Disenchanted Salvation: Part 1, The Disenchantment of Forensic Salvation

In my course Psychology and Christianity at ACU I spend some classes talking about how in the West our religious experience has been moving from enchantment to disenchantment, from a supernatural world to a secular world. Recently, I've questioned the comprehensiveness of that story, wondering if some of our journey has not been from enchantment to disenchantment, although that's a large piece of it, but from one enchantment to another. Specifically, we're shifting from a transcendent enchantment to an immanent enchantment. Either way, our focus is increasingly on this world.

One of the things I talk about with my class is how, even if you remain a Christian in the West, you still feel the pressures of disenchantment. Many of us are Christians, but we're disenchanted Christians. I'd like to share a few posts illustrating what I'm talking about, with a specific focus upon how disenchantment has affected our visions of salvation.

As many readers are likely aware, penal substitutionary atonement is seen by many Christians as increasingly problematic. I'm not going to rehash those concerns right now. The question I want to ask is this: Why did penal substitutionary atonement become the norm in the West?

As we know, penal substitutionary atonement wasn't the primary way the early church viewed the atonement. To be sure, this point has been overplayed. The early church was aware of and embraced the substitutionary and sacrificial themes of Christ's death on the cross. Still, the dominant framework for the atonement for the early church was Christus Victor rather than penal substitutionary atonement. That is, the early church viewed salvation as emancipation from dark, cosmic forces--Sin, Death and the Devil--whereas we tend to view salvation in forensic terms, as mainly about guilt and the forgiveness of sins.

Why did this shift occur?

I would argue the shift was largely due to the forces of disenchantment. Specifically, Christus Victor is a very enchanted view of salvation. The Devil, for example, plays a large role. The harrowing of hell is also a big deal. So as the forces of disenchantment grew in the West, these enchanted aspects of Christus Victor atonement were put under stress.

Forensic views of atonement, however, like penal substitutionary atonement, are much more disenchanted. You don't need the Devil, for example. The only metaphysical paraphernalia you need in these forensic views is human sin, which is really an empirical issue (just look around and see how terrible we are to each other), and something in the heart of God that demands justice/satisfaction. The death of Jesus then flows out of that mix.

All that to say, penal substitutionary atonement became the norm in the West because it presented us with a disenchanted view of salvation. It just became too difficult to believe the more ancient, enchanted views of salvation that once held sway in the church.

But here's the paradox. When penal substitutionary atonement pushed the "problem" of salvation into the heart of God (i.e., a just God demanding satisfaction), it definitely disenchanted salvation by shifting focus away from the Devil and the cosmic power of Sin. But the price of that shift into the the heart of God was to create a view of salvation that many have found increasingly problematic. Penal substitutionary atonement foregrounds the wrath of God and introduces violence into the equation (i.e., God requiring a death to be satisfied).

Consequently, there's been a lot of pushback to penal substitutionary atonement. And there's been increasing interest in more ancient and non-violent atonement theories, like Christus Victor. And yet, as I point out in Reviving Old Scratch, the people most interested in views like Christus Victor, progressive Christians, are the most disenchanted. So here's the tension. Progressive Christians like the non-violent aspects of Christus Victor, but can they embrace this more enchanted view of salvation? Do they, for example, believe in the Devil? Do they believe in a cosmic force called Sin? Do they think all of humanity is bound over to dark cosmic forces, slaves in Satan's kingdom of darkness?

My hunch is that disenchanted Christians are going to balk at all this. We don't like penal substitutionary atonement, but we struggle in our skeptical, doubting, secular age to embrace the more ancient, enchanted views of salvation.

The Divine Comedy: Week 19, Purgatory

At the end of the Inferno, Virgil and the Pilgrim climb down the legs of Satan (yes, this is as odd as it sounds), through the center of the earth, and then up through a crack to emerge, after a very long climb, on the other side of the world. There they see Mount Purgatory.

I think most people read the Divine Comedy for the Inferno. Perhaps they only read the Inferno. But I read the Diving Comedy for Purgatory.

Why was that? The answer comes in Purgatorio Canto I:
...that second realm
where man's soul goes to purify itself
and become worthy to ascend to Heaven.
While the punishments of hell might titillate the theologically voyeuristic, my interest in reading Dante was to get to the theology he unpacks in Purgatorio. Though less talked about, the very best part of the Divine Comedy is found on the slopes Mount Purgatory. Here we will find a theology of love and spiritual formation--the purification of the soul--that I've found to be profoundly insightful and helpful.

A Relapse Into Non-existence, if it Were Not Protected by the Word

Yesterday I referenced how St. Athanasius describes the human predicament in On Incarnation.

Elsewhere in his writings, Athanasius describes the human predicament as a descent and fall back into non-existence. Without God, the created order is unstable and prone to fall back into nothingness. After the Fall, this was what was happening to humanity and the cosmos. We were, in the words of Athanasius, relapsing back into non-being and non-existence. We were dissolving and fading away.

Seeing creation falling into nothingness, God acts through the Incarnation, reuniting Word and Creation, to restabilize the cosmos to keep it from fading away. Athanasius:
For the nature of created things, having come into being from nothing, is unstable, and is weak and mortal when considered by itself...So seeing that all created nature according to its own definition is in a state of flux and dissolution, therefore to prevent this happening and the universe dissolving back into nothing, after making everything by his own eternal Word and bringing creation into existence, [God] did not abandon it to be carried away and suffer through its own nature, lest it run the risk of returning to nothing...lest it suffer what would happen...a relapse into non-existence, if it were not protected by the Word.

The Human Being Was Disappearing: On Weakness and the Spirit

In my post yesterday regarding Paul's observations concerning Law and Sin a critical piece was missing: the flesh.

Specifically, according to Paul Sin seizes opportunity through the Law because of the weakness of the flesh. As Paul writes in Romans 8.6-7:
For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.
In Chapter 7 Paul gives a vivid description about how the flesh is unable, under the power of Sin, to obey God's Law:
Romans 7.14-15, 18
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 
Notice the key theme: Incapacity.  The flesh does not submit to God's law; indeed it cannot. I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

The deep issue for Paul is human incapacity and weakness, our congenital inability to carry out God's good, righteous and holy commands.

