Sunday, December 29, 2013

"Grace Has a Face"

This is a very good, relatively new Christmas song by the southern gospel trio Greater Vision:

I especially like the lyrics of the chorus:

Hope has hands.
Freedom has feet.
Truth will stand.
The Word will speak.
The Holy and lowly will finally embrace,
For Love has a heartbeat, and Grace has a face.

It takes a special kind of philosophy of religion geekery to take an interest in this dispute between Ed Feser and Dale Tuggy about Perfect Being theology and its relationship both to logic and to Scripture. I confess that I take some interest in it, enough to have read all of Ed's most recent (as usual, lucid, well-written, carefully argued, and altogether classy) post on the subject, but not enough to keep up with it from day to day and week to week. I do think it relevant, as Ed has pointed out, that Tuggy is not a Trinitarian. That's got to be a count at some level against Tuggy's rather robust dismissal of classical theism.

At the same time, I have something of a tendency in Tuggy's direction (though needless to say, not in the direction of his loosy-goosey approach to the Trinity), as evidenced by the mere fact that I can't get into the debate over Perfect Being theology all that deeply. If I agreed entirely with Ed, I would doubtless think the debate a good deal more crucial than I can find it in my heart to think it. Moreover, a long time ago Ed and I had a collegial but intense and long debate over the design argument in which Ed vigorously rejected the types of arguments made by intelligent design writers in science as, allegedly, incompatible with Perfect Being theology. And if that's really the case, then I'm inclined to say, "The heck with Perfect Being theology, because the evidence is what it is, and it says what it says." The more stratospheric flights of Perfect Being theology leave me gasping for air, and when I'm quite sure that I won't know what I'm talking about if I take a definite position, I'm just not going to take a definite position.

Okay, that all sounds like a rather strange paragraph either to follow or to precede a discussion of a Christmas song. Here's the connection: One point Tuggy brings up that Ed doesn't have time to address (Ed's post being quite long, careful, and detailed enough as a response to Tuggy already) is that, whatever we say about God aside from the Incarnation, Jesus was an individual man with a real human nature. Hence Jesus was undeniably a specific self among other selves, which is exactly what Perfect Being theology says God cannot be.

I knew already that Perfect Being theology has to make a big bracket anyway for the Incarnation, because Jesus underwent change (growing, for example, from a child to a man, weeping and then ceasing to weep, and so forth), whereas the changelessness of God, who has "no potentialities to actualize," is a linchpin of Perfect Being theology. So a lot of this is going to have to be "apart from the Incarnation" no matter what. That actually makes sense to me and doesn't seem to me to vitiate Perfect Being theology in itself. After all, even a non-philosopher should say, "God does not have literal hands, aside from the Incarnation." So it needn't be too much of a problem to say the same about God's having literal emotions or undergoing literal change, and I suppose there is some perfectly precise locution the theologian can use for a similar point concerning God's "not being a self among other selves"...aside from the Incarnation.

Hence the connection with the song: Even if one is committed to Perfect Being theology, the Incarnation forces one to admit that all those abstract and perfect Divine attributes which go beyond personhood--Truth itself, Being itself, Intelligence itself, Holiness itself--came down to us and became one particular person, one baby, one child, one man, with a particular face. Somehow, if God really is all those superpersonal and abstract things, this must be possible, for it is the core of our Christian faith that God became a man. Love has a heartbeat, and Grace has a face.

On this, it seems, the classical theist and the less philosophical or at least less classical theist must agree, if they are both Christians. God became man, and in becoming man, did not cease to be God. God, who sustains all the universe by the word of His power, did not take a break from sustaining the universe, a time-out while he went down for a little thirty-three-year episode of being a man. No, the Eternal Son could not cease to be the Eternal Son. (There's something for the one who wants to scoff at Perfect Being theology to ponder.) On the other hand, the Eternal Son, by whom and from whom and for whom are all things, really became a person with a particular personality, a Jewish baby in a manger, a child playing with other children, a boy talking with the rabbis in the Temple, a man weeping over Jerusalem, a man dying on a cross. This is a great mystery, one of the central mysteries of our revealed religion.

