It’s never Too Late at Amatopia

Over at Amatopia Alexander Hellene has an interesting post about repentance with the fascinating (if long) story of Saint Mary. It’s worth a read.

I must confess that the intellectual problem of repentance has never really bothered me; I can’t conceive of a sin being stronger than God’s ability to fix it. But, for that reason, I do really like stories of repentance, because they demonstrate the mighty power of God.

Faith is Sometimes a Practical Virtue

Back in the fall, as the weather was getting cold and plants were dying off I bought some flower bulbs and planted them in a newly open spot by my house. This spring, they’ve bloomed, justifying the effort involved. (Already done are some crocus, in the foreground, and not yet done is some weeding.)

I also planted some tulips next to some rhododendron bushes.

Back when I planted them things were cold and there was not much green to be seen. The bulbs I planted were brown and gave no visual hint of the flowers that would come forth from them. In order to get the tulips in spring, I needed to trust that the brown balls I was planting in the cold dirt were alive, and would stay alive, and would in fact put forth beautiful flowers come spring-time.

It is often under-appreciated how practical a virtue faith is. For some reason people talk as if the practical virtue of faith and the theological virtue of faith were somehow utterly unlike each other. In both cases they amount to trust in previously known evidence during the immediate absence of that evidence. We trust that God’s purposes are good because we know that His purposes are good because He is good, even though we can’t see that in the moment because all we can see is suffering or pain, such as weeds growing among the flowers or deer eating the leaves on one’s recently planted apple trees. This is not really different in kind from knowing that a brown ball is alive despite looking dead and when planted in the cold dirt will take root and put forth beautiful flowers when—despite the world growing colder and darker—it will one day be warm enough for flowers to bloom.

Chemical Composition, or, Substance and Accidents

The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation means that in the Eucharist, when the priest speaks Christ’s words of consecration (“this is my body”, “this is my blood”) over the bread and wine on the alter, the power of Christ is invoked, by the authority he gave to his apostles and they delegated to their successors and they delegated to the priests whom they consecrate, and it changes the bread and wine on the alter to become the body and blood of Christ. (This is sometimes called the “real presence.”) Much difficulty arises over exactly what is meant because the bread doesn’t turn into muscle tissue and the wine doesn’t develop red blood cells.

The Eastern Orthodox basically just say “it’s a mystery” and leave it at that. (I liked the styling I saw someplace, “eeeet’sss aaaaa myyyysssterrrryyyyy”.) The Catholic Church says that it’s a mystery, but it gives a few helpful details. You can actually see this in the word “transubstantiation.”

“Transubstantiation” is derived from two words: “trans” and “substance”. “Trans” meaning “change” and “substance” being that part of being which is not the accidents. Accidents, in this case, not meaning “something unintended” but rather the properties a thing has which, if they were changed or removed, would not make the thing something else. A chair might be made out of wood, but if you made it out of plastic it would still be a chair. The ability to hold up someone sitting is the substance of a chair, the material it is made out of is an accident (again, not in the colloquial sense of accident but in a technical sense). You can also do the reverse. You can take the wood a chair is made out of and rearrange it into a collection of splintery spikes protruding up. It has the same accidents (the wood), but the substance has changed. “Transubstantiation” just means that the accidents (the gluten, starch, etc. in the bread and the water, sugar, alcohol, etc. in the wine) remain the same but the substance—what it is—is what has changed.

Or, to put this more simply: in the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ has the same chemical composition as bread and wine. Something to consider, when trying to understand this, is that a living human being has exactly the same chemical composition as a human corpse.

The Problem of Evil: Depression

This video is a response to a question. Gadowscar asked, “[M]y question regarding the problem of evil would be triggered by my own personal experience and be fairly narrow, and be an inquiry into how God can allow for such rampant depression among society. I wholeheartedly believe God exists with my intellect, there’s no doubt in my mind that He exists. However, because I suffer with depression(to the point of being suicidal at times), I have difficulty on an emotional and spiritual level believing that God loves me. How would you answer this?”

Here’s my answer.

Why Christianity is Not a Cuckold Religion

This video is a response to Jonathan Pageau’s very interesting video in which he looked at the question of whether Christianity is a Cuckold religion. If you want to watch it first, that video is here:

His video is very interesting, but somewhat surprisingly he doesn’t look at the symbolism of what cuckolding is. So in my video I look at the cuckoo, then at human cuckolding, and then show how these are unlike Christianity.

