Sunday, January 18, 2015

The light that lightens all men

This morning, it being a Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we sang a couple of hymns that should be more widely known by Christians of all denominations. One of these is "Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning," which has a lovely tune. Here is a choir singing it, and here are the words.

The hymn I am going to write about here is "From the Eastern Mountains." I'm sorry to say that I can't seem to find an on-line recording of the music. The tune is called "Valour." A view of the hymn page with the tune used in the 1940 hymnal is here.

Here is the text as it appears in the 1940 Anglican hymnal:

From the eastern mountains
Pressing on they come,
Wise men in their wisdom,
To His humble home;
Stirred in deep devotion,
Hasting from afar,
Ever journeying onward,
Guided by a star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

There their Lord and Saviour
Meek and lowly lay,
Wondrous Light that led them
Onward on their way,
Ever now to lighten
Nations from afar,
As they journey homeward
By that guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Thou Who in a manger
Once hast lowly lain,
Who dost now in glory
O'er all kingdoms reign,
Gather in the heathen,
Who in lands afar
Ne'er have seen the brightness
Of Thy guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Gather in the outcasts,
All who've gone astray,
Throw Thy radiance o'er them,
Guide them on their way,
Those who never knew Thee,
Those who've wandered far,
Lead them by the brightness
Of Thy guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Guide them through the darkness
Of the lonely night,
Shining still before them
With thy kindly light,
Until every nation,
Whether bond or free,
'Neath thy starlit banner,
Jesus, follows thee.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

This hymn jumped out at me because I have recently been reading Marilynne Robinson's new novel Lila. As a novel, it is very fine, though not as great as Gilead. As a work of theology, it is completely wrongheaded.

Robinson's character Lila becomes very concerned after marrying John Ames when she hears about hell. She realizes that pretty much everyone she ever knew before coming to Gilead, particularly old Doll, the woman who acted as a mother to her and is now dead, may very well be in hell according to standard Christian doctrine. Lila agonizes over this, and the theological issue provides a focal point for the overwhelming discomfort she feels in her new, respectable life as the wife of a Congregationalist minister. There are plenty of other reasons for that discomfort. Lila is portrayed as having been almost completely ignorant due to the roughness of her past life, to the point that she has never even learned to use a knife and fork. The culture shock of living in Gilead as a middle-class matron is severe, and she feels that she has lost her privacy and is in danger of losing her identity. Robinson portrays all of this extremely well and believably, and she wraps the theological issue of hell into Lila's struggle with great psychological realism.

In the end, Lila is comforted by inventing her own version of universalism. Robinson, being Robinson, writes about this version of universalism beautifully, but it's seriously wrong. It involves no repentance, no new birth, and no desire for God. It does not involve these things even at the moment of death or even after death. In fact, God is very nearly absent from the heaven Lila envisages. Rather, heaven is treated as just a happy place to which God transports everyone because God is loving and because it "wouldn't be fair" to do otherwise.

Our soteriology needs to be deeper than that, and one might think that Robinson means for Lila's soteriology to be regarded as shallow because of her lack of theological knowledge. John Ames himself is something of a crypto-universalist, both in this novel and in Gilead, but he is never quite willing to become a universalist unequivocally, presumably because he really does know his Bible and has some actual understanding of sin, repentance, and grace. On the other hand, the very end of Lila seems to suggest that Lila will be able to comfort Ames by telling him what she now knows on this subject.

What the novel does do well, as does Gilead, is to portray the genuine anguish one feels at the thought that a loved one might be eternally lost. Some of us even feel that anguish regarding people we have never met. Missionaries feel that anguish for whole people groups.

The Bible and Christian tradition tell us that we should pray for the lost. The Apostle Paul says,
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
I take Paul here to be implying that one of the things we are to pray for is that men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Since we are told that Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost, we know we are praying in conformity with the will of God if we pray for someone's salvation.

But as C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, universalism simply erases the human will. God just sweeps people up into heaven (or "heaven") whether they want to be there or not and presumably changes them magically into eternally good people even if they wanted to go on being evil. I question whether this is even a coherent picture.

So when we pray for a man's salvation, we are not, I believe, praying for something that God can bring about by a mere act of power, for to do so would be to erase the person and to substitute a robot. We are praying, then, that God would reach out and woo the person, that God would bring before that person clearly the evidence of His existence, attributes, and requirements, would give that person every opportunity to accept Him. We are praying that God would shine His light upon them so that they can be guided to the knowledge of the truth.

All of which brings us back to "From the Eastern Mountains." I like the fact that the song connects the Wise Men with God's desire that all men should be saved and God's willingness to use even extraordinary means to that end. The God who could send a star to the Wise Men can send dreams to a Muslim, for example. He can bring a David Wood or a John C. Wright to recognize that He is God, at which point they have to decide what they are going to do about that. This song is a prayer for the salvation of those who know not God. Never give up praying that.

C. H. Spurgeon, on praying for the lost:
Until the gate of hell is shut upon a man we must not cease to pray for him. And if we see him hugging the very doorposts of damnation, we must go to the mercy seat and beseech the arm of grace to pluck him from his dangerous position. While there is life there is hope, and although the soul is almost smothered with despair, we must not despair for it, but rather arouse ourselves to awaken the Almighty arm.

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