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Jesu, Juva

Archive for May 2011

Invictus

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The Westminster Confession of Faith reads:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

We confess that God ordains or decrees everything, but in a way that establishes individual freedom and responsibility. At one level this is simply a mystery to us, but it is possible for us to go a little deeper. Authorship and artistry — or, as Tolkien puts it, sub-creation — have been for me a helpful analogy for God’s sovereignty over creation[1]. It does not even occur to us to accuse Tolkien of tempting or causing Gollum to sin, or of any injustice or violence toward Gollum. Even recognizing Tolkien’s authorship, we do not doubt that Gollum did what he did of his own free will, or that he deserved his end. Philosophers call this compatibilist free will, but it just means that we do what we want to do. An author or artist’s decreeing or ordaining her work is categorically different from ordinary causation or compulsion within the world of the work itself. In fact, the author’s decrees are just what establishes and upholds a structure of causality and responsibility within the world of her work. Otherwise it would be utter chaos.

This also means that God’s very being and existence are categorically different from ours; to use the philosophical term, he is transcendent. This is perhaps the main reason that Anselm’s argument fails: we cannot induct our way outside of the story; we cannot build a ladder that jumps right off the page. We need God to reveal himself to us.

There are some fun ways to explore this creator-creature distinction in story and art. In simplest form, characters might speculate about or comically defy the author. Pushing the analogy to its limits, we end up with self-reference, a multiplicity of levels, and illusions. This gets us into the realm of what Douglas Hofstadter calls the “strange loop,” and as Hofstadter points out, Escher’s work is a great example of all this. But the analogy does break down: our stories are only shadows of reality, and Escher’s lizards and hands and birds only have the illusion of reality. Only God enters his creation in the flesh and allows it to act upon himself.

While talking with the men from my small group this week, it struck me that this analogy of sub-creation gives literary references to God a double or ironic meaning. When an unbelieving author’s characters rail against or reject God’s authority, they are in one sense railing against him, and so he is undermining his own argument. In his very attempt to boast in human autonomy, he reveals the absurdity of that rebellion. He cannot escape his dependence on and submission to God any more than his characters can escape their obvious dependence on and submission to him.

This gives us an alternate reading of the poem Invictus. Instead of seeing it as the poet’s raising his fist against God, we can equally see it as the character within the poem’s raising his own fist against the poet. In that light, the poem becomes childish and petty.

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

The idea that we could transcend the boundary between ourselves and our author, or somehow cast off a dependence on him that is fundamental to our very existence, is absurd. Far better to humble our hearts and enjoy where he has set us.

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

The analogy of authorship might prove instructive to us in other ways, too. The fact that God’s sovereignty is what establishes causality and responsibility rescues us from futile determinism. And seeing God as an author certainly emphasizes his power over his creation. It is a small thing for him to write of the weaving of his world in seven days, or of a world-wide flood rather than a regional flood: we don’t have to wring our hands over miracles that are hard for our creaturely minds to conceive. And as much as there may be degrees of fellowship with or separation from God, this also suggests that it is misguided to divide creation and our experience into the natural and the supernatural, secular and spiritual, nature and grace. Because of God’s intimate and personal involvement in his story, the overlap between the natural and supernatural is entire and complete. You cannot possibly escape God’s sovereignty, lordship, or grace. That in turn lays the foundation for a robust common grace.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?

Finally, this analogy also suggests that, while there is great value in a reductionist approach to understanding God’s world, there is comparatively greater value in seeking to understand God’s word and world holistically, to grasp the sweep of story and persons.

See also: Proof of the non-existence of God.


[1] Yes, this does contradict the WCF quote on the face of it. See John Frame’s distinction between what you might call a proximate and an ultimate sense of authorship, which is what I’m getting at by distinguishing between decree/ordination and causation/compulsion.

Written by Scott Moonen

May 27, 2011 at 9:19 am

Chrysalis

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We found a butterfly garden on sale for the kids. It’s been a learning experience for me. I’ve always assumed that a chrysalis was like a cocoon, something a caterpillar built around itself. But now I’ve learned that the chrysalis is actually formed after the caterpillar sheds its outer skin. You can see a clearer picture over at HowStuffWorks, but we were able to catch one of our caterpillars doing it on video. Watch the guy on the right. He slowly shrugs out of his skin and then wiggles frantically to cast it off.

We started with five caterpillars, but one actually got stuck in all their webbing and was unable to climb to the top of the jar. He didn’t make it. Three have now emerged as butterflies, and we’re waiting on the fourth.

Written by Scott Moonen

May 25, 2011 at 6:57 am

Posted in Miscellany

Brood XIX

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They’re called Brood XIX and their invasion began about a week ago. Fortunately, they only seem to be active during the daytime.

It sounds like emergency vehicles have our neighborhood surrounded. We expect at least a couple more weeks of this constant racket before the cicada mating season is over.

Written by Scott Moonen

May 13, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Posted in Miscellany, Personal

Redeemer

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It would be difficult to call a single book my best theological purchase ever, because of the different ways that books can come to us at just the right time and can interact with and build upon each other. Lewis was a particular help to me because I was in a season of doubt. If Van Til hadn’t taught me to be a conscious Calvinist, I would never have needed Carson to steer me out of the hyper-Calvinist ditch, nor would I have been willing to work hard enough at Vos to learn more. And Middle-earth and Narnia are clearly in the running. Plus, I just haven’t read enough to be making such lofty pronouncements.

