Saturday, November 28, 2009

St Andrew's Day

The kids have the day off from school on Monday. Turns out it is a national holiday in Scotland-- St. Andrew's Day, actually. I wasn't sure which Andrew we were talking about here so I looked it up. Its the disciple Andrew.

It just so happens that I'm leading the service at our church Sunday morning and figured maybe I'd talk about St. Andrew a little bit, maybe find a prayer or confession we could share together. In my digging here are some of the interesting things I found:

* Andrew (with an unnamed disciple, probably John), was the first to follow Jesus of Nazareth, after John the Baptist called him "the Lamb of God". First thing Andrew did was tell Peter.

* The Catholic church traces its apostolic succession back to Peter, but some Eastern Orthodox trace back to Andrew.

* I've always thought Andrew was a cool disciple. Behind the scenes, not too quotable, perhaps, but a presence worthy of mention fairly often nonetheless. We know him best simply for his friendship and brotherhood. I think it is great that the first thing that happens when he meets Jesus is that a lightbulb goes on in his head and he goes and finds someone else and says: "Oh man, I've found someone totally for you."

* After Jesus' ascension, tradition has it that Andrew's mission took him to Asia, even as far as Kiev.

* Andrew is the patron saint of Russia, Greece, Ukraine, Romania, a few smaller countries, and . . . Scotland!

* A "patron saint", incidentally, is a saint designated to a certain group of people to be their intercessor in heaven. Although intercession in heaven by anyone other than Christ is a pretty unbiblical and theologically wanting notion, I must admit that the patron saint designation does have a certain charm to it. I think the tradition arose with decent enough intentions, as people considered it a show of humility to not dare address God directly in Christ. Sometimes I think we might stand to be reminded of this humble attitude, so that we might not take it so for granted when we "boldly approach the throne of grace" in Jesus' name. Anyways, while I don't really go in for praying to patron saints thing, I like that these designations exist. I like remembering and incorporating the ancients into our lives. I feel grateful for the ancients of the faith and the untitled saints of book and song and wish I did more to thank God for them publicly and even at the dinner table. But I digress.

* According to Wikipedia, Andrew is also the patron saint of fishermen, army rangers, rope makers, singers, and musicians.

* Tradition has it that Andrew was crucified for his faith, but requested that he not be hung the same way as his Lord, considering himself unworthy of such distinction. So he was hung on an x-shaped cross, or saltire.

* Apparently there are a few relics of St. Andrew in Patros, Italy. I think a portion of one of his fingers and a piece of his cranium are considered locked away there. On one level I find devotion to relics pretty superstitious and even sort of creepy. But on another level, I love it that such incredible respect can be shown and remembrance given to these people of the past.

* In the 9th century, King Angus MacFergus was leading the Picts and Scots into war against the Angles and in a frightful sleep the night before the decisive day of the battle had a dream where he was visited by St. Andrew, assuring him of victory. According to lore, a white saltire appeared in the blue sky over the battlefield the next day and scared the Angles away.

* And if you haven't guessed by now, yes, this very image is now the Scottish flag (and also accounts for the white x behind the cross on the Union Jack).

I was unable to find a really great prayer or confession to use in church on Sunday, but will do a small quiz on some of the above before reading about Andrew's call to discipleship from John 1. One thing I did find, however, was the following prayer to St. Andrew. For reasons already mentioned I can't really see praying it to him, but putting that aside I must say I find it a beautiful poem of the faith--a sort of imaginative joining-in with that great cloud of witnesses:

"O glorious St. Andrew, you were the first to recognize and follow the Lamb of God. With your friend, St. John, you remained with Jesus for that first day, for your entire life, and now throughout eternity. As you led your brother, St. Peter, to Christ and many others after him, draw us also to Him. Teach us to lead others to Christ solely out of love for Him and dedication in His service. Help us to learn the lesson of the Cross and to carry our daily crosses without complaint so that they may carry us to Jesus. Amen."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Quite the Gift

We moved to Scotland prepared to not own a vehicle and have been walking for three months. In many ways this has been to our delight, and is a habit we will try to incorporate into our lifestyle as much as possible. But it has its limits. And lo and behold, some friends in our church have purchased for us one of these:

Among other things, this Mazda Bongo will open up the Highlands to us a whole new way. Quite the gift.

