Saturday, July 31, 2010

Christian Unity to Come to a True Understanding of God

Recently, I finished reading the second volume of Theology of the Old Testament by Walther Eichrodt. In this volume, Eichrodt discusses sin, punishment, angels, death, and immortality as seen through the eyes of the ancient Israelites. The chapter on punishment really caught my attention. In the past few days, I have started to see the connections between ancient Judaism and Christianity. In fact, I find that Christians have gone through almost the same sort of spiritual obstacles, so to speak, as the Jews. In this post, I will attempt to discuss some of these obstacles, mainly the question of sin and punishment and the consequences of the ancient Jews’ and Christians’ responses. I understand that what I will be discussing is pretty controversial, but I will post my reflection anyway so that others can respond to it. I feel that tracing our history can prepare us for what is to come. Although we should be coming to a better and better knowledge of God and his workings in the world, we are just living and reliving the same spiritual experiences. How can we escape from this cycle?

Eichrodt notes that during the Babylonian exile, the Israelites became once again aware of the power of YHWH. After all, Isaiah and Jeremiah strongly engraved into the Jews’ minds the conviction that the Assyrian and the subsequent Babylonian invasions were decreed and willed by God in punishment for His people’s stubbornness to obey. In the book of Lamentations, the poet cries, “How the Lord has covered the Daughter of Zion with the cloud of his anger! He has hurled down the splendor of Israel from heaven to earth; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger” (2:1). Clearly, God’s power is here acknowledged and feared. People felt as if God had abandoned them, and that He would never save them. However, He did, and after returning from the exile, the Jews started to wonder that maybe God was not to be taken so seriously. Instead of seeing liberation from exile solely as a result of God’s free compassion for His people, the Israelites stopped fearing God – that is, until the prophets reminded the Jews of the law and their obligation to keep it. Soon, the law that used to be seen as a means of communication between the Covenant God and His people came to be seen merely as a bunch of rules that needed to be followed. Inevitably, the law overshadowed God. In addition, sin, seen as a violation of the law, was broken down into mortal and venial sins. Some sins had to be worse than other ones. No one can deny that. But eventually, venial sins ceased to be so sinful, and those who felt as if they had not committed mortal sins came to believe that they were without sin. The Israelites came to see sinlessness as a state that could be realized. People came to believe that Abraham and Job had achieved perfection, so naturally, others could too. A great chasm was slowly built between the so-called saints of Israel who kept the law and the sinners who had committed grave sins.

This was the situation in first century Palestine. The Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus encountered really felt as if they were sinless in the eyes of God. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). Jesus showed these Jews that they were still sinners, grave sinners in fact. By reminding them that all people sin and stand in need of repentance and forgiveness, Jesus uncovered the Truth that had been buried for so long, that “[t]here is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). But surely some sins are graver than others. This we can all agree on.

This is where the concept of purgatory emerges. The early Church needed to address the distorted view that many Jews had of sin and punishment. How can someone accept what happened on the cross if he/she does not feel in need of salvation? Venial sins are sins in fact; so, if the punishment for mortal sins is Hell, what is the punishment for venial sins? The Christians came to believe that only if there was punishment for these sins would all people realize their need for God’s grace. Purgatory was the solution. This is what I believe happened in the early Church.

Why would I care to follow God if there was not a punishment for disobeying Him? Certainly, there is a problem with looking at our relationship with God in this way, but unfortunately the threat of punishment is probably one of the greatest reasons why people worship God. Love becomes secondary. However, in the Middle Ages, the fear of purgatory and Hell came to dominate Christians’ lives to the point that people like St. Thomas More could say that God was the chief jailor of a prison from which no one could escape. Early on, people came to realize that they could not stop sinning, and though they knew subconsciously that Jesus could forgive all sins, people felt as if they could never escape from the wrath of God. In addition, witches were real. With evil everywhere, there was no place for joy, peace, or freedom in religion. It is no wonder that church leaders could exploit this great fear of God to finance grand cathedrals. People were only too happy to buy an indulgence if they could get to Heaven. Although it may seem silly to us that Frederick the Elector of Saxony owned 17,443 relics, he really believed in their power to save. In many ways, Christianity was replaced by a sort of Voodoo.

