Monday, May 28, 2012

Everlasting life or everlasting death?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines death as the separation of soul and body. This is a good theological definition, and as far as I am aware, harmonizes with all other Christian definitions of death (or what Revelation would call "the first death").

The definition comes in section 997, which has more to say in response to the question What is rising? It says, "In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus' Resurrection."

The completion of our salvation is not just our (re)union with God, but also the reunion of our immortal soul with our resurrected body on a resurrected (or renewed) earth. I bring this up to highlight a discrepancy between orthodox Christian doctrine and modern American folk religion, which tends to talk about salvation in terms of going to be with God in heaven forever. Such a view tends to see the body as a shell for the soul, which is "the real me," an idea captured best in the infamous funeral parlor poem "I'm Free."

Don't grieve for me, for now I'm free 
I'm following the path God has chosen for me. 
I took His hand when I heard him call; 
I turned my back and left it all. 

I could not stay another day, 
To laugh, to love, to work or play. 
Tasks left undone must stay that way; 
I've now found peace at the end of day. 

If my parting has left a void, 
Then fill it with remembered joys. 
A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss; 
Oh yes, these things, I too will miss. 

Be not burdened with times of sorrow;
Look for the sunshine of tomorrow. 
My life's been full, I savored much; 
Good friends, good times, a loved ones touch. 

Perhaps my time seems all to brief; 
Don't lengthen your pain with undue grief. 
Lift up your heart and peace to thee, 
God wanted me now-He set me free!

This popular theology (which is actually the manifestation of a Christian heresy) is labeled "Christo-Platonism" by Randy Alcorn's in his book Heaven. He points out that for Plato, matter is a hindrance to spirit, which means our bodies are a prison for our souls. Alcorn notes that, "But according to Scripture, our bodies aren't just shells for our spirits to inhabit; they're a good and essential aspect of our being" (pg 475). Jesus came to redeem our souls as well as our bodies. That's the significance of the incarnation and the resurrection--the redemption of matter.

Which got me to thinking . . . If your view of salvation is being eternally free from your body so that you can live with God in heaven, then do really believe in everlasting life? Or do you believe in everlasting death?

The Hail Mary and Memorial Day

The "Hail Mary" consists of two scripture quotes (Luke 1:28 and 42) followed by the petition, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." It is the most common petition made by living Christians to a departed Christian, asking the Mother of Jesus for her prayers.

The word "pray" means "ask", but it is often used in the wider sense of any communication, particularly communication directed to God or through God to the angels or the saints and other faithful departed. Protestants often object to the idea of prayer to the angels or the saints, despite the fact that such prayer is explicitly in the Bible: “Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his hosts” (Psalm 148:2).

If you accept the authority of the apocyphal/deuterocanonical sections of the Book of Daniel, there is also the song of the three young men in the fiery furnace (a Morning Prayer canticle in the Book of Common Prayer): “O ye Angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever. . . . O ye Spirits and Souls of the Righteous, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.”

Even if you don't consider that canticle to be scripture, and are unsure about the interpretation of Psalm 148:2 (or consider it an exception to the rule), you have prayed to the saints and angels if you have ever sung the hymn "Ye watchers and ye holy ones." Consider the words of that hymn (included in most Protestant hymnals):

1. Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs:
 Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

 2. O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of th’eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
Ye patriarchs and prophets blest, Alleluia! Alleluia!
Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
All saints triumphant, raise the song.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The first stanza addresses the nine choirs of angels, the second addresses the Blessed Virgin Mary, the third addresses the holy souls as well as the patriarchs, prophets, the holy apostles, the martyrs, and all the saints to join in the praise of God. Note that the first three stanzas are exclusively prayer to the angels and saints. The fourth stanza finally addresses the present congregation and all the living to join together in praise.

It occurred to me today that there is at least one other occasion when Christians pray to the dead who might otherwise object to it theologically. That is on Memorial Day, when we not only pause to show respect for our honored dead (and some pray for the repose of their souls) but when we also address them directly with the prayer, "Thank you." Some might object by saying we are simply thanking God for them and their sacrifice, and certainly that is done. But it is sheer ignorance to say that no thanks are directed toward those fallen in battle themselves (as we see in the cartoon above).

