Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I've been randomly turning some thoughts about Mary over in my head - I don't mean the Biblical Mary, but the Mary of Roman Catholic tradition. I think the view we take of Mary relates very closely to our view of Jesus, the Church and humanity. Indeed, with the Roman view of these three things, it is hard to see how they could fail to exalt Mary and enthrone her as queen of heaven. The flipside is that if Protestants find themselves moving in a Mariolatrous direction, we need to re-examine our more fundamental beliefs.

In RC thinking, there are two movements in the gospel. There is the movement of God downward in Jesus Christ - the incarnation and the cross - and there is the movement of humanity upward. These are two separate things, although the former is to be considered prior. (Whether its priority can be maintained in practice must be doubted). In terms of salvation, this is Roman thought precisely - God makes a move, we make a move. Grace, then free will. In the thinking about Mary, this shows very clearly. God makes a move towards the incarnation; Mary agrees with this move, and thus makes its completion possible. Human co-operation is vital in the Roman system, and the Roman Mary shows it.

Of course, if you believe this there must be some sort of merit that accrues to the human who co-operates. In RC thinking, this merit is found within the church as the institution which co-operates with God. The church is to be thought of as God's kingdom on earth - literally. Here is humanity exalted. No surprise, then, that Mary - the symbol of the church - is enthroned in heaven.

The problem at the most fundamental level seems to be that God simply does too little in the RC system. God comes down in Jesus, but he does not in himself raise humanity up. That corresponding movement must be represented by another figure, Mary, who stands for the institution of the church. In that case, isn't the church simply humanity raising itself - albeit in response to God's summons and in some way through his enabling?

We must instead see the cross and the resurrection together. In Jesus, God is humbled and humanity is raised. He does it all. If we hold to that, Mary can have her proper place of honour - as one who said 'yes' to God. And isn't that a better understanding of the church overall?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Life as Witness

This started off as a thought about political engagement. Specifically, I was concerned about motivation for Christians to be involved in politics. I can't embrace the generally left-wing view that we can actually fix society. I think that's just naive. More seriously, I think it tends to put human beings in the place of God, who promises that he will fix things, at the return of Jesus Christ. But if I can't fix it, why get involved at all? Why make any effort to improve things, if ultimate success is not, humanly speaking, possible?

Turning this over in my mind, I've realised that the problem extends beyond politics and into every area of life. Why get involved in culture, if culture will always ultimately be corrupt and belong to the passing form of this world? Why be involved in poverty relief or development, given that we will always have the poor with us? Perhaps most fundamentally, why seek personal holiness, when I will always be fallen and never achieve perfection this side of my resurrection?

A few answers spring to mind. Perhaps we could say that there is value in the effort itself, regardless of the result. That may be, but I struggle to see wherein the value lies, and that in itself makes this no good as a motivating force. We could perhaps argue that small successes count for something, but I am not sure that this is obviously the case. It is certainly true to argue that culture and the like are carried, somehow, through the end and into the new creation, but the process is obscure in its details, and I don't feel all that motivated by it.

I've arrived at the conclusion that the motive is witness. I don't seek to change society because I think it can be ultimately fixed, but as a witness to the fact that in principle it has already been ultimately fixed in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. I don't seek to exercise my creativity because I believe I can make a perfect culture, but as a bearing witness to the perfect culture that already exists in principle through the death and resurrection of Christ. And I don't seek personal holiness because I can create it through my own efforts, but as my witness to the fact that complete righteousness is already mine in the risen Lord Jesus.

All my life is just saying 'yes', in every sphere in which I have influence, to what He has done in every sphere of existence.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ten Commandments, One Lord Jesus

The Ten Commandments have traditionally, and with good reason, been divided into two groups. The first four have to do with the relationship between Israel and God - no polytheism, no idolatry, no blasphemy, keep Sabbath. The other six relate more to society, or to human relationships, and represent the working out in daily life of that relationship to God - honour parents, don't murder, no adultery, don't steal, don't lie, don't covet.

Jesus summarises the two groups as two great commandments: love God with all that you are and have, and love your neighbour just the way you love yourself. So ten become two. Or perhaps better, the two second-order commandments that stand behind the ten third-order commandments are now revealed.

