No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

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Bonaventure on How Scripture Lights Up the World

“It is certain that as long as man stood up, he had the knowledge of created things and through their significance, was carried up to God, to praise, worship, and love Him. This is what creatures are for, and this is how they are led back to God. But when man had fallen, since he had lost knowledge, there was no longer any one to lead creatures back to God. Hence this book, the world, became as dead and deleted. And it was necessary that there be another book through which this one would be lighted up, so that it could receive the symbols of things. Such a book is Scripture which establishes the likenesses, the properties, and the symbolism of things written down in the book of the world. And so, Scripture has the power to restore the whole world toward the knowledge, praise, and love of God.”

Collations on the Six Days, XIII.12

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"Truth knows that she is a stranger on earth and easily finds enemies among men of another allegiance, but she knows that her race, home, hope, recompense, honour, are in heaven."


Tertullian, Apology

The Prayer I Need Right Now

Into your hands, O merciful Savior,

we commend your servant, Mary.

Acknowledge, we humbly pray,

a sheep of your own fold,

a lamb of your own flock,

a sinner of your own redeeming.

Receive her into the arms of your mercy,

into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,

and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

This is the prayer I’ve been praying since my sister Mary died unexpectedly earlier this month.  Of course the pastor read it at the graveside, and yet I keep praying it myself, over and over.  In times of loss, when no words come, what a gift it is for the church to give us time-tested words that are exactly what we need to be saying.

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The Limits of Narrative

My first job out of seminary was as the Director of Youth and Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo, New York.  Most of the students in my youth group came from non-Christian or nominally Christian homes.  They had started coming to the church as children because the programs offered were something to do in the neighborhood, and so most of them had been through Sunday School and knew a lot of Bible stories.  But most of them had absolutely no idea what those stories meant.  They could tell me the story of Jesus dying on the cross and coming back to life three days later, but they couldn’t tell me what that story had to do with their own lives.

I had been at the church for less than a month when I announced to my sister (who had moved to Buffalo with me): “These kids need the catechism!”  During my time in seminary, I had been quite disdainful of the Reformed confessions.  I thought that my own upbringing had included too much confessional drill and not enough Bible immersion.  I assured one of my professors that I would never need to use the skill of catechetical preaching that I was being taught, since I would always preach from the Bible.  And of course I was quite enamored of narrative theology.

Less than one month into my first church job I realized that I had been grossly mistaken.  Stories provide meaning only when they are attached to some scaffolding that offers structure.  My confessional tradition had been doing that for me, even when I was disdainful of it.  When I encountered students who had no such scaffolding at all, I saw the limits of narrative.

All of which is prompted by the fact that my Christianity and Culture class has just begun reading Community of Character by Hauerwas, and I keep finding myself saying “Yes, but…”  It’s a good book; I did choose it for this class, after all.  But it needs some qualification.


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I'm reading Kent Dunnington's excellent book Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice.  He questions whether it makes sense to treat addiction in medical terms, as a disease.  I'm finding this a helpful way into a Christian concept of freedom that's compatible with divine sovereignty.  This is from chapter 1. 

We can imagine [how defenders of the disease concept of addiction might explain that idea.] "Our argument is really quite simple.  Drug abuse leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain.  Changes in behavior that can be traced to changes in brain structure and function are involuntary.  Therefore, the behavior of persons with addictions is involuntary.  And therefore, addiction is more akin to a human disease than a type of human action."

     This is indeed a simple argument, but is it sound?  It looks valid, so we must ask if its premises are true.  The first premise seems beyond dispute: ample studies demonstrate that the abuse of drugs changes the structure and function of the brain.  The problem with the argument comes in the second premise, which claims that changes in behavior that can be traced to changes in brain structure and function are involuntary.  The premise is problematic because, if it were true, it would turn out that all sorts of activities that we consider voluntary are in fact in involuntary.  For instance, studies show that the brain structure and function of skilled musicians are transformed by years of practice.  But surely this does not entail that, at some point, skilled musicians cease to be voluntarily engaged in playing their instruments.  Surely it does not entail that playing the cello may cease to be something a cellist does and becomes something a cellist suffers, a kind of disease.


Conference on the Ascension – Call for Papers

I’m part of the planning team for a multi-denominational conference on Reformed understandings of the ascension sponsored by The Fellowship of Presbyterians.  My job is to be the coordinator of paper submissions.  So here’s the CFP.

