Monday, July 26, 2010

The mud and the slime

But what brought me into the Church was a mixture of two graces. The first was having fallen in love with a Catholic classmate at school some years earlier. He was and is straight, but I perceived a certain warmth of personality in him which seemed untypical of the world of Protestant schoolboys in which I lived, and I associated that warmth with his being Catholic. The second was a special grace at a time when I was at a very low ebb, having just started to “come out” as a gay man in a very hostile conservative evangelical environment, shortly before going to University. This grace I associate absolutely with the intercession of Padre Pio, since it came at a time when I glimpsed something of the link between his stigmata and the sacrifice of the Mass; and I then knew, and have always since known, the Mass to be no mere memorial supper. This grace, which was accompanied by an astounding joy, literally blew me into the Church. It was the gift of the Catholic Faith. Once it had fallen upon me I knew myself to be involved on the inside of something which has been a love affair ever since, something which just seems to open out and get bigger and better all the time. I was aware even then that my often tortuous journey of self-acceptance as a gay man and my becoming a Catholic were part of the same movement of joy. And God has been faithful, keeping the texture of those loves intertwined and slowly bringing them into one love and one blessing, nurturing the heart that it has been his idea to give me and keeping it safe from Lord alone knows how much erratic behaviour, slowness to trust, and cowardice, on my part, as well as from the defamation of love and the hatred espoused by so many whose job it is to speak in God’s name.


Then again, one of the reliefs about coming into the Church was precisely that it was not ethics-obsessed. I remember, a year or so after becoming a Catholic, realising that one of the first things I had to learn about being a Catholic – bizarrely – was how to sin. In the world of my formation, being good was obligatory and boring. And sinning, being bad, was a terrible letting down of the side. A sort of failure of English gentlemanliness. This meant, in fact, a constant struggle to live up to “being good”, whatever that meant. Curiously, a strong belief in “Justification by faith alone” seemed to have as its psychological counterpart an extreme need to justify oneself. As a Catholic I had to learn that sin is boringly normal, and that what is exciting is being pulled into learning new things, called virtues, which are ways in which a goodness which is not ours becomes connatural with us, and that this is something of an adventure. I had to learn how not to be so concerned with whether I was getting things right or wrong, but to learn instead to relax into the given-ness of things. I can scarcely tell you how strange it sounds in retrospect, but I was discovering that it is part of the mercy of the Catholic faith that those of us who are infected by spiritual haughtiness find ourselves being lowered slowly and gently into the mud, the slime, of being one of ordinary humanity, and learning that it is this ordinary humanity which is loved as it is. If there are to be any diamonds, they will be found amidst the clay, and as the outworking of the pressures in the clay, not perched on high, on stalks, trying to avoid being infected by so much common carbon.

Part of this induction into being Catholic has been the discovery of the secret presence of Our Lady, permeating everything. For many of those of us brought up in Protestant backgrounds, it takes a long time to begin to make sense of what can come across as a psychological weirdness with which it is difficult to identify, which doesn’t seem to strike chords in us. But I have come to rejoice in and love Our Lady and the difference which she constitutes in the Church. For it is she who makes it impossible for the Church successfully to turn itself either into an ideology or into a moralistic enterprise. She can never quite be co-opted into standing for something other than what she is. And what I have come to associate her with being is the link, the non-opposition, between the old creation and the new, between nature and grace, between the Israel of the Prophets and Patriarchs and the new, universal Israel of God. Far too delicate to be clearly delineated, and far too present to be dismissed, she has underlined, seated, and made three-dimensional for me elements of the faith in what her Son is doing which can only be lived-into over time.

The feast of the Assumption, in particular, is one where my heart soars, and I have, over my twenty-seven years of being a Catholic enjoyed two special moments of grace from our Lady on the Solemnity of the Assumption. One, when out for a walk in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where a sense of the openness of heaven gave me the inspiration for the second half of my book “The joy of being wrong”. And more recently, and even more surprisingly, a grace came when I was desperate to think of a way to finish “Faith beyond resentment: fragments catholic and gay”. I was in Rio de Janeiro, running out of time before I had to hand in the manuscript, and was stuck, at the end of my tether, and on my way to sleep, having spent Sunday 15 August failing to do anything on the computer other than play FreeCell and Solitaire. And as I fell asleep, I was given the parable of Nicodemus, the Inquisitor and the boys in the square, which became the end of the last chapter of the book. I remember giggling as I fell asleep, as the parable was given to me, so preposterous did it seem as an ending for the book. Just as I remember thinking as I wrote it out the next day that Our Lady’s love for her queer children, one of the best kept but also best known, secrets of the Church, is something which no amount of ecclesiastical homophobia can vanquish.

