06 February 2014

Lust, Part 3

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (17)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom



In Part 2, I wrote about the immoral sexual images and messages which assault us these days. How unsurprising it is, that many Christians struggle with lust. We understand that lust, like other sins has its roots in our first parents' fall from oneness with God. That mistake infected us with the disease of death and separateness. We became pure individuals, unable to see ourselves intimately connected to others. We are simply bare objects to each other. Those around us are valuable only to the extent that they can give us pleasure or give meaning to our lives by giving us pleasure. Sexuality is Satan's counterfeit to oneness. For that reason, I think it can truly be said we have no greater enemy than lust.

We must to not succumb to the cultural acceptability of lust, or allow ourselves to be taken in by its subtleties, even though it strikes us where we are most vulnerable: the desire for intimacy. God has given us victory over lust just as he has defeated all other sins through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through union with Him, our nature has been changed and we are no longer bound by nature to the sins which beset us. St Paul tells us (Romans 8.12-13) us that we who have embraced Christ and been given the Holy Spirit have power to put even the most deadly sins to death. But how is this achieved?

The fact that our sins are the result of separation from God, each other and creation, suggests that the answer is that if we can recover our oneness and unity with God, each other and creation, then we can rise above the results of these separations.

Nikolai Velimirović, in his Prayers by the Lake (LXXII), writes

The body knows nothing of adultery, if the soul does not tell it. Adultery is carried out in the heart; the body only repeats in its clumsy way what has been woven with fine threads in the mysterious chambers of the heart.

My neighbors, look upon a woman the way a woman looks upon herself and self-delusion will fall from your eyes like scales. Look upon every being from within that being, and you will look, not with desire, but with compassion.

To see every being from within that being is the secret to dealing with sexual lust. Most of us, especially most of the Reformed, having imbibed anti-supernatural and anti-mystical biases, have no idea what this means.

But we should have an idea what it means; for Nicholai is only describing unity of being. The only way for one person to see another as the other sees himself is to share his soul, and the only way to share is a soul is for beings to interpenetrate one another. This is the sort of life the members of the Trinity share. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are unique individuals, but each one is also the other two in perichoreisis.

But as the Lord teaches in John 17, it's also the sort of life believers are to live with each other, by virtue of their union with Him.

The problem still remains, how to get inside each other's souls, if possible. How can a man look at a woman without focusing solely on her physical features and valuing her as an object on the basis of those physical features? How can he not see "eye candy"?

We might try to escape temptation by concentrating on her personality. But simply limiting our perspective is not the same as seeing her as she sees herself. Ultimately, it would be difficult to avoid evaluating her personality in terms of some desire we seek to fulfill. Her personality may be attractive to us, or it may be repulsive. Either way, it still remains an object to be evaluated, even lusted after, even if the road to lust is a bit longer by this route, than by focusing on her physical appearance.

Another way of addressing what Velimirović is talking about is to say we must die to ourselves, something which Reformed Christians can understand. If I am to replace looking upon a woman lustfully (or potentially lustfully) with seeing her as she sees herself, then I must adopt compassion as my perspective. Compassion sees the lives of others as more important than one's own life. But in order to do that, in order to have that compassion, the part of myself which sees my life as more important than others' lives, and is inclined to look upon a woman, rather than from within her, must die.

The answer to lust—and, really, all the passions—is self-denial, something else even Reformed Christians can understand, even if we are not as practiced as we may think we are. We can accomplish self-denial in various ways, when it comes to sexual temptation. We can give up all situations, television shows, websites and so forth that would feed lustful desires. We can also learn how to avert our eyes when certain occasions call for it. As several of the desert fathers taught, the ground before our feet is always preferable to visual temptations. A hymn or psalm can always drown out the sound of tantalizing voices or other sounds.

But these approaches, while not a bad start, are little more than skirmishes in the spiritual warfare against the passions. Victory is not achieved by avoiding confrontations with the enemy. True victory (or at least the truest victory possible this side of the Kingdom) demands much more than can be accomplished by mere avoidance, although avoidance, given the alternatives, is, again, a good place to start. True victory requires the elimination of lust from our souls.

St Dorotheos of Gaza taught that, "One must reach a place where one has no desires. Through the indwelling spirit of Christ a person may achieve a state in which he or she is without special attachments, in a state of holy indifference."

Indifference certainly doesn't seem like the most effective way to achieve compassion, but St Dorotheos is not talking about indifference to others. He is talking about indifference to ourselves. We don't matter to ourselves. Our wants (even those we are inclined to think of as needs) don't matter to ourselves. What happens, then, when a man looks upon a woman who could potentially be an object of lust, with this holy indifference, is that what he sees has nothing to do with himself. He seeks nothing from her, especially sexually, because what he truly desires above all else cannot be fulfilled by sexual intercourse. Her body cannot fulfill his redeemed heart’s highest desires. Then, he may see her as she is.

Not that this puts one in the position that Velimirović is speaking of. He has not yet come to know the woman from within herself. He is still observing her from without, meaning the potential to objectify her is still present. To touch her soul and see her from within, to see the world through her eyes, requires an exceptional level of self denial. But for one who embraces the sacramental life of the church, a life of perpetual liturgy, this is possible--not easy, but possible. This liturgical path gives us the opportunity to deny ourselves in every aspect of our lives--eating, drinking, sleeping, working, loving, praying. When we deny our own wills in everything we do, Self fades away, and we can become less aware of it. Concurrently, we can become more and more aware of the One who makes the decisions that define our lives, the Lord Jesus Christ living in us and possessing us through the Holy Spirit.

This same Lord Jesus, living in me, also lives within that woman (or man) one is looking at, sustaining her, giving her the same immortality I have. (Note: If she is not a Christian, it is still relevant that she nevertheless still bears the image of God.) So if one is living in a state of constant liturgy and self denial, eliminating all desires that are not Christ's, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, becoming more aware of him than of oneself, when we look upon another of the opposite sex what we will be most aware of will not be his or her body, or personality. What we will see is either Christ living in her, or if she is not a believer, the image of God in her. We will know each other at the deepest levels, possibly better than we know ourselves.  It is impossible to lust after Christ living in another, or after the image of God.

Another way of looking at it is provided by C. S. Lewis. In his sermon, "The Weight of Glory", said

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another....

Lewis’ thinking here parallels that of Westminster Larger Catechism 138, on the seventh commandment. According to the Catechism, among the duties required by the proscription of adultery, in addition to “chastity in body, mind , affections, words, and behavior” is “the preservation of [it] in…others.”

What a difference it can make, to see one who might otherwise be the object of my lust, as one for whose future glory I am somewhat responsible, to see a possible object of my lust as a future goddess, someone I might be tempted not to lust after, but to worship (cf. Revelation 19.10 ) fully partaking in eternity of the divine nature (see II Peter 1.4). This is the way to triumph over sexual immorality, the demonic illusion of intimacy. In the face of the devil's assault on our culture, Christ offers this victory to us who will be transformed by him.

