How shall we become spiritual?

Living in age when being “spiritual” is trendy and “religious” is old-fashioned, we may care to ask: How shall we become spiritual? I welcome the perspicacious answer from the Cappadocian theologian, Basil the Great (330-79): a person becomes spiritual through the indwelling of the Spirit. Once this occurs, we can experience the manifold power of the Spirit, which Basil memorably enumerates below:

Souls in which the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual and send forth their grace to others. From here comes [1] foreknowledge of the future, [2] understanding of mysteries, [3] apprehension of what is hidden, [4] the sharing of the gifts of grace, [5] heavenly citizenship, [6] a place in the chorus of angels, [7] joy without end, [8] abiding in God, [9] being made like God and—the greatest of them all—[10] being made God.

Imagine, the Spirit is the guarantor of my passport to Heaven, even reserving a spot in the chorus of angels that praises God for eternity. Imagine, the Spirit ensures that I possess “joy without end,” in contrast to happiness with an expiration date. Imagine, the Spirit not only makes me like God, as western Christians understand with the process of the sanctification, but goes even further and makes me God, as eastern Christians understand with the process of deification. No, I will not be identical to God, but I will conform to the image of Christ so much that my union with Him is seamless. I shall be “a little Christ.” Riffing on St. Athanasius, Lewis says the point of the incarnation is “the Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God,” and none of this is possible without the indwelling of the Spirit. Amazing stuff!


“Who are you, where are you?”

Choose LifeDuring Advent and Lent, I have developed a habit of reading a book that will focus me on the season of the Christian year. For Advent 2018 and Lent 2019 I picked up Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral by Rowan Williams, who is the greatest living theologian in my estimation. This is the first collection of sermons I have ever read, and I already plan on returning to it because of their power to edify. Here is an arresting excerpt from his sermon, “The Word of Life, the Words of Prayer” (Christmas 2011), which explains why the book is entitled Choose Life:

It’s been well said that the first question we hear in the Bible is not humanity’s question to God but God’s question to us, God walking in the cool of the evening in the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam and Eve who are trying to hide from him. ‘Adam, where are you?’ (Genesis 3.9). The life of Jesus is that question translated into an actual human life, into the conversations and encounters of a flesh-and-blood humans being like all others – except that when people meet him they will say, like the woman who talks with him at the well of Samaria, ‘Here is a man who told me everything I ever did’ (John 4.29). Very near the heart of Christian faith and practice is this encounter with God’s question, ‘Who are you, where are you?’ Are you on the side of the life that lives in Jesus, the life of grace and truth, of unstinting generosity and unsparing honesty, the only life that gives life to others? Or are you on your own side, on the side of disconnection, rivalry, the hoarding of gifts, the obsession with control? To answer that you’re on the side of life doesn’t mean for a moment that you can now relax into a fuzzy philosophy of ‘life-affirming’ comfort. On the contrary: it means you are willing to face everything within you that is cheap, fearful, untruthful and evasive, and let the light shine on it. Like Peter in the very last chapter of John’s gospel, we can only say that we are trying to love the truth that is in Jesus, even as we acknowledge all we have done that is contrary to his spirit. And we say this because we trust that we are loved by this unfathomable mystery who comes to us in the shape of a newborn child, ‘full of grace and truth.’

Is the Christ-life given through impartation or imputation?

In my theology class, we recently finished C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which I have read a few times in my life. To reflect more deeply that work, I consulted Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary by Wesley A. Kort, a professor emeritus of religion at Duke University. Since Lewis is reluctant to use much theological jargon in his minimalist account of Christianity, Kort lifts the curtain on the ideas that inform Lewis’ view of atonement. First, Lewis mentions three theories of atonement, favoring the moral theory and curiously omitting penal substitution, which evangelicals give pride of place in their understanding of the Cross. Second, Lewis holds that Christ imparts the “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) more than imputes it, which runs counter to the Protestant emphasis on God’s judicial declaration of righteousness. Third, Lewis advances an inclusivist position on salvation rather than exclusivist, which entails a rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. All this reinforces that Lewis’ centrist style of traditional Christianity makes him a peculiar candidate for canonization by conservative Protestants.

