Theo-babble

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a frequent employment of a sci-fi trope known as techno-babble. The actors were given highly technical sounding jargon to say in order to talk about how the ship worked or why a particular phenomenon was taking place. Scientists were often hired to help make this jargon sound more realistic, but it was still basically nonsense. The writers would use techno-babble as a way to get out from under a particularly difficult plot. They would give the actors lines like, “Maybe if we [tech] the [tech] then we can [tech] and we just might get out of this one!” The scientific consultants were left to fill in the blanks later with something that sounded plausibly futuristic.

In science fiction, this sort of story-telling technique, while artificial, can actually work if it is used sparingly. When characters speak in complicated jargon, we assume that they are doing something that would be almost impossible for us to understand. We can accept that this is so because we assume that the future will be full of unfamiliar things that yet unknown to us.

We can accept techno-babble in science fiction, but we should not have to accept theo-babble in theology.

Theology means words (logoi) about God (Theos). We cannot know God if He does not reveal Himself to us. True theology, therefore, always comes from God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, a revelation that is made manifest for us in Holy Scripture, the Holy Sacraments, and the tradition and teaching of the Church. We have theology because we have a God who wants us to know Him. He has given us the words with which we can think about Him, speak of Him, and thereby draw closer to Him.

Many Christians today are skeptical of theology though. In parish ministry, I ran across this attitude frequently. In the same strangely incongruent way that people used to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” a self-proclaimed Christian would tell me, “I believe in God but I don’t buy into all that theology nonsense.”

There are likely many causes of this antipathy, but at least part of the motivation is fear. Christians are afraid that if they do not understand what the experts are saying about God, they might not really know God at all.

In the last hundred years, the western Church has become more and more dependent on the academy, which has meant that theology has largely been farmed out to experts. During that same time period, the academy has become more skeptical of revelation and the truth of religious claims. This has resulted in a growing division between those who are theologically educated and those who are not.

Those who have been schooled, either through seminary training or Christian formation programs, in the historical critical reading of Scripture, the various source theories for how the Bible was written, and creative new theologies that find complicated ways of explaining away centuries of moral teaching, have become the brahmin of the ever-progressing, ever-shrinking western Church. Meanwhile, people who pray emotionally and simply, say rosaries every day, and speak about God primarily in personal, relational terms are considered simple folk who can be laughed at, pitied, or ignored. We are living through a new kind of clericalism in which the clergy’s supposed spiritual advantage over the laity comes not from a deeper life of prayer but from a greater access to secret knowledge that the simple folks with their backward faith can never understand.

None of this is to suggest that theology needs to be dumbed-down. Every discipline has its own grammar, and theology is no exception. Theology often deals with rich complexities. Theological language is necessary to talk about those complexities.

Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that the academy is not a proper place for theology. As Jordan Hillebert helpfully explains in a recent article on Covenant, “Christian theology may offer itself as one of a number of rival traditions — opening itself to rational critique but offering in its turn a critical rejoinder to other intellectual traditions. It may be that one’s theology ultimately folds under the pressure of such scrutiny. It might also be the case that theology finds itself capable of resolving certain tensions and contradictions in other traditions in a way that demonstrates its inner coherence and explanatory power.” As part of a whole, theology grounds our educational pursuits in something stable and grounded, God’s revelation, but it does so in a way that allows for a creative synthesis between all the other disciplines, all of which ultimately find their root in God’s design as well.

Theology needs its own language, but that language should not be used to create a barrier to theological reflection to keep out those who are less academic and cerebral in their approach. Padre Pio and Brother Lawrence are as worthy of the title theologian as Karl Rahner and Karl Barth.

Reading the early Church Fathers is a great way to break free from the grip of theo-babble. It is surprising just how accessible the Fathers are, despite the tremendous language and culture gaps that exist between their time and ours. The Fathers were largely preachers and pastors. They did their theology with an eye towards what was happening in their communities, always keeping in mind the need of the people to come to know Christ. This does not mean their works lacked sophistication. I defy anyone to find for me a work of theology more sophisticated than St. Augustine’s City of God. Nevertheless, even read now, their theology still feels fresh and close to the life of the people. Take for instance something like St. John Chrysostom’s sermons on marriage and family life. They are as relevant now as they were when they were written and with only minor adjustments they could be handed to any young couple preparing for the married life even today.

