Archives For God

One of the pivotal events in the history of God’s grace is found in the Torah account of a dream. Jacob was the heir of Abraham, through whom the Lord promised to redeem the world. But Jacob was far from noble.

Nevertheless, because of the Lord’s mercy (the same mercy he offers to us), he forgave Jacob and promised to bless his descendants. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder extending from earth all the way to heaven. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28).

This dynamic connection between heaven and earth reveals God’s constant concern for his creation. Some, such as Martin Luther, have seen in the dream a foreshadowing of the Incarnation itself.

This ladder or stairway can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One thing it is not, however, is a guide to human ascent from our fallen world to the presence of our Creator. (The Lord is the one who comes to us.)

Having acknowledged that the dream’s purpose is not to model sanctification or individual spiritual ascent, it is easy to see why the metaphor of ladders, and the action of climbing, give way to other applications.

The most vivid contemporary example comes in the form of a Christian spiritual entitled “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” A number of versions of the lyrics exist. This is quite unsurprising since it began as part of an oral tradition. According to one website devoted to spirituals, the following lyrics are typical.*

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldier of the Cross

Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Soldier of the Cross

Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Soldier of the Cross

If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
Soldier of the Cross

While there are longer versions, this one aptly illustrates how the metaphor of the ladder—in this case, explicitly Jacob’s ladder—offered a powerful image of deliverance. Climbing the ladder with Jesus, was tantamount to experiencing deliverance from the ills of this world.

America’s Library of Congress offers a useful page which describes “African American Gospel music [as] a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South.” They add that “its development coincided with—and is germane to—the development of rhythm and blues.” The site offers links to four 1943 recordings of spirituals. None of these, however, is the hymn we are discussing.

“We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the earliest spirituals to be widely adopted by the interracial faith community. It is familiar in many denominations, and was recently sung in my own Lutheran congregation. Hymnary.org states the song has been “published in 79 hymnals.” Even those who consider themselves unfamiliar with the hymn often recognize its rousing refrain: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Soldiers of the Cross.”

The talented Paul Robeson recorded the hymn on a number of his albums. The inspiring rendition by scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon was included in Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War.

C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Ladder

The ladder offers such a convenient analogy for growth or spiritual maturation that others have also applied it in this manner. The ladders inspired by Jacob’s dream include the following two which continue to influence Christian disciples today, even though they were written many centuries ago. The second of these was considered by C.S. Lewis to be one of the works of faith influential in his life.

John Climacus (579-649) was a Christian teenager when he entered the monastic life at the foot of Mount Sinai. He soon earned the respect of his elders in that barren land. In the words of Fathers of the Desert, “in this ascetic seclusion he became ripe for the designs of God.”

The abbot of a monastery on the Red Sea requested guidance on the ascetic life to use with his monks. John responded with The Ladder of Divine Ascent. You can download a modern translation of this priceless work here. While the treatise was written specifically to guide monastics in their spiritual growth, many other Christians have also found its wisdom helpful in their own, non-monastic settings.

John introduces the virtue of obedience with two vivid images used by the Apostle Paul, the athlete in training and the armor of God.

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ [and the manner in which] the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.

But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile.

And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.

The following passage will be of particular interest to Christian writers. John advises those drawing closer to God to maintain a journal of their progress and insights. I offer it within its wise context.

Let all of us who wish to fear the Lord struggle with our whole might, so that in the school of virtue we do not acquire for ourselves malice and vice, cunning and craftiness, curiosity and anger. For it does happen, and no wonder!

As long as a man is a private individual, or a seaman, or a tiller of the soil, the King’s enemies do not war so much against him. But when they see him taking the King’s colours, and the shield, and the dagger, and the sword, and the bow, and clad in soldier’s garb, then they gnash at him with their teeth, and do all in their power to destroy him. And so, let us not slumber.

I have seen innocent and most beautiful children come to school for the sake of wisdom, education and profit, but through contact with the other pupils they learn there nothing but cunning and vice. The intelligent will understand this.

