Dante. The Trinity should not be boring.

It’s true. Paradiso is not as interesting as the rest of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Compared to Inferno (and even Purgatorio), Paradiso is a slow, dreary slog. Like Milton’s Satan, Dante’s Inferno is yet another embarrassing example of the curious literary axiom that the wicked make better stories than the pious. For some reason, damnation will always be a hot seller. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice the sizable entrance of the Trinity into Paradiso. While it is almost nonexistent in Inferno and Purgatorio, the Trinity is a key “character” in Paradiso. I wonder how differently the three parts of the Divine Comedy would be if the Trinity was allowed a little more economic wiggle room across the three-tiered universe? The vision of the Trinity in Paradiso is so geometric. It is a celestial mobile with everything in its right place, a little too much like the forced symmetry of the Athanasian Creed for my taste. (I know, the creeds aren’t really cooked to taste. I will gulp down the Athanasian Creed, even though it burns a little. But it does seem like Dante poured too many Euclidian axioms into his pot.) I wonder if Paradiso would have a better reputation if we saw something in heaven of the mystery of the cross and the unpredictability of the Spirit?

Speaking of the Spirit, throughout the Divine Comedy the Holy Spirit is almost non-existent. The Spirit’s work is supplanted, replaced largely by the benevolent influence of the stars, the angels, and the saints. And the Holy Spirit is not the only person who is obscured. Throughout the entire work, Jesus Christ’s humanity is downplayed to the point of near invisibility. The Son fills out the Trinity, but the incarnation of that Son occupies a woefully small place in Dante’s cosmology. As a result (and following much late Medieval theology), Mary comes to completely occupy the place of human mediator. When Christ is rarified to a cosmic principle, someone else has to step in to fill the mediating void. Or, as Athanasius put it: “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” If Jesus didn’t really become human, he didn’t really save humanity.

This elimination of Christ’s human nature shows up in Dante’s religious epistemology, too. If the Word was not fully incarnated, then there is a curious gap between our natural and our supernatural knowledge. For Dante, Virgil comes before Beatrice; reason comes before revelation. Then, at the end of the poem, Bernard comes after Beatrice, so that contemplation comes last after revelation. There is a fairly strict order to knowledge: first reason, then revelation, then contemplation. To borrow Hans Boersma’s striking image, in the late scholastic period, the beautiful tapestry of heaven and earth, revelation and reason began to come apart at the seams. The universe was already rivening into Kant’s chasmic bifurcation. Reason happens first, then revelation, and never the two shall meet.

Here, Augustine and Anselm are a good corrective, with their definition of “faith seeking understanding.” Reason doesn’t precede revelation. Revelation precedes reason, and indeed continually sanctifies it. On this, contemporary theologian Sarah Coakley is especially helpful. For Coakley, contemplation is not the end of theology. It punctuates our theological work as the beginning, the middle, and the end. As such, it is an essential practice of theology. Contemplative prayer continually sanctifies our reasoning about the revelation that we have received. I wonder if Coakley’s non-hierarchical model of knowledge is a more integrated and faithful way of receiving the grace of God daily in our acts of knowing.

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At the very end of the Divine Comedy, at the highest heights of heaven, St. Bernard prays to the Virgin Mary that she would “keep [Dante’s] affections pure after so great a vision.” Dante does have room for life after contemplation, but that life is one of precarious purity, not one of emboldened action. Compare St. Bernard’s prayer for pristine preservation with the actions of Jesus coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration. Where Dante tries to keep his elevated contemplative superiority over against his Florentine rivals, Jesus re-enters the active life with vigor, by healing, casting out demons, and hanging out with dirty sinners. And he does all this in the power of the Spirit, a power which, as I mentioned earlier, is ominously lacking in Dante’s work.

Yes, it is also true that the vision of the Trinity at the end of the poem is intensely moving and aesthetically powerful. And it is true that at the end of the poem, all of the saints are gathered around the throne, forming a recap of the history of salvation. But it’s not enough. Where is the economic Trinity? Where is the action of God, known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world of embodiment and history?

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s sly mashup of the Divine Comedy in Jayber Crow. Berry, ever the modern, refuses to grant Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory their borders, preferring instead to blend them up inside one man’s soul. What if, cautiously following Berry, we let the Trinitarian cat out of the celestial bag and let it play in the theater of the world a little more, even into the depths of our condition? As Sarah Coakley would put it, the Holy Spirit dismantles our vision of God and puts it back together, in a daily process of being joined to Christ and so growing closer and closer to God. This practice of contemplation does not simply withdraw us into interiority. It also thrusts us out anew into passionate engagement with the world. This is the way the Trinity truly crafts our lives, not in a geometric model of the universe, not just within the caverns of our souls, but within the drama of the Triune God.

