Chrysostom: An Early Jimmy Swaggart?

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 459-460.

John Chrysostom was a Christian thinker who lived during the fourth century C.E.  Quasten states regarding Chrysostom’s work, On the Priesthood:

Only a few years after [Chrysostom's] death Isidore of Pelusium declared ‘No one has read this volume without feeling his heart inflamed with the love of God…’

Quasten also quotes from the work:

For the priest stands bringing down not fire, but the Holy Ghost, and he prays long not that fire may descend from heaven and consume the oblation, but that grace may descend upon the victim, and through it inflame the souls of all and render them brighter than silver fire-tried…

John Chrysostom reminds me of Jimmy Swaggart, whom I tape every morning on my DVR and watch right before I go to bed.  The first quote sounds like Jimmy Swaggart selling his study Bibles, commentaries, and music CDs.  “If you read this, it will revolutionize your spiritual life.”  “If you listen to this, you will feel like you are at church!”  “Several people have testified that they have experienced the power of God after reading this commentary.” 

I admit that I recently broke down and bought the Jimmy Swaggart study Bible.  He was offering it for a reduced price, and so I bought it.  He’s a good salesman, let me tell you!  He sells his product with sincerity, warmth, and conviction, offering a special closeness with the Lord if one will simply study his teachings, or use his CDs to facilitate praise and worship.  I felt hungry for his CDs one night, and I don’t even listen to Gospel music!  Right now, I fast forward through his advertisements, but I can’t completely escape them because he talks about the importance of his products in the teaching part of his program. 

I don’t plan to buy anything else from him soon, since I have to watch my money.  Plus, my dad has most of Jimmy Swaggart’s commentaries, so I can borrow them anytime I’m hungry for them.  But I’ve had a long hunger for what’s described in the second quote: that the grace of God might descend upon me and consume me, burning off my sins and giving me a warm heart, with intense love for God and my fellow human beings.  And televangelists recognize that most people desire that.  Some of them have a sincere desire to help people, as I believe is the case with Jimmy Swaggart.  And many are phonies who are just out to make money, or an empire, or whatever.     

The second quote somewhat took me aback because it sounded so, well, charismatic!  I don’t hear too many Catholics talking about being on fire for God!  I don’t recall hearing about it at my Latin mass.  “Send the fire” is something charismatics and Pentecostals sing, not Catholics or people in mainline denominations.  So I’m surprised to read that the Catholic church of the fourth century had such a concept.

These days, I tend to prefer quiet, contemplative modes of worship, the type that some Christians would label “dead” or “lukewarm.”  I no longer look to God to dramatically transform me at a church service, since I’m used to waking up the next morning as the same old James.  But I do seek helpful ways to look at God, or practical tips on how to live.  Perhaps God is present in all types of services: the charismatic, “on-fire” kinds, as well as the quiet, contemplative variety.

Published in: on July 31, 2009 at 6:51 pm  Comments (7)  

Beer Night (For Obama, Gates, and Crowley)

I’ve been changing my mind who knows how many times during this whole Gates-Crowley controversy.

First, there was President Obama’s press conference, in which he remarked that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” in its treatment of Professor Gates. Right-wing pundits are saying that the President was racist when he said that, since he presumed that a white police officer had to be a racist when he arrested an African-American. Not so. When I first heard Obama make that statement, I thought that he was fair and level-headed. He acknowledged that the Cambridge police had just cause to respond to the phone call about Gates breaking into his own house. But he said that the officer acted “stupidly” when he arrested Gates for “disorderly conduct” after Gates had showed him his ID, proving the house was his. There are now doubts about whether that even happened, but Obama was commenting based on what he thought was common knowledge at the time. And I applauded the President’s comment, since I’m sure a lot of African-Americans are sick of being bullied by the police, especially officers on a power-trip.

The next day, we learn more about Officer Crowley. He turns out not to be Archie Bunker at all, for he teaches classes on diversity and the importance of not racially profiling, and he said that he’s behind the President “110 per cent.” The police department stands by him, refusing to apologize for his behavior. I applauded their stand against a know-it-all President and the forces of political-correctness, which loves to toss out the charge of “racism” for the sake of its own power and influence. And I was moved that Officer Crowley turned out to be nothing like what most people expected.

The next week, Chris Matthew was interviewing Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, a Republican from Michigan, who’s introducing a resolution demanding that the President apologize to Officer Crowley. At first, I thought, “Oh, come on! Like there aren’t other problems for the government to address. I get so sick of phony moral outrage!” But I started to like Congressman McCotter once he began mouthing off to Chris Matthews. Chris said, “Congressman, you introduced a resolution” blah, blah, blah, to which the Congressman replied, “Yes, Chris, I know what I did.” I applauded the Congressman for not being intimidated by some liberal pundit who gets a kick out of cornering people.

