19 May 2008

Sermon: Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday
Gn 1.1-2.4a; 2 Cor 13.11-14; Mt 28.16-20
18 May 2008
Church of the Holy Communion

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In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... Yes, obviously, I want to say; we’re all here, after all – but why? Why, “in the beginning,” did God create the heavens and the earth? That of course is philosophy’s great question – Why is there something rather than nothing? Bede Rundel, emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University says it is a question that “has a capacity to set the head spinning which few other philosophical problems can rival.”[i] It is the “primordial existential question,”[ii] and it's a question that doesn't go away once we confess that God made the world. I’m about to answer it, which, I guess is nice (actually I hope to give the Church’s answer). But first, a related question: There’s a story told about a question asked of the German reformer Martin Luther – it’s likely apocryphal, but it sure sounds like Luther. According to the story, Luther was conversing around with his students over a meal, as he often did, when one of them asked a question: What was God doing before he created the world? To which Luther is said to have replied, "God sits under a tree and cuts branches and rods, to beat up people who ask useless questions to which he has not provided the answers![iii] Well, that’s a cutting reply to an earnest question – and, contra Dr. Luther, I think a good question, an important question – a question right up there with why is there something rather than nothing? Both are questions that are resolved in the mystery of God’s Being that we come to on this day, Trinity Sunday.

Generally speaking, the great feasts of the Church’s calendar are memorials of God’s mighty works, his saving deeds in history. They are about the Gospel, the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ to redeem his people – Incarnation, Nativity, Baptism, Fasting & Temptation, “his blessed Passion & precious Death, mighty Resurrection and glorious Ascension,” and the coming of the Holy Ghost.[iv] But on Trinity Sunday our attention is called not to God’s acts but to the nature of his Being – that God is one God, yet eternally subsists in three Persons; not three gods, not one god who is sometimes like this, sometimes like that, and sometimes like the other - but one God in Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Gospel is about what God has done in history, but the dogma of the Holy Trinity is about who God is in eternity.

But as soon as I put the matter that way, it should be obvious that the distinction between Gospel and Trinity is not so neat, because who a person is and what a person does are, we know, not entirely separable. Actions reveal character; or, actions are the fruit of character. Now, to be sure, for fallen human beings there is a disconnect here; there is fissure down deep in our hearts – that is a large part of what it means to be fallen. But as I really am trying to preach only one overly long sermon this morning, for now on that matter I’ll simply refer you to St. Paul in the seventh chapter of the epistle to the Romans, where he says, For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.[v] But in the perfection of God, what he does is the function – perfectly so – of who he is. God never acts “out of character.” Therefore, Trinity and Gospel go together; in fact the Trinity gives us the Gospel. So the more deeply we understand God as Trinity, the more deeply we will understand the Gospel, and the more deeply it will shape out lives and redeem our days.

So, how does the Trinity give us the Gospel? And how does the Trinity account for the creation of the heavens and the earth? Well, God’s revelation of himself as an eternal, mutually subsisting community of Three Persons – as Trinity – tells us something important about God’s character; namely, that “God is love.”[vi] The reason we can affirm this glorious truth about God – that he is love – is because God is a Trinity. Or we could say it the other way around: God is a Trinity because God is love – love in its completeness, love in its fullness.

After all, how many does love take? Well, we know the answer to that; Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston taught us:
One can take a walk in the moonlight, thinkin’ that it’s really nice,
But two walking hand in hand is like addin’ just a pinch of spice –
It takes two, baby; it takes two![vii]

Well, in fact, and with all due respect to Mr. Gaye and Ms. Weston, love takes three: lover, beloved, and the relationship of love between them. St. Augustine pointed this out long ago.[viii] And if it sounds odd to say that love takes three, that perfect love takes the Trinity, if we think about it, it begins to make some sense and even to confirm our usually unconscious and unexamined intuitions.