It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account.

In the fourteenth century, an Augustinian mystic in England wrote a book called The Scale [Ladder] of Perfection.” Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) provides spiritual exercises requested by a woman adopting life as an anchoress.⁑ You can download a free copy of Evelyn Underhill’s 1923 edition of Hilton’s counsel at Internet Archive.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to Roman Catholic monk Bede Griffiths in response to the latter’s question about his familiarity with Hilton’s work. “Yes, I’ve read the Scale of Perfection with much admiration. I think of sending the anonymous translator a list of passages that he might reconsider for the next edition.” That same decade Lewis’ collected correspondence reveals he recommended the title to at least two individuals.

Of greatest interest to students of C.S. Lewis will be his mention of the medieval treatise in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here the great author describes his worldly understanding of prayer served as a terrible stumbling block to his faith.

To these nagging suggestions my reaction was, on the whole, the most foolish I could have adopted. I set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.

My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined that I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of very mediocre spiritual value.

If only someone had read to me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort “by maistry” what God does not give! But no one did; and night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my “realizations.” The thing threatened to become an infinite regress.

One began of course by praying for good “realizations.” But had that preliminary prayer itself been “realized”? This question I think I still had enough sense to dismiss; otherwise it might have been as difficult to begin my prayers as to end them.

How it all comes back! The cold oilcloth, the quarters chiming, the night slipping past, the sickening, hopeless weariness. This was the burden from which I longed with soul and body to escape. It had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening, and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic sufferer from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.

This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose.

David Downing, co-director of the Wade Center wrote an excellent essay entitled “Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis” which describes in the broader context what C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Note for example a passage in Surprised by Joy in which Lewis discusses the loss of his childhood faith while at Wynyard School in England. He explains that his schoolboy faith did not provide him with assurance or comfort, but created rather self-condemnation.

He fell into an internalized legalism, such that his private prayers never seemed good enough. He felt his lips were saying the right things, but his mind and heart were not in the words. Lewis adds “if only someone had read me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort ‘by maistry’ [mastery] what God does not give.”

This is one of those casual references in Lewis which reveals a whole other side to him which may surprise those who think of him mainly as a Christian rationalist. “Old Walter Hilton” is the fourteenth-century author of a manual for contemplatives called The Scale of Perfection. This book is sometimes called The Ladder of Perfection, as it presents the image of a ladder upon which one’s soul may ascend to a place of perfect unity and rest in the Spirit of God . . . [passage continued in footnotes]. ⁂

We’ve considered four separate ladders today. Despite their differences, they all share a common trait—they are meaningful to those who are earnest about growing in the faith. Whether slave or free, wise or simple, or hermit or cosmopolitan—each of these ladders affirms eternal truths.

Underhill described Hilton’s motivation for writing in this way: “It is for those who crave for this deeper consciousness of reality, and feel this impulse to a complete consecration, that Hilton writes.” I believe this is true for the authors of each of these four treasures.


* The following, simpler version appears to follow an earlier tradition. A musical accompaniment for this example can be found in The Books of American Negro Spirituals. The author, James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), provides a rich and earnest introduction to the book, originally published in two volumes. He expresses his hope that collection “will further endear these sons to those who love Spirituals, and will awaken an interest in many others.”

We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross

O

Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross

⁑ An anchoress (or anchorite) was a religious woman (or man) who would often be walled off in their monastic cell near a church, to foster their life of prayer by freeing them from interruption.

⁂ Downing’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’ reference to Walter Hinton’s insights on prayer is so valuable that I am compelled to offer the rest of it here. You can read the entire essay via the link on the article’s title.

The passage about “maistry” Lewis wished he’d known as a boy comes early in The Scale of Perfection, a section about different kinds of prayer, including liturgical prayers, spontaneous prayers, and “prayers in the heart alone” which do not use words.

