…in light of the Bible.
Image: RL2013; tagged “Stormy Sunset”
Quote: Cited by Sawyer, M. James (Kindle Ed. 2012). Neoorthodoxy: an Introductory Survey
Originally published 14th Nov. 2013
Although I’ve browsed through ‘City of God’ and ‘On Christian Doctrine’, my main interaction with Augustine’s work centres on his ‘Confessions’. (A phenomenal read if you ever get the chance to dig into it.)
I like many of the things Augustine says and wrestle with some of his more introspective reflections.
One of those is his statement:
‘The appearance of what we do is often different from the intention with which we do it, and the circumstances at the time may not be clear’[i]
Augustine seems to be saying that what we intend is not always what we do. Circumstances pending, what we do is sometimes only for the sake of what we want others to see and therefore say about us.
Avarice overrides responsible action as pride corrupts intention. Thus leading us onto a path where we turn ‘the loss of confessing self in order to be for others, into an all consuming self, an expressivist exhibition’[ii]
The divide between appearances and intentions, then, forms the basis of his point. This existential division creates an ethical-theological tension perpetuated by the sometimes fog of circumstances.
This is identified by Jean Bethke Elshtain in ‘Augustine and the limits of politics’:
‘Augustine lays the miseries of human life at the doorstep of sin, our division (within selves and between self and others), our enthrallment to cupiditas[iii] and our all-too-frequent abandonment of caritas[iv]. We are, in other words, ignorant but it is ignorance of a particular kind, not innocent naiveté but prideful cognitive amputation.[v]’
What Elshtain means by ‘prideful cognitive amputation’ is ‘philosophical solipsism’ (extreme subjective idealism)[vi]; thoughtlessness (not to be confused with mindlessness), but understood as ‘the banality of evil.(Hannah Arendt’s controversial assessment of Adolf Eichmann) [vii]’
Elshtain, a feminist, presents her analysis of Augustine as an attempt at rescue. Saving Augustine from the ritualistic frown passed on to our forebears by the hubris and suspicion of post 60’s modernity.
For her, Augustine is relevant and worthy of a second look:
‘He confesses what he knows and what he does not know. He does know that the world isn’t boundlessly subjectivist; it does not revolve around the “me, myself and I”[viii]
Augustine himself thunders the point home:
‘I flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it so that you might bring healing to a soul that had sinned against you. I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner’[ix]
Elshtain brilliantly adds, ‘when we start to regard ourselves in our own light, our light dims’[x]
Reading this in the emerging light of advent we might be called back to Karl Barth’s assertion
‘To thank means to accept with confession,… to acknowledge the gift, the goodness and the kindness of the Giver’[xi]
God makes himself known in Jesus Christ, ‘the sign of all signs[xii]’
In Augustine’s sigh we hear that the heart has ears. Before the beauty of Christmas this can only mean an awakening to an awareness of our own need for grace; an acknowledgement that we are carried, firmly, lovingly held above the abyss.
Confronted by such a grace we learn that God is God and we are not. Yet, by Divine decision; a fierce and free decree. In Jesus Christ, we are spoken to, spoken for and therefore not given up on.
In His example we see in part, the point of Christmas. That the ‘principle of charity requires nothing less than to make one’s best effort.’[xiii]
Jesus is Victor!
[i] Augustine, St. Confessions Penguin Classics III/XIX 1961:67
[ii] Elshtain, J.B. 1995 ‘Augustine & The Limits of Politics’ p.6
[iii] Latin for desire, eagerness, enthusiasm; passion; lust; avarice; greed; ambition; partisanship (Source: Collins Latin Dictionary App)
[iv] Latin for charity, grace, dearness, high price; esteem, affection (Source: Collins Latin Dictionary App)
[v] Elshtain, J.B. 1995 ‘Augustine & The Limits of Politics’ p.37
[vi] Ibid, p.59
[viii] Ibid, p.5
[ix] Augustine, St. 1961 Confessions Penguin Classics V/X p.103
[x] Elshtain, ibid pp.11, 66 &62
[xi] Barth, K. 1940 The Limits of the Knowledge of God C.D II/I Hendrickson Publishers p.198
[xii] Ibid, p.199
[xiii] Elshtain, ibid p.55
*I’ve borrowed the second part of the title to this blog post from Elshtain, who uses it on page xiii in her introduction.