Here’s what I mean. As a parish priest, couples have from time to time come to me for counseling (imagine how desperate they must have been!). And they – and all of us – will speak this way. They’ll talk about “me, my spouse, and our marriage.” Someone will say, "I'm like this, my spouse is like this, and our relationship is like this." Once, even, a woman said to me, “I love my husband, but I hate our marriage!” We speak as if the marriage, the relationship, had a personality and life and motive force of its own. And of course it does! We speak this way all the time – as if the dynamic union of lover and beloved produces a third entity – we might even say (well, some of us might say), it results in the procession of a third hypostasis.[ix]

So if on the human level, love, in its completeness, takes three – lover, beloved, and the relationship of love between them – that is simply the analogue, the dim reflection of the eternal life of love within God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

And that, by the way, takes us a long way toward answering that “useless” question of Martin Luther’s student. What was God doing before he created the world? Well, God was busy – busy being the Trinity. Which is to say, God was busy, as he is still, always, and ever busy, loving. From eternity, God is about the business of love, the love which is the very nature and essence his Trinitarian life. God is, in himself, a complete - a completely fulfilled - community of love. And that tells us why, whether or not we find ourselves in the married estate, all of us were made for relationship, we find our identity only within a community – because we are made in the image of God the blessed Trinity. Therefore, it is not good for the man to be alone.

John Paul the Great put it this way:
God in his deepest mystery is not a solitude but a family, since he has in himself fatherhood, sonship, and the essence of family, which is love.[x]

To confess our faith in God as Trinity is to confess our faith that God is love. To pray in the name of the Trinity is to place our confidence in the God who is love. To follow Christ’s great commission, to baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is to graft the Church and her members into the life of God’s love. Because God is love, because God is the Holy Trinity.

And that takes us to philosophy’s great question, to the primordial existential head scratcher: why is there something rather than nothing? Given that "in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," we may - we should - still ask, why?

Well, we’ve already answered the question. God's actions are perfectly in accord with his character – and because God is a Trinity, his character is love. God does not create out of any lack within his life; he does not create to supply some personal need; God is under no necessity to create. No, God is perfectly and eternally fulfilled with his own Triune life. Instead, the creation and redemption of the world is the fruit of God's overflowing love; the love within the Trinity explodes and overflows - and here we are.

C.S. Lewis makes this point in graphic manner. He says,
God is love... God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that he may love and perfect them. He creates the universe already foreseeing the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross… If I may dare a biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates his own parasites; causes us to be so that we may exploit and “take advantage” of Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.[xi]

There is something rather than nothing because God loves. Do you see what this means? God the Holy Trinity, who is complete in himself and lacking nothing, creates the universe, the heavens and the earth, out of love and nothing but. And to redeem that world from its own rebellion, in Christ God empties himself, enters into the world he made and dies.

God the Holy Trinity creates and redeems the world and you and me even though we are, as Lewis so bluntly puts it, "wholly superfluous creatures." But do you see what that does? Because God has created and redeemed the world and you and me in love – no one is superfluous; everyone counts. God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was – it is! – very good. And the cross of Jesus Christ is the price tag attached to the heavens and the earth and everyone you will ever meet. Everyone is of infinite value – and not because of what “use” any one of us might be to anyone else – or to society, or to the state, or even – dare I say it? – to the market. Human dignity and value cannot be found in earning potential, physical capacity, intellectual capacity, the ability to pay taxes on the one hand or to tithe on the other – or in any calculation of utility. When we look at another human being, we must never see a tool, an object to be used, but always a person to be welcomed and loved, a person whom God made and welcomes and loves, recognizing that love will often – just about always, actually – be costly. Sometimes very costly.
After all, look, and in this holy Sacrament receive, what it cost our Lord. And let us be transformed by that love, until we are built into the loving community in which the image of God the Holy Trinity is clearly seen and experienced, in which our lives and our life together is marked by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

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[i] Bede Rundle, Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Oxford, 2004; but for a better introduction to this and other of philosophy’s big questions, see Leszek Kolakowski’s collection of the same title, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing: 23 Questions from Great Philosphers. Basic Books, 2007.
[ii] According to philosopher of science Adolf Gruenwald: http://cosmicvariance.com/2007/08/30/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing/
[iii] Sociologist Peter Berger relates this story in Questions of Faith.
[iv] Cf The Great Litany:
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and submission to the Law; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation; By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the Coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord Deliver us.
[v] Rom 7.19
[vi] 1 Jn 4.7,8
[vii] Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston, “It takes Two.” Take Two, 1965.
[viii] “…let us direct our attention to those three things which we fancy we have found. We are not yet speaking of heavenly things, nor yet of God the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, but of that inadequate image, which yet is an image, that is, man; for our feeble mind perhaps can gaze upon this more familiarly and more easily. Well then, when I, who make this inquiry, love anything, there are three things concerned—myself, and that which I love, and love itself. For I do not love love, except I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. Therefore there are three things—he who loves, and that which is loved, and love.” St. Augustine, De Trinitate IX.1.ii
[ix] The standard designation in Eastern theology for a ‘person’ of the blessed Trinity; “being, sunstantial reality.” I realize Eastern Christian object to the implication here of a “double” procession.
[x] Quoted in Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity, from which much more on the connection between Trinity and love.
[xi] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.


