Recovering Secularists  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Over at Creedal Christian, Bryan Owen has a link to a very provocative essay by David Brooks that appeared in the March 2003 number of the Atlantic. "Kicking the Secularist Habit" acknowledges Brooks' guilt in not taking religion seriously enough, an occupational hazard of journalists throughout North America and western Europe. Brooks outlines a six-step program for overcoming this disorder. I reproduce Bryan's summary of the steps below, but the whole article is well worth a read.

  1. Accepting the fact that, as a Westerner, you are not the norm.
  2. Confronting fear.
  3. Getting angry.
  4. Resisting the impulse to find a materialistic explanation for everything.
  5. Acknowledging that you've been too easy on religion.
  6. Understanding that this country (the USA) has never been very secular.

Bede on the Transfiguration  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Today being the last Sunday in Epiphanytide, we hear once again the story of Jesus' Transfiguration (Mark 9: 2-9). The Transfiguration has traditionally gotten more emphasis in the Eastern church, but below is a good quote from the Venerable Bede (672-735), the most prominent English theologian and historian of his day. It comes from Homilies on the Gospels, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II, Mark, eds Thomas C Oden and Christopher A Hall, Downer's Grove, IVP, 1998. A hat-tip to today's Episcopal Cafe.

If anyone asks what the Lord's garments, which became white as snow, represent typologically, we can properly understand them as pointing to the church of his saints, [who] the time of the resurrection will be purified from every blemish of iniquity and at the same time from all the darkness of mortality. Concerning the Lord's garments the evangelist Mark remarks that "they becomes as bright as snow, such as no bleacher on earth can make them white." It is evident to everyone that there is no one who can live on earth without corruption and sorrow. So it is evident to all that are wise, although heretics deny it, that there is no one who can live on earth without being touched by some sin. But what a cleansing agent (that is, a teacher of souls or some extraordinary purifier of his body) cannot do on earth, that the Lord will do in heaven. He will purify the church, which is his clothing, "from all defilement of flesh and spirit", renewing [her] besides with eternal blessedness and light of flesh and spirit.

Rescuing Darwin  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

As a somewhat belated recognition of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, I offer an excerpt from Rescuing Darwin, a monograph by Nick Spencer and Denis Alexander published by
Theos, the British "public theology think tank". The essay documents how the historical Darwin--whose own worldview "evolved" from William Paley-style natural theology to deism to agnosticism--was nonetheless respectful of people holding more traditional religious views; many of these folks had no difficulty accepting his theory of natural selection. This contradicts today's highly polarized situation, in which Darwin has been intellectually fetishized--in wildly different ways, of course--by creationists, intelligent design buffs, and doctrinaire atheists of the Richard Dawkins variety (he's the one to the right of Darwin). The complete monograph is available here, as a PDF file. A hat-tip to Thinking Anglicans for turning me on to it.

The Reception of Evolution in North America

Considering the present American antipathy to the theory, it is ironic that evolution was popularized in North America largely by Christian academics. Foremost among these was Asa Gray, Professor of Natural History at Harvard and a committed Christian. He was Darwin's long-term correspondent and confidante who helped organize the publication of The Origin in America and who had debated the question of evolution and design with Darwin over many years.

Other Christian thinkers were equally supportive. James McCosh was president of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University). Firmly rooted in the Calvinist tradition, McCosh held strongly to the concept of natural selection, but equally strongly to the belief that "the natural origin of species is not inconsistent with intelligent design in nature or with the existence of a personal Creator of the world".

George Wright was a theologian and geologist, whose books on glacial geology were for years the standard texts on the subject. He was not only a vigorous proponent of Darwin, but but believed ..."that Darwin's work actually allies itself with the Reformed faith in discouraging romantic, sentimental, and optimistic interpretations of nature"...

James Dana was professor of Natural History at Yale and editor of The American Journal of Science. He was another American geologist of orthodox Christian conviction who accepted Darwinian evolution...As he commented, "it is not atheism to believe in a development theory, if it be admitted at the same time that Nature exists by the will and continued act of God".

Through the work of eminent scientists such as Gray, McCosh, Wright,...and Dana--scientists who were also serious and committed Christians--Darwinian evolution spread rapidly within US academia and beyond. Indeed, it spread so rapidly that, according to the American historian George Marsden, "with the exception of Harvard's Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870's". In the words of the British historian James Moore, ..."with few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution".

