Friday, January 28, 2005

Bertrand Russell said it

I found this tidbit today in a book of letters-to-the-editor from Bertrand Russell. (Russell was my favorite author in my atheist period from age 15 to 21, and I still love to read him even though my views diverge more and more from his).

"With regards to the ethics of Christ... They are historically unimportant since they have never influenced the conduct of Christian communities or prominent Christian individuals."

Taken literally, this gibe is not quite true, but it's too close to truth for comfort.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Passion of Christ (not the movie)

Please consider this as an unfinished draft of an article in progress. Comments and feedback are welcome.

The kernel of all we know outwardly about Jesus appears in the Christian Bible in four books known as “gospels”, a word that means “good news”. The stories in these books have been told and retold for two millennia. They have brought peace, joy and comfort to Christian people of all sorts and conditions. They have served to inspire and edify us, to provide us with moral and spiritual direction, and to fortify our spirits in times of distress.

Yet the “good news” in these stories is not all pleasant news by any means. The Bible is not a “feel good” book. Although the stories of Jesus speak of redemption and healing and hope and the final triumph of the love of God, they also speak of disease and death, oppression and persecution, violence and hatred. In fact, at the center of each gospel’s narrative is the extremely terrible story of the Passion of the Christ, in which an innocent and good man is arrested, tortured, and brutally executed. The gospels do provide a context for this story: They situate it between the teaching and healing that came before it and the resurrection that came after, but every one of the four gospels does give the Passion narrative a prominent place.

The gospel writers don’t shrink from frank description of the bloody death of Jesus, yet neither do they wallow in details. Facing the horror of the crucifixion was obviously important to the early Jesus movement. From other books the church created, including the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles of Paul, Peter, and John, and the Book of Revelation we can see that understanding and explaining the meaning of His suffering and death became central to those who had loved Him and to those who received His gospel after He had risen.

Christ’s cross was still seen by outsiders as a sign of defeat and humiliation. Paul wrote that it was “foolishness” to the pagan Greeks and “a stumbling block” to other Jews. But to Christians, both Jews and Greeks, this cross came to mean victory over death, a means of salvation, a literally “crucial” and necessary part of Jesus’ mission.

What does this mean to us? Does it help us or baffle us? Inspire us or embarrass us? How, if at all, do we remember and honor it? (In speaking of “us” I address myself to anyone who may read this article, but especially to other Christians and even more especially to that particular circle of Christians who are called Quakers: the members of the Religious Society of Friends). The example of some Christians, in response to the Passion, has been to concentrate attention on it, to meditate on it and even visualize it – wounds and all – in gruesome detail. A great many mystics have pursued such visions or been pursued by them. Christian art from mediaeval times down to the 2004 movie by Mel Gibson has often sought to make Christ’s suffering extremely vivid to us.

No doubt there are many souls who have been moved by such images to greater devotion and faith. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily pious or virtuous to dwell in imagination on scenes such as the scourging and crucifixion. Morbid preoccupation with them could easily lead us to self-punishing guilt or to self-righteous scapegoating of others instead of to the joy and freedom that Christ offers to us. If it was the only way to be thankful for His sacrifice, and show our respect and awe, then we would owe Him no less than to meditate on the His suffering day and night. But it is not the only way.

What is the alternative? I believe that the answer must begin with a recognition that Jesus suffered as a human being, notwithstanding that He is also the Son of God. His was a human suffering and a human death, akin to all other suffering and death including our own. His vulnerability was one of the ways in which He voluntarily became like us. Therefore whatever attitude we take toward His suffering should be of a piece with our attitude to any person’s suffering. He is a fellow-sufferer with those who have AIDS, those who have cancer, those who are blind, maimed, disfigured, or mad, those who are victims of violence or persecution, those who are wounded or killed in the act of helping or rescuing others. In Christ and through Christ we may see all those fellow-sufferers. In them and through them we may also come to see Him.

