Old Books Are Good For Your Soul

I grew up in imbibing white evangelical American theology.  It was in the air I breathed.  There is much good in that air.  But there is also much that is questionable.  Like others, there came a time in my life when I began to ask questions.  Some questions were small (How come so much contemporary worship music is focused on me and my feelings?) and others were big (Is God just a superman in the sky ready to destroy whomever crosses him?).

It is possible when such questions are asked to reject Christianity as a whole.  If all you see is one form of Christianity (white evangelical American in my case) and you notice blindspots and problems, the easiest path is walking away.

I am grateful that I realized that Christianity is far larger, deeper, more complex (though perhaps also more simple) than the white evangelical variety.  This realization came to me in numerous ways, one of which was meeting Christians from the past through reading old books.  CS Lewis writes about the importance of old books in an essay in God in the Dock:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another one till you have read an old one in between.  If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.  Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means old books” (219)

We all have blind spots and biases.  This is why it is vital to break out of the echo chamber and listen to voices that do not hold yours same background and presuppositions.  One way to do this is to read old books that have stood the test of time.  As Lewis says in the quote above, books from other eras do not share the biases of our time so they can help us see what we may not see and correct what needs to be corrected.  Lewis goes on to say:

“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them” (220).

Again, reading books of the past is not magic.  They were written by people as messed up as we are.  Not everything in these books is right and true.  But they do have much to teach us because, again, they do not share our blindspots.  I found loads of beauty and truth in meeting old Christians in their books.  Of course, I found some things that were questionable.  This helped me realize that there is both beauty and blindspots in all forms of faith, even the form I grew up in.

How to go about reading old books?  They are not easy, that’s for sure.  Lewis suggests the following:

“I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.  But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.  A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light” (218)

Not bad advice.  I’d suggest starting with someone like CS Lewis himself.




Devotional Recommendations?

Students and friends often ask me what books I would recommend for devotional reading.  I admit I am not entirely sure what sort of book they are looking for.  If by devotional they mean a book they can read a few pages each morning that will provide spiritual reflection throughout the day, then nearly anything can be a devotional!

One thing I have found helpful for devotional reading is Prayer Books, such as the classic Book of Common Prayer.  Such books provide prayers to read each morning, noon and night as well as scripture.  Or you can just use the prayers and then read whatever scripture you like.  Recently I’ve been using Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Rather than reading the suggested scriptures, I’m reading my own bible passages of choice (two chapters of Exodus and one of the Gospels right now, if you’re curious.  Another prayer book I’ve appreciated is Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours.


If you want to go a different direction, in the last year or so I discovered a whole series of devotional books that come from the work of some of the best spiritual writers throughout the history of the church.  All the books in the series are “Praying With…” someone and I’ve prayed with the likes of Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi.  I’ve long liked reading history and these sorts of works.  These books are nice because they give good background on each author as well as commentary on their work.  Each day includes scriptures, prayers and questions you can journal about or think on during the day.  Plus, you can get them used quite cheap!

Ultimately, this series points me to the best of what “devotional” literature can be.  It does not replace reading scripture; engaging with scripture should always be a part of our spiritual practice. Yet we recognize that we are influenced by our own culture and experience, so we look to spiritual guides from past places and times in whom the Spirit has worked.  Sitting at their feet, reading their words, helps us to grow.

Finally, if you aren’t sold on that series, I can think of lots of books that have been helpful to read a page or two a day.  Basically, a list of some of my favorite books!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Cost of Discipleship

Philip Yancey – What’s So Amazing About Grace

Richard Rohr – The Naked Now

Barbara Brown Taylor – An Altar in the World

Thomas a Kempis – Imitation of Christ

CS Lewis – Mere Christianity



Social Justice and Caring for the Poor in the Early Church

A while back a popular conservative commentator got all up in arms over the term “social justice”, warning his listeners to flee their church if the pastor mentioned it because it was code for communism.  He may be surprised to learn that the idea of social justice has roots as old as the Christian faith itself.  I thought of his words when I began reading Basil the Great’s On Social Justice.  I realize that this is a title given by editors and that Basil wrote in Greek and that the book is a collection of sermons on poverty.  That said, I still chuckled when I saw the title.

Then I started reading and my chuckling stopped.  Soon I just moved back and forth form feeling incredibly challenged by these ancient words and feeling completely despondent in the face of my personal, and the church’s collective, failure to live up to this challenge.  One thing other readers note about Basil’s work is that it needs little introduction and that readers with limited knowledge of his time period don’t really need any.  These sorts of sermons could have been preached last week (though, any preacher who preachers them will probably be looking for a job this week).

