Tag Archives: theology

The Uncontrolling Love of God

The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of ProvidenceThe Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence by Thomas Jay Oord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The world of Nazarene higher education was rocked not long ago by news of the controversial dismissal of Thomas Jay Oord from his teaching position at Northwest Nazarene University. Though I don’t know Oord personally, I know he was generally regarded as a respected and active theologian inside and outside the denomination and someone who was doing important work. He also had a certain amount of controversy about him, primarily as he was considered a leader in the field of process theology.

Not knowing much about him or about process theology in general, I was anxious to read his most recent work, which is an accessible and non-academic introduction to this school of theology and in particular an explanation of how Oord’s particular flavor of process theology can provide what he sees as a solution to the problem of evil. In the work, it’s clear that Oord has read and engaged extensively with wide fields of contemporary theology across denominational traditions as well as the work of scientists at the forefront of the dialogue between theology and science. If you want to know what Oord in particular and process theology in general are about, this is a good place to start, as Oord’s discussions engage much of the current literature and his extensive footnotes give lots of directions of various places to go to learn more.

The goal of Oord’s work is to apply his brand of process theology to the issue of evil in the world. That bad things happen is undeniable. Oord calls this “genuine evil” and begins the book with several examples, from a random death caused by a rock through a windshield to the story of a woman who was raped after her family was murdered. Any theology, Oord maintains, that attempts to say things about the nature of God needs to give an account of these evils, and Oord outlines several possible responses. Any response, however, that says that God is all-powerful and could have prevented these things but did not, Oord believes, leaves God culpable for the evil and is thus unacceptable. If one has the power to prevent evil and the knowledge that it will happen but allows it to happen anyway, Oord argues, one is in some respect responsible for the evil.

Here is where Oord’s process theology comes into play. In his brand of process theology, God knows all that can possibly be known in principle. However, because Oord believes modern science has shown randomness and uncertainty as fundamental properties of the universe, the future is in principle unknowable. God does not know the future. He is presently omniscient, in that He knows all that happens in the unfolding of time, but He does not know the future because it does not yet exist. He experiences the unfolding of time along with Creation. In a sense, He learns as certain potentialities close and others become actualized.

This takes care of the foreknowledge issue in the problem of evil. God simply does not know for sure what is going to happen. But what about the divine power to prevent evil? Here is where the crux of Oord’s argument lies, as outlined in the title of his book: Oord argues that the primary, essential, and logically prior characteristic of God is uncontrolling love. This means it is always God’s nature to give freedom to his creation—from animate, intelligent beings to inanimate rocks governed by the law-like properties of the universe. Everything that God does flows from this kenotic, self-emptying love that preserves the freedom of all creation. Because God cannot deny his own nature, He cannot violate the freedom of either a person bent on evil or the trajectory of an errant stone. It’s not simply that He choses not to intercede (in which case He would still be culpable in Oord’s eyes). It is instead that the nature of God means He cannot.

If this feels like a risky, limited vision of God, it is. But it’s not one that’s completely without precedent in the Christian tradition. The old analogy of God creating a rock so big He can’t lift it points to the long-held Christian belief that God cannot do things that are logically impossible. Oord believes what someone might think is “lost” in this view of God is more than made up for by replacing a God who seems to allow evil with a deeper knowledge of the essential aspect of God—love.

To some extent, this is a view I can sympathize with and find much attractive about, especially the portions that deal with God’s nature in respect to human freedom. But there are places where I remain unconvinced, primarily related to ideas about God’s foreknowledge or lack thereof, Oord’s definition of “genuine evil,” the perception of God we’re left with, and a few other issues that Oord may clarify in later work or perhaps has already addressed elsewhere.

The first issue is something I’ve never understood, and perhaps someone can explain it to me at more length. I’ve never understood how divine (or any) foreknowledge is incompatible with free will. The explanation usually goes that knowing exactly what someone is going to do would mean they didn’t have free will in making the decision. But consider this: if Doc Brown followed me around for a week (undetected) observing and recording everything I did and then got into his DeLorean and went back in time a week, he would now have foreknowledge of every choice that I made. But would that mean I didn’t have free choice when I made them? I don’t understand how his knowledge would be incompatible with my freedom.

I’m also not convinced by the concept of a God that experiences time along with creation. For one thing, I’m not ready to give up on the concept of time travel, nor am I as married to a forward-only causality as Oord is. (I’ve even published a story about causality working the other direction.) Oord believes science indicates this is the way the world works, but I don’t think science has shut the door on the world working otherwise. Indeed, relativity shows that time is as fluid as space itself, that the geometry of space causes time to flow at different rates in different locations. I’m not sure how this maps onto Oord’s view of a God learning in time along with us. (And, as a friend pointed out, this view of time is inherently Western. Other cultures view time in very different ways.) More generally though, if God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love, I’m not sure we need to give up on his extra-temporal nature to maintain Oord’s central argument.