It might be objected that Christ’s suffering differs from other suffering in that His was voluntary and most other suffering is not. But we need to be clear about what we mean by “voluntary”. Christ was not and is not a masochist or suicide. He did not inflict suffering upon himself nor kill himself. He didn’t scourge or abuse his own body, and He certainly didn’t crucify Himself. These evils were done to Him by others. They were the world’s answer to His call for repentance and healing and His announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God. What was “voluntary” about His suffering is that He exposed Himself to it by coming into the world to live among us in perfect faithfulness to God despite all consequences. It was in this sense that he “laid down His life for us”. His gift to us was His love, and the cost of this gift was His death. Of course, if we are conscious that He paid this price, we ought properly to be full of gratitude and awe. As John’s gospel says “He was in the world and the world was made by Him but the world did not know him. He came unto His own and His own received Him not.”

From this understanding of what Christ did for us flows an understanding of what His disciples and Friends should do. In order to imitate Christ, we shall not go in search of ways to suffer any more than He did. Suffering may come to us, as it came to Him, and we will try to be ready to meet it when it does. But if it comes, let it be while we are living and acting as He taught us and is still teaching us to do. Let it be as we are doing the deeds of compassion, mercy and justice, loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, caring for the sick, speaking the truth, welcoming the stranger, giving of ourselves in service, and giving thanks always to God for His blessings. We have no need as Christians to invite suffering, and indeed we do well to avoid it when we can, just as we avoid causing others to suffer. We can even imitate Jesus in praying that “if it be possible, let this cup pass…”. But neither do we live in mortal dread of pain or suffering. If Christ by his death has truly conquered death for us, then the fear of death is not able to rule over our spirits. It cannot deter us from living as we believe that God would have us live nor from treating others as we believe God would have us treat them.

For me, this way of thinking about what Christ has done helps to clear up some otherwise very vexing questions. For example, certain Biblical passages seem to suggest that in suffering and dying Christ paid a penalty for our sins and freed us from having to pay it ourselves. On its face, this would seem to suggest a very odd picture of God’s justice, as if He insists that sin be punished, but is willing to let the punishment be borne by an innocent man. But in my view, the point of these passages is just to drive home Christ’s willingness to share our condition, not to present a literal explanation of why it was necessary. We may speak metaphorically of a firefighter who “gives his life” to save others. And if the fire was caused by criminal activity the firefighter could even be said to have “paid” for someone else’s arson. But we understand very well that the real reason the firefighter rushed into the fire is that that was what had to be done in order to extinguish it and rescue the victims. Christ is very much like the firefighter. be continued

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

God as Poet (according to C.S. Lewis)

I don't have leisure to write a real post today, but I did see something this morning that I thought I might share with my readers.

I am re-reading for the umpteenth time C.S. Lewis's book Reflections on the Psalms, which Janet Accetta-Evans gave to me back in 1980. And once again I'm remembering what a delight it can be to read Lewis, despite his occasional smugness and complacency and high-church theology. His main argument is usually pretty interesting in itself, but what makes his writing really fun is that each of the illustrations and metaphors he uses along the way is original and surprising and often counter-intuitive and highly memorable. His is the kind of writing that - if you were to underline the good parts - would be underlined from start to finish.

Anyway, the gem I saw this morning and decided to share with you all is this reflection on why it is that not only the Psalms but much of the rest of Scripture, including many of the words of Jesus, are in a poetic form:

It seems to be appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry. For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.

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Thursday, January 06, 2005


I do not intend this as political blog, at least in any narrow partisan sense. However, when something taking place in the political sphere has obvious moral and spiritual implications I will feel free to comment on it.

Such is the case with the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be the United States Attorney General. I don't think you have to be a big-D Democrat or a small-d democrat or a liberal or a pacifist or a Quaker or a Christian to oppose this nomination. But surely anyone who is any of these things or any kind of decent human being would have to say that it is totally unacceptable to allow this apologist for torture to fill any office of public trust whatsoever, much less the chief law enforcement officer of the country.

I plan to contact both of my Senators to urge rejection of his confirmation, and I hope other like-minded people will do so as well.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Time for a Coat

The issue of plainness or simplicity has taken up more space on this blog than I had expected. But I am going to continue the discussion for awhile for the simple reason that I am now facing a buying decision that gives me a chance to apply the principles we've been discussing.

