Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review of "Exhortation to the Heathen" by Clement of Alexandria

[Note: This work is a part of Volume 2 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which I am working my way through on some sort of masochistic 20-year plan. This work seemed good enough to merit some consideration on its own.]

If you're anything like me and have been slogging your way through the church Fathers in some kind of loosely-chronological order, then this monograph by Clement of Alexandria is your reward. It is witty, thoughtful, scathing, and magnanimous all at the same time. In it, he exhorts the heathen (appropriately enough) to recognize the limitations and evils of paganism and see the truth and hope offered through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He walks through several aspects of pagan life -poetry, philosophy, art, and so on- and shows how each of these are on the one hand corrupted by human sin and twisted into instruments of our destruction, and on the other hand are lived rightly in Christ and become pictures of God's mercy to and sovereignty over the world.
For example, Clement discusses how music has been used in the service of myth and fable to lead individuals astray into sin (171-172). For the Christian, however:
Not such is my song, which has come to loose, and that speedily, the bitter bondage of tyrannizing demons; and leading us back to the mild and loving yoke of piety, recalls to heaven those that had been cast prostrate to the earth. (172)
Art, likewise, has been corrupted by being used to create idols. For the Christian, the universe is God's art, which we picture when we create out of the material he has made. How awful it is then for us to take God's art and use it in rebellion against Him! (189-190)

Philosophy and poetry also have been used to rebel against God. The small bit of truth available to philosophers and poets has done them no good, and indeed has simply revealed how deep the need for the true philosophy and poetry of the living Word runs in the world:
For I think it has now become evident to all that those who do or speak aught without the Word of truth are like people compelled to walk without feet. (193)
 Even custom itself has become a source of sin. Giving up the good things custom has prepared for us (citizenship, family inheritance, social respectability) in the name of Christ simply means we get the benefits of those things returned to us in their better and proper form. We become citizens of heaven, receive the inheritance of the children of God, and the social respectability of living a life of true virtue and obedience. All of these are given not by conforming to the customs of the world, but by living the life of faith.

In addition to making all of these important points, this particular work is exceptionally well-written. I don't know if credit for that goes to the translator, to Clement himself, or to some combination of the two, but in many ways this has been the most delightful of the ante-Nicene fathers to read so far.

A sampler of quotes:
Do not play the tyrant, O man, over beauty... Be king over beauty, not its tyrant. Remain free, and then I shall acknowledge thy beauty, because thou hast kept its image pure: then I will worship that true Beauty which is the archetype of all who are beautiful. (185)
 O the prodigious folly of being ashamed of the Lord! He offers freedom, you flee into bondage; He bestows salvation, you sink down into destruction; He confers everlasting life, you wait for punishment, and prefer the fire which the Lord 'has prepared for the devils and his angels.' (195)
 The union of many in one, issuing in the production of divine harmony out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony following one choir-leader and teacher, the Word, reaching and resting in the same truth and crying Abba, Father. (197)
 For man has been otherwise constituted by nature, so as to have fellowship with God... placing our finger on what is man's peculiar and distinguishing characteristic above other creatures, we invite him -born, as he is, for the contemplation of heaven, and being, as he is, a truly heavenly plant- to the knowledge of God, counselling him to furnish himself with what is his sufficient provision for eternity, namely piety. Practise husbandry, we say, if you are a husbandman; but while you till your fields, know God. Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the whilst on the heavenly Pilot. (200)
For in us, buried in darkness, shut up in the shadow of death, light has shone forth from heaven, purer than the sun, sweeter than life here below. That light is eternal life; and whatever partakes of it lives.... He hath changed the sunset into sunrise, and through the cross brought death to life; and having wrenched man from destruction, He hath raised him to the skies, transplanting mortality into immortality, and translating earth to heaven. (203)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: "Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker" by F.C. Copleston

I don't know if it takes a dull person to want to study Aquinas, or if the study of Aquinas makes one a dull person. Which is in many ways unfortunate, because Aquinas has interesting things to say about interesting topics. This is my second foray into the Doctor's thought, and the second time I've come away slightly smarter, slightly more informed about philosophy and Medieval theology, and quite a bit disappointed in the prose style of everyone involved.
In this short book (~270 pages), F.C. Copleston engages many of the philosophical topics in Aquinas of greatest interest to modern readers. Metaphysics, apologetics, anthropology, ethics, sociology, and cosmology are all explained with brevity (relative to Aquinas himself) and elegance, if not in a way that is particularly engaging.