Basil’s basic message here is that there is enough material goods in the world for everyone.  If you have too much, you are robbing the poor.  Those with a lot need to give it to those in need so we all have enough.  Wow, maybe that conservative radio host was right!  There is even a section where Basil points out that those who declare they worked hard and earned a comfortable life ignore the fact that they received so many blessings from God (or, to put it in contemporary terms, you didn’t build it on your own).

Lest we think Basil was some sort of socialist and turn away from his work, we should probably remember that he is one of the primary theologians who hammered out the Nicene Creed.  To be somewhat blunt, if you believe the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, that the Spirit truly is God, that is partly due to Basil’s work (yes, I know the Bible and the Spirit had something to do with it too!).  Seriously though, read his work On the Holy Spirit.

Also, while this work translates well to the modern reader, there may be differences we ought to keep in mind.  Such differences ought not be mentioned with the goal to blunt Basil’s tough words.  If we look for cultural differences too quickly to free us from the bite of his words, our motives are wrong (of course, we Christians do that with Jesus’ words all the time, don’t we?).  For example, we live in a world where many national governments have been influenced for centuries by Christian teaching.  So our governments take on some duty in caring for the poor through various programs.  This means that one question Christians discuss when talking on this is to what degree churches work in their own programs and to what degree do they advocate governmental work that lines up with justice.  Basil does not talk about this at all.  He does not write on the government’s duty to care for the poor or how that all works.  Does this mean Christians today just help the poor and not worry about the government?  Maybe, though I’d say if our Christian convictions are worth anything we advocate for the government to do good, such as helping the neediest citizens.  I assume Basil would agree, though he did not talk on it.

Another difference is that when Christians today think of helping the poor this is often thoughts of donating money, probably online, to some organization that helps people overseas.  This is a good thing, but not what Basil meant.  He meant the poor people right down the street.  Basil would challenge us to rethink what it looks like to help others.

Overall, I think all Christians need to give this book a good read.  I plan to reread it in the not too distant future.

Along with Basil’s work, I tackled John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty, seven sermons on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  While not as directly challenging as Basil’s work, it is still an enriching read.  It is clear why Chrysostom was known as a great preacher.  Where Basil is blunt and to the point, Chrysostom is full of beautiful prose.  He even had to tell people to stop cheering for his sermon and actually apply it to their lives.

My favorite thing about Chrysostom was the centrality of scripture, he had whole sections reminding people to search scripture on their own.  Always cool to find that sort of thing in the early church to remember the Protestant Reformation did not invent that.  Also cool to see ancient preachers go on tangents, as someone who enjoys a good tangent or two myself when I stand up in front of people.

When Chrysostom gets to the point, there is a lot to think about.  One thing he emphasizes over and over is that even good people commit sins and even bad people do some good (I wonder how Augustine felt about his thoughts on sin here?).  Thus, he argued, the rich man received his reward for the good he did in this life, little good as it was.  And Lazarus suffered, perhaps as punishment for his sin.  But in the next life they each got what they deserved.  From this, we are reminded to not praise those in comfort, for they are getting their reward now.  And those suffering are looking to future rewards.

All in all, read both these works and read them again.  Let them read you and change you.  I know I will, at least I hope I will.

Listening to the Saints – Gregory of Nyssa’s Great Catechism

I have so enjoyed working through the writings of long dead Christians whose work has stood the test of time.  Recently I’ve been reading the Cappadocian Fathers, three men who lived in the second half of the 300s.  Their work on the Trinity and Christian spirituality is fantastic.

Gregory of Nyssa’s The Great Catechism is no exception.  What I most enjoy about reading historic works is that they go about things in an entirely different way then we do today.  That is, coming from a different context, they are not answering the questions with the same assumptions that we bring to the questions today.  Thus, reading these authors can serve as a corrective for how we read, revealing our own blindspost.

One point Gregory emphasizes here is that God is not the creator of evil.  There are many passages on this, such as:

No growth of evil had its beginning in the Divine will. Vice would have been blameless were it inscribed with the name of God as its maker and father. But the evil is, in some way or other, engendered from within, springing up in the will at that moment when there is a retrocession of the soul from the beautiful.  For as sight is an activity of nature, and blindness a deprivation of that natural operation, such is the kind of opposition between virtue and vice.

This is an important point to be reminded of today, as Christians and skeptics debate what it means for God to create.  If God created everything, some ask, doesn’t that make God the author of sin?  Definitely not, says Gregory.  God created sight, for example, not blindness just as God created virtue and not vice.

As an interesting side-note, I’ve read a lot of David Bentley Hart recently and he has been greatly influenced by Gregory.  So it is interesting to see the similarities between the two.  When Hart argues that something is traditional Christian theism, it is to be expected to see it in Gregory and we do.

