Archives For David Bentley Hart

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes. First, though, a few vocab words are in order to orient you to DBH’s argument:

Apatheia: the attribute of God, held by the ancients, in which God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, is unaffected by objects outside of himself.

Impassible: the ancient doctrine that God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, does not suffer due to the actions of another.

Immutable: the ancient belief that God, as eternal and existing outside of creation, does not change.

So then…God does not change- not ever- and God is not changed- by us.

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Here are the $ quotes:

“The contents of the creed do not constitute simply some system of metaphysical affirmations, but first and foremost a kind of ‘phenomenology of salvation’; the experience of redemption- of being joined by the Spirit to the Son and through the Son to the Father- was the ground from which the church’s doctrinal grammar arose.”

 

“The Christian understanding of beauty emerges not only naturally, but necessarily, from the Christian understanding of God as a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting and joy.”

 

“Liberal theology’s dogmatic wasting disease- of which no symptom could be more acute than the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendictic twinge- was one of progressive and irrepressible abstraction, a moralization and spiritualization of salvation that made of Christ the unique bearer (as opposed to the unique content) of the Christian proclamation.”

 

“If the identity of the immanent Trinity (who God is in himself) with the economic Trinity (who God is as revealed by his works) is taken to mean history is the theater within which God- as absolute mind, process or divine event- finds or determines himself as God, there can be no way of convincingly avoiding the conclusion that God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God); so that, God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity.

The God whom Genesis depicts as pronouncing a deliberative ‘Let us…’ in creating humanity after his image and as looking on in approbation of his handiwork, which he sees to be good, is the eternal God who is the God he is forever is, with or without creation, to whom creation adds absolutely nothing.

God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his personality as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large…

God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity and freedom; which is to say that God is possessed of that loveliest ‘attribute:’ apatheia.”

 

“God does not even need us to be ‘our‘ God.

All we are, all we can ever become, is already infinitely and fully present in the inexhaustible beauty, liveliness and virtue of the Logos, where it is present already as responsiveness and communion; thus God indeed loved us when we were not.”

 

“Immutability, impassibility, timelessness- surely, many argue, these relics of an obsolete metaphysics lingered on in Christian theology just as false believe and sinful inclinations linger on in a soul after baptism; and surely they always were fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a God of election and love, who proves himself through fidelity to his own promises against the horizon of history, who became flesh for us (was this not a change in God, after all?) and endured the passion of the cross out of pity for us. Have we not seen the wounded heart of God, wounded by our sin in his eternal life?

This is why so much modern theology keenly desires a God who suffers, not simply with us and in our nature, but in his own nature as well; such a God, it is believed, is the living God of scripture, not the cold abstraction of a God of the philosophers; only such a God would die for us.

At its most culpable, the modern appetite for a passible God can reflect simply a sort of self-indulgence..a sense that, before God, though we are sinners, we also have a valid perspective, one he must learn to share with us so that he can sympathize with our lot rather than simply judge us; he must be absolved of his transcendence, so to speak, before we can consent to his verdict.”

 

“The Christian doctrine of divine apatheia, in its developed patristic and medieval form, never concerned an abstract deity incapable of loving us…the juxtaposition of the language of apatheia with the story of crucified love is precisely what makes the entire narrative of salvation in Christ intelligible. It is an almost agonizing irony that, in our attempt to revise trinitarian doctrine in the ‘light’ of Auschwitz, invariably we end up describing a God- who it turns out- is actually simply the metaphysical ground of Auschwitz.”

For being conditioned by history such a god is ultimately culpable for that history.

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

Lingering barely behind these quotes is a critique of the Christianity that liberal Protestantism inherited from Paul Tillich, which seeks to make the faith ‘relevant’ to modernity by translating it into generalized principles of human experience. It’s this sort of Christianity that turns the resurrection into a metaphor for ‘life after death.’

DBH’s other sparring partner here is post liberalism (perhaps best represented by Stanley Hauerwas) which tends to conceive of Christianity as a particular cultural-linguistic expression as a way of avoiding the sort of all-encompassing metaphysical claims ancient Christianity made. In other words, you don’t know what ‘resurrection’ means until you’ve been part of the community of faith and learned the language we call Christian. Such a move, DBH argues, fails to account for the deep, universal claim about all of creation that resurrection makes.  rp_faith4.jpg

 

Anyway, as always, DBH says it better than me:

 

“The starkly stated alternative between thoroughgoing demythologization and thoroughgoing [biblical] literalism looks altogether too much like simple critical indolence; one must at least have some feel for the difference between a story as openly fabulous as the narrative of Eden and a story as concrete as that of Christ’s Resurrection, which makes a disorienting (and scandalous) claim to historical actuality, with repercussions that can be described in terms of places and times.”

 

“The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus tell us nothing in the abstract about human dereliction or human hope- they are not motifs of a tragic wisdom or goads to an existential resolve- but concern first what happened to Jesus of Nazareth, to whose particular truth and radiance all the general ‘truths’ of human experience must defer.”

 

“I dislike the tendency [postliberals] have of employing ‘narrative’ as such as an antifoundationalist shelter against critique and against the ontological and epistemological questions that theology must address.”

 

Ontological…epistemological…silly words, I know. But they set up this money quote:

“I believe the Christian story is the true story of being, and so speaks of that end toward which all human thought and every natural human act are actually oriented, and so can and must speak out of its story in a way that is not ‘narrative’ only, in a simple sense, and in a way that can find resonances and correspondences in the language and ‘experience’ of those who are not Christian.

 

And, I confess, I believe there is indeed the possibility of a consummation of all reason in a vision and a wisdom that cannot be reached without language.”

 

“Whereas the story of violence [being intrinsic to the universe] simply excludes the Christian story of [ontological] peace, the Christian story can encompass, and indeed heal, the story that rejects it; because that story too belongs to the peace of creation, the beauty of the infinite, and only its narrative and its desires blind it to a glory that everywhere pours in upon it.”

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

I took 3 of his classes.

I had no idea of what he was talking about 93% of the time.

He didn’t betray any indication that he cared even 1%.

I was hooked 100%.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes:

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

“Beauty is a category indispensable to Christian thought: all that theology says of the triune life of God, the gratuity of creation, the incarnation of the Word, and the salvation of the world makes room for us a thought, and a narrative, of the beautiful.”

 

“The kerygma that Christ enjoins his disciples to preach is not some timeless wisdom, an ethical or spiritual creed fortified by the edifying example of its propagator, but a particular story, a particular Jew; a particular form, which we call the beautiful…The Christian use of the word ‘beauty’ refers most properly to a relationship of donation and transfiguration, a handing over and return of the riches of being.”

 

“It is what one loves- what one desires- that determines to what kingdom one belongs.”

 

“Beauty’s authority, within Christianity, guards against any tendency toward gnosticism, for two reasons: on the one hand, worldly beauty shows creation to be the real theater of divine glory- good, gracious, lovely, and desirable, participating in God’s splendor- and on the other hand, it shows the world to be absolutely unnecessary, an expression of divine glory that is free, framed for God’s pleasure.”

 

“The gnostic impulse belongs not only to antiquity: it has haunted every age. Wherever theology seeks to soothe those who are offended by the particularity of Christ or struggles to extract a universally valid wisdom from the parochialism of the Gospels, a gnosis begins to take shape at the expense of the Christian kerygma.”

 

“The real danger that liberal Protestantism represents is a gnostic etiolation of the gospel:

Its transformation into a fable of the soul, whose true meaning is a wisdom and peace vouchsafed inwardly, in the intactile depths of the self. Liberal Protestantism demonstrates with extraordinary clarity that to demythologize is not to demystify; its ultimate effect is not to ground faith in history or the worldliness of creaturely being, but to de-historicize, to unworld the soul, to make faith the experience of a mystical eschaton in perpetual advent, in the inner core of the present, imparted to the self in its most inviolable subjectivity, The church as a society in time (and society, therefore, as potentially the church) is displaced from the center of faith by the story of the self as a homeless wanderer seeking escape from history.”

“It is of course good to acknowledge that the geocentric view of the universe is incorrect, or that the spheres of the heavens do not physically separate the realm of the Most High from the world below, but Liberal Protestantism goes farther; it brings the entire weight of faith to rest upon a transcendental interiority by annihilating all aesthetic continuity between God and creation.”

And I’m only on page 26.

Re-Reading DBH

Jason Micheli —  August 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

I took 3 of his classes.

I had no idea of what he was talking about 93% of the time.

He didn’t betray any indication that he cared even 1%.

I was hooked 100%.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes:

“Only if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the Church is the confession of the Church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord.”

 

“Christian thought has claimed from the first that in a world in bondage to sin, where violence holds sway over hearts and history, the peace of God made present in Christ is unique; the way, the truth, and the life.”

 

“Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire, and the whole force of the gospel depends upon the assumption that this persuasion is also peace.”

 

“If indeed God became a man, then Truth condescended to become a truth.”

 

“Postmodern IS a meta-narrative, the story of no more stories, so told as to determine definitively how much may or may not be said intelligibly by others who have stories to tell…The truth of no truths becomes, inevitably, truth: a way of being, language, and culture that guards the boundaries of thought against claims it has not validated.”

 

 

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts (questions 1-30) here.

I. The Father

Question 31~

31. Aren’t all religions just different paths to the same goal?

Of course.

 

Not.

 

Or better: Who in the hell are we to say?

If Jesus Christ is the End (telos) of all things in creation, then only Jesus stands in a position to evaluate whether or not all religions wind their way to him.

So if the answer is ‘Yes’ to the above question, only Jesus can give it.

 

Or better yet: Who in the hell are we to say?

For to assert all religions are the same (and what exactly qualifies as a ‘religion?’) requires you first to know all those religions from the first person experience of a worshipper in those religions.

For example, only someone who is a fan of both baseball and football knows the difference between stealing third and ‘going for it’ on third.

Likewise only someone who speaks French, Russian and Japanese knows if the words for savior, love or armchair really convey the exact same meaning.

 

Best answer:

The first Christians, who were no strangers to religious diversity having just abandoned paganism at great cost, would certainly have no patience with the incurious and historically tone deaf nature of the question.

After all, they would point out from firsthand experience:

One can walk many of those other, supposedly equivalent ‘paths’ quite successfully ‘without every turning aside to bind up the wounds of the suffering stranger.’

 

‘For Christ is the End of the Law…’

-Romans 10.4

Untitled10I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

I’ve used the catechism of the Catholic Church as a basic skeleton of categories. I’ve phrased the questions in the approximate wording of the questions I’ve received from doubters and believers over the past couple years while the answers are an incestuous amalgamation of Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas and all my other theological crushes.

Here are Q’s 4-6

I. The Father

4. What do we mean by calling God Creator?

We call God ‘Creator’ not because God at some point long ago created the world.