I am taking the train down to Burnley (via Glasgow) tomorrow to get it. Then I'm driving the same basic route 6+ hours straight back. I'm going to see (and yet not see) a lot of Britain tomorrow.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thinking about Justice and Forgiveness

I don't believe there is a more paradigmatic event than the crucifixion of the Son of God for our reflection on evil, suffering and redemption, but there are events large and small in our own history and our collective history which do give pause and serve as walls from which these themes echo back at us. For the 20th century Western mind, the holocaust was a one massive event in that regard.

In an an endeavour to appreciate the different angles from which people approach the issue of forgiveness I recently read Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower. When it comes to grappling with the holocaust, I'd probably first recommend Elie Wiesel's Night, but barely. This one is even more succinct and thus perhaps more powerful. But my intent here is not to offer a review but to share some excerpts from the symposium that follows the story.

To set up the context for these excerpts, reading the story would help, but if you have even a passing awareness of the horrors of genocide (be it 1940s Germany or 1990s Rwanda or other), you can probably appreciate the dilemma it presents. The book-jacket at left sums it up: "You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do? It is a true story, and a good question.

As I read the responses from 32 lawyers, Jews, Christians, atheist, literary critics, and so on I was struck by (1) the complexity of the simple question, (2) the incredible variety in their answers, and (3) the difficulty one might at times have pegging the world-view with the author based solely on their answers.

Here are a few exerpts from their answers so you can see what I mean (I've summarized content in some cases for brevity). I encourage you to try to recognize elements of your own answer in them, and also to have your answer challenged:

Cynthia Ozek:
“Forgiveness is pitless. It forgets the victim. It negates the right of the victim to his own life. It blurs over the suffering and death. It drowns the past. It cultivates sensitiveness toward the murderer at the price of insensitiveness toward the victim. . . . Whoever forgives the murderer blinds himself to the vastest letting of blood . . . . It is forgiveness that is relentless. The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered.”

Of course, vengeance isn't ideal either. “If it could, vengeance on a mass murderer would mean killing all the members of his family and a great fraction of his nation; and still his victims would not come alive.” . . . But “public justice” of some kind must be done or else we condone evil.

Ironically, this was a man brought up within Christianity who was asking forgiveness from a Jewish victim! How embroiled in all of this is Christianity anyway? Ozek asks: “Does the habit, inculcated in infancy, of worshiping a Master—a Master depicted in human form yet seen to be omnipotent—make it easier to accept a Fuhrer?” (p. 184-187).

Edward H. Flannery:
“Is not the failure to transcend this [offender's evil] condition another triumph for the brutalizing and dehumanizing process?” As an oriental sage wrote: “If hate is met with hate, where will it all end?” Thus, “to refuse pardon after repentance is a form of hate, however disguised” (p. 113, 117).

Martin E. Marty:
“We do not want cheap grace, a casual people, or a forgotten victim. What do we want? I am on a search for grace in the world. . . . Gracelessness helps produce totalitarianism as much as cheap grace might. If there is to be grace, it must be mediated through people. We have to see potentials in the lives of even the worst people, have to see that it is we who can dam the flow of grace. . . .

If I forgive in the face of true repentance and new resolve, I am free. . . . . I can let my being haunted preoccupy me so that I do not notice ‘the other.’ Forgiving and being forgiven are experiences that allow me to be free for a new day” (p. 174).

David Daiches:
“There is some sense in the idea . . . that only God can forgive, because a true moral offence is an offence against divine order in the universe. As between human beings, it seems to me that forgiveness is a formula for eliminating unprofitable brooding on the one hand and self-reproach on the other, and as such I suppose it is socially necessary." . . . But there’s a difference between “little things of life” and the holocaust (p. 107-108).

