The Perils of This Life

From Augustine, City of God, XII, 22:

That the whole human race has been condemned in its first origin, this life itself, if life it is to be called, bears witness by the host of cruel ills with which it is filled. Is not this proved by the profound and dreadful ignorance which produces all the errors that enfold the children of Adam, and from which no man can be delivered without toil, pain, and fear? Is it not proved by his love of so many vain and hurtful things, which produces gnawing cares, disquiet, griefs, fears, wild joys, quarrels, lawsuits, wars, treasons, angers, hatreds, deceit, flattery, fraud, theft, robbery, perfidy, pride, ambition, envy, murders, parricides, cruelty, ferocity, wickedness, luxury, insolence, impudence, shamelessness, fornications, adulteries, incests, and the numberless uncleannesses and unnatural acts of both sexes, which it is shameful so much as to mention; sacrileges, heresies, blasphemies, perjuries, oppression of the innocent, calumnies, plots, falsehoods, false witnessings, unrighteous judgments, violent deeds, plunderings, and whatever similar wickedness has found its way into the lives of men, though it cannot find its way into the conception of pure minds? These are indeed the crimes of wicked men, yet they spring from that root of error and misplaced love which is born with every son of Adam. For who is there that has not observed with what profound ignorance, manifesting itself even in infancy, and with what superfluity of foolish desires, beginning to appear in boyhood, man comes into this life, so that, were he left to live as he pleased, and to do whatever he pleased, he would plunge into all, or certainly into many of those crimes and iniquities which I mentioned, and could not mention?

But because God does not wholly desert those whom He condemns, nor shuts up in His anger His tender mercies, the human race is restrained by law and instruction, which keep guard against the ignorance that besets us, and oppose the assaults of vice, but are themselves full of labor and sorrow. For what mean those multifarious threats which are used to restrain the folly of children? What mean pedagogues, masters, the birch, the strap, the cane, the schooling which Scripture says must be given a child, beating him on the sides lest he wax stubborn, Sirach 30:12 and it be hardly possible or not possible at all to subdue him? Why all these punishments, save to overcome ignorance and bridle evil desires— these evils with which we come into the world? For why is it that we remember with difficulty, and without difficulty forget? Learn with difficulty, and without difficulty remain ignorant? Are diligent with difficulty, and without difficulty are indolent? Does not this show what vitiated nature inclines and tends to by its own weight, and what succor it needs if it is to be delivered? Inactivity, sloth, laziness, negligence, are vices which shun labor, since labor, though useful, is itself a punishment.

But, besides the punishments of childhood, without which there would be no learning of what the parents wish—and the parents rarely wish anything useful to be taught—who can describe, who can conceive the number and severity of the punishments which afflict the human race—pains which are not only the accompaniment of the wickedness of godless men, but are a part of the human condition and the common misery—what fear and what grief are caused by bereavement and mourning, by losses and condemnations, by fraud and falsehood, by false suspicions, and all the crimes and wicked deeds of other men? For at their hands we suffer robbery, captivity, chains, imprisonment, exile, torture, mutilation, loss of sight, the violation of chastity to satisfy the lust of the oppressor, and many other dreadful evils. What numberless casualties threaten our bodies from without—extremes of heat and cold, storms, floods, inundations, lightning, thunder, hail, earthquakes, houses falling; or from the stumbling, or shying, or vice of horses; from countless poisons in fruits, water, air, animals; from the painful or even deadly bites of wild animals; from the madness which a mad dog communicates, so that even the animal which of all others is most gentle and friendly to its own master, becomes an object of intenser fear than a lion or dragon, and the man whom it has by chance infected with this pestilential contagion becomes so rabid, that his parents, wife, children, dread him more than any wild beast! What disasters are suffered by those who travel by land or sea! What man can go out of his own house without being exposed on all hands to unforeseen accidents? Returning home sound in limb, he slips on his own doorstep, breaks his leg, and never recovers. What can seem safer than a man sitting in his chair? Eli the priest fell from his, and broke his neck. How many accidents do farmers, or rather all men, fear that the crops may suffer from the weather, or the soil, or the ravages of destructive animals? Commonly they feel safe when the crops are gathered and housed. Yet, to my certain knowledge, sudden floods have driven the laborers away, and swept the barns clean of the finest harvest. Is innocence enough protection against the various assaults of demons? That no man might think so, even baptized infants, who are certainly unsurpassed in innocence, are sometimes so tormented, that God, who permits it, teaches us hereby to bewail the calamities of this life, and to want the felicity of the life to come. As to bodily diseases, they are so many that they cannot all be contained even in medical books. And in very many, or almost all of them, the cures and remedies are themselves tortures, so that men are delivered from a pain that destroys by a cure that pains. Has not the madness of thirst driven men to drink human urine, and even their own? Has not hunger driven men to eat human flesh, and that the flesh not of bodies found dead, but of bodies slain for the purpose? Have not the fierce pangs of famine driven mothers to eat their own children, incredibly savage as it seems? In fine, sleep itself, which is justly called repose, how little of repose there sometimes is in it when disturbed with dreams and visions; and with what terror is the wretched mind overwhelmed by the appearances of things which are so presented, and which, as it were so stand out before the senses, that we can not distinguish them from realities! How wretchedly do false appearances distract men in certain diseases! With what astonishing variety of appearances are even healthy men sometimes deceived by evil spirits, who produce these delusions for the sake of perplexing the senses of their victims, if they cannot succeed in seducing them to their side!