Second-order? Yes - because in the person of Jesus, those two are one. Think about the incarnation. Jesus is God. I therefore owe him all of the obedience that is demanded by the first 'table' of the commandments, and by the first of the great commandments. He is the God beside whom there can be no others, before whom there must be no idols, against whom there must be no blasphemy, and in whom there must be sabbath rest. But Jesus is also man. I therefore owe him all the obedience of the second table - he is alongside me as the neighbour I must not wrong.

Incidentally, this is confirmed by NT ethics. This especially springs to mind, from Galatians 6:10: "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." Why is there a distinction here, between 'everyone' and 'the household of faith'? Is Paul limiting the people I should do good to? Clearly not. But he is highlighting that here, in the household of faith, Christ as neighbour is most clearly seen, because Christ is in my neighbour and vice versa. Therefore, my ethical response of neighbour-love within the church is especially appopriate.

So the first-order commandment, which stands behind the two-fold great commandments and the decalogue, is Jesus. All the commandments are meant to lead me to him. I am meant to be bound to him in love and trust, and in being bound, to be free - here I can be the one I was made to be.

Does this help with our view of the Mosaic law in Romans 9-10? Israel chased the law, and the righteousness it promised, but did not see Christ as the fulfilment of the law and its ultimate end. They were left, then, without faith, pursuing the outward form of the law without Christ, who is the beating heart of the law and of all believing ethics.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The problem of front gardens

As I was walking through East Oxford today, I was feeling a little sad about how nice the streets could be and how nasty they actually are. "Something should be done", thought I, "but what?"

We could change all the 'street furniture', as it seems to be called. Smarten up the lamposts. Sort out the signs. But, to be honest, they're not really the problem. And how exciting can a one way sign be, anyway?

The problem is that many - okay, let's be honest, the overwhelming majority - of houses have really shabby frontages with poorly kept gardens. I'm not saying that to criticise the owners. I dare say if I owned a house it would have a shabby frontage with a poorly kept garden.

The point is that this is why the state will never be able to fix local communities. We're not dealing with a public space - the public space is utilitarian but basically fine. The problem is with the collection of private spaces. Only the owners can decide to make them look pleasant, and only they can put in the effort to make it so.

I think the problem of front gardens sets limits to the influence of the state in all sorts of areas of life. I guess that's why I'm a Tory.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Thought Experiment

Imagine you woke up one morning, started to go about your normal day, and then nobody reacted to you in any way. I don't mean they ignored you - that's a reaction - but there was just no reaction. As if they couldn't see or hear you.

What would you do?

I'd push someone over just to prove that I existed.

In your face, Descartes!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Lamentations: Two Moments

The Old Testament's great lament for Jerusalem, traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, does not make easy reading. It describes some of the effects of ancient siege warfare in graphic detail, which is unpleasant to say the least. More than that, it is full of deep grief. Jerusalem is fallen; Judah is taken captive. The prophet grieves for his people. At a deeper level, the terrible question is raised: is that it for God's covenant? If so, the grief is not only for Judah, but for all creation.

There is a moment, however, in the centre of the book, where the darkness lifts. It is a fleeting glimpse of light, but stands out all the more for that: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness".

Because of God's character, there is hope. Specifically, because God's mercies are new every morning, yesterday does not determine today, and today does not irrevocably set the course of tomorrow. Jerusalem's fall, and Judah's sin which prompted it, does not rule out future intervention by the God of grace. It does not rule out new mercy, and a morning of light.

And yet the book ends in another moment, the darkest moment in the whole Old Testament: "Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old - unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us".

The prophet ponders the darkest possibility. What if there is no new mercy? What if God has utterly rejected his people - as indeed their conduct fully deserves?

The two moments are related. Because God's mercy is new every morning, it cannot be presumed upon, but must be actively sought out, trusted, and received with each new day. The lament shows that the author, at least, has learnt the hard lesson of the fall of Jerusalem: past mercy does not provide present security. (Think of the cry of those who were confident that Jerusalem would never fall: "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!" They knew that in the past God had chosen this place, and they assumed that this past mercy guaranteed their security and blessedness in the here and now, no matter their behaviour or their present attitude to God).

How often do I fail to seek new mercy each day?