Tuesday, May 30, 2023

He Gets Us

But do we get Him?

He Gets Us is a movement to reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible and his confounding love and forgiveness.

Jesus is described by the folks at He Gets Us as…

…a man who taught and practiced unconditional love, peace, and kindness; who spent his life defending the poor and the marginalized; a man who even forgave his killers while they executed him unjustly…

They are not looking at the same Jesus I see, the one found in Scripture.  More precisely, they are looking at only one aspect of Jesus, dividing Him from the whole and therefore turning Him into a weapon against Christ and Christianity.

Let’s take a look:

Matthew 11: 21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.  

These cities did not repent; the day of judgement for them will be troubling, but at least not as troubling as it will be for Chorazin and Bethsaida.  In any case, His love cannot be separated from His judgement. And He will judge righteously.

23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

Brought down to hell.  This sure fits the “confounding love” part, but not in the way modern society understands the term.  Jesus’s love is confounding, because it requires righteous judgement.

Matthew 12: 34 O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.

Vipers!  This doesn’t sound kind.

Matthew 15: 4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.

Cursed to death?

John 3: 19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

So much talk of condemnation, fire, and judgement.  Condemned for loving darkness, because of their evil deeds.

John 8: 44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. 

To describe someone as a son of the devil doesn’t fit the “He Gets Us” caricature.

John 15: 6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

Burned…in fire.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Neither Rome nor Constantinople

The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

It is a curious claim, but one heard often.  Why curious?  Well, what has come to us as canon is already problematic enough: not quite aligned accounts in the different Gospels or in the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, to start.  The disciples often shown as clueless, Jesus seemingly praising the servant who cheated his master.  Stuff like that.

But the real troubles come with some of the heterodox accounts of Jesus’s life – heterodox only because of the emperor, according to many.  But Jenkins suggests that such criticisms aren’t valid.

The problem with this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. 

With no pope or emperor to pressure them.  Through the Middle Ages, no Nestorian or Jacobite was under coercion from either pope or emperor.  They were free to include whatever gospels they liked.  Instead of adding, actually they pruned: some from Peter, some from John, Jude, and Revelation.

Even as early as the second century, the Diatessaron assumes four, and only four, authentic Gospels.

 Yes, the same four.  Some background on this work:

The Diatessaron (c. 160–175 AD) is the most prominent early gospel harmony, and was created by Tatian, an Assyrian early Christian apologist and ascetic.

Tatian harmonized the four Gospels, ending with a work that was about 75% as long as the four Gospels in total – having removed duplications, but also not including the two different genealogies of Matthew and Luke, and also not including Jesus’s encounter with the adulteress.  Also, where there were conflicting accounts he chose one or the other in his narrative.  Most scholars agree that he did, from the beginning, include the longer ending of Mark – chapter 16 beginning with verse 9.

The work does not survive, but was reconstructed in 1881 by Theodor Zahn from translations and commentaries. It was used extensively in Eastern churches, until abandoned due to Tatian’s heretical leanings.

Then there is the task of interpretation.  The Syriac churches inherited the approach associated with Antioch: the text must be put in proper historical and cultural context.  The Syriac church was well placed to do just this, given the cultural and language similarities to Jerusalem and Aramaic.

This isn’t to say that it all aligns with what we in the West might understand, nor will I make any theological claim.  My intent is to examine the history, so here goes: the gates of hell, the fires of hell, souls being weighed in the balance.  Per Solomon of Basra, “only stupid men invent” the idea that this means there are actual gates and fires and scales. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Claiming Tradition

While the potent Christian presence in Asia is remarkable enough in its own right, these churches also had a claim to a direct tradition from the apostolic age at least as strong as those boasted by Rome and Constantinople.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

…Eusebius claims that missionaries speaking Aramaic or Hebrew had already reached [India] before the second century and had left an original manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew.

I start with this opening, as it speaks directly to one of my…let’s call it…pet peeves.  The more I have gone into Church history, the more I have concluded that anyone claiming to be following the (as in “the only”) apostolic tradition, and to be following it consistently for 2000 years, is talking nonsense.

Every tradition, a thousand miles west, east, and south of Jerusalem, lays claim to an apostle and lays claim to following the teaching of the apostle.  Yet, there are differences – meaningful enough that the Church divided – as early as 431 at Ephesus, at 451 at Chalcedon, and, as almost an afterthought, 1054 in Constantinople. 