From this hell upon earth there is no escape, save through the grace of the Saviour Christ, our God and Lord. The very name Jesus shows this, for it means Saviour; and He saves us especially from passing out of this life into a more wretched and eternal state, which is rather a death than a life. For in this life, though holy men and holy pursuits afford us great consolations, yet the blessings which men crave are not invariably bestowed upon them, lest religion should be cultivated for the sake of these temporal advantages, while it ought rather to be cultivated for the sake of that other life from which all evil is excluded. Therefore, also, does grace aid good men in the midst of present calamities, so that they are enabled to endure them with a constancy proportioned to their faith. The world’s sages affirm that philosophy contributes something to this—that philosophy which, according to Cicero, the gods have bestowed in its purity only on a few men. They have never given, he says, nor can ever give, a greater gift to men. So that even those against whom we are disputing have been compelled to acknowledge, in some fashion, that the grace of God is necessary for the acquisition, not, indeed, of any philosophy, but of the true philosophy. And if the true philosophy— this sole support against the miseries of this life— has been given by Heaven only to a few, it sufficiently appears from this that the human race has been condemned to pay this penalty of wretchedness. And as, according to their acknowledgment, no greater gift has been bestowed by God, so it must be believed that it could be given only by that God whom they themselves recognize as greater than all the gods they worship.

The Tricky Part of the Caliphate

There’s a good deal of bad news coming out of the Middle East these days, with the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  The continued existence of either or both is in question, although give their artificiality it’s amazing they’ve lasted as long as they have.  In response to their brutality on Americans, Yazidis, Iraqi Christians and just about everyone else in their way, there are the usual calls for action.  In normal American parlance, that means the kind of direct involvement we’ve just gotten out of in Iraq.

Right after 9/11, when this was still a static website, I posted a piece entitled When the Sheep Have Anthrax, which was an overview of Middle Eastern political ways both before and after the rise of Islam.  My point at the time was that, before we plunge into the thick of Middle Eastern politics, we should understand them.  The results of the last thirteen years have certainly borne that caution out.  American foreign policy stumbles along, drifting from a simplistic world view backed up by military power to an inferiority complex where we not only can’t do anything right but shouldn’t.

At this point I think it’s time to remind my readers of a few things about the ostensible goal of ISIS and many other people around the region: the re-establishment of the caliphate.

The Caliph is, in simple terms, the leader of Muslims.  The idea is that all Muslims will be led by a single man who can direct jihad against the “region of war” (the Muslim term for the world outside of its majority).  Like most concepts in Islam, it’s a simple one, but going from simple concept to reality has always been the hard part for Islam, and the Caliphate is no exception.