This morning, I read Ann Coulter’s column on the Gates incident (see http://www.anncoulter.com–I’ve been having problems cutting and pasting lately on blogger), and I enjoyed it, probably because I have a personal bias against Harvard liberalism. She portrayed Gates as someone who was essentially saying, “How dare you question me. Do you not know who I am!” I tend to recoil from Ivy League elitism and its notion that liberalism should be beyond question, so I appreciated Ann Coulter’s irreverence.

Now, I just saw the title of an AP article, which says that there will be no apologies at the get-together tonight among the President, Crowley, and Gates. And I as an observer am content with that. Obama is bringing them together so that they can interact on a human level, without worrying about who’s right and who’s wrong, “you did this” and “you did that.” Barack Obama is a peacekeeper, and you know what the beatitudes say about peacekeepers! I’ve read right-wing articles that call this whole beer get-together a “joke,” since Obama and Gates don’t plan to apologize to Officer Crowley. These pundits need to grow up! I think that Obama can come across as an arrogant, Ivy League, “how dare you question me?” liberal, but I admire him for looking beyond the usual stupid “us vs. them” mentality so that people can come together and interact as human beings.

Published in: on July 30, 2009 at 7:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Neatness and Morality

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 433.

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher who lived in the first-second centuries C.E. Copleston states regarding Epictetus’ views on bodily and moral cleanliness:

Duties towards oneself must begin with cleanliness of the body. “I indeed would rather that a young man, when first moved to philosophy, should come to me with his hair carefully trimmed, than with it dirty and rough.” That is to say, if a man has a feeling for natural cleanliness and beauty there is more hope of elevating him to the perception of moral beauty.

Is there a relationship between being neat and being moral? Four things come to my mind:

1. A person on my Christian dating site once remarked that demon-possessed people have really messy rooms, since a spirit of chaos and disorder is inside of them.

2. When I was at DePauw University, my professor in my Christianity class taught us about St. Thomas Aquinas. To illustrate Aquinas’ view of human nature, she drew a bunch of disordered marks on one side of the blackboard, which represented human nature apart from Jesus Christ: disordered, things are not in their right place, etc. On the other side of the board, she drew the marks in an orderly procession, underneath the word “God.” That was supposed to be human nature transformed by Jesus Christ: orderly, things in their correct place and under a government, etc.

3. My Grandpa likes to make the point that Jesus folded his garment at his resurrection. “When the disciples came to the empty tomb, did they find Jesus’ garment randomly tossed on the floor?,” he asked. “No, they found it neatly folded.” For my Grandpa, Jesus was a neat person.

4. Being conscientious in one area (bodily neatness, neat room) can condition a person to be conscientious in another area (morality). Yet, being a neat-freak can also lead to perfectionism, influencing one to judge and condemn others for not following his high standards. Remember the movie Sleeping with the Enemy, in which Julia Roberts was married to an abusive neat-freak?

Personally-speaking, my apartment can be quite messy. My living room is a lot neater now, since I try to keep things in order. But my computer room is starting to revert back to its usual chaos, with books scattered on the floor. Still, there is more order to the chaos than existed a few months ago, since I’ve categorized my books by topic.

Keeping a neat apartment can be pretty daunting. I can clean it up, but it becomes messy before you know it. Dust accumulates. There are so many things to keep track of. Entropy continues to rear its ugly head.

Does that parallel my spiritual and moral life in any way? I don’t know. I know that I’m not demon possessed, but there are many times when I feel as if I’m ruled by my emotions and appetites, and I’m not sure how to put them in order, under the power of reason (for Plato), or God (for Aquinas), or whatever.

I try to be disciplined in my spiritual life, however, since I spend time in prayer and spiritual reading each day. So I do have some propensity towards order.

I think of something my therapist once told me. I was getting lazy about my social skills development, as I slacked off about introducing myself to people at my AA meetings. My therapist told me that I needed to keep the ground that I gained for there to be progress. That’s similar to keeping my apartment clean: I need to be conscientious about keeping things in order. In the case of my social skills development, the “order” is the principle of me introducing myself to others and trying to be friendly, even if I receive a negative (or no) response.

Indeed, being a neat-freak (morally or physically) can lead me to look down on people who are not as conscientious. But maybe it can also influence me to have a deeper recognition of the flaws that I try to correct, allowing me to be charitable towards those who have the same human foibles. See xHWA’s C.S. Lewis quote under my post, Can God Be Virtuous?

Published in: on July 30, 2009 at 6:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

John Chysostom and New Testament Scholarship

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 437.

John Chrysostom was a Christian thinker who lived during the fourth century C.E. In his Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew, he states the following about the existence of four Gospels:

Was not one Evangelist sufficient to tell all? One indeed was sufficient: but if there be four that write, not at the same times, nor in the same places, neither having met together, and conversed one with another, and then they speak all things as it were out of one mouth, this becomes a very great demonstration of the truth.

