St Patrick on love and obedience

On this St Patrick’s day a quote from Patrick’s Confession:

I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith.

It is hard not to read Patrick and think of Paul. His passion for the people he was called to serve. His single-minded focus on mission. His Christ-centered preaching. His self-distrust – in terms of a deep awareness of God’s grace and his unworthiness.

In this quote some of those themes emerge. He faces both internal and external opposition.

The internal is both physical and spiritual. Physically he is mortal and faces death. He is weak and finite. He faces temptations to act in ways that likely pursue short-term ‘this worldly’ pleasures that will lead him astray.

He also faces external opposition of some sort – those who attempt to destroy his faith – in the next paragraph he talks of those who laugh and insult him.

He knows he is far from perfect. He has failed. Others lead more Christ-like lives. But his understanding of grace means that this is not a cause for shame or pretence – he comes honestly before God without blushes, dependent on his mercy and forgiveness. He knows he needs the Lord’s help.

And, like Paul, he sees that the heart of living a life pleasing to God is not merit, or pay back or external behaviour motivated by fear or a pursuit of self-righteousness.

No.

Rather the heart of being a Christian is love. If is from love that obedience flows. It is out of love that he is willing to suffer. It is love which orientates his heart towards God and away from that which would lead him astray.

In other words, we might say that the core of discipleship, according to Patrick, is a deep love for God that issues in a faithful life of joy and gratitude.

Or, to put it in reverse, unfaithfulness, a pursuit of ‘worldly pleasures’ (money, sex, power), a lack of thankfulness, an arrogant self-defensiveness coupled with a lack of passion to share the good news of the Gospel are all merely symptoms of a life where love for God has either evaporated or never existed.

So a good question to ask ourselves this St Patrick’s Day – is ‘how is my love life?’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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The Gospel and Capitalism – Daniel Bell

What do you think of this quote from Daniel Bell, Divinations: theo-politics in an age of terror (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2017) on how the gospel confronts and overcomes capitalism?

 

Paul’s gospel is the proclamation of the free gift, Messiah Jesus, that exceeds every debt, that explodes the very calculus of debt and retribution and sets in its place an aneconomic circulation of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. Here is the promise of true liberty from capital. As we share Israel’s election in Christ, we are set free from an economy whose circulation is ruled by scarcity, debt, retribution and finally death. In Christ, we share in the abundant life of the Immortal, which is not the solitude of self-sufficiency, but life lived as donation, as the ceaseless giving (and receiving) of the gift of love. In Christ, a path is opened up beyond the iron cage of sin, of capitalism, and of the Hobbesian/Weberian world where both appear to rule. In Christ we are liberated from all that would prevent us from giving, that would interrupt the flow of divine plenitude that continues through our enactment of love. We are freed from captivity to an economic order that would subject us to scarcity, competition, dominion, and debt, that would distort human desire into a proprietary and acquisitive power.

This is to say, the only way to defeat capitalism is to embrace the gift given in Christ, which is nothing less than the superabundance of grace that repositions our lives within the aneconomic order of love. So repositioned (redeemed) by love, we are enabled to give ourselves, to sacrifice without loss or end, even in the face of an economy that would eclipse gift and plenitude through the imposition of a regime of scarcity, debt, and dominion. Christ defeats capitalism as Christ heals human relations of their economic distortions and renews their circulation as donation, perpetual generosity. Capitalism is overcome as human relations are redeemed from the agony of competition and dominion and revived as the joyous conviviality of love that is the fruit of the proliferation of non-proprietary (that is, participatory) relations. Capitalism is defeated as fear is cast out—the fear of my neighbor that compels me to possess more tightly and acquire more compulsively, the fear that in giving I can only lose, the fear that death and the cross are the end of every sacrifice.

An aneconomic order of love, grace, generosity that subverts the self-interest, power, fear and ruthless competition of capitalism.

A gospel which has searching implications for our wallets, time and priorities.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Sologamy: the logical end of Western individualism?

From Aeon Magazine  –  a superb article by Polina Aronson. Worth reading the whole thing.

