Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thomas and prayer

...for Thomas it was not only his judgment as a theologian, it was his practice as a Dominican, that prayer is the route down which grace traces us back to that place where what we really want lies dormant and all too often unrecognized. And prayer answers to the very desire that prayer itself discovers; prayer uncovers the hidden desire precisely by answering to it. We know from contemporary witnesses that when Thomas wants something he prays for it. That is what you should always do, he says, and it is a pity that what Thomas has to say about prayer is so sorely neglected in the secondary literature, if only because his own practice of prayer was so essential a part of his practice as a theologian. William of Tocco, one of his earliest biographers, made no such mistake. 
Every time that he wished to study, to undertake a disputation, to teach, to write, or dictate, [Thomas] first withdrew into prayer on his own and prayed pouring out tears, in order to obtain understanding of the divine mysteries.
Among contemporary witnesses the stories abound of Thomas having credited prayer above any intellectual ability of his own as accounting for such theological insights as his work might have provided. No doubt some of those stories are apocryphal in detail, pious conjectures of a stereotypically hagiographical kind. It is equally doubtless that they genuinely reflect the wider reality: Thomas wanted to know, and what Thomas wants he prays for. And if he put his theological insights down as much to the outcome of his pleading in prayer for understanding as to anything else, I can see no reason why we should be skeptical. It is not that Thomas thereby claims any divine warrant for his theological arguments, as if their coming to mind in the course of or as a result of prayer in itself authenticated them, as some writers in his times, and especially in the next century, were wont to claim for their work. Thomas never claims warrant for any of his theological conclusions on the grounds (as a son of mine when three years old once did) that “God told him,” otherwise than by way of appeal to what the Church claims God had told everyone. Thomas hid his prayer as he hid his bulk, and specifically insisted to any of his brethren who witnessed anything out of the ordinary by way of prayer experiences that under no circumstances should they report them to anyone else. What Thomas does know is that some kinds of understanding will come to the theologian only within a life of faith and prayer, as gift given to those who ask for it.

From Thomas Aquinas: a portrait, by Denys Turner. chapter six.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

True religion

The greatness and the wretchedness of man are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us both that there is in man some great source of greatness and a great source of wretchedness. It must then give us a reason for these astonishing contradictions.
In order to make man happy, it must prove to him that there is a God; that we ought to love Him; that our true happiness is to be in Him, and our sole evil to be separated from Him; it must recognise that we are full of darkness which hinders us from knowing and loving Him; and that thus, as our duties compel us to love God, and our lusts turn us away from Him, we are full of unrighteousness. It must give us an explanation of our opposition to God and to our own good. It must teach us the remedies for these infirmities and the means of obtaining these remedies. Let us, therefore, examine all the religions of the world and see if there be any other than the Christian which is sufficient for this purpose.

From Blaise Pascal's Pensées, section VII. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

The godless and godforsaken

When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man's godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.

Jürgen Moltmann

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Changing God's plans

'How should any design of the All-wise be altered in response to prayer of ours!' How are we to believe such a thing?

By reflecting that he is the All-wise, who sees before him, and will not block his path. Such objection springs from poorest idea of God in relation to us. It supposes him to have cares and plans and intentions concerning our part of creation, irrespective of us. What is the whole system of things for, but our education? Does God care for suns and planets and satellites, for divine mathematics and ordered harmonies, more than for his children? I venture to say he cares more for oxen than for those. He lays no plans irrespective of his children; and, his design being that they shall be free, active, live things, he sees that space be kept for them: they need room to struggle out of their chrysalis, to undergo the change that comes with the waking will, and to enter upon the divine sports and labours of children in the house and domain of their Father. Surely he may keep his plans in a measure unfixed, waiting the free desire of the individual soul!

Is not the design of the first course of his children's education just to bring them to the point where they shall pray? and shall his system appointed to that end be then found hard and fast, tooth-fitted and inelastic, as if informed of no live causing soul, but an unself-knowing force--so that he cannot answer the prayer because of the system which has its existence for the sake of the prayer? True, in many cases, the prayer, far more than the opportunity of answering it, is God's end; but how will the further end of the prayer be reached, which is oneness between the heart of the child and of the Father? how will the child go on to pray if he knows the Father cannot answer him? Will not may be for love, but how with a self-imposed cannot? How could he be Father, who creating, would not make provision, would not keep room for the babbled prayers of his children? Is his perfection a mechanical one? Has he himself no room for choice--therefore can give none?

