Archives For Heaven

Puppies in Heaven

January 1, 2016 — 12 Comments

pupWill dogs and other fauna have a place in the new creation? It’s an interesting—and controversial—subject.

I just reread a delightful essay in which the author, an Orthodox theologian, describes a debate he had with a Roman Catholic scholastic on the subject.* I enjoyed the following description of the discussion so much that I had to share it.

I was once told by a young, ardently earnest Thomist . . . you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso . . . this young Thomist told me that not only could my dog not love me (since he lacks a rational nature), but I could not love my dog (something about there needing to be some rational equality between lover and beloved).

Now, while I admitted that I could only presume the former claim to be incorrect . . . I was adamant that I could be absolutely certain of the falsity of the latter. But my friend was not deterred: “Oh, no,” he insisted, “you don’t really love him; you just think you do because of your deep emotional attachment to him.”

Of course. Foolish of me. Leave it to a two-tier Thomist to devise a definition of love that does not actually involve love. If you can believe in pure nature, I suppose you can believe anything.

{More on the question of animals in paradise below . . .}

Debates (civilized variants of arguments) can be fascinating when they are dissected and examined. Theological debates are particularly enthralling.

C.S. Lewis appreciated the value of debate in sharpening one’s position. This approach to learning can be traced back to the Socratic Method, which is based upon asking and answering questions.

In 1941, the Oxford Socratic Club was formed to “follow the argument wherever it led them.” C.S. Lewis was its first president (faculty sponsor), serving until 1955 when he moved to Cambridge University. In the first issue of the Socratic Digest, Lewis wrote:

In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.

The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.

Some of the debates conducted by the club were legendary. You can read a fine article about these “University Battles” here.

Returning to the Question of Animals in Heaven

I wrote on this subject several years ago. That post is worth checking out if only for the amazing graphic that graces it.

You can read my own perspective on the question there, if you are interested.

Today I wish to end, instead, with the summary of my kindred spirit, who debated the philosopher.

The final sentence in this next section is priceless.

The occasion of the exchange, incidentally, was a long and rather tediously circular conversation concerning Christian eschatology. My interlocutor was an adherent to a particularly colorless construal of the beatific vision, one that allows for no real participation of animal creation (except eminently, through us) in the final blessedness of the Kingdom; I, by contrast, hope to see puppies in paradise, and persevere in faith principally for that reason.

His sentiment reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts in Mere Christianity.

I sometimes like to imagine that I can just see how it might apply to other things. I think I can see how the higher animals are in a sense drawn into Man when he loves them and makes them (as he does) much more nearly human than they would otherwise be.

Hart offers another delightfully sarcastic comment about the weight of different authorities the two debaters were citing. And with that observation, we shall end.

On his side, all the arguments were drawn from Thomas and his expositors; on mine, they were drawn from Scripture; naturally, limited to the lesser source of authority, I was at a disadvantage. . . . [arguing] that the biblical imagery of the redeemed state is cosmic in scope and positively teeming with fauna (lions lying down with lambs and such)—that Paul’s vision of salvation in Romans 8 is of the entirety of creation restored and glorified—things of that sort. All in vain, though; nothing I said could rival the dialectical force of his ringing sic Thomas dixit [so Thomas said].

_____

* The author, David Bentley Hart, is not anti-Catholic. In fact, he has taught at several Roman Catholic universities. The article quoted appears here.

 

C.S. Lewis On Stage

March 3, 2015 — 7 Comments

fpaIf you live in one of the cities listed below, you will definitely want to see the impressive stage performance of “The Great Divorce,” currently touring the United States.

This weekend my wife and I journeyed great distances to the city of the Space Needle. (It’s an arduous trek, and involves taking to the seas aboard ferry boats that tourists love and commuters endure.)

Frankly, it requires a lot to move me to subject myself to the teeming masses of traffic and humanity on the streets of urban Seattle—but this performance was more than worth the trip.

“The Great Divorce” has been adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Brian Watkins. McLean is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA) in New York City. You can learn more about the Fellowship and their offerings here.

His last foray into C.S. Lewis’ work was a widely applauded rendition of “The Screwtape Letters.” It was so well received that it may be taken on tour again in upcoming years.

In the current production, three talented actors bring to life a wide range of characters from Lewis’ work about the gulf (“divorce”) between heaven and hell.

