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Archive for January, 2012

Two Cities, Two Loves

“We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the heavenly city by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self.  In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord.  The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience.  The earthly lifts up its head in its own glory, the heavenly city says to its God: ‘You are my glory, the lifter of my head.’  In the former, the lust for domination lords it over its princes as over the nations it subjugates; in the other both those put in authority and those subject to them serve one another in love, the rulers by their counsel, the subjects by obedience.  The one city loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders; the other says to its God, ‘I will love you, my Lord, my strength.’

Consequently, in the earthly city its wise men who live by men’s standards have pursued the goods of the body or of their own mind, or of both.  Or those of them who were able to know God ‘did not honor him as God, nor give thanks to him, but their thinking became futile, and their senseless hearts were darkened; claiming to be wise’—that is, exalting themselves in their wisdom, under the domination of pride—‘they became foolish, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God into an image representing a mortal man, or birds or beasts or reptiles’—for in the adoration of idols of this kind they were either leaders or followers of the general public—‘and they worshipped and served created things instead of the Creator, who is blessed forever.’  In the heavenly city, on the other hand, man’s only wisdom is the devotion which rightly worships the true God, and looks for its rewards in the fellowship of the saints…so that God may be all in all [everything to everyone].” (Augustine, City of God, 14.28)

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Polly and Digory stared at one another in dismay.

“Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals,” said Digory.

“I’m sure Aslan would have, if you’d asked him,” said Fledge.

“Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly.

“I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse (still with his mouth full).  “But I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”

(C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, ch. 12)

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Lord Over All

“Of course, as contemporary history proves, Christians can live and bear witness under any regime, whatever its ideology.  But Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all.  They can never agree that there is one law for themselves and another for the world.  They can never admit that there are areas of human life where the writ of Christ does not run.  They can never accept that there are orders of creation or powers or dominions that exist otherwise than to serve Christ.  Whatever the institutional relationship between the church and the state—and there are many possible relationships, no one of which is necessarily the right one for all times and places—the church can never cease to remind governments that they are under the rule of Christ and that he alone is the judge of all they do.  The church can never accept the thesis that the central shrine of public life is empty, in other words, that there has been no public revelation before the eyes of all the world of the purpose for which all things and all peoples have been created and which governments must serve.  It can never accept an ultimate pluralism as a creed even if it must—as of course it must—acknowledge plurality as a fact.  In fact, it cannot accept the idea, so popular twenty years ago, of a secular society in which, on principle, there are no commonly acknowledged norms.  We know now, I think, that the only possible product of that ideal is a pagan society.  Human nature abhors a vacuum.  The shrine does not remain empty.  If the one true image, Jesus Christ, is not there, an idol will take its place.” (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, p. 115)

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Jeremiah 4:1-2 says this: “‘If you, Israel, will return, then return to me,’ declares the Lord.  ‘If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ then the nations will invoke blessings by him, and in him they will boast.'”

In his magisterial work, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, Christopher Wright comments on Jeremiah’s theological vision:

“The logic of the whole sentence is remarkable.  God’s mission to the nations is being hindered because of Israel’s continuing spiritual and ethical failure.  Let Israel return to their mission (to be the people of YHWH, worshipping him exclusively and living according to his moral demands), and God can return to his mission—blessing the nations.” (p. 241)

The structure of the new covenant and the vocation of the church among the nations has not changed.  As Stanley Hauerwas loves to remind us, in any given time and place “the primary social task of the church is to be itself.” (A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, p. 10)

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Here are the profound comments of Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad on the frequent biblical exhortation that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’:

“The thesis that all human knowledge comes back to the question about commitment to God is a statement of penetrating perspicacity…It contains in a nutshell the whole Israelite theory of knowledge…There lies behind the statement an awareness of the fact that the search for knowledge can go wrong, not as a resultof individual, erroneous judgments or of mistakes creeping in at different points, but because of one single mistake at the beginning.  One becomes competent and expert as far as the orders in life are concerned only if one begins from knowledge about God.  To this extent, Israel attributes to the fear of the Lord, to belief in God, a highly important function in respect of human knowledge.  She was, in all seriousness, of the opinion that effective knowledge about God is the only thing that puts a man into a right relationship with the objects of his perception, that is enables him to ask questions more pertinently, to take stock of relationships more effectively and generally to havea better awareness of circumstances.  Thus it could, for example, be said that evil men do not know what is right but that those who seek Yahweh understand all things (Prov. 28:5).  The opinion is evidently that turning to Yahweh facilitates the difficult distinction between right and wrong.  But this was surely not true only of the narrower sphere of moral behavior.  Faith does not–as is popularly  believed today–hinder knowledge; on the contrary, it is what liberates knowledge, enables it really to come to the point and indicates to it its proper place in the sphere of varied, human activity.  In Israel, the intellect never freed itself from or became independent of the foundation of its whole existence, that is its committment to Yahweh…The statement that the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom was Israel’s most special possession.” (Gerhard Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, pp. 67-68)