Martin Luther had a solution. Sola fide. Sola gratia. Ultimately, Luther argued, we are saved by grace alone. We cannot buy our way into Heaven. In this, all Christians agree that he was right. Formerly a distraught monk, Luther was only too glad to find a way out of his predicament. Purgatory, Luther felt, was an obstacle to salvation. It wasn’t a solution anymore. A few centuries later (and thanks to the Age of Reason), the concept of cheap grace dominated Protestantism. Instead of an irrational fear of God, complacency kicked in. Now, instead of flagellants, there were couch-potato Christians. But lest we think that this was solely a Protestant problem, let’s fast forward another couple hundred years. In 1959, Pope John XXIII announced his decision to hold a Vatican council in hopes of bringing about an aggiornamento, or a renewal of the Catholic Church. Fear was still a large part of the Catholic experience, and John hoped to alleviate some of that fear. Unfortunately, the Second Vatican Council was greatly misunderstood, and cheap grace came also to dominate much of Catholic thought.

Neither Purgatory nor grace alone is the cause of a misunderstanding of God. In fact, it seems to me, that for a time they helped the faith of Christians. Christian faith throughout history has swung from extreme to extreme. We must reach a middle ground. We must have a healthy fear of God and realize that punishment exists, but we must also realize that Jesus has made us truly free and accept the gift of salvation he has given us. Only from avoiding extremes can we escape from this cycle. Only from a true understanding of the nature of God can we help build up the Kingdom on Earth. We must rediscover God not to create a new solution to our problems, but to understand His Truth. In many ways and places in the world, Protestants and Catholics are in the same place spiritually. Only by working together can we learn from each other and escape the cycle and accept and worship God fully and completely. This is why reconciliation amongst Christians is so important.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Rabbi's Reflection on the Reasoning Behind Balaam's Murder

Some months ago, I posted a reflection on the story of Balaam in the book of Numbers, and focused on the similarities between this story and Saul's conversion.
(To see my post click here:
However, at that time I had not read far enough in the book of Numbers to know that Balaam was eventually killed by the Israelites. Suddenly the question arises as to why this is. After Saul's conversion, Paul was given a new life. His past, it seems, was fully forgiven and forgotten, and yet Balaam did not receive this grace. Below is a reflection written by a Jewish Rabbi on Numbers 22:2-25:9. I think it is very intersting.

This portion, Balak, is named for the Moabite King who feared the Israelites as they journeyed toward the Promised Land. The Israelites are encamped on the steppes of Moab opposite Eretz Yisrael and have defeated in battle two different kingdoms already, Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. The Israelites have gained strength since they left Egypt almost four years previously and united as a community and as an army.

Balak wants an edge over the Israelites without engaging them in battle directly and sends for a prophetic specialist, Baalam to curse the Israelites. Baalam is a non-Hebrew prophet. He lives by the Euphrates and Balak’s messengers, elders who are themselves experts in the arts of divination went to find him and bring the king’s plea for help.

Baalam however is reluctant to help. Baalam is indeed a prophet and the Torah records that God speaks with Baalam. How interesting that God has direct communication with a prophet who is dedicated to another religion! Like Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law and himself a high priest of the Midianites, God can be present for them.

God speaks to Baalam and tells him that he may not go with the king’s messengers. This Baalam conveys. But the king sends more dignitaries and offers of riches to provide curses against the Israelites. God gives permission to Baalam to go with the king’s dignitaries but will only be able to speak the words that God gives to him.

Baalam disappoints king Balak because even though the king wants the Israelites cursed—blessings flow from Baalam. These blessings are directly from God who becomes manifest to Baalam. Three times, Baalam and the king, Balak, offer seven sacrifices at special high altars overlooking the encamped Israelites. And three times, Balaam’s prophecies with blessings are stated. Balak the king says, “I called you to damn my enemies and instead you have blessed them these three times! (24:10).”

God protects the Israelites and provides great blessings for them even through the mouth of a non-Jewish prophet.

