet we fail in obedience to the law, as cited before:

If, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! (2:17 NRSV).

Under faith/sin, sin is redefined as unbelief. Christians remain believing, being justified through faith, yet remain sinners naturally in accordance with the Mosaic criteria (when we remove Jesus and faith and all that and judge ourselves again from the start). We remain disobedient, as does everyone, yet we are declared righteous; there is an absolute, finite requirement, one that can be met with: Faith.

* * *

The transcendent God then does just what atheist criticisms accuse him of doing, making meaningful something truly meaningless and securing hope in something truly hopeless.  Who is on their side? Who adheres to this incompleteness of grace, the absence of redemption, which originates in some fantasy non-material world? One unlikely place to look would be Israel’s prophets. The truth of a finite expression of grace can be understood like this: What we do matters. Material actions matter. Although God will ultimately judge the world, our sins still affect those around us. It was not enough for Israel to be called by God apart from the nations to know him and be loved by him; Israel was also to serve him. Thus Ezekiel can say, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV). Amos, speaking also of the neglect to provide for the poor and needy, writes of the Lord:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5:21-24 NRSV; it is worth reading the whole chapter (or the whole of Amos) to get a better idea of where exactly Israel had screwed up)

The offense of Israel’s actions is that they assumed their election overwrote social responsibility. Are there any similarities between Israel’s complacency under election and ours under faith? Yes. As with faith/sin, you could almost apply an election/sin to Israel, as to which Paul and Jesus also make reference (Galatians 2:15; Matthew 3:9; Romans 2:3). When faith or election fulfills the law then obedience becomes secondary. Although, with the Holy Spirit, we are led into obedience, disobedience maintains its consequences (Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:21). The absolute finite requirement of faith has become relativised and infinite, like its predecessor, the law. Thus Paul can say that he has not yet fully attained to the goal of his faith (Philippians 3:12). This verse can easily be read in the sense that Paul hasn’t died yet (cf. 1:21), as he’s speaking of the resurrection, but he’s also speaking of faith, righteousness before God, sharing in Christ’s sufferings, being found in him and knowing him (3:7-11), all of which are in the process of being attained in the present (this relationship of present incompleteness moving towards a complete future is elsewhere in, for example, Philippians 1:6 and 2:13-14, present salvation anticipating future). Elsewhere Paul can speak of his weaknesses, not just from suffering as a Christian, but facing responsibility (2Corinthians 11:28-29³).

Faith is now doubly incomplete. Firstly it privileges trust over obedience. Secondly, in the same way Paul cites scriptures to say there is “no one who is righteous” (Romans 3:10), he rightfully can say that there is no one who believes. What is more, if we embrace death of God theology to its end then there is no Holy Spirit, no perfect-ultimate will to top up our mistakes and bring cosmic redemption. We are left to our own devices where material action is both necessary and impossible. Yet even with God, material action is both necessary and impossible (improbable, without determinism or complete ‘sovereignty’, etc).

* * *

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1).

As with most things in life, this ends in despair. People looking for happier times should return to the days of Mario Kart, picnics and puppy love. Although the conclusion is decidedly un-Christian, I’m not yet ready to take some pat answers. Something about denial being the first sign of guilt. Antinomianism is the heresy where grace is like a license to do whatever you want, and you want to sin. Ironically, it comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning law. When grace allows you to do whatever you want, you’re operating under the heresy that literally means to be without the law:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NRSV).

We will always fall short of our material responsibilities at the same time as faith’s ultimate inability to hide us from them. The obvious answer is that at least you can try. Try to be obedient. Strive towards perfection. And whether you’re a theistic Christian and your failures are contrasted to the work of the Holy Spirit and the absolute condition of your heart, or you’re an atheistic Christian and Jesus’ challenge to live always beyond the law impels you to a radical life of helping others, note this: Striving is not being. Trying is a form of failure. This is the truth of human depravity: We have miserably failed.

* * *

¹”speed” here is a verb. I always tripped up on this until I realised that.

