Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Congratulations to all of the soon-to-be-graduates. I hope to post about that later, but for now I want to talk about something else.

When I was in high school, Alex Michel gave a sermon whose point was that although there are many good reasons to follow God, in the final analysis, he deserves our loyalty\\allegiance on the bare fact of his existence. Like most of Alex's teachings, it really hit home to me, but this one even more than most has stuck with me. I have recently been getting ... reacquainted with it, let us say.

Perhaps this message stuck with me so because it is contrary to my natural inclination. As Archimedes can attest (because I wrote a short story on this theme for my creative writing minor which occasioned much good discussion between us ... ah, beloved friend, how I miss living with you), by temperament I don't have much use for a God who isn't comprehensibly good, wise, mighty, and loving. I don't precisely require my deities to be mere superhumans, but I do want to require that they have effable virtues.

The trouble with that, as I was recently and somewhat violently reminded, is that if you push that to its logical extreme you aren't really worshipping God anymore - you're worshipping goodness, or wisdom, or might, or love. Or if we require that God does good things for us, we might end up worshipping good things - whether those be comfort, self-esteem, a purpose in life ... and that can easily be an evil whose magnitude is difficult to overstate. But on the other hand, who honestly wants to pledge their unswerving, unquestioning loyalty to a god of death, or even a god as ambiguous as Ares?

I want to distinguish that, parenthetically, from pledging unswerving, unquestioning loyalty to what a god tells you to do or what you think a god tells you to do. I question all the time whether or not I understand what God has actually said to me. I have no religious allegiance to my perceptions or thoughts. But I still have on the books, as it were, an unconditional pledge of loyalty to the being himself.

Anyway, the difficulty for me is that unquestioning loyalty is normally the sort of thing that you warrant in my mind. That is the fundamental nature of pistis as I understand it ("trust" in ancient Greek; it's the New Testament word we translate as "faith" or "belief," as in "I believe that Jesus is the Son of God"). Somebody has a track record, which eventually warrants you backing them to the hilt even if, somewhere down the road, they ask you to do something you don't understand or even disagree with. I have pistis in my family for that reason. I normally think of myself as having pistis in Jesus for the same sort of reason - I know him well enough that I feel confident trusting him, unconditionally (and in case you're wondering, no, there aren't many people I normally say that I "trust").

This understanding of pistis seems somewhat at odds with my old/new understanding of why it is, at bottom, that Jesus deserves my devotion. I cannot devote myself to him for any reason except that he is that he is. But what if he were different? Would I devote myself to Ares because he is that he is?

I think perhaps that the difficulty is that I shouldn't be trying to apply the principle to other religions. Ares never said, "I am that I am." Nor did his devotees believe//trust//have faith in him in the way that Christians believe//trust in their deity. I think perhaps I am beginning to understand why so many generations of commentators have spoken of the Christian religion as fundamentally different from other ancient (at least ancient pagan) religions. Religion in antiquity (oh, Prof. Martin would be so proud of me for remembering this!) turned essentially on the principle of "I give that you give." Christianity turns on the principle of "I am" (or, rather, "You are"). Jesus is good, and wise, and mighty, and compassionate, and in a sense we worship him because of those things. But only in the sense that he could not be other than those things; we worship him, in his own nature, and not as the representative or the pinnacle of lofty ideals which are the real objects of our devotion. It is true that Jesus is the pinnacle of goodness, but I do not worship goodness. I worship him. Yet at the same time, if he were not the pinnacle of goodness, he would not be himself. So that is where the conflict is reconciled. I do not worship gods because they are gods. I worship Jesus because he is Jesus, and that is, at the end of the day, all there is to it.

Boy, you think you understand something, and then ... Praise be to God.

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