Bruce Charlton has noticed an essay by Mormon author Orson Scott Card, in which Card has a “Traditional Christian” and an LDS believer arguing over the nature of the Trinity. The Christian says the Trinity is like three parallel lines that everywhere touch each other, while the LDS says that it is like three disparate parallel lines.
Both these geometrical analogies are of course radically defective. That of the “Traditional Christian” fails to express threeness, while that of the LDS fails to express oneness. They illustrate the difficulty of trying to explain the being who is the very basis of explanation as such. If God is the origin of all that is, then he can’t be explained in terms of anything else. We should hardly be surprised that he can’t be accommodated by the abstractions of Euclidean geometry (especially since it is inadequate even as a formalization of our universe). If you’ve got an explanation of God, then what you’ve explained ain’t God. Nor would a God that you could fully understand be quite satisfactory to the religious impulse, for such a God would be in at least one way smaller than our own minds, and thus scandalous to worship.
For those who take an interest, Angel Millar has published my essay on Gustave Flaubert’s “Herodias,” a tale of John the Baptist, and one of the Three Tales (1877), at his People of Shambhala website. We think of Flaubert as the consummate social novelist (Madame Bovary  and A Sentimental Education ), but he was also, despite not being much of a believer, a powerful religious thinker (Salammbo  and The Temptation of Saint Anthony ).
Bruce Charlton suggests in a recent post that the eternal pre-mortem existence of the human soul might be a way to provide room for our free agency in a system of things that seems otherwise, as wholly determinate in and by its derivation from some past, and ultimately by and from God, to provide none. If we are eternal, he argues, then obviously we are not determined by anything other than ourselves, and so are free – free, among other things, to Fall.
There are some fatal problems with this suggestion. But hidden within it is the germ of a solution to the problem Dr. Charlton has noticed. All that is needed to unpack it is to apply certain distinctions.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus advises us to ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.” Why the redundancy of “day” and “daily”? Well, it turns out that in the Greek of the NT, there is no redundancy, because the two words are quite different. The word we translate as “day” is hemera, “day.” So, e.g., ephemera are things that are only for a day – thus if there were a redundancy in the Greek, Jesus would have been advising us to ask God to give us this hemera our ephemeral bread.
If you listen to Christians, or read us, you are sooner or later certain to encounter our encomia to suffering. Not that we admire suffering in and of itself. We dislike and avoid it at least as much as the next fellow. But it is common to hear us recommend that we should “offer up” our suffering to God as an integral portion of that sacrifice to him of our whole being which is his first and greatest commandment. Since one sacrifices only what is good, this notion of offertory suffering would seem to imply that suffering is somehow good, however much we may abhor it.
Christians also routinely suggest that our suffering can have great redemptive efficacy, as our portion and participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ, to whose body we are all joined as intimately as we are joined to our own members. Suffering, then, must have some inherent salvific – that is to say, salving – aspect (granting that, as with any other creaturely act, if it is to succeed as an operation of the restoration of justice, harmony, and indeed health, pain must be suffered properly).
And because human suffering can be joined to that of Christ, so as to ramify its salvific effect, an ancient tradition of the Church understands our suffering as meritorious, indeed even glorious.
Suffering must somehow be good.
What good then is it? Or, how does it work what is good?
For many walk, of whom I have told you often (and now tell you weeping), that they are enemies of the cross of Christ; Whose end is destruction; whose God is their belly; and whose glory is in their shame; who mind earthly things.
– Philippians 3:18-19
Today is Holy Wednesday, in which we commemorate the betrayal of Jesus by one of his own. Fittingly enough, today was also the day when large numbers of Christians publicly expressed their betrayal of the cross of Christ (or continued to express, rather) in order to align themselves with the spirit of the age by agitating for gay “marriage.” I witnessed this today among my own friends, many of whom rushed to change their Facebook profile pictures (in concert with about ten million other “critical thinkers” who all happen to think and dress and talk exactly alike all the time without any apparent coordination) to a giant equals sign, for, yanno “marriage equality.” Because, they say, Jesus was all about equality, tolerance, and acceptance.
Thank God we’ve got the dumbest generation of spoiled, incompetent narcissists in the history of the world to tell us how Jesus really feels about gay “marriage.” I guess Genesis 18-19 was a giant head fake.
Let us take some time this week to do penance on behalf of these useful idiots (emphasis on the latter word), the better to console the sacred heart of our Lord, wounded as it is by the sins and ingratitude of men.
It is not news that the new Pope is Catholic. Nor, therefore, is it news that he teaches what the Catholic Church has taught for over two millennia–not even if these teachings offend your sensibilities. Continue reading →
Glorifying God, leaking into the world the love that he leaks into us through the wounds and breaches and gaps of our own lives, is a severely practical and down to earth activity.
In that sense we do in the world what God does in us. We receive His love where we are vulnerable and weak, and lose sight of it when we claim strength and power. Christians reach to the jagged edges of our society, and of the world in general. Food distribution, places for rough sleepers, debt counselling, credit unions, community mediation, support for ex‐offenders, support for victims of crime, care for the dying, valuing those who have no economic contribution to make, or are too weak to argue for their own value. All this is the daily work of the church, which goes on every day and everywhere. We leak out into the world the love that God leaks into us.
The above bit of revoltingly banal, worldly shlock comes to us from the Christmas sermon of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was enthroned today as head of the Anglican Communion in a ceremony that looked like this:
As she splashed his hair with revengeful drops,
she spoke the spine-chilling words which warned of impending disaster:
‘Now you may tell the story of seeing Diana naked–
if story-telling is in your power!’ No more was needed.
The head she had sprinkled sprouted the horns of a lusty stag;
the neck expanded, the ears were narrowed to pointed tips;
she changed his hands into hooves and his arms into long and slender
forelegs; she covered his frame in a pelt of dappled buckskin;
last, she injected panic. The son of Autonoe bolted…
What does it mean to say that Diana turned Actaeon into a stag? I mean, I get it that she’s a goddess and can cause a deer to appear where a man once was, but what does it mean to say that the deer is still Actaeon? According to the Philosopher, the unity of a thing (and hence our ability to identify it as the same thing in different states) comes from its substantial form, but Actaeon has just changed species. While there may be some continuity of vital and sensitive processes, the essential nature of these has been altered. It would seem that this is no different from saying that Actaeon was killed and his matter reconstituted as a deer, but this is not how we understand the story. (Otherwise, the deer being killed by Actaeon’s dogs would be no new misfortune for the poor hunter.) An Aristotelian might say that the poet cheats by having the deer experience human-like emotions and thoughts. Still, we have all experienced moments of terror when reason abandoned us. Couldn’t we imagine Actaeon’s last moments being like this, and it being consistent with the restrictions of deer-nature? We can imagine this, and we know what we are imagining that makes seeing Diana and getting attacked by dogs be events that happen to the same being. It is a single subjectivity, a single stream of consciousness, a single “I” that can attach itself to both experiences, even though the two experiences belonged to different natures.
Son: And he is super-powerful. He can make anything happen that he wants to have happen, right?
Father: Pretty much. Only he can’t make things happen that just don’t make sense. Like, he couldn’t make a circle that was square, right? He can’t make a true thing false, either. Like, he couldn’t make 2 + 2 = 5, you know?
Son: Yeah, that’s a silly idea.
Father: Why do you ask, kiddo?
Son: Well, I’ve been scared ever since Jade died. Why did God make her die? Why did he let that happen?
Father: It’s for the same reason he can’t make a square circle.