Lately, I have been reading through philosopher Peter van Inwagen’s book Metaphysics. (Metaphysics is a fancy word that describes a branch of philosophy that asks about the ultimate nature of reality.) He has a chapter where he asks whether human beings have a purpose or not—really, whether anything has a purpose or not, which is one of the quintessential questions people have been asking for millennia.
Recently during a devotional time, I was meditating on the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and during this time I was overwhelmed by my beauty in Jesus Christ. Perhaps this sounds like a strange thing to say. It’s common for Christians to emphasize how wretched, awful, and ugly people can be (some traditions take this further than others)—and I think it is important to spend time reflecting on the darkness and evil that exists within each of us. Part of God’s purposes with Israel was to make human sin fully known, as Paul says in Romans 7:13, “In order that sin might be recognized as sin, it [the Law/Torah] used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” But, whatever else he did, Jesus Christ also came to show us just how beautiful we really are.
It is not unusual to hear Jesus described as “true humanity” or being “truly human.” (I think I first came across something like this from N. T. Wright, one of my favorite Biblical scholars and one of my inspirations for choosing to pursue theology and Biblical scholarship in seminary.) I think this language expresses a concept found in the Bible. It’s what I think Paul is alluding to when he calls Jesus Christ the “final Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:45, or when he says in Romans 5:19, “just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” It is what I think Christians mean when they say that Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life or that he kept Torah perfectly. I think this concept is also evident in some of the early Christian theologians, for example Irenaeus with his concept of “recapitulation,” by which he means that Jesus “redid” human life and succeeded in every place that we failed. Jesus redeemed what Adam destroyed.
Often I find that poetry helps me to learn about and understand deep topics better than anything else can. One of my favorite poets is George Herbert, a 17th-century Anglican priest. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections on his poem “Temper (i).”
First, the poem itself. Read it slowly and take it in before moving on.
Some while ago I wrote this allegory for the atonement as part of a class assignment. My interests at the time were, however, broader than just the atonement. I also attempted to contemplate the relationship between Creator and Creation: a challenging and mysterious topic throughout history. I wanted to understand the world in a way that doesn’t make God an all-determining Absolute Cause, as certain traditions do, because I cannot see how that route maintains God’s goodness or benevolence. However, I am also troubled by the open theisms, which I think open a floodgate of issues surrounding God’s nature and relationship to creation. My approach was an attempt to explore Austin Farrer’s (an acquaintance of C.S. Lewis), concept of “double agency.”
I had hoped that story and allegory would help open up new routes of thinking for me. I believe it did.
I spent the weekend in the wonderful state of Oregon, flying into Portland, spending the evenings and mornings in Newburg, and visiting Lake Oswego Sunday afternoon for a dear friend’s wedding. The flora was incredibly lush and beautiful and green, and it’s difficult to not be overwhelmed by Oregon’s vibrant, mossy forest. The sun didn’t come out once the entire weekend, and the rain hardly let up; it was all very beautiful.
I killed almost all my travel time—waiting in the terminal, during layover in San Francisco International Airport, and on the plane—absorbed in Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God. So far, I have not been one to appreciate systematic theology, but this is a rewarding, intriguing, challenging, labyrinthine work. I can’t get enough of it.
While waiting in San Francisco for my flight to Portland, I immersed myself in Sonderegger’s chapter on God’s omnipotence. As she surveys, and is well-known to any theologian who has dabbled in contemporary theology, omnipotence has come under attack as a divine attribute in the recent decades. In the most extreme form, in process theology, God’s is utterly denied omnipotence and therefore has no power to act in creation. Rather, according to the process theologians, God merely is a sympathetic and loving presence to human sufferers and suffering. God only woos us towards virtue, but has no ability or power in the world otherwise.
is reconciliation? What is forgiveness? What does any of it have to
do with Jesus? And why in the world should it matter to any of you?
a letter to one of the earliest Christian communities, the theologian
now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even
though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no
longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new
creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become
new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through
Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in
Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their
trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation
to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his
appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled
to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that
in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Paul is writing here to a group of Christ-followers located in the ancient city of Corinth. He had an intimate and at times conflict-laden relationship with this motley crew of Christians. Right now is one of those times of conflict. The Corinthians have brought into question Paul’s authenticity and authority regarding what has happened to the world on account of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Here in this letter Paul is making his appeal to the Corinthians.
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Our story begins with the words “On that day as evening came.” It marks the end of a long day of preaching for Jesus. He had spent the entire day teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of God is like the seed the sower spreads” he told them. “He sows, and then as the days pass the seed sprouts and grows, and the farmer has no idea how. But the harvest will come.” Or he tells them, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of seeds, but planted in the ground it grows to be the largest of shrubs.” Jesus’ stories about the kingdom of God are mysterious—obtuse even. But one gets a sense that whatever the kingdom of God is—even if one cannot see it now—it is going to come and nothing can stop it.
In studying a subject or procuring a skill there is generally a movement from mystery to familiarity, from the unknown to the known. For example, I remember when I first began learning Greek, when all shapes of the alphabet were strange to me and each page of text an unknowable riddle. As I painstakingly studied, the sound of each letter would soon come as second nature and each word would become a system of recognizable parts. As I ran enough text through my fingers, I began to get a feel for the language; it became familiar and known to me. Whereas before I could only discern shadows on the ground, now I could look up and see the cathedral that cast it—in all its architectural grandeur and geometric complexity. Yet, at the point at which one has memorized every nook and cranny, the degree of every angle, the length of every line, the point at which one has run one’s hands over every square inch a thousand times over, at this point the mystery and the enchantment begin to fade into familiarity and mundanity. It seems that in the process of knowing there is inevitably the risk of disenchantment. (Is it mere coincidence that the West’s struggle with the disenchantment of the world came concomitantly with modernity, the rise of the scientific and rational mind?)
However, the more I delve into the incarnation, the cross and resurrection, the more it eludes familiarity, the stranger it becomes. It resists demystification and disenchantment. It brings one to the beginning of the cosmos, to its end—at the cross one climbs into the dark recesses of the depths of the earth and ascends to the azure heights of the daylight sky.