Under the Heaven Tree
by Frederica Mathewes-Greene
Essay included in “The Church in the Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives,” Leonard Sweet, editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003). This book contains five essays on the question of the Church’s engagement with culture, and to what extent we should change, or preserve, its message and its method. This essay was my contribution.
Why is this essay written in question and answer format?
It is intended to reference the penultimate section of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” This section, called “Ithaca,” concerns a late-night conversation between Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. It is cast in the form of a series of objective, impersonal questions and answers, for example, “What seemed to the host to be the predominant qualities of his guest?”
Why is “Ithaca” written in question and answer format?
Joyce’s monumental novel employed many experimental forms. While some twentieth-century artists experimented in haphazard or even deliberately destructive ways, Joyce’s work is carefully constructed and frequently beautiful.
Give an example.
When Bloom escorts Dedalus to the door, well after midnight, they see “the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
Give an example of an artwork deliberately destructive of aestheticism.
The “Fountain” of Marcel Duchamp, which consisted of a urinal, signed “R. Mutt.”
What did these experimenting artists share?
They shared an impulse to go beyond traditional forms of art to use new methods to express messages that, they believed, were also new.
Were these messages, in fact, new?
Were these methods new?
They were certainly experimental and original.
Were these methods more effective in communication than previous methods?
When was “Ulysses” written?
Between 1914 and 1921.
When did Duchamp present his “Fountain”?
Why was there an impulse to experiment with new methods and new messages?
Because the old messages and methods seemed exhausted. Previous generations’ optimistic and orderly view of the world seemed artificial and incapable of expressing the confusion and darkness artists sensed. These artists hoped that brutal realism would enable contact with something more true.
How did Joyce scholar Stuart Gilbert analyze this ferment?
Joyce scholar Stuart Gilbert wrote in 1950, “Writers and artists of that bygone age [the 1890’s] had the advantage over the present generation  that there was a citadel of organized propriety on which to drop their incendiaries, and the ensuing blaze filled them and their admirers with mischievous delight.” That is, these artists challenged propriety and styled themselves revolutionary. They felt particular exhilaration when their works outraged stuffy, proper people.
What was Joyce’s own hope?
Joyce wrote, when he completed “Dubliners,” of “the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over all my works.”
How did Stuart Gilbert characterize this statement?
“That ‘hope’ was typically ‘ninetyish.”
And he meant by “ninetyish”?
Was this love of challenging and questioning restricted to the arts?
No. In “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”, Albert Schweitzer found that attempts to revise the view of Jesus had been going on since the middle 1700’s.
What characterized these attempts to revise the view of Jesus?
These attempts were characterized by rejection of the prevailing view, and proposal of a substitute Jesus filled with whatever virtues were most valued at the time. Schweitzer termed this “a uniquely great expression of sincerity.”
When did Schweitzer write his book?
What did Schweitzer conclude was the only way we could know Jesus?
He concluded that we can know Jesus only by following Him.
What did Philip Jenkins assert in “Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way”?
Jenkins asserted that although Jesus-revision has been going on for centuries, revisers were for the most part ignorant of the revisers that preceded them. They believed that they were uniquely bold, and felt particular exhilaration when their works outraged stuffy, proper people. Jenkins asserted that the reviser’s self-dramatizing narrative follows the classic lines of legend: a brave rebel uncovers, or uncovers new meaning in, an ancient document, and brings about something liberating and new.
What two things do Jesus-revisers, past and present, share?
A restless desire to overthrow the past and do something new, and a conviction that Jesus is all we can admire or desire.
Is Jesus all we can admire or desire?
How, then, do these revisers go wrong?
By failing to question the assumptions of thought-fashion, which seep in and control them unawares. By mistakenly identifying the eternally admirable and desirable with passing popular ideas of what is admirable or desirable.
Give a contemporary example.
A contemporary example is the present age’s romantic fascination with rebellion, and the Jesus Seminar’s preference to see Jesus as a political revolutionary, to the extent of rejecting as ahistorical any Gospel sayings thought inappropriate to a revolutionary.
Give a second contemporary example.