Hans Habe:
“One of the worst crimes of the Nazist regime was that it made it so hard to forgive. It led us into the labyrinth of our souls. We must find a way out of the labyrinth—not for the murderer’s sake, but for our own. Neither love alone expressed in forgiveness, nor justice alone, exacting punishment, will lead us out of the maze. A demand for both atonement and forgiveness is not self-contradictory; when a man has wilfully extinguished the life of another, atonement is the prerequisite for forgiveness. Exercised with love and justice, atonement and forgiveness serve the same end: life without hatred. That is our goal: I see no other” (p. 124).

Friedrich Heer:
“The sun of Simon Wiesenthal’s Sunflower has the fiery breath of the desert sun. It singes everything that is ‘human’ and ‘all-too-humane’. Thus in the desert, in the night of humanity, stand three persons, facing each other but divided by gulfs and abysses—the young murderer, the man of the people of Israel, and the third is the invisible God, who cannot be reached or talked over by pious phrases. This God has assigned to man a responsibility which he, the man, in this last desperate case cannot carry. Paradox of Godhead, paradox of humanity! Both are incapable of elucidation. For both there is no ‘solution’, no ‘redemption’, and without it one must resign oneself to remaining unenlightened, watchful, and in pain” (p. 128).

John M. Oesterreicher:
“The God of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ is thus not a kind of understudy or heavenly minuteman, He is the One who lives and suffers with His own” (183).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Doomsday is so AD 33

Enough has probably been said here and elsewhere (quite excellently, Colin) about the upcoming movie, The Road, and the extent to which it will fail to be true to the book from which it derives. It should be no surprise, given the dearth of Hollywood films portraying an apocalyptic Judgment Day in recent decades, that it will contain dramatic scenes of the global disaster that merely provides the (gratefully) un-described backdrop for the book's true focus, which is the grasping for life of a father and son in bare crisis.

Be that as it may. But what I want to think about is why? What is this fascination with the "end times"? To my dismay it seems that my evangelical church experience emerged from the suffocating fear-mongering of "end times" paranoia just in time for the culture at large to pick it up and take it (even less redemptively) from there.

Okay, I don't exactly know why. Its one of those film-trends I don't get, along with Vampire movies and the whole freakish Saw thing. But I've been thinking about all of this ever since reading NT Wright's Surprised By Hope (and before that I'm sure):

What is our fascination with doomsday? Especially in the church. Should our forward outlook not be characterized by hope? And, to take it further, is Judgment Day ultimately even a future event?

I left my copy of Wright's book at home, but what I am reading these days is Karl Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation, and this all came flooding to mind again as I read the following words from volume IV.1:

"All sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge. And in wanting to be that, and thinking and acting accordingly, he and his whole world is in conflict with God. It is an unreconciled world, and therefore a suffering world, a world given up to destruction. . . . And as a world hostile to God it is distinguished by the fact that in this way it repeats the very sin of which it acquits itself. . . . And for this reason the incarnation of the Word means the judgment, the judgment of rejection and condemnation, which is passed on all flesh. Not all men commit all sins, but all men commit this sin which is the essence and root of all other sins. There is not one who can boast that he does not commit it. And this is what is revealed and rejected and condemned as an act of wrong-doing by the coming of the Son of God. This is what makes His coming a coming to judgment, and His office as Saviour His office as our Judge" (220, emphasis mine).

Did you catch that? Is it possible, even proper, to speak of Good Friday--and not some future cataclysm however possible or likely--as the paradigmatic Judgment Day? Is that not the day where we see definitively our sin and our judgment? On the cross (condemned) and from the empty tomb (overcome)? And if so, what does it say that we are now, in the present, alive and looking back on it through Easter Sunday?!! More from Barth:

"The Christian community are those who hear the promise given to the world of people, just as they are those who hear the verdict pronounced on it and the direction given to it. . . . They are those who have the perspective that they will "live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him." In "Jesus Christ the promise or pledge of God--which cannot be compared with anything we might promise ourselves--is already given to us. It is actually made to the world. So then (without having to create illusions about itself) the world is no longer a world without hope" (114-115, emphasis mine).

