Archives For Theological Matters

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The diary of Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, includes some revealing insights into the life of a writer . . . words that I suspect may echo your own experience.

While I would never turn to Søren Kierkegaard for theological inspiration (many do), his comments about writing parallel my own.*

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in thought and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

So powerful an urge, so ample, so inexhaustible, one which, having subsisted day after day for five or six years, is still flowing as richly as ever, such an urge, one would think, must also be a vocation from God.

If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me, and I shall become an absolute good-for-nothing. […]

Being an author . . . is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

May God then give me good fortune and succor and above all a certain spirit, yes, a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me, for after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.

This passage fascinates me. Kierkegaard eloquently expresses the struggle of the Christian writer, then ends on such a uniquely positive note, “after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.” This victory, he indicates, comes from God placing within us a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within” us.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, and yielding to the Holy Spirit who abides within us, does indeed ensure our victory. Though the world assaults us daily, as we grow more mature in our Lord its temporary gains against us grow smaller and fewer.

I encountered Kierkegaard’s words in a recent post by Steve Laube, a prominent agent. (His agency’s blog is well worth subscribing to.) As he says,

These words resonate because it is the universal condition of writers. The call, the urge, to write is part of who you are. However, notice his last sentence where he admits to “the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me.” This, again, is a universal condition. It is normal. Embrace it and pray that God will grant you the strength today to resist.

Then do it again tomorrow.

Turning to Lewis

Although Kierkegaard’s words were written in 1847, it’s doubtful C.S. Lewis would have been familiar with them. The rather severely** edited diary did not appear until 1960, only a couple of years before Lewis’ passing.

As a scholar, Lewis was familiar with Kierkegaard. While he did not find Kierkegaard’s existentialism helpful, he could acknowledge that some appreciated his writings. In 1961, he responded to a correspondent’s request for some recommendations, he wrote,

For meditative and devotional reading . . . I suggest . . . my selection from MacDonald, George MacDonald: an Anthology. I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.

The primary reason for Lewis’ albeit tepid mention of Kierkegaard here must have been the fact that one of his close friends was keen on the philosopher. An early translator of Kierkegaard’s works praised Inkling Charles Williams who “affectionately fostered the enterprise of publishing S.K.’s works in English.” (“How Kierkegaard Got into English”).

I am curious how Lewis would have responded to Kierkegaard’s notes on the writing life. Would he have identified with these sentiments?

I suspect they would concur in the statement, “If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me.” After all, as many of Mere Inkling’s readers can personally attest, the Great Dane was not alone in experiencing this explosive pressure.

As an ancient man named Elihu once said to the Prophet Job, “I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.” (Job 32:18-19).

My advice—get your precious words out before they explode.


* Here you will find the “testimony” of a person whose atheism was reinforced by reading Kierkegaard.

** The editor, Peter Rohde, says in his preface: “The luckless reader who sets out on his own to find his way in Kierkegaard’s vast, and vastly demanding works, runs the risk of losing his way and finally of losing his courage.”

It is precisely their fragmentary character that dispenses us from the obligation which the finished works place upon us, viz. to respect their wholeness—for it is nonexistent.

However, from their 8,000 to 10,000 pages it is possible to distill some one hundred and fifty pages that contain the true essence—that is, if the editor has been successful in his selection.

monopoly

It is almost too obvious to require saying: you reinforce the behaviors you reward. Why then, would any society intentionally train its youth to be dishonest?

One justification I’ve heard, more and more frequently in recent years, is that it’s all about winning—coming out on top. The motto of these folks is “do whatever it takes to win.” Yet this is a recipe for a disastrous life. In the words of Jesus: “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25)*

Our recreational choices say a lot about us and our values. Digital options have reduced the influence of board games, so one perennial favorite has devised a strategy to regain its market share.

Monopoly is based on accumulating wealth and, for the merciless, crushing one’s competitors. Some might argue that the capitalism which provides the basis for the game is corrupt in and of itself. Still, Monopoly has always had clear rules that governed actions.

