Tell the Truth

David Bentley Hart, in his new translation of the New Testament and in his notes before, within and after that translation, insists that Paul’s theology is very different from what we modern Protestants imagine it to be.  Paul writes that Christ came into the “kosmos” to save the “kosmos.” In the translations we are used to, the Greek word “kosmos” is translated into the English word “world.” Hart argues that that will not do; that when Paul used the word “kosmos” he meant something far deeper and wider than anything you and I imagine when we hear the word “world.”

 

While you and I conceive of “the world” as everything that is apparent to our senses or even what humanity has made of the physical world, the word “kosmos,” for Paul, included all of that and the fallen spiritual order.  Thus, Paul writes, again and again, about the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions in the celestial places.  In one place he writes that these powers and the order to which they belong were all created through Christ, just like all of the rest of creation – just like everything we can see:

Colossians 1:16 for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him;

In other places, Paul tells us that Christ has conquered these “powers”:

 

Colossians 2:15 having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

 

Hart translates:

 

Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.

And, in yet another place, Paul seems to imply that the final conquest of these powers is somewhere in the future and will be achieved at the end of time:

 

I Corinthians 15: 24 Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power.

Hart’s translation reads:

 

Then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual.

 

We now have the question before us:  Why should we concern ourselves with this concept of the cosmos?  This notion of a complex and fallen spiritual order that is unseen, has been defeated by Christ, and that yet holds some sway in the affairs of humanity?  What practical difference would this make?

 

Let us start with the notion that Paul was obviously concerned that his readers – who would have found Paul’s conception of the cosmos and a hierarchical, spiritual order far less foreign than we moderns – not lose sight of the fact that this invisible order is a fact of life.  Thus, he warns the Ephesians:

 

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Eph 6: 12

 

Paul follows that warning with advice about how the disciple must carry out the battle.  This is the well-known passage about the armor of God. You know, the “belt of truth,” the “breastplate of righteousness,” the “shield of faith,” and the “helmet of salvation.”

 

I must admit that I never before found this passage very helpful.  It was just a kind of overdone, almost comical picture to me. But, leaving aside the details and whatever might be the distinctions between the helmets and shields and breastplates for the moment, we must admit that  Paul is telling his hearers in adamant terms and tones that since our battle is not against what we see, that our strategies and tactics must be different, much different, than those we would use against a physical enemy.

 

Let’s start with the idea of truth.  Against a merely human foe, would we be likely to use truth or deception?  Would we lie to our enemy to put him at a disadvantage, to deceive him into a trap.  How strange that Paul tells us here that our best weapon in the war against evil is not deception, but truth.

 

We do lie, you know.

 

In fact, it may not be too much to say that when we are facing a battle, our first impulse is to lie, or at least to tell less than the truth.  We want to protect our interest. We don’t want the bad guy to get the drop on us. Here is Bob Dylan:

 

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats

too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking

I had something to protect. . .

 

Jordan Peterson has spent decades as a clinical psychologist, working day after day with people who have crippling emotional problems.  He has come to the conclusion that such problems are always, in the end, moral problems. Even though the sufferers often are not conscious of the fact and may be desperately trying to hide from it, their problems are sin problems.  Many of these are caused or greatly exacerbated by lying.

 

We lie, Peterson says, for many different reasons:

 

To impose my ideological beliefs, to prove that I am (or was) right, to appear competent; to ratchet myself up the dominance hierarchy, to avoid responsibility (or its twin, to garner credit for others actions), to be promoted, to attract the lion’s share of attention, to ensure that everyone likes me, to garner the benefits of martyrdom, to justify my cynicism, to rationalize my antisocial outlook, to minimize immediate conflict, to maintain my naivete, to capitalize on my vulnerability, to always appear as the sainted one, or (this one is particularly evil) to ensure that it is always my unloved child’s fault. . . (209)

He goes on to say that our justifications for lying rest on two premises, both of them false.  The first of these premises holds that we are justified in manipulating reality by lying because we are already sure of what should result in any situation we are in.  We know the end we desire and we are sure that there could be nothing better than what we’re set our cap at and so we lie as a means to that perfect end.

 

Peterson says that this is false because we – limited and finite as we are – very often do not know everything that needs to be known in any given situation.  It may well be that our aim is not prudently made. It may be that the worst thing that could happen – even for ourselves – is that we get the thing we aimed for.  It may be that getting that one thing will prevent a whole string of other good things that might have happened if we had kept our thumb off of the scale. We lie our way into a corner when telling the truth, even if that might have cost us in the immediate, short run, may have led us on to fulfillment and destiny.