Too much, in my mind, is given up if we give up the concept of a God who transcends time. For one thing, I like don’t like the idea of a God that can in principle be surprised or a God that functions like a divine super-computer, reduced to simply making (very good) predictions about the future. I like to think at least someone understands and foresees the intricacies of my own personality moment to moment, or the personality of unborn kids. I’m also rather married to the idea of certain events (like the crucifixion, for instance, which the Orthodox like to talk about as happening in some sense “before the foundation of the world”) as being eternal and having backward as well as forward consequences.

I also have concerns with the way Oord defines “genuine evil,” which touches on his ontology of choice. In essence, he’s classified the genuine physical harm that comes about from an errant rock with that coming from the choices made by murders and rapists. I don’t think an accidental death can be a “genuine evil” in the same way as the result of a conscious choice can. I want to maintain a distinction between the two, even though both in my mind can have “genuinely bad” or “genuinely harmful” results. Obviously an explanation of providence needs to encompass both, but Oord seems to be on very different ground philosophically when talking about the rock versus the rapists.

In the case of the human actors, I think I can agree with him: if God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love, then it would result in a logical inconsistency for God to violate His own nature to override the freedom of choice in humans—even to prevent genuine harm. The evil that results from human actions or inactions are the responsibility of humans alone; God is not culpable.

But what about harm that results from the law-like processes of nature, including random actions that result in death and destruction (like a tornado or a stone through someone’s windshield)? Here choice doesn’t seem to be an issue, and Oord recognizes that there’s still a lot to be worked out in this respect. But he claims that because the law-like regularities in the world are themselves a form of grace, God cannot withdraw His presence or override the freedom inherent in physical processes themselves because to do so would also violate His own nature of kenotic love.

This is a bit harder for me to follow, though I again resonate with the idea that the spirit-filled presence of God throughout the physical order means that everything is sustained by God and that law-like regularities (Oord is careful to not call them laws of nature, being sensitive to contemporary philosophy of science) are themselves a form of God’s grace. But in maintaining that the freedom to self-organize is an essential property of nature and that there’s a continuous spectrum of choice from humans down to much simpler forms of life, he has to assume a teleological evolution to the universe in some sense. I don’t know all the implications here, but it seems like Oord is on much shakier ground.

I also wonder if Oord’s prioritizing of self-emptying, uncontrolling love as the essential and logically prior nature of God doesn’t overlay a Western, contemporary view of love on God in the same way that his linear conception of time does. Would this view of love have been one understood throughout history, or even in non-Western contexts today? Note that Oord’s version of process theology does not say that God is evolving; the traits of God remain eternal. But the concept of love seems to be one that has changed throughout history, which makes it potentially problematic to posit as God’s essential nature, at least love qualified in the terms that Oord gives it.

Finally, it seemed like the door was wide open at several points throughout Oord’s account to bring in trinitarian theology, or to at least acknowledge that his work has important implications for our understanding of the Trinity as well as the Incarnation. In his work, however, these implications seemed to take a backseat to Oord’s logical grapplings with qualifying God’s properties.

The idea of a God who suffers along with us, who takes risks, and who is defined and perhaps even bounded by His own self-emptying love is a strong one. I think Oord is on the forefront of important thought on these ideas in evangelical circles. I can follow him a good distance along this road. But especially as relates to issues of the nature of God in time I remain unconvinced, and in questions of God’s presence in the physical world and the implications it has for physical harms (as opposed to those from human or creaturely choice) I need more explanation.

The Orthodox Liturgy

The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine RiteThe Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite by Hugh Wybrew

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend and I have been having an enduring, good-natured disagreement on the nature of the Church and Christianity. He sees the history of Christianity as the accumulation of dogmatic and hierarchical barnacles that must be scraped away in order to get back to the pure, original Christianity of Christ and the first apostles. If you look at the history of the institutionalized church, he says, you see accretion, abuse, and general messiness that wasn’t an initial part of what Christ intended. The history of the Church, I think he might say, is a long history of missing the mark.

There’s certainly some truth to this. But if we’re using the analogy of barnacles encrusting something original and true, my answer to this metaphor is that I don’t think Christ came to entrust the apostles and the early Church with a boat. That is, I don’t think His purpose was to create or deliver something whole and entire that was supposed to be passed down, static and unchanging.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Christ did not come to deliver the truths of the kingdom of God or that those truths evolve or develop over time. I’m talking about the Church itself. It did not spring whole and mature at Pentecost like Athena from the mind of Zeus. Christ did not deliver a boat that we have to scrape the barnacles off to get back to the original shape. Rather, something was born at Pentecost, something given life by the descent of the Holy Spirit, and that thing is better represented (in my mind) as a thing living and growing in history (like a tree) than a shape or structure that needs to be restored.

