August 31, 2007

Sin: Idolatry as Excessive Love (1/4)

Posted in The Church at 9:56 pm by Caleb Winn

A few days ago, I blogged about what it means to be a Christian. I argued that Christ ought to be the center, but not the totality, of our lives. My position was (and to some extent still is) that we are created to enjoy life’s “lesser goods,” and that we ought not feel as if every waking moment should be consciously directed to the worship of God.

While I still maintain much of that position, I’ve also realized that it may place too little emphasis on the centrality of the gospel to Christian life. Surely man was created to walk in the garden, but when his love for the fruits of the garden grew larger than his love for God, then sin entered the worth, and death shortly thereafter. In like manner, we are created to enjoy God’s great world, and to delight in His gifts. We are made to live in community, and to love as friends, family, and partners. But the moment that any love looms larger in our lives than our love for God, then we run into the danger of idolatry.

The dangerous thing about idolatry is that the idol may be a good thing! It’s not that it is wrong to love a friend, a lover, or a noble activity such as education or the arts. The problem lies in loving excessively, to the point that our love for lesser goods overshadows our love for the Greatest Good. When we place another person, or an ideal, or a cause, at the center of our lives, then we shall surely meet ruin.

But God is faithful to prune our faithless hearts. At times I wish this were not so! When we try to build our lives around a false idol, God often takes those idols away, even though they are good things, so that we are forced to cry out to Him in our pain and be healed, to return to Him as our only basis for living.

I wonder if, more often than not, He does this by giving us exactly what we ask for. As in Dante’s Inferno, it quickly becomes clear that our sin is its own punishment. No person, or cause, is really equipped to provide us with purpose, meaning, or happiness. If we seek to build our lives around a lesser good, all God has to do is let us have our way. We will quickly realize just how foolish our desires are. Just as it is Satan’s self-pity and prideful rebellion that kept him trapped in an icy prison of his own tears, so my insistence on looking to others for happiness will always leave me frustrated and empty, for I turn to others for that which only God can provide.

But God is faithful to correct our fallen, frail, fickle hearts, and bring us back to Him. He disciplines those whom He loves. At times, we are required to give up that which we loved too dearly: an alcoholic ought not drink, even moderately, in most instances. In other instances, he may bring restoration and healing so that we are able to orient our desires rightly around His grace, and under His authority.

In either case, I suspect that we must be willing to let go completely of that which we desire, and to surrender it entirely to Him. If He chooses to bless us by restoring broken relationships or granting us financial success, or whatever particular idol we have turned over to Him, then that is a blessing. But if He never does this, then I think that we are still blessed.

None of this is to negate the idea that we ought to enjoy the love of a friend, or the beauty of a sunset. But although we are meant to enjoy these goods, and even enjoy them for their own sake, we must always enjoy God more. If we do not, He will correct our hearts. And it will be painful and difficult, but it will be worth it.

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The Illogic of Psalm 51

Posted in The Church at 3:42 pm by Caleb Winn

King David cries out, “Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight!”

Surely Uriah the Hittite would have something to say about that? You know… the guy that David murdered? The guy whose wife David stole? Surely David had sinned against him!

How can I claim that I have sinned against God alone, when my sins so clearly hurt others? And how can I forgive myself when the scars of my sins are etched onto the hearts of those I claim to love?

(This is not to say that it is appropriate to demand forgiveness of others. By its very nature, forgiveness cannot be demanded. One cannot claim a “right” to forgiveness. And if one does demand it, attempting to guilt the offended party into forgiving him or her, is that not wrong? To say “I won’t be happy unless you forgive me” is both manipulative and selfish, and perpetuates the original sin. It’s the conversational equivalent of holding a gun to one’s own head and saying, “Love me or I’ll shoot!” God forgive me if I ever have that in my heart.)

And yet, it’s right there in the Bible. David seems to truly believe that His sin was against God, and not his fellow man. And by turning to God in repentance, David found the grace to be forgiven, to forgive himself, even, and to serve God in mighty ways.

This offends my sense of justice, which says that a reckoning must be made for all wrongs committed. In my heart, I feel that it is wrong to be happy once I have made others sad, and that sanctification is an affront against those against whom I have sinned. For if I have behaved wickedly toward a person, but simply move on and become a less wicked person, then surely I am lying, am I not? Isn’t it deceitful to improve, and deny that I am the person who hurt another, that my identity is wrapped up in that sin?

And yet I know that this is false. If man is created in the image of God, then his identity is rooted in the foundation of the divine, and sin is the inauthentic unreality. Neither physical nor emotional suicide is an appropriate response to conviction, for God seeks to transform us, not merely superficially, but inwardly. His demand for Justice is met through the death and resurrection of His Son, and there is no need for me to make impossible restitution for sin. Rather, He calls me to be transformed responsively, and to life a life worthy of the calling that I could not earn.

Perhaps the same is true of offenses committed against others? Perhaps justice does not demand that I remain in a state of depravity, but that I become a less depraved person. If I treat a friend cruelly, I ought not remain cruel, or loath myself for being cruel, but rather stop being so cruel. Perhaps this would bless them most.

But still, surely I have sinned against my friend? And yet David says otherwise, and The Word speaks truth. But I do not understand.

I am truly baffled, and do not know the answer.

A Psalm of Repentence?

