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
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.
Continue reading “What Faith Is Not – Part II”
The great treasure of this town in the Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1512–16) painted by Matthias Grünewald, on display in the Unterlinden Museum there.
Click on an image to enlarge it.
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
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.
Continue reading “What Faith Is Not – Part I”
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.
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.
Continue reading “What the Owl Is Trying to Say”
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.
Continue reading “Marcus Borg and the Two Christs”
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.
Continue reading “Spiritual-Political Hazards – Part II”
The United States considers itself a secular democracy, and
we turn our politics over to a technocracy that runs on pragmatic principles,
but that is far from the complete truth. We are unable to treat politics pragmatically,
because three extraneous forces distort our thinking: (1) Doctrinaire thinking
about what is politically fair puts us at the mercy of self-appointed prophets.
(2) Interested parties farm marginalized people as constituencies. (3) We
positively deny the spiritual roots of our traditions, so authentic theological
hopes get foreshortened and turn into idolatries. When these things happen, it
begins to seem that this world is the only one we have in which to work out our
salvation; then no cruelty is too much to conquer the existential dread that
ensues. Religion, in a baleful sense of the word, then indeed becomes an
underlying source of conflict, up to and including the disasters of war. Each
of these hazards is spiritual in nature. Each in its own way supplants
authentic faith and cuts sinners off from the mercy of God, which we have
decided we don’t need.
1. Doctrinaire Prophets
From the beginning, our politics has been driven by the hope
of perfection. The noble experiment of 1620 still informs our thought. From
Christian pulpits we still hear, “In the richest country in the world, it is
shameful that we still have . . . ” —fill in the blank: children without health
insurance, homelessness, whatever offends the speaker’s sense of the best sort of
person, and of our country as an example to the world. The homily makes no
sense unless we of all people, we if nobody else, strive for perfection.
Continue reading “Spiritual-Political Hazards – Part I”
Of all church teachings, probably one of the most ignored is
that about the second coming Jesus Christ. We await a miraculous intervention,
a complete change of times, or the abolition of time as we know it. Christ’s
rule effects the perfection of the world, whatever our efforts may have
accomplished for good or ill. At the level of individual salvation, while we
wait, we make the effort to live obediently, to contribute to others’ well-being. Our actual successes and
failures are not ultimately decisive, for we are saved by grace alone.
It is hard to give up the idea that what we do, or at least
our willingness to do right, somehow enters into the transaction. The only
alternative seems to be a doctrine of double predestination, leading into all
the insidious anxieties of Puritanism in search of assurance, letting moralism
in again, through a side door.
Continue reading “Eschatological Freedom”