No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

Send to Kindle

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.

Send to Kindle

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.

Send to Kindle

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.

Send to Kindle

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….

Send to Kindle

“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.

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


Send to Kindle

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?

Send to Kindle

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.


Send to Kindle

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