Following the performance, McLean offers the audience a short Q&A session on the work. During ours, he was asked if he is contemplating any more Lewisian adaptations. With a broad smile he assured us he was, saying, “I’m smitten by Lewis.”

When asked about the way in which Lewis’ fantasy work was a response to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he paraphrased Lewis’ remarks in the preface of The Great Divorce. Then McLean said he wished they had used Lewis’ original title for the work.

In May of 1945 Lewis wrote to a regular correspondent, “The title Who Goes Home? has had to be dropped because someone has used it already. The little book will be called The Great Divorce and will appear about August.” Those acquainted with the volume will recognize how much better suited to the work Lewis’ preferred title was.

So, Where Will the Play Be Performed

Here are the remaining locations for the performances. They are in the midst of their tour, so I will not list places they have already visited. (Don’t wish to disappoint anyone who missed out on an opportunity to see it.)

Portland, Oregon

Chicago, Illinois

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Cincinnati, Ohio

Everything FPA creates is exceptional. I encourage you to sign up for their email list to keep apprised of their future offerings, including updates to their tour schedule.

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.

Fleeting Fame

February 10, 2015 — 17 Comments

fameIt’s likely that the names of 98.6% of authors who top the bestseller charts today will be unremembered a century from now.

This weekend I posted the latest issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, a journal I edit about military chaplains. (If you are interested in checking it out, you can download a free copy here.)

The current issue includes an interesting article about two chaplains from Vermont who served during the War of 1812. (For international readers, that was the war following the winning of America’s independence when they British got their revenge—they captured our national capital and burned the capitol.)

In the biographical portion of the article, the author included a final summary of the life of one of the chaplains. Solomon Aiken (1758-1833) left his civilian pulpit to serve soldiers and sailors.

Aiken was quite prominent in his day. Not only was he a well known preacher and writer, he actually served as a member of Vermont’s legislature. Yet, I doubt that even Vermonters would recognize his name today.

Here is the quotation from a nineteenth century tribute published after his passing.

Mr. Aiken enjoyed uncommon health and vigor. He never took a particle of medicine, or lost a relish for food, until his final and brief sickness—a pleurisy fever. He possessed peculiar power as a logician, and was very popular as a preacher. He was kind-hearted and benevolent, almost to a fault. But it is chiefly as a political writer that Mr. Aiken is remembered. He was sent as a representative for two years, by the town of Dracut. He published several sermons and pamphlets, chiefly upon political themes, which excited much attention in their season.

The words that seized my attention were the conclusion, “. . . which excited much attention in their season.”

“In their season . . .” That season must have been brief, since the history was written just twenty years after Aiken’s death. By then his works had either withered or, more optimistically, gone to seed. In either case, their day was passed.

Translating that to our modern era, where things become obsolete almost as soon as they are envisioned, it would imply that our “season” of fame or reputation will last little more than a handful of months. And that, of course, assumes that a person actually achieves some level of renown.

Fame is fleeting. It has always been so, and the good Reverend Aiken is simply another example of that truth.

Thank God (literally) that there is more to life than notoriety.

C.S. Lewis is one of the 1.4% whose fame lasts. His has not diminished; it continues to grow. Just a year ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, he was honored by having a plaque dedicated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Lewis never sought fame, as the following discussion from his essay “The Weight of Glory” clearly reveals.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern.

Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

When I began to look into this matter I was stocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation’ by God.

And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards.

This exceptional work merits consideration not only by people of faith. It invites all honest readers to gaze within themselves at their deepest yearnings.

Another passage from C.S. Lewis that relates strongly to the subject at hand comes from The Great Divorce. You can read the entire passage here, but the heart of it is this. Lewis views a simple woman, presently in heaven, receiving magnificent praise and celebration. He naturally assumes she must have been some well known saint.

He is, however, informed that she lived an obscure life, despite the fact that she touched countless nondescript people and animals with her compassion. Lewis’ heavenly guide is rather surprised that the Oxford professor has overlooked a simple truth:

Fame in heaven “and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

Only the second will last.

A Caveat about Caveats

September 4, 2014 — 4 Comments

cave canemA caveat, most readers will know, is a warning. One of my favorite usages comes from ancient Rome, where many villa owners procured guard dogs to protect their property. Cave Canem–beware of the dog–became a common motif for entryway mosaics.

