Is Conversion the Answer?

Rod Dreher makes several salient points about converts to Rome and Orthodoxy:

Yes, but in my personal experience, the Catholic Church in America has only a facade of unity. Every Catholic parish I’ve been a part of has been basically Protestant, insofar as most of the people seemed to believe that they had a right to believe whatever they wanted. The unity was fairly superficial. Mind you, I’m in no position to say to what extent the Orthodox Church in this country is any different, because my experience is relatively short and limited almost entirely to my own parish. But I would be surprised to learn that we Orthodox on the whole were much different in that regard.

I’ve said the same thing myself: Catholicism in the USA is just Protestantism with a different name. You have gay Jesuits, hardcore Trad Opus Dei types, the First Things crowd, EWTN, liberals like the Kennedys, and on and on. There is no unified, glorious Church. It’s an illusion in the mind of the convert who lives in the world of ideas. Dreher continues:

I keep telling Protestants I know who want to convert to Catholicism that I don’t want to get in the way of their decision — though I would like them to consider Orthodoxy — but that they should realize that they’re probably not going to find an escape from modernism in their local parish. The church of Pope Benedict and First Things magazine, and your favorite conservative Catholic bloggers, is not the church you’re likely to encounter down the street. If you’re convinced of the case for Catholicism, then you almost certainly have to become Catholic — but go in with your eyes open. Similarly with Orthodoxy, we have, like Catholicism, the institutional and historical tools for resisting modernism, but if the pastors and the people remain indifferent or hostile to them, Protestants searching for solid ground to stand on may be unpleasantly surprised.

Again, this is not an argument against becoming Catholic or Orthodox. But it is a warning that it’s impossible to escape modernity and its challenges to tradition and traditional faith. When Father Dwight says that the fissiparous nature of individualist modernist faith will eventually give way to disbelief, because it’s not anchored in communal experience, I agree with him in principle, but would ask him what his prediction is for Catholic parishes that are populated by individualists in religion? (N.B., Father Dwight recognizes in his post that modernist Catholic priests shouldn’t be surprised when people quit coming to mass.) Similarly, I am aware of several Protestant congregations who are far, far more unified in belief than any Catholic parish I’ve been a part of, no doubt because those Protestants who don’t share the core convictions of that congregation found another congregation to attend. Mind you, without a Magisterium (Catholic) or a high view of the authority of Tradition (Orthodox) to hold on to, I don’t know how those congregations over time will remain grounded in their particular judgments. But having the theological mechanism for stability, as the Catholics and the Orthodox do, is no guarantee either.

This makes lots of sense. Because Protestant churches in our day are usually based on shared convictions such as worship style or theology, we have much more unity (at the micro level) than Catholics do.

I have a friend who left the Greek Orthodox church to which he belonged, because he was desperate for a spiritual encounter with the living God, as opposed to the empty formalism of his home parish, which, as he puts it, was more interested in worshiping Greekness than in worshiping God. He became a born-again Evangelical. Despite all the legitimate criticism that can be leveled at American Evangelicalism re: its lack of stability and susceptibility to cultural trends, is it really the case that children raised in a traditional church that has valid sacraments but is spiritually dead are going to have a better chance of living as Christians there than they would in an Evangelical church that has all the trappings of modernity, and an essentially modernist, individualist theology, but that for whatever reason has chosen a theologically traditional set of principles around which to organize, and lives it out in a vigorous, vibrant way?

This is the rub. Tradition and liturgy are life to me and those like me who seek to escape the modern church wasteland, but they were death to my Mom who wanted relationship with God and wasn’t taught that in the Lutheran Church of her day (though she could have had it, had they rightly understood their own past). We can’t re-pristinate the past and create some perfect model that never existed. We can meld the best liturgy and tradition with our modern condition, all the while being bathed in the Scripture as the ultimate norm.

The cellphone ends gridlock?

Tonight before heading for home I weighed two alternatives – the main roads, possibly clogged with Thanksgiving traffic, or the back roads, slower, but more empty. I fired up the maps app on the iPhone and saw flashing red for the main roads. The iPhone uses the active cell phones on the road to estimate traffic. I happily avoided the mess and took the back roads home.

