Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Christians, Hinduism, and the Bhagavad Gita

Reading and Discussing the Bhagavad Gita in its Context

Mary C. Moorman

There is a sad disparity between the devotional realities of Hinduism and the denunciatory tone with which the Western context has traditionally received the Hindu tradition in its paradigmatic text, the Bhagavad Gita. Sharpe notes a particular disparity between Western Christianity’s official mandate to respect and even cherish the positive aspects of Hinduism as harbingers of salvific grace, contrasted with the clumsy and suspicious voices of Western Christian apologists on point.

Christian Apologist Gregory Koukl offers an all too typical treatment in his Reflections on Hinduism of 1993. Koukl’s basic moves include denouncing Hinduism as ultimately untenable and illusory, epistemologically chaotic, morally bankrupt and confused, radically negative of all positive aspirations, hopeless, and contradictory to the point of absurdity. Koukl reveals his basic frustration with Hinduism in these terms: “so a person who rejects rationality, a person who rejects logic, a person who rejects the world as a real thing and contends that it is merely an illusion can therefore have nothing to say about the real world because the real world is not real. And any commentary about it would be essentially acknowledging its reality. Any commentary trying to correct your view, such that you would now believe the world is an illusion, must be done by using rationality which ultimately doesn't exist. That's why if Hinduism were true we could never know it. I think that's a valid point whenever you're dealing with someone from Eastern religion.”

Eric Sharpe describes the disposition of the 19th century evangelical Christians who encountered Hindu culture without consulting formative Hindu texts, and who thus judged popular Hindu practices with suspicion of the Gita’s narrative framework, internal inconsistency, unconvincing ethics, impracticability, indifference, and fatalism. A more benign tone of “natural theology” view was promoted by such Western Christians as Murice Boyle, who proposed that “the Hindu asks important questions concerning human nature/destiny, but that only the Christian Gospel can provide adequate answers to these questions,”and the French Abbe Dubois, who again affirmed that Gita- as a piece of natural theology- was sufficient to identify human problems, but not their ultimate solution. In sum, the western sentiment was content to conclude that “there are wounds which Hinduism cannot soothe.”
In this regard, although Sharpe describes the Gita as “a scripture for the world,” he is quick to acknowledge that in the modern “free interchange” of Scriptures, the (highly mobile) Gita inevitably becomes prone to misunderstanding when it is “torn loose from its religious matrix.” Among its various audiences, the Gita has been received as a romantic symbol of “universal spirituality” to the ambitious, curious, and religiously conflicted American Transcendentalists of the 19th century; Sharpe notes that the world has generally approached the Gita from one of two angles: “either as a piece of archaic literature, to be dissected, analyzed and placed in an essentially remote religio-historical context, or as an exotic insight into the ultimate mystery of the universe, (being) Hindu only incidentally.” In these modes of approach, most readers have not even pretended to be able to evaluate the Gita in its original form or native setting, and the interpretation of the Gita’s “message” has been of variable quality, being divorced from the (potentially myriad) meanings/essences which the text has born for generations of devout readers.

Sharpe adds that attempts to discover “what the Gita might have meant originally,” or “was intended to achieve” are hardly simple options, since different translators bring to bear different impressions, and each translation assumes the literary conventions of its own period and country. Sharpe particularly descries the translated Gita’s treatment in the West as a resource for glamorized “mysticism,” as an aesthetic, popular offering, and as a means of political expedience for European colonizers. Sharpe laments the dearth of Christian readers who have been willing and able to approach the Gita within its proper context.

I. The Teaching of the Gita

Commenting upon devotional and practical reference to the Bhagavad Gita, Eknath Easwaran explains that Sri Krishna’s message “describes the eternal truth of life that the fiercest battle we must wage is against all that is selfish, self-willed and separate in us.” In this vein, Easwaran elaborates on the Gita’s “timeless” explication and treatment of the human problematic, the Hindu view of ultimate reality, and the offered paths of liberation.

In particular, the Gita describes the human problematic as a “war within,” typified by Arjuna’s insistence that he and Krishna drive their chariot between two armies poised for a battle. Here, Arjuna fully realizes that it is his own “kinsmen established in opposition.” Arjuna then “falls into confusion” and mournful reluctance at this realization, and hence represents the confused, ego-ridden individual faces who the tragic conflict that results from his self-will and his craving to satisfy personal desires, and who thus experience insecurity, loneliness, and despair. Arjuna symbolically drops his bow in despair, and his mind reels at a situation from which he can forsee nothing good proceeding; after all, this is a battle between those whom he loves most dearly.

Easwaran comments that Arjuna’s own agonized hesitation, paralysis of the will, inertia, and incapacity to act at the edge of battle depicts the universal situation of humanity’s confusion and futility as we face the fact of a disunity that persists both within ourselves, and between ourselves and the world around us. In short, we thus become contrary to the nature of the universe; Easwaran points that each person has “manifestations of the disunity seething within (his) own consciousness.” Accordingly, Arjuna dramatically utters his reluctance “overwhelmed by sorrow;” he “casts away his bow and arrows, and he sat down in his chariot in the middle of the battlefield.” Nonetheless, the harbingers of the Gita’s solution are apparent even in the first chapter of the Gita, in the evocative statement of Sanjaya: “let everyone take his proper place and stand firm…”

The Gita’s view of ultimate reality, as expressed in Krishna’s responses to Arjuna (whose “eyes are burning with tears of self-pity and confusion”), lies in the promise of the resolution of this conflict in “(discovering) the Lord within (who) is the supreme purpose of life, worthy of all our time, energy, resources, and dedication.” The discovery and practice of this “Lord within” both consummates creation’s own evolution towards a total unitive state, and also fulfills each individual’s supreme purpose: the realization of the unity of life, as enjoyed by “the victorious (person) who has conquered himself,” and has “eradicated all that is selfish within him” even - in the midst of his daily life, and especially through the performance of his socially determined duties.