If the world ceased to exist, God would still be ‘Creator,’ for all the atomic laws and mathematical principles which comprise the world- and which God created- would still exist.

We call God ‘Creator’ because God is the Cause of all that exists in the universe and holds it all, at all moments, in existence and apart from God, at any moment, all would cease to exist.

By ‘Creator’ we mean God is our answer to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?

“For in God we live and move and have our being.” – Acts 17.28

5. Can God be proven?

No.

God cannot be proven because God is not a god. God is beyond the limits of science, the powers of reason or the perceptions of sensory experience because God is not a being within the material, observable universe.

God is Being itself, distinct from and encompassing all universes.

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closet relationship with the Father, has made him known.” – 1 John 1.18 

“…God’s greatness is unsearchable.” – Psalm 145.3

6. Can God be disproven?

No.

God cannot be disproven because God is not a god. God is beyond the limits of science, the powers of reason or the perceptions of sensory experience because God is not a being within the material, observable universe.

God is Being itself, distinct from and encompassing all universes.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” 

– Isaiah 55.8

 

 

 

image001Led by Hebert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, I’ve spent nights and early mornings the past few months rereading many of the ancient Church Fathers as well as St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the ‘Doctors’ of the Church.

I discovered McCabe a few years ago by tracking back through the footnotes of in one of Stanley Hauerwas’ books, and he’s provoked me to return to material I’ve not read since my very first theology classes with David Bentley Hart. dbh-ima

Back then, as an undergrad, I had no inkling that archaic church doctrines like immutabilty could be explosive in both the life-giving and death-causing connotations of the word.

Back then, I had no idea my inbox would one day be filled with messages from all over the globe, from believers and non, pro and non, because of this simple pericope from a blog post:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

This has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To some, the idea that God is unchanging allows them to hear the gospel for the very first time.

After all, who would want a god whose love could change because of little old me?

To others, the insinuation that God is unchanging sounds like an a-biblical intrusion into a narrative that gives us nothing but a pathos-filled God.

And, after all, who would want a God whose immutable nature necessarily means he’s also impassible- unaffected? By my love and devotion? By the world’s sin and injustice?

To the former, a God who changes based on relationship with us not only contradicts God’s self-disclosure (‘I am He who is’) it threatens to break the first commandment. Such a god bears a striking resemblance to us.

To the latter, however, a God who is unchanging seems to bear no resemblance to the God of Israel who frequently rages and weeps like a cuckolded husband.

For reasons that fill more space than I can devote here, my feelings convictions passion lie with the former. I’m convinced the first Christians rightly held God to be immutable.

Not only do I think this is the only logical way to insure that the God the first testament is identified with the God who takes flesh in the second, I also do not think it renders a dispassionate god.

Far from saying God has no feelings or love towards us, immutability secures the fact that God has nothing but loving feelings in perfection towards us. Our relationship with God doesn’t change God because God literally can’t love us more than God already does.

Nor do I think the ancients’ immutable God an abstraction since at several points scripture tells us that the Word made flesh is the visible image of this immutable God.

Alright, but admittedly that begs the next question.

If God is immutable, if God doesn’t change, if God can’t change, then what exactly is prayer?

Isn’t prayer the spiritually-sanctioned means by which we manipulate god to do what we want, ask, or desire?

Doesn’t answered prayer imply a changed god?

No.

imagesAt least that’s how Herbert McCabe sees it.

In line with Thomas Aquinas, McCabe sees all prayer as a kind of parable of the Trinity. All prayer is made possible by the fact that the Son prayed to the Father and all prayer continues that prayer in that whenever we pray it is not us praying but the Spirit praying through us, as St Paul says.

Just as no one can understand or know God except God himself- the Word being God’s idea of himself made flesh- no one can speak to God except God himself. It is the same with prayer, McCabe argues.

“Prayer is God’s communion with God, prayer is the Holy Spirit breathed forth by the Father and by the Son because of the Father. We share in the Spirit in the inarticulacy of our prayer…When we pray we are prayed in, we become the locus of the exchange between the Father and the Son, the Trinity has made its home in us- for that we don’t need the right words with which to pray.’ 

So we don’t pray to God so much as God prays through us. Or, we pray to God in the sense that the Spirit prays through us to the Father and the Son.

As Aquinas says, ‘we should not say in accordance with my prayer God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that God wills it to be a fine day in accordance with my prayer.’

God wills our prayers as much as God wills the fine day.

What does that mean?

It means, says McCabe/Aquinas, that God wills it to be a fine day through my prayer; in other words, that it should be more than a fine day. God wills through us that that fine day should be a sacrament of God’s love.

To understand prayer in the categories of answered/unanswered prayer gets prayer exactly wrong, according to Aquinas, in the same way that the category ‘miracles’ gets God’s activity in the world all wrong.

God is never not active in any part or at any moment of the world. A ‘miracle’ is not when God is suddenly intervening in the world; a miracle is when only God is acting upon something in the world.

Similarly, an ‘answered’ prayed implies God is not active until/unless the answer arrives but rather, says Aquinas, the very wants and desires we pray are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present Triune God. Unknown

The desire you pray pray for healing, love, fill-in-the-blank is not your desire.

It’s God for you.

Implanted in you by God.

Prayed in and through you by the Holy Spirit.

Put another way, prayer is the sacrament that God wants healing, love, fill-in-the-blank for you as much as you do.

brianzahndmainbookThis week on the podcast we’ve got Brian Zahnd, author and the founding pastor of Word of Life Church in Missouri.

About a decade ago, Brian had an epiphany/spiritual crisis that eventually led him away from his previously held evangelical, word-faith Christianity and into a rediscovery of the sacramental faith of the ancient Church.

The result, in my opinion, is that Brian preaches the most theologically robust sermons of any preacher in America, rooted in the faith and understanding of the ancient Church Fathers and Mothers.

Because his is a pre-Western vision of Christianity, I think it’s one perfectly-suited for the post-Christian West.

Like me, Brian is a huge fan of David Bentley Hart, Bob Dylan, the National.

Like me, he’s a literature and art snob and I even get him to confess it.

The author of Beauty Will Save the World and Unconditional– both of which I highly recommend- Brian’s upcoming book is A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace.  51t1N+J6DgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Check it out.

Here’s the interview.

My underling left God’s work to go work for THE MAN so until I learn how to splice and dice you’ll have to listen sans the cute cue music.

You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app, which you can use to listen to old installments of the podcast and look for future ones.

Opening Day, I believe, is our true National Day. dbh-ima

To celebrate, I’ve made it something of a tradition to read and post an essay by my muse and man crush, David Bentley Hart, on the  way in which baseball is not just the singular American sport but the Platonic ideal:

As an instinctive Platonist, I naturally believe that every genuine act of human creativity is simultaneously an innovation and a discovery, a marriage of poetic craft and contemplative vision that captures traces of eternity’s radiance in fugitive splendors here below by translating our tacit knowledge of the eternal forms into finite objects of reflection, at once strange and strangely familiar. The second is that the word’s ambiguity helps me to formulate my intuitions regarding the ultimate importance of baseball.

I know there are those who will accuse me of exaggeration when I say this, but, until baseball appeared, humans were a sad and benighted lot, lost in the labyrinth of matter, dimly and achingly aware of something incandescently beautiful and unattainable, something infinitely desirable shining up above in the empyrean of the ideas; but, throughout most of the history of the race, no culture was able to produce more than a shadowy sketch of whatever glorious mystery prompted those nameless longings.

And there is something equally fateful, as has been noted so often, in the exact fittingness of the game’s dimensions: the ninety feet between bases, the sixty-and-a-half feet between the pitching rubber and the plate, that precious third of a second in which a batter must decide whether to swing. Everything is so perfectly calibrated that almost every play is a matter of the most unforgiving precision; a ball correctly played in the infield is almost always an out, while the slightest misplay usually results in a man on base. The effective difference in velocity between a fastball and a changeup is infinitesimal in neurological terms, and yet it can utterly disrupt the timing of even the best hitter. There are Pythagorean enigmas here, occult and imponderable: mystic proportions written into the very fabric of nature of which we were once as ignorant as of the existence of other galaxies.

How, moreover, could anyone have imagined (and yet how could we ever have failed to know) that so elementary a strategic problem as serially advancing or prematurely stopping the runner could generate such a riot of intricate tactical possibilities in any given instant of the game? Part of the deeper excitement of the game is following how the strategy is progressively altered, from pitch to pitch, cumulatively and prospectively, in accordance both with the situation of the inning and the balance of the game. There is nothing else like it, for sheer progressive intricacy, in all of sport. Comparing baseball to even the most complex versions of the oblong game is like comparing chess to tiddlywinks.

And surely some account has to be given of the drama of baseball: the way it reaches down into the soul’s abysses with its fluid alternations of prolonged suspense and shocking urgency, its mounting rallies, its thwarted ventures, its intolerable tensions, its suddenly exhilarating or devastating peripeties. Even the natural narrative arc of the game is in three acts”the early, middle, and late innings”each with its own distinct potentials and imperatives. And because, until the final out is recorded, no loss is an absolute fait accompli , the torment of hope never relents. Victory may or may not come in a blaze of glorious elation, but every defeat, when it comes, is sublime. The oblong game is war, but baseball is Attic tragedy.

All of this, it seems to me, points beyond the game’s physical dimensions and toward its immense spiritual horizons. When I consider baseball sub specie aeternitatis , I find it impossible not to conclude that its essential metaphysical structure is thoroughly idealist. After all, the game is so utterly saturated by infinity. All its configurations and movements aspire to the timeless and the boundless. The oblong game is pitilessly finite: Wholly concerned as it is with conquest and shifting lines of force, it is exactly and inviolably demarcated, spatially and temporally; having no inner unfolding narrative of its own, it does not end, but is merely curtailed, externally, by a clock (even overtime is composed only of strictly apportioned, discrete units of time).

Baseball, however, has no clock; rather, terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms. And, although the dimensions of the diamond are invariable, there are no fixed measures for the placement of the outfield walls. A ball that would be a soaring home run to dead center in St. Louis falls languidly short in Detroit, like a hawk slain in mid-flight. A blow that would clear the bleachers at Wrigley Field is transformed into a single by the icy irony of Fenway’s left field wall, while a drowsy fly ball earns four bases. Even within a single park”Yankee Stadium, for instance”there is an often capricious disproportion between the two power alleys.

All these variations, all these hints of arbitrariness, are absolutely crucial to the aesthetics and moral metaphysics of the game because they remind us that fair territory is, in fact, conceptually limitless and extends endlessly beyond any outfield walls. Home plate is an open corner on the universe, and the limits we place on the game’s endless vistas are merely the accommodation we strike between infinite possibility and finite actuality. They apprise us, yet again, that life is ungovernable and pluriform, and that omnia mutantur et nos mutamur in illis . They speak both of our mortality (which obeys no set pattern or term) and of the eternity into which the horizons of consciousness are always vanishing (the primordial orientation of all embodied spirit). And something similar is true of the juncture of infield and outfield, where metaphysics’ deepest problem”the dialectical opposition but necessary interrelation of the finite and the infinite”is given unsurpassable symbolic embodiment.