Could apps like this in people’s hands cut out the heart of congestion? I doubt it in on the macro level, because there just aren’t enough roads in northern Virginia to avoid systemic failure every day. But they may help to begin changing how we navigate, and might be the beginning of a solution to the most dreaded problem in all of Virginia.

Scott Hahn gets pilloried!

A Catholic rips the most famous of Catholic converts here. A sample:

Such dilettantish intellectual mush that such figures as Hahn seek to feed us is very much the product of this iron age of Catholic thought. If I was to pick a legitimate criticism of this talk, and of Hahn’s “neo-Catholicism” in general, it is that I am not convinced that it is Catholic at all. When he described his first attendance at Mass, how “Patristic” the whole experience was for him, how Catholics read from the Old Testament at Mass, etc., I could only ask myself the question: “Is this man, who appears to be a smart guy, ignorant that all of these ‘reforms’ in the Mass are younger than he is? Did he really see the Catholicism of history, or was he drawn to his own vision of what he thinks the Catholic Church is? Would he have had the same experience at Mass if he had gone to one from the year of his birth?” You might think that I am splitting hairs, but I find these questions highly pertinent. For often Neo-Catholics like Hahn seem to be drawn by aspects of the Catholic Church that I would characterize as dysfunctional and illegitimate. It is the part of the Catholic Church today that is profoundly forgetful, profoundly ignorant of what the Church was like not so long ago, and only enamored with the Church insofar as it provides them with a sufficiently large bullhorn for their own strange ideas (and the book deals that go along with them). While seeking to engage the culture with its basketball gym rallies, glossy paperbacks, and events that seem to be Human Resources pep talks with a little holy water sprinkled on them, they succeed only in talking past the culture, in creating an atmosphere that is little better than a Book of the Month club, if not to say a peppy, clean-cut, bearded cult. What is missing, sadly, is tradition, with all of its boring, outdated, and inglorious burdens.

Acrobat.com Update

On Friday night, Adobe updated Acrobat.com. The update merged the files of the various services – Buzzword, Presentations, etc. – into a common “desktop” that improves the ability to organize and find files. The services look sleek and I continue to be impressed by the design elements.

What I am not thrilled with in this update is that Buzzword itself has not progressed. It needs the ability to format with styles, caption tables and figures, and other common word processing features. I hope this will happen shortly. If it does, I will stop using Pages and Word altogether and go completely online. The word is that Google is also going to roll a lot of new functions into docs in 2010, so I think next year will truly see the end of needing to use Word/Excel/Powerpoint for office functions. Acrobat’s ability to import and export to .doc and other common formats makes it an almost-perfect office killer. Plus, using Minion and Myriad as default fonts rather than Times New Roman or Constantia is a massive win for geeks like me.

Grant Lee

We went to see Grant Lee on Friday night. He played a nice set of really quality songs. He has great stage presence and is funny in between songs. We were able to talk to him briefly afterward as he mingled with the littles (like me).

I read that Lee’s dad was some sort of pastor. If true, this adds evidence to my thesis that a great many celebrities come from Christian backgrounds against which they are rebelling. I read about Meghan Fox the other day and it is the same thing with her – grew up Pentecostal and rebelled mightily against that upbringing. For some reason, many Christians ping-pong so radically to the other side that they become the worst offenders on the other side.

N.T. Wright in Boise

Back in April of 2003 I was able to attend an all day seminar with N.T. Wright on the resurrection. He had just published his massive book defending the resurrection of Jesus and was lecturing on that subject. I took notes on the occasion and I don’t believe I put them up on my blog, so here they are, six years later.

About thirty folks met at First Presbyterian (PCUSA) church in Boise on Monday with N. T. Wright. We were seated on the platform of the church under an enormous cross with Dr. Wright seated at a desk with a few books in front of him. I noticed the Septuagint and his new book amongst others. He
lectured from 9 am to 3 pm with a break for lunch basically covering the material from The Resurrection of the Son of God and doing a Q and A every hour.

I talked to Wright beforehand and he said the next major book in the series would be on Paul. He is also working on Galatians and Philippians and does not know when he is working what article will go in which book. He mentioned that it will be more difficult to work as the Bishop of Durham, but that he is looking forward to doing pastoral work again. He said one of the problems of being at Westminster is that you are always just dealing with the next 500 tourists and that he looks forward to having an actual congregation. He mentioned Paul’s pastoral inspiration, how he founded churches and wrote at the same time. He also made an aside about how pretentious it is to be enthroned physically at Durham, but he has to sort of go along with it all.