I recently came across what was, for me, an entirely new and wonderful avocation of Our Lady. This is Our Lady Undoer of Knots. I stumbled upon a locally carved statue of her in Brazil, which I bought without knowing anything about the devotion. This turns out to come from Augsburg in Germany, from a painting by an unknown artist dating from 1700. What on earth, you may ask, is a devotion from a Baroque part of Germany doing being sculpted in Salvador, the most African part of Brazil? But this is part of the uncanny wonder of the Catholic Church. The image is of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception holding a cord with knots, which she is undoing. This Avocation gives me great peace, since it is clear to me that the knots concerning the relationship between grace and desire, sin and concupiscence, which have been so tied up into a skandalon for gay people in the life of our Church are being gently and carefully undone by hands blessed with far more patience and delicacy than I could hope to muster.

- James Alison, "Is it ethical to be Catholic? – Queer perspectives"

Derek, coincidentally, writes about Mary today, too.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is it Ethical to be Catholic? Queer Perspectives (1 of 15)

Here's James Alison on the topic, who seems a bit nonplussed by the question itself! He's been involved with religion for too long, obviously; he doesn't understand in what low regard the Christian church is held by gay people too many to number.

There are around 6-8 separate 10-minute JA videos, all of which can be found together here - but things seem to be out of order somehow, or perhaps it represents the debate back-and-forth format. I haven't figured it out yet, anyway - but I'm still listening myself. This conference seems to have happened fairly recently (EDIT: it was in 2006; JA has written about this previously); the videos were posted in June of this year. I really like the "undoer of knots" thing - something I'd never heard about before....

(EDIT 2: I've just finished watching JA's part of this discussion; it was very beautiful. Now the first "respondent" is speaking; he's upset that JA did not actually address the question itself - but of course, the question itself was not in any way well-defined, and - in my opinion - was framed merely for shallow and sarcastic shock value: to turn the church's claims of morality on itself. The respondent, Vincent Pizzuto, argues that JA does not recognize that there are other forms of Catholicism - and then does the same thing himself, by focusing only on Rome. Well, I'm still listening, though, so maybe there'll be more and better coming.)

(EDIT 3: Respondent 2, Julie Henderson, is now speaking. Actually it's clear that all these perspectives are valuable; however, Henderson's contention that Alison's approach is "irresponsible" and that he's "not living up to the challenge" is ridiculous, considering all he's written, done, and said about this issue. I find her argument to be immature, to be honest - but then, she is immature; she's a sophomore in college. Likewise, Pizzuto's argument that the Catholic Church is unethical because it hasn't "addressed the real problem" that led to the abuse of children - while not ever articulating what this "real problem" actually is - is half-baked. But I do understand - of course! - the anger.

What's really interesting to me is, actually, that James Alison found relief in his embrace of Catholicism - which tells you how awful his fundamentalist background must have been for him. Of course, this may have something to do with his English background, and the fact that Catholics have definitely been seen as second-class citizens in that country, even (I think) within his lifetime; perhaps empathy was the result of that kind of suffering.)

Step 4: Light

"4.  Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."

It just struck me that this Step - well, approximately - is (was?) performed regularly - weekly, if not more often - until quite recently, in the Catholic and Orthodox varieties of the Christian faith.  It's quite obviously what Confession is, in its essence - or perhaps better said, what preparation for Confession is.  Which is what I need to go have a look at right now.  Will be back....

OK, here I am again. As I suspected, the Catechism covers "preparation for Confession." (Not the Episcopal Catechism, of course! The Baltimore Catechism of the Catholic Church from 1941, I believe.) Here's what it says there:
Q. 741. What must we do to receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily?
A. To receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily we must do five things:
  1. We must examine our conscience.
  2. We must have sorrow for our sins.
  3. We must make a firm resolution never more to offend God.
  4. We must confess our sins to the priest.
  5. We must accept the penance which the priest gives us.
Q. 742. What should we pray for in preparing for confession?
A. In preparing for confession we should pray to the Holy Ghost to give us light to know our sins and to understand their guilt; for grace to detest them; for courage to confess them and for strength to keep our resolutions.