Now, of course, when I speak of baseball’s “idealism,” it is principally Platonism I have in mind: Greek rather than German idealism. But I have to admit that, as I have just described it, much of the game seems to speak not only of the finite’s power to reflect the infinite but also of a kind of fated, heroic human strivingagainst the infinite. There are few spectacles in sport as splendid and pitiable as the batter defiantly poised before all that endless openness. We know that even the most majestic home run is as nothing in its vastness, that even the greatest hitter is a kind of Sisyphus, proudly indifferent to the divine mockery of that infinite horizon; and it is precisely this pathos that lends such moving splendor to those rare Homeric feats that linger on in our collective memory: Babe Ruth in Detroit in 1926, Frank Howard in Philadelphia in 1958, Mickey Mantle in New York in 1963, Frank Robinson in Baltimore in 1966 . . .

No other game, moreover, is so mercilessly impossible to play well or affords so immense a scope for inevitable failure. We all know that a hitter who succeeds in only one third of his at-bats is considered remarkable, and that one who succeeds only fractionally more often is considered a prodigy of nature. Now here, certainly, is a portrait of the hapless human spirit in all its melancholy grandeur, and of the human will in all its hopeless but incessant aspiration: fleeting glory as the rarely ripening fruit of overwhelming and chronic defeat. It is this pervasive sadness that makes baseball’s moments of bliss so piercing; this encircling gloom that sheds such iridescent beauty on those impossible triumphs over devastating odds so amazing when accomplished by one of the game’s gods (Mays running down that ridiculously long fly at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series, Ted Williams going deep in his very last appearance at the plate); and so heartbreakingly poignant when accomplished by a journeyman whose entire playing career will be marked by only one such instant of transcendence (Ron Swoboda’s diving catch off Brooks Robinson’s bat in the 1969 Series).

Really, the game has such an oddly desolate beauty to it. Maybe it is the grindingly long, 162-game season, which allows for so many promising and disheartening plotlines to take shape, only to dissolve again along the way, and which sustains even the most improbable hope past any rational span; or maybe it is simply the course of the year’s seasons, from early spring into mid-autumn”nature’s perennial allegory of human life, eloquent of innocent confidence slowly transformed into wise resignation. Whatever it is, there is something of twilight in the game, something sadder and more lyrical than one can quite express. It even ends in the twilight of the year: All its many stories culminate in one last, prolonged struggle in the gathering darkness, from which one team alone emerges briefly victorious, after so long a journey; and then everything lapses into wintry stillness”hope defeated, the will exhausted, O dark, dark, dark, all passion spent, silent as the moon, and so on. And yet, with the first rumor of spring, the idiot will is revived, the conatus essendi stirs out of the darkness, tanha awakens and pulls us back into the illusory world of hope and longing, and the cycle resumes.

All that said, though, one should not mistake the passing moods that the game evokes for the deeper metaphysical truths it discloses; one must not confuse the tone color with the guiding theme. Ultimately, baseball’s philosophical grammar truly is Platonist, with all the transcendental elations that that implies. This is most obvious in the sheer purity of the game’s central action. In form, it is not a conflict between two teams over contested ground; in fact, the two sides never directly confront one another on the field, and there is no territory to be captured. Rather, in shape it is that most perfect of metaphysical figures: the closed circle. It repeats the great story told by every idealist metaphysics, European and Indian alike: the purifying odyssey of exitus and reditus , diastole and systole , departure from and ultimate return to an abiding principle.

What could be more obvious? The game is plainly an attempt to figure forth the “heavenly dance” within the realm of mutability. When play is in its full flow, the diamond becomes a place where the dark, sullen surface of matter is temporarily transformed into a gently luminous mirror of the “supercelestial mysteries.” Baseball is an instance of what the later Neoplatonists called “theurgy”: a mimetic or prophetic rite that summons (or invites) the divine graciously to descend from eternity and grant a glimpse of itself within time.

No”seriously.

I am not nearly as certain, however, that baseball can be said to have any discernible religious meaning. Or, rather, I am not sure whether it reflects exclusively one kind of creed (it is certainly religious , through and through). Its metaphysics is equally compatible and equally incompatible with the sensibilities of any number of faiths, and of any number of schools within individual faiths; but, if it has anything resembling a theology, it is of the mystical, rather than the dogmatic, kind, and so its doctrinal content is nebulous. At its lowest, most cultic level, baseball is hospitable to such a variety of little superstitions and local pieties that it almost qualifies as a kind of primitive animism or paganism. At its highest, more speculative level, it tends toward the monist, as a consistent idealism must.

In between these two levels, however, the possibilities of religious interpretation are numberless, and it may require the eyes of many kinds of faith to see all of them. My friend R.R. Reno sees a bunt down the first-base line, in which the infield rotates clockwise while the runner begins his counterclockwise motion, as a clear evocation of Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot’s living wheels, and so an invitation to Merkabah mysticism. A Buddhist acquaintance from Japan, however, sees every home run as a metaphor for the arahant who has successfully crossed the sea of becoming on the raft of dharma .

Of course, the mental and physical disciplines of the game are clearly contemplative in nature. No one could, for instance, no matter how fine his eyesight or physical coordination, hit a major-league pitch with a cylindrical bat if there were not some prior attunement on his part to the subtle spiritual force that flows through all things, a sort of Zen cultivation of the mindless mind, in which the impossible is accomplished because it somehow simply accomplishes itself in us. Japan’s greatest hitter, Sadaharu Oh”whose hitting coach, Hiroshi Arakawa, was a disciple of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido”even wrote a book on his discovery of the Zen way of baseball. But there are contemplatives and adepts in all major religious traditions.

One could, I suppose, conclude that baseball is primarily Western in its religious orientation, on the shaky grounds that the game as we know it has a somewhat eschatological logic: Within the miniature cosmos of the park, the game must be played down to its final verdict and cannot end before judgment is passed. No one, I think, doubts that Yogi’s most oracular formula, it ain’t over till it’s over, is a perfectly condensed statement of what for us are the game’s highest spiritual and dramatic stakes. And yet the Japanese will play to a draw with equanimity, content at the last simply to let go, so that all forces can reach equilibrium, and I do not believe their version of the game is necessarily any less elegant or profound than ours.

There are, however, at least two respects in which I suppose baseball could be said to speak to, and speak out of, an essentially biblical vision of reality. First, there is simply its undeniable element of Edenic nostalgia: that longing for innocence, guileless play, the terrestrial paradise”a longing it both evokes and soothes. Bart Giamatti, though, wrote so famously and so well on this topic that I have little to add. I only observe that the ballpark is a paradise into which evil does occasionally come, whenever the Yankees are in town, and this occasionally lends the game a cosmic significance that it would not be improper to call “apocalyptic.” This, in fact, is why that dastardly franchise is a spiritually necessary part of the game in this country; even Yankees fans have their necessary role to play, and”although we may occasionally think of them as “vessels of wrath””we have to remember that they, too, are enfolded in the mercy of providence.

And, second, the game is, for many of us, a hard tutelage in the biblical virtues of faith, hope, and love. Here, admittedly, I am drawing on personal spiritual experience, but I can do so out of a vast reservoir of purgative suffering. My team, you see, is the Baltimore Orioles. In my youth I was full of wicked pride. The Orioles, for nearly the first two decades of my life, were the envy of the baseball world: winning more games than any other franchise, the only team with a winning record against the Yankees, awash in Gold Gloves and Cy Young Awards, a team that was often said to be “magic.” In those days”the days of Frank and Brooks, Powell and Palmer, Blair and Buford, Eddie and the rest”it was almost unimaginable that a season would pass without a pennant race, or that New York would not tremble before us.

And now?

These”and I shall close on this thought”are the great moral lessons that only a game with baseball’s long season and long history and dramatic intensity can impress on the soul: humility, long-suffering, dauntless love, and inexhaustible faith in the face of invincible misfortune. I could no more abandon my Orioles than I could repudiate my family, or my native heath, or my own childhood”even though I know it is a devotion that can now bring only grief. I know, I know: Orioles fans have not yet suffered what Boston fans suffered for more than twice the term of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, or what Cubs fans have suffered for more than a century; but we have every reason to expect that we will. And yet we go on. The time of tribulation is upon us, and we now must make our way through its darkness, guided only by the waning lights of memory and the flickering flame of hope, not knowing when the night will end but sustained by the sacred assurance that whosoever perseveres to the end shall be saved.

david_bentley_hartMy former teacher and current muse, David Bentley Hart, will be lecturing on his new book, The Experience of God, at UVA on March 25. As a way of rejoicing, here’s an essay by Father Robert Barron which is inspired by Hart’s work in his most recent two books. If anyone wants to road trip down to Cville with me to hear DBH, let me know.

The most signal contribution of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss is to clarify that serious theists and atheists, though they debate frequently concerning the reality of God, are hardly ever using the word “God” in the same way. This fundamental equivocation contributes massively to the pointlessness and meanness of most of these discussions.

It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

 

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

It is absolutely right to say that the advance of the modern physical sciences has eliminated the gods. Having explored the depths of the oceans and the tops of the mountains and even the skies that surround the planet, we have not encountered any of these supreme beings. Furthermore, the myriad natural causes, uncovered by physics, chemistry, biology, etc. are more than sufficient to explain any of the phenomena within the natural realm. But the physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature — at all.

The Russian cosmonaut from the 1950’s who, having pierced the heavens, confidently asserted, “I have found no God,” was speaking so much nonsense, though he would have been right had he changed the “G” from large case to small. This is why the new atheists and their army of disciples are committing a category mistake when they confidently assert that scientific advances cause religion to retreat onto ever-shrinking intellectual turf or when they stridently challenge religious people to produce “evidence” for God. No amount of scientific progress can even in principle pose a threat to authentic religion, and no amount of experimental evidence can tell for or against the true God.

So how do we get at the true God? Hart clarifies that real religion begins with a particular type of wonder, namely, the puzzle that things should be at all. We are surrounded on all sides by things that exist but that don’t have to exist. The computer on which I am typing these words indeed exists, but its existence is not self-explanatory, for it depends on a whole range of causes, both extrinsic and intrinsic. It exists only because an army of manufacturers, designers, technicians, etc. put it together and only because its molecular, atomic and sub-atomic structure sustains it. Furthermore, it is situated in an environment that conditions it in numberless ways. The technical philosophical term for this caused and conditioned existence is “contingency.”