Thus, the Gita’s solution to the human problematic proceeds as follows, as narrated by Krishna’s reproachful correction and instruction to Arjuna: Arjuna must not yield to weakness, but must “arise with a brave heart and destroy the enemy.” Though Arjuna protests further about his own grief at this prospect, and the questionable moral implications, he admits that in his own paralysis of will and confusion, he will “fall at Krishna’s feet” and submissively receive his instruction. Krishna refers Arjuna to the example of “the wise,” who “realize that sorrow has no cause,” and who remain unaffected by temporal, sensorial changes; thus “the wise” “grieve neither for the living nor for the dead.” Though humans change in form through the cycles of life and its fleeting changes, there will never be a time when they cease to exist; thus their deaths in battle are relatively inconsequential. The “glorious,” true self is unmanifested and remains (like Krishna himself) beyond all change, impermeable even to harm and inevitable death. Thus, Arjuna should act with enlightened indifference and detachment, and considering his dharma (which Krishna particularly endorses- ), he should not vacillate at the prospect of grievous war, since shirking his duty would be the greatest sin; rather, given that there is nothing more glorious for one in his station as a warrior, he should fight.

In practice, Krishna recommends that Arjuna “listen to the principles of yoga,” in order to attain spiritual awareness, self-control, and the singleness of purpose- even in the midst of great distraction- that results from seeking Krishna himself. The ultimate goal of such disciplines- which result in laudable detachment and “holy indifference” towards the rewards of work - is the capacity to “see the Lord everywhere,” and a “heart that is completely united in love for the Lord of love:” This vision of “the Lord” unifies the human heart by subsuming all other desire and allows for indifference and consequent peace.

As Easwaran elaborates, humanity across the ages- and in contemporary contexts as well- must fight their own internal “wars;” each one must realize the unity underlying all life, and live in harmony with this awareness in the midst of daily life, by “learning to see the Lord in everyone,” and by “ensuring the joy of others.” These means of the unification of human consciousness that lead to the climax of meditation- “coming to rest in the Lord-” are also daily means of reducing human self- will, “the only obstacle between the Lord and us.” Such paths to liberation from the “perennial opposition” within the universe include selfless service, patience for others, wisdom in action, renunciation, and meditation; by these disciplines one stands against the violence within himself and thus inspires others to the same, thereby benefiting everyone. On the whole, Arjuna’s dilemma and Krishna’s instruction at the edge of battle are so critical to the human situation, because each individual must “fight that which he has considered to be a part of himself.” As Krishna urges in Gita III.41 and 43, “fight with all your strength, oh Bharata; controlling your senses, attack your enemy directly, who is the destroyer of knowledge and realization…let the Atman rule the ego… slay the fierce enemy that is selfish desire.”

From this emphasis on attentiveness, renunciation, and contemplative union with Krishna, Arjuna persists in seeking “one (moral) path to follow to the supreme good,” given that one does not attain freedom by shirking action or work. Here, Krishna’s admonition is clear: “you are obliged to act, Arjuna… fulfill all your duties.” From Krishna’s prior instruction, Arjuna understands that he is to perform his duties in full, but with detachment and selfless inattention to personal profit, since Brahman is present in every act of selfless service. In sum, the Gita’s “rule of life” could be summarized in the following injunction: the welfare of others, rather than the welfare of the self, is to be sought in every (detached) action performed in the fulfillment of duty, which is ultimately performed for the sake of Krishna himself.

II. The Experience of the Gita: Ghandi and Ethics

At this point, faced with the Gita’s seeming moral indifference, supplemented only by Easwaran’s highly affective devotional commentary, it is most helpful to refer to David Atkinson’s account of the lived experience of the Gita in the public life of its modern disciple Ghandi, who took the Gita as the quintessential work pertaining to the adhikara of the experienced and lived moral life of “truth in action.” Here, Atkinson portrays Ghandi as reading the Gita in the same way as Easwaran: Arjuna is taken as the archetype of every human, whose spiritual growth and understanding are impeded by attachment to consequences. Arjuna must thus enter the allegorical “war” of his own struggle between good and evil, taking Krishna as the desired object of perfect human self-realization, and as the object of self-sacrificing, detached action in love. In Ghandi’s scheme, adherence to the Gita’s admonition to “perform one’s duties” and to “see the divine in all things” will promote the disinterested, sympathetic thought and action that liberates and transforms the individual, and then his society, into the unitive and nonactive ideal of union.

While Ghandi certainly provides a lived demonstration of the Gita’s meaning and practical relevance, Western readers might remain confused at several critical points. Ghandi’s example certainly refutes ignorant accusations of basic “agnostic indifference” and “moral confusion” at the heart of the Gita. Nonetheless, Western readers may still wonder about Ghandi’s drawing moral distinctions between “good” and “evil” in the ideally nondual experience advocated by Krishna.

Here, David Loy explicates such apparent problems by hermeneutically explaining that the Gita’s radical nonduality pertains to the ever-continuing aim of the transformation of dualistic modes into a unified, nondualistic reality. The best yogi practices in such a way that the combined disciplines yields “equanimity as each mode is taken not as the attaining of something new, but as merely transforms what it already is into a nondual mode.” Furthermore, in as much as the Gita transforms work and duty into a sacrifice to Krishna, the Gita cuts through all selfish motivation. In orientation to Krishna, intentional action becomes “really equivalent to no intention at all”- since Krishna’s higher nature is the transcendent ground of all being. In submitted union with Krishna, human action is realized to be one with His non action, human being with his non -being, etc.