Where evil comes from is a mystery.  There is much mystery when we speak of God.  It is the same mystery that leads to God taking on human flesh to save us.  Gregory spends a lot of time defending this point too, for example:

This, then, is the mystery of God’s plan with regard to His death and His resurrection from the dead; namely, instead of preventing the dissolution of His body by death and the necessary results of nature, to bring both back to each other in the resurrection; so that He might become in Himself the meeting-ground both of life and death, having re-established in Himself that nature which death had divided, and being Himself the originating principle of the uniting those separated portions.

The transcendent God who is everywhere present has walked among us as a human:

That Deity should be born in our nature, ought not reasonably to present any strangeness to the minds of those who do not take too narrow a view of things. For who, when he takes a survey of the universe, is so simple as not to believe that there is Deity in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it? For all things depend on Him Who is , nor can there be anything which has not its being in Him Who is. If, therefore, all things are in Him, and He in all things, why are they scandalized at the plan of Revelation when it teaches that God was born among men, that same God Whom we are convinced is even now not outside mankind?

Finally, we get Gregory’s explanation of the atonement.  He speaks of God tricking the devil.  The devil had rights to humanity, so when he saw Jesus he grabbed him, but the deity was concealed in the humanity which means the devil went too far:

the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish , the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.

This view of the atonement was the primary understanding of the church for centuries and still has much to offer thinkers today as we reflect on what Jesus has done.

Overall, do yourself a favor and read some Gregory.

Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit

I recently read through Basil of Caesarea’s classic work On the Holy Spirit.  Basil is one of the Cappadocian fathers and this work on the Holy Spirit was hugely influential in the Council of Constantinople’s editing and affirmation of the Nicene Creed, including stronger language on the deity of the Spirit.  This work is also one of those works that I believe any Christian interested in learning about the Holy Spirit, reading some Christian classics, or simply reading something that will help them grow in their faith, could read and enjoy.

Below are some quotes that I found most thought-provoking:

“Testify to every man who is confessing Christ and denying God, that Christ will profit him nothing; to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain; to every man that sets aside the Spirit, that his faith in the Father and the Son will be useless, for he cannot even hold it without the presence of the Spirit. For he who does not believe the Spirit does not believe in the Son, and he who has not believed in the Son does not believe in the Father. For none “can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost,” and “No man hath seen God at any time, but the only begotten God which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, pp. 17–18). New York: Christian Literature Company.

For it is impossible to worship the Son, save by the Holy Ghost; impossible to call upon the Father, save by the Spirit of adoption.” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 18). New York: Christian Literature Company.

“And in the creation bethink thee first, I pray thee, of the original cause of all things that are made, the Father; of the creative cause, the Son; of the perfecting cause, the Spirit; so that the ministering spirits subsist by the will of the Father, are brought into being by the operation of the Son, and perfected by the presence of the Spirit.”– Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 23). New York: Christian Literature Company.

“If on the other hand they suppose the subnumeration to benefit the Spirit alone, they must be taught that the Spirit is spoken of together with the Lord in precisely the same manner in which the Son is spoken of with the Father. “The name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” is delivered in like manner, and, according to the co-ordination of words delivered in baptism, the relation of the Spirit to the Son is the same as that of the Son to the Father. And if the Spirit is co-ordinate with the Son, and the Son with the Father, it is obvious that the Spirit is also co-ordinate with the Father.” –  Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 27). New York: Christian Literature Company.

There is one God and Father, one Only-begotten, and one Holy Ghost. We proclaim each of the hypostases singly; and, when count we must, we do not let an ignorant arithmetic carry us away to the idea of a plurality of Gods “- Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 28). New York: Christian Literature Company.

For we do not count by way of addition, gradually making increase from unity to multitude, and saying one, two, and three,—nor yet first, second, and third. For “I,” God, “am the first, and I am the last.” And hitherto we have never, even at the present time, heard of a second God. Worshipping as we do God of God, we both confess the distinction of the Persons, and at the same time abide by the Monarchy. We do not fritter away the theology4 in a divided plurality, because one Form, so to say, united in the invariableness of the Godhead, is beheld in God the Father, and in God the Only begotten. For the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; since such as is the latter, such is the former, and such as is the former, such is the latter; and herein is the Unity. So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one. How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king’s image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one;6 because the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case or the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead. One, moreover, is the Holy Spirit, and we speak of Him singly, conjoined as He is to the one Father through the one Son, and through Himself completing the adorable and blessed Trinity. Of Him the intimate relationship to the Father and the Son is sufficiently declared by the fact of His not being ranked in the plurality of the creation, but being spoken of singly; for he is not one of many, but One. For as there is one Father and one Son, so is there one Holy Ghost. He is consequently as far removed from created Nature as reason requires the singular to be removed from compound and plural bodies; and He is in such wise united to the Father and to the Son as unit has affinity with unit.”– Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 28). New York: Christian Literature Company.