Now a moment’s meditation reveals that all of the conditioning elements that I mentioned are themselves, in similar ways, contingent. They don’t explain their existence any more than the computer does. Therefore, unless we permanently postpone the explanation, we have to come, by logical deduction, to some reality which is not contingent and whose very nature is to exist. This power of Being itself, which explains and determines all the contingent things or our ordinary experience, is what serious theists of all of the great religious traditions mean by the word “God.” I fully realize, of course, that the vast majority of religious believers wouldn’t say that their faith in God is a function of this sort of philosophical demonstration. Nevertheless, they are intuiting what the argument makes explicit.

I often tease the critics of religion who take pride in the rigor of their rationalism. I tell them that, though they are willing to ask and answer all sorts of questions about reality, they become radically uncurious, irrational even, just when the most interesting question of all is posed: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?

David Bentley Hart’s book helps us to see that the question of God — the true God — remains the most beguiling of all.

I’m an Atheist Too

Jason Micheli —  October 7, 2013 — 8 Comments

Skeptical BelieverWe kicked off a new sermon series this weekend: The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist. To bring home a Medieval, metaphysical point, my dog Clara made an appearance in worship and- thanks be to God- behaved herself.
The scripture was John 1.43-51.
I’ll load the audio onto the blog and in iTunes when I have it. In the meantime, here’s the text.

To promote this new sermon series, last week on my blog I asked for people to send me their strongest arguments or questions about God.

Here’s the best (and worst one) I received:

“Jason, there are a lot of questions I could submit to you, but in my opinion, given what science teaches us about the world’s origins, all those questions boil down to the biggest question of all: Is there a God?” 

Back in the summer, when we initially planned this Skeptical Believer series, our goal was to encourage you to question God, to question your faith.

Back in the summer, we hoped this sermon series would give you permission to acknowledge and explore and wrestle with your doubts.

That was back in the summer. But then came September.

In September I preached two sermons: the first on how the Gospels can be trusted as true, and the second on how the Resurrection of Jesus can be trusted as true.

Given the reaction to those sermons, I’m now convinced that this Skeptical Believer sermon series was a terrible idea.

Because you don’t need any encouragement to question the faith.

For some of you, that’s all you do. Question and doubt whatever the Church has taught.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with questioning; I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with doubt.

After all, by definition the very concept of faith requires doubt.

You can only have faith in what is not certain.

For example, I have faith that my wife will always love me, but that my wife will always love me can never be a certainty.

And if something is not certain then it is not immune to doubt.

There’s nothing wrong with questioning.

Jesus himself in the middle of today’s scripture passage chastises Nathaniel for believing too quickly, too blindly.

The problem is-

I don’t know many people who are like the Nathaniel in the middle of today’s story, believing quickly and without question.

Instead I know a lot more people who are like the pre-Christian Nathaniel at the beginning of today’s story, the Nathaniel who rolls his eyes dismissively at the notion that any wisdom could ever come from a backward, ignorant, archaic place like Nazareth.

I know a lot more people who are like that Nathaniel, who think all religion is, in a sense, “from Nazareth.”

I mean-

If you think you have to choose between intellectual honesty and belief in God, then you’ve simply not understood what Christians mean by the word ‘God.’

If you think empirical science could ever disprove God, then you’ve only proven that you forgot to investigate the ancient meaning of the word ‘God.’

If you think the biggest question boils down to ‘Is there a God?’ then you don’t realize what Christians- and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and even some Buddhists- mean when we say the word ‘God.’

So what I want to do today is actually the opposite of what we’d planned for this series back in the summer.

I don’t want to encourage you to question your faith.

Or rather, instead, I want to encourage you to question your faith in the assumptions the modern world has given you:

The assumption that the 21st century raises questions to which the ancient faith has no answers.

The assumption that Christianity is not as intellectually rigorous as any other discipline.

The assumption that we as modern people know a great many things the ancient Christians did not know- and that may be true, but it’s also true that the ancient Christians knew a few things very well that very few of you know at all.

Namely, philosophy and logic.

So what I want to do today is the opposite of what we had planned and something different from what I normally do.

I don’t want to encourage you to question God.

Instead I want to make an argument, for God-

I want to make a philosophic argument, one that comes out of the ancient Christian tradition, from Thomas Aquinas, who was probably the greatest thinker in the history of the Church.

I want to take you through Thomas’ argument because if you understand his logic then you will understand what Christians mean, fundamentally, by the word ‘God.’

And if you understand that-

Then you will understand why ‘Is there a God?’ is not, in fact, the biggest question.

Rather, God is the answer to the biggest, most obvious question of all.

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imagesSo you’re going to have put on your thinking caps…or just go to sleep and you can read it on my blog on Monday.

Now first, Thomas would say that not only is the question ‘Is there a God?’ not the biggest question of all; it’s not even a good question.

It’s a bad question.

Why?

It’s a bad question because its premise is wrong.

As soon as you ask ‘Is there a God?’ you’ve fallen onto the wrong track because you’re assuming that for God to be he must be an object to which we can apply the adverb ‘there.’

What do adverbs do? They designate place and location. We use adverbs to speak of objects that have a ‘thereness’ to them.

And so we could say there is a cup of water of there, a hymnal over there, someone sleeping in the pew over there.

Or, we could expand it and say there is a building in Paris, France called the Eiffel Tower. Or there is a planet called Saturn; it’s there on the other side of Jupiter.

But in that sense, ‘there’ is no God.

Because God is not an object in the universe.

And it doesn’t matter how many universes there are, or even if they ceased to be, because God is not an object in any of them either.

You can’t find God like a astronomer would discover a new galaxy or a chemist would discover a new element. God is not object that can be found that way.

In fact, in all the great theistic traditions, an object is the one thing God cannot be.

Even though we speak of God as having human and material attributes- because it’s impossible to pray to an abstraction- God is not an object in the universe like you or me, like the moon or a molecule or a cup of coffee.

Just think of the most important story in scripture for understanding who God is:

Moses at the Burning Bush.

Having grown up pagan, Moses assumes this God he’s encountered is just another object, just another little ‘g’ god, in the universe.

So what does Moses do? He asks for God’s name.

By asking for God’s name, Moses is trying to attach a ‘thereness’ to God: Are you the god of this place or that nation? Are you the god of these people or those people? Are you the god of the soil or the sea or sex?

And what name does God give Moses?

‘I am who I am.’

Or, it can be translated: ‘I will be who I will be.’

In other words, God is Amness itself. God is Being itself. God is Existence itself.

It’s what St Paul says in Acts: ‘God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’ 

It’s what St Augustine said: ‘God is beyond our utmost heights but more inward to us than inner most depths.” 

Or, to put it in the words of the most famous rabbi of all:

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s pretty damn good. Like the force, God is transcendent: God is beyond everything that is.

But because God is Being itself, God is within everything that is.

That’s why Thomas would say the only good answer to the bad question “Is there a God?” is to say:

‘No, God…is.’

I know at some point this gets so abstract it can make your brain hurt.

But look, I barely understand how my microwave works so why would we ever assume that God is simpler?

Any God who is easily comprehended is not worthy of worship.

Even still, I want to make this as clear as I can.

Thomas says ‘Is there a God?’ is not a good question, and it’s definitely not the biggest question.

For Thomas, the biggest, most radical, most obvious and, if you grasp it, the most life-changing question to ask is this:

How come?

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The question ‘How come?’ can have many different meanings and you can ask ‘How come?’ at several levels.

And the deeper the question you ask about an individual thing, the more it becomes a question about the world to which that thing belongs.

Until eventually you get to the deepest question about that thing, which turns out to be a question about everything.

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I know that sounds complicated so let me make it plainer:

IMG_1342

This is Clara. Ali and I got her right after we got married.

Suppose you ask the question: ‘How come Clara?’

If you asked ‘How come Clara?’ I could answer the question by naming Clara’s parents at the horse farm outside Richmond where I bought her 12 years ago.

On that level, I wouldn’t need to say anything more. The question’s been answered on that level.

But suppose then you ask: “How come Clara’s a dog?”

And I could answer: Because Clara’s parents were dogs and dogs are born from other dogs.

You see, you’ve now moved to a deeper level of questioning. You’re asking about what dogs are.

You’re saying for Clara to be is for her to be a dog and Clara’s parents are the sorts of things whose activities result in things being dogs.

So now your original question ‘How come Clara?’ has deepened into a question about the dog species.

Your question ‘How come Clara?’ at this new level is a question ‘How come dogs anyway?’

And of course we could answer that in terms of genetics and natural selection. We could say Clara is an frisbee dog because one or both of her parents were awesome frisbee dogs.

Which is then a new and deeper level of the question.

‘How come Clara?’ is still a question about my particular dog who’s eaten at least 9 of my left shoes, 3 lobsters and 1 pot of gumbo in her lifetime, but it’s also a question that’s answered in terms of how Clara belongs to a wider community- not simply dogs but the whole biological community to which dogs belong.

But then, you can ask the question about Clara at an even deeper level.

When you ask ‘How come the biological community of which Clara is a member?’

I could answer in terms of biochemistry. I mean, I couldn’t actually answer in terms of biochemistry but I could find someone to do it for me.

And then from the level of biochemistry you could take the ‘How come’ question to the level of physics, and every time, at every level you can ask increasingly penetrating questions about Clara.

And each time you go further with the question ‘How come Clara?’ you’re seeing Clara in a wider and expanding context.

To put it another way, each time you ask the question ‘How come Clara?’ you’re asking about Clara over and against some other possibility.

The first question ‘How come Clara?’ simply meant ‘How come Clara is this dog rather than another dog?’

The second level question asked ‘How come Clara is a dog rather than another species, say a newt?’

At the third level question, you’re asking ‘How come Clara’s a living, biological creature and not an inanimate object?’

You see, every ‘How come Clara?’ question is ‘How come this instead of what is not?’

Now, the biggest, most radical question is not ‘How come Clara exists as this dog instead of that dog?’ or ‘How come Clara exists as a dog instead of an elephant?’ or ‘How come Clara exists as a living biological creature instead of as an inanimate object?

No, the biggest, most radical question is this:

How come Clara exists instead of nothing? 

Just as to ask ‘How come Clara exists as a dog?’ is to put Clara in the context of all other dogs, to ask ‘How come Clara exists instead of nothing’ is to put her in the context of everything.

You and me, the world, the universe.

How come you instead of nothing? How come me instead of nothing?

How come the world instead of nothing?

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Whatever the answer is to that question, whatever reality answers that question- Thomas says that’s our starting definition for ‘God.’

You see, Thomas wants you to realize that the mystery is not how is the universe.

The mystery is that the universe is at all.

That Clara is.

That you are. At all.

If you grasp what Thomas is saying, it should knock you over and fill you with wonder over every little stupid detail of your life.

It is

Now, if I haven’t lost you yet then maybe you can see how what’s usually called atheism is not actually a denial of the God that Thomas and the ancient Christians believed in.