Pensées on the mechanics and magic of poetry

The study of poetry is a study of both the mechanics and the “magic” of words.

What do words do when they make meaning? We can map and analyze some of it (the mechanics), and some of it will remain a mystery (the “magic”).

To read a text well, you have to attend to both how the words work, and how the words refer to things beyond themselves.

The liminal space between a word and its meaning(s) is one key place where the “magic” happens.

The transformation of a word when it is severed from its original context and placed in an alien environment is a second key place where the “magic” of poetry happens.

To read the Bible well, you have to attend to both the mechanics and the “magic” of the words.

Therefore, studying poetry should make you a better reader of scripture. The skills learned in reading the former will spill over into your reading of the latter.

This is, of course, not all there is to reading the Bible. In mysterious cooperation with (and sometimes contradicting) our labor, the Holy Spirit acts in freedom and speaks to us through scripture.

It is a mistake to conflate the “magic” of words with the revelation of the Holy Spirit. This was Coleridge’s mistake in the Romantic period.

All the same, I still strongly suspect that there is something super-rational about words and the way that they mean meaning.

Sermon Introductions and Badly Stained Tablecloths

This blog post is a response to an informal poll on Facebook in which I asked:

Hey Reformed friends, I’ve wondered for a long time about the first part of a sermon. Which of these two do you prefer, and why?

Option A:
1. introduction/story
2. scripture
3. exegesis

Option B:
1. scripture
2. introduction/story
3. exegesis

The responses were great. On the whole, the majority opted for option B or something similar. Here is my response to the poll:

Thanks everyone for the fantastic conversation about sermon form. You all give me hope that Facebook can be a place for faithful Christian dialogue. I purposely didn’t respond to anyone so as not to tilt the conversation. But now that the responses have slowed down, allow me to push back pretty hard on those who argue for the traditional structure of [scripture > introduction > exegesis] or even more rigorously, [scripture > exegesis].

I totally agree with the theological reasoning for placing scripture first and insisting on the primacy of the word. I do think that starting with scripture should be the norm from which we deviate, not the exception. But I can’t say that starting with an introduction is off-limits. Here’s why:

First, to the charge that starting with an introduction necessarily leads to eisegesis, I tend to think that the line between exegesis and eisegesis is very fuzzy. It is a noble pursuit to try to avoid certain kinds of eisegesis, but it is impossible to eliminate it. It is a function of our human finitude and inherent perspectival apprehension of the world. Better to relentlessly study and name and baptize your perspectives than to pretend that they are not there.

Second, worrying about the temporal primacy of the word in the sermon strikes me as an overworrying. Don’t we believe in the ontological primacy of the Word? Doesn’t that trump our petty squabbles about our experience of a tiny slice of time? Theologically, we can say pretty confidently that the Word precedes us in the creation of the world, and the Word precedes us in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the gospels. If we preach these truths regularly, I don’t think we need to freak out about whether or not we start the sermon with the scripture or with an introduction. (Besides, if you start the entire worship service with a votum, you are already starting worship with a curious interweaving of human and divine speech. So calm down. God and we are already, in the power of the Spirit, in this together.)

Thirdly, insisting that we start with scripture assumes a level of Biblical literacy that our congregations simply do not have. When I think about the Reformers (or even the later Puritans) insisting on scripture first, I am reminded that Calvin (and later John Owen) preached every day. In a context with that high level of scriptural knowledge, it makes a lot of sense to not distract your congregation with introductions. Oddly, for all of the Reformation polemics against monasticism, this kind of daily preaching of the word in places like Geneva was actually much closer to a monastic daily spiritual ordering of life than our contemporary American Reformed context. I don’t say this lightly, but times have changed.

And here, metaphorically, is the meat of it: preaching a sermon without an introduction is like serving up the most delicious culinary creation by plopping it directly onto the tablecloth. People need a plate on which to hold the food. If people begin to admire the intricate design on the plate instead of the food itself, then the sermon introduction has gone too far. But it is an act of hospitality, an act of missional engagement, and an act of love for your people to hand them the plate before you hand them the food.