Hilton’s advice for people “who are troubled by vain thoughts in their prayer” is not to feel alone. He notes it is very common to be distracted in prayer by thoughts of what “you have done or will do, other people’s actions, or matters hindering or vexing you.”

Hilton goes on to explain that no one can keep fully the Lord’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The best you can do is humbly acknowledge your weakness and ask for mercy. However badly one’s first resolve fades, says Hilton, you should not get “too fearful, too angry with yourself, or impatient with God for not giving you savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.”

Instead of feeling wretched, it is better to leave off and go do some other good or useful work, resolving to do better next time. Hilton concludes that even if you fail in prayer a hundred times, or a thousand, God in his charity will reward you for your labor. Walter Hilton was the canon of a priory in the Midlands of England and an experienced spiritual director of those who had taken monastic vows. His book is full of mellow wisdom about spiritual growth, and Lewis considered it one of “great Christian books” that is too often neglected by modern believers.

Hilton’s recurring theme—do what you know to be right and don’t worry about your feelings—is one that appears often in Lewis’s own Christian meditations. But, alas, Lewis as a boy did not have the benefit of Hilton’s advice.

In those boyhood years at Wynyard, he was trapped in a religion of guilt, not grace. More and more he came to associate Christianity with condemnation of others, as in Northern Ireland, or condemnation of oneself, for not living up to God’s standards.


A Note on the Illustration

Nicolas Dipre was a French early Renaissance painter, who flourished 1495-1532. His painting of Jacob’s Ladder portrays the biblical account of the Jewish patriarch’s dream. The icon Ladder of Divine Ascent was painted four centuries earlier by an anonymous iconographer. It is from Saint Catherine’s Monastery beside Mount Sinai, and portrays the ascent of saints in the pursuit of holiness. While fallen angels (devils) seek to drag them from the path, John Climacus leads other in the path to heaven.

achilles

If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.

regenerator.png

In his essay entitled “Miracles,” C.S. Lewis described during World War II the Christian viewpoint that God is the author of healing. After discussing the natural order of creation, he argues that God is at work in restoring the health of the those who are ailing.

The miracles of healing [are] sometimes obscured for us by the somewhat magical view we tend to take of ordinary medicine. The doctors themselves do not take this view. The magic is not in the medicine but in the patient’s body.

What the doctor does is to stimulate Nature’s functions in the body, or to remove hindrances. In a sense, though we speak for convenience of healing a cut, every cut heals itself; no dressing will make skin grow over a cut on a corpse.

That same mysterious energy which we call gravitational when it steers the planets and biochemical when it heals a body is the efficient cause of all recoveries, and if God exists, that energy, directly or indirectly, is His. All who are cured are cured by Him . . .

No veteran of World War I trenches would have been unacquainted with the horrors of grievous wounds. Much less a soldier, like C.S. Lewis, who was wounded by an artillery shell that killed a friend standing next to him.

That is why every combat veteran can stand in joyful awe at a science fiction healing tool that is being created a century after the war to end all wars. (Peter Jackson, of Middle Earth fame, just released a moving film about the war. You can listen to Michael Medved’s review of “They Shall Not Grow Old.”.)

The Healing of a Cut

I recently learned about an amazing wave of research related to the relatively new concept of 3D Printing. Even as new applications for these three-dimensional printers are exploding (they even make prostheses!), a variation of the technology is being developed to heal living skin.

Now, this is not like a medicine or bandage of some type. The process actually involves “printing” new skin by laying down layer after layer of one’s own cells over a wound.

Sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it? In fact, my first thought upon reading about it, went to the most elementary of Star Trek healing devices—the dermal regenerator. And, apparently, I wasn’t alone.

In the Star Trek universe, dermal regenerators are so commonplace that no one has a second thought as gaping wounds are closed in the blink of an eye—by merely pointing a high-tech tool at the injury. (You may be thinking it sounds a bit like a magic wand . . . because fantasy and science fiction are close cousins.)