He critiqued the modern, fuzzy notions of heaven and life after death, and made a point of calling the resurrection the real goal, which is “life after life after death.” He dealt extensively with what was expected in the hereafter in pagan literature and then in the Jewish world. He said that the early Christian belief was originally close to the position of the Pharisees within Judaism, but with key mutations, six of which follow:

1. No spectrum of differing beliefs about the resurrection. All Christians believed in the resurrection with the exception of Gnostics who came later.
2. Periphery to Center. The belief was peripheral in Judaism, but became absolutely central in Christianity.
3. Transformation. In Judaism there was not an expectation of transformed physicality—i.e. a new body that was the same, but on a higher level. But in Christianity, this was the expectation (I Cor 15).
4. 2 moments of resurrection. Jesus first, everyone else second. This was not known in Judaism.
5. Different metaphorical use of the word. In Judaism res. could stand for national restoration as in Ezekiel, but in Christianity this meaning ends and it is used of things like baptism (Rom 7) and holiness (Col 3).
6. Resurrection of the Messiah. Jews did not expect the Messiah to rise again, because they did not expect him to die.

Wright had a lot of positive things to say about Polkinghorne’s work on the new creation as Polkinghorne is coming from a scientific background and so has a lot of insight into such things.

Wright called Rev. 21-22 the ultimate answer to Gnosticism. He said that of all the modern writers he read in researching the new book, C.S. Lewis’ chapter on the resurrection in “Miracles” was the best he came across (I read it today, it is good).

On the subject of hell and damnation, Wright said that it is not only possible but also certain that some reject God and say no to Christ. He said that we should all want to be Universalists in the sense that we don’t want to see anyone go to hell but that we should realize that we cannot. He said that worship is the chief thing that humans do and that those who continue to worship something other than God may in some sense cease to bear God’s image and ultimately become what Wright called “ex-human.” Just as the redeemed will be human on a higher level, the damned will be “beyond hope, beyond pity” so that the saints in the new creation will be able to experience joy without regret for those who are lost.

I had Dr. Wright sign my copy of the new book and out of curiosity asked him if he had met Martyn Lloyd-Jones at some point. It turns out that indeed he had back in the 70’s. He said he reviewed a couple of the Romans series that Jones had put out. Though he did not agree with Lloyd-Jones conclusions at all points, he had immense respect for the man and the devotion and time he had put into the book of Romans. He said Lloyd-Jones was deeply suspicious of him because he was an Anglican, but that he had been over to Lloyd-Jones for lunch. He remarked that the movement at Westminster Tabernacle that was so energetic in the 50’s and 60’s was not meeting the current climate of London intellectually.

Exile

Writing a few years ago, James Jordan discussed the theme of exile in the Bible. His thoughts follow:

