Holiness and Wendell Berry

Brad East has a great line at the end of a short post about holiness.

What I am convinced about is that, e.g., the moral vision of Wendell Berry is both good and beautiful and not sufficiently converted to the gospel. And if some forms of Christian political theology don’t recognize that, then so much the worse for them.

Reading those final sentences, I had a familiar experience where I thought, “Hey, I think that’s been a blind spot in the way I’ve thought about X, and I think it explains some of the intuitive, though mostly subliminal, hesitation I may have had about it.” Maybe Berry’s work isn’t Christian enough, which is an odd thought if you’re at all familiar with Berry. Read the rest of Brad’s post to find out what “not Christian enough” might mean.

How Does Christ Save Us?

From Father Thomas Hopko’s podcast, Speaking the Truth in Love:

What seems to be the teaching — and here we each have to read the Scriptures and follow the Church teachings and the councils and the Fathers to try to understand this properly — what seems to be the teachings is that he loves perfectly, he fulfills all righteousness, he fulfills all aspects of how we ought to relate to God properly. When we are fallen into sin — and God gives us the Law of Moses that is a pedagogos, a teacher to the coming of Christ — he fulfills all of the teachings of the Torah of Israel. He’s born into the world, he’s offered in the temple, he’s circumcised on the eighth day, he keeps the Law perfectly. It’s his perfect keeping of the Law, which is ultimately perfect love for God and neighbor, that is what redeems us. That is what is going to remove the wrath of God from us, because, if you have an Adam, a real Adam, a real human being, who really is God’s Son and lives like God’s Son, which we were all created to do — Adam and Eve, they were created to be children of God. Adam is called Son of God in Scripture. He was created to be really what God is by grace, and he failed through sin. But when he fails through sin, the way he gets forgiven and redeemed is not by offering sufficient punishment and pain according to the sins he has committed, it’s, rather, that he is saved by one who keeps the Law, who does the commandments. And it’s interesting, that in Orthodox Church Holy Week, over the tomb of Jesus, when he lies dead in the tomb, is the 118th/119th Psalm, the real long one about the commandments, the ordinances, the statutes, the words, the laws of God that are kept by Jesus that then save us and redeem us from the curse of the Law.

Because the curse is lifted for what reason? Not because sufficient punishment was made, but the curse is lifted because righteousness has been effected. You have a sinless life. You have a sinless messiah, taking on himself the sin and curse of the world, so that God’s wrath would not directed against us again, if we offer it to God, and he offers himself on our behalf to God, and we say to God, “Lord, we’re sinners. We’ve broken all the commandments, but our messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the commandments. He has done this for us and for our salvation.” That’s why he came into the world.

So, Jesus on the Cross is the perfect lover. He’s the perfect human being. He’s the absolutely sinless man and therefore he is that one man, that new Adam, who comes from heaven to fulfill the Law of God in our place, so that in and through him and by faith in him God will consider us righteous before himself, because we do finally have a human being, an Adam, that we can live according to him and therefore be delivered from the curse of the Law and the wrath of God.

I’ll be mulling this over for the foreseeable future, but this view of the atonement–which I hear primarily coming from the Orthodox quarters of Christianity–makes a lot of sense to me. Punishment in and of itself is arbitrary. The idea that Christ is someone who came to earth in order to take our place for the corporate punishment God had been inflicting on humanity does not fit well with the nature and effects of sin.

As I understand it, sin is a fundamental disordering and deteriorating force within the human person. (I’m getting this idea from Dante and  Athanasius…among others). Death is the natural consequence of sin, not an imposed punishment from God. God doesn’t place people in hell the way parents will place their kids in timeout for breaking a rule. Sin goes to the heart of the individual, making them disposed to self-destruction.

If, as I believe it is, this is an accurate way of describing sin and its effects, then no amount of substitutionary punishment will resolve the problem of sin. I can imagine, for example, my brother willingly receiving the timeout punishment in my place, even though he didn’t break the rule about eating ice cream right before dinner. But what does it matter? My appetite is already ruined and my parents remain disappointed in what they perceive to be my brother’s behavior. No redemption of any kind has taken place. Sin continues to reign in my own heart even though I’ve escaped the punishment.

So what’s the alternative? Something like Hopko’s description of the atonement. In Christ, humanity itself is revitalized. We are shown a way forward, secure in the knowledge that salvation is possible thanks to the trail blazed by Christ and his ongoing intercessory work on our behalf.

Maybe I’m overstating the significance of this difference and/or maybe I’m wrong–Lord knows I’m not a professional theologian by any stretch of the imagination. But given the condition of human nature and the effects of sin, any understanding of the atonement–specifically how it works–requires a careful explanation that complicates and supplements the idea of Christ-as-substitute.

History that begins with Confession

A timely and insightful argument from Matt Anderson on the relationship between evangelical and LGBT communities:

As an evangelical Christian, taking history seriously means beginning with something like confession. If the LGBT community is in fact motivated to constrain religious expression out of vindictiveness, the question naturally arises whether we Christians deserve it. Any sober answer can only acknowledge the misuses and abuses of power and politics by conservative Christians in their defense of traditional marriage. As legitimate as concerns about the importance of marriage to the common good are, the argument was sometimes pursued by activists and ordinary citizens (even if not by lawyers or other leaders) in ways that undermined our credibility with those we were ostensibly seeking to persuade. At the same time, our failures to uphold appropriate sexual norms within our own communities—such as the Catholic sex scandal, or rampant divorce within evangelicalism—made us too easily susceptible to charges of hypocrisy. Moreover, we required instant transformation of gay and lesbian individuals within our own communities, burdening them with wildly unrealistic expectations and subsequently exhausting them.