To be clear, Paul isn't preaching "total depravity." In the picture Paul is painting we both know and desire to do the right things. Deep down, we are good people. The problem is that we're too weak to be the good people we desire to be. The issue isn't wickedness, but weakness.

Overcoming this incapacity, then, is the main point of salvation. And according to Paul, our fleshly incapacity is overcome by the power of the Spirit: "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." (Romans 8.13)

What's interesting here is how this reading of Paul isn't new or modern. This is the primary way the church fathers understood salvation. Specifically, salvation is less about the forgiveness of sin than the Spirit healing human weakness.

For example, Athanasius describes in On the Incarnation how Adam's sin returned humanity to a mortal, animal existence. In the Garden, when we had communion with God, we had been protected from death and corruption: "Because of the Word present in them, even natural corruption did not come near them." But after the Fall, we fell into a weakened mortal state: "When this happened, human beings died and corruption thenceforth prevailed against them." Under the sway of death, sin began to dominate human existence the whole affair tipping toward madness, violence, and darkness. The Image of God began slipping away from us: "For these reasons, then, with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated."

The human being was disappearing. That was the problem. The Image of God in us was being slowly obliterated.  

So as we see in Athanasius, the issue isn't really about our need for God to forgive our sins. The problem was that, separated from God's life, the entire human project was falling into darkness and chaos. The human being was disappearing, leaving only beasts upon the earth. Sure, God needs to forgive us. But God needs to do something more drastic and dramatic to keep the cosmos from tipping over into death and dissolution, to save and secure the Image of God that was fading from the world.

And God does this more dramatic and drastic thing by reuniting God's divine nature with human flesh through the Incarnation. In the Incarnation God permanently marks human flesh with His Image. More, through the resurrection of Incarnated flesh, humans were given power over death and corruption.

The key idea here for Athanasius, and for Paul in Romans, is that salvation is fundamentally about power, a power human flesh lacks when separated from God's divine life. And for Paul, it's the gift of the Spirit that gives us this power. The Spirit is our tether, our umbilical cord, to God's life.

So for Paul, the gospel message isn't primarily about "the forgiveness of sins." The Good News is fundamentally about reunion and participation in the Divine Life, the power of the Spirit to overcome our weakness and incapacity in the face of Sin and Death:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Paul and the Law in Galatians and Romans

Pauline scholars tend to agree that Paul's attitude concerning the Mosaic Law undergoes a modulation and development from Galatians to Romans.

Galatians appears to be Paul's "hot take" on the Law. Galatians is an extraordinarily emotional letter, a bit unhinged at times. The crisis was that some teachers had come to Paul's churches in Galatia and had begun preaching a gospel that demanded that Paul's Gentile converts be circumcised and begin observing the Torah (at least parts of it). For Paul, this was a repudiation of the work of the Messiah, whose work is embraced though faith.

In making this contrast between his gospel and the "false gospel" that had shown up in his churches, Paul says some very extreme things about the Law. Mincing no words, Paul describes the Law as an enslaving power, and places it alongside other demonic powers that hold humanity captive. For example,
Galatians 3.23, 4.8-9
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 
That's a pretty extreme view. So much so, Paul seems to have reconsidered his "hot take" by the time we get to Romans. Maybe Paul's view regarding the Law didn't change, but his treatment in Romans is much more nuanced.

Specifically, in Romans Paul is keen to observe that the law is holy, righteous and good: "So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." (Romans 7.12)

So the problem with the Law in Romans isn't with the Law exactly, but with how the power of Sin seizes an opportunity through the Law: "For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me." (Romans 7.11)

In short, in Galatians the Law seems to be the enslaving power. But by the time we get to Romans, however, Paul seems to have reconsidered that opinion, or at least clarified his position. The problem isn't with the Law but with how Sin seizes an opportunity through the Law.

More simply, in Galatians the problem is the Law. In Romans the problem is the power of Sin.

"Logos" by Mary Oliver

Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.

--"Logos" by Mary Oliver, from Devotions

The Divine Comedy: Week 18, Betrayal

As Virgil and the Pilgrim look upon the three-faced Lucifer frozen in the pit of hell, they observe a ghastly sight. In each of Satan's three mouths he eternally chews three sinners. Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.

All three embody the greatest of all sins in the world of Dante: betrayal.

Judas betrayed Jesus. And Brutus and Cassius betrayed Julius Caesar.

And, of course, Satan himself betrayed God.

This vision in the Inferno of Satan gnawing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius is famous. But it's worth pausing to ponder why Dante makes betrayal the very worst of sins.

Why is betrayal the very worst sin? It's a question worth meditating on, even if you disagree with Dante's choice for what should be punished in the lowest pit of hell.

Ponder this: What would be the opposite of betrayal? The opposite would be loyalty, trust, and faithfulness. In biblical language, the opposite of betrayal is covenantal fidelity.

And breaking covenant fidelity, toward God or neighbor, does seem to be the gravest sin in the Bible. Breaking covenantal fidelity is a failure of love, toward God and others. Consequently, betrayal is the ultimate example of a failure to love.

Again, we might disagree with Dante on this. But I think Dante has a good point. We might be harmed by others, but I think what most of us would consider to be the very worst thing that could ever happen to us would be to have someone we loved stab us in the back. Being hurt by a stranger is bad, but being betrayed by someone we loved and trusted is worse. Betrayal cuts deep, breaking something deep, deep within us. We can bounce back from being hurt by a stranger, but being betrayed by a loved one can ruin us emotionally in ways that never heal. By wounding love, betrayal kills the very thing that makes us human.

In all this, I think we start to get a glimpse of why betrayal is the very worst sin in the Inferno. And yet, I wonder if we moderns are losing our ability to see this truth.

Specifically, it seems that everywhere we turn we are losing our vision of love as covenantal fidelity. More and more it seems, we think of love in terms of the marketplace, love as a return on investment. Do we think of marriages as covenants anymore? Family ties? Friendships? Civic life? Churches? Our relationship with God?

Sadly, I don't think that we do. 

And maybe that's the greatest betrayal of all.

Enchantment Shifting: Part 4: Discerning Among Mysticisms

I want to gather up the points I've been making over the last three posts.

First, a point I've been making over the last few years, we need to attend to the experiential, mystical aspects of faith in our disenchanted age.