Q. 743. What faults do many commit in preparing for confession?
A. In preparing for confession many commit the faults:
  1. Of giving too much time to the examination of conscience and little or none in exciting themselves to true sorrow for the sins discovered;
  2. Of trying to recall every trifling circumstance, instead of thinking of the means by which they will avoid their sins for the future.
Q. 744. What, then, is the most important part of the preparation for confession?
A. The most important part of the preparation for confession is sincere sorrow for the sins committed and the firm determination to avoid them for the future.

And just for the record, here's a page titled "Self-Examination Before Confession
The Whole Armour of Truth" from "," which offers these and other points to ponder:

Sins Against God
Do you pray to God in the morning and evening, before and after meals?
During prayer have you allowed your thoughts to wander?
Have you rushed or gabbled your prayers? or when reading in church?
Do you read the Scriptures daily? Do you read other spiritual writings regularly?
Have you read books whose content is not Orthodox or even anti-Orthodox, or is spiritually damaging?
Sins Against Your Neighbours
Do you respect and obey your parents?
Have you offended them by rudeness or contradiction?
(These two apply also to priests, superiors, teachers and elders.)
Have you insulted anyone?
Have you quarreled or fought with anyone? Have you hit anyone?
Are you always respectful to old people?
Are you ever angry, bad tempered or irritable?
Have you called anyone names? Do you use foul language?
Have you derided any that are disabled, poor, old or in some way disadvantaged?
Have you entertained bad feelings, ill will or hatred against anyone?
Have you forgiven those who have offended you?
Have you asked forgiveness from those whom you have offended?
Sins Against Yourself
Have you been proud? Do you boast of your abilities, achievements, family, connections or riches?
Do you consider yourself worthy before God?
Are you vain, ambitious? Do you try to win praise and glory?
Do you bear it easily when you are blamed, scolded or treated unjustly? Do you think too much about your looks, outward appearance and the impression you make?

Anyone preparing for confession must ask God to help his resolve to tell all his sins. A penitent should prepare for confession and collect his thoughts regarding his sins at least a day before confession. The most valuable thing in the eyes of God is the confession of the sin which weighs most on the conscience.

The questions listed are intended to help the Orthodox Christian examine himself and identify the symptoms of his spiritual ills; they should not be taken as some kind of test to ascertain how well we are doing as if there was a certain "pass-mark." Before God's perfections, we shall always fail. It is for that reason that, as believing Christians, we throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord and do not trust in our own righteousness.

Remember that our sins can never outweigh God's love towards us. Even if we should seem to have failed with regard to all the points mentioned above and more, we should not lose heart but confess our sins unshamefacedly, we should regret the wrongs we have done, be resolved to make amends, and receive whatever remedy our confessor should be guided to lay upon us. Most of all, one should be assured of the blessing of God which these endeavours will bring upon you.

Most Protestants - outside Anglicanism and Lutheranism perhaps? - do not seem to have a systematic theology of Confession, and therefore wouldn't have one for "preparation for Confession." I could be entirely wrong about this, and am willing to be corrected, if anybody can do so.

Well, this is just an intro to Step 4. I used the word "light" because it comes directly out of the long version of the Step: "Once we have a complete willingness to take inventory, and exert ourselves to do the job thoroughly, a wonderful light falls upon this foggy scene. As we persist, a brand-new kind of confidence is born, and the sense of relief at finally facing ourselves is indescribable. These are the first fruits of Step Four."

The Step views the "character defects" that alcoholics must address in themselves as "instincts gone astray." Somebody once said he found this "interesting" - meaning, I guess, that it's not the usual thing. I don't, to be honest, know what terms the psychiatric literature uses, if there is any dominant point of view (which probably there is not) - and I've never objected to A.A.'s understanding, so I'll discuss this Step from this point of view. (We do get into a discussion of the Seven Deadly Sins, in fact! The Step notes - sardonically, I assume! - that "Some will become quite annoyed if there is talk about immorality, let alone sin. But all who are in the least reasonable will agree upon one point: that there is plenty wrong with us alcoholics about which plenty will have to be done if we are to expect sobriety, progress, and any real ability to cope with life."

Well, yes - we have to change. More later.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Step 3: The abandonment of will (Last post on this, I promise!)

It seems as if I really can't shut up when it comes to Step 3! Here it is again:

"3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him."