But the contrary, it may be said, has come to pass, for in many places they are convicted of discordance. Nay, this very thing is a very great evidence of their truth. For if they had agreed in all things exactly even to time, and place, and to the very words, none of our enemies would have believed, but that they had met together, and had written what they wrote by some human compact; because such entire agreement as this does not come of simplicity. But now even that discordance which seems to exist in little matters delivers them from all suspicion and speaks clearly in the behalf of the character of the writers (Hom. 1, 5-6 LFC).

Chrysostom’s argument is found in conservative Christian circles today. When the four Gospels agree, there are conservative Christians who say, “You see! The Gospels are historically accurate. Here you have four different eyewitnesses, and they each record Jesus saying and doing the exact same thing.” And when the Gospels disagree, there are conservative Christians who say, “Well, of course they disagree! That shows that there wasn’t any collusion in the Gospels’ composition. You’d expect four independent eyewitnesses to differ on the details of what they experienced, right?” How can you argue against that kind of “logic”?

That little rant out of the way, this quote of Chrysostom got me thinking about contemporary New Testament scholarship, or at least the portrayal of New Testament scholarship that I got as an undergraduate (e.g., Markan priority, Q, etc.). Many New Testament scholars would agree with Chrysostom that the authors of the Gospels wrote in different times and places. According to my HarperCollins Study Bible, Mark was written in the late 60′s, possibly in Rome. Matthew was written from 80-90 C.E. in Antioch, Syria. The other two are considered late (in the first century), and there is less agreement about where they were written.

On the agreement among the Gospels, many New Testament scholars maintain that there was a sense of collusion (if it can be called that) among the Gospel writers, in that they used each other or a common source in their compositions. According to Markan priority, Mark was the earliest Gospel, and Matthew and Luke used it as a source when they were writing their own narratives about Jesus. For adherents of this view, this would explain why there are times when Matthew, Mark, and Luke employ a common plot-line and the exact same vocabulary in their stories about Jesus. But there are also things that Matthew and Luke have in common that are absent from Mark, so many New Testament scholars posit a Q source, from which Matthew and Luke got the material that they have in common, but which is not in Mark.

That would explain the commonalities among the synoptic Gospels, but how would it account for the differences? If Luke were using Mark, why would he place Jesus’ rejection of Nazareth earlier in the story than Mark does? If Matthew followed Mark as a source, why would he decide to have two demoniacs or blind men where Mark presents only one? Scholars can attribute many differences to ideology or historical setting: Matthew changes Mark’s story so he can appeal to a more Jewish audience, or Matthew uses different currency in his story than Mark because his audience is more affluent. But what ideological import is there to Matthew having two demoniacs where Mark has only one? Or why would Matthew’s resurrection story present women going to Jesus’ tomb at “the end of the Sabbath” (Saturday sunset?), whereas the women in Mark go after the sun had risen?

I picked on conservative Christians earlier in this post. Now I want to pick on atheists, or at least the ones who believe in Markan priority and Q. When the Gospels differ, they say, “You see! The Bible has contradictions. It can’t be true!” But when the Gospels agree, they say, “Well, that doesn’t mean the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses who saw the same events. The Gospel authors used one another as sources. That’s why they agree!” How can you win against such “logic”?

Needless to say, New Testament scholarship and the views of conservative Christians and atheists are probably more complex that I present in this post. There are prominent New Testament scholars who don’t believe in Q, for example, thinking that sayings attributed to Jesus could have circulated without being in a particular source. And I’m not sure if Markan priority still rules the day in New Testament scholarship. I once heard N.T. Wright dispute it somewhat, for he claimed that Mark could be a shortened version of the other Gospels (or something like that). But I think that there’s something to say for Markan priority, considering that the synoptic Gospels often have the same order of events and utilize the same vocabulary. But, again, why are there seemingly insignificant differences among the synoptics, if Matthew and Luke both used Mark?

Published in: on July 29, 2009 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Can God Be Virtuous?

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 415-416.

Carneades of Cyrene was a skeptic in the third-second centuries B.C.E. Copleston discusses Carneades’ critique of religion, particularly Stoicism. The following is interesting:

The Stoic God is animate and so must be possessed of feeling. But if he can feel and receive impressions, then he can suffer from impressions and is ultimately liable to disintegration. Moreover, if God is rational and perfect, as the Stoics suppose Him to be, He cannot be “virtuous,” as the Stoics also suppose Him to be. How, for example, can God be brave or courageous? What dangers or pains or labors affect Him, in respect of which He can show courage?

Can God be truly virtuous? Yes, God is more loving than I am, so I guess he’s more virtuous in that area. But, as Carneades points out, how can God be courageous, when nothing really threatens him?