In some ways, the birth of theo-babble can be traced back to the scholastic period (roughly 1100 AD to 1700 AD). It was during this time that theology became an academic rather than purely spiritual pursuit. Critical thought, often in contradistinction to Scriptural reflection, became the dominant mode in many forms of theological exploration. Theological treatises often became long, weighty tomes.

Yet despite these generalized tendencies in the work of the scholastics, there is a genuinely mystical heart to medieval theology. While a St. Anselm or a St. Thomas Aquinas might be difficult to understand without a heavy philosophical background, the heart of their writing is clearly their own lives of prayer and their desire to move the reader, in an ordered way, towards a deeper realization of God through prayerful reflection. In this way, they anticipate great twentieth century theologians like Hans urs Von Balthasar and Vladimir Lossky, writers who require a bit more intellectual heft to read but who deliver as much divine poetry as they do scholastic prose.

Theology is unavoidable. Anyone who has ever said anything about God has engaged in theology. The question is not if we will do theology or not but whether our theology will be true or false, helpful in bringing us deeper into the mystery of God or a blockade that keeps God at arm’s length. Far too often today, what we hear in our churches is theo-babble, offered to obscure the truth rather than reveal it. Leaders in the Church, clerical and lay, have a responsibility to impart good theology to the world. Pastors have a responsibility to offer good theology to those whose souls have been entrusted to them. Parents have a responsibility to raise their children with the kind of theology that will ground them in the truth. Instead of building locked doors with our words, we ought to be giving the people we love words shaped into keys.

At the end of the day, all we have is theology – words about God. That is all that God has given us to know Him with and love Him. It is all that we need. God’s Word became flesh for us, that our flesh might be redeemed in Him. “I have decided to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified,” said Paul (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our words may be made simple because the God who gave them to us is ultimately quite simple, even in the mystery of His unknowable essence. Simple, elegant, and beautiful. God spoke but one Word, and the world bent the knee and tasted the glory.

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Evangelizing for beauty

Stained glass window at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by the author. All rights reserved.

“Evangelize through beauty!” is the clarion call of many Catholic Christians these days. It’s a phrase used quite a bit by folks like Bishop Robert Barron or the bloggers at New Liturgical Movement. And whether or not the exact phrase is used, it is a sentiment that comes up often in Orthodox and Anglican and even some Lutheran circles as well, especially among the younger, more traditional clergy. The point being that the more beautiful we allow our worship to be, the more people will be attracted to it.

Beauty comes from God. When we see something beautiful, we find ourselves in contact with some aspect of God’s own beauty. Yet the fact is, for as many people as I have seen converted to Christ or deepened in their faith by the beauty of traditional worship, I have seen just as many if not more who have been turned off by it. They see the historic liturgy as cold, overly formal, boring, or wasteful.

Much of this is due to a general lack of understanding of what beauty is. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty is “that which when perceived pleases.” For the modern west, this has morphed into “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a phrase which most people think means that beauty is entirely subjective. To call something beautiful is to state nothing more than a personal preference for it. If I think something is beautiful and you disagree, there is no right or wrong answer.

Yet what Thomas meant was not that whatever happens to please us is beautiful, but that when we perceive something—when we truly experience it through the senses in a way that we can contemplate it—we find it satisfying if it is beautiful. And the reason we find it satisfying is because it fulfills a deeper longing we have to come into contact with true being.

When is a dog beautiful? When it is the most perfect specimen of dogness that it can be. It fully and completely exudes the quality of dogness to the degree that when we look upon it, we see with absolute clarity the truth about what it is to be a dog. Substitute in whatever you like there for dog – a beautiful piece of music, a beautiful building, even a beautiful woman – they all shine through with the clarity of their own being, communicating in the simplest and fullest way their own nature. We are naturally attracted to this beauty because we are made for union with the true source of all being, He who is Being Itself. To the extent that dogness was created by God, a fully realized dog will reflect in its own being some small piece of the fullness of being that is God. Therefore, whenever we encounter anything that is truly beautiful, we encounter God.

For many modern western people though, the categories of being have become all mixed up. Postmodernism has so thoroughly eviscerated our ability to recognize objective truths that we fear and misunderstand beauty. We believe that we are the makers of our own destiny. We determine our own meaning through the twin demons of consumption and choice. We choose what we want and then we consume it. That is how we know who we are. That is the meaning of the now fraught word “identity.” We create our identities by amassing an ongoing list of personal preferences. If you are not sure who you are, just look back over your receipts for the last few months to see what you’ve chosen to consume, or better yet cycle through your Facebook “likes.”