In 1999 a British ad agency produced a black-and-red Easter poster for the Anglican church depicting Jesus in the likeness of Che Guevara. Both method and message were typically ‘ninetyish.
Was this revised message and method successful?
Probably not. People under fifty did not recognize the allusion to the Guevara poster, which had been popular in the 1960’s. Nor did they know who Guevara was. A vintage copy of this poster is now a valuable semi-antique collectible, in the category of “paper ephemera.”
What happened to Duchamp’s urinal?
It was exhibited in an admiring retrospective of Duchamp’s work in 1962.
How did Duchamp react to the art establishment’s embrace of his work?
With anger and frustration. He said, “I threw the urinal…in their faces as a challenge and now they admire [it] for [its] aesthetic beauty!”
What do stuffy, proper people do with revolutionary objects?
Enjoy them. Acquire them. Turn them into collectibles.
Are they, then, not outraged by them after all?
Powerful people are exhilarated by works intended to outrage powerful people, whom they apparently think is someone else.
Why is this?
Contemporary culture honors the rebel above all other authority. The rebel enjoys highest status and greatest power. The rebel is the Establishment.
How does cultural critic Thomas Frank describe this phenomenon?
Thomas Frank wrote, in “The Conquest of Cool,” “Today there are few things more beloved of our mass media than the figure of the cultural rebel, the defiant individualist resisting the mandates of the machine civilization. Whether he is an athlete decked out in a mohawk and multiple-pierced ears, a policeman who plays by his own rules, an actor on a motorcycle, a movie fratboy wreaking havoc on the townies’ parade, a soldier of fortune with explosive bow and arrow, a long-haired alienated cowboy gunning down square cowboys, or a rock star in leather jacket and sunglasses, he has become the paramount cliche of our popular entertainment, the preeminent symbol of the system he is supposed to be subverting.”
Is the rebel figure, then, not truly subverting the status quo?
The rebel figure preserves the status quo. He possesses preeminent status. He is our culture’s authority, while so-called authority figures, if they exist, are despised and mocked.
Do authority figures no longer exist?
Frank wrote, “On the other side of the coin, of course, are the central-casting prudes and squares (police, Southerners, old folks, etc.) against whom contemporary advertising, rock stars, and artists routinely cast themselves.”
Who has power in that conflict?
Not the prudes and square. They are props controlled by the rebels, brought out when necessary for dramatic purposes.
Why does our culture adore rebel identity?
The affluence and ease of post-World War II America pooled into a growing sense of anxiety. The fear was that the seductive appeal of abundant, attractive, affordable mass-produced goods was turning us into a nation of mere consumers. The term for this was “conformity.” Though now forgotten, the soul-deadening danger of conformity was a topic of widespread discussion, from intellectual journals to the Reader’s Digest. This dilemma is now forgotten because it was resolved.
What solution was developed, and by whom?
Advertising developed the brilliant solution of presenting the consumer as rebel. Customers could prove their independence by buying goods that demonstrated defiance of fashion. Such fashionable goods were akin to talismans, keeping the specter of conformity at bay. Especially fashionable were those products which appeared to repudiate fashion, implying that you were too cool to care whether you were cool or not. Yet because these goods could still be identically mass-produced, they remained affordable and of reassuringly familiar quality. The goods had never been the problem; anxiety about consuming them was the problem. This problem was eliminated through the magic of marketing, by invention of the consumer-as-rebel persona.
Did this rebel persona arise due to the hippie movement?
No. Frank finds the origin in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro.” Mailer proposed that the “Hipster” combat the “squares” by living the kind of sexy, jazzy, freewheeling life that whites fantasized belonged to blacks. Frank notes that Mailer was the first to take an option previously enjoyed by the intellectual elite, that of contempt for common culture and a self-elevating image of rebellion, and to democratize it. At last, the common man could feel superior to the common man.
Who first implemented this solution?
Doyle Dane Bernbach’s brilliant Volkswagen anti-ads began appearing in 1959, and the “Pepsi Generation” in 1961. If the hippies hadn’t arrived it would have been necessary to invent them.
How many pages are in the current Birkenstock catalogue?