There must be a Godlike region of choice as there is a human, however little we may be able to conceive it. It were a glory in such system that its suns themselves wavered and throbbed at the pulse of a new child-life.

George MacDonald in Unspoken Sermons Series I., II., and II.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The lover of life

The thought of death and life after death is ambivalent. It can deflect us from this life, with its pleasures and pains. It can make life here a transition, a step on the way to another life beyond -- and by doing so it can make this life empty and void. It can draw love from this life and deflect it to a life hereafter, spreading resignation in "this vale of tears." The thought of death and a life after death can lead to fatalism and apathy, so that we only live life here half-heartedly, or just endure it and "get through." The thought of a life after death can cheat us of the happiness and the pain of this life, so that we squander its treasures, selling them off cheap to heaven. In that respect it is better to live every day as if death didn’t exist, better to love life here and now as unreservedly as if death really were "the finish." The notion that this life is no more than a preparation for a life beyond, is the theory of a refusal to live, and a religious fraud. It is inconsistent with the living God, who is "a lover of life." In that sense it is religious atheism.

Jürgen Moltmann

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Believing in the resurrection

Believing in the resurrection does not just mean assenting to a dogma and noting a historical fact. It means participating in this creative act of God’s.... Resurrection is not a consoling opium, soothing us with the promise of a better world in the hereafter. It is the energy for a rebirth of this life. The hope doesn’t point to another world. It is focused on the redemption of this one.

Jürgen Moltmann

On Prayer

If there be a God, and I am his creature, there may be, there should be, there must be some communication open between him and me. If any one allow a God, but one scarce good enough to care about his creatures, I will yield him that it were foolish to pray to such a God; but the notion that, with all the good impulses in us, we are the offspring of a cold-hearted devil, is so horrible in its inconsistency, that I would ask that man what hideous and cold-hearted disregard to the truth makes him capable of the supposition! To such a one God's terrors, or, if not his terrors, then God's sorrows yet will speak; the divine something in him will love, and the love be left moaning.

If I find my position, my consciousness, that of one from home, nay, that of one in some sort of prison; if I find that I can neither rule the world in which I live nor my own thoughts or desires; that I cannot quiet my passions, order my likings, determine my ends, will my growth, forget when I would, or recall what I forget; that I cannot love where I would, or hate where I would; that I am no king over myself; that I cannot supply my own needs, do not even always know which of my seeming needs are to be supplied, and which treated as impostors; if, in a word, my own being is every way too much for me; if I can neither understand it, be satisfied with it, nor better it--may it not well give me pause--the pause that ends in prayer?

When my own scale seems too large for my management; when I reflect that I cannot account for my existence, have had no poorest hand in it, neither, should I not like it, can do anything towards causing it to cease; when I think that I can do nothing to make up to those I love, any more than to those I hate, for evils I have done them and sorrows I have caused them; that in my worst moments I disbelieve in my best, in my best loathe my worst; that there is in me no wholeness, no unity; that life is not a good to me, for I scorn myself--when I think all or any such things, can it be strange if I think also that surely there ought to be somewhere a being to account for me, one to account for himself, and make the round of my existence just; one whose very being accounts and is necessary to account for mine; whose presence in my being is imperative, not merely to supplement it, but to make to myself my existence a good? For if not rounded in itself, but dependent on that which it knows not and cannot know, it cannot be to itself a good known as a good--a thing of reason and well-being: it will be a life longing for a logos to be the interpretative soul of its cosmos--a logos it cannot have.

To know God present, to have the consciousness of God where he is the essential life, must be absolutely necessary to that life! He that is made in the image of God must know him or be desolate: the child must have the Father! Witness the dissatisfaction, yea desolation of my soul--wretched, alone, unfinished, without him! It cannot act from itself, save in God; acting from what seems itself without God, is no action at all, it is a mere yielding to impulse. All within is disorder and spasm. There is a cry behind me, and a voice before; instincts of betterment tell me I must rise above my present self--perhaps even above all my possible self: I see not how to obey, how to carry them out! I am shut up in a world of consciousness, an unknown I in an unknown world: surely this world of my unwilled, unchosen, compelled existence, cannot be shut out from him, cannot be unknown to him, cannot be impenetrable, impermeable, unpresent to him from whom I am! nay, is it not his thinking in which I think? is it not by his consciousness that I am conscious? Whatever passes in me must be as naturally known to him as to me, and more thoroughly, even to infinite degrees. My thought must lie open to him: if he makes me think, how can I elude him in thinking? 'If I should spread my wings toward the dawn, and sojourn at the last of the sea, even there thy hand would lead me, and thy right hand would hold me!' If he has determined the being, how shall any mode of that being be hidden from him?