Finally, the reader who approaches the Gita from a Western framework and understanding will be assisted by Sebastian Painadath’s delineation of critical points for Western (Christian)/Hindu dialogue. In describing the “integrated spirituality” of the Gita, Painadath presumes Loy’s concept of “transformative nonduality” when he describes the “transpersonal divine mystery (that) reveals itself as the personal Lord, inviting total surrender from the human seeker,” and the free pursuit of dharma, the total harmony of true nature according to unitive love. Painadath here refers to the following mutual themes, familiar to both Christian and Hindu conceptualization: the story of the incapacitated human in agonized quest for the personal God; consummation in total surrender to this personal God; and the consolation of inner enlightenment through conformity and obedience to God. Painadath highlights further points of Christian/Hindu agreement in the notions of the personal and self-revealing God in search of the human person, who makes His fundamental inexhaustible mystery cognizable and experienced in the manifestation of the “redeeming” Lord Krishna; the “result” of such encounter is the achievement of desired union between God and the person through various phases of textual knowledge, cultic devotion, ritual devotion, and especially the performance of duties.

Christians in Conversation with Hindus

For purposes of Hindu-Christian conversation, one particular issue that invites nuanced scrutiny and greater conversational depth emerges at the point where Painadath discusses one of Hinduism’s “potential challenges” to Western Christians: namely, the Hindu premise that “the history of humanity is the history of salvation,” in an ongoing cycle of divine revelation and human progress. Here, parties to a Christian/Hindu conversation might query whether it is possible that one particular historical event might be absolutely central and normative for the entire historical process. In particular, conversation partners might recall that the paradigmatic encounter between Krishna and Arjuna is in fact canonized and upheld (in Ghandi’s terms) as the “quintessence” of Hindu understanding. If Hindus are willing to acknowledge a point of “quintessential” revelation, they will be much more sympathetic to Christian claims of the quintessential revelation of God in Christ, and in the quintessential delivery of redemption in His crucifixion and resurrection.

A second and related dialogical issue involves Painadath’s statement that all moments of divine revelation stand in dialectic relationship to one another, without uniqueness or precedence. It is at this point that parties to an authentic Christian-Hindu conversation would need to explore the criticocreative dialogical options available to them, given that authentic Christian belief holds not only that God reveals Himself truly "at various times and in various different ways," but also, as the relevant Epistle excerpt continues, “God has in these last days spoken (definitively) to us by his Son, who is the exact representation of God’s being.” Such apparent disjunctures regarding the priority and uniqueness of relevant faith claims requires exploration beyond the prior limitations posed by refusals to acknowledge a paradigmatic or consummate human encounter with the Divine.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Receiving the Word of God Part I - Father Lee Nelson

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

From the Letter of Paul to the Romans, I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Before I begin this morning, I’d like to state that it is not common or normal for lowly curates such as myself to get to preach two Sundays in a row. Conventional wisdom among parish rectors states that part and parcel of keeping curates in their place is to let them preach a maximum of once a month. Curates are typically employed to do the Rector’s dirty work, and as such, should not be allowed to take from the limelight of the pulpit too much.

That may be true for most, but I am very thankful that Father Crary is intent on giving me opportunities for practice, even if he is, in fact, going away for the week, and God forbid he would have to prepare a sermon during a week in Wisconsin.

By the way, I checked the weather, and the high is not set to exceed 33 degrees. So enjoy yourself.

That being said, I will, in fact, be preaching next Sunday as well, and thought that I would preach a miniseries of sorts that has been brewing in my mind for some time, under the heading of “Receiving the Word of God.”

It is an often misunderstood term - the Word of God.

Some immediately think of stacks of black leather bibles, or of preachers in pinstripe suits, but this a rather inadequate impression. For the last several hundred years, Christians have focused, even hyper-focused on the Word of God as verbal and written.
That is certainly part of it, but it is not the whole of it. In the Old and New Testaments themselves, the “Word of God” is a much more dynamic concept.
For Saint Paul, the Word of God is hard at work, toiling in the believer. For the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, the Word of God is “living and active,” it discerns the human heart, and much more than that, the Word of God is not so much an it as it is a He.
The Word of God is personal, and consists of the Person of Jesus Christ.

So, when we talk about receiving the Word of God in any form, we are by necessity speaking of receiving Jesus.

For the Evangelist John writes in this way:
“He [the Word] came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”

Our reading from the Letter to the Romans this morning states: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And that is not so much an act of believing as it is an act of receiving the power of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

In short, receiving is believing.

That is a concept which doesn’t necessarily jive with our culture. In this culture, one must truly know in order to believe. Facts must be checked, evidences weighed, so on and so forth, because everyone must be an authority.

But, for the Christian religion, there is but one authority, Jesus Christ himself, the author and source of all life, and namely the Word of God. In order to believe in Him, we must receive that which He has given.

To be sure, many speak of knowing the Bible, or of knowing “about” God, like someone would know business or law or particle physics. But, Christianity is quite different. Christian knowledge is not knowledge of a subject, it is knowledge of a person. And that knowledge, as we have said, comes by receiving, receiving the Word of God.

The great problem here is that we Americans are not typically good at the act of receiving. We live in an ambitious and driven culture, consumed with “going and getting.” And thus, when we think about the accumulation of Christian knowledge, we tend to thing about the knowledge that one has attained, rather than received.