Someone asked about the reservations some of us have about Wright’s exile-theology. Here are a few thoughts:
1. The Ur-exile was from the Garden of Eden. From that perspective, all of Old Creation history takes place in exile, until Jesus. Thus, Wright is surely correct to make exile a large category. (I dealt with this to some extent in my monograph *Sabbath Breaking and the Death Penalty,* where I showed that under the Old Creation, humanity was EXCLUDED from sabbath, and that this explains much of what the Law required regarding the sabbath day observances.)
2. Within this large Exile, there are sub-exiles and also times of return and establishment in semi-Edens or proto-New Creations. Descent into Egypt is a kind of exile, and Joshua’s conquest a return from exile. But then notice that in 1 Samuel 1-4 the Ark “Himself” goes into exile into Philistia (related to Egypt according to Genesis 10), defeats their gods, and then returns, eventually to be enthroned in Solomon’s Temple.
3. It’s been a while since I read/perused Wright’s works on the gospels, but he seems to argue that the Jews never REALLY came back from the Babylonian exile. I don’t think this is correct, and have the following observations:
3a. The books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah redefine the “land of God” as the Oikumene, within which a much smaller “holy land” is the center (much smaller than what Israel inhabited in the former days, from Joshua to Zedekiah). In Daniel 8, the leaders of the Oikumene are sheep and goats, members of this new larger flock. There is a whole shift in the definition of the “land” here that very few have noticed.
3b. After the first Babel, God gave a land to Abraham. This begins an historical arc that continues until the Babylonian exile in the days of Jeremiah, etc. There is a new land given, and a new historical arc begun, when God confuses the tongues (reading) of the second Babel in
Daniel 5. This new land is not the land promised to Abraham as concerns its boundaries, but is the double land of the Oikumene and the Holy Land within it. To wit:
3c. The release of the Jews from Babylon by Cyrus is not to go back into the land promised by Abraham, whose boundaries are no longer relevant. It is a double release. On the one hand, some go back into what is now called the Holy Land and Holy City (new terms in this new Restoration Covenant era). On the other hand, some are spread out as the “four winds of heaven” within the Oikumene to serve as witnesses. This is a double return, though a “spiritual” return rather than a geographical movement. The greater spiritual power and glories of this new age are described in Zecharia 1-6 and Ezekiel 40-48.
3d. There was a great apostasy from this calling to bear witness in the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, described/prophesied in Daniel 11. The priests of Jerusalem desired to remake the Holy City into a Greek city, with olympic-style games and all the rest. They tossed out the
Zadokite High Priest Onias III (committing the “abomination that causes desolation”), and took over the city. When Antiochus determined to enforce the Hellenization of Jerusalem, and provoked the Maccabees to revolt, he was only doing what he thought the leaders of the Jews wanted him to do — and in fact what the DID want him to do.
3e. This fall of the Restoration Covenant ushers in a new spiritual exile. It is not a geographical exile, but a spiritual one. The Maccabees did not reinstall the Zadokite line as High Priests, but took it over for themselves. There was never a true and valid HP in Judaism again (until Jesus, who was more than Aaron of course). There were valid priests for the offerings of the altar and holy place, but no valid HP for the Day of Covering in the Most Holy. (Jesus never attends the Day of Covering in the gospels.)
3f. Understood this way, Wright’s thesis can be reestablished on even firmer and stronger grounds. They were indeed in exile, an even worse exile than ever before. They were not dominated by Babylonians, but by demons, as we see from the gospels — the demons
apparently house in the synagogues!
3g. As for later Jewish literature, it seems that Jewish nationalists rejected their call to be a nation of prophets within God’s Oikumene, and considered that the Oikumene was a place of exile, and that someday they would have a Davidic nation of their own again. This was simple unbelief, and a rejection of their wonderful high calling to serve in God’s Oikumene. To the extent that Wright may agree with this woeful opinion, he would be in error.
4. In conclusion, the real failure is not with Wright, who is after all a NT theologian and specialist. The failure is on the part of the OT theologians he is reading, who utterly fail to deal with the distinctive qualities and glories of the post-exilic Restoration covenant and the new
larger and greater “land” of the Oikumene. By and large, the “post-exilic” time of the Old Creation is viewed as some kind of amorphous appendage to OT history. Not so. It is the first phase of the New Covenant, and a time of greater spiritual glory than ever before.

N.T. Wright on Predestination

In Wright’s commentary on Romans, he says:

Foreknowledge is a form of love or grace; to speak thus is to speak of God’s reaching out, in advance of anything the person may do or think, to reveal love and to solicit an answering love, to reveal a particular purpose and to call forth obedience to it…More particularly, this foreknowledge produces God’s foreordaining purpose…What we have here, rather, is an expression, as in 1:1, of God’s action in setting people apart for a particular purpose, a purpose in which their cooperation, their loving response to love, their obedient response to the personal call, is itself all-important. This is not to deny the mystery of grace, the free initiative of God, and the clear divine sovereignty that is after all the major theme of this entire passage, here brought to a glorious climax. But it is to deny the common misconception, based on a two-dimensional rather than a three-dimensional understanding of how God’s actions and human actions relate to each other, that sees something done by God as something not done by humans, and vice versa….Woe betide theology if discussions of grace take their coloring from the mechanistic or technological age where all actions are conceived as though performed by a set of machines. God’s foreknowledge and foreordination, setting people apart in advance for particular purposes, are not equal and opposite to human desires, longings, self-questionings, obedience, and above all love. You do not take away from the one by adding to the other….Christian faith, ultimately irreducible to any analogy, and certainly not reducible to terms of “yet another odd paradox,” involves wholeheartedly and responsibly answering the call of sovereign love, gratitude, and obedience that come from the depths of one’s own being and are simultaneously experienced as a response to sovereignty, a compulsion even, to which the closest parallel remains that of the highest love. (on Rom 8.18-30)

He affirms predestination, but seeks to guard from an overly-deterministic mindset – something where I believe the Reformers agree with him, despite perceptions to the contrary.