I'm not trying to deny the biblical portrayal of a day of reckoning of some sort, nor that the hope laid out in Scripture is a new heaven and earth that eclipses the old in some way. I do not wish to counter the error of earthly despair with one of naive triumphalism. But I most certainly do not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture or a tribulation of the sort envisioned by the over-productive pens of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. I have some thoughts and opinions brewing about such things as hell and heaven and the so-called "end times", but what I believe in and am oriented by is Jesus Christ, the hope of the world.

In Surprised by Hope (which I can't recommend highly enough (if for no other reason than its mixture of readability and intelligence), Wright addresses the question of Jesus' sovereignty over the messed-up world (upon which these doomsday movies seem so intent to fix our eyes), and describes the startlingly hopeful life to which only the risen Jesus can summon us:

Living in this hope is not a matter of “simply taking over and giving orders in a kind of theocracy where the church could simply tell everyone what to do. That has sometimes been tried, of course, and it’s always led to disaster. But neither is it a matter of the church backing off, letting the world go on its sweet way, and worshipping Jesus in a kind of private sphere. Somehow there is a third option, . . . [and we] can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always—as Paul puts it in one of his letters—bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed” (112).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Meston Walk, Part Two

The family actually got out the door early this morning, and enjoyed a sunny winter's meander through campus to church. This is the second part of Meston Walk, where it leaves the library and runs down to High Street and then King's College. It was a very fine day. Thought maybe you'd like to come along.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Slavoj Zizek: Self-love, Otherness, & Art vs. Science

Out of nowhere on Friday another Slavoj Zizek book jumped off the shelf at me and stole a good hour from my day. He fascinates me, and its not just because he quotes Chesterton all the time. I've written about him before, but what got me this time was a book he co-authored with two others, called The Neighbor.

Zizek has a knack for mining pop culture, the arts, philosophy and religion and melding bold reinterpretations of them together to form a seemingly scattered yet strangely seamless argument. The following exerpt is no exception. Though I am intrigued by a lot this passage has to say regarding sociology and even theology, there's one nugget I've put in bold because it does something I've never seen before: It pits art and science against each other and suggests that art (ideally) is a more reliable gateway to understanding. Check it all out and see what you think. Zizek writes:

"Today, we seem effectively to be at the opposite point of the ideology of the 1960s: the mottos of spontaneity, creative self-expression, and so on, are taken over by the System; in other words, the old logic of the system reproducing itself through repressing and rigidly channeling the subject's spontaneous impulses is left behind.

Nonalienated spontaneity, self-expression, self-realization, they all directly serve the system [which Zizek has just argued thrives on the white noise of our 'unconstrained permissiveness'], which is why pitiless self-censorship is a sine qua non of emancipatory politics.

Especially in the domain of poetic art, this means that one should totally reject any attitude of self-expression, of displaying one's innermost turmoil, desires, and dreams. True art has nothing whatsoever to do with disgusting emotional exhibitionism . . . . If there is a thing that provokes disgust in a true poet, it is the scene of a close friend opening up his heart, spilling out all the dirt of his inner life.

Consequently, one should totally reject the standard opposition of 'objective' science focused on reality and 'subjective' art focused on emotional reaction to it and self-expression: if anything, true art is more asubjective than science. In science, I remain a person with my pathological features, I just assert objectivity outside it, while in true art, the artist has to undergo a radical self-objectivization, he has to die in and for himself, turn into a kind of living dead. . . .

In contrast to the New Age attitude which ultimately reduces my Other/Neighbor to my mirror-image or to the means in the path of my self-realization . . . , Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in my Neighbor---the Neighbor remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me. . . .

The radical conclusion to be drawn from this is that one should renounce striving for one's own (spiritual) salvation as the highest form of egotism. According to Lean Brunschvicg: 'The pre-occupation with our salvation is a remnant of self-love, a trace of natural egocentrism from which we must be torn by the religious life. As long as you think only salvation, you turn your back on God. God is God, only for the person who overcomes the temptation to degrade Him and use Him for his own ends.'"