If we achieve the Word of God, we attain it by our own principles, by our own rules, we render it useless. We may, in fact, learn some things. But, they will not be at all useful to us.
But, if we receive the Word of God, letting it seep deep into our consciousness, pervading every aspect of our lives, to, as the Letter to the Hebrews states, separate soul and spirit, joint and tendon, the Word of God will be most useful, in that it will lead us to the contemplation of God himself, it will lead us to Heavenly glory.

If we begin to think in this way, we will begin to see Jesus the Word of God not merely as a means to an end, but as the very end itself. We will begin to see that Jesus is not a riddle to be figured out, but one to be let through the doors of our hearts, that he may make his home in us.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Yes, the Word of God must be received.

But how?

In the Book of Acts, the Word of God is described almost like a virus, implanting itself and spreading from body to body. Or like a wildfire, jumping from tree to tree. We read in the Book of Acts such phrases as:
“the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7
“the word of God grew and multiplied.” Acts 12:24
The people glorify the Word of God, the apostles proclaim it.

There is a distinct difference, however, between what happens in the Book of Acts and the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Word of God is only received by the prophets, those select few who have a word from the Lord for the people.

The difference in the Acts of the Apostles is that now the Holy Spirit indwells the Church as a whole.

What this is not to mean is that each Christian thus has the ability to interpret the revealed Word of God. Far from in fact, for, as we have already said, the Word of God is received.
There were often those in the early Church that attempted to interpret the Word of God on their own. Often, there were those who attempted to describe the Person of Christ in their own way, outside of the revelation of the Church. There were those who had supposedly received a “new revelation.”

To these, the Apostles were particularly certain to clarify the nature of the Word of God.
Paul asks the Corinthians whether they were the only ones the Word of God reached, as if they had received it in some sort of vacuum. He is constant in stating that the teaching of the Church regarding the Person of Christ is either what it is, or it is completely useless.
Peter states that “that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

The point is this, that the Word of God is transmitted within the Church. That whether we are talking about Jesus himself, or the Scriptures, or doctrine, or moral teaching, when we speak of the Word of God, we speak of Jesus whose body is the Church.

You might ask “which Church?”

The answer is that the Church is not a dead body, it is a living body, and that it is One - that there is a cohesion of teaching within the living body of the Church, and that there is a cohesion of reception of the Word of God.

Really the question to be asked is not “which Church?,” but rather “is this understanding in
continuity with the truth of the Word of God as the Church has received it?”

This means that if a doctrine is new or foreign to the Church, it is likely to be a departure from the Word of God received, and that it is to be avoided.

A theologian of the 4th Century, Vincent of Lerins, put it this way: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

This says something of the constancy of the Word of God, because it is after all, but one word, not the Words of God, but the Word of God, one constant word spoken to His people.
This word may be experienced in a variety of ways, but the word itself is unchanging.
So far, we have said that the Word of God must be received, that the Word of God is Jesus Himself, and that the Word of God is intended to be received within the body of revelation, the Church.

Next week, we will turn to the practicalities of receiving the Word of God, but for now, the focus is on what the Word of God does to the human person.

Before anything else, we must recognize that the Word of God has as its effect, the salvation of mankind. The Apostle James writes: “...put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
Salvation is always accompanied by sanctity, and in this, the Word is used by God to cleanse.
The Psalmist writes: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to thy word.”

But, the most perfect way is this:
That, in the Person of Christ, the Word of God is given to man most perfectly in Jesus - the Word made flesh.

We hear in the Gospel today the account of Jesus going head to head with Satan in the Wilderness.

At first glance, it may appear that what Jesus does in response to the temptation of Satan is to quote scripture. I have heard this a number of times, in fact I have preached it myself. But, I wish to offer you another view on this.

Satan is clashing not with a man armed with the Scriptures as his shield against temptation. He is clashing with the Word of God made man. This sets up a very different battle, because Jesus not only knows the Scriptures, he is the Word of God, and it gives him power.
Very often, what is drawn from this text is the idea that the Christian can do battle with Satan if armed with the appropriate array of biblical texts. Not so. Satan is big and bad. He’ll whoop you up one side and down the other. He’ll eat you for lunch, no matter how many bible verses you know.

But, when he comes into battle with the Word of God, the two-edged sword, living and active, he’d better watch himself.

Thus, when the Christian, having received the word of God, living and active, incarnate within him, faces temptation, there is true power, power enough to preserve us in the face of temptation, to keep us in the way of righteousness, and to bring us to heavenly glory.
This is after all what Jesus intends, and it is why he gives us his word to give us a portion of His power. This is not power of an earthly sort, such as the power of presidents and dictators, it is power of a heavenly sort, the power to become children of God.

Next week, we will discuss “Receiving the Word of God” in three distinct areas, first of the Scriptures, second in the Liturgy, and third, in the Preaching of the Word.
Three distinct ways of receiving the Word of God.

But, before next week, this:
In order to receive, I must have a place prepared.
In order to receive something, I must have room for it.

No one expects the delivery of furniture without first finding a place for the old furniture. No one puts new furniture in front of the old. No, they take the old furniture out.

Jesus says “no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins."

Jesus also uses the parable of the sower of seeds, with some seed falling along the path, some in rocky soil, some in weedy soil, and some in good soil. The seed is the word, but it cannot be received by, nor can it grow in, unreceptive soil.

This week, you might ask yourself - what parts of me are hardened to God’s Word? What parts of me are unreceptive to God’s Truth? What is there that I believe that is not from God or His Church?