We must die to ourselves. And to die to ourselves is our calling (Luke 9.23).

But what has this to do with my first post on the subject, where I talked about the desert fathers' counsel on the importance of fasting? We are still talking about the mortification of all the passions. And the passions are all related to each other. They are all various ways in which our preoccupation with self is manifested. In some of us, our self-preoccupation is revealed in pride, in others, anger, in still some others, lust--and so on. The disciplines are an all-out assault on self.

The desert theologians have taught various ways of accomplishing the goal--very few of them at all attractive to most Reformed Christians, but not because they are Reformed.

















20 December 2013

Lust, Part 2

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (16)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

When I was a child, I wasn't allowed to watch much television, virtually none at all on school nights during the school year, and an hour or two in the evenings during holidays—certainly not as much as my friends watched. If the television wasn't already turned on when they arrived home from school, it was turned on almost immediately afterwards. It wasn't that my parents thought television was evil. It was more that they hadn't grown up with it; and when television arrived only the relatively well-off had it. My parents just thought I had more important things to do than sit mindlessly and passively in front of a television set. Consequently, my friends often looked at me like a foreigner because I hadn't seen the programs they had done.

As a result of that early experience I've never really been much of a television viewer. To this day, I really don't watch much television; and if the television is on so is my DVD player. I don’t have cable or dish, and there are only about five broadcast shows I follow with any regularity; and even then, I don't pay much attention, because I'm usually reading, the television serving mostly as background noise.

What always strikes me on the rare occasions when I come across TV shows that I don't follow is the extent to which sexuality has come to dominate the airwaves. No shocker there. Lust has always been popular and found expression in the arts. Promotion of illicit sexuality on television is nothing new, at least not in my experience. I would say the illicit sexuality on television in my youth was tame by comparison with today. For example, I recall an episode of the series, “Hunter”, in which a woman, dealing with the shock of the loss of a loved one, informs Rick Hunter, standing outside the door of his home, that she “needs to be with someone”. They go inside and the door is closed; the viewer, it's assumed, needs no further exposition. Things are a bit different today. Clueless viewers require further exposition.

There were limitations on what is acceptable and what is not. Now, it seems as if the writers of television shows have no idea how to write a story if they cannot parade, glorify and normalize illicit sexuality—and as much of it as possible. Every program seems driven to push the boundary further and further. This trend, not surprisingly, culminated in a series entirely devoted to normalized illicit sexuality: “Sex and the City”. (Movies, of course, were gone long before that, beginning, in my viewing experience, with “Animal House”.)

Of course, sexuality on television and in movies isn't just there. We are not assaulted with mere images of illicit sexuality. In those images, we are also presented with a message of sorts, a set of attitudes regarding sexuality. Illicit sexuality is virtuous, or even morally neutral, except maybe for adultery (depending upon whether the viewer likes the one being cheated on). Being virtuous or neutral, the open display and normalization of illicit sexuality is entirely understandable. People who engage in it are morally outstanding people, who genuinely care about their multiple partners, and are engaging in responsible, mature, adult behavior. To complain, or not be all for it (that is, to be a prude) is a vice. Now-days, chastity, not lust, is the vice. It's unhealthy. At a certain point, we just need to be “taken”.

Naturally, in this day and age, one doesn't have to own a television to get caught up in these messages. Advertising, fashion, music—all of these things conspire together to assault us in just the same way as television and movies. (If not for sexuality, Carl’s, Jr. wouldn’t be able to sell a hamburger.) Wherever our eyes and ears are, there, it seems Lust, like a lion, is lying in wait, its desire, to devour us.

The society in which we live, obviously isn’t bothered by it much, but it is a serious matter for Christians. At times, I think Christians are becoming numb to the sexual illness by which we are surrounded, so numb, in fact, I doubt very many understand the extent to which we are surrounded, or even consider the fact that we are unable to convert the culture because the culture has converted us. Even if we do not—yet—engage in the same activities (except perhaps in our attire), we are being sucked into the current, and opening up ourselves to powerful temptations. We may be subjecting ourselves to far too many harmful images and ideas, all the while insisting either that (a) there is nothing to worry about (and those who insist otherwise are prudes who need to read Song of Solomon) or (b) we can handle it because, after all, we are adults. St Paul, on the other hand, teaches us such enticements are sinful and we should run from them. As he explains, “Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6.18). Not only does it appear many of us are not running away, and, consequently, falling in the face of temptations, but actually embracing these temptations, seeking them out, and yielding to them, committing the same acts as the world, which I mentioned in Part 1.

How does one sin against his own body? Sex intimately engages our bodies and looses our emotions and our minds. Something very powerful is released when two people expose themselves to each other in the way they do in sexual intercourse, risking everything they are. For what purpose do we seek to release that power? Yes, of course, there is pleasure involved, but is that alone the explanation? The required explanation will have to tell us not only why we engage in it, but why it is such a unique sin.

Answering the question, why we seek to release the power of sex, will show us why sexual sin, in which so many proudly participate, is the ultimate transgression, the one St Paul tells us to avoid.

To understand sexual sin, as indeed with most elements of Christian theology, we have to consider the opening chapters of Genesis, where we read that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree from which they were forbidden to eat, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings” (Gen. 3.7).

What was it about this disobedience which made them feel exposed to each other? We should recall that God's purposes in creating was to make us one with him, to have us live in unity with him and each other in the same way as the members of the Holy Trinity live with each other. Union with God, fellowship with Him, is a connective theme in all Christian theology. As John Murray writes, in Redemption Accomplished and Applied:

 “[Union with Christ] is an important aspect of the application of redemption and, if we did not take account of it, not only would our presentation of the application of redemption be defective but our view of the Christian life would be gravely distorted. Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ” (161).

All explanations of spiritual matters are grounded in this truth.

Union with God also helps us understand why sexual immorality is the most regrettable sin. It is clear that before they exalted their own wills above God's and attempted to seize control of their lives, Adam and Eve walked with God, living with Him, as we might say, “in the heavenly places” (see Eph. 2.6). God had created them in His image, endowing them with every faculty they required to grow into unity with Him, with each other and even all creation (over which He had given them dominion).

Think about how Adam must have seen Eve when he first laid his eyes upon her. He looks at her and says, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh....” At that moment in history they are living in intimate fellowship with God. That fact has to be taken into account, or we will think Adam is simply emoting, rather than saying something of ontological import. Adam is saying something about the way he truly sees Eve: as an extension (in the best sense) of himself. She is not, like he is, made directly from dust. She is fashioned from one of his ribs. She is something of a clone. And as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, she is truly him—and vice versa.

