Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Temptation to Press

I've gotten started on the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin series. Book one, "Master and Commander," is also the title of the movie starring Russel Crowe based on a couple of the novels in this series. I was hoping to do a podcast on the first book, but I didn't find much in the novel to recommend it as an edifying read for Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, I'm quite enjoying the novels. It's one of those reads that I feel a bit guilty for liking so much. The story is completely engaging, the characters are real, human, and, unfortunately, for the most part godless. Or I might more correctly say deeply suspicious of the Church, especially the oppressive, coercive earnestness of Evangelicals. What is understood as Evangelical in the context of the novel is the lessons of Sunday school based on "those odious little tracts" teaching that it was God's will for the poor to be poor. But as Captain Aubrey's sweetheart points out, "It's all because they cannot read and write".
However even Captain Jack is tempted to preach a sermon on obedience to authority. His new, mostly pressed, crew was not responding well to his lieutenant's cruel indoctrination techniques. For those who do not know, most sailors were captured against their will--often knocked in the head and waking up in the bowels of a navy vessel.
The Bible is indeed a powerful weapon when used against those who can't or won't read it. Like the caricature of Evangelicals portrayed in the novel, we can all be tempted to read the Bible to buttress what we already believe, and to cudgel those who doubt our wisdom (i.e. To press them into our navy).

Friday, August 26, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Wrath of Man

“The wrath of God came against them, and slew the stoutest of them, and struck down the choice men of Israel” (Psalm 78:31).
“For the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
I think we have an anger problem.  The problem I’m talking about is not related to self control, but to understanding. Why does human wrath never produce the righteousness of God while God’s wrath seems to be ubiquitous in Scripture?  What’s the difference?  Why is God’s wrath righteous and human wrath never?
Many of the fathers of the church talk about two central feelings or urges from which all others derive.  These two feelings or urges are desire and irritability.  In a world without sin, that is in a healthy human being, desire functions as a kind of longing leading us toward what is God-like, what is true, beautiful, real, and healthy.  Irritability is a kind of prick on the conscience, a discomfort or uneasiness that helps us recognize or turn away from what is not true, perverse, unreal and unhealthy.  Remember, even before human sin, the Serpent was loose in the Garden.  God had equipped Adam and Eve with all that was necessary to discern and avoid evil and pursue and do good--that is grow in God-likeness.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was different from other trees.  From this tree, human beings were not to eat.  This implies that discernment of right and wrong, good and evil is possible without an experiential knowledge of the difference.  That is one need never experience evil to discern that it is not good.  In the Garden, before sin, the mere contemplation of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was sufficient to acquire from the tree what human beings needed; one need not eat.  Such food as the experiential knowledge of evil is too bitter a fruit to eat.  God’s command not to eat it was His guidance, His leading of humanity into the sweet path toward life and growth and away from the bitter.
All that God created was good and therefore to be desired.  It was not wrong for Eve to feel desire for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Where desire became sin was when instead of contemplating the desired fruit, she reached out and took it for herself.  Instead of letting God in God’s time and in God’s way fulfill her desire, she rationalized, took it and ate it and shared it with Adam.  Spurred on by the Serpent and in direct contradiction to what God had told her, she thought that her desire for this fruit would be fulfilled in exactly the same way her desire for other fruit was fulfilled--by eating it.
In this sin, this missing of the the target that we call the Fall, desire became perverted, desire became mixed with the urge to posses and to control.  In eating the fruit of experiential knowledge of both evil and good, humanity chose the bitter path, the path of perverted desires and painful experience (the knowledge spoken of here is the knowledge of direct experience, not the knowledge of or about).
Not only was desire perverted by the Fall, the irascible aspect (as it is sometime translated from Greek) of humanity became perverted too.  That is, human anger became something very different from divine anger.  Even using the term “divine anger” is a little misleading.  What I mean by divine anger is that quality in God that is reflected in the irascible aspect or ability in human beings before the Fall, human beings who are in the image of God.
Just as desire became possessive and controlling, so too the irascible aspect of human beings changed.  Perverted irritability became selfishly destructive.  Controlling possessiveness when mixed with irritability became wrath and anger in human beings and manifested itself in an urge to destroy, rather than an urge to turn to God, an urge to repent.
God’s wrath is not like human wrath.  But even using the word “wrath” is so troublesome.  We cannot read this word without equating it to sinful human perversion of a selfishly possessive controlling and destructive tendency.  Yet God is neither possessive nor controlling nor destructive.  God is the Creator, not the destroyer; God has given freedom to His creature; it is the human being who has chosen the bitter fruit, the painful path.  When God acts in history to give to human beings the bitterness they have chosen, when human selfishness and cruelty and destructiveness can no longer be tolerated and the created order sustained, when the last hope for any repentance (turning to God) is gone and the only hope for future repentance is in a radically altered context, God allows the painful consequences of human sin--death in all of its forms--to have its way.  And in the Bible, when God does this, it is usually referred to the as the wrath of God.  
But God’s wrath is not like human wrath, just as God’s desire is not like human desire.  God desires human beings to exist as God Himself exists: the Holy Trinity, a community of persons, equal, free and held together by love.  God does not desire to possess; He desires to love in freedom, and where there is freedom there is no control.  God does not turn away from evil because he is angry.  Evil itself is a turning away from what is Real to unreality.  And while God may restrain evil, or the effects of evil, for the sake of love, in the end God’s love and the freedom of God’s love is such that He eventually gives human beings what they choose, even if it is death and unreality.  And in human language, for we have no other language but our various human languages conditioned by the human experience of perverted desire and anger, God’s release of restraint is called wrath.  But this “wrath” is nothing but freedom and love, the giving to humankind the bitter pill we have chosen.
Human wrath, on the other hand, can never produce a loving result.  It can never result in the righteous purposes of God because it is always mixed, it is always selfish and possessive and destructive.  Even when what irritates me is sin, anger is not the salvific response.  Repentance is the response that saves.  
You may ask, but what if the sin that irritates me is in another.  I cannot repent for him or her can I?  
Well maybe you can’t or maybe you can--repentance is a very deep well.  However, one thing is certain: you cannot change the other person.  You cannot control, which is sin.  Righteousness will never result from manipulating or controlling others.  But God who knows the heart, God can lead others to repentance.  I do not know how to do that.  Anger does not do that.  God does that.  So no matter what the source (or apparent source) of my anger is, the response is to turn to God, the response is to repent.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’d like to end by saying that repentance and turning toward God does not mean that we do not act.  We must act.  We must do the works of God while it is day.  We must do good and confront evil; however, and this is a huge “however,” we must be on guard against our own sin, our own desire to posses and control.  The Serpent is still active, and as in the Garden it is often the very good thing or act or deed that becomes the excuse to indulge in selfish possessiveness.  
“And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eye, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof….”

