Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"A new name written, which no man knoweth": Reflections on the letter to Pergamos

"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it" (Apocalypse of John 2:17).

Our Lord says a number of interesting things in this passage, the third of the Seven Letters to the Churches of Asia, the Letter to Pergamos. Most striking, of course, is the beautiful promise, with all the mystery therein, that He makes to "him that overcometh", i.e. those who overcome the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Note that phrase, "the hidden manna". We know, of course, what manna is. In the book of Exodus, it is the food that God sends down from heaven to feed the Israelites as they wander in the desert. Some people think that this was based on a legendary recollection of a real historical event, and that "manna" corresponds to an actual food source the Hebrews found in the desert- perhaps tamarisk, or honeydew (aphid secretions) or some kind of insects. In a deeper sense, of course, we know that the story of the manna is a figure of the Eucharist, and that the physical manna in the story of Exodus represents the real, spiritual Bread of Life which is the body of Christ. In the Eucharist, ordinary bread is transformed, in substance, into the body of Christ: not symbolically, not metaphorically, but in truth.

But here Christ isn't referring to the Eucharist, for he refers to something secret and obscure, "the hidden manna", not to the public sacrifice which is the Eucharist. He is referring to something equally mysterious, glorious, and powerful as the Eucharist, i.e. the mystical communion of Christ with the believer. Just as in the Eucharist we accept Christ into our body, so in mystical union we accept Him into our souls.

To those of us who do His will, and who hold fast to Him, the rewards of mystical union with Christ will be unfathomable. At other points in Scripture, and in various noncanonical writings, communion with Christ is talked about it terms of love, beauty, the fulfilment of desire, in terms of erotic desire or hunger or thirs, and other attributes. Here it's talked about in terms of knowledge (and perhaps the hunger for knowledge is a kind of desire in the same sense as the desires for food, water, sex, or love). Christ here promises that to those who overcome the world as he overcame, he will reveal hidden knowledge, secret knowledge, that will belong to that person alone and will not be evident to anyone else. That knowledge can and should be shared, and passed on, but it can't be fully understood, or fully experienced, except the one who has been graced with a personal vision and inspiration of God.

Most of us have seen beautiful rock crystals before, minerals into which you can look and see some of their internal faces, reflecting light with a beautiful radiance as you rotate them. They have naturally formed smooth and planed edges so neat and immaculate that it looks like they were artificially cut, but we know that they were never touched by the hand of man. All the beautiful, straight-line faces we see were formed by natural processes, with so much precision it's hard to believe. I remember walking over the limestone outcroppings in northern Madagascar once and marveling to my friend at how flat, clean and straight were the edges that had formed- she was a geologist and said it wasn't uncommon for that kind of rock to form in shapes like that. It's the same way with some crystals. We can turn them around and see the light reflecting off their faces, and we can look into them and see perfect order and beauty. Crystals occur in lots of different colors: reddish-orange carnelian, blue like tourmaline, green like jasper. But some of the most beautiful are white. Imagine the order and simplicity of a white quartz crystal. That is the image that Christ himself gives us for the joy, elation, and mystery of what personal experience of the divine will be like. When we experience Christ personally, like the Russian envoys did during Divine Liturgy at the Church of Holy Wisdom in the city of Constantine, we will "not know whether we were in heaven or earth". We can see into that white stone but we can't see through it: so it is with the things revealed to us by the Spirit. We can see into them, a little, and experience them, but we cannot understand them. For in the last analysis, as St. Augustine said, the peace of God passeth all understanding but His own.

I haven't ever been blessed to experience Christ in my waking hours the same way that St. Joan of Arc did, who heard his voice as the bells echoed after the Angelus, or as St. Therese of Avila did who felt as she had been pierced by a flaming lance, or William Blake did who saw God as a child in the form of a giant face in his nursery. The closest I've come to it- the closest many of us come- is in dreams. Perhaps this is today, we would be more likely to dismiss visions of Christ in the wakeful day as hallucinations: in dreams we are more innocent. I can't quite describe these experiences, for as St. Paul said of his trip to heaven, such things are indescribable. But I will say that my temperament and nature incline me to be an intellectual, more than a romantic or a mystic, and so for me my experiences of the supernatural took the form of knowledge. I was at once in the presence of perfect knowledge, like a book that held the answers to all questions that could be asked, like a book for each person of which a new chapter was written for each day of their lives. Scripture uses such a symbol for the presence of God, when it talks of the book of life. Such a book would hold the answer to every question we have ever asked, with our mouths or with our hearts. In those curious, strange, indescribable dreams I learned more than I ever could during my whole waking life, and delighted in experiencing knowledge the same way other people delight in a warm bath on a cold day. And then I awoke, and all that supernatural knowledge was lost to me, draining away as I emerged into consciousness like water drains from sand. But it left me with a longing, a thirst, to be back in the presence of the divine again, and to experience not simply perfect knowledge but perfect love, perfect kindness, perfect beauty. And it left me with no doubt that I had experienced something inexplicable by natural means.

This dream recurred many times throughout my life, and together with it recurred another type of dream, in which I was spared from death, from a death that was no dream but was very real. The interesting thing about dreams is that in and of themselves, they have their own internal logic, and represents a world that is concistent and logical on its own terms. When we are out of them, in our waking life, we can see them as phantasmagoric and illogical, but when we are within them it is the waking world that seems unreasonable and silly. As the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu said, he knew not then whether he had been a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The Australian indigenous people had a similar belief, that the primordial innocence from which we had fallen was called the Dreamtime, that it was more real and more true then the present world, that all we saw around us were mere shadows and reflections, like the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave, and that only in dreams could we see the world as it truly is. There is a lot that is compelling about that view of the world.

In this type of recurring dream I knew that what I saw and understood was as real in its own way as that which we experience in our waking lives. So it was with all the mystics and sages and saints who have directly experienced God. They were filled, for a short time, with the presence of One who filled every pore in their skin, every capillary in their bloodstream, every cell in their body. Like heat is present in a horseshoe heated in a fire, such that the horseshoe glows when taken out, as salt dissolves into a solution and interpenetrates the ever-changing, ever-separating and reconnecting matrix of water particles, so God becomes present within us when we directly experience him. As the bread, the visible manna, is dissolved and forms part of our physical substance, so the grace of God becomes part of our spiritual substance, and is incorporated into our existence such that we could not be what we are without it. And like that glowing horseshoe that experience should make us glow when we enter the world, reflecting His light as the moon reflects the light of the sun.