So, stop with this nonsense. 

And now that is off my chest…at least for today.

Some statements apply across the various theological traditions, from the Orthodox to the Nestorians and Jacobites, and the Copts.

Strongly liturgical churches that displayed foretastes of heaven; hierarchical in organization; appeals to all the senses – sound, sight, smell, taste, touch.  And genuine antiquity:

…the Syriac Anaphora of the Apostles Addai and Mari is the oldest Christian liturgy still in use.

OK, who…and what? Per Wikipedia, Addai was a disciple of Thomas, and Mari was a disciple of Addai. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

This is an Oriental liturgy, sometimes assigned to the Syrian group because it is written in the Syriac tongue; sometimes to the Persian group because it was used in Mesopotamia and Persia. It is known as the normal liturgy of the Nestorians, but probably it had been in use before the rise of the Nestorian heresy.

It is still used today, and not just by “heretics”:

At the present time this liturgy is used chiefly by the Nestorians, who reside for the most part in Kurdistan. It is also used by the Chaldean Uniats of the same region, but their liturgy has, of course, been purged of all traces of Nestorian tenets. Finally, it is in use among the Chaldean Uniats of Malabar, but it was very much altered by the Synod of Diamper held in 1599.

Returning to Jenkins, he notes that all of these eastern churches saw monasticism as the highest form of Christian life, just as did the churches to the west of them. 

…the ascetic fathers went forth into the wilderness…to battle against principalities and powers and with the evil spirits which are under heaven.

We could use a few of these right now. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Go East Young Man

No one has been sent to us Orientals by the Pope.  The holy apostles aforesaid taught us and we still hold today what they handed  down to us.

-          Rabban Bar Sauma, c. 1290 (from the Nestorian Church of the East in China)

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

Merv, today a dead city but at one time a major city in what is now Turkmenistan and a center of trade along the Silk Road, was, in the twelfth century, one of the largest cities in the world.  By the 420s, it had a bishop, and in the first half of the sixth century it became a metropolitan see of the Eastern (Nestorian) Church.

Around the year 500, it was already translating major works from Greek and Syriac sources into the languages of central and eastern Asia.  This rich intellectual life continued until the thirteenth century – and could compete with intellectual life anywhere in the Christian world until the establishment of universities in western Europe in the twelfth century.

This under Muslim rule, with Christians a minority, yet it survived and even thrived – a Christian world completely outside of any European context.  At a time when Rome was an outlier (even taking many of its earliest popes from Syria) – the only one of the five great patriarchates in Europe, with the others all in Asia – Merv was already established as an important center.

I found the following fascinating, and by citing the author I do not intend to mean that I agree or have otherwise researched the claim.  But, here goes:

Repeatedly, we find that what we think of as the customs or practices of the Western churches were rooted in Syria or Mesopotamia.  Eastern churches, for instance, had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, derived partly from popular apocryphal Gospels.

This devotion gave rise to new feasts: the Purification, the Annunciation, as well as commemorations of her birth and passing.  By the end of the seventh century, these were all popularized by Pope Sergius – whose family was from Antioch.

Now…this brings me to a side note, one that I must make for clarification because the lines are blurred – perhaps out of historical reality – by Jenkins.  It has always been easy for me to understand Rome / Latin as compared to Constantinople / Eastern Orthodox / Greek.  I have also distinguished what we today call Oriental Orthodox, such as the Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches – those that split off after Chalcedon.

Through this book, the examination is of another – call it a third – Eastern Church, sometimes referred to by Jenkins as Nestorian, Syriac…or even “Eastern.”  Jenkins sometimes blends these various Eastern churches, but perhaps there is little choice.  Where does one draw the lines when belief is not limited to or clearly defined by a political or geographic border?

Sure, the Christianity in China was different than the Christianity in Constantinople.  But what of the areas in between, where both could be found, or where beliefs were not so clearly distinguishable?

Where I am comfortable, I will attempt to clarify the lines.  However, I am coming to accept that there will be fluidity – and perhaps necessarily so.  For example, as much as any other reason, Christianity spread far to the east due to the fluidity of trade – the Silk Roads, running from the Mediterranean to the heart of China. 

