No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

Musings on the Question of Marriage (or perhaps more accurately, Weddings)

I know the arguments defending the idea that the federal government should define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. On some level, I agree with those arguments. I believe that any other definition of marriage flies in the face of creational reality; it’s simply inaccurate. However, in this fallen world I don’t really expect my government to have the capacity to see that. I am a Calvinist, after all. I believe that depravity has implications for our ability to know things, so why should I expect the government of a pluralist country to base its actions on an accurate reading of reality? I don’t.

I am reconciled to the fact that in my country the laws about marriage are not going to be in harmony with my Christian convictions. And let’s be clear: this is not a new situation. Our government recognizes lots and lots of marriages that I wouldn’t be willing to recognize, marriages at which I would be unwilling to officiate and many I would even be unwilling to attend as a guest. It has been a long time since we in this country have expected our government to enforce Christian standards of marriage.

Let me be specific. As a pastor, I will not marry a couple unless both bride and groom are members in good standing of a Christian church and demonstrate their faith by their lifestyle. Which is to say I will not officiate at a non-Christian wedding, nor will I marry a Christian to a non-Christian. I will not marry a couple if they are already living together before being married. If they are living together, I require them to repent of this decision and separate for a time that we will negotiate before I am willing to do the wedding. I will not marry a couple if I know that they are already having sex, and our pre-marital counseling sessions will cover this topic. I will not marry divorced people without a lot of conversation about the reasons for the divorce, including some assurance that the divorced person’s church was involved in the decision to divorce and has blessed this planned new marriage. I once refused to marry a couple because they were incapable of getting through a single pre-marital counseling session without fighting. I won’t marry a couple unless they say to one another in my presence that they want to love God more than they love each other. And no, I won’t marry a same-sex couple.

I don’t do very many weddings.

I hope that my government will continue to defend my right as a pastor to say no to any wedding that doesn’t meet my standards. I also hope that my non-Christian neighbors and fellow citizens will be able to see that my understanding of marriage is deeply counter-cultural, but that it is not rooted in homophobic bigotry. Of the many couples I have refused to marry, thus far they’ve all been heterosexual.

So here’s the question I’ve been thinking about. How does this work for people who aren’t pastors – for the wedding photographers and cake bakers who have been so much in the news?

I think I would be more sympathetic to the plight of Christians working in these industries if they were turning down more weddings. The truth is that anyone who is making a living as part of the wedding industrial complex is facilitating a lot of weddings that don’t meet the Biblical standards of marriage. They have already compromised a whole lot, which makes it a little difficult to see why they can’t possibly compromise any more.

Really, shouldn’t you be every bit as offended by a Christian person being yoked in marriage to an unbeliever as you are by a same-sex marriage? If your business is premised on the idea that by agreeing to photograph or bake for a wedding you are somehow endorsing that wedding (which isn’t a necessary premise for all photographers or bakers, but some Christian photographers and bakers seem to be arguing from that starting point), then shouldn’t you be refusing to photograph or bake for the unequally yoked? If you were to refuse to serve all couples whose weddings failed to meet your Christian standards, it would be a lot easier to defend the idea that this isn’t about homophobia or bigotry, but rather about the free expression of your religious convictions.

Of course, you wouldn’t be able to support yourself financially if that were your business plan, any more than I could support myself on the wedding honoraria that I’ve received in my career. As I said, I do very few weddings. On the other hand, so far I have no divorces.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the current discussion about same-sex marriage ended up resulting in Christians withdrawing from participation in the wedding industry? Wouldn’t it be astonishing if as a result of these discussions we would return to thinking about Christian weddings as events organized by the couple’s family and church community rather than by wedding professionals?  If Christian couples planning to be married would have a budget in the hundreds of dollars instead of in the thousands or even tens-of-thousands?

I can dream.

C. S. Lewis on the Authority of Scripture vs. Authority of Tradition

This past summer, I spent a few days at the University of North Carolina looking at books from C. S. Lewis’s library, making notes about his annotations.  One book that I spent some time with was Lewis’s copy of The Apology of Syr Thomas More, Knyght, edited by Arthur Irving Taft (London: OUP, 1930).

Often in a book that he’s reading closely, Lewis will write a one-sentence summary of the page’s content across the top of the page.  This is a very good study technique, and it allows one quickly to review the book’s contents.  Lewis doesn’t include any evaluative comments in these summaries; such comments come lower in the page.  Often he creates his own footnotes as a way of recording criticisms, or connections to other works, or questions.  In translated books, he sometimes includes notes referencing the original language.  Often he underlines things, or puts vertical lines in the margins next to particular passages.  Sometimes he creates an index to a book inside the back covers.  He’s a very systematic annotator.