Indeed, God cannot be physically threatened, at least not when he’s in heaven (since Jesus suffered and died when he was on earth). But can God be emotionally hurt? Is that what Copleston means when he says that a feeling God can suffer from impressions and disintegrate in the process? When God reaches out to us in love, he is risking rejection, and that’s painful. Moreover, God may hurt inside when he sees all of the evil in the world, as people mistreat one another.

My Armstrongite religious background was sort of a mixed-bag when it came to a “hurting God.” I remember David Antion somewhat ridiculing the concept, as he remarked that many Christians think that they can hurt God, presumably when they sin. “Oh, you hurt me again!,” Antion mimicked God saying (in the “hurting God” scenario). And one of my relatives likes Psalm 103:12-14: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (KJV). For my relative, God doesn’t feel “hurt” by human sin because he doesn’t expect much out of humans in the first place.

On the other hand, Garner Ted Armstrong in one of his theodicy sermons remarked, “Why does God hide himself? Because he’s afraid to look.” He compared God’s hiding himself to parents who wouldn’t want to watch their prostitute daughter’s debauchery. It hurts them too much! Similarly, it hurts God to look at human evil.

I guess my picture of God is somewhere in between these extremes. I don’t think God repeatedly says “Oh, you hurt me again,” as if he’s on an emotional roller-coaster and is utterly dependant on us for his happiness. My God is more rational, objective, level-headed, and mature than that. At the same time, I believe that God does feel. When somebody loves people as much as God does, it’s hard to imagine him not getting hurt.

That brings me to another point. There is a sense in which God the Father and Jesus can be virtuous in areas that we cannot. They love people more deeply than we do, and so they open themselves up to a lot more pain, which requires a greater degree of courage and commitment on their part. But there is also a sense in which humans have the ability to exercise virtue where God the Father and Jesus do not. Jesus suffered and died at the hands of human beings, and his willingness to do so is admirable. But he had actually seen and experienced God. He knew that God existed and loved him. He could face things with the confidence that God would see him through and work things out. Many of us, however, trust a God whom we can’t even see. That’s why Jesus lauded those who had faith without seeing (John 20:29). In a sense, we have less to go on than Jesus did in our attempt to be courageous in the face of death.

Moreover, we also choose to do good, whereas God is naturally-inclined towards righteousness. Some may say that God is more virtuous on account of this. Who is better, they ask: one who struggles with a murderous impulse, or one who doesn’t struggle at all, who doesn’t have one hateful thought or feeling in his body? I’d respond that it would be nice to arrive at a point where we are so inclined towards righteousness that we don’t even struggle against evil, but I still admire those who struggle and choose good over those who don’t have to struggle at all.

That’s why many Christians debate whether Jesus was capable of sin. Both sides agree that he didn’t sin, but was he able to do so? Many Christians argue that he was so internally righteous that he was completely incapable of sinning. They appeal to II Corinthians 5:21, which says that Christ “knew no sin.” Armstrongites and many Seventh-Day Adventists contend, by contrast, that Christ could sin, which is why Hebrews 4:15 states that he was tempted in all points as we are. The way some SDAs present the situation, Christ had sinful human flesh, but he overcame his sinful nature through the assistance of God’s Holy Spirit. So maybe Jesus did have the same opportunity to choose virtue as we do.

Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Water Baptism: A Magic Bullet?

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 374.

Cyril of Jerusalem was a Christian thinker of the fourth century C.E. He states regarding water baptism:

Do not think of the font as filled with ordinary water, but think rather of the spiritual grace that is given with the water. For just as the sacrifices on pagan altars are in themselves indifferent matter and yet have become defiled by reason of the invocation…made over them to the idols, so, but in the opposite sense, the ordinary water in the font acquires sanctifying power when it receives the invocation of the Holy Spirit, of Christ and the Father (Cat. 3, 3 LCC).

Cyril is saying that the water of baptism acquires a “sanctifying power” on the believer through the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On my Christian dating site, I often discussed water baptism with a Christian who wasn’t baptized. He didn’t think that he needed baptism, for he was a dispensationalist of the E.W. Bullinger variety. As far as he was concerned, he had already been circumcised by the spiritual circumcision “without hands” (Colossians 2:11). For him, “without hands” meant that he didn’t need a minister to dunk him in water for the circumcision of his heart to occur.