Usually someone who calls themselves an atheist is NOT denying the existence of some answer to the question ‘How come there is anything instead of nothing?’

Usually someone who calls themselves an atheist is denying what they THINK religious people believe:

that there is some Great Architect, a little ‘b’ being

called God

who designed and created the world in 7 Days

and now sits up there somewhere in heaven

sending down arbitrary blessings and curses upon the world.

But if denying that makes you an atheist, I’m an atheist too.

And Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.

And St Augustine is an atheist too.

And most of the entire Christian tradition is atheist too.

 

Most atheists get atheism wrong because they get wrong what we mean by the word ‘God.’

And to be fair, many of them get it wrong because a lot of Christians get it wrong too.

But genuine atheism actually requires more faith.

Genuine atheism refuses to see the mystery Thomas makes so obvious.

Genuine atheism has faith that things just are.

But that’s like saying ‘Dogs just are.’

In the face of all logic and no supporting evidence, genuine atheism insists with certainty that what is, is all there is.

Genuine atheism is content to ask questions within the universe, but cannot see that the existence of the universe itself raises a question that it cannot answer by itself:

How come?

Why is there something-anything- instead of nothing?’

Once you see what Christians mean, fundamentally, by the word ‘God,’ that God is the answer we give to the question ‘How come there’s anything instead of nothing?’ then you can see why it’s stupid for Christians to argue over interpretations of the creation story and why it’s even dumber to suppose science could ever prove or disprove God.

Because what Christians truly mean by calling God Creator has nothing to do with an event called ‘creation’ that occurred at some fixed point in the past.

How the world came to be might be interesting but it’s irrelevant.

Because when we say God is Creator, we mean that God is the Source and Sustainer of Existence itself, now as much as in the beginning and every moment in between.

And God’s the Source and Sustainer not just of the universe but all the scientific laws and mathematical principles within it.

Think about that-

God would still be Creator even if all that existed were scientific laws and quantum states.

Because everything, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence.

That’s why the image of a candle flame is a ubiquitous symbol for God in all the theistic traditions of the world. God’s creative sustaining is like a candle flame in a room at night, and should that flame ever go out, the room would immediately go dark.

 

You could push back on Thomas’ argument.

You could argue that even if its true that ‘God’ is the reason there is something instead of nothing that doesn’t prove that Christianity is true.

And that is the case.

Logically proving that God is rationally plausible does not prove that Christianity is true.

Nonetheless, Thomas would tell you to think about it again.

If everything, as Thomas says, is contingent.

If everything, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence.

If everything in your life, at every second of your life, is a something that could be nothing. Without God.

Then everything, everything in your life, every moment of your life- existence itself- is completely gratuitous.

It doesn’t have to be. It’s not necessary.

Everything, in other words, is gift.

Which is just another word for grace.

And if everything in existence is grace, then God, at an Absolute level, is Love.

I don’t mean God is loving.

I mean God is Love.

And if God is Love, then the universe’s blueprint, its design, its grain, its logic is Love.

Then whatever it means to say a religion is ‘true’ it means that the religion corresponds to the logic of the universe. To the logic of God.

And maybe that’s why, just a few verses before today’s scripture, the Gospel of John calls Jesus just that, God’s logos.

Made flesh.

God’s logic.

 

 

 

 

 

Skeptical BelieverDavid Bentley Hart likes to quip:

‘An atheist is someone who has failed to notice something very obvious.

Or rather, failed to notice a great many obvious things.’

He also amusingly condescends that pure atheism, which asserts the impossibility anything beyond the material, natural world, is an absurdity such that it can be likened to ‘magical thinking.’

When it comes to arguments for and against God, Hart knows his stuff; that is, he knows the ancient Christian and classical tradition. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, can muster a balls-to-the-wall indictment of God that no unbeliever could possibly approximate.

In his little pastoral book, The Doors of the Sea, itself a continuation to a Wall Street Journal article he wrote, David Hart recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? 

Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Or “It’s okay, God is mourning too” which is only a more sensitive-sounding but equally deficient explanation precisely because it still attempts an explanation.

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy to talk like that to the father (though my experience tells me Hart would be surprised how many people in fact would say something like it).

This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

Silence is the best thing to (not) say when there’s nothing to say.

Hart goes on to reflect on The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God.

Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry. Better, it goes without saying, than anything the ‘New Atheists’ delude themselves into thinking is a compelling argument.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering.

He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering.

Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.

Ivan even believes that in the fullness of time we will be able to see for ourselves why everything on Earth unfolded as it did, that, as Joseph in Genesis confesses, God can use even evil for his good ends.

Ivan doesn’t disbelieve.

Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much doubt God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan.

He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes. It is, ironically, a thoroughly Christian rejection in the sense it’s a rejection born of very Christ-centered sensibilities.

What Dostoyevsky understood is that most compelling arguments against God are not philosophical or scientific ones. They’re moral ones.

Atheism, as popularly understood, is an absurdity. I’m with Hart on that. Properly understood, ‘God’ is the most obvious thing of all.

So arguments against God’s existence ultimately crash against the rocks of logic.

But arguments against God’s goodness? That’s another matter.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan.

I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

Of course, Ivan’s argument doesn’t disprove God. It only rejects the god ‘who has a plan for everything.’ I also reject that god.

Well, my beloved Nats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory this afternoon to lose their final game of the year. My disappointment aside, it was an agonizingly appropriate way to end their groundlessly hopeful season.

Nonetheless the boys and I took in a dozen or so games this year and enjoyed the ideal that is baseball.

To bid adieu to the season, I offer you two philosophers’ takes on the beautiful obscurities of baseball, the first from David Bentley Hart and the latter from Crash Davis:

When I consider baseball sub specie aeternitatis, I find it impossible not to conclude that its essential metaphysical structure is thoroughly idealist. After all, the game is so utterly saturated by infinity. All its configurations and movements aspire to the timeless and the boundless. The oblong game is pitilessly finite: Wholly concerned as it is with conquest and shifting lines of force, it is exactly and inviolably demarcated, spatially and temporally; having no inner unfolding narrative of its own, it does not end, but is merely curtailed, externally, by a clock (even overtime is composed only of strictly apportioned, discrete units of time).

Baseball, however, has no clock; rather, terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms. And, although the dimensions of the diamond are invariable, there are no fixed measures for the placement of the outfield walls. A ball that would be a soaring home run to dead center in St. Louis falls languidly short in Detroit, like a hawk slain in mid-flight. A blow that would clear the bleachers at Wrigley Field is transformed into a single by the icy irony of Fenway’s left field wall, while a drowsy fly ball earns four bases. Even within a single park—Yankee Stadium, for instance—there is an often capricious disproportion between the two power alleys.

All these variations, all these hints of arbitrariness, are absolutely crucial to the aesthetics and moral metaphysics of the game because they remind us that fair territory is, in fact, conceptually limitless and extends endlessly beyond any outfield walls. Home plate is an open corner on the universe, and the limits we place on the game’s endless vistas are merely the accommodation we strike between infinite possibility and finite actuality. They apprise us, yet again, that life is ungovernable and pluriform, and that omnia mutantur et nos mutamur in illis. They speak both of our mortality (which obeys no set pattern or term) and of the eternity into which the horizons of consciousness are always vanishing (the primordial orientation of all embodied spirit). And something similar is true of the juncture of infield and outfield, where metaphysics’ deepest problem—the dialectical opposition but necessary interrelation of the finite and the infinite—is given unsurpassable symbolic embodiment.

Now, of course, when I speak of baseball’s “idealism,” it is principally Platonism I have in mind: Greek rather than German idealism. But I have to admit that, as I have just described it, much of the game seems to speak not only of the finite’s power to reflect the infinite but also of a kind of fated, heroic human striving against the infinite. There are few spectacles in sport as splendid and pitiable as the batter defiantly poised before all that endless openness. We know that even the most majestic home run is as nothing in its vastness, that even the greatest hitter is a kind of Sisyphus, proudly indifferent to the divine mockery of that infinite horizon; and it is precisely this pathos that lends such moving splendor to those rare Homeric feats that linger on in our collective memory: Babe Ruth in Detroit in 1926, Frank Howard in Philadelphia in 1958, Mickey Mantle in New York in 1963, Frank Robinson in Baltimore in 1966 . . .

No other game, moreover, is so mercilessly impossible to play well or affords so immense a scope for inevitable failure. We all know that a hitter who succeeds in only one third of his at-bats is considered remarkable, and that one who succeeds only fractionally more often is considered a prodigy of nature. Now here, certainly, is a portrait of the hapless human spirit in all its melancholy grandeur, and of the human will in all its hopeless but incessant aspiration: fleeting glory as the rarely ripening fruit of overwhelming and chronic defeat. It is this pervasive sadness that makes baseball’s moments of bliss so piercing; this encircling gloom that sheds such iridescent beauty on those impossible triumphs over devastating odds so amazing when accomplished by one of the game’s gods (Mays running down that ridiculously long fly at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series, Ted Williams going deep in his very last appearance at the plate); and so heartbreakingly poignant when accomplished by a journeyman whose entire playing career will be marked by only one such instant of transcendence (Ron Swoboda’s diving catch off Brooks Robinson’s bat in the 1969 Series).

Really, the game has such an oddly desolate beauty to it. Maybe it is the grindingly long, 162-game season, which allows for so many promising and disheartening plotlines to take shape, only to dissolve again along the way, and which sustains even the most improbable hope past any rational span; or maybe it is simply the course of the year’s seasons, from early spring into mid-autumn—nature’s perennial allegory of human life, eloquent of innocent confidence slowly transformed into wise resignation. Whatever it is, there is something of twilight in the game, something sadder and more lyrical than one can quite express. It even ends in the twilight of the year: All its many stories culminate in one last, prolonged struggle in the gathering darkness, from which one team alone emerges briefly victorious, after so long a journey; and then everything lapses into wintry stillness—hope defeated, the will exhausted, O dark, dark, dark, all passion spent, silent as the moon, and so on. And yet, with the first rumor of spring, the idiot will is revived, the conatus essendistirs out of the darkness, tanha awakens and pulls us back into the illusory world of hope and longing, and the cycle resumes.

All that said, though, one should not mistake the passing moods that the game evokes for the deeper metaphysical truths it discloses; one must not confuse the tone color with the guiding theme. Ultimately, baseball’s philosophical grammar truly is Platonist, with all the transcendental elations that that implies. This is most obvious in the sheer purity of the game’s central action. In form, it is not a conflict between two teams over contested ground; in fact, the two sides never directly confront one another on the field, and there is no territory to be captured. Rather, in shape it is that most perfect of metaphysical figures: the closed circle. It repeats the great story told by every idealist metaphysics, European and Indian alike: the purifying odyssey of exitus and reditusdiastole and systole, departure from and ultimate return to an abiding principle.