In the case of this particular volume, Lewis has written a summary of every page, all the way through the book. He has done very little additional annotating.  He doesn’t seem to have been reading the book with the intention of criticizing or debating Thomas More so much as understanding him, which makes sense given that More is a figure in Lewis’s OHEL volume on literature in the 16th century.  But there is one place where he breaks out into criticism.

On page 27 of this edition, Lewis summarizes the contents of the page this way: “You must take the Church’s word for the doctrine that Scripture is the written Word: why not also for the doctrine that there still is (as admittedly there once was) an Unwritten Word.”  The context of course is More’s anti-Lutheran polemic, with the claim both that Church is the source of Scripture’s authority and that Church tradition is also authoritative in itself.  At the bottom of the page, Lewis adds this customized footnote:

“Is it irrational to accept the testimony of A “that B is the authority” and then regard B as completely superseding A, despite the fact that we shd. never have trusted B. unless we began by trusting A?  We certainly do so when we put ourselves in the hands of a teacher – or a physician (B) at the advice of well informed friends (A) – or, more pertinently, when we turn to the Church (B) at the instigation of our parents and nurses (A).  Surely such a process (Mother>Church>Scriptures>Christ) with each authority superseding the previous one (on wh. nevertheless it is in a sense based) is perfectly rational.”

I know that many Catholic readers of Lewis want to believe that he was really a Catholic in his heart, or that if only he had lived a little longer he would have made the transition to Roman Catholicism.  I’ve never found those arguments convincing, and this little aside in the midst of Thomas More’s Apology strikes me as an insight into the essentially Protestant nature of Lewis’s faith.  After all, he was a Protestant boy from Belfast.  It’s not all that surprising that there are Protestant impulses rooted very deeply in his psyche.

When I was working at the Wade Center this last summer, Charlie Starr showed me a passage in one of Lewis’s notebooks (MS-199) in which he makes the same argument.

The fact that we accept the Bible on the authority of the Church does not make the authority of the Church the higher of the two. It need not even make it equal to that of the Bible. Nothing is commoner in life than to accept a higher authority on the strength of a lower. I tell my pupil “The authoritative work on this subject is x.” He accepts x on my authority: but once he has accepted it it has higher authority than mine and he will (with my approval) check my statements by it. The child, being baptized and sent to Sunday School, is accepting the Church on the authority of its parents; but the Church has more authority than they. By accepting the canon, he accepts the Bible on on [sic] the authority of the Church: but its authority is higher than hers. By believing the gospels he accepts Christ (in a certain rudimentary sense) on the authority of Scripture; but Christ has more authority than it. If higher authorities were not accepted on the strength of lower ones, to learn anything would be almost impossible. We should have to begin classics, not even with great scholars and paleographers, but with the original MSS. Actually we begin with a grammar.

The distinction between the authority of the Bible and the authority of Christ Himself is certainly interesting in this excerpt and merits further study and thought.  One trusts that Lewis isn’t giving evidence of Barthian influence here….

“We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us.  As iron at a distance is drawn by the loadstone, there being some invisible communications between them, so is there in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be.  There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it.  Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?” – Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditation

Some Teaching on Judges

The New Wilmington Mission Conference has posted audio from this summer’s sessions, including five of my six classes on the book of Judges.  I don’t know what happened to class number 6; it may still appear.  I hope so, since I never remember I’ve said and am always grateful for a recording so that I can find out what I think.  Start with the Sunday session, then move through the week.

http://nwmcmission.org/#/audiovideo

Also check out audio from my friends and colleagues Mary Hulst, Carolyn Poteet, and Russell Smith.

 

A Request for Some Help Finding a Church

I’m hoping my network here can help me with the problem of where I should go to church for the next several months while I’m on sabbatical in Oxford. I don’t want to be an ecclesiastical tourist. I’d like to be a regular attender somewhere. But I’m not seeing a church that would really welcome me.

On the one hand, I’m a conservative, orthodox theologian in the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition, affiliated with the evangelical wing of American Presbyterianism rather than the mainline.  That set of commitments leads me to one group of churches.  On the other hand, I am a professor of theology and an ordained pastor – while also being female.  That reality leads me to a different group of churches.

There are churches here that profess orthodox theology. There are churches here that affirm women in ministry. But I’m not seeing any place obvious that does both. I hope that just means that my perusal of church websites is not revealing the whole ecclesiastical picture.  But conversation with folks who have been here longer has not yet been encouraging.