Postmodernism has both encouraged us to make our own truth and made us skeptical of all truth claims. If somebody says something is true with absolute confidence, we scoff and reply, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Objective beauty then is an affront to our senses because it forces us to grapple with something other than our preferences. Postmodernism tells us that dogness is not a thing. A dog can also be a cat if it wants to be. Objective beauty forces us to see that this is not so – a dog that looks and acts like a cat is ugly, even if we happen to like it.

When it comes to worship, there is a clear mandate given in Psalm 29 and repeated in the Book of Common Prayer: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Samuel Johnson made just this point in a sermon he gave at King’s College in 1761.“It is a common Mistake which hath too much prevailed in these Times,” he said, “and in this Country, and that even among some well-meaning People, that they seem to account the Hearing of sermons, to be the principal and most important and edifying Part of the public Worship of GOD.” In our own time, we might substitute for preaching any number of other shibboleths – “spirit filled” music (Read: Rock or Gospel band), a progressive or conservative political agenda, programs for kids, entertainment, social justice, etc. Johnson says that what we really need is already present in the historic liturgy. We need worship that is beautiful. And he claims that the liturgy of the prayer book is beautiful, not because he happens to like it, but because “Beauty consists in the Fitness, Proportion, Variety and Uniformity of Things with regard to the End designed in them” and the liturgy of the prayer book meets each of these criteria. A similar case could be made for most other historic rites of the Church.

I do not believe this means that every Mass must be set to Palestrina. It is possible to sing in the traditional tones of west Africa or the style of African American spirituals or even—God forbid—to sing hymns with a guitar and have it be beautiful. But we have to see beauty as more than a nice garnish on our worship. Beauty is an end unto itself. If our worship is not beautiful, we are failing at properly worshipping God.

As we plan for worship, evaluating not only the steps of our liturgies but also the vestments and music and images and even the design of the building itself, we need to ask some questions. Is this beautiful? Does it clearly reflect the truth and beauty and goodness of God? Does it make that beauty known to all the senses? Does it do so in a way that would be obvious not only in our own time and culture but universally? Given this set of criteria, we are best equipped to have beauty in our worship if we start with those things that we know are beautiful because they have been passed down through the generations, rather than starting from scratch and hoping for the best.

All of this is good and necessary, but will it fill the pews on a Sunday? I have to admit, I am skeptical. Certainly, there will be people who will be drawn to the faith simply because it is beautiful, but there will be many others for whom the very fact that our worship is beautiful will be a repellant. They will want to customize the liturgy and rearrange it to their liking. When they cannot, they will threaten to go to the church up the street where the pastor is much more open to “creativity.”

Evangelizing through beauty is good, but I think we need to evangelize for beauty as much as we do anything else. We need to gently but firmly begin to teach people what beauty is and why it matters. That will require a far broader witness to the world than just making our worship beautiful along classical lines. It will mean stepping out into the world, into the public square, and boldly pointing to the beautiful, inviting our friends and neighbors to open their eyes to it, insisting that we acknowledge the beautiful even if it shatters our carefully constructed identities to see it.

The Non-Competitive Mary

holy queen

I have been making my way slowly through Bishop Robert Barron’s Exploring Catholic Theology this summer. As is often the case with collections of essays, it can be a bit repetitive, but Barron nonetheless shows why he is one of the leading public theologians of our time. One of his fundamental insights is what he calls “the noncompetitive transcendence of God.” Grounding his argument in both Scripture and Tradition, particularly by way of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Barron says that God is not the supreme being in the way we sometimes think of Him, as if He were the largest and grandest of things that exist, but rather He is existence itself. In Barron’s words, God “coinheres” with His creation, meaning that He exists both outside of it and alongside it but without ever being in competition with it. God plus the world is not more than God Himself. If God and humanity had to fight for the same space, than God would not be God at all.

It is a remarkably simple point that Barron makes and yet it carries with it many profound implications. One of them, which Barron does not address, has to do with how we see the saints and particularly how we see the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Barron contends that the non-competitiveness of God means that God can direct and guide our lives without depriving us of our free will. The fact that we choose what we do with our lives does not negate God’s involvement, nor does God’s choice to point us in one direction or another make us somehow His puppets. In a world in which God coinheres with creation, the world can do the work of God without somehow taking over His unique place in order to do it. God makes the world holy by way of acting within and through the actions of free persons. If I act for the good of my neighbor, it is neither me working from my own goodness apart from God nor God working through me apart from the taint of my depravity. Rather, it is God at work within me and me at work by my own volition because of my sanctification. Neither cancels or negates the other.