Atheists & Losers.

Mary Eberstadt has compiled "The Loser Letters", a satirical response to the "new atheism."
Dear Sirs,

Speaking just for this Atheist convert, congratulations, Guys, You really did it! Thanks to all Your hard work, the rest of us know once and for all that the so-called “God” is everything You say he is: the biggest fraud of all time, cosmic Zero, ultimate no-show. And after all those centuries and promises, too. Like throwing the biggest rave ever, only to cancel at the last minute after everyone’d already bought tickets and drugs for it. What kind of Loser does that, anyway? If this were Facebook, no one would be friending him now.

But You have to admit, that same Loser sure has been great for the book business! Including and especially all those books on the new atheism, I’m happy to say. Almost a million volumes sold in twelve month’s time; covers in every major newspaper and magazine; publicity on all the best talk shows and websites and campuses; national and international book awards out the wazoo: Talk about knowing how to make “something” ($$$) out of “nothing” (the Loser)!

It really is marvelous — sorry; I almost said “miraculous” there (I’m new to the atheist party and hope you’ll pardon any slips) — how Your ideas have taken so much of the Western media by storm. You’d almost think atheism had friends in some pretty high places! Whatever, You probably think we atheists have earned the right to sit back and chill. I mean, it’s pretty clear we’ve won by now — isn’t it?

Except, well, not — and that’s why I’m writing You this letter. Because there’s one thing that’s still missing from atheism’s final victory, and it’s something that just can’t be sugarcoated. Ahem: Apart from me, where is the testimony of anyone Your writings have actually convinced? After all, as one of You said somewhere and all of us want to believe, “If this book works as I intend, religious readers will be atheists when they put it down.” So where are the rest of them, I’m starting to wonder — these other converts (like me!) to the new godlessness?

I’m not asking about the numbers to depress any of You. One of the things I love about our Side — the winning Side, the atheist Side! — is we get that it’s good enough just being in everybody’s face about “God” not existing, even if no one but me was persuaded despite a few million more books in circulation. And I know that it wouldn’t be the first time that atheism fell short on the convert count. “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly),” as our most illustrious Forebear Charles Darwin once put it, “that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public.” And He should certainly know!

Even so, as Your convert, in fact as maybe your one and only convert, I worry for Us. Sooner or later, one of the believers will come along and point out a fact they’ll think is damaging to this new atheism — I mean, that it hasn’t actually convinced anyone. In other words, they’re going to paint our Side as somehow intellectually Unfit. And the idea of being called Unfit, to this newly minted atheist, is just too much to bear. Back when I was a Christian, I was taught to embrace those kind of people — you know what I mean, the maladaptives. But as an Atheist, even a new one, I’ve learned to despise them all as Nature’s mistakes. Being put on the losing side would be what You might call a personal Devolution for me, something gross and Unnatural. Like having an opposable thumb and not even texting with it!

And so, to protect Us atheists from that charge before our religious enemies even get to it, I’ve gone ahead and written the following Letters to You. They offer up the earnest confession of one who — as someone once said of our fellow atheist Allen Ginsberg —“did not come back from Hell empty-handed.” I mean Hell figuratively, of course! Little joke there! But seriously. I’ve ascended from the darkness of the believers by clinging to each and every one of Your words — and I bring with me recent firsthand knowledge of them and their ways that I want to share with You. . .

Here's the whole thing, with another to appear next week.

Agreeably Concientious.

Personality groups cluster regionally. Explains a lot.
Apparently large swaths of the "heartland" have no personality whatsoever.
Read all about it.

What Man Can Conceive, Man Can Achieve.

