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.

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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

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?

Meditation on Psalm 38

 

O LORD, REBUKE ME NOT IN THY WRATH: NEITHER CHASTEN ME IN THY HOT DISPLEASURE.

 

 

Here the writer is overwhelmed with grief.

At first he acknowledges that his misery is the result of his own sin and that the anguish he now suffers is from God:

For thine arrows stick fast in me

And thy hand presseth me sore

But, as seems to me to happen often in the psalms, the course of the poem changes abruptly and the psalmist laments not so much his own sin and merited suffering, but the evil of “mine enemies, lively and strong” who “hate me wrongfully.”

Verse twelve details the dynamics of the evil.  His enemies “lay snares” for him; they “speak mischievous things and imagine deceits all the day long.”  This isn’t difficult to understand or relate to.  Anyone who has gone to school, worked in an office  [or other workplace] or spent time in a family will know just what the psalmist is talking about here.  Things are going along fine [seemingly] and then the day comes when you discover that everyone around you seems to be watching a different movie than you are.  What was once accepted is now poison.  What you believed was affection was only feigned.  You find that what has been said behind your back is not at all what you thought was being said.  You are now a target and the crowd is working together to get you knocked off your horse.

In the next verse the writer says of these complaints and plans against him:

 

But I, as a deaf man, heard not and I was as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.

 

When I first read this, I thought of the man unjustly accused and surrounded by those who he thought were his friends as described in the previous verse.  And it was easy for me to think that what the psalmist was saying in this verse was that he was so surprised and taken aback by what he was confronted with that he was literally speechless.  Just dumbstruck by the suddenness of it all and unable in the moment to muster any defense for himself, even though the charges against him are unjust.  Again, that’s easy to imagine.  That’s how it feels.

But on second thought, maybe the psalmist is saying something quite different.  Maybe he is saying that, as he is surrounded by these unjust accusations he ignores them and offers no defense because he knows that God is his only defense.  God is his defender.  His own efforts here will be futile, surely.  But, given time, the wheels of the Almighty will grind and – as we mentioned yesterday – the justice of his cause will shine as the noonday sun.

That is a worthwhile lesson.  This is not to say that one should never speak in his own defense.  There are times and places where that is exactly what one should do.  But there are other situations where you cannot win.  Any effort of your own will only make matters worse.  In those instances, it may well be that the only thing we can do is be silent and wait for vindication from God.  This is faith.

Meditation on Psalm 24

 

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.

This Psalm begins with a basic, yet profound proposition: God made the earth and it belongs to Him.  That notion is so deeply embedded in Christian thought and teaching that those of us who’ve been around awhile might tend to glaze over when we see or hear it once again.  Oh, yeah.  God made the world and it belongs to Him.

But, like so many other things that we tend to ignore or sleepwalk through, these ideas have great consequences and they merit our continual contemplation.

There are (at least)  two problems raised by the proposition:

  1. If God made the world and it belongs to Him, why in the world is it in such a shape? Why do the innocents suffer?  Why do tyrants rage?  Why does wrong seem to prevail so often?
  2. When Christians start talking about God having “made” the world, the whole subject of the creation accounts in Genesis – you know: On the first day God said “Let there be light: and there was light.” Then on the fourth day, God created the sun and the moon and stars in the sky.   The question, of course, is: How literally do you believers take this?   Are you one of those who holds that all was done in six, twenty-four hour periods?

The first question has been around for so long that it has been given a name: “theodicy.”

Theodicy is defined by some as the defense of the omnipotence and goodness of God in the face of overwhelming evil in the world.

Suffice it to say that an in-depth discussion of this issue is far beyond the scope of this blog and far beyond the powers of its writer.  I’m no theologian and the purpose of this blog is simply to read and react to the Psalms as they hit me on that day, with the hope that my sort of normal and unprofessional thoughts might be of some aid or interest to others.