And yet Baalam—though subject to God’s words –is not looked at with favor in Jewish tradition. He represents pagan religion and in the closing words of the Torah portion—the Children of Israel are led astray by the intermingling and marriage of Israelite men with Moabite women who bring them to worship the pagan god—Baal-peor. Later in the book of Numbers, chapter 31 in the war against the Midianites—Baalam is killed for his role in advising the Midianites and Moabites on the weaknesses of the Israelites. He could not curse them—because God’s blessing was stated, but traditionally it is understood that Baalam advised the Moabites and Midianites that the Israelites could be infiltrated and converted thus helping to weaken them!

In 1967, in Jordan in Deir Allah, an archaeological dig discovered a plaster wall remnants with inked inscription in a local dialect with Aramaic and South Canaanite characteristics. These inscriptions were a previously undiscovered prophecy attributed to Baalam! This was written about by Professor Jo Ann Hackett of Harvard University in Balaam Text from Tell Deir Alla.

This article was taken from:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Catholic meme

Firstly, I would like to thank puzzled for having tagged me to receive a Catholic meme. I'll post my three favorite prayers here.

1) St. Francis of Assisi's Prayer before the crucifix at San Damiano

Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart,
and give me right faith,
Certain hope, and perfect charity,
Wisdom and understanding,
Lord, that I may carry out
your holy and true command. Amen.

Saint Francis is, to me, one of the greatest Christians who has ever lived. He is loved by all Christians and is even respected by some Muslims. His devotion to God was so complete. He understood the Gospel message, and through his order, tried to live out Christ's words as closely as possible. I love this prayer because it is short and to the point.  Instead of telling Jesus what I want to do each day, I must listen to what He has planned for me to accomplish.

2) The Canticle of Brother Sun

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, 
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven You formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is
beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who
produces varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon
for your Love, and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give him thanks
and serve Him with great humility. Amen.

This prayer is so powerful. It is incredible that St. Francis wrote this prayer while he was suffering and near death. There are so many picture books centered on this prayer, and yet people often forget that Francis' appreciation of nature and life was the fruit of his strong devotion to God. I pray this prayer almost every morning.

3)  St. Francis Meditates on the Our Father

"Our Father," Holiest One, our Creator Redeemer, Comforter...
"Who art in heaven," in the angels and saints enlightening them to knowledge, for you, O Lord, are light; inflaming them to love, for you, O Lord, are love; dwelling in them and filling them with blessedness, for you, O Lord, are the highest good, the eternal good from whom is all good and without whom there is no good...
"Hallowed be thy name." May your knowledge shine in us that we may know the breadth of your benefits, the length of your promises, the height of your majesty, and the depth of your judgments...
"Thy kingdom come," that you may reign in us by grace and make us come to your kingdom, where there is clear vision of you, and perfect love of you, and the company and enjoyment of you...
"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," that we may love you with our whole heart by always thinking of you; with our whole soul by always desiring you; with our whole mind by directing all our intentions to you and seeking you honor in all things; with all our strength by spending all the powers and senses of body and soul in the service of your love and not in anything else; and that we may love our neighbor even as ourselves, drawing everything, to the best of our power, to your love; rejoicing in the good of others as in our own, and being compassionate in their troubles, and giving offense to no one...
"Give us this day" --through remembering and understanding and reverencing the love which he had for us and for what he said, did, and suffered for us-- "our daily bread," your Beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ...
"And forgive us our trespasses," by your ineffable mercy in virtue of the passion of your Beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and through the merits and intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary and of all your elect...
"As we forgive those who trespass against us," and what we do not fully forgive, do you, O Lord, make us fully forgive, so that for your sake we may truly love our enemies and devoutly intercede for them with you, thereby rendering no evil for evil, but striving in you to do good to all...
"And lead us not into temptation," hidden or visible, sudden or continuous. "But deliver us from evil," past, present, and to come. Amen.

