Richard Hooker and Hermes Trismegistus

Besides the History of Witchery, I’m also interested in theology. One theologian in particular, an Elizabethan-era guy by the name of Richard Hooker, has caught my attention lately. He wrote a book called Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity as an answer to Puritans who thought the Church of England’s style of church government—its ecclesiastical polity—was unbiblical and therefore evidence of high rebellion, and a good reason not to submit to church authority.

Hooker’s response starts by examining what laws are and where they come from in the first place—not just laws the government enforces, but laws of nature, universal moral laws, and the laws given in the Bible. His major point is that the Bible doesn’t have the answers to every question, and isn’t meant to. God gave us the ability to reason, and commanded us to grow in wisdom, and so we are therefore not only allowed, but expected to use our judgment on any number of issues where the Bible doesn’t give a clear answer. For his purposes that means church government, but principles he expounds can be applied to many other issues. I highly recommend the modernized version I have been reading. Language has, after all, changed since the time of Shakespeare.

But the reason I bring this up is that I was surprised to find that Richard Hooker was familiar with one of the big names in the history of witchery: Hermes Trismegistus.

Hermes, also known as Mercury, was the Greco-Roman god of many things, magic among them. He is sometimes identified with the Egyptian god Thoth and the Norse god Odin. Some later Jewish and Christian authors identified him with the Old Testament saint Enoch, who “walked with God and was not, for God took him.” In post-Biblical legends, he is supposed to have been a particularly holy man who was therefore given quite a bit of wisdom, which he then passed on to his sons. In more occult readings of this story, this means secret, magical wisdom which only initiates have access to.

The Corpus Hermeticum is the body of work attributed to this figure, referred to by readers of the work as “Hermes Trismegistus.” The philosophy contained in these books inspired a lot of more high-class, mystical and ceremonial magic in the later medieval period and beyond. One of the more recent magical societies, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, draws inspiration from him, as do other modern practitioners.

So imagine my surprise when I found this inspirer of magicians referenced in the very respectable book of a quite orthodox theologian. Of course, any confusion is quickly cleared up when one pays attention to how Richard Hooker references Hermes.

The first reference in Book I comes as Hooker is arguing that God does everything according to a plan, a sort of law He has established for Himself.[1] Having stated his case, and before he dives into Biblical proofs, he asserts that “Even wise and learned pagans” agree on this point. He cites Homer, Anaxagoras, Plato, and the Stoics. In the midst of this cavalcade of wise pagans, he cites Hermes Trismegistus:

“…and Hermes Trismegistus admits the same when he says that the demiurge made all the world, not by hands, but by reason.”

Below, the editors note the passage he is citing. They use the Mead translation, which is as follows:

“With Reason… not with hands, did the World-maker make the universal World.”[2]

In my version, which is much older, it goes:

“The Workman made this Universal World, not with his Hands, but his Word.”

If, as I suspect, the underlying Greek word for Reason/Word is “logos,” then not only do the differing translations make sense, but there may be some additional, probably intentional, Christological significance to the statement. The passage comes from verse one of what their translation calls “The Cup or Monad,” and what mine calls “His Crater or Monas,” which is the twelfth book of the Corpus Hermeticum.

The other reference in Book I of the Laws also cites Hermes as a wise pagan who recognizes a Biblical truth.[3] That, I think, is a sensible use of such mystic texts. When they get things right, there is no harm in acknowledging it, but they are not authorities on par with Scripture. This does imply that pagan thinkers, even magical ones, can obtain a certain degree of truth through natural reason alone, and that was exactly Hooker’s point. Reason is a gift from God, and though it won’t get you everywhere you need to go, it is often quite a reliable guide, even in theological issues.

Beyond this theological point, Hooker’s use of Hermes also extends our picture of the influence of magicians on the modern world. Note only were scientists often dabblers in mystical realms, at least one major theologian of the Church of England was familiar with one of the more influential magical works in history. I don’t read enough footnoted early modern theologians to promise I’ll follow this thread, but as I continue to make my way through Hooker’s Laws I’ll certainly make note of any future references to Hermes or his ilk here.


[1] Hooker, Richard. W. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner, editors. Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization. Lincoln, Nebraska: The Davenant Trust, 2017. Pg. 6.

[2] They cite it as “The Cup or Monad 1. Cf. The Corpus Hermeticum, trans. G. Mead (United States of American: IAP, 2009), 29.”

[3] Hooker, pg. 24.

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Dante, Courtly Love, and the Contemplative Life

This quarter in the eighth grade great books course I teach, we are spending several weeks on Dante’s Inferno. The class covers the medieval period in general, a period I find fascinating. And in some ways, Dante is the distillation of the best of medieval literature, cosmology, and theology. It’s fun.

Dante himself is quite the character. In the Divine Comedy, the work of which the Inferno is only the first third, he portrays himself wandering through a dark wood, plagued by vicious beasts, trying to get to the top of a mountain. He is met in those woods by the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who is going to take him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to reach God. But it turns out that Virgil has been sent to Dante by Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life.