I thought at the time, “Well, maybe the circumcision is ‘without hands’ in the sense that God removes the sinful flesh from the believer, but God does so at water baptism.” And Cyril’s statement reminded me of this. On the surface, water baptism is a person getting dunked in water, and that’s it. The water by itself is not that special, for it’s water. But God is involved in that seemingly mundane event, as he uses it to bury our sinful selves and to raise us up as new creations. Romans 6 and Colossians 2:12-13 seem to make that point…

…assuming that they’re even describing water baptism! Many Christians believe that these texts refer to baptism by the Holy Spirit, which occurs once a person accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. Some take that to mean that we don’t need water baptism, while others assert that water baptism is an outward physical symbol for an inward transformation, our baptism by the Holy Spirit. At water baptism, we physically commemorate the fact that our old sinful selves have died and we’ve been raised up as new selves, yielded to God. But, for advocates of this view, this “death” occurs through faith in what Christ did on the cross, not through getting dunked in water.

But there are Christians who believe that, even if water baptism is not what saves and sanctifies, it can still have a positive effect on the believer. For them, water baptism is an outward sign of commitment to Jesus Christ. A friend of mine disputed that water baptism could save, but he still felt that it could be a “conduit” to bring a person closer to God, like lifting up one’s hands in worship. My dad was actually baptized twice. The first time he was baptized “didn’t take,” since he still wasn’t committed to God. And so he was baptized a second time so he could make an official commitment.

A lot of churches baptize people when they are infants, or when they choose to make some profession of faith in Christ. Armstrongism held, by contrast, that a person had to be “ready” to be baptized, since commitment to God was serious business, much like marriage. When I first asked my dad if I could be baptized, he said that I wasn’t “ready,” since I still talked back to my mom and tried to make myself look good. He didn’t think that I’d arrived at “repentance,” or that I was ready to make a serious commitment to God (not that he thought I was damned, since he believed in a “second chance” doctrine of salvation, in which people would have an opportunity to believe at the second resurrection). I think that this sort of approach to baptism explains why so many in my immediate and extended family remain unbaptized, even if they believe in God and/or the doctrines of Armstrongism. Baptism is easy in a lot of denominations, but it was serious business in mine.

From my own experience, do I agree with Cyril about the “sanctifying power” of water baptism? Not really. When I was baptized, I didn’t feel that close to God. I just felt like I was getting wet. I was actually expecting something profound: a feeling that my old sinful self was dying and that I had been reborn as a new person, one who intensely loved God and my fellow man. One of the people who baptized me, a Pentecostal, said that his baptism was like that: he felt a “mighty wind” as he came out of the water, and he had so much love for the people around him. But all I felt was wet. “This is it?,” I thought.

I did feel something years before my baptism, when I repented before God and decided to follow him the best I could. I asked God for forgiveness, and from that point on I tried to honor my parents, to stop losing my temper, to serve around the house, to refrain from picking on my brother, sister, cousins, etc. I had an intense desire for the things of God, and I got up early in the morning to read my Bible or religious literature, even taking it with me to school. I felt as if something had happened within me. If I were to pick the moment when I felt spiritually circumcised, it would be my moment of repentance, not when I was baptized.

As far as my experience now is concerned, I really don’t know what to say. I’m not indifferent to the things of God, since I crave a relationship with the divine, righteousness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost, etc. But I have a lot of bitterness against God, people, and evangelical Christianity, with its narrow view of salvation and how it continually pushed me to be someone I wasn’t (a happy-happy extrovert) to make God happy. To be honest, I think I was more “ready” to commit to God when I first asked my dad if I could be baptized than I am today, years after my baptism!

I still hope for some sort of spiritual transformation, but I don’t think water baptism is a “magic bullet,” at least not in my experience. I got wet, but I still got up the next morning as the same James, with the same problems and the same weaknesses. My sinful flesh was (and is) still with me!

Published in: on July 27, 2009 at 5:30 pm  Comments (3)  

“Lukewarm”: A Discussion

In Revelation 3:15-22, Jesus says the following to the church at Laodicea:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

On my Christian dating site recently, a few of us got into a discussion about “lukewarm Christianity.” It started when a pretty young lady asked a question:

God’s word tells us that if, as a lukewarm Christian, we come to face Him on the day of [judgment], He will spit us out, claiming He does not know us. I’ve been in several ‘arguments’ recently, with people who feel that God simply put that in the bible to frighten people, that as long as we love Him, believe what Jesus says, and treat people well, that He will not actually do that. I’m interested to see what the rest of you think about lukewarm Christianity?

The lady went on to define lukewarm Christianity as “the knowing pursuit of unGodly things, of things that are clearly against God, while supporting the claim and belief that you are saved simply because you believe.”

A gentleman then said that Jesus in Revelation 3 is saying, “Be either cold or hot, one side of the fence or the other. He wants us all to make a clear choice and then go and LIVE it!!” For him, “cold” means rejecting Jesus, whereas “hot” means accepting Jesus and living for him. “Lukewarm” is somewhere in between: believing in Jesus but not obeying his commandments. What he said reminded me of a sermon I once heard, in which the pastor was appealing to the Elijah story to rebuke people who dabbled in church without a formal commitment: “If God is God, then serve him. But if you want to serve the devil, then do it with all your might! But make up your mind rather than straddling the fence!”