‘Sologamy’ is the latest relationship trend not only in Europe and the United States but also Japan. A budding industry of self-marriages promises to make us happier by celebrating commitment to the only person in this world truly worthy of a relationship investment: our precious self. A variety of coaches worldwide offer self-marriage courses, including guidance through preparatory steps (such as writing love poems and composing vows) and orchestration of the ceremony itself.

While self-marriage has no legal power (you can’t normally do it in a town hall, at least not yet), it is open to anyone regardless of age and gender. I wasn’t – and am not – single, but that doesn’t disqualify me; my coach cheerfully confirmed that anybody, regardless of their situation, was welcome to learn how to ‘cherish’ and ‘love’ themselves. Still, most women (and it is almost always women) whose stories I read in blogs, Facebook pages and media reports were driven into self-marriage by the desire to emancipate themselves from the stigma attached to singledom and by the prospect of self-discovery. Some hoped that self-marriage would ‘heal them from a chain of painful break-ups’; others opted for it as a means of proving the worth of their lifestyles – and all of them were willing to learn how to love themselves ‘unconditionally’. Welcome to the 21st century, where we are no longer only ‘bowling alone’, to use the expression coined back in 1995 by the American sociologist Robert Putnam – we are marrying alone, too. So is this a sign of a radical new kind of independence, or a depressing totem to our self-absorption?

 

The Song of Songs: sex, love and hidden meanings (1)

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1How does a Christian read the Song of Songs?

What to make of it?

How to interpret it?

My guess is the default approach in church is to play safe and ignore it.

As we saw in the last post, it has not been ignored in church history. The overwhelming consensus has been, when faced with startling erotic poetry, to deflect attention to ‘higher’ things via allegorizing the Song of Songs. It started early on in church history and continues to have traction (though less than in the past) today.

The reason to discuss this is it touches on areas of somatology (the theology of the body) :

What is a Christian way of thinking about bodies, sex and love?

How has this shifted over time?

There are few more contentious and ‘hot’ issues that this in contemporary culture and theology. So this is the first is a wee series of short posts on suggested reasons for the popularity of allegorizing the Song of Songs. It will lead on to some posts on love and sex today.

The first reason for allegory is that interpreters see it in the text (or just below the surface of the text):

1. It is there in the text (if you look hard enough)

There are exegetical and theological arguments for allegory within the Song itself. Some are well made. Here are couple of very recent examples:

A Jewish Vision

j10560One such is Jewish scholar Jon Levenson in his recent book The Love of God. He is well aware of the problem of allegory that has nothing to do with the text and exists only in the mind of the allegorizer. He is also aware that the book can be read profitably on its own terms. He acknowledges that identifying the man and woman with Israel and God is ‘not defensible within the plain meaning of the Song’. But, he says, it is far from arbitrary.

He proposes a form of Midrash that brings different texts together to give a deeper unity of Scripture to light (132). And that unity speaks of

‘the longest and most consequential romance ever – the unending romance of God and the people of Israel’ (134).

Israel is ‘wedded’ to God – the background here is Jeremiah and Ezekiel speaking of Israel as his (unfaithful) bride. But here in the Song it is the faithful community of Israel in covenant love with her God. It may not have the reality (witness exile and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem), but it is an ideal, a vision of her true calling.

At the heart of the Torah he says, is love.

A Christian Vision

9781783595396In a recent book on Marriage, Family and Relationships, Rosalind Clarke suggests, like Levenson but from a Christian perspective, that the Songs has different layers of meaning. So, for her, the Song is about THREE layers of meaning:

i. Human sexuality.

This is what I’d call the plain meaning or surface meaning of the text –  ‘The Song of Songs honours human love and human marriage.’ 51.

Her endorsement of this level of meaning is, I think, rather perfunctory. It does not capture the sheer joy and celebration of erotic love that is everywhere in the Song.

2. God and Israel.

The text, she argues, points ‘beyond’ the surface. He is the shepherd-king-bridegroom who embodies the idealised Solomon. The vineyard owner, analogous to YHWH

She is the landscape of Israel – a ‘darling Jerusalem, the promised Land’ (there are a lot of geographical metaphors used of the lovers’s bodies).