²When I say individualism I don’t mean it in the existential sense of the individual making meaning for their self out of their personal relationship with God/existence, nor do I mean it in the consumerist/prosperity gospel sense of serving God for the benefits he provides you as an individual, but I mean it in the sense of the community with emphasis upon the individual: We are individuals, separate people, and our individual actions contribute, for good or for bad, to the Kingdom of God.

³The NRSV translates the Greek pyroumai as ‘I am indignant’, which ignores Paul’s use of it in 1Corinthians 7:9, denoting the fire of lust. I’m no translator, but the NRSV doesn’t even provide a footnote with an alternative translation, where it is possible, and, I think, important.

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Nothing is more readily evident than that the greatest attainable certainty with respect to anything historical is merely an approximation. And an approximation, when viewed as a basis for an eternal happiness, is wholly inadequate, since the incommensurability makes a result impossible.

–Søren Kierkegaard

* * *

Kierkegaard, aware of the advances in history and archaeology during his time, argues that that faith needs an objective basis, but because the objective is constantly under question and development then this objective basis is thus impossible and all objective content that we base our faith on — Jesus’ death and resurrection — is merely an approximation. The divide between subjective (our approximation) and objective (what we are approximating) should also be called into question: Truth that is fully subjective has no content because the approximation is the subject’s reading of the object and truth that is fully objective is obviously inaccessible because we access objects through our subjectivity. Truth is therefore always in the relationship between the subject and its object¹. Truth is a verb.

* * *

To make use of some other terms widely utilised by Kierkegaard, approximation also occurs between the finite (here subject) and infinite (here object). There is a bias in which particular finite activities are the sites of interaction with the infinite (Of course, all of finitude is in perpetual interaction with the infinite, but this is referring to Kierkegaard’s concern for eternal happiness of the individual, and more widely, the site where the finite is redeemed from evil/suffering by the infinite.). For example, take Paul’s words in one of his sin lists: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5 NIV). The key word here is idolatry, which brings to mind the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Sin is sin because it is a form of idolatry; it puts something that is not God above him. The first commandment could occur first because the following commandments are just variations on it. Alternatively, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (v.1) can be seen as the first commandment, and the prohibition of idolatry is just a variation on the reality of God’s identity, the most rudimentary truth. Thus even if the penitent’s words in psalm 51 are applied to David and Bathsheba, therefore sidelining David’s poor treatment of his good friend Uriah, they still make sense: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v.4). Sin is idolatry and idolatry hampers the redemption of the finite through the infinite because the finite persists in it’s finitude, without acknowledged need for its definition in relation to infinitude: Idolatry is the relation of the finite to the finite, whereas worship is the relation of the finite to the infinite.

Idolatry somehow never appealed to me…

* * *

This, then, is the hypocrisy: Christianity privileges some finite means over others:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

(Hebrews 4:15-16).

Prayer is the relation of the subject (believer, etc) to its object (God). Prayer is an approximation, and cannot approach God as he is because this requires objectivity, which is impossible. Only Calvinism can overcome the idolatry of prayer by having God pray to himself through the believer as an instrument rather than subject. Is the answer to idolatry then relativism, that since prayer depends on a much closer approximation of God by treating him as he is due, as opposed to gluttony which involves a lot less conscious acknowledgement of God, the two swing back into their absolute categories and prayer remains worship while gluttony remains idolatry? Is prayer only worship or acceptable because it is less idolatrous than gluttony and vice versa?

* * *

This is the wisdom of Peter Rollins’ landmark book, How (not) to speak of God, where he examines the story of the Israelites and the golden calf. Actually, you should read the book, which is a lot more conclusive than this post. The Israelites were worshipping God, though through the medium of a golden calf, as is indicated by the almost laughable-from-our-perspective address to the calves:

He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

(Exodus 32:4-6).

Put aside the last sentence with seems to be the author also encouraging us to laugh at the naivety of the Israelites (as also the writers of the gospels encourage us to laugh at the continuing of-course-I-wouldn’t-do-that faux pas (plural) of the disciples), and you could almost have the same religion with just a different approach. The only other difference would be an almost purely linguistic one, where God, instead of residing in the ark of the covenant, is the golden calf. That overt idolatry is linked with revelry only seals the deal. The revelry arises because God is met on our terms rather than his own, allowing Rollins to say, “it is the way one engages with an object or idea that makes an idol an idol rather than some kind of property within it”. Idolatry is not objective but relational. God is not an idol but our relation to him is.