The big philosophical take-away from this is the two-sided approach Aquinas takes to philosophy: it is to be grounded upon the common experience of the common man, and it is to be explored by means of common sense. So, for example, if we want to ask the question "is there a God?" The philosophical approach will be to begin with what we all know and experience in everyday life, and then reflect upon that knowledge. As one example, we all know that an object in motion requires the influence of another object to start it moving. Yet, we also all know that these chains of motion (I use a pool cue on the cue ball, the cue ball strikes the 8 ball, which strikes another, and so on) are not infinite in nature. That is, there was a starting point. Therefore, common sense tells us that there must be a "first mover." The other arguments follow similar paths, which I have to admit was not something I picked up on the first few times I was exposed to Aquinas' thought. While I've been taught his five arguments for the existence of God several times, I've never been taught that he draws them (and all of his philosophy) from common experience. Of course, had I actually done the assigned reading at the time I may have picked up on that...
This method carries over into all of his thought- what is a law? Well, we know from common experience. What is the nature of existence? Why do we talk about people as having both a body and a soul? And so on.

I should point out that Copleston's book focuses mainly on Aquinas' philosophy. If you want his theology, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Like I said, this book is fairly interesting in its substance. It's just the writing that drags it down a bit (but not much, certainly not as much as a goodly number of other philosophical works out there). Yet, I'm not unhappy I took a couple of weeks to read this. It was well worth the time and effort and will undoubtedly work its way into my lectures on Aquinas.

So, if you're going to study Aquinas and just can't force yourself through the Summas, this is a good place to go. (I've also been told that Peter Kreeft's Summa of the Summa is good, as is his Shorter Summa.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Review: "Bold as Love" by Bob Roberts, Jr.

Bob Roberts, Jr. has two points in this short book:

  1. Christians shouldn't be jerks to non-Christians.
  2. I did it, and you can too.
(Of course, Christians probably shouldn't be jerks to other Christians either, but that's not the point of this book.)
In broad strokes, Roberts points out that it's easier to evangelize if we befriend people first and work towards common civic goals than if we scream at them in the street, condemn them to hell, and are generally driven by hate. More, he says it's not just easier, it's actually Biblical- though he spends much less time on the "Biblical" bit. 
Most of the book is composed of personal anecdotes, where he describes meetings he has had with diplomats, international leaders (including the government of Vietnam and a Prince of Saudi Arabia), and community members which have all resulted in deep and abiding friendships and given him opportunities to share the Gospel. 

Which shows us the two problems with the book.
But before I point out the issues, let me state for the record that this book is fine. Not great, not even really good, but fine. Roberts is a competent writer and seems to be sound enough theologically (even if it did take him 120 pages out of a 180 page book to actually get to any doctrine), but the overall sense I was left with was pretty much a sense of... meh. Then again, I tend to think already that Christians shouldn't be jerks. I mean, if there's a Christian out there who is a jerk and picks up this book and reads it and is convinced not to be one anymore, then I suppose Roberts' work is done. Of course, if you are a jerk you're not likely to pick up a book that's trying to convince you not to be. If you're already not a jerk, well, there are better books to read than this one. And if you're the kind of jerk that I am, it involves not so much a hatred of other religions as a general cynicism about human nature in general, in which case the book is equally ineffective. 