Second, while I think that is true, I think the story needs to be modified a bit. Yes, I think many Christians are struggling with disenchantment. But that's not all that is going on. What we may be seeing is a shift in enchantments, trading one sort of enchantment for a different one.

Third, if that's true, what sort of shift is going on? Following Steven Smith, we're witnessing a shift from a Christian to a pagan enchantment, where the sacred is no longer found outside of creation but within creation. Enchantment is shifting from the transcendent to the immanent.

And that brings me to something I've been thinking about regarding faith and mysticism.

Perhaps we're more enchanted than I've been giving us credit for over the last few years. I've been going on and on about the need for a direct, experiential encounter with the sacred. And I've been assuming these experiences are growing rarer and rarer in our secular, disenchanted age. But maybe that's not the case. Maybe we remain very much enchanted, and mystical experiences very common.

If so, then the issue shifts. Any Christian call for the mystical has to be less a general call for mysticism than attending to the particular sort of mysticism we are talking about. Specifically, is this mystical encounter transcendent or immanent? Mystical experiences need to be discerned.

The big point in all this is that in my ruminations about mysticism I'm starting to think less of mysticism than mysticisms, and which sort of encounters with God are vital to a vibrant walk with God.

Enchantment Shifting: Part 3, Immanent Versus Transcendent Mysticism

Over the years I've been writing more and more about the role of mysticism in shoring up faith. As I've argued it, unless faith has an experiential aspect--a personal subjective encounter with God--Christianity succumbs to intellection (Christianity is what you think or believe), moralism (Christianity is being a good person), or politicization (Christianity is about political activism).

That said, I've grown a bit worried about this call for mysticism. And it's taken me some time to discern the exact nature of this worry.

Let's start with William James' definition of mysticism: Mysticism is a direct, personal encounter with the divine.

To be sure, theologians quibble with James' definition. They don't like how James focuses on the personal, individual encounter with God. James' mysticism, the theologians point out, lacks a communal dimension.

Fair enough. But a quick tour through the Bible and Christian history reveals that William James is on solid ground. Moses and the burning bush? Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus? Peter's vision of unclean animals on the roof? Jesus hearing the voice of God at his baptism? Isaiah's vision of God in the temple? The entire book of Revelation? The stigmata of St. Francis? The visions of Julian of Norwich? And on and on. Each and every one of these is a personal, private encounter with God.

All that to say, William James is right and the theologians are wrong.

So my worry about mysticism isn't that it's subjective, personal or private. My worry, as I've come to understand it, has to do with where the sacred is being located in the mystical experience.

In light of our discussion in Part 2, regarding the contrast between a transcendent versus an immanent sacred, this is was what I was getting at a few months ago in a post describing an "apocalyptic mysticism." For example, lot of us encounter God in nature. But this is ticklish business. When is a mystical experience on a mountain or a beach an encounter with the Creator versus the creation? Borrowing from Steven Smith in Part 2, when is a mystical experience in nature evidence of pagan versus Christian mysticism?

This is why I grabbed the word "apocalyptic" in describing the mystical experiences I'm pondering. A motif of apocalyptic theology, following Louis Martyn, is that God invades the created order from the outside. Thus, a transcendent, apocalyptic mystical experience is God invading our world, God breaking in from the outside. True, this experience is mediated through creation, but the source of the encounter originates from outside our world.

Now, one might wonder why I'm fussing about a contrast between pagan versus Christian mysticism, between immanent versus transcendent (apocalyptic) mysticism. The issue goes to idolatry and the discernment of spirits. I've been arguing that mysticism is vital for a vibrant faith walk. But mystical experiences need to be assessed and discerned.       

Specifically, I think one of the temptations with mysticism is how it can devolve into sentimentality. In addition, nature mysticism can have an elitist, classist aspect. As I've joked on this blog before, when friends tell me they feel closest to God in beautiful places, on beaches or in mountains, my standard response is, "That's not God you are feeling. It's called vacation."

That might be harsh, but it gets at my worry. It's worrisome if God only shows up during your week in Hawaii.

I'm looking for an mystical encounter with God that invades and interrupts in the ugly, boring, unremarkable places and spaces of your life. And that's why I find the mystical experiences in the Bile so illustrative. God doesn't come to the saints in the Bible as they are wiggling their toes in the sand sipping Coronas.

God breaks in and disrupts, and the encounter startles and even terrifies. This isn't a warm, fuzzy feeling on a beach. It's an encounter with the Living God. 

Enchantment Shifting: Part 2, Pagan and Christian Enchantments

In Part 1 I pointed out that in the modern West we haven't become disenchanted as much as we have shifted our enchantments away from Christianity toward other spiritualities.

If so, what is this other spirituality?

In his book Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac Steven Smith argues that, since the rise of Christianity down to this very day, Christianity and paganism have been in conflict in presenting us with rival spiritualities.

This might seem to be a strange claim, given how Christianity conquered paganism. Worldwide, there are billions of Christians and not many people believe in the old Roman gods. But Smith argues that focusing on beliefs in the pagan gods misses the heart of pagan spirituality, what made it so attractive, then and now. And if we focus on pagan spirituality, rather than beliefs in pagan gods, then we come to see that Christianity never really defeated paganism. Paganism has persisted and existed alongside Christianity this entire time. And, in fact, after existing for 2,000 years in the shadows, paganism is now ascendant once again.

So, what does Smith mean by "pagan spirituality" as a contrast and rival to "Christianity spirituality"? According to Smith, the vital difference between paganism and Christianity is the location of the scared. Smith writes:
[P]agan religion differs from Judaism and Christianity in its placement of the sacred. Pagan religion locates the sacred within this world. In that way, paganism can consecrate the world from within: it is religiosity relative to an immanent sacred. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, reflect a transcendent religiosity; they place the sacred, ultimately, outside the world--"beyond space and time." 
Again, Smith points out that immanent spiritualities--locating the sacred within the world--have always been around, and even have mixed in various ways with the transcendent spirituality of Christianity. For Christians, God is both immanent and transcendent, so the two can mix together. That said, as a Christian spirituality shifts towards an immanent sacred it becomes an increasingly "paganized" version of Christianity. And there are lots of historical and modern examples of these "pagan Christianities."