Ascesis and Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

John Chryssavgis, whose first-rate book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers is the subject of an earlier post on this site, has some insights on the relationship between ascesis (a systematic set of spiritual practices) and theosis (the process of gradually achieving union with God). They are found in "The Spiritual Way", a chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, eds Mary B Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp 160-162.

The ascetic way, then, is a way of authentic liberation and communion. For the ascetic is the person who is free, uncontrolled by attitudes that abuse the world; uncompelled by ways that use the world; characterised by self-control, by self-restraint, and by the ability to say 'no' or 'enough'. Indeed, asceticism aims at refinement, not detachement or destruction. Its goal is moderation, not repression. Its content is positive, not negative: it looks to service, not selfishness; to reconciliation, not renunciation or escape: 'Without asceticism, none of us is authentically human' [Kallistos Ware].

Unfortunately, however, centuries of misunderstanding and abuse have tainted the concept of asceticism, identifying it either with individualism and escapism or else with idealism and angelism. Both tendencies verge on the point of dis-incarnation, promulgating enmity towards the world. Yet, at least in its more authentic expression, asceticism is a way of intimacy and tenderness, a way of integrating body, soul and society. In this respect, asceticism is essentially a social discipline. Moreover, it is never practised in a way that would insult the Creator. It is no wonder, therefore, that even after years of harsh and frugal living, the early desert Fathers and Mothers would emerge in their relationships as charming and compassionate, accessible and tranquil...

In the final analysis, the aim of asceticism is to regain a sense of wonder, to be filled with a sense of goodness and of God-liness. It is to see all things in God and God in all things. And it is precisely here that ascesis encounters theosis. for the most divine experience is to discover the wonder of God in the beauty of the world and to discern the limitless nature of grace in the limitations of the human body and the natural creation. There are those among us who may well be converted 'suddenly with a light flashing from heaven'(Acts 9:3) or be 'caught up to the third heaven'(2 Cor 12:2). Yet such ecstasy is experienced by very few--'scarcely one among ten thousand...indeed, scarcely one in every generation', according to Abba Isaac the Syrian. It is no wonder, then, that the desert Fathers encourage their disciples to restrain someone rising to spiritual heights: 'The old men used to say: "If you see someone climbing toward heaven by his own will, grab his foot and pull him down; for this will be for his own good"'. The ascetic literature clearly demonstrates a preference for the more lowly experience of those who have known their passions and recognized their failures. John Climacus refers to them as 'blessed': 'I saw...and was amazed; and I consider those fallen mourners more blessed than those who have not fallen and are not mourning". While the end of ascesis may be the vision of God or theosis, the way of ascesis is none other than the daily life of self-knowledge or integrity, carved out of the ordinary experience of everyday life perceived in the extraordinary light of the eternal kingdom. It is the gradual--and, as a result of our resistance, painful--process of learning to be who you areand do what you do with all the intensity of life and love. 'An old man was asked: "What is it necessary to do to be saved?" He was making rope; and without looking up from the work, he replied: "You are looking at it"'. In this way, the ascetic way defines in a uniquely tangible and concrete manner the theological doctrines concerning the original creation of the world, the divine Incarnation of the Word, and the age to come that we expect.

Salvation for All Revisited  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Here's a brief followup of sorts to last week's post dealing with salvation and universalism. Today's Los Angeles Times has an article dealing with a recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. A sample of about 1400 people was asked a slate of questions on whether more than one religion can lead to salvation and what one must do to earn eternal life. The respondants were split among white evangelicals, white mainline Christians, black Protestants, and white Catholics. 65% of the whole sample agreed with the statement "Many religions can lead to eternal life". Asked whether actions or beliefs were more determinative of who gets saved, 11% of evangelicals opted for actions, while a solid 64% went for right beliefs. The respective figures for white mainliners were 33/25; Catholics somewhat surpisingly came out at 47/13. So much for all those catechism lessons. Oddly enough, those holding to universalism (the belief that everyone without exception will be saved) ranged from 1% of evangelicals to a whopping 3% of mainliners and Catholics, a figure so small as to be possibly statistically insignificant.