Many Protestants fear that venerating the saints and asking for their prayers is tantamount to idolatry. Indeed, the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion warn against the perceived danger of the “invocation of saints,” though without defining exactly what is meant by these words. The Scottish priest William Forbes (1558-1634) argued that Anglicans could call upon the saints without running afoul of the Articles by simply making it clear, in their minds if nowhere else, that they are asking for the saints to pray with them and on their behalf, not praying to them. Forbes styled this advocation as opposed to invocation.

However, if Barron and Aquinas are correct, than the real issue is not one of keeping a proper distinction between the Creator and the created but rather of understanding the kind of relationship that God has with His creation. The holiness that is found in the saints deserves to be celebrated precisely because it is the same holiness that is in God. The saints have been made one with God through Christ, filled with His grace and life, fully immersed in His radiant glory. To venerate a saint is to worship God even as it is also to admire one of God’s creatures. The saint does not stop being a free person when he or she becomes holy. You cannot venerate a saint without worshipping the God whose energies shine through that saint’s life, but neither can you do so without acknowledging the active, free human being in whom God’s holiness has taken root. Where holiness abounds, neither God nor His creatures are threatened by the presence of each other. That is the mystery of salvation.

Perhaps the greatest source of Protestant unease about the veneration of saints is the way that Catholic Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic—give honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even amongst the saints, she holds a special place. Her intercession is sought more than any other. She is called the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God. “O higher than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim,” we sing about her in that immortal hymn, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. We try to play this down in apologetics sometimes out of fear of spooking those whose antennae are sensitive to mariology, but let’s face it, Mary is revered by Catholics. We love and adore her. Let me just put my cards on the table. I love and adore her. I have no trouble offering her the following prayer:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O merciful, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.

How is that not idolatry? How is it not blasphemy? How is it not elevating a creature to the throne that is rightfully reserved only for the Creator?

Truly, it is none of those things, because Mary is not in competition with God. They are not two items in the world duking it out for a finite amount of space in my heart. The difference between God and Mary is that Mary is finite while God is infinite. Mary reflects the eternal being while God is being itself. God and Mary can take up the same space without having to knock each other out of the way. In fact, one of the beautiful and glorious things about the Christian God is that He chooses to make His glory known in and through the lives of people.

While this may seem to be a bit of sideways thinking to Protestants, it is assuredly in line with how the God of the Bible operates. His mouthpieces are many, sometimes willing and sometimes not. Cyrus the Persian acts unwittingly for God. Some of the prophets, most notably Jonah, do everything in their power to run in the opposite direction when God comes calling. Nonetheless, God’s glory still shines through them. But it shines all the more when it is met with cooperation. Moses glowed after coming into contact with the Lord (Exodus 34:29-35). King David was so deeply changed by his encounter with the living God that he wrote the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known in the psalter. John the Baptist pointed the way even from the womb when he leapt at being in the presence of Christ (Luke 1:41). None of this was forced or coerced. God did not force David’s personality out of the way in the writing of the psalms or use him simply as a tool, even though it is surely God’ voice that we hear in them as much as David’s. We can appreciate and even venerate David when we encounter the beauty and majesty of the Psalms without for a second denying that they are thoroughly a gift from God.

So it is also with Mary whom all generations are to call blessed (Luke 1:48). She is more glorious than any other saint because through her womb the world was sanctified. Her very flesh was deemed holy enough for God to dwell therein. She was not simply a husk used by God to complete His purposes. She offered herself in service to God, becoming in the process the mother of all creation. She is not in competition with God or with any other saints. To love her more is not to love God less, any more than to have a new child is to love the old one less. And so we honor her, not simply as an instrument to be used and then discarded, but as a free person who offered her very life for the sake of millions of people like you and me whom she did not know. In honoring her, we ultimately honor Him, even when that is not explicit, because the faithfulness of Mary was such that her actions and His were intrinsically intertwined.

The life of a true saint is such that we may finally only speak of the saint’s actions and desires in contradistinction to Christ’s actions and desires in a theoretical way, similar to the way we speak of the continuing distinction between humanity and divinity within Christ Himself. To be a saint is no longer to be in competition with God because you have given yourself to Him freely. To be able to love Mary and Christ and your neighbor as yourself, all at the same time, is the mark of mature discipleship.