Throughout Christian history, from the very beginning, there have been endless debates about some very interesting theological questions: the nature of the Incarnation, how God can be Three and One, the two natures of Christ, the origin of evil, the ontological status of the devil, the creation of the world, the miracles of Christ, the Last Things, and many more. Often the division over these questions has involved the question of authority. Who has authority to speak in the name of God? The bishop of Rome, as the Catholic church said? The Bible, as evangelicals say? The ecumenical councils and the national patriarchs in common, as the Orthodox say? Personally, I think it's a mixture. God speaks through living Tradition, and through his church: through the bishops, priests and laity. We owe deference to the universal church, in all its representations, for Christ promised that in some sense the Holy Spirit would guide the church and speak through it. But equally importantly, I think, He speaks through individuals, through personal experience and personal revelation, as He did with the three children of Fatima. Many times in history we have seen a heroic individual, or a heroic minority, standing firm in their faith against the authorities of their time, secular or religious. And sometimes, those individuals as we can see in retrospect, were right.

Bishop Athanasius was right when he stood against the Arian* heresy that had swallowed up three quarters of the empire, that looked like the progressive, victorious ideology of the future, and that appeared it was going to swallow up Christendom and corrupt it. He was right, though he was excommunicated for his trouble. There came a day three centuries later where, on two separate occasions, four of the five great Patriarchates embraced Monothelitism** (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople on the first occasion; Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople on the second), and when the Monothelite idea seemed the wave of the future; in both case one courageous Patriarch stood against the rest, and was proven right by history. St. Joan of Arc was right when she stood against the villainous Bishop Cauchon and went to the fire for her troubles. The Quakers were right when they stood against slavery, as Galileo was right when he stood for the rotation of the earth. And those are just the cases we know about. How many other heroic martyrs for the truth have gone to their graves for protesting against the religious authorities of their time, but have seen their views swallowed up by history, and have seen the world forget about them and what they held? They will be vindicated eventually, for we know that in the long run, and in the fullness of time, Christ promised that His church would not embrace error. But 'the fullness of time' can be a long time. Who is to say on what issues the dissenters of today may not be absolved by history?

I don't want to go into detail on which particular issues I think the church, or a majority thereof, has 'got it wrong' in the past. This isn't the time nor the place. But we should conclude from this haunting and beautiful passage, that Christ is not bound by His nature to speak only through kings or bishops or only through priests or poets. For "the wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). He can speak through whomever He likes, and often he speaks through individuals. It is said, "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40). We have the obligation to listen closely to what He tells us, himself or through his agents, in the innermost stillness of our heart, and to proclaim it to the word. We need to test our experience against the collective wisdom of tradition and the church, but we also need, at the last, to be faithful to our conscience. For we know that conscience is ultimately a man's surest guide. And we also know the words of this promise: "For I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, that no one knows saving he that receives it."

This saying is a promise, but it's also a prophecy. And it had, when made, at least three time-frames in which it would be fulfilled: in our lives and individual experiences here on earth, in the vision of God that we will experience in the afterlife, and also in the experience of His church here on earth. Because the divine purpose is fulfilled in history as well as outside of time, and in the lives of communities and nations as well as in the lives of individuals. As Alexis Khomiakov said, when we fall we fall alone, but when we are saved we are saved together.

One of the fascinating things about history, and one of the things that sets the history of Europe apart from those of other regions of the world, is the degree to which scientific thought and understanding of the natural world advanced there as compared to other parts of the world. Many other regions of the world (in Africa, in South America, and elsewhere) produced a great deal of experiential knowledge about plants and animals and their properties, which became very important to modern medicine and botany. Many other regions produced important technological advances- China and the Arabic/Persian world most signally. Many more regions- India, Mesoamerica- produced important mathematical discoveries that all modern science depends on. But only in early modern Europe, out of all the world, were these different branches of thought unified into a coherent worldview, modern science, which allowed us to understand the natural world and to predict and explain everything from the growth of a wheat plant to the flight of a sparrow to the movement of the planets in their orbit. Various explanations have been proposed for why modern science advanced more in Europe than anywhere else, but I think it's at least in part because Christianity- which synthesized the Greek idea that nature was rational and predictable with the Jewish idea that nature was inherently good- provided a singularly hospitable ground for the growth of understanding of the natural world. And this, too, was a fulfilment of Christ's prophecy that he would bring not only love and faith but also knowledge to the world. As Augustine said, "we believe that we may understand".

Not merely understanding of the natural world is inherent in the Dominical promise, but also understanding of ourselves. For we are given not merely the white stone, symbolizing whatever is beautiful within nature, but also a new name, connoting a deeper understanding of ourselves and our unique destinies and identities. It is often said that the idea that we are individual beings, each infinitely different from each other and each of infinite value, was also a gift that Christianity brought at least to the Western world- there is little trace of it, certainly, in the thought of classical Greece or Rome. Christ died not only for all of us but also for each of us, and if you or I had been the only person out of all the world in need of salvation, then He would have shed his blood just the same as he did. God loves each of us infinitely, and He also loves us each differently, and in the fulness of time each of us shall understand an aspect of God, and live out that aspect in our lives, better than anyone else. For the human race is like "one body [in which] we have many members" (Romans 12:4), and each organ contributes to the well being of the whole in a unique and different way, just as each organ cannot live outside the body. The modern cult of ultra-individualism that exalts individual choice over collective obligation and sees no other authority beyond the individual will is, of course, wrong and dangerous. But like all truly dangerous things, it is the corruption of something good rather than its negation. For individualism in the true sense, which sees us as precious and unique beings in the way we relate to the Good, rather than singular definers of the Good on our own, is in itself a good and true thing, and one of the gifts that Christ foretold that He would bring to the world. And like all of His promises, it was fulfilled: it was fulfilled in history, it is fulfilled in the lives of each of us as we seek to serve, to enjoy, and to understand the Good, even if we may not believe in God yet or identify Him with that Good, and it will be fulfilled in the kingdom of heaven as well. For his promise, like He Himself, is something that "was, and is, and is to come": that exists in the past, in the present, and to eternity.


*Arianism: the belief, held by Arius in the fourth century and by various historical figures like John Milton, that Christ was a created semidivine being, inferior to the Father
**Monothelitism: the view that Christ, though possessing two natures, had just one "free will".

A Crown of Life: Letters to the Seven Churches, part II

"And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death."

This is the letter to Smyrna, that Christian city of the ancient world, the one that up until the early 20th century was predominantly Greek and Christian city within the Ottoman Empire, until the Greeks were expelled during the Greek-Turkish war in the 1920s.

Here we see Christ reminding us that this world is still, as it was from the beginning, under the domination of an evil power, and that those who dedicate themselves to His service can expect persecution and suffering. This was written during some of the first persecutions under Nero and Diocletian, but it foreshadows some of the great persecutions that were to arise under the Roman Empire, and then under Muslim Ottoman rule.

But he promises, too, that those who "overcome" those persecutions will be rewarded. Not only will he save his people from death, but also from the second death, i.e. hell.