I think this adequately demonstrates the connection between the golden [rabbit] and feasting and revelry².

* * *

The problem is that idolatry and worship co-exist within relationality. The gap between subject and object can adequately be called worship (everything is within God’s will, inclusive of sin, that to barely exist is to worship him) or idolatry (everything falls short of acknowledging God as he is, therefore acting in response to an approximation of him, which is idolatry). The latter is to be preferred. Freedom/human agency to some mysterious extent is necessary because otherwise God redeems only himself, which means pantheism, which is itself a cover for non-existence. How then do we overcome the idolatry of relation, continuing to relate as subjects, which is entirely necessary to redemption?

* * *

¹This insight was refined for me in Žižek’s second essay in The monstrosity of Christ, appealing to previous trends in philosophy, of which Kierkegaard is also a part.

²My study bible notes that the language around ‘revelry’ suggests an orgy. Maybe it was a rabbit, and the later interpolation of ‘calf’ was a polemically motivated attack on Hindu merchants…

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It’s a hard knock life for us. And I’m not just talking about lame movies. However much Solomon Kane bordered on the lame when I watched it not too long ago, I was half-overjoyed by the profundity of insight it offered on the human condition: Solomon Kane is a bit of a treasure hunter in the early 17th Century, violently and mercilessly making his mark on the world and receiving some decent bounty. One misadventure in Africa takes him into a fortress; notably, his enemies that were guarding it refuse to follow him in. As he ascends, his men slowly disappear, until he eventually reaches the throne room, entering in alone with the doors closing behind him. A short introduction and Solomon Kane is before the Devil’s Reaper, who has appeared to claim his soul after his life of violence. Solomon quickly displays some sophistic sword action, managing to elude the supernatural and later return home to England. I apologise for the necessity of recalling the opening of the film in it’s almost entirety, but let me continue. Clearly affected by this experience, Solomon commits to being a man of peace by spending the rest of his life in isolation at a monastery. Later on in the film he meets a small party of pacifist Puritans. One of them, Mr Crowthorn, reveals his military past:

“I fought in the Queen’s Army once, before I found my faith. Taking another man’s life, that’s not an easy thing to do, don’t you agree?”

Solomon replies:

“I must confess Mr Crowthorn, I was never more at home than I was in battle. Killing came easily to me”.

Solomon Kane in the film

That’s it right there. Mr Crowthorn and Solomon Kane approach Christian lifestyle completely differently. For Mr Crowthorn, his conversion and subsequent faith provide the necessary out and over, the new standpoint of meaning from which he can now view his old life of violence as completely without meaning. His faith is not a means to an end but an end in itself. If we take Mr Crowthorn for a type and read the entirety of his faith in this sense then even any hope beyond the grave is completely subordinated to the present, a live lived in the footsteps of Jesus. For Solomon, however, he does not know violence as empty and meaningless, but it remains to be the highest point of meaning he has yet experienced in his life, as the words at home indicate. His faith does not come naturally as a result of his conversion, but his faith and non-violence are the burdens he bears to withhold his damnation. He would much rather be exercising his bloodlust than living out the peaceful remainder of his life waiting for death, yet he knows he will be vindicated by maintaining this peace. Solomon’s lifestyle, if typified, is a more primitive, milk-and-honey faith, one that is only the means to an end and sacrifices the present for the future.

* * *

How does one make the move from the Solomon Kane faith of unwillful self-denial to the Mr Crowthorn faith of willful obedience? To realise and seek to overcome this disconnect is a part of the Christian tradition. One example is of Francis Xavier, a 16th Century Jesuit missionary, who challenges his own motivations:

Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
Shall I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
Or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward–
But as thyself hast loved me,
O everlasting Lord!