How to experience the presence of God

Domenico_Tintoretto_-_The_Penitent_MagdaleneI get very irritated with the Lord when He does not show up at my beck and call. This is especially true when I have blocked off time out of my busy schedule just for Him.

Years ago, while on retreat at a convent in Boston, I found myself puzzled by God’s absence. During the first two days of the retreat, though I tried to pray many times, I had no sense of God’s presence. The experience was one of utter spiritual emptiness. I would go to Mass, to the praying of the Daily Office with the sisters, and nothing would happen. After a while, I became not only discouraged but angry. It had taken quite a bit of effort to arrange for this time away with just me and the Lord. I was beginning to feel as if I had been stood up.

Then, all of a sudden, on the last evening of the retreat, I felt the Lord’s presence during Compline. It was like a lightning bolt that struck me and just kept on striking. I felt like I was kneeling in the center of a burst of light and life that had hold of me and would not let go. I was so incredibly grateful that God was finally there with me.

There was a Chapel on another floor where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, and I decided that after Compline I would go there and make a holy hour so that I could be with the Lord a little longer. But to my great surprise, the Lord told me not to do this. There were not words exactly, but there was a definite intention given to me. I was oddly and yet definitively aware that God did not want me to go pray in the Chapel. What He wanted was for me to go back to my room, pull out the copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair that I had brought with me, and read it.

Again, I was irritated. God finally decides to show up, and now He’s telling me to go away? But, reluctantly, I obeyed.

The Silver Chair is the sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia and it introduces a new character, a girl named Jill Pole. Towards the beginning of the book, there is a scene where Jill finds herself in a strange place and she becomes desperately thirsty. She sees a stream up ahead and she wants to drink from it, but the great lion, Aslan, is sitting next to it. Aslan, of course, is the stand-in for Christ in the Narnia books. But Jill has not met Aslan before. All she knows is that there is a big, scary lion there, and she is afraid.

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink,” says Aslan.

“Will you promise not to do anything to me if I come?” she asks.

“I make no promise,” he replies.

Eventually, she does go and drink, and Aslan sets her on a great adventure. But what struck me then, just as it does now, is that Aslan was completely free. He made no promise to Jill because he was not hers to command, just as the Lord is not mine to command whenever I want Him to recharge my spiritual batteries.

There are twin errors that many Christians make in how they relate to God. The one is to turn the experience of knowing God into a kind of commodified emotional high. God becomes associated with a certain type of feeling, a certain posture of prayer, a certain smell in the air. The way of having God is to recreate these things. But if for some reason we can’t—if the emotions will not come—then we feel as if we have lost God entirely. Or worse, if the emotions come and they begin to tie us to things that are contrary to God’s Word, we can be led astray.

While that sort of thing is a real danger, there is a greater one that lurks particularly in certain forms of confessional Protestantism. It is a form of anti-mystical existentialism that says that God is only knowable through the pages of Scripture. It shows great skepticism and sometimes even contempt for any person who would point to the experience of God as something that is real and tangible, something that includes emotions and encounters with the miraculous. There was a period of a couple of years when I labored under just such a delusion, trying to rid myself of the notion that I could feel the presence of God, resolving myself to a cold, empiricist view of the Holy Spirit’s work. I almost had myself fully trained to ignore signs and wonders.

And then God smacked me upside the head in prayer one day. And I realized that I had been staring at a picture of someone I loved while ignoring the fact that the person in the picture was actually in the room with me.

The reason why both of these things are errors – both emotionalism and anti-mysticism – is because neither one acknowledges the radical, beautiful, indefatigable freedom of God.

There are normative means by which God discloses Himself to all of us – the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments. It is absolutely true that God is present in these things even if we cannot feel or sense Him there. Some of the great saints of the Church, like Saint John of the Cross and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, went through long spells during which they had no active sense of God’s presence and yet continued to be devoted to Our Lord in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. Their witness is powerful. But rather than discrediting this notion of God’s freedom, it underlines it. God is the one who chooses how we will experience Him. It is our cooperation, our faith, which allows us a foothold into that experience, but it is God’s free decision which allows us to have the experience in the first place. If He decides that we will come to know Him through dreams and mystical experiences, it will be so. If He decides that we will never have a sure sense of Him outside of the concrete reality of the means of grace, then that is how it will be.