Fun fact: Dante met Beatrice when she was eight and he was nine, she married another man, and died three years later at the age of twenty-four. Dante had been married to someone else for five years at that point, and would end up having several kids with this other woman. Yet throughout his life, Dante maintained that he was madly in love with Beatrice, and had been since the day they met. He wrote a collection of love poetry in her honor that he published five years after she died, and finished the Divine Comedy, in which she had a starring role, only a year before his own death.

So, that’s interesting. Actually, it’s less weird than it sounds, if only slightly. This was the era of courtly love poetry, when falling in love with married women was the thing to do. In a lot of the stories of knights in shining armor fighting for the honor of fair ladies, said fair ladies were often married to another man. Now, a good Christian knight would never try to act on his love in an unbecoming manner–say, by sleeping with the lady whom he loved so madly. No, he would just admire her from afar, and fight in her honor. In theory. There was that whole Lancelot thing. Also Tristram and Isolde. And maybe one or two others. But most of the time it was platonic.

To modern sensibilities, this concept is wildly foreign. In what possible context could this be interpreted as a good thing, especially in the eyes of such a heavily churched culture, especially coming from such a self-consciously Christian guy as Dante? Well, there actually might be an explanation.

In the third part of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Dante ascends through the heavens one heavenly sphere at a time. Just as in Hell below, people are here placed into separate spheres based on their character. In the sphere of Mars, for instance, are those who fought for the faith. Above them, on Jupiter, are righteous rulers. But at the top, on Saturn, the last real planet in medieval cosmology, we find… monks?

Actually, this sphere is usually labeled “The Heaven of the Contemplatives.” Contemplatives are pretty much what they sound like–people who spend their lives in contemplation, either of God himself or of various divine mysteries. This would certainly include monks as we normally think of them, but it would also cover other people who led a similar lifestyle of meditation on holy things.

This is actually a huge part of the medieval view of the world. The best thing you could be was not one of those adventurous knights, not some righteous king like Arthur or Charlemagne, nor even necessarily a regular priest or bishop, caught up in the affairs of your parish or bishopric. No, medievals considered a life of contemplation to be the pinnacle of human existence.

There are several reasons for this, but one major reason is grounded in their philosophy of the soul. Medieval philosophy said that there were three kinds of souls–vegetable, animal, and rational. The vegetable soul was the kind of life that grew, but didn’t do much else. You know, like veggies. The animal soul belonged to life forms that could move around and act on their environment. But the last kind of soul, belonging to men and angels, and perhaps just a few others, was the rational soul. This kind of soul was capable of reason.

This view had certain implications. Lifestyles that primarily involved action, that involved working or fighting or other such things, were things we held in common with the beasts. Ruling, which engaged more of one’s reasoning abilities, would be higher up the chain. After all, you were using the faculties that distinguished you from lower creation. But higher up, higher even than wise and just rulers, would be people who did nothing but use their reasoning faculties. These were the people who contemplated the deep and holy things of life, using that faculty which God gave to his children and his servants above all others.

So what does this have to do with courtly love? Well, imagine a kind of love which was not focused on your merely animal drives, one which demanded instead that you meditate upon your beloved, use reason to contemplate her. Imagine, if you will, a contemplative rather than an active love. In fact, imagine a love where the actual activities of romance are ruled out, but not a higher and more platonic admiration. So, yeah, imagine you are in love with a married woman.

It’s kind of twisted, but it makes a weird sort of sense. If reason is the best part of our nature, and animal instincts to some extent reduce us to the level of beasts, then a love which is elevated to a solely rational level is a higher love. Of course, in practice it becomes something that is either creepy, if unrequited, or adulterous, if the lady returns your affections. It’s dangerous, and there’s no doubt it led to all sorts of excesses as well as some very sketchy fiction at the time. Dante even placed a couple adulterers in Hell who were inspired to sin thanks to reading courtly love poetry. But it does make that twisted sort of sense.

Now, no society is really simple, especially one as diverse and cosmopolitan, yet weirdly provincial, as medieval Europe could sometimes be. This little chain of reasoning no doubt leaves out quite a lot, and paints a very uneven portrait of a culture shaped by people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of weird quirks and personal histories. Still, it’s a striking and surprisingly coherent story. It’s just the sort of thing to make you wonder what weirdly alien practices we take for granted as a society, and how strange some of our values might be in the light of history. What might our descendants think of us seven hundred years from now?

Where I Stand: A Testimony, Of Sorts

Where I Stand: A Testimony of Sorts

My parents started attending church when I was very young. I don’t really remember the transition, but I really took to it. I had a very high view of the world, both the natural side of it and the artificial. It made sense to say there was a hand that knit the stars into the black heavens, that raised up the pines like swaying giants over the forest, that mixed the white sand and red clay, and scattered old river rocks among them. I was also invested in the struggle of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, love and hate, life and death. A Creator and a heroic Redeemer made sense.

I readily enough bought into the idea of my own sin, though in my immaturity I often only acknowledged the less significant ones. But as a general concept, I knew that good and evil was in all of us, that good was natural and evil unnatural, and that unless we were rescued, evil would win.