Posted in Personal, The Church at 2:15 pm by Caleb Winn

(I am in pain, and out of my pain I turn to others for comfort. My expectations are so high, my demands for love so absurd, that they will always fail me, for I ask what only God can give. And so I lash out in my pain, and break the hearts of those who do their best to care for me. If man hath no greater love than to lay down his life for a friend, then surely man hath no greater hate than to demand the lives and love of others, only to spurn their heart, once given! And when my sin finally causes me to be alone, I turn to God in prayer, asking not that He change me, but that He make the pain go away.) 

But when I am hurt, the gospel should not be a mere band-aid that provides temporary comfort; it should be the blood that pours out of me, as love from the wounds of Christ. The gospel must not be a superficial salve. It must be the core of my very being, and the lifeblood of my soul. 

(But it’s not. No matter what I say, I love nobody so much as I love myself. I care little for the blood of Christ, when I feel the sting of pain in my own life. And I care so much for myself that I blow everything out of proportion, screaming and crying as if a small scratch is a mortal wound. All I want is a salve, a band-aid, a respite from my self-created misery. When I am hurt, I get bitter, and I get mean. I am not worthy of the Gospel, as I cry out for God to be my nursemaid, to come and take away my foolish, selfish pain.)

But God does not merely condescend to join us in a place of pain. He condescends to bring us up out of our self-centeredness and misery. He condescends to us, so that through him we may transcend our selfishness and self-pity. We shake our fists at God, holding out our bleeding fingers in agony, and He grabs hold of our hands and draws us up to Him.

(But how could He grab hold of my hand?! Even as I write these words, I remember my sin, and it grieves me. How can I praise God? I am unworthy to even speak His name, for these are the lips that have cursed those I love. These lips have broken hearts; how can they claim the heart of God? I understand now why Isaiah said, “woe is me!” for when He saw God’s glory He wanted to praise Him, and could not. Nor can I.)

But God had mercy on Isaiah, and cleansed his lips with fiery coal, purifying him by fire to be a messenger of grace. The Gospel does not make sense. God does not demand that we come to Him as those who are worthy. When I am most broken, He is most powerful. And He uses my brokenness to bring healing. “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have broken rejoice!”

(But I do not want my bones to be broken, or my lips burned! God, give me chastity and charity, but not yet! Let me hold onto my comfort. Let me grasp tightly to my sin. Let the peace of God be kept at bay, while I retain lordship over my life. And let the kingdom of my soul remain in ruin while Christ the King waits outside the walls of my heart, for I am afraid of the fire! And surely a man such as me can never change.) 

But the greatest Christians are not the most moral people. Abraham, David, and Paul were absolute villians. But God has mercy on me, a sinner, and brings not only forgiveness but also restoration. He takes broken instruments of sin and makes them into signifiers of grace and redemption. He takes great sinners and makes them into His saints. Through the pain of conviction and the difficult, humbling process of repentence, he burns our hearts with fiery coal until we, too, can cry, Holy! Holy! Holy!

(But… I have no excuse. God forgive me for demanding a band-aid, and for caring about nothing but my own pain. God forgive me for lashing out at others, beating dear friends with my bloody fist.  God forgive me, and heal the pain that I have inflicted on those I claim to love. God forgive me, and draw my focus to you. God forgive me, and help me to forget myself. God forgive me, and help me to trust in your grace. Though I am not worthy, have mercy on me, a sinner!)

I am not a good person. Right now I feel like I may be the worst person in the world. I do not write this as one who has it all figured out. I am not saying any of this because I am good, but because I am wretched, and so overwhelmed that I would rather die that face the shame of my sin.

But I serve a great God. When I create idols in my heart, He breaks them. When I turn to false gods for comfort, He takes them away. He disciplines those He loves, and His grace drives out sin, slowly, painfully, and completely. For the gospel is not merely forgiveness, but redemption. The blood of Christ not only washes away the stain, but also the sin. God does not merely declare me “Not Guilty,” though I surely am guilty. He restores my soul, and through His sanctifying work transforms me into the image of His Son.

It is a long, slow, and painful process. I’m frustrated to see pereived gains evaporate in the space of a few days, and to see sins that I thought had been long dormant rear their ugly heads. But I know that God is faithful. (Please, God, be faithful!) And short-term retreats are not the whole story. For neither life, nor death, nor my own stupidity can separate me from the love of God.

Break my heart, oh God, that your love and mercy may flow through my veins, and pour out of me as a blessing to others.

August 29, 2007

Christ in all, and Christ alone.

Posted in The Church at 11:18 pm by Caleb Winn

All I Want Is You?

I have always had a problem with worship songs which proclaim absolute, exclusive, complete love and fervor and loyalty to God, and complete disregard for all else. We claim, through our worship, that we do not desire anything except to know God. And when I hear those words, I find it difficult to sing along, because they simply aren’t true. The Westminster Catechism states that “The Chief End Of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Is it wrong, then, to enjoy other things as well?

The God of Grace is the center of my life, and knowledge of Him is my greatest desire, but it is hardly my only desire. I desire friendship, fellowship, companionship. I desire food and shelter. I desire the beauty of nature and of art. These are not theological desires, nor do I really desire these things with any theological intention in mind. I don’t say “I want fellowship in order to be exhorted to Godliness and to more perfectly reflect the glory of almighty God!” I desire human love for its own sake, primarily. Does that mean that I am discontent with God’s love? Is it some sort of moral failure?