COnsider that phrase, "the second death". What a powerful, and chilling, description of hell and damnation. One of the things we fear most, as human beings, is death. Even animals would fear death to the extent they could understand it. Most of all, we fear death because it represents the cessation of what we can see as the tangible and visible signs of life. For all we know, it really is the end of our existence, the entrance into pure nonbeing, and even if it isn't, it is a great mystery. We fear it as we fear darkness, because we can't see beyond it. It represents the great unknown.

Christ promises us, and we have good reason to believe, that there is life beyond the grave. And not a shadowy ghost-life, either, but a life fuller and richer than the lives we live on earth. But he warns us, too, that just as life in heaven is better than earthly life could ever be, so hell will be worse than death could ever be. As bad as physical death is, the death of the soul is so much worse.

Christ ends this letter, though, not on a warning but on his promise. He didn't come to condemn the world, but to save it, and he wishes not that anyone should choose the second death, but that we all might "have life, and have it abundantly". For he is "the first and the last", in that beautiful phrase which will be echoed again at the end of the book. He has always existed, as the Logos, second person of the trinity, the object of His Father's love, and He will exist forever. And he has triumphed over sin, hell, and death.

Blessed be His kingdom, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, October 26, 2009

""For you have fallen from your first love": Letters to the Seven Churches, part I

The next section of Revelation (though it's not technically in this week's lectionary) is one I've always found interesting: the Letters to the Seven Churches. I'm going to go through the Letters in order, at least the ones I find more interesting. This is, remember, the voice of Christ speaking to St. John. As you read the seven Letters one after the other, you see how poetic they are: each follows a formal pattern: with an epithet of Jesus, with his praise for the church, with a warning, and then a promise.

"Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God."

Ephesus was St. John's city, the city where he had gone after the fellowship of the Apostles went their separate ways, the city where he went to care for the Blessed Virgin, and from which he and the other apostles saw her body assumed into heaven. St. John was hearing the voice of Christ speaking to his church, and to his own people. Again, think about the power of that image: the holder of seven stars, surrounded by seven candles.

Christ condemns the people of the church of Ephesus for falling away from their "first love", i.e. from the charity and care for one another that they had had when they first came together as a community and decided to follow the way of Christ. It sounds as if they had gone through a conversion experience similar to those many of us go through. In the flush of their first conversion, loving and serving others, being immune to the temptations of the World, giving away one's possessions and spending one's time caring for the poor and the sick, must have seemed so exciting, so fulfilling, so deliciously counter-cultural: countercultural in the first century Roman Empire as it was countercultural now.

Most of us have experienced the 'honeymoon period' of something we do. Sometimes it can be a marriage or a relationship, sometimes it can be a religious conversion, sometimes it can be a job or a vocation. When I first arrived in Madagascar, and began my training as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I thought of that little village in the mountains as one of the most beautiful places imaginable. I loved the sight of the mountains across a valley full of rice paddies in the morning, I loved waking to the sound of chickens calling, I loved how each day I learned more of the language and culture then the last, such that I could start talking with people over dinner about how to hunt wild boars. It was the same when I moved to my village and started working there. I had something of the same feeling starting high school, starting college, starting a new job. In Madagascar, when I first got there, I felt that I had been called there, that fate had placed me there as surely as it had placed St. John on Ephesus, and I resolved to spend every day trying to be of use, and of service.

I fell away from that, of course, just as the Ephesians fell away from the spirit of mutual love, service, and self-emptying that had characterized them at first. Just as the way Christendom- in Europe and in the Middle East, in Scandinavia and in Ethiopia- fell away from its newness and vitality over the long years of the Middle Ages. We all do. It's the nature of living in a fallen world, of being vulnerable to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Whenever we stay in our house and read a novel rather than help our neighbor dig an irrigation ditch, whenever we conserve our water on a long bike ride rather than lend it to a passersby to have a drink, whenevre we spend money on luxuries that we should be giving away, whenever we spend an extra day in the big city, in the company of other Americans, rather than going back to our village, into the hot sun, and living off rice and a bit of smoked tilapia while you schedule one meeting after another to talk to people about growing moringa, knowing that only half a dozen people will show up, even after you buy coffee and peanuts to make it more enticing. I tried to be a good Peace Corps Volunteer, and I think I was one, with plenty of good things to my credit, but I wasn't a perfect one. None of us are. All of us start out what we do- when we start a new job, a new relationship, a new calling- with such high hopes, and sooner or later most of us- save for a brave, saintly few- end up falling away from "the love we had at first".

Every day we do this, we lose opportunities to help one another, and to love one another. These opportunities can't be brought back, as C.S. Lewis was fond of saying, no one is ever told "what would have happened". The past, outside Borges' short stories, is unchangeable, and not even God can change it. When Christ will appear in glory at the end of the world, he will appear "in a robe sprinkled with blood" (Revelation 19:13), bearing the scars of the cross, for His wounds are forever, just as all the choices we make, for good or ill, are forever. But they can be transcended, and when we fall away from our first loves and then realize that we could be doing so much better, we often return with even more fervor than before. Sometimes the regret over opportunities to help and to serve that we have missed, spurs us to work even harder to love and serve our neighbors in future. And when this happens, this is Christ and His grace working through us, just as He worked through the people at Ephesus.

Christ uses the word 'caritas', or "charity", where the English bible says "love". He is talking about brotherly love, the kind of love that seeks the good of the other precisely because they are other, that seeks to give without hope of return, the kind of love that as St. Augustine says, multiplies when it is divided. But I suspect he meant other kinds of love as well. No doubt he meant to use the imagery of romantic love as a kind of subtext to what he said, for it lends itself so easily to the image of a romantic relationship. I was hearing a radio program last night where it was talking about people who reunite with their first high school sweethearts, ten or twenty years later, often over Facebook or other internet sites. One story was about a girl who met a boy at summer camp at the age of fifteen, dated for a few weeks that summer, and then years later found him over FB. They're married today, and apparently such marriages have a lower divorce rate than the American average. There is something special about first loves, because they capture us at our most innocent and inexperienced, and because they have in them the childlike wonder at something new, before life and experience are able to harden us and corrode us.

I'm not a believer that premarital sex is always wrong, and I think some premarital relationships- in the modern age of birth control- can be healthy, loving, and spiritually fulfilling things that image the kind of love that Christ has for us. A relationship need not be the kind of permanent, lifelong relationship that marriage is, in order to be good or acceptable: I don't think that sexual relationships which are truly characterized by love and commitment, even if they don't last, are wrong or inferior. But for anyone who does want to embrace chastity before marriage- not as a requirement but as a kind of special discipline and special sacrifice, like vegetarianism- here's the key to why such a sacrifice can be admirable and beautiful. Because there's something special about the first person with whom one has a sexual experience. We bring to that experience innocence, curiosity, and faith: a faith that this will be the person that we can be with, now and forever. And how great would it be if that faith could be rewarded, and could turn out to be true? A first love is special, in a way that no other subsequent relationship can ever be, and for those people who want to bind themselves forever to the first person they ever sleep with, and to never fall away from their first love, I think that's a beautiful and compelling sacrifice. It may not be for everyone, but it is absolutely what some people are called to, and those who choose that path need to be respected.