In any case, Jerusalem is closer to central Asia than it is to France:

If early Christians could reach Ireland, there was no logical reason why they should not find their way to Sri Lanka.

Christianity spread along protected trade routes (far more developed in Asia than in the Europe outside of the Mediterranean world), with Christian traders using language familiar to the elites.  The borders, fluid and changing, mattered little to trade – hence to the progress of Christianity.

In Africa, Nubia survived as a Christian kingdom from the sixth century to the fifteenth.  Its churches and cathedrals were decorated in the best Byzantine style.  Its main cathedral, at Faras, was adorned with hundreds of paintings – kings, bishops, and saints.  It lay forgotten under the sand until the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the church in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) continues until today.  Aksum is the reputed home of the Ark of the Covenant; the medieval ruling dynasty claimed descent from Solomon and the queen of Sheba.  Ethiopia – the true Israel?

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Loss…and a Remnant

Religions die. …For a thousand years, India was mainly Buddhist, a faith that now enjoys only marginal status in that land.  Once Persia was Zoroastrian; Spain, Muslim.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

This story is about none of these.  It is the story of a Christianity that has almost completely disappeared, a Christianity in the east – east of Byzantium, outside of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Many of us are reasonably familiar with the Christianity that was lost to Islam in North Africa and the Middle East – and, for a time, Spain.

These weren’t wholly voluntary conversions – these were the result of wars and slavery.  Yes, some also converted to save their lives.  This wasn’t the case for Europe, the history we know best – at least the history I know best (relatively).

Europe was the continent where [Christianity] was not destroyed.

Which leads, once again, to the real dilemma: Christians and violence.  Love you enemy…but what if this comes in conflict with loving your neighbor?

Christianity wasn’t destroyed in Europe because the Christians in Europe fought to save it – and, at times, in very non-Christian ways (and pacifist Christians would say, at all times in non-Christian ways).  See, for example, Charles Martel in 732, Otto I in 955, and John III Sobieski in 1683.  What would Christianity look like today without such men?  (Hint: we are seeing what it will look like because today we do not have such men.)

Much of what is today the Islamic world was once Christian.  Christianity spread as far east as Western China, and also throughout North Africa.  As late as the eleventh century, about one-third of the world’s Christians lived in Asia; about ten percent in Africa (a figure only again achieved in the 1960s). 

There was the Christian world centered on Rome; another centered on Constantinople.  But there was a third, stretching deep into Asia.  And it is this third center that is the subject of Jenkins’ book.

About 780, the bishop Timothy became patriarch, or catholicos, of the Church of the East, which was then based at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Seleucia.

This Church, as a distinct Church, has its roots in a split after the Council of Ephesus in 431.  It had to do with the condemning of Nestorius and the Christological controversies of the time (of which I have written here). 

Timothy was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day, much more influential than the Western pope, in Rome, and on a par with the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople.  Perhaps a quarter of the world’s Christians looked to Timothy as both spiritual and political head.

And he could claim apostolic succession with the best of them – tradition has it from the apostle Thomas.  Yes, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox consider these churches heretical, but locally they were considered Christian – and as apostolic as the rest.  In terms of scholarship, they achieved by around 800 what Latin Europe would not achieve until five centuries later.

The East still thought and spoke in Syriac, an Aramaic dialect.  For centuries they referred to themselves as Nasraye – Nazarenes – a form preserving the Aramaic term used by the apostles.  Jesus was Yeshua. 

And then there is this claim by Jenkins:

If we are ever tempted to speculate on what the early church might have looked like if it had developed independently, avoiding the mixed blessing of its alliance with Roman state power, we have but to look east.

Keeping in mind that Roman state power included both Rome and Constantinople – the New Rome.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Overcoming Clown World

America became the model liberal nation, and, after England, the exemplar of liberalism to the world.

-          Ralph Raico, describing America after the Revolutionary War

It didn’t last long, but it was true for a time.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

-          John Adams

No, this isn’t a  post about the excellence of the US Constitution, as I side much more with Lysander Spooner on this:

But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain - that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.

In fact, a moral and religious people require little of what the US Constitution, or any constitution, has to offer.  A moral and religious people would live in accord with the natural law – and, for those Christians who don’t like those words, the Ten Commandments.  In those commandments, one finds enough governance to keep the peace, enjoy property, and respect life.