Someday, when we are in heaven, we will not only kneel and adore but perhaps also talk together: "Of course. It must have been this way. I understand it all so much better now." Not that our minds, being finite, will ever be able to understand it all. But since we are assured that then we shall know even as also we are known (I Corinthians 13), there is some hope of those conversations. In those heavenly philosophy get-togethers, I trust that Ed and I, and hopefully Dale Tuggy, too (if he gets his heretical views on the Trinity knocked out of him in some purgatorial fashion here on earth or beyond), can raise a glass of some heavenly wine and together love, with our minds, the God who is Perfect and who also, for us men and for our salvation, became a man.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Light and Darkness

It is quite likely that this will simply be my Christmas post. Apologies to the liturgically strict, since it is going up on the 22nd.

But I wish to tie it to a wonderful Advent hymn. I cannot seem to find a performance of this hymn anywhere on Youtube. I would post it if I could. It's very beautiful. The lovely, minor-key tune is Bangor, but as far as I can tell, hymns using it do not appear in any evangelical hymnals. The other text that I know of is for Passion Week and is "Alone Thou Goest Forth to Die." Try to find the tune somewhere. If nothing else, there's a simple midi here which gives you some idea.

The Advent words, which I already discussed here, are these:

O very God of very God,
and very Light of Light,
whose feet this earth's dark valley trod
that so it might be bright:

Our hopes are weak, our fears are strong,
thick darkness blinds our eyes;
cold is the night; thy people long
that thou, their Sun, wouldst rise.

And even now, though dull and gray,
the east is brightening fast,
and kindling to the perfect day
that never shall be past.

O guide us till our path is done,
and we have reached the shore
where thou, our everlasting Sun,
art shining evermore!

We wait in faith, and turn our face
to where the daylight springs,
till thou shalt come our gloom to chase,
with healing in thy wings.

As I noted in the older post, the association of Jesus' actual birth date with the darkest, coldest time of the year is probably ahistorical and is hence an addition of tradition. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Tradition is important, and this is one of the most powerful. I often think of that line from "Lo, How A Rose"--"She bore to men a Savior when half-spent was the night." It has so much richness to it. The literal middle of the night, the dark and wintry night of the year, and the deep darkness of human evil. The translation, too, adds something. The German simply means something like, "Halfway through the night," but the translation "half-spent" conveys not only the darkness but the exhaustion of human sin and history.

Which brings us to something that was not invented by man: The association of the Incarnation with light. That has been given to us both by Our Lord on earth and by the Holy Ghost in the inspired prologue to the Gospel of John. Just before healing the man born blind (John 9), Jesus says, "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

John, echoing his Master's words, tells us again and again that Jesus is light:

"In him was life, and the life was the light of man, and the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not."

"[John the Baptist] was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light. That was the true light, that lighteth every man that cometh into the world...."

And in John's first epistle, he says, "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all."

[Digression on just one of many reasons why I hate postmodernism: When I was in graduate school in English, I once received a high-falutin' lecture from a fellow student, who happened to be white, on how insensitive it had been for me to use the word "black" when describing evil in a class presentation on the problem of evil. We were studying 18th century literature, and I had made a presentation on Pope's Essay on Man. I used a tapestry metaphor, saying that dark colors may be used by the weaver as part of the beauty of the pattern. I pointed out how painful it is, nonetheless, to be the one actually suffering. I expressed this by saying, "But you probably wouldn't want to be the black," using hand motions indicating that I meant black thread. That was what was allegedly so offensive. She was, naturally, unmoved by my pointing out to her that darkness has long been a metaphor for pain, suffering, and evil. That came as no surprise to me by that time. It was always part of the raison d'etre of postmodernism in the humanities to tear down those stark dichotomies which are the very food of a sane man's mind. Good/Evil, light/dark, male/female, parent/child, Creator/creature, beauty/ugliness, truth/falsehood. Any powerful and true description of reality, especially any that has its roots in the very vitals of the human psyche, that speaks with rhetorical power to the way things are, must be torn up and destroyed. Postmodernism is evil because postmodernism lies and tells us that there is no evil. Postmodernism is dark because it tells us that darkness and light do not exist. Postmodernism is a lie because it teaches man not to believe in lies. God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. Make sure your children know that, and know that there is light and darkness, and how to tell the difference, so that they can love the light and flee the darkness. End of digression.]