Let's remember, last of all, the beautiful promise with which Christ ends this address. To those who conquer- to those who overcome the temptations of the world, to those who overcome despair, inadequacy, ennui, to those who are able to keep their zeal for loving God and loving one's neighbor, for serving the hungry, the sick and the poor- Christ promises us to eat of the tree of life. In the book of Genesis, God expels the first man and woman from paradise "lest they eat of the tree of life, and live for ever". But this time, Christ offers us the tree of life: as a gift, not as the spoils of illicit theft. Original sin consisted in preferring our own will to that of God, in choosing good things to pursue at the wrong time and in the wrong way. But in Christ all wishes will have their fulfilment: we will enter heaven by "the gates of the city" (Revelation 22:14) not like a thief, and we shall finally get to eat of the tree for which our species, for all of its long history, has been craving.

"Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end."

"As a Flame of Fire": Reflections on Revelation 1:4-20

"....And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength....... And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." Revelation 1:13-18.

There are a number of things I'd like to write a blog post about, and I was thinking of writing one today. But then I realized this week has an interesting cycle of readings coming up, in preperation for All Saints' Day, drawn from the Revelation to St. John. This last book of the New Testament is one I really like- though I don't pretend to understand it. As St. Augustine once said, no one undestands the Last Things except God, not even the angels in heaven: it passes their understanding as it passes ours. That's why the Book of Revelation is written in such mystical, symbolical language.

Tomorrow's reading starts with the vision of Christ to St. John, on the island of Patmos. It's not certain when it took place, but sometime between the reign of Nero and the reign of Domitian, under both of which the Christians were savagely persecuted.

We are told that "no one has seen God at any time" (1 John 4:12) and further, St. Paul describes in heaven seeing "indescribable things, which no man may utter" (2 Corinthians 12:4). St. John is of course describing, here, God in human form, the Word Incarnate. But even still, he finds it hard to describe the vision of Christ in normal terms. When Jesus lived on earth he took the form of a normal man, as we are told, not particularly handsome or striking: "He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2). In his ascended, resurrected body, He is so beautiful and awe-inspiring that John can only describe him in the most symbolic, figurative terms. His feet are like shining brass, his girdle like gold, his hair like white wool, his eyes like a flame of fire.

Here we see, most clearly, the difference between the way things are on earth, and the way things are in heaven. On earth we see each other, and plants and animals and natural things, in normal, physical form, with all our infirmities, injuries, and imperfections. But what we see on this earth are simply shadows and copies of the ideal, perfect natures of things that we will see in the world to come. St. Paul tells us, "It is sown corruptible, it is raised incorruptible" (1 Corinthians 15:42), and so it is with all things: what Christ shows us in the vision to St. John is what will happen to all things in the world to come. Everything beautiful we see around us- trees, deer, fish, flowers, birds, other people- will be more beautiful in the world to come. Tertullian said, in refutation of Marcion who claimed a lesser, corrupt deity had created the world, "Look at a wildflower: thus do I refute Marcion." But even the prettiest flower in this earth is short lived, and will be surpassed in beauty and longevity by the flowers of the world to come.

Christ tells us, "I hold the keys of hell and death", and alludes to His return from death, from which no one, or hardly anyone, was believed to ever have returned. In Christ we see that death is once and for all conquered. We still die of course, but we have the hope, and the faith, that death ultimately has no power over us, that it simply leads to a gate, opened by Christ, through which we can enter into paradise. No more does hell have power over us, for hell is the kingdom of the power of evil, and Christ has once and for all confronted evil and conquered it.

White wool, shining metal, fire all strike us as beautiful because they reflect or produce light. In the same way Christ reflects the light of the Father, and he is Light in his own right as well, as it's said, "God from God, Light from Light, Very God from Very God" in the creed. We can't fully understand what light is, or how it can be both a wave and a particle at the same time. Neither can we understand the nature of God, how He can be three Persons and one Being. But the beginning of the vision to St. John shows us that maybe we were not meant to understand, that perhaps sometimes all we can do, and all we are asked to do, is to kneel and lose ourselves in the beauty and mystery of God.

More to follow....

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hartshorne's ontological proof of the existence of God

Of all the various arguments that have been proffered over the centuries for why God exists, I find some more interesting and compelling than others. I am not such a big fan, in general, of arguments like, "Look at the hippopotamus. Such a beautiful thing could only have been created by God", although Tertullian did use such an argument to refute Marcion's claim that the devil had created the world. Such 'arguments from design' leave me cold, not least because we now know just how hippopotamuses and other living things came to be: they evolved from the first living organisms, and it was by the long, bloody, and brutal process known as natural selection, hardly something one associates with a loving God.

The arguments I find most convicing are the argument from causality (the cosmological), the argument from mystical visions and miracles (the experiential) and finally, the argument from the concept of perfection itself (the ontological). The ontological proof is, I think, the most interesting and the most powerful, since it purports to establish, not just the existence of a First Cause or a Prime Mover, but the existence of a Perfect Being (i.e. God). Also because it relies on logic alone. It was first developed by St. Anselm in the twelfth century, a great stalwart of the English Church, and in the twentieth century was revived by the philosopher Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne was a theologically liberal Unitarian, and so of course I disagree with most of his theological viewpoints, but I think he made a powerful modification of the ontological argument, updating it for the twentieth century, and turned it into an argument that, it seems to me, is very hard to refute. I recently looked it up- though it's couched in the language of highly technical philosophy, here's the gist of the proof as I understand it.

Let's start by defining God as the most perfect being that can be conceived. Now, either He exists or He doesn't. But the important thing to realize about the nature of a perfect being is that he doesn't, and cannot, exist _contingently_. That is to say, God does not _owe_ his existence to anything outside Himself. If a perfect being were to be brought into existence, or depend for his existence, on some outside agent, He wouldn't be perfect. Because clearly it is better to be sufficient on one's own, and able to exist and spread one's goodness in any conceivable set of circumstances, then to only be able to exist if the right circumstances are met.

This is to say that God is a _necessarily existing_ being. Nothing- no agent, force, or set of circumstances- could allow God to come into existence if he doesn't right now. Conversely, no agent, force, or set of circumstances could result in God's _nonexistence_ if in fact he existed. Because again, a conceivable perfect being that exists self-sufficiently and eternally is more perfect, and more flawless, then a being who is perfect in every other way but has the flaw of not being able to exist except under the right conditions. The first God is greater with respect to power, and I'd argue also with respect to goodness, then the second, thus the second being is not the most perfect being conceivable.