I searched on my own keywords above - "abandonment of will" - and found some pretty interesting and varied references: to the mystic Marguerite Porete; to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer; to Epictetus; to "critical literary thinking"; to St. Clare; to the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Here's the reference to Porete, from a 1994 book titled Mystical Languages of Unsaying by Michael Anthony Sells:
The first relation between the performance of apophasis and its context centers upon will. Porete's Dame Amour speaks of the soul-annihilated-in-love as giving up her will entirely. She no longer wills to do or refrain from doing anything for God. The context of that statement is the transition from the fourth stage, the stage of works, to the fifth and sixth stages of mystical union. The seven-stage pattern of ascent is kataphatic and directional. Each stage leads to a higher stage, and no stage can be skipped. The abandonment of will takes place in the context of the striving to do good works and to follow the divine will. It is from within that striving that the soul realizes the apophatic aporia of desire, that even the desire to do good works or follow the divine will contains an egoism that must be given up in order to arrive at the fifth station of annihilation. At the moment of abandonment of the self, of will, and of works, Dame Amour tells us, the deity (as trinity, Dame Amour, or FarNear) will work within the soul.

I've posted before about Porete on this blog; she was a Flemish mystic - perhaps a "Beguine," a lay sister - born in the 13th Century, and burned at the stake for heresy by the Church in 1310.

"The soul-annihilated-in-love"! Well, maybe it's a good thing that this Step is only about "making a decision," then; my soul at that point was in a state of annihilation, all right - but definitely not from love! Interesting, actually, that the "abandonment of will" for A.A.s comes very soon in the Step program - and quite far along in the "seven stages of mystical union" (where one would actually predict it might come, in fact). I'm sure that's because A.A. can't afford to be just messing around; it's an emergency situation, and "abandonment of will" is not something that can be allowed to just "happen" someplace down the road - a start has to be made right away.

IOW, we have to come to a decision about this fairly soon in sobriety, and begin the process of "turning our will and life" over to God.

Here's the introduction to the "long version" of this Step, from the little book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions":
Practicing Step Three is like the opening of a door which to all appearances is still closed and locked. All we need is a key, and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key, and it is called willingness. Once unlocked by willingness, the door opens almost of itself, and looking through it, we shall see a pathway beside which is an inscription. It reads: "This is the way to a faith that works." In the first two Steps we were engaged in reflection. We saw that we were powerless over alcohol, but we also perceived that faith of some kind, if only in A.A. itself, is possible to anyone. These conclusions did not require action; they required only acceptance. Like all the remaining Steps, Step Three calls for affirmative action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God--or, if you like, a Higher Power--into our lives. Faith, to be sure, is necessary, but faith alone can avail nothing. We can have faith, yet keep God out of our lives. Therefore our problem now becomes just how and by what specific means shall we be able to let Him in? Step Three represents our first attempt to do this. In fact, the effectiveness of the whole A.A. program will rest upon how well and earnestly we have tried to come to "a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." To every worldly and practical-minded beginner, this Step looks hard, even impossible. No matter how much one wishes to try, exactly how can he turn his own will and his own life over to the care of whatever God he thinks there is? Fortunately, we who have tried it, and with equal misgivings, can testify that anyone, anyone at all, can begin to do it. We can further add that a beginning, even the smallest, is all that is needed. Once we have placed the key of willingness in the lock and have the door ever so slightly open, we find that we can always open it some more. Though self-will may slam it shut again, as it frequently does, it will always respond the moment we again pick up the key of willingness.

Clearly, clearly: "Like all the remaining Steps, Step Three calls for affirmative action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God--or, if you like, a Higher Power--into our lives. Faith, to be sure, is necessary, but faith alone can avail nothing."

Self-will is the problem, and willingness is the solution. Developing willingness, that is; action. The next part of the Step (you can read the whole thing here) is this:
Maybe this all sounds mysterious and remote, something like Einstein's theory of relativity or a proposition in nuclear physics. It isn't at all. Let's look at how practical it actually is. Every man and woman who has joined A.A. and intends to stick has, without realizing it, made a beginning on Step Three. Isn't it true that in all matters touching upon alcohol, each of them has decided to turn his or her life over to the care, protection, and guidance of Alcoholics Anonymous? Already a willingness has been achieved to cast out one's own will and one's own ideas about the alcohol problem in favor of those suggested by A.A. Any willing newcomer feels sure A.A. is the only safe harbor for the foundering vessel he has become. Now if this is not turning one's will and life over to a newfound Providence, then what is it? But suppose that instinct still cries out, as it certainly will, "Yes, respecting alcohol, I guess I have to be dependent upon A.A., but in all other matters I must still maintain my independence. Nothing is going to turn me into a nonentity. If I keep on turning my life and my will over to the care of Something or Somebody else, what will become of me? I'll look like the hole in the doughnut." This, of course, is the process by which instinct and logic always seek to bolster egotism, and so frustrate spiritual development. The trouble is that this kind of thinking takes no real account of the facts. And the facts seem to be these: The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are. Therefore dependence, as A.A. practices it, is really a means of gaining true independence of the spirit.