That idea certainly applied to individuals, but it also made sense writ large. The world was a story, starting at a perfect creation, then falling at a moment when man chose sin. In the centuries that followed after, those who remained faithful to God and those who turned from him would struggle over the earth. And, as in any good story, the good guys were fighting a losing battle for most of history. Until, of course, the Hero arrived. He swept in and made the ultimate sacrifice, accepting the consequences for our own ingratitude towards our Creator, our betrayal of the one who loved us. Now, in following him, we partook in his death and his resurrection, and in the long run were promised a redeemed world in which to live. All would be right again.

It’s hard to point to any one place where I learned this narrative. We attended a Bible church at the time, which had an AWANA program. As a family, we often listened to the Christian teaching and talk radio station in our area, and continued to do so long after we switched churches. Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson, Adventures in Odyssey, Unshackled, and a wide array of preachers from the Bible Belt and the evangelical community more generally all had an indelible influence on my heart, mind, and imagination. I also got ahold of Christian fiction books as a kid, including a lot of Frank Peretti and the Left Behind series. I enjoyed them both, but especially the latter. I was a big end times nut in my preteen years, falling in love with the drama of the apocalyptic narrative.

At some point, my family switched churches. I was not aware of much of the drama surrounding that decision, and was surprised to find myself quite suddenly in a little wooden church in the boonies where people said scripted phrases back and forth to each other, there was a confession of sin, and we drank alcohol at every communion. It was very disconcerting, and I found myself having to account for the change. This was the first time I moved beyond the bare Bible story into the world of theological controversy.

The whole thing was disconcerting to me, in particular the Calvinist-Arminian controversy. I could hardly side with the Arminians, as their position seemed to deny God’s power and treat man as if he could save himself, as if original sin had not caused a fundamental character flaw. Calvinism, on the other hand, seemed to deny the agency of people. We were not characters in God’s story, not in any real sense. God also seemed to be a much more dour sort of person, a frowning lawgiver who smashed people for offending him in ways they could not have imagined were offensive, and arbitrarily sparing a trembling few who could not know if they were really safe from God’s wrath, or just self-deceived like the rest.

That was a long, hard struggle that very nearly tore me apart. Eventually I conceded the truth of the essentials of the Calvinist position. God did guide the destiny of men and nations, and we could not choose to follow him unless he had first freed us from the power of sin. Granting that, I still felt uneasy about the way some Calvinists I had read talked about God and man and the whole Gospel story. But I put that unease aside. There was far more going on in the world.

I also did an about-face on the end times business. I read a very lucid little tract explaining how the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 fulfilled the prophecies of John in Revelation in the most minute details. Recognizing my own tendency towards flights of fancy—I was a big believer in UFOs at the time—I conceded that the language of Revelation was, for the most part, far from literal, and that my vision of vanishing churches, planet-wide dictatorships, centaur-locusts, and apocalyptic battles was more indulgent than accurate.

I also adopted covenant theology, which I saw as more connected with Presbyterian government than it necessarily had to be. The concept of the covenant, or solemn agreement of some kind, appealed to me, and it also explained far more of the Bible to a far greater degree than anything I had seen before. Of course, I had never given much concrete thought to the nature of God’s promises or the relationship between the testaments, so that was hardly surprising. Unlike Calvinism and the end times, this transition felt largely superficial and easy, though, as with corporate confession and high liturgy, the paedobaptism that went with it struck me as a bit Roman Catholic.

All these issues and more were profoundly disorienting, and at about the same time as we switched churches, there were a number of other upsetting events going on in my life. I dove into all this theology to give myself an anchor, and found it didn’t quite do so. Furthermore, my longtime love of fantasy, mythology, and fairytale creatures was starting to sit uncomfortably with my newfound sense of obligation to live a purified life before sovereign God. If things had gone on that way, I am not sure where they would have ended, but it was all very depressing and very confusing.

Then along came C. S. Lewis. I had read some of his stuff in the past, and categorized him with the rest of the Christian fiction authors I was familiar with. One person in my life encouraged me to read more of him, saying that I would surely love his stuff. I was reluctant, especially when she recommended Surprised by Joy, which I assumed to be the story of his falling in love with his wife, Joy. (How I knew he had a wife named Joy, I have no idea.) Eventually, though, I caved. I am more glad of that than of almost any other event in my life.

Surprised by Joy narrates Lewis’s early life, and his spiritual growth up until his belief in God. For me, it was earth-shattering. Here was a man who loved the Norse myths, who loved stories like I do, and the glimpses of beauty in the old paganism. Here also was a man who was intensely rational, as I was learning to be, and had no particular dog in any theological fight. Long years of reasoning and argument eventually led him to belief in God, but it was how he reconciled that belief in God with love of the old myths that captured my attention. He did not find that contradictory. Instead, he believed that the beauty he saw in the myths pointed towards Christ, towards the fulfillment of his spiritual longings.

For some time, theology had begun to choke the life out of my imagination. I was turning into one of those people that believes all truths are hard truths, and that if an idea makes you uncomfortable, it is more likely to be an accurate description of reality. Lewis undid that. I dove into both his fiction and his nonfiction, and they gave me both a clear, rational explanation of a broad faith very like what I had been raised with, and the ability to carry on loving the myths and fantasy that appealed to me, without them conflicting with that faith.

