Now we are ready to take up the fifth of the Owl’s principal
terms: Obedience. This is probably the one least likely to find acceptance
among our modern brothers and sisters, who seem to have a visceral reaction
against anything resembling conventional moral precepts.
But that is not a scold. Fortunately, the meaning of
obedience we have in mind comes from a completely different plane, not the one
where the frumious bandersnach moralism
stretches his jaws and claws. No, the obedience we have in mind flows from the
last previous of our terms: freedom.
Now we come to the fourth of the Owl’s principal terms:
Freedom. The sequence of these terms, Faith then Covenant then Love then
Freedom, is intentional: Faith, God’s gift to us; the Covenant under which it
is lived in God’s steadfastness; Love, the power that keeps us turning toward
God and each other; then Freedom, the
sine qua non of Love.
Love is what turns a man’s wheels homeward at the end of the
work day, simply because he belongs with the people there rather than wherever
else. He is actually free to turn or not, or it is no love that drives him.
Love has to be freely given, or it is not love but something else; fear,
coercion, deception, but not love.
Back from hiatus, the Owl remembers his promise to clarify
What the Owl Is Trying to Say, under the key terms Faith, Covenant, Love,
Freedom, and Obedience. We are up to what is probably the biggest of all: Love.
Let us start with a curious fact: Nowhere in the New
Testament Greek, nor in the Septuagint (the most ancient Greek translation of
the Hebrew scriptures) do we find the word eros.
That word, which most of us learned is Greek for love simply is not there. The word for love in the New Testament is
Commentators make much of this word, but what they agree on is again, God’s
initiative. We love God because he first loved us. We love our fellow creatures
because we know God loves them enough to have created them, and now sustains
them, and sent his Son to show forth his love in the most poignant and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.