This difference comes out most clearly when we talk about the actual practices of the Church. What is it here to do? My friend might say that all the dogmatic and ecclesiastical elaborations— incense and vestments and hierarchy and everything else that goes with liturgical worship— are examples of encrustations that need to be cleared away. It’s obvious these were not what the apostles were doing in the generation or two after Christ’s ascension.

On the other hand though, neither was the Canon of Scripture established, the dual nature of Christ articulated, or the trinitarian dogma formalized in those first generations. These were things the Church did in response to the historical events of the life and resurrection of Christ. They didn’t fall out fully formed and articulated. They were the result of the Church wrestling with what they knew to be true under— we believe— the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Christ didn’t deliver a body of beliefs or a structure of worship; he birthed a Church: a living, organic, growing, evolving thing.

To me, this view is necessary for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in the narrative of history. It’s never made sense for me to see the Church as almost immediately “going wrong,” though proponents of this view often disagree about just when it started to depart from the “pure” faith of the apostles. If, as many do, they point to the reign of Constantine, this is also the same point at which the Nicene Creed is first articulated. So if we want to throw up our hands at the Church getting in bed with Imperialism, we also have to throw up our hands at the first attempts to formalize statements of Christian belief, which came about by the instigation of the Emperor.

I say all this to say that whichever view you take— barnacles or growth— will influence how you interpret the work of Hugh Wybrew in The Orthodox Liturgy: the Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite. Either it’s a story of how multiple encrustations of liturgical worship grew up from the first to the fourteenth century to obscure the Church’s early and pure form of worship, or its a story of the development of the liturgy to the rich, vibrant form it has today. Enrichment or encrustation is a matter of perspective and teleology.

Wybrew, former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, offers a comprehensive, in-depth survey of the development of the liturgy in the East— the liturgy celebrated by Orthodox Christians each Sunday around the world— from the the earliest Christian documents until its more or less fully developed form in the fourteenth century. One the one hand, you can’t read this book and then maintain that your Church worships in the same way as the apostles, or in the first generations after them, or even as the Church did in seventh century Byzantium. The liturgy has evolved. On the other, you’ll find surprising consistencies throughout. Wybrew follows both these aspects, change and continuity from the apostolic days until the fourteenth century, in this work.

The study is chronological, drawing on surviving documents and accounts to give a representation of liturgical worship (which, it needs to be pointed out, was not simply one way of worshiping but the structure of Christian worship) in different periods in the Byzantine Empire. Early on there are different forms of the liturgy, all with certain common traits, but by the seventh century the form practiced in Byzantium comes to dominate and become the standard throughout the Eastern Empire. Here the book’s focus is delineated: Wybrew isn’t looking at the rites of other non-Chalcedonian Christianities, nor is he doing a detailed comparison between the liturgy of the Greek East and the Latin West. It’s the evolution of a single species, albeit one that for various reasons became the dominant form of worship still practiced in almost all Orthodox churches around the world.

Wybrew— himself not an Orthodox— does not idealize this process, though he clearly sees the liturgy itself as a meaningful, historically rich, and important aspect of Christian worship. He points out places, for example, where changes over time have obscured the ritual’s original form, where certain important practices (such as Old Testament readings) have been dropped, or where vestigial practices (for instance the intonation of “the doors” before the reading of the Creed) have lost their original meanings. The most problematic trend that Wybrew sees though is the move throughout the centuries to separate the clergy from the laity, making the liturgy clergy-centric to the exclusion of the common people. Aspects of this include the practice of saying certain prayers inaudibly, closing off of the alter from the rest of the church, and infrequent communion by the people. All of these things served to separate the laity from the liturgy itself and make them more and more simply spectators of things they couldn’t fully hear or see or understand. (This perspective though also helps one appreciate how important are recent trends to correct this.)

Another helpful part of this work is that Wybrew doesn’t only provide a historical narrative of how the liturgy developed; he also outlines a history of its interpretation. That is, as the liturgy developed, it became something itself interpreted by theologians, linking the different aspects of the liturgy with scenes from the life of Christ, for instance, or with various representations. Like Scripture itself, the liturgy has an superabundance of meaning. The Great Entrance, for example, may historically be a vestigial practice that grew out of bringing the bread and wine from a separate building where they had been deposited by members of the congregation to the church itself, but today it is seen as also symbolizing the entrance of Christ into the temple, for example, or the beginning of His earthly ministry, or more generally simply the coming of the Word of God into the World.