At some point I had decided I wanted to be a writer, and Lewis gave me a stronger drive to move in that direction. Life is more than what we read, however. It is our habits and seasonal rhythms, it is who we spend our time with, and it is the sheer necessity of making it to the next day that make us who we are.

My parents had decided long ago that we would be raised with a Christian education. By my secondary years, I had fallen in love with the little classical Christian school they had helped found. It was good for me in so many ways, and one of the best experiences of my life. On the other hand, it was very closely tied to the little church we had begun attending, and the pervasive influence of the Reformed subculture to which it belonged gave me reason to dwell more and more on the rational and theological sides of my personality, to the detriment of my ambitions as a mere fiction writer.

By the time I graduated, I had not quite given up that dream, though I had certainly dialed back my ambitions to a very great degree. I decided I would go to a college that would buy me time in deciding what path to take. There was a college I knew of that would allow me to dive deeper into classical learning and reformed theology, and the degree they offered was broad enough that I could take it anywhere. At the time, I was probably leaning towards the ministry, but I certainly had other thoughts in addition to that. But on top of the curriculum I respected and the options it left open, they also had a deep love of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Silmarillion was one of the most captivating things I had ever read. If they were obsessed with these distinctly Christian authors, surely I could find a home there. And thus it was decided.

Before I talk about my experience there, let me provide some context. Because the church I had spent my early years in was nondenominational, as was the Christian radio I listened to and the school I attended, my picture of the church was very broad. Generally speaking, I thought the Gospel was fairly simple and straightforward, and that Christ embraced all who accepted him, from feverish backwoods revivalists, to the frozen chosen, to big churches in the city with fancy lights and praise bands, to respectable little Episcopalian chapels, and just about everything in between. My slow immersion into the world of Reformed theology had hardened my views on which interpretations of the Bible were right, and therefore who was doctrinally wrong, but I still believed that most everybody could get along.

My experience at college was something like having a bucket of ice-water dumped on your head.

That college was closely related to a pair of churches in the town, and between those three communities a person could disappear for four years and never see anybody else. This in a university town of more than twenty thousand people, with another just like it down the road. And everywhere I turned, these Reformed people were badmouthing the rest of the Church. Dispensationalists got blamed for all manner of outlandish things (and dispensationalism and premillenialism were not at all distinguished). Baptists, I soon found out, were why the American culture was so messed up, and Left Behind was why American Christians were not involved in politics. (?!?!?) Focus on the Family was also apparently too liberal, and definitely compromised, and the Bible Belt consisted exclusively of Pharisaical hypocrites. Now, I was under no illusions as to the shallowness of the faith of many of my fellow Southerners, but to apply that failing to everyone there (and exclusively to them) and then to add that they were legalistic Pharisees when in fact they often lived too loose a life—that just boggled my mind.

Despite this muddle of often contradictory slanders against the church more broadly, I didn’t think the church there was necessarily in a poor place doctrinally or had any lack of love for Christ. Just a little doom and gloom, I thought. I soon found my niche—a little circle of pseudo-Inklings—tried to focus on my studies, and drove on. For a number of years, that worked.

Before we go any further, it has to be said that the number one character flaw in my book had always been ingratitude. I loved Christ and the Gospel story, and kids who took that lightly got very little respect from me. I had watched my parents work hard and shed sweat and tears trying to get our school off the ground, saw all the drama involved in such a project, especially on such a small and intimate scale, and absolutely despised people who could reap the benefits of that and go on complaining. I loved my small town, partly because of its smallness, and I loved the whole region. People who spoke ill of it, who just wanted to get away—they had an attitude problem. Thanksgiving was the first virtue in my eyes, and thanklessness was the vice most likely to get under my skin. (Not that I was never thankless myself—but that is another story.)

So as the terms wore on and I grew less and less satisfied with the college and the church community, the last thing I wanted to do was complain. I flat out could not leave. I had come to this place, and they had given me their time, they had given me opportunities, they had accepted me, more or less, as one of their own, and I would not turn away from them.

The problem was, I felt I had reason to. That community was constantly harping on the sins of other churches, and would not hear one bad word about their own. They seemed to reject Christ’s church, and in their love of theological controversy, had turned the Gospel into something like a political platform that outlined the minutest details of what was and was not acceptable in their culture. People who struggled in that environment were pushed out, and any troubles in the community were swept under the rug and any memory of them was hushed. “Our party” could not be seen to have any trouble within it. Everything wrong with the world must come from outside.

This cut right against my understanding of sin. Sin was in everyone, including those saved by God’s grace. Their own efforts could never make them perfect, and any community was guaranteed to have problems as a result. Admitting such things was not shameful, but merely part of being human in a fallen world. Furthermore, it was a key part of repentance, which is necessary to the Christian life. How could a community follow Christ and pretend to be faultless at the same time?