Smith goes on to observe that, after 2,000 years of cultural dominance in the West, the transcendent spirituality of Christianity is now losing ground to the immanent spirituality of paganism. Increasingly, people aren't looking toward a transcendent sacred that stands over, interrupts and judges human affairs. Rather, we seek and sacralize goods we find within creation. Things are good--food, sex, values, human being--in themselves. Creation, the parts we enjoy at least, is intrinsically good, independent of any other transcendent good that confers goodness.

I think we see multiple examples of this at work in the modern West, and within many sectors of Christianity.

All that to say, I think Smith's argument is helpful in describing how, exactly, our enchantment has shifted. Over the last 500 years, we haven't gone from enchantment to disenchantment. Rather, we've been shifting from a Christian to a pagan enchantment, moving from a transcendent enchantment to immanent enchantments.

Enchantment Shifting: Part 1, Are We Really Disenchanted?

Following Charles Taylor, in Reviving Old Scratch I tell the story of Western civilization over the last 500 years as a journey from enchantment to disenchantment.

Whimsically, in the book I call this ScoobyDooification, using the trajectory of a classic Scooby Doo episode to illustrate the movement from a world filled with magic, ghosts, and spirits to a world of science, technology and rationalism. At the start of a Scooby Doo episode the world of agents consists of people and spooks. But at the end of the episode there are only people. No gods, spirits, or ghosts.

So our secular age is disenchanted.

Or is it?

Over the last couple of years scholars have been pushing back upon the disenchantment story. Perhaps we aren't as disenchanted as we think we are.

Here's how Stephen Asma describes modern supernatural beliefs in his book Why We Need Religion? After discussing how his sophisticated college students scoff at the scientific illiteracy of things like Ken Ham's Creation Museum Asma observes:
My own students in Chicago chuckle with ironic dismissal about the Creation Museum. But now it gets interesting. My students believe in ghosts.

It's not just a few students, or an odd cohort, that believe in ghosts. It's a vast majority. Over the last decade I have informally polled my students and discovered that around 80 percent of them believe in ghosts...

If you are surprised to find such a high number of ghost believers, you might also be alarmed to discover that almost half of my students also believe in astrology...

Much has been made recently of the nonreligious nature of the Millennials, given that they self-identify as "unaffiliated" when polls ask them about religion. They are indeed disaffected about organized institutional religion, but we would be mistaken if we read this as an Enlightenment style triumph of scientific literacy. They are devoted to mysticism, supernaturalism, [and] pseudoscience...and the same [students] who think the idea of heaven and hell is ridiculous, see karma and reincarnation as manifestly obvious.
I think this is very true. Sure, you might run into a hard core atheist from time to time, but by and large your average Dick and Jane is very much a supernaturalist.

In short, we're not as disenchanted as we think. Our enchantments have just shifted.

Rachel

Rachel Held Evans passed away early this morning.

Rachel was a friend, though like many today I'm grieving the fact that we didn't get to spend more time together. But mostly I am devastated for Dan and their children, along with the Held and Evans families.

It seems like only yesterday that I opened an email in 2010 from Rachel, telling me she followed and loved the blog and asking if I'd like to receive a copy of her first book Evolving in Monkey Town. That started our friendship over emails and through social media. We met for the first time at ACU where we discussed our lives as bloggers in an Honors College forum. Later, Jana and I visited Rachel and Dan in Dayton, TN, an experience I wrote about in a post "Visiting and Evolving in Monkey Town."

Rachel was brilliant, talented, kind, warm and so, so courageous. I cherish the books she was able to share with us, but I'm grieving the books we have lost. But mostly, I'm grieving the loss of her. And I know for many of you Rachel's blog, Twitter feed, and books have been so influential in your faith journey. Today we lost a friend and the church an incandescent, prophetic voice. As Rachel wrote in Searching for Sunday:
The purpose of the church, and of the sacraments, is to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, to point in its direction. When we put a kingdom-spin on ordinary things--water, wine, leadership, marriage, friendship, feasting, sickness, forgiveness--we see that they can be holy, they can point us to something greater than ourselves, a fantastic mystery that brings meaning to everything. We make something sacramental when we make it like the kingdom. Marriage is sacramental when it is characterized by mutual love and submission. A meal is sacramental when the rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, sinners and saints share equal status around the table. A local church is sacramental when it is a place where the last are first and the first are last and those who hunger and thirst are fed. And the church universal is sacramental when it knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture, and when it advances not through power and might, but through acts of love, joy, and peace and missions of mercy, kindness, and humility.
Rachel's life was a sacrament of the kingdom, everything she did pointed in that direction. Rachel pointed us toward marriages characterized by mutual love and submission, and toward a church characterized by acts of love, joy, and peace and missions of mercy, kindness, and humility.

Rest now, sweet sister. Until we meet again in the sunlight of that bright and coming Day.

The Divine Comedy: Week 17, The Tears of Lucifer

In Canto 34, Virgil and the Pilgrim cross the icy surface of hell to finally come to face Lucifer.

Not face to face, exactly. Lucifer is huge, and is frozen in the icy lake from the chest down. Lucifer has three faces and three sets of bat-like wings, each set flapping and causing chilly winds to blow through hell and freeze the surrounding ice. And from his six eyes, Satan weeps.

More on Satan next week. For today, just a short reflection on the frozen, weeping Satan.

Basically, Dante's Satan is very different Milton's Satan, at least as Satan appears early on in Paradise Lost. Given his heroic demeanor, some readers of Paradise Lost have thought that Satan is the protagonist of the story. Many have been stirred by the defiance of Milton's Satan who declares: "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven."

Dante, by contrast, presents nothing heroic about Satan. Satan is not reigning in Hell. Satan is, rather, frozen, devoid of personality, and eternally weeping. In the Divine Comedy Satan is a vision of a living death.  

The point is this:

Hell isn't a heroic rebellion against an unjust tyranny.

Hell is, rather, rebellion against the Love that sustains, warms, and gives life to the world.

Advice for Reconstruction

I'm often asked about how a person can move from a season of deconstruction regarding the faith--a season of doubt, questioning, and searching--into a season of reconstruction, a season of renewed conviction, faith, and spiritual vitality.

Yesterday I wrote about how the theologian Stanley Hauerwas helped me pull out of a season of deconstruction. I observed that Hauerwas is unapologetically and aggressively Christian. I found that confidence and combativeness helpful during my season of wavering and doubt.

