Sunday, August 30, 2015

And righteousness like a mighty stream

Justice is often associated with the meting out of law: giving the guilty man, or the righteous man, what he deserves in proportion to the quality of his deeds. You stole your neighbor’s pencil and broke it? You’ll have to give him four of yours in return. You finished all of your chores? You can do what you want now. Justice, in this sense, is about keeping the social order harmonious. In a just society, good laws are the vehicles for good order.

For Augustine, however, justice does not begin with the social order, but with the soul of each man. Justice, in this sense, is about keeping the soul’s order harmonious. In a just man, reverence for God is the vehicle for good order, for Augustine says:

For though the soul may seem to rule the body admirably, and the reason the vices, if the soul and reason do not themselves obey God, as God has commanded them to serve Him, they have no proper authority over the body and the vices. For what kind of mistress of the body and the vices can that mind be which is ignorant of the true God, and which, instead of being subject to His authority, is prostituted to the corrupting influences of the most vicious demons? It is for this reason that the virtues which it seems to itself to possess, and by which it restrains the body and the vices that it may obtain and keep what it desires, are rather vices than virtues so long as there is no reference to God in the matter. (City of God, XIX, 25, italics mine)

David is a fine illustration of Augustine’s claim. When Nathan confronts David concerning his unjust killing of Uriah after having stolen his wife and adulterated their marriage, Nathan appeals to David’s sense of justice: the story he tells so obviously mirrors David’s own, but David has suppressed his conscience so far that he does not see himself properly. Yet the pressure of guilt is so great that when David hears Nathan’s story, his conscience bursts forth in righteous anger, allowing Nathan to simply insert David into the story and complete the confrontation by pointing to the ingratitude exhibited by David’s actions:

Thus says the LORD God of Israel: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more!’ Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight?” (2 Sam 12:7-9, NKJV)

David sees himself rightly, and repents of his sin against the LORD. David acknowledges the root of his transgression was forsaking proper reverence for God.

Granting the Holy Spirit His primary role as bringing about conviction, I submit that David’s repentance over his social injustice was possible in the way it occurred because David had been feeding his soul upon God’s Word: “how can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word” as he wrote in Psalm 119. As human beings in a world characterized by sin’s corruption of God’s good Creation, and especially sin’s corruption of man, we will inevitably receive unjust treatment, and each of us will be, at times, inclined to commit injustice; the bonds of social order will fray. If any of us would bind them back together we must fill our hearts now, and continually, with reverence for God by filling our minds with the knowledge of God found in His Word; confessing with David, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You! Blessed are You, O Lord! Teach me Your statutes!. . . .I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways. I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word.”

Then, and only then, can “justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” flowing freely and fully in our homes, in our churches, and in our society. If we would see such justice, let us give ourselves over to the Word of God and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Problem of Identity

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same. ~Plutarch, Theseus

Finite creatures change, yet we are able to identify individuals in duration. What remains the same in the midst of growth or change? What constitutes the identity of any given object? More acutely, what makes any person himself, or herself, that person? This thorny philosophical question has attracted many attempts of solution.

For the Christian, the answer itself is simple, though unravelling the tightly woven knot of the truth is no less complicated than many of the answers offered by non-Christian philosophers. Despite the complications of philosophy, a simple apologetic can be briefly outlined:

1. God is the ground of all Being.
Paul, in his speech before the Athenian council, the Areopagus, claimed that the pagan poet Aratus' idea that "in Zeus we live and move and have our being" is rightly applied to the One True God who has expressed Himself in the man, Jesus Christ, who will judge the world in righteousness. To have one's being in God entails that one's identity is in some way derivative of God's productive activity, and insofar as God governs His productive activity, to that extent does He determine or maintain the identity of what He has made.

2. God is the fount of all knowledge.
The Psalmist, in comparing the wickedness of the wicked to the perfections of God, claims that God is the fountain of life and that in His Light we see light. While both "fountain" and "light" here are metaphors, the connotations are not so wide and various to obscure the likelihood that knowledge is in view. To see is to behold, to behold is to experience the truth of what appears, that is, to know it (at least to some extent). Combined with John's opening in his gospel, the metaphor is even clearer: Christ is the true light that gives light to every man entering the world. Darkness and blindness are opposing metaphors for ignorance, which also reinforce the meaning of "light" as knowledge. Thus, insofar as the identity of a thing, or of a person, depends upon knowledge, to that extent the identity of a thing is derivative of God's knowledge.

3. God is the end of all Being and Knowledge.
Not only is God the ground of being and the fount of knowledge, He is also the end of these things. Again John is our helper, for in Revelation he witnesses several times the declaration that Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. Nor is the phrase left indeterminate. In Revelation 21 Alpha and Omega is set in the context of Christ as the giver of life, which I think extends to the notion of Being quite directly, though I won't defend that assertion here. In 1 John 3:2, John tells us that the children of God are not yet fully known, but that they know that when they see Christ revealed they shall be like him. The Greek verb translated "see" is a metaphor for seeing with the mind, or knowing. Knowledge is transformative, but in a teleological fashion--we become what we are to be by beholding with the mind the completed revelation of Jesus Christ.

To put it narratively, we cannot know our full identity until the protagonist has completed the end of the story, for our identity as human beings are all bound up in his identity as the God-Man. This is certainly true, corporately, but also individually, just as every part of my body has a "story" of its own, the completion of which depends upon how my own volition directs it unto some final end.

To recap, the problem of identity within Christian thought finds resolution in the identity of God as the beginning and end of Being and Knowledge; by the decree of the Father made manifest to us (and all the cosmos) in the person of Jesus Christ, both Son of God and Son of Man, and declared true by the testimony of the Holy Spirit to all the members of His Body, the Church.