Recently, I have found myself often in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament eagerly asking God to make His presence known to me. To my great astonishment, He has done this more than once lately, flooding me with a palpable sense of His overwhelming love for me. It is wonderful, but it is also painful. I find myself craving this deep communion with God but also frightened by it. In the midst of it, I catch myself thinking, “This is great! This is wonderful! Thank you, Jesus! But there are probably things I should be attending to in the other room.” I get overwhelmed. It gets to be too intense. I start thinking about how I might write about the experience as a way of distancing myself from it. I tell God, “Hold that thought,” because I suddenly remember an email I have to send.

And God’s response to such nonsense is always the same. “Shut up. Be still. Be here.”

This is the paradox of my own sinfulness. I yearn for deep communion with God and yet I find it hard to actually have it. I am thrown off both by God’s absence and by His presence. Yet the truth is that He’s never really absent, even when I cannot feel Him. And if He were to unveil Himself and allow me to realize the fullness of His presence now, it would be far more intense than anything He has already shown me.

All of us are Jill Pole from time to time. We stand at the banks of the river, thirsty for God, yet uncertain how to find that thirst quenched. We think that we need to do something to make it happen. Either we need to stir up the waters ourselves, or else we fear that the great lion of God will swallow us up if we start to wade in too deep. But we don’t have any control over any of that really. We don’t tell God where He goes or how He is to show Himself. He comes and goes as He pleases. After all, He’s not a tame lion.

What we need is to trust in God’s love as much as we thirst for His presence. God will decide how He will make Himself known to us. He is completely free in how He chooses to come to us, but He chooses always to love us, which means that whatever way He makes Himself known, it will neither be too much or too little. We cannot capture the experience of God. Like the manna that fell for the Israelites, whatever experience of God we have today is meant for today. Yet we can learn, slowly, to trust that the Lord will never tire of feeding us.

Painting is “The Penitent Magdalene” by Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635).

Terrorism and the fear of God

FDC-embMy country continues to mourn after the horrible act of murder committed in Orlando this past weekend. Fifty people dead, many more wounded, and all because a man with a gun wanted us to be afraid. All the details have yet to come out, but the authorities were quick to label this atrocity an “act of terrorism.” By definition, terrorism is an act of forcing people to live in fear.

At times like this, many Christians wrestle with questions of God’s mercy and goodness, but what has struck me almost immediately is the contrast between the fear of God and the fear induced by terrorism. It has become something of an atheist trope in modern times to equate the God of the Bible with terrorist acts. Back in January, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo–having been the victim of terrorism itself just a year earlier–released a cover in which God is depicted as the true assassin who causes all the world’s violence and who yet still runs free. Others have pointed to the texts of Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, to justify the charge that the God Christians and Jews worship is nothing more than a brutal thug whose worshippers only follow Him out of fear of what He will do to them if they do not.

The Bible seems to speak two ways about fear. On the one hand, fear is something harmful. “There is no fear in love,” says John, “For perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). On the other hand, the fear of God is held up as admirable, even virtuous. The psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 110:10). Jesus combines these two ideas when He tells us, “Fear not those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

If God is not a terrorist, than why would He want us to fear Him? Saint Thomas Aquinas addresses this at some length in his Summa Theologica. Reaching back to Saint Augustine, Thomas says that fear always begins with love because we only fear losing that which we love. If our lives meant nothing to us, we would have no fear of losing them. So the goodness or evilness of our fear is relative to the love which generates it.

What are we so afraid of? What is it that we do not want to lose?

When it comes to fearing God, Thomas identifies two different kinds of fear that we might have towards Him. The first is “servile fear.” This is our fear of punishment. It is the fear that a servant has for displeasing his master, lest he be struck. It is the fear that keeps us from mouthing off to our bosses, lest we be fired. This is often the first kind of fear that we have towards God. We worry that if we do the wrong thing, God will mess up our lives, perhaps even condemn us for eternity. This is the kind of fear that so many modern atheists decry as being equivalent to terrorism. We are good not for goodness sake but because we fear what God will do to us if we are bad.

Believe it or not, Thomas does not think that servile fear is all negative. In fact, servile fear can be a very good thing, at least in the beginning, if it motivates us to want to keep God’s commandments, which are ultimately for our own good. A child who touches a hot stove learns to fear it, which then keeps the child from burning himself a second time. If the servile fear of God keeps us from doing those things that are harmful to us and to others, than it has a worthwhile purpose.