When I was a young pastor fresh out of seminary, I spent a lot of time in communities that didn’t accept women in ministry. I was willing to be an ambassador, swallowing insulting behavior and absorbing a lot of criticism. But at this point in my life I’ve been an ordained pastor for 25 years. I’ve been a doctor of the church for more than 15. It just feels surreal to be part of a community that denies those facts.

On the other hand, I really hate hearing unorthodox preaching from the pulpit. I spend my whole life defending orthodoxy, and I expect to be supported in that work when I go to church.  I suppose God could be calling me to evangelize the open theists….

In the States I can find plenty of congregations where my theological commitments and my ordination are both acknowledged, but I haven’t discovered such a church here. So does anyone know a good church in Oxford?

Retracting a Mistaken Theological Idea from My Book on Unrequited Love

Over at her blog, Love and Respect (Now), Joy Eggerichs recently posted a nice video review of my book Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love.  In subsequent Twitter conversation, I told Joy that almost as soon as the book was published there was one comment I made I’ve wanted to retract.  So she asked me to post about that in the comment section of her blog, which I’ve done.  The track back is below for the conversation.  Here’s the body of my comment.

 

In the book I say that we shouldn’t ever pray that another person would fall in love with us because such a prayer is asking God to over-ride another person’s freedom. What was I thinking? We pray to change people’s minds and hearts about things all the time, and rightly so. We pray for conversions. We pray that people who dislike us would soften their hearts. We pray that people who are fighting would start getting along. These are good prayers.

And they’re not prayers to over-ride anyone’s freedom. God’s sovereign control over our thoughts & desires does not overcome our freedom; it establishes our freedom. I know this in every other area of life; but for some reason it felt as if romance should be different. Very sloppy of me.

Now praying for someone to fall in love with you is often going to be a pretty selfish prayer, and so it’s not a prayer that I would expect God to grant all that often, but that’s a different issue.

http://loveandrespectnow.com/2014/08/unrequited-love-advice-on-loving-alone/

 

Sir Thomas Browne

"[I]n this Mass of Nature there is a set of things that carry in their Front, though not in Capital Letters, yet in Stenography and short Characters, something of Divinity, which to wiser Reasons serve as Luminaries in the Abyss of Knowledge, and to judicious beliefs as Scales and Roundles to mount the Pinacles and highest pieces of Divinity.  The severe Schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes, that this visible World is but a Picture of the invisible, wherein as in a Pourtraict, things are not truely, but in equivocal shapes, and as they counterfeit some more real substance in that invisible Fabrick."

 

(C. S. Lewis marked this passage in his copy of Browne's Religio Medici.)

(How do I know?  Because I visit the Wade Center. Highly recommended.)

 

"There are certain powers in human nature which seem to hold a middle place between the organs of bodily sense and the faculties of moral perception: they have been called by a very general name, the Powers of Imagination.  Like the external senses, they relate to matter and motion; and, at the same time, give the mind ideas analogous to those of moral approbation and dislike."

 

Mark Akenside, introduction to The Pleasures of Imagination

Understanding Predestination via Final Cause

So in my last post I had an aside about predestination, which I thought I’d follow up here.

If the claims of that post are correct and most thoughtful pre-Enlightenment people throughout the world thought that final causality was self evident, whereas most post-Enlightenment people have lost touch with the concept of final causality, then we modern folks might have to do some translating when reading ancient, medieval, Renaissance or Reformation texts that deal with questions of causation, especially divine causation.  We might have a tendency to misunderstand such texts, assuming that these older writers are all thinking about cause in the very narrow way that we tend to think about it.

For most of us, the only sort of cause that we recognize is efficient cause.  And so, when we read old texts (including the BIble) that talk about God controlling human life, we have a tendency to assume that those texts are talking about God moving us about as if we’re pieces on a chess board.  But what if the sort of cause being assumed is final cause?  Or maybe formal cause?  What if God’s primary way of exercising providential control over our lives is via the design that He builds into us or the destination toward which He draws us?  That’s a very different picture.  We all have a natural desire to understand the design and the purpose of our lives.  Since the Enlightenment, naturalistic science has told us that these are things we construct, that there is no design or purpose in the cosmos other than what we invent for ourselves.  What if the claims of naturalistic science are wrong?