But since this awareness is possible only in the life of fellowship with God, it also means that something of cosmological import transpires at their rebellion, an insight I believe is lost on us due to the inroads of anti-supernaturalism and anti-mysticism. Their perception of oneness and unity with each other; their perception of being extensions of each other—these were lost in the Fall. And they were lost because they were the result of unity with God. When they broke that fellowship, they lost the source of their intimacy with each other. This is all the more tragic when we contemplate that they must surely have thought all would continue as it had done previously, as if God were incidental to it all. Life, they must have thought, would be the same, but without God as their sovereign. They would be equal to him in power, wisdom, knowledge and glory. They too, in short, would be gods. They may even have thought that by eating the fruit and, as the serpent said, becoming like God, they would thus be brought into more intimate fellowship with God. But one does not become closer to God by disobeying him.

They did not merely feel the loss of communion and intimate fellowship with each other, with God and with creation. One can truly say that they saw it, as well. They knew, or experienced, shame in their nakedness. Previously, as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, when Eve felt Adam's eyes upon her, it was like looking at herself. But now, he looks upon her and instead of seeing himself in her, instead of seeing his bones and his flesh, he sees an object, removed and distant from him, perhaps even a stranger, unknown and unknowable to him, at least not knowable the way she had been previously. Each now feels alone. I doubt we can comprehend all they must have felt at that moment. All they did, physically, was eat a bit of fruit, and the cosmos changed. And the cosmos changed because their relationship to it, through God, had changed.

Sin results in disintegration, as God looses the life-giving and preserving bond between himself and his image-bearers, which further results in a rift between them and the creation over which they have dominion. Life ceases and they begin to die. Again, they surely must have thought life, including the nature of their fellowship together, would continue unchanged, but without the necessity of obedience to God. Oh, he would still be around, of course, but they would be like him. Knowing good and evil, they would be, as St Peter would put it thousands of years later, "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1.4), without having to be in union with God. They could not have been more mistaken. Even the ground, which once brought forth fruit and vegetation without the slightest effort on Adam's part, would produce only "thistles and thorns" without tremendous sweat-producing labor, with no real assurance that even the sweat of his brow would yield anything at all.

And so, after their rebellious act, they begin to die, eventually to return to the dust which God had animated. They had been created for the purpose of being one with God (on His terms), who had filled their beings; but now He has withdrawn from them. Their meaning; their purpose; their source of life--all are gone. All that is left to them for fulfillment, for filling up the emptiness of a space once occupied by God, is a world of objects. Once, Adam looked to God for sustenance; now he must look to plants growing in the ground, waging war against thorn and thistle. Eve once looked to God for the fulfillment of her desires, now she must look to Adam who, though the very source of her being, has become a stranger to her.

Of course, God did not leave them in that condition. Union with God has been maintained, in types and shadows, through covenants. Now there is still the possibility of a fuller expression of union with God, here and now, through Jesus Christ, by the mediating power of the Holy Spirit (see WCF 21). And we should be grateful to Him for that.

For those who choose to live without God, there remains only the cold world of objects, and the attempt to achieve union with those objects through various idolatries. Their only hope of union is a distorted form of what God desires for man. So when such men and women look upon each other, they do not see one with whom they can achieve spiritual union and divine oneness. There is only an object they can use to bring momentary pleasure to the emptiness; or they become and permit themselves to be objects, used to bring momentary pleasure to another. (Recall Fincher's acknowledged objectification of "the beautiful body" before her, which I mentioned in Part 1.)

Sexual immorality is the ultimate perversion of God's intention for man. In the sexual act, two human beings completely expose themselves to each other, body and soul, in an act which is intended to be part of a relation which is a “type” of the relation between Christ and his Church (see Ephesians 5.22-32). In the intended (marital) relationship between a man and a woman, two people travel a “sacred” path toward spiritual growth in the kingdom of God which, through trust, self-denial, and openness, will lead to oneness. Both risk everything they are and have been until their union in marriage, each for the sake of the other; each one sees the needs and the desires of the other as paramount.

Those who commit sexual sins take the same risks; but they do so for their own purposes: personal pleasure and fulfillment of their own intentions, rather than the fulfillment of God's intentions. They turn a potentially unifying (and self-denying) act into self-gratification. (One should admit that this is something most humans do with most things, including professing Christians, mostly as the result of shoddy teaching and preaching, by shoddy teachers and preachers.) People in such relationships, to the extent they have relationships, will talk about their commitment to one another, but until their minds are joined together in the single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God, their commitment can only be to their individual sexual gratification. And when that is over, so is the commitment.

Of course, this happens to Christians as well. We know that God has redeemed us and set us free from self-love. We may acknowledge that we are no longer slaves, relating to other people as to objects. But the allure of sexual sin is so strong because the physical union of bodies is a successful counterfeit of true oneness. It grips and claws at us because it promises to fulfill a very legitimate desire, the desire for union with another. As a union of two bodies, which union in marriage is a type of our union with God, sexual union is an act of worship, but by virtue of taking place outside the bond of matrimony, it is an act of idolatry. In the idolatrous act, the “typical” nature of the marital union is denied and the participants both idolize each other’s bodies (in the truest sense of the term) and in turn present their bodies as objects of worship, used for pleasure, thus sinning against their own bodies.


With the “scene” thus set, we are now prepared to look at solutions suggested by the desert fathers in comparison with Reformation thought.

Desert Theology for Reformed People, Part 15
08 November 2013

Lust, Part 1

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (15)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

As I said last time monks did not struggle with lust as much as we might think; for them the problem was anger. It's probably difficult to believe, given the circumstances, that lust would not be a big problem in such an environment, especially for men. But, especially during the time period and geographical locale I have foremost in mind (i.e., the first millennium in the middle eastern deserts), the living conditions of the sort of men and women we're talking about were quite severe.

Calvin, who otherwise has little praise for the monastic life, and writing about these men and women, describes something of these conditions (in his Institutes, Bk iv, ch xiii, 8, emphasis added):

[L]est any one defend the monachism of the present day on the ground of the long prescription, it is to be observed, that the ancient mode of living in monasteries was very different. The persons who retired to them were those who wished to train themselves to the greatest austerity and patience. The discipline practiced by the monks then resembled that which the [Spartans] are said to have used under the laws of Lycurgus, and was even much more rigorous. They slept on the ground, their drink was water, their food bread, herbs, and roots, their chief luxuries oil and pulse. From more delicate food and care of the body they abstained. These things might seem hyperbolical were they not vouched by experienced eye witnesses, as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. By such rudimentary training they prepared themselves for greater offices. For of the fact that monastic colleges were then a kind of seminaries of the ecclesiastical order, both those whom we lately named are very competent witnesses (they were all brought up in monasteries, and thence called to the episcopal office), as well as several other great and excellent men of their age.

A discipline more rigorous than the Spartans'. That is saying something.

But what have harsh conditions to do with sexuality and lust?