Having said this, I think we can make clear distinctions between more and less faithful sermon introductions. As others have already said, a sermon introduction is helpful to the extent that it provides helpful context to the scripture passage, or asks a key existential question which the text itself will also ask or sharpen or answer. A sermon introduction can be less helpful if its purpose is to emotionally hook (or manipulate) the congregation, or establish the brand of the preacher, or flirt with and warm up the congregation. Put more bluntly: intros that lead into the text are good. Intros that lead too deeply into the interior life of the preacher (or even the congregation) are less helpful.

Sermon form carries invisible theological weight. The form of the sermon subtly shapes the way we see the contours of the life of faith. A sermon which begins with subjectivity (and, most likely in the application phase ends with subjectivity) will shape your congregation to view their spiritual life as the work of God framed within the larger framework of their needs and wants. A sermon which begins and ends with the work of God will form people to see their lives as surrounded by the active grace of God.

This is by no means to eliminate your emotions and guts from preaching. There is totally a place for feelings and subjective experience and your needs and wants in a sermon. It’s just not what should open, define or drive the sermon.

However, for the sake of hospitality, mission, and love, I have to say that in some instances (but not all) an introduction to the sermon can be a very good thing. If I am preaching a narrative, I would prefer to lead with the story of scripture. If I am preaching deep in the middle of Romans, or Hebrews, or Ezekiel, I as the waiter might want to set the table before I serve the chef’s special.

Why Feeling the Presence of Jesus is Not Enough

At least since the first Great Awakening, American Christianity has been built on the all-important goal of feeling the presence of Jesus. Feeling the presence of Jesus (however you “feel” Jesus) is an important part of religion, but there is a second, equally important question: Is there a Jesus on the other side of your feelings? What Jesus is on the other side of your emotive experience? Is there a God there on the other end? Is it really Jesus, or is it just your hormones, your racial/ethnic identity, your favorite songs? To ignore this question is to open yourself up to all kinds of idolatry.

It’s not a popular position to take in the cultural climate of American Christianity, but I am committed to promoting both the subjective and the objective dimensions of worship. Worship can’t just be about feeling the presence of Jesus. We are also called by God to think (and feel) deeply about the God who is there, not just our emotional experience of that God. Otherwise, we will find ourselves worshiping our music, our politics, or our endorphins.

* * *

We need a holistic approach to worship, one in which critical analysis of God’s work among us and holy, passionate experience of God’s presence are intimately linked. It’s a beautiful cycle:

1. God shows up; we experience God in a passionate, emotional, bodily experience.
2. We reflect (later?) on how God showed up, and slowly start to build a working vocabulary for describing God’s actions among us. We take as much as we can from Holy Scripture to feed our vocabulary. Some words we use are decided to be closer and truer in their description of God and God’s works than others. Some practices are decided to be more faithful than others in how we respond to God’s action.
3. In the context of our revised set of words and practices, God shows up again, and we experience God in a passionate, emotional experience.
4. We reflect (again) on how God showed up, changing our earlier words and practices to be even more faithful.

The process continues indefinitely. We grow in love and knowledge of God. The interplay between the odd steps and the even steps is the interplay between worship and theology. It’s at the core of the Christian life.

* * *

Two nerdy footnotes:

1. Of course nothing in this post is terribly original. It is all stolen with gratefulness from John Witvliet, David Kelsey, and a certain French theologian, who is unfortunately known for not being the most cuddly teddy bear in the toy box.

2. I’ll admit that in our current cultural moment, both objectivity and subjectivity have come under serious fire. We cannot say with certainty anymore whether there is a God out there, or whether there is a self inside of us. (Double yikes!) By grace the postmodern Christian is freed from both of these idols to hope for the knowledge of faith. In spite of our utter inability to know God or ourselves, God is gracious enough to reveal himself, and to illuminate our inner selves for self-knowledge by the light of revelation. But we can’t ground this knowledge in an objective standard (a rational system) or a subjective standard (feeling Jesus). The only ground of our knowledge of God is the self-revelation of God, received by faith, holistically integrating objectivity and subjectivity.

The City of God, a Travelogue

Having just finished reading the City of God for the first time (phew!), here are a random assortment of thoughts on it, in no particular order. Some of these will hopefully turn into full essays at a later date. Lastly, a disclaimer: just because I list these things doesn’t mean I agree with Augustine on all of them.