Having realized what they're doing, some might object on the ground of "necromancy"--that the bible forbids contact with the dead. But this is a misunderstanding of terms. Necromancy is an attempt to harness diabolical powers to (among other things) conjure up "familiar spirits." The Bible condemns this occult practice, which includes attempting to communicate with spirits through trances, seances, and incantations (see Leviticus 19:26, 31; 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:10-12; 1 Samuel 28:4-18; Isaiah 8:19; 47:12-14). Asking the saints for their prayers is not necromancy; nor is offering them our thanks or asking for their intercession.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that those who object to prayer to anyone but God have equated prayer with worship (which is odd in light of the frequency that the phrase "prayer and worship" is invoked in evangelical circles). Prayer (communication) and worship (giving divine honors to God) are two different things. Just as you can worship without prayer (e.g., making an offering, or silently adoring God's presence), so you can also pray without worship (e.g., "Thank you for laying down your life to defend our freedoms.").

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why the Holy Ghost is not "she" (in English)

I noticed recently in Bonnie Anderson's note of retirement from the presidency of the House of Deputies of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, she mentioned that "the Holy Spirit blows where she will." This is not an unusual occurrence. It is quite common for Christian feminists (both Protestant and Catholic) to employ the feminine pronoun for God, especially when speaking about the Holy Ghost.

Feminist theologian Rosemary Rutherford Ruether has been particularly influential in spreading the use of "she" for the Holy Spirit. In her Women-Church book, Ruether makes frequent reference to Wisdom as "God the Mother"--one important step in the task of "re-imagining" God.

The ancient heresy of Gnosticism also venerated divine Wisdom (the Greek word Sophia) as the female principle of androgynous Deity (or God's daughter) which was trapped in creation by disobedience. She was the fallen creator of earth, air, fire, and water and mother of the evil demiurge who was the God of Israel. Gnosticism often reversed stories in the bible so that, for example, Jesus or Wisdom was the serpent in the garden of Eden, sent to tempt us away from obedience to the evil God of Israel.

In the bible, "wisdom" is used as a personification of God, especially in the "wisdom literature" such as Proverbs. Since wisdom is a word with a feminine gender, feminist theologians tend to run with this and proclaim that God has a feminine aspect (in a sexual rather than simply a grammatical sense). This feminine aspect is usually associated with God the Holy Spirit because the Hebrew word ruach also has a feminine gender.

We should note here that people do not have gender, they have a sex (male or female). Gender has to do with grammar; words have gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter). English does not make as much grammatical use of gender as other languages do, which is why this sounds rather silly to our ears. There are some familiar exceptions such as the use of "she" for a boat or other such vessel.

Wisdom has been associated with the Holy Spirit a few times in Christian literature. I know of at least two Church Fathers (Theopilus and Ireneaus) who do so. I'm not aware of any Scriptures that equate personified Wisdom (Sophia) with the Holy Spirit. The closest I can find is the role of wisdom in inspiration or prophecy. Or a reference to the "spirit of wisdom" in Is 11:2--though this seems to me to be the spiritual gift rather than the Spirit himself. On the contrary, the identification of both Logos and Sophia with the second Person of the Trinity (Jesus) dominates in comparison. Likewise, many Church Fathers make that connection between Sophia and Christ explicitly.

God the Holy Spirit as a divine Person has no sex (male or female) because he has no body. The same is true for God the Father; he has no body and thus no sex. Only God the Son has a sex, and that is because he had a male body. Grammatically, sex will dictate gender. That is why, for example, we have male and female versions of the same name, like Julian/Julia and Alexander/Alexandra. However, the opposite is not the case; gender will not dictate sex. For example, the Greek word for rock (petra) is feminine, but that doesn't mean that rocks are girls.

God the Son is "he" for two reasons: it is dictated by his sex and by his relationship (Son). With God the Father, it is only by relationship--his "fathering" of creation and his "fathering of the Son"--that he is known as "he." And what about the Holy Spirit. Since we do not have a gender indicated by sex or by relationship, let's look at the grammar.

The two Hebrew words used for spirit have a feminine gender. Ruach is "she"; Nephesh is also "she." In Greek, the word "spirit" (pneuma) is neuter. Our synonymous English terms "Holy Spirit" and "Holy Ghost" come from the Latin and German sides, respectively. The Latin spiritus is masculine. The German geist is also masculine. Thus, speaking correctly, the Holy Spirit would be "she" when speaking in Hebrew, "it" (though, a personal "it") when speaking in Greek, and "he" when speaking in English.

That's why the Holy Spirit is not "she"--it would be bad grammar.