Pre-what?

Fr. Alvin Kimel, whom some readers may know from his former blog Pontifications, has written a new post discussing why he does not believe in absolute predestination. It is, as are all writings of Fr. Kimel, excellent and well worth the time for those with interest in such things.

More specifically, it voices with much greater precision the same somewhat unformed impulse behind my own rejection of my former Calvinism. It was a revulsed impulse, and though I have not put the concentration into formulating precisely why that is (beyond a sense that it profoundly offends God’s justice and love and, hence, God’s core character), Fr. Al has: the doctrine of absolute predestination makes God capricious and unreliable–it makes of God a horror from which humanity needs salvation! It is responsible for the unhealthy fear in which at least Western Christians hold God (not the fear which more precisely signifies awe, and which is itself proper). This, in turn, lies at the root of the Medieval theological troubles which lead up to the Protestant Reformation–which unfortunately kept the same poison for itself, but dressed it in new clothes (I’m lookin’ at you, Calvin). Of course, Fr. Kimel spells all of this out in much greater detail.

Continue reading Pre-what?

fin

A pictorial reprise:
Tracy and Scott actually do rule this time

I’m scratching “theology student” from my little “about” deal over there. It’s hard to believe, but the wife and I are both done with everything for Fuller. Everything has been mailed off, e- and otherwise, and any theology reading following today will be uncoerced.

The big final paper took me most of yesterday and today to finish (not to mention the past few weeks of slogging through Balthasar and Hart); but, despite my earlier predictions, I don’t think it is actually all that bad. Parts are even good, although given another day/week/month I would have polished/expanded/rewritten others.

My attention turns now to catching up with work I was able to postpone for BSU, which I expect will be comparatively relaxed and easy going. I hope to finish my De Profundis before the end of the semester and get started on something new, and it looks like an arrangement of one movement from Separations (which I have extracted as the standalone Elegy) will be given a performance in November by the BSU graduate string quartet.

Going to Fuller was an amazing experience and a great blessing, and I am very grateful to have been able to do it. All the same, with it now complete, I’m exquisitely happy to be diving into my musical life again with both feet. This is what I studied theology in order to do: be a musician, a composer, with a strong theological foundation to my work.

I hope, too, that I can fill out this blog according to its original purpose. I’ve written a lot about theology over the past two years, and less about music. It is, after all, new mus(ings)ic, and perhaps I can better unite the two now that my attention will be differently focused.

So congratulations to my lovely wife for finishing a day ahead of me–and what the heck, I’ll congratulate myself for finishing, as well. Onward!

Contrapuntal love

Another gem from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. Very Begbian, and fitting for a blog shooting to be about faith and music (emphases in bold are mine, links thrown in for your edification):

“Dear Eberhard,
Once again this letter is intended only for you…. I must say to begin with that everything that you told me has moved me so much that I couldn’t stop thinking of it all day yesterday and had a restless night; I’m infinitely grateful to you for it; for it was a confirmation of our friendship, and moreover reawakens the spirit for life and for battle, and makes it stubborn, clear and hard. But I can’t completely escape the feeling that there is a tension in you which you can’t get rid of completely, and so I would like to help you as a brother. Accept it as it is intended. If a man loves, he wants to live, to live above all, and hates everything that represents a threat to his life. You hate the recollection of the last weeks, you hate the blue sky, because it reminds you of them, you hate the planes, etc. You want to live with Renate and be happy, and you have a good right to that. And indeed you must live, for the sake of Renate and the little – and also the big – Dietrich. You haven’t the right to speak as your chief did recently. On the contrary, you couldn’t be responsible for that at all. Sometime you must argue it out with him quite quietly; it is obvious what is necessary, but you mustn’t act as a result of any personal emotion. There’s always a danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but are yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there (see 7.6). It’s a good thing that the book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian (where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?). Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are ‘undivided and yet distinct’, in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Christ in his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological fact and therefore of our vita christiana? This thought didn’t occur to me till after your visit yesterday. Do you see what I’m driving at? I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going. Perhaps a good deal will be easier to bear in these days together, and possibly also in the days ahead when you’re separated. Please, Eberhard, do not fear and hate the separation, if it should come again with all its dangers, but rely on the cantus firmus. – I don’t know whether I’ve made myself clear now, but one so seldom speaks of such things…” [20 May 1944, from Tegel Prison; the rest of the letter is lost]

A long and rambling post about discipleship sparked by a comment encountered online.