On other side of that was the fact that this was God’s world. God had created mankind in his image, and sin could not obliterate that image, nor any other part of creation. No human being could be entirely corrupt, and to pretend that unbelievers embodied every possible evil seemed to cut against God’s sovereignty, and common sense. This was doubly the case when the community attacked the rest of the Church, which had the Gospel and the holy Scriptures, and stood before God as equals with us. These people talked as if they wanted to amputate the better part of the Body of Christ.

I was going through other personal issues at the time, and that made things more complex. But the long and short of it is, I switched churches. There were other places in town, and I went there, despite hardly feeling more comfortable. I had grown used to high church liturgy and certain Reformed habits, so my new church could not feel homely. Furthermore, I was still removed from a lot of cultural things I had been raised with in the Bible Belt and the Deep South. I felt more than a little adrift, knowing what I was looking for, but not knowing where to find it.

Under the circumstances, my ears were open to a lot of complaints about the Church generally. The churches I had just left attacked others for lacking doctrinal rigor and liturgical solemnity while overemphasizing the saving of souls, and the church I found myself in said the Church was both too American and too doctrinally tight. (Oddly enough, I have never felt so surrounded by hip, contemporary, upper-middle-class white Americana as at that church.) Other expats from the community I had spent the past several years in complained that the church was too conservatively evangelical, while I did not recognize that church’s somewhat distorted Gospel and trendy alternative theology as very conservative or as evangelical at all.

At any rate, I managed to graduate by the skin of my teeth and made it back to more familiar surroundings. Being displaced on so many levels for so long, I had taken on a much more pessimistic view of life, and was beset by more doubts than I ever remember having. There were teachings I found readily accepted by certain groups up there which I would have called heresy in anyone else, and the sparsity of teaching on redemption itself—hot-button culture war issues were preferred—left me with vague memories of what the Gospel was, and a thirst for grace-filled teaching, but with no idea what it looked like. I was at a loss.

Often I have found that time and space create room for peace. Removed from the constant battles of that town, and granted new rhythms, I gained the ability to process things. I have been living with my family again for about a year now, teaching at the school I grew up in, and attending the Reformed church we switched to when I was young. I listen to Christian radio fairly often, though my favorite preachers come on during school hours or after I’ve started winding down at the end of the day. I made my way slowly through the writings of John, which were some of the most frightening books in the hands of certain people at college. I found them very profitable, and recently got involved in a BSF study on the book of Revelation. I had no idea such a wild apocalyptic vision could be so practical.

Through a tangled series of events, I have also gotten more intentional about my writing than I have ever been. I read much more fiction than I could afford to at college, and my imagination is thriving as a result. I enjoy walking beneath the pines when I can, and recognize more stars than I used to.

Many of the doubts I had have been put to rest, and many questions answered. Many, however, remain. I think that’s healthy. I never want to settled into the complacency that simply accepts an explanation without holding it up to the light of Scripture and God-given common sense to see if it will stand.

I have heard the complaints of burnt out millennials and of culture warriors, of trendy evangelicals and the heirs of fundamentalists. There are so many pundits throwing around ideas for how the church can fix itself, for the platform it can adhere to that will drive up its numbers and restore it to the proper degree of influence in the world. Some of that seems like crass salesmanship to me, but there is also a great deal motivated by a sincere love for something, or else sincere pain that cries out for healing.

In the end, though, I don’t think any of those platforms or strategies or trendy new doctrines have the answer. I think somewhere along the way we forgot that Christianity is a religion. It is not based on a series of beliefs, but on the worship of Christ. Love of a particular party—even if that party is the “we aren’t a party” party—does not create a community, and certainly not a redeemed one. We aren’t here for that We cannot save ourselves as a Church any more than we can as sinful individuals. Only Christ can do that, and that is why we gather to worship him.

That’s a nice sentiment and all, and I think it’s said often enough. It does have real meaning, though, if you can find it. The fact is that platforms, even doctrinal or cultural ones, are not eternal. They are specific to a time and place, and they are born and die. Sometimes very quickly. Lasting communities cannot be built on them.

For example, talking about Left Behind and how to interpret Revelation made sense when it was a bestselling series, but now that the apocalyptic crazes that led up to 2000 and 2012 are past, continuing to talk about seems a bit beside the point. The issues have changed, and so the platforms of all the little parties will too. The same goes for the worship wars and any number of other things. You can plant your flag there, but those hills are made of shifting sand. They won’t be there in a while.

What will be there is Christ. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We have him, we have stories about him, the Scriptures, the Gospel in a number of different tellings. We have the world he created, and we have the people we know—both those who are redeemed and those still in need of redemption. We have our own souls and our own sin, with our own need for salvation and sanctification. Remember these things, and the Church will do well enough.

When I meet a Christian these days, I am far less concerned about whether they agree with me on a series of doctrinal points. I am concerned with whether they seem to be concerned with Jesus Christ and what he thinks. I am concerned with whether they display a humility and a willingness to conform their life to his standards, whatever those turn out to be.