But the servile fear of God can become distorted and even deadly if it is left alone. Thomas says that the second type of fear of God, “filial fear,” is the more excellent of the two. It is a fear that is based in love. When we care deeply about somebody, we fear that we will hurt them or let them down. We fear that our weaknesses will create anguish or displeasure for them. This is the filial fear of God, that we who are weak and easily corruptible may displease the God we love. This kind of fear is not centered on ourselves, on what we have to do to keep from being punished, but it is centered on God and on how perfectly good and perfectly loving He is. It is the fear that comes when we see God as He really is and we see ourselves as we really are, when the mask falls off of our eyes and we realize that God’s goodness and holiness so dramatically surpasses our own. We see how beautiful and wonderful God is and we long to please Him and be like Him, but we fear that we never will be able to do so. Ultimately, this fear is answered by God Himself who perfects us through grace, assuring us not only of the pardon of our sins but that we will be made like Him, infused with His love and His light. “The fear of God is the beginning of love: and the beginning of faith is to be fast joined to it” (Sirach 25:16).

Terrorism breeds a kind of fear that is useless. The motivations of terrorists vary dramatically. Some are simply mentally disturbed and wish to invoke fear for its own sake. Some have some greater purpose in mind, however warped that purpose may be, and they see the fear they engender as the first step along the path to convincing the rest of us to fall in line. But either way, the fear that comes from acts of terror is incapable of making anything better because it is incapable of producing love. It is a fear that can only work on that first level in which we worry about losing the things of this world: our wealth, our security, even our very lives. That may drive us into a state of panic, but it cannot do anything else. Terrorism is ultimately self defeating. It is an admission of failure.

So what should our response to terrorism be? I want to suggest, along with Saint Thomas, that it ought to be fear, but of a different sort than the kind that terrorists want us to have. At times like these, we absolutely need the fear of God to make us whole. Rather than giving in to a state of panic over what we have lost and what we might yet lose, we can look into the very heart of God and see a perfect love there that will shatter us with its beauty. We can look at the cross and see the immeasurable love of God that is poured out there, a love that is bottomless, a love that is so powerful that it can redeem every suffering, wipe away every tear, and forgive every wrong. That kind of love is so big that it ought to scare us, because we are fooling ourselves if we do not realize that even the very best of us do not love so perfectly. Yet it is that same love, of which none of us are worthy, that will ultimately perfect even weak and fearful people like you and me, making us into something far more glorious than we could possibly imagine. The terrorist can do a lot of damage. He can take many things from us. But he cannot take God’s love from us. Even when all the world is in flames and everything we have is loss, that is a love that cannot be taken away from us.

God’s memory

cross of christ built into a brick wall

The Lord has remembered us. He will bless us. He will bless the House of Israel. He will bless the House of Aaron.
– Psalm 115:12

We have a funny relationship with memory in western culture today. There is a massive market for nostalgia. Old television shows and movies are remade constantly. We have at our fingertips more ways of photographing, recording, and documenting life events than ever before. There is a constant craving to capture the past, to bottle it and dip our toes in it from time to time.

Yet this great nostalgia does not include a desire for continuity. We dislike the idea of tradition in any form. If an idea cannot be demonstrated to be useful by contemporary sensibilities, it is instantly tossed aside without a second thought. The same past that we view with misty-eyed sentiment when it comes to things like pop culture and fashion is seen as a tyrant when it comes to how we live our lives, our values, and the seeking of life’s true meaning.

Memory is far more than what we think it is. Memory is not just an assortment of images and recollections. To remember is to know something and make it real. It is to bring a person or an idea into the narrative of life. If I remember you, I know you. You are a part of me, and I am a part of you. This is what makes memory loss so tragic, not that it just robs us of our past, it robs us of our present as well. If I cannot remember you, I cannot know you.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, in this wonderful reflection on prayers for the dead, remarks that the divine memory is an important and central part of the Orthodox burial service. He says, “Funeral services conclude with the ancient hymn, ‘Memory eternal!’ in which the Church prays that God will forever remember the departed. To be remembered by God is nothing less than life eternal.”

This is ultimately what salvation is. It is to be remembered by God. Our memories are finite. They eventually give out. When we die, our memories die with us. Even the most famous and well known people will eventually be forgotten by history. But God remembers eternally. When He remembers you, you live. When He calls you to mind, that very action calls you into being. God chooses not to remember your sin, only your light, which is ultimately His light shining through you. Your sin is forgotten through the blood of the cross, but your life is remembered eternally through the love of God.

