Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Divine Embrace

I am a reader, I like to read no less than one to two books per month, I often juggle several books at once, I always wish I could read more, however, more often then not I find that I get only tidbits from most books. Not so with Webber’s “Divine Embrace.” This is one of those books that sums up a lifetime of theological thought. Perhaps because he wrote it on his deathbed, it is just that. I can usually make my way through a book rather quickly, but not this one. Each section and each chapter requires time out to contemplate its content.

If you are a Christian who suspects that our western faith needs some correction, then I strongly recommend this book to you. In this book Webber gets at the heart of our problem, and that is a truncated spirituality that more often than not leads to a schoziphrenic Christianity. He points out many of the errors that the Eastern Church has identified as endemic in the west for centuries. Since he is a western Christian has an advantage, he knows where the bones are buried. He is personally intimate with the symptoms or our illness. Because of this intimacy, he freely quotes authors that have formed the foundation of what is flawed in the west and connects the dots to where we are today, and then drops a bridge back a place where these faults are not presents. If this book is read with a contemplative mind, it will surely leave the reader with a new spirituality, as well as a new appreciation for the early church, its faith, and its practices. In fact, it may even draw you into such a life.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Get Off the Spiritual Rollercoaster


The Reformers (& their spirituality), in spite of their return to the church fathers, were still influenced by a more mathematical (rational) view of God passed down thorough the scholastics. By replacing contemplation and participation with justification and sanctification, the reformers set up what was to become a severe problem in the modern era- the separation of spirituality from a relational, lived theology to a spirituality rooted in forensic justification that did not encourage the mystery of contemplation or participation but instead turned spirituality toward intellectual knowledge.

This turning eventually meant that justification became the focus on an intellectual spirituality and sanctification became was turned towards a preoccupation with experience. Reason and experience now in conflict produced two kinds of spirituality among Protestants: the spirituality of intellectualism and the spirituality of experimentalism… Speaking autobiographically he says: the journey into intellectualism and experientialism was never satisfying. It was only an exhausting spiritual rollercoaster. (The Divine Embrace, Robert Webber, 2006)


A person can spend long periods of time sorting out their mind and heart, but, only if one is fortunate, will he find someone who crystallizes one’s own conclusions in clearly. For years I have been focused on discovering the authentic ancient, apostolic faith and practice, and then contracting those discoveries with my previous misunderstandings. Much of my labor has been to overcome the effects of “post-great schism” thinking upon my own Christianity. The separation that began with Augustine’s dualism, mind & matter, the spiritual up there physical down here, eventually led the church to the dichotomy that Webber identifies so clearly in the above statements. His assessment that “the spirituality of intellectualism and the spirituality of experimentalism” are now the norm is right on target. Consequently, like his own experience, most western Christians live on a carnival ride, which he calls “an exhausting spiritual rollercoaster.”

The way off of this rollercoaster is a return to the church father’s spiritual disciplines of contemplating the Trinity, and participating in the Trinity. These two practices employ the whole person and not just the mind, and as a result they bring about within the human precisely what those who go after God through knowledge and experience are seeking. Nevertheless, those who live in world the knowledge and experience will find these practices strange and even scary. In my next several posts I will address some of the contemplative spiritual disciplines as well as the participative disciplines.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tearing Down the Platonic Gospel

The last article has led me into several converstaions regarding the side affects of Augustines neo-platonism. One of the most grave affects has been the understanding of the gospel itself. The heart of the gospel or good news of our Lord Jesus Christ prior to Augustine was as follows:

Trinitarian: The first part of the Gospel is the message that the one true God exist in three persons: Father & creator, Son & victor, Spirit & giver of life. There exists within the triune God, a life that is primarily characterized by a communion of love. Hence, God is love.

Incarnational: The second part of the gospel is the message that God the Son took on flesh, and became one of us. So that even after the human race had turned way from God under the enticement of evil (sin & death), the Son might still bring the love of God to us, destroy evil, and win us back into his loving Trinitarian communion. This incarnate Son took evil on He died to destroy sin and death (sacrifice), He rose from the grave victorious over death and as the victor (Savior), and He gave life eternal to all who had mankind. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, eternal life in the flesh has been attained for all humanity (the final resurrection).

Restorative: The third part of the gospel is the message that by the Son’s great victory, He now has the authority to draw all mankind back into God’s Trinitarian family by pouring out upon mankind His life giving Spirit (baptism). This Spirit is now places the presence of God’s power within humans , thus making those persons incarnations of God (sanctification-deification), here and now, healing and restoring them to what they were meant to be (salvation), whole, living spirits that dwell within the Trinity.

The gospel or good news can be summarized by stating that eternal life in God is available to anyone in mankind who desires it, and the only ones who fail to attain it are those who reject it. All has been accomplished; the only thing left for us to do is receive the great gift (faith), and co-operate with God’s work in us (faithfulness), transforming us into Christ likeness. This is the gospel that has been possessed by the church, which the apostles called the ground and pillar of the truth, for two-thousand years. It is revealed in the Holy Bible, it has been taught and explained by the church fathers, it was summed up the three ecumenical creeds, it was articulated in defended in the seven ecumenical councils of the church, and it is this faith which was believed by the whole church, without dispute for one–thousand years. This gospel is the sum and substance of our faith and worship, and it has been passed on to us in our “Book of Common Prayer.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Demolishing The Platonic Highrise

This summer I will consider the lost spiritual disciplines of the early church.