One of the most familiar caveats is caveat emptor—buyer beware. Not only is this warning well known, it is absolutely true. Without an express warranty, you may have little hope recouping your loss when something you purchase fails.

Caveats, however, need not infer that the subjects they refer to are dangerous.

For example, the guard dog may well be an affectionate “member of the family,” who warms up quickly, even to strangers who have been invited into the home. Likewise, the new car I’m contemplating purchasing may be ideal for me. Fairly priced, economical to drive, and not so dated in appearance that it shouts, “yes, I’m a grandpa.”

Caveats don’t mean “stay away.” They merely advise us all to think before we act. (And, as universal rules go, this is a very good one.) Caveats, and good parenting, remind us to read the “fine print” before signing anything.

I want to encourage all readers of Mere Inkling to use their God-given intelligence to evaluate what you read on these pages. In the same way, I hope you will all apply your God-instilled conscience to measure my words.

In light of this sincere desire, I encourage you to read the gentle caveats offered below.

General Caveats for Readers

What should readers of Mere Inkling keep in mind as they peruse these posts? First of all, there are a number of general considerations—applicable to everything each of us reads and hears.

1.  Understand the perspective of the writer. What are the assumptions and worldview of the person who wrote the piece? It can be hazardous to simply assume that a writer shares your own values—or even definitions. Many people would be shocked at the diversity of definitions for a word like “church” that roam the internet.

2.  Ensure we read what we think we did. By this I mean that we should reread sections that we find confusing or offensive. It may be we have misread what the author intended. (This is especially true when a writer seeks to play with the English language, and uses phrasing unfamiliar to our ear.) In cases where we have normally enjoyed the writing, but now find ourselves bothered by something, it is always good to ask the writer to clarify what they meant. More often than not, I’ve found this opportunity to elaborate dispels the problem.

3.  Reject the myth that anything you read is absolutely objective. Objectivity, except for mathematics, is essentially impossible. Our education, values, experiences and mood all affect the words we write. The best we can hope for in what we read—something Mere Inkling strives for—is personal honesty and fairness.

Mere Inkling Caveats

1.  Mere Inkling’s author is a fallen human being. By definition, that means that I am imperfect. Not all-knowing, nor always gracious. Imperfect though I am, I try my best to speak here in a forthright, considerate, modestly entertaining and, most importantly, a truthful way. When I fall short of that, feel free to write to me about it.

2.  I am a Christian. I certainly don’t apologize for this. Nor do I apologize for the wish of all disciples of Jesus that everyone might know the joy, forgiveness and peace that comes from abiding in the Vine (a metaphor for Jesus, as described in John 15).

3.  Your host at Mere Inkling is an evangelical Christian. This is a hazy adjective, often used in mutually contradictory ways. I apply it here to myself in the context of holding fast to the basic Christian truths, including the aforementioned desire of God that all people might come to him through his only begotten Son.

4.  I am a catholic Christian. Not a Roman Catholic (with a capital C), but catholic in the word’s creedal sense—a member of the one universal Church. As a catholic Christian, I subscribe to the ecumenical creeds, agreed upon as the fundamental doctrines of the faith during its earliest years. These include the Triune nature of God, the Incarnation miracle, and the atonement. Like my mentor, C.S. Lewis, here at Mere Inkling we focus on “Mere Christianity,” the common core of the faith. I consistently attempt to qualify my words on subjects where there is not a clear consensus.

Each of us has his individual emphasis: each holds, in addition to the Faith, many opinions which seem to him to be consistent with it and true and important. And so perhaps they are. But as apologists it is not our business to defend them. We are defending Christianity; not “my religion.” When we mention our personal opinions we must always make quite clear the difference between them and the Faith itself. (C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics”).

5.  I am a Lutheran Christian. Again, I do not apologize. Lutherans understand we are only a small part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic faith.” Each denomination (indeed, each individual) possesses a distinctive interpretation of the Christian faith. We are free, of course, to associate with that community we believe follows God’s leading most faithfully. (It is a given that no community is without flaw, since no human being is.) I have written more on this aspect of my identity in the next point, and on the “Mercy” tab you will find at the top of the page.

6.  I am an evangelical Lutheran Christian. This is not a formal category, but means that I subscribe to historic Lutheranism as it has been taught and held since the Reformation, rather than some of the current expressions of “religion” that may be labeled Lutheran. In essence, this can be summarized in the “solas” of Lutheran doctrine.

