Sunday, February 01, 2015

Intro to Ronald Osborn's 'Death Before the Fall'

Fresh off of reading David Clough's On Animals: Part One, Systematic Theology -- which got me thinking about the creaturely expanse of God's creative and redemptive plans -- I've turned to Ronald Osborn's Death Before the Fall in an effort to think further about some of the pressing concerns implicit in confessing Jesus Christ as the 'Word made flesh' and Reconciler of all things. Thus far I have only read the Introduction, but I do find myself resonating with the tensions raised in these lines:

'Like millions of Christians, I was raised to believe that God created all of earth's creatures in six literal days in the relatively recent past. In the beginning, there was no mortality and no predation of any kind. The natural world -- my parents, pastors and elementary school teachers all sincerely believed and taught me -- was radically altered as a result of Adam and Eve's decision to eat the forbidden fruit. The blame for all death and all suffering in nature thus fell squarely upon rebellious humans. This was why lions now killed Cape buffalo in Mana Pools and why there were crocodiles and bilharzia parasites in the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. 

But of course no human action could have produced such an instantaneous change, not simply in instincts but also in the anatomical structures of countless creatures. The idea that the lions in Eden were docile vegetarians with dagger-sharp claws originally designed by God for tearing the bark off trees appeared downright silly. Somehow those massive canine teeth and retractable claws for taking down living pray had got there

This seemingly left only one possibility: God himself was responsible for the transformation of all nature in what amounted to a hostile second creation after Adam and Eve's fall. All mortality and all predation in the animal kingdom were the result of a divine punishment or "curse." 

The vexing question of the justice of such an act -- of why God would inflict death and suffering on innocent creatures to punish sinful humans -- did not enter my mind as a child. I simply assumed that older and wiser people whom I loved and trusted had done the hard theological work, and that there were no deeper questions about the creation left to be asked. The task of believers was not to raise difficult problems but to provide confident answers.'


- Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall, page 16

(paragraph spacing altered for blog-readability)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

'Discipleship' according to Bonhoeffer

When I first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Discipleship some twenty years ago its impact was mainly personal and vocational. It was the abridged paperback entitled Cost of Discipleship and it had a huge hand in compelling me to take the Christian faith seriously, indeed even to give my life to the service of Christ. You can see why based on just a few quotes from the first chapter, 'Costly Grace':

'Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways' (43).

'[Such] grace takes care of everything by itself.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ' (44).

'[O]nly those who are obedient can believe' (47).

It is pretty easy to see how this chapter can serve as a call to wake from slumber and cross the line from religion to active faith.

Reading it again at Trinity College this week -- this time in the unabridged fresh translation provided in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works --  I am struck again not only at its personal impact but also at how resistant Bonhoeffer is to letting it be merely so. Indeed, this is a book that is profoundly social and political -- so much so that one can hardly conceive of Christianity any other way.

Consider excerpts such as these, not only for their timely call to public, protestant Christianity, but also their polemic against the dutifully secular relegation of faith to the privacy of the inner life:

'The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost. The world was Christianized; grace became common property of a Christian world. It could be had cheaply' (47).

'Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. But because the church tolerated this protest and did not permit it to build up to a final explosion, the church relativized it... For now monastic life became the extraordinary achievement of individuals, to which the majority of church members need not be obligated' (47).

from the movie 'Luther'
'For Luther, on the contrary, a Christian's secular vocation is justified only in that one's protest against the world is thereby most sharply expressed' (49).

'Luther's path out of the monastery back to the world meant the sharpest attack that had been launched on the world since early Christianity. The rejection which the monk had given the world was child's play compared to the rejection that the world endured through his returning to it. This time the attack was a frontal assault. Following Jesus now had to be lived out in the midst of the world. What had been practiced in the special, easier circumstances of monastic life as a special accomplishment now had become what was necessary and commanded for every Christian in the world' (48).

'Grasping at forgiveness was the final radical rejection of self-willed life; the acknowledgment of grace itself was his [Luther's] first really serious call to discipleship' (50).

Keep in mind that Bonhoeffer is writing these things before the Nazi threat had become obvious to the world; when the church was a well-meaning frog slowly boiling in the kettle of lordless powers. Before the imprisonment and hanging that made Bonhoeffer a Christian hero, he was exiled by his country and church. By elevating him as a hero rather than hearing his insistence on normalcy, do we distance ourselves from his call to discipleship?

(quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4,
translated by Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss
and published by Fortress Press in 2003).


Saturday, January 10, 2015

'Men do not turn from God so easily you see' (from McCarthy's 'The Crossing')

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing is a naturalistic masterpiece. I haven't read enough of his books to repeat this with certainty, but Petra Mundik calls the ex-priest's tale in the middle of this novel the 'Rosetta Stone' of McCarthy's work.

There are dozens of lines one could pull out of that tale, but here are some that struck me as I was reading it for the first time today. The ex-priest is telling the story of a hermit (a Job-like figure) who has returned to the place where he lost his parents at a young age, after having lost his own children as well.

 'Easy to see that naught save sorrow could bring a man to such a view of things. And yet a sorrow for which there can be no help is no sorrow. It is some dark sister traveling in sorrow's clothing. Men do not turn from God so easily you see. Not so easily. Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from. To imagine otherwise is to imagine the unspeakable. It was never that this man ceased to believe in God. No. It was rather that he came to believe terrible things of Him.'

- Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing, page 148

Friday, January 09, 2015

Reason and 'Holiness' (by John Webster)

It has only been eleven years since John Webster's Holiness hit the shelves, but on second-read this week I am compelled to suggest that it deserves to be considered a classic. I have even heard it called a 'magesterial' work on the topic, which is not bad for 116 pages.

Here's an excerpt from chapter one, explaining how 'theology is an aspect of the sanctification of reason':

'Once reason is thought of as "natural" rather than as "created" ... then reason's contingency is set aside, and its sufficiency is exalted in detachment from the divine gift of truth. Or again, when reason is expounded as a natural competency, then it is no longer understood as fallen and in need of reconciliation to God....

A holy theology is responsible to revelation. That is to say, Christian theology is possible only because of the self-communicative character of the holy God of the Christian confession....

Revelation is not to be thought of as the communication of hidden truths, as if in revelation God were lifting the veil on something other than his own self and indicating it to us. Revelation is divine self-presentation; its content is identical with God....

As the holy God's self-presentation in free mercy, revelation is the establishment of saving fellowship. Revelation is purposive. Its end is not simply divine self-display, but the overcoming of human opposition, alienation and pride, and their replacement by knowledge, love and fear of God. In short: revelation is reconciliation.'

- John Webster, Holiness, pages 10-13
(italics are original, bold has been added)

Friday, January 02, 2015

Grandma Lois

When I was young I remember coming to that bit at the back of the New Testament where Paul is telling Timothy to live into his grandmother’s legacy of sincere and living faith. There was nothing lost in translation for me. I needed no more than her name. My Grandma is Lois too.

Lois Coutts died this week, a picture of grace. Her funeral was today. I was on the wrong side of the ocean to take much part, but was glad to know my brother was giving a great tribute from us grandchildren. When he asked for some input I found I had more to say than time would allow, so for what its worth, here are my reflections in full.

This September: Last photo with both my Coutts grandparents.
Grandpa and Grandma’s house on Oxford Street was the best place on earth. The anticipation of that drive up 16th Avenue was almost unbearable. It seemed to stretch on and on, and the heart would race when we saw the tell-tale skyline of White Rock appear on the hill ahead. Our cousins would meet us there. Grandpa would be sure to give us each a quarter. We’d shoot pool and horseshoes, watch the fireworks from the balcony, put on plays for the adults, and holiday under the blessing of Grandma’s smile.

Grandma was always encouraging—which is all the more impressive when you remember that she managed to be encouraging even when she was letting you know she didn’t approve of something. If I suggested throwing a brother’s toy off the balcony, for example, she’d toss her head back in a short burst of laughter as if she truly didn’t believe I was capable of such atrocity. It was as if she was truly shocked by my gall, and was dressing her gut-reaction in a smile. It was convincing. I can’t recall ever being guilted by her.

She was so kind and encouraging you just wanted desperately not to disappoint her. She probably didn’t realize how much her kindness motivated us to be good. I can imagine her losing sleep praying over us. I would feel bad about that, except she gave no reason to think she was fearful or sad.