“The Ascension of Christ: Christ has Gone Up; The Church has been Sent Out”

April 25-27, 2016

Venue: First Presbyterian Church, San Diego

The doctrine of Christ’s ascension has always been important in the Reformed tradition.  One clear statement of the Reformed perspective is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, which notes that Christ’s ascension benefits us in three ways: “First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.  Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge.  By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand” (Q/A 49).  The Catechism also points out that the ascension has implications for our understanding of the two natures of Christ, saying “Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of the humanity that has been taken on, but at the same time his divinity is in and remains personally united to his humanity” (Q/A 48).  Similarly, the Westminster Larger Catechism notes that Christ Jesus “in our nature, and as our head, triumphing over enemies, visibly went up into the highest heavens, there to receive gifts for men, to raise up our affections thither, and to prepare a place for us, where he himself is…” (Q/A 53).  Other Reformed confessions could be cited with similar claims about the central importance of the ascension of Christ.  We hope in this conference to gather theologians and pastors from a variety of Presbyterian and Reformed denominations to explore this shared emphasis. Confirmed plenary speakers are Michael Horton (Westminster Seminary West) and Laura Smit (Calvin College), with more to be announced soon.

For this conference, we are interested in constructive theological papers that work within this Reformed tradition to explore the implications of Christ’s ascension for the Church’s mission in the world today.  Starting from within the Reformed confessional tradition, we wish to consider what difference the ascension of Jesus makes for our on-going work of evangelism, discipleship, and worship.  Please send submissions via email to Professor Laura Smit (lsmit@calvin.eduby December 1.  Submissions must include your name and preferred title, institutional affiliation (whether school or church), denominational affiliation, an abstract of no more than 200 words, and a statement regarding any audio-visual needs.  Papers should be short enough to be presented within 20 minutes.  Notification of acceptance will be given by February 1.    

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Learning to See the Sky

This summer I took a trip around the northern shore of Lake Superior with the goal of being somewhere dark and clear where I could get a good look at the sky.  I had a dim hope of being able to see the northern lights; that didn’t happen.  Another trip is clearly needed.  But I did see some beautiful stars.

While I was in Thunder Bay, I paid a visit to the Astronomy Centre at Fort William Historical Park one evening.  I was the only person who showed up, and I got a lot of personal attention, including a tutorial on how to take pictures of the sky with my camera.

But the coolest thing was that the docent took my iPhone, put it up to the telescope eyepiece, and took pictures of the moon for me.  They’re so beautiful!


As I moved on around the lake, I tried to take pictures on my own from my campsites.  Although this was the view from my campsite at Lake Superior Provincial Park, by nightfall it was all clouded over.  So not so much success.


Nothing daunted, after I’d been home for a week I went back north to the Dark Sky Park near Mackinaw City to watch the Perseid meteor shower with my friend Kate.  I didn’t see very many meteors, even though my attention did not wander from the sky.  Most of the time I would hear the people around me go “ooooh” and realize that I had again been looking in the wrong area.  (I feel like Donna Noble – let the Whovians understand.)  Although I got no pictures of meteors, I did get some nice pictures of the sky.  They are too large to add to this post, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.  Many dots of light, some clouds, glimpses of the Milky Way.

Part of my motivation for this new interest in the sky is the fact that C. S. Lewis loved looking at the stars and often wrote in his letters about what he was observing through his home telescope in the evenings.  And part of my motivation is a growing awareness of how different my experience of the night is from the medieval thinkers I most love to study.  But I think that most of my sudden need to look at the sky comes from the fact that I’ve just had a very urban year.  Now I want to be somewhere that’s away from the city lights, somewhere that’s dark at night.

So maybe now I should start paying attention when the observatory on my campus a few feet away from my house has open viewing evenings….

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Faith, not Sight

I spoke in chapel at Regents Park College on Friday, June 12, having been assigned the gospel and epistle lessons for the following Sunday. Here’s my best memory of what I said.

Mark 4 begins with a very familiar parable: “A sower went out to sow….” Most of us probably know this parable, and more than that we know with some certainty what it means. That’s because this parable, unlike most, is one that Jesus himself explains. In verses 10-20, he offers to his disciples a detailed explanation of what each element of the parable stands for. More than that, he promises that he will always tell them what his parables mean, even if he leaves the crowds baffled by the mystery.