So: can the church learn something from all this? It seems to me that accommodation has been made here especially for alcoholics; abandonment of will needs to come quite early in the process, because otherwise the alcoholic will die. It's an extreme measure for people who are sick; for mystics, it's a "stage" on the way to "union."

Which says something, doesn't it?  First, that "abandonment of will" is possible earlier than mystics may suppose; second, that A.A. makes this a matter of conscious effort - something on which the alcoholic must "take action."

I don't think the Church says much about this at all, in fact - let alone making it a key part of the life of faith.  We are told, instead either that the Christian life is about "good works" or that it's about being "justified by grace through faith."  Neither of which really addresses the issue that Step 3 attempts to address, which is (in A.A's memorable phrase) the problem of "self-will run riot."  And both of which actually may encourage the Christian in her "I'm the center of the universe" thinking - exactly the problem in the first place!

Suppose the church did start to discuss "abandonment of will," though?  It's a thought, isn't it?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Step 3: The abandonment of will (Part III)

So, OK.  Caelius, in a comment in the last post, writes this:
Such a heavy matter this business about the will. The Office is on Romans these days as you know, where Paul is trying to come to grips with this in his daily life.

I'm tempted to say that the problem is distinguishing the exercise of the will as an event (I became blind and decided to go along with the crazy heretic who was trying to help me; or I feared for my life so much that I went to an AA meeting; or an angel told me I would become pregnant through the agency of God and I decided to go along with it as best I could.) from the exercise of the will as a continuous struggle. The person arguing for the bound will, monergism, or irresistible grace has an easy time arguing that the "righteous" continuous exercise of the will being a matter for God alone. Day after day, we screw up. We cannot become perfect.

But that doesn't matter, it is the act of the will in the event that is the beginning and therefore the whole of salvation, for we are not perfected in the here and now. Or so I always thought. AA seems to admit this. "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God." That's what Paul did in the city of Damascus. That's what Mary did in Nazareth. Many of the prophets resisted, but finally thery said, "Here I am. Send me."

Such a smart boy, our Caelius; I always trust his thinking.

"Monergism" was a new one on me, though. That's this:
Monergism states that the regeneration of an individual is the work of God the Holy Spirit alone, as opposed to synergism, which, in its simplest form, argues that the human will cooperates with God's grace in order to be regenerated. To the synergist, faith may arise from unregenerated human nature. Salvation is not complete until the individual performs some action(s). According to monergism, faith in Christ only springs from a heart first renewed by God. Among various arguments, proponents believe 1 Corinthians 12:3 to mean that no one can possibly confess Jesus as Lord apart from the Holy Spirit's prompting and conviction.

Since faith is infinitely beyond all the power of our unregenerated human nature, it is only God who can give the spiritual ears to hear and eyes to see the beauty of Christ in the gospel. God alone disarms the hostility of the sinner turning his heart of stone to a heart of flesh. It is God, the Holy Spirit, alone who gives illumination and understanding of His word that we might believe; It is God who raises us from the death of sin, who circumcises the heart; unplugs our ears; It is God alone who can give us a new sense, a spiritual capacity to behold the beauty and unsurpassed excellency of Jesus Christ. The apostle John recorded Jesus saying to Nicodemus that we naturally love darkness, hate the light and WILL NOT come into the light (John 3:19, 20).

I have to say that if faith can't "arise from unregenerated human nature" - well, we are all destroyed. There was barely a speck of God in me when I began my A.A. life - and that condition lasted for quite awhile. I had no faith at all - only fear. My heart was stone.

Listen: I get the point. We really can't save ourselves - but God can't save us, either, unless we go along.

There's a fissure along these same lines, actually, in A.A. itself, too. I wasn't aware of it - and I don't think it's universal - but here's an example. One day I went to a meeting in a part of town I didn't ordinarily visit - but I'd been to this meeting before and vaguely knew a few of the people. I can't remember exactly what the topic was, but I know I raised my hand and said something like: "What's so amazing is that compulsions and obsessions that once ruled my life - they are all gone now. Abuse of drugs and alcohol, of course - but I mean other things, too. My deep, all-pervading and everlasting sense of guilt: gone. My terrible shyness and fear of other people: gone. My obsessive projection into the future and rehashing of the past: gone. I'm better now, really better; I'm so amazed and grateful at this."