To be clear, combativeness isn't a good in itself. There are lots of combative Christians in the culture wars who I strongly disagree with. You can be combative about the wrong things.

But Hauerwas is someone who I think is combative about the right things, and is confident that Jesus and the church are the salvation of the world.

Anyway, when people are going through a season of deconstruction they often drift toward Christian voices that help them doubt better. From personal experience, let me just say that's a bad idea. If all you ever read are voices saying "Keep doubting! Keep doubting!" well, guess what, you'll keep doubting. And eventually those doubts are going to drown you.

So my advice, if you're wanting to move out of a season of deconstruction, is to start reading confident and unapologetic Christian voices. Hauerwas is a good choice. I also read Bonhoeffer, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, William Stringfellow, Fleming Rutledge, Oscar Romero, Jean Vanier, Augustine, Eugene Peterson. The list goes on and on.

And perhaps best of all, read the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Spend some time with Jesus.

All that to say, stop reading authors who reinforce your doubts and read someone who puts some steel back in your spine.

Theological Influences: Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas came along in my life at the perfect time. I was in the middle of a season of doubt and deconstruction. I was reading all sorts of progressive Christian authors sending me the same message, "Keep doubting! Doubt is good! Certainty is bad!"

I get that message, have preached it myself, and see its wisdom. That said, that string eventually plays itself out. Doubt, if you're not careful, eventually becomes disbelief.

So what I was needing at that time of my life, though I didn't know it, was a voice that was brazenly, aggressively, combatively, unapologetically Christian. And if you know anything about Stanley Hauerwas you know he is brazenly, aggressively, combatively, unapologetically Christian. And I found this, and still find it, so very life giving and refreshing.

As Stanley Hauerwas has said, "Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit."

Amen.

To be sure, Stanley Hauerwas has had a huge influence upon my thinking, especially about nationalism, pacifism, and the vital role of the church in forming virtue. And yet, I think the biggest influence Hauerwas has had upon me has more to do with theological attitude and confidence.

Simply put, Hauerwas makes a Christian brave.

The Most Enchanted Time of the Year

Back in the early days of blogging, a lot of us low church Protestants who had just discovered the riches in the liturgical calendar would write a lot about how Christmas extended past December 25.

"It's still Christmas!" we would write, encouraging everyone to keep their trees and decorations up for the full twelve days of Christmas, all the way to January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

Well, guess what?

It's still Easter!

Eastertide runs for forty days, all the way to the celebration of the Ascension, and then for ten more days until Pentecost. There are, traditionally, six whole Sundays of Easter. All that to say, Easter is just getting started! This year, 2019, it's Easter all the way to June 9.

Personally, I find the forty days between Easter and the Ascension to be the most enchanted time of the year. Jesus is alive and appears, intermittently, to his followers over the span of forty days. That's a fascinating interval, this season between resurrection and ascension. It's a season of joy and surprising encounters. For forty days, Jesus can turn up anywhere and at anytime.

I've not heard a lot of talk, discussion, or sermons about these forty days. We talk a lot about Advent and Christmas, Lent, Passion Week, and Easter Sunday, but not a lot about the spirituality of these forty days, what lessons they might teach us and how they can form us.

Easter isn't just the shock of the empty tomb.

Easter is also a forty day season of surprising, unexpected encounters with the Risen Lord. What is the spirituality that keeps us watchful and expectant for where Jesus might turn up next?

Science Versus Mary Magdalene

The equation on the chalkboard
displays the arrow of time,
dustily pointing toward disorder and dissolution.
Entropy beckons like an undertaker.
The eschatology of science:
Every sun, finally, saying goodbye,
with no one left to watch the fading of the light.
Darkness in the end, and the cold quantum flux. 

But she shares news,
a crack in the math she's never heard of,
something in the seams the formulae, or beyond.
What she witnessed will not calculate or compute.

She heard her name on the breeze,
saw him standing there in the hazy dawn,
beyond physics, reason, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
A stone rolled and broke the algebra
telling us what we could know or believe. 

The Divine Comedy: Week 16, Not Fire, But Ice

In Dante's world, the deepest pit of hell doesn't burn with fire. The deepest pit of hell is frozen over with ice.

In Canto XXXI Virgil and the Pilgrim finally reach the ninth and final circle of hell at the center of the earth. And there we don't find souls being burned by an eternal fire. We find, rather, the frozen lake of Cocytus.

We'll pick up here next week, for now just a note on the contrast between fire and ice. From the Bible and church tradition, we're expecting to see a lake of fire at the bottom of hell. But Dante surprises us with a lake of ice. What is he trying to communicate?

I take his point to be one similar to the idea C.S. Lewis uses to describe hell in The Great Divorce. Hell is separation from God. In The Great Divorce Lewis has the citizens of hell moving farther and farther away from each other, into increasing isolation. For Dante, hell moves us farther and farther away from God's love, represented in the Comedy by the Sun. So as we move farther and farther away from God's love, deeper and deeper into hell, the warming rays of the sun struggle to reach us. Life grows colder and colder. And in the deepest pit of hell, all becomes frozen.

This is a powerful image. Hell isn't torturing souls with fire. Hell is, rather, separation from the love of God. As we walk further and further away from God the more we remove ourselves from His warming, vivifying love.

Hell isn't torture, Hell is darkness and ice.

Heresy as Therapy

The orthodox can be hard are heretics. Obviously. I get that, but as someone who has espoused and flirted with heresy my entire theological career let me say this in defense of the heretics.

As I've talked about in my last two posts, people are drawn toward theological positions because they are worried about something. People don't just wake up one day to suddenly and brazenly espouse a heresy. In my experience, you end up a heretic because there's a gnawing theological issue that's keeping you up at night. The burden and size of this issue often grows and grows until a lack of progress in its resolution becomes intellectually and emotionally intolerable. The biggest culprit here is theodicy. But it can also be a particular view of God or the "texts of terror" in the Old Testament. And often all the problems are linked.

For whatever reason, as the crisis mounts, the orthodox answers just aren't working. And they often make the situation worse. Orthodox responses to these theological crises tend to, to borrow from Bonhoeffer's criticism of Barth in his letters from prison, take on a lump it or leave it attitude. You just have to take your theological medicine and swallow the creedal castor oil, no matter how bad it tastes.

A lot of people just can't do that. And many people at this point do something very heroic and commendable. They become heretics.

