Saturday, June 28, 2014

Not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses

My title is taken from the prayer of consecration in the Book of Common Prayer. The context goes like this:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We are utterly unworthy of all that we have received, whether it be the gift of the Blessed Sacrament or what the Prayer Book elsewhere calls "all the blessings of this life."

We want to be duly grateful, and this raises an interesting dilemma for those of us who are, at the moment, not suffering and for whom things are going fairly well: On the one hand, if one says, "I am so grateful to God for all His many blessings," it could easily sound like one is implying that God has specially endowed one's precious self with good things that He has deliberately withheld from others. If I thank God for blessing me with a wonderful husband, for example, how might this sound to women who have not been blessed in that way? Might it sound proud or smug? It easily could. This is the tension that arises from the "feeling blessed" phrase (accompanied by smiley icon) one sees on Facebook so often. Does it sound smug? Or is it just the temptation to envy that makes one think so?

On the other hand, we must never fail to thank God. Scripture is adamant on this. We are told again and again to receive all things with thanksgiving and in particular to thank God for our earthly blessings. I could scarcely make a dent in all the passages enjoining thankfulness for our blessings if I listed twenty of them. Psalm 100, Psalm 136, I Timothy 4:4, Colossians 3:17, and on and on and on.

We as Christians must acknowledge God as the giver of all good things (James 1:17).

Interestingly, the Book of Common Prayer shows not the slightest squeamishness about thanking God for our material blessings. The general thanksgiving thanks God for "all the blessings of this life," though it adds that "above all" we give thanks for "thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory." In the section of the American Prayer Book called "Thanksgivings," we find the following:

Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew, we yield thee unfeigned thanks and praise for the return of seed-time and harvest, for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of the fruits thereof, and for all the other blessings of thy merciful providence bestowed upon this nation and people....

And this:

We give thee humble thanks for this thy special bounty; beseeching thee to continue thy loving-kindness unto us, that our land may yield us her fruits of increase, to thy glory and our comfort. 

For Rogation days:

Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth; We beseech thee to pour forth thy blessing upon this land, and to give us a fruitful season; that we, constantly receiving thy bounty, may evermore give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

It seems to me that the secret to feeling blessed without feeling smug must lie somewhere in that phrase "humble thanks." If you simply hold the Prayer Book in your hands and flip through it and read at random, the atmosphere of (in the best sense) piety and true humility arises like incense. Most of the prayers in the "Thanksgivings" section are fairly specific: "For a child's recovery from sickness," "For a safe return from a journey," "The thanksgiving of women after childbirth," "For rain," and so forth. The picture is not of ease and comfort but rather of human life, fraught with all its pains and perils. The one who prays these thanksgivings is one who has turned to God in his deepest need and now turns to God with due relief and gratitude in the time of deliverance. And the very next section after the thanksgivings is the Litany:

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.
O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.
O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us....
Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of ours sins: Spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us forever.
Than which nothing less smug can be conceived.

Part of the trouble with conveying due gratitude to God for one's personal blessings lies in the poverty of language, and especially the poverty of personal language. The first person plural is more dignified than the first person singular. To say, especially in the course of corporate or family prayer, that we have been blessed beyond our power to express and far beyond our deserving has a ring of solemnity to it that simply cannot come through if one replaces "we" with "I." And it is difficult, with a straight face, to associate solemnity with Facebook updates. Unless, perhaps, one simply quotes the BCP on one's Facebook status, which isn't such a bad idea.

My life is a gift. It would be a gift, I must acknowledge, even if it were nasty, brutish, and short. For God would still be God in that case and would still love all men, including my unworthy self. But it is much easier as a weak human to see that my life is a gift when it is filled with gifts, with specific gifts.

Somehow, it must be possible to express humble gratitude without being shallow, sentimental, and maudlin. Until we have the power of our own language to do that, we could do far worse than to start with the language of the Prayer Book, which reminds us, in all our gratitude for the blessings of this life, of that which is eternal:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Daniel Dennett on disarming and caging

This is a quotation that I thought I had posted on this blog years ago. Since I apparently didn't (according to Google), and since I just went to the trouble to look it up, partially type it in from Google books, and send it to a friend, here it is for posterity:

Save the Baptists! Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world. According to a recent poll, 48 percent of the people in the United States today believe that the book of Genesis is literally true. And 70 percent believe that "creation science" should be taught in school alongside evolution. Some recent writers recommend a policy in which parents would be able to "opt out" of materials they didn't want their children taught. Should evolution be taught in the schools? Should arithmetic be taught? Should history? Misinforming a child is a terrible offense.
A faith, like a species, must evolve or go extinct when the environment changes. It is not a gentle process in either case. ... It's nice to have grizzly bears and wolves living in the wild. They are no longer a menace; we can peacefully co-exist, with a little wisdom. The same policy can be discerned in our political tolerance, in religious freedom. You are free to preserve or create any religious creed you wish, so long as it does not become a public menace. We're all on the Earth together, and we have to learn some accommodation. The Hutterite memes are "clever" not to include any memes about the virtue of destroying outsiders. If they did, we would have to combat them. We tolerate the Hutterites because they harm only themselves–though we may well insist that we have the right to impose some further openness on their schooling of their own children. Other religious memes are not so benign. The message is clear: those who will not accommodate, who will not temper, who insist on keeping only the purest and wildest strain of their heritage alive, we will be obliged, reluctantly, to cage or disarm, and we will do our best to disable the memes they fight for.

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, p. 516, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Those naturalists are real sweet guys.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Head That Once Was Crowned With Thorns

If you search this site for posts on the Ascension, you will find quite a few. It's a holy day that I rarely miss at least mentioning, even if I fit a post only into the octave (as in this case). The feast of the Ascension has always seemed to me one of the most unqualifiedly joyful of the church feasts. It's like the great ending to a story. The author of the epistle of the Hebrews says,

Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:4)

And then there is the Psalmist:

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. (Psalm 24:7)

St. Paul:

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
We all know that, in terms of the history of God's work here on earth, there is a lot more to the story. But every story has chapters or sections, and when Jesus ascends to heaven to sit down at the right hand of the Father, to take up His place in His human body as the king of glory, that is a good ending to a huge and important section.

It occurred to me today to wonder what exactly it looked like when Jesus entered into heaven at His ascension. I mean to be precise here: As far as we know, the second Person of the Godhead is now permanently incarnate. That seems to have been the point of Jesus' resurrection in a glorified body. It seems to be an implication of Paul's teaching about Christ as the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead (I Corinthians 15).

If this is correct, this means that Jesus continues to exist in some sense in time. (Naturally this question occurred to me given my recent work on God and the philosophy of time.) If one has a body, one is automatically in time. We don't know for sure whether angels are strictly disembodied. I gather Christian tradition has varied on whether angels are always disembodied except when they take on bodies to carry messages to human beings and do other work on earth for which a body is required, or whether they always have bodies. But Scripture is clear that angels can have bodies, if only temporarily. So now we have Our Lord incarnate, in a body, and merely created beings, the angels, capable of being embodied. And we also have the holy dead from the time up to Jesus' ascension. They would not be embodied, because the resurrection has not yet taken place for them. But they would be temporal creatures who naturally experience sequentially by way of the senses, and it is entirely reasonable to think of their existence as having some sort of form and sequence to it. Indeed, Jesus seems to allude to Abraham's knowledge of the Son prior to Jesus' incarnation when He says, "Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad."

We can even take it that there must be some place where Jesus, incarnate, now exists and reigns, though in an important sense it must be "another world," a different space-time realm, from our own.

Putting all of this together, one can conjecture, though it is only a conjecture, that there may have been some sort of grand coronation scene at the Ascension, involving angels, the souls of the blessed dead, and Our Lord Himself in His incarnate body. I would love to have been there.

As usual, it is impossible to find a really strong choral version of some of the greatest hymns, but here are a couple of "The Head That Once Was Crowned With Thorns."

Even though it's only forty-five seconds long and doesn't include the first verse, I am charmed by the whole idea of a group's getting up at seven a.m. to go to the top of a tower in London and sing this hymn in honor of the Feast of the Ascension. So kudos to this British church choir:

Here is a fuller version:

And here are the wonderful words by Thomas Kelly:

1 The head that once was crowned with thorns
is crowned with glory now;
a royal diadem adorns
the mighty Victor’s brow.
2 The highest place that heav'n affords
is his, is his by right,
the King of kings and Lord of lords,
and heav'n’s eternal light--
3 the joy of all who dwell above,
the joy of all below,
to whom he manifests his love,
and grants his name to know.
4 To them the cross with all its shame,
with all its grace, is giv'n,
their name, an everlasting name,
their joy, the joy of heav'n.
5 They suffer with their Lord below,
they reign with him above,
their profit and their joy to know
the mystery of his love.
6 The cross he bore is life and health,
though shame and death to him;
his people's hope, his people's wealth,
their everlasting theme!