To love for love’s sake is a higher expression and truer definition of love than one that gives thought to the self. I cannot discount this beautiful prayer. But what must be asked of all of these movements is, where ethically are they situated? With what motivations does Francis seek to change his motivations? Once Francis discerns the selfish nature of his faith, what dark-between must he enter into to complete it? In other words, why exactly does Francis desire to love for love’s sake (or for God’s sake)? If he desires to do so without thought of heaven and hell, and this includes in an implicit sense where he gives thought to any kind of reward, for example, more of God’s presence, then he need not desire to have a complete love because his desire is already an expression of selfless desire. If, however, he unwittingly seeks to be justified by moving from selfish love to complete love then he must necessarily arrive at this through incomplete love, his selfish love. In either case his primary desire annuls the destination desire. To put the words of Paul in another context, “Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!” (Romans 3:8 NIV).

* * *

If we ourselves cannot legitimately make the move from selfish to selfless faith (and I cannot talk of these in absolute terms, of course; each progressive move is from a less so to a more so, rather than a no to a yes), then the obvious prophetic answer must be that the cause must lay outside of ourselves. In one of the best games of all time, Ocarina of time, Link the protagonist must symbolically face himself half way through the game. Up until now he has slain various forces of evil that have been reclaiming his homeland, Hyrule. Half way through the water temple, Link finds himself in a seemingly endless, desolate, mirror-like room, with a tree and a pond in center. After looking around, a figure appears beside the tree. On approaching, the figure appears as Dark Link, a shadowy version of himself. Before Link proceeds any further, before he can confront Ganondorf, the source of evil who has been oppressing Hyrule, he must confront and overcome an entirely different opposition, himself. Naturally, this is impossible. We are ourselves; how then can we overcome ourselves? Link nonetheless proceeds… only to find that each strike is countered with equal force, and each raising of shield is mockingly mirrored. Could it be that Link cannot land a hit on his other self because he is in actuality aiming at nothing at all? Is suicide his only out?

This picture should give an indication of Link’s predicament. Note the player’s excellently good choice of having the war hammer equipped on c-down, which will make sense as you read on.

Yet self-overcoming depends on this: that our two selves are not identical. A chess master who plays the most honest game with himself can only finish in a stalemate, a technical non-event. Yet if the player had access on one side of the game to an extra couple of queens, this would throw out of balance the identicality of his selves and allow for greater variance in the outcomes of the game (as also does the turns-based element of chess, but for a master this would make little difference). Thus in Ocarina of Time, Link is matched with sword and shield but not fire or a war hammer. When Link wields the war hammer, Dark Link cannot counter with the same, engendering immediately non-identicality, and consolidating the partition of the self.

In Christian theology, grace is God’s way of giving us a war hammer. As before shown, it is impossible to legitimately love selflessly, as it must be arrived at through selfish love, or it is already arrived at. If the latter is the case it is because the Holy Spirit has reoriented my desire.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws”

(Ezekiel 36:25-26 NIV; cf Jeremiah 31:33-34).

Back to the example of Solomon Kane, he cannot legitimately make the move from salvation-oriented self-denial to contentment and meaning in peace, as his desire for the latter is an expression of the former. His completed faith must arise independently of his struggle for it, as he will only eternally lock swords with his selfish desires. The Holy Spirit must take his own initiative and act as a war hammer upon Solomon’s desires, thus redefining and redeeming them. From a Calvinist perspective, even Solomon’s asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is mediated by the Holy Spirit, so that God can complete Solomon’s salvation without flawed human involvement.

* * *

Yet what if Solomon is not blessed enough to receive this providence? What if he remains, to use the proper Calvinist terminology, truly reprobate? Must we depend entirely on divine caprice for the redeeming of our desires? Is there a way, in Jesus’ words, to enter the sheep pen without going through the gate (John 10:1,9)? Speaking of Jesus, what are all these conveniently passed over mentions, just a few examples from Matthew’s gospel alone, of reward (Matthew 5:12, 46; 6:1-18; 10:42; 16:27; 25:14-30)  and punishment (Matthew 8:12; 14:32; 22:13)? Is Solomon justified in missing half the point of the Gospel message just so he can secure his own salvation? Opportunistic hecklers of the Gospel miss the wisdom in Jesus’ admonishments based on reward and punishment: It is impossible to freely break from this orientation without the intervention of an external cause. If we remain selfish, let us continue in it and strive against it to eventually become selfless.