It's heroic and commendable because faith isn't being jettisoned. A herculean effort is made to keep and secure faith. Sure, the price is believing in some rather contested, controversial stuff, but the win is keeping you in the orbit of God, the Bible, and the church.

All that to say, heresy might be wrong, but it can be awfully therapeutic. The mind settles and the heart calms and you can get on with the real business of following Jesus in your day to day life. Some people just need to believe in weird, quirky stuff to make the puzzle fit together.

Sure, that annoys the orthodox and drives them crazy, tempting them to become the Nurse Ratched of the faith. But I'd suggest the theological thought-control police take a good long look in the mirror. Nurse Ratched isn't all that healthy either. A little bit of empathy, understanding and compassion around these issues would do everyone a great deal of good.

Theological Empathy

In yesterday's post I observed that our worries pull our theology. For example, if you worry a lot about theodicy those worries will pull you hard in certain theological directions. If, however, your worry is about, say, the proper Trinitarian understanding of God, your worries will pull you in different directions. And on and on. What you worry about pulls your theology.

And as I also mentioned yesterday, I'm sort of a theological nomad in that I wander around the theological landscape never settling down into one theological camp. And a part of this, as I mentioned, is that I often see everyone's theological worries as legitimate. At the very least, I can empathize with the worry. I see why people worry about theodicy. And I also see why people worry about the Trinity. I see why people worry about penal substitutionary atonement. And I see why people worry about throwing the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting penal substitutionary atonement.

All that to say, I wish we'd work harder to cultivate more theological empathy for each other. Sure, those people might be heretics, but they are worried about some important stuff, and rightly so. And sure, those people might be rigidly orthodox, but they are worried about some important stuff, and rightly so. I think if we worked harder to validate the worries we all have we might find some room for common ground and perhaps for a more civil theological discourse.

Creation Ex Nihilo

I was in a theological reading group at school and we had an exchange about creation ex nihilo, the belief that God created the cosmos "out of nothing."

While belief in creation ex nihilo is the norm in the pews, it has been contested in many theological quarters.

The issue goes to theodicy. If theodicy is a big theological concern of yours, creation ex nihilo creates some issues. If God is The Original Cause everything goes back to, then it places God on the hook for all the bad stuff that's transpired in history. Of course, there are the standard responses to those concerns, but the issue always seems to go back to this one doctrine: creation ex nihilo.

So what if we reject creation ex nihilo, might that alleviate some of the theodicy issues?

The idea here starts with taking a close look at the first words in Genesis. The spirit of God hovers over the chaos. God then starts to order that chaos, declaring that order very good. In short, in the first chapter of Genesis God doesn't seem to be creating ex nihilo, God creates by ordering chaos. The view here is that God is Creator in the sense of bringing goodness into existence, God creates goodness and inserts goodness into the chaos.

That seems to get God off the theodicy hook. If God is the creator of goodness then only goodness traces back to God. The problem, however, is where did the chaos come from if God didn't create it? Do we have to posit the chaos as existing eternally alongside God? If so, that idea is considered to be heresy.

The reason it's a heresy is that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is the doctrine that keeps us clear of idolatry. Creation ex nihilo posits an absolute, qualitative distinction between creation and Creator. If we ever lose that distinction, it is worried, we'll have no defense against idolatry. So for many theologians, creation ex nihilo is that doctrine that polices and enforces this line.

Where do I come down? Predictably, on both sides. Theological propositions are proposed to deal with certain problems. So it boils down to what you worry more about. If your worry is theodicy, I see why you'd reject creation ex nihilo and look for other ideas. But if your worry is idolatry, I see why you'd think creation ex nihilo is non-negotiable. At the end of the day, your theological worries pull you in one direction of the other. And since I worry about all of it I find myself caught in the middle.

Theological Influences: Flannery O'Connor

It's hard to describe the theological influence Flannery O'Connor has had upon me. Mainly because Flannery wrote fiction, and it's hard to describe the theological impact of fiction. The impact is more imaginative than propositional. Flannery isn't lecturing about ideas, she's telling stories.

But stories shape the imagination, and that, in turn, affects how you think. It's just hard to describe, in a logical way, the trajectory of this influence.

But let me try to briefly sketch one way Flannery O'Connor has affected me.

To state the matter plainly, Flannery O'Connor killed the progressive Christian in me.

That death occurred reading Wise Blood and hearing Hazel Motes preach about "The Church of Christ without Christ."

"My God," I thought upon reading that, "that's progressive Christianity."

At least it described what I had felt was happening to my "progressive Christianity." And I think what was happening with me is diagnostic of what happens with a lot of progressive Christians.

Let me try to describe a bit of what I'm talking about.

Progressive Christianity tends to preach moralism, often with a political edge. That is to say, God doesn't matter all that much, just so long as you are good person. Tolerant, inclusive, fighting against oppression. Being a Christian has little to do with Christ, but everything to do with being a humanist. And everything within Christianity that gets in the way of humanism--from the Bible to atonement theologies--must be pushed to the side or reinterpreted so as to support humanistic pieties and progressive politics.

Flannery O'Connor attacks this humanism and moralism in her fiction by casting atheists as moral exemplars and Christians--often in the guise of backwoods, fire and brimstone prophets and preachers--as less than admirable. Her contrast is clear: the atheist might be good, but he is not right. The message: Christianity is more than morality and piety, Christianity is an encounter with the truth.

If you want to read an example of this in Flannery O'Connor, I'd suggest the short story "The Lame Shall Enter First."

The protagonist of the story is Sheppard, an atheist who is active in humanitarian causes. Sheppard has a son named Norton. Sheppard's wife and Norton's mother has recently died, and as the story goes on we see Norton struggling with his grief. Sheppard, by contrast, has preoccupied himself by throwing himself into humanitarian efforts. By liberal, humanistic standards, Sheppard is "a good person." And yet, for all his efforts to care for others, Sheppard cannot see the suffering of his own son. In addition, given that he's an atheist, Sheppard's worldview, though very moral, can do nothing to comfort or console Norton. At one point in the story, Sheppard tries to use the wonders of astronomy to fill the existential void in Norton. But science is no cure for a broken heart. When Norton asks late in the story where his mother is Sheppard can only reply, "Your mother isn't anywhere...She just isn't." Sheppard continues to try to console Norton with the only answers his worldview can give:
"Listen," Sheppard said quickly and pulled the child to him, "your mother's spirit lives on in other people and it'll live on in you if you're good and generous like she was."