As I’ve pondered this question in my heart over the past few weeks and months, a few different ideas have floated around in my head. I will try to outline three different areas of analysis, and try to understand the nature of human worship of the divine in light of them.

Why Are We Here?

I think it is helpful to ask ourselves, for what purpose was man created? Understanding how God created us to function is the best way to understand how we ought to live our lives. In order to do this, I think that we need to examine the beginning and the end, to see how we are made, and towards what we are working.

We are made to be corporeal beings, by our very nature. We are not souls trapped inside bodies, nor are we a soulless bundle of chemical and biological processes. We are ensouled bodies, and corporeal souls, a dual existence intertwined and essentially inseparable.

We are made to work. We are made to live in a garden, tending the trees and caring for creation. Unlike the Angels who reside in the throne room crying Holy, Holy, Holy, man is made to live apart from the direct presence of the beatific vision. God certainly “walked with Adam in the cool of the day,” but the image of Eden is not one of an uninterrupted worship service. Eden is a place of activity and service, wherein we fulfill a role within creation.

We are made to love. God created Eve for Adam, because “it is not good for man to be alone.” Surely man was not “alone,” for God was there with him. But direct communion with God is not, it seems, the totality of human relational capacity. Our desire for companionship, for friends and for a lover, is God-given and appropriate. Though some may be called to a life of celibacy and monasticism (see 1 Corinthians 7), this is not the norm.

We are made to return to Eden. Though we often speak of “going to heaven,” the Bible speaks clearly of the resurrection of the body. Salvation provides restoration and glorification, but it is not clear that we will be essentially changed. The resurrection of
Jesus Christ enables us to also be resurrected, in Spirit now and progressively, and in body at the end of the age. But we shan’t be transformed into Angels. We shall remain as we essentially are: corporeal beings, living in a corporeal realm. The idea that we will spend eternity literally within an incorporeal heavenly realm, praising God, seems problematic to me. I find it far more likely that we shall be restored to what we were meant to be like, rather than that we shall be transformed into something wholly new.

In light of all of this, it seems appropriate to desire, and even enjoy, the “lesser goods” that come with corporeal existence. We are created to be corporeal, active, social beings, and we ought not deny that God-given nature.

A Beautiful Creator

As I consider specifically the beauty of the physical world, I’m reminded of the idea that The Heavens Declare The Glory of God. Does this mean that my experience of the heavens must always be quickly transformed into theological contemplation? Or is there something deeper going on here?

It is helpful for me to think of creation as an expression of God’s character, rather than as a random jumble of signs pointing back to Him. There is a purposefulness to creation, if we understand that it necessarily shows us who God is. This helps me to escape overanalyzing and rationalizing everything that I see.

This means that beauty of creation is not an academic construct, or an intellectual category that points to abstract ideals. It is a very real expression of a Very Real God, and experiencing beauty in my soul enables me to love God in my soul, even if I do not construct a theological argument in my mind every time I see a rainbow.

Indeed, constructing theological arguments can be counter-productive if it stands in the way of appreciating the real beauty, and standing in awe at God’s glorious creation. If we understand that creation is necessarily reflective of God, then falling in love with creation necessarily causes us to fall in love with God. Appreciating beauty means appreciating Beauty, and ultimately the author of Beauty.

Becky wrote an interesting post on the subject, if anybody is interested in reading her perspective. She expresses what I mean to say far better than I possibly can, so it is certainly worth the read.

What Is The Greatest Commandment?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this dilemma is the oddly exclusive of The Greatest Commandment, and the fact that it seems to be contradicted by the next commandment, which is “like the first.”

We are told that we ought to “Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Surely if my entire heart, soul, mind, and strength are committed to loving God, I have no more heart, soul, mind, and strength left for anybody else! If in fact God demands my exclusive adoration, there is no room for deviation. I cannot love God with all my heart, and also love my friend, can I?

But then the second commandment, which is tied inextricably to the first, urges the reader to “love your neighbor as yourself.” How is this possible? If I have truly committed all of myself to loving God, I have nothing left with which to love myself, let alone others! How can this commandment possibly make sense, in light of the first?

In fact, I would argue that it only makes sense in light of the first, and that the link between the two is key to understanding either. Like the concepts that they embody, the commandments themselves must always exist in conjunction with each other. The commandment to love others is a means of fulfilling the commandment to love God. It is through loving others as ourselves that we are able to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. For loving my neighbor is an ineffable expression of divine love and grace.

All I Want Is You!

The bottom line is that I am unable to see God perfectly, and He allows me lesser, intermediary goods through which I can see His glory reflected. I am created to enjoy these blessings, and in so doing to worship God.

So in the end, I’m left wondering if there is really a conflict at all. If I desire companionship, I am fulfilling the role for which I have been created. If I delight in beauty, I am really delighting in the creator who chooses to manifest Himself through this beautiful world. God is in the sunrise, and the sunset. Life isn’t about structured worship. It is about living as we were made to live, driven by love and grace under the sovereignty of a great and glorious God.

I can sing “All I Want Is You!” to God, then, and mean it. For when I want friendship, when I want to be diligent at my job, and when I want to sit and experience the beauty of a sun’s slow descent into the Pacific ocean after a long day of laughter and fellowship, these are all ways in which I want to worship God.

As with Adam tending his garden, as with Noah beneath the rainbow, as with Christ pouring Himself out lovingly for an ungrateful people, LORD, so let it be with me.