Image: Rembrandt, 1633 ‘Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee’
Originally published 14th December 2014
And the provocative quote of the week goes to, Charles Spurgeon: “Be a good hater”.
In context it means: to abhor evil: to regard it with extreme repugnance. [In Latin, “abhor” is Odium: with hostility; “repugnance”: resist, be an adversary of evil.]
Our present age has an almost absolute fear of hate, yet most would agree that “let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, cling to that which is good“, is an admirable thing. One clear example which proves this is the often irrational hatred shown towards Donald Trump.
When discussing hating evil, clinging to the good, Calvin prefers to use the term “turning away”, saying it ‘corresponds better with the opposite clause, where Paul bids us to exercise kindness’ (Commentary on Romans 12:9)
This is displayed in the actions of real social justice advocates [by which I don’t mean the average internet variety, Social Justice Warriors]. Social justice advocates lay their claims against injustice on the very premise that an evil; an injustice; something to be abhorred; something repugnant has taken place.
The problem arises when the basis for those claims are centred on the ever shifting sands of subjective relativism. Akin to the great violation in the garden, which sought to jettison God; removing the Creator from His rightful place, putting the creature at the centre of where, what and how that creature derives its definitions, and subsequent redefinitions, of what good and evil is.
Once fluidity of truth is proclaimed and accepted. Competing “truths” seek dominance. Humanity becomes the primary source and decider of what is good and evil.
From there lies can hide hatred, and power can be gained by it.
“whoever hates disguises himself with his lips, and harbours deceit in his heart; when he speaks graciously believe him not, for there are seven abominations in his heart though his hatred be covered with deception.” (Proverbs, 26:24-26)
Hate is hidden and fuelled by subjectivism. Tolerance must be given to the “truth” of the Marxists, the White Power Neo-Nazis or the Islamist, even though they force compliance to their ideas of good and evil, through fear, hatred and bloodshed. The “truth” is to be respected, even though it hides a love for hatred, and a hatred of truth.
The ultimate conclusion is a clash of competing untruths, long paraded as truth. The consequences being, that lies and falsehood come to rule, where truth and facts once did.
On the other hand when accompanied by God’s Word on what good and evil is, along with honesty, humility, mercy and justice, hate can be a positive. Hate in this sense is restrained pathos or righteous anger. This is pathos seeking to end the cause of pathayma (suffering), which is held within the limits of both ethos and logos.
To hate evil is to cling to that which is good. Any hate which doesn’t cleave to that which is good, leads us towards that which is evil. Thus hating evil is not a sin because the act has a just cause, grounded in God’s, and not man’s definition of what good and evil is. It is grounded in the precedent, criteria and command of God.
Morality drawn straight from the whims of the human heart is the subjective morality of the tyrant. Subjective morality becomes immorality the further it disconnects itself from the external Word and Spirit of God. This is because morality is held captive to the subjective truth of a tyrannical ungodly king, who acting on the mood of the moment bans all unauthorised morality from his or her kingdom. This unauthorised morality is anything other than the one he or she seeks to own, in order to grow their grip on power. One Biblical example of this is King Saul’s eventual hatred of David. Saul disconnects himself from God, and issues his rule from his own subjective sense of good and evil.
It’s true, as C.S Lewis wrote, that ‘hatred obscures all distinctions.’[iii] But what I think C.S Lewis is getting at here is any hatred that exists by itself and of itself, obscures all distinctions.
One way to speak of this could be to say that we need to be open to being challenged about the things we intensely dislike, otherwise we’re just lying to ourselves and others. Again we take Solomon’s words and apply them, ‘the one who conceals hatred has lying lips’ (Proverbs 10:18)
For the Christian, the ultimate grounding for hating evil, isn’t hate, it is love. Love motivates the Christian to speak out and proclaim the salvation brought to both the oppressed and oppressor alike.
This means continuing to act on the gifts that God gives, such as good government, the ability to teach, discern and speak in a gracious way to world hellbent on worshiping insanity. To achieve this we need to gain a better understanding about the close relationship between hating evil and being a “hater”.