So, what is this post about? It's a look at the post-liberal West.  World War One certainly was the suicide of the West, as described by Jacques Barzun. Whatever classical liberalism that existed prior to the war was murdered in the war.  For the balance of the twentieth century, the West has been living on the fumes of that previous order.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes why, in his 1983 Templeton Address:

…if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: “Men have forgotten God.” The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.

Somewhere between the reaction to September 11 and the reaction to covid, the last remaining fumes of classical liberalism all disappeared.  We now speak openly of a post-liberal time.  At the same time, we speak openly of a meaning crisis.  The roots of both are the same; the solution to both is the same.

Jonathan Leeman has written A New Christian Authoritarianism?  In this, he challenges the notions of those like Doug Wilson and others – those he labels as ““general-equity theonomist,” “Christian nationalist” “magisterial Protestant,” “Roman Catholic integralist,” or, in legal circles, “common good constitutionalist….””

Such as these point to the failure of liberalism – something many people are now speaking to, in what is certainly a post-liberal time.  Leeman summarizes this view as follows:

The middle ground of classical liberalism’s restrained approach to governmental power has proven inadequate for maintaining a moral, religious, and just society. The liberal DNA of the American Experiment, following secular Jeffersonian and Madisonian trajectories, has betrayed us.

And in this summary – setting aside if it is an accurate portrayal of those about whom Leeman is writing – one can see the flaw in the entire issue, the flaw for any who view that the failure (or solution) is primarily to be found in classical liberalism. 

Certainly, classical liberalism offered a door through which such a failure could walk; it has no means by which to defend this door.  Classical liberalism wasn’t designed to guard this door – and it was the guards of this door that allowed for the failure of the promise of classical liberalism.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

The Institutions Have All Failed Us

The Insider Outsider: The meaning of Tucker Carlson for the present and future of US politics, by Rod Dreher

A couple of days before Tucker Carlson was out of a job, he gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation.  Dreher summarizes as follows:

Tucker Carlson, an affable sinner, went to the citadel of Washington conservatism, delivered a talk in which he took a shot at the Republican Party, indicating his disdain for them, and told his audience that the crisis engulfing our country and our civilization can only be explained in terms of spiritual warfare. He urged them to pray.

We wrestle not against flesh and blood and all that.  The tide is growing on understanding the nature of this battle, when even so many barely-Christians or not-even-Christians can see it.  Dreher notes it in the way the Nashville shooting has been described and handled – not a lament for the victims, but in support of the alphabet.

Dreher’s own journey brought him here: “My point is simply that I lost faith in the institutions.”  The Catholic Church (and, I suggest, many non-Catholic Churches), journalism, universities.  Citing a piece from Ross Douthat:

The young Reaganite or the George W. Bush admirer certainly believed the media was liberal and that the Ivy League could not be trusted. But he or she believed in the CIA and NATO, in General Motors and Wall Street, in Coca-Cola and the American Medical Association and the United States Marine Corps.

Not so for the conservatives who have come of age since the Iraq War, the financial crisis and the Great Awokening.

It isn’t just conservatives.  We are witnessing a great realignment, with many of the wealthiest Americans now voting left, and the working class voting right; with many that would have identified as liberal ten years ago (Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Matt Taibbi, Glen Greenwald, etc.) now siding with conservatives and many who would have identified as conservative ten years ago (name any neocon and many republican politicians) now siding with liberals.

Continuing with the Douthat cite, again referring to conservatives (and, I say, others) who have come of age in the last two decades:

Alienated from many more American institutions than their predecessors, staring at a record of elite failure and a social landscape where it seems like there’s little to conserve, they increasingly start out where Carlson ended up — in a posture of reflexive distrust, where if an important American institution takes a position, the place to be is probably on the other side.

After trust in God, trust in always taking as a starting point believing the opposite of what one hears from those in today’s institutions of government, universities, and media (“the Cathedral”) is the best and most sure bet one can make.


By Dreher:

Whether you are a person of the Left or of the Right, if you trust the Cathedral at this point, I don’t know what to say to you, except to hope that the scales fall from your eyes some way.

I hope so as well.  However, consider the intervention necessary to make this so:

Acts 9: 17 And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.

18 And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.