You can read a description of the scientific report in Nature magazine.

In contrast to manual cell seeding or cell spraying, bioprinting has the capability to deliver cells to specific target sites using layer-by-layer freeform fabrication, and it has been applied in numerous applications.

If you’ve ever known someone who suffered from severe burns, you will be pleased to learn “this technology has a wide application, and its application will be expanded to not only treat full-thickness wounds, but also for other types of wounds such as burns and ulcers, and even for deep tissue injuries.”

The Power of Science

Science is a precious gift from God, so long as it “uses its powers for good.” When people begin to look to science for answers it cannot provide, they can devolve into the sort of “scientism” that C.S. Lewis decried.

Science, however, in its purest and most true form, is a wondrous thing. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis discusses the work of Richard Hooker (1554-1600). It’s clear they share this same sentiment.

All good things, reason as well as revelation, nature as well as Grace, the commonwealth as well as the Church, are equally though diversely, “of God.” . . . All kinds of knowledge, all good arts, sciences, and disciplines come from the Father of lights and are “as so many sparkles resembling the bright fountain from which they rise”

In that spirit, I invite you to include in your prayers not only medical personnel and caregivers, but all of those brilliant minds and skilled hands devoted to using science to heal and to support God’s gift of life.

prayer

I just added a rare C.S. Lewis book to my library for a very reasonable price, and you can too. But you might want to hurry, since this volume will probably never be reprinted.

The small book is entitled Beyond the Bright Blur. It’s contents will be familiar to you if you have read Lewis’ final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. That is because the former is a prepublication printing of chapters fifteen through seventeen from Letters to Malcolm.

It was published under unique circumstances, and it is thought that only 350 copies were printed in 1963 by Harcourt, Brace & World.

The title of Beyond the Bright Blur is taken from what would appear as letter fifteen in the complete volume. The “bright blur” to which Lewis refers is our imperfect, abstract and remote impression of “God.” He argues that to engage in genuine conversation with our Creator, we must dispel this fabrication.

What happens to me if I try to [approach prayer] “simply,” is the juxtaposition of two “representations” or ideas or phantoms. One is the bright blur in the mind which stands for God. The other is the idea I call “me.”

But I can’t leave it at that, because I know—and it’s useless to pretend I don’t know—that they are both phantasmal. The real I has created them both—or, rather, built them up in the vaguest way from all sorts of psychological odds and ends.

Very often, paradoxically, the first step [in genuine prayer] is to banish the “bright blur”—or, in statelier language, to break the idol.

Lewis’ candid sharing about his personal pilgrimage in prayer is just part of the treasure that is Letters to Malcolm. It is must reading. But, its priceless message is not the subject of this post.

Beyond the Bright Blur, this modest yet sturdy (hardback) tome, stands complete as it is. And it was expressly designed for a small audience. As the flyleaf states, “This limited edition is published as a New Year’s greeting to friends of the author and his publisher.”

The complete book would not be published until 1964, after Lewis had joined his wife Joy in the presence of our Lord. It is quite fitting that the final pages describe the author’s thoughts about the nature of heaven. It concludes with his final glorious epiphany that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”

Consider Adding this Gem to Your Own Library

I know that most readers of Mere Inkling share my affection for literature . . . along with my own affection for literature incarnated in its own natural state, physical books.

The wonderful thing is that adding this particular treasure to your personal collection is within your reach. While the price varies due to the respective booksellers and the condition of each copy, AbeBooks.com often include copies for less than forty dollars.

Occasionally an inscribed volume appears on the market, with a corresponding surcharge in the price. As I write this, the copy presented to the poet John Ciardi (1916-86) is available for purchase. While he’s most famous for his translation of The Divine Comedy, he also co-authored a collection of limericks with Isaac Asimov!

The posting says the volume includes his signature on the front end paper and “a paragraph [underlined] in the text in red ink.” Still, a truly unique volume such as this is quite a bargain at less than two hundred dollars—especially if you are a fan of Ciardi.