The way of the knowledge of God lies from One Spirit through the One Son to the One Father”– Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 29). New York: Christian Literature Company.

“For what our Lord says of the Father as being above and beyond human conception, and what He says of the Son, this same language He uses also of the Holy Ghost.” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 34). New York: Christian Literature Company.

“Let us then examine the points one by one. He is good by nature, in the same way as the Father is good, and the Son is good; the creature on the other hand shares in goodness by choosing the good. He knows “The deep things of God;” the creature receives the manifestation of ineffable things through the Spirit. He quickens together with God, who produces and preserves all things alive,3 and together with the Son, who gives life. “He that raised up Christ from the dead,” it is said, “shall also quicken your mortal bodies by the spirit that dwelleth in you;” and again “my sheep hear my voice, … and I give unto them eternal life;”5 but “The Spirit” also, it is said, “giveth life,” and again “the Spirit,” it is said, “is life, because of righteousness.”7 And the Lord bears witness that “it is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” How then shall we alienate the Spirit from His quickening power, and make Him belong to lifeless nature? Who is so contentious, who is so utterly without the heavenly gift,9 and unfed by God’s good words, who is so devoid of part and lot in eternal hopes, as to sever the Spirit from the Godhead and rank Him with the creature?” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 36). New York: Christian Literature Company.

whenever we have in mind the Spirit’s proper rank, we contemplate Him as being with the Father and the Son, but when we think of the grace that flows from Him operating on those who participate in it, we say that the Spirit is in us. And the doxology which we offer “in the Spirit” is not an acknowledgment of His rank; it is rather a confession of our own weakness, while we shew that we are not sufficient to glorify Him of ourselves, but our sufficiency is in the Holy Spirit. Enabled in, [or by,] Him we render thanks to our God for the benefits we have received, according to the measure of our purification from evil, as we receive one a larger and another a smaller share of the aid of the Spirit, that we may offer “the sacrifice of praise to God.” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, pp. 39–40). New York: Christian Literature Company.

The Dialogue of Catherine of Sienna (Listening to the Saints)

Over the past few years I have worked through various classics of Christian spirituality as part of my daily devotional.  I have found it incredibly life-giving to, in addition to reading scripture, to read the words of these saints of Christ who have gone before us.  Most recently I read Catherine of Sienna’s Dialogue which she wrote around 1377.

This is not really a review, rather it is a list of quotes, in the order they came in the text, that struck me with a few words on each on why they struck me.   Remember, this dialogue is written in first person from God’s perspective so the voice the reader hears is that of God speaking to Catherine.  Despite that, when I comment on it I will take it as Catherine’s words.

“because love of Me and of her neighbor are one and the same thing, and, so far as the soul loves Me, she loves her neighbor, because love towards him issues from Me.”Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 533-534). . Kindle Edition.

There is an equivalence between loving God and loving neighbor, you cannot claim to love God if you do not love neighbor.

“I use the word temporal for the things necessary to the physical life of man; all these I have given indifferently, and I have not placed them all in one soul, in order that man should, perforce, have material for love of his fellow. I could easily have created men possessed of all that they should need both for body and soul, but I wish that one should have need of the other, and that they should be My ministers to administer the graces and the gifts that they have received from Me.” Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 555-558). . Kindle Edition.

I found the idea that God gave out gifts to different people to force us to rely on each other to be quite beautiful.

Wherefore, all of you, vessels made of this stuff, were corrupted and not disposed to the possession of eternal life — so I, with My dignity, joined Myself to the baseness of your human generation, in order to restore it to grace which you had lost by sin; for I was incapable of suffering, and yet, on account of – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 782-784). . Kindle Edition.

At the moment that the soul receives Holy Baptism, original sin is taken away from her, and grace is infused into her, and that inclination to sin, which remains from the original corruption, as has been said, is indeed a source of weakness, but the soul can keep the bridle on it if she choose. Then the vessel of the soul is disposed to receive and increase in herself grace, more or less, according as it pleases her to dispose herself willingly with affection, and desire of loving and serving Me; and, in the same way, she can dispose herself to evil as to good, in spite of her having received grace in Holy Baptism. Wherefore when the time of discretion is come, the soul can, by her free will, make choice either of good or evil, according as it pleases her will; and so great – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 802-810). . Kindle Edition.

Not only did I give you liberty, but, if you examine, you will see that man has become God, and God has become man, through the union of the divine with the human nature – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 827-828). . Kindle Edition.