Robotic Beer Launching Refrigerator - video powered by Metacafe

Other similarly useful devices here; I'll leave the theological reflection to Thunder Jones.
Via Jonah Goldberg.

16 May 2008

Good Taste In Music.

I like a nice Napa zinfandel and Mark Olsen-still-in-the-band-era Jayhawks.
Playing a certain type of music can enhance the way wine tastes, research by psychologists suggests.
The Heriot Watt University study found people rated the change in taste by up to 60% depending on the melody heard.
The researchers said cabernet sauvignon was most affected by "powerful and heavy" music, and chardonnay by "zingy and refreshing" sounds.
Professor Adrian North said the study could lead retailers to put music recommendations on their wine bottles.
The research involved 250 students at the university who were offered a free glass of wine in exchange for their views.
Brain theory
Four types of music were played - Carmina Burana by Orff ("powerful and heavy"), Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky ("subtle and refined"), Just Can't Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague ("zingy and refreshing") and Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook ("mellow and soft")
The white wine was rated 40% more zingy and refreshing when that music was played, but only 26% more mellow and soft when music in that category was heard.The red was altered 25% by mellow and fresh music, yet 60% by powerful and heavy music.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: All Along The Watchtower (Jimi Hendrix), Honky Tonk Woman (Rolling Stones), Live And Let Die (Paul McCartney and Wings), Won't Get Fooled Again (The Who)
  • Chardonnay: Atomic (Blondie), Rock DJ (Robbie Williams), What's Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner), Spinning Around (Kylie Minogue)
  • Syrah: Nessun Dorma (Puccini), Orinoco Flow (Enya), Chariots Of Fire (Vangelis), Canon (Johann Pachelbel)
  • Merlot: Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay (Otis Redding), Easy (Lionel Ritchie), Over The Rainbow (Eva Cassidy), Heartbeats (Jose Gonzalez)
Source: Montes wines

Reducing Morality To "Style."

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese reaches out from beyond the grave  to comment on the specious legal reasoning and cultural context and ramifications of the California "right to marriage" decision:
The language of individual choice or individual right has proven extraordinarily seductive both as an invitation to do as one pleases with a clear conscience and as a deterrent against disapproval of the choices of others, which are grouped under the preposterously euphemistic blanket of “lifestyle” choices. Lifestyle choices, it turns out, include every imaginable sexual practice, including a new addition — “questioning” — as well as those older preferences which, not so long ago, were known by such judgmental terms as incest, pedophilia, statutory rape, necrophilia, and bestiality. Some older ones, like fornication and sodomy, seem virtually to have disappeared from our vocabulary. Lifestyle choices also include the choice to abort or not to abort, to marry or not to marry, to bear a child within marriage or outside of marriage, to cohabit or not to cohabit, and on ad infinitum. Logically, there is no reason not to add to this list polygamy and polyandry. The notion of marriage as the union of one woman and one man has been dissolved in a flood of options, reduced to the status of one “choice” among many. And if the gravest and most sacred features of human existence are reduced to matters of style, why should we care which styles others may choose?

We have reached a precipice, over which many seem eager to plunge, some maliciously, others blindly: Having reduced the most intimate personal relations, including those that have been our most reliable social bonds, to styles, we have banished morality from serious public discourse. The insistence upon viewing the world — including all forms of social and personal relations — from a purely subjective perspective has led us to embrace, as the Court in Casey encouraged us to do, the comfortable position that the weightiest questions about the value of human life are matters of purely personal concern — to be decided by each individual for himself or herself. With moral norms for personal relations swept aside like accumulated dustheaps and cobwebs, the ground on which to oppose same-sex marriage has been eroding. In the previous two chapters, I offered a functional and evolutionary view of marriage as a social institution, and it would be easy to assume that my intention was to endorse it. What could be more natural than to reason that, since marriage has constituted a primary social bond in different societies, it is only natural for marriage to continue to adapt to changing social, economic, and political conditions?
Here's the whole thing.  It is an excerpt from the posthumously published Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die.  Also, here's Fox-Genovese' conversion story, parts of which have dripped into sermons.

15 May 2008

But I Feel Worse.


14 May 2008

Big Cow.

13 May 2008

Trivializing Technology.