These questions might sting a little bit, but it would be a shame to talk about ways to receive the Word of God without first preparing the soil. A farmer who doesn’t plow before sowing will never reap.

Pray that God will show you your hardened, unreceptive parts.

Allow Him to prepare a place in you for His Word.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2007

Father Lee Nelson

“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
From the Book of the Prophet Joel, I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.


In the spring of 1915, swarms of locusts buzzed about in the skies over Palestine. The sky turned dark, and droppings from these insects fell on the land for five days.
During this time, the males and females mated, and the females deposited egg clusters of 50 to 80 eggs apiece. After thirty to forty days, the eggs hatched, unleashing a ravenous horde of yet more locusts, hungry for one thing - crops.
In fact, all of the vegetation in the region was stripped bare in those days between
March and October of 1915, by millions upon millions of swarming locusts, each 5 to 7 inches long.

The result, of course, was famine.

“Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”

Joel meant by these images of clouds, as he prophesies to the people of Israel, one thing - Locusts.

And locusts to the people in those days meant one thing - death.

For us, infestations of insects can be met with an arsenal of pesticides most of the time. In the case of locusts, there is no pesticide powerful enough.
But, in times of draught, we have the luxury of looking to international markets, and most of the time, we do not worry about such things. This is best left up to buyers at General Mills and Pillsbury.
What we might experience in time of famine is a small jump in prices, for cereal, for bread, and for flour. But, with food comprising, at any time, a mere %10 of any American’s budget, this is a mere blip on the radar screen.
When we think of death, we do not think of hunger. We think of the plagues of cancer, or heart disease, or of traffic accidents.
None of us has ever met starvation, let alone the trials of agricultural setbacks.
Very often, we receive news from Malawi - that famine has set in, and that they need financial help. This parish rises to the challenge, but not because of the threat of hunger.

The threat is not hunger - it is death.

And we, as a culture, have ignored death to our own demise. We romanticized about it, we have quarantined it into hospices and nursing homes, we have attempted to laugh about it, we have put off preparing for it. We have looked upon the occupations of undertakers and grave-plot salesmen as rather morbid ways to make a living. Doctors have lived under the assumption that if someone dies, they have failed in their duties.

And yet, we are a culture of death.

We murder, we abort, we euthanize.

We make wars, and manufacture weapons, we find new ways to malign, denigrate, and wield deadly control over, the processes of human life. Forgetting the God who made us, we kill and slaughter, and are bewildered when killed by natural disaster and famine. We have the gall to ask “Where is God?”

And the nature of our national guilt, our sin of complacency is such that we bear daily its consequences, the grave consequences of our apathy towards death and life together.

With stomachs full, it is difficult to imagine hunger. But, we know all to well spiritual hunger.

Spiritual hunger comes as a result of the anemia of our own hearts, that they are darkened and heavy, that they are closed to the grace of God.

“Rend your hearts, and not your garments...” says the LORD.

In the face of death and hunger, the human mind is all too ready to be frustrated and bewildered, to tear up clothing, and to despair.

In the face of spiritual death and spiritual hunger, hellish alienation from God, the temptation is the same - to revel in frustration, to ask “Where is God?,” to become closed and impenetrable, hardened to grace.

“Rend your hearts, and not your garments...” says the LORD.

The heart is the source of all evil. It is the source of evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. We like to deceive ourselves into believing that evil is a thing external, but it not. Evil comes from the heart of man, more so than from any demon.

This is spiritual hunger.

To be without.

The void, we find, cannot be filled with money or sex or possessions, or building ourselves up in the sight of others. All these result in more and more despair, more and more spiritual death. They bring the soul into peril, they bring the soul happily to hell, to an eternity of hunger.

No, God alone can fill the void in the human heart.

But, the heart must be opened. It must, in fact, be torn open, painfully.

So, I bring to the fore on this Ash Wednesday the concept of Spiritual Heart Disease, both its symptoms and its cures.

Spiritual Heart Disease is first characterized by a lack of blood flow into the heart. There is a blockage in a vein, making the flow of blood to the heart difficult. The cures are many. Medications to thin the blood, operations to bypass blockages or expand the veins as to restore the flow.
In any case, blockages must be removed.

The first means to curing spiritual heart disease is the removal of blockages, namely sin. I cannot perform triple-bypass surgery on myself. I require a surgeon. And in this case, the surgeon is Jesus Christ operating through the apostolic ministry.
Jesus says to the apostles in the Gospel of John, Chapter 20: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
A priest friend of mine is fond of saying that if you have a heart attack - you don’t have to call 911. You don’t have to see a doctor. But, if you love your life, and don’t want to lose it, you will call 911, you will seek medical help.
So, the first step is to recognize the blockage - the sin which results in death, and to confess it.

Father Crary and I are always at the ready to hear your confessions, whether at the appointed times, or any other time. Unlike the workers of Allied Waste, we never go on strike. We will never have something more important to do than disposing of your garbage.

Fasting is never recommended for those who are anemic. Fasting quickly speeds up the deficiency of iron in the blood. But from the perspective of Spiritual Heart Disease, the inverse is the case. Fasting allows the bloodflow to the heart to become rich, not in food, but in heavenly treasure. By denying the bodily appetites, we give more energy to the spiritual appetites, allowing them to feast upon the riches of Jesus Christ. So the cure - if you have never fasted before, consider taking on what the Church considers to be the bare minimum of fasting - abstinence from meat on Fridays and a eucharistic fast prior to mass.