Sometimes I suspect our whole adult life is nothing more than a slow coming to grips with the fact that we once were children but are no longer.

This from an internet acquaintance of mine who, on his blog The Scrivener, habitually arrests with such wisdom. Douglas’ insight confirms to me a thought I have had before: that all of us, whatever age, are only children under varying levels of scarring, confusion, and denial. To me it has often been most apparent during times of crisis and disaster, when we as collective humanity cry out in shock and pain to be held by an increasingly distant parent–physical or metaphysical, we need its comfort.

But it also appears to me as an appeal for mercy from God. Which of us, in our wisest and most accomplished moments, can ever be more than a baby celebrating uneasy first steps in our attempts to understand the world around us? What violence and hate is not at its core the jealous rage and bruised pride of a tantruming child, lashing out at whatever seems to be at fault for its own pain? We imagine ourselves, or perhaps others whom we admire, as mature, urbane, wise… we fancy ourselves good, too. But if our best righteousness is as rags, so too our highest wisdom.

So we need this parent, who can scoop us up and kiss our hurts, and who can set us right in our well-meant-but-doomed attempts to be good and wise. Our whole lives are spent pursuing our own wisdom and accomplishment, but the best of our wisdom comes in setting ourselves as children at the feet of our divine Parent, humbly seeking just to be there. God as our Father is this parent, the only truly wise and good, the only one who can ultimately soothe our myriad crushing pains.

But following this Father is complicated, and we are often lead astray by own own (lack of) wisdom. In Germany of the 1930s, many prominent theologians, nearly the whole Protestant church there, firmly believed that Hitler and the Third Reich were signs of God’s grace, delivering Germany from unjust oppression and restoring her as a covenant people (children seldom see beyond themselves, perhaps). They saw confirmation in the way they read the Bible, in the way they interpreted who the church and people were to be, in who they thought God was and what following him should look like. In retrospect, they had no sense of history. They could not see that at the time, and many bitterly regretted it later (sadly, not all).

We are children, easily deceived and lead nobly down the path of destruction by the perceived exigencies of contemporary life: surely following God faithfully must mean invading/not invading Iraq, legal/illegal abortion/gay marriage/immigrant rights, capitalism/socialism, and so on. Many Christian children take their Bibles in hand only to find confirmation of what they already thought, because they are unaware of (or worse, embrace as truly objective) the historical filters and contingencies to which their interpretations are subject: their only guide is the inner guide of what is most convincing, what “makes the most sense to me.” As C.S. Lewis said, we need the “winds of history” blowing through our minds continuously, clearing away the fog of cultural and personal baggage. We try to follow God our Father, but without an outside hand guiding us we are utterly adrift in our interpretations of what that means.

Perhaps this calls for that ever-so-unpopular maxim of St. Cyprian: “He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.” Perhaps we can come to see that, without the guidance of the Church as a living, continuous, consistent, visible, and historical entity who guides us faithfully to God’s will, we cannot really be following God–regardless of our best intentions to do so on our own terms.

That makes for an uncomfortable conclusion for Protestants. There is no Protestant church with real historical legs. My own denomination (such as it is) began in the late 19th century, and it is interesting to note that if one were to compare time-lines of the Church as beginning with Christ and the church beginning with Martin Luther, it would only be relatively recently that the canon of the New Testament would be settled (somewhere in the mid- to late-1800s, depending on how you do the math). The oldest Protestant denomination is comparatively a child, imagining that it can see and know better than anyone else (the same claim made implicitly by every denomination), to finally understand and faithfully interpret the Bible. But without real roots beyond itself, the Lutheran church in Germany was unable to firmly oppose Hitler, and was in fact largely supportive–even celebrative–of him. Many American churches cannot seem to find the legs beneath them to take a stand on something as obvious as torture, never mind less immediately abhorrent evils. There are thousands of examples of churches, disconnected from history, led by pride in their own understandings to support vilest evil in the name of God. We are blinded by our nearness to our own times!

Of course, people in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are not immune to erroneous swings against faithfully following the faith “once handed down,” nor even the leadership. If either of these churches makes a triumphant appraisal of itself on this count, then it too needs to blow the “winds of history” through its collective mind and reorient itself according to its true identity. But with both there is a true self to be had that is rooted not in various contextual reappraisals of Scripture, but in the teaching of the Apostles, and ultimately then in the faithfully preserved teachings of Jesus the Christ.