While causality blesses some, it is not yet impossible to attain the selfless orientation on your own means; it only requires a kind of coup d’état with selfish means. Further, this is only completely seen as selfish with a strictly prospective view of desire. Actions judged by their motivations through self-reflection may often be discounted, “I have been giving a lot of my time to that volunteer group, but originally only because I knew I needed to look beyond myself and that girl was pretty sexy too”. This requires some slaughtering of the literal meaning of motivation, but consider if motivations can not just be prospective (anticipating) but retrospective (reflecting). The previous example is one of prospective motivation. The volunteer group could have at the outset appeared unappealing, so the subject appeals to his responsibility and relationship opportunities to engage in something that requires self-sacrifice. These are the rewards. Retrospective motivation in this case is where reflection on completing the activity supersedes the original motivations, “I honestly had no interest in making soup for homeless people but after doing so I feel it’s more important than justifying my middle-class indifference and engaging casual flirting”.

The initiation of the Holy Spirit is not exclusive to Calvinist thinking but may be implicit in other evangelical/Protestant theologies. These theologies may allow for the movement Solomon makes with his selfishness into selflessness, but the assumption is also that Solomon makes the movement from asking help of the Holy Spirit to being moved by/moving with the Holy Spirit. This is to view conversion, as with Mr Crowthorn, as something drastically life-changing, a redefinition of all desires of the heart and patterns of the mind, in accordance with New Testament theology (eg. John 3:5-6; Romans 8:5, 12:2; 2Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22-24; Hebrews 8:10-11). The full conversion of Solomon would retroactively annul his original selfish desires with which he enters into it.

What is missing in this account of the Gospel is the progressive nature of faith. A few weeks ago somebody asked me to grow my hair. To grow my hair means I must decide every day to maintain my commitment, but to cut my hair I can decide on a whim. Not for everyone is faith like cutting your hair, which is once-off and can account for large changes; faith may also be like growing your hair. Therefore sometimes a life lived always asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is more of a reality than a life lived with the help of the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit, the constancy of always having to ask for his help and the commitment required to live out faith in his absence make faith more reminiscent of works-based salvation than Paul probably intended. But what out is there? Contrariwise to the film, if Solomon had maintained his unwillful life of self-denial, possibly he would have come to a point where his legalism would have been usurped by his greatest yet experience of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The eventual meaning arising from the call to peace would act as a retrospective motivation upon the call, replacing his prospective motivation of self-preservation. Or maybe he would have continued to suppress his desire for violence until he died, without the real inner change testified to in the Gospel, and hoped that the Lord would look gracefully upon his self-righteousness.

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A couple or so days ago I came across Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. It’s amazing how someone can be so well-read, where Christopher is both the subject and the object of that verb (which is functioning as an adjective). The book opens with a couple of quotes from Primo Levi, an Italian who survived Auschwitz. Hitchens dedicates the book to him. Here’s one of the quotes:

Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.

Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas-chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.

And that’s it. On this haphazard visit I foolishly ended up buying a collection of Heidegger’s rightings. I am gradually beginning to experience the gap between owning books and reading them. My soul too is society to an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Just to let you know, my over-engagement with reading material and good friends has crippled my usual enthusiastic blogging machinations. Something decent will arise out of this. In a few weeks or so. Unless I read Heidegger and realise out of pure deduction from his plethora of perspective that everything to say has already been said and in some sort of cliché despair turn to writing dark children’s books. And with that I leave you with a quote from my second favourite Arminian, Roger E. Olson (although he did not write it but “Someone” did):

“Someone has said that no theology is worth believing that cannot be preached standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz” (Against Calvinism, 2011, p.25).

This is a picture of Heidegger

This is a picture of Marlon Brando

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They say, “Evil prevails when good men fail to act.” What they ought to say is, “Evil prevails.” — Yuri Orlov (Nicholas Cage) in Lord of War

* * *

To have a fateful¹ outlook on life means to see everything as inevitable. There is no room for “What if that…” and “What if this…” Everything just is. So the fateful person accepts the inevitable. But it doesn’t always have to be negative, like Shakespeare’s famous introduction to Romeo and Juliet: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes /A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”, as if to say the tragic endings of the couple were determined by the stars. I was more worried about the fatal loins… Sometimes fate even seems to be on your side. “There was no way even I could have stood in the way of myself getting this job; it was meant to be” or “Everything good is coming to me lately”.

