God’s Covenant With Us

The Owl continues unfolding What the Owl Is Trying to Say, using five main terms for the outline. Now we are up to the word “Covenant.”

The valiant reader may recall our saying the covenant between God and humankind is really a series of covenants, each with a specific sign and promise, all given on God’s initiative: the Noachic Covenant, with the sign of the rainbow and the promise that God will never again destroy all life on earth with a flood. There follow covenants with Abraham, making him the patriarch of a numerous people; then the covenant with Moses at Sinai, giving Israel the law of Jhwh and making himself their God and them his people. Without ever calling that into question, we have the New Covenant established in Jesus Christ.

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What Faith Is Not – Part III

The Owl continues unfolding the post “What the Owl Is Trying to Say” using its five main terms: Faith, Covenant, Love, Freedom, and Obedience, for an outline, under the title “What Faith Is Not. The negative approach is necessary to challenge people who think they know what it is. As some wise person said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that’ll git you; it’s what you do know that ain’t so.”

So far, the Owl has said faith is not religion; it is not spiritualism; it is not a belief system; and it is not an inner psychological state. Now we will go the rest of the way: Faith is not moralism, and nor humanism. Remember, throughout all this, God has the initiative. Faith is God’s gift to us. If it can be found in our insides, that is because God put it there.

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What Faith Is Not – Part II

The Owl thanks the readers who have borne with us so far. Here we will continue to ex[and on the post, What the Owl Is Trying to Say, in which we offered our definitions of five key words: Faith, Love, Covenant, Freedom, and Obedience. Taking those five as our outline, we are still on Faith. Remember what the Owl said in that earlier post: “If only one thing is clear so far, let it be this: the initiative belongs to God.”

Belief Systems

Having reminded ourselves of that, it is safe to say faith is not is a belief system. It is not a body of knowledge about God, or how the world was made, or why evil exists, or anything else. Those things are beliefs, more or less cogent, that have arisen from people’s experiences; experiences worked over in thought and imagination. Some wag said opinions are like bellybuttons; everybody has one. Another says atheists are careful to honor God by keeping their backs turned to him. They have opinions about God, indeed very strong ones. They are very sure of what a god should be, and sure that God as people of faith know him doesn’t measure up. A person of faith might well answer them: I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in, either. Debating along such lines leads nowhere. Once a person identifies with an opinion on any subject, not just God, then it seems like disloyalty to one’s very self to give it up.

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What Faith Is Not – Part I

The Owl owes a debt of gratitude to the readers who commented on the recent post, What the Owl Is Trying to Say, in which we offered succinct definitions of five key words: Faith, Love, Covenant, Freedom, and Obedience. Each of these words has a lot of colloquial meanings, but the Owl tries to be consistent, using them in his own way. As we said on the home page, day one, this means our language cuts across conventional understanding, because our thinking lies athwart that of our culture. It turns out that the more Christians remember our citizenship in God’s kingdom, the more we find ourselves aliens in our cultural settings.

Aside: This is the reason we ought to cultivate solidarity with aliens in our midst. It is not because we are historically a “nation of immigrants.” That is a side issue, to be dealt with by secular politicians, pragmatically and generously as we may hope. The more important truth is that people everywhere are in a sense alien to this world. Some who know of their true life, hidden in God with Jesus Christ, know how the love of God sustains them. Others—and not only Christians, but all others have the love of God too. It would be immensely sad to go through life not knowing this, but it maybe the majority do. Nothing else so well explains people’s fecklessness in action, their forlornness in spirit, their dread of anonymity, their displays of anger in defense of outlandish and sterile versions of Self.

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Recommended Reading

The text that follows has been moved here from the Owl’s home page to make room for “What the Owl Is Trying to Say.” Enough readers found that helpful, and made encouraging comments, to warrant putting that on the home page instead. Thanks to them for their feedback. Please excuse the non-conforming format in what follows.