Which illustrates something important about the Orthodox Liturgy, and something that brings us back to the idea of barnacles and boats. Is something like the Entrance a piece of encrustation that obscures the original practices and life of the Church? If by this question one is asking whether it’s something that was practiced from the very beginning or something vital to an understanding of Christianity, then the answer is probably no. So should it then be abolished? An Orthodox Christian would say no, because it’s a part of the organic growth of the practice of the Church. It has a place and a significance and a meaning. The Holy Spirit was the gift of God to the Church at Pentecost, and that Holy Spirit has been continually creating the Church and its realities in our world since. Things like the Entrance are part of a living heritage of faith.

The liturgy, as Wybrew shows so well in this text, has been a process of growth and development. It has been an evolution. It continues to evolve. It’s alive.

A random and perhaps theologically-flawed analogy: in some ways my view of the Church is like my view of marriage. Sure, I want to remain focused on the faith and the promise of my marriage and at times work to get back the simplicity of love that drew my wife and me together. But marriage isn’t something static; it’s the beginning of a unified life. I don’t look on everything that’s developed over our years together, all the practices and realities of a relationship and family and the traditions that have grown up in our home, as barnacles I need to scrape away to get back to the true purity of our original wedding day. I wouldn’t even know what that means.

A theologian could probably point to flaws in my analogy, and Wybrew’s work is certainly not an argument toward this understanding of the liturgy or the faith itself. Wybrew’s work is simply information: a comprehensive and well-researched outline of how the liturgy has developed and been interpreted over the centuries. How you view that information— as illustrating pointless accumulation of dead ritual or organic growth of living worship— is up to you.

Fill These Hearts

Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal LongingFill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do a bunch of celibate men have to tell the world about marriage, love, and sex? Apparently quite a bit if those celibates are men like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Christopher West’s slender text, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing is an attempt to unpack the Catholic Church’s richly developed and under-appreciated theology of the body, though his desire to make this theology accessible to the widest audience possible at times makes it feel an exposition writ in crayon.

Plus, he starts off very much on the wrong foot from an astronomical point of view. So, pardon a astronomer’s annoyance, but first a short rant:

The opening sentence in West’s book states that “In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to explore the galaxy.”


There’s so much wrong here. Granted, this isn’t a book about science and West only makes this comment in passing to talk about how the music samples carried by these spacecraft testify to humanity’s universal longing. But it is the opening line of his book . . .

The Voyager missions were launched to explore the outer planets of our own solar system, not the galaxy. But more than that, that there’s a staggering problem of scale here. Imagine tossing an Oreo cookie into the center of a football field. That cookie is roughly the radius of our solar system. (The Sun would be a candy sprinkle at Oreo’s center, and Neptune would be a microscopic dot skimming around the cookie’s edge.) On this scale, the nearest planetary system is another cookie two football fields away. The galaxy is about 200 billion of these cookies spread over an area about the size of North America. And where are the Voyagers on this scale? In the decades they’ve been in space, they’ve drifted less than a yard away from our own cookie– er, solar system.

Saying that we sent them out to explore the galaxy is a bit like imagining sending a paramecium to explore New York City.

End rant.

Okay, so it’s not a book about science. It’s a book about theology. West’s major point is that we as humans are built with certain longings and desires and that this isn’t a bad thing. We have these desires for a reason, but we have three possible responses to this reality, two bad and one good. We can either ignore and suppress those desires (what he calls the “starvation diet”) or we can indulge them (what he calls the “fast food diet”). Though Christianity is often portrayed as leaning toward the first option, West says this is as wrong as the improper indulgence of desires. (And to be clear, throughout the book he’s mainly talking about romantic and sexual desires.)

The proper response, West says, is to recognize these desires as pointing toward something beyond themselves, as indicative of an eternal banquet to come, to realize the things of this world cannot satisfy our desires, and to see romantic and sexual desires as a way of stretching our hearts so God can satisfy us. There’s weirdness here and mysticism and even some discomfort. But there’s also quite a bit of solid theology and biblical exposition. Song of Solomon, for instance, is in the Bible for a reason.

West’s alliterative thesis is that our desires— when understood correctly– point toward God, our design shows we’re meant to exist in relationship, and our destiny is that God wants to expand our desires and longings toward infinity where they can be filled with His love.

Along the way we’re treated to passages from Scripture and Catholic theology interspersed with painful analogies from Spider-Man 2 and lyrics from U2 (see the comment above about being writ in crayon). The most compelling portions for me were the final chapters where West provides an outline of the Catholic view of chastity and sexual ethics. In West’s interpretation, chastity is a promise of immortality. It’s a way of rightly ordering desire here on Earth, of keeping human nature free of the addictive aspects of sexual desire and oriented toward eternity. (If it seems like a futile and desperate hope, it kind of is.)