Seventy-seven full-color pages, offering aggressively simple, unselfconscious footwear that thumbs its nose at fashion, costing up to $259.95 per pair.
Why is this essay written in question and answer form?
Because our age reverences questioning. Questioners are thought to be rebellious, which superior status exempts them from interrogation. The mechanism is similar to the “pre-emptive irony” of advertising and television, which makes it invulnerable to ironic critique.
What, then, must we conclude about the prescription that we should subvert, rebel, question, and revise?
We must ask whether we embrace this prescription because it has been diligently marketed to us.
Why has it been marketed to us?
So we’ll buy stuff.
What must be suspected?
That we exercise this rebel persona most often, not by actually rebelling, but by purchasing status items that we have been told will make us cool.
What might real rebellion look like?
Standing outside an abortion clinic on a cold Saturday morning wearing really un-cool sneakers and an un-cool cardigan, praying.
What must we do with a reflexive conformist stance of questioning authority?
What happened to Duchamp’s urinal?
It continues to gather authority as a prized and priceless artwork. In 1993, while it was on loan to a museum in Nimes from the Pompidou Center in Paris, the artist Pierre Pinoncelli revised its meaning, expressing a new message via a new method.
He urinated in it.
What did this do to the urinal, or perhaps artwork?
Pinoncelli said that this liberated it. The museum said that this vandalized it. Courts sided with the museum, and Pinoncelli was assessed a heavy fine.
Is a sense that current methods and messages are exhausted a new phenomenon?
No. It would be possible to trace this dissatisfaction back for centuries, perhaps, depending on the criterion used. Modernism is by nature restless, always questing for the next new thing, and in rebellion against the present.
Is there such a thing as post-modernism?
There is no way to tell. Dissatisfaction with the current times is an old phenomenon. Flux is Modernism’s stasis. Yet times will eventually change, so it is possible that they are changing now. If so, however, the future would not call this period “postmodernism.” They would name it by whatever distinctive features emerge, and these are not yet perceptible.
What is new under the sun?
What is old under the sun?
A fear that all is vanity and striving after wind. Weariness. Frustration. Impatience. Futility. Loneliness at the deepest levels. Two friends, after a long late-night conversation, still puzzles to themselves and each other, earthbound and aging, side-by-side and miles apart, looking up at the cold blue heaventree.
Is this ridiculous or contemptible?
Is it sad?
Will some new thing alleviate it?
It has not been shown to do so.
Why is this essay written in question and answer format?
To use an unfamiliar, though not new, method to disrupt the reader’s expectations and disarm him to receive an unfamiliar, though not new, message.
Why does it appear that the questions anticipate the answers?
Because “Ithaca” is not written in the form of simple dialogue. Joyce’s format in the “Ithaca” sequence was “Catechism.” In a catechism, questions have answers. The answers unfold what is already known, rather than speculate freely or end in uncertainty. The questions presume that answers exist. The questions presume that it is possible to know these answers, or partial answers.
Do the questions presume that the answers are exhaustive?
No. The questions presume that answers are necessarily fragmentary. However, those fragments may be reliable.
Does “reliable” mean “objectively true”?
“Reliable” means that there is an objective Truth who is a Person, not a proposition. He is reliable; He is trustworthy.
Can we not know objective truths?
We can know some objective truths. Some objective truths we do not, or cannot grasp, because they are beyond our comprehension, or because we dislike them. These truths nevertheless exist. Someone knows the number of hairs on your head, though you do not. We don’t know ourselves very well, but He does. We see ourselves in a mirror dimly, but one day will know ourselves, and Him, as well as we are known by Him right now.
Why does life seem like great weariness, vanity and striving after wind?
Because although He knows us, we do not know Him very well. We are lonely and empty because we do not know Him very well. We are vacant inside, deafened by the continual wind of our emptiness, and only His presence can fill us. Yet we fail to know Him well. Sometimes this is because we don’t want to know Him, and sometimes because we don’t know how.
Why do people continually want to revise the prevailing view of Jesus?
To relieve the pain of this dilemma by changing Jesus into something we can understand.
What is Jesus’ alternative plan?
To change us into something that can understand Him.
Do we misunderstand Him because our message or methods are outdated?