Reflecting upon the experience and effects of hunger, in a concentration camp, Viktor Frankl, in his Man's Search for Meaning (52) writes:

Undernourishment...probably...explains the fact that the sexual urge was generally absent. Apart from the initial effects of shock, this appears to be the only explanation of a phenomenon which a psychologist was bound to observe in those all-male camps: that, as opposed to all other strictly male establishments—such as army barracks—there was little sexual perversion. Even in his dreams the prisoner did not seem to concern himself with sex, although his frustrated emotions and his finer, higher feelings did find definite expression in them.

“Generally absent” may describe the sexual urge in harsh conditions, especially those of a middle eastern desert monastery or a Nazi concentration camp; but in the relatively easy, pleasure-filled life most of us live, “generally absent” is not an applicable term. In a society, such as ours, in which sex can sell anything, including hamburgers, the more appropriate term for describing the sexual urge is “central preoccupation”. If, as C. S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, “Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues,” then lust is the most popular passion. And so it seems to be.

In a culture as materialistic as our own (in the philosophical sense), bodily pleasures seem as close to a spiritual (or even mystical) experience as one may ever get. For materialists, spiritual unions being out of the question, union of one body with another is virtually a religious experience. Sensuality is religious experience. And sexual intercourse is an act of worship.

Of course, in dealing with lust we really need to know what it is, and what it isn't. I'll say more in a subsequent post, but for now, it would be a mistake to understand lust as simple sexual desire. If we make that error we will not deal with it effectively, because we will not see it for the sort of problem it is. After all, without sexual desire, the human race would go extinct. Moreover, sexual desire per se is never treated in Scripture as a sin. The most famous source for this understanding is, of course, The Song of Songs. What is treated as sin is sexual intercourse outside the bounds of matrimony and the desire for intercourse outside those bounds.

We are concerned here with lust as the sexual desire for someone other than one’s spouse. And I don’t think we'd be mistaken to say not only is it sexual desire for another to whom one is not married, but sexual desire for another whom one has no desire to marry. In a word, a desire to copulate and be done. (And we have so many colorful ways of putting that.)

Our sexual appetite, says Lewis, “is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.” He continues, saying:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us? (Mere Christianity, p. 89)

Lewis goes on to consider the possibility that such a show would be evidence of famine, concluding that the hypothesis is easily tested by seeing if in fact people are starving. Clearly, we are not experiencing a famine of sex. We’re having lot’s of sex—everything from friends-with-benefits to spouse-swapping, hotwifing and cuckolding, and, of course, good, old fashioned, heart-breaking adultery. Yes, we’re having lots of sex. We’re starting earlier and earlier, and stopping later and later. And we’re having it for at least 237 reasons having little or nothing to do with marriage, love or even the least bit of affection and much, much less for the desire of children.

Now, what is the problem with lust? The way some approach the subject, while it is a problem, it really isn't much of a problem, certainly not a deadly problem, a “prelude” to a problem, perhaps. And to the extent it is acknowledged as a problem, it isn't very clear what the problem really is. For example, Jonalyn Fincher, in a Christianity Today article, "Confessions of a Lustful Christian Woman", writes:

I am one of those women who have found myself struggling with lust. I am not addicted to pornography, but I am distracted to lust after handsome…men.

When a beautiful man or woman passes me and my husband on the street or monopolizes our time after a speaking event we both code awareness to each other. We use our eyes to say, "Yes, this is a beautiful body in front of me, but no worries. My appetite has been cultivated for you."

This discipline didn't start so easily.

I've learned to want my husband's frame, his uniqueness. I've learned to seek that look, to develop a taste for his body and soul.

But I still notice beauty, in men.

Talking about the beautiful people around us allows my husband and I to both safely confess and grow into desiring each other. It also means our temptations are never faced alone.

I have no intention of denigrating this, but frankly I think this treats lust as a difficulty to be managed or, as she put it, a distraction, rather than a danger needing to be assaulted. (We are talking about “evil thoughts” or “deadly sins”, after all.) The closest Fincher comes to acknowledging lust as a danger is to intimate its possibly leading to sexual addiction. The inevitability of lust seems a foregone conclusion. We can't help it; we can't stop it. We will always lust. We just need to manage it. We'll just have to talk about it and confess it. Not entirely bad advice, of course; it is better than mounting no resistance whatsoever. But even that much does not treat lust as something dangerous, even deadly.

In another article on the same subject, and in which she treats lust as a danger, she tells of lunching with a friend and during the course of the meal, lusting after a stranger in the restaurant, attempting to catch his eye, distract him and “check him out a lot more” but not, naturally, “to tell him about Jesus.” She writes:

Typically in situations like these, my first response is some serious reining in and self-talk. Something like, “Jonalyn, that’s wrong. God doesn’t want you to think of him like that, stop it right now.” You know the ol’ accountability line.

But...I steered around my blamey self talk and prayed instead, “Jesus, I invite you into my lust.”

And I went back to my conversation with my friend.

Note her use of two phrases: “the ol’ accountability line” and “my blamey self talk”. Frankly, this is not someone who is takes her lust very seriously. Not as seriously as the desert theologians would have us do. For those of us who are reformed, not as seriously as the Westminster divines would have us do. (See the Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 137 through 139.)

Would Fincher be as dismissive of murderous thoughts? What she tells us of herself here is that she sits in a restaurant, trying to get another man’s attention for purposes of signaling to him her sexual desire for him, and (if she were brutally honest with herself) her sexual availability. Not, of course, that she’d really ever do it, only attempt to communicate, even if non-verbally, that she’d like to do it.

That said, Fincher does identify a weakness of standard “accountability guidelines”. In the same article, she goes on, offering a different approach:

Often, accountability guidelines for ending lust focus on guarding our eyes from even looking or noticing beauty. But this feels Gnostic to me, a method of denying the inherit [sic] beauty in healthy men (and women’s) bodies. I want to be free to notice beautiful men and I want Dale free to notice beautiful women. This allows me to thank God for his creativity.

[***]

Neither Dale nor I have stunning gams, but we love noticing others who do. And in the process, my lust isn’t incited. I’m observing the art of God around me and sharing it with my husband. God called us very good. I’d have to agree.

If we find our admiration turning into covetousness, I’d recommend this relational approach of inviting Jesus into the moment. Asking for Jesus to abide in us reminds me of Jesus’ words, “Watch and pray so that you will not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).

No matter where you struggle with lust, invite Jesus to abide in you. Jesus is stronger than I’ve been or any other method I’ve tried.

Perhaps it is fine that we take notice of those—male and female—who have stunning gams; and maybe we truly are merely “observing the art of God around [us].” But then, maybe not. It is true, God called us very good, but in doing our theology we should take note that this pronouncement was made before we died in Adam. We might also note that immediately after their eyes were opened, Adam and Eve's first inclination was to cover up. (More about that in Part 2.) We, on the other hand, can't wait to uncover, or for others to uncover, if not entirely, certainly as much as we can get away with doing. The life we live now is a life of redemption. True, we are redeemed; but we have not been transfigured just yet. Having raised that point, however, it is certainly true that inviting Jesus into the moment is the right answer. And, in fact, by virtue of our union with him, he is always with us so all we really have to do is not invite him into the moment, but rather acknowledge his ever-presence and look to him in that moment.