If you have already done this and would like to do more - consider fasting on a specific day, perhaps Wednesdays. What you will find is that the room in your stomach really and truly makes room in your heart.

Another condition of the heart is Hypertension.

Hypertension results from a heart that is overworked. Essentially, the heart begins to chase after so many other things that the essential task - the pumping of oxygen rich blood to the body - is sidelined. Obesity, over-consumption of alcohol, increased salt intake, and over-stimulation all contribute to hypertension, which can result in stroke, heart-attack, and chronic renal failure.
Very often, our hearts get overworked, and become hardened, unable to pump correctly. There are simply so many things after which the heart can chase.
This is the case of a straying heart - the heart that loves what is not God.

The cure, interestingly enough, is to give to the poor.

The rich young ruler for instance. His problem was not sin, per se, it was that his affections were not rightly ordered. He loved his money more than God, he loved his possessions more than God. Jesus prescribes for this almsgiving - “one thing you lack, one thing that is making you incomplete - go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

The cure is almsgiving.

There are, incidentally, two kinds of almsgivers.

The first maintains his standard of living, and gives to the poor out of an excess of cash. This is a good thing, but there is a better way.

The second decreases his standard of living and gives the decrease to the poor. This is far better. This is the sort of almsgiving that really and truly brings about softer hearts that are open to God’s love and grace.
What we find is that in giving to the poor, the human heart is opened in poverty to spirit to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Here at Saint Laurence, we offer a number of ways during Lent to give to the poor. The first is the mite box offering for Ugandan orphans. This is a worthwhile endeavor, one which Father Blewett spearheads each year, and for which Bishop Sekkeda and the people in Uganda, especially the children are extremely thankful. It doesn’t cost much, in fact, it’s probably less than you would think, and every little bit helps.

The second way we offer is a trip to the Union Gospel Mission on Good Friday. This is a means, not only of giving money to the poor, but of giving yourself to the poor, in fact the poorest of the poor.

Almsgiving, you will find, reorients the overworked and overburdened heart towards loving God.

The fourth and final disease of the heart is caused by a lack of exercise. The heart is a muscle, is must be conditioned just like any other. Cardiovascular diseases caused by such factors as high cholesterol, can often be treated with simply exercise and healthy eating habits.

So, really the cure to this spiritual heart disease is two-fold.

First - prayer - the exercising of the heart in loving God.
Second - healthy eating - the feeding of the intellect towards loving God, mainly with Holy Scripture.

As to the first, you should be praying daily. If you are not, set aside time to pray every day and alone. Let your mind and heart focus upon God alone. Tell the distractions like little children interrupting adult conversation, to go away and come back later. Meditate upon the sufferings of Christ and his miracles. If you have trouble, and it is natural, ask God to help you.

Prayer is hard work, and it takes determination.

Second, take up the reading of the Scriptures. If you’re a beginner, take up one of the Gospels and read it slowly, maybe five or six verses a day. If you desire more, read the Psalms, maybe two or three a day. Then truly study the texts. If you want more, then memorize verses.

We must be about the business of having our hearts steeped in the Scriptures, for in them we find not only the how of eternal life - we find the whom of eternal life - Jesus Christ, who is the author of all life and who, in death, is the only one with the power to save.

To Him be glory and honor, now and forevermore.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Introduction to Christianity

Intro to Christianity

This course is structured around the central, total confession of the Christian faith as historically expressed in the Nicene Creed. As we proceed through the consideration of the Christian creedal tenets, we will explore foundational themes in Christian theology both in their historical context and in conversation between ancient and modern Christian sources.
The course readings are selected to reflect the process of Christian theology and historical interpretation of Scripture. Thus, each section on a tenet of Christian belief and experience requires reading that begins with relevant Scripture passages and proceeds to the summarization of the Scripture as historically interpreted by the Church, and currently contained in the excellent composite of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Students are invited to supplement their reading by comparing/contrasting positions in the Catholic Catechism with their own denomination’s Catechism or Confession. From time to time, the readings draw on excerpts from Patristic writers and key Christian theologians.
The course will be based on one weekly lecture, and one weekly discussion for the analysis of reading material. Each weekly discussion meeting will be led by the panel of assigned students for that week, who are responsible for coordinating the readings and facilitating discussion around the assigned issues for that week. For extra credit, a course blog will be available for ongoing discussion of relevant issues. It is critical that each student is prepared to participate actively in all facets of the learning of this critical material through timely and critical readings, and through regular and active class attendance.

Finally, students are reminded that least of all courses, this Introductory course is not approached in a vacuum. Most of us have been born into a context of cultural Christianity, such that the narratives and themes that we will cover are both familiar and personally associated with meaning, memories, and decisions. Some of us may be passionate devotees of Christianity; others of us may hate it. Probably the majority of us will find that we approach the more radical tenets of the Christian faith with distanced, disinterested contempt. It is therefore all the more crucial that, for purposes of our course, we engage one another and the material dialogically, honestly, frankly, personally, and with the utmost respect and charity. Each student is strongly invited to use this course to determine where he stands in relationship to the dominant faith of our modern culture.

Course Requirements

Weekly Comments. 30% Each student is required to submit weekly comments, questions, personal reflections, and identification of major issues by drawing on and citing the assigned materials in detail. These commentaries are to be no more than one page in length and are submitted by email each Monday.

Mid Term Examination. 20% The mid term examination will consist of two components:

A) The exam will provide an extensive list of terminology pertaining to key principles in Christian theology, of which each student will select and define twenty terms in a concise sentence that demonstrates conversational grasp of the vocabulary.

B) Each student will compose a thorough outline of major topics under each statement of the Creed covered to date.