Kort writes:

The doctrine of atonement, that in and by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ human relations with God are restored, is a central Christian principle. Despite its centrality, however, it does not explain how this change occurs. Lewis makes a characteristic distinction between the principle and various theories about how and why it is consequential. It may be helpful to think of the various applications of the principle of atonement as versions of one of three options: those that direct the effects of Christ’s life and death toward God, those that direct those effects toward Satan, and those that direct those effects toward human beings. The first of these has its most famous spokesperson in St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). He argued, to simplify a bit, that Christ’s death was a sacrifice to God that satisfied God’s demand for justice. The second option, directed toward Satan, is usually associated with the church father Origen (185-253) and suggested by the language of Mark 10:45, which describes the death of Christ as a ransom. On this theory, this is a price paid not to God but to Satan who, because Adam and Eve had sinned, had gained a claim on human souls. The third option, often called a moral theory of atonement, is directed toward humans, and Peter Abelard (1079-1144) offers a good example. The death of Christ, because it is an act of self-surrender and obedience, has power to cause humans to act similarly. Lewis varies in his loyalties among these three options. Here he seems to favor the third: the remedy for sin lies in the ability and willingness to lay aside claims for oneself, and one can do this by participating in the death of Christ. That participation takes three forms: baptism, belief, and Holy Communion.

We should note that Lewis stresses in his description of atonement what is often called “impartation” rather than “imputation.” That is, the alteration in human life is not simply declared; it is imparted. Sacraments and beliefs have the consequence of spreading “the Christ-life to us.” They are “conductors of the new life.” This imparted life enters persons and begins to change them in such a way that they are increasingly able to undergo the kind of voluntary and obedient death that Christ himself accepted. Christians actually become the body of Christ in the world, reenacting or actualizing his death and experiencing the new life that it brings.

Lewis ends by looking at a difficult question, the doctrine of limited atonement. Are the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection confined to those who explicitly are or become Christian? Lewis argues that, while the new relation to God is made possibly only by Christ, it is not clear that people must know that in order to be affected by it. On the other hand, Lewis is not a universalist, as was George MacDonald, a Christian author he greatly admired. However, he was inclusive. His earlier statements about truth in other religions prepare the ground for this move. Not only, one can infer, do other religions possess truths concerning human morality and the existence of deities: there is also soteriological truth in other religions, that is, truth having to do with overcoming evil and its consequences in and for human life. [1]

[1] Lewis is quite clear and consistent on this point: “Of course it should be pointed out that, though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life. And it should (in my judgment) be made clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected. But, on the other hand, I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.” C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Elsewhere in the commentary on Mere Christianity, Kort further emphasizes the distinction between impartation and imputation:

On the matter of a person’s relation to God, Lewis prefers, as we already have seen, impartation to imputation. That is, he affirms that in a relation with God something actually is given or imparted to the believer. What is given is God’s own life, what earlier he called Zoe. That is, a person has a relation to God that is somehow continuous with the relation that God has within God’s own personal life. Lewis calls this impartation a “good infection.” He differs from those Christians who think that God’s relation to people is more a matter of declaration, of a status imputed to them.

Reader of Bensonian: What is your opinion about impartation versus imputation? Are these views mutually exclusive? Or, can both be true? Leave a comment, if you are so inclined.

Staying alert to place and time

In The Pastor: A Memoir, Eugene Peterson memorably writes about his vocation, which combines the pastoral ministry and poetic office. Mindfulness about the conditions of space (topo) and time (kairos) are just as important, he says, as mindfulness about the holy mysteries:

I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.

Place. But not just any place, not just a location marked on a road map, but on a topo, a topographic map — with named mountains and rivers, identified wildflowers and forests, elevation above sea level and annual rainfall. I do all my work on this ground. I do not levitate. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Get to know this place.

Time. But not just time in general, abstracted to a geometric grid on a calendar or numbers on a clock face, but what the Greeks named kairos, pregnancy time, being present to the Presence. I never know what is coming next; “Watch therefore.”

I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truths. Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, any time now. Pay attention. Be ready: “The time [kairos] is fulfilled . . . ” Repent. Believe.

Staying alert to these place and time conditions — this topo, this kairos — of my life as a pastor, turned out to be more demanding that I thought it would be. But Montana gave a grounding for taking in the terrain and texture of the topo. And John of Patmos showed up in New York City at the right time; the city was a midwife to assist in the birthing, at my come-to-term pregnancy, my kairos, as pastor.