Efficient cause works within the natural order, which is why it’s investigable by science.  When we understand God’s causal work solely in terms of efficient cause, we limit God’s action to our own sphere of activity, which then makes it hard to understand how God’s control and our freedom could possibly co-exist.  Formal and final cause don’t conflict with our freedom, because these are actions that don’t occur within the natural, investigable order.  So it makes sense to talk about them as primary or meta causes upholding and enabling our sphere of activity, while talking about our personal freedom as a genuine secondary cause within that sphere.  Only our Creator can implant a form or design within us that then works outward to shape and change us.  Only the One for whom we are made can be our final cause, giving us a vision of His own glory that is so compelling, so irresistible, that we are drawn to Him as a magnet.

So what does this have to do with predestination?  In traditional, pre-Enlightenment thought, the concept behind fixing a destination was naturally, obviously, inevitably a way of talking about final cause.  How different would our conversations about predestination be if instead of trying to defend the idea of God as the great puppet-master we presented the idea of God as the Irresistibly Beautiful One, who shows His Glory/Beauty only to those whom He has chosen?

Desire & Final Cause

I just finished reading Arend Smilde’s article “Horrid Red Herrings: A New Look at the ‘Lewisian Argument from Desire’ – and Beyond” in the current issue of the Journal of Inklings Studies.  It took me a long time to read because I kept getting distracted by looking things up, both in Lewis and in his sources.

On the one hand, I think Smilde (and Norbert Feinendegen, whose work he is using) are right to dismiss the idea that Lewis is presenting a syllogistic “argument” for the existence of God in the famous passages in which he speaks of unfulfilled desire as a pointer to something beyond this world.  On the other hand, what he’s doing in those passages seems to me to be an important and valuable example of aesthetic apologetics, a different kind of “argument” that appeals to the imagination rather than to reason.  As he himself says, in such passages he is trying to “weave a spell,” which is different from constructing a proof, but still potentially powerful epistemologically. Smilde agrees with this, at least as a possibility.  He suggets that Lewis is working with an idea of “convergence” that requires more exploration.

My first reaction to the article is to think that an important missing piece in understanding those desire passages is the idea of final causation, an idea that was self-evident to reflective people prior to the scientific revolution.  When pre-Enlightenment people talk about desire, they are typically talking about final cause.  When we post-Enlightenment people think about desire, or goal, or teleology, we understand those concepts in terms of actions of the human subject.  But pre-Enlightenment people were more apt to understand the human person as the object who was being acted upon, being drawn toward a goal or telos by means of the awakening of desire.  When we think about the purpose of human life, we tend to think about goal-setting and strategic planning and setting a course – actions that we perform.  When they thought about the purpose of human life, they tended to think about God’s “magnetic mercy” (see “Footnote to All Prayers”, one of my very favorite Lewis poems).  Thomas Aquinas says that final cause can be understood in terms of Beauty, since the Beautiful is that which draws or attracts.  In that construal, the causal agent is Beauty, and we are the ones being acted upon.

One of Lewis’s possible sources for the idea that “Nature does nothing in vain” is Thomas Browne’s Religio Midici.  Lewis was referencing Browne in letters to Greeves and to his brother already in 1927.  Browne includes a quick overview of the four causes at the beginning of the second section of the Religio, privileging final cause as connected to God’s Providence.  The very next paragraph begins: “Natura agit nihil frustra” i.e., “Nature does nothing in vain”.  I’m not claiming Browne is Lewis’s only source for that idea; as Smilde notes, it’s an oft-repeated theme in various sources that Lewis knew well.  I just want to point out that at least one of Lewis’s sources makes explicit that the assumption behind this little proverb is the reality of final cause.

The problem with final cause is that it’s not detectable using the tools of science, and so in the 20th century it was fashionable for scientists to declare that it didn’t exist, that there is no such thing as teleology.  This would seem to be a reason why Lewis would be careful not to present a teleological understanding of the world as any sort of proof, since he certainly knew that in our day such an approach would be seen as irrational.  Of course, the fact that scientists dismiss something as irrational doesn’t mean it really is irrational.  I myself find final cause to be beautifully rational.  (I also think that the doctrine of predestination is made much more comprehensible when understood in terms of final cause rather than efficient cause, but that’s a post for another day.)

One chapter in my sabbatical book is on desire and final causation, so I’m sure I’ll be returning to this subject.  For now, I have a paper written during my grad school days (a long time ago!) on aesthetic teleology in Charles Williams, Simone Weil, and C. S. Lewis; it’s posted under Resources.  I know a good deal more about teleology and final cause now than I did then, but I still find that paper entertaining.