But some players cheated. Capitalizing on this sinister impulse, Monopoly has created a new “Cheaters Edition.” Yes, you read that right.

Christian publications have announced the game’s arrival. The current issue of Citizen notes that even though cheating is actively encouraged in the game, negative consequences are also possible.

Mind you, it’s not that anything goes. Cheat successfully and you get rewarded; get caught and you get punished.

Even the “secular” Bloomberg review of the new game acknowledges the moral confusion of the product, closing its report with:

Clearly this begs some deeper philosophical questions about modern life and the future of morality and humanity, but, wait, did you just land on Boardwalk? Yes, I definitely always had a hotel on there! Trust me.

Nurturing Healthy Behaviors

One does not have to be a parent to recognize this wisdom of this Proverb: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

In fact, even pet “owners” know the necessity of training (e.g. housebreaking) our canine and feline family members.

Many games highlight positive choices, consciously or subconsciously reinforcing good. The simplest and most common method for this process comes not in a board game or a digital alternative. It is found in verbal praise.

There is ongoing debate about the value of praise. It’s clear that insincere or mechanistic praise would be of insignificant worth, and potentially dangerous. Some psychologists go so far as to state that “Positive reinforcement can undercut a child’s intrinsic motivation.”

C.S. Lewis understood that we cannot manufacture our own motivations.

I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realise that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God (Mere Christianity).

Despite this truth, it is also argued that our character can be shaped, in a sense, by consciously and repeatedly choosing to do what is right. Gradually then, by God’s grace, obedience may gradually give way to a more honest and natural motivation as the positive paths become our normal, well-traveled path.

This is not simply a “Christian” concern. The philosopher Aristotle noted “Good habits formed during youth make all the difference.” (What do you think Aristotle would think about the Cheater’s Edition of Monopoly?)

C.S. Lewis would doubtless concur with Aristotle. I assume most of Mere Inkling’s readers agree with the ancient wisdom as well.

A final thought. This cheater’s edition of Monopoly probably possesses less power to damage lives than Hasbro’s Ouijà board game. But that’s a subject for another day


* In Matthew 16 we read the more familiar “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

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Those who despise C.S. Lewis seek to eradicate his influence in the Christian Church. They care not that Lewis remains one of the most effective Christian apologists the world has ever seen. Only the Lord knows how many people (literally) have been encouraged in the faith by Lewis’ ministry.

When examining Lewis’ theology, it is necessary to keep in mind several facts. First, he often reminded his readers that he was not a theologian, simply a faithful layman. Second, he formally espoused and practice the orthodox Trinitarian faith as professed by the Anglican communion. Third, Lewis consciously sought to introduce timeless truths to his readers via reason and, more effectively, through fiction and imagination. (The Great Divorce offers a fascinating yet fully fictional exploration of how purgatory might work.)

Thus, Lewis critics will always be able to gather fuel for the foot of his stake. A primary example of this comes in Lewis’ emotive receptivity to the doctrine of purgatory. It is taught only by the Roman Catholic Church, although individuals from other denominations may also be sympathetic to it.

For example, Protestant philosopher Jerry L. Walls includes a chapter in his recent book on purgatory entitled, “C.S. Lewis and the Prospect of Mere Purgatory.”

Although not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis, the most popular Christian writer of the twentieth century, believed in purgatory. This is significant because his influence in Protestant and evangelical circles is perhaps especially strong.

This chapter shows not only that Lewis believed in purgatory, but also that it is integral to his theology of salvation. It explores how he understood the doctrine by examining his comments on Roman Catholic theologians John Fisher, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman. While he was quite critical of Fisher and More, he saw in Newman the recovery of the true substance and spirit of the doctrine.

It is fair for us to acknowledge that Lewis’ understanding of justification was imperfect. Salvation comes through faith (Romans 5:1), not through penitential or purgatorial efforts. But let’s read about his position in his own words. The following comes from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which is, itself, a collection of thoughts “shared” with a fictional friend.

I believe in Purgatory.

Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory” as that Romish doctrine had then become. . . .

The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream.* There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has reclaimed Purgatory.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?

Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”

“It may hurt, you know”

“Even so, sir.”

This is where I acknowledge Lewis’ view on justification to be deficient. Of course we would wish to be fully washed and clean before standing in our Creator’s presence. And that is precisely how we enter into his presence. Clothed not in our own filthiness and rags—but in the radiant righteousness of our Savior.

As the Apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9)

Lewis’ greatest contribution to the Christian Church is found in his skilled apologetics based on the core essence of our faith. Lewis communicated the divine hope that is within us in his lectures, speeches and broadcasts. But it was through the written word that his inspiring words have touched the greatest number of people.

On the Subject of Writing

It is possible that Lewis was familiar with the following advice from Newman about effective writing. Certainly, he agreed with a number of the cardinal’s literary precepts. The following passage relates specifically to writing sermons, but it possesses far broader application. It comes from The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman’s own feeling as to the most effective way of imparting truth by writing is conveyed in the following notes, dated 1868, on the writing of sermons:

A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.

He should never aim at being eloquent.

He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words.

He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.

He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.

He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility which is a great Christian virtue has a place in literary composition.

He who is ambitious will never write well, but he who tries to say simply what he feels, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.

Reading this helpful advice from Cardinal Newman reminds us we can learn valuable lessons from people with differing theology. And that truth should be quite encouraging, since none of us possess perfect doctrine.


* The full title of the work to which Lewis refers here is The Dream of Gerontius. (You can read it here.)

 

Dishonest Diagnoses

March 15, 2018 — 3 Comments

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Do you prefer honesty—or would you rather hear something that makes you feel good?

It’s pleasant to hear things that feel positive, but that feeling is fleeting, and potentially devastating, when we have heard a lie.

In a recent column devoted to a comedian who passed away two decades ago, I encountered a joke that probes this problem. Henny Youngman poses a dilemma, and solves it with the worldly solution. In the following one-line joke, he proposes an alternative to unwelcome news.

When I told my doctor I couldn’t afford an operation, he offered to touch up my X-rays.

If only it were so simple to change bad news to good. The truth may not always be welcome, but it is nearly always preferable to believing a lie. Sadly, avoiding discomfort by telling people what they want to hear, has become a modern plague.

Well, “modern” isn’t the best word. This dishonesty has been around for a long time, and it will persist until the Parousia. The Apostle Paul described it to a younger pastor by saying, “having itching ears [people] will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth . . .” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

That’s one reason that certain religious messages are more popular than others. They “promise” you that if you follow their teachings, there are only good times ahead.

An Honest Diagnosis

In contrast to these lies, the truth admits life is not always perfect. The truth acknowledges that doing right is often more difficult than going with the flow.

But trading the truth for the lie is dangerous. One can be approaching a sheer precipice, requiring swift avoidance. But if we heed the voices saying “all is well,” we may blindly step into oblivion.

C.S. Lewis described the way that Satan would like to have us deluded about our real condition and circumstances. In the Screwtape Letters, a senior demon offers evil counsel to a junior devil assigned as a tempter.

How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition.

If you are one of the minority who welcome the truth, however challenging, I commend you.

If you find yourself preferring those who encourage you to be comfortable and complacent about who you are and how things presently are, I encourage you to listen to other (more honest) voices. Voices that encourage you to become a better woman or man today than you were yesterday. Voices that call you to the true path God is laying out before you.

In the long run, altered x-rays will never help us to recover from the illnesses of body, mind and soul that assail us. Only the Truth is able to set us free.

burning bush

What would you expect an assembly of Orthodox Jewish rabbis to say about Christianity? Well, read on, and you may be quite surprised.

A 2015 statement issued by twenty-five international rabbinic leaders acknowledges the painful legacy of interfaith relationships, then calls for Jews to welcome overtures from Christians to work towards common goals.

After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation, we Orthodox Rabbis who lead communities, institutions and seminaries in Israel, the United States and Europe recognize the historic opportunity now before us.

We seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters. Jews and Christians must work together as partners to address the moral challenges of our era.

But the declaration doesn’t stop there, and forty-eight additional rabbis from around the world have added their signatures since the initial publication.

Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on His name and abominations will be removed from the earth.

The proclamation includes a statement with which many Christians would agree: “We Jews and Christians have more in common than what divides us . . .”

C.S. Lewis, following his conversion to Christianity, reflected his awareness of this truth. In 1941, he referred to a correspondent’s “Hebraic background,” and added, “which I envy you.”

One Jewish website includes this insight into Lewis’ regard for the Jewish faith.

After Joy passed away from cancer Lewis continued to raise her two boys Douglas and David. While Douglas would go on to become a follower of Messiah like his mother, David became an Orthodox Jew and eventually took up the profession of a schochet (ritual slaughterer).

While he still lived with C.S. Lewis, Lewis would provide him with kosher food, which was no small task in 1950s Oxford, England. This was certainly a testament to Lewis’ character and his compassion for the Jewish people.

The rabbinic declaration does not gloss over the differences between Jews and Christians.

Our partnership in no way minimizes the ongoing differences between the two communities and two religions. We believe that G-d employs many messengers to reveal His truth, while we affirm the fundamental ethical obligations that all people have before G-d that Judaism has always taught through the universal Noahide covenant.

Yet it focuses on what we share, and affirms those beliefs as a common gift of our Creator.

In a 1953 letter, Lewis expresses a similar thought, albeit from a Christian perspective.

I think myself that the shocking reply to the Syrophenician woman (it came alright in the end) is to remind all us Gentile Christians—who forget it easily enough and even flirt with anti-Semitism—that the Hebrews are spiritually senior to us, that God did entrust the descendants of Abraham with the first revelation of Himself.

Lewis’ admiration for Judaism increased when he married Joy Davidman, who had been raised in the faith. He penned the Forward to her book, Smoke on the Mountain. In it he expressed a sentiment that reflects the goodwill and familial affection displayed in the rabbinic document.

In a sense the converted Jew is the only normal human being in the world. To him, in the first instance, the promises were made, and he has availed himself of them. He calls Abraham his father by hereditary right as well as by divine courtesy. He has taken the whole syllabus in order, as it was set; eaten the dinner according to the menu.

Everyone else is, from one point of view, a special case, dealt with under emergency regulations . . .  we christened gentiles, are after all the graft, the wild vine, possessing “joys not promised to our birth;” though perhaps we do not think of this so often as we might.

It would be wrong to say there is no difference between Judaism and Christianity. But there certainly is much truth the faiths share. And, laboring together towards shared goals they can help make this fallen world measurably happier. It may be “surprising” that many Orthodox rabbis have come to recognize that, but it is certainly welcome news.

What We Worship

February 1, 2018 — 12 Comments

worshipping squirrel

It’s curious to consider the varieties of deities worshipped throughout history and around the globe. And it is important that we understand the god we choose to follow, as well as the nature of “faith” allows us.

This picture came from a nearby garden. The squirrel effects the pose of a worshipper, but it’s motivated by the nuts the gardener has rested in the Buddha’s lap. It’s not intended to be irreverent, and one assumes that Siddhārtha Gautama would not be offended.

The image is provocative. If you were to put yourself in the squirrel’s place, it would be of no surprise that you would be devoted to the “Provider of Nuts,” especially if you did not make the connection between the gentleman who filled and the statue that actually offers them to you.

Whether we are adherents of one of the so-called monotheistic religions, or pantheists who see the presence of god in all of universal nature, our “religion” directly affects our worldview and life choices.

And then there are the “no religious preferences,” who embrace or reject labels like “agnostic.” Some of them long to believe, but demand proof, where God calls for faith. Others opt for lives of hedonism, gambling that their notion there is no Creator is right. Many of these individuals actively hope that there is no God, and not a few of them have a nagging fear that he may just exist, and call them to account one day for their selfish lives.