How do you mature a spiritual life?

merlin_145720086_cc7f672d-fe1f-4d68-8a7e-ee667db364fd-popup.jpgI am sad. One of our great contemporary Christian writers has died. Eugene Peterson (1932-2018) served as the pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (Bel Air, Maryland) and wrote over 30 books, including The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, The Pastor: A Memoir, and five volumes of “conversations” in spiritual theology, notably Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology and Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Consider the ministry lessons from his life.

To remember the man, I watched a 10-minute documentary featuring Pastor Peterson and U2 lead singer, Bono, and listened to an excellent interview by Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, a public radio show and podcast. This excerpt is worth highlighting:

MS. TIPPETT: Once you wrote, “People ask, ‘How do you mature a spiritual life?’” And you said the one thing you do is you eliminate the word “spiritual.” It’s your life that’s being matured. It’s not part of your life.


MS. TIPPETT: But the word “spiritual,” much more than when you first became a pastor, is everywhere now.


MS. TIPPETT: And I want to know how you hear that, respond to it, what you think of it.

MR. PETERSON: I think it’s cheap. You’re taking something, and putting a name on it, “spiritual,” which means it’s defined. The whole world is spiritual and it’s — and the word “spirit” is wind. It’s breath. Well, people are breathing all over the place. They’re all spiritual beings, but they — if you have a name for it, you can compartmentalize it. And that just wrecks havoc with the whole thing. Spirituality is — and that’s why I don’t like the word, because it’s so easy to just say, “Well, he’s such a spiritual person, she’s such a spiritual person.” Well, nonsense. You are too.

And I guess that’s where I think the church has a place, which is maybe more important than it’s ever been. But it’s — done well, there’s no spirituality that you can define.

MS. TIPPETT: Because it is in everything you do?

MR. PETERSON: That’s right. And if you don’t recognize that that’s possible, you just subtract a whole part of your life. And so, I think that’s — those of us who are teachers, preachers, pastors, we don’t do people any good by trying to make them more spiritual.

Once saved, always saved?

I grew up hearing the formula “once saved, always saved,” which originates from either Free Grace theology or the Calvinist doctrine on the perseverance of the saints. Does this view bear the weight of scripture and experience? Are we converted once and for all—or always converting, backsliding, and reverting? Salvation, as I understand it from the Bible, involves three tenses: I trust that I am saved (Eph. 2:8-9), I trust that I am being saved (Phil. 2:12), and I trust that I will be saved (Rom. 13:11; cf. 1 Cor. 3:15; 5:5).

C. S. Lewis describes a view that seems more Lutheran than Calvinist in Mere Christianity, which maintains that salvation can be lost at any time before death when our fate is sealed for eternity (see “Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration,” article xi, paragraph 42). To make this point, Lewis compares the natural life and the Christ-life:

Your natural life is derived from your parents; that does not mean it will stay there if you do nothing about it. You can lose it by neglect, or you can drive it away by committing suicide. You have to feed it and look after it: but always remember you are not making it, you are only keeping up a life you got from someone else. In the same way a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it. But even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam—he is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts. And that has practical consequences. As long as the natural life is in your body, it will do a lot towards repairing that body. Cut it, and up to a point it will heal, as a dead body would not. A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.



There is only one choice


Book of Jonah. Illustrated by David Jones.

I delivered a message at our all-school retreat. Because our chapel theme is “choices,” I interpreted the Book of Jonah through that lens. This “whale of a story” is short enough that I recruited my colleagues to read all four chapters while I interspersed commentary between each one. The message began with a question and ended with an answer. My objective was to innumerate the choices made by the Hebrew prophet, giving the illusion that we have innumerable choices when there is really only one choice confronting us.

Leland Ryken’s Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible helped me understand that Jonah, though classified with the Minor Prophets, is “not a book of prophecy.” It is about a prophet. He also helped me to appreciate its genre of satire. Jonah should be viewed as a ridiculous figure from beginning to end. “The fact that we laugh at Jonah (or least should laugh at him) does not minimize the utter seriousness of the book,” writes Roland M. Fyre. “For in recognizing that Jonah is ridiculous we can see the ridiculous aspect of all human pretensions, including our own.”

Speaking from notes rather than a manuscript, here are the main points I shared.

QUESTION: What choices do we have to make?