What could be more obvious? The game is plainly an attempt to figure forth the “heavenly dance” within the realm of mutability. When play is in its full flow, the diamond becomes a place where the dark, sullen surface of matter is temporarily transformed into a gently luminous mirror of the “supercelestial mysteries.” Baseball is an instance of what the later Neoplatonists called “theurgy”: a mimetic or prophetic rite that summons (or invites) the divine graciously to descend from eternity and grant a glimpse of itself within time.

No—seriously.

I am not nearly as certain, however, that baseball can be said to have any discernible religious meaning. Or, rather, I am not sure whether it reflects exclusively one kind of creed (it is certainly religious, through and through). Its metaphysics is equally compatible and equally incompatible with the sensibilities of any number of faiths, and of any number of schools within individual faiths; but, if it has anything resembling a theology, it is of the mystical, rather than the dogmatic, kind, and so its doctrinal content is nebulous. At its lowest, most cultic level, baseball is hospitable to such a variety of little superstitions and local pieties that it almost qualifies as a kind of primitive animism or paganism. At its highest, more speculative level, it tends toward the monist, as a consistent idealism must.

In between these two levels, however, the possibilities of religious interpretation are numberless, and it may require the eyes of many kinds of faith to see all of them. My friend R.R. Reno sees a bunt down the first-base line, in which the infield rotates clockwise while the runner begins his counterclockwise motion, as a clear evocation of Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot’s living wheels, and so an invitation toMerkabah mysticism. A Buddhist acquaintance from Japan, however, sees every home run as a metaphor for the arahant who has successfully crossed the sea of becoming on the raft of dharma.

Of course, the mental and physical disciplines of the game are clearly contemplative in nature. No one could, for instance, no matter how fine his eyesight or physical coordination, hit a major-league pitch with a cylindrical bat if there were not some prior attunement on his part to the subtle spiritual force that flows through all things, a sort of Zen cultivation of the mindless mind, in which the impossible is accomplished because it somehow simply accomplishes itself in us. Japan’s greatest hitter, Sadaharu Oh—whose hitting coach, Hiroshi Arakawa, was a disciple of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido—even wrote a book on his discovery of the Zen way of baseball. But there are contemplatives and adepts in all major religious traditions.

One could, I suppose, conclude that baseball is primarily Western in its religious orientation, on the shaky grounds that the game as we know it has a somewhat eschatological logic: Within the miniature cosmos of the park, the game must be played down to its final verdict and cannot end before judgment is passed. No one, I think, doubts that Yogi’s most oracular formula, it ain’t over till it’s over, is a perfectly condensed statement of what for us are the game’s highest spiritual and dramatic stakes. And yet the Japanese will play to a draw with equanimity, content at the last simply to let go, so that all forces can reach equilibrium, and I do not believe their version of the game is necessarily any less elegant or profound than ours.

There are, however, at least two respects in which I suppose baseball could be said to speak to, and speak out of, an essentially biblical vision of reality. First, there is simply its undeniable element of Edenic nostalgia: that longing for innocence, guileless play, the terrestrial paradise—a longing it both evokes and soothes. Bart Giamatti, though, wrote so famously and so well on this topic that I have little to add. I only observe that the ballpark is a paradise into which evil does occasionally come, whenever the Yankees are in town, and this occasionally lends the game a cosmic significance that it would not be improper to call “apocalyptic.” This, in fact, is why that dastardly franchise is a spiritually necessary part of the game in this country; even Yankees fans have their necessary role to play, and—although we may occasionally think of them as “vessels of wrath”—we have to remember that they, too, are enfolded in the mercy of providence.

And, second, the game is, for many of us, a hard tutelage in the biblical virtues of faith, hope, and love. Here, admittedly, I am drawing on personal spiritual experience, but I can do so out of a vast reservoir of purgative suffering. My team, you see, is the Baltimore Orioles. In my youth I was full of wicked pride. The Orioles, for nearly the first two decades of my life, were the envy of the baseball world: winning more games than any other franchise, the only team with a winning record against the Yankees, awash in Gold Gloves and Cy Young Awards, a team that was often said to be “magic.” In those days—the days of Frank and Brooks, Powell and Palmer, Blair and Buford, Eddie and the rest—it was almost unimaginable that a season would pass without a pennant race, or that New York would not tremble before us.

And now?

These—and I shall close on this thought—are the great moral lessons that only a game with baseball’s long season and long history and dramatic intensity can impress on the soul: humility, long-suffering, dauntless love, and inexhaustible faith in the face of invincible misfortune. I could no more abandon my Orioles than I could repudiate my family, or my native heath, or my own childhood—even though I know it is a devotion that can now bring only grief. I know, I know: Orioles fans have not yet suffered what Boston fans suffered for more than twice the term of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, or what Cubs fans have suffered for more than a century; but we have every reason to expect that we will. And yet we go on. The time of tribulation is upon us, and we now must make our way through its darkness, guided only by the waning lights of memory and the flickering flame of hope, not knowing when the night will end but sustained by the sacred assurance that whosoever perseveres to the end shall be saved.

resurrectionFor the sermon this past Sunday (which you can listen to here), I argued thusly:

     I don’t believe in Jesus because I believe in the Bible. 
     I believe in Jesus because I’ve met him. 
     I don’t believe in the the resurrection because I believe in the Bible. 
     I believe in the resurrection because I know Jesus Christ is alive and so God must have raised him from the dead. 

Quite obviously this was a subjective assertion, rooted in my own experience of being encountered and was decidedly not- as one vociferous worshipper grumbled- an “empirical or objective explanation” for the resurrection.

While the Barthian in me bristles at the unexamined assumption that that which is ‘objective’ and true must be empirically verifiable, it’s nonetheless true that the same Barthian in me is allergic to rational apologetics. I simply do not believe that the claims of Christianity can or should be rendered demonstrably true or, even worse, reasonable.

Any Christianity that ‘makes sense’ flies in the face of the first truth of the faith: that dead people stay dead and what God does in Christ is completely unexpected and counterintuitive.

Having said that, however, maybe the grumbling worshipper (a Deist in Christian clothes) was on to something. I do not believe apologetics or rationally ‘proving’ or making the common-sense case for Christ, yet neither do I believe that the ineffable and ineluctable nature of the resurrection makes it UNreasonable.

To say the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical verification is true, for we believe God intervenes from beyond history to raise Jesus from beyond the grave.

But to say the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical verification is not also to suggest that the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical plausibility, for we believe God intervenes to raise Jesus from the grave within history.

In fact, though it wasn’t the intent of last Sunday’s sermon (though it will be this Sunday) to argue the plausibility of the resurrection, I do think the resurrection is the best- or at least a compelling- historical explanation for the resurrection of Jesus.

I believe it.

Like Paul, and for that matter like every story there is, I believe the ending of the story determines the truth and worthwhileness of everything which precedes it.

If Jesus is not raised, I’m with Nietszche because if Jesus is not raised all the facts of history are on Friedrich’s side not Yeshua.

I do believe in the resurrection. I believe it based on my subjective experience, and I believe it as history.

Some of you, I know, do not.

Actually, my experience as a pastor in Mainline Christianity has taught me that a good many Christians, if not the majority, do not believe anything actually happened on Easter morning.

In my experience, most quietly confess the creeds but inwardly believe that Jesus was only raised in the hearts of his followers. Others are more open about their doubts, armed with just enough popular press ‘facts’ to miss just how impoverished is their logic- never seriously considering how, to take one example, someone’s existential experience of feeling Jesus in their heart was not likely to persuade another and even less so to lead them to a cross of their own.

Even still, I know some of you doubt the resurrection.

And I want to know why. Or what.

So I’ve got some questions for you to consider.

And, if you’re so bold, to answer:

If it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, triumphing over Death and Sin (and Rome) would you then be willing to trust that he is ‘Lord?’

Or, would you at least believe that, having been vindicated by God, Christ’s obedience is what God desires from all of us?

If you say, No, then do you think Easter is irrelevant regardless of whether it’s true or not? Why?

If you say, Yes, then, other than the manner in which we’ve received the gospel, how would you expect the news of Jesus’ resurrection to reach us today? What else would you require to accept it as a trustworthy witness?

And if you would require some other ‘evidence’ of the resurrection, are you actually saying that you need another miracle to verify the prior miracle of the resurrection?

Or are you saying that that even if God raised Jesus from the dead you would not believe? Because you don’t believe in miracles at all? Period.

And if you don’t believe in miracles at all, if you believe then that creation is a closed system from which God is transcendentally apart and in to which God does not act, then aren’t you really saying (even if you go to Church, pray etc) that you’re an atheist?

Or a clockmaker Deist like TJ?

But then that leads to one last question:

If creation is a closed system in which something could not have happened because we do not now observe it happening, then isn’t your ‘reason’ itself a product of that closed system?

And if so, then hasn’t your mind and reason evolved purely through natural selection alone? To give you a better chance only at survival?

And if so, then on what grounds could your mind and reason possibly be in a position to know what is true about reality (that closed system) as a whole?

There’s a big, big difference between saying ‘I do not believe the resurrection of Jesus happened’ and ‘I do not believe resurrections can happen.’

I suspect most claim the former while in fact confessing the latter, not realizing they leave this trail of logic behind them…

Resurrections (as events from beyond history in history) cannot happen.

Therefore God (as Being and Actor beyond history) does not exist.

Therefore Reason (my ability to speculate about the bounds of history and reality) does not exist, or at least not in the manner in which I assume.

Or, as DBH puts it: david_bentley_hart

“…it makes sense to believe in both reason and God, and it may make a kind of nonsensical sense to believe in neither, but it is ultimately contradictory to believe in one but not the other. An honest and self-aware atheism, therefore, should proudly recognize itself as the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith…” – The Experience of God

In other words, as JAM puts it:

While belief in the resurrection yields fools for Christ, non-belief in its possibility yields fools.

david_bentley_hartI’ve just started reading David Bentley Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss.

Let’s just say that had this been written in the 3rd century it would be worth the canon’s consideration. I took a few of DBH’s classes back when I was a lowly freshman at UVA and he was finishing up his PhD. My theological training then was sufficient only to alert me to how very little I understood of what DBH tried to teach us. Dr Hart seemed well aware of our impoverished intellects too, treating us with resigned sarcasm that every now and then was tempered by true Christian charity.

The gentle condescension and humor that comes through in his writing came through loud and clear in his lectures as well, and I loved every moment of it. I had only been a Christian for a few years, and DBH was the most brilliant brother in Christ I had ever encountered. And he remains so today.

Being taught by DBH was perhaps the first time I realized the extraordinary depth and sophistication that is the ancient Christian philosophic tradition.

At a time when my Christian peers were, in predictable if shallow fashion, having their faith challenged by what they learned in their science and biblical studies classes, my faith was being edified at an exponential rate.

If I could understand only 8% of what DBH tried to teach me, I wagered, then the tradition of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Bonaventure, and Aquinas was secure from anything the Physics or Biology Departments could throw at it.