The child's pale eyes hardened in disbelief.

Sheppard's pity turned to revulsion. The boy would rather she be in hell than nowhere. "Do you understand?" he said. "She doesn't exist." He put his hand on the child's shoulder. "That's all I have to give you," he said in a softer, exasperated tone, "the truth." 
Again, as typical in O'Connor, the atheist is a good, moral, humanitarian person. But the issue for O'Connor isn't morality, it's metaphysics. In this story the metaphysical issues are life after death, heaven, hell and judgment day. Where is Norton's mother? Is she alive in either heaven or hell? Or does Sheppard have it right: "She doesn't exist." Notice, and this is key to understanding Flanney O'Connor's fiction, we aren't debating morality here, we are debating theology. The issue isn't about being good, the issue is about God.

The reason Sheppard and Norton are talking about the afterlife is because of Rufus Johnson. Rufus is a juvenile delinquent with a club foot. Sheppard, being a good, liberal, humanitarian, tries to save Rufus, but at every turn Rufus refuses, sabotages and rejects Sheppard.

Why is Rufus so repulsed by Sheppard? Because Sheppard is an atheist. Rufus was raised by backwoods fundamentalists. So in the eyes of Rufus, while Sheppard may be good he's not right about the world. As Rufus says to Norton in an exchange about Norton's father:
"He's good," [Norton] mumbled. "He helps people."

"Good!" Johnson said savagely. He thrust his head forward. "Listen here," he hissed, "I don't care if he's good or not. He ain't right!"
Elsewhere in the story Rufus sneers when describing Sheppard: "He thinks he's Jesus Christ!" The idea is clear: Sheppard thinks humanitarian efforts can save himself and the world. Since Sheppard is a moral person he has no need for a savior. Christian humanism is a Church of Christ that doesn't need Christ. All you need to do to save yourself is be a good person.

To make the contrasts even clearer, Rufus is a bad kid. He may even be evil. Rufus describes himself as being under Satan's power.

So the contrast in "The Lame Shall Enter First" couldn't be clearer. Sheppard is moral and a good man. But he's wrong. Wrong about the afterlife. Wrong about Jesus Christ. Rufus, by contrast, is bad, and perhaps even satanic. But Rufus is right. Even the demons believe, and shudder.

Both characters, Sheppard and Rufus, enter into a power struggle to evangelize the grieving Norton concerning their respective worldviews. That's how a debate about the afterlife comes into the story. Where is Norton's mother? Heaven or hell? Or nowhere? Who will Norton believe, Sheppard or Rufus? Who has the truth?

The title of the story tells you who O'Connor favors in the debate. Echoing Jesus's line that the last shall enter the kingdom first, Rufus might be morally "lame" but he knows the truth.

Sheppard, by contrast, may be good, but he ain't right.

Even with all this good works, Sheppard ain't Jesus Christ.

He Is Not Here, For He Has Risen


After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

But the angel said to the women,

“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

He is not here; for he has risen."

Good Friday

The crimson spiderwebs trace across your skin
from the springs of hot wounds
to gather and stream in rivulets.
The capillary tendrils joining,
gaining momentum, flowing
with greater certainty
down. To meet in this heavy drop,
and then, to hesitate.

Poised, steady, for a moment frozen,
at the threshold of eternity, hanging
between heaven and earth,
as gathered angels weep hidden, burning tears.

To fall, finally,

our ransom,

upon the cursed ground.

More

The topic of this post might be denominationally narrow, but I think it will illustrate and make a general point for everyone.

I've been writing about baptism all week, and it caused me to reflect on baptism in the Churches of Christ, my faith tradition. Traditionally, Churches of Christ have said that if you have not been immersed for the remission of sins you have not been properly baptized. And more, that if you haven't been properly baptized, then you haven't been saved. This teaching created a sectarian impulse within the CoC: We, with our "proper" understanding of baptism, were the only ones who were truly saved.

Again, this might be a narrow issue from my faith tradition, but I expect most readers can identify. Most Christian traditions have some issue or other that separates the elect from the lost, some issue that would involve breaking fellowship between fellow Christians, from baptism, to gender roles, to sexual ethics, to evolution, to beliefs about hell. And on and on.

However, as I've written about before, a large number of Churches of Christ have moved away from our historical sectarianism to embrace an ecumenical position regarding other Christian traditions. That is, you might baptize and understand it differently than we do, but we're all brothers and sisters in Christ.

That's been a welcome change in the Churches of Christ, but it has thrown our theology of baptism into some confusion. Specifically, if baptism is no longer a bright red line separating the Saved from the Lost then what, exactly, does baptism mean?

As best I can tell within the ecumenical Churches of Christ, and my own church is an example, no one really knows.

What seems to be happening is this. Since our understanding of baptism has been such a source of sectarian judgmentalism in our history, we've watered down the importance of baptism. To be more inclusive and ecumenical, baptism now means less for us, almost to the point of baptism being optional and unnecessary.

Again, while this is a specific example from a particular faith tradition I think it illustrates what happens in a lot of churches as they grow more "liberal" or "progressive." Wanting to be more inclusive and welcoming we water things down to make them mean less and less.

The worry is that if we make things important they become necessary, and if they become necessary they become lines in the sand that create rifts of fellowship, locations of judgmentalism and exclusion. So in my tradition, for example, the worry is that if we start making baptism mean more we'll drift back toward our traditional sectarian stance. And since we don't want that, we just downplay the importance of baptism. 

And that brings me to the issue I really wanted to think about.

Is believing less the only path toward being inclusive? That is, is the only way to cultivate a welcoming and hospitable posture toward others to hold your beliefs so lightly that, in the end, you really don't believe anything anymore?

Phrased differently, is there a way in believing more that doesn't lead us back into judgmentalism and sectarianism?

I've been thinking about baptism a lot this week, especially how it was practiced among the early Christians. And if you've read all the posts this week I'm sure you've been struck by all the embellishments the early Christians tacked on to baptism. Ritually, liturgically and symbolically early Christian baptism meant more than it does today in most churches.