August 27, 2007

The Kingdom Of Heaven Is The Kingdom Of Christ

Posted in The Church at 11:36 pm by Caleb Winn

Chiastic Structures and Christological Symbolism in Matthew 13

 Welcome To The Kingdom

Throughout His ministry, Christ speaks often of the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 13 provides one of the clearest examples of this, where Christ tells a series of parables that each examine a different aspect of what exactly the “Kingdom of Heaven” entails. At first glance, there seems to be little uniting the various parables and illustrations. Each of them may be understood individually as making a particular claim about the Kingdom of Heaven, and each seems to make sense apart from the others. I would argue, however, that the entire section of scripture (from 12:46 to 13:58) is one single, coherent – albeit subtle – argument for the Kingship of Jesus Christ over the throne of Heaven! 

Chiastic Structure

In the interests of conserving blog space, I have not posted the entire chapter here. I would highly recommend reading the entire passage in order to follow the flow of my argument.

The key to understanding this passage is the structure of the parables and the events surrounding them. In this section, I believe that Matthew employs a sort of chiastic structure, wherein events and illustrations mirror each other in order to highlight the central point.  For example, a simple chiasm might be diagramed as 

A           B           C       B        A

In this structure, the C point is central, and the A and B points on each side reflect their counterparts. In most cases, understanding C enables us to better understand A and B, and vice versus. This is essentially what Jesus is doing with His parables in Matthew 13, but on a much grander scale. 

An Introductory Parable About Parables 

Jesus begins Matthew 13 with a parable about a man sowing a field, and seeing that some of his seeds grew and flourished, while others were chocked by weeds, or scorched by the sun (13:1-9). 

Immediately following, Jesus’ disciples asked Him why He speaks in parables, and he provides a lengthy explanation for why He uses parables (13:10-17) followed by an explanation of this parable in particular (18-23). 

Christ’s justification for the use of parables is longer than His explanation for the parable itself, and it ought not be glossed over. It is also sandwiched between the parable, and the explanation, which should pique our curiosity as well. This may function as a miniature chiasm. The distinction that Christ draws between those who truly see and hear, and those who do not, mirrors the distinction between the seed which flourishes and the seed which dies out. 

The point here is that some will understand the truth, and others will not. 

Note that this parable, uniquely among those in this chapter, does not say “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It simply begins “A man went out to sow.” This seems to set it apart from the rest of the parables, which follow. Note also that the subsequent parables bear a striking resemblance to this first one. It seems as if this first Parable of the Sower is an introduction to those that follow, so we ought to keep it in mind as we move forward. 

Six Stories 

After the first, long parable, Christ then launches into a series of 6 shorter parables, with an explanation sandwiched in the middle as a sort of chiastic structure.

To briefly summarize, the parables argue that “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” 

(1)  A Man Who Sowed Good Seed – But the enemy plants chaff with the wheat, so the man will separate them and judge the chaff at the time of the harvest (13:24-30). 

(2)  A Grain of Mustard Seed – It is small, but becomes great (13:31-32). 

(3)  Leaven – It causes bread to rise greatly (13:33). 

(4)  Treasure Hidden in a Field – It is worth selling everything you have (13:44). 

(5)  A Merchant In Search Of Fine Pearls – He sells everything he has. (13:45-46). 

(6)  A Net – It catches good fish and bad, which will be separated and judged in the end, back on shore (13:47-50). 

Parallels, Couplings, And Chiastic Reflections 

There are a number of points to draw here regarding the structure of this section. 

First, Jesus inserts an explanation of the first parallel right in the middle, between the image of the leaven and the image of the buried treasure. He also ends the explanation with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” before moving on to the next parable. This is important in light of the introductory parable, and hearkens back to 13:9 and 13:14-17. The centrality is important, and should capture our attention as it dramatically changes the tone and pace of the passage. 

Second, the 1st and 6th parables are different similes for essentially the same concept. In both, the image is of good and bad thrown together indiscriminately, and allowed to grow and live together until the end of time, at which point they will be judged. 

Third, the 2nd and 3rd parables (mustard seed and leaven) are almost identical to each other, as are the 4th and 5th (buried treasure and pearl of great price). They can really be understood as a pair of couplets. Furthermore, the fact that they are so coupled, and that they are bookends for such a substantial break in the narrative flow, means that we ought to understand them as reflecting each other. 

Fourth, note the great parallels and contrasts of meaning between the 2nd/3rd parables and the 4th/5th parables. In the first couplet, the image is of humility. Mustard seeds and leaven are not impressive. They are very mundane, everyday objects. But the passage draws out a comparison between these boring images and the images of the buried treasure and the pearl. This makes sense in light of the way that Christ uses the images: the mustard seed is small, but grows great. Yeast is a minor ingredient in bread, but it makes the bread grow great. 

So the 1st and 6th parables reflect each other, while the 2nd and 3rd (as a single couplet) reflect the 4th and 5th (as a single couplet), highlighting the central point of the passage, which is the explanation that takes place in the middle.As a Chiasm, it could be graphed:

A              B1/B2           C              B2/B1                 A

Taking A Closer Look To See… What’s At Stake. 

In light of this, it is important to understand what this central passage says, both for its own sake, and in light of the surrounding parables.