(If I had enough readers from either camp, now is when one would cue flame-war between Catholics and Orthodox over who departed from whom.)

But back to where I started. The 90-year-old Baptist minister on his death bed–or the philosopher, scientist, plumber, artist, or drunk–has only barely begun to learn. We are all children, and none of us are wise. Most of my readers know by now that I have struggled for the past year and more over whether to leave my protestant upbringing and join the Catholic Church. More accurately, I have spent better than half of that time wondering whether it is the Catholic or the Orthodox Church to which I should cling, but it has been a struggle nonetheless. I have been tossed on the waves of subjectivity and culture for a long time, the path of my faithfulness determined by what has seemed most reasonable and convincing to me, and I need the Church as my Mother if I am to faithfully follow God as my Father. What does that look like? What do I think it looks like, or you? What has the Church taught that it looks like for much longer than any of us will live, and why is it that we suspect that we know better?

We are in motion

We are in motion.

Never in one place for more than a moment, ever shifting and growing and transforming, we change continually as we renew our search for what is true and holy. We seek the holy in the world around us, always on the tantalizing edge of grasping it in echoes and ripples. We feel its presence grow closer as we work our surroundings into ever-more-beautiful visions, create reflections and hints of what it must be, though we cannot see it directly. In slow-moving circles we orbit the ultimate, and attempt to describe it in word, paint, gesture, and song. This is the work of artists: to seek, to create. And in doing so, we leave behind us a record of where we have been and what we have become, revealing by slow process some traced outline of what we seek. Change is the only constant: searching, creating, revealing glory.

Change. This is our theme for Arts Fest 2007. Its genesis lies in a meditation on II Corinthians 3:18, the way in which we are transformed from one degree of glory to another, by the work of the Spirit, as we turn more and more toward the Lord in glory. Seeking God in the work of art is a never-ending process of trying to say something true about Something utterly beyond conveyance. While apophasis must ultimately be the endpoint of any attempt at expressing the Inexpressible, by way of the work of art we are able to extend our reach beyond mere words. Truth is conveyed in image, in sound, in gesture which, though rooted in a given cultural setting, transcend the ability of that culture’s words to speak. Art touches more deeply, and reaches higher, than talk.

That is not to say that we should have our heads in the clouds. Our work as Christians and as artists must have its feet firmly on the ground. The world around us is a world filled with brokenness, and to do the will of Christ requires us to live as real persons in the world. Artists are notorious in our culture for confrontation, controversy—even ugliness. Christians have often reacted by sequestering themselves in their own sub-culture: Christian music, Christian art, Christian fiction and film. And while the impulse to reflect on what is good and noble is a worthy one, creating a sanitized ghetto of Christian art misses the full depth of beauty and truth which can speak to us in the fallen world around us.

There is a prevalent confusion between prettiness and beauty. The two should not be conflated. While true beauty can be found in light and joy, it is also often birthed in pain, in blood, in death. This is, after all, how our savior came to us: in the gore of birth, the dirt of life, the blood and suffering of the cross. This is how our God renewed the holy Image in us, and united us to himself. We share in this crucifixion, and we also share in the resurrection, but the resurrection is not a polished prettiness. It is a beauty of still-open scars. The beauty of truth is a heavenly strangeness that needs not erase history in order to redeem it, a beauty that can be uncomfortable—even ugly. We need not fear art which reflects elements of this ugliness, this difficulty, this pain: it speaks to us of the truth of our fallenness, and of the path of our redemption.

Change is the only constant. Seeking demands that we move beyond what is familiar and comfortable. This is the work not only of artists, but of all of us. Caste in the Image of our Creator, we are all creative beings, and as we seek truth and beauty in creation, as we create our own works of word and image, we are transformed “from one degree of glory to another.” This is growth rooted in the Spirit, whom we reflect by seeking, creating, and revealing glory.

We are in motion. To grow we must be willing to move. To move we must not be too comfortable with where we are. Growth is challenging, sometimes even painful. But pain in service of truth is the deeper beauty, the beauty of love.

“The fact is that we are sinners!”

“‘Confess your faults one to another’ (Jas. 5:16). He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (from ch.5, “Confession and Communion”)