Emory University professor of English Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, is a luddite curmudgeon, and may his tribe increase (says the priest with a blog):

To Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, the present is a good time to be young only if you don't mind a tendency toward empty-headedness. In "The Dumbest Generation," he argues that cultural and technological forces, far from opening up an exciting new world of learning and thinking, have conspired to create a level of public ignorance so high as to threaten our democracy.

Adults are so busy imagining the ways that technology can improve classroom learning or improve the public debate that they've blinded themselves to the collective dumbing down that is actually taking place. The kids are using their technological advantage to immerse themselves in a trivial, solipsistic, distracting online world at the expense of more enriching activities – like opening a book or writing complete sentences.

Mr. Bauerlein presents a wealth of data to show that young people, with the aid of digital media, are intensely focusing on themselves, their peers and the present moment. YouTube and MySpace, he says, are revealingly named: These and other top Web destinations are "peer to peer" environments in the sense that their juvenile users have populated them with predictably juvenile content. The sites where students spend most of their time "harden adolescent styles and thoughts, amplifying the discourse of the lunchroom and keg party, not spreading the works of the Old Masters."

If the new hours in front of the computer were subtracting from television time, there might be something encouraging to say about the increasingly interactive quality of youthful diversions. The facts, at least as Mr. Bauerlein marshals them, show otherwise: TV viewing is constant. The printed word has paid a price – from 1981 to 2003, the leisure reading of 15- to 17-year-olds fell to seven minutes a day from 18. But the real action has been in multitasking. By 2003, children were cramming an average of 8½ hours of media consumption a day into just 6½ hours – watching TV while surfing the Web, reading while listening to music, composing text messages while watching a movie.

Here's the whole thing.

12 May 2008

When & Whom To Kill.

Very good panel discussion at Princeton last week re the destruction of early human life.

Here's the video.

And here are Ryan Anderson's summation and reflections:

“Look, when we think about ending an early human life, this is something that is really bad for the embryo or early fetus that dies, it’s losing out tremendously—I agree with that as I already said. And then you said that it’s one of the things that we should care about. And, um, I think that I should have said before that I think it’s really dangerous to slide from noticing that something is bad for something, to thinking that that gives us a moral reason. And just to prove that that doesn’t follow, think about plants. So lots of things are bad for trees, and plants, and flowers, and often that gives us no reasons whatsoever, certainly no moral reasons. In my view, fetuses that die before they’re ever conscious really are a lot like plants: They’re living things, but there’s nothing about them that would make us think that they count morally in the way that people do.”

That came from Princeton philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman during the question-and-answer period of last week’s star-studded symposium at Princeton titled “Is It Wrong to End Early Human Life?” The participants included Harman and her Princeton colleagues Robert George and Peter Singer, along with Don Marquis (Kansas), Patrick Lee (Franciscan), Jeff McMahan (Rutgers), and John Haldane (St. Andrews). Moderating the discussion was Harold Shapiro, Princeton’s president emeritus and the chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Clinton. On any measure, these are among the most prominent voices in contemporary philosophy and bioethics, and to have them together on one three-and-a-half-hour panel was an intellectual treat. (Disclosure: George, Lee, and Haldane are affiliated with the Witherspoon Institute, as am I.)

Many, no doubt, will find Harman’s comparison of human fetuses to plants—not to mention Singer’s moral defense of infanticide—deeply repugnant. I certainly do. But these are merely the conclusions of a chain of (gravely mistaken) moral reasoning, and such intellectually honest reflection is to be preferred, in fact welcomed, over the unprincipled rationalization that often takes its place. When people like Harman and Singer speak openly and follow their premises to their logical conclusions, the audience realizes what is at stake when a commitment to intrinsic human dignity and equality is rejected—and that realization is a very good thing.

Though ethical disagreement about such important matters as killing human beings, restricting women’s liberty, and forestalling scientific research often generate more heat than light, one of this panel’s many virtues was its consistent civility. The participants themselves stressed that intelligent and reflective people of goodwill can and do disagree. Eschewing ad hominem attacks, they opted to offer arguments and rebuttals, a mutual exchange whose currency is reason. This brought to mind Fr. John Courtney Murray’s famous remark that “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” So it is a credit to the panelists that the discussion was marked by a lack of confusion, albeit much disagreement.