At the start, the idea was for Mohammed to appoint a successor as a leader (not as a prophet) and for that leader (the caliph) to appoint his successor and so forth.  About thirty years after Mohammed’s death, the first (and largest) split in Islam took place precisely over the succession of the Caliph: the Shi’a-Sunni divide.  That’s certainly a central issue in the current fracas: many serious Sunnis, including the Salafis, consider Shi’ites to be outside of Islam.  In addition to the usual geopolitical considerations, ISIS’ biggest potential opponent in the Middle East is Shi’ite Iran, and same has tried to straighten out the mess al-Maliki has made before going after ISIS.  (I don’t think that we Americans can take much credit for that effort).

The later history of the Caliphate is complex; sometimes there has been more than one, and I’m not talking about up-from-nothings either.  The most recent long-run holder of the title was the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, who did it for about five centuries, that only ending in 1922.

Now we have a man who wears a knock-off Rolex watch proclaim himself Caliph.  Everyone else panics.  But haven’t we heard this before?  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood wanted to set up a Caliphate.  But the idea of Qutb’s followers doing this gives the Salafis indigestion.  And what about Ergodan: wouldn’t he like to re-establish Ottoman glory, caliphate following?  And the other contestants?

The basic problem with the Caliphate is simple: it’s next to impossible for all the parts of Islam to agree on one.  There’s the usual power holder-power challenger dynamic going on, as is always the case in the Middle East.  So how to establish it?  Experience is not very encouraging in this regard.

The key for the United States–and the one that has eluded it from the start–is to use the centrifugal tendencies of Middle Eastern politics to keep the various nations and groups focused on each other and not on us.  That will even suck in “home-grown” terrorists, as we have seen with ISIS.  Up to now that’s all that’s happened, albeit the response has been slow.  We’ve swallowed our provincialism on “legitimate government” and armed the Kurds, those legendary fighters who won the Crusades and stand to administer a similar lesson to ISIS.  Downstream Iran tries to stiffen the resolve of their Shi’ite clients in Baghdad.  And there are signs that some of the weightier Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt–who have tacitly supported Israel against Hamas–would like to be rid of ISIS too.

The problem with large-scale intervention, as we saw in Iraq, is that it tends to unite people who would otherwise be at odds with each other.  So, even though the threat looks huge, our response needs to be careful and leverage the animosity of others to the greatest extent possible.

Whether the American foreign policy establishment, in all of its own factions and sects, is up to such a clever response remains to be seen.  Past history isn’t encouraging, but with the stakes as high as they are, someone needs to act like all the education and travel they’ve acquired wasn’t a waste.

The Complicated Business of the "Tradition"

@DaleMCoulter muses on his students:

The task was not to defend the tributary of Christianity in which my students had first touched the waters of baptism, but to show them that it was fed by a vast river stretching back two millennia. In short, I defended Christianity by helping them swim upstream so that they could discover just how deep and wide Christian Tradition was. Through a confrontation with full-throated Christianity, students had the resources to criticize the stream to which they belonged while also locating that tradition within the great river of Christian Tradition. It was a matter, then, of introducing them to the differences between tradition and Tradition.

As someone who has drawn from several “streams” of Christianity, there’s good news and bad news about this.

The good news is that is works.  As Coulter notes, most people are raised on a single track of Christianity.  That’s all they see and that’s all they know.  Once you see “how the other half lives” (and when you make leaps across the socio-economic and ethnic as well as theological divides in Christianity, that broadens your perspective too) you grasp the greater truth and not just what you’ve been taught.

The bad news is that, once you’ve done this, you’re an ecclesiastical orphan.  Denominations and groups have their own idea, and once you’ve taken in other ideas, you’re never really a part.   I think that’s one reason there are so many people who go through church dissatisfied.  It’s not that they don’t believe, many are quite fervent.  It’s just that they’ve experienced other things that they don’t see where they’re at.

How that plays out depends upon what part of Christianity you’re in.  Some groups are big on uniformity; you can get in trouble in a hurry.  OTOH, in a Pentecostal church, I’m always surprised at the issues I bloviate on (abolition of civil marriage, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the lack of real authority in the church) that never get a rise.

The key, of course, is to keep the main thing the main thing.