Perhaps in part. But the main reason is that He is scary. Another factor is that He is deep.
How might misguided messages or methods impede, in part, our knowledge of him?
Inept responses to prevailing culture in the past may have resulted in institutionalized misunderstanding and misrepresentation. As cultures change, and efforts are made to adapt and revise, these mistakes may be compounded or over-corrected. Well-meaning attempts to keep pace with culture can result in desperate faddishness that looks lame a decade later. The doctrine of ceaseless adaptation to superficial culture must be interrogated. The dogma of suspicion must be critiqued.
Does adapting to varying cultures enable us to better know Him in some ways?
Yes, for example, by translating the Gospel into a local language. Changes to make the faith merely appealing, however, backfire. The Gospel is inherently not appealing but challenging, or as St. Paul said, an offense and stumbling block. People who are coaxed into buying it for its charming qualities are apt to feel deceived, and to quit altogether, when the going gets tough (see the Parable of the Sower). Adjustments to reflect small, local or temporary culture have a net trivializing effect. They focus attention on the superficial rather than those more difficult elements that pertain to all humans everywhere, and to the unchanging God with Whom they must deal.
How does a doctrine of cultural adaptation impede our knowledge of Him?
By not going deep enough, and halting at the superficial level of culture rather. By failing to touch the transcultural, transhistorical, and ultimately cosmic reality at the source. By failing to know Christ Himself.
How can we know Christ?
I don’t know where to begin.
The place to begin is with the Scriptures. You must not see this book dropping leather-bound from heaven. Don’t think of it as a book at all. Picture the living words and deeds of Jesus, and the people who saw Him. Imagine how they told and retold these stories, and eventually wrote them down. The distinctive feature of this life, whether told, written, or painted, was its dynamic and transformative power.
How then shall we use this book?
See, again, the context and the listeners. This budding community heard and saw this life, and was charged and changed by it first-hand. When they heard and discussed the events that became the Scriptures they had a simple advantage over us, and rather a mundane one: the stories were told in their native language. We fall into turmoil over fine points of translation, but they used no translation; they heard the stories in the same Greek that they used in the home and the marketplace. The analogies and jokes were those of their time and common culture. Things we puzzle over were clear to them. They knew how to weight and value things that confuse us, two thousand years and half a world away.
Were these people better Christians than we are?
It seems that they held themselves to higher standards of morality and integrity than we currently expect, and they demonstrated courage under persecution that might make us quail. But God was not closer to them than He is to us. He didn’t prefer them, and they didn’t get a bigger share of Him.
Was the church of that time holier than the church today?
Because weeds and wheat grow up together till the last day. An enemy has done this.
In what, then, is their advantage?
Their advantage is that they heard the message first, in their own cultural language, and were more able to understand it clearly. When we are puzzled by bits of the message, or disagree about its meaning, we may be able to settle things by looking up what they wrote in explanation. When they are in broad agreement, across many times and cultures, it is a witness that should arrest our attention.
Do such works exist?
On the shelf behind me are two such collections, one in fifty-four volumes and one in thirty-eight.
Are all these writings from the time of the New Testament?
No. They range through the first centuries. We give precedence to those beliefs that were agreed to over the broadest geographic range, from the earliest times, and attested by the greatest number of writers. The summary test is “everywhere, always, and by all.”
Do all early writers, and early communities, agree?
No. We look for broadest consensus.
Give an example.
These Christians came to agreement on which books should be considered part of the canon of the New Testament and which should not. The question was strongly debated, and some books (the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Revelation of St. John) required centuries to win full approval. Our older brothers and sisters in faith trusted in Jesus’ promise, “When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Whenever we open the New Testament we demonstrate, in turn, our trust in their discernment and leadership. Whenever we read the New Testament, we affirm that they had authority to make decisions like this.
Give an example of another decision.
These Christians also wrote the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.), to correct a popular idea that Jesus was a mere human and not God from all eternity. Some questions, like this one, seemed unclearly addressed in Scripture and open to the interpretation of the individual Christian. Believers met in council to decide such questions, prayerfully seeking the Spirit’s guidance. This method of discernment was in use even before the New Testament was written, as shown by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. It became, in fact, an article of faith to believe that the community had discerned accurately when it was “in one accord” (Acts 15: 25). In the Nicene Creed we say that we believe in four things: God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church.