Readers wil have seen by now that continued study plays an important part in the Owl's formation.The most important sources I have found since my seminary years are the theology of Karl Barth, the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Church and secular history, and the fiction of F. M. Dostoevsky and James Joyce. I have been lucky enough to find a few great teachers, including Randall C. Reid and Harvey Guthrie, of whom more below. I commend to you the following:

Fyodor M. Dostoevsky: Notes from the House of the Dead, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov.
Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky (Princeton, 1976 to 2002), makes reading the novels a fresh experience. Frank himself is a rare writer, who knows the proper use of the word "eschatological."

James Joyce. Ulysses.
Academic critics make much of the supposed Homeric framework of this novel. Homeric as the body may be, the soul of it is one vast liturgy, beginning with a Latin introit and ending with "yes." Read it out loud to get the music of the thing.

Flannery O'Connor. all her short stories, and her letters to "A" in the collection entitled A Habit of Being, selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979). 
O'Connor knows Christian dogma as a powerful bulwark of intellectual freedom, and sets forth a faith utterly free of sentimentality.

Aleksander Wat. My Century, his autobiography, written with the assistance of Czeslaw Milosz (University of California Press, 1988). Wat's account of human freedom is a worthy successor of Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead. The story of his search for his wife after release from Soviet prisons is one of the great love stories of the twentieth century.

Harvey Guthrie. Theology as Thanksgiving, describes faith without resorting to metaphysical language,, thus preserving the relationship  between us and the one who is with us, and the true freedom we need to be worshipers, moral agents, and lovers. 

Jacques Ellul. The Subversion of Christianity (Eerdmans, 1986), sets forth the radical antagonismbetween faith and religion.

What the Owl Is Trying to Say

We are now about five months into writing An Owl Among Ruins. It would be understandable that our few readers don’t find much logical consistency in the thing so far. We may have created more frustration than clarity. That’s not good for one who is still trying, at 73, to get control his mother tongue. He knows all the best advisors on the subject say Keep It Simple; no extravagant turns of phrase, no complex compound sentences—you learned it in grade school. I’m slow. By now it’s fair to ask, What Is the Owl Trying to Say? Put it down in as few words and as plainly as possible.

OK, here goes. It will help to start with the key terms. Luckily they are few, but unluckily, from the first they don’t mean what people think they mean. Here they are: Faith, Covenant, Love, Freedom, Obedience. These are things already alive in human hearts, maybe in all human hearts. Let’s take them one at a time, then see how they fit into a whole.

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Marcus Borg and the Two Christs

Marcus Borg (d. 2015), Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University until 1997, and Fellow of what was known as the Jesus Seminar, enjoyed a certain vogue around 1994, when his best known book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, was published. He made the rounds of parish Bible study groups and media, including our affluent Episcopal parish. The people loved him, tweeds, tea, crumpets, and all; about as privileged and well positioned as a man could be, presenting himself as an avatar of Jesus the political revolutionary, 

One of Professor Borg’s slogans is “original message,” which he used as warrant for privileging parts of scripture over others; particularly the parts of the synoptic gospels that narrate Jesus’ ministry before his crucifixion. Whatever was said earlier is taken as more authoritative than later “accretions.” He didn’t invent this; it goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson, who took a razor to the pages and excised what he considered corrupting “miraculous” elements. Borg follows a long, dubious tradition by dividing the Gospel up to valorize his favored fraction. His criterion for making excisions is a distinction between pre-resurrection and post-resurrection Jesus. The first is a Jewish spiritual healer who has a gift for aphorism and midrash, and who, in a friend’s words, “tells us how to live.” The other is a product of tradition, dogma, the stock in trade of an old (1950s) finger-wagging God.

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Spiritual-Political Hazards – Part II

4. Manichæism

In Part I the Owl described the perverse devolution of misery into a market good. A corner has been turned. Aggrandizement and titillation (the old fashioned words have no good replacements) act on people like a drug habit; it takes a new evil every  day to keep the party going. Reporters will find it for us. Delight in ourselves comes to include identification with the unhappiness we started out to change. Solidarity, however imaginary, with degraded people becomes more important than ending the degradation.

We are entertained by misery. One need only turn to recent entertainment media (never forget that is what they are): television, movies, social media even chichi advertising. They gain attention by including what we enjoy so much: human oddities, disasters, injustice, and misery.

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