This is the power of the biblical concept of memory. Whenever God “remembers” someone, blessing follows. When God remembers Noah, the waters subside (Genesis 8:1). When God remembers Ruth, He opens her womb (Genesis 30:22). In remembering Ephraim, despite his sin, the Lord’s heart is warmed and He has mercy (Jeremiah 31:20). Examples abound. Whenever God remembers His covenant with Israel, He restores Israel. When He remembers us, He restores us as well.

On the cross, the thief who has faith in Jesus says to Him, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!” And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). He doesn’t say, “Sure thing, Buddy. I’ll think about you all the time.” He tells him that he will be with Him. That is the power of memory for God. That is what it does. It makes things real.

This is also one of the many reasons why the mystery of the Eucharist makes no sense to the world. Jesus takes bread and wine. He tells us that they are His Body and Blood. And then He says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remembrance – the biblical word is anamnesis – is far more than just a nice reminder. Jesus is not asking us to think sweet thoughts about Him whenever we gather for a light snack. He’s telling us that as we remember Him, He remembers us. The bread and the wine may not look any different than they did before they were blessed, but they are different. Remember Him because He is what we receive at the altar, regardless of what our senses are telling us.

And this, of course, is also why we pray for the dead, not because we expect to change God’s mind about a sentence already passed, but because we long to know that those whom we love are alive in the mind and heart of God. We pray for the salvation of the dead for the same reason that we pray for the salvation of everybody else, because it is only in the light of the eternal memory of God that we live forever. His memory is our future.

Image from here.

The joy of creating

croppedRecently, my old college buddy Tom spent the weekend helping me to build an outdoor playset for my children. At least, that’s how he would describe it. It would be more accurate to say that I helped him. Tom is much more mechanically inclined than I am. I find it challenging to get the lids off of bottles. But Tom was able to look at a picture and description of the playset we wanted and take measurements and execute a plan. On Saturday morning, there was nothing in my backyard. By Sunday afternoon, there was a full size swing set, fort, slide, and rock wall with two very happy little boys climbing all over it.

It is joyous to create something like that. It is hard work, to be sure, yet there is an experience of the divine in it. God is the Creator. He is the maker of heaven and earth. We are made in His image. We share that same creative spark, that same yearning to make things.

I have never been good at making things with my hands, but I have always been good at making things out of words: Poems, songs, essays, stories, and sermons. I feel the same deep sense of satisfaction in that exercise that many people feel in making things out of stone, steel, and wood. You begin with nothing but a blank page and the spark of an idea. You connect one word to another, forming patterns of sound, rhyme, and thought. And when you are finished, if you are lucky, you have created something beautiful and unique that fills the space that was once empty. If that is the case, you can look at your work with satisfaction and without the least sense of arrogance or conceit say, “It is finished and it is good.”

Of course, I don’t always say that. Sometimes I look at what I’ve written and say, “It is crap.” Then I start over. Creation is a much more fraught process for human beings than it is for God. But in those rare moments when I get it right, I feel deeply gratified because something of God’s own creative life has worked through me to bring something new and wonderful into being.

When I write something, it feels as if it is flowing directly out of my soul, but that is not entirely true. In fact what I am doing is rearranging what was there before. I did not invent the words that I use. They are the raw materials that I build with, much like the large pile of lumber that we acquired in order to put together that playset. Even in the creative act that most resembles God’s own work, the act of begetting and bearing children, the action is not purely ours. The raw material of sperm and egg and chromosomes is developed into something gloriously, wonderfully new, yet it is only possible because those things were gifted to us.

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God creates out of nothing. When I think about that – I mean really think about it – I have to catch my breath. It is inconceivable to me, as someone who creates, not to have to use any building blocks. It was inconceivable to many in the ancient world as well, such as Plato and Aristotle. Yet that is the audacious claim that is revealed in Holy Scripture. God created out of nothing. There was nothing at all, no building blocks, no starting point. And then God said, “Let there be light.” And there was.

All of our raw supplies are God given. The wood for the playset came from trees, which came from other trees, which came from earlier plant life, which came from cells, which if you follow the chain back far enough came directly from the creative act of the Lord speaking a word. The words for writing evolve from languages that find their way back inexorably to that same first word. The biological building blocks of reproduction are handed down to us – traditioned to us – by the One who made all biology, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. What a grand and unexpected joy! When we create, we partner with God. And when our creative work is done and something beautiful appears where before there was nothing, God says, “It is finished and it is good.”