I may disagree with a Roman Catholic on transubstantiation or the veneration of the Virgin Mary, but if I see him pursuing chastity when he doesn’t want to because he loves Christ—he is my brother. If I run into a Pentecostal girl with hair down to her knees who tells me she has a word from the Lord, but who pours over her Bible, making it a guide for her life, and puts others before herself—she is my sister. Maybe the kid with the purple hair and the gauges is more liberal than I’d like, and his worship band makes me uncomfortable, but if he places the words of Jesus over the words of his peers, I respect him We have the same Lord. The same goes for wealthy men in business suits who go to respectable churches, but when times are tough they hold fast to Christ. Nothing that is of Christ is alien to me.

But what about all of the problems in the Church? What about all the things that need to be fixed? I still think those can be pretty significant, but finding some conservative scapegoat, or some liberal boogieman, or some high church spook to blame it on, does no one any good. We are here to worship Christ together, to serve him and learn from him. Our sins are our own, whatever circumstances might make them easier. We have enough trouble repenting of them without paying attention to what the guy across the map is doing. More often than not, that self-righteous crusading serves as a nice distraction from our own problems, a good reason to close ranks and cover up our sins.

The Church I’d like to see is one at peace. Sunday should be a day of rest, not a day of war, and fellowship should encourage brothers and sisters in their walk, not fill them with fear of the world. Christ is sovereign. He has conquered sin and death, and there is nothing you or me or those lunatics in the church across the street can do about it. God is sovereign. That’s the end of it, and our job is just to accept that. We worship him. That’s what makes us Christians.

And that, I suppose, is my testimony. I stand on Christ, however imperfectly, and find anything else more than a little disappointing. It’s that love for an actual God, not platforms vaguely related to his commands, that I want to see blossoming out there in the world. But before I see that, I have to see it in myself. Salt does not give its savor unless it is already salty, and light that’s not lit doesn’t shine. So that’s where I am. I stand with Christ, and want to get better at it.

Marvel, the Gods, and Atheism

Marvel has a tense theology. Let’s lay some quick groundwork before tackling it.

One of the fundamental principles of classical monotheism is the Creator-creature distinction. Imagine a bubble. Inside is all of time and space from beginning to end. At one end of the bubble is the first domino ever knocked over, and all of reality ripples out from that first action, that first moment of creation.

Now, standing outside the bubble, outside of time and space and the chain of causality and reality as we can understand it, is the Creator. The Creator caused everything else to exist, and caused it to exist in the way it exists. But the Creator himself stands outside of that bubble of spacetime. Nothing made him exist. He just exists because that is what he does. He is the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. Among other things.

In a monotheistic universe, all of reality is shaped by the personality and by the will of the Creator. To a very great extent, everything is just mimicking what Dad does. Each thing’s meaning is defined by the meaning he gave it, and its purpose by the intensions he has for it. And because he authored it all, he has authority over it.

In the Marvel universe, and in the imagination of those who deny any such being standing outside and independent of spacetime, this is not so. Puny mortals, superheroes, and gods all exist on a spectrum. There is no fundamental distinction between them.

Take Spiderman. Spiderman has superhuman sense, superhuman reflexes, and cool web-shooters. Your average Joe might be tempted to think his powers were supernatural, even godlike. But set him next to Thor, and there’s no comparison. Thor’s got mojo. He is so clearly godlike in comparison to Peter Parker, earthlings actually worship him. But set him next to Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix), and again, there’s no comparison. So what if Thor is really strong and can fly? So what if he apparently lives for eons? Phoenix is more powerful than death itself. She controls space, she controls time, and she controls the thoughts inside a person’s mind, given a good excuse. Can most of the gods of classical paganism claim that?

And that’s why Joss Whedon’s refusal to let the Avengers bow before Loki makes sense. Sure, he’s a “god,” relatively speaking. He’s got oomph. He has power. But fundamentally he’s no different than any other creature zooming around the Marvel universe. Under the right set of circumstances, he can have all that taken away. Under the right set of circumstances—say, acquiring the Infinity Gauntlet—a puny human as klutzy and awkward and harebrained as Peter Quill might become top dog in the universe. The difference between one Marvel character and another is just degrees of power, which can be won or lost. There’s no real difference in kind.

And that’s why Captain America’s offhand remark that there’s only one God is such a big freaking deal. Perhaps Joss and the producers meant it as an offhand funny remark from a charmingly out-of-date super-patriot, but it has major implications. If Captain America believes that there is still a real God, a transcendent God, someone who stands outside of the bubble and stands as Lord of the whole shebang and judge of the actions of the Avengers and those around them—that changes everything.

In a world where the chain of being is all there is, there’s no reason for Iron Man or Thor or anybody else not to play with morality. There’s no reason they shouldn’t cross a line to get things done, let a few people die in order to save the world. Break a few eggs to make an omelet. The ends justify the means. It all comes down to what you think the greater good is and what you think you can get away with. Besides, if the other guy is bigger than you, and you let something as petty as your qualms about personal freedoms, or the sanctity of life, or whatever else get in your way, you’re going to regret it. There’s no room for that in the big leagues.

But if there is a just God standing outside of that chain of being, then you might be held accountable to him. The ends do not necessarily justify the means. Superheroes do not get a blank check and a free pass when they run around destroying cities or overthrowing democratically elected governments. There is a judge who will see justice done in the long run, and you are not him. And you might guess where I’m going with this.