So when we then move on to a series of four brief, enigmatic parables, we expect that we will again receive an explanation. These are parables about what is hidden becoming visible, what is earned becoming great beyond deserving, what is potential becoming actual, and what is small becoming great. Our reading today includes the last two of those four: the parable of a farmer sowing seed and reaping a crop many months later, and the parable of the tiny mustard seed growing into a large and fruitful plant. What is the power that produces these transformations?

Even on the literal level of the stories themselves, this is by no means obvious.

We may be tempted to think that the mystery of these parables is simply a result of the primitive ignorance of the first hearers, but this would be to over-estimate our own understanding. Even the most accomplished plant biologist cannot give an exhaustive explanation of the power that leads a seed to become a plant. And if we think for a moment, we know that this mystery remains in many subjects, not just botany, even for 21st century people full of arrogance about our scientific knowledge. Indeed, every academic in the room knows that our academic work is rooted precisely in this mystery, in our awareness of wonder about some area of life that may seem obvious and clear until we think about it deeply, but that – upon reflection – reveals itself to be anything but obvious. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, but so does every study. No matter how much we investigate and explore, we ultimately run up against the unknown, the confusing, the mysterious, the wonderful. And often our wonder is produced precisely by the sorts of transformations announced in these parables – the movement from invisibility to visibility, from darkness to light, from predictable to unexpected, from clearly caused to prodigally generous, from potentiality to actuality, from barrenness to fruitfulness, from smallness to greatness.

Which is why I say that even on a literal level, the power that Jesus is discussing is by no means obvious. And if that power is not obvious, how much less obvious is the Power to which the parables are pointing. For what great transformations are these small transformations analogies? And how mysterious must be the Power that could produce such transformations, so far beyond our every-day experience? Granted that we expect the Power to be divine in some way; there is still much here that remains unclear and that we would be grateful to have elucidated.

And so we wait for the explanation that we have been promised. Surely Jesus will make this all clear. But no. Although verses 33 and 34 at the end of our passage set us up to expect such an explanation from Jesus, no explanation is forthcoming.

Perhaps this is because this Power is beyond reason, beyond didactic explanation, perhaps beyond articulation. At the beginning of the Summa, Aquinas explains that in order to understand the Christian life we need a knowledge that is beyond reason, because the end toward which we are being drawn is God Himself, Who is beyond reason. He argues that we need a knowledge that is revealed to us, a knowledge that reason could never attain. And in his Centuries, Thomas Traherne argues that just as a magnet invisibly and mysteriously draws metal toward itself, so God mysteriously draws us. He says that we need parables and other indirect language to explore these “invisible ways of conveyance” by which God communicates His love to us. Perhaps in this case the parable cannot be reduced to a reasonable explanation.

And so Mark declines to provide such an explanation of these four parables. But he does not leave us hanging. He offers an explanation not via discourse but via events. The four parables are followed in the book of Mark by four works of power.

First, Jesus goes out onto the sea with his disciples, and when a great storm arises they find themselves in a watery chaos that reminds us of the watery chaos at the beginning of Genesis. The world is dissolving, and they expect to die. In the face of this chaos, Jesus reveals himself as the one with power even over the winds and the waves, the one with power to bring order out of chaos. He is the Creator, calling into existence a new creation, and the disciples are going through the waters of a baptismal death into a new life. This newness is seen in the subsequent three stories. A man who has been captured by demons, who has lost his humanity, who cannot even speak, is restored to his right mind and becomes a disciple of Jesus. A woman who is in a perpetual state of uncleanness and infertility is healed and restored to wholeness. And a dead child is brought back to life. The fullness of humanity is restored in these three stories. As our epistle lesson tells us, when anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.

Now I suppose that Jesus could have simply told the disciples this. He could have said: “These four parables about the mystery of natural transformation point to the far more wonderful transformation that comes when I as your Creator, your Lord, and your God take you into union with myself, set you free from the powers of sin and death, and give you a new birth into a living hope.” What would that possibly have meant to his disciples, here at the beginning of his ministry? How could they possibly have understood this? And so he shows them. He enacts the truth that they so desperately need to know.   Aquinas says that our great need is revelation, and in these acts of power Jesus reveals himself beyond anything our reason could figure out for itself. Traherne says that our great need is love, and in these acts of power Jesus reveals himself as the One who cares deeply that we are perishing and who loves us enough to make us new.

