Saturday, June 6, 2009

Goodbye for a while

I think the vast majority of the people who read this blog already know this, but I'll be in Ecuador for the next six weeks, learning Spanish, volunteering in the cloud forest, being a tourist, and finding out what it's like to be a translator with Wycliffe. Thus, there will be no blog posts until at least July 17.

If you are a pray-er: please pray for my peace and safety, and that I would be seeking God's will and viewpoint, instead of just getting caught up in my own thoughts.

Have a good June and July!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Knowing God

What does it mean to know God? How can one know someone who cannot be so small as to be completely knowable by limited human minds (since, by definition, he is so great as to deserve to be worshiped)?

I have no delusions of being able to comprehend God. But does that mean I can't know him? I don't believe that I truly comprehend my best friends, either, but I would certainly say that I know them--even that I know them well. So how can I get to know the invisible, omnipotent, inaccessible Ruler of the Universe in the way that I know my friends? I can't really call God up to come over to my house and sit around and watch movies or play "Would you rather?" The stereotypical churchy answer is something based on "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).

Seek God by praying, and reading your Bible, and singing hallelujahs and paying attention in the quiet moments. Stir well, season with Christian community to taste, and cook for five to ten years (cooking time varies depending on your life-oven's spiritual background). Ta-da! Recipe for knowing God. But formulae ought to be questioned.

I was reading several chapters earlier in Jeremiah, and came across this: "'Is that not what it means to know me?' declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 22:16) What does it mean to know God? This verse has God's own answer to the question. Here's the whole verse:
"He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 22:16)
Funny--it doesn't say anything about the regularity of one's quiet times, or the dedication of one's prayer life, or the number of scripture passages one has memorized. "What it means to know [God]" is to have "defended the cause of the poor and needy."

How disquieting! How inconvenient and unnerving. I can't just ensure social justice from the comfort of my home with ten minutes every morning. I would like knowing God to be a nice, safe, step-by-step paint-by-numbers type of process, but this verse says it's about taking real action. Nothing that sounds religious, really. Defend the cause of the people who need it. Social justice--isn't that for those liberal atheist Democrats? WRONG.

How extremely, extremely inconvenient.

But a God who works based on what's convenient for me would be no God at all.

p.s. It's not just that one verse. In Colossians 1:10, doing good works and growing in the knowledge of God are paired, as though they happen simultaneously; and 1 John 2:4 says it's impossible to know God without obeying his commands.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Crusades

How weird is this?:
"All the Crusades met the criteria of just wars. They came about in reaction attacks against Christians or their Church. The First Crusade was called in 1095 in response to the recent Turkish conquest of Christian Asia Minor, as well as the much earlier Arab conquest of the Christian-held Holy Land. The second was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Edessa in 1144. The third was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and most other Christian lands in the Levant in 1187.

In each case, the faithful went to war to defend Christians, to punish the attackers, and to right terrible wrongs. As Riley-Smith has written elsewhere, crusading was seen as an act of love--specifically the love of God and of neighbor. By pushing back Muslim aggression and restoring Eastern Christianity, the Crusaders were--at great peril to themselves--imitating the Good Samaritan. [...]

The cost of crusading was staggering. Without financial assistance, only the wealthy could afford to embark on a Crusade. Many noble families impoverished themselves by crusading.

Historians have long known that the image of a Crusader as an adventurer seeking his fortune is exactly backward. The vast majority of Crusaders returned home as soon as they had fulfilled their vow. [...] One is hard pressed to name a single returning Crusader who broke even, let alone made a profit on the journey. And those who returned were the lucky ones. [...] One can never understand the Crusades without understanding their penitentiary character."
From Thomas F. Madden's article "Inventing the Crusades" in First Things (June/July 2009, Number 194; pp. 41-44).
This take on the Crusades is completely new to me, especially the remarks on the cost of crusading. Now that I think about it, the expensiveness of a long journey should perhaps have been obvious. The cost of plane tickets today ought to have brought that notion quickly to mind. Also, I'm sure my middle school social studies textbooks mentioned the historical context for the launching of the Crusades, rather than listing them as completely isolated events. Nonetheless, as long as I have known about the Crusades, I have had the impression that I as a Christian ought to be ashamed of them, that the Crusaders were acting completely wrongheadedly and destructively, and that I ought to utterly disown them. When my agnostic friend demanded an accounting for the misdeeds of the church throughout the ages, and listed the Crusades as the spearhead for the critique, my response was not to correct her impression of history, but to avert my eyes and chatter about how Christians continue to make mistakes and how their actions do not reliably reflect the religion--or better yet, faith--as a whole (a line of argument which is valid only up to a point, because if adherence to a religion doesn't actually change the way you live, then what's the point??)