Is a comment really necessary?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

...that all of them may be one

Mother Teresa and Brother Roger Pray for Peace, Love and Reconciliation

Oh God, the father of all,
you ask every one of us to spread
Love where the poor are humiliated,
Joy where the Church is brought low,
And reconciliation where people are divided. . . 
Father against son, mother against daughter,
Husband against wife,
Believers against those who cannot believe,
Christians against their unloved fellow Christians.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What We Learn About God in the Book of Job

The Book of Job, like Ecclesiastes, is an oft-forgotten book; however, its message is so important. I feel that many who comment on this book focus on the wrong question. Most people would say that this book is centered on the question: Why is there suffering in the world? I argue, though, that the question that this book really deals with is this one: Who is this God who allows suffering in this world? I say this because God never tells us why there is suffering, but He does reveal much about Himself. We also learn how not to comfort someone who is suffering. But right now, I think I’ll focus on the nature of God as revealed to Job.

Job was ready to confront God. “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (23:10). But when God answers Job, the latter has nothing to say. Suddenly, Job realizes that he was wrong to question God. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:3b). Yet, from this encounter, Job learns much about God and the relationship He has with his creation. For one thing, God does in fact care about Job. Eliphaz asks, “Can a man be of benefit to God? Can even a wise man benefit him?” (22:2). The answer is yes. Firstly, the fact that God cares enough to respond to Job’s complaints is an outward sign that one man is very important. And we know, although Job does not, that God needs this man’s loyalty to prove Satan wrong. How Job responds to his suffering, does matter to God because it affects Him. Job learns that God is caring and yet more awesome than any other being in the universe. God made all the little details of the world. Even the smallest of creatures are important to Him. God’s ways are not man’s ways. He uses His power to confound human standards. Like Mary sings in the Magnificat, “He has shown strength with his arm: He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away” (Luke 1:50-52).

Job never does find out why he suffered; however, he realizes that the God who created the heavens and the earth does not owe an answer to Job. But also, and most importantly, God sees the world in a way that Job can never see it. Because He is not bound by the limits of time and space, God knows what is best. This is what we can learn from this book. No one can explain away suffering except God; and He has chosen to keep this a secret. This may not seem fair by human standards, but this is God, and we cannot control or change Him. This is a very difficult book, but it is worth reading. Especially for us Christians, this book is of immense value; we have a God who suffered, and thus knows us intimately. We know that even Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46b). However, we know that through Christ’s suffering, we were given new life. We can be sure that God desires the best for us even if at times this may not seem so. 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Great Thanks to puzzled for the Blog With Substance Award

Firstly, I would like to thank puzzled for having chosen me to receive this award. I am glad that I have been able to engage and inspire my followers, whose blogs, I must say, are fabulous. Blogging, I find, is a great way of sharing ideas.
I long for my blog to be ecumenical, theologically-stimulating, discussion-oriented, warm, and thoroughly Christian. As a Christian, I know that I am not alone. Ecumenism is so important because it is only through ecumenical dialogue that we can ever hope to fulfill Jesus' prayer "that all of them may be one." By discussing works of theologians and my own theological epiphanies, so to speak, I hope to spark dialogue amongst my followers. We have so much in common, so instead of focusing on our differences lets focus on our similarities and through our conversations may we truly come to love and understand each other.

I would like to send this award to:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Peter is the New Testament Moses: Allow me to Explain

Peter is the New Testament Moses. Allow me to explain this bold statement. In the Old Testament, Moses starts off as the adopted son of the Pharaoh of Egypt. However, compassion for his people, the Hebrews, leads Moses to do the unthinkable: murder an Egyptian taskmaster to save a slave from sure death. Thus Moses is forced to flee Egypt to take on a new identity as a shepherd. From prince to shepherd…life couldn’t possibly get more absurd. Or could it?

Years later, Moses has grown accustomed to his new life. He is just a shepherd, but out of nowhere it seems God calls him, or rather sends him, to lead a whole nation to freedom. But how can this be? How can a murderer be called by God to lead a whole nation. God must be mistaken. Let’s listen to Moses’ response: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11).

Moses’ response is rational, and yet God calls him to do the irrational, to go beyond himself. Here Jesus’ words ring true: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Moses is frightened. He believes in and honors his God, but he feels so inadequate. “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant …O Lord, please send someone else to do it” (Exodus 4:10,13). True, maybe Moses stuttered when he spoke, but Moses, it is pretty clear, is also throwing out excuses to get himself out of this terrifying and demanding situation. What if Pharaoh kills him, or the people refuse to obey him? Then what? But Moses agrees, and the Jews are saved. Through God, one man does the truly impossible.