C.S. Lewis was in the latter category. Before he became a Christian, Lewis entertained no desire to seek Christ out. “Amiable agnostics,” he wrote, “will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat” (Surprised by Joy).

About the Nature of Faith

God chooses to call us into a restored relationship with himself through the mechanism of faith. If that word troubles you, think of it as “trust.” Faith is necessary, for an obvious reason. In the New Testament, we read, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

That faith is necessary may sound intimidating. However, the good news is that what God demands, he himself provides . . . even to the most reluctant of converts such as Saul of Tarsus or C.S. Lewis of Oxford.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the nature of faith at great length. He provides a number of helpful images. In the book he clearly distinguishes between faith (trust) and feelings or moods. I enjoy the way that the final sentence of this passage is evocative of the worshipping squirrel which inspired these reflections.

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience.

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway.

That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.

Dithering to and fro, indeed.

A Surrealistic Postscript

I had been thinking about writing on this subject ever since I saw the photo, some months ago. I was spurred to compose it now, by a fact that recently appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It speaks for itself.

A Brazilian grandmother believed she was praying to a figurine of Saint Anthony for years, only to discover that it was an action figure of the Elf Lord Elrond from the “Lord of the Rings” films!

Renaissance Rap Music

January 11, 2018 — 5 Comments

renaissance rap

If you never listen to classical music, you are missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you have been exposed to small doses, and developed an unfortunate distaste for historic music from the past several centuries, give it a second chance.

The fact is there are so many varieties, with exciting variations introduced by countless gifted composers, that almost anyone can find something in the field that inspires them.

It was probably classical works that C.S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote to Arthur Greeves in 1916, “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music?”

Our Director of Parish Music recently shared some interesting facts that I had not known. Although I’ve sung in a number of choirs through the years, I never mastered any “instrument.”

Sure, teachers attempted to teach me about music back in the days of the flutophone. (Yes, I was introduced to instrumental music way back in the day before most elementary schools upgraded to plastic instruments properly called “recorders.”)

A flutophone may look like a toy, but it is actually a legitimate “pre-band instrument” belonging to the wind family.

Returning to the class I attended . . . our Music Director introduced us to one of the seventeenth century’s finest composers, Heinrich Schütz. This German Lutheran studied with the Italian Roman Catholic Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a master of polyphony. Curiously, their shared devotion to religious music allowed for a genuine friendship, despite the Thirty Years War which raged across Central Europe at the time.

In addition to learning some history about composers, I was stunned to learn that rap music had been invented as long ago as 1635-45.

It was called “recitative,” and is a style of vocal music that alternated between speaking and singing. We listened to some examples, and I immediately realized that even fans of modern rap (among whom I do not include myself) can find some classical music they would likely enjoy.

C.S. Lewis and the Blessings of Music

Luther famously declared, “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”

C.S. Lewis also regarded music as a gift of God. In his essay, “On Church Music,” he ponders the blessing received by those who listen to religious music. He finds that humility is the key.

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God.

The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.

Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace: not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste—there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.

Lewis continues his thoughts, turning to the practical application of his thoughts to the local parish. Members of a typical congregation, of course, do not all share the same musical tastes.

These highly general reflections will not, I fear, be of much practical use to any priest or organist in devising a working compromise for a particular church. The most they can hope to do is to suggest that the problem is never a merely musical one.

Where both the choir and the congregation are spiritually on the right road no insurmountable difficulties will occur. Discrepancies of taste and capacity will, indeed, provide matter for mutual charity and humility.

What wise advice. The presence of love and humility, essential elements of Christian spirituality, can see a congregation through discrepancies of taste. We should each remind ourselves of this, the next time we hear something in worship that does not appeal to our personal preferences.

The question should not be whether we “like” specific music or not, but rather whether or not it truly glorifies God.


The unattributed photograph below suggests C.S. Lewis may have enjoyed a periodic musical interlude as he toiled over piles of correspondence.

Lewis and recorder