The first and third quote here push us to the central truths of God as Trinity and Jesus as fully God and fully human.  Catherine is totally in line with the church fathers here, echoing Athanasius and others.  The second quote reminds me that she is definitely a medieval Roman Catholic and it presents a Catholic understanding of grace.

A false Christian is punished more than a pagan, and the deathless fire of divine justice consumes him more, that is, afflicts him more, and, in his affliction, he feels himself being consumed by the worm of conscience, though, in truth, he is not consumed, because the damned do not lose their being through any torment which they receive – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 834-837). . Kindle Edition.

The traditional view of hell is apparent in Catherine, though not everyone receives equal punishment.

And do you know why they cannot desire good? Because the life of man ended, free-will is bound – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1253-1254). . Kindle Edition.

So you see that in those bonds of love in which they finished their life, they go on and remain eternally. They are conformed so entirely to My will, that they cannot desire except what I desire, because their free-will is bound in the bond of love, in such a way that, time failing them, and, dying in a state of grace, they cannot sin any more. And their will is so united with Mine, that a father or a mother seeing their son, or a son seeing his father or his mother in Hell, do not trouble themselves, and even are contented to see them punished as My enemies – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1287-1291). . Kindle Edition.

One book I want to read is Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa for in it he writes of how we continue to grow closer to God for all eternity, an idea I have encountered elsewhere.  Catherine apparently does not hold this, instead you are frozen in your attitudes at the moment of death.  I wonder if this is an Eastern vs. Western difference with Catherine giving the Catholic view.  I find the Eastern one more appealing.

You see then, that the transformation is not in His Face, when He comes to judge with My Divine Majesty, but in the vision of those who will be judged by Him. To the damned He will appear with hatred and with justice. And to the saved with love and mercy – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1317-1320). . Kindle Edition.

Still on the topic of hell and afterlife, the idea here is not that there are two different locations but that God is everywhere and to some this leads to hatred of God (those in hell) and to others this is love (those in heaven).

For the soul, from her nature, always relishes good, though it is true that the soul, blinded by self-love, does not know and discern what is true good, and of profit to the soul and to the body. And, therefore, the Devil, seeing them blinded by self-love, iniquitously places before them diverse and various delights, colored so as to have the appearance of some benefit or good; and he gives to everyone according to his condition and those principal vices to which he sees him to be most disposed — of one kind to the secular, of another to the religious, and others to prelates and noblemen, according to their different conditions – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1398-1403). . Kindle Edition.

We desire good, but do not always know what the good is.

And if tribulations on man’s account, or infirmity, or poverty, or change of worldly condition, or loss of children, or of other much loved creatures (all of which are thorns that the earth produced after sin) come upon them, they endure them all with the light of reason and holy faith, looking to Me, who am the Supreme Good, and who cannot desire other than good, for which I permit these tribulations through love, and not through hatred – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1458-1461). . Kindle Edition.

Those in Christ are able to persevere in the face of trials.

Wherefore were it possible for them to have virtue without toil they would not want it. They would rather delight in the Cross, with Christ, acquiring it with pain, than in any other way obtain Eternal Life. Why? Because they are inflamed and steeped in the Blood, where they find the blaze of My charity, which charity is a fire proceeding from Me, ravishing their heart and mind and making their sacrifices acceptable – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2071-2074). . Kindle Edition.

For Catherine, as for most traditional spiritual writing, there is no easy path to growing in God.  More than that, those who truly desire to grow closer to Jesus, in virtue, would not want an easy path if there was one!  I find that challenging to my laziness and quickness to cut corners.

Every light that comes from Holy Scripture comes and came from this supernatural light. Ignorant and proud men of science were blind notwithstanding this light, because their pride and the cloud of self-love had covered up and put out the light. Wherefore they understood the Holy Scripture rather literally than with understanding, and taste only the letter of it, still desiring many other books; and they get not to the marrow of it, because they have deprived themselves of the light, with which is found and expounded the Scripture; and they are annoyed and murmur, because they find much in it that appears to them gross and idiotic – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2104-2109). . Kindle Edition.

Wherefore, I say to you, that it is much better to go for counsel for the salvation of the soul, to a holy and upright conscience, than to a proud lettered man, learned in much science, because such a one can only offer what he has himself, and, because of his darkness, it may appear to you, that, from what he says, the Scriptures offer darkness. The contrary will you find with My servants, because they offer the light that is in them, with hunger and desire for the soul’s salvation – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2111-2114). . Kindle Edition.

Spiritual people, those close to Jesus, do not always appear to be the smartest or most glamorous.  Look for such servants of Jesus though, for they will give you true counsel.