 

Second, Peterson argues that telling a lie presupposes that “reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices.”  To translate that into the language of Christian discipleship, it means simply that we are short on faith; that we do not trust the God of the universe with our lives, with our destinies.

 

Paul tells his hearers that it is very important that they not forget who the real enemy is; that the battle of life is a spiritual battle.  The century just past proves once again just how right Paul was and how great the cost may be if his advice is ignored. For the twentieth century is the story of a deliberate and intentional ignoring of that advice and of the catastrophic consequences of that ignoring.

 

Thus, it is Karl Marx who systematically reduced the battle to the seen.  Religion, said Marx – the belief in the spiritual and in powers other than those we can see – is the problem.  He recommended that humanity dismiss the spiritual as mere myth and opiate and focus solely on the physical. That experiment led to  murder and genocides the scale of which was never before imagined.

Advertisements

Tell The Truth

 

 

David Bentley Hart, in his new translation of the New Testament and in his notes before, within and after that translation, insists that Paul’s theology is very different from what we modern Protestants imagine it to be.  Paul writes that Christ came into the “kosmos” to save the “kosmos.” In the translations we are used to, the Greek word “kosmos” is translated into the English word “world.” Hart argues that that will not do; that when Paul used the word “kosmos” he meant something far deeper and wider than anything you and I imagine when we hear the word “world.”

 

While you and I conceive of “the world” as everything that is apparent to our senses or even what humanity has made of the physical world, the word “kosmos,” for Paul, included all of that and the fallen spiritual order.  Thus, Paul writes, again and again, about the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions in the celestial places.  In one place he writes that these powers and the order to which they belong were all created through Christ, just like all of the rest of creation – just like everything we can see:

Colossians 1:16 for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him;

In other places, Paul tells us that Christ has conquered these “powers”:

 

Colossians 2:15 having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

 

Hart translates:

 

Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.

And, in yet another place, Paul seems to imply that the final conquest of these powers is somewhere in the future and will be achieved at the end of time:

 

I Corinthians 15: 24 Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power.

Hart’s translation reads:

 

Then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual.

 

We now have the question before us:  Why should we concern ourselves with this concept of the cosmos?  This notion of a complex and fallen spiritual order that is unseen, has been defeated by Christ, and that yet holds some sway in the affairs of humanity?  What practical difference would this make?

 

Let us start with the notion that Paul was obviously concerned that his readers – who would have found Paul’s conception of the cosmos and a hierarchical, spiritual order far less foreign than we moderns – not lose sight of the fact that this invisible order is a fact of life.  Thus, he warns the Ephesians:

 

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Eph 6: 12

 

Paul follows that warning with advice about how the disciple must carry out the battle.  This is the well-known passage about the armor of God. You know, the “belt of truth,” the “breastplate of righteousness,” the “shield of faith,” and the “helmet of salvation.”

 

I must admit that I never before found this passage very helpful.  It was just a kind of overdone, almost comical picture to me. But, leaving aside the details and whatever might be the distinctions between the helmets and shields and breastplates for the moment, we must admit that  Paul is telling his hearers in adamant terms and tones that since our battle is not against what we see, that our strategies and tactics must be different, much different, than those we would use against a physical enemy.

 

Let’s start with the idea of truth.  Against a merely human foe, would we be likely to use truth or deception?  Would we lie to our enemy to put him at a disadvantage, to deceive him into a trap.  How strange that Paul tells us here that our best weapon in the war against evil is not deception, but truth.

 

We do lie, you know.

 

In fact, it may not be too much to say that when we are facing a battle, our first impulse is to lie, or at least to tell less than the truth.  We want to protect our interest. We don’t want the bad guy to get the drop on us. Here is Bob Dylan:

 

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats

too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking

I had something to protect. . .

 

Jordan Peterson has spent decades as a clinical psychologist, working day after day with people who have crippling emotional problems.  He has come to the conclusion that such problems are always, in the end, moral problems. Even though the sufferers often are not conscious of the fact and may be desperately trying to hide from it, their problems are sin problems.  Many of these are caused or greatly exacerbated by lying.

