Friday, April 28, 2017

Newman on Reaching the Heart

The relationship of science to religion, or reason to faith, may well prove the defining question of our time.  It is certainly no new subject.

In 1841, the once and future Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, offered a dedicatory speech at the opening of a new reading-room at Tamworth, in Staffordshire.  It is a curious document, which begins with the tedious story of how the library was established and a request for subscriptions, and proceeds to sing the praises of books on drainage, wheat disease, and emigration to the colonies.

Toward the end, Peel launches an argument against "those who anticipate injurious consequences, either to the moral or religious characters of the people from imparting to them such knowledge." Did such people exist, or are they invented for the sake of argument? It is hard to imagine that many people were concerned about the moral decadence that might result from reading about wheat blight, then one rarely goes broke overestimating the anxiety of the morally scrupulous.

Either way, Peel's speech reaches its climax in a defense of scientific reading against its supposed religious despisers. Marshaling quotations from Newton and Sir Humphrey Davey, as well as Charles James Blomfield, then Bishop of London, he proposes that study of the natural sciences will tend to make people admire their Creator, that
... science and knowledge will not merely impress upon the mind a cold conviction of the truths of Natural Religion - but that they will temper and prepare it for the better conception and comprehension of the great scheme of human redemption[,] ­that new sources of conviction will be opened, independent of the overwhelming force of historical testimony - independent of that assent of the heart and conscience which instinctively discovers in the pure system of Christian morality, the internal evidence of a Divine origin.
This is an audacious proposition: to establish in Science a basis for Christian religious faith (and morals) independent of the Bible and any other "historical testimony."  But it is not, to be honest, so very far from the arguments one hears today among many Christians, nor among those early Christian students of natural philosophy who sought to read, alongside, Scripture, "the Book of Nature." Frankly, we ourselves are not unsympathetic to Peel on this matter.

But do you know who was very unsympathetic indeed?  Newman.

John Henry Newman, in those days still (if marginally) an Anglican, took instant umbrage.  He sensed behind Peel's speech the work of thinkers to whom he was hostile -- Lord Brougham, Jeremy Bentham -- and more generally the emerging tendency to give revealed religion a secondary place in intellectual affairs.  Newman responded with a series of seven anonymous letters to the Times (in the clubby world of Victorian intellectuals, they were, one imagines, about as "anonymous" as this blog). You can read the letters here.  They are quite readable, even when one disagrees.

But one passage in particular stands out, in which Newman comes right to the core of the attack on "historical testimony":
Science gives us the grounds or premisses from which religious truths are to be inferred; but it does not set about inferring them, much less does it reach the inference;—that is not its province. It brings before us phenomena, and it leaves us, if we will, to call them works of design, wisdom, or benevolence; and further still, if we will, to proceed to confess an Intelligent Creator. 
We have to take its facts, and to give them a meaning, and to draw our own conclusions from them. First comes Knowledge, then a view, then reasoning, and then belief. This is why Science has so little of a religious tendency; deductions have no power of persuasion. 
The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. A conclusion is but an opinion; it is not a thing which is, but which we are "certain about;" and it has often been observed, that we never say we are certain without implying that we doubt. To say that a thing must be, is to admit that it may not be. No one, I say, will die for his own calculations; he dies for realities. 
We at the Egg are not altogether certain that we take Newman's side on this, but we do admire his style.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Blessed Nullification: John Donne on Hearts Warmed and Melted

On February 12, 1629, the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral went to Whitehall, and preached a Lenten sermon before the King.  The Dean was John Donne; the King was Charles I, and the text was Matthew 6:21, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

The sermon is a typical bravura performance.  Read it, if only for the opening image.  Donne talks about the smallest hour-glass, a minute-glass, which would give him more time than he needs to describe a worldly man's treasure; it passes quickly, like the sand. But for a godly man?  Donne says he could not describe that person's treasure if he had
... a secular glass: a glass that would run an age. If the two hemispheres of the world were composed in the form of such a glass, and all the world calcin'd and burnt to ashes, and all the ashes and sands and atoms of the world put into that glass, it would not be enough to tell the godly man what his treasure and the object of his heart is.
Those preaching this week (the Third Sunday in Easter of Year A) may also read the sermon because it contains Donne's single homiletic reference to the disciples encountering Christ en route to Emmaus.