If I speak to him, if I utter words ever so low; if I but think words to him; nay, if I only think to him, surely he, my original, in whose life and will and no otherwise I now think concerning him, hears, and knows, and acknowledges! Then shall I not think to him? Shall I not tell him my troubles--how he, even he, has troubled me by making me?--how unfit I am to be that which I am?--that my being is not to me a good thing yet?--that I need a law that shall account to me for it in righteousness--reveal to me how I am to make it a good--how I am to be a good, and not an evil? Shall I not tell him that I need him to comfort me? his breath to move upon the face of the waters of the Chaos he has made? Shall I not cry to him to be in me rest and strength? to quiet this uneasy motion called life, and make me live indeed? to deliver me from my sins, and make me clean and glad?

Such a cry is of the child to the Father: if there be a Father, verily he will hear, and let the child know that he hears! Every need of God, lifting up the heart, is a seeking of God, is a begging for himself, is profoundest prayer, and the root and inspirer of all other prayer.

If it be reasonable for me to cry thus, if I cannot but cry, it is reasonable that God should hear, he cannot but hear. A being that could not hear or would not answer prayer, could not be God.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I., II., and II

MacDonald is in such full flight in this section that almost all of it appears in the original as one paragraph. I've broken it up as best I can, to make it a bit more readable online.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

All that are in Hell choose it

[The fictional George MacDonald is speaking.] “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened.”. . .

“Hell is a state of mind—ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.”. . .

“Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste. . . .

“A damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.”

“Then no one can ever reach them?”

“Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.”

From The Great Divorce by C S Lewis

Trust in God

Speaking about the disciples confusing the leaven of the Pharisees with ordinary leaven in bread...Mark 8:21 ff

The ground of the Master's upbraiding is not that they did not understand him, but that they did not trust God; that, after all they had seen, they yet troubled themselves about bread. Because we easily imagine ourselves in want, we imagine God ready to forsake us. The miracles of Jesus were the ordinary works of his Father, wrought small and swift that we might take them in. The lesson of them was that help is always within God's reach when his children want it--their design, to show what God is--not that Jesus was God*, but that his Father was God--that is, was what he was, for no other kind of God could be, or be worth believing in, no other notion of God be worth having. The mission undertaken by the Son, was not to show himself as having all power in heaven and earth, but to reveal his Father, to show him to men such as he is, that men may know him, and knowing, trust him. It were a small boon indeed that God should forgive men, and not give himself. It would be but to give them back themselves; and less than God just as he is will not comfort men for the essential sorrow of their existence. Only God the gift can turn that sorrow into essential joy: Jesus came to give them God, who is eternal life.

....The answer then to the Lord's reproach, 'How is it that ye do not understand?' is plainly this: their minds were so full of care about the day's bread, that they could not think with simplicity about anything else; the mere mention of leaven threw them floundering afresh in the bog of their unbelief. When the Lord reminded them of what their eyes had seen, so of what he was and what God was, and of the foolishness of their care--the moment their fear was taught to look up, that moment they began to see what the former words of the Lord must have meant: their minds grew clear enough to receive and reflect in a measure their intent. The care of the disciples was care for the day, not for the morrow; the word morrow must stand for any and every point of the future. The next hour, the next moment, is as much beyond our grasp and as much in God's care, as that a hundred years away. Care for the next minute is just as foolish as care for the morrow, or for a day in the next thousand years--in neither can we do anything, in both God is doing everything. Those claims only of the morrow which have to be prepared to-day are of the duty of to-day; the moment which coincides with work to be done, is the moment to be minded; the next is nowhere till God has made it.

MacDonald, George in  Unspoken Sermons Series I., II., and II. 

*MacDonald's often odd sentence construction could make this seem as though he's saying Jesus wasn't God; I'm sure that's not his intention. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The true laws of the physical

To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been, even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt. For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.

Flannery O’Connor
"Letter to 'A' (Sep. 6, 1955)" in The Habit of Being

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Mystery with mystery

Indeed the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles, but he is comforted. For when he who doubts can only say, 'I do not understand,' it is true he who knows can only reply or repeat, 'You do not understand.' And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart, and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.