Then, a young man offered what is perhaps the most common interpretation of “lukewarm”: Churches have lost people in them. Not everyone who says to Him on that day “Lord Lord”… The true Christians are the ones who will be on fire for Him. Pew warmers are the lukewarmers. They either need to get on fire for God ( get saved ) or they will be spit out when He separates the wheat from the tares. His view seems to be that the lukewarm are those who merely “go through the motions” of religion, while lacking a zeal for the worship and service of God.

I offered my customary “James Pate” swipe at evangelicalism, to which no one responded (maybe because they thought that to do so would be to answer a fool according to his folly): It depends on what “lukewarm” means. If it means not being as “enthusiastic for God” as some Christian Pharisee thinks I should be–according to his standard of enthusiasm–then, no, I don’t take that seriously one bit.

After calming down a bit, I looked again at the post that started this whole discussion. The young lady was criticizing her Christian friends for thinking that Jesus wouldn’t spew them out of his mouth if they “love Him, believe what Jesus says, and treat people well[.]” I said that I agreed with them, to which the guy who said we should be “on fire for God” replied, “If anything, that statement describes people who are not lukewarm.”

Then, out of the blue, a meek young man (the same one I mentioned in my post, Christians and the Literal Sense) presented an interpretation that I had not encountered before. He disputed the view that “cold” meant “dead to Christ,” or “rejecting Jesus,” or “just plain sinful,” since Jesus said that he’d like for the Laodiceans to be hot or cold. Would Jesus want people to be dead to him, or to reject him, or to sin with impunity? No. Actually, he’d probably prefer for people to be half-good than not good at all! But, overall, God and Jesus Christ encourage people to repent. So when Jesus told the Laodiceans that he wanted them to be “cold,” he couldn’t have had in mind what a lot of Christians think.

The young man went on to discuss water. In Colossae, there was a cold spring, which people used to quench their thirst and refresh themselves. In Hierapolis, there was a warm spring, which people used for medicinal purposes. The two springs combined at Laodicea to produce a lukewarm spring, which was useless and disgusting to the taste.

The young man said that the cold spring represents Christians who encourage and refresh others, whereas the warm spring depicts those who bring sinners to spiritual health through confrontation. Jesus would like for us to be useful either by refreshing others (“cold”) or bringing them to health (“hot”), but lukewarm Christians are those who are useless.

I responded: This is good. I always wondered why Jesus would prefer for Christians to be totally dead to him than lukewarm. That makes no sense! Your interpretation makes more sense. On a practical level, though, I have some of the same problems as I do with the commonplace interpretation, since it allows some self-righteous Christian Pharisee to say, “Well, you don’t have a bubbly personality, so obviously you’re not useful to God in refreshing others!” And, as usual for today, my comment was ignored (though some of my other comments have gotten responses today)!

When a lady posted an article that made the same argument as this meek young man, I replied: This helps too. One problem I was having was that I was wanting to define lukewarm as “indifferent to God,” since Jesus rebukes Laodicea for not knowing how blind and poor they are. Plus, even though I’m not super-Christian, at least I’m not indifferent to the things of God. But I didn’t think I could define lukewarm as indifferent, since I assumed cold was indifferent. But thanks to you and [the meek young man, I have a new way of looking at this passage. I don’t always remember what I read or hear, but I will remember this.

She then lamented that most Christians reach wrong interpretations because they don’t know history or archaeology, which I took as a slap to the face. I responded: Believe it or not, even some who know the history and archaeology use the same-old interpretation. My HarperCollins Study Bible, for example, refers to the lukewarm water that reached Laodicea, but it still says the cold ones are against Jesus, the hot ones are for him, and the lukewarm ones are indifferent. Sometimes it takes being willing to think outside-the-box, or thinking, “Wait a minute–even cold water is a good thing!”

I later cited John MacArthur’s interpretation of “lukewarm” in Revelation 3. MacArthur states in his Bible commentary: Nearby Hierapolis was famous for its hot springs, and Colosse for its cold, refreshing mountain stream. But Laodicea had dirty, tepid water that flowed for miles through an underground aqueduct. Visitors, unaccustomed to it, immediately spat it out. The church at Laodicea was neither cold, openly rejecting Christ, nor hot, filled with spiritual zeal. Instead, its members were lukewarm, hypocrites professing to know Christ, but not truly belonging to Him (cf. Matt. 7:21ff.).

I remarked, “He acknowledges that the cold water is refreshing, yet he allows himself to get sucked back into the usual interpretation: the cold people reject Christ. The usual interpretation is like a magnet, or a black hole!”