 

We lie, Peterson says, for many different reasons:

 

To impose my ideological beliefs, to prove that I am (or was) right, to appear competent; to ratchet myself up the dominance hierarchy, to avoid responsibility (or its twin, to garner credit for others actions), to be promoted, to attract the lion’s share of attention, to ensure that everyone likes me, to garner the benefits of martyrdom, to justify my cynicism, to rationalize my antisocial outlook, to minimize immediate conflict, to maintain my naivete, to capitalize on my vulnerability, to always appear as the sainted one, or (this one is particularly evil) to ensure that it is always my unloved child’s fault. . . (209)

He goes on to say that our justifications for lying rest on two premises, both of them false.  The first of these premises holds that we are justified in manipulating reality by lying because we are already sure of what should result in any situation we are in.  We know the end we desire and we are sure that there could be nothing better than what we’re set our cap at and so we lie as a means to that perfect end.

 

Peterson says that this is false because we – limited and finite as we are – very often do not know everything that needs to be known in any given situation.  It may well be that our aim is not prudently made. It may be that the worst thing that could happen – even for ourselves – is that we get the thing we aimed for.  It may be that getting that one thing will prevent a whole string of other good things that might have happened if we had kept our thumb off of the scale. We lie our way into a corner when telling the truth, even if that might have cost us in the immediate, short run, may have led us on to fulfillment and destiny.

 

Second, Peterson argues that telling a lie presupposes that “reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices.”  To translate that into the language of Christian discipleship, it means simply that we are short on faith; that we do not trust the God of the universe with our lives, with our destinies.

 

Paul tells his hearers that it is very important that they not forget who the real enemy is; that the battle of life is a spiritual battle.  The century just past proves once again just how right Paul was and how great the cost may be if his advice is ignored. For the twentieth century is the story of a deliberate and intentional ignoring of that advice and of the catastrophic consequences of that ignoring.

 

Thus, it is Karl Marx who systematically reduced the battle to the seen.  Religion, said Marx – the belief in the spiritual and in powers other than those we can see – is the problem.  He recommended that humanity dismiss the spiritual as mere myth and opiate and focus solely on the physical. That experiment led to  murder and genocides the scale of which was never before imagined.

 

Principalities and Powers

 

 

David Bentley Hart tells us that Paul’s theology or his way of looking at the world – I mean the cosmos – is much different than we moderns imagine.  Paul viewed the cosmos not as merely the world that our senses reveal to us, but as a deeper and broader reality that included not only the earth, but the heavens and the beings – spiritual beings – that are invisible to us but yet still exert power and sway in the affairs of humanity.

 

This notion both repels and attracts me.  The repulsion I feel is at what I would call the “woo-woo” factor.  If we start here talking about various spirit beings and their histories, powers and effects we seem to be right on the verge of Marvel Comics fantasy.  I want my theology cleaner than that, simpler than that.  I’m afraid of getting caught up in the wildness of it, the esoterica.

 

What attracts me about Hart’s argument here – the argument that Paul’s theology had to do with Christ’s defeat of all sorts of invisible powers that held and still hold sway in “the affairs of men” – is that it makes many passages in Bible more intelligible to me.  These are passages that have not been emphasized much in the liturgies I have grown up and grown old under.  And when I came across them in my reading, I just glazed over and didn’t think much about them.  It’s important to say here that you can’t read Paul for very long without coming across such passages.

 

Thus, we hear Paul speak of “the principalities and powers,” the “thrones and authorities” the “elemental powers.”   We read of Christ taking the powers captive.  What can it all – what can any of it – mean?

 

And, better yet, what, if anything, does this business have to do with the daily life of the Christian?  Can coming to a fuller understanding of Paul’s view of the universe change my life for the better – make me a better man?

 

For starters, we have the idea that Christ’s victory over these “powers” is complete:

 

Colossians 2: 15 New International Version
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

 

Or, as Hart translates the verse:

 

Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.

And yet, and yet.  Paul tells us that our own battle is with these very powers:

Because we are wrestling not against blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the celestial places.  Ephesians 6: 12 (DBH)

 

And, better yet, what, if anything, does this business have to do with the daily life of the Christian?  Can coming to a fuller understanding of Paul’s view of the universe change my life for the better – make me a better man?

 

For starters, we have the idea that Christ’s victory over these “powers” is complete:

 

Colossians 2: 15 New International Version
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

 

Or, as Hart translates the verse:

 

Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.