He gets there in the midst of a disquisition on what it means to have "a heart." This is the sort of question, as you can imagine, that is like candy to Donne.  It gives him an opportunity to divide up the meanings of a word, list them and draw together his Biblical and patristic allusions.

So he says: God calls us to have a fixed, a faithful heart; but to this there are many impediments, which he reduces to three:  Cor nullum, or heartlessness; Cor duplex, an irresolute heart; Cor vagum, a wandering heart. The reference to Emmaus comes in the discussion of cor nullum:
... for the fire of God's Spirit may take hold of me and, as the disciples that went with Christ to Emmaus were affected, my heart may burn within me when the Scriptures are opened  -- that is, when God's judgements are denounced against my sin and this heat may overcome my former frigidity and coldness, and overcome my succeeding tepidity and lukewarmness, and may bring my heart to a mollification, to a tenderness, as Job found it: "The Almighty hath troubled me and made my heart soft."
It may be counterintuitive for modern Christians, or at least for Lutherans, to think of Emmaus as a story of judgment against sin; there is nothing about that in the text, and we are more accustomed to focus upon the image of Christ as a loving and supportive companion. But of course the "scriptures" that Jesus opened are our Old Testament, which is never short of judgment.

And when we think of hearts burning within us, many Protestants (at least) recall the story of John Wesley's Aldersgate experience -- when his heart was strangely warmed by hearing Luther's Preface to Romans, and the consequent trust that God "had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."  This is not, really, far from Donne's point -- hearing the Law drives us to the Gospel, which turns our hearts from ice to fire.

Even if that's no help, there is a nice little prayer in the midst of it, which you may find useful.  Having been warmed, even melted, Donne says that he is at last pliable stuff, ductile metal, in the hands of his Maker, at which point he can say:
 Lord, though I be nothing, yet behold I present thee as much as thou hadst to make the whole world of;  O Thou that madst the whole world of nothing, make me that am nothing in mine own eyes a new creature in Christ Jesus.
He calls this self-abnegation, this kenosis if you like, a "blessed nullification." It is all close in tone to his famous sonnet, "Batter my heart, O thou Three-person'd God." But the grammar alone may render it a little easier to use in the pulpit or even -- who knows? -- in one's own devotions.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Luther on the Blissful Tree

In 1871, the Augustana Book Concern published a volume of Luther's Passion sermons (via Internet Archive). It was intended for devotional rather than scholarly use, and gives no sources nor even the name of the translator.  We haven't time just now to track it all down in the American edition.

But the Tenth Passion Sermon, as given in this little volume beginning on p. 159, has a few memorable bits right near the end, which we may work into our own Good Friday sermon this year.

Luther considers the age-old question of whether the Cross, an instrument of shame, should give offense to Christians.  At first, he suggests that it is indeed offensive to us, because on it Jesus took upon himself our own curse.  Moreover, since God had already cursed anyone who should die on a cross (Deuteronomy 21:23), the Son now hangs there, "as one condemned, and as one whom God hates and visits now with shame and want and agony."

But wait, says Luther:  Let us look beyond first appearances, and judge not according to human reason, but to the Word of God.  
This we find to be  altogether different from that which we can see with the bodily eye. This disgraceful death which God has cursed is an offence to the eye, but to us it is a blessed death, for it takes the curse away from  us and brings God's blessing to us.
The tree which in itself is an accursed tree, is for us a blissful tree.  It is that precious altar, upon which God's Son offers Himself to God, His Father, for our sins. It is that glorious altar, at which He appears as the  true and eternal priest. For He is brought to the  tree, and He makes it a blessed altar, that we might be released from sin, and receive God's grace and  be God's children.

Luther is not saying that the Cross is not the sign of a curse, because that would contradict God's Word.  He is saying that, in addition to a curse, it is also the sign of a blessing.

He then launches into a touching encomium for the Cross of Christ: 
No wonder, then, that the old teachers entertained such excellent thoughts about the cross and the accursed tree. 
There in Paradise, they say, a beautiful tree occasioned our falling into sin and  death ; here, however, an old, dry -- yes, accursed -- tree occasioned our deliverance from sin and our receiving everlasting life. Here hangs God's Son with  arms extended as a testimony that He will cast no  one out, but gladly receive every one and draw all unto Him, as He says He will (John 12).  
His head  is lifted toward heaven, pointing out to us the way  of life eternal. His feet reach toward the ground where they bruise the head of Satan, that old serpent creeping on the earth, forcing from him all his power. 
There's a lot for a preacher to work with in this passage, especially the antitheses between "there" and "here," as well as between Christ's head and feet.. 