Johah And the Belly of the Whale

On his YouTube channel, Jonathan Pageau gave an interesting talk on the symbolism in the story of Jonah.

There’s something very interesting about the story of Jonah which Jonathan didn’t touch on. It was pointed out to me by Brant Pitre in his book The Case for Jesus (which I highly recommend, btw). Here’s the thing: Jonah didn’t survive in the belly of the fish (ancient Hebrew did not distinguish whales from fish, so it can be translated whale, too).

Jonah died.

I know all of the kids books always show Jonah camping out in the belly of a whale with a big air pocket and a lantern and a canteen with fresh water and whatnot. But if you look at the text, not at children’s books, it’s very much written as if he died. The fish didn’t swallow him with a huge pocket of air, and not digest him, and so on. It ate his corpse.

The prayer of Jonah is, I believe, a mosaic of psalms, but it states fairly clearly that he is calling out to God from the land of the dead. It also describes him dying in the ocean. That he spent three days in the belly of the fish shows that he was good and dead. Absent a miracle, no one survives in the belly of a fish for one day, let alone three.

Then Yahweh made the fish vomit Jonah up onto dry land. And what does God say to Jonah? “Up!” This sure reads like a command to a corpse to get up and stop being dead (with echoes of Christ’s words to the daughter of Jairus, “little girl, arise”).

Granted, the text doesn’t explicitly say “Jonah died, he did not survive in the belly of the fish”, but absent someone starting a tradition of interpreting the text that way, it’s not ordinarily the sort of thing you’d need to be that explicit about; the man dying and praying in the land of the dead would, ordinarily, suffice.

The whole book of Job is a very interesting book, for a great many reasons. But I do very much like that when it comes to a prophet, not even dying is enough to get out of the job.

Lepers And Social Distancing

A curious thought occurred to me recently with regard to how we talk about lepers in the bible, and especially in the new testament. It’s fairly common to hear about how lepers were feared, had to stay outside of society, etc. and this is often connected to people in modern times who are on the outskirts of our society. Jesus was not afraid of lepers, and so we should not be afraid of those on the outskirts of society, either. (That this means that, among others, we should love neo-nazis and KKK members and the like is rarely mentioned, though, nor is the fact that love does not always look like acceptance, as it would not in those cases.)

What this modern approach seems to miss is that ancient people avoided lepers because lepers had a communicable disease. They weren’t outcasts because they looked different, or had a different culture, or pronounced words in a strange way; they were outcasts because being too close to them might cause one to catch a serious disease. That is, people practiced social distancing from lepers.

In these modern times of COVID-19, we have an exceedingly similar practice with people who have COVID-19, though with our modern understanding of diseases and the conditions of transmissibility, we do admit some exceptions who are wearing a great deal of anti-germ-armor (“PPE”). Medical personal in body suits with respirators aside, people with COVID-19 are outcasts, except we phrase it, “they should self-quarantine”. If someone with COVID-19 comes to a hospital, we expect them to call ahead to warn the staff, and to come through a different entrance, which is a slightly more technologically advanced version of clapping a bowl and calling out “unclean!”

If Christ were conducting his earthly ministry today, there would undoubtedly be COVID-19 patients who came within six feet of him hoping to be cured, and instead of lecturing them to maintain social distancing, he would, undoubtedly, cure them. But he would not come within six feet of someone with COVID-19 because he doesn’t recognize human prejudices and is not afraid of human superstitions—disease is not a human superstition and people with a communicable disease can actually spread it. He would come within six feet of people with COVID-19 because, as Lord of the world, he is Lord of diseases, too. As the one through whom all things were made and nothing was made apart from him, COVID-19 could not hurt him. The one who can make the blind see and the lame walk and clense lepers cannot be harmed by disease, unless he were to choose to permit it.

In short, Jesus did not care about social distancing with lepers because his miraculous power made him immune to communicable diseases. The closest parallel I can think of was when he angered a crowd who brought him to the top of a cliff to throw him off, but it was not his time, so he just walked away from them. This was a demonstration of Christ’s power, not an instruction that Christians should treat angry mobs as if they aren’t dangerous. In like way, Christ was not afraid of lepers because he could cure them, not because communicable diseases are, to use another modern phrase, fake news.