So the two big problems I had with the book:

First, the Bible doesn't really have anything to say about friendship. As others have pointed out, it's a category that's pretty much absent from Scripture. The Bible divides people into two groups: those who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (the church) and those who are not (the world). Within the church, we are to have fellowship (which is not quite the same thing as friendship, and which there isn't time to go into here- should you have the time and inclination, here's a talk on the subject, and here's a sermon that touches on it, and here's a more meaty theological work on it). Between the church and the world, we are to be witnesses who share the Gospel by explaining it to others and model the Gospel by living it in our own lives. How are we to share it? Well, verbally, certainly. That's the thing we see people doing most in the New Testament. But beyond that, we're really not given a whole lot. Which suggests that we have some flexibility in doing so, which further suggests that we are free to be friends with nonbelievers with the ultimate goal of sharing the Gospel with them. 
Hopefully it's clear why I'm going to want to hesitate a bit before endorsing Roberts method. We are free to be friends with the world, and we certainly should be kind to the world, whether we do that while being friends or not. But to walk through the Biblical process of evangelization is not quite the same thing as to jump to the end and say "just be nice to everybody so that they'll believe in Jesus." One of the ways we share the Gospel with others is by befriending non-believers (and I do believe it's an important way), but the friendship itself is not the ultimate goal of the interaction. (Roberts doesn't say that it is, but he trumpets it enough that it starts to sound like he leans in that direction.)
If I'm not being clear, here's the short version: there is no Biblical category of "friendship", so I'm not entirely comfortable to have a pastor be telling me to be friends with people. Which isn't to say it's not a good thing to do, it just needs to be in its proper context.

Second, Roberts clearly has access to individuals and circles that you and I will just never have. Not just because he lives in an urban center (many Christians live in the suburbs or rural communities, where interactions with minorities or global cultures will be much less common), but because he seems to meet people on the highest levels. "I was visiting Prince Turki al-Faisal... the founder of Saudi Arabia's modern intelligence service... We both served on a think tank established by the United Nations under the Alliance of Civilizations" (4). Which is fine, but you and I will likely never meet the Prince of anything. Our reaching out to others is going to be on a personal and local level in any case-- which of course is how it should be. We are called to love our neighbor, not the guy around the world but the guy who lives next to us. This doesn't mean that we hate the people around the world, it just means that our primary concern is going to be for those we actually interact with in a personal and regular way. The growth of a global society is having some impact on that, but at the end of the day my primary field of evangelization is to be with the people I actuall am with, not the people I am not. The "inspirational" stories in this book weren't terribly helpful in that sense, and occasionally felt more like a litany of all the important people Roberts is friends with. (Again, not that he's explicit about that, it just felt that way sometimes.)

And with all of that said, I should also point out that Roberts runs in slightly different geographical and cultural circles than I do. I grew up in a part of America which is not overtly religious, and now live in a place which is equally not overtly religious, so I've never really be surrounded by the kind of Christian... unease? Even hatred? that he writes about. (I didn't watch "Christian" TV growing up, so I was never exposed to the various infamous anti-Islam rants on certain programs...) So maybe this book offers a corrective that there's more need for than I am aware of. Certainly Christians should never, never engage with others from a position of hatred. We should always remember that we are sinners saved by grace and to be a display of God's love to the world, working without rancor and from the deep desire to see others repent and believe in the Gospel.

As a final disclaimer, as I was reading through the book I thought I was going to have a problem with the word he kept throwing around: multifaith. That... sounded suspicious to me. By the end, he'd sold me if not on the use of the word or the idea being a good one, at least on it not being an actively bad one. Basically, it means that we should all agree on the things we agree on and use those to work for the common good of civil society. And while he goes a bit farther in some places than I think wise (praying in a Mosque, for example, can be a bit touchy as it implies things to Muslims that he may not quite want to imply), by and large he's right- we certainly should work with others in areas where we agree. Just as we should work with feminists on ending sexual slavery and environmentalists on caring well for nature, so we can work with other faiths to advance common causes. We just have to be careful that we're maintaining appropriate boundaries and being clear that "working for civic goals" does not mean the same as "we endorse your beliefs as legitimate." Which, to his credit, Roberts is clear on. 

