And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. Jn 12:47
We hear His words through the mediation of transcription and translation. How can we judge those who never hear Him, or who cannot believe what comes to them by translation, having never seen His works, if He refused to judge those who denied Him in His presence?
What answer will we receive if we ask the churchmen why some do not believe Jesus? We will hear of stubbornness and spiritual blindness, the mystery of election, and all manner of fables concocted to assuage our guilt. They cannot hear Christ because we settle for doctrines visibly and obviously less perfect than His. We, looking at certain of our brethren, see the dead among the living; and though it does take time for the Spirit to do Her work, the work is visible from the beginning. How is there room for race hatred, money worship, spectacle, judgmental hate (of convicts, drug users, the sexually active, the heterodox), warmongering, worldly mysticism, and the rest of the vices that are not only common in the church, but associated with the church by the people who stand outside it?
They were Christian who spearheaded abolition; they went every Sunday who owned slaves.
The logos of God is sharp as a double-edged sword — this is the word who became flesh, not the words we read. And we will offer God our logos (so says the same text). This logos is the will of self-consistency that gives words their meaning; it permits a true commitment and a true accounting; logic is the study of the consequences of various ways of doing it; it is present in the application of a definition, but it is so much more. Without this logos to cut bone from marrow, we cannot cut unbelief from belief. (This is not to say we should cast unbelievers out. The opposite is true. We must invite them in. But we must have some means to answer their heresies.)
For the sola scriptura Christian, the logos must answer the needs of a close reading. For the fidei depositum Christian (who rightly recognizes both the canon and the idea of sola scriptura as part of the fidei depositum) it must interpret the tradition; even an encyclical must be read and understood. There is no putting it off.
Here is how meaning works. There are certain actions (including thought) that the hearer may perform. These are immediately present at all times. The speaker, aware of actions in the hearer, will choose words that cleave to the actions intended, and stay far from actions unintended, with certain kinds of error deemed tolerable (or even desirable, in art) and others deemed intolerable. If it ended here, the game would be simple; but the hearer, likewise, knows that the speaker is doing this, and can listen for necessary signs of clarity, notice the safety of impossible meanings, and so on. No reader, I trust, will have read “cleave” to mean “split in two” — and any reader will sense that I trust in that.
This mutual interplay reflects indefinitely between speaker and hearer, even if the hearer never responds. The human brain is adept at this lightning-quick back-and-forth; most of what we sense as the “meaning” of a word, is our memory of accumulated games of sign construction, the way that a chess player can see the meaning of a board. Intuitively we feel this meaning as the sum total of all the relevant actions and corrections that pertain to it.
Yet to have this sense of meaning, we must have self-consistency. We must first submit to the logos, and it must be a submission even unto death. This is why Jesus speaks of committing to our own disadvantage, of not swearing by anything, of letting our yes be yes and our no, no: so that we will not come to a strait where we say, “I said it but I did not swear it.” We must make our words have their full meaning, so that if we are convinced of something, we will act — and knowing that we will act, and pay the consequence, we must be rigorous in our thought.
Nor is it necessary to distinguish an “action” from anything else that creates a difference in outcome — meaning is concerned with the differentiation of outcomes, and the whole inner model of the world is constructed of these potential differences. Elsewhere I will go into this to a minute level of detail, even constructing a system of logic from it. But for purposes here, we must understand that meaning always inheres in the distinction between two possible messages, in terms of the outcomes they produce. These outcomes will be in the mind, in the world, and in eternity, but they are all the same from the standpoint of choosing words and phrasing.
The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD. Proverbs 17:33
Of a text by any author, we know that all outcomes known to that author will be considered in determining phraseology. Of a text inspired by the Holy Spirit, we know that every outcome, every consequence of the text being read, is known from the beginning. These are all balanced against each other in the usual way: which entire outcomes are most to be desired, and which are possible, given all facts about the outcome — which are affected, for instance, by the cost of copying the text down the years, the quality of scholars available to translate it, and the degree to which the logos is respected in reading it. (It is this last that we can help even now.)