What’s this other word then, faithful? You might find, if you listen hard enough, that when most people say faithfulness, they’re actually saying fatefulness. The two just sound the same. Could they really actually possibly really be that much different? Yet at the heart of the Christian story, the very beginning, there is a rejection of fate; things are not the way they’re supposed to be. In the words of Switchfoot:

Dreaming about providence
And whether mice or men have second tries
Maybe we’ve been living with our eyes half open
Maybe we’re bent and broken, broken

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?

This particular mouse had plenty of second tries

* * *

In the Christian tradition (of mission, contrition and spiritual nutrition) God stands in opposition to fate: We were created for communion with God and creation, but we rejected this for other pursuits so that the position we are now in is not our fate; it is not meant to be². The deus contra fatum³ (God against fate) summarises holistic biblical theology in that God has dealt the death-blow to death/fate and is continuing his work to restore an Edenic earth, to restore what is meant to be. To pray “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10 NIV) is to acknowledge that God’s will stands in contradistinction to the state of the earth at present.

Jesus’ earthly ministry is teeming with examples of deus contra fatum. In one of my favourite examples, Jesus not only asserts the divine will against the fate of being born blind but he gives new meaning to it:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him[…]”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, made some mud with the saliva and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go”, he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” […] So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

(John 9:1-3,6-7 NIV)

The man’s fate was to live life without sight. Jesus’ reason for the man’s blindness is not so much a theodicy, a justification for his blindness in divine terms, as it is an intervention on divine terms. Of course the man wasn’t born blind for God’s purposes, but his blindness, on encountering Jesus, becomes a part of God’s purpose. Through Jesus’ redemptive work he gives the suffering a new meaning.

Paul heralds the deus contra fatum through his descriptions of the significance of life in Christ and Christian community. The gods are not an orgy of selfish caprice, demanding our sacrifices and punishing us for their own failures4, but the Lord himself would give his all for us (Philippians 2:6-8)5. We are not pawns in a chess game of cosmic-indifference, but loved more than we can imagine (Romans 8:38-39). All distinctions and inequalities that our birth and society thrust upon us are overcome in Christ and Christian community as we are adopted as children of God (Galatians 3:26-28) and citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).

* * *

Ah, that was refreshing. But it’s all a bit simple. In some very dark corners of your beloved God’s Word we come across an altogether different conception of fate, one that necessarily arrives in conceptualising existence both as not as it’s meant to be and in line with God’s sovereign rule. But rather than blissful submission to deus ut fatum (God as fate)6, the subject takes on the spirit of deus contra fatum, this time against God himself. This is to say that “Your will be done” can only be prayed regarding this caveat a couple of verses earlier, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 NIV).

Abraham prefigures universalism in his confrontation with God before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. He persists in asking God to relent from destruction because there may be righteous people in the cities (Genesis 18:20-33). Moses prays that God will not show the extent of his anger to Israel after they turn to idolatry, although the Lord is determined to do so (Exodus 32:7-14). The evil king Ahab is promised by the Lord through Elijah to die horribly but, after repenting in light of Elijah’s words, God adjusts his intentions (1Kings 21:17-29). And, much to the prophet’s dismay, Jonah pronounces judgement upon the foreign city of Nineveh, who in turn repent, causing God to change his mind (Jonah 3:4-10 NRSV — many popular translations like the NIV avoid the awkward theology; cf James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8).

Anyone keen for some modern propheteering? Nineveh’s back up and running!