When, therefore, she sees herself to be ineffably loved by Me, she loves every rational creature with the self-same love with which she sees herself to be loved. And, for this reason, the soul that knows Me immediately expands to the love of her neighbor, because she sees that I love that neighbor ineffably, and so, herself, loves the object which she sees Me to have loved still more – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2210-2212). . Kindle Edition.

to Me, because I have loved you without being Myself loved, and without any consideration of Myself whatsoever, for I loved you without being loved by you — before you existed; it was, indeed, love that moved Me to create you to My own image and similitude. This love you cannot repay to Me, but you can pay it to My rational creature, loving your neighbor without being loved by him and without consideration of your own advantage, whether spiritual or temporal, but loving him solely for the praise and glory of My Name, because he has been loved by Me – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2217-2220). . Kindle Edition.

Is our love for others driven by selfishness or a true concern for them?  As we receive unconditional, undeserved love from God we repay this love to others in the same way.

It is therefore impossible to fulfill the law given by Me, the Eternal God, without fulfilling that of your neighbor, for these two laws are the feet of your affection by which the precepts and counsels are observed, which were given you, as I have told you, by My Truth, Christ crucified – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2225-2227). . Kindle Edition.

because she is stripped of mercenary love, that is of love for Me based on interested motives, and is clothed in perfect light, loving Me in perfect purity, with no other regard than for the praise and glory of My Name, serving neither Me for her own delight, nor her neighbor for her own profit, but purely through love alone. Such as these have lost themselves, and have stripped themselves of the Old Man, that is of their own sensuality, and, having clothed themselves with the New Man, the sweet Christ Jesus, My Truth, follow Him manfully. These are they who sit at the table of holy desire, having been more anxious to slay their own will than to slay and mortify their own body – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2448-2453). . Kindle Edition.

More on love of neighbor and what true love is.

The just man does not turn his head to admire his past virtues, because he neither can nor will hope in his own virtues, but only in the Blood in which he has found mercy; and as he lived in the memory of that Blood, so in death he is inebriated and drowned in the same – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2941-2943). . Kindle Edition.

How often do we turn to remember our past triumphs!  Catherine would say a true holy person does not do that..

Unity and Diversity (Listening to the Saints)

I am writing a series of posts as devotionals for my college students this summer.  Many of these have been inspired by Pascal’s Pensees, but I am also reading portions of the early church fathers.  This post is inspired by Clement of Rome.

There is debate in scholarly circles, but in general all the books that ended up in the New Testament were completed by 100 AD.  But it is not like Christians stopped writing!  Other Christian writings exist, some from right around this time.  One of the earliest of these comes from Clement of Rome.  If you are Roman Catholic, he is considered to be the fourth pope.  The tradition says he was ordained into ministry by Peter himself, the disciple of Jesus (and first pope).  He was bishop of Rome from about 92-99 AD.  For a point of reference, the traditional dating of Revelation is during this time.

Clement has left us one writing, a Letter to the Church in Corinth.  I personally find this fascinating because I always want to know what happens next.  When I watch a movie or read a book, I wonder what happened next.  We read about Corinth in the Bible, Paul wrote 2 letters to them (1 and 2 Corinthians).  From these letters we see a church that is very divided, with everyone having their own favorite teacher.  There were divisions between rich and poor, some people seemed to look the other way in the face of blatant sexual sins (a man sleeping with his stepmother).  Well, what happened next?

Forty years later, based on Clement’s letter, the church in Corinth still has issues:

Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ?19 Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that “we are members one of another?” Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how21 He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continueth

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 17–18). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

The church is very divided today, we have a myriad of denominations – Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Methodists and Mennonites, Catholics and Calvinists and so on.  This is not ideal.  Yet if we think there was once a time when the followers of Jesus lived in idyllic unity, we are wrong.  There were divisions practically right from the beginning.  It took a few years for enough church hierarchy and government to build up enough for them to actually kick each other out (you have to have a formal institution to excommunicate people from).  Before this, in the days of more informal groupings, people just didn’t get along and gossiped and caused all sorts of problems.

So why do I share this text with you in the middle of the summer?  Well, one reason I have loved working on campus is somehow we manage to overcome these divisions.  We get Christians from all sorts of backgrounds here and you manage to worship and serve others together.  You have discussions about your beliefs, but we have not had a schism over them.  In this I like to think campus ministry is a model for the wider church, showing that we can disagree and still be united.

The second reason is that I think this is one of the bigger questions skeptics have today.  How can I know which church to join if you’re all divided?  If you have the truth why can’t you get along?  Having some sort of answer to those questions is important.  More important is being able to model unity on campus is one of the best answers we can give.