 

And yet, and yet.  Paul tells us that our own battle is with these very powers:

 

Because we are wrestling not against blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the celestial places.  Ephesians 6: 12 (DBH)

 

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this.  For the paradox or apparent contradiction here is the same one that runs through the center of the faith:  The battle against evil is won.  When Jesus Christ said from the cross “It is finished [completed]”  He was talking about His mission – the defeat of evil and the salvation of the world.  The battle is won.  “It is finished.”  And yet, and yet, we “wrestle,” we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

 

Dr. Weaver, who pastored the church I grew up in, explained the matter with a WWII allusion.  D-Day is past, he would say.  The decisive battle has been fought [on the cross].  Thus, victory is assured.  What is left to us is the mop-up operations.

 

But, back to the original and practical question: what good does it do us to try and understand Paul’s theology or cosmology here?  What good will it do us to depart from modern notions of immediate cause and effect; from notions that what we can see is all that is; and entertain the idea that the evils in the world are backed by spiritual beings that we cannot see?

 

What good would that do?

 

Paul thinks it would do plenty!

 

He is telling the Christians there and then to remember that the sources and power of evil are invisible and spiritual in order to change the way they approached life.

 

More later

Cain and Abel

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell

Genesis 4: 2-5

A modern man or woman might see the story of Cain and Abel as completely anachronistic and irrelevant to contemporary life.

 

After all, one might reason, what can the practice of burning sacrifices to God have to do with anything these days?  Not even religious people do that anymore.  No one thinks of God as desiring or being pleased with some ritual sacrifice.

But the picture changes dramatically when we consider what sacrifice really is in the abstract, as Jordan Peterson does in his new book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Let’s begin our consideration of the matter here by noting that the sacrifices of Cain and Abel are the first religious acts recorded in the Bible.  We might think that such actions are unsurprising since the Old Testament itself is full of details about what to sacrifice and when to sacrifice it.  There are prescriptions for the sacrifice of bulls and goats and doves.  There are descriptions of “grain offerings” and “drink offerings,” too.

But the sacrifices made by Cain and Abel come long before the law was given to Moses.  These sacrifices recorded early in the book of Genesis are made over a thousand years before the sacrificial systems were revealed to Moses and set down in the book of Leviticus.   Thus, we may suspect that the actions of these two brothers were more or less intuitive or instinctual.  They sacrificed because it seemed right to them.  It seemed to be a way to blessing.

Peterson argues that the impulse to sacrifice was something that evolved over millennia and that it is not unrelated to the ideas of saving and sharing.  He contends that early humanity observed, over time, that those who sacrificed – like those who saved and shared – tended to be blessed or rewarded in their endeavors.   They flourished.

The practice of sacrifice was the forgoing of some immediate gratification in the hope of some future benefit or blessing.  In concrete terms, Cain and Abel surrendered some delicious and nutritious food for the purpose of pleasing God and thereby obtaining His blessing that would mean future fertility, future multiplication of their wealth.

If we think of the matter in these broad terms, then the practice of sacrifice is not something strange and archaic, it is very much a part of life.

Peterson writes that work is sacrifice.  When we put our noses to the grindstone, we sacrifice immediate pleasure or repose for the hope of future blessing.  We talked last week of the twenty-year old surfer who is at the very peak of his strength and skill and has every reason to expect that in the next five years he will be able to find and ride hollow, blue waves all over the world.  There will be thrills and exhilaration and great companionship.  Maybe even contest victories and recognition.

But he sacrifices all of this, puts away his surfboards and enters medical school where he will be subjected to long days and nights in libraries, classrooms and hospitals for years to come.  He may surf again someday, but his prospects for the kind of performance he is capable of now and that few ever know will be gone forever.

Why has he done this?  There may be altruistic reasons involved in his decision, but part of the equation in almost any such case is the notion that his present surrender will issue in greater blessing down the line.  He anticipates that his adult life will be far more fulfilling if he forgoes the five summers of love that could now be his.  Once his ordeal is completed he will bring in, year after year, the kind of income that will enable him to marry and raise a family in comfortable style.  He will find himself surrounded with interesting colleagues, intellectual challenges and with recurrent opportunity for personal growth and professional advancement.

If we think of sacrifice in that broad way, then this ancient story takes on meaning and relevance for each of us.  Then the question becomes: what do we do when our sacrifice is not accepted?  When we surrender present benefit and the hoped-for future blessing does not come to pass?