However innocent Fincher’s “noticing” of God’s creativity, this notice still involves objectifying someone and treating them as existing to gratify the senses. Eye candy. Call it “art” if you will, but that changes nothing. Pornography is called “art”. “A rose by any other name” and all that. As we’ll see in a subsequent post, this objectification is part and parcel of our lust problem. In fact, without this objectification (something we are more practiced in doing than we might know) there could be no lust problem. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Fincher's approach here (an attempt to avoid what she thinks is Gnosticism), in comparison with the desert fathers', is a palliative instead of a cure, skirmishing and holding ground rather than attacking and conquering. And this is because she mis-diagnoses the condition, and that, in turn, is because she is trying to avoid “blamey self talk”, something we should most definitely not avoid when we truly are blame-worthy, or even if we merely think we might be blame-worthy. Lust, as she is treating it, is really more of a “pain” to be managed, rather than an evil, deadly passion (or sin) needing to be destroyed, or a disease to be cured. The fact is, her method, while there certainly is nothing wrong with it, as far as it goes, falls short of what we need to do, which is to put to death the deeds of our bodies (Romans 8.13), including lust. Fincher will have us keep our lust very much alive, but just give it a new name and put it on a hopefully stronger chain. Would she be as relatively careless about murderous thoughts? I suspect not.

The real problem is not the iterative and occasional struggle with lust such as Fincher describes. The real problem is that we imbibe a great deal of what Western, specifically American culture dishes out. We watch many of the same television shows as non-Christian America. We see many of the same movies as non-Christian America. We listen to much of the same music as non-Christian America. Much of that media contains some form of sexuality. Like high fructose corn syrup, it’s in just about everything. Possibly then we have therefore the same pre-occupation with sensuality and sexuality as non-Christian America, even if we are not always conscious of it. It can be to us just as much a passion as for any other American, as Fincher demonstrates. Sexuality has been normalized; and this normalization is a problem.

If an approach like Fincher’s can be characterized as really more like pain management or holding, then desert theology, in contrast, seeks cure or conquest. Fincher would have us play defense; desert theology would have us take the offensive. For example, John Climacus wrote:

He who has piously destroyed within him the three passions [of gluttony, cupidity and vainglory] has destroyed the five [of lust, anger, despair, despondency, and pride] too; but he who has been negligent about the former will not conquer even one passion. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 26, 2)

We now come to the question, How then do the desert theologians counsel dealing with lust?


Before we can really answer that question, however, we need to spend some time reflecting upon a “theology of lust”. Sexual sin, as we’ll see, is unique and requires some analysis.
31 January 2013

Little-known secret: Many (if not most) intellectuals are not lovers of freedom, especially if they live off or otherwise benefit from government largess; so this, while interesting, is really no surprise. Those intellectuals who really are crazy about liberty are usually something else first, and intellectuals second...or third. Hans-Herman Hoppe suggests that the freedom-loving intellectual should really be called (I love this part) "an anti-intellectual intellectual".

And you haven't lived until you've read Hegel's transposition of the need for freedom of thought into a requirement that it be "protected" (I love it when they talk like that) by the state. (That's in his PHILOSOPHY OF LAW, section 270. Enjoy--or not.) I'm certain, it's one of those collective-action-to-protect-individual-liberty kind of things.
30 November 2012

Anger


Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (14)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

We might be inclined to think that, of all the passions, monks struggled the most with lust. We know very well that some did, but the passion with which they struggled the most was actually anger; and the desert fathers knew that anger can develop into more serious sins, putting up barriers between ourselves and others.

In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus delineated what he called the eight dangerous thoughts: gluttony, fornication, love of money, sadness, anger, listlessness, vainglory and pride. With some modifications, these become known as the seven deadly sins: lechery/lust, gluttony, avarice/greed, acedia/discouragement/sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Evagrios did not use the word sins, but rather thoughts. Evagrios said, "It does not lie within our power to decide whether or not the passions are going to harass and attack the soul. But it does lie within our power to prevent impassioned thoughts from lingering within us and arousing the passions to action" (here).

On the particular subject of anger, Evagrios thought it to be the worst passion of them all. It is the response to resistance or interference with goals and intentions, or to fear, irritations and disappointments. It's the response we may have when we are busy and someone interrupts us. It's the response we have when we are driving and either are cut off, or impeded in our progress by the driver in front of us driving slower than we are (even when we're trying to drive the speed limit). It's the response we have when our internet connection is slower than usual, or if we lose the connection altogether because our modem suddenly fried or died. In each of these, and similar, cases we are responded to an obstacle.

At its most fundamental level, anger is the desire that some harm come to the person or object thwarting us, whether or not we desire to commit the harm ourselves. It also exults in seeing harm come to those who, we believe, have stymied us. For example, when the bottom fell out of the economy, I read in the comments to a news article, one commentator express glee that rich people were losing money and going bankrupt because they needed to know how it feels to be poor. Why? Because simply by being rich these people had committed some harm to others, especially, one supposes, the commentator—and his fans.

According to some psychologists, anger is rooted in childhood insecurity. Easily angered people don't always yell, curse and throw things. Sometimes they withdraw, sulk, or become physically ill. Anger may be more responsible for most of our sins than we may imagine, even our sexual sins. I recall glancing through a book in a bookstore, a book about marriage and divorce, in which the author made the claim that all adultery is rooted in anger. There are probably many explanations for it but I suspect there is much truth in that. Many adulterers have been hurt (or perceive themselves as having been hurt) by their spouses. Adultery can very easily be understood as rooted in anger, since anger itself is rooted in pain.

The Westminster Divines were not unaware of the spiritual necessity of harnessing and resisting the passions. In its teaching on the implied duties and prohibitions involved in obeying God in the Ten Commandments, The Larger Catechism includes acts intended to confront and restrain the passions. For example, the duties required in the sixth commandment's prohibition of murder are "all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent."

Note among many of the duties, some of which seem to be unrelated to the commission of murder: "quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations." We might easily see how having a quiet mind and a cheerful disposition are related, since these dispositions are the opposite of anger, without which there can be no murder. But "a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations"? What about these? The truth is immoderate use of these things (food and drink, medicines, sleep, labor and recreations) is a life filled with "surfeiting", or dissipation and drunkenness, a life of indulging the passions, which the Lord forbids, rather than a life of alertness and prayer, which the Lord requires (Luke 21.34-36):
Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

It is not that we are forbidden to have pleasures. Even John Calvin, falsely-accused killjoy recognized that Scripture nowhere forbids us “to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.19.9). But, as he goes on, in the same place, to say, “ [L]et all remember that the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury....” The Christian life is, among other things, a life of alertness.