There are lots of issues here, primarily related to the point that West seems to think humans all have more or less the same sort of desires and takes this as the starting point for his exposition. This is in keeping with what I understand of Catholic theology often beginning from a “natural laws” treatment of the world, something that I’m not sure remains tenable.

If nothing else though, besides bringing a taste of some of the deeper aspects of Catholic theology, West does call attention to the undeniable fact that many of the central themes and symbols in the Bible have to do with sex and marriage– and wine. Sex and alcohol, often shunned in puritanical circles, are central to a Biblical view of desire and satisfaction. Christ’s first miracle, as West points out, was at a wedding feast, and it was to provide that feast with a fine vintage. This is West’s central claim: that God isn’t interested in starving us or in seeing us waste ourselves seeking after pleasures that can’t satisfy. Rather, He wants to provide a real, eternal banquet and (though the analogy becomes strained, at least to me) a real, eternal marriage relationship.

Christ, Our Way and Our Life

Christ, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite SophronyChrist, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony by Archimandrite Zacharias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are persuaded that man’s vocation is incomprehensibly wonderful and great. (99)

What do we do with this idea of holiness, the ideal of saintliness? The belief that in this life one can become like God in humility and love and empathy and prayer is one of the things that holds me in hope to Christianity.

Yet different traditions understand the concept of holiness in different ways. In many traditions, holiness and salvation are an either/or, on/off, you have it or you don’t, sort of thing: you’ve either been granted salvation and subsequent holiness by the grace of God and your faith therein, or not. In Orthodoxy, however, the process of theosis– of becoming like God– is not a thrown switch. It is certainly possible, by the grace of God, but it is claimed by few (likely no one, least of all those who approach it) and seen only as the fruit of a long process of ascetic practice and discipline.

That’s not to say holiness is only for monks. But it is to say that Orthodoxy recognizes holiness as a gradual process, an organic and often painful growth, a “ladder of divine ascent.” It doesn’t mean the only people going to heaven are the Mother Teresas of the world, but it does mean there are degrees of holiness and there are those who have advanced much farther along that road than others. And sometimes it’s good to take a long look at the abyss that separates someone like us (me) from someone like that.

For a time I used to regularly read the blog of Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest living and working in Tennessee. In his excellent posts he would consistently make reference to the works of Archimandrite Sophrony, an Orthodox monk whose life spanned much of the twentieth century. In particular, Father Stephen would quote from a study of Sophrony’s life entitled Christ, Our Way and Our Life, written by another monk, Archimandrite Zacharias, originally as a PhD dissertation and translated into English in 2003.

Sophrony and his mentor, St. Silouan, spent their lives in the pursuit of holiness. They devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation, and they said things like, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not” and “Stay on the verge of despair, but when you see that you are going to fall over, draw back and have a cup of tea.” They lived in chastity and obedience, poverty and humility, and they attempt to forsake the priorities of this world completely. What’s the point of such endeavors? If salvation is by faith alone, are they missing the point of Christianity? Or are they of the handful of faithful few on whom the salvation of the world rests?

These are deep waters, and I waded out onto them with some trepidation. I’m no mystic, but I tried to wrap my mind around the themes of their theology. Those themes included utter humility and self-loathing to the point of despair to reach the point at which one can truly pray for the entire world. Sophrony believes this is what Christ did and that the ultimate goal of a Christian is to be able to truly pray on behalf of all (something embodied in the liturgy we celebrate each week).

No one besides monks are much into self-loathing or humility today. Yet Sophrony and Silouan maintain that a form of self-loathing is necessary to gain true repentance, that we need to see ourselves as we actually are in comparison to the love and purity of God, and that only by living through the pain of this self-knowledge (which led the publican to beat his chest and cry, “Lord, have mercy”) can we know the extent of redemption and love of God.

Most of us, I think, would prefer repentance and salvation be quick and painless. But for the Orthodox ascetics, it’s painful. It’s a burning. It’s something that’s achieved with rivers of tears. The more we know who we truly are, the more we know the extent of our own sin, the more we understand the love of God.

If they left it there though, it wouldn’t be much in the way of good news. For Sophrony and Silouan, despair over our own condition– and then beyond that, despair over the condition of the human race itself– is necessary to be like Christ. They understand the entire life of Christ as a descent– from the right hand of God to a lowly place on Earth, and then from Earth to Hell itself. Christ sits at the bottom of an inverted pyramid of creation, occupying the most lowly, painful, humble position, and from that position bearing the sins and weight of the world. When we embrace the painful humility of our own brokenness and start to feel the weight and pain of the world itself in our prayers, we are following the path of Christ. Salvation is not upward toward heaven and redemption– or at least not initially; it is downward toward the pain and humiliation of Christ.