When God through our thinking is turned into an object who in a sense “sits in the heavens”, spirituality takes on a form of dualism. In spiritual dualism, God is no longer the subject who becomes involved in the history of the world. Instead, in dualism, God lives in the realm of spirits, and we humans dwell in the realm of the material. Spirituality in this scheme becomes our effort to transcend our material existence. In dualistic spirituality the spirit within me needs to escape this world.

(The Rev Dr. Robert Webber, The Divine Embrace, 2009)


It is usually necessary to tear down a building before a new one can be erected in the same place. Western Christianity, most especially the kind found in Protestantism, has built a rather large edifice in the midst of our western world. This building was built almost exclusively with Augustinian materials, & that means that it is platonic & dualistic at its core. Consequently, the spiritual disciplines of the post–reformation west have been reduced to exercises of the mind. The reason for this is approach to the spiritual disciplines is simple, those who have learned to think in Augustine's way accept that here on earth God cannot be experienced in any other way but in the mind. For this reason, post-reformation spiritual disciplines are only two; one, bible reading, and the other, spontaneous prayer.

This edifice built upon the ground of the mind needs to be torn down, and a new edifice needs to be erected. The new edifice should be one wherein the God of the heavens dwells on earth, and participates in matter. In this scheme, spiritual disciplines are not designed to extract us from matter, but rather to employ matter in the service of God’s life on earth. This means that the spiritual disciplines that will form the new building we will be inherently physical.

The first bricks laid down in this new edifice will be sacramental objects employed in the spiritual discipline of prayer.

Consider the following list:

o Holy Water

o Prayer rope or beads

o Icons

o Incense

o Candles

Historically, all of these material objects were employed in our spiritual disciplines, particularly in the discipline of prayer. They drop a physical draw-bridge between the matter of our life and non-matter of the life to come, making them one. Each makes the heavenly presence of God’s working power, physically present here and now. Thus, prayer is not done away with in this new non-dualistic building, but rather another story is added to it, a physical story.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Turning Philosophy on its Head

A new article called "the Problem of Goodness," is a great read for those wrestling with the problems created by western thinking. In it, the author turns the argument for the necessary conclusion of the non-existence of God due to evil in the world on its head. http://www.fatherstephen.wordpress.com/

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost

The Introduction

The theme for this Sunday found in our collect, is Orthodoxy, right praise, and Orthopraxy, right practice. It may even be said that the theme of this season we call “ordinary time” is grasping a life of right praise & right practice, and to take it with our very beings.

In order to explore this theme, I want place our focus on the Old Testament reading from 1 Kings 17:17-24. There we find 2 contrasting views of God, one is wrong & leads to misery, and the other is true & leads to Joy. I would even be so bold as to say that Christian orthodoxy & orthopraxy springs form the second.

The First view of God emanates from our natural “spiritual under development”; perhaps it should best be identified as our natural condition of being spiritually challenged.

This trait by the way is universal, all are born this way, it is on display everywhere and at all times. In today’s world it appears as crass atheism, by that I mean what we find when otherwise normal, intelligent people talk themselves into the non-existence of God. This, by the way, is no small accomplishment, nevertheless because they are developed intellectually, but suffer from an arrested development of the spirit, they succeed at buying into the creation of their own minds.

Historically however, this has not been the case; historically most people were not smart enough to talk themselves out of the obvious. Most people in the past took reality at face value, at least to the best of their ability. The evidence of intelligent design, order, and the incomprehensibility of the world coupled with the immovability of natural physical & supernatural laws has left most persons, even those with the most simplistic of educations with a certain knowledge of God that the so called intellects of our day cannot see.

They still however, suffered from a very common problem, it is the force behind all pagan religions. We can explore this trait more deeply in the testimony of the widow, verse 17 of 1 Kings:

17After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!”

The setting

The verse begins with after this- After what? The main character in this account is the prophet Elijah, the task assigned to Elijah was to confront idolatry in Israel, namely the idolatry of Ba’al worship. Ba’al can refer to any god and even to human officials; in our text it is used as a substitute for Hadad, a god of the rain, thunder, fertility and agriculture, and the Lord of Heaven. it is in ligh tof this view that we have Elijah praying for no rain, & God answers his prayer by having it not rain for 3 years & 6 months (Lk 4:23), thus showing that He is God over Ba'al.

It is after this drought begins that Elijah is called by God to become a monastic, & to go out to the brook of Cherith, east of Jordan Where in 1 Kin 17: 4 God says: I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.

Elijah then goes out to the dessert like Israel, & like Israel is fed by God with manna & quail. However, due to the drought this seasonal brook dried up, & the prophet must himself live in the evil of the world, experience its hardship & pains, only not without knowing god personally- He knows the character, kindness & love of God. It is at this point that we read in vs 9:

9 "Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you." 10 So he arose and went to Zarephath.