Sola Scripture – Scripture Alone meaning that the Bible, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, are the ultimate authority for determining true faith.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone meaning salvation is an unearned gift of God, given not because we have earned it.

Sola Fides – Faith Alone meaning that God’s grace is apprehended not through wisdom, good works, or any means other than a simple trust in the promise. Ironically, this faith itself is also a gift of God.

7.  I am a pastor. While pastors with seminary educations do study Greek, Hebrew, Theology and assorted other subjects, we are not the same as what most people mean by the word “theologians.” Pastoral Theology is distinct from Systematic Theology. The former focuses on practical ministry to individuals, while the latter is most concerned with abstract matters. While I also possess a second graduate degree, my Master of Theology degree (much different than an M.A. in theology) was earned in the study of Early Church History. My concern remained the work of God among everyday human beings, rather than scholastic philosophy.

8.  While I never intentionally write anything with the goal of offending any reader, I recognize it is impossible to avoid all offense. (Even the least controversial prose is capable of offending.)

Allow me to illustrate how simple truths can elicit dramatically different responses, with two simple declarations.

God loves all people. This is true, and inoffensive. Most people today, and all orthodox (biblical) Christians would agree with the statement.

Not all people will go to heaven. This too is true. However, it provokes great outcries from many quarters, including some religious organizations that arise out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus himself offered “hard sayings” that elicited grumbling. John’s Gospel records a powerful account of this, occurring immediately after the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . . The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” . . . “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.

C.S. Lewis referred to the alienating nature of some truths when he wrote the essay, “Cross-Examination.”

I believe that there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say “Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.” The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.

9.  I am an American. Again, no apologies. I applaud much of what this nation has valued and shared during its history. I regret many of the mistakes the United States has made, and continues to make. I recognize how fortunate I have been to live in a nation with access to educational and medical resources not available to all. I genuinely appreciate other cultures and have been privileged to live in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The right I treasure most—and one I pray will be extended to all people—is freedom of religion.

10.  I welcome offline correspondence. I recognize many people are reluctant to post a comment on a blog, which is visible to the public. I also realize that some readers would appreciate privately offering a comment or posing a question. I welcome this, and encourage you to use the form below to write to me. I will respond from my personal email account and we can discuss sensitive matters in greater depth. I must say in advance, however, that I do not have the leisure time to aid with any research. Similarly, while I am happy to offer general pastoral advice, only a fool or con artist would presume to conduct serious counseling or therapy via email. (You need a local pastor or counselor for that.) That said, I do enjoy spirited and honest discourse, so d feel free to contact me.

_____

The picture at the top of the page comes from the entryway to the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii.

Face to Face with God

October 28, 2013 — 14 Comments

Jesus with animalsA recent letter to the editor of Lutheran Witness includes a delightful example of the wondrous glory of childhood simplicity.

When our four-year-old son . . . saw a bird outside the window, he commented “I wish I were a bird with wings so I could fly up to heaven and talk to Jesus.” [His parents] asked what he would say to Jesus if he were a bird. His simple reply . . . “Tweet, tweet.”

How gloriously innocent. So unpretentious and joyously pure. I think this captures the essence of what Jesus was referring to when he said “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4, ESV).

C.S. Lewis discussed the innocence of children in his essay “The Abolition of Man.” He is discussing the monolithic power of society, or government, in reshaping what it means to be human. God preserve us from those who would redefine and eradicate the very qualities of humanity Jesus praised.

Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. . . . But who, precisely, will have won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. . . .

Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau,” and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

When you and I stand in the presence of God, our adult words will vary. We’ll all drop to our knees—some in adoration, others perhaps in fear—but what will we say?

I can imagine some of the words that will come to our lips.

“Thank you.”

“Why did you allow . . ?”

“I love you.”

“I despise you because . . ?”

“Hallelujah.”

Or, perhaps, “Why did you delay so long?”*

I suspect we will probably be speechless. Certainly, at first. There’s a song that captures well the mystery that awaits us when we find ourselves face to face with our Creator. It’s more in spirit with the response of the young child who simply tweeted out his greeting to God.

Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel?

Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of You, be still?

Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?

Will I sing ‘Hallelujah!’? Will I be able to speak at all?