“Keep your mind in hell,” are the words reported to have come to St. Siluoan from Christ Himself, meaning we must live in that struggle and that pain, that in taking up the suffering of our own sins and the sins of humanity, we are with Christ. “Keep your mind in hell,” he was told, “and despair not.” Despair not, because Christ did not remain in Hell, and by taking on the sins of the world He was able to redeem the world and conquer death. But, Siluoan and Sophrony would say, we focus too much on this second part alone, but we neglect that Christ only ascended by first descending and that we must follow the same path.

Christ did not descend so that a switch could be flipped and we could live the rest of our lives in redeemed comfort. He came so that we could emulate Him in taking on the burdens of the world and offering them up to God. Generally speaking, man bears witness to his kinship with God when, in every aspect of his life, he thinks, feels, and acts with the consciousness that God has placed all of creation into his care. (63) For them, this is a very real, ontological act centered in prayer, not simply in a role of stewardship of nature or talents (though that’s certainly a part of it).

If this repels, reflect on the saints. Who are the saints, in whatever tradition you find yourself? What makes them saintly? Is it simply that they’ve been saved and sanctified, or is it that they recognize this salvation as a means of taking up the pain and the burdens of others and by doing so sanctifying them to God? And how are they able to do this? By recognizing their own brokenness, by living at the edge of despair and not yielding to it, and by constantly orienting themselves toward humility, patience, and descent.

That seems pretty difficult. And right.

For those who have not been given such a state, copying his way of fulfilling St. Silouan’s word may prove unbearable. A lighter form of this teaching may, however, be realized by anyone, if he gives thanks to God at all times for all He bestows upon him, acknowledging always his own unworthiness. Continual thanksgiving makes up for what is lacking in us. (273)

A Century of Holiness Theology

A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905 to 2004A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905 to 2004 by Mark R. Quanstrom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up in a denomination that defined (and continues to define) itself by a single point of doctrine: entire sanctification. It’s a term you know if you’re a Nazarene, and if you were raised Nazarene (like I was), it’s a term you spent a good deal of your childhood and teenage years trying to puzzle out. For a certain generation, entire sanctification was something that happened after you were saved, a “second act of grace” by which the Holy Spirit filled you completely and you were cleansed of sin and entirely devoted to God. For others (generally in a younger generation) it was a crisis point at which you fully dedicated yourself to God and began a lifelong process (that may have started at the same point at which you were saved) of committing yourself and living a holy life. Whatever it was, it sounded wildly exciting, exuberantly optimistic, and incredibly confusing.

I’m not a Nazarene anymore, and it wasn’t the idea of holiness or sanctity– the idea that one could and should and that certain people even did live a holy life before God– that drove me out. Indeed, I don’t think I was driven out at all, and I still have a great love and even a lot of like for the denomination. I believe there’s a place for people who appreciate, respect, and understand the Nazarene heritage working in and serving the Nazarene world. (Otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am doing what I’m doing.)

But the doctrine of entire sanctification is still confusing. Poll a dozen Nazarenes as to what exactly this means and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. And what I learned reading Mark Quanstrom’s excellent historical survey of the doctrine is that there’s a reason for this. Quanstrom’s work does what the best historical studies should: it gets at the primary sources to provide an insightful narrative, and in this case a narrative that resonates with me and explains a lot of the reason I was at times confused regarding my own church’s doctrine growing up. The work is not a philosophical polemic (Quanstrom lets the documents speak for themselves), nor is it a systematic theological exposition (though my own background in the church helps, as I already in some sense speak the language). I’m not sure how accessible it would be to someone with no background or relationship to the denomination.

Quanstrom starts by laying the historical groundwork for the church’s formation, which I only patchily remembered from my days reading missionary books and studying up for my Caravan badges. (I’m sure I would have gotten more of this had I been a religion major at a Nazarene college.) The point is that the Church of the Nazarene grew from an assortment of groups with one common belief: sanctification as a second act of grace subsequent to the initial salvation experience. Drawing on his sources (which includes texts as varied as General Assembly reports and addresses, evolving Articles of Faith in the Church Manual, and books that were at one time or another on the list of recommended reading for those studying to be ordained in the Nazarene church) Quanstrom clearly shows that the early Nazarene church– an assembly of several disparate holiness movements– was unified in the early decades of the 1900s about the distinct, instantaneous second crisis event called sanctification that cleansed the Christian from inbred sin.