Clarke acknowledges the ‘connection between the Song’s male character and YHWH is not made in directly in the Song’ but is suggested by the worship of the male elsewhere. [She does not deal with the fact that there is parallel praise, and even more so, for the woman by the man).

3. Christ and the Church.

Here she goes for the typical allegory of Christ the bridegroom and the woman as the church / bride (Ephesians 5:23-32).

I don’t know about you, but I think it is revealing that Levenson and Clarke both freely acknowledge that the text itself does not clearly point to ‘hidden’ meanings – whether allegorical or a Midrash.

It is, I think, relevant that while Levenson sees levels 1 and 2, Clarke, as a Christian, sees Level 3 as well.

My problem here is that the interpreter sees what he or she wants to see. Getting to the meaning of the text itself and what it says about human love is complicated enough given multiple uncertainties such as the identity of the lovers, the date, whether Solomon is an active participant or whether the two lovers are simply idealised figures etc .

Better to stay at Level 1 is my opinion. The Song is about love, sex, desire, marriage, joy and embodiment. That’s plenty to be getting on with without ‘leaving the text’ and searching for other levels of meaning.

How about you? How have you been taught (or not taught) to view the Songs?

(and regardless of this question, can I recommend that if you have not done so for a long time, dust off that section of your Bible and have a good close read – it is well worth it).

The next post will look at a second reason for allegorizing the Songs (cliffhanger here).

Allegorizing the Song of Songs

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1
Aharon April. Song of Songs Last 1. Wikimedia Commons

When was the last time you read the Song of Songs? Or heard a sermon from it?

I’m doing some work on love in the Bible and am on the Song of Songs. For some reason (I have some theories) it tends to be overlooked in treatments of love and marriage in the Bible.

This post comes after reading Duane Garrett’s excellent Word Biblical Commentary. He has a fascinating section on the history of interpretation of the Song of Songs. For centuries the book has been interpreted allegorically – by Jews, by the early Church Fathers, by Roman Catholics and by Protestants.

Pretty well everyone it seems struggles to take the Song of Songs at face value as a lyrical poetic celebration of sexual love between a man and a woman.

Here are some of my favourite examples of how Song of Songs is interpreted (from Garrett). A test text he uses for a lot of this is 4:5. The text reads:

Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.

JEWISH ALLEGORIZING

Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides) 1288-1344 treats it as a study of epistemology (how we know what we know). He argues that the man is really doing some sophisticated philosophy: (the bits in brackets are explanatory notes from Garrett).

Since breasts serve to nurse he compared that which emanates to her breasts. He allegorically compared her to two fawns that are ‘twins of a gazelle’ because of their fleetness. He said this because of her diligence to prepare for him what he needs from her in these sciences [mathematics]. His statement ‘which feed among the lilies’ is clear on the basis of what we said in our introduction [that fragrances symbolize the stimulation of the intellect].

Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac ha-Levi Tamakh (13th Cent) takes a more typical approach. On 4:5 he says

The breasts are the king and high priest. Just as breasts are the woman’s glory and beauty as the source of influence on her babes, so are the former the people’s glory and beauty and the source of the influence upon them of Urim and Tumin, as stated in the Mishnah.

Rabbi Moshe Alshich (c. 1502-1591)

Israel was blessed with another merit, for your two breasts, Moses and Aaron, who sustained you, enabled you to draw nourishment from the heavenly influence.

EARLY CHURCH AND ROMAN CATHOLIC ALLEGORIZING

Among the early Church Fathers we have many examples, few more significant than Jerome. Song of Songs 8:5 reads like this:

‘Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labour gave you birth’

Jerome’s translation is this:

Under the apple tree I raised you up; there your mother was corrupted, there she who bore you was violated.

It was Jerome who in Adversus Jovinanum (against Jovinian) who relegated marriage to a second class status within the church. Celibacy was the religious ideal.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) preached 86 sermons on the first two chapters of the Songs. In general the text is just a starting point for pious meditations on the love between the Christian soul and God.

Gregory of Narek (d. circa 1010) said on 4:5 that the two breasts represent the body and soul of man.