So, overall this book is, well fine. There are lots of better ones out there, but then again, there are lots of worse ones too.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher on the condition that I review it- I was not required to give it a positive review.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Two centuries of difference

Today we have an election that probably matters more to us than it will to any future generation (which I suspect is true of most elections).
Just for fun, here is a side-by-side comparison of today's election with the election of 1812:

The Incumbent
James Madison (Democratic-Republican Party: Now the Democrat Party)
Barack Obama (Democrat Party)
The Challenger
DeWitt Clinton (Federalist Party)
Mitt Romney (Republican Party)
The #1 Issue of the Day
War with England
Number of States/Electoral Votes
Religious Affiliation of President/VP
United Church Of Christ/Catholic
Religious Affiliation of Challenger/VP
Presidential Claim to Fame Prior to Election
Author of American Constitution
“Community Organizer”
Challenger Claim to Fame Prior to Candidacy
Author of the Erie Canal
Made lots of money

What does all of this mean? I'm not entirely sure... I'll leave that to the political history guys.

Friday, November 2, 2012

So you've lost the election...

Imagine for a minute that it's Wednesday, November 7 and the other guy -the one who will most assuredly bring about the downfall of all that is good and right in the world and lead us at a frantic sprint into a new Dark Age- has won. Frankly, you don't even want to get out of bed, because after all what's the point? All your energy and all your passion poured into the last few months (heck, who are you kidding: years) has been for naught. Not that you would ever think the word "naught", because it's not the 1920s... How can you possibly face a future under the dictatorial fist of that guy? Fear not, good citizen, for I have news that will hopefully add a little ray of sunshine to your overcast political world.

This doesn't have to be true.
You live in America.

Now, before you think I'm going all jingoistic on you and about to bang the "America=God's beloved child" drum, hear me out. I am not saying that you should be cheerful because you live in some sort of holy promised land. I'm not even saying that you should be cheerful because you live in a nation that enjoys a good deal of material prosperity- though of course that second point is something that we should all remember. Whoever wins on November 6, we will still likely have food on the table on November 7 (I suppose excluding those who hunger strike in protest). But there is another much more political reason you should be encouraged:

The American political system is designed for you, the loser.

I'll say that again because it is worth repeating:
the American political system is designed for those who lose elections.

It's like America is looking into a mirror.

Let me hit you with some knowledge. The Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the delegates scrapped the Articles and replaced them with a new governing document: the Constitution. But why did they do that? What your high school history textbook will tell you is that it was because the national government provided for by the Articles was too weak and did not include an executive or judiciary. Which is true, but which does not tell you why that mattered. After all, it's not as if there was no government in the nation- we hadn't quite progressed to the "Thunderdome" stage of civilizational decline. There were thirteen functioning and stable governments spread from New Hampshire to Georgia (fourteen if we count the Vermont Republic), all of which were as close to pure democracies as the nation has seen before or since. Even more than that, the economy was booming, the undesirables (Royalists) were leaving the nation in droves and the "good" kind of immigration (skilled, educated labor) was at an all time high. Why on earth did people freak out and write -to say nothing of accept- a completely new form of government?

The answer is found in a less-famous part of Madison's famous Federalist 10, where he points out that in a pure democracy:
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. 
In other words, the problem with a democracy is that the majority will always eventually trample on the rights of the minority or even of the individual.
Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Democracies quickly destroy property rights, personal security, public peace, and, ultimately, themselves. The majority will trample on the minority until society itself crumbles and falls.

Try to be on Denzel's side when this happens. Trust me on this.

The point of the Constitution is to offset this tendency. The American system is designed in such a way that no single faction -not even a majority- can utterly dominate the others.

Which is all well and good, but here's the real kicker- you have a part to play in keeping the winner of the election from steamrolling you. The authors of the Constitution did not expect the majority to exercise self-restraint and not trample the minority because someone said "pretty-please don't do it," instead, they applied the idea of checks-and-balances.

Again, your high school civics book would have talked some about this, what it wouldn't have mentioned is how revolutionary an idea this was for the time. What everyone believed in during the 18th century was separation of powers. There's an executive power, a legislative power, and some other kind of power (probably judicial, maybe something called "federative" to deal with foreign relations, but no one was really sure), and none of these powers of government should be allowed to overlap. That way, the argument went, the executive can't pass laws and the legislature can't enforce them, therefore no single person (executive) or group of persons (legislature) could ever gather together all political power in society.