Those of us living in the north have a tangible symbol of the darkness of this world. But no matter what region you live in, if you are a Christian and have your eyes open, you can see spiritual darkness all around. If you live in Syria or other places where Christians are under physical persecution, you know it in one way. If you live in the West, you know it in a different way. We are surrounded by darkness. But we must not be disheartened by it. Jesus also told us that we are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14). John points out that he that commits evil hates the light, because by it his deeds are reproved. (John 3) So we must expect disapproval and even hatred and real persecution from the world and should not marvel at it (I John 3:13). But that's not the end of the story.

Our Lord came to this earth to bring light. No matter how long it is, no matter how many thousands of years pass, He will come again, bringing the final light of judgement. And in the end, those who are His own will be with Him in that Land where there is no night, where Christ Himself is the light.

We wait in faith and turn our face to where the daylight springs, till thou shalt come our gloom to chase, with healing in thy wings.

Amen. Even so come, Lord Jesus.

A Merry Christmas to readers of Extra Thoughts.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Forgiveness is not excuse-making

I've been pondering lately on something that C.S. Lewis says in one of his essays on forgiveness. He has several. I'm not sure which one this is. It may just be called "On Forgiveness."

Anyway, he makes the point that forgiveness starts after we have made all possible excuses for the other person, found all possible extenuations. Strictly logically speaking, if some act of another really did simply arise out of a misunderstanding or really was not a fault, then the person doesn't need forgiveness. Thus, to the extent that we "explain away" things that annoy us from our friends (or our enemies), we aren't forgiving them but rather excusing them. Now, justice and truth demand that we should try to discern events accurately, so if we are truly finding extenuations that exist objectively (as opposed to manufacturing them because we are motivated to do so), then that is merely a matter of being fair.

Mentally, when one is angry, it feels as though the psychological movement to find explanations and extenuations for the other person's actions is the beginning of forgiveness. It may be a psychological preparation for it, but in fact it isn't forgiveness. Forgiveness is needed for an actual fault, for actual wrong-doing. So it's when you say to yourself, "Yes, but even so, my friend was still wrong" that forgiveness actually gets started. It's that "still wrong" part that you have to forgive him for.

For some reason I often find this reflection rather freeing. After all, if we were all either perfect or merely involved in misunderstandings or accidents, no forgiveness would ever be necessary. If I never did anything actually wrong, I wouldn't need to be forgiven either. All my apparent wrong-doings could be explained away. But of course, I do sometimes really need to be forgiven. And the same goes for others. So when one says, especially of a dearly loved friend, "Yes, but that was just not right!" one's mental reply to oneself should be, "Of course it wasn't. That's the part you forgive him for!" The temptation, instead, is to go on niggling away at it, trapped in a false dichotomy: Either I find an excuse for this, so it wasn't really wrong, or else I go on being angry, perhaps until and unless I get an apology acceptable to myself, an apology that propitiates my anger. Well, that's baloney. It's a false dichotomy perpetuated by the Devil, maybe even personally put into your mind by your own personal Screwtape. It is both unbiblical and untrue. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" has no room for it.