Third, we need to realize we are all different and that is okay.  Christian faith is all about unity in diversity (you could talk about the Trinity here, three in one, but that might get a little heady).   God loves and welcomes all people in Jesus.  You do not need to give up your cultural or even your complete personal identity to be a Christian.  Lamin Sanneh is a well-known African theologian and he found this to be one of the most unique things of Christianity.  Other religions are tied to a culture, so to convert is to learn specific cultural forms.  Christianity, on the other hand, affirms all cultural forms.  We don’t demand you learn a special language, we translate the Bible into your language.

But this is hard.  We want to think we have it all figured out and everyone should be like us – our style of worship, music and so on.  The challenge is recognizing our differences while focusing on what unites us – Jesus Christ.  We all come to God on the same terms – faith in Jesus:

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 13). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

May we find beauty in our differences and be unified in Jesus.

Let our whole body, then, be preserved in, Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect unto the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He hath given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another.13 Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 15). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

Pascal’s Wager – A Leap of Faith (Reflections on Pascal’s Pensees)

If you’ve heard anything of Pascal, it is probably his famous “wager”:

Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 67-68). . Kindle Edition).

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 68). . Kindle Edition)

According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost.—”But,” say you, “if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.”—He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 70-71). . Kindle Edition).

Pascal’s Wager has been criticized by many.  The basic argument is that if you believe in Jesus and are wrong, if there really is no God, then you lose nothing for after death you no longer exist.  But if you believe there is no God and are wrong, you risk hell.  This alone, so it goes, means you ought to believe.

Now if this was how Pascal actually formed things, it would be a faulty argument.  But I don’t think this is what he meant.  First, for Pascal, both belief and unbelief can make at least some sense.  So Pascal’s starting point is a rational examination that leads to the conclusion of uncertainty.  If you think and read and study and conclude that you still aren’t sure, the wager becomes a relevant argument.  It is not an argument made in the face of any rational belief.  Instead, it is an argument made when rational belief has taken you some of the way there but you can’t get any farther.

I suppose if you employed your rationality and concluded you were certain there was no God, the wager would not be for you.  But Pascal would not agree that rational argument leads to where you think it does.

Once again, the wager comes at the end of a long search which the searcher deems at least somewhat inconclusive.  You think there might be a God, but aren’t convinced.  You find some of who Jesus is and what he said convincing, perhaps you find other arguments and ideas intriguing.  But the problem of evil and suffering or some other such problem leads you to balk.  What do you do?  You must make a decision, for even not making one is to make one.

If you take Pascal’s wager you are taking a sort of “leap of faith.”  It is a dive into uncertainty, embracing the mystery, and believing in this leap you will find God.  I don’t think the wager works if you leave it as a mere rational point, if at the end of thought you simply choose to “believe”.  In other words, the wager does not lead to belief as a mere assertion of agreement (I believe 12 eggs are in a dozen, the sky is blue and God is real).  Instead, the wager points to a belief as a radical trust, more akin to the relationship with a spouse: I am not sure what the future holds but I trust that as I leap into this future, you are with me.

What do you think of the wager?


Having Faith and Doubt – When Both Sides Sometimes Make Sense (Reflections on Pascal’s Pensees)

I’ve been sharing reflections on portions of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees (Thoughts), writing with my students at PSU Berks in mind.  Today I come to one of my favorite quotes from the book:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 65-66). . Kindle Edition.

Pascal is saying, it seems to me, that both embracing belief in God and rejecting belief in God make sense to him.  He can see why and how a person could go either direction.  He sees too much to deny God’s existence, but too little to be certain.

I am right there with Pascal on this one.

I used to seek certainty.  When I began pursing my faith more intentionally in college and when I began reading and studying I hoped I would come across a book or argument or something that would clinch it.  I believed that out there somewhere was a formula that, once I saw it,  would bring certainty about God, Jesus and the Christianity.  I eventually realized that such certainty was impossible.  Yet when I see books and blog posts and podcasts by certain apologists and apologetic organizations, it seems that many others are seeking this certainty.  Or, at the very least, there is not much humility out there that recognizes the other side might just have a good point or two.  Instead there is often a smug, condescending attitude that acts as if all obvious truth is on our side.

I write about my tribe, Christianity, but it looks like there is just as much smugness and condescension on the other side.  For many atheists, the sheer obviousness of unbelief means anyone who cannot see it is blind.  As one atheist, in the podcast Unbelievable, recently defined it, faith is believing what you know is not true.  It only takes a complete lack of, or refusal of, understanding of the other side to come to such a conclusion.  You may not find the other side’s arguments and evidence convincing, but a minimal recognition that some do should adjust such a faulty definition.