Grandma was poised. One time she was taking care of the five of us kids for a few days while my folks were away, back when we lived in Sardis, BC. Given that Grandpa did most of the driving for the two of them, I imagine she was hoping not to have to drive us anywhere--especially because our family's stick-shift grand caravan was not easy to master. But we kids would have balked at the thought of missing a ball hockey practice, so, she drove us. No complaints. It was the slowest, most cautious drive any of us can recall--apart from our own first days with a learner’s license later on, when in that same mini-van we came to realize how calm and even courageous our Grandma had been.

Grandma and Grandpa frequently included us in their anniversaries. I remember cakes and sandcastles in their honour—one depicting them kissing—and I can think of a couple pretty cool weekends where the only reason for our gathering was to celebrate their everlengthening marriage. Sixteen years into my own marriage now, I appreciate where they set the bar.

Grandma wasn’t shy about kissing Grandpa. I’m glad for that. She would chide him too. Lovingly of course. I can still hear her lilting ‘Mel!’ if he had taken the joking a touch too far. She had a knack for preserving the joy of the fun. More than once her gracious intervention saved me from death of laughter at Grandpa’s tickling.

I can still see Grandma poking her head around the corner to see what Grandpa is yelling at on Hockey Night in Canada. Usually a marvellous play commentated by Bob Cole, or an obnoxious comment from Don Cherry. Whether we played hockey in the basement, on the street or on the ice, each of us grandsons found joy in making beautiful plays. How much of that was for our grandparents? For all the times we played baseball or football in the backyard at my cousin’s house, I know it was most fun when Grandma was up on the balcony giggling at us.

This isn’t about rosy nostalgia, these memories were somehow formative for us. Grandma made a safe space for us to find our way in this world, and gifted us with a sense of being loved and appreciated.

As an adult there was a sense of pride each time I could introduce first my wife and then each of our four sons to Grandma. There was never any doubt of their acceptance by her, but it was nonetheless a sacred moment to find oneself playing cards with the grandparents, just like old times except this time with new family members in the fold—each of them added as if they’d always belonged.

In adulthood there’s been a foretaste of this grief as we’ve darted this way and that and seen Grandma and Grandpa less and less over the years. What’s remarkable is that we’d be with them again for no more than a minute and would feel as if we’d never left. They’d prayed for us as faithfully that morning as they’d done each day since we saw them last.

I’m a doctor of theology now, but I’ve never quite figured out prayer. I’d probably give up, except Grandma’s life holds it out like an unsolved mystery. More than once I’ve wondered if something went well or some disaster was averted as a direct result of my Grandma’s prayers. I don’t know what that says about god—would he sit there aloof if not for the earnest promptings of an eighty-year-old on her knees?—but I do know what it says about Grandma’s faithfulness and love. And what it says about Grandma in that regard it says about God.

Throughout life there were scattered occasions—one quite recently—where we sat in church with Grandma and Grandpa and could hear them belting out the hymns, could see them dropping their money in the offering, could feel the cloud of witnesses impressing itself upon our lives.

It will be hard to live without Grandma; without the comforting knowledge that she’s living and breathing on this earth somewhere. It does help to imagine her ‘in a better place’, but for me this is not the time for that. We look forward to the reconciliation of all things—but there’s a blessing for those who mourn.

This is the time to grieve; to stop with Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb and express indignance that Grandma is gone. We didn’t deserve her, but now that we’ve had her we’ll not pretend to be glad to be letting her go.

There’s been an accompanying sadness as we’ve watched her health diminish; watched her grow frailer. We’re grateful she had her wits about her to the end. She was bright in every sense of the word. The world is surely a shade darker today.

This September when my family said goodbye to Grandma before our move to England, it occurred to us it could be farewell. I feel robbed that we didn’t know for sure, because I’d have said a proper goodbye. I’d have told her I feel honoured to be returning to the part of my heritage that is hers.

Sometime in the upcoming months we will venture over to East England and visit the villas of Tonbridge Kent and Enfield, where Grandma’s mother and father were born. We had meant to do this while she was alive so we could send her pictures of the homeland to which a part of her line had returned. Now we’ll do so with a tinge of sadness, as our memorial this side of the sea, as a pilgrimage under a dreary gray English sky. But there will be a profound sense of happiness too, because we know that through Grandma the Creator turned his face toward us and gave us peace.