Christianity is Not a Cuckold Religion

In a very interesting video, Jonathan Pageau (of The Symbolic World) discussed the question of whether Christianity is a Cuckold religion:

He did an excellent job discussing cuckolding in human society and patterns related to it one sees in human society (such as war rape and sexual taxes to a chief/lord). He also did a good job talking about how Christianity got rid of those patterns.

What’s really weird is that he didn’t talk about the symbolic structure, either of cuckolding, or of Christianity. That sort of thing is usually his bread and butter.

So let’s do that.

In order to see the structure of cuckolding and why Christianity is not a cuckold religion, it will be helpful to start with etymology. The word “cuckold” comes from the Cuckoo bird.

The common Cuckoo

The Cuckoo is a nest parasite. It looks for the nests of certain other species of birds and when it is unguarded, it throws an egg from the nest out and lays one of its own in its place. When the baby Cuckoo hatches, it generally throws the rest of the eggs, or if it didn’t hatch first, the other baby birds, out of the nest, too. The parents of the nest then feed the baby Cuckoo until it is old enough to care for itself.

The much larger bird, sitting on the nest, is the baby Cuckoo.

(Both images are from the Wikipedia page on Cuckoos.)

The symbolic structure of the Cuckoo’s nest parasitism is replacement. The Cuckoo replaces the offspring of another bird with its own offspring; its line continues at the expense of the line of the other birds. They do the work of raising it and get nothing out of it.

In humans, by analogy, cuckolding is when a woman is unfaithful to her husband, and another man fathers a child with her that her husband raises as if it were his. Here, too, we see replacement, but in humans it is an incomplete replacement. Human beings, when we raise children, do a heck of a lot more than just feed them. We raise our young; we teach them and shape them. An extremely large fraction of who they are as an adult is given to them not by genetics, but by their upbringing. An adopted son is not a biological son, but he is still a son. When his adopted father and his biological father are old, he will care for his adopted father, not his biological father. This does not make cuckolding OK, but it is important to note that the replacement is incomplete. This will be relevant later.

So now we come to the part of Christianity which some describe as Cuckolding: the virgin birth, and Joseph raising the child as his own.

In order to see whether the virgin birth of Jesus was cuckolding, we need to look at the structure of what happened. Recall, cuckolding is replacement. Was there replacement? The answer is: no.

In a normal birth, God creates a new human being, giving a portion of the creation of his body to a father and a mother who come together to make it. The technical term for what the parents do is secondary causation. God could create a new human being entirely on his own, but instead he gives it to human beings to be part of his act of creation. In the case of Jesus, only one human being was given the privilege of secondary causation—Mary, his mother. What’s important to notice is that this does not change God’s role in the creation of the Jesus’ human nature. God is not more active, as if he somehow normally depends on a human father and without his help he had to do more work.

A useful analogy to consider is an author writing a story. If the author normally has two characters have sex and this gets the woman pregnant, the author does not do any less work than if he writes the woman getting pregnant without a man. (If anything, he does slightly more work, in that it would take more words to set up and describe, but this may just be the analogy breaking down.)

So in the conception of Jesus, there is no replacement of Joseph, he simply is not given a part in it. There is no other creature who has taken his part. There is just no father at all. Importantly, God did not take the part of the human father, he took the part he always takes in giving existence to all of creation at every moment of time. He simply didn’t give a portion of that work to a creature to be part of.

So the conception of Jesus was not cuckolding, because there was no replacement. What of the other aspect—of raising a child as one’s own?

This Joseph does with Jesus. However, this is the same raising of a child as one’s own that happens in any case of adoption. And, indeed, Joseph raising Jesus is clearly a case of adoption:

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel,” a name which means “God-is-with-us”. When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took is wife to his home; he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.

God clearly asks Joseph to be a father to Jesus, and Joseph accepts. And this is the key: in so doing, Jesus becomes a son of Joseph. Joseph gives Jesus his name. Not only his first name, but his family name—Jesus is in the line of David through Joseph.

So if you want to say that Christianity is a religion of adoption, you won’t be wrong. In fact, adoption is one of the main themes of Christianity. You might almost say that God was adopted by man so that man might be adopted by God.