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tormenting Fire

"He that trusteth in the Lord shall not fear when God shall judge all with tormenting fire." (From the second Antiphoy of the Resurrectional Anabathmoi in tone eight).

Notice that "all" will be judged with tormenting fire.  In St. Mark's Gospel (9:49) Jesus says that "everyone will be salted with fire."  The question is not if, it is when--and what you will do when you experience fiery torment.  The promise of this verse that we will pray in matins tomorrow is not a promise for some future rescue after our death, but it is a promise for God's help and deliverance from fear when we face tormenting fire now, in this life.

It seems we are always surprised when doing the right thing (the Christian thing, the holy or godly thing) involves fiery suffering.  Self control, for example, often involves a kind of suffering that is often (at least in confession and in the writings of the fathers) compared to fire.  Desires can be burning.  And the trial we experience as we choose to suffer rather than to obey the desire, this is the judgement of tormenting fire.  

It is unfortunate that our culture has taught us to read the words of Christ which speak of hell and fire as something merely future.  I find it very interesting that only once (Matt 5:22) does Jesus refer to the "fire of hell" (Gehenna).  The other two references (Matt. 18:9 and Mark 9:47) are to the "hell of fire."  That is, the hell is an attribute of fire, of torment.  Therefore we might say that any time one is enduring a fiery trial, one is experiencing a bit of Gehenna, the hell of fire.  And in the midst of that fiery trial, judgement or temptation, one may trust in the Lord.  And trusting in the Lord, one will be delivered from fear.

Much of the time, we succumb to temptation because we are afraid that we cannot endure the pain--the pain of unfulfilled desire (and the bodily discomfort that may accompany self-control), and the fear that whatever resources God has given us or will give us will not be enough.  Fear pushes us over the edge.  Fear makes it too much to bear.

But those who trust in the Lord, we are taught by the hymn of the Church, will not fear when the tormenting fire judges us.