  • Whoever said that Augustine hated the body was flat-out lying. Augustine actually goes to great lengths to defend the goodness of the body. He even spends a fair amount of book XXII arguing about just how physical bodies could be present in heaven, and how the eschaton will be corporeal. I’ll say it again: Whoever tried to paint Augustine as an ethereal body-hating Greek-tainted neoplatonist is basing their assumption on an unbalanced reading of book XIX and Confessions. Now, his understanding of sexuality is a different story…
  • Augustine’s vision of the world is resolutely non-egalitarian. I never realized (silly me) that his oft-cited concept of “rightly ordered love” is a hierarchy. HIs understanding of being, personhood, society, and eschatology are all hierarchical. I’ll write more about this later.
  • Augustine’s ethical methodology is proportioned by the difference between time and eternity. When scaled to eternity, temporal troubles, evil, and suffering became “mathematically” inconsequential. Whether or not this is a good move, I am struck by how absent it appears to be from contemporary ethics, whether evangelical or liberal protestant (I don’t think I can speak for the Catholic tradition)
  • I came to Augustine from reading David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. In that massive tome, Kelsey begins with an over-one-hundred-page introduction in which he argues that his project is reacting to all the ways that contemporary evolutionary biology, philosophy, psychology, social theory, and gender theory have seriously problematized Augustine’s theology. Before reading City of God, I confess that I thought that Augustine was above a lot of the literalism of his contemporaries, but I was wrong. He spends a lot of pages arguing for things that are now scientifically laughable. Unfortunately, these goof-ups are placed in uncomfortably close proximity to important dogmatic claims. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when Augustine tries to use the “fact” that peacock meat has antiseptic properties to prove that bodies in hell will burn eternally without being consumed. (You can’t make stuff like this up…) Things get even more dicey when he starts talking about what we would now call the historical Adam, and the presence of physical bodies in heaven, which for Augustine is “up there.” I’m not saying I’m with Kelsey on these issues, but I am saying that reading Augustine raised the stakes for me even more: modern science and traditional theology have a lot of junk to work through together, and, like any unhealthy relationship, I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.
  • Augustine’s use of the word “sacrament” is surprisingly loose, and I love it. I’ve always chafed under the two sacrament limit of the Reformed confessions, and I love the way Augustine is free to see things as “sacramentalish” (my term).
  • Augustine’s theology of scripture is very nuanced and I am still trying to sort it out. It doesn’t help that he never (at least in City of God) lays it out systematically, so I had to piece it together from his ad hoc exegetical side quests. (While we’re on the topic: the exegetical side quests were probably the best part of the work.) Perhaps most surprising about his theology of scripture was his understanding of the Septuagint as inspired translation, including the times when the septuagint changed the Hebrew. The dark side of this was a latent antisemitism, but the good side of it was an understanding of revelation which incorporates translation. This is huge, people.
  • Augustine’s use of allegory was (as always) very entertaining and enticing. But I was surprised by how strongly he argued for a middle. He was openly trying to avoid both extremes: either denying that the text has a second, allegorical meaning, or denying the historicity of the text. I was surprised to see Augustine fighting against both extremes.

 

I wish I could say that I recommended The City of God, but honestly, it was kind of a mixed bag. I am glad to have read it, and I’m also glad that I have a rough map of it, so that when I read it again I will only have to read the relevant portions. If you only read one tiny section of the City of God, read the last book, (book XXII), chapters 29 to the end. There is some gorgeous language in that passage, and when I first read it on Holy Saturday of this year, I found myself weeping in the middle of Lemonjello’s on a Saturday morning. It is stunning.

Augustine is still my favorite theologian. Even when I disagree with him, I still love him.

Next up in the major theological works category: The Institutes! (dun dun dun)

Nested prophetic speech and revelation “in” history

There’s a literary device in biblical Hebrew where the author nests a quote inside a quote inside a quote. I can’t remember in what passages I have seen it before, but I just came across another instance in Zechariah 1.1-6:

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius,
the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, saying:
The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.
Therefore say to them,
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Return to me, says the Lord of hosts,
and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.

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Augustine and interpretive pluralism

I was chugging along in the part of Book XI of The City of God where Augustine is talking about the nature and status of fallen angels, when I came across this line:

“The obscurity of the divine discourse actually serves the useful purpose of giving birth to many views of the truth and bringing them into the light of knowledge, one person understanding the divine words in this way and another in that.” (civ. XI.19)

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