But realizing this, and even though I’m only partway into it, in my own small way I think the James Jordan audio collection will stand as my best theological purchase ever. Jordan has really incredible insights into the Bible. There are many books worth of material here; five months in and I have only made it through his Genesis lectures and partway into Exodus. But I am hooked, and if nothing else, I feel much better prepared and much more excited for family Bible reading. Jordan has the ability to illuminate many of the “weird” parts of the Bible so that they begin to make sense, and I’m having to give up some patronizing attitudes toward parts of history. It’s exciting to see someone wrestling with why God gave us particular details or obscure passages, even if we don’t have yet have enough information to answer that in every case. Jordan is constantly drawing out vast connections throughout Scripture, including rich symbolism and typology. Here’s a small but surprising example: combining Genesis 39:1, 39:20-23, and 41:10, we see that Joseph never left Potiphar’s house in his imprisonment! It is not clear whether the “keeper of the prison” is Potiphar himself or another of Potiphar’s servants. Regardless, Potiphar seems to have recognized that God blessed him through Joseph, and perhaps even recognized Joseph’s innocence (which would heighten the injustice of Joseph’s imprisonment).

This week I am listening to Jordan’s comments on Exodus 21. While drawing connections to related passages elsewhere in the Pentateuch, he observes that Hebrew uses a single word, goel or ga’al, to convey both the idea of the kinsman redeemer and the avenger of blood. So the word conveys a person’s status as next-of-kin as much as it does these distinct responsibilities attached to it. Jordan has several valuable observations to make on the blood avenger; in particular, he distinguishes it from a mere family feud by showing it to be a real civil responsibility to guard against bloodguilt (Numbers 35:30-34). Otherwise the land itself will rise up to serve as avenger instead (as in Genesis 4:10-12, Leviticus 20:22, Leviticus 26:18-20). Considering the cities of refuge, Jordan points out that the death of the high priest’s cleansing the land (Numbers 35:28) is another type of Jesus.

Jordan also makes the fascinating offhand remark that this dual use for goel lends further support for the doctrine of particular redemption (or limited atonement). First, it is not possible to identify Jesus as redeemer in the abstract: he is the redeemer of particular individuals who share a kinship with him. Second, we cannot separate the office of redeemer from that of avenger: as a redeemer there are others estranged from him who will suffer his vengeance. Like so many other things, it comes back to adoption.

I’m not trying to prove the doctrine of particular redemption in offering this, and if I were I would take pains to guard against the hyper-Calvinist idea that there is simply no sense in which Jesus shows kindness to those who perish, or in which he died for the sins of the whole world. But as someone who holds to particular redemption, this is a neat confirmation, as well as a great example of the sort of depth that Jordan routinely offers even in passing comments.

Picture source: Rembrandt.

Faith acquisition

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John 3:1-15 reveals that there is an inescapable spiritual component to our children’s growing in faith. But this passage also insists that we can rarely peel back the layers to see what is happening, even in our own lives, much less our children’s. So it should not be surprising to find that the way God brings about spiritual life and growth, in us and our children, actually rides along the very natural and seemingly mundane tracks of hearing, seeing, tasting, doing. Consider:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. — Deut. 6:6-7

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. — Prov. 22:6

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! — Psalm 34:8

What is striking about these and other passages is that they speak of our children’s acquiring faith in God and learning to live in his household no differently than we would speak of how they acquire language, or how they come to know and love and trust us as their parents. This is because faith is a language: faith understands and speaks of ourselves and the entire world as being related to God in particular ways. Jesus, in whom all things hold together, is more real and immediate a part of his world than anything in it. So while we cannot see him, his constant activity can be seen everywhere to someone who speaks the right language. To anyone else, it is mere gibberish.

Therefore it is not vain repetition to teach our children to say “Jesus is my king and savior,” “God has forgiven my sins,” or “Jesus will always keep me;” any more than it is vain repetition to teach them to say “Daddy,” “this is a chair,” “that is blue,” or “Mr. S. is our mayor.” This is how they learn about both Jesus and the world that he has given to us. And, just as we talk in terms of stages of learning language (“he’s learned his primary and secondary colors,” or “he knows where his pancreas is”) rather than absolutes (“he’s learned English!”), we should speak in terms of stages of learning faith (“she’s really starting to bubble over with gratitude”) rather than absolutes (“she’s converted!”). Faith and language are things to be increasingly exercised rather than inert states of being.

So we teach our children simply to say “Jesus is …” and “Jesus does …” because that is the language of faith. After all, when we speak of Jesus’s world, we simply say “what color is that?” or “what letter is that?;” we do not say “do you believe that color is blue?” or “do you believe that letter is ‘K’?” Because of this, we can confuse our children (and ourselves) if we speak in indirect terms like “do you believe in Jesus as your savior?” rather than simply saying “Who is your savior?” By speaking a more indirect language than faith speaks, we make faith out to be something magical, and make it seem like getting that magic right is just as important as simply knowing and trusting Jesus. And without meaning to do so, this makes Jesus to be something less real than blueness and chairs and letters. But he is far more real than those. The best learning is by doing, and so the best learning to believe in Jesus is actually believing in Jesus — not believing in the supposed power of belief.

Finally, we do not worry that language will become a mindless habit for our children. Neither should we worry that all this Christian talking and living will become a mindless habit. There are some ways in which we expect a mature language and faith to become self-conscious, but it is the essence of language and of childlike faith to be unselfconscious, a simple confidence. The real danger is that this habit and language of faith will be uncultivated and cease to be a habit altogether! We do not want to banish habits — what we want is to cultivate all those delightful habits that a persevering life is simply full of.

See also:

Written by Scott Moonen

May 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm

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