Final Paper. 20% Each student will write a ten-page research paper outlining arguments for and against the Christian belief in the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Apologetics Week. 20% Students will be grouped into small groups/conversation partners who will meet either in person or on line for a two-part assignment: 1) to persuade the other of the credibility of a Christian claim and 2) to persuade the other of the attractiveness of the Christian faith. Each student will participate in each part of the assignment. Students’ performance will be evaluated on the clarity, thoroughness, and validity of their arguments, and on their conformity to the Christian tradition as conveyed in class. The Instructor or TA will be present to evaluate conversations. Students who enter the conversation online may turn in transcripts of the conversation for evaluation.

Oral Final Exam. 10%

Extra Credit (up to 15%)

A) Participation in ongoing course blog discussions.

B) Upon careful reflection, a student may opt, if he wishes, to participate in a Sunday service of a denomination that is not his own during the term. Successful completion of the extra credit assignment will involve completion of a 3-5 page report detailing the (charitable) observances of the service, and the student’s response to them, to be posted for commentary on the class blog. Students are encouraged to participate fully in the worship service and to contact the appropriate pastor, clergyperson, or secretary to notify them of your visit and its purpose.


Required Texts.

St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo

Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (Paulist Press, 1984)

Benny Hinn, Good Morning Holy Spirit (Nelson Books, 1997)

The Holy Bible (Revised Standard Version)

Catechism of the Catholic Church
Supplementary Catechism/Confession, at student’s discretion

St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000)

Anne Rice, Christ the Lord (Knopf, 2005)

Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Word Publishing, 1982)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter (Zondervan, 1998)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)

Course Packet
o Volf, God the Giver. Free of Charge, 2005.
o St. Victorinus, On the Creation of the World.
o Barth: Creation, Dogmatics III.1 (excerpts)
o Jon D. Levenson, Creation and Covenant. Creation and the Persistence of Evil. Part III, (Princeton University Press, 2003)
o Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi
o Anathemas of Chalcedon
o Kenneth Copeland, “On the Incarnation” (Audio Cassette Transcript)
o Karl Rahner, Dust You Are
o Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Trinity, and of the Godhead of the Holy Spirit, To Eustathius )
o John Calvin, Of Justification by Faith
o Martin Luther, Of Justification
o David Mills, The Snob’s Dogma: On Modernizing the Gospels (Touchstone Journal, 2002)
o Prayer of St. Michael the Archangel (Leo XIII, 1890)

Preliminary Reading Assignment:

Church History in Plain Language, Parts I-III (Jesus and the Apostles, The Age of Catholic Christianity, The Age of the Christian Roman Empire)

Course Agenda.

Week 1. We Believe

Required Reading:
o RCC, Part One: The Profession of Faith (17-23)
o Student’s Selection:
• Mere Christianity
• Or
• The Problem of Pain
• Or
• The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

Student Presentations: Highlights of Lewis’ apologetic and explication of students’ personal experience of Christianity in terms of belief, encounter with “Christian” culture, ecclesial identification, and questions/problems to be presented to the Christian proposal throughout the course:

- As an exemplar of modern twentieth century convert turned popular apologist who promotes Christianity in the midst of a terrible World War, what does Lewis believe? Why does he believe what he believes?
- With what aspects of Lewis’ belief do you agree? What would you add to Lewis’ belief, if anything? With what do you disagree, if anything?
- What, if anything, would you define as a “Christian” culture? What has been your role in a Christian culture, if any?
- In your own words, what does it mean to be a Christian? Are you a Christian? If so, why? If not, why not?

Week 2. We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

Required Reading.
o Genesis 1-3
o John 1
o Volf, God the Giver.
o St. Victorinus, On the Creation of the World.
o RCC, Chapter 1, Article 1, p. 61-101
o Barth: Creation, Dogmatics III.1 (excerpts)
o Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil. Part III, Creation and Covenant. (Princeton University Press, 2003)

- The One God: His characteristics and promises revealed to Israel
- The One God Almighty and the Cross; Christian interpretations of creation

Panel Discussion Issues:
- What does it mean to confess “one” God?
- What are the implications of calling God “Father?”
- What are the implications of God’s being “Almighty?”
- What moral implications that are implicit in the relationship between the Creator/creature?
- If Christians read the creation story as revised and consummated in the Incarnation, are they warranted in doing so? Why or why not?

Week 3. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, 
the only Son of God, 
eternally begotten of the Father, 
God from God, Light from Light, 
true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

Required Reading:
• RCC, Articles 2 and 3 (p 120-159)
• The Gospel of Mark
• The Gospel of John
• Cyril, On the Unity of Christ
• Review Church History, Chapters 5, 7: (“The Rise of Orthodoxy,” “The Power of Bishops”)

Lecture I:
- Describe the orthodox statement on the Person of Christ, in contrast with major Christological heresies (Part I)

Panel Discussion Issues:
- Why was the early Church so intent on ironing out the details of who Jesus is? What does it really matter?
- Given only the Gospel texts, what sort of Christological statement on the nature of Christ would you arrive at?

Week 4. For us and for our salvation 
he came down from heaven: 
by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
and was made man.

Required Reading.
o Matthew 1, Luke 1
o Anne Rice, Christ the Lord
o Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi
o Anathemas of Chalcedon
o Kenneth Copeland, “On the Incarnation” (Audio Cassette Transcript)
o Review Church History, Chapters 10-11 (“The Doctrine of the Trinity,” and “Christ in the Creeds”)

Lecture II:
- Re-visit orthodox statements on the Person of Christ, in particular contrast with Arius and Nestorius
- Highlight the emerging doctrine of the Theotokos
- Highlight Athanasius’ concept of the significance of the Incarnation as the ontological transformation of all creation.