Marvel’s Civil War plotline is ultimately about this question. In the grand scheme of things, are there limits to the authority of the guys with the supersuits and magic powers? Are they to be held to the standards of common mortals? Is there a God standing outside the universe who presides over the destinies of planets and the fates of the Avengers, or is it all a conflict between different degrees of power in a mechanistic cosmos? If the former, let’s put some brakes on Tony Stark. If the latter… maybe we leave the tough calls up to him. After all, he’s bigger.

Before I bring this in for a landing, let’s bring in another fictional universe. This is why H.P. Lovecraft, the materialist par excellence, is so comfortable with a universe filled with so many gods. The line between atheism and polytheism isn’t one that separates two fundamentally different mythologies. It’s just a question of terminology. If you believe that the world is one vast uncaring void, then maybe some small creatures the universe doesn’t care about worship other, larger creatures the universe also doesn’t care about. The gods of a polytheistic universe aren’t deities in any ultimate or transcendent sense, but they sure do look like it compared to the ants walking around beneath them. The Christian—or Muslim, or Jewish—disbelief in the gods of polytheism is simply nothing like the atheist’s or some polytheists’ disbelief in the Creator God.

And that is why Captain America can still not believe in pagan gods, even after hanging out with one.

I Have Meant It For Good

When I put up this post, someone brought up a good question. Doesn’t a high view of God’s Providence make him the author of evil? I said “No–depending on what you mean by ‘author of evil.'” Let me explain.

Amos 3:6, “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is “of course the Lord hath done it.” In some sense, whenever evil happens, God has not only allowed it to happen, he has done it. Nothing is outside of God’s control, not even sin and its consequences.

This issue is dealt with most directly in Romans, especially around chapter 9, where Paul points out the fact that God had already chosen who, between Jacob and Esau, he would bless and who he would curse. Not only that, he chose which of their hearts to harden, and which of them to redeem. If this is an issue you want to dive into real deeply, I suggest you read Romans. But for now, let’s take a look at one section, 9:18-24:

“Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?  Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”

When the Scriptures address this question, the immediate response is “Who are you to ask that question?” The relationship between God and man isn’t the relationship of one created thing to another, of one big clay pot to a bunch of small clay pots. He stands outside the world, as the creator, as the potter. He decides what kind of pot to make, and how to use it.

Another analogy is that of an author. When J. K. Rowling had Voldemort kill off Lily and James, did that make her a murderer? Of course not. God is telling a story, and it has bad guys and it has their victims, and it has good guys and those they rescue. As an author, he can write sin and pain and sorrow into this world without being a sinner.

Paul then goes on to point something else out. What if–and note that he does not feel obligated to give more than a hypothetical answer–what if God was patient and put up with sinners far longer than they deserved so that he could demonstrate his justice on the one hand, and his mercy on the other? After all, we are all sinners, all deserving of death. But God didn’t give us that. He let the human race keep on living and the globe keep on spinning. More than that, he chose to redeem that world, to transform it from the dark place it was to shining city that is yet to come. He chose to deliver people from the death they deserved. If he does that, for his glory, who are we to complain?

Having touched on Paul, let’s shoot back to the Old Testament for a minute and reference Joseph. Joseph thrown into a pit by his brothers, who considered killing him. Instead, they sold him into slavery, and he was hauled away to a foreign land. There he proved himself to be a very good slave, and was made the head over everything in his master’s house. Falsely accused of trying to lie with his master’s wife, he was thrown into prison. There he proved himself a good prisoner and was given more responsibility. He interpreted dreams to two men who promised to help him get out of there, but they forgot him.

Finally, though, one of them did tell Pharaoh about this man who could interpret dreams. Pharaoh called in Joseph, who interpreted his dreams. He said a huge famine was coming, but that it would be preceded by several years in which they could prepare. Joseph was made head over most all of Egypt and prepared for the famine. When it struck, his brothers came down to buy grain. Long story short, Joseph revealed himself and forgave them. In Genesis 50:20 he said, ” But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” And indeed, all of Egypt and Joseph’s family were saved.

So all of Joseph’s suffering, besides making a good underdog story and a lesson about God’s faithfulness to those who love him, ended up working out for good. And Joseph says that “God meant it for good.” This tells us two things: first, that God meant the brothers to commit this heinous act, and second, that God meant it for good. So God meant for sinners to sin, for a righteous man to suffer. But, he meant it for good.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s hard to answer this question from the Bible. What’s hard is what lies behind the question: trust. We have a choice between a world of pain and suffering with a benevolent higher power we can understand, or that same world where that higher power can not only help us out, but is in control of that pain and suffering. And that is hard to understand.

Trusting God with absolute control means trusting him with everything we hate about life, everything that makes it hard. In the midst of the struggle, it’s hard to see why God would put us through all this. It’s a lot harder to trust him with that kind of power than to trust him with general good will and the possibility that he can get us out of this bad situation when it’s all over. But that’s not the Bible’s solution. The Bible looks the problem of evil in the face and tackles it head on. And it’s answer is “Who art thou?” and “I have meant it for good.” And these are the best answers man can get.

