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Archive for December, 2011

Christian Love

“[In] Christian freedom…the Spirit forms and brings to expression the appropriate pattern of free response to objective reality.  Saint Paul designates this response in general terms as ‘love’ (Gal. 5:6)…Love is the overall shape of Christian ethics, the form of the human participation in created order.  It is itself ordered and shaped in accordance with the order that it discovers in its object, and this ordering of love it is the task of substantive Christian ethics to trace.  Again we must add that the love which the Spirit enables is the same love as that which was historically realized in the humanity of Christ.  It was the mark of Christ’s Lordship that, so far from overthrowing the given order of things, he rescued it from the ’emptiness’ into which it had fallen (Rom. 8:20-21).  His redemptive love thus fulfilled the creative task of Adam, to call things by their proper names…

Love does not bear the dominating and manipulative traits that have been given to it in some attempts to characterize the Christian ethic.  It achieves its creativity by being perceptive.  It attempts to act for any being only on the basis of an appreciation of that being.  Thus classical Christian descriptions of love are often found invoking two other terms which expounded its sense: the first is ‘wisdom’, which is the intellectual apprehension of the order of things which discloses how each being stands in relation to each other; the second is ‘delight’, which is affective attention to something simply for what it is and for the fact that it is.  Such love is the fruit of God’s presence within us, uniting us to the humanity of God in Christ, who cherishes and defends all that God the Father has made and thought.” (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 25-26)

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“But there is more to the Christian narrative of the world than the power of rule itself.  There is also the means by which that rule came to be.  And here we have something that, if possible, is even harder for us to believe than the story of Jesus’ more-powerful rule.  The means by which the powers that oppose God are brought low is through their consumption of the saints who faithfully walk in the way of Jesus, saints who, in worshipping God alone, refuse to become complicit in the people-consuming, God-denying acquisition of wealth and power that typifies the rulers of the earth. Not only does Jesus come to his throne by being seemingly overpowered by the rulers of the world (Rome in his case) through his crucifixion, but also the story of the church is one in which we too overcome the powers by living out our union with Jesus in his death.  Cruciformity is not just about putting to death the sinful desires of our hearts, it is also about bringing to consummation the defeat of the powers that work against all human flourishing and that strive against giving all glory to God.” (J. R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity, p. 197)

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Here are two brief reflections on the tension that so often exists between any given Christian’s desires and experience, and what they are actually (reluctantly) discover they are called to as a vocation by God.  As always, the death and resurrection of Jesus functions as our pattern to imitate:

“The most reliable callings are born from reflecting on a situation that is more or less imposed on us.  A vocation is nearly always a way of accepting a situation that was first of all considered a limitation.” (Roger Mehl, Love and Society)

“There is one thing we can be sure of, that every vocation is always accompanied by a renunciation.  One who is married renounced monastic heroism; a monk, the married life.  The rich young man of the Gospel is not invited either to marry or to enter a monastery.  He had to renounce his wealth, his ‘having,’ his preferences, in order to follow the Lord…However, in all cases of deprivation Scripture speaks of, grace offers a gift; out of a negative renunciation it creates a positive vocation.” (Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love)

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“I do know that in fact it is the constraint of Jesus Christ from which I find it most impossible to escape. I just cannot read the Gospel story without knowing that I am being sought out in love, that I am at the same time being called to life’s most sacred task and being offered life’s highest prize. For it is the love God has shown me in Christ that constrains me to the love of my fellow men. If there be someone who is aware of no such constraint, I cannot of course hope to make him aware of it by speaking these few sentences. That would require, not so much a more elaborate argument as something quite different from any argument. But I am not now arguing. I am only confessing, and I know there are many who will want to confess with me.” (John Baillie, Reasoned Faith)

(HT: Paul Moser)

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In light of an earlier piece I wrote here in which I mused on the special significance the Scriptures seem to give to sexual sin (at least in some ways), I recently came across this provocative assertion:

“The risk, whether with imaginary or physical promiscuity, is a fragmentation of personality.  It is little wonder that the postmodernist, steeped in the psychology and philosophy of the sexual revolution, has come to think of man as a series of masks behind which there is no fixed substance.  When [Christian] theologians say that by engaging in sexual acts outside the realm of morality, a person is risking their immortal soul, they are not simply speaking about an arbitrary punishment sent down from on high at the end of mortal life.  If you give yourself over and over again to people who will use you and squander your most precious gift; or you wed yourself to a host of your own creations, to the lesser fragments of your own psyche that populate your sexual fantasies, you lose the center and core of your being.  It becomes like a pulverized mirror, returning a more and more shattered image until, at last, it is dust and reflects nothing at all.” (Melinda Selmys, Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism, pp. 219-20)