Jesus explains that the sower is the Son of Man, and that the good seed are the “children of the kingdom,” which is the Church. As the weeds (”the sons of the evil one” or non-Christians) grow up among the good seed, the Son of Man allows them to prosper. But at the harvest (”the close of the age”) He will send his harvesters (”angels”) who will separate the righteous from the unrighteous, and cast the latter into that place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

Though His explanation is limited to the parable of the weeds, the analysis applies perfectly to the parable of the net, as well. Good fish and bad fish are caught up in the same net, and are not separated until they reach the shore. To cement the parallel, He even uses the same language: the “angels” will separate the fish, and cast the bad fish to the place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

This much is clear, then: the explanation makes sense of the parables of the sower and of the net, and argues that there will be a reckoning at the end of time during which the Godly will be spared, and the wicked punished.

But how does this apply to the reflected couplets? How does this image make sense of the mustard seed and the leaven, or the buried treasure and the pearl?

The answer to this question requires us to take a step further back and look at the context surrounding all of these parables. In so doing, I think that we will discover that these parables show us how to be a “good fish,” by recognizing the supremacy of Jesus Christ. 

Taking A Step Back To See… Christ The Unappreciated 

The first clue is the way that the events surrounding this series of parables seem to reflect each other. It makes sense to group this section together from 13:1 (The parable of the sower) to 13:50 (the conclusion of the last parable) or 13:52 (Jesus final statement of reflection about the parables). But in expanding our focus to include the surrounding passages, we can see a clear parallel between 12:46-50 and 13:53-58. 

In the former section, Jesus rejects His mother and brothers while speaking to the people. While the passage is not explicit on why they came to get Him, Jesus’ response seems to imply an assertion of His divine calling. While His mother and brothers represent His domestic attachments and home life in Galilee, Jesus rejects that identification and instead proclaims that His family is composed of all who serve His Father in heaven, rather than His earthly father. From this, it seems as if the passage is a repudiation of those who would consider Him a mere man, and a statement about His divine nature and holy calling. 

This is a clear parallel with the events that transpire immediately following this series of parallels, where the people of His hometown do not recognize His authority and respond in astonishment. To further reinforce the connection between the two passages/events, they even make reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers (13:55)! And just as in the earlier incident, Jesus’ divine calling is not recognized, for the people of His hometown cannot see Him for who He truly is. 

Taking It All In To See… Christ As King 

Understanding this context allows us to make sense of the entire passage, then. At the end of time, Christ will send His angels to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the good fish from the bad. And those who shall be saved from the fire are those who “have ears to hear” and recognize Jesus Christ as Lord. They are not fooled by the diminutive nature of the mustard seed or the leaven. They recognize a great treasure when they see it, and they will give their all in the service of Almighty God. 

The mustard seed that is overlooked because it is so small becomes the greatest tree; it is the buried treasure, worth selling everything to find! 

The leaven that seems so small and unimportant can leaven three measures of flour; it is the pearl, worth selling everything to find! 

This is where understanding the chiastic structure of these parables really pays off, in that it causes us to grasp the full meaning of each parallel as a part of the greater whole. By understanding how the mustard and leaven are mirrored reflections of the buried treasure and the pearl, both sets of images gain greater power. The passage calls us to recognize the value of the mustard seed, and the glory of the leaven. 

The people of Jesus’ hometown could not recognize this, for they saw only a carpenter’s son, born and raised among them. Their eyes were blinded by familiarity so that they could not perceive the glory of the Son of Man. It is this attitude against which Jesus warns, through the Spirit-fueled gospel writing of Matthew. 

A Final Note 

I did not include this earlier, because I am not entirely certain of my extrapolation, but it occurs to me that the tree of bitterness and the leaven that raises three measures of flour may be images of Christ’s death on the cross, and His resurrection after the third day. This adds greatly to the already rich symbolism of the passage. For Christ’s death was a humble, even humiliating one. It was seen as a final defeat. But where men see defeat, God sees victory! The agony of the Cross has become the joy of our salvation! The seemingly worthless mustard seed and leaven are the means by which we may approach the throne of God, free from condemnation. It is this that will enable us to escape the harvester’s fires at the end of days. 

Praise be to God, who shows us “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world,” and gives us eyes that can see, and eyes than can hear! By His grace, and His grace alone, we are able to hold fast to Christ, and to sell all that we have for Him, our pearl of great price, our treasure that was buried in a field, and yet rose again!

August 17, 2007

Honest Abe vs. Tricky Dick: Ambition and the American Presidency

Posted in Philosophy, Politics at 12:40 am by Caleb Winn

As alike as they are different

Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon had a lot in common. Both were Commanders-In-Chief during bitter and divisive wars, and both left an indelible mark on the nature of American government. Both Presidents dramatically increased the power of the Executive Branch during their tenure in office. And yet these two men represent the best and the worst of the American Presidency. Abraham Lincoln is as revered as Richard Nixon is reviled. The former fought for lasting justice, freedom, and equality for America, while the latter resigned his office in disgrace.

This is most perplexing in light of the overwhelming personal similarities between the two characters. They possessed many very similar personality traits, and were driven by many of the same motivations. Most relevantly, both men were motivated by deep struggles with depression to pursue a life of ambition.

Bound together by the common thread of melancholy

As Joshua William Shenk argues in his book: Lincoln’s Melancholy, Lincoln was a well-known depressive during his life. He suffered at least two major depressive episodes. Especially as a young man, these bouts of depression were very acute, causing him to say things like, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” He also wrote melodramatic poetry about suicide, and his friends took his discussion of suicide seriously enough that for a time they kept him on “suicide watch” and refused to let him be alone.