This is why—among other reasons—Christianity had the effects which Jonathan described. God is not merely the highest, but unlike human beings. As Bishop Barron might say, God cannot cuckold a human being because God is not in competition with human beings. The milkman can cuckold a human being. Ghengis Khan did. Zeus could have, if he was real. God simply can’t. All things have their limits, even omnipotence. In particular, omnipotence can’t be limited.

Well, except for the incarnation. But when he could compete with people, Christ didn’t.

Jesus never cuckolded anyone.

And a servant is not greater than his master.

On The Seventh Day God Rested

On the seventh day, God rested.

This is an interesting thing to contemplate since as a American Northerner, I don’t really understand the concept of rest.

Granted, every now and again I take breaks, and every night I sleep. The thing is, I can’t help but think of these as weaknesses, as concessions to a fallen world. Chesterton described this attitude toward work and rest very well in Utoptia of Userers, though he was talking about employers and not individuals:

The special emblematic Employer of to-day, especially the Model Employer (who is the worst sort) has in his starved and evil heart a sincere hatred of holidays. I do not mean that he necessarily wants all his workmen to work until they drop; that only occurs when he happens to be stupid as well as wicked. I do not mean to say that he is necessarily unwilling to grant what he would call “decent hours of labour.” He may treat men like dirt; but if you want to make money, even out of dirt, you must let it lie fallow by some rotation of rest. He may treat men as dogs, but unless he is a lunatic he will for certain periods let sleeping dogs lie.

But humane and reasonable hours for labour have nothing whatever to do with the idea of holidays. It is not even a question of ten hours day and eight-hours day; it is not a question of cutting down leisure to the space necessary for food, sleep and exercise. If the modern employer came to the conclusion, for some reason or other, that he could get most out of his men by working them hard for only two hours a day, his whole mental attitude would still be foreign and hostile to holidays. For his whole mental attitude is that the passive time and the active time are alike useful for him and his business. All is, indeed, grist that comes to his mill, including the millers. His slaves still serve him in unconsciousness, as dogs still hunt in slumber. His grist is ground not only by the sounding wheels of iron, but by the soundless wheel of blood and brain. His sacks are still filling silently when the doors are shut on the streets and the sound of the grinding is low.

Again, Chesterton is talking about employers, but this also encompasses an American attitude toward the self which need have nothing to do with money. Chesterton goes on:

Now a holiday has no connection with using a man either by beating or feeding him. When you give a man a holiday you give him back his body and soul. It is quite possible you may be doing him an injury (though he seldom thinks so), but that does not affect the question for those to whom a holiday is holy. Immortality is the great holiday; and a holiday, like the immortality in the old theologies, is a double-edged privilege. But wherever it is genuine it is simply the restoration and completion of the man. If people ever looked at the printed word under their eye, the word “recreation” would be like the word “resurrection,” the blast of a trumpet.

And here we come back to where I started—that on the seventh day, God rested. We are not to suppose, of course, that God was tired. Nor are we even to suppose that God stopped creating creation—for if he were to do that, there would not be another moment, and creation would be at an end. Creation has no independent existence that could go on without God.

So what are we to make of God’s resting on the seventh day, for it must be very unlike human rest?

One thing I’ve heard is that the ancient Jewish idea of rest is a much more active one than our modern concept of falling down in exhaustion. It involves, so I’ve heard, the contemplation of what was done. Contemplation involves the enjoyment of what is done. What we seem to have is a more extended version of “and God looked on all that he had made and saw that it was good”.

There is another aspect, I think, too, which is that God’s creative action can be characterized into two types, according to our human ability to understand it—change and maintenance. In the first six days we have change, as human beings easily understand it. There are arising new forms of being different enough that we can have words to describe them. We can, in general, so reliably tell the difference between a fish and a bush that we give them different names. But we cannot so reliably tell the difference between a fish at noon and that same fish ten minutes later, even though it has changed; we just call them both “fish” and let that suffice because we cannot do better. Thus God’s rest can also been as the completion of the large changes, which we easily notice, and the transition to the smaller changes, which we have a harder time noticing or describing.

I’m thinking about this because I recently sent the manuscript of Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral off to the publisher. It’s not done, because there will be edits from the editor, but for the moment there is nothing for me to do on it. I finally have time—if still very limited time owing to having three young children—to do other projects, but I’m having a hard time turning to them.

My suspicion is that I need to spend some time resting, which is what put me in mind of this.