How do we enter into this new life? Paul says that we walk by faith, and not by sight. We move beyond empirical investigation, beyond reasonable deduction, beyond what we can figure out on our own, to surrender not to some abstract power but to Jesus himself. Jesus, who is the great revelation of the love of God, has come to make us new. He is the One who moves us from hiddenness to glory, from works to grace, from barrenness to fertility, from death to life.

Over and over, we choose to walk by sight, and when we do we also choose death and barrenness. We must close our eyes to reason, and hear a parable instead. We must cease to be committed to an idea or an ideology and be committed to the person of Jesus instead.

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The Reality of Distance (and the pervasive influence of C.S. Lewis on my thinking)

Some weeks ago, when I was walking a portion of the Thames path for a couple of days, I had many close encounters with cows and sheep. From a distance, on a sunny day in a green field, sheep are spectacularly beautiful. They look snowy and shining against the green. Close up, of course, they are less shiny. The white fleece is seen to be gray and dirty.

The thought came to me as I was walking that both visions are equally true. Why should we assume that only the close-up view is real? And of course, given that I was looking at sheep and given that I am a pastor, I naturally moved to the application: the Church too looks better from a distance than close up. Why assume that the close-up view is all truth and the view from afar is a lie?

Well, I was pretty pleased with this little idea, thought it might have legs.  I had no memory of ever having encountered it anywhere before. But today, reading Letters to Malcolm, I found this passage.

Why should what we see at the moment be more “real” than what we see from ten years’ distance? It is indeed an illusion to believe that the blue hills on the horizon would still look blue if you went to them. But the fact that they are blue five miles away, and the fact that they are green when you are on them, are equally good facts. [C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (ch. xxii, p. 122). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]

Sometimes I wonder if I ever have a thought uninfluenced by Lewis.

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The Virtue of Temperance

Last week I spoke in chapel at Regents Park, with the assigned topic being the virtue of temperance and the assigned text being Daniel 1. I found this an interesting way to read the Daniel story. Here’s a summary of what I said, as best I remember it.

“Temperance” has two main meanings: self-restraint, especially in matters of the appetites for food, drink, or sex; and balance or moderation, the avoiding of extremes.

When we think of the Christian virtue of temperance, we generally focus on the first meaning – self-restraint; although in fact many Christians speak as though temperance didn’t just mean control of one’s appetites but rather their elimination. With the result that temperance has often come to mean complete abstinence or refusal, especially when it comes to alcohol. The Temperance Movement wasn’t about drinking in moderation, and that usage has affected what many of us understand by this virtue. Popular culture has also twisted this understanding of temperance into something that’s not so much about restraint as about a new obsession: with health, with fitness, with mastery of the body….

Temperance in the second sense – as balance or moderation – doesn’t on the face of it seem to have much to do with Christian virtue. After all, Christians are not called to chart some moderate path between extreme devotion and extreme disobedience. Popular culture often values this sort of moderation, teaching us that religious commitment is fine as long as it’s not too extreme, as long as you’re not too carried away. But Christians must resist this popular understanding. We worship a God who is all goodness, not a mixture of good and evil. “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” And Jesus, our model for perfect humanity, was without sin. In John 2, He is described as fulfilling the prophecy of the psalm: “zeal for your house will consume me.” And in the book of Revelation, Jesus condemns those who are lukewarm in faith.

There is a different sort of balance that is necessary for Christian virtue, a balance that is in fact connected to Christian temperance and that we see illustrated in Daniel.  I am thinking of the balance Jeremiah describes in his letter to the exiles, a letter in which he instructs those like Daniel about how they are to live faithfully in Babylon.

On the one hand, he tells them that they are to work for the good of the city of Babylon, to invest in its welfare, not to stand aloof from its life. They are to pray for God’s blessing on Babylon, acknowledging that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not some tribal deity whom they have left behind in Jerusalem, but is the Lord of heaven and earth, including Babylon. He is Lord of this city too, and He can bring blessing to this city too.