Gungor and the Perils of the Old Earth

There’s always something going on out there, and in the last couple of weeks one of those somethings has been the flap over the musician Michael Gungor’s post on the age of the earth:

Do I believe God exists? Yes.
Do I believe Jesus is the Son of God? Yes.
Do I believe that Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness? Yes.
Do I believe that God literally drowned every living creature 5,000 years ago in a global flood except the ones who were living in a big boat? No, I don’t. 

Let me make one stipulation: I’ve never heard his music, or at least knew I had.  This isn’t a fan piece.  This is a piece of a fellow traveller (to some extent, at least) on a very long voyage in an old universe.

In my very first blog post I made the following observation, obviously in a university setting:

For me, however, as a Christian, an old earth creationist, an adjunct and someone who deals with geological issues in Soil Mechanics, this was a perilous situation. If the evolutionists win, I get the boot over the origin of the universe and being a theist (the evolutionists are for the most part rabid secular humanists.) If the new earth creationists win, I get the boot over the age of the earth. Real academic freedom these days consists of forcing the administration to find really creative ways to give people the boot!

Things haven’t come to a head just yet…but UTC wasn’t the only place where things were perilous.  I was also working for the Church of God then.  I never made a big deal about being an old-earther, but it did come out from time to time.  But they never held it against me, even when it came out in print.

And, I might add, Gungor is in better company than he thinks:

I can’t remember the date, but one day the 700 Club ran a story on Patrick Henry University.  One of the things they brought up about this institution was that it required its faculty to sign a statement affirming their belief that the Creation took place in six (Earth) days.  When the piece was done, Pat turned to his co-hostess Terry Meeuwsen and asked her whether she could sign such a statement.  She relied she could not, to which he answered he couldn’t either.  That’s not the only time he has gone on record saying in effect that he is an “old earth creationist” but Richmond, like other capitals, doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on in the “provinces” unless it’s pretty sensational.

I can’t say that Gungor’s analysis is the swiftest treatment of the subject I’ve seen.  But we’re not paying him to be a theologian: we’re paying him to be a musician.  The basic problem, as I see it, is an endemic one these days: we’re trying to turn religion into a science and science into a religion.

On the first problem, for centuries a “more than literal” hermeneutic was the norm with Biblical studies.  And, as Gungor points out in his follow-up piece, the core of people’s faith in the past was God-centred, not book-centred.  Since he brought up Augustine, it can be shown that the “literal” (and that term can be equivocal as well) meaning wasn’t the one with priority in the Fathers’ minds.

The first hit that took (in Christianity at least) was the Reformation, although it can be argued that the issue there wasn’t as much how the scriptures were interpreted as to who could do it authoritatively.  But the biggest hit to the old way was “modern” Biblical scholarship.  It represented trying to apply “scientific” methods to Biblical studies.  Without going into a long diatribe of the weaknesses of same, it’s clear that Biblical studies drew the second string of the German intellectual bench.

That succeeded in emptying churches, mostly from the boredom and irrelevance of the message that followed.  So now we have the post-modernists, whose message is that the truth content of the scriptures depends on what “construct” they should be interpreted in.  But the result is the same: the churches that make such the centrepiece of their message (and you know who you are) are emptying in like manner.

The reaction to this has been modern Fundamentalism, which forces the Scriptures to be interpreted in a very rigid, “scientific” way that is alien to the world they came in.  That’s led to the concept that being a Young Earth Creationist is a “deal-breaker” Article of Faith.  I’ve even seen this set forth in Anglican circles, which is a surprise for me.  But that’s the “tradition” these days, and Gungor has found this out the hard way.

As far as the other problem is concerned, I’ve taken flak for this but I’ll stick with it: making science into a religion, which means that we are to accept what science “says” as articles of faith, makes for bad science.  It discourages exploring science in different ways by only allowing people who stick to a certain “orthodoxy” to make those explorations, and that’s a sure road to Lysenkoism.

But our focus is on the opposite problem, and the result is the mirror image.  We deserve a better discussion of this issue than what we have seen here.  Whether we’ll get it is another matter altogether.