Now let’s visit the New Testament and focus primarily on his calling at the end of the Gospel of John. Peter is a fisherman in Galilee before he is called suddenly to follow Jesus. Peter obeys because he sees something truly special in his Master. He is the first to recognize Jesus as the Christ, and like the other disciples, listens to His teachings. Then, Jesus is betrayed, and in a moment of fear, Peter denies his Master three times. After Jesus’ death, everything seems to go back to normal again. Yes, there is a moment of chaos when the disciples are forced to hide, but very shortly, in just a few hours, everything seems to be over. Peter returns to his fishing life. He is just a fisherman. Things have changed of course; Peter is a changed man, but Christ returns, and He demands more. Peter, who constantly struggled with fear and other insecurities, is suddenly called to do the unthinkable: be a leader. It is not enough for Moses and Peter to pray to God; proof is required, and for Peter this will cost him his life. Caught in the Roman Empire first under the reign of Claudius and then Nero, Peter will not be able to save himself. Peter knows that he loves Jesus, but Jesus is not interested in mere sentiments, but true obeisance. Peter wants to be a normal person; he wants to escape from under the burden he is forced to carry. He doesn’t want to die, but Christ reminds him through his three questions and His story that true life requires sacrifice. In a moment of panic and despair Peter points to John and asks: Lord, what about him? (John 21:21). Jesus’ response is one of the most haunting found in the Gospels: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (v.22).

Thus Peter, like Moses, becomes a leader not because of his own merits, but precisely because he was inadequate by societal standards. If we were honest, we would have to admit that often, Jesus’ commands incite in us responses like, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (6:60). However, God requires us to accept and follow these same teachings. “You must follow me.” I must admit that I am frightened by this Truth. I’d rater follow my own desires than set out to do the seemingly impossible. But God continues to confound the laws of nature to show us that what is natural and acceptable by societal standards does not always correspond with God’s standards. Moses and Peter show us that the path of least resistance is not always the best path to take. After all, Jesus’ teaching still holds true: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:7).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Task of a Theologian

I would like to start this post with a parable from Matthew chapter 13:

            “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (v.44).

I noticed recently that in this parable and the one in the next verse, the treasure and the fine pearls were actually found.

An old, tattered dictionary I have at my bedside (a copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary) defines the word discern as follows: “to perceive or recognize clearly.” The way the term discernment is used in our society adds a bit more to this definition, namely to perceive or recognize clearly what can be perceived or recognized clearly. From my observations, the term is almost always used to explain the state of looking for or perceiving something in the knowledge that that the object of discernment can be found and recognized. You cannot truly discern if a) you do not know what you are looking for, or b) you can never possibly find the answer. This seems to be common sense. But is it?

The parable above is enlightening. What I take from this passage from Matthew’s Gospel is that God’s Truth can be found. St. Anselm defined theology as “fides quaerens intellectum” (faith seeking understanding). Theology’s greatest aim is to understand God and His relationship with the world. Christian theology is a discerning process because we are seeking what we know we can find. As the beginning of John’s Gospel and his first epistle boldly proclaim, God has revealed His Word (the logos) to us. This Word has manifested itself through the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who because of his incarnation has made God known to us. Because Christ is the logos, he is the Truth and this Truth is available for the discerning, so to speak. “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7b). The treasure and the pearls can be found, and this must be the primary aim of a theologian: to discover and proclaim the Truth. Of course we can never know everything about God, or we would be God. But what has been revealed to us can be discerned because the Truth is available. We can in fact understand God because of His Son. 

Theology is different from philosophy. Philosophers attempt to create their own theories about life--- to replace Truth with mere propositions. While theology knows that Truth stands objectively and cannot be manipulated by human thought, philosophy claims that the Truth that created everything including man comes from man himself, and thus can be altered and discarded at will. This is preposterous! Philosophy may help theologians understand the Truth once it has been found, but it can never replace the Truth. We know the Truth exists because of the Gospel, so our searching must be to find and better understand the Truth. Philosophers do not discern because they do not know what they are looking for, but we know what we are looking for.