Read the whole thing.

08 May 2008

Dr. Pepper & His Colleagues.

07 May 2008

Nice Rotation

Career statistics of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz:
Pitcher W-L ERA Ks Walks Cy Young Awards
Greg Maddux 349-217 3.12 3,298 977 4
Tom Glavine 303-200 3.51 2,581 1,475 2
John Smoltz 210-147 3.25 3,011 992 1
Total 862-564 3.29 8,890 3,444 7

For the first time in six years, and perhaps the final time, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were reunited Tuesday in Atlanta — the home of their pitching excellence.

"You're talking about the greatest rotation of all-time," says Leo Mazzone, the Braves' pitching coach during their 10-year era together. "You will never see anything like that again."

Here's the whole thing.

Spare The Rod...

From here.

06 May 2008

Morality & The Secular Left.

Apropos of Professor Webb's jeremiad below, here's a review of Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity: a Guide for Grown-up Idealists:

An American philosophy professor who directs the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, Ms. Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide to the unjustly maligned Western "canon." But she is not some kind of scold or stodgy traditionalist, wagging a disapproving finger at our fall from a golden age. She is, in fact, a self-conscious woman of the left. She knows that our own debates over political and economic fundamentals have intellectual pedigrees worth learning, even at the cost of long hours spent among the most formidable of dead white European males. Her interest in the Bible and Plato, Hobbes and Burke, Hume and Rousseau springs not from nostalgia or an itch to debunk but from a need to think well in the present.

The task that Ms. Neiman sets for herself in "Moral Clarity" is to rescue today's political left from its own philosophical handicaps. How can it be, she wonders, that "moral clarity" has come to be a catchphrase of conservatives while eliciting the knowing sneers of liberals? Why are irony, detachment and pessimism the favored modes of supposed sophisticates? Why is there such a fear of being "judgmental"? What has made firmly asserted ideals seem naïve if not dangerous?

Ms. Neiman points to many factors in the left's retreat from universal principles. The demise of socialism has played a role, as has despair over the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. But the real source, she suggests, is a "conceptual collapse," a self-destructive descent into identity politics, postmodern theory and victimology. Her peers have become paralyzed, she writes, by the view that moral judgments are, ultimately, little more than "a hypocritical attempt to assert arbitrary power over those with whom you disagree."

For Ms. Neiman, the road back to the philosophical high ground leads through the Enlightenment. The central chapters of "Moral Clarity" remind us that the Enlightenment's great thinkers, despite their often radical resistance to authority and convention, had their own robust moral lexicon. Rejecting religious fatalism, they judged societies by their capacity to produce mundane happiness. They held up rationality as the key to universal justice, and they saw in the human condition, for all its folly, a source of hope. More than that, Ms. Neiman shows, they revered the world that reason revealed to them. As Kant put it: "Two things fill the mind with awe and wonder . . . : the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."

Here's the whole thing.

Freshmen Forewarned.

Stephen Webb, professor of religion & philosophy at Wabash College (and author of Dylan Redeemed: Highway 61 to Saved), addressing the incoming freshmen of the class of 2012:

Christians believe that God became human in Jesus Christ. If so, it follows that there is something called humanity. That is, humans have a nature, a shared or common nature. Human nature is not just a social construction. Human nature is real. And if it is real, then it is the same everywhere and at every time. It is, in a word, universal.

The idea that human nature is universal might seem simple to you, and it is. All true ideas are simple, because anyone can grasp them. Yet, believe it or not, you are about to enter a world that treats the idea of a universal human nature as simple-minded foolishness. The really sad thing is that your professors will not try to complicate this idea. To complicate an idea, you have to first take it seriously. Rather than argue about this idea, most of your professors will simply ignore it. You see, the idea of a universal human nature is contrary to everything most professors, at least in the humanities, believe. And that makes it one of the most radical ideas you can hold as a student.

The central dogma of higher education goes by many names, but its basic thrust is as easy to grasp as it is hard to miss. Whether it is called multiculturalism, social constructionism, or left-leaning liberalism, the bottom line is that higher education in America these days promotes cultural relativism. Colleges do not advertise this fact for obvious reasons, but look closely at what they say in their promotional literature. Colleges talk about broadening your perspective, expanding your horizons, and offering you new experiences, but they do not talk about teaching you how to make moral judgments, how to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, and how to seek the truth. That is because secular liberal-arts colleges and public universities do not believe you should make moral judgments, contemplate the beautiful, or acknowledge universal truths. And they don’t believe these things because they do not believe there is something called human nature.