But what can we do about anger? Recall that anger is our response to resistance, or injury— even perceived resistance and injury. It is also a response to some deprivation or, again, perceived deprivation of pleasure or need (even, yet again, perceived need). We must deal with it as a response, more specifically as a learned, habitual response.

The monks employed several strategies in their battles against this emotion. First, we shouldn't be surprised to find anger lurking within our souls; we shouldn't be discouraged or despondent about it, either. We are fallen; our feelings do get hurt. We are also creatures of habit. It is dangerous not to admit this. If we don't admit that we can be hurt, we are likely not to realize that we have been hurt and, as a result, not very likely to recognize even the potential for finding anger within us, much less the reality. It was common for monks to believe they were, or should have been, above being angered. The wisest of the monastics knew better than to think monks were not like everyone else. As I have quoted St Chrysostom, both layman and monk "must rise to the same height." The monk, simply by being a monk, has arrived nowhere.

Second, when we do find anger, we have to deal with it immediately and decisively. If not, if we let it simmer in our conscious or unconscious minds, it will take root within us. We must keep short accounts with others, pulling weeds daily. As St Paul says: "Do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Ephesians 4.26). Some people think this means letting everyone who has angered you know they have angered you. There may be times when this is necessary, but in many cases what usually happens is that the other person believing (as we all do; let’s admit that, too) he has been falsely accused simply gets angry in turn. There’s a fine mess. Keeping short accounts means forgiving those who have made you angry. And forgiveness does not mean changing how you feel. To forgive is to relinquish a claim to restitution; it is a decision not to seek repayment for the wrong. Yes, that means we suffer the slight, which means we, ourselves, in effect pay the debt that is owed us. But that is exactly what it means for God to forgive us. Forgiveness of debts always costs the creditor. (This is a commonly mis-understood element of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.11-31. The father did forgive the son, but it cost him half of his wealth in order to do so.)

Third, the most effective way to deal with anger is to die to our egos; this is also the most difficult. We are very sensitive to what others may think of us, suspicious that others may be talking about us unfavorably behind our backs. We get hurt when others disappoint us, convinced (truth be told) we had a right to expect differently of them. Then too, we may feel that others expect too much of us, and have no right to do so. One of the desert monks had a humorous tale by way of remedy:

A brother  came to see Abba Makarios and said, "Abba, give me a word that I may be saved." Abba Makarios said, "Go to the cemetary and abuse the dead. " The brother went there and abused them and threw stones at their graves. The he returned to Abba Makarios and told the old man about it.  The old man asked, "Did they say anything to you?" He replied, "No." The old man said, "Go back tomorrow and praise the dead." So the brother went away and praised them, calling them apostles and saints and righteous men. He returned to the old man and said, "I have complimented them." And the old man said to him, "Did they not answer you?"  The brother said, "No." The old man said to him, "Do you know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak? So you too, if you wished to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.

We too must become like a dead man, dead to our egos. In such a state of mind neither praise nor insult can harm us. Yes, praise can harm us, even if only by setting us up for disappointment when we are not praised (and moving us to attempt things for purposes of eliciting praise) and by making insults ever more difficult to bear, making us angrier than we might otherwise have been. This isn't to say we shouldn't express gratitude when we are praised, depending upon the nature of the praise. But we should simply take note of the praise, express gratitude, and forget about it.

Of course, if it were easy everyone would be there and there would be no anger in the world at all. It requires work because, for many, anger has become a habit. And as Saint Neilus the Ascetic said, “Habit leads to a set disposition, and this in turn becomes what may be called ‘second nature’; and it is hard to shift and alter nature.” Indeed. And I know this well, for of all the passions, anger is the one I struggle with most.
20 September 2012

The Africans are coming! The Africans are coming!

And it's a good thing, too!
The Nigerians have landed. They want the gospel reclaimed on US soil because, they argue, the Episcopal Church has abandoned the historic gospel and drunk the Kool-aid of pansexuality and interfaith alliances where no gospel needs to be proclaimed because all roads ultimately lead to heaven.
Actually, African Anglicans have been working here in the US for some time. My Anglican priest father,and other friends of mine who are Anglican clerics, have been working with the Africans here for years. It's a good thing.
23 July 2012

Would Striking Clichés Make Christians More Tolerable?

Would Striking Clichés Make Christians More Tolerable?
03 July 2012
George Will is among those conservatives driven to find victory in a stunning defeat.

By persuading the court to reject a Commerce Clause rationale for a president’s signature act, the conservative legal insurgency against Obamacare has won a huge victory for the long haul. This victory will help revive a venerable tradition of America’s political culture, that of viewing congressional actions with a skeptical constitutional squint, searching for congruence with the Constitution’s architecture of enumerated powers. By rejecting the Commerce Clause rationale, Thursday’s decision reaffirmed the Constitution’s foundational premise: Enumerated powers are necessarily limited because, as Chief Justice John Marshall said, “the enumeration presupposes something not enumerated.”
This desperation to find a victory rides rough-shod over the fact that, as the Chief Justice explained, we are still free to buy (government approved) healthcare or not buy healthcare insurance; we just aren't free to not buy healthcare insurance and not pay a penalty for not owning healthcare insurance. And the IRS is still invested with power it did not previous have; and it previously had a lot.

The IRS now gets to know about a small business's entire payroll, the level of their insurance coverage -- and it gets to know the income of not just the primary breadwinner in your house, but your entire family’s income, in order to assess/collect the mandated tax. Plus, it gets to share your personal info with all sorts of government agencies, insurance companies and employers. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We expect even more lien and levy powers," an IRS official says.
 In our mothers' house, there's lots and lots o' love. What was it Malcolm X said about a fool letting his enemy educate his children?
A tempest in a tea pot, so to speak.
11 June 2012
CHRISTIAN PIATT: Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church
05 June 2012

Weapons? They don't need no stinking weapons.

HOT AIR: Hugo Chaves puts the finishing touches on his plan to disarm his people.
30 May 2012

How Academics Concocted a New 'Middle Class'

Just getting a degree secures the American Dream, right? Not necessarily. And it probably never really did.
24 May 2012

Stairway to heaven?

Dr. Bob Gonzales, of Reformed Baptist Seminary offers a fresh look at The Tower of Babel.
"The infamous 'Tower of Babel' episode (Gen 11:1-9) provides a concise yet poignant display of human pride on a societal scale."
22 May 2012

Gluttony: Mother of all the vices?

Gluttony Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (13)


You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

The United States are, arguably, in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Many Americans are either eating far too much (far more than is necessary for simple nourishment); or they are eating foods with little to no nutritional value whatsoever. In either case, the reason is probably the same: the food and drink being consumed are delightful to the palate. The truth is, the sort of diet which would prevent obesity is actually very boring, to look at, to smell and to taste. And that really is an important point.