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“The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in [a] state of grave disorder…What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived.  We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions.  But we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality…My thesis entails that the language and the appearances of morality persist even though the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and then in part destroyed…It is easy to see that the different conceptually incommensurable premises of the rival arguments deployed in these debates have a wide variety of historical origins…how wide and heterogeneous the variety of moral sources is from which we have inherited…[It is] an unharmonious mélange of ill-assorted fragments…[for] all those various concepts which inform our moral discourse were originally at home in larger totalities of theory and practice in which they enjoyed a role and function supplied by contexts of which they have now been deprived…In the transition from the variety of contexts in which they were originally at home to our own contemporary culture ‘virtue’ and ‘justice’ and ‘piety’ and ‘duty’ and even ‘ought’ have become other than they once were.” (Alastair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, pp. 2, 5, 10)

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The Poison of Subjectivism

“The modern critique of religion no longer makes any critique of the content of faith, but is a purely functional critique of the psychological, political, and social effects of the faith.  It no longer asks whether it is true or false, but only whether it has the function of oppression or liberation, alienation or humanization.” (Jurgen Moltmann, cited in Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, p. 69)

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“Belief in the desirability and goodness of marriage was once universal, but that is no longer true…Paradoxically, it may be that the pessimism comes from a new kind of unrealistic idealism about marriage, born of a significant shift in our culture’s understanding of the purpose of marriage.  Legal scholar John Witte, Jr., says that the earlier ‘ideal of marriage as a permanent contractual union designed for the sake of mutual love, procreation, and protection is slowly giving way to a new reality of marriage as a ‘terminal sexual contract’ designed for the gratification of the individual parties’…During the Enlightenment, things began to shift.  The meaning of life came to be seen as the fruit of the freedom of the individual to choose the life that most fulfills him or her personally. Instead of finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family, marriage was redefined as finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization.

Proponents of this new approach did not see the essence of marriage as located in either its divine sacramental symbolism or as a social bond given to benefit the broader human commonwealth.  Rather, marriage was seen as a contract between two parties for mutual individual growth and satisfaction.  In this view, married persons married for themselves, not to fulfill responsibilities to God or society.  Parties should, therefore, be allowed to conduct their marriage in any way they deemed beneficial to them, and no obligation to church, tradition, or broader community should be imposed on them.  In short, the Enlightenment privatized marriage, taking it out of the public sphere, and redefined its purpose as individual gratification, not any ‘broader good’ such as reflecting God’s nature, producing character, or raising children.  Slowly but surely, this newer understanding of the meaning of marriage has displaced the older ones in Western culture…

We should rightly object to the binary choice that both traditional and contemporary marriage seems to give us.  Is the purpose of marriage to deny your interests for the good of your family, or is it rather to assert your interests for the fulfillment of yourself?  The Christian teaching does not offer a choice between fulfillment and sacrifice but rather mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice…Marriage only ‘works’ to the degree that it approximates the pattern of God’s self-giving love in Christ…

Historically, there have been countless attitudes about sex…The Christian teaching is that sex is primarily a way to know God and build community, and, if you use it for those things rather than your own personal satisfaction, it will lead to greater fulfillment than you can imagine…Sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being.  Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’  You must not use sex to say anything less…Paul [in 1 Corinthians 6:17-20) is decrying the monstrosity of physical oneness without all the other kinds of oneness that every sex act should mirror.” (Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 26-28, 46-47, 219-225)

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“The sacred ideals that define social orders do not float freely in the sky of ideas, like arbitrary clumps of ideas and beliefs that somehow happen to get invested with religious qualities.  Rather, the sacred at the heart of any social order is always embedded in and arising from its collective narratives.  It is the story that constructs the ideal.  It is the narrative that defines the sacred…We not only are animals who make and tell narratives but also animals who are told and made by our narratives.  The stories we tell are not mere entertainment.  Nor do they simply suggest for us some general sense of our heritage.  Our stories fully encompass and define our lives.  They situate us in reality itself, by elaborating the contours of fundamental moral order, comprising sacred and profane, in narrative form, and placing us too as actors within the larger drama.  Our individual and collective lives come to have meaning and purpose insofar as they join the larger cast of characters enacting, reenacting, and perpetuating the larger narrative.  It is by finding ourselves placed within a particular drama that we come to know our role, our part, our lines in life—how we are to act, why, and what meaning that has in a larger scheme of reality…[Our] stories define who we as a people are, what we are here for, how we ought to live, what we ought to feel, what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, worthy and unworthy, sacred and profane…The normative is thus organized by the narrative.” (Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, pp. 77-81)