I’ve often felt put-down by evangelicals’ use of the term “lukewarm.” I thought that they were rebuking me for not having the most on-fire, enthusiastic, bubbly personality. And I assumed that Jesus sided with them, since Jesus criticized Christians who were “lukewarm.”

But I’ve concluded that being lukewarm is not the same as being imperfect, or less than enthusiastic about church or Bible reading or worship. Rather, it’s indifference to God. It’s thinking that one is perfect and does not need God’s help. That’s why Jesus tries to show the Laodiceans how blind they are: he is encouraging them to come to him for spiritual healing. And he assures them of his love.

Published in: on July 27, 2009 at 2:30 am  Leave a Comment  

More on Virtue

I want to add some things to my last post, Stoics on the Unity of Virtue.

1. I presented James (of the New Testament) as a perfectionist who says that we need to be perfect to deserve the label of “virtuous.” That’s only part of the story. In my post from a while back, Why I Dislike I John So Far, I present another side to James, a James who says that God meets imperfect people (all of us) wherever they are.

2. One thing that disturbs me is how I hate people. I continually take people’s moral inventory. “Evangelicals are bad because they do this.” “Liberals are bad because they do this.” I dislike people being smug and judgmental, who act as if they know what makes other people tick and critique them from their high-and-mighty pedestal, who put on airs as if they’re so much better than others.

But aren’t I being the same way when I critique them? Do I critique them out of love, out of a desire for them to change their ways and have a healthier outlook on life (like I have that myself!)? Or do I do so out of pride, a sense of superiority. “Yeah, I’m imperfect, but at least I acknowledge my faults,” I say to myself. Yeah, but does that make me virtuous? We’re all pretty much in the same boat, since we’re flawed creatures!

I want to assume that I’m more virtuous than those I criticize, and I get mad when I don’t get recognition and adulation for my good deeds, or lack of bad deeds. I flinch at being just part of the crowd. But maybe that’s what I am. Can I be content with that, trusting in God’s love to make me feel good about myself? Can I stop fretting about what everyone else is doing and focus on my own love for God and neighbor?

Don’t get me wrong: I will criticize evangelicals, liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, etc. in future posts. But I hope that I can do so without hating them, and that I can present positive ways to look at situations.

Published in: on July 27, 2009 at 12:50 am  Comments (1)  

Stoics on the Unity of Virtue

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 398.

Copleston summarizes the Stoic view of virtue:

If all the virtues are so bound up with one another that he who possesses the one must possess the others, it is an easy step to supposing that there are no degrees in virtue. Either a man is virtuous, i.e., completely virtuous, or he is not virtuous at all. And this would seem to have been the position of the early Stoics. Thus, according to Chrysippus, a man who has almost completed the path of moral progress is not yet virtuous, has not yet that virtue which is true happiness. A consequence of this doctrine is that very few attain to virtue and then only later in life…But while this strict moral idealism is characteristic of the earlier Stoicism, later Stoics emphasised much more the conception of progress, devoting their attention to encouraging man to begin and continue in the path of virtue. Admitting that no individual actually corresponds to the ideal of the wise man, they divided mankind into fools and those who are progressing towards virtue or wisdom.

The Stoics believed that one had to have all of the virtues in order to be virtuous, since the virtues are interconnected with one another. James may have gotten this idea from the Stoics when he said in James 2:10-11 (NRSV) that breaking one of God’s commandments is the same as violating all of them: For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Like the early Stoics, James also seems to have had a perfectionist streak, one that denied that a virtuous person could be a mixture of virtue and vice. He states in James 3:8-11: [N]o one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. James would probably agree with the Stoics who held (in Copleston’s words) that “Either a man is virtuous, i.e., completely virtuous, or he is not virtuous at all.”

And the Apostle Paul may have had a similar sort of idea. A while back, Nick Norelli had a post about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Nick stated the following: Since ‘fruit’…in [Galatians] 5:22 is singular then does that mean that we must exhibit all or nothing in terms of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance? If so then do you know anyone who bears this fruit? I can think of very few people…

There is a part of me that can sympathize with the Stoic point of view. If a person truly loves his neighbor as himself, then he won’t kill, rape, or steal. If he does one of those things and not another, then he is not a truly loving person.

At the same time, I can envision a person having some of the spiritual attributes of Galatians 5 and not others. One may not be all that joyous, gentle, or temperate, but he can still care for people. He may just have a hard time showing it.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice if all of the spiritual attributes were combined and intertwined under one worldview? That’s what Christianity professes to offer: We’re joyful because God loves us. We’re also patient because we know that God desires our good and will bless us in his due time, and we’re temperate because we’re not looking to the things of this world to satisfy us, since our satisfaction and security are in God. And because we know a loving God, we feel energized to pass that love on to others. (“That’s how it is with God’s love, once you experience it…You WANT to PASS it ON.”) For me, sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Getting past the first step of believing in a loving God whom I can’t even see is rather difficult, to be honest.