By the 1960s, however, the denomination had to face a loss of optimism of what this second act would actually accomplish– coming to grips with the depth of the sinfulness of humanity, especially in the lost of confidence that led to the Second World War. First, holiness theologians spent some time refining their definitions of exactly what was cleansed in sanctification and differentiating between actual sin (forgiven when a person was saved), the fallen sinful nature (cured via sanctification), and infirmity (never fixed during this lifetime). Then with an important book by the Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop in early 1970s and scholars beginning to go back to John Wesley’s original writings, there developed an understanding of holiness (as well as sin) that was more relational and less ontological. This viewed sanctification as more of a process and put more emphasis on the initial act of grace. Opponents of this view felt it watered down the original meaning of holiness, the doctrine for which the denomination came into being in the first place. Quanstrom says in his study that the church is still in the position of having an official position that rests in an uneasy tension between these two rather irreconcilable positions.

This probably won’t be a page-turner for many people out there (though the writing was lucid and easy to follow), but I honestly found it incredibly compelling. It helped me place a lot of the things I had learned and the cognitive dissonance I experienced learning them into a historical context. And by doing this and by bringing external factors to light that were impacting theological developments in the denomination, it gave me a deeper understanding of the community in which I continue to live and work.

Inheriting Paradise

Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on GardeningInheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening by Vigen Guroian

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The rain over the past several days has meant the plants in my meager garden have grow wild, chaotic, threatening to slip beyond the control of a weeding hand. It doesn’t help that I’m already a bit of a lazy gardener. It’s important for me to have growing things in the ground– my ground– every season, but I don’t spend time each day in the garden. I kind of let things– cucumbers and tomatoes, mainly– run riot.

I have two shallow raised beds in the backyard. This fall I may add a third. One of them is devoted to different varieties of cucumbers with basil plants holding down the corners. There’s a long trellis I made out of old chicken wire running down the middle. The cucumbers are gathering themselves right now in a slow green boil, like they’re gathering momentum to leap up and over it, as they will soon, burying it in a long leafy wave. I’ve always had good luck with cucumbers.

The second bed is more unruly. Half of it is devoted to a weedy onion patch, though the long fingers of the onions still have a comfortable lead on the grass growing up between them, for now. I dropped onion sets into this side of the garden haphazardly and without plan, so the onions have come up in bedraggled rows. The rest of the bed is split between four large tomato plants that have fountained up as bushes, spilling languid green arms in all directions, and a row of potato plants that I’m not sure what to do with. I’ve never grown potatoes before, and as lovely and thick as they look above the ground, I don’t know what that means beneath the soil.

In one corner of this bed I have an uneasy alliance with a bunch of mint. At one time this mint spread across the back of the house and my wife spent a long afternoon pulling it out of the flower bed where it had thrived for perhaps decades. I have a soft spot in my heart for the plant though, because I pull a leaf to chew every time I walk past the garden and I boil it to make mint tea for my kombucha. I have it walled off in its own corner of the raised bed, though my walls don’t go deep enough to actually do anything to hold it back. That’s just me, pulling out the constant runners that keep creeping into the tomatoes.

You’re supposed to be able to tell something about a man from his garden, and if this is true then my garden says I’m enthusiastic, overly optimistic, and naive. I know there are supposed to be growing things on my land, so I plant them, but I’m never quite sure I have the hang of what to do with them once they go crazy, as they do each season. I like to watch the garden come to life, but I lack artistry. Fortunately, there’s not a lot riding on my gardening. I don’t rely on it to provide a major source of my food. If Vigen Guroian is right though, I do need it to provide food for my soul.

The garden is the oldest analogy. As Guroian points out, man was placed in a garden at creation. Whether or not this is “historical” truth, consider what it means as literary truth. Man begins in some kind of order, as some kind of caretaker in relationship with ordered creation. Wildness and wilderness only come later.

For Guroian, an Armenian Orthodox theologian, gardening is more than a hobby or an ecological mission: it is theology, lived in the context of the soil. The annual death and rebirth of his garden is a reflection of the theological– the cosmological, he would argue– truths exemplified in the liturgical life of the Church. Indeed, in this slender volume the chapters are divided by Christian holidays, with Guroian reflecting on the beauty, significance, and meaning of what’s happening in the garden in time with what’s happening in the liturgical year. The garden is a way of participating with creation itself in worship, in bearing fruit joyfully before God. For Guroian, as he shares his own battle with depression, it’s also a means of healing.

The mirror for all this is the prayers and hymns of the Armenian Orthodox liturgy. Guroian pulls from this throughout the year– as well as scripture and occasional quotes from the Fathers or other writers– to draw the reader into an understanding of the cycles at work unseen beneath the turning of the seasons. This might be a central claim of anyone who gardens: for those of us who have lost touch with the land, the circle of the year turns largely unseen. We skim along the skin of it, but we don’t reach deeply and touch what it means.