But even after his two chronicled Major Depressive Episodes, Lincoln continued to struggle with feelings of chronic depression. (Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, argues that Lincoln was simply “melancholy,” rather than clinically depressed, but for our purposes, the distinction is relatively unimportant.) Throughout Presidency, Lincoln would often seem to buckle under the stress and strain of life. As he faced dwindling support for the War from Congress, even among his own party, Lincoln remarked darkly, “They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half-disposed to gratify them.”

This sort of statement might have been transcribed straight from the White House tapes of President Nixon, if only it had included a few choice expletives. In fact, it sounds a great deal like Nixon’s proclamation after his failed 1962 gubernatorial bid, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Like Lincoln, Nixon was a deeply unhappy, insecure man. Even his most loyal staff members, such as Chief of Staff Haldeman, and senior advisor man Henry Kissinger, often referred to him as child-like, and described nights in which the President would call numerous times to seek reassurance that a speech had gone well, and that he had support of the American people. In at least one point during his Presidency, Nixon grew depressed and physically exhausted to the point that senior staff members considered it an issue of grave concern. Robert Dallek’s biography Nixon and Kissinger describes Nixon as “an introspective man whose inner demons both lifted him up and brought him down.”

One particular story illustrates this idea very well, and is worth developing at length, because it really highlights the deep insecurities that drove Nixon to pursue political power. On May 9th, 1970 — a mere 4 days after the Kent State University incident in which four student protesters were killed by National Guard troops– Nixon spontaneously visited the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 in the morning. There, he met with a group of college students and tried to engage them in conversation about foreign policy. When they would not come around to his viewpoint, he instead began to talk with them about sports. One of the students described the President’s speech and conduct as “absurd.” And, according to Nixon and Kissinger, “as he [Nixon] left, he implored the students not to hate him.” There has, perhaps, never been a greater example of the pathetic hunger for approval that sometimes drives the ambitions of men.

A shared response: ambition as an anti-depressant

It is important to understand this hunger for approval and meaning if we are to truly understand the nature of political ambition. For both Nixon and Lincoln, the melancholy temperament that depressed their spirits also drove them to pursue their political ambitions. As is so often the case, it was their dissatisfaction that drove them to pursue greatness. Becoming President of the United States was their way of giving direction, purpose, and meaning to their lives. In many ways, personal, political ambition was their cure for depression.

Nixon sought to compensate for his insecurity through attaining personal power and prestige, in order to appear tough and in control. He personalized major policy issues, making important decisions based on whether or not his actions would show that “the man in the White House is tough.” He spent his first four years preoccupied with securing his own re-election. He was hungry for a reputation as a foreign policy expert, often using less qualified subordinates so that they would not out-stage him or steal any of his limelight. And years after he left office, Nixon continued to crave the respect and approval of his successors. For Nixon, ambition was a way of earning the happiness and love that he could not find for himself.

Lincoln similarly responded to his depression by pursuing greatness. During a particularly intense period of depression, a close friend named Joshua Speed told Lincoln that he must either improve, or die. Lincoln responded by saying that he could kill himself, but he wanted to leave a mark on his generation, and “so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow men,” and that this was that he “desired to live for.” His thirst for power was a direct answer to his deep melancholy.

A dangerous path to walk

How could two men so similarly ambitious pursue that ambition in two deeply divergent ways? And what is it about the nature of human ambition that causes some men to be destroyed by it while enabling others to transform the world for generations? At first glance, ambition seems like an intrinsically dangerous character quality. While it may not always be dangerous to the self, it poses great threat to social stability and political order. Lincoln himself argued in 1838 that the greatest threat to the American experiment was surely the ambition of great men, for they will place personal gain over political principle, and do anything necessary to achieve notoriety. He writes:

 Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.   

 Why Lincoln succeeds where Nixon fails

This last sentence highlights the difference between the destructive ambition of “Tricky Dick” Nixon and the noble ambition of “Honest Abe.” Ambition is dangerous when it exists for its own sake only, and is not restrained by principle or nobility of character. But while personal ambition can be a seductive foe, Lincoln escaped its clutches. I believe that he did this in three ways: 

1) Lincoln transformed personal ambition into transcendent purpose.

There was a reason for his Presidency beyond his own re-election. Lincoln writes, “Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature – opposition to it is his love of Justice.” Shenk concludes, “He looked at imperfection, and sought redemption.” 

This was not always the case. When he first began to pursue political ambition as a young man, he did so for his own sake. When he expressed his desire for greatness to his friend Joshua Speed, he said that he wanted to “link his name with something.” This is a personal, non-specific ambition. Lincoln’s initial motivation, at least, was not to “preserve the union” or “free the slaves.” He wanted to do “something.” great. These important cause were the means of fulfilling his ambition, but he was not ambitious because of them. 

But although he was initially motivated by a desire for personal greatness, Lincoln found that the magnitutde of the cause in which he was engaged eclipsed his own personal ego. He began selfishly – perhaps all great men do – but he ended nobly. Through depersonalizing him ambition, Lincoln was able to hold power with humility, and accomplish far more than Nixon ever could. By maintaining an external focus, by pursuing a goal higher than himself, Lincoln largely escaped the seductions of ambition.

2) Lincoln was willing to sacrifice personal success for the success of his transcendent purpose.

In many ways the controversial and unpopular policies that he pursued were detrimental to his own ambition. But he did them anyway, because his personal popularity was less important than the preservation of the Union, and eventually the abolition of slavery.