As an example of "the old teachers," we might look to Adam of St. Victor, whose Laudes Crucis atollamus was called by John Mason Neale "the masterpiece" of "the greatest Latin poet." It is not impossible that Luther had this hymn in mind as he wrote, particularly the passage Neale translates this way:
Hail, the Tree that brings salvation,
Tree of Beauty, Tree of Life!
O how glorious, how transcendent
was this Altar! How resplendent
In the life-blood of the Lamb!
Of the Lamb immaculate
that redeemed our ancient state
From its sin and from its shame.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Judica Down, Palmarum Coming

Dear Friends of the Egg,

This is the time of year when a parish pastor's life is very much like driving a Formula 1 car through a long, dark tunnel at top speed.

Lent is, for most of us, a great deal of work, not the least of which is the preparation for Holy Week and Easter. The goal is clear, and closer than it seems, but to change course even a little bit -- sometimes, even to divert one's attention from the road for a moment -- is to invite disaster.

Of course, an F-1 driver doesn't have to think about people who are ill or dying or dead, or inconsiderately being born, nor about councils and committees and even an ELCA Malaria Initiative executive who all insist on meeting during Holy Week, or on any of the million other routine matters that, in a rightly-ordered world, would be suspended until a week or two past Easter.  Not to mention income taxes, due the day of the Vigil. So pastoring this time of year is more like driving that race car through the tunnel while juggling pie pans on broomsticks and singing "O Susanna."

It's busy.  That's all we're saying here.  It's a frantic, exciting, joyful time to be a servant of the servants of God.

And yet, astonishingly, the world keeps turning.  Bad prayers continue to be published, ugly vestments to be worn; the President of the United States continues to lie like an Oriental carpet, and Congress continues to do nothing in the most malicious and belligerent way possible. Which means that we at the Egg have work to do, devils to mock, opinions to offer as if they were facts, all under the thin-worn cloak of our putative anonymity.

But not this week, and not next week either.  Maybe during Bright Week, when we take a few blessed hours of rest.  Until then, beware the forces of darkness, and remember us in your prayers.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Prayer of the Day -- Now With Extra Clauses!

The Prayer of the Day offered by Evangelical Lutheran Worship for the fourth Sunday in Lent during Year A of the lectionary is as follows:
Bend your ear to our prayers, Lord Christ, and come among us. By your gracious life and death for us, bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and anoint us with your Spirit, for you live and reign with the Father ... 
It's not a terrible prayer.  But doesn't it seem a little cluttered?  Of course it does!  And why?  because, as we never tire of pointing out, the ELW editors never saw a prayer they didn't think could be improved by more words.

The Latin original comes from the Gelasian Sacramentary (#1173), where it reads:
Uoci nostrae quaesumus, Domine, aures tuae pietatis accomoda et cordis nostrae tenebras lumine tuae visitationis inlustra; per … 
Or in rough English:
O Lord, we ask that the ears of your mercy might hear our voices, and the light of your presence brighten the darkness of our hearts; through Jesus Christ, etc.
It is easy enough to see where the ELW team got their extra ideas.  (i) Christ's "coming among us" -- a fair translation of visitatio - is defined here as his life and death. (ii) The Spirit's unction is probably an allusion to Christ's "smearing" mud on the eyes of the Man Born Blind, in the Gospel reading for the day.  (The NRSV's "smeared" is a weak translation of the Greek epichrisen, "anointed," found in the major manuscripts apart from Vaticanus.) But the fact that an addition can be explained does not mean it should have been added in the first place.  The original prayer was noble in its brevity, and surely easier for listeners to follow.

It is also possible that the editors are attempting to conform the original prayer to a common model, according to which the form of a collect requires an invocation, which in turn includes a relative clause identifying God's action -- for instance, "O God, who became incarnate among us."  The problem with conforming ancient prayers to this model, obviously, is that the model is drawn from analysis of the ancient prayers.  If some of them lack the "right" parts, it isn't the prayers that are wrong, it is the model.

The sad thing is that, as we look ever more closely at the ELW collects, we can see just how much labor went into reading a variety of classical prayers and then padding them with unwelcome fluff.