The sin involved in gluttony is the worship of the senses in general, but of the taste in specific. In short, the senses--indeed the entire world of sensory assaults--become substitutes for God. We are, in various ways, lacking peace in our hearts. We are restless and bored, so, instead of turning to God we seek out sundry stimuli, one of the most popular, for some, being food. For such people, food, as a source of strength and inner peace, takes the place of God. For that reason, the sin entailed in gluttony is really a form of idolatry.

Most of us probably think that gluttony involves eating a lot of food. As a consequence, we may be inclined to think that we can easily spot the gluttonous because they are the obese and overweight. Frankly, for many of these the problem is not how much is eaten, but what is eaten, in tandem with how little exercise they may get. Many are gluttonous without realizing it because we don't eat a lot, but we have the same preoccupation with food nonetheless.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis makes a distinction between gluttony of excess and gluttony of delicacy. In the persona of Screwtape, he describes a woman who has no idea the depth of her enslavement to sensuality because the quantities of food involved in her gluttony are so small:
[W]hat do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?.... [This woman] is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a deumure little sigh and a smile, "Oh, please, please... all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast." You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of induging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a lttle scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says: "Oh, that's far, far too much? Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it." If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.
In her novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather narrates the legend of Fray Baltazar Montoya, priest at Ácoma, in Northern New Mexico in the early seventeen hundreds. Balatazar enjoyed living well and self-indulgently at the expense of his native American congregation, so much so that they were always on the verge of revolt. The only thing which held them in check was fear of what they perceived as his magic. "It was clear," as Cather puts it, "that the Friar at Ácoma lived more after the flesh than after the spirit." Overlooking his other sins, we can focus on his gluttony, both of excess and of delicacy. He decided to invite some of his fellow priests from other parishes to dine with him and "admire his fine garden, his ingenious kitchen, his airy loggia with its rugs and water jars, where he meditated and took his after-dinner siesta." Having been trained as a cook in a monastery in Spain, frequently visited by Spanish nobles, he prepared an excellent feast. A particular source of pride was his preparation of a sauce to accompany his hare jardinière. For the sake of brevity, one of the serving boys, carrying in the hare jardinière was distracted by one of Baltazar's guests and spilled some of the sauce on one of the other guests. Baltazar, who was quick-tempered, and slightly drunk with brandy, violently threw his empty pewter mug at the boy, striking him in the head and killing him.

Just like Screwtape said: Quantities don't matter. Food can still be used to produce "querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern." It can also produce death.

So, a more telling sign of gluttony may be nothing more complicated than simple preoccupation with food.

The question is how do we learn to engage in a "sober use of meat and drink" as the Larger Catechism puts it (Q. 135)? The desert fathers had so many practices in this regard that there are almost as many different practices as there are desert fathers to study! It's difficult to know what to make of it or how to imitate these practices exactly as they did, since there were so many diverse practices. But we can at least say this. There isn't any need for a lock-step uniformity in practice. The diversity of practice coupled with the success of these practices demonstrates this. In denomonations which observe the Lenten dietary rules, there are some pastors who tell their congregations that they must, in order properly to observe these rules, abstain even from any medications they may be taking. (There are, thankfully, many in those same denominations who give the opposite counsel.) This approach operates with the understanding that the people must observe Lent exactly in conformity with their liturgical texts. One can find churches which prescribe not just how much (or how little) one should eat, but even what one shall not eat (meat; poultry; fish; dairy products, including eggs; alcholic beverages; and oil, etc).

In and of themselves, and persuant to the goal of learning sobriety in the "use of meat and drink", there is nothing wrong at all with these sorts of strict observances. What is wrong is the absence of a rationale for these abstentions. Abstain from these things, because it's Lent. That's all. What is over-looked is the fact that one can easily abstain and still be lead by the stomach or palate into "querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern."

But these observances harken back to the monastics. What were they up to? Recall their goal: to increase love for God and for others. How do these abstentions facilitate the achievment of those goals? Rather than being preoccupied with meat, eggs and wine, we need to remember the goal. The purpose for these abstentions is to rid ourselves of a sort of devotion to an elaborate variety in our diet, an elaborate variety that can distract us, by means of a sensory assault, from devotion to God (specifically, devotion to prayer) and to others. The point is to have our body in its proper relationship to the Lord Jesus. (And freedom from enslavement to the demands of our taste buds is also physically healthy.)

Meat, eggs, and wine may not be the things from which we should abstain occasionally in waging our war against gluttony. If all we do is compile a list of foods from which we abstain, as if those abstentions in and of themselves could do us spiritual good, then we have made the same error as the Pharisees, who argued over such things as whether to eat an egg laid on the Sabbath--as if man were made for the Sabbath and its rules (man-made or otherwise), rather than the Sabbath for man (see Mark 2.27). If we do that, we aren't resisting the passions, we're just abstaining from this or that item of food or drink. Our focus will be on the rules about food, what we're permitted to eat on certain occasions, rather than on resisting the passion of gluttony. If you think about it, this focus on what we may be permitted to eat is not too unlike the sort of woman Lewis was writing about, above. That woman, recall, was making work difficult for an already over-worked server.

One way we can resist the passion of gluttony is to demand, expect and be content with less when we go out to eat (or even when we dine at home), to tolerate not getting it our way all the time, or not getting our way at all. If what we get is food, then let's be content with it if by the time it gets to the table it's a little cooler than we might like. If there's water on the table for us to drink, we should be content with it if our servers don't do the best job of keeping our soda glass full. Too often we insist on getting we we've paid for, rather than on extending grace to people who do not cease to be humans just because they've punched a time-clock. It's nice for our food to be as piping hot as we like; it's also nice (though not very healthy) to have a bottomless glass of soda (or beer); it's nice to get what we've paid for. But we should be mindful of those around the world who would love to have the food we complain of; we should be mindful of the fact that those who have prepared our food and those who have served our food probably feel just as over-worked and under-appreciated in their work as we do in our own.

You can see that we can be abstemious about not eating this or that--or eating less than this or that other amount--and still mistreat people. This is not what it looks like to resist a passion. Resistance to passion should move us to treat people better, not worse.

We should also focus much less on pleasing the palate, or our taste buds. Often what, and how much, we eat is dependent upon its taste and how much that taste pleases us. The more intense the sensory assault, the more we are likely to enjoy it. Ask yourself if you would drive as far, and with as much anticipation, for a meal of plain rice and beans, seasoned only with a bit of salt and pepper, washed down only with water, as you would for a simple burger and fries, washed down with a soda--much less for large plate piled high with Mexican food. Most of us would probably prefer almost anything but a dish of rice and beans. Why not, especially when, in most cases, that dish of rice and beans will be healthier than the burger, fries and soda, or even the Mexican food? Because, employing a comparison of sensory assaults, a plate of beans and rice is black-and-white analog television, while the alternatives are color-loaded HDTV. It's not about nourishment; it's about distraction from the cares of life, distraction mediated by that assault of sensory delights upon the palate.