G K Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, chapter 4.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The postmodern lie

When modernity announced that the modern age was built by their guys, the secularists, the Christians who believed them were way too easily duped. There should have been less gullibility around here and more checking. Secularism did not fill the houses with good things, did not dig the wells, and did not create great and goodly cities (Dt. 6:10-11). The law required us to give the glory to God for these good things. Instead we have now fallen for the pomo [postmodern] lie that they are not actually good things. The modernist says that “my power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth” (Dt. 8:17). The pomo says, “Yeah, well, to say that you can actually get water out of your wells is logocentric, imperialistic, self-serving, and totalizing.” And the consistent Christian just thanks Jesus for all the stuff.

Ten Theses on Postmodernism - Douglas Wilson 

Saturday, April 04, 2015


Deliver me, O Jesus:
From the desire of being esteemed
From the desire of being loved
From the desire of being honoured
From the desire of being praised
From the desire of being preferred to others
From the desire of being consulted
From the desire of being approved
From the desire of being popular.
Deliver me, O Jesus:
From the fear of being humiliated
From the fear of being despised
From the fear of being rebuked
From the fear of being slandered
From the fear of being forgotten
From the fear of being wronged
From the fear of being treated unfairly
From the fear of being suspected
And, Jesus, grant me the grace
To desire that others might be more loved than I
That others might be more esteemed than I
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I decrease
That others may be chosen and I set aside
That others may be preferred to me in everything.

Mother Theresa, 1910-1997

Friday, April 03, 2015


If you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’ The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree.

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature— while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.

Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.

That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not. . . . . Greed may drive men into competition if there is not enough to go round; but the proud man, even when he has got more than he can possibly want, will try to get still more just to assert his power.

Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.

From Mere Christianity by C S Lewis

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Human pride

The sorry annals of Christian fanaticism, of unholy religious hatreds, of sinful ambitions hiding behind the cloak of religious sanctity, of political power impulses compounded with pretensions of devotion to God, offer the most irrefutable proof of the error in every Christian doctrine and every interpretation of the Christian experience which claim that grace can remove the final contradiction between man and God. The sad experiences of Christian history show how human pride and spiritual arrogance rise to new heights precisely at the point where the claims of sanctity are made without due qualifications.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Killing sin

Blogger, and pastor, James Pruch wrote about John Owen and his book on sin in a recent blog post. This is an extract from it... 

Who can kill sin? So often in popular Christian commentary or books, sermons or conversations, non-Christians are called to wise up, shape up, and clean up their act. Owen’s response? Ridiculous (my word, not his). Here are his words:

You would laugh at a man that you should see setting up a great fabric, and never take any care for a foundation; especially if you should see him so foolish as that, having a thousand experiences that what he built one day fell down another, he would yet continue in the same course…When the Jews, upon their conviction of their sin, were cut to the heart and cried out, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), what does Peter direct them to do? Does he bid them go and mortify their pride, wrath, malice, cruelty, and the like? No; he knew that was not their present work, but he calls them to conversion and faith in Christ in general (v. 38).

Owen acknowledges that God has provided many means to restrain sin, otherwise the world would be hell, as it were. But, ultimately, it is of no use, there is no power, and there is no eternal value if sin is not overcome by and through Christ. Owen writes, “Be sure to get an interest in Christ–if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done.” In other words, if you are not converted to Jesus–if you are not born again by the Spirit–you will never be able to kill sin in general or even particular sins. You may replace a sinful behavior with other less noticeable sins. You may modify your behavior so you don’t appear as sinful. But you will never kill sin. And Jesus will never be your all-consuming treasure.

Unfortunately, we Christians do much harm to non-Christians precisely because of this issue. We have made Christianity appear to be a religion of morality, as if this whole Jesus-thing about simply stopping a few bad habits here and there. It’s all too easy to say to someone, “Stop this sin or that sin because sin is your problem!” A particular sin may certainly be ruining someone’s life. That is true. But any particular sin is only a symptom of not being alive in Christ. The bigger problem is that apart from Christ, people are dead and at enmity with God.

Only conversion to Christ can change this. We don’t need a new strategy that will help us changes our behaviours. We need a new Master. We need a complete transformation. We need a new heart. Once this conversion happens a person goes from death to life. Then, and only then, let the sin-killing begin, because, as Owen concludes, “To kill sin is the work of living men; where men are dead (as all unbelievers, the best of them, are dead), sin is alive, and will live.”