We've established, then, that either A) a perfect being exists and nothing could stop him from existing- that is, he _necessarily_ exists, or B) a perfect being doesn't exist, and nothing could make him exist, that is it is impossible for him to exist. What cannot be the case is that God just 'happens' to exist, that He exists contingently on other circumstances, that if things were different He could exist or He could not exist. If the concept of a perfect being means anything, it means a being who is self-sufficient, eternal, and independent of anything else. Self-0sufficiency is a tricky thing here, as the Trinitarian conception of God involves three persons who in some sense 'depend on' each other, but let that pass for the moment. God cannot depend, for His existence, on anything outside Himself (as the existence of a tree depends on adequate rain, nutrients, and seeds in that place, or as the existence of an animal depends on its parents, or as the existence of the moon depends on the physical laws and processes that formed it).

So summing up, it is either NECESSARY that God exists, or it is IMPOSSIBLE that God exists. If it is possible that He exists, then He necessarily must exist= He cannot exist contingently.

The full power of Anselm's argument, as developed by Hartshorne, is evident here. We are suddenly brought to the brink, where one must fall off the fence to the left or right. There is no room left to say "Maybe God exists, or maybe He doesn't". Of course one can take that line, and many people do, but I think if we take the Anselm/Hartshorne argument seriously, it's logically insupportable to do so. We are required to make a leap of faith and decide whether we think it's fair to say that it is _impossible_ for God to exist. Naturally, I don't think so.

To say that it is _impossible_ for God to exist is to say that the concept of a perfect being is logically incoherent. People have tried to do that, of course, but I think such arguments fail. If perfect power and perfect knowledge are sufficiently qualified and rightly understood, such that God cannot do anything that detracts from His perfection, then there are no logical inconsistencies in the concept of God. Is it more likely that God doesn't exist, or that God does exist? One test of any theory over its rivals, say Theory A against Theory B, is that Theory A explains everything that Theory B does, and other things as well. In this light, a universe just like ours but including a God would account for everything we observe (if we assume that God allowed the universe to develop, for the most part, according to physical laws and life to evolve according to natural selection), but it would also explain some things that couldn't be explained otherwise (i.e. direct visionary experiences of God).

So there is at least some prima facie possibility that God exists. We have the concept in our minds, after all, and it is hard to find anything incoherent in the _concept_. But the moment we grant that the existence of God is a possibility, then we must also grant that it is a certainty. For God cannot exist contingently, as that would be inconcistent with the logical requirements of perfection.

Which leads me to conclude, as Anselm and Hartshorne did, that since it is logically _possible_ to conceive of the existence of a perfect being, such a perfect being, the most perfect being that the mind can conceive, must exist. "And this all men call God."

Indeed. Rest in peace, Charles Hartshorne: into Paradise may the angels lead you, may a choir of angels great you at your coming, and with Lazarus who once was poor, may you find eternal rest.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nobel Prizes

Well, I suppose it's nice that a woman won the 'Nobel' prize in economics for the first time, but come on. Economics simply isn't a science, and the claim that it is is one of the pernicious ideas that lets right-wing economists, and apologists for the worst excesses of capitalism, pretend that their statements are Absolute Truth.

And Obama winning the Nobel Prize? Give me a break. Things are more or less the same as they were last year, except now the Taliban is three hours from the Indian border (and less than that from the Islamabad nuclear arsenal) and Burma, of all places, is well on track to get the Bomb.

That's peace?

If desiring a world free of nuclear weapons is enough to get you the Nobel Prize, then we are quickly going to run out of nobel prizes to give to everyone who deserves them.

Obama is quite possibly the worst pick since Henry Kissinger. Obama and Kissinger should just get a room and jaw away about undeserved Nobel Prizes.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Armenia & Turkey

Well, I'm of mixed feelings about the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey.

I'm glad they're at peace, for the time being, but I wish they had not normalized relations until the Turks had acknowledged national guilt for the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and made a formal apology. A settlement of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh would be nice too.

For a little background, my understanding is that Azerbaijian and Armenia have since 1991 been in a state of hostility (sometimes a shooting war, sometimes a cold war) over the Karabakh region. This is an enclave surrounded by Azerbaijian, but with a population (of about 140,000) that is about 95% Armenian (it was 76% Armenian before the war started). Armenia regards it as a traditional part of the Armenian homeland, and it was under Armenian rule prior to the Russian takeover in the 18th century. (For that matter, Armenia used to be at various points in history, much bigger than it is now- during the Empire of Tigran it included much of modern day Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and then during the Crusades there were Armenian kingdoms in what is now Turkey and Syria).

Armenia and Azerbaijian, interestingly enough, have in common that they are both, like Israel, homelands for a people the majority of whom live elsewhere. Most Armenians live in the Diaspora (8,000,000 vs. 3,200,000, esp. in Lebanon, Syria, France, and the US, especially Massachusetts and California) and most Azeris live in Iran (15,000,000 vs. 8,000,000 in the Azerbaijian).

I will plead guilty to having a romanticized image of Armenia as a kind of fairy-tale mountain republic of plucky peasants who tend their orchard and sheep-herds in between trips to the monastery. Which like most romantizized images probably has a core of truth as well as much exaggeration. That said, I find it a fascinating country, something of an 'alternative mini-Europe': agrarian instead of industrial, and still highly religious instead of secularized. I would love to go visit sometime, including making a trip to the holy city of Etchmiadzin, where they supposedly have the Spear of Destiny (the lance that pierced Christ on the cross). It was the second country in the world to make Christianity the official state religion, before Rome but after Osroene (though the Armenians claim that Osroene had Armenian connections too). The Armenian Church broke from the rest of apostolic Christianity in the fifth century, arguing that Christ had one nature, not two, and since then have been mostly on their own track- in communion with the Jacobites of Syria and India and with the Copts of Ethiopia and Egypt, but not with anyone else). The current head of their church, Catholicos (Patriarch) Karekin seems to be a good & holy man.

Hell, maybe I can help Armenian farmers try and grow perennial grains. Wouldn't that be awesome? Armenian girls are, as I hear, pretty beautiful as well.

One of the interesting things about Armenia is that they have maintained their cultural identity for at least 2500 years, in spite of being usually at the margins of bigger and more powerful empires (Greeks and Persians, Romans and Arabs, Turks and Russians). Possibly out of geopolitical calculations, they allied themselves with the Western powers during the Crusades, and for a while Armenian refugees formed the "Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia" in northern Syria.

Boston, where I grew up, has of course a ton of Armenians- the last names ending in '-ian' or '-yan' is a tipoff.