Later Medieval interpreters see Mary in the Song of Songs. The flawless woman in the Song represents the Church. Garrett gives a quote from Honorius Augustodunensis (quite the name)

Therefore, this book is read on the feast of Blessed Mary, for it shows the type of the Church, which is virgin and mother. Virgin, because uncorrupted by all heresy; mother, because through grace it always bears spiritual children. And therefore everything which is said about the Church can also be said about the Virgin, understood as both bride and mother of the bridegroom.

PROTESTANT ALLEGORIZING

Examples could be multiplied, but we’d better move on to Protestant allegorizing. For the vast majority the Song is an allegory of love between Christ and the church / pious soul. Let’s get back to the breasts of 4:5. Here are some fantastically imaginative examples.

For the Scottish divine J. Durham (1622-1658) the two breasts enhance ‘the comeliness of the body’ are ‘useful to give suck’ and ‘signify warmth of affection’. They symbolize believers’ fitness to nurture others as well as their ‘warmliness and kindliness to Christ’ since they have taken him ‘into their bosom’.

John Gill (1697-1771) is the most creative (and entertaining) of all. The two breasts are:

  • first ministers of the Gospel, they nurture the church
  • they are like twin deer in that they are loving and pleasant; sharp-eyed in watching out for truth; swift to spread the gospel
  • Two breasts are indicative that they are sufficient to do what is required of them
  • That they are twins, means they are in harmony
  • They feed among the lilies, meaning they feed on the Scriptures
  • The two breasts are the Old and New Testaments – they are alike in their promises and truths
  • They are also the two ordinance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper

As Garrett says, the two breasts are anything that comes in a pair!

Other interpreters take 4:1-5 with its description of the woman’s eyes, hair, teeth, temples and breasts as a representation of the complete and holy state of the church triumphant at the marriage supper of the Lamb (T Newberry, 19th Century).

In short the rather big problem with allegorizing is that THE TEXT MEANS WHATEVER THE ALLEGORIZER WANTS IT TO MEAN.

This history as told by Garrett raises a couple of interesting questions. Your comments are welcome.

WHY the resort to allegory? I’ll come back to this in the next post. [It must be said that allegory is not limited to the Song of Songs. But this book, I think, is probably the most allegorized in the Bible (with perhaps the exception of Revelation).]

And before we moderns get too amused and patronising about the ignorance of the past, what do you think are some of our culturally ingrained assumptions and beliefs that shape our reading of the Bible without us even noticing? 

An Easter Reflection: 1 John 4, love, life, wrath and the cross

In 1 John 4: 7-10, the apostle writes this:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

That is 9 occurences of the noun or verb for love of [agapē (love) and agapaō (to love)] in 4 verses. I John is easily the most ‘love saturated’ book in the Bible and these verses represent the most ‘love saturated’ section of the epistle.

Famously – and uniquely in Scripture – John states that ‘God is love’. Love ‘comes from God’ because God, in himself, in his essential being, is love. This means everything that he does is loving – whether creating, sustaining, redeeming or judging.

For John, love is never abstract; it is always concrete and practical. God’s love takes the visible and tangible form of sending his one and only Son into the world – in John a realm of sin, death, rebellion and hate. If love is the motive, the result is that we might have life through him.

John thinks in big picture theology rather than systematic details. The ‘sending’ of the Son is shorthand for the whole story of Jesus – his incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. His focus here is on the cross as verse 10 makes clear.

The Son is sent in love to give us life. But how does this work?

1. Somehow the death of the beloved Son is an ‘atoning sacrifice’ (hilasmos) for our sins – yours and mine. Despite some attempts to evade this, hilasmos has the sense of propitiation – turning away divine wrath against sin and sinners via an acceptable sacrifice. The love of God sits right alongside his anger and judgement against sin. It is at the cross that the love and judgement of God meet. To see Easter and the cross only as a supreme example of divine love and to airbrush atonement for sin out of the picture is to depart from the apostolic gospel.

2. In atoning for our sins, the death of the Son gives believers life. This implies a doctrine of regeneration. To be in the world is to be in a realm of death. Through God’s loving initiative, we are given the gift of eternal life. We no longer are to belong to the realm of the world.