Hating hate, and not evil, is the great twisted and misleading double negative of our age.
Nowhere in the bible does God command His people to hate, hate. What we read is the imperative to abhor evil and cling to what is good. All of this raises questions:
1. How do we hate evil in a world that hates both hate, and haters?
2. How can we keep the imperative to ‘hate what is evil’ from being misused and abused?
When we apply being a “good hater” to the Nazis, what is meant is that we hate the ideology of Nazism, not the German people who identified as Nazis. What is hated is the evil in the ideology that rules over the person and in the person, as if it were a lord without a Lord. The distinction between the German and the Nazi, if measured by Lewis’ criteria isn’t distorted.
Therefore, Charles Spurgeon’s ‘’be a good hater’’ is someone who acts in Christian love. Since love speaks both a “yes” and a “no”, to hate evil is to cling to the good; standing with, and in, God’s “no” to evil.
It’s right then to conclude, that any Christian who falls in with the ‘untruth of the crowd’ when it comes to Donald Trump, may find themselves falling into hate that is absent of the rule of Christian love. The Christian in this context fails to see that ‘the sinner hasn’t stopped being God’s creature’ (Karl Barth CD 3:2, p.31)
Grace finds the distinction between the love for the sinner and hatred of the sin, and moves in love towards the sinner with this particular order in mind. Barth again brings home the point, ‘if it does not spring from grace, it does not lead to grace.’ (ibid, p.36)
Just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said:
“Although we are not Christ, if we want to be Christians we must participate in Christ’s own courageous heart by engaging in responsible action that seizes the hour in complete freedom, facing the danger’ (Meditations On The Cross, p.26)
None of this means being slothful in our response to injustice, what it means is letting authentic Christian love, not the untruth of the crowd, govern that response. So it is that we return to the imperative, let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, cling to that which is good.
In this sense, “be a good hater”.
[i] James 4:7
[iii] C.S Lewis, 1955 On Science Fiction in Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy & Short Stories
[iv] See Bonhoeffer, D. 1954 Life Together p.111
[v] see Barth, K. 1960 Man as a Problem of Dogmatics, CD. 3:2 p.32 Hendrickson Publishers here Barth discusses the primacy of grace and the secondary place of sin in God’s attitude towards man.
Grace shows humanity God’s commitment to humanity. This commitment isn’t the result of our empty attempts to placate a bored King who has everything. God’s commitment to us has nothing to do with any human sycophantic transaction. It is a totally aware, pure, turning towards creation by its Creator.
God’s commitment picks humanity up from its failure to fulfill its own commitment towards Himself. Even when rejected, God’s commitment remains unchanged. It cannot be undone. The follow through of grace means that human commitment is fulfilled. God has done it. What is left is the human response to the completed work.
That human commitment fulfilled by God necessitates a turning of the creature back towards the Creator. Hearts and minds are directed back to the memory of His act on our behalf. Humanity is graciously shown the way and firmly commanded to follow.
For Karl Barth, ‘all that [then] remains for me to do is to let my eyes rest on Him, which really means to let my eyes follow Him. This following is my faith. But the great[er] work of faith has already been done by the One whom I follow […] To abide in; to trust in God (Ps.91:1) to believe is to stand in in the communion of saints; who has received, receives and will receive the forgiveness of sins, who hastens towards the resurrection of the flesh and eternal life […] His faith is the victory which has overcome the world. But that it is this victory does not rest with [the believer], but solely with Him in whom he [may] believe.’ [i]
Human commitment is empowered by God’s grace to be lived out. That humanity is empowered towards commitment means that whilst God’s act of grace is immutably superimposed, it is not forcefully imposed. We are simply shown the creation and opening of a door where there was none before. God has an exit plan. He spells it out with the letters e.n.l.i.s.t. This is the response to the call of grace: ‘grateful obedience’ (Barth, 2/1 p.229). The commitment of the ‘free man to the free God.’ (Barth, 2/2 p.561) is empowered by God’s revolution; a revolution no man or woman can lie about to control or trump.