The college you have chosen to attend is no worse, and probably a little bit better, than most colleges when it comes to multiculturalism, but it is always wise to be prepared when you go to school. What you most need to know is that the “higher” in higher education no longer refers to the high culture of the greatest works of Western civilization. In fact, higher education has been trying to dismantle this culture for decades. Higher education today is all about lowering the great books and great ideas of the past to the same basic level. Rather than ask you to climb the great heights of the classics, professors these days will ask you to tear them down. Rather than ask you to test your intellectual strength by pitting yourself against the greatest thinkers of the past, professors will teach you the intellectual equivalent of etiquette and manners. You will learn how to talk without embarrassing yourself in polite, educated company. You will learn what to say, not how to think.

Here's the whole thing.

05 May 2008

Sermon: Ascension Day

Ascension Day
Acts 1.11; Eph 1.15-23; Lk 24.49-53
1 May 2008
Holy Communion

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I stopped by the Hallmark store earlier today to buy an Ascension card for my wife, along with some of those great Ascension Day chocolates. Would you believe it, they were out!? But of course they weren’t actually sold out; they never had any. You can by Christmas cards, you can buy Easter cards. In the Hispanic section, you can buy Epiphany cards. But no Ascension cards. Well, there may be no cards, but there is tonight and this great feast. And while the Ascension may have dropped out of the culture’s consciousness and evidently holds no commercial appeal for the Hallmark folks, it would be a great shame were we to leave the Ascension of our Lord out of our lives, out of the pattern of our devotion. To leave out the Ascension would be much like building a large, spacious, beautiful home, but never moving in.

In fact, it is the Ascension of our Lord that gives his Nativity, his Cross, even his Resurrection their power. If it sounds like I’m overstating the case, I’m only following – actually plagiarizing – St. Augustine. Preaching this feast some 16 hundred years ago, he said that the Ascension "is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished."[i]

Now, if that is so – if the Ascension “confirms the grace” of all those mighty acts whereby God has acted in Christ to redeem and save us – then we might well ask, Why aren’t there any Ascension Day cards in the Hallmark store? And why aren’t there any great Ascension Day candies – that’s what I want to know. Why is this only sung mass on a peninsula chock full of Episcopal churches? Why, according to something I read yesterday, have many Catholic dioceses in our country dispensed with Ascension Day as a day of holy obligation due to poor attendance and transferred the feast to the following Sunday (and I have to say, eliminating Mass strikes me as a really swell way of dealing with the problem of poor Mass attendance)?[ii]

Why should this be the case? Well, probably for many and complicated reasons, but maybe by looking at just two we can find our way back in to the Ascension’s glory.

First of all, it does seem like the Ascension is just a little too primitive and magical, a little too pre-Copernican, a little too, shall we say, “flat earth” – does it not? We read, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him,” and immediately our imaginations jump to Jesus with a divine jet-pack,[iii] zipping up, up, and away! to some Heaven in the clouds – as if the opposite of the Ascension would be to dig a hole down to Hell.

But of course neither the ancient Hebrew people like Jesus and his disciples gathered that day in Bethany nor educated Greeks like St. Luke who recorded the event for us believed in a three-tiered universe, and the Jet-pack Jesus idea would have seemed at least as silly to them as it perhaps seems embarrassing to us, and to entirely miss the point as well. Which is not to deny, but rather to affirm, that Luke records for us an actual historical event, involving the actual human body of Jesus Christ, forty days after he had actually been resurrected on the third day after he had actually “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.”

If we can put it this way, the Ascension describes an historical event, not a geographical one.[iv] This cloud that takes Jesus from view is always in the Scriptures the sign of the Father’s Presence, the “symbol of divine power” – as at Sinai, as in the Tabernacle set up in the wilderness, as on the mount of Tranfiguration.[v] What Luke shows us, what the Ascension asserts, is that the Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen One is received back whence he had come, to the right hand of the Father, and from there to reign, and to reign precisely as the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen One. He did not leave his body, his humanity, his scars behind. Rather, the Ascension tells us that the full humanity of Jesus, body included, has been taken forever into the life of the Most Blessed Trinity.