What must be said, then, is that the Spirit was indeed aware of the effect on you of wording a passage a certain way — and to the degree that the Spirit was given control (she must be given, and will not take, control) and must also consider other readers, she did indeed write it so for your sake. Oddities in wording have all been insulation against catastrophic misreadings, and the feedstock of the work she has performed in particular souls.
For the Spirit to recover something from the text, however, which is not recovered by the logos, she must give you a new and separate revelation. This is what the demand comes to, that the Holy Spirit guide us in all of our reading: and I do not deny that she may see fit to do it, but why not do it in meditation or in nature’s beauty? If God saw fit to tell us His truth as if it were a secret, His Spirit could do it without obstruction, with or without the text. It may, indeed, be that the Spirit works in everyone to the degree it is possible without contravening their makeup; this may be the nature of the common grace. The quality of the soul for the purpose is determined, always, by its adherence to the logos and devotion to love.
So it goes with translation. The Spirit can, by foreknowledge, choose a particular word in the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, that will cause a later translator to use a particular word in the Vulgate or Douay-Rheims or KJV, to have a certain effect. But just because the Spirit can do this does not mean we may presume she must. There is no possible way to extract meaning from this effect, and to do so would be divination. Yet the effect may, even must, be real.
Our careful reading is a gift offered up to the Spirit. It is a way of taking the worst seat at the banquet table. The Spirit is free to make things easy on others, as she sees fit, but for us? We will do our homework. We will eat the scraps. Only you will find, if you do it, that you have been moved to the head of the table.
This also makes the inspiration of the text into something that is neither special nor magical, concerning the text. The Spirit is always at work, moving small details into place for those who are faithful to the LORD — who are meek and strong, who are willing to lose everything, not just life but their good name and happiness too, who love their enemies yet still have enemies.
The Spirit is more powerful by far than she is made out to be by those who say she merely guides Christians in reading the text. If she guides us at that time, it is because we, in diligent submission to the logos, make ourselves easily led, and she acts simultaneously in the present and the past to convey meaning — to distinguish and actuate action.
If we are unwilling to act on account of what we read, there is nothing in us to stir to life. We may not be compelled to sell all we have, give up meat, or risk immediate death, but until we would do it if we were convinced, the Spirit will not stir, any more than if we read scripture to a beast. No one who prioritizes the delights of this life, or who is gravely put-upon by their absence, will be very far compelled by the Spirit.
One must, in short, commit to the entire work of love, before the Spirit will do her work.
And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. Jn 10:16
Faith is the characteristic that makes it possible to abide by the logos, to keep one’s word and to obey. The only sense in which it indicates belief, is that in which a faithful person will act according to beliefs: To have faith is not merely to believe, and it certainly is not to believe the unbelievable. It is the ability to act consistently and persistently in the midst of chaos, fear, and confusion. The sheep of the logos do indeed have faith, and they do indeed hear His voice: and they are of many folds, have begun on different lines of reasoning, which they must, in their faith, complete.
The perfect faith will, indeed, act according to its well-considered beliefs in the face of the gates of hell. It is for this reason that we cannot simply ask the secular world to accept the creeds; if they have not already been moved to do it, it is their faith that keeps them from doing it. We must walk with them. (Some do lack faith; they cannot give their word and keep it. That a matter of health, a matter for healing.)
The creeds give us a shortcut to the same truth that can, in principle, be reached by other means. This may be strange to consider. But it always has been held that the Trinity created the world in full deliberation, that (as Genesis has it) the Spirit was there; that (as the Proverbs have it) Wisdom was there; that (as John has it) the Logos was there. Ours is not an arbitrary order, established by fiat alone; yet it is not one that can be approached step-by-step from worldly precepts, either.
Without something that simply is by its nature, nothing can ever be; without something that submits to consistency by its nature, nothing can ever submit to consistency; without something that conveys meaning between those modes, by its nature, nothing can ever