Having studied the abolitionist movement in England, Lincoln realized that he may well have undertaken a task which would be impossible to complete in a single lifetime. Upon this realization, Lincoln remarked, “I can not but regard it as possible that the higher object of this  contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life.” This did not discourage him, however, nor did it cause him to give up the fight. Since  his purpose was external to himself, because he gave himself to the service of a cause, instead of selecting and discarding causes to serve himself, he was content to see failure in his lifetime in the hope that Justice would be done in the end. 

3) He did this by understanding his calling in the context of divine sovereignty.

Many historians, Joshua William Shenk included believe that Lincoln was a fatalist, who expressed belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” – all things which will happen, will happen, and must happen. This was a view that he developed in his youth, and appears to have never abandoned.

But as he progressed in years, and especially into his Presidency, this “Doctrine of Necessity” took on new meaning for Lincoln in light of his growing belief in a personal God. Lincoln’s friends and visitors during his last few years reported that they often found him in prayer, or studying scriptures. He seemed to be especially fond of the book of Job, which shows that temporal hardship and suffering can have a deeper, spiritual significance that we cannot understand. His 2nd Inaugural Address really highlights this point – for Lincoln, human life could only be understood in the context of a transcendent divine will, though that will is often difficult for men to understand.

His own words and writings really attest to his belief that his life and work were a part of God’s sovereign plan. He was known to say that he was merely an “instrument” playing a part in “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.” He really did seem to disregard his life for the sake of his life’s work. When his friends expressed fear that he might be assassinated, he responded, “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.”

This resignation and self-sacrifice would not have been possible if he did not believe that he was in God’s hands, working His will. It was this belief in the transcendent will of God that enabled Lincoln to de-personalize his ambitions and give himself to a cause that transcends personal success. His increasingly firm belief in the providence of a benevolent God enabled him to combine his fatalism with a sense of hopefulness, and gave him the strength to press on. Within this context, his personal responsibility was understood as part of a whole that was greater than his own successes and failures. Instead of hungering for personal glory, Lincoln now said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty. . .” 

As different as they are alike

Both Lincoln and Nixon sought to leave a mark on the world, but Nixon did so for his own sake, and Lincoln did so for the sake of the world. Nixon’s ambition was conceived in his own ego, while Lincoln’s was conceived in liberty. Nixon was dedicated to his own success; Lincoln was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And long after Nixon’s greatest achievements have been forgotten, people around the world will continue to celebrate the legacy of Lincoln: a nation by the people, of the people, and for the people, that shall not perish from the earth.

That is what separates great Presidents from terrible ones, and turns ambition from a fatal flaw to a noble blessing. 

August 8, 2007

Poetry, pt. 2

Posted in Poetry at 10:55 pm by Caleb Winn

Descent Into Kelp

Cool comfort glides on ocean’s breeze
While sweet sun smiles as on a friend
Above the water; float through life with ease

But strange how simple objects bend
And break as liquid meets the light
Within the water; turn the world on end

As murky dusk becomes dark night
True vision fades when I descend
Beneath the water; darkness drowns the light. 

August 6, 2007

Technology and the Philosophy of Education.

Posted in Culture at 9:23 am by Caleb Winn

An interesting blog entry:

Campus Technology 2007 Conference: Questioning Underlying Assumptions

…as campus technology professionals and educators rush into the adoption of such things as Blogs, Wikis, IM, e-mail, Google, Yahoo, MySpace, Facebook as part of their curriculum, shouldn’t we first ask the question of what unintended consequences might accompany each of these new ways of communicating?

Let me quickly point out that I love technology. I don’t just like it. I love it. I get warm, fuzzy feelings when I think about my MacBook. The Nintendo Wii makes me giggle. If I had an iPhone, I would buy it roses and take it for long walks on the beach. Technology is exciting, and enables us to live our lives with a much greater degree of efficiency than we have historically been able to do. Consumer goods and services are widely available. And now, at the beginning of the internet age, the collected information of the world is at our fingertips.

This carries with it some dangers, however. It is important to realize, even as we benefit from technological advances, that the Paradigmatic shift in our approach to education, and community is not wholly positive.

Education — The easy availability of information probably encourages academic laziness. Research becomes a great deal less difficult when I have access to Lexis-Nexis, and can read every major newspaper in the world for free. What previously took weeks of hard work can now be done in hours.

This can be a very positive development. Ease of research means that more information is available, and more time can be spent on other activities. Ideally, more efficient research leads to a much greater depth of analysis and more more coherent, reasonable thought. When scholarship is easier, scholarship can be better.

At the same time, difficulty is a much better schoolmaster than ease. For the seasoned researched, equipped with a Ph.D., tenure, and years of experience, having easy access to research encourages greater productivity. For the undergraduate student, however, I’m afraid that it may encourage laziness. Rather than approaching education with humility, and seeking to learn, it is easy to mine the internet for information that will support our point, and then move on. The undergraduates of 50 years ago may have had fewer sources in their papers, or they may have spent much longer performing their research, but they may have consequently developed better research skills, and profited more by the process of learning. If education is about the output, than the internet is a great boon. But if education is about the learning process itself — and in part, at least, it is — then the hard work of digging through newspapers and journals and books is well worth it.

Community — The advent of blogs, social networks, instant messaging, and podcasts, makes it increasingly possible to shut out opposing viewpoints and live in a vast right-wing (or left-wing) echo chamber.