However, the letter goes on, the people of Judah are also to remember that their true home is not Babylon, but Jerusalem. God promises that He will bring them back to Jerusalem some day, and so even as they are living in Babylon they must live as citizens of another place, of another kingdom.

This same balance is often called for in the New Testament – especially in Paul. We are to be ambassadors to the world, becoming all things to all people, and yet we are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. We are to be in the world, and yet not of it. Such exilic balance is an essential mark of temperance.

C. S. Lewis somewhere makes the point that the Church tends to preach against whatever sin we’re not especially tempted to at the moment, and that is certainly true when it comes to maintaining this balance. We tend to preach against the extreme to which we are least tempted. At least in the circles where I live and move, it is very fashionable to worry that the church is too other-worldly, to insist that we must be more affirming of the goodness of this world, to suggest that our greatest temptation is to undervalue our bodies and our physical pleasures. Perhaps there are a few of you here who come from communities where that is genuinely a problem, but I must say that I have no experience of such communities. In my experience, today’s church is far too likely to be completely assimilated into the world, to fall completely on the side of loving the city of Babylon and forget about our citizenship in another place.

Surely that must have been the great temptation for Daniel as well. Assimilation was the goal of the Babylonian induction program. And it would have been so easy to go along with that program, to embrace this new, cosmopolitan life, to follow the road clearly marked out that was going to lead to security and the possibility of advancement, to position himself on the side of the winning city as opposed to the losing city of Jerusalem. Indeed, Babylon’s approach of assimilation was very gracious and enlightened, something that must have made it even more appealing.

Instead, Daniel looks for the balance that will allow him to be an emissary from Yahweh in this new place.  He accepts his new name, he participates in the training that he is assigned, but he draws the line at violating the Jewish law about diet. It’s a little unclear just what it was about the rich food that was a violation – possibly the kind of food or the way it was prepared, but most likely that it had been offered to idols and that eating it was connected in the minds of those who ate it with the worship of the Babylonian gods. That would indeed be a defilement, and Daniel refuses it. He will not allow Babylon to be his source of nurture and sustenance. Although he is living in Babylon, he is still sustained and nurtured by his citizenship in Jerusalem.

It is this balance that then allows him to refuse the rich food and subsist on a very restricted diet. In other words, it is temperance in the sense of balance that allows him to practice temperance in the sense of self-restraint. Temperance isn’t just about will-power and defying your desires. That’s not temperance; that’s continence. And continence is a useful discipline that may lead to temperance. But temperance is the virtue of actually changing and reordering one’s desires. The continent person refuses the tempting piece of chocolate cake, while still longing for it and thinking about it even in the refusal and half-regretting the will-power that made it possible to walk away. The temperate person no longer wants the cake because there are other things, better things, higher things that are now more desirable.

Daniel desires other things more than food. He loves God’s law, he loves Jerusalem and the worship that he learned there, and he loves the God Who reveals mysteries. Those loves make it possible for him to resist assimilation, to be working in the world without being taken over by it. And they also make it possible for him to restrain his very ordinary desire for tasty food. The stronger those loves become, the more deeply he desires God, the more temperate he is.

The 12th-century theologian Alan of Lille taught that “the head rules the belly through the chest,” which is to say the reason rules the appetites through the quality of habitually ordered loves or desires, a quality that Alan calls magnanimity.   (C. S. Lewis references this in his book The Abolition of Man, which you must read if you haven’t yet.) Our appetites for sex, for food, for drink, for money, for stuff, for acceptance, for pleasure, for every sort of self-indulgence are very strong. We live in a world that tells us it is normal and healthy to gratify those appetites, and most of us in this room have the time and the resources and the opportunity to go a long way down the path of gratification. If we are to be temperate people, people who are not dominated by our most basic appetites, then we need to develop patterns of strong, even passionate desire for higher and better things. So our New Testament lesson says: “Set your mind on the things above, where Christ is.” We need to love the new kingdom of which we are citizens and the new community of which we are a part. Most of all, we need to love Jesus Himself, love him so much that our appetites are not merely controlled but re-ordered.

Since I’m a Calvinist, I don’t think we can do that re-ordering ourselves. It needs to be done to us. God needs to awaken the right loves and desires in us. Only God’s re-ordering of our desires will make it possible to live as His ambassadors in the world without being swallowed up and assimilated by the kingdom of the world.  We need to ask Him to do that for us.

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