They were the object of a horrible genocide in 1915. The Young Turks, seeking to replace Islam with ethnic nationalism as the cement of the Empire, decided to eliminate a good portion of the Armenian population by relocating them to the Syrian desert with inadequate food, water, or housing. They were sent on forced marches, and subject to frequent massacres and rape. Whole villages were burned to the ground with people inside. Armenian men, women and children were killed with poison gas and poison injection, as well as by burning and shooting. People were injected with the blood of typhoid victims. It was in many ways a kind of dress rehearsal on a small scale of the horrific genocides of the twentieth century that were to take place in the Soviet Union, Germany, Rwanda, China and elsewhere. All in all, about 1.5 million Armenians died, which is a big chunk of such a small people.

So yes, I think it's a good thing that there is peace, but I wish there had been an acknowledgement of the genocide, and a settlement of the status of Karabakh first (I would think in favor of Armenia, using the same principle that was used in Kosovo, but maybe not). Peace is good, but it should rest on justice, and on truth. The Turks of today are of course not to blame for the crimes of their great grandfathers, any more than Americans today are personally to blame for the genocides against Native Americans. But just as we, collectively, owe an apology and acknowledgement of the sins of our forefathers, so do the Turks. If you don't want genocides to happen in the future, we must do our best to start by acknowledging and decrying the ones that happened in the past. For Hitler himself, it is said, was inspired as much by the genocide against the Armenians, and by the extermination of the Native Americans, and by the Stalinist labor camps, as by the long history of European pogroms against the Jews. As the saying goes, "if you want peace, strive for justice", and justice can only begin with honesty and truth.

"Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jesus, and Divorce: Part II

So, Part II. Is it feasibly to see the _ideal_ of lifelong marriage (even if there are exceptions in hard cases- felony, cruelty, and so forth) as something we should no longer live by? In my view, it's not so easily, and for several reasons.

1) This prohibition, unike the prohibitions against premarital sex, homosexuality, or contraception, comes from Christ himself. Christ was silent on those other three issues, even when he was confronted with the Samaritan woman at the well, who was livining in a nonmarital relationship. He was not, as we have seen, silent on divorce.
2) Homosexual, contraceptive or premarital relationships are an alternative to Christian procreative marriage, and often a preparation for it- they aren't a change to the basic ideal of what marriage is. Most people that use birth control do eventually plan to have children, and most people who have premarital sex do eventually get married, and gay people would usually not be happy in a straight marriage anyway. To change the traditional demand that marriage is lifelong would, however, be to change what marriage is, and to redefine it.
3) It's simply not easy to say that this prohibition was simply a product of its time. We can argue that Paul and Jude condemned homosexuals because they didn't know that it could be a natural orientation, or that St. Paul condemend premarital sex because in that society true friendship between men and women were rare and all relationships tended either towards marriage or prostitution, or that the Fathers condemned birth control because the kinds they knew about were abortifacient. And I think all those arguments are convincing. But with divorce, it's rather less convincing. Because Christ's teaching was hard for people then to accept, the same way it is for people today. Was there ever a time when people didn't want to get divorced from unhappy marriages? As Chesterton says, "But Christ in his view of marriage does not in the least suggest the conditions of Palestine in the first century. He does not suggest anything at all except the sacramental view of marriage as developed long afterwards by the Catholic Church. It was quite as difficult for people then as for people now. It was much more puzzling to people then than to people now......We may think it an incredible or impossible ideal; but we cannot think it any more incredible or impossible than they would have thought it. In other words, whatever else is true it is not true that the controversy has been altered by time" (The Everlasting Man).

4) Throughout the New Testament, love between a man and a woman, and marriage in particular, are used as a carnal figure of the spiritual tie between Christ and the Church. St. Paul tells husbands to "love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Ephesians 5:25). This imagery is repeated in the Old Testament, "Thou art beautiful, O my love....comely as Jerusalem..." (Canticles 6:4) and also in the New: "Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9) and again, "And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem....prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Revelation 21:2). Other forms of love can and do serve as a reflection of God's love for us, and of the persons of the Trinity for each other, but marriage does so in a special way. Other relationships (of affection, parental love, friendship, or nonmarital romance) do so in a way that's partial, or sometimes temporary. Friendship does fade, and so does romance, although no one's happy when that happens, and in an ideal world they wouldn't fade.

But marriage is a specially important reflection of the love between Christ and his people, not least because it is supposed to be procreative- in marriage we can bring forth children, and thus in our small way we can participate in God's creative process, and in this way "be like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:14) though of course in a very small and reflected way. Because of the procreative nature of marriage, it images the love of God for his people in a special way: it is fruitful in a way that friendship, parental love, affection, and even other forms of sexual and romantic love are not. And inasmuch as Christ never forsakes us, even when we falls away from the right path, so should a husband and wife never forsake each other. This is true for all relationships to a degree, but especially for marriage. If marriage is a special and particularly close reflection of God's love for us, then it should ideally be eternal just as God's new covenant is eternal: "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel..." (Revelation 14:6).

These are all explicitly Christian arguments, meant to apply to fellow Christians. But Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, argues that the indissolubility of marriage is a requirement not just of Christian law, but of natural law- that the idea of pair-bonding for life in some deep sense, the fulfilment of tendencies, longings, and needs deep within human nature, and that as such it should be binding on all men. Of course, these natural-law arguments don't work in every case- there are many marriages which are cruel, harsh, unbearable, or simply characterized by the absence of love, and on a natural-law view (as opposed to a strictly Christian one) it would seem that they should be dissolved. But we should remember, too, that it would be a bad idea to give up on the _ideal_, and for people to get divorced and married to someone else without at least trying to make the marriage work. Because the verdict is in from the last few decades of easy divorce, in America and in other societies, and it's a very mixed verdict. Certainly we've gained a lot, and certainly husbands are less free then they once were to behave irresponsibly. But equally so, too many people have given up on their marriages without trying to put in an effort to make it work. Many marriages in which one partner really wanted to keep the marriage together have broken up, leaving them heartbroken. And many children have suffered greatly after losing their father or their mother to divorce. Divorce may often be the best thing for the adults involved, but it's usually not the best thing for the children.

As I said, this is an extremely tough and exacting ideal to live up to, and I believe there should be exceptions. I don't believe that Jesus meant such a rule to apply in cases of actual cruelty or mistreatment: and note, Jesus was addressing men, and if he had been addressing women I suspect he would have made exceptions for abuse. And most of all, it's important to remember that Jesus was more about love than about legalism, more about the spirit of the law than the letter. "For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life".