May any quotation from any early church writer be taken as Gospel?
No. We look for broadest consensus. Individual writers of the early church could be as flawed as they are today. Most have occasional trouble spots. Despite this, they may be called “saints.” Even saints aren’t perfect on earth. Some whose writings are still treasured departed from the consensus at significant points—more likely to be points of theological speculation than points of devotion.
Give three examples.
Origen, most eloquent and intoxicated with the love of God, was censured for his assertion of universal salvation. Augustine, confessor of touching intimacy and humility, was criticized for his views of free will and Original Sin. Tertullian, acerbic Mark Twain of the early church, drifted from the faith community into a cult. Yet all may be read profitably today.
May we use this threefold test in looking for consensus among Christians today?
No. That would be to omit one of the three elements, the requirement that the earliest belief, the one held for the longest amount of time, take precedence. When this element is abandoned variant doctrines emerge which are held by ever-smaller numbers of believers, and continual disagreement and splintering results.
Give an example of original, then replaced and splintered, belief.
In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus said that we must eat His body and drink His blood or we will have no life in us. He used emphatic words—not “eat My body” in the Greek but “chew My flesh.” It was a confrontational statement, and to “many of His disciples” so disgusting and distressing that they ceased following him.
What was the consensus of the early Christians on this disturbing passage?
The consensus of the early Christians was that this passage is to be taken literally. They believed that the bread and wine of the Eucharist genuinely become the Body and Blood of Christ. They did not venture to explain how this could be so, but simply believed it on Jesus’ word. The earliness of this belief is evident in the writings of St. Ignatius (about 105 AD), the Didache (perhaps 80 AD), and St. Paul (the description and warnings of I Corinthians 11:23-30). It is the plain meaning of the Scripture in John as well. This view was held in unanimity for the first millennium and a half of Christian faith.
Is this still a hard saying today?
Yes. It continues to be capable of distressing and disgusting the followers of Jesus even as during His time, and in some quarters individual interpretations of the passage arose. These interpretations may be currently widely spread, but they do not have the attestation of being held from earliest times.
Is the church an institution, or is it summed up in a single earthly leader?
No. The church is the body of Christ on earth. All members are equal. All together guard the faith. The leadership of the church does not create or impose beliefs. Instead, all believers, including those in leadership, are under the authority of the common faith.
Which denomination possesses this treasure?
The early consensus is the heritage of every Christian of any denomination. It is something that we all go back to.
May we go back to it, retrieve the things we like, disregard those we don’t, and create Christianities that suit our times and temperaments?
No. This places unwarranted confidence in one’s own wisdom and ability to discern. It underestimates how brainwashed we are by our surrounding culture, as we affirm what is currently fashionable, and recoil from, or fail even to perceive, what is not. The wisest course is to submit to the accumulated faith of our older brothers and sisters, to immerse ourselves in it, and gradually to comprehend more as we ourselves are changed.
Is this best done by reading theology and history?
No. It is best done by praying. This can include using the ancient prayers in private, and standing in the flow of corporate worship. Prayer should also be the context for reading Scripture or other works. We are transformed by the renewal of our minds. This takes time. It includes the whole self, reason, emotion, and body. It happens slowly, by immersion in the living faith.
Is nothing to be gained by choosing and implementing ancient elements we like?
Elements plucked out according to taste are like flowers in a vase. They are more lovely than no flowers at all, but they have no roots and will wither. It is like sewing an old patch on a new garment. It is a better solution than having a hole in your pants, but it is not a lasting solution. It will not bring you to the goal.
Is the goal to develop spotless doctrine?
No. The goal is to know Christ.
Do we know Christ in order to possess correct ideas?
No. The goal of knowing Christ is to be healed and transformed. It is to partake of the presence of Christ, to dwell “in Him.” It is to take on His fire like a coal in the furnace.
Is there any value to correct doctrine?