I suspect Ciardi received his copy as a gift from the publisher. I haven’t found any evidence that he and C.S. Lewis were acquainted. I did, however, uncover one utterly trivial connection between the two. It appears the two shared an illustrator for some of their American editions. Roger Hane, the cover illustrator for the 1970 Collier-Macmillan edition of the Chronicles of Narnia, also illustrated Ciardi’s undated The Morality of Poetry.

 

What We Worship

February 1, 2018 — 13 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!

Timing the Reformation

February 7, 2017 — 8 Comments

wristwatch

I had an entrepreneurial epiphany on how to get rich during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and since I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m passing the idea on gratis, to readers of Mere Inkling.

Inspired by the shocking success of the Playmobil Martin Luther—their fastest-selling item ever—I wondered what other commemorative items might result in a windfall for investors.

The insight struck like the lightning bolt that dropped Luther to his knees and sent him off to the monastery.

Since this celebration hearkens back to the beginning of the Reformation . . . back to the day when the 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg . . . it dawned on me that we so indebted to what happened that moment that we are, in a true sense, living on Wittenberg time.

What better item to remind us of the significance of this than to turn to expert horologists* and design a Wittenberg Watch? Ideally it would be permanently linked to Wittenberg time. The wearer would also benefit from learning more about time zones and mathematics, trying to sort out the local time, especially when traveling.

More about the details in a moment.

C.S. Lewis and the Importance of Time

The nature and passage of time was of great importance to C.S. Lewis. He devoted an entire chapter to the subject in Mere Christianity. In “Time and Beyond Time,” he explores how God acts within history, but is not subject to time’s constraints.

If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.

Lewis then proceeds to explain his understanding by saying this “idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone. It is a ‘Christian idea’ in the sense that great and wise Christians have held it and there is nothing in it contrary to Christianity. But it is not in the Bible or any of the creeds. You can be a perfectly good Christian without accepting it, or indeed without thinking of the matter at all.”

Another difficulty we get if we believe God to be in time is this. Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if He knows I am going to do so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise?

Well, here once again, the difficulty comes from thinking that God is progressing along the Time-line like us: the only difference being that He can see ahead and we cannot. Well, if that were true, if God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them.

But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call “today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday; He simply sees you doing them, because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him.

You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way—because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you.

In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already “Now” for Him.

Since God was/is witness to that day in Wittenberg, just as he knows our tomorrows today, we see his placing of creation within the linear progression of history is intentional. It does not restrict our Lord in any way, but it enables us to comprehend our existence. And thus, we are compelled to mark the passage of time.

What Might the Wittenberg Watch be Like?

Something elegant and tasteful, yet modest and unobtrusive. A watch like the one pictured above. It’s produced by Swisstime and has the added benefit that it is part of their “Rebellion” line, which means that Roman Catholics shouldn’t be excluded from the market. The only minor drawback is the price, $930,000.

It seems to me that a wise businessperson could undercut that by thirty or forty thousand, and only need to sell two or three watches to retire in comfort.

An alternative to this timepiece, for the less prosperous, would be to get a regular Timex or Casio and just set the time to that of Wittenberg! That’s the key anyway—the Wittenberg Watch measures the hour based on the time there in hallowed birthplace of the Reformation. (For those who like details, that would be the Central European Time Zone, UTC/GMT +1.)

An astute investor will recognize that the Wittenberg Watch concept easily translates for an ecumenical audience. One easily imagines other editions for various denominations.

Aldersgate Watch for Methodists (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Azuza Street Timepiece for Pentecostals (Pacific Standard, UTC/GMT -9)

Canterbury Timepiece for Anglicans (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Geneva Timepiece for Calvinists (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Edinburgh Edition for Presbyterians (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Hollywood Timepiece for Televangelists** (Pacific Standard, UTC/GMT -9)

London Chronometer for Quakers (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Münster Timepiece for Anabaptists (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Rome Timepiece for Roman Catholics (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Anyone who desires can feel free to run with this idea. I relinquish all rights to the concept of religious timepieces.