Anyone who could not accept the philosophical validity of the Christian vision of God, I concluded, simply didn’t understand either the vision or how that vision defines ‘God.’

Ironically, my conclusion is the subject of Hart’s new book. With rhetorical flights and biting condescension, Hart points out the logical sloppiness of pure atheism (calling it ‘magical thinking’ but that’s a post for another day) and skewers the so-called New Atheist Movement for being a rather vulgar misapprehension of what the great theistic traditions of the world mean by the word ‘God.’

Hart rightly points out that pure atheism is only one strand of a fundamentalism common in our unsubtle age, ridiculing biblical literalists for making the same category error.

Hart writes:

“Many [19th century Christians who opposed Darwinism] genuinely believed that there was some sort of logical conflict between the idea that God had created the world and the idea that terrestrial life had evolved over time. This was and is a view held, of course, by any number of atheists as well.”

And then, Hart hit me with a point so obvious I’d never even considered it:

“One assumes that fundamentalist Christians and atheists alike are well aware that Christians believe God is the creator of every person; but presumably none of them would be so foolish as to imagine that this means each person is not also the product of spermatozoon and ovum; surely they grasp that here God’s act of creation is understood as the whole event of nature and existence, not as a distinct causal agency that in some way rivals the natural process of conception.”

Bam.

In other words, not even the most strident biblical literalist would hold their new born baby in their arms and deny that the child is the very obvious fruit of sexual (biological) love. Yet, at the same time, few parents would not also rightly confess that no matter how ‘natural’ this child’s birth was it remains, nonetheless and thoroughly so, a mysterious and gracious gift of God.

Why is it, then, that biblical literalists cannot apply to scripture the same theo-logic with which they read their children?

help_my_unbelief-1Not long ago a parent in my congregation expressed concern, as well as a sense of failure, that their graduating child confessed that they no longer believed.

It’s always difficult to know to what extent such declarations are a hasty desire to rebel against or push aside the faith of their childhood or when they are the product of sincere, thoughtful wrestling with God.

For all ages, I usually find it to be the latter rather than the former.

It’s not uncommon for parents to want me to say something to their children that will get them chance their mind back to God, something that will reach out and pull them back into the boat.

I usually have a couple of thoughts about that, understandable, parental desire.

For one, the whole manner of reducing Christianity to a belief that our children have or do not have is part of the problem.

Christians are disciples, apprentices, followers. We’re not believers. It’s not about making up our minds one way or the other but giving to our lives a Christ-like pattern that calls them to sacrificial living.

I’m not suggesting it was true in this particular instance, but I’ve known a whole lot of people who claimed to be rejecting Christianity when what they were rejecting really didn’t resemble authentic Christianity but a lite, gnostic form of civil religion.

For another, I usually tell parents not to freak out, to take the long view. Kids have their entire lives to work through their faith. I think God has shown himself to be sufficiently gracious that we can trust our salvation to him and not frantically try to pull people into the boat as though it might sink any day now. Note: not fretting over their eternal soul is not the same thing as ambivalence.

Finally, I often echo exactly what I tell parents at the beginning of the confirmation year: ‘I can’t make your child a Christian nor is it my role.’ I then go on to explain that limited time with me in church cannot make them into something they’re not formed into being at home all the time.

Parents are the real rabbis of their children.

In an article this week from The Atlantic, Larry Tauton interviewed college students who identify themselves as ‘New Atheists.’ Admittedly these students are outliers among their peers; they’re not the indifferent agnostics, too lazy and blasé about religion to give any compelling reasons for their unbelief. Rather these students are religious about their atheism.

Like something is at stake.

Here are the broad results from the interviews:

They had attended church

Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity.

The mission and message of their churches was vague

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again.

They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions

When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc. Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”

They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously

Following our 2010 debate in Billings, Montana, I asked Christopher Hitchens why he didn’t try to savage me on stage the way he had so many others. His reply was immediate and emphatic: “Because you believe it.” Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.” As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual as you might think. It finds resonance in the well-publicized comments of Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian: “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” Comments like these should cause every Christian to examine his conscience to see if he truly believes that Jesus is, as he claimed, “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Ages 14-17 were decisive

One participant told us that she considered herself to be an atheist by the age of eight while another said that it was during his sophomore year of college that he de-converted, but these were the outliers. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.

The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one

With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well. This phenomenon was most powerfully exhibited in Meredith. She explained in detail how her study of anthropology had led her to atheism. When the conversation turned to her family, however, she spoke of an emotionally abusive father:

“It was when he died that I became an atheist,” she said.

I could see no obvious connection between her father’s death and her unbelief. Was it because she loved her abusive father — abused children often do love their parents — and she was angry with God for his death? “No,” Meredith explained. “I was terrified by the thought that he could still be alive somewhere.”

Rebecca, now a student at Clark University in Boston, bore similar childhood scars. When the state intervened and removed her from her home (her mother had attempted suicide), Rebecca prayed that God would let her return to her family. “He didn’t answer,” she said. “So I figured he must not be real.” After a moment’s reflection, she appended her remarks: “Either that, or maybe he is [real] and he’s just trying to teach me something.”

The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism–people, books, seminars, etc. — we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the “New Atheists.” We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.

I’ll again quote Michael because his words are Gospel and they should haunt us with their damning truth:

“Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others.

I haven’t seen too much of that.”

 

Brooks-Robinson-1970True love (charity) is particular, tied to specific emotional attachments. To people. To places. To tastes and memories. Here is how David Bentley Hart, one of my former teachers and object of a man crush on my part, articulates what it means to be patriotic:

Love of country is most ennobling, I think, when it is most concrete, and when it rises up out local loyalties, particular experiences, and natural customs. Otherwise, it has only the quality of appreciation, or even of reverence, but not of the profoundest emotional attachment. So, well before my gratitude for the rule of law and the constitutional limit on government powers, come a number of more personal fidelities: my love of baseball, Ella Fitzgerald (especially the recordings done for Verve), and the voice of Renée Fleming, for instance. Also Maryland crab cakes (which are impossible to find anywhere but in Maryland), Maryland soft-shell crabs, Maryland crab bisque, Maryland oyster stew, Maryland oyster pie, Chesapeake oysters on the shell, and Chesapeake rockfish (very good when stuffed with crab or served with fresh oysters).

Of course, I should not neglect to mention Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis (up to a point). Or the songs of Harold Arlen (America’s greatest songwriter), Cole Porter, and the Gershwins; also the lyrics of Johnny Mercer. And Ella Fitzgerald. Jimmy Rushing also. Renée Fleming and baseball. The films of John Ford (above all) and of Howard Hawks, John Huston, and Preston Sturges. The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bogart, Ginger Rogers, and Ava Gardner (let me pause on that last one for a moment, in order to heave a deep sigh).

The memory of Brooks Robinson lunging madly at a fair ball veering out of reach into foul territory, gloving it, and somehow throwing across the diamond in time; or of Paul Blair, playing so shallow he could almost turn a double play at second, still running down a deep line drive over his head and catching it on the warning track; and of Frank Robinson hitting a home run with a violence that made one wonder whether the ball had once insulted his mother.

Our marvelous landscapes, of course: the deep deciduous forests of the Appalachians, the forever changing colors of the Chesapeake Bay, the Western mountains and plains and deserts, and all the rest. And there are few sights in nature as glorious as Autumn in North America, especially the Northeast. The keening of coyotes at night, the sweet terse trill of the Baltimore Oriole, the belling of Eastern tree frogs, that uncanny noise the black bear who lives in the culvert behind my house makes. And the greatest of our cities: New Orleans, Charleston, and Manhattan. The sight of the Chrysler Building bathed in crepuscular scarlet. And all the Civil War battlefields.

Our greatest nineteenth century writers, too, of course: Melville, Hawthorne, William James (and occasionally Henry), Thoreau, Emerson, Henry Adams, Crane, Bierce, Twain, and Jones Very (though I confess I am a heretic when it comes to Dickinson, Whitman, and Poe). Our best modern poets: Stevens, Frost, and Wilbur, and sometimes Pound and Lowell. The Adventures of Augie March, the prose of John Updike (though, strangely enough, not the actual novels in which it is found, and certainly none of those god-awful, dismally anerotic sex scenes). Most of Fitzgerald, a little of the very early Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and all of Nabokov’s American books before Ada.

“Sophisticated Lady” (the greatest popular song ever written), “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”, and “I Shall Be Released” (I would include “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but it was actually written by a Canadian). The recordings of Yo-Yo Ma and Renée Fleming. Southern courtesy, Northeastern candor, Western independence, and Texans (whatever the hell they are). And so on.

Obviously, the list could continue indefinitely. (I hope I remembered to mention baseball and Ella, however. And Renée Fleming, of course.)

Whether, though, everyone would find this adequate or not, I cannot say. Some might still complain that even the most comprehensive and adoring enumeration of the particularities of America still does not amount to a confession of faith in America as a cause, or America as the great historical exception or new human beginning, or America as the ideal destiny of humankind. And indeed it does not. But it is a genuine expression of great love, nonetheless.

And, I would argue, it has the true shape of all love that is rightly ordered. All true charity—love, that is, purged of selfishness and egoism—begins in attachment to what is most intimate and familiar. This is where the soul acquires its first and indispensable tutelage in love, and from which it then ventures out to embrace ever more of reality without forsaking its first loyalty, extending the circle of its sympathy by analogy to its own primordial affections. It is the mirror image, so to speak, of the bonum diffusivum sui, the divine eros (to use the phrase of Dionysius the Areopagite) that proceeds out from itself to give all things freely, and to draw all things back to itself.

The proper love of country, it seems to me, should have the form of this egressusand regressus: a deep attachment to what is near at hand that is still free from any presumptuous belief in the lesser value of things that are far away, and that is therefore able to grow beyond the local towards the universal, beyond the nation to a larger culture, beyond that to other cultures, and ideally towards the embrace of all humanity and all of creation. That is, at any rate, the only kind of patriotism that I fully understand, and that I find it possible to see as a spiritual virtue. And, I may be wrong, but it seems to me also to be a patriotism that, of its nature, should express itself with a certain seemly humility, and an effortless generosity.

You can click here to read his full essay.

Are Atheists Blind?

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Even after I became a Christian, I found the traditional, philosophical arguments for God’s existence to be dry and unconvincing: ‘God is that which no greater can be thought; God is the first cause of all that is.’

To my mind, there could never be satisfactory ‘proof’ for a God as paradoxical as the one we find in Jesus Christ. Still, if I were to attempt an apologia for God I would point not to the human genome or the Big Bang but to Beauty.

That we’re all imbued with an aesthetic, with an appreciation, love for and visceral need to create beauty- even as we define it in a diversity of ways that is itself a kind of beauty- has always seemed, to me at least, the best argument that there is a God from whom we owe our existence.