Seriously, if you were to jump into a time machine to go back and get yourself baptized in the early church it would be the biggest experience of your life. Bigger than your graduation. Bigger than your wedding. Bigger than any party you've ever thrown or had.

And what that suggests to me is that there are ways to make baptism mean more without that meaning we have to retreat back to fundamentalism and sectarianism. Specifically, baptism can mean more experientially, through more liturgy, more ritual, more deliberateness, more pageantry, more community, more celebration. Baptism could become, as it was in the early church, the biggest event of your life.

I want to suggest that there is a way to make Christian beliefs, practices, and rituals mean more and more and more without that becoming sectarian and fundamentalist. I think the tendency has been for things to mean less and less and less, to the point that anything particularly or distinctively Christian about ourselves becomes a point of embarrassment. We keep diluting and diluting our faith until it becomes so watered down it holds no interest for anyone, ourselves included.

What I'm suggesting is that instead of being increasingly bland, innocuous, and colorless in the public sphere, why don't we become quirkier and more flamboyant? Why don't we get into the business of creating ritual and pageantry that makes weddings pale by comparison? Why can't baptism be the most profound, mysterious, evocative, emotional and meaningful experience of your life? Why couldn't an invitation to a Christian baptism be the strangest, hottest ticket in town?

Why couldn't it--all of it--mean more?

The Bells and Whistles of Baptism

A bit more reflecting on the book Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity by Robin Jenson.

Yesterday I mentioned that there were a variety of accompanying rituals associated with baptism in the early church. Specifically, catechumens were sometimes given salt to eat or the one officiating would gently blow on their faces. Both of these acts symbolized the purification of the person, acts of exorcism.

But these weren't the only ancillary rituals associated with early Christian baptism. Early baptismal rituals included anointing, carrying candles or torches, drinking milk and honey, the laying on of hands, foot washing, renouncing and spitting at the devil, stripping and re-robing (in white clothing), turning toward the east and west, triple immersion (in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), receiving a holy kiss, making the sign of the cross, enrollment into the church, sponsors, and ephphetha (touching the ears and nostrils of the catechumen).

Where have all these bells and whistles gone in modern Christian baptism?

To be sure, many of these rituals are strange and might not sit well with us today. Anyone want to be baptized in the nude? But some of these rituals seem very rich, tools we could use to deepen the meaning of baptism.

Baptism as Exorcism

I mentioned yesterday that the book we are using for our study on baptism is Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity by Robin Jenson. As you can tell from the title, the book isn't just a survey of the biblical material about baptism, most of the book is a focus on early Christian rituals and art associated with baptism.

Because of Reviving Old Scratch, I was particularly struck by the discussion of how baptism was seen by the early church as a form of exorcism. I was aware that the early Christians would renounce the devil at baptism, as some traditions still do today, but I was unaware that the baptismal act itself was viewed a form of casting out the devil. And if not baptism itself, there were prebaptismal rites of exorcism.

Two interesting rituals associated with this practice were the giving of salt and exsufflation.

Symbolizing purification, some early Christians gave catechumens salt to eat. Those to be baptized were "signed with salt."

Exsufflation involve blowing on the catechumens, symbolizing or literally blowing the demons out of the person. At baptism the one officiating would gently blow or breathe on the catechumens, exorcising them of any evil spirits. Exsufflation was associated with the Christian practice of hissing at images of the emperor, which was also considered to be an exorcistic act.

All that to say, I'm going to ask my church to start blowing on people about to be baptized. This practice has to be revived.

Re-enchanting Baptism

A few months ago we were going through a study on baptism in our Sunday School class at church.

Some background here. Our tradition practices a believer's baptism by immersion. Also, for us, baptism is the proper response to the gospel proclamation. We don't have a "Sinner's Prayer." For us, if you want to respond to the gospel you don't say a prayer where you sit, you get up and are baptized.

Anyway, we were studying baptism. And the resource we were using, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity, has a chapter on baptism as illumination, connected with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Texts we considered regarding this theme: 
1 John 2.20, 27
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.

But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.

Hebrews 6.6, 10.32
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit.

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings.
As I pondered and we discussed these texts, it struck me how disenchanted our view of baptism is. We are baptized in our tradition for the forgiveness of sins. That forensic understanding of baptism is very disenchanting. In this view of baptism, some extrinsic issue related to God (God's judgment on our sin) is dealt with (forgiveness). To be sure, that's good news. But all the action is external and distant from the believer. Baptism changes something about God (wrath is changed to grace), but doesn't change much about me, constitutionally speaking.

But in the texts above baptism changes me. I am illuminated, enlightened. Through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, I've been given sight and understanding.

That's a very enchanted, miraculous, supernatural, spookier view of baptism. In baptism, a divine power has been poured over and into me that changes me, giving me capacities and abilities that I would not have otherwise.

The Divine Comedy: Week 15, Dante's Dark Triad

In Canto XXXI Virgil and the Pilgrim finally make it to the lowest level of hell at the center of the earth. There in the lowest pit of hell the very worst sins are punished.

According to Dante, what are the very worst sins? We've already discussed the scheme that Dante uses to rank sins, how the sins of malice are worse than the sins of incontinence. Actions that involve the intent to hurt and harm others are worse than failures of self-control.

In Canto XXX Dante goes further and goes on to rank the sins of malice:
for when the faculty of intellect
is joined with brute force and with evil will,
no man can win against such an alliance.
Malice is here described as an "evil will," a will that wants to hurt or take advantage of others. Two other things are mentioned along with the evil will, "the faculty of intellect" and "brute force." Some malice is produced when an evil will is combined with intelligence, these are malicious sins but don't involve violence. By contrast, the very worst sins, punished in the deepest pit of hell, are the sins of violence which mix all three things: an evil will, intellect, and brute force. This toxic brew produces the sins of violence, the very worst sins according to Dante.

An evil will, intellect, and brute force are Dante's "dark triad." It puts me in mind of the Dark Triad in psychology. In psychology the Dark Triad are three personality traits that combine to create a morally "dark" personality. Those traits are:
1. Psychopathy: The inability to feel empathy, sympathy or remorse.

2. Narcissism: An inflated self-concept, grandiosity, pride, and egotism.

3. Machiavellianism: A manipulative person who uses and exploits others, a focus on self-interest and deception.
Psychologically speaking, these three personality traits combine to create the "evil will"--sins of malice--described by Dante.