More on Stupid King Xerxes

 

 

As we have studied the Book of Esther, we have spent some time and energy exploring the character of King Xerxes.  If we believe that the writer of this book went by the storyteller’s maxim to “show, not tell,” then we see a very deliberate and rather exhaustive effort to reveal the character of Xerxes through a recounting of his several decisions that figure in the story.

The picture we are given of King Xerxes is not a very flattering one.  Indeed, the writer here tells us that Xerxes is almost everything you would not want in a ruler.  He is ostentatious and insecure.  The first thing we’re told about the King is that he spends his time in a celebration of his own power and riches.  He lacks even the most basic insight and understanding of what is going on around him.   We can say a lot about the stupidity of the king’s demand that his wife come and show herself to his drunken friends.   This is denigrating and inconsiderate and shows a lack of respect for his wife.  But the fact that the king made this request tells us even more about the king.  For one thing, he obviously does not know his wife very well at all.

What Vashti does here in refusing to follow the king’s order is quite bold.  We must assume, however, that it was not out of character for her.  Thus, if the king had had any knowledge or understanding of his wife’s character, he would never have made this demand.  He would have foreseen that there was a good chance that by doing so he  would expose himself to the kind of embarrassment that in fact follows in the story.

After the king is embarrassed by his wife’s refusal of his order, he makes matters worse by listening to the self-serving advice of his courtiers.  Rather than taking time to consider his actions and attempt to ameliorate his own situation, he jumps from one stupid excess to another, ordering the banishment of his own wife.  Who loses in this situation?

King Xerxes, of course.  He loses the consortium of his beautiful wife.  In his one moment of humanity and sobriety that the story allows him, we see a strong hint that Xerxes is missing his wife and perhaps reconsidering the wisdom of his rash actions

Finishing Up: Esther and Xerxes

Let’s try to finish up our study of old king Xerxes.

 

We’ve already noted his rash and reckless behavior.  We’ve already noted his profound lack of insight into what is going on around him.  We’ve seen that he acts on impulse and that he is intemperate and easily manipulated.

But when the story turns and Esther begins to execute her plan to tell the king the truth, we see even more of Xerxes’ immoderate character.  Thus, when Esther approaches him with a request and before he has the first clue about what she will ask, he offers her “half of his kingdom.”

Moreover, when the truth about Haman is finally out and Haman is on his knees, begging Queen Esther for mercy, Xerxes misreads the situation yet again, perceiving, erroneously, that Haman is attempting to ravish the queen.

 

So, you might be saying, We get all that.  We see that Xerxes was an idiot.  So what?  What is in it for us as we read the story to day?

I think we can be pretty sure that it was a part of the author’s intent to make the case against Xerxes.  There is too much detail, too much description of his decision making to think otherwise.  Why is it there?

To make the point, I think, that this is exactly what earthly government is often like.  We expect and hope for prudence and integrity, but what we often get is recklessness and corruption.  Look at how the government actually worked then.  The king was manipulated by his advisors in every decision.  And his advisors, without exception, had their own selfish agendas in mind.  There is little thought for the well being of the king’s subjects.  All instead is focused on making the courtiers happy in the moment.

Xerxes is an idiot.  He would not know the truth if it beat down his door.  And that is exactly what Esther has to do.  She saves her race by speaking truth to power – and this at great risk to herself.  Power is often oblivious to the truth and yet we need the truth to live.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  We must speak Christ.  To live we must speak Christ.

Meditation on Psalm 57

 

He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up.

One cannot study long the songs of David without being deeply impressed that, for David, life was a battle.   His poetry is shot through with complaints about unfair treatment, about enemies who laid traps for him and who slandered his name.  Here is verse four:

My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

So often we look to the Psalms to see the profound expressions of trust in God.  That’s great, but these are brought on by the crises David faced, day by day and year by year.  Should reading the Psalms remind us – even convince us – that life is a battle?  That we are not spending our days sailing, unopposed and in the favor of some kind wind.

I wonder if faith is even possible if we do not see the enemy, if we do not understand the stakes.  David’s foes, although deadly, were at least clearly defined.  He knew who opposed him.  They were flesh and blood.  Men of a rival nation who wanted to defeat Israel.  In our time the enemy, as Bob Dylan reminds us, is “subtle:”

The enemy is subtle

Howbeit we’re deceived

When the truth’s in our hearts

And we still don’t believe.

Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”

Here is Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I wonder if we can really know God experientially; have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, if we don’t recognize that there is a war going on and that we are in it; if we do not recognize that we face opposition – even opposition other than our own divided hearts?