I throw this reflection out today in the hopes that it will catch someone at a moment when it can do the most good. Go ahead and forgive your friend (or your enemy) in your own heart and mind and before God, and do so precisely because you can't find any full excuse for his actions. Because you can be sure that there isn't any full excuse for your actions sometimes either, so forgive as you hope to be forgiven.

Gaudete Sunday

Today is Rejoice Sunday, in the midst of Advent. (It's rather a dark, cold, and snowy Rejoice Sunday, and Advent as a whole, where I live. One could call that "seasonal," but I just hope no family member has an accident on the roads!)

In honor thereof, I have a song that isn't really an Advent carol, because it is a Christmas carol. Christmas songs can't, technically, be Advent songs, because Advent songs have to be anticipatory. They can't include lines like "Christ is born," because in liturgically pure terms, we don't start saying that until after sundown on December 24.

Nonetheless, this is a cheerful Renaissance carol with the word "Gaudete" in it, so here goes:

Here are the words to a more "real" Gaudete hymn, based on Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish virgins. "Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers."

Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear.
The evening is advancing, and darker night is near.
The Bridegroom is arising, and soon He will draw nigh.
Up, watch in expectation: At midnight comes the cry.

See that your lamps are burning; replenish them with oil.
Look now for your salvation, the end of sin and toil.
The watchers on the mountain proclaim the Bridegroom near.
Go meet Him as He cometh, with alleluias clear.

O wise and holy virgins, now raise your voices higher,
Until in songs of triumph ye meet the angel choir.
The marriage feast is waiting, the gates wide open stand;
Rise up, ye heirs of glory, the Bridegroom is at hand.

Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear!
Arise, Thou Sun so longed for, over this benighted sphere!
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption and ever be with Thee.

I have not been able to find a good recording of the tune, Greenland, which is by Haydn.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A couple of manly songs

There are a lot of versions of "He Just Needs a Few Good Men" out there, some of them no doubt vocally smoother than this one, but I like the series of Gaither Vocal Band Reunion videos, so I'm picking this one. Larnelle Harris should probably tone it down a bit, but not toning it down is part of Larnelle's charm, so I'm inclined to be tolerant. The words are good. Just think of all the "fight" and "warfare" and "men" hymns that have been cut out of our hymnals, and you'll understand why this was written.

While we're at it, here's "Build an Ark."

Monday, December 02, 2013

Close the path to misery

The Advent hymn "Veni Emmanuel" contains the following lines:

"Make safe the way that leads on high,/ and close the path to misery."

The hymn is very familiar, and it's easy to blow right past those lines, but I was much struck by them in church yesterday. What do they mean? Admittedly, they are a bit obscure. Taken literally, they state a request that we really don't intend to make, presumably. That is to say, we presumably don't actually believe that God will or should override the free will of man so that man cannot go to hell, so that the way to misery is literally closed. That the path to misery is open to man's choice is one of the terrible mysteries of Christianity.

What I will give here, then, is more a personal application of the words than an actual guess as to what the author intended when he wrote them. There are many Christians who genuinely have good will, who want to serve God, but who are unsure what they ought to be doing at any given time. They may face difficult decisions and conflicting loyalties and priorities, not to mention conflicting advice from human counselors. One can make this request to God as a request for guidance: "Please, Lord, as I'm seeking your will, don't let me make any really fatal mistakes for myself or for others. Close the path to misery." The Psalmist says, "Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path." And elsewhere, "Teach me thy way, O Lord; I will walk in thy truth. Unite my heart to fear thy name." This is a prayer we need to be praying both practically and spiritually. Practically, for all those daily decisions and life decisions, that they would be wise. Spiritually, when we are wondering whether to be stern or soft, whether our motives are wrong, whether we are encouraging in ourselves or in others the wrong spirit or attitude. In all these things, we can cry out to God to make safe the right way and close the wrong way.

This is at least one good application that one can make of the hymn lyrics, and I present it to my readers for what value it may have for them. And a blessed Advent season to you.