I can’t say that I’m virtuous. I’m not as bad as people think I am, since there are times when I reach out to others. But there are plenty of times when I blow a fuse with God or the people I love. Do those bad times cancel out my virtuous deeds? I’m not the most patient person in the world, plus I don’t love everybody, so am I technically not virtuous?

My hunch is that everybody is a mixture of good and evil. I’ve said that over and over on my blog, whether the subject is the rabbinic view of the last judgment, my rants against evangelicalism, Alcoholics Anonymous, or the characters on Desperate Housewives. A person can do some really bad things, but she can also do some really good things. Is she virtuous? It’s tough to tell! If she truly loves virtue, then why isn’t virtue ruling all of her acts? Yet, we are weak human beings, and forcing our moral principles to override our emotions, our desires, and our insecurities can be quite difficult.

I guess that’s why I prefer the later Stoics to their perfectionist predecessors: no one is perfect in terms of virtue, but hopefully we’re progressing, or at last we’re willing to progress.

UPDATE: See More on Virtue.

Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 7:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Obama-Care: Bucking the Special Interests?

The first half of Friday’s Bill Moyer’s Journal was about health care, a topic that’s often crossed my mind this past week. Here is the transcript for that episode.

Moyers was interviewing journalist Trudy Lieberman along with physician and Harvard lecturer Marcia Angell. Lieberman and Angell argued that the Obama health care plan (or, more accurately, the Congressional proposal that he’s endorsing) merely throws more money at a failing system, without addressing the root problems. Lieberman remarked that the Obama plan “will be a bonanza for the health insurance industry. And a bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry. And for the doctors, too. Because the doctors are going to get more paying patients, because people will now have this ticket, this insurance card, that they can whip out when they need medical services.”

According to Lieberman and Angell, the government will be providing subsidies for people to buy insurance, pharmaceutical drugs, and medical services, which will increase demand. And the insurance companies, pharmaceutical industry, and physicians are only too happy at the prospect of an expanded customer base, especially since they’ll be able to set the prices. According to Dr. Angell, “Medicare Part D will not bargain for lower prices.” For Lieberman and Angell, the solution to our health care crisis is not to throw more money at our inefficient for-profit system, but rather to embrace universal health insurance, the sort that exists in Canada and Europe.

I was thinking about this issue this past week, largely because some of my conservative friends are sounding the alarm about Obama’s “socialistic” health care plan. They offer a different picture from what Lieberman and Angell present, however. According to their reading of the bill, the Obama plan will prohibit people who lose or change jobs from buying private health insurance, requiring them instead to go with the government brand (aka “the public option”). While Lieberman and Angell talk as if Obama-care will be a “bonanza” for the health insurance industry, my conservative friends say that private insurance will actually be a casualty, as Obama’s plan will force people into the “public option.”

I don’t know who’s right. One point Lieberman made was that most Americans have no idea what’s in this health care bill, since it hasn’t exactly been broken down to them in a manner that they can understand. I noticed earlier this week, however, that the new “Harry and Louise” ad promoting the Obama plan was sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. True, I was busy gushing about how these two opponents of the Clinton health care plan are now embracing health care reform, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was saying to myself: “Wait a second! Isn’t health care reform supposed to buck the special interests? Then how come the pharmaceutical industry is supporting the Obama plan?”

Then there’s this AP article, which I read right after watching Bill Moyers: Are Lobbyists Silver Lining in Health Care Storm? The following quotes say a lot:

The drug industry, the American Medical Association, hospital groups and the insurance lobby are all saying Congress must make major changes this year. Television ads paid for by drug companies and insurers continued to emphasize the benefits of a health care overhaul — not the groups’ objections to some of the proposals.

…government programs have been expanding — and they’ve gotten increasingly friendly to private insurance companies. Insurers now play major roles as middlemen in Medicare, Medicaid and the children’s insurance program.

And if the government requires everybody to get coverage — just what the overhaul legislation calls for — it could guarantee a steady stream of customers subsidized by taxpayers not only for insurers, but for all medical providers.

I once asked a hard-left-wing professor of mine why the Medicare and Medicaid programs are so expensive in America, whereas the national health insurance programs of Canada and Europe are not as expensive. He responded, “America’s health insurance companies.”

And the more conservative Looney Fundamentalist commented under my post, Locke, or Beyond Locke?: “My experiences from living in Europe is that they have a technocratic socialism that is vastly more efficient than American style populist socialism.”

America’s system of big government involves a merger of government and business interests, with the result that private interests can bilk the American taxpayers. We’ve put up with this system for years, under both Democrats and Republicans. The question right now is whether Obama’s health care plan is different from that, or if it’s merely “more of the same.”

Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 12:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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