Jonah’s flight: Chapter 1

  • Jonah chooses to rise and flee from the presence of the Lord (1:3).
  • Jonah chooses to lay down and sleep during a “mighty tempest” at sea (1:4).
  • Jonah chooses to tell the sailors his story but tell it slant (1:9).
  • Jonah chooses to solve the problem of himself by encouraging the sailors to get rid of himself (1:12).

Jonah’s rescue: Chapter 2

  • Jonah chooses to pray to the Lord from the belly of the fish after being swallowed up (2:1), but he thanks God for rescuing him rather than asking God to rescue the threatened sailors. He does not choose to repent for abandoning his vocation.

Jonah’s sermon: Chapter 3

  • Jonah chooses to rise and go to Ninevah (3:3).
  • Jonah chooses to give an eight-word sermon — “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” (3:4).

Jonah’s complaint: Chapter 4

  • Jonah chooses exceeding displeasure and anger toward God because he relented from the promised disaster (4:1).
  • Jonah chooses to pray to God, begrudging the wideness of his mercy, and then asks God to take his life (4:2-3).
  • Jonah chooses to leave the city, and watch its fate (4:5).
  • Jonah chooses exceeding gladness when God comforts him with the shade of a plant (4:6).
  • Jonah chooses self-pity when God discomforts him with the withered plant, scorching wind, and burning sun (4:7-8).
  • Jonah chooses to remain angry with God when he confronts him with a question about the direction of his pity, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:10-11).

ANSWER: There is only one choice that each of us makes, day after day, hour after hour. We can formulate that choice in two ways. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Father Mapple delivers a sermon on Jonah to the shipmates:

Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. [emphasis mine]

Here is the first formulation of our only choice: Am I obeying God and disobeying myself?

Psalm 139 can be regarded as Jonah’s deferred answer since we are not given his reply to God’s question:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

Here is the second formulation of our only choice: Am I facing God and fleeing from myself?

CONCLUSION: Since we are always already in relationship with God, whether believer, make-believer, or unbeliever, there is only one choice before us, presented over and over again because divine mercy patiently waits for us to choose rightly — and not once, twice, or thrice, but repeatedly until our character befits our vocation, until our desire befits our destiny.

Proper 16

From the Book of Common Prayer, Proper 16 is used on the Sunday closest to August 24th:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Here are the constituent parts:

  • Address: Typical of most collects, this one addresses God the Father, which is how God the Son taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Mt. 6:5-14). In Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains why Christians must become apprentices to the prayer of Christ: “[W]e can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father, who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayers, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray” [emphasis mine].
  • Acknowledgement: The prayer explicitly acknowledges two attributes of God the Fathermercy and powerbut also implicitly acknowledges an attribute of the Trinity: indivisibility. Just as there is unity in the community of the Godhead, so too, there must be unity in the community of God’s people. And it is the Holy Spirit who gathers the Church together in unity (Eph. 4:1-3).
  • Petition: This collect asks God to grant that his Church “may show forth [his] power among all peoples.” Even though God resides in heaven, this is not a power from above, which is arrogant and coercive, but a power from below, which is humble and free, as modeled in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Andy Crouch, author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, says: “If we see power as a gift from God, I think we will have deeper resources to understand how we can use whatever power we’ve been given in a fruitful way. We also become accountable for our power in a deeper way. In the book, I talk quite a bit about the ways we distort the gift of power, and all of them come down to substituting something or someone for God, and distancing ourselves from God and from true, fruitful relationships with God’s image-bearers, especially the most vulnerable. If we see power as negative (not a gift at all) or as neutral (something that doesn’t matter very much), we are missing our call to use our power for others’ flourishing.” We are all playing god, the question is whether it is the God of the Bible or an idol.
  • Aspiration: The Church does not ask to magnify divine power for its own sake but for the sake of a higher goal: the glory of God’s name. If God’s people show God’s power, which is in stark contrast to the abuses of power in this world, others will be drawn into his kingdom.
  • Pleading: Consistent with all collects, this one pleads for the petition to be fulfilled “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” A student asked a very perceptive question in class, “Is the pleading a confession of guilt?” I answered by way of analogy. Imagine a student who tried to print his essay the night before it was due but found the ink cartridge was empty. Since he knows that I do not accept late work, he could remedy the issue by printing the essay at school before class begins or asking a friend to do the favor. But if he failed to do this, he would arrive to class without the essay, afraid that all his work was in vain, pleading for my mercya tacit confession of his guilt. While I cannot say in the abstract whether the pleading in every collect involves guilt, Proper 16 seems to assume division within the Church, which is a failure to eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The Church, we might say, functions like a telescope: when united, it magnifies an impressive image of divine power in the world; when divided, it magnifies a diminutive image. Structural division of the Church is the most obvious but maybe the least troublesome. Unity of belief and practice strike me as the most important, which is why the Church should be governed by this famous mottoIn necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (“In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity”).

