Thoughts on Pope Francis’ Book on the Environment

The Pope Francis hype from a few weeks ago has died down.  Around the time he was visiting my radio channel surfing one day landed me on Rush.  I listened for a few minutes as Rush tried to figure out whether Francis was a Marxist or not.  It was amazing to see that Rush could not figure Francis out.

The reason people like Rush have trouble with the Pope is that they see everything through a Liberal-Conservative, Democrat-Republican lens.  It seems the rhetoric goes that one side is pretty much all right while the other side is all wrong.

I am convinced the reason many of us like the Pope is that he resists this simplistic dichotomy.  Maybe “resists” is the wrong word since, coming from a different culture, he was not raised with it like we in the USA have been.

Of course, the Christian faith does not fit into such a divide either.  As much as we think it does just shows how we have allowed American political discourse to hijack our theology and ethics.

I recently finished Francis’ second encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home.  The Pope spends a lot of time in this book talking about what is wrong with our environment and then goes on to build a strong case for why care of God’s creation should be a central concern for all Christians.  While the environment is the focus of the book, the Pope ties it into other issues such as poverty and life.

Yes, “and life.”  This Pope, like previous popes, is pro-life and pro-traditional family.  I am surprised for the media love affair with this Pope, though part of it is surely that they either ignore or do not notice that he lines up with the tradition of the Church on these issues.  His words on environment and his criticism of capitalism may get applause from one side and anger from the other, but his words on life and family ought to flip the sides applauding and jeering.

Now, I am not a Roman Catholic.  But I have found much to like in the work not just of this Pope, but in the previous two.  Beyond that, there is a depth of spiritual knowledge to be found in the medieval mystics that is beneficial to any Christian.  Whether reading a contemporary Pope or Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross, I find a feast compared to the fast-food produced by much of what qualifies as “Christian living” nowadays.

Further, I am challenged by the Pope and these other writers.  Living in American culture, I feel myself pulled to one side or the other.  I acknowledge the temptation to fall in line, to be a good “liberal” or a good “conservative.”  My honest hope and prayer would be to allow my theology and ethics to be shaped by Jesus, primarily, and by the universal Christian tradition second.  On a day to day basis I may fail, and with another election season ramping up I am praying I fail less.

One practice I will continue, which I hope will keep my soul sane, is to continue to read the classics of Christians long dead.  Right now I am working on the Life of St. Martin of Tours, a man who left the Roman military to become a monk.  I am also reading George MacDonald, a 19th century Scottish preacher who influenced Lewis.  Basically, any Christian work that is not a product of our culture wars is where I find sustenance.

If you want to start this same journey, I can do no better than suggest Pope Francis’ two books: On the Care for Our Common Home and the Joy of the Gospel.

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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.

The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

For the last year I have been listening to Hardcore History’s podcast on World War I.  It has been fascinating and educational.  I never realized how absolutely awful World War I was, nor do I think I took seriously how much the world changed.  Really, our modern world was born in World War I.  Most of all, I now know that the worst place in history I can imagine being is a trench during WWI.

I was pleasantly surprised that during this same time one of my favorite authors, Philip Jenkins, published a book on the religious aspects of World War I – The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.  Jenkins has made his name by writing on global Christianity and the history of Christianity outside the west.  A few of those same themes appear here, as it was during and after World War I that Christianity began to explode in places like Africa.  One of the reasons for this was the breaking of colonialism that began at this time.

Jenkins book is a page-turner, illustrating how all sides invoked God as they went to war.  He talks about the Germans, English and French and then moves on to talk about the Jews, Muslims and Christians in colonial lands.  Most impressive is that he does not stop at the end of WWI but traces the story through to WWII and beyond.  The events of World War I continue to have aftershocks today.  If you are interested in history and religion and how both play into contemporary events, check out Jenkins’ book.