Correct doctrine is indispensable, because otherwise we will fall into delusion. This is why the guidance of older brothers and sisters in the faith is so vital. Not one of them is dead. They are alive in Christ, in continual prayer in the presence of God. They pray for us, and we can ask their prayers. They worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, where seraphim shield their faces and cry “Holy.” They invite us to join them. This is the Church we must enter, which has been formed and proved by the Spirit, and can safeguard us from delusion, and teach us how to know Christ.
How can we know Christ?
I don’t know where to begin.
The place to begin is with the Cross. You must not picture this as a static legal transaction, whereby a debt was canceled. You must see this, as the early Christians did, as a continuing, vigorous victory.
Over whom was Christ victorious?
Over Death. The wages of sin is Death, which is more than a condition; in its personification, Death is related to the Evil One from whom we ask deliverance in the Lord’s Prayer. The desire of our ancient foe is to enslave us, by luring us through temptation into sin, and thus into his trap. Because all humans inevitably sin, all are bound over to Death.
How was Christ victorious?
By becoming human, Christ took on human nature. By dying, he brought human nature into the kingdom of Death. By rising, he demolished the gates of Death, and conquered the Evil One.
Did Christ then pay the ransom to His Father in His own blood?
No. The early Christians knew that it couldn’t be the Father who received a “ransom,” because the Father was not holding us hostage. The Evil One, who did hold us, was unworthy of such a ransom for freeing us; “this [idea] is an outrage!” said St. Gregory the Theologian (died 389 AD). What’s more, if Christ’s blood “paid” the ransom, He took back that payment when He was resurrected. No, the Evil One was not merely bought off, he was defeated.
Was Christ’s death not a ransom, but a payment, to His Father?
The early Christians would not have said so. St. Gregory continues, “Why would the blood of His Only-Begotten Son be pleasing to the Father, who would not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father?”
Doesn’t the wrath of God demand payment for our sins?
Our actions deserve God’s wrath, but early Christians would say that instead he pours out on us compassion. Though the Prodigal Son deserved wrath, the father did not punish him. While he was yet a long way off the father ran to embrace him. The father did not ask who would pay the son’s bills. The father did not say he would pay them by killing the blameless older brother.
Doesn’t the ancient Hebrew temple sacrifice foreshadow Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross?
Early Christians considered those parallels evocative and moving, but did not press them in a literal or mechanical way. As Athanasius (died 373 AD) explained in “On the Incarnation,” the chief sacrifice was in Christ’s becoming human in the first place. The Incarnation was the great act of obedience to the will of the Father, the initial act that set all else in motion. The entire drama, from beginning to end, is what saves us, not just three hours on Friday.
If God intended to forgive us, why was it necessary for Jesus to come and die?
Because the Fall, and our continuing complicity in sin, had worked fundamental damage in human nature. Though we are not born bearing Adam’s guilt, we are still so bent that we will inevitably fall into sin and earn our own captivity by Death. This tendency is something we share, which flows among all humans.
How did the Incarnation address this problem?
Think of human nature as a corporate reality, rather than something individuals possess in little pieces. When Jesus became human he represented, or embodied, all of us, everyone who ever has lived or ever will. That is what he carried into Hades and out again; that is what he raised from the dead. This means that every human who ever has lived or ever will is going to live forever.
Will everyone spend eternity in the presence of God?
Everyone will spend eternity in the presence of God. No place exists apart from God’s presence, even now. There is no separate corner in the afterlife where demons will be allowed to torture humans forever, because that would be a reward for the Evil One. He is not rewarded, but defeated. God is love and there is no darkness in him. We will all live forever in the light of God’s love.
What, then, is Hell?
Our God is a consuming fire. Those who have turned to Christ and prepared themselves in this life will experience that river of fire as light, warmth, and life. We see a glimpse of what this is like in Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. This life is a process of turning increasingly toward Christ, learning to bear that uncreated light, getting the impurities out of our lump of coal. We must grow stronger and learn to bear his fire. Those who have not accepted Christ will experience his presence as burning and darkness and gnashing of teeth. All the misery of this life and the next is due to not knowing Christ.
How can we know Christ?
I don’t know where to begin.