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Here is an important critique of the pretensions of both modernity and postmodernity, offered by a gifted sociologist from an (implicitly) Christian perspective:

“Many years ago, our human ancestors huddled around fires listening to shamans and elders telling imaginative stories by which they made sense of their world and their lives in it.  They told myths about the world’s origins, and about how they as peoples came to be.  They told legends about mighty heroes of old, about overcoming great adversity, about visions of the future.  They narrated tales of moral struggle, about people good and bad, and about what happens to naughty children.  They recounted myths about fairies, spirits, gods, and powerful cosmic forces.  By narrating such fictional stories, our ancestors recounted meaningful explanations of a world that was to them mysterious and dangerous–and entertained themselves in the process.  As primitives, telling such stories, myths, and legends was the only way they knew how to explain the world and contemplate how to live in it.  And such was the condition of traditional human societies of all kinds up until a few hundred years ago.

But all of that changed.  We moderns no longer have to huddle around fires telling fanciful myths about creations, floods, trials, conquests, and hoped-for paradises.  Science, industry, rationality, and technology have dispelled the darkness and ignorance that once held the human race captive to its fanciful fables.  Today, through progress, enlightenment, and cultural evolution, we now possess positive knowledge, scientific facts, and rational analyses.  We no longer need to be a people of ballads and legends, for we are a people of periodic tables, technical manuals, genetic maps, and computer codes.  We may tell fables to our children about wolves and witches and arks.  But the adult world is one of modern, scientific information, facts, and knowledge.  We have left behind myths and legends.  We are now educated, rational, analytical.  Indeed, by struggling to break out of the fear and ignorance of our ancestral myth-making past into the clear daylight of rational, scientific knowledge, we have opened up for the human race a future of greater prosperity, longevity, and happiness.

Such is the story we moderns–huddled around our televisions and computer work stations–like to tell each other.  This is the dominant narrative by which we make sense of our world and the purpose of our lives in it.

The point here is not that modernity’s story is false.  Narratives, myths, and fables can be true, in their way.  The point, rather, is that for all of our science, rationality, and technology, we moderns are no less the makers, tellers, and believers of narrative construals of existence, history, and purpose than were our forebears at any other time in human history.  But more than that, we not only continue to be animals who make stories but also animals who are made by our stories.  We tell and retell narratives that themselves come fundamentally to constitute and direct our lives.  We, every bit as much as the most primitive or traditional of our ancestors, are animals who most fundamentally understand what reality is, who we are, and how we ought to live by locating ourselves within the larger narratives and metanarratives that we hear and tell, and that constitute what is for us real and significant…

But wait just a minute.  What is this talk of narratives?  The ‘postmodern’ condition, we have been instructed of late, has brought with it the suspicion of, perhaps even the end of, coherent narratives, especially ‘grand narratives.’  Postmodern people are the kind who simply cannot believe in the metanarratives offered by, say, Marxism, Christianity, and liberalism.  The expansiveness, coherence, and claims to universality of these grand stories have become simply incredible to those who have lived through and beyond modernity.

However fasionable this notion has become in some intellectual circles, the suggestion of this chapter is that it simply is not true.  The human animal is a moral, believing animal–inescapably so.  And the larger cultural frameworks within which the morally oriented believings of the human animal make sense are most deeply narrative in form.  Of course, postmodernism itself is a narrative, hardly providing an escape from story-based knowledge and meaning.  But the problem in its claims about the end of metanarratives run still deeper than this self-contradiction.  Postmodernism simply underestimates the vitality and appeal of certain narratives–particularly in America, of the modern story of progress and liberal freedom; and, for many, of the Christian story.  Those metanarratives and their associated narratives are very much alive and well–however coherent or less than perfectly coherent they are.  Progress and liberal freedom, in particular, are still the driving spirit, vision, and energy of contemporary public culture and social institutions.  Postmodern claims on this point, therefore, cannot be taken seriously.  We have no more dispensed with grand narratives than with the need for lungs to breath with.  We cannot live without stories, big stories finally, to tell us what is real and significant, to know who we are, where we are, what we are doing, and why.” (Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, pp. 63-64, 66-67)

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