The Eastern churches have an interesting take on divorce and remarriage- they've allowed divorce, in certain cases, since at least the fourth century. They start from the principle that _death_ dissolves a marriage. And then they further go on to say that some kinds of spiritual wrongdoing constitute spiritual death on the part of the person who does it- things like felony, abuse, abandonment, cruelty. Marriage to such a person is like marriage to a living corpse- and even maybe if they repent one day, the marriage is already dissolved- because how can one be married to a dead person? Indeed, it can't be doubted that it's possible for people to fall into a spiritual black hole in which they are dead to love, to charity, to affection. The idea that marriage to such a person is null certainly has a certain mystical appeal. On the other side, of course, is the argument that the church of Rome, and my church, have historically taken quite the opposite view.

I don't know how Christians should handle the thorny question of divorce and remarriage, and this is an expecially hard question or me because I'm not married. It's easy for me to say that divorce and remarriage are condemned by Jesus- it's harder for me to imagine what I would do if I was in that situation. That said, I do think that we are required, as Christians, to hold indissoluble marriage as the ideal, even if we sometimes fall short of it, and I think this is especially important within our modern society which doesn't share our views. We are called to be "the salt of the earth", and we are warned that the Christian life will be hard and difficult: "Many are called, but few are chosen."

The tradition of the Church of England, right up until 2002, was to prohibit the remarriage of divorced people absolutely, and not to celebrate their marriages in church. However, the church would welcome divorced people who had had civil marriages and allow them access to the sacraments, and sometimes bless their relationships. That seems to me like a reasonable compromise between the demands of Jesus and the requirements of a fallen world. I disagree with the liberalizing decision in 2002 to allow remarriages in church- the Anglican church has never practiced remarriages and it should not start now. I hope that this decision is reversed, and that my church in faithfulness to Christ, refuses to place its official endorsement on remarriages.

At the same time, I would like the church of England- and all churches, in my ideal world- to welcome divorced and civilly remarried people like a mother, in mercy and charity. It seems likely to be the case that divorced people are, as the Catholic church would say, called to chastity. But even if they are, surely Christ, like a merciful parent, understands that we will fall short of this ideal, and that sometimes it's permissible to do a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater one. Even if a second marriage is falling short of the Christian ideal of chastity, and technically counts as 'adultery', it is still preferable than to live a life full of loneliness, bitterness, and the lack of romantic connection with another person. Even if chastity is the ideal, and remarriage is something less, it is still better to remarry than to be torn apart by unfulfilled longing, for those people who aren't strong enough to be celibate. "It is better to marry than to burn", and this is true for divorced people as well, I think, I believe this, and I think God thinks this too, for we know that our God is a God of Love. Such marriages shouldn't be celebrated or endorsed by the church, but I think the people in them should be accepted and welcomed.

Christ tells us that remarriage after divorce is an evil, a form of adultery. He says this, and we must believe it. Divorced people, certainly outside hard cases like adultery and abuse, and maybe even there, are called to chastity, and Christ would want them to stay celibate, I think. But we know- history has taught us- that celibacy is not a discipline that most men and women can endure. It is a particularly strict form of self-abnegation, a high and a beautiful calling, but not one to whom most people are called. "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it". But for those on whom it is felt as something imposed from outside, not voluntarily chosen, it can be a curse. It can wither us spiritually, make us anger and bitter, lonely and gloomy. These things are evil, too, are they not? Surely, in some cases, remarriage after divorce is a lesser evil than loneliness, bitterness, rancor and spiritual corrosion that could come from being condemned to spend one's life alone. God will have mercy on such people, I think, and will not harshly judge their choice of a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater one.

But the fact that a merciful God will, and a merciful church should, make exceptions and be welcoming and tolerant of people who fall short of the ideal, does not mean we should detract from the ideal itself. The model of marriage painted by Desperate Housewicves, Blake, Yeats and Milton is a beautiful one, and a compelling one, but ultimately not a Christian one. We are called to be "the salt of the earth", and to be better than the standards of the world. And that means not surrendering our ideals, even if we are unable to live up to them. For ultimately, as beautiful as the ideal of Yeats is, the ideal of Christ is more beautiful. 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall laugh'. That applies not just to those who suffer from poverty or oppression, but also those who suffer from freely chosen willingness to honor a promise even when that promise is totally unfulfiling and seems like a harsh burden to carry. The Christian life means dying to self, but we are also assured that "He who loses his life for my sake will find it", and in the end all tears wil be washed away, all sorrows comforted, and all sufferings recompensed.

"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Jesus and Divorce: Part I"

I consider myself a liberal on sexual ethics, by historic Christian standards, for all that I'm somewhat culturally conservative by the standards of modern America. There are some things that traditional Christianity frowned upon prior to the 20th century, that I think are morally OK, and can in fact be good and healthy things. Homosexual relationships, but also contraception and some long-term premarital sexual relationships as well.

However, there's one prohibition that even a liberal view cannot easily explain away. It's mentioned in today's reading: I'll use a different scriptural citation, though, which fleshes it out a bit more and adds a potential exception.

"It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."

Matthew 5:31-32 (from "The Sermon on the Mount".)

And here too:

"The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and.....say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."

Matthew 19: 3-9.

Backed up by Luke 16:18 "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery".

And by Mark 10:12, and twice by St. Paul:

"But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife" (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

And also Romans 7:2, "For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth".

Ouch. This is, indeed, a hard saying. One of the hardest Christian doctrines for our society to accept, as the high divorce rate shows. And it's one, further, that a great many good and decent people find cruel and inflexible. It has been, as the great Bishop Charles Gore conceded in his argument against divorce, "a law singularly hard to flesh and blood". St. Paul himself made a concession- making it clear he was doing so on his own authority, not on the basis of revelation- allowing Christians married to a pagan (before their conversion) to divorce if the pagan spouse wanted to. Taking a lead from St. Paul, different Christian churches since then have tried to make various concessions in the spirit of mercy, to soften the teaching.

Some churches forbid remarriage after divorce entirely, but allow marriages to be annulled if there were factors making it invalid from the beginning (which, especially these days, can be interpreted fairly liberally). Some will not perform remarriages after divorce, and frown on them, but do welcome divorced and remarried people and allow them to receive the sacraments (the Church of England was in this position until 2002, when it unfortunately liberalized the rules). Some allow divorce on the sole ground of adultery; or on the grounds of adultery, cruelty, or conversion to a different religion; some on the grounds that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Some interpret Christ's words as expressing an ideal rather than an inflexible law. Some see his words as condemning men who unilaterally divorced their wives, and not couples who mutually and amicably agree to divorce. John Milton, notoriously, airily dismissed Christ's words as being deliberately hyperbolic, and approved total freedom of divorce- but only for men. I'm not particularly well informed on how evangelical Protestant churches handle this issue, but my understanding is that it's related to their not seeing marriage as a sacrament, which obviously is not a tack that Catholics, high Anglicans, Orthodox, Orientals and other can take.