For an Orthodox Christian gardener like Guroian, the claim might go deeper: most Christians today are like the non-gardeners, out of touch with the deeper turnings in the liturgical life of the Church. We see Easter and Christmas come and go like non-gardeners see certain fruits and vegetables appear and then disappear (though they don’t even really do that anymore) from the markets. But there’s a deep connection between the two, and Guroian believes– in keeping with mystical Orthodox theologians– that the story of the Church, the entire story of redemption and deification, is written in the soil. He would have you know this when you garden as well as when you sing or speak the liturgy.

For all that I agree with Guroian’s message here, I was disappointed with the book. It’s a slender volume that despite the richness of his prose and borrowed texts felt woodenly didactic. The cosmic significance of gardening was spelled out writ large, but what was lacking was the specificity that makes such sweeping analogies and metaphors truly powerful. I learned the significance of gardening, but what of the significance of tomatoes? What of cucumbers or mulch? What of the back bent in labor? They’re all here but passed over, unexplored. I was hoping for something more along the lines of Chet Raymo’s Soul of the Night; whereas Raymo’s theological claims are far vaguer, his treatment of natural (in this case astronomical) phenomena are compelling, concrete, and sublime. For all the truth Guroian is touching here, the execution came off a bit too trite.

The Descent of the Dove

The Descent of the DoveThe Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good friend of mine once called Chesterton’s Everlasting Man “bullshit history.” He meant it in the best way possible. A similar label could be applied to this volume by the famously-forgotten lost Inkling, Charles Williams. I’ve written about Williams’ wonderful yet at-times-exasperating fiction here before. He’s difficult to classify. Like Chesterton, he sort of slips through the cracks by his works’ tendency to resolutely resist any pat classification. His fiction is not fantasy. Neither is it realism. I’ve heard it classified before as “theological thriller,” but if that makes you think of Frank Peretti then you’re still in children’s church. When I heard that Williams had written a history “of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” I tracked it down in Olivet’s library. (Note to Nazarenes: according to the old library card still stuck in it, this copy was checked out by “Dr. Parrott” in 1975. I wonder what he thought of it. And why he felt he needed to sign his name “Dr. Parrott.”)

The Descent of the Dove is not a history of the Holy Spirit. It’s a history of the Holy Spirit in the church. Big difference. I thought I might get a study of how the church has understood the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, throughout its history. Which would have been fascinating. How did the early church come to understand the vague admonitions of the post-Resurrection Christ and the strange happenings of Pentecost? Whence the Filioque? Stuff like that.

I’m sure there’s a study like that out there somewhere, but this is not that book. This is much more along the lines of Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. Because for Williams, of course, the history of the church itself is the history of the Holy Spirit active in the church. So what we have instead is a much more straightforward and less surprising work: an intellectual history of Christianity, unencumbered by detailed analysis of doctrine or careful study of primary texts. Which is fine. Williams wasn’t a historian. He was a literary scholar and a writer and a Christian, and this book– again, like Chesterton’s Everlasting Man— is a very intelligent, very erudite man’s apology for the church.

Apology as in explanation. How did the church get to where it is today? What forces and ideas shaped it throughout its history? This is something like modern “worldview” talk; reducing history to broad strokes and generalizations. Not necessarily a bad thing. The big picture. The sweep of history. Williams is understandably Western-centric without being exclusive. He has a grasp of the implications of ideas, even if he plays fast and loose with their origins or evolution. The motivating factor, the explanatory agent, throughout all of this is of course the vague and subtle and undeniable direction of the Holy Spirit.

If Williams has one theme he wants to sell, it’s his idea of co-inherence. This comes into play in his novels as well, and for all the enjoyable ink he’s spilled on it, I’m still not sure what it means. It revolves around the idea that humans and the Divine can share and experience the qualities of one another. Christ took on our pain and our shame through his crucifixion. His divinity co-inheres with the Father. His divinity somehow also co-inheres with us. When we take on the pain and burdens of others (through empathy or prayer or something more mystical, I’m not sure), we co-inhere with each other. It’s a suitably slippery theme that Williams can trace it throughout the history of the church. I’m not saying he’s wrong. I’m just saying its a vague and slippery idea.

If I sound like I’m faulting Williams for trying to nail jello to a wall, I’m really not. This was a very enjoyable and well-crafted book, if you simply enjoy it for what it is: intellectual history by a guy who wrote very well, thought very well, and could hold his own with the likes of Tolkien and Lewis. But historians like to work with concrete dates and events and texts. Scientists like concrete concepts and evidence. Intellectual history sort of floats over both of these, much more the literary creation of a literary mind (an interpretation of history and the evolution of the church) than pure scholarship. More art than history.

Which is, again, okay. In the end, all we really have are our own interpretations of history. Our own ideas of how we got to where we are. Read this book to get Charles Williams’, which are probably worth more than most.