Panel Discussion Issues:
- Why is it significant to state that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary rather than through?
- Is there a connection between the Theotokos doctrine and modern Mariology/Marian devotion?
- Compare/Contrast the anathemas of Chalcedon with the Copeland transcripts- how would Copeland have fared at Chalcedon?
- How is Athanasius’ concept of the efficacy of the Incarnation similar to or different than familiar notions of the efficacy of Calvary?

Week 5. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 
he suffered death and was buried. 

Required Reading
o The Epistle to the Hebrews
o RCC, Article 5 (p 161-179)
o Anselm, Cur Deus Homo
o Karl Rahner, Dust You Are

Optional: View “The Passion of the Christ” (2004)

- Explicate atonement “options”/various atonement theories, including ransom, penal subsititution, demonstration.
- Draw together prior themes: IE, moral responsibility to the Creator, doctrine re Fall and sin corroborated by the doctrine of Christ’s atoning “sacrifice,” the nature of the Incarnation understood in light of the Cross.

Panel Discussion Issues:
- What themes of atonement can be derived from Hebrews? Can we pinpoint one mechanism of atonement or are we left with several?
- Does Anselm do justice to the Calvary event?
- Why was Jesus Crucified?
- In the Epistolary writer’s estimation, how does Christ pertain to “our sake?”

Week 6. Midterm Exam

Week 7. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; 
he ascended into heaven 
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
Required Reading.
o Resurrection Accounts: Matthew 28-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 23-25; Acts 1
o RCC, Articles 6-7 (p. 189-195)
o The Kingdom: Matthew 5
o Christ in Glory: Revelation 4, 5, 11
o Strobel, The Case for Easter
- Trace the general structure of the Resurrection account, not common Synoptic themes
- Delineate a Christian rationale for belief in the Resurrection

Panel Discussion Issues
- Do the discrepancies in the Synoptic Resurrection accounts pose serious problems to the credibility of the accounts? Why or why not?
- Why was the Resurrection so significant to those who saw the Risen Christ or heard about it? Is it possible that we could have “Christianity” without it?
- Given Christ’s description of what His Kingdom is like, how should we read the descriptions of the “glory” of the risen Christ.

Week 8. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, 
who proceeds from the Father and the Son. 
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. 
He has spoken through the Prophets. 

Required Reading.
o Relevant Passages in John’s Gospel
o Acts 2-20.
o RCC Article 8 (p. 197-210)
o Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Trinity, and of the Godhead of the Holy Spirit, To Eustathius )
o Benny Hinn, Good Morning Holy Spirit (Nelson Books, 1997)
- Explicate the doctrine of the Trinity
- Elaborate on Scriptural references to the Holy Spirit
- Anticipate following lecture with discussion of the Holy Spirit’s essential role in and relation to the Church.

Panel Discussion Issues:
- What is the best way of “imagining” the Holy Trinity?
- What would be Gregory’s critique of Hinn’s ideas? From the readings in Acts, would Hinn seem out of place or right at home in the Jerusalem Church after Pentecost? What are the implications of the conclusion to the latter question?

Week 10. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. 

Required Reading.
o Review Acts 2-20; The Epistle to the Ephesians; John 17
o RCC Article 9 (p. 215-250)
o Church History Parts 4-5 (“The Christian Middle Ages,” “The Age of Reformation”)
o Brown, The Church the Apostles Left Behind. Paulist Press, 1984.

- Highlight the nature of the early Church, its transformations up to the Reformation, and the rise of denominationalism (Constantinazation, Dispersion, Missions, Monasticism, Papal Schisms and Politics, Scholasticism and the Schools, Luther, Calvin, Counter Reformation and the Jesuit expansion)

Panel Discussion Issues:
- Among the shifts and changes in the Christian Church throughout history, it is possible to distill an “essential” or definitive epoch/pattern by which we might recognize the “authentic” Christian Church? Is this a good question to ask?
- According to the description of the Church given in Ephesians, how might the course of Church history be interpreted?
- Given Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17, what is a Christian response to denominationalism in the contemporary Church?

Week 12. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Required Reading:
o Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3
o RCC Article 10
o John Calvin, Of Justification by Faith
o Martin Luther, Of Justification
Augustine, On Baptism

- Delineate the key points of sacramental theology with regard to justification/sanctification and compare/contrast with Reformed perspectives.

Panel Discussion Issues:
- What are the exact points of divergence between Catholic/Protestant views of the sacraments? In what ways are these divergences reflective of the entire theological system?
- Given these divergences, is a reconciled theology of the sacraments possible (such as would be tenable for both Catholics and Protestants)?

Week 13. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Required Reading:
- I Corinthians 15
- RCC, Articles 11-12
- The Fun Stuff: select materials on Limbo, Purgatory, Heaven, Hell, The Communion of Saints, Praying for the Dead, Angels and Demons.
- David Mills, The Snob’s Dogma: On Modernizing the Gospels (Touchstone Journal, 2002)
- Prayer of St. Michael the Archangel (Leo XIII, 1890)

- Highlight theological grounds for the litany of the saints in the Church’s liturgy; emphasize the Christian imagination of the life to come and its present implications against the theology of Bultmann.

Panel Discussion Issues
- What if there were nothing more to look forward to than being forgiven; would Christianity still be compelling/credible/believable? Why do we “need” Heaven?

Week 14. Apologetics Sessions, Evangelism Sessions, Preparation for oral exams.