Perpetual Forge of Idols

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So John Calvin (whom I have been reading for my course at Nashotah House) described the human heart.  Here he is hearkening back to the first chapters of Genesis, which is where we should start too.  My high school motto was ‘finis origine pendet,’ ‘the end depends on the beginning,’ and that is true of the Bible too. Everything (except the name of Jesus of course), is already there.  God is before everything created, which He made by His Word without any help from us, and which he remains sovereign over.  As for us, we are made ‘in His image,’ which I take to mean that we are the creatures capable of and intended for His worship, on behalf of the whole creation. In other words,  we are not part of the divine, nor possess any spark of His in us innately. We were created for this relationship with Him.  Inherently we are not self-standing, and without him we are unsettled, searching (what Augustine famously calls ‘restless’).  Of course the narrative turns in chapter 3 to the negative inverse of this in the story of the fall. Our sinfulness has, because of our being ‘in the image,’ a particular shape, namely the distortion of this Godwardness.  Satan whispers to Adam that we should not obey, since God is only keeping us from being ‘like gods.’  And that is what the human heart really wants, the root of our corruption, the displacement of Creator by the created.  To create ourselves, to be the masters of life and death, to worship ourselves: the word for this in the Bible is ‘idolatry,’ but it is not simply what pagan foreigners do, or our pagan ancestors did, but rather the ‘flip side’ of every human heart, the evil double of ‘the better angels of our nature’ (Lincoln). To return for a moment to Calvin, before he spoke of us as ‘forges of idols,’ he spoke of our possession of the ‘sense of the divine,’ what is sometimes called the ‘God shaped hole in the heart.’  Alas, they go together.

Idolatry is the term we as Christians, (whom the Epistle to Diognetus in the early Church called the ‘soul’ of society) need to meditate on at this time in our nation’s life.  I have in mind the painful sight of the flags with JESUS and a fish symbol amidst the other insignia and banners, among them white nationalist and anti-Semitic and fascist, displayed by those who stormed the Capitol.   The identification of the faith with any ideology or tribalism or nationalism is always misguided, but this one drastically so.

But if we start with the Biblical witness, and follow the thread theologically, there is more to be said, and the more is addressed to each of us where we live! Idolatry is not only what characterizes someone else, nor is it simply left behind upon conversion.  As with the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the parable, it is too easy to parcel out ‘image’ and ‘fall’ in this way.  It is as forgiven sinners, as recovering idolaters, that we live as Christians. If I may repair again to  Reformation doctrine, Luther emphasized that we are Christians who remain ‘at once justified and sinners,’ every day of our lives, ever dependent on grace from the sinless One, growing spiritually at best inch by inch, ever suspicious of our own idolatrous hearts.  I have those words of Luther’s, simul Justus et peccator, engraved on my episcopal ring, even as I recall the words with which every auricular confession concludes, ‘and pray for me a sinner.’  Amidst all the hard reckoning ahead, may this truth pervade our lives as the Church, for only so can we be the instrument of reconciliation which our Lord intends us to be.



A Voice From the Not So Distant Past

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Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." R. Niebuhr

It is a good time in our national life to think on things we all agree on (or certainly should), and since we are the Church, to focus on those that have a theological dimension.  To do this I want to recall the Christian voice in public affairs most influential in the latter half of the 20thcentury (except perhaps Martin Luther King), Reinhold Niebuhr. A Presbyterian, he taught for many years at Union Seminary, and his most famous work was The Nature and Destiny of Man.He is often called a ‘realist,’ by which is meant a writer with a strong sense of the brokenness of human nature, of the doctrine of sin. Niebuhr himself would have attributed this insight to his study of St. Augustine. He famously opposed the pacifism of much of American thought in the years leading up to World War II, for, while pacifism is an indispensable witness to the Kingdom, here and now evil must on occasion be resisted.

If you consider the oft-cited quotation in the header of this reflection, you find in essence a Christian defense of democracy per se, not in terms of the social good, nor in terms of inalienable rights, but rather in terms of human nature in its twofoldness. Insofar as we are made in the image of God, our potential for idealism cannot be denied. We ought not to fall into resignation. But insofar as we are children of original sin, we ought also to avoid all forms of naïve utopianism, for we are capable of grievous wrong.  We humans need at once to be encouraged and restrained. We are ‘a little lower than the angels,’ and yet there is ‘no one righteous, not one.’ We need both avenues of progress and guardrails against tyranny. This sensibility is not lacking in our Constitution, whose balance of powers is a check against the authoritarianism we Americans fled, and its bill of rights is a guarantee of an element of freedom in keeping with the optimistic side of this seesaw. Things like term limits and financial transparency are consistent with this same ‘Augustinian’ skepticism. (I must confess I rather liked that proposal, offered by the ‘odd couple’ of Ted Cruz and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, to prohibit the lobbyist’s payday after public servant completes his or her service, a proposal neither party had any interest in).

In every American election, yet more important than either candidate is the electing itself.  Thus universal franchise and honoring the electoral result have an important  share in this theological warrant for democracy itself. We support them not only as Americans, but as Christians too.  They matter also to the rest of the world, for it is to these, in spite of all our flaws, that aspiring nations look, since they are signs of hope in a ‘city on a hill.’


Peace,  +GRS

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.