In a footnote of his Romans commentary, Wright comments on Douglas Moo’s recent commentary which adopts the standard view of predestination in Romans and says:

…Moo allows his discussion to be overshadowed by the anachronistic debates between Calvinism and Arminianism…

Some of his comments:

“Paul is not, then, producing an abstract essay on the way in which God always works with individuals, or for that matter with nations and races. This is specifically the story of Israel, the chosen people; it is the unique story of how the creator has worked with the covenant people, to bring about the purpose for which the covenant was made in the first place. It is the story, in other words, whose climax and goal is the Messiah;
…These sections tell the story of Israel’s patriarchal foundation (vv. 6-13), then of the exodus (vv. 14-18), and then of God’s judgment that led to exile and, through it, to the fulfillment of God’s worldwide promise to Abraham (vv. 19-24).
9:11-12. The second explanation occupies center stage in this brief telling of the Jacob/Esau story: it cannot be that God’s selection of Jacob had anything to do with Jacob’s merits, since the promise was made before he and his brother were born. God’s choice has nothing to do with merit observed.
Nor (to meet the objection of a latter theology) could it have been foreseen, and hence explained in terms of God’s knowing how the brothers were going to turn out; Jacob’s behavior as a young adult, cheating and twisting this way and that, would scarcely have earned him favor with an impartial deity. The point is, though, that Paul is not here discussing what an abstract, impartial deity would or should have done; he is discussing the long purposes of God for Israel, and through Israel for the world. Central to those purposes is the principle that all must be of grace, “not of works, but of the one who calls.”
Paul is not, then, using the example of Pharaoh to explain that God has the right to show mercy, or to harden someone’s heart, out of mere caprice. Nor is it simply that God has the right to do this sort of thing when someone is standing in the way of the glorious purpose that has been promised. The sense of this passage (9:17-28) is gained from its place within the larger story line from 9:6-10:21–that is, as part of the story of Israel itself, told to explain what is now happening to Paul’s “kinsfolk according to the flesh.”
As in the parable of the sheep and the goats, there is an imbalance between what is said about the “vessels of wrath” and what is said about the “vessels of mercy” (Matt 25:34, 41). The former are “fitted for destruction,” leaving it at least ambiguous whether they have done this to themselves by their impenitence or whether God has somehow been involved in the process. The latter, though, have been “prepared for glory” by God himself.
“It isn’t a matter of willing, or running, but of God’s mercy” (v. 16); that text alone, even without its context, can bring solace to a troubled and anxious heart. That, indeed, is part of the point of expounding God’s sovereignty: not to terrify us with the sense of an unknowable and possibly capricious deity, but to assure us that the God of creation, the God we know in Jesus Christ, overflows with mercy, and that even negative judgments have mercy in view all along, if only people will have the humility and faith to find it where it has been placed. To be able to rest in the sovereign mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ is one of the most valuable aspects of the Christian’s calling.”

Augustinian Platonism

My lovely wife picked up a cheap book for me yesterday at the library sale : The Age of Reform 1250-1550. [50 cents!]

The author, Steven Ozment, outlines Augustine’s modification of Platonism in a chart which I have reproduced here.

Augustinian_Platonism_Picture.001

Ozment writes:

Augustine replaced the Platonic doctrine of reconciliation with his own distinctive doctrine of “divine illumination,” one of his most influential teachings. This doctrine placed the eternal forms of the Platonists within the mind of the triune Christian God, thereby making them truly divine ideas. Hence, when one plumbed the depths of one’s own mind in search of truth, one found there, not an innate ability to recollect eternity, as the Platonists had taught, but Christ, the eternal wisdom of God, the second person of the Trinity, whose very name was Truth. Through the illumination of Christ, indwelling truth, the mind received divine light by which it could know truly. Whether pagan or Christian, people understood and functioned within the world around them, thanks to this special grace of God. Without such divine illumination, all they would know was a chaos of phantasms. According to Augustine, just as God frees the will so that people can truly do good things, so he enlightens their minds so that they can surely know.