The Disciples of Ayn Rand and the Disciples of Jesus Christ

There’s a great deal of kerfuffle over Ann Coulter’s article about Samaritan’s Purse physician Kent Brantly, his contracting Ebola in the course of treating it Liberia, his transport to the CDC in Atlanta and the cost associated with the entire process.  Evidently she thinks him insufficiently patriotic to have gone to another place and fight this disease.

  1. I was surprised when our government allowed him to enter the CDC.  Most readers will recall that Samaritan’s Purse is headed by Franklin Graham, whose position relative to the LGBT community is, to say the least, not a happy one.  Given our government’s stance on this (shown by the recent executive order re Federal contractors) their decision to allow Dr. Brantly into the CDC (which is in one of this country’s premier LGBT places) was not a given.  But this is the same group which is enamoured with “gay-free Gaza” Hamas, so go figure
  2. It seems that any time Americans and medical treatment collide, the only thing guaranteed is an outsized bill.  I find this as frustrating as Ann Coulter but this is endemic in our system, one where meaningful cost controls have never found their way into the medical system.  But trashing Brantly on account of that seems unfair.

In any case Coulter’s rant about how Brantly should have stuck to these shores—couched in terms of his calling—is absurd.  Since when did Ann Coulter understand God’s calling for Brantly’s life better than he does?  Churches on both sides of the Atlantic have sent missionaries to die in Africa since the early nineteenth century; there’s nothing new about this.  If Brantly had been called to minister in Hollywood (and there are those who are) God would have made provision for him to do so.

I doubt seriously that Coulter’s objections to Brantly’s mission or venue are really based on her idea of his calling, or anyone else’s.  What they show is a tension in American conservatism between those who, in the “God and country” scheme of things, put God first and those who put country first—or who have any place for God at all.

It is an Evangelical conceit that the United States was founded on purely Judeo-Christian principles by people who explicitly followed them.  While those principles certainly informed our Founding Fathers to a far greater degree than they do to our elites now, those of us who are products of environments where one could be very patriotic without being very Godly know that this is just that—a conceit.  Many have gone before us serving this country without the relationship with God that Christians would like to see.

In the past the natural home of those who wanted to tone down the God thing was the Lodge.  But the Lodge isn’t what it used to be.  Today we have the disciples of Ayn Rand, whose influence on American conservatism is considerable.

Rand, however, was no more of a Christian than Margaret Sanger, and her purely materialistic “objectivism” is inimical to a faith whose Founder called the rich young ruler to sell all and follow Him.  In an age where the government is being transformed into a giant patronage scheme to keep those on the left entrenched in power, it’s easy to confuse Christian charity—and the sacrifice that goes with it—with the government’s efforts.  Part of the problem is that many Christians—especially those on the “religious left”—can’t tell the difference.  But it’s there.  Federal Government generosity is no more Christian than Rome’s “bread and circuses”.  The church in that time knew the difference and we should now.

But just because Christian churches do what we used to call “benevolent” work and the government does it too doesn’t make it wrong.  Rand called for a world where it was everyone for him or herself.  And super-patriots, putting country before God, have the idea that we should stick with the home front, probably not in charity but (like Coulter suggests for Brantly) in material success for ourselves.

The African work, for its part, has been a successful one.  Although I’ve said more than once that the greatest revival in human history is taking place in China, in many ways the crown jewel of missionary effort is sub-Saharan Africa.  We’ve seen the fruits of this in the Anglican Communion, much to the distaste of the First World Left.  And, just to make sure Rand’s disciples are paying attention, we are seeing signs of a continent (especially in East Africa) which is throwing off European-inspired socialism for real economic opportunity and growth, with the Chinese the main beneficiaries.  In the past the West sent business people and missionaries to Africa; today and tomorrow both go the other way.

But role reversal in colonialism isn’t any easier than it is for elderly parents.  Coulter worries about the state of this country.  Churches, however, are justified in putting their efforts in places where the need is greatest and the receptivity to the Gospel goes along with it.  A big problem with the Christian witness in this country is that it is sowed among a people who combine a self-sufficient idea (which explains the popularity of Rand among the conservatives) with “egos inflatable to any size”.  That makes for a tough mission field.