- Excerpted from chapter 3, "Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence", p. 134-142

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Karl Barth on Christ-ian Forgiveness

I have only just begun my deep foray into Barth's theology of forgiveness, but the following extracts seem to me to be fairly indicative of his direction. He can certainly be found within his Reformed tradition, but with unique emphases and critiques. What I notice first off is his a resistance to talk of forgiveness as a static religious principle to be accepted or applied and a preference toward apprehending forgiveness as the free, dynamic, life-giving act of the God-man Jesus Christ. Here is an excerpt from The Doctrine of Reconciliation:

"We can and should, therefore, rise up and rejoice thankfully in the incomprehensible comfort and forgiveness of God, in all the assistance which we are given, in all the great and little lights which shine on our way, in all the strengthenings and encouragements, in short in all the unmerited favours addressed to us by the love of God.

Yet we should also be prepared sooner or later to be recalled in some way to his limits by this love, to find ourselves forcefully redirected to the humility which we so easily forget and loses when we bask in the divine sunshine.

For it is God Himself, and not just a lucky fate, which is favourable to us.

And so, when that which we have deserved overtakes us, the same can and should bow before it, humbling ourselves to the dust, finding ourselves absolutely directed to accept the awful things which he does not like, allowing ourselves to be led where we do not want to go, yet clinging to the fact-for it is in the same love of God that these things come to us-that we will not fall into the abyss but will still be upheld.

Even in these circumstances, there are always lights in the darkness, forgiveness in guilt, new life in death, breaks in the engulfing clouds, encouragements in despair. There is always reason for thankfulness even in the anguish in which we think to perish.

For it is God Himself and not a sinister and hostile force who judges us.

In both respects we have to do with the presence and action of God in its dynamic opposition to our perversion and corruption. In both cases the aim is our purification. God utters a Nevertheless, a merciful Therefore, both when He gives what is undeserved with goodness and what is deserved with severity. It is always His fatherly hand which is active both morning and evening, by day and by night, to our purification and therefore our liberation. In both cases God really gives Himself to us and for us. In both cases He comes into our life."
- Church Dogmatics IV.2, p. 774
(altered from 3rd person singular to 1st person plural)

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Brief History of Christian Forgiveness, Part 2

Anselm had already emphasized that Jesus Christ's death was the ultimate penance; the satisfaction for sin, and Luther sought to restore this to centrality. Reacting to the many systematic abuses of what may or may not have been well-intentioned procedures, Luther rejected penance, indulgences, confessors, and purgatory in favour of personal reception of Christ's "happy exchange" in personal Bible reading and prayer as well as corporate acts of remembrance and preaching.

The idea was that when Christ forgave and asked us to forgive he meant it for all of us, no matter what. Anyone could speak words of forgiveness to anyone. The point was not to have it regulated but to have it proclaimed and received over and over again, so that the power of forgiven-ness was new every morning and the freed life was an ongoing encounter with Jesus.

I assume you know about the Reformation. The Catholic church cleaned up the systematic abuses, by and large, but by then Protestantism had become a force of its own. These Protestants continued to face many of the same tensions surrounding forgiveness and the Christian life, but with Bibles in every hand and a world exploding in something called the Enlightenment, found new-ish ways of addressing them.

Within this Enlightenment, at least one person bears mentioning here. Immanuel Kant was one of a wave of new thinkers who was emphasizing the autonomy of the individual as a rational agent, thus calling into question the idea that anything could be accomplished "vicariously" and certainly discrediting authoritarian systems of penance and absolution. As you might imagine, this fed the fodder for those who, like those 7th century Irish missionaries, made penitence radically personal and applied it with rigid devotion. Groups like the Pietists and the Puritans and (insert the name of the church you probably went to here).

The Enlightenment made way for such modern thinkers as Marx and Freud---who defined all human action in terms of social and psychological dynamics respectively. Since then the social, political, philosophical, psychological and religious theories regarding guilt and forgiveness have abounded. In their wake, revolutionaries (and those otherwise optimistic about the advantages of social tinkering) have turned attention from the need for forgiveness by urging humanity toward the utopian possibilities where, essentially, forgiveness would no longer be necessary.

