Monday, February 21, 2011

The Place of Liturgy...

Satan's Attempts at Casting Contempt on the Holy Spirit
The first way that Satan tried to cast contempt on the work of the Spirit was by setting up a ministry without the Spirit. This was done by setting up a liturgical service to be read by the minister. No special gift of the Spirit is required to be read by the minister. No special gift of the Spirit is required to do this. So men were set apart to the ministry who had never once 'tasted of the powers of the world to come' (Heb. 6:5), nor received any gifts of the Holy Spirit for the work of the ministry. Those who claimed to pray by the Spirit were held in contempt and scorn was poured upon them.
The second way that Satan tried to cast contempt on the work of the Spirit was by setting up the Spirit without a ministry. In the first case, it was sufficient for the Word to be read without either preaching or praying by the Spirit. Now the Spirit is enough without reading or studying the Word at all. In the first way, Satan allowed a literal embracing of what Christ had done in the flesh. Now he talks of Christ in the Spirit only, and denies that he ever came in the flesh. John warned Christians of this deceit (1 John 4:1).
-John Owen, Communion With God, pg 194.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lovecraft on Dreams

"I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier. From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and uncorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know; and of which only the slightest and most indistinct memories linger after waking. From those blurred and fragmentary memories we may infer much, yet prove little. We may guess that in dreams life, matter, and vitality, as the earth knows such things, are not necessarily constant; and that time and space do not exist as our waking selves comprehend them. Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon."
-"Beyond the Wall of Sleep" by H.P. Lovecraft

Friday, February 4, 2011

First Amendment III: Religion

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
There are two important points to this part of the amendment:
1) "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion": The interpretation of this clause hinges on the meaning of the word "establishment." What does it mean to "establish" a religion. Of course, when the question is phrased like that, the answer is fairly obvious: establishing a religion is exactly what it sounds like, putting together a new religion. (One can't very well establish an old religion, it's already been established.)
So, at the base grammatical level, the amendment is fairly clear, Congress may not establish a religion. It may presumably establish other entities, or interact with a religion which has already been established, but establishing religion is forbidden. States, on the other hand, by implication may establish religions (and did fairly often in the colonial times and early republic).
The practical application of this amendment, therefore, is that
  • Congress may create no "Church of America", presumably using the Church of England as a model most clearly NOT to be followed. This explains the general acceptance of this amendment by most dissenters (who always feared the imposition of Anglicanism, which was attempted at random intervals by the British government throughout the colonial period), and by most liturgical denominations (who always feared that the Evangelicals would outlaw Anglicanism and Catholicism in the nation as they had, for a time, in some of the New England colonies).
  • Congress may interact with religion in ways that do not involve establishment. A prime example of this is the tax-exemption given to churches. While this has been standard in the Western world since the 12th century, it certainly shows that "establishment" does not mean "no interaction whatsoever" in the American system.
  • States may establish religions. The purpose of the First Amendment is to restrain Congress, and Congress alone.
 2) "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise thereof": As with the first phrase, this too is fairly grammatically clear. "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise" of religion is not vague in its meaning. Congress cannot legislate where you go to church, how you worship, or in what practices you participate as an expression of your religion.
The practical implications of the Amendment:
  • Congress may not outlaw religions or religious practices. Just as it may not establish a religion, it may not de-establish one either.
  • Congress may not pass laws which punish an individual for his religious practices.
The clear objection is going to be, what about the extreme religions? Does this mean the United States Constitution allows for human sacrifice, animal mutilation, and child abuse? Would religions that treat women as objects to be abused and humiliated be allowed to thrive?
The answer of course is "no", but it is an answer that hinges not on twisting the words of the Amendment to fit our own consciences, but on the word "Congress." Congress may not restrain religion, fortunately we have at least 50 other institutions which may. Of course, some will do this better, some worse, and some not at all, but it is not the function of the Constitution to prescribe a perfect answer to the ills of society. Rather, it is the job of the Constitution to provide restraint from the tyrannical excesses of government and to provide the government with sufficient authority to restrain the wicked excesses of its citizens. In this case, if properly followed, religion and religious freedom become local issues, to be debated and battled on a personal level amongst the citizens who are best (and least) capable of deciding what works for the community.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

First Amendment II: Congress

Congress shall make no law...
There are two critical points to be made in the set up of the Amendment:
1) "Congress". The party under discussion is the head of the legislative branch of the Federal Government. By implication then, the conditions laid down in the Amendment do not apply to the other entities in our federal system. While Congress may have restrictions places upon it, these restrictions do no apply to state or local governments.
2) "shall make no law" In a sense, this is both very clear and very vague language at the same time. It is a most clear statement: Congress shall make no law. What does that mean? Exactly what it says, "no law" means "no law." From a generation of people who greatly delighted in round-about phrases and in dancing around the object of contention, this is a strikingly clear phrase.
And yet, there's still the problem of application. Once one begins to ask what does "no law" really mean, we become lost in abstraction. Does it mean that Congress is never to act at all in any of the areas laid out in the Amendment? Does it mean that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the various freedoms expressed, but that it can pass laws promoting those freedoms? This is of course where most interpretations of the First Amendment founder, if not actually collapse.
Fortunately, however difficult the wording might be, the implication and general intent remain clear. Congress is to be inactive in relation to the rights enumerated in the rest of the Amendment. If there is to be litigation, if "no law" actually means "few laws", they are to be just that, few, minor, and far between. Sweeping legislation is an explicit violation of both the intent and the wording of the Amendment.

Reflections on "Reflections"

I do from time to time try to review books I've read over at goodreads, which is a great site for covering all things bookish. But, I've also been listening to various podcasts and talks downloaded from iTunes, and there's not a spot for that on goodreads, which means that the blog gets the burden of hosting reviews of anything not found there.
Which, right now, is the talk "Reflections on H.P. Lovecraft"  by S.T. Joshi, who is a prolific and (presumably, based on the reviews of his books) thoughtful interpreter of H.P. Lovecraft, supernatural fiction (particularly horror), and, interestingly, atheism.
In terms of his presentation, Joshi is an excellent and articulate speaker. The talk was well organized and progressed smoothly. My primary objection is that  Joshi is a bit of a navel gazer, and far too often sings his own praises rather than sticking to Lovecraft. Now, granted, Joshi is a major moving force in Lovecraft scholarship, so his own work should be a part of the talk. On the other hand, "I did this" gets old after a while...
The talk itself is useful and interesting in explaining the life and work of Lovecraft, and the development of Lovecraft in popular fiction, publishing, and scholarship. The short summary is that Lovecraft was never popular in his own lifetime, and that seemed to have been okay with him. He did not desire popular lauds, though he did (much like his heir, Stephen King) desire the accolades of academia. And, after long years of life in the pulps and independent (i.e. "vanity") presses, he has finally received them.
That is the true subject of the talk, the gradual acceptance of Lovecraft by the scholarly world, finally placing him alongside the other great writers of American literature, including Poe, Hawthorne, and other New England writers.