Every temptation and our response to it is a judgement.  It is a judgement in the sense that it reveals what's really there.  Failing the trial, falling into sin, is not the worse thing that can happen.  The worse thing that can happen is not to accept what has been revealed, to blame someone or something else.  If a fiery trial reveals that we are sinners, then we can turn to the Lord, who came to save the sinner.  And turning to the Lord, we learn to trust the Lord.  And trusting the Lord, we are delivered from fear and can endure better the fiery torment next time it visits us.  

Thursday, August 11, 2011

To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice

A guest staying with us for a few days mentioned that she had heard a nun (Roman Catholic, I believe) say that the asceticism of monasticism and parenthood are really quite similar.  She said that as a monastic, whenever the bell rings, she immediately has to stop what she is doing and obey the bell.  For parents, that bell is their children.

Similarly, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh in the introduction to his Essential Writtings is reported to have said that his years of service as a military doctor during the Second World War was "excellent training for the monastic life, teaching him to accept the will of others and to put their needs before his own in the most practical way."  

None of us like very much being told what to do--told by other people or told by our circumstances.  However, the germ of the ancestral sin, the deep root of our own sin, is our unwillingness to relinquish our will; to trust the judgement of others above our own; to believe that even in the midst of awkward, uncomfortable or even painful circumstance, the Love of God is present and the Power of God is at work.  

I think this is the reason why the Church continually brings to our mind the martyrs.  When the Church talks about martyrs in Her hymns, the martyrs are often spoken of as being revealed rather than made.  That is, their manner of death does not make them martyrs, it reveals that they were martyrs already. 

Martyrs are those who have learned to believe, to trust and to know that the Love of God and the Power of God are at work in difficult circumstances.  They have learned to discern the voice of God in the voice of others, even others who "know not what they do." They have learned to pray with their whole mind and body, offering their frustrations, pains and sufferings of all sorts to God as a "living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to God."

Whether parent or monastic, salvation begins and ends with repentance, with the turning away from our own will and through submission to the will of the Other, who is God, yet who generally rings our bell by the hand, voice, or cry of another.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Master and Commander: Where Did God Go?

Lately my “fun” reading has been in Patrick O’ Brian’s Aubrey--Maturin series.  I read Master and Commander and couldn’t put it down.  The series is set during and around the Napoleonic Wars (beginning of the nineteenth century) and revolve around a Captain in the Royal Navy (Aubery) and his best friend and ship’s surgeon (Maturin).  
I have been reading so much nineteenth century British literature over the past fifteen years or so, that I was somewhat surprised by the explicit immorality referred to in the novel.  The references are subdued by twenty-first century standards, but by nineteenth century standards, they would be shocking indeed, perhaps unpublishable.  
I am not naive regarding Victorian era morality.  Just because talk about sexual immorality was not explicit, does not mean that it did not happen.  Nevertheless, there was a high standard.  And while deviation from that standard may have been common, it was understood as deviation, perversion.
O’ Brian wrote the Aubrey--Maturin series between 1970 and 1999.  The new sexual morality of the twentieth century certainly colored how he portrayed the early nineteenth.  However, there is another factor.  O’ Brian’s characters are largely a-religious.  Maturin is a Catholic, but doesn’t seem to practice.  Aubrey is Protestant enough to hate Catholics generally, but not specifically, unless it is convenient.  Mostly, references to God or the “Transcendent” or religion (except in political contexts) are absent.
Why is this?
In an essay on Patrick O’ Brian by William Waldegrave attached to the end of the current text I am reading, I got my clue.  Waldegrave refers to a particular navel incident that O’ Brian describes, an incident that Waldegrave’s own great grandfather participated in and described in an unpublished manuscript.  Waldegrave commends O’ Brian’s historical accuracy—"though happily Aubrey shows none of my forebear’s tedious commitment to the exposition of the scriptures."
O’ Brian brings a late twentieth century religious sensibility to his retelling of the early nineteenth.  Waldegrave in the late twentieth century finds his great grandfather’s regular reference to scripture to be “tedious.”  And while I’m sure levels of religious commitment varied among sailors (not everyone had a “commitment to the exposition of the scriptures”), certainly religious reference was much more common in the early nineteenth century than one notices in O’ Brian’s novels.
This is not a criticism of O’ Brian’s novels.  He wrote for a late twentieth century audience.  Contemporary readers would probably find a historically accurate reflection of the religious feelings, thoughts and references of the time to be “tedious.”  I merely wanted to explain to myself what was missing.  O’ Brian’s portrayal of the naval life in the early nineteenth century seems to be praised by everyone for its accuracy.  
No one even notices that God is missing.