I can only imagine! I can only imagine!

We used to sing this song at chapel services in southwest Asia. I have often thought it would be very meaningful to record this song in my own voice, to be played at my own funeral (should the Lord tarry).

That’s not nearly as morbid as some might think. It’s a song of praise, awe and wonder, in my rendition I would end it with the words “I no longer imagine,” for my faith in God will have given way to sight.

_____
* The answer to that question is actually found in the Scriptures. From the third chapter of Peter’s second epistle:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Unimpressive Clergy

September 9, 2013 — 9 Comments

sheeps clothingI recently read something alarming. Apparently pastors merit little respect nowadays.

I guess that didn’t surprise me, but it did sadden me, that the once respected “profession” of the ministry has fallen so far in the public’s esteem.

Christianity Today, a fine magazine, reported a Pew Research poll that inquired as to whether people believed that “pastors contribute ‘a lot’ to the well-being of society.”

37% of adults agreed

52% of weekly churchgoers agreed

I’m not surprised only a third of the general American population agrees with that notion . . . but I’m amazed that only half of the people who actually attend religious services concur with the statement.

Only half of the people who go to church think pastors do anything worthwhile!

Perhaps they’re like most people who think so little of members of Congress. They like their own representatives and senators (readily reelecting them), but hold the rest of Congress in disdain.

Students of poll-taking recognize the results depend on a wide range of factors. Most significant is precisely how the question is posed. I suppose the phrasing “a lot” to rate magnitude of the clergy’s contribution could account for some of the negative responses.

Still, it’s logical that most of the people who disagreed with the premise, really do possess a low opinion of clergy. In the wake of child abuse scandals and those infrequent but well publicized cases where ministers commit outrageous crimes, it should come as no surprise.

I suppose it wouldn’t bother me quite so much that clergy were held in low regard, if I wasn’t a pastor myself.

But, as I was ruminating over this gloomy fact, it dawned on me that I actually share the less than glowing opinion of many of the poll’s respondents. I too don’t think that highly of many of the so-called ministers out there either. Especially the self-ordained ones or those pseudo-clergy who just buy a diploma off the internet. (The latter group really irritates me, since I belong to a denomination that requires four full years of seminary education prior to ordination.)

Not that education is all that significant in evaluating ministries. Many highly dedicated and productive ministers never attended seminary at all. And, on the reverse side of the coin, many people who have highly advanced theological degrees are self-aggrandizing hypocrites.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’ allegory about the separation between heaven and hell. In The Great Divorce he relates a conversation involving a lost soul who was a highly regarded theologian while he was alive.

Lewis calls him the “episcopal ghost,” but that’s not a reference to his denomination, merely his ostentatious persona and the fact that he attained the lofty office of “bishop.” Unfortunately, I’ve met more than one person during my life who greatly resembles the misguided theologian in the story.

I enjoy this particular literary encounter so much that I wrote an article about it for a C.S. Lewis journal some years ago.*

If you’ve never read The Great Divorce, you’re missing out on a real gem. It is one of the very few books I have ever read in a single sitting. Once I began it, I couldn’t put it down. (I know that’s a cliche, but in this case it’s literally true.)

The passage I find so provocative appears below. (I didn’t have the heart to edit it, since some readers will want to follow the entire conversation.) After rereading it, I’m beginning to wonder why anyone in Pew’s poll considered clergy praiseworthy.

To understand the dialog, allow me to set the stage. In this fictional work, various “ghosts” (insubstantial souls of those who died without a relationship to Christ) are met at the outskirts of heaven by “bright people” (redeemed, truly real human beings) with whom they were acquainted during their mortal lives. The redeemed individuals attempt to persuade the lost to desire in some small way to draw close to God, so that they might continue a journey drawing closer to his grace.

In this scenario, the two men were both liberal theologians, but one of them, before he died, came to believe that what the Scriptures teach was actually true.

_____

* “Confused Clerics,” The Lamp-Post 18.1 (March 1994): 15-22.

One Sad Pastor

‘My dear boy, I’m delighted to see you,’ [the Ghost] was saying to the Spirit, who was naked and almost blindingly white.** ‘I was talking to your poor father the other day and wondering where you were.’

‘You didn’t bring him?’ said the other.