Of course, the frequent disappointments in this regard have caused modernity's self-assurance to bleed into post-modernity's deconstructionism. Now its a hodge-podge: Some continue forward on the myth of human progress and a good many others are wondering again about the practical wisdom of some sort of forgiveness as a societal and personal necessity.

For the last few decades forgiveness has been front and center in both large-scale, powerful forms such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Desmond Tutu, and in small-scale, trivial forms such as the apology of Michael Richards on David Letterman or the now-common press conference apology-scene where the latest unfaithful politician tries to save some face (i.e., shorten the life-span of the story in the news cycle).

Western Christians to varying degrees have become wrapped up in all of these developments, while continuing (again to varying degrees) to emphasize the importance of forgiveness. In the evangelical protestant church, of course, the same old ancient problems have kept surfacing and resurfacing.

In the face of a lame kind of Christianity where forgiveness was a license to do whatever one wanted, Dietrich Bonhoeffer railed against "cheap grace" and reminded people of the cost of their freedom. Thus, church dramas and musical repetition were born. Dramas from the Ragman to The Passion of the Christ have each in their own way enabled church-goers to pay a sort of emotional penance, restoring their sincerity and resolve to do better next time, gratefully.

In the face of a legalistic, in/out kind of Christianity so prevalent in the modern era, Paul Tillich emphasized forgiveness as the "acceptance" which overcame the alienating powers of sin on persons and society. Churches occupying a come-as-you-are and stay-as-you-like posture have of course become more common than shopping malls, and quite comparable for their feel-good convenience.

Forgiveness has taken many forms, both in the church and out of it, to the extent that one cannot be too sure what is being talked about anymore. Is forgiveness a capitalism-enabling tolerance which allows individuals to operate autonomously and interact at will? Is it a blanket absolution which enables one to live and grow at one's own rate, free from the nagging problems of guilt and fear? Or, conversely, is it a luring promise used like a carrot on a stick to perpetuate the straighten-up-and-fly-right ethos of guilt and fear?

Furthermore, is forgiveness done more for the sake of the forgiver or the forgiven? Is it a personal, private thing or a social dynamic? Is it about avoiding punishment and escaping consequences or is it about a new life that is supposed to be effected? Is it a done-deal we live from of or is it a future event we live toward? Is it merely a ticket out of hell and a ticket to heaven or does it have to do with earth as well?

These questions and more like them have been the subject of many studies (although not as many as they deserve) and will continue to be, both in and out of the church. My own dissertation is hoping to discover what Karl Barth may have had to say about it. I suspect there are some good aftershocks to be felt in this regard from the theological seismic event of his Church Dogmatics. Who knows, maybe in there somewhere is a vision for a neo-Orthodox church that emerges from the rubble of modernity without simply being the tail wagged by the dog of postmodernity? (How's that for mixing metaphors?)

Regardless, there you have it: My interpretation of the history of Christian forgiveness. On one hand maybe kind of discouraging (did you realize something as simple as forgiveness could be such a hornet's nest?). On the other hand, maybe sort of encouraging (after all, there are no new problems under the sun). Either way, I continue to find my attention drawn and my eyes fixed on the narrative that has been playing out in time:

For there at the center of it all moving forward with a life of its own---in spite of many abuses, mistakes, and misconceptions and at the heart of many revitalizations, corrections, and fresh starts--there continues to stand the perpetually startling event of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Brief History of Christian Forgiveness, Part 1

First, there was this man, in whom none could find any wrong, who came forgiving sins. (But only God can forgive sins!) Those who followed him around heard him casting his life and even his own death in terms of the history and hopes of the Jewish people, even taking on all the significance of the Suffering Servant, "crushed for our iniquities." He taught them to forgive as they were forgiven, and even said if they forgave anyone's sins, they were forgiven.

When this man, Jesus, died, all seemed for not. But then they saw him raised, and a new community was born. His subsequent ascension to heaven and gift of the Spirit meant two things. One was that it made that new community pretty vital to the passing on of all that that he had done. The other was that when it came to the freed life of the forgiven this new community was left somewhere between already and not yet.