Scott Cairns, “And Why Theology?”: A commentary


Giant Mountains, Poland. Photograph by Tomasz Rojek, National Geographic Your Shot

As I take up the question “Why bother with theology?” in the opening days of my course on theology, my friend and former student, Joey Jekel, recommended that I consider Scott Cairn’s poem, “And Why Theology?”, in his volume, Idiot Psalms (2014). My commentary will be interspersed between the stanzas of the poem.

because the first must be first

The title of the poem asks an apologetic question about why any finite human being should undertake the study of an infinite God while the epigraph, quoted from the 20th century Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Treatise on Theology”, provides an historic answer: “Why theology? Because the first must be first. And first is a notion of truth.” The  first refers to God, who is what Aristotle calls the First Cause and St. John calls “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13). The first also refers to theology vis-à-vis other ways of knowing. In medieval Christendom, theology was regarded as “the Queen of the Sciences”a synthesis of all other liberal arts. This view about the primacy of theology has a biblical origin: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7, ESV).  In secular modernity, theology is either relegated to a science on par with any other, or rejected altogether as a dubious science. Cairn’s poem tries to reclaim the supremacy of the theological enterprise.

And the first, if you don’t mind me saying, is both an uttered
notion of the truth and a provisional, even giddy apprehension 
of its reach. The dayfortunately, a winter’s dayis censed 
with wood smoke, and the wood smoke is remarkably, is richly
spiced with evergreen; you can almost taste the resin.

In the first stanza, the speaker asserts a paradoxical trait of theology: it is a sayable (“an uttered notion of the truth”) and unsayable (“a provisional, even giddy apprehension of its reach”) science. The Western Church has emphasized positive (or kataphatic) theology (God is knowable through the two books of Scripture and Nature), whereas the Eastern Church has emphasized negative (or apophatic) theology (God is unknowable). Both traditions are true. God is knowable, as theologians attest in their “uttered notion of the truth,” otherwise known as the creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). But God is also unknowable, as monks and mystics attest in their “giddy apprehension of its reach.” The word apprehension means the faculty of understanding through perception on a direct and immediate level, as opposed to ratiocination, which involves logical reasoning. When monks and mystics apprehend God, they are likely to be “giddy” because fathoming the unfathomable God induces vertiginous wonder.

The study of God, this poem suggests, happens on “a winter’s day,” which reminds us that we lack the clear-sightedness of a summer’s day. Wintery weather conceals more than it reveals. As we try to know God, we may experience a synesthesia of the spiritual senses, tasting what we smell (“the wood smoke is remarkably, is richly spiced with evergreen; you can almost taste the resin”). God, according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, spreads the fragrance of Christ everywhere; He is the aroma of life diffused in a world undergoing decay and death, akin to the season of winter (2 Cor. 2:14-17).

Or, I can. Who knows what you’ll manage? The day itself 
is shrouded, wrapped, or tucked, say, within a veil of wood smoke
and low cloud, and decidedly gray, but lined as well with intermittent, 
slanted rays of startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light just here,
and over there, and they move a bit, shifting round as high weather
shoves the clouds about. 

The second stanza continues the imagery of a winter’s day, which by now seems comparable to knowing God, who is “shrouded, wrapped, or tucked, say, within a veil of wood smoke and low cloud, and decidedly gray, but lined as well with intermittent, slanted rays of startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light.” Using an ancient emblem, God is the sunthe source of light that can be glimpsed, on occasion, despite the obscuring clouds. Truth shines through mystery. In our present lot as slow pilgrims, we never see the fiery orb of the sun in all of its intensity and brilliance because our eyes would burn. Like Moses, we hide our face from the light of the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6). Like Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, we fall on our faces when the voice speaks from the bright cloud that overshadows us (Mt. 17:1-13). Only a fool tries to make a tent for the transfigured Christ: we cannot house God in our systems of theology. He is always too grand for any shelter that we erect. All we can do, like John the Baptist, is “bear witness about the Light” (Jn. 1:8), ever mindful that this “startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light” is strained through clouds of unknowing.