3. Easter is solely dependent on God’s love and is God’s initiative alone – we are utterly unable to deal with our sin or be reborn into new life. It is only God who can  atone for sin and give us life. He does so at supreme cost to himself.

4. If the whole point of Easter is to give us life – what does this life look like? Quite simply it is a life of love. John’s focus is our love for each other. If we do not love, it reveals that we do not actually know the God who is love. Love is the ‘proof’ that we have received new life and our sins have been atoned for in the death of the Son. As we enter this Easter weekend, let’s first and foremost remember that both the motive and the ultimate purpose of the cross is love.

Easter is therefore a good time to reflect on our ‘love lives’ – how well are we loving?

Easter is an appropriate time to pray, repent and ask God to help us love – to be the people that the atoning death of Christ is designed to make us be. Perhaps there is someone we need to act to be reconciled with this Easter.

Easter is most of all a time to rejoice and worship the God who is love and who acts in love so that we might have the privilege and joy to know him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (5) (living gently in marriage)

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter four ECCLESIAL POLITICS, PEACEMAKING, AND THE ESCHATOLOGY OF WORSHIP.

In this chapter the conversation between Brian Brock and Hauerwas delves into familiar Hauerwasian territory of pacifism, gentleness and the church as an eschatologoical community. It’s rich reading.

One theme that gives me much pause for thought is where Brock and Hauerwas discuss how a theological commitment to pacifism needs to be part and parcel of learning to live gently in a violent world. (Echoing themes of Living Gently in a Violent World that Hauerwas wrote with Jean Vanier of L’Arche).

Brock notes at one point that

It’s at moments like these that it’s clear that you are aware of the danger that your work is easily subverted when people receive it as a challenge and a crusade to establish pacifism, rather than as a sign in the wilderness pointing to intangible practices of living gently in a violent world (106)

And Brock adds later,

In so far as people read you as pacifist and think that somehow excuses them if they are not being gentle, I’d like to insist that is not a venial sin but a complete falsification of your work. (107)

In other words, it is easy to be committed to pacifism / non-violence in an aggressive and violent way – I guess a bit like the evangelist who tells people ‘God loves you’ in a hostile or threatening tone.

Rather, Hauerwas is proposing (against his own instincts to fight and win against his enemies) that gentleness needs to be a virtue that characterises all of life.  Responding to Brock, he gives the example of marriage:

… What is one of the most frightening aspects of marriage? The person we are married to learns to know us better than we know ourselves. That’s why they are able to hurt us the most; they know our vulnerabilities. I think that there’s a certain sense in which it is very important that there be a gentleness between people who are married. It is a learned virtue. (108)

OK – so let’s go off on a Hauerwas inspired marriage tangent here ….

As someone who can seem reasonably agreeable to most people most of the time, who believes that following Jesus means a commitment to non-violence, and is researching and writing about love –  this chapter hit home. For it is possible to present that face and to believe those things – but not live or think or act gently.

What do you think it means to live gently in relationships? In marriage?

If gentleness, as Hauerwas says, is a learned virtue, then the tongue needs to be controlled to speak gently as a way of life. James does not mess about on this – see 3:1-12 and this:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. James 1:26

I have much learning and repenting to do for sure on how and what I speak.

On gentleness or kindness in marriage as a learned virtue see this important and practical article in The Atlantic on research into successful and failed marriages. Successful marriages the researchers found flourish on kindness – expressed a thousand ways. (The Atlantic article describes different examples of kind or unkind interactions).

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters [those with happy enduring marriages] tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

That love and relationships need sustained hard work is the language of learned virtue. The disposition of kindness (or gentleness or love) needs to be practiced and reinforced every day – it unlocks and releases potential kindness and love in return.

Kindness [as opposed to contempt] glues couples together. Research … has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

A lack of kindness, in other words the presence of aggression, hostility and especially contempt are signs that the marriage is in deep trouble. The researchers could predict with 94% success whether couples would stay together from observing their interactions around kindness (or the lack of it).

This all makes perfect sense. But, as the Brock / Hauerwas interaction reminded me, it is one thing to know something in your head, it is quite another thing to practice that virtue.

Comments, as ever, welcome.