As for now, I’ve been rethinking the idea altogether. I’ve decided it’s best for me to reset my own watch to Jerusalem time.

_____

* Horology relates to the science of measuring time and making timepieces. (Yes, I had to look it up also, even though I remembered enough Latin to know hora means hour.)

** It’s quite possible that televangelists already own the Rebellion Reb 5 Diamond timepiece pictured above, however, the members of their digital congregations may be in the market for something more modest.

Do Dads Matter?

September 8, 2015 — 6 Comments

dadsaurusThey most certainly do, if you are discussing the influence of parents on their children’s religious practices.

And, as politically uncomfortable as it may make people, the example of the father appears to exert far more influence than that of the mother.

In 2000, a Swiss study was released that revealed, in part, the way parental faith is transmitted to children. I was reminded of it while reading “Dads Being Dads,” in the current issue of The Lutheran Witness.

A Touchstone article (linked below) analyzed the study. It compared the frequency of worship attendance by parents with the consequential involvement of their children as they matured.

If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all.

If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost.

These numbers sound extreme, don’t they? Some of us will be doing calculations in our minds. In my own family, my mother was a faithful Christian. My father was agnostic. (Actually, he was a practicing atheist who would argue “I believe in God.”)

Of the three kids, I am a regular church attender. Not just because I’m a pastor; since I’m “retired” and have no external obligation to attend. My sister attends occasionally. My brother only for special, family events.

Hmmm, that is merely anecdotal, of course, but my observation of other family histories seems to bear out the findings of the demographic study.

While some readers may wish to challenge the applicability of a Swiss study to other nations, the simple fact that the burden to do so rests on them. The experience in Switzerland is almost certainly common to the rest of Europe and the other increasingly secularized countries of the West.

And, since it is about gender distinctions rather than culture variations per se, it may even correlate to less industrialized contexts.

Just how much more significant is a father’s example than a mother’s?

Even when the father is an irregular attender there are some extraordinary effects. An irregular father and a non-practicing mother will yield 25 percent of their children as regular attenders in their future life and a further 23 percent as irregulars. This is twelve times the yield where the roles are reversed.

Let’s consider that statistic a fluke, and cut it in half . . . no, into quarters. Even if is off by that great a magnitude, it would still mean that in this scenario, a father’s example is three times as significant as mother’s.

The study does not concern itself with the reasons for the disparity, but I have a theory. At the risk of sounding like a traditional dinosaur, as C.S. Lewis described himself, allow me to offer it.

  • Women are inherently more receptive to Christian virtues such as compassion, gentleness, and mercy.
  • Even if their mother discounts worship, the hearts of most girls are still attuned to its song.
  • Christian virtues of forgiveness and meekness resonate less in boys (not just because of their upbringings).
  • If a father goes to church without his wife, daughters will still be inclined to desire to accompany him.
  • If a father stays home, it promotes a boy’s innate suspicion (reinforced by external forces) that “religion is women’s business.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that single mothers should despair. God is the One who draws us to himself, and he can most definitely do so in the absence of any other positive influences.

This is my prayer of gratitude: God bless faithful mothers.

As a reward for those who read these thoughts to their end, I would like to share one of Lewis’ allusions to himself as a dinosaur. This passage comes from his essay, “De Descriptione Temporum.”

If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made!

And if the Neanderthaler could talk, then, though his lecturing technique might leave much to be desired, should we not almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modern anthropologist could never have told us? He would tell us without knowing he was telling.

One thing I know: I would give a great deal to hear any ancient Athenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modern scholarship had been on the wrong track for years.

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand. I read as a native texts you must read as foreigners. You see why I said that the claim was not really arrogant; who can be proud of speaking fluently his mother tongue or knowing his way about his father’s house. . .