Read the whole thing and subscribe to his newsletter.

Brad East is on point here:

In positive terms, what I want is for American Christians today to learn, or relearn, to be catholic: to belong to the one great tradition, the one apostolic faith, the one universal church. To reimagine faith not as something they create or manufacture or curate or judge for themselves, but that to which they submit, in joy, the way one simply receives an unexpected gift, a beloved friend’s return, the birth of a child. The faith as a given, and the real matter before us one of how to live that faith today, in the midst of so many challenges.

via DIY Christianity — Resident Theologian

Fear and the BenOp

Wise words from Leah Libresco this week in First Things:

Christians taking up the BenOp project need to be ready to recognize this kind of fear and to seek deliverance from it. Seeking the perfect love that casts out fear might involve praying the St. Michael prayer for deliverance from temptations. It might involve reading authors outside the pattern of your present concerns (that’s why two friends and I had a Baldwin bookclub). It might involve setting up a prayer schedule to pray for whomever you feel frightened or threatened by. In order to pray for the people the Devil wants us to see as enemies, we need to see them as people.

Thinking Through Hell: Repentance

I just read Canto 27 of Dante’s Inferno with my students. Dante is in the eighth ditch of the eighth circle where the Fraudulent Counselors are punished. Here he meets Guido da Montefeltro, a man who experienced a spiritual transformation in his life only to relapse into sin in response to pressure from Pope Boniface VIII.

I’m not going to give a full summary of Montefeltro’s particular sin. If you want a good overview, Wikipedia has a decent summary. I also recommend you check out the passage itself on the World of Dante website.

The fascinating part of the scene with Montefeltro occurs at the end. Although 08 | June | 2010 | Wickersham's ConscienceMontefeltro was hesitant at first, he decides to commit the sin of evil counsel because Boniface VIII guarantees him absolution ahead of time. On the day of his death, St. Francis attempts to take Montefeltro’s soul to heaven, but he’s stopped by a demon who says Montefeltro is bound for hell.

Why? Because, as the demon points out, the law of non-contradiction holds true for repentance. One cannot repent of a sin and at the same time commit that sin. Absolution, likewise, can’t be granted ahead of time because it does not function like an advance on a paycheck. Contrition and the resolve to avoid sin are the two conditions required for absolution to take effect.

My students raised a natural concern: what is the role of repentance in salvation? If we die without having repented of our sins, will God bar us from heaven?

These questions are worth struggling with because they force us to confront two oversimplified narratives of salvation. The first narrative concerns the relationship between faith and works and whether our works have any effect on our salvation. Protestants–especially those rooted in the reformed tradition–will quickly say “Faith alone!” Works are a product of faith in Christ. Works have no bearing on our salvation except as evidence of our salvation. God saves people. Period. Full stop. Insistence on faith alone guards against the first narrative of a works-based salvation.

A second narrative pushes the first to an opposing, though logical, extreme: if works have no bearing on the efficacy of faith and salvation, then God will bring sinners into heaven regardless of repentance or any other good work. In Montefeltro’s case, his initial conversion to Christianity should have been enough to carry him into heaven. Yes, he may have committed a sin at the behest of the pope, but such a sin–even without specifically repenting of it–would not inhibit the salvation that comes through faith. But the idea that God will save people regardless of repentance contradicts scripture and what many of the church fathers since the second century have taught about the nature of salvation. God does not infringe human will. In Dante’s scheme, the gates of hell are open. No one stands guard ushering sinners in or keeping sinners from escaping. Hell is the place for people who, because of their unrepentant life, would find heaven unbearable.

So what is the role of repentance in the Christian life? I’m still working the answer out myself, but here are some initial thoughts inspired by Dante:

Repentance is an act of faith. “Of” indicates that the efficacy of repentance is rooted in something outside itself. That is, repentance qua repentance is meaningless and useless unless it is oriented to some external end. Describing the relationship between faith and repentance in this way, however, dangerously over-emphasizes the subordination of the act of repentance to faith. A Christian cannot confuse faith with repentance, but he cannot pretend that repentance as a discipline of the faith is optional. St. James famously drives this point home in his discussion about the relationship between faith and works:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:24-26)

James’ formulation “faith apart from works is dead” works in reverse order as well: “works without faith are dead.” The two share a symbiotic relationship with each other. Too often in conversation with my protestant/reformed friends, discussion about faith and works inevitably ends in weird abstractions, as if a person’s faith exists as a non-material substance within the heart and mind. But as James points out, an abstract faith is no faith at all. Faith will prove itself through the discipline of good works.

“Discipline” is key to understanding how works and faith relate to each other. Insofar as repentance is a work of faith, it should be a defining feature of a Christian’s daily life. The works of faith will not come naturally to the Christian because converting to Christianity does not entail immediate sinless habits of thought or behavior. Instead, it prompts the process of sanctification. The work of sanctification progresses slowly and requires the purposeful participation of the sinner. Believing in Christ as the Son of God and in the salvation he brought through his death and resurrection is an important start. The rest, however, is prayer and repentance. St. Paul famously exhorts the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” and I don’t think he was being hyperbolic. The life of the Christian is a constant striving to live in communion with God every second of every day.

Through repentance, we recognize the variety and patterns of sins committed, and then we resolve to avoid them by calling upon God’s mercy and grace, trusting fully that God has and will answer our request: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Historically, the church has provided devotional disciplines to help facilitate and encourage repentance. Some of these practices include the sacrament of confession and seasons of fasting. There’s also a monastic tradition where monks and nuns frequently repeat the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, a discipline that conditions a person to pray for repentance without ceasing:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”