The judicial branch was less of a threat for obvious reasons.
The Constitution (inspired by the Framers' reading of an obscure Frenchman named Montesquieu) tore down several of these "walls of separation" between the branches of government and enable them to "check" and "balance" each other. That is, they gave executive and judicial powers to the legislature (confirming cabinet members and establishing courts and jurisdiction, as examples); legislative and judicial powers to the executive (the veto and the ability to appoint judges); and, well, they didn't think much about the judicial branch, but you get the point. This enabled each branch of government to use the powers it had been given from the other branch to act as a check and balance if it thought that other branch was going to far. So Andrew Johnson pardons the whole South after the Civil War? Not on Congress's watch: boom! Impeachment. The Supreme Court keeps shooting down FDR's New Deal programs? He appoints judges that agree with him. And so on. Each branch of government has the ability not only to be a royal pain the rear to the other branch, but to slow down or stop the entire political process, depending on how opposed they really are.

And if all of that isn't enough, the Federalist conclusion to this process of being able to oppose someone even though they have more power than you: this act of opposition is what actually makes good policy.

The source of all that is right and good in America.
If the President could just step into office and get whatever policy he wanted passed the result would be the will of the majority, but not necessarily the best policy- and it would ignore all of those who are in the minority. Which of course was the whole problem with the Articles of Confederation in the first place. To fix this, the system is designed so that a very small number of people in any one of the branches of government can throw a wrench into the whole works. The result of their doing so is a better policy than the mere will of the majority. Federalist 52 says:
The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others... This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. 
 When minority factions exercise their ability to gum up the works, what happens is that the blind spots and defects of the majority faction are balanced out, and a better policy than either side could have ever thought of by itself becomes the law of the land. So when the Republicans filibuster Obama's healthcare plan or the Democrats vote against Bush's, well, whatever (sorry, it's been a few years), the result is that the majority faction gets less than it originally wanted, the minority faction gets more than it could ever get in a pure democracy, and the nation as a whole benefits since a solution that neither side would have settled for on its own is reached.

This runs pretty counter to the way we tend to think as Americans. We want our guy to get into office and kick butt and take names while riding his white horse into the glorious implementation of the tax cuts/defeat of our enemies/education reform.
Not pictured: Education Reform
We don't like to think that maybe one person's or even one party's plan (especially our own) may not be the best for the nation. How else can we explain the frustration with Presidents Bush and Obama, who all told (though Obama has only had four years at this point) managed to get only a very small number of the programs and laws they had promised actually put in place. Partially, of course, this is a result of campaign promises being unrealistic in any case. But in much larger sense as long as there is one Congressman, one Senator, one Supreme Court Justice, who differs ideologically from the President (to say nothing of being in a different party), the President will never get everything he wants, and that minority ideology/party/faction will never be completely overrun by the majority. The same is true for Congress and the Supreme Court. In America the opposing (i.e. the losing) faction is given power out of proportion to its numbers. This is not an accident, it is built into the very nature of our system.

The point of this lengthy post is just to say that whoever wins next Tuesday does not automatically become the King of America for four years. In fact, it just defines our various roles within the system. If Romney wins, then the Democrats are obligated to throw every wrench they can find into his policy proposals with full confidence that they are doing exactly what they should be doing. Likewise if Obama wins a second term, Republicans should continue to do everything they can to torpedo his policies and slow the whole system down. The American system is designed to protect and empower losers, which means that come what may next week gloom and doom should not be your worldview- you should be ready to take up the Constitutional role prepared for you.

The short version: this man will always be able to screw things up for everyone.

Seeking together

Dear reader, whenever you are as certain about something as I am go forward with me; whenever you hesitate, seek with me; whenever you discover that you have gone wrong come back to me; or if I have gone wrong, call me back to you. in this way we will travel along the street of love together as we make our way toward him of whom it is said "seek his face always" (Psalm 105:4)
-Augustine, The Trinity, I.3.5.