Surely God gets it together by the time of Jesus though? Or maybe Jesus represents a stronger affinity with this side of God, one more open to the challenges of the people who accuse God of fatefulness. It turns out that his first miracle, the inauguratory water into wine, is a reaction to motherly nagging (John 2:1-11). A Canaanite woman interrupts Jesus’ important ministry to the Jews and demands his attention when he feels the need to focus on other things (Matthew 15:21-28). And towards the end of his ministry he seems to desire otherwise than God’s plans for him (Matthew 26:39), culminating in disillusionment with God’s abandoning of him, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 NIV). These examples show both how Jesus changed his will in regard to the desires of others, and how he as God was at odds with God.

Of course, in each of the illustrations from both Old and New Testaments, one could, to avoid Pelagian/Arminian heresy, etc, and maintain the duality of God = good, person =bad, impose their own theology onto the stories and read them as opportunities or tests that God was giving to reveal the true hearts of the characters in them. I think it’s somehow better to read the stories at face value though, and give them some credit in themselves for what they’re saying. In the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord admits to this principle outright, although it’s more so regarding sin, punishment and repentance (which a lot of New Testament theology problematises, eg. Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3; Galatians 3:10-14), rather than such as intercession (the Abraham, Moses, Mary examples) or beseeching regarding your own undeserved suffering (the Canaanite woman):

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

(Jeremiah 18:7-10 NIV)

* * *

The biblical story of King Hezekiah is another favourite of mine. The writer of 2Kings praises him for his trust in and following after the Lord, connecting this to the blessing that his kingdom received and saying, “There was no-one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him” (2Kings 18:5-7 NIV). Take that, David!7 The thing with this dude is though that he, like other examples listed here, contested what God had planned, in a similar situation to the Canaanite woman towards Jesus. Basically, the prophet Amoz comes up to Hezekiah when he’s sick to let him know that he’s going to die. Thanks for the heads up, bro! Hezekiah is disillusioned. He weeps before God so Isaiah comes to let him know that God has decided to give him another fifteen years (This story paraphrased from 2Kings 20:1-5). But the interesting thing is that Hezekiah doesn’t get up to a lot in these next fifteen years. He managed to have a son, Manasseh, who was twelve when Hezekiah died, but turned out to be a bit rotten, according to the historian (2Kings 21:2). Hezekiah had seen a great defeat of Assyrian oppressors prior to his sickness (2Kings 18:17-19:37), and in his extra years the Lord promised the end in its fullness (2Kings 20:6). But all of Hezekiah’s righteous achievements seem to me more so a part of his previous life, that within the parameters of God’s will.

God pwning the Assyrian army

Maybe his extra years were a display of God’s grace. In fact, Hezekiah didn’t explicitly ask for more years; he only wept because he knew his time was near (2Kings 20:3). Isaiah records a song attributed to Hezekiah that notes he was in the ‘prime of [his] life’ when Amoz announced his impending death (Isaiah 38:10). This is where the argument goes full circle. It is the embrace of both Deus ut fatum and Deus contra fatum: God against the God of fate. Is this not the most viable conclusion to draw on the Judeo-Christian conception of a sovereign God? That is, a God who oversees and is in control of all, yet opposes what is going on? As the serious King James translators put it:

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 KJV).

* * *

¹Fatalistic is probably a more recognisable term concerning the context, but for the sake of poetry!

²This, of course, is to avoid all that controversy around the Fall as a measure for God’s sovereignty (a euphemism for determinism). Oh, and that other controversy concerning the origins of evil, which is no doubt an uneasy paramour of the question as to whether God intended the Fall…

³Totally working on my Latin here to create the illusion of working within some historical theological parameters. Help me out if you can: deus (God, masculine, nominative) contra (against) fatum (fate, masculine, accusative). I was unsure whether to put fate in the nominative or accusative and what gender to use, but I’m pretty sure it’s the accusative because it acts as an object; the only reservation I had was that contra wasn’t a verb.

4Also a reading of Christianity that our theology often makes all too easy for us and the world around us to agree with.

5Paul’s embodiment of this complete self-sacrifice is an important example to make note of here, as it provides a good metaphor for Jesus’ cosmic humility in that it approaches the self-emptying from the perspective of the believer rather than Saviour: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4, on Israel rejecting the Gospel).

6Does it still make sense if I replace ut for contra? Help me out here! And to what extent should I consider word order?

7Take that Jesus!???

 

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