The place to begin is with repentance. You must not picture this as despair or masochism. Instead, you must see a sick person who wants to get well. We are sick, world-sick, self-sick, and even our ability to comprehend our sickness is damaged. We abandon ourselves into the hands of the Healer, who loves us, who won victory for us and freed us from bondage to Death.
Does He pronounce us cured, though we are not, by imputing to us his wholeness?
No. What he offers us is not merely legal acquittal. It is more alarmingly intimate than that. He offers Himself, His very life, He in us and we in Him. He is already there, filling all things, overflowing all creation with His breathed-in presence. In Him all things hold together. Wretched, fragmented and lonely, we can barely perceive Him, and we may not consistently want to know Him, so addicted are we to our sickness. But it is His will that a sinner not die but come to repentance, His will that we become partakers of the divine nature, His will that we increasingly receive the light of Christ. Thus we become light-bearing saints, destined to live for the praise of His glory.
What has this to do with repentance?
If we are to be transformed we must be changed. That is tautological. If we are to change, we must recognize where we need to change and begin to do so. It is not a matter of allowing a divine spark within to gently bloom. The kingdom of heaven is taken by force. You must be perfect, as your Father is perfect. The sickness is real, and will require a skilled surgeon. All things come from God in this process, even our rudimentary and vacillating desire to be healed. We cooperate with the surgeon, but do not earn healing or anything else thereby. It is a free gift. It is a gift we can refuse. Many do.
What dissuades us from embracing healing?
A powderpuff Gospel that invites people to get comfortable instead. A cupcake Gospel that invites people to like themselves just the way they are, and to stay that way. A self-pity Gospel that is afraid to reprove, though the Father will chasten every son He receives. A soft enculturated Gospel that is so dazzled by the prevailing culture’s valuing of self-affirmation and self-esteem that it cannot call it to repentance. Thinking “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
How do we cooperate with the surgeon?
A patient cooperates with a surgeon by allowing him to work. We make room for His healing; we exercise kindness toward others, curb out tongues, avoid gross sin, discipline our minds and bodies. We get to know our familiar sins, and train ourselves to defeat them. We train like athletes competing for a prize. The athlete does not work out in order to pay for past failures, but to prepare for future contests. We learn from our older brothers and sisters what exercises they have tested and found most useful, such as fasting and continual prayer. We learn from them how to do these exercises in ways that fit us personally, which will make us stronger rather than break us. As we grow in strength we can take on more.
At what point are we legally saved?
This is not a matter of legality but of health. At what point is the patient fully cured? It may be possible to tell from the end of the story, but while in process we must be humble and aware of the half-hearted, feeble quality of our discipleship. Be sober, be watchful. There is always danger of relapse. Christ always wills to save us, but we, like Judas, can reject that at any point. He who endures to the end will be saved. Yet if Christ did not move us to desire him, and give us His strength, no one could endure.
Do sins accumulate as debts that must be paid?
No. Sins are akin to drops of poison. They make us sick. We want to be full of radiance as He is, and so try to wean ourselves from these temptations. Sin is infection, not infraction.
Don’t sins offend God?
Our sins must bring God great grief, but nothing shocks Him. He needs no one to tell him what is in man, for He Himself knows what is in man. Rather, misuse of our bodies or each other will damage us and carry us far from His healing presence—He, the only Light, the only Life. To be far from Him is to be in darkness and death. This is a direct effect, rather than the result of storing up points toward punishment.
Give an example.
If a person uses tobacco, and becomes ill, we see that this illness is a direct result. This is the case even if the person did not realize that tobacco would harm him, and even if the use of it continued to feel pleasant. These negative results can even spill over and damage innocent family members and the general culture, due to second-hand effects. Yet these effects are simple and direct. We would not say that tobacco use angers God, which in turn creates a debt that must be paid, and that God receives this payment by punishing Jesus or the ill person. The concept of “merit” is wholly irrelevant, because the process is direct and simple. Sins sicken us and alienate us from God, and we fight against them, pommel our body and subdue it, because we want to be well.
Give another example.