Which brings us to the – or at least “a” – second reason we may be tempted to give the Ascension short shrift: its truth is just too big, too wonderful, too foreign, takes us too far in to the very life and being of the infinite God, for us easily to relate to our everyday lives.[vi] We have no easy hook to hang this hat on.

After all, birth and babies and bodies we know and can relate to from our own experience. Suffering and death and dying we know and can relate to from our own experience, only too well. And knowing something of those things, we can even relate to Resurrection, and even begin to experience something of its grace and power here and now in this life.

But Ascension? Our humanity – our full, embodied humanity – joined intrinsically, integrally, inseparably, ontologically to the life of God – this theosis, this deification, as Fr. Clarke showed us this past Sunday, is a wonderful prospect. But at present (and maybe here I should only speak for myself) it is a lot of faith and precious little sight. Ascension in large degree must remain an abstraction until we ourselves are risen and ascended. We will see it only “through a glass and darkly” until we see the Ascended One face to face and are made like him.[vii]

Even so, as difficult as it is to get at, the Ascension can and should change us, and change us here and now, and change us in the best way. After all, it changed the disciples who witnessed it. Luke tells us that after Jesus ascended, the disciples returned to Jerusalem – not feeling bereft, as we might expect; not grieving an absence and loss, as would seem appropriate – but instead they returned with “great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.”

Here are a small band of brothers and sisters with every reason to feel, so we might suppose, abandoned and fearful and alone. We might even expect to find them again, as in those couple days before the Resurrection, back behind locked doors for fear. But instead, just the opposite. They are bold, they are joyful, and they walk at large in the world.

So how did the Ascension change them? Again, back to the thing itself: Jesus returns, and his embodied humanity is raised up into the life of God. He is taken in to a cloud which is the only way the Biblical writers ever found to describe the mystery of the divine Presence, there to reign at the Father’s right hand. There to reign. If the Resurrection is victory over death, the Ascension is victory over history. It is the establishment of the Lordship of Christ over all things. As St. Paul has it as reflects on the Ascension in today’s epistle lesson, when God drew the risen Lord back to himself,

he made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and made him the head over all things for the church.

Jesus is “head over all things for the church.” The Ascended Jesus is for the church. He is pro-ecclesia. You see what this means. The promise that “God works all things for good to those who love him” is grounded in the Ascension. The promise “that the One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” comes courtesy of the Ascension. The promise that nothing – “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” – that promise is sealed by the Ascension.[viii] That is why the disciples had great joy, that is why they were continually in the temple praising God, and that is why we also “lift up our hearts,” here at this Altar.

Do you look out at the world and find yourself unsettled by what you see? Do the times look troubled – socially, culturally, morally? Well, it looked much the same if not worse that day Jesus was taken by the cloud. In the first century AD the most respected philosophers and intellectuals of the day were gravely counseling suicide as man’s best option.[ix] But the disciples of Jesus had a kind of rollicking optimism that overcame persecution and hardship and loss, because of the Ascension, because the same Lord who suffered for them now ruled and rules for them and for us, so that one great day we and all the church will be raised up with him, ascended into the very life of God. That is a joy and a power that can be, should be, ours now. So why are we standing around, looking into heaven – or gazing at our navels? This Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, who is “head over all things for the church” – he will come.

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

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Image: Guariento d'Arpo, "Ascension of Christ" c. 1344

[i] St. Augustine, Sermo 53.4.

[ii] Fr. Richard John Neuhas, http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=267

[iii] Jesus didn’t need one, but you can buy a jet-pack from this guy:


[iv] Hans Urs von Balthazar, Credo.

[v] Ex 19.16-20; 40.34-38; Lk 9.28-36

[vi] Barbara Brown Taylor, ”The Day We Were Left Behind” in Christianity Today, 18 May 1998.

[vii] 1 Cor 13.12; 1 Jn 3.2

[viii] Rom 8.28,38-39; Phil 1.6. Leaning here on the exposition of Tim Keller, Redeemer Presbyrterian Church, New York.

[ix] J.I. Packer, The Apostles’ Creed.