Theology is a distinctly rare, a puzzling 
study, given that its practitioners are happiest when the terms
of their discovery fall well short of their projected point; this 
is where they likely glimpse their proof. Rare as well 
is the theologian’s primary stipulation that all that is explicable
is somewhat less than interesting. 

The third stanza is a digression, touching upon the odd features of theology. First, theology finds satisfaction in unsatisfactorily reaching its objective: knowing God. Failure in other sciences is success in theology. Second, theology circumscribes its explanatory power, keenly aware that any explanation of God cannot explain Him away since God is Wholly Other to us. The prophet Isaiah admonishes God’s chosen people, who were prone to domesticate God in their understanding: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'” (55:8-9). In short, the task of theology is insanely ambitious because it seeks to know Godwho constitutes what philosophers call “the really real”and embarrassingly modest because the cognitive equipment of fallen human beings can only reach, at best, the orbit of Reality. 

In any case, the day
keeps loping right along, and blurs into the night, which itself
will fairly likely press into another clouded day, et cetera.
The future isn’t written, isn’t fixed, and the proof of that is how
sure we areif modestlythat every moment matters.  

The fourth stanza returns to the winter’s day but focuses on the transition into night and the extended forecast. The night can be interpreted as what one mystic famously called la noche oscura del alma (“dark night of the soul”), where the light is absent, where God seems aloof or silent, where theologians stumble in the dark. The extended forecast assures us that there will never be a cloudless day in knowing God until our final union with Him, as St. Paul says: “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!” (1 Cor. 13:12, The Message).

Take this one, now. We stand before another day extending like
a scarf of cloud, or wood smoke, or incense reaching past what’s visible. 

And sure, you could as easily rush ahead, abandoning what lies in reach
in favor of what doesn’tbut you don’t, and we here at your side are pleased
to have you with us, supposing that we’ll make the way together. 

The final stanza of the poem carries the sentiment from the last line of the previous stanza. Because “every moment matters” in knowing God, we should be content to receive His self-disclosures to us in this moment rather than reach for tomorrow’s revelations with arms outstretched like Tantalus, grasping, in vain, for water and fruit that will never be ours. Theology is a task that we take up each and every hour in our pilgrimage. Theology is not knowing about God, for even demons have mastered that science (Mark 1:23-24, Jas. 2:19). Theology is knowing God through loving obedience (1 Jn. 5:2-4) and indemonstrable faith (Jn. 20:29), as Richard of Chichester’s prayer memorably says: “O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Proper 15

From the Book of Common Prayer, Proper 15 is used on the Sunday closest to August 17:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of this redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This collect is addressed to “Almighty God,” a title that emphasizes divine power, which manifested itself in the Incarnation when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Incarnation is a self-gift of the Trinity, satisfying a twofold purpose. Jesus, the perfect God-man, was given as (1) “a sacrifice for sin” (Rom. 3:23-25Rom. 5:6-11), which achieved reconciliation between God and humanity, and as (2) “an example of godly life” (Eph. 5:1-2, 1 Pet. 2:211 Jn. 2:4-6), which enables Christlikeness among his disciples.

Upon this foundation, a twofold petition is made (1) “to receive thankfully the fruits of this redeeming work” and (2) “to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.” Divine grace is the means by which this petition is fulfilled – not human willpower. I do not atone for myself, nor do I make myself holy. The challenge of the Christ-life is receptivity and obedience: receiving the work of Atonement and obeying the supreme exemplar of godliness. To receive from the Giver in the economy of grace, I must realize that nothing can be added to the Cross, as a famous Methodist hymn says in the refrain:

Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

To obey God, I must learn to disobey myself; “and it is in this disobeying [myself], wherein the hardness of obeying God consists,” as Father Mapple preaches in Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick. A long obedience in the same direction, as this collect points out, is step by step, sometimes one step forward and two steps back, but still forward-moving because of the push-and-pull dynamism of grace.