Too much certainty on two sides of any issue leads to shrill shouting, points to whoever can out yell the other, but to little engagement and understanding.  And I suspect many of us sit somewhere in the middle, perhaps leaning to one side or the other, saying that both sides at times make good points.

Am I absolutely certain there is a God and that Jesus is the human appearance of that God in history?  No.

Are there dark days when I begin to think maybe the universe is just a meaningless void? Yes.

Is there enough out there to push me to embracing the hope and faith in the life and message of Jesus? Yes.

The thing is, faith is not about certainty.  I can’t recommend Greg Boyd’s book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty enough.  Real faith is honest – a trust in God that admits it is not always easy.  Real faith is open to questions and doubts and humble enough to know you don’t have all the answers.

And I believe that, for college students, it is such a real and honest faith that admits to doubts and can understand those we disagree with that our friends will find compelling enough to want to engage with us.

Patriotism and Martyrdom (Listening to the Saints)

Memorial Day was a couple weeks ago and it seems that every national holiday leads me through a series of the same thoughts.  On one hand, I think Christians are too nationalistic, even too patriotic.  Why do we celebrate national holidays such as Memorial Day, remembering soldiers who gave their lives, but rarely celebrate Christian martyrs?  Why do we celebrate the founding of our country on the 4th of July but ignore the founding of the church at Pentecost?

On the other hand, I believe it is okay to be patriotic, to be proud of your heritage and nation.  Of course, this pride ought not whitewash any faults your nation has, when it does it becomes a blind nationalism.  But I enjoy parades on Memorial and Independence days and think soldiers who sacrifice their lives, whether dying in combat or spending years away from home, are worthy of honor.

Then I begin to go in circles.  Because on the third hand it seems many Christians struggle to differentiate America from God’s kingdom.  So many evangelicals (more than any other group) support torturing alleged terrorists in order to keep us safe (as if Jesus ever seemed too concerned with his disciples safety).  And we sing patriotic songs in church or pray God bless America, while the idea of God blessing other countries or Christians in those countries being patriotic seems unheard of, to us.

This was all reinforced to me as I was recently reading the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom.  Polycarp was a disciple of John, the disciple of Jesus.  How cool is that!  He learned from the guy who learned from Jesus and wrote part of the Bible!  Polycarp served as a church leader for a long time.  We have one writing by him, a letter to the church in Philippi.  We also have a report of his execution in 155 AD.  He was arrested and brought before the judges who would try his case:

And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour? ” – Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 41). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

Polycarp, like multitudes of others over the centuries, gave his life in service of Jesus Christ.  More Christians today should know the stories of such great Christians from the past.

Again, I am not saying we ought not honor soldiers who give their lives.  But we should do so in such a way as to remember those who sacrificed for an even greater cause.  Soldiers who give their lives, whether in death or service far from their families, offer a great sacrifice.  And all sacrifices point to the greatest sacrifice.  But those Christians who went out and preached the gospel of Jesus and died without fighting back, just as Jesus did, are worthy of even greater adulation.

To put it another way, soldiers fight and die for nations that will not last forever.  Christian martyrs preach and die for the kingdom that will last forever.  Both can receive honor, but it seems the honor given right now is a bit out of whack.

On top of that, when Christians were persecuted in the early church it was often for not being patriotic enough.  The image of Roman patrols constantly hunting for Christians is a bit of a parody of what really happened.  Sure, eventually it was illegal to be a Christian and there were periods of mass persecution.  But most persecution was local and motivated by the populace, often during patriotic festivals.  All the people would be celebrating some Roman holiday, notice the Christians were not taking part (after all, if Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not), get upset and attack the Christians.

Along with telling the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom, the writer sums up the great example of the martyrs:

All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God. For it becomes us who profess greater piety than others, to ascribe the authority over all things to God. And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?—who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them.

But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour.

For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure; things “which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither have entered into the heart of man,” but were revealed by the Lord to them, inasmuch as they were no longer men, but had already become angels.

And, in like manner, those who were condemned to the wild beasts endured dreadful tortures, being stretched out upon beds full of spikes, and subjected to various other kinds of torments, in order that, if it were possible, the tyrant might, by their lingering tortures, lead them to a denial [of Christ]. – Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 39). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

This leaves me with some questions:

Which kingdom has my greatest allegiance, one that will fade or one that will last forever?

How do I balance my commitment to God’s kingdom with my pride in my American heritage?

Being a Christian in America, at least an evangelical, often goes hand in hand with a lot of pride in country; what would it look like for being a Christian to equal being critical of our country?  Instead of being the first to trump the good of America, what if we were the first to point out the faults that America, like all empires, has?

What would it look like for a church to celebrate the past of the church and not just the nation that church is in?