Elijah went to this woman who was in the midst of despair, waiting to die of starvation, & brought to her the presence of the living God, the God for whom Ba’al was a mere shadow, & he brought to her the very provision for life he had in the desert. So then, to summarize this setting, we have a gentile woman in despair of death, to whom Elijah comes and presents her give an unending source of life, the food that God provides.

The Spiritually Challenged

It is at this point that we read our opening verse in context, & begin to understand, in verse 17 the woman complains to Elijah.

17 After this (meaning after all of the good God brought to them) the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!”

The woman’s son dies, & even though they were only kept alive by God’s grace & kindness, not allowing them to starve to death, she still concludes that this God of Elijah has only come to us to bring death & judgment as the consequence for her moral failings. She says to Elijah, why did you choose to do this to me! Why Me????

The Crisis

The problem we witness here is that of a person dealing with God while having little to no spiritual development. She has created a god in her mind who is not the true God, & consequently she does not know how to relate to him except with fear. The only god she knows is an Angry God! She only knows the God of the pagans, a God who is offended & needs to be appeased for our evil. & in case you haven’t noticed, this God is no stranger to western Christianity, all too often the gospel is presented this way you have offended a Holy God, & if you do not repent, he’s gonna kick your butt, & you will loose, & YOU’LL BE SORRY!!!!

This view of God took a hold of our theology by way of neo-platonism, mostly as expounded by Augustine and His offspring. In this mindset, the most important trait of God is his purity, & if his purity is offended by our lack of it we are deemed his enemies, thus he must be appeased. These folks simply see Jesus as an anger satisfying sacrifice that will keep God from take out his rage upon us. All I can ay to this is that this is an incredible skewing of the God of the bible.

The Spiritually Mature

Conversely, let us compare the woman’s immature relationship to God with that of mature Elijah. Let us consider Elijah response to all of this:

19 And he said to her, “Give me your son.”

First, I would have you notice that he does not go off on a diatribe saying "how dare you say this, don’t know that God is holy, & he has kept you alive up to this point, & you have no right to say these things," no, none of that, instead we read:

And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. 20And he cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?”

Here we see that Elijah simply took the boy and presented him to God, he prays for him, without accusing God of being angry, yet, acknowledging that all life rests in his hands. Then he turns to the gosple and enacts a typology of Jesus before God - vs 21:

21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”

Elijah covers the body of the dead person; he calls out three times, bringing the ppresence of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit over this child- pointing to 3 days in the tomb, and then he pleads for a resurrection. Now let us look at God’s response to Elijah:

22 And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.”

We are told the Lord heard Elijah; Life was brought out of death, and he was restored to his former life in his family. Here we have a pre-view or type of the resurrection of Jesus and of mankind. Because of his spiritual maturity, Elijah first treats God as the one who first and foremost loves to do good rather than to judge us for our brokenness, and in doing so he never gets to see the judgment. The woman however, simply treated God as the one who judges evil, & there it ended for her; here we see Elijah being a gospel man- mature in spirit, & the woman, without any spiritual insight only concerned with the legality of it all.

Spiritual maturity is much more than conceptual knowledge, it is experiential knowledge of God’s goodness; notice her response after this experience:

24 And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Please notice the result; it is Orthodoxy & Orthopraxy, praising God rightly (meaning according to the truth) and acting rightly (meaning according to the truth).

We cannot praise God rightly unless we know his love experientially; & we cannot know his love experientially unless we call upon his love in spite of our unworthiness. If you notice nothing else about our classic Anglican liturgy, please notice the continuous repetition of God’s forgiveness that recurs over & over again. Spiritual maturity can only come to those who finally learn to live with the reality that God knows every one of our flaws, hates them violently, and yet because of his great love for us they are forgiven in Christ. Christ has trampled them down, and to us who were dead, has given life within the mystery of the Godhead.

By Jesus’ resurrection we are presented with the same experience that the widow had. In the resurrection of Christ we have the son of the new Eve (Mary), the mother of the new humanity returned to her. By extension he has been returned to the whole world; why? So that we too can experientially know that God loves to bring us good & not evil, & that God is much more than a judge, he is our savior. It now falls to us, to embrace the true loving God with all of our being over the vengeful God of our natural paganism.

It would only be right at this point to ask, "when did Elijah gain this maturity?" All we ahve to attribute to this maturity is his time learnig to live with God in the dessert; his time as a monastice deliered to him this spiritual growth, these eyes to understand the sacrafice that is acceptable to God. It was then that he expereinced the christ that was to come.


And just like elijah, only by the experience of the resurrected Christ in the soul, will have the trust necessary to turn all things in this life over to God’s goodness, & then to live out our lives resting in His love.

Only by the experience of the resurrected Christ will we eventually grow enough to be healed from all our spiritual maladies, which are always the cause of our moral failures.

Salvation by faith is totally free, it is a gift from God, but spiritual maturity is hard earned, it is synergistic, and it occurs only within a life lived out with God; knowing the safety of being alone with God due to Christ's provision. Only then can we enter into the strugles of prayer and fasting while fighting against our own delusions. This is how elijah grew, and this is how we must grow!