Somebody came up to me afterwards and surprised me by congratulating me for saying this - which indicates, of course, that it's a taboo in that neighborhood. The takeaway for me that day was that saying that you're better isn't done - which could be for several reasons. For instance: one isn't supposed to "brag" about being better - which I really wasn't doing! I was just talking about facts evident to me, and trying to tell others how good sobriety could get. Another reason, and the one I think is at work in "monergism" (and in the versions I'm seeing, this is its error): we don't get better at all, actually. We always return - as I read someplace just today, actually! - like dogs, to our own vomit.

But no. There is, in fact, linear progress. We get better - and this is made very clear right in the Big Book, matter of fact, in a group of statements known as "the Promises" (this section immediately follows the enumeration of the Steps):

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.

We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

Well, there it is: if we work for them. Yet we are told that we can do nothing to help ourselves. I break with the Reformation idea right here; it simply doesn't jibe with my experience - and it doesn't follow from A.A. principles, either.

I'm trying to understand why it might be that the "passive" idea gains hold. I do, truly, understand that God is the prime mover here - and that I couldn't get myself sober. Still, I can do something. The "promises" above are nothing to sneeze at - and I don't think they constitute "works righteousness," either. I don't consider myself "righteous" for having gotten sober; I consider myself "lucky" and "amazed" and "thankful." I freely admit it wasn't my own doing in any way - yet I needed to do the Steps.

Why isn't that a good way to look at it? I wasn't trying to earn brownie points with God by doing the Steps; I was trying to stay alive and keep my head above water. The first is "works righteousness," I'd think; the second is surely something else, isn't it? I don't think the argument holds here - and I don't see why it should hold in the life of Christian faith, either. I don't think people are trying, in the modern world, to "earn their salvation" with works of charity or by following "the law"; that's not the motivation today.

I do acknowledge, too, that "justification by grace through faith" is a valid (and certainly Scriptural) idea. But Paul was - as usual - talking to a particular group of people about a particular issue, and I don't think Romans necessarily needs to become Law, either.

I'm certainly not the first to say this, but there are seven Atonement theories, and each seems inadequate in some way by itself. Something happened on the cross, we know - but I'm not sure we can make a simple equation here. Paul's entire theology hangs on one obscure reference in Deuteronomy; "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." This is not, as far as I know, a major theme in Torah or Tanakh as a whole. It is Pauline rhetoric; it's great rhetoric, I completely agree, but it is something that only a Pharisee would be aware of!

Paul developed an entirely new theology from this one obscure statement in Jewish Law - and good on 'im, I say. "Christ who knew no sin was made sin for us." It's an amazing leap, another of those things arising from a source you'd never expect.

But it's not the end of the story, I don't think. And this is not the end of Step 3, either, from which I've wandered far and wide. I'll post this, and sum up next, really....

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Step 3: The abandonment of will (continued)

OK, let's just go with Wikipedia's version, because I want to talk about the Step.  Please, dear theologians and philosophers, be kind; to me it doesn't much matter if the following is inaccurate (although I do encourage correction - oh, indeed by golly, yes), because I can still talk about the ideas, can't I?  I mean, Yoga as it's done all over the United States today doesn't seem to have much to do with Hinduism, does it?  (Weird analogy, I know, but I've been thinking about this recently, because I've gotten interested in - of all things! - "speaking in tongues."  I discussed this topic with a friend a few weeks ago, and then picked up a book about it; the writer's argument so far - I'm only halfway through - is that glossolalia in the New Testament clearly refers to the speaking of a foreign language one has never learned, and not - as American Pentecostalism has it - to "a tongue of one's own," or to an ecstatic language put into one's mouth by God.  The writer makes a good case, but then I recently talked with this friend - somebody who does practice the Pentecostal version in private prayer - and she made a good case for that, too.  I'll tell you about it sometime - maybe during Step 11!)