I don't really want to get into, here, the topic of what exceptions there should be to Christ's hard saying. Because I don't know. On the one hand, mercy and charity cry out for exceptions. I don't believe that Christ would want a woman to be tied to a felon, a drug abuser, a cheater, or an abuser for life, and I think any ontological tie that there was must by definition be dissolved: not just in our eyes but in God's. And indeed the fact that St. Paul made an exception on his own authority- "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord...." (1 Corinthians 7:12) suggests that we should be able to, as well. On the other hand is the fact that most of the early church forbade divorce with no exceptions (e.g. in the Shepherd of Hermas) and that only a few church fathers in the West ever allowed it even for adultery. On the third hand, it's true that the Orthodox church permitted divorce in certain cases from early on. On the fourth hand, it can be argued (as Bishop Gore did) that this was because of political pressure from the Empire, which was stronger in the East than in the West. On the fifth hand, one could argue that the 'political pressure from the Empire' argument is false because the Armenian Church and the Assyrian Church, who were never part of the Empire, also allowed divorce on similar grounds to the Orthodox- an Assyrian text from the 13th century allows divorce for adultery, heresy, cruelty, murder and witchcraft. On the sixth hand the aformentioned Bishop Gore also argued, convicingly I think, that the 'saving for the cause of fornication' in St. Matthew was a spurious (if well meaning) addition by the Gospel writer, and that it doesn't reflect the true teaching of Jesus. It's always a bad idea when we try to 'correct' the sayings of Jesus and put forth "What Jesus Should Have Said." And on and on....

So in truth, I don't _know_ what types of exceptions there should be, though I'm sure there should be some, and I don't know what the best way is to reconcile this teaching with the interest of mercy and humanity. My own tentative feelings are that something like the pre-2002 C of E position is best- that churches should not _perform_ remarriages, but they should welcome people who are civilly remarried, if they've demonstrated that they are sorry their previous marriage failed, and that at the discretion of their spiritual director they should be allowed to participate fully in the life of the church. Christ loves us, even when we fail, and the church of Christ, like a loving mother, should have mercy on us and loves us unconditionally even when we can't live up to her teachings. This isn't logically very consistent, but then splitting the difference is something Anglicans are well known for. :)

There are certain aspects of what Christ said that do have to be culturally interpreted. As Lynn Gazis-Sax argues, Christ was speaking to men, and it's likely that if he was speaking to women, he would have made an exception for physical or emotional abuse. If divorce is possible for adultery, then it should be logically dissoluble on the grounds of anything that is as bad or worse than adultery, and abuse certainly counts as one of those. So let's acknowledge that an exception for adultery also implies an exception for abuse. The adultery exception may, though, be a spurious interpolation by St. Matthew- it's hard to tell. As for other exceptions, I think we should be very careful, and as I said above, I think my (Anglican) communion should generally stay out of the business of granting remarriages, except perhaps for abuse and adultery, while at the same time welcoming remarried people and dealing with their situations on a case-by-case basis with their priest.

But rather than define the exceptions- for love and mercy do call out for exceptions, just as St. Thomas Aquinas made exceptions to the prohibition against theft if your family was starving, I'd like to talk about the _rule_. Why is it important that Christians today view marriage being lifelong and indissoluble as an _ideal_? What's good about it? Weren't those words of Jesus addressed to a different time? Many of us have come to believe, like me, that the traditional teaching about homosexuality and other sexual acts doesn't necessarily reflect the true will of God for our age, and we need to try to figure out a new sexual ethics for our new era, based on the Bible and Tradition but also based on reason and experience. If we've updated our views on homosexuality, why not also on divorce?

Because let's be honest. There is a very, very powerful case that can be made against the ideal of indissoluble marriage. It was made by Blake in the nineteenth century, and by Yeats in the twentieth century. These were two of the greatest poets in our language, as well as great visionaries and good men. Both of them knew they were arguing a losing battle when they argued for free and easy divorce, but all three did it anyway because it was a cause they deeply believed in. Yeats in particular is an almost titanic and romantic figure in the way he stood in the Irish Senate, in the late 1920s, already well into middle age, wounded in love all his life, a man who had sacrificed and suffered for the cause of Irish freedom, now faced with a country that he felt was making a bad decision in completely banning civil divorce. Yeats was a Protestant, and though he never had any anti-Catholic antipathy, he felt that the Irish government for which he had fought long and hard was now making this law as a pure gesture of religious triumphalism. He stood on the floor of the Senate and argued the case of the Protestant minority against the Catholic majority, thundering memorably, "We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are the people of Grattan, of Emmet, of Parnell, of Swift, of Burke", summoning up an ancient lineage of heroes of Irish nationalism. And he thundered that "Marriage is not to us a Sacrament, but, upon the other hand, the love of a man and woman, and the inseparable physical desire, are sacred. This conviction has come to us through ancient philosophy and modern literature, and it seems to us a most sacrilegious thing to persuade two people who hate each live together, and it is to us no remedy to permit them to part if neither can re-marry." All his romantic fervor, all his aristocratic pride, all his Byronic heroism was evident as he stood there arguing for a lost cause. See here:

In the nineteenth century, the case for free divorce was made powerfully not just by these eminent intellectuals but by any number of Christian radicals and Christian socialists whose vision of the world was one of freedom, where the only bonds between men and women were based on love, not on legalistic contracts, and that when love died so would the relationship. Because what could be more ugly, and more dehumanizing, then to be tied to someone you don't love? If love is our highest calling as human beings, the highest expression of our nature, the emotion that brings us closest to God, how could something that flows from love be wrong? After all, "God is Love" (1 John 4:8) and again, "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God" (1 John 4:7). Love, it's true, covers a multitude of sins and errors.

In our time, the mass media makes a powerful case that we would all be happier if we dropped the ideal of indissoluble marriage, and instead stayed together only as long as we loved each other. Powerful voices in our culture call for a world where people get divorced when they fall out of love, and find love, hope and joy in their new relationships. Mistakes can be wiped out and people can start over: and everytime they start over it's like everything is bright and new again, like the world is young, and every relationship is full of promise. No one is bound, by promise or contract, to anyone they aren't happy and passionate with. Everyone is free to follow their heart wherever it may lead them.

This is, indeed, a powerful and attractive view of the world, and of marriage, and there's a lot to be said for it. And for non-Christians, it's a compelling one. What I'm not sure of is whether it can be combined with a Christian view of the world. Because all the beauty, attractiveness, power, humanity, and compelling logic of the view of marriage held by Yeats, Blake, Milton, and Desperate Housewives, comes up against this hard saying of Jesus:

"But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."

Is it plausible to try and explain this away by saying that it was a product of a particular culture and time? And how can we square fidelity to this ideal with the fact that in our fallen world, people fail? I'll get to that in the next half of his post.