The God Worth Trusting

When people hear about “Predestination,” they have a habit of cringing. The idea that God is all-powerful, that nothing happens without his say-so is scary to human beings. It seems to hurt our human dignity, to take away some of our freedom. We prefer to think of God as a benevolent Santa in the sky who only comes around at convenient times, like Christmas, to check some boxes off our wish list. We want to be the ones who choose our own salvation, who are the masters of our fate, who are the captains of our soul. But no Christian, when the rubber meets the road, really believes this. In prayer, in the trials of life, and in salvation God alone is in charge.

To begin with, who prays to a God who is not all powerful? Would you really ask God to grant you something that is out of his power? Of course not. Whenever we pray for something, we are asking God to exercise his authority over the world in a way that will surely make an impact on the freedom of others. Do you pray for God to guide the doctor’s hands when a friend goes in for an operation? What about their freedom of will? Do you ask that God would bring someone to repentance? What about their choice in the matter? Do you ask that food or money be provided to someone in need? How many butchers, bankers, and businessmen have to be guided by God to answer that prayer?  A man may deny God’s absolute control in the rest of life, but the man on his knees believes in predestination.

But this doctrine is central to the Christian life in areas other than prayer. There are times when tragedy strikes, when disaster befalls us or those we love. In such times, where do we go? As Christians, we go to God for comfort. We go to him because we know he can deliver us from these situations, or if he chooses not to, that he can and will use them for the good of those who love him. A God who has no more control over a situation than we do, whether that situation is war or weather patterns, is hardly a comfort. He can be no more than a fellow-mourner, not exactly a savior, a deliverer.

Salvation itself is the place where the sovereignty of God comes out strongest. If sin means anything, it means we are dead. We are trapped in a pattern of living that hurts us and hurts others. Like a druggie, we can’t break the habit. As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly. But while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. In that moment, when we were dead in our sins, God came into the world and took our place and freed us from that death, that addiction. Once dead, we are now alive with the risen Savior. There is no way we could have saved ourselves, and surely no Christian will claim there is. No, Christ saved us when we couldn’t do it ourselves. And for that, we should be grateful.

God’s sovereignty, his providence, is not something that should make us nervous, but something that should make us rejoice. We should rejoice that he is a God who answers prayers, who provides for us when we need it most, and who rescues us from death. Any lesser God would not be God at all.

Free, Forgiven, and Adopted

A long time ago I heard a lecture by Francis Foucachon on how different cultures talk about sin and salvation. There are essentially three ways of doing this, all of which are found in the Bible. Understanding each of them individually gives us a better understanding of the whole picture. In expanding our understanding of these things, this also allows us to better to communicate the Gospel.

The first way of talking about sin is probably the most familiar in general American culture. In this paradigm, sin is about violating laws. You are guilty or innocent, having transgressed God’s rules, and are in need of a substitute to take the punishment for you. Since this is such an obvious and common way of talking about the Gospel in our culture, I won’t say anything more about it.

The second way is just as true, but not as commonly used around here. This is the language of fear and power. In this paradigm we are slaves to sin and the devil, and under the power of death. When Christ comes, he is the liberator. Instead of a substitute, he is talked about as the one who conquers evil, sets free the captives, and empowers his people. This is the story of the Harrowing of Hell and the inspiration for various movement towards freedom in newly Christianized cultures. Here most of all, Christ is conqueror.

The last sort of language that gets used is that of honor and shame. This was a little more complicated than the other two, or so it seems to me. It also is the one that fascinates me the most. To properly understand it, you can’t think of honor and shame as expressions of self-importance, but as one’s relationship to society. An honored man is one accepted, respected, and loved by society. A dishonored man is shunned and cast out. Sin is shameful, the sort of thing that causes God to disown us.

In an honor/shame paradigm, God our Father has become ashamed of us and disowned us for rebelling against him. But Christ has taken that shame on himself, been shunned in our place. At the same time, he lived righteously, endured every insult and injury given to him, and honored both God and the people he came to save. In taking on our shame, he became yet more honorable. And, crucially, he acted as our intermediary, being separated from the Father for our sake and asking the Father to accept us once more for his sake.

A lot more could be said about these, and I do want to do more delving, especially in that third category. But what’s necessary to realize is that all three are true, and they are more or less dependent on each other. You cannot be shamed unless you have violated some code, broken some law. You cannot be freed from the power of sin and death unless you are honored by the Free Man and accepted into his presence and that of our Father. You could not be under the power of the curse unless you had violated the law and become subject to the curse. You can’t have any of them without the other.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that some people and some cultures emphasize one aspect more than the others. We’re finite beings with a finite attention span and a finite amount of time in the day, so we pay attention to what we can. We also have unique stories and therefore things that draw us specifically. So long as we don’t lose sight of the truth of the other points, there is nothing wrong with emphasizing one over the others.

At any rate, there’s an interesting thought to think about. Peruse your Bible with this in mind. It’s fun.

Have a blessed weekend.