But having read this, I can breathe a sigh of relief. It makes sense that Catholic powers would send aid to their allies, even though this pluralism-obsessed day and age don't customarily consider religious ties to be the foundation for political alliances. It is understandable that the promise of forgiveness for sins one was acutely aware of would motivate going to war. It is hard to argue that any war is free from atrocities, whether the war itself is justified or not.

To my mind, the idea of an indulgence is completely wrong-headed, and the notion that fighting and killing people could earn your forgiveness is a distortion of Biblical doctrine. Still, it's good to know that the Crusades, whether actually justified or not, are at least justifiable.

Ethics of Violence

So I was reading Thomas F. Madden's article "Inventing the Crusades" in First Things (June/July 2009, Number 194; pp. 41-44). Curiosity-provoking title, right?

This section on the Christian attitude toward violence intrigued me:
One of the most profound misconceptions about the Crusades is that they represented a perversion of a religion whose founder preached meekness, love of enemies, and nonresistance. Riley-Smith reminds his reader that on the matter of violence Christ was not as clear as pacifists like to think. He praised the faith of the Roman centurion but did not condemn his profession. At the Last Supper he told his disciples, "Let him who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me, And he was reckoned with transgressors."

St. Paul said of secular authorities, "He does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer." Several centuries later, St. Augustine articulated a Christian approach to just war, one in which legitimate authorities could use violence to halt or avert a greater evil. It must be a defensive war, in reaction to an act of aggression. For Christians, therefore, violence was ethically neutral, since it could be employed either for evil or against it. As Riley-Smith notes, the concept that violence is intrinsically evil belongs solely to the modern world. It is not Christian.

I've been discussing the intrinsic badness of war with a friend lately, so I was particularly interested to see this commentary. Previously, the main reference I had in mind for the topic was from C.S. Lewis's (brilliant) Screwtape Letters, in which the senior demon Screwtape's instruction to the junior Wormwood to
get it quite clear in your own mind that this state of falling in love is not, in itself, necessarily favourable either to us or to the other side. It is simply an occasion which we and the Enemy are both trying to exploit. Like most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, it is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.
The line from Ecclesiastes that there is "a time to kill and a time to heal" also supports this idea. I remember being alarmed when I first read both of those lines. The idea of a "time to kill" particularly shocked me. Killing is bad! How could there be a time for it? I thought. As my father pointed out at the time, though, even a doctor sometimes has to kill. I think he used the example of putting a sick animal down. (Of course, euthanasia of humans is a separate controversy in itself!) Or to take an example from science fiction--say you are Captain Picard, fighting the Borg who have invaded your ship, and you see one of your crew members get caught and begin to transform into one of these evil "cybernetic zombies" (Lily's phrasing in "First Contact"). There is no way to save him, and if you just leave him, he will become, against his will, part of the Borg. It is better to shoot and kill him than to leave him to that destiny. There is "a fate worse than death"!

So this perspective does make sense to me. Though it appears at first to imply that morality is purely contextual and therefore relative--obviously problematic for people who believe that moral absolutes exist--the idea that "violence is ethically neutral" or is "raw material" that has its own "time" does not actually say that violence is ever good, but only that it is sometimes right. In a world full of problems, the choice is rarely if ever between a perfect option and an awful option. Rather, we are confronted with the choice amongst an array of imperfect options, each of which is broken in a different way. We have to find the best option, the right choice, but the right and the best are not guaranteed to be unadulteratedly good. So the fact that violence can be the right choice--and, therefore, the effectively good choice--does not mean that violence would be a part of a perfect, unbroken world. That is, violence and war can be intrinsically fallen without being intrinscially evil.

Addendum: C.S. Lewis's term "spiritual raw material" does not clearly convey these ideas when taken out of context, and speaking of the relative and contextual good/evil of an action gets murky as well. None of those terms are defined! In the future, I'm going to keep in mind Madden's succinct phrasing "ethically neutral" instead, since ethics deals with actions and choices, rather than fuzzy inherent properties.