Where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.

_____

You can read the cited article from Touchstone magazine here.

 

Crying for Attention

May 19, 2015 — 11 Comments

abcxyzAre you driven by the unquenchable thirst to be the center of everyone’s attention. Or, would you be more content to live out your life appreciated by a small cadre of friends?

A woman in South America recently displayed an extreme case of the former impulse. She had grown tired of her name because it was too mundane. Apparently she garnered insufficient attention as Ladyzunga Cyborg.

So now her name, legally changed, is ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.

My first thought when reading this was not that I didn’t believe it. In our foolish world, where people use symbols that aren’t even words for their names, I just shook my head. And . . . I thought “how fortunate for her that she’s not Chinese,” with its 46,964 characters as recorded in the Kangxi Dictionary.

This is not the sort of publicity Columbia needs. She’s acting bizarrely enough to be a mistaken for a Californian.

Of course, people at the opposite extreme—those who cannot bear the presence of other human beings—are also troubled. As with so many aspects of the human personality, people at either of the extreme poles are frequently deemed mentally ill.

This fetish for exhibitionism is alien to me. I would much prefer downing a pint with friends at the Eagle and Child to standing on some stage in front of “adoring crowds.”

My “introvert” quotient appears to be eclipsing my “extravert” qualities.

C.S. Lewis never sought the limelight either. He did not find his experience with notoriety pleasant. And yet, he accepted its burden graciously.

It is commonly known that some days he would spends hours (literally) corresponding with some of the thousands of readers who wrote to him as the creator of Narnia.

It was exhausting.

I assume people like Ms. Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz seek attention because they feel insignificant or unnoticed.

I find that tragic. Tragic because their name, their true name, is known by the most important and amazing person in the universe. The God who created them.

Each and every person, including you, is unique, precious and loved.

Knowing this provides profound peace. It also delivers us from the constant compulsion to seek attention.

Jesus described the profound value of each person by contrasting God’s love for us with the attention he devotes even to a single sparrow . . . “Not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

And you, that’s you, are far more precious than these.

Professor Bob Dylan

February 24, 2015 — 13 Comments

dylanCan you imagine having singer Bob Dylan as your high school history teacher?

According to a recent interview,* it could have happened.

Still actively touring in his seventies and considered an American musical icon. I was stunned to hear what he said about another path his life may have taken. The interviewer posted the remark this way:

Bob Dylan: His True Calling

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

I didn’t realize he and I had so much in common! When I did my undergrad studies in history, I took every Roman history course the University of Washington offered. As for theology . . . well, having become a pastor, my interest in the study of God’s revelation of himself to the world is a given.

Can you imagine Dylan lecturing on apotheosis in the early empire? [Apotheosis is the elevation of a person to godhood, and was a formal event after the death of some emperors. The emperors themselves knew it was a farce, of course. Seneca wrote that emperor Vespasian, on his deathbed, actually said, “Alas, I think I’m becoming a God.”]

Bob Dylan’s interest in spiritual matters is genuine. He has high praise in the interview for Billy Graham. “This guy was rock ‘n’ roll personified. He filled football stadiums before Mick Jagger did.”

In 1979, Dylan released the first of three “Christian” albums, “Slow Train Coming.” It has a number of great pieces, and I listen to the album at least once a month. One song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won him the Grammy that year for “Best Male Vocalist.” It’s lyrics are sobering, and everyone should hear it at least once.

And, Speaking of C.S. Lewis

Well, we weren’t actually. But, here at Mere Inkling we usually do.

These two men bear some obvious parallels. They are masters of words. Poets extraordinaire. Lewis and Dylan both possess enviable creative imaginations. Each has accumulated a vast legacy in their work, which will continue to inspire for many generations to come.

I also learned this on the internet—they share the same Myers-Briggs personality type. At least, this site claims they are both INFPs. (I’m an ENTJ myself, a common personality aggregate for pastors.)