So, like I say:  things give rise to other things, even when the new things don't seem to have much to do with the original.  There's nothing illegal about it - and in fact there's something really intriguing about it, I think.  Anyway, Wikipedia on Luther's "Bondage of the Will":
On the Bondage of the Will (Latin: 'De Servo Arbitrio', literally, "Concerning Bound Choice"), by Martin Luther, was published in December 1525. It was his reply to Desiderius Erasmus's De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio or On Free Will, which had appeared in September 1524 as Erasmus's first public attack on Luther, after being wary about the methods of the reformer for many years. At issue was whether human beings, after the Fall of Man, are free to choose good or evil. The debate between Luther and Erasmus is one of the earliest of the Reformation over the issue of free will and predestination.

Luther maintained that sin incapacitates human beings from working out their own salvation, that they are completely unable to bring themselves to God. In this treatise, he begins by examining Erasmus's argument. He then discusses the power and complete sovereignty of God and lays out his own argument. His conclusions are that unredeemed human beings are dominated by Satan: Satan as the prince of this world never lets go of what he considers his own unless he is overpowered by a stronger power, i.e. God. When God redeems a person, he redeems the entire person, including the will, which then is liberated to serve God.

So I guess Erasmus fired the first shot, then, eh? Well, maybe I'll read that someday, too - but Luther got way too caught up in the personal stuff and just irritated the heck out of me. Hopefully I'll finish his thing sometime.

Well, the thinking here above, at least, is concerned not merely with "free will" or not, but "free will" as it relates to the life of faith.  It presumes that the human being wants to "work out his salvation," in the first place.   And that is definitely a question these days, because "Salvation" is not a clearly-defined concept in the modern church and in the modern world; it's just not.  Nobody much thinks about burning in hell (or not) anymore, do they?  I don't know many who do, anyway - and I don't think many people really know how to define "salvation" if not in these terms.  I think this is something we do need to work on today.

And I'm seeing now that this little snippet is really not enough after all; I don't know enough about the concepts being referred to here to even try to relate them to what's in the air (or not) today.  I think I'm going to have to abandon this tack and try another. 

How about this:  "Is everything foreordained?  Or can a person actually choose freely?"  Do these make more sense as simple questions?  In the case being discussed here:  can a person choose to get sober?  Does a person "choose" to get sober, or is it God's will and grace that accomplishes this?  Maybe these questions will get me someplace.

Here's my experience, for what it's worth.  One night 26 years ago, I had a little epiphany:  I understood in a flash and for the first time that my addiction problem was serious - that that was the problem - and that I couldn't do anything about it on my own, and that I was going to die if I didn't stop.  I'd had some previous experience with A.A. - attending meetings "for somebody else," long story but that's the gist - and somehow knew what to do at that moment, even though it was something I'd literally never done before.  I got on my knees and prayed to God for help - and that was the last time I ever had a drink or took a drug (without it being prescribed for something real, I must add).

The next day I found a meeting to go to and I went, and then I went the next day, and then the next - and that turned into months and years and a way of life.

Did I "choose" this?  Well, I chose to stay alive.  I chose to be involved with the person I attended A.A. meetings with, years before this moment - and I guess I even chose to listen at some of them.  I chose to go to a meeting (two, for quite a while, actually) every day for years.  I chose "not to pick up a drink" - but it was because I was afraid, at least at first.  (Later, when you start to get better and - as people describe it, a real experience! - "fall in love with your first streetlight," which means you're coming back to the world and finding this incredible beauty in the simple fact of being alive again - well, then, later you really start to see the life as something to be desired.  But fear is the first motivator; at least, it was for me.)

I want to ask:  does a person have a "destiny"?  And can she break out of it by choice?  My answers are, somehow:  No - and Yes!

I'm not sure I'm on any kind of real thread here.  "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him," though, really does seem to involve choice.   Doesn't it?

I'm just working out my salvation here, folks; feeling my way inch by inch.  I'm not sure where I am right now, but I'm going to post again later on this Step, I think.  I'm not done yet.

P.S.  The cake is chocolate, and the frosting - this mocha one - is delicious!

Step 3: The abandonment of will

"3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him."

I've been trying to read an online copy of Luther's "Bondage of the Will before writing this post. I really have - but the man won't get to the point.  Every time I think he's about to say something important, it turns into another "You're such a moron, Erasmus" rant - and ya know, I'm really, really sick of this theme by now.  Anybody got a Cliff's Notes of this damn thing?

