Sunday, October 26, 2008

St. John of the Cross

From what has been said, it is clear that God grants the soul in this state the favor of purging it and healing it with this strong lye of bitter purgation, according to its spiritual and its sensual part, of all the imperfect habits and affections which it had within itself with respect to temporal things and to natural, sensual and spiritual things, its inward faculties being darkened, and voided of all these, its spiritual and sensual affections being constrained and dried up, and its natural energies being attenuated and weakened with respect to all this (a condition which it could never attain of itself). In this way God makes it to die to all that is not naturally God, so that, once it is stripped and denuded of its former skin, He may begin to clothe it anew. And thus its youth is renewed like the eagle's and it is clothed with the new man, which, as the Apostle says, is created according to God. This is naught else but His illumination of the understanding with supernatural light, so that it is no more a human understanding but becomes Divine through union with the Divine. In the same way the will is informed with Divine love, so that it is a will that is now no less than Divine, nor does it love otherwise than divinely, for it is made and united in one with the Divine will and love. So, too, it is with the memory; and likewise the affection and desires are all changed and converted divinely, according to God. And thus this soul will now be a soul of heaven, heavenly, and more Divine than human. All this, as we have been saying, and because of what we have said, God continues to do and to work in the soul by means of this night, illumining and enkindling it divinely with yearnings for God alone and for naught else whatsoever.

- St. John of the CrossDark Night of the Soul, Book II, Chapter XIII 

"This state"  is, of course, the dark night of the soul. The Saint's famous work, Dark Night of the Soul, consists of a poem and its drawn-out explication; these two together speak about the night (or, rather, nights--he understands the soul as having two aspects, the sense and the spirit, both of which go through their own dark nights) through which the soul most endure if it is to be purged and conveyed along to the "union of love with God." The dark night comes about as the Lord shines on his people his "supernatural light", which hits our perception as sunlight strikes an owl's, darkening everything. Eventually--and this is one of my favorite images in the whole work--the purging fire in which God refines His people transforms the fuel into a thing like the fire itself: "material fire, acting upon wood, first of all begins to dry it. . . then it begins to make it black. . . and, finally, it begins to kindle it externally and give it heat, and at last transforms it into itself and makes it as beautiful as fire." 
This purgation spoken of is actually, according to St. John, one and the same as that which a soul undergoes in Purgatory; for this reason, he explains, the soul which has, in life, reached the highest possible 'step on the ladder to God' will spend no time at all in Purgatory upon death, but will go directly to God. 

A friend of mine recently noted that the Catholic concept of Purgatory is roughly analogous to the Protestant idea of sanctification, and in this light Dark Night of the Soul can be read to offer an entirely new meaning (and one admittedly different from the Saint's intended). In this light, the talk of 'human understanding that becomes Divine' may become less frightening to the Protestant reader--it's suddenly more like a Wesleyan idea of "Christian perfection", reached through the Spirit's sanctifying the people of God. Of course, Catholics may read St. John how they will.

I thought that Dark Night of the Soul was a beautiful work. It seems repetitive much of the time, but it's certainly more poetic than those things we deem 'straightforward'; it's also much easier to read than any of the other mystical texts that I've ever picked up. And however you choose to read it, this is, by St. John's own words, a picture of God's work of clothing us with the "new man". There's an idea to relish, to take hope in, and to mold your life around. 

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in the understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But this is not the way you learned Christ!--assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 

Ephesians 4:17-24

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

from the folks of U2

I can't believe the news today
I can't close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
'Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.

Broken bottles under children's feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won't heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall.

Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Oh, let's go.

And the battle's just begun
There's many lost, but tell me who has won?
The trenches dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
Torn apart.

Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.

How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
'Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.

Wipe the tears from your eyes
Wipe your tears away.
I'll wipe your tears away.
I'll wipe your tears away.
I'll wipe your bloodshot eyes.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.

And it's true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality.
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die.

The real battle just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won

Sunday, bloody Sunday
Sunday, bloody Sunday..

- U2, Sunday Bloody Sunday
Go listen to it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I am afraid for how we read the Bible.

"Sound byte culture" may very well have begun with the Protestant Reformation, with Martin Luther's solas: sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratia. Another great Lutheran sound byte out there is his naming the Book of James an "epistle of straw".
Of course we all know that sound bytes tend to be terrible things. They divorce the information that you are receiving from the context in which is was first pronounced, and possibly, thus, from the information's meaning.

This summer I had a thorough discussion on the epistle of James with a seminary student from DTS who was interning at the time with a campus ministry at LSU. He had the unlucky task of preaching at a Sunday night meeting on James 2. His explanation of the faith/works passage that night was much like those I've heard for years in the Baptist church: 'works don't save you, but they're something you do because you are saved'. (It's very similar to the equally useless Baptist explanation of baptism.) Well, our discussion was driven by my noting the fact that James seems to disagree with this statement. James says "faith without works is dead." He clearly implies that such a faith won't save a man (:14). Regardless, the Baptist church, in my experience, has always said: "No, no; there's faith, and that saves. Then there works, and the person with faith is going to work. . . they're just going to."

This is a sound byte gone afoul. Martin Luther may have said "sola fides", but, whether we read him to find this or not, he absolutely qualifies "fides".

When the blessed James and the apostle [Paul, referring to Gal. 5:6 and Rom. 2:13] say that man is justified by works, they are disputing the false conception of those who contended that a faith without works would be sufficient. However, the apostle does not say that faith is without its characteristic works-for then there would be no faith at all since 'activity reveals the nature of a thing' according to philosophers-but that it justifies without the works of the Law. Therefore justification does not require the works of the Law; but it does require a living faith, which performs its works.

It's from a sermon of his.
A living faith. Is it just me, or isn't that exactly what James is talking about?
Yet we try to water down James's statement, to "read it through Paul", all the while missing what Paul means because we've already missed what Luther meant, and we're "reading" Paul through Luther.
As it turns out, Luther is in perfect agreement with me on James 2: James is contrasting two different concepts of faith; one is a dead pistis that won't save, and the other is a saving pistis-works combination. This combination is 'living faith'--James is forcing us to redefine "faith" here, or at least "faith" in our popular usage ("it's by grace you have been saved through faith..").

BUT, even if Luther and I disagreed, we still have a bigger, fundamental problem here: people are reading the scriptures through Luther. You could insert "Calvin", "Wright", or whomever you want right there.
We're reading through Luther (although in this case it's a bad conception of Luther), and then we're disregarding what the text actually says to fit the interpretation.

Please tell me you see the problem here.