In the case of adultery, likewise, the action damages participants and estranges them from God, even if they don’t realize that adultery will harm them and even if it continues to feel pleasant. These negative results can even spill over and damage innocent family members and the general culture, due to second-hand effects. The process is a direct one, not based on external merits or demerits. The end result is damaged souls and alienation from God—a direct result, rather than a calculated punishment.
Is homosexuality an infraction against God’s holy code?
The early Christians would not categorize any sin in such terms. However, they would identify homosexuality as sin. They would say that it, like adultery, is subtly damaging even to those who enjoy it and see no harm in it. We may be puzzled as to why they make this diagnosis, but they are consistent and emphatic on this from one generation to the next. They also saw virginity as a source of spiritual power, something we likewise find hard to grasp. We should recognize that our comprehension in the arena of sexuality has been damaged by the distortion of the prevailing culture, and admit that our ability to evaluate these things is not trustworthy. We can recognize that our older brothers and sisters were unanimous on these things, and hope to come to see what they saw so clearly as we grow in Christ and our damaged sexual understanding is healed.
Mustn’t each person test and establish his own ethical standards?
No. We have inside a conscience informed by God; we also have desires and selfish impulses that can do a very good impression of that voice. Further, we are confused by the prevailing culture’s opinions and fashions. We must learn to have humility about our limited perspective and question our reflexive prejudices. Humility, in fact, is the single most important exercise.
How does humility change us?
When we see ourselves as the chief of sinners, we no longer take offense at wrongs done to us. We forgive others as we ourselves are forgiven. We love even our enemies. We no longer judge.
How can there be justice without judgment?
There is judgment; it’s just not our job. God is the judge, and all will be judged one day. But because we have been forgiven so much, we pray that others will come to repentance and receive forgiveness as well. The best way to help someone come to repentance may not be to indulge them; it may be necessary to intervene and confront. This may be what justice requires. But we never seek vengeance. Vengeance is the Lord’s. Our hope and goal, our great commission, is directed toward bringing all to salvation and knowledge of the Lord.
With this goal in mind, how should the church relate to the culture?
Both categories are deceptive. Instead, picture the Lord filling all things. “The Church” is the company of people who know this truth, living and departed, those of us who struggle and the unseen cloud of witnesses who pray with and for us. We who persevere in this life are in the process of getting well.
What of others, who are outside, in the secular culture?
There is no outside. There is no place where God is not, even now. Even those who do not know the truth of Christ are also created, beloved, and known by Him. He is closer to them than their own breath, though they do not know Him. We work together with God so that every person can come to saving knowledge of Christ, and be healed and transformed alongside us.
What has the culture to do with this?
Christ has compassion on those who are harassed and helpless because they do not know their shepherd. The culture is the ever-changing weather conditions that these sheep must endure, which they try to respond to as best they can, though they are confused and wounded. Protection and rescue of individual sheep is our primary goal. It is less worthwhile to try to change the weather. We may occasionally have isolated success, but it appears that every weather pattern will have both good and bad elements, and weather itself is bound to be a perennial phenomenon.
How can we convert the culture?
A culture cannot be converted. Only individuals can be converted. God knows how to reach each individual; every conversion is an inside job. We cooperate by listening attentively for God’s directions and speaking the right word at the right moment, doing a kind deed, bearing Christ’s light and being His fragrance in the lives of people we know. This is the level where things change, one individual at a time, as one coal gives light to another. When enough people change, the culture follows—though, again, the hope of ever having a perfect culture is futile. Our effectiveness as witnesses is not tested on the public stage, but by our private daily conduct. If we are not being healed at those levels, all we do for public display will be garbage. But only acquire the Holy Spirit and you will save a thousand around you (St. Seraphim of Sarov, died 1833).
What kinds of questions are worthless?
Ironic, smart-aleck questions; questions designed to reinforce a self-image of being a rebel and questioner; rhetorical questions; questions designed to trap or humiliate another person.
What kinds of questions are worthwhile?
Questions that open to yourself your own vast ignorance; questions that reveal your smallness and weakness; questions that cast you down in awe; questions that raise you up in worship.
What is the most important question?
“Who do you say that I am?”
Why is this essay written in question and answer format?
Go outside after midnight and look up at the heaventree of stars.
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