Our use of food for purposes other than nourishiment may often be an attempt at self-consolation. Many of us are stressed, worried, figety, bored, dis-satisfied with our lives or otherwise without inner peace. In the same way that those who struggle with lust may turn to sexual gratification rather than to God when attempting to turn from their stresses pains and cares, we turn to food, seeking relief by using food and drink to stimulate the pleasure centers in our brains. We are even encouraged to do so. We attempt, in short, to employ food (among other things) to provide what only God can provide. For that moment, we feel so much better. That is what gluttony really is. And that is why Christian thinkers have always maintained that gluttony is a form of idolatry. It denies what God has said of himself: In His presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (see Psalm 16.11).

So pernicious is gluttony that Christian thinkers have long claimed that termperance is something like the mother of all virtues. The nineteenth-century Russian Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov said: "Wise temperance of the stomach is a door to all the virtues. Restrain the stomach, and you will enter Paradise. But if you please and pamper your stomach, you will hurl yourself over the precipice of bodily impurity, into the fire of wrath and fury, you will coarsen and darken your mind, and in this way you will ruin your powers of attention and self-control, your sobriety and vigilance."

The Westminster divines, like the desert fathers before them, thought that restraining the passions, even the passion of food, was an important and necessary pre-condition for obedience to God. As I mentioned above, as one of the duties implied by the prohibition of murder, the Westminster divines, in the Larger Catechism (Question 135), included "sober use of meat and drink." The context of the answer makes clear that the divines were looking at internal states of affairs, habits and dispositions (especially of mind) which serve as the pre-conditions for obedience:
A."What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?"
Q. "The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent."
Neither the desert fathers nor the Westminster divines were the first to meditate upon the pre-conditions for obedience. The Lord Jesus, speaking of the suddenness of his return, gave this warning to his disciples (Luke 21.34):
Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. 36 But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
The Christian life is a life of prayerful, priestly devotion to God, a life of watchful expectation of his return. We cannot live that life preoccupied with our taste buds and palates any more than we can live it in preoccupation with our sexual organs, material possessions or status. If we can't resist the demands of our palates, we may have little hope of resisting even greater temptations. In fact, it may be, as I've already suggested, that some of our eating may in fact be substitues for yielding to some of our other temptations.
10 May 2012
Wait! The military are fighting on whose behalf? POTUS seems to think it is his, not ours. Probably just a slip of the tongue.
Thomas Sowell on the crumbling of our moral infrastructure:

[W]hen did the 99% elect them as their representatives? If in fact 99% of the people in the country were like these "Occupy" mobs, we would not have a country. We would have anarchy. Democracy does not mean mob rule. It means majority rule. If the "Occupy" movement, or any other mob, actually represents a majority, then they already have the votes to accomplish legally whatever they are trying to accomplish by illegal means. Mob rule means imposing what the mob wants, regardless of what the majority of voters want. It is the antithesis of democracy.In San Francisco, when the mob smashed the plate-glass window of a small business shop, the owner put up some plywood to replace the glass, and the mob wrote graffiti on his plywood. The consequences? None for the mob, but a citation for the shop owner for not removing the graffiti.
Occupy is a term with military connotations. We should employ a term which more accurately describes them, something like Brownshirts. Maybe I exaggerate.

On the other hand, maybe I don't:
“The Obama administration and many of the un-elected ‘czars,’ either directly or indirectly, are engaged in covert activities with the occupy movement, various labor protests, and other subversive activities inside the U.S....”
POST SCRIPT: I neglected a tip-of-the-hat to Sarah Hoyt, guest-blogging for Glenn Reynolds.

Althouse: Obama's opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage ...

Althouse: Obama's opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage ...: He's always been for it. He's just now admitting it.
09 May 2012

Law school malpractice?



It would be great if law schools did devote attention to The Federalist. But they should also devote an equal amount of attention The Antifederalist. The "antifederalists" had keen insights into some of the problems with the new Constitution (as well as the true intentions of its proponents). For the most part, the prescience of the antifederalists has been ably demonstrated.


By God's grace, "Desert Theology" will resume soon. The last several months have required much in the way of reading, leaving very little time for writing. Next topic: gluttony.
07 May 2012

I suppose Europe could rediscover itself

But it really does, for now, seem to be dying, while America is, arguably, making a come-back..

Who knows. Maybe at the end of all this, Europeans will discover their own culture buried under two centuries of socialist and Marxist garbage: the Europe of Adam Smith and Tocqueville, of von Mises and Hayek, of Aristotle and Aquinas. Maybe they’ll realize their birthright as the original home of liberty and freedom, at long last.
Or not.

UPDATE: It occurs to me I should have added I would like very much for Europe to rediscover itself. Among other reasons, I was stationed in Europe with the Army years ago, and loved it there. But I don't hold out much hope, unless there is a mass re-commitment to their Christian roots. I suspect most Europeans don't see it that way.

Pay more and more, get less and less

Despite our spending more and more on education fewer and fewer adults are able do what used to be easy for most high school graduates: "writing clear, well-thought-out sentences. They’ve never been taught to do that and with each passing year, there are fewer teachers who might teach them how." ~ George Leef, here.

Why Harvard Law Took Elizabeth Warren

That's the title of a fine essay by Hans Bader at Minding the Campus.
Ordinary people have been fired from their jobs in Massachusetts for falsely claiming to be minority. As law professor David Bernstein notes, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the firing of two brothers from their jobs as Boston firefighters for racial fraud, since they had red hair and looked white, although they cited the existence of a black great-grandmother. But they weren't law professors. Politically speaking, they were nobodies. It's just one more illustration of how this country is becoming an "America of Inequalities"....
05 April 2012
David Boaz on the 'social Darwinism' nonsense, and why it's nonsense.


Like many politicans, Romney likes free speech, as long as there's "quality control". What Bill Clinton used to call a "truth detector"?

Don Cheadle, friend of justice.
04 April 2012
The philosopher in me wonders: For a given proposition, "P", and it's negation, "~P" (i.e., "not-P"), of what significance is it that 43% of one group believe "P" and 84% of some other group believe "~P"?


Maybe garbage like this explains why we continue to lag behind other nations in science education. Aside from the fact that most of us don't need to work sci and tech jobs.

"Hello, Pot? This Kettle. You're black." (See this, also.)

Kevin Drum on why inflation is good. (What he really shows is why free marketeers are right about the effects of a free market, especially for labor.)

Some people, like attorney David Dow, think judicial activism is a good thing. So good, in fact, that its practicioners deserve to be called prophets.
03 April 2012
61% of voters think it’s likely Obamacare will be repealed. And 54% favor repeal. That’s if the Supreme Court doesn’t strike it down first. The bad news: “...20% of voters think Congress has the constitutional authority to force everyone to buy health insurance.”

Having read most of the "Obamacare" bill before it was passed, I'm thinking: Why should the SCOTUS both to read legislation that Congress didn't bother reading?

I missed this last week: a brief amicus brief by Hewitt.

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About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 22 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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