I'm giving up - but here's the Conclusion, and I hope that's enough for now (I'm reading it for the first time as I'm posting this):

Sect. CLXVII. - I SHALL here draw this book to a conclusion: prepared if it were necessary to pursue this Discussion still farther. Though I consider that I have now abundantly satisfied the godly man, who wishes to believe the truth without making resistance. For if we believe it to be true, that God fore-knows and fore-ordains all things; that He can be neither deceived nor hindered in His Prescience and Predestination; and that nothing can take place but according to His Will, (which reason herself is compelled to confess;) then, even according to the testimony of reason herself, there can be no "Free-will" - in man, - in angel, - or in any creature!

Hence:- If we believe that Satan is the prince of this world, ever ensnaring and fighting against the kingdom of Christ with all his powers; and that he does not let go his captives without being forced by the Divine Power of the Spirit; it is manifest, that there can be no such thing as - "Free-will!"

Again:- If we believe that original sin has so destroyed us, that even in the godly who are led by the Spirit, it causes the utmost molestation by striving against that which is good; it is manifest, that there can be nothing left in a man devoid of the Spirit, which can turn itself towards good, but which must turn towards evil!

Again:- If the Jews, who followed after righteousness with all their powers, ran rather into unrighteousness, while the Gentiles who followed after unrighteousness attained unto a free righteousness which they never hoped for; it is equally manifest, from their very works, and from experience, that man, without grace, can do nothing but will evil!

Finally:- If we believe that Christ redeemed men by His blood, we are compelled to confess, that the whole man was lost: otherwise, we shall make Christ superfluous, or a Redeemer of the grossest part of man only, - which is blasphemy and sacrilege!

Sect CLXVIII. - AND now, my friend Erasmus, I entreat you for Christ's sake to perform what you promised. You promised 'that you would willingly yield to him, who should teach you better than you knew.' Lay aside all respect of persons. You, I confess, are great and adorned with many, and those the most noble, gifts of God; (to say nothing of the rest,) with talent, with erudition, and with eloquence to a miracle. Whereas I, have nothing and am nothing, excepting that, I glory in being almost a Christian!

In this, moreover, I give you great praise, and proclaim it - you alone in pre-eminent distinction from all others, have entered upon the thing itself; that is, the grand turning point of the cause; and, have not wearied me with those irrelevant points about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other like baubles, rather than causes, with which all have hitherto tried to hunt me down, - though in vain! You, and you alone saw, what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned, and therefore you attacked the vital part at once; for which, from my heart, I thank you. For in this kind of discussion I willingly engage, as far as time and leisure permit me. Had those who have heretofore attacked me done the same, and would those still do the same, who are now boasting of new spirits, and new revelations, we should have less sedition and sectarianism, and more peace and concord. - But thus has God, by the instrumentality of Satan, avenged our ingratitude!

But however, if you cannot manage this cause otherwise than you have managed it in this Diatribe, do, I pray you, remain content with your own proper gift. Study, adorn, and promote literature and languages, as you have hitherto done, to great advantage, and with much credit. In which capacity, you have rendered me also a certain service: so much so, that I confess myself to be much indebted to you: and in that character, I certainly venerate, and honestly respect you. But as to this our cause:- to this, God has neither willed, nor given it you, to be equal: though I entreat you not to consider this as spoken in arrogance. No! I pray that the Lord may, day by day, make you as much superior to me in these matters, as you are superior to me in all others. And it is no new thing for God to instruct a Moses by a Jethro, or to teach a Paul by an Ananias. And as to what you say, - "You have greatly mist the mark after all, if you are ignorant of Christ." - You yourself, if I mistake not, know what that is. But all will not therefore err, because you or I may err. God is glorified in His saints in a wonderful way! So that, we may consider those saints who are the farthest from sanctity. Nor is it an unlikely thing, that you, as being man, should not rightly understand, nor with sufficient diligence weigh, the Scriptures, or the sayings of the Fathers: under which guides, you imagine you cannot miss the mark. And that such is the case, is quite manifest from this:- your saying that you do not assert but collect. No man would write thus, who was fully acquainted with and well understood his subject. On the contrary I, in this book of mine, have collectedthing, but have asserted, and still do assert: and I wish none to become judges, but all to yield assent. - And may the Lord, whose cause this is illuminate you, and make you a vessel to honour and to glory. - Amen!

Well, that doesn't really help, does it? I guess I'll have to find a summary of this book someplace if I ever want to write on this Step with the "Bound Will" in mind - and I think I do.

Give me a few hours. I just baked a cake and now must go frost it; then I'll speed-read some of the previous chapters in this book and see if I can get anything from it.

Perhaps I'm not meant to, and must do this another way, though. It could be as simple as that.

To be continued....