In a world without modern communication technology, the primary community is defined by geography. One’s friends are the people with whom he works, lives, and worships. If I get annoyed with my neighbor, I cannot simply block him from my buddy list and shut him out of my life. When social investment is defined by proximity, we have to work harder to maintain our relationships. It’s easy to be friends with people whom you choose to befriend. It is harder, though perhaps more valuable, to befriend people with whom you have little in common.

In the era of instant communication, however, we now define our social lives through relationships or choice, rather than of necessity or convenience. I can spend all of my time discussing homeschool debate or complete and utter stupidity, and seldom hear an opposing view. I can build superficial relationships around common interests, and never have to do any emotional heavy lifting.

Add to that the fact that, even with video chat, we are stripped of enormous swaths of non-verbal communication. Instant messagning and email can communicate substance, but little of the tone of a personality or emotional state. That is =(.

Of course it is possible to have meaningful relationships online. And it is possible to have superficial, narcissistic relationships with one’s neighbors. But the internet makes it easier to pick up and walk away, and makes low-committment, homogonous communication the rule, rather than the exception.

So all in all, I love technology. I love my internets. But as much as it has strengths, it also has weaknesses, and it is important to use those strengths well while searching for ways to offset its weaknesses and avoid being damaged by excessive laziness, convenience, or superficiality.

August 5, 2007

Coming soon…

Posted in Personal at 10:16 pm by Caleb Winn

In the next few weeks, I plan on trying to write about the following subjects that have been popping in and out of my head:

A. Philosophy

1 ) Sexual negativity — In light of Nietzsche’s criticism of negatively-based morality, and St. Augustine’s argument for the non-existence of evil, how should Christians view sexuality?

2 ) Is Plato a racist? — How can we celebrate diversity if we view the world through the lens of hierarchical conformity to unbending, unchanging universal forms?

B. Theology

3 ) God vs. Truth — If Christianity were not true, would I still believe in it? Is my commitment to my faith an expression of a higher commitment to rationality? And if so, does that undermine the value of faith?

4 ) A New Creation — If God gives us a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” then why should we stop breaking the law? An attempt to explain why sanctification is worth it.

C. Politics

5 ) Lincoln, Nixon, and the Thirst for Power — how different ideas about the nature and value of ambition made on President great, and brought another to ruin.

6 ) Politics As Usual — Does America need institutional reform? And if so, how can such a reform be undertaken?

D. Personal

7 ) Virtue Grows Between A Rock And A Hard Place — Why failure teaches more than success, and hard work is always worth it.

8 ) Poetry — I suck at poetry, but if I write anything else, I might post it here. I have lots of ideas and images, but I struggle to put them into a coherent poetic form. I am a prose writer. But trying my hand at poetry, even if I fail, is worth it. (See point #7.)

I will likely write as the fancy strikes me, but if anybody is especially interested in one topic or another, let me know via email or comment, and I’ll try to get to it sooner, rather than later.

August 3, 2007

Because of Kelly Clarkson, and C.S. Lewis

Posted in Culture at 10:49 pm by Caleb Winn

As I drove home this afternoon, I heard Because of You, by Kelly Clarkson, on the radio. For those not familiar with the song, it’s a pretty powerful tirade against her father, blaming him for much of what has gone wrong in her life. The chorus goes:

Because of you
I never stray too far from the sidewalk
Because of you
I learned to play on the safe side so I don’t get hurt
Because of you
I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me
Because of you
I am afraid

As I listened to this song, my initial reaction is to say that we, and we alone, are responsible for our character. Other people may certainly act towards us, but they cannot force any reaction to their actions. If somebody treats me poorly, I can respond poorly in kind, but I need not do so. Is my poor reaction, then, really their fault?

Can Kelly Clarkson blame her dad for a life of fear and mistrust, or is she responsible for her responses to his actions?

As I thought about this issue — if you’re stuck in traffic there is little do to but ponder the philosophical implications of pop music — I thought of C.S. Lewis’ argument in The Abolition of Man, regarding waterfalls. His point seems to be that certain phenomenon justify specific emotional responses. The experience of sitting at the bottom should cause me to feel sublime, because the waterfall is sublime. If people do not share in this emotional response (such as those people who dislike children) then it represents an emotional or moral failure on their part, and an inability or unwillingness to bring appropriate responses to bear when confronted with reality. This seems true. If Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are Really Real, then I should react to them in a particular way.

My question, then, is that if this applies negatively as well. If a Beautiful waterfall should cause me to feel a sense of awe, then should a scary experience cause me to be afraid? Should a violation of trust lead me to be mistrustful? Or do we misidentify how we ought to respond to those experiences?

This is a question for which I do not have an answer at this time. I’m not sure that all of my terms are clearly-defined, or are used consistently throughout. I suspect that a bad father shares some responsibility for his children’s maladjustment, but not all — responsibility can be shared, I think. And I also suspect that fear (and mistrust?) can be appropriate in some circumstances, but that we make a mistake in extrapolating those emotions to future relationships as surely as if we retain a sense of beautified awe when leaving the waterfall and walking into an ugly, impoverished slum. If this is the case, Kelly Clarkson’s dad is partially, but not completely, culpable for her fear and mistrust, and she has made an error in treating others with the mistrust that he evoked from her.

But these answers are merely preliminary guesses — I shall have to consider these issues at greater length. And, of course, any feedback is welcome.