Christians, the only true internationalists in the mix (whether they realize it or not) are reminded again by pieces like this that they have only one true country.  Jesus Christ is the light of the world, not the United States and certainly not Ayn Rand or any other materialistic philosopher (and that includes Karl and Fred, too).

If those on either side of the political spectrum don’t like that reality, well, Our Lord didn’t promise popularity either.

The Sign of Peace and Those "Happy-Clappy" Masses

Amidst the sorrow and tragedy that dominates the news these days, the Vatican weighs in on a matter that may seem trivial to some:

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) has urged the church’s bishops to crack down on boisterous exchanges of peace during the Eucharist service. In a letter dated 8 June 2014 and approved by Pope Francis the previous day, the CDW asked bishops guide their priests in the proper celebration of the Roman rite and to discourage “familiar and worldly gestures of greeting” which should be substituted with “other, more appropriate gestures.”

First, with due respect (and congrats on his new parish appointment) to my fellow Palm Beacher George Conger, the title of his piece is a little misleading.  “Happy-clappy” implies what they do in Charismatic churches with the praise and worship time that is de rigeur these days.  Thanks to OCP, there’s not much of that in Roman Catholicism.  Their job (in the U.S. at least) is to insure that music to accompany the sacred mysteries is banal and uninspiring, and they’re good at it too.

And a lot of praise and worship music isn’t as happy as you’d like to think.  If you want to see where it’s going, just visit a youth group service now and you’ll see what it will be like ten years from now.  The system is set up so that what’s in youth group today becomes “from the throne room” in a few years.  And a lot of that sound has been baleful, minor key stuff, sounding like a buffalo that has been ineptly shot and waiting for the hapless hunter to finish him off.

But I digress.  The issue of happiness, however, is a big one.  There is a surprisingly large body of Christians who, while aspiring to the summum bonum that’s around the real throne room, push back at the idea that happiness is what we’re really aiming for, the success of the entertainment and leisure industry notwithstanding.

One major exception to that is the Catholic bishop Jaques-Benigne Bossuet,  who made happiness a leitmotif in an age where it was decidedly scarce.  At the start of his Meditations on the Gospel he flatly stated that “Man’s chief aim in life is to be happy”.  Elsewhere he says that God himself is happy, an idea well supported (if not well noted) in the New Testament.  But I guess that’s one reason Mother Church never canonised him and has largely forgotten him.

So what does that have to do with the sign of peace?  The Church can whine about “effusive” expressions of the sign of peace all it wants, but if they’re genuine they state two things: the congregants are happy and in fellowship with each other.  Penitential needs considered, both of these should characterise Christian gatherings as opposed to, say, those that happen in a mosque.  Bossuet is clear that the greatest happiness if found in Jesus Christ; if people can’t find their joy in his church, they’ll find it somewhere else.

That was certainly the case in the years I was at Texas A&M in our Newman Association, where the sign of peace was a highlight at our masses.  Growing up with “God’s frozen chosen”, the warm greetings at our Masses (with a more ethnically diverse group, I might add) were a special treat.  In those days Roman Catholicism was a pleasure in a way that no form of Christianity has been for me before or since.

But that brings me to the second issue: community.  I’ve said many times that Roman Catholicism leans too heavily on the sacramental system to bond its people to God and itself.  Today many in the Church wonder how to get parishes past the box-checker mentality.  Vatican II was concerned with this issue too.  Although there’s a lot to this, discouraging effusive signs of peace at Mass isn’t a very good way to address this issue.

And while we’re thinking about sacraments, the emphasis on formality these days, while seeming to underscore the authority of the church and the validity of the sacraments, actually may undermine both.  As I noted years ago:

Anglo-Catholicism always liked a “frillier” form of Christianity, presumably because it looked and felt good and because it helped to drive home the sacredness of what they were doing.  Roman Catholicism can certainly do the ceremonial when the occasion calls for it, but the efficacy of the sacraments is driven by the nature of the church, not because of how elaborately the sacred mysteries are celebrated.

I think that the Church needs to think a few things through before they create another institution full of “God’s chosen frozen”.