I understand the purely ‘natural’ explanation behind the blue glow that shimmers over mountaintops, yet there is no ‘natural’ explanation for why I would find such an occurrence radiantly beautiful. In other words, there’s a sense in which its grammatically incorrect for Christians to use the word nature. It’s created, all of it, and as created it’s all gift that should evoke gratitude and enjoyment.

As a former atheist and recovering cynic, I think I’m correct in saying that atheism’s biggest drawback is how boring it is. In trying to prove what isn’t, atheism too often misses out on what IS in all its splendor.

This weekend we continue our fall sermon series, ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas,’ with the theme of creation as a signpost to the Almighty.

As the Psalmist puts it, this week we’re exploring how the ‘heavens declare the glory of God.’ This is same principle is what theologians and ethicists refer to under the category ‘natural law,’ the idea that creation itself bears the fingerprints of the Creator and from those marks we can deduce certain beliefs.

Here’s a beautiful essay by David Bentley Hart on leaving the mountain that towered above his home:

For two years, we have lived in a forest on the convergent lower slopes of two mountain ranges, and above a shallow wooded ravine that descends to a narrow streambed on our side and rises up on the opposite side towards the high ridge that looms above our treetops to the west. During our time here, that mountain has been a commanding and magnificent presence for us, seeming at times almost impossibly near at hand, at other times forbiddingly remote, but always silently, sublimely watchful.

Nearly every morning, no matter the season, it is mantled in clouds, sometimes so heavily that it disappears altogether behind opaque walls of pearl-gray mist.

And nearly every evening, as the sun descends below its ridgeline, the whole mountain is briefly crowned in purple and pale gold, and the southwest horizon, where the ridge descends, is transformed into a gulf of amethyst, rose, and orange.

When the darkness falls, moreover, there is none of the dull rufous pall that the glare of city lights casts up to hide the stars in heavily populated areas.

On clear nights, the sky becomes a deep crystal blue for perhaps half an hour—and then the sky becomes an ocean of stars.

Here in our shady submontane seclusion, cool breezes constantly blow down from the peaks above, and through the southern pass, even during the hottest months of summer. The soughing of the trees rises and falls as the gusts strengthen or weaken, but never wholly abates, and the sunlight—reaching us through the filtering leaves—incessantly flickers and undulates around our house. The birds are so numerous and various that their songs blend inextricably together, and only occasionally can one momentarily recognize a particular phrase—a goldfinch, say, or a cardinal—before it merges back into the larger polyphony. Then only the short, sharp staccato of the woodpeckers is immediately recognizable.

Just now, however, the more dominant music here is the oddly sweet mixed chorus of the woodland frogs, especially at night, but throughout the day as well. The rain this spring, here as in much of the country, has been heavy and regular, and so the ditches are full to overflowing, and gleam like silver when viewed at an oblique slant. The smaller depressions at their edges, also full of water, catch the reflections of overhanging leaves, and the green mingles with the gray of their silt in such a way that they often look like pools of jade. When one comes nearer, however, all the standing water is quite clear and filled with small black tadpoles. Next year’s frog choruses will be louder.

Life abounds under the brow of the mountain. All the woodland creatures one would expect, great and small, are here—deer and black bears, glistening black snakes and tawny foxes, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and owls and Blue-Tailed Skinks, and so on. The butterflies at the moment are becoming quite plentiful; there are Black Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, but also Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies, and a host of others. And azure and emerald and opalescent beetles and flies are now appearing as well.

The mountain ridge can be reached by foot, if one is willing to make the effort. The best passage to the top lies northwest of our house, and one must follow it first down into the ravine, into its green depths, through the shadows of its deciduous trees and immense Loblolly Pines, over carpets of moss and ferns and creeping juniper, and across the narrow stream that just now is coursing quite vigorously. The best path—not the easiest, but the most idyllic—lies across a small waterfall created by a thick tangle of oak and Asian Tulip roots over a minor subsidence in the soil. Mountain laurel is extremely plentiful in the ravine, and at present is in full blossom. Bronze and golden box turtles lurk in the shade and by the water.


The ascending slope from there is quite gentle at first, and only becomes an arduous climb at a few places. In all, it takes only about two hours to reach the ridge if one keeps moving. If one sets out well before dawn, and arrives at the top in time to see the sunrise, one will find oneself walking as much in the clouds as through the trees, and there is a brief period (twenty minutes or so) when the sunlight first reaches the ridge, at a sharply lateral angle, and one is all at once passing through shifting veils of translucent gold. Unfortunately, it is an effect that no photograph can capture: invariably, it is not only the rich aurous lambency of the scene that is lost, but the impression of depths within depths, layer upon layer.

In any event, I can do none of this any justice. To describe the place with anything like the detail or lyricism it merits would be a long, and perhaps interminable, task. I have relied on pictures simply because I do not quite have the words right now. In a week, we will be gone. Family responsibilities necessitate our moving to a larger house—one very pleasantly set in a grove of tall tress, but not watched over by our mountain. I simply feel as if it has been a rare privilege to live here for the time we have had, and that I ought to pay some tribute to the place before leaving, out of some sense of honor or natural piety.

So one last photograph. I actually took it soon after our arrival here, as my son (age ten at the time) was watching the sunset for the first time from our porch, over the small open glade to our southwest. But at the moment it seems to capture something for me, a mood at once of delighted wonder and deep sadness. It comes as close as I can at present to expressing the farewell that I want to wish this house and that mountain. It is a melancholy with which I suspect we are all familiar at some level, as individuals and as a race, something that haunts us and of which my sadness is only a fragmentary reminder—the feeling of having lost paradise.

You can find the article here.

Maybe because I’ve been writing a sermon on Eutychus, the first victim of bad preaching in the Church. Paul literally bores him to death. It’s in Acts 20 and may be the reason why I have death on the brain and recalled this wonderful essay from David Hart, who writes beautifully about losing a friend and sensing the event from miles away.

I was fairly close to both Angela and Jacob throughout our teens; at least, we were all part of the same circle. I briefly entertained the hope of something closer between Angela and myself, and for a few weeks she was more or less my girlfriend; but Jacob “swept her off her feet,” and they were at one school and I at another, so I had no chance. It made no difference to our friendship, though.

Unfortunately, I largely lost touch with Angela when I started attending university. Over the course of the next six months, we crossed one another’s paths only three times or so. On the last occasion, she had just returned from a visit to Paris, from which she had brought home, among other things, the Pléiade edition of Montaigne she proudly showed me.

And that was that. Two and a half years later she was killed when a drunk driver struck her car in an intersection; she was alive for several hours after the collision, but never regained consciousness. That was twenty-five years ago tomorrow.

I learned of her death three days after, from Jacob. (Their romance had not survived their remove to separate colleges, but they had remained friends.) I won’t bother to say how the news affected me, but I will remark that I had had what in retrospect seemed to have been a premonition of it. On the night of her death, Angela had suddenly, for no discernible reason, come into my mind, attended by an inexplicable sense of aching melancholy, which at the time I simply took for acute nostalgia.

Jacob, though, had had something that seemed like much more than a premonition. On the night of Angela’s accident, apparently during the hours when she was lying in the hospital unconscious but still breathing, he had had a particularly vivid dream in which she and he had spoken to one another in a strange house that, after the fashion of dreams, was also somehow a garden (if I have the details right).

Their conversation, which had been pervasively sad, concerned her imminent departure for somewhere far away; and it seemed to Jacob that it was understood between them—in that way in which, in dreams, many unspoken things seem simply to be presumed—that she was leaving on a journey from which she would never return. She told him, he recalled, that she had come only to say good-bye.

Now, these things—my vague intuitions, Jacob’s haunting dream—may have been merely coincidences; but, frankly, I can’t make myself believe that the universe is quite large enough to accommodate coincidences of that kind. What was most extraordinary about our experiences, however, is that they were not that extraordinary at all.

That is, it is rather astonishing how common these encounters with the uncanny really are. You may not recall any yourself, but it is quite likely that you need only ask around among your acquaintances to discover someone who does. I myself have had at least two others, one utterly trivial, one of the most crucial importance, and both together sufficient to convince me that consciousness is not moored to the present moment or local space in quite the same way that the body is.

The mind can, of course, deceive itself; it can retrospectively fabricate spectral connections or occult sympathies and convince itself they were there all along. But there are still a great many experiences that resist any too effortlessly reductive an explanation.

There was a period of two or three years, for instance, when a member of my extended family temporarily acquired the unsettling habit of dreaming abnormally clear dreams that later came true (as well as several that did not). I was even present on one occasion, under circumstances neither of us could have foreseen or planned, when a dream he had described to me months earlier came to pass.

What does it all mean, though?

Well, obviously, persons who have known such moments are unlikely to be convinced by any purely materialist account of consciousness, at least of the “mechanical philosophy” variety. The confirmed “physicalists” among them might toy with ideas drawn from, say, some of the more stochastically adventurous quantum theories of consciousness, but mostly out of desperation.

Whatever the case, though, such experiences should chiefly remind us how many and how deep the mysteries of consciousness really are. And the profoundest mystery of consciousness is consciousness itself, because we really have little or no clear idea what it is, or how it could either arise from or ally itself to the material mechanisms of the brain.

There are, of course, intellectually serious books with titles like How the Mind Works (Steven Pinker) or Consciousness Explained (Daniel Dennett), but the preponderant consensus in the philosophical world is that they do not deliver more than a fraction of what they promise. The logical high ground is still occupied by consciousness “mysterians” like Colin McGinn or, at least, by skeptics like John Searle.

Most attempts to describe the mind entirely as an emergent quality of the brain, or as another name for the brain’s machinery, not only fail convincingly to bridge the qualitative distance between sensory impression and coherent thought, but invariably bracket out of consideration a great deal of what any scrupulous phenomenology of consciousness reveals. Certainly they do not seem to explain the “transcendental” conditions by which consciousness is organized: that primordial act within and prior to all our other acts of mind and will; that constant mediation between thought and world that we both perform and suffer in advance of all experience or volition.

Consciousness has not been explained until one can provide a comprehensive picture of how the mind not only “fits” the world, but also “intends” and “constitutes” it as an intelligible phenomenon. And that is not the straightforward mechanical problem it is often mistaken for.

But these are matters that have been tormenting philosophers and cognitive scientists for decades, and they will not be resolved by any arguments or any science currently at our command. And, anyway, even if humanity should some day penetrate the ordinary mysteries of consciousness, the more extraordinary mysteries will probably remain, and continue to urge human beings to think in terms not only of the mind, but of the soul.

Whatever the case, I cannot help but believe that on the night when Angela lay dying, some portion of my consciousness was remotely, flickeringly aware of the fact; and that she, or something of her, was able to reach out into Jacob’s dream to make her farewells. But, even in admitting I believe such things, I would never claim to understand them.

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