Here's the situation. My winter coat is pretty old. I don't remember how long I've had it, but it does look like it needs replacement (or not...depends on what's important). It has a few small tears in the fabric, the pockets have holes in them and won't reliably hold anything smaller than a book, and it looks a little dingy or greasy even after I have it cleaned. Talk about not fitting in: I sometimes sense that people in the building where I work are nervous about riding in the elevator with me when I wear this coat.

So if I get a new coat (or a better used coat?) what kind of coat should it be? Looking "plain" in some traditional Quaker or Mennonite sense is not necessarily desirable as I see it, but it's not a huge negative either if the coat makes sense for me otherwise.

I think I should get something of "high quality", but only in the sense that it is well-made and durable. To get something that will wear out quickly and have to be replaced seems like a waste of resources. On the other hand, I see no need for it to be precisely fitted as a tailor would do. The coats I've worn all my life have always been "off the rack" and they've always fitted me well enough for my taste.

Other things being equal I'd prefer that it be mass-produced by machine rather than tailor-made by hand, because I think that labor-saving is a good thing. Garments made entirely by hand seem to me like a luxury that will never be available to most people and therefore obviously aren't needed by anyone. But human labor is used even in making mass-produced clothes. It's important to me that I not support the exploitation of underpaid labor. If possible, I'd like the coat to be made by union labor or at least by people who benefit from work rules and wage rates that have resulted from labor union activity. If it is made in the U.S. so much the better, but if it is made elsewhere I'd at least like to have some way of checking on whether the workers that made it are paid fair wages.

I want the coat to be pretty warm, since New York winters can be cold, but not so bulky that it becomes a problem to move around in it. A hood would be good, but is not absolutely necessary.

Finally, within the constraints mentioned above I'd like it to be as inexpensive as possible (not a witness, just me being cheap). I'd be willing to pay more for a union-made garment than an imported garment made by underpaid labor. But I wouldn't pay much of a premium, if any, to get a "plain" coat made by the Amish or other traditional craftsmen.

So, Friends. How would you advise me? Where should I look for my new coat?


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Monday, January 03, 2005

Is Plainness Asceticism?

Martin Kelly commented after one of my previous posts that choosing "plain" clothing has to do with rejecting things that appeal to the "vain mind". I'd like to think about that some more.

On one level, my reaction is that my vain mind and your vain mind may be drawn to different things. Some of the plain people seem to think that suspenders are more plain than belts, but I can't say that I have ever spent any time admiring my belt in the mirror. Similarly with hats. I actually think that the beautiful broad-brims I see some Quakers wearing would appeal more to my own vain mind than the very practical small-billed workman's cap I wear in cold weather.

On another level, I'd like to explore more about what "vain" means anyway. I've been reading Garry Wills' translation of Augustine's "Memory" (Book 10 of the Confessions). Somewhere in there Augustine says, addressing God, that "no one loves you well who loves anything else except because of you." This, I suppose, is the attitude of the ascetic. It is not my attitude, though I think Augustine's statement is saved from being completely false by the inclusion of that all-important phrase "except because of you".

What I would say, in contrast to Augustine's statement, is that "No one loves God well who does not love all that God has made made." After all, who would claim to "love" Michaelangelo DaVinci or Rembrandt as an artist if they didn't love the artist's creations?

And within "all that God has made" I would include the marvelous ability of human beings to make lesser creations of their own. So, from that point of view, despite my own aesthetic preference most of the time for plainer, simpler, forms of beauty, (See the poem "Simple Things" in a previous post) I see no bedrock spiritual reason to reject adornment and decoration. I like Margaret Fell's reaction to some of the early efforts to codify what was plain: she said it was a "silly, poor gospel" to suggest that Friends should avoid colors, given that God Himself clothes the hills in colors.

To love created things, of course, does not mean to slavishly need them, or to covet ownership and control of them, or that we can't give them up cheerfully when the occasion demands. And the occasion sometimes does demand this. There are times when faithful people must suffer for Truth's testimony, or must forego a pleasure innocent in itself because pursuing it harms someone else. At such times, Fox's experience becomes very relevant. He said in his journal that he found there were two thirsts in him: one for the Creator and one for the creatures (i.e. created things). When it comes down to a choice, our love of the Creator ought to trump our love for the creatures every time.

- - Rich

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