And, they had at least one more thing in common. They knew that in this life, there is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. When we ultimately stand before the throne of our Creator, it will not suffice to say, “Well, I didn’t do anything truly evil.”

In a moment we will listen to Dylan’s ballad about the choice before us. First, though, consider how Lewis uses the imagery of the war engulfing the world in the 1940s to describe this truth.

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side.

God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world.

When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.

It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it. (Mere Christianity).

Now, as promised, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

_____

*You can read the entire interview in the current issue of AARP The Magazine, available here.

Interplanetary Life

November 4, 2013 — 9 Comments

death valley stars

How many galaxies exist out there? How many stars? How many planets? Billions upon billions, apparently.

Of all of those myriad worlds, how many boast life?

C.S. Lewis pondered that subject in an essay entitled “Religion and Rocketry.” He said that either result—an absence of life, or an abundance of living creatures throughout the cosmos—can be used by atheists to deny the existence of our Creator.

In my time I have heard two quite different arguments against my religion put forward in the name of science. When I was a youngster, people used to say that the universe was not only not friendly to life but positively hostile to it.

Life had appeared on this planet by a millionth chance, as if at one point there had been a breakdown of the elaborate defenses generally enforced against it. We should be rash to assume that such a leak had occurred more than once. Probably life was a purely terrestrial abnormality. We were alone in an infinite desert. Which just showed the absurdity of the Christian idea that there was a Creator who was interested in living creatures.

But then came Professor F.B. Hoyle, the Cambridge cosmologist, and in a fortnight or so everyone I met seemed to have decided that the universe was probably quite well provided with habitable globes and with livestock to inhabit them. Which just showed (equally well) the absurdity of Christianity with its parochial idea that Man could be important to God.

Lewis, brilliant and honest, then predicts the future. Believers and cynics alike, he says, will seek to interpret all new data in a fashion that proves their own, preexisting beliefs.

This is a warning of what we may expect if we ever do discover animal life (vegetable does not matter) on another planet. Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences.

It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defence.

Fascinating as these comments are, they merely represent Lewis’ introduction to the subject. The heart of his concern is this—what would it mean if we should one day encounter alien beings created by God on a distant world?

In a moment I’ll share with you one of the most provocative thoughts Lewis expresses in this essay, but first take a moment to watch this amazing reminder of the vastness of our universe and the power of its Creator.

A video presentation like this can leave us feeling rather small, lost in the abyss of an immeasurable vastness. Or, it can inspire us. It can baptize us with an increased appreciation for the majesty of the One who loved each of us so profoundly that he sent his only begotten Son into the world to redeem us from destruction. I hope your reaction is the latter.

I promised another fascinating observation from Lewis, and here it is. He poses the question of precisely what might transpire if humanity encounters another sentient race. His Christian interpretation may shock some readers, but I believe he is right.

It sets one dreaming—to interchange thoughts with beings whose thinking had an organic background wholly different from ours (other senses, other appetites), to be unenviously humbled by intellects possibly superior to our own yet able for that very reason to descend to our level, to descend lovingly ourselves if we met innocent and childlike creatures who could never be as strong or as clever as we, to exchange with the inhabitants of other worlds that especially keen and rich affection which exists between unlikes; it is a glorious dream.

But make no mistake. It is a dream. We are fallen. We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.

Our ambassador to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert. They will do as their kind has always done. What that will be if they meet things weaker than themselves, the black man and the red man can tell. If they meet things stronger, they will be, very properly, destroyed.

Lewis continues, addressing related themes in this amazing work that seems more prescient each year. He next compares our encounters with fallen, and unfallen races. I highly commend the essay, which appears in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays.

If you prefer a fictional consideration of these same topics, I encourage you to read C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength).

_____

Appreciation goes to a retired USAF chaplain colleague of mine, Chuck McGathy, for bringing this Hubble video to my attention.