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In Galatians 5:5-6 the apostle Paul proclaims that Christians, who have been rescued from this present evil age yet nonetheless find themselves still inhabiting it with their decaying mortal bodies, are “eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness” by faith and through the Spirit.  Another way of saying this is that “should” and “want” still frequently exist in conflict for Christians in this world, and one aspect of our hope is to long for the day when “ought” and “desire” will once more kiss and exist in harmony.  Indeed, we tremble in longing for the (re)marriage of heaven and earth themselves, which have been torn asunder by human sin.  This recognition has enormous implications for the well-lived Christian life, caught in the middle of the thrilling “already” but the heart shattering “not yet”.  As Richard Neuhaus wisely wrote, “In the Christian tradition being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.”  Notice the universe of difference the phrase “you are called to be” (future tense) makes in this proposition.   Over the next few days, I’ll highlight a few Christian thinkers who have helped me to approach this tension in a coherent, life-giving way.  Here’s the fourth, another insightful reflection from Gilbert Meilaender:

“This tension between what Henry Sidgwick called the ‘attractive’ and the ‘imperative’ ways of depicting the center of the moral life has been present for centuries in our tradition—perhaps always, but at least since Christian thought, knowing God as giver of the moral law set the ideal of the ‘imperative’ over against the classical emphasis upon the ‘attractive’…The obvious way to come to terms with this tension between the attractive and the imperative is to remember that only the pure in heart will see God—not because they have deserved it, but because only such a heart would want to rest in God…Acknowledgment and fulfillment of our duties is not a condition for resting in God; it is a description of the only sort of person who would really want to be with God…The imperative then fills the gap that separates the description from the image.  ‘The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature and to reach our true end.’  That is to say, our duties are intelligible.  They describe the transformation that takes place when one who has been turning away from the good begins to turn toward it…

[Yet] our experience of duty as (at least sometimes) unrewarding…compels us to realize that—in any place and in any historical moment—duty might take on an unconditional character with no apparent connection to fulfillment of our desire for happiness.  The seeming unintelligibility of our moral obligations is a permanent possibility…The gap between desire and duty remains open.  Acting as duty requires will not [always] seem to be the ‘way’ of happiness; on the contrary, it is a way that seems to arrive at a dead end—and yet is required.  Hence, the ‘imperative’ does not chart out a path that necessarily leads from our current condition to a fulfillment we desire.  The path from where we are to where we long to be can only be traversed and believed, but not always seen…That haunting refrain [of Augustine]—‘give what you command, and command what you will’—gives voice to a way of life for which the duties God commands may not always make sense or seem to lead to that land of peace in the distance.  The gap that sometimes separates desire and duty in our lives cannot be solved by moral theory.  That gap is, finally, the tension between the God who calls us to himself and the God who commands us to obey.  Only the God who gives what he commands, in whom we are to hope, can overcome it.” (Gilbert Meilaender, The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life, pp. 71-76)

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In Galatians 5:5-6 the apostle Paul proclaims that Christians, who have been rescued from this present evil age yet nonetheless find themselves still inhabiting it with their decaying mortal bodies, are “eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness” by faith and through the Spirit.  Another way of saying this is that “should” and “want” still frequently exist in conflict for Christians in this world, and one aspect of our hope is to long for the day when “ought” and “desire” will once more kiss and exist in harmony.  Indeed, we tremble in longing for the (re)marriage of heaven and earth themselves, which have been torn asunder by human sin.  This recognition has enormous implications for the well-lived Christian life, caught in the middle of the thrilling “already” but the heart shattering “not yet”.  As Richard Neuhaus wisely wrote, “In the Christian tradition being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.”  Notice the universe of difference the phrase “you are called to be” (future tense) makes in this proposition.   Over the next few days, I’ll highlight a few Christian thinkers who have helped me to approach this tension in a coherent, life-giving way.  Here’s the third, from Gilbert Meilaender:

“Here and now, in this life, placing our happiness in God will require that we relinquish the desire for happiness on our own terms and cultivate instead the patience to wait for God.  The way to fulfillment of self may therefore seem more like sacrifice of self…Because our desires remain disordered even after the fundamental division within the self has been overcome [in conversion], the God who is our happiness may not make us happy here and now…We can look for happiness to the good things that draw us here and now, even though they will not finally satisfy the heart’s longing.  Or we can redirect that longing to the God who can satisfy it but in whom we cannot rest here and now.  That is, we can have a sham happiness that will not really satisfy—or we can relinquish the desire to grasp the happy life here and now, leaving open in our being a gaping wound that God must fill in his own good time.  We should be reluctant to adopt strategies that invite us to underplay the importance of self-sacrifice in the Christian life.” (Gilbert Meilaender, The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life, pp. 18-19)

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