‘Well, no. He lives a long way from the bus, and, to be quite frank, he’s been getting a little eccentric lately. A little difficult. Losing his grip. He never was prepared to make any great efforts, you know. If you remember, he used to go to sleep when you and I got talking seriously! Ah, Dick, I shall never forget some of our talks. I expect you’ve changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow-minded towards the end of your life: but no doubt you’ve broadened out again.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!’

‘But wasn’t I right?’

‘Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological…’

‘Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?’

‘Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.’

‘I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?’

‘Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?’

‘We call it Hell.’

‘There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.’

‘Discuss Hell reverently? I meant what I said. You have been in Hell: though if you don’t go back you may call it Purgatory.’

‘Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.’

‘But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.’

‘Are you serious, Dick?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.’

‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’

‘There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.’

‘I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.’

‘Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.’

‘What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?’

‘Dick, this is unworthy of you. What are you suggesting?’

‘Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’

‘If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like…’

‘I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of
the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.’

‘I’m far from denying that young men may make mistakes. They may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.’

‘Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.’

‘You’ll be justifying the Inquisition in a moment!’

‘Why? Because the Middle Ages erred in one direction, does it follow that there is no error in the opposite direction?’

‘Well, this is extremely interesting,’ said the Episcopal Ghost. ‘It’s a point of view. Certainly, it’s a point of view. In the meantime…’

‘There is no meantime,’ replied the other. ‘All that is over. We are not playing now. I have been talking of the past (your past and mine) only in order that you may turn from it forever. One wrench and the tooth will be out. You can begin as if nothing had ever gone wrong. White as snow. It’s all true, you know. He is in me, for you, with that power. And—I have come a long journey to meet you. You have seen Hell: you are in sight of Heaven. Will you, even now, repent and believe?’

‘I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,’ said the Ghost.

‘I am not trying to make any point,’ said the Spirit. ‘I am telling you to repent and believe.’

‘But my dear boy, I believe already. We may
not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realise that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.’

‘Very well,’ said the other, as if changing his plan. ‘Will you believe in me?’

‘In what sense?’

‘Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?’

‘Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances…I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness—and scope for the talents that God has given me—and an atmosphere of free inquiry—in short, all that one means by civilisation and—er—the spiritual life.’

‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’

‘Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’

‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.’

‘But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?’

‘You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’

‘Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.’

‘Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.’

The Ghost seemed to think for a moment. ‘I can make nothing of that idea,’ it said.

‘Listen!’ said the White Spirit. ‘Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.’

‘Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.’

‘You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.’

‘If we cannot be reverent, there is at least no need to be obscene. The suggestion that I should return at my age to the mere factual inquisitiveness of boyhood strikes me as preposterous. In any case, that question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level.’

‘We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other fact-hood.’

‘I should object very strongly to describing God as a “fact”. The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description. It is hardly…’

‘Do you not even believe that He exists?’

‘Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, “there”, and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way. If there were such a thing (there is no need to interrupt, my dear boy) quite frankly, I should not be interested in it. It would be of no religious significance. God, for me, is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance—and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.’

‘If the thirst of the Reason is really dead…,’ said the Spirit, and then stopped as though pondering. Then suddenly he said, ‘Can you, at least, still desire happiness?’

‘Happiness, my dear Dick,’ said the Ghost placidly, ‘happiness, as you will come to see when you are older, lies in the path of duty. Which reminds me…Bless my soul, I’d nearly forgotten. Of course I can’t come with you. I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! there is plenty of intellectual life. Not of a very high quality, perhaps. One notices a certain lack of grip—a certain confusion of mind. That is where I can be of some use to them. There are even regrettable jealousies…I don’t know why, but tempers seem less controlled than they used to be. Still, one mustn’t expect too much of human nature. I feel I can do a great work among them. But you’ve never asked me what my paper is about! I’m taking the text about growing up to the measure of the stature of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you’ll be interested in. I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste… so much promise cut short. Oh, must you be going? Well, so must I. Goodbye, my dear boy. It has been a great pleasure. Most stimulating and provocative. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.’

The Ghost nodded its head and beamed on the Spirit with a bright clerical smile—or with the best approach to it which such unsubstantial lips could manage—and then turned away humming softly to itself ‘City of God, how broad and far.’

_____

** Lewis’ use of the nakedness metaphor here is obviously an allusion to the creation of Adam and Eve who, while in a sinless state, required no clothing. It is in no way lewd. Rather, it is an image of purity.