Having said all of that, I will also say that I have spent some time thinking about the whole theodicy problem.  I mean, it does kind of force its way on you.  And I think there is a one-word answer: freedom.  There is evil in the world because God has allowed his creatures freedom.  And freedom, if it is real, means the freedom to rebel; to refuse God’s grace and plan.

The bible teaches that the first evil is rebellion in heaven.  The first rebel was Satan, who has been banished to earth and who hold some limited sway here.  Not really hard to see that.  The Rolling Stones put this into the vernacular of the age:

I watched with glee while your kings and queens

Fought for ten decades for the gods they made

I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”

When after all, it was you and me

Let me please introduce myself

I’m a man of wealth and taste

And I laid traps for troubadours

Who get killed before they reach Bombay

 

We don’t tend to think of Jagger and Richards as theologians, but this song is really pretty consistent with Christian thought.  That line about who killed the Kennedys – “after all, it was you and me” – really captures the idea of

the falleness

 of all of us.

Now, with regard to the whole business about creation occurring in seven, twenty-four hour periods, let me give you my own take on it.  I think those accounts in Genesis – although they are the word of God, although they are authoritative as scripture and although they contain enough truth to fill every one of us up forever – I do not take them literally, as to time.

I spent a career as a prosecutor.  One of the things that happens when you start putting a case together for trial is that you start believing your own theories.  You should, of course.  Nobody should bring a prosecution that they don’t believe in – that they don’t believe is true.  But here is a corollary problem:  when you start believing in your own theory, you might tend to ignore contrary evidence.  The defense counsel presents you with other facts and these tend to undercut your case.  Do you take them seriously or do you brush them away for one reason or another because you are so confident in your own case?

Let me tell you, it is very easy to do the latter.  And we do it – I have done it – to our own peril.  Many times the contrary evidence should not be believed.  Sometimes it is cooked up; sometimes it is based on the testimony of unreliable witness.  But not always.

Here is what happens when we ignore evidence that is inconsistent with our theory:

  1. You will get your butt kicked in the courtroom
  2. You will lose the most precious quality that any prosecutor can own: credibility with the court.

For my money, there is overwhelming evidence that the universe is very, very old.  I have heard the number 14 billion years kicked around, but after you get past the first couple of billion years, it all starts to run together for me.  There is also overwhelming evidence that life on earth as it now appears, took countless ages to appear.

Like I said, this is all way beyond the scope of this blog, but a serious consideration of the evidence that the sciences have come up with – and there is a rather impressive consensus on this matter among the various disciplines – is set forth compellingly in Frances Collins’ fine book The Language of God.   That book is a serious and satisfying effort to harmonize the scriptures with the evidence that science has uncovered over the centuries, written by the man who headed the Genome project and who is, himself, a devout Christian.

There are those who will argue that once you consider any part of the bible as poetic expression, i.e., not literally, scientifically true, then it all goes by the wayside.  Not so.  Take the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example.  The evidence for the Resurrection, even taken from a legal and philosophical point of view, is overwhelmingly strong.  For that, read NT Wright or any of Lee Strobel’s books.

 

The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the strongest evidence we have for any historical event in antiquity.  If we would dismiss the Resurrection as being based on unreliable evidence, we’d have to do the same for everything we know prior to the advent of videotape.  The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is stronger – much stronger – than the evidence for the Battle of Thermopylae.

Meditation on Psalm 18

Christians cannot be shy about poetry.  It is an indispensable part of our heritage.  So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets.  On top of that, our faith is a singing faith.  The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are.  Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression.  Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:

. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung . . .

 It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context.  They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience.  It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.

It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote.   Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:

I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.

It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm.  I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him.  But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work.   It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not.  David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord.  Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:

Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is.  This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering.  The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move.  God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.

What are we to make of it?

In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of Godin heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV)  What results?  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)

What do these two passages have in common?  First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.

But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer.  In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance.  In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.

Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine.   These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”

We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.