Questions, of course, were raised: If one's forgiven state did not proceed forward into a freed life, had the forgiveness been effective? How could one be sure? Who could say? Certain practices and habits became ingrained into the community as they proceeded to work this out.

From early on, bishops and presbyters were given authority by the community to discern and deem forgiven. Confession was made publicly, but was directed to the leaders for declaration of God's forgiveness on Christ's behalf. There could be little fudging a system like that, right? Obviously the system didn't forgive, but was meant to facilitate vitality and center the community's life around Jesus' forgiveness.

Over time and in some places more than others, however, this public confession eroded in its effectiveness in that regard. Presbyters differed in the confidence they evoked from the people and people differed in the confidence they evoked in the presbyters and each other. Different ideas arose about what needed to be done about the frequent disconnect between forgiven-ness and the life that was supposed to flow from it.

The Montanists had a solution. They came up with ethically rigorous restrictions on who could and could not be deemed forgiven. Ultimately you had to evidence it before anyone would say you had it. Tertullian started off opposing this and emphasizing the empowerment of the leaders to proclaim Christ's forgiveness as freely given. But as people and presbyters alike turned this more and more into a license to careless living, Tertullian took more and more interest in the Montanist's regulatory impositions.

"Forgiven? Swell! But people still need rules." Concrete actions of penitence were important if one wanted to see Christ's forgiveness play out in a freed life. After all, Jesus did seem to invest the community with a lot of the responsibility in this regard.

Things evolved from there. Callistus, bishop of Rome, was basically granting forgiveness as an open freedom to indulge in wicked behaviour, and boy did Hippolytus ever have words for him.

Then the Christians were being ruthlessly persecuted, and there arose the problem of those who had recanted to avoid death and then regretted it and wanted to be forgiven. Some would have none of it, but Cyprian saw in Jesus' grace and teaching both an impetus to leniency and greater resolve. He played a key part in the development in a process (more reasonable than the Montanists but still pretty strict) of helping people apply the "medicine of atonement" to their lives.

Cyprian differentiated between smaller and greater sins, and since public oral confessions were getting "cheap", came up with different ways one could not only show one's true penitence but also form proper habits that promoted not needing forgiveness in that area again.

Thus, penance was born. Where baptism addressed the need to have a once-for-all act of reception of forgiveness, penance addressed that ongoing need to experience and embrace forgiveness again and again in every day life. Baptism was the gateway to new life and penance would help it along. Later on Gregory the Great quite cleverly called the one baptism of water, and the other the "baptism of tears".

This is the pattern that held sway in medieval times. Various events such as yearly Lent and regular Eucharist helped the community to address their ongoing sin, embrace forgiveness, and proceed in ever-new life together. Various structures such as penance and confession helped them personalize these and find accountability.

These "tools for embracing forgiveness", as I'll call them, evolved in various directions. On one hand, 7th century Irish missionaries emphasized individual application and devotion and outlined a privatized penitential procedure that came to have a certain popularity among the devout. On the other hand, institutional adaptations to the penitential system came along as well. The church was supposed to help people, after all.

So, handbooks for those who received confessions detailed methods for drawing authenticity out of people. Purgatory was conceived of as a stand-in answer for the question of what God might do with those who died without having the chance to have made a last confession. And in a development that would have pretty massive repercussions down the road, a system of indulgences was established.

This started off innocent enough. Facing the fact that few sins were actually private but actually had consequences for community and family life, a system was set up by which people could face payment for various sins that coincided roughly with the effects of their sin. Too often one's sins weaseled into habits and had a felt but largely hidden effect on those around. But having to pay an indulgence would make the ramifications of sin that much more real and obvious. These payments would be an incentive and reminder to not only receive forgiveness, but avoid the need for it in the future. Think of it as a massive community swear-jar.

Thus, church management of indulgences worked alongside penance as measures of exhortation, applying forgiven-ness to the living of the community. By the 13th century, however, indulgences, too, had taken on a life of their own. They were a chief source of church income and well, you know what they say about money and the root of evil.

In the 15th century, along came Martin Luther. We'll start with him in part two . . . .