Moral Imperatives

There is nothing specifically Christian about theological curiosity. Before there was Gospel there were Greek, Jewish, and more exotic writings about the gods. The first recognizably Christian theology was anti-theology, the five books of Irenaeus, Against Heresies; attacking what he called vain speculation and superstition. The first constructive Christian theology, Origen’s De pricipiis (On First Principles), was greeted with profound distrust, and branded with the same epithet: speculation. To this day, the best Christian theology does not begin with positive theistic assertions, but starts with a stringent critique of human understanding, to expose errors and groundless pretensions. So it has been since Moses’ interview with the Unnamable at the burning bush.

Most Christians think of theology as a discourse whose purpose is to support religion and religious programs, in which some measure of power is at stake in order to be effective and constructive; the moral and political ends of sound belief. Old King Old King Numa had it right from the beginning. According to him, the purpose of religion is to make society cohere. There need be no distinction between that and politics.[1]

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A Moral Universe?

While our country and others are roiled by divisive political questions, the Owl proposes a theological one that cuts deeper: Do we live in a moral universe or not? Are we under a moral imperative to make the world better? Probably most American Protestants would say that it i, and we are so commissioned.

Another way of putting the question is this: Are there two worlds or one? Does God command us to turn this world into a peaceable kingdom? Or has he prepared another place for us, to which this is an anteroom, a way station, or a refining fire? Is it actually getting better, or ought we to confess our inability to make it so and long for the next?

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Getting the Faith

The Owl longs to speak with theologically literate others. Literacy and numeracy are considered the most basic elements of education. It would be more accurate to say they are basic preparations. For an education that supports life, we need a third thing more basic: faith, italicized here as foreign words are, because it is wholly outlandish, not a thing not taught by flesh and blood.

Faith is neither a concept of mind nor a force of nature. It is more like a gift, or even an assault, from outside the world’s horizon, disproportionate in its impact. We can’t construct faith for ourselves, nor find it by some epic theodyssey. Unlike Odysseus’ assailants, the names of ours are Love, Mercy, and Freedom—all fierce enough in their ways.

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Camminata à Firenze

Dopo la Mess
April 3, 1994

After Easter Mass in the Duomo in Florence, my wife and I wandered the nearby streets. We saw a mime entertaining a crowd by the Baptistery. He selected a boy and a girl about seven years old from the crowd, and brought them into the circle. He costumed them clownishly, using a long balloon to make a penis between the boy’s legs, and put hands on them to show them how to stand. The boy started to cry, and he ushered the child back to mama, with a feigned kick.

In our country I thought this might have turned into a frightening experience for the child. American parents might have overreacted and accused the performer of abuse. Here the boy has his nonno, who picks him up and gives him a hug much more powerful than whatever discomfited him. Nobody will teach him that his mental health has been threatened. The crowd will go away happy, and so will he.

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Charity Among Sinners

My wife and I have been lucky enough to visit Italy about six times. In that country, Christian faith seems to be a tangible thing, built into the very architecture. As the altar is the focus of the nave of a church’s interior, the façade is the focus of the piazza outside. Public space is worship space, with the church at its center.

Leaving Mass in a moderately sized town, on the porch one immediately finds beggars, hookers, tour guides, hawkers, lovers—absolutely everybody—side by side, drawn there because it is the center of gravity, the obvious place to meet, to beg, to find customers, or just gawk. While we were indoors praying, the bells rang for these people too. Worship in some sense never stops. This, more than any doctrine or morality, is the meaning of a Catholic country. Everybody is assumed of belonging.

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Things that matter

On Easter day, April 12, the Owl offered the post entitled Resurrection, speaking of that as the most important of all articles of faith, the sine qua non, and the one that should be taught before asking believers to endorse any others. In fact, Resurrection is not just a traditional teaching of the church; it is the event on which the whole history of the world turns, when God demonstrates that his covenant with his people is stronger than death. The post ends with a saying of Jaroslav Pelikan that appears on the sidebar of our homepage:

“If there is Resurrection, nothing else matters.
If there is not Resurrection, nothing else matters.”

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Resurrection subjective?

A friend of the Owl wrote to ask, What does the resurrection of Jesus really look like? The Gospels give various answers. Jesus joins two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; it looks like they are going back dejected to their old jobs. They don’t recognize him until he breaks bread at table with them (Luke 24: 13–35). Jesus comes into a room whose door is locked (John 20:19). Jesus eats fish on a beach with his men (John 21:1–14). Thomas, at first incredulous, can actually touch Jesus’ wounds (John 20:24–28). Not one of the Gospels describes Jesus actual rising from the tomb. All the resurrection appearances in the scripture take place away from there.

The wording of our friend’s question is revealing: What does Jesus’ resurrection look like. The actuality of the event is important. There are paintings like that of Piero della Francesca in Borgo Sansepolcro that depicts Jesus stepping out of the sepulchre, to the amazement of the soldiers on guard. He is heavy, tired, and still bleeding. It is meant to show that he was really dead.

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Resurrection

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.

Deuteronomy 30:19

If you can’t find the book you want to read, you must write it yourself. This blog consists of notes for the book I want to read, and I would want others to read, especially my sons and friends of understanding and good will. It demands concentration, and I hope it leaves a durable trace.

This could become self-indulgent, but the intent is to set forth an account of faith in God, and of faithfulness toward those who may eventually find and read it. The working title, An Owl Among Ruins, suggests judgment upon two things: our civilization as it now is, ruinous, and upon the writer. The owl is a sagacious animal, and predaceous. He sees with great acuity, he takes his prey alive, and he spits the bones onto the desert floor.

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