This is confronted by God’s act and claim on humanity, to humanity, for humanity vs. humanity’s self-justification and rejection in its counter-claims about God.
“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men and women by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12, ESV)
No other can lay claim to being this truth; fact; Christ event: God’s revealing of Himself in Jesus Christ. No other can lay claim to being the source of goodness; ethics, right and wrong. No other can claim to be the sole hope and promise of our future. Come Nero, hashtag riot, Hillary, Trump, unjust law, illness, closet-oppressive utopian idea, rainbow ideology or Hitler,
“The subject of theological ethics is not the Word of God as it is claimed by humanity, but the Word of God as it claims humanity. It is not man as he is going to make something of the Word of God, but the Word of God as it is going to make something of man* […]The grace of God is always this: Jesus Christ. It is from what God has done for us that we must learn to read what God wants with us and of us. We must seek the command of God only where it has itself torn off the veil of all human opinions and theories about the will of God**” [ii]
This is the chief reason for why we Christians call the Gospel, Good News. God lives and He speaks!
‘A Christian is one who knows that God has accepted him in Jesus Christ, that a decision has been made concerning him in Jesus Christ as the eternal Word of God, and that he has been called into covenant with Him by Jesus Christ as the Word of God spoken in time.’ [iii]
Summed up by Barth, in true Barth fashion:
‘We hear the Gospel as we obey it. For Jesus Christ is the basis in which we may believe in God, the Word in which dwell the light and force to move us to this event. He Himself is the Gospel. He himself is the resolve and the execution of the essential will in which God willed to give Himself to us. The grace of God, of the God in whom we may believe, is this. In Jesus Christ the eternal Word became flesh. Without ceasing to be who He is in Himself, God became as one of us.’ [iv]
As Karl Barth repeatedly remarks, God wills to be with us & wills that we should not be without Him:
‘Death could not hold Him [Jesus Christ], & therefore it cannot hold us. In the midst of death we have in Him no future but that of resurrection and eternal life. The grace of God decides and has already decided concerning our human existence. What then does it mean to be human now that this decision has been reached by the grace of God? It means to be one who stands and walks and lives and dies within the fact that God is gracious to us, that He has made us His own.(Gal. 2:19)’ [v]
The human response to the question of God’s grace, is ‘our answer to this Word. It is a free action bound by commitment’ (Barth, 2/2:546 paraphrased).
“Hear O, Israel: The Lord our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (Deuteronomy, 6:4-5, ESV)
[i] Barth, K. 1942 The Basis of the Divine Claim, CD 2/2 Hendrickson Publishers (p.559)
[ii] Ibid, p.546* & pp.560 & 559**
[iii] Ibid, p.547
[iv] Ibid, pp.557 & 558
[v] Ibid, pp. 558-559
[the words wrapped in parenthesis are my own]
Two weeks ago I came across two speeches. The first was from Catholic Theologian Jean Vanier, and the second was from Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks.
I’ve had an interest in the praxis, theology and political philosophy of the former since my encounter with his work during my undergraduate study. His co-authored work, ‘Living Gently in a Violent World, (2008)‘ written with Stanley Hauerwas still stands out in my mind.
Each speech was given as part of an acceptance ceremony whereby Vanier (2015) and Sacks (2016) were awarded the Templeton Prize. Both speeches are not entirely worlds apart, however in the end I was drawn to the speech given by Sacks, more than I was Vanier.
For context, the Templeton Prize is an award that ‘honours a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works […]The Prize seeks and encourages breadth of vision, and new insights that human beings take their spiritual bearings from a range of experiences.’ [i]
The Sacks speech hits on the dangers and problems caused by the outsourcing of [personal] responsibility (for example abuses, neglect, mechanisms of denial, anxiety avoidance, crisis, oppression, self-justification and how at times social justice can mask even greater evils).
Some of the key highlights:
1. ‘A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.’
2. ‘The 1960’s is marked by the outsourcing of morality; an abandonment of the Moral Sciences. Morality had been outsourced to the market. The market gives choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire […] Ethics was reduced to economics. As for the consequences of our choices, these were outsourced to the state […] Welfare was outsourced to the state. As for conscience, that once played so large a part in a the moral life, that could be outsourced to regulatory bodies. So having reduced moral choices to economics, we transformed the consequences of choices to politics.’
3. ‘You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away. When you do, you raise expectations that cannot be met. […] as a result people start to take refuge in magical thinking, which today takes one of four forms: the far right, the far left, religious extremism and aggressive secularism. The far right seeks a return to a golden past that never was. The far left seeks a Utopian future that will never be. Religious extremists believe you can bring salvation by terror. Aggressive secularists believe that if you get rid of religion there will be peace. These are all fantasies, and pursuing them will endanger the very foundations of freedom […] We’ve already seen on university campuses in Britain and America [& Australia] the abandonment of academic freedom in the name of the right not to be offended by being confronted by views with which I disagree.’
4. ‘What emerged in Judaism and post-reformation Christianity was the rarest of character-types: the inner-directed personality. Most societies, for most of history, have been either tradition-directed or other-directed. Inner directed types are different. They become pioneers, the innovators and the survivors. They try to have secure marriages, hand on their values to their children, belong to strong communities, and take daring but carefully calculated risks. When they fail, they have rapid recovery times, have discipline and are more interested in sustainability than quick profits.’
5. ‘Civilisations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West.’
‘There is an alternative: become inner-directed again […] which means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future.
If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.’ [ii]
All Sacks’ points and his sharp conclusion speak of a society telling itself that it’s on the verge of an upgrade. When in fact it’s face to face with the abyss, far closer to an irreversible downgrade. Glimmers of hope, such as Brexit, where free citizens vote not to comfortably slide into the role of indentured subject, may not be enough to encourage unity against such.
On another front, for me, Sacks’ use of the phrase ”inner-directed” is too ambiguous. Other than referring to it as being human conscience, it’s left open to interpretation. If the definition rests solely on human conscience then it raises significant problems for theologians, who hold human conscience as not being the centre or source of morality, ethics – the distinction between good and evil; right and wrong.
Humanity is not the source of this. It can only be a Word spoken to humanity from outside humanity. It cannot speak right and wrong to itself abstracted from the source of this differentiation. As witnessed throughout the 20th century in the West, when right and wrong are detached from Judeo-Christian ethics, human suffering isn’t answered, it’s increased.
It’s exactly what Bonhoeffer digs into when he states:
Humankind, which has fallen away from God in a precipitous plunge, now still flees from God. For humankind the fall is not enough; its flight cannot be fast enough. This flight, Adam’s hiding away from God, we call conscience. Before the fall there was no conscience.
Only since humankind has become divided from the Creator are human beings divided within themselves. Indeed it is the function of conscience to make human beings flee from God and so admit against their own will that God is in the right; yet, conscience also lets human beings, in fleeing from God, feel secure in their hiding place […]
Conscience is not the voice of God within sinful human beings; instead it is precisely their defence against this voice. Yet precisely as a defence against this voice, conscience still points to it, in spite of all that human beings know and want.’ [iii]
‘Inner-directed” therefore can only mean the inner-direction of the Holy Spirit. Any other source of ”inner-direction” is bound to lead us into inner-misdirection. Inner-direction is directed by a transcendent direction, at once hidden, yet revealed.
Outside this theological framework Jonathan Sacks’ call to become inner-directed is mis-directed:
‘Conscience means feeling shame before God; at the same time one conceals one’s own wickedness in shame, humankind in shame justifies itself […] The grace of the Creator is not recognised. God calls Adam and does not let him flee. Instead Adam sees this grace only as hate, as wrath, a wrath that inflames his own hate, his rebellion, his desire to get away from God. Adam keeps on falling. The fall drops with increasing speed for an immeasurable distance.’ [iv]
With the understanding that ”inner-direction” is within the framework of humanity finding itself being Holy Spirit-directed, I’m on board with Sacks’ conclusions.
‘If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.’ (Galatians 5:16-26)
[i] Templeton Prize
[ii] Sacks, J. Rabbi, 2016 Templeton Speech PDF Sourced 19th June, 2016 from http://www.templetonprize.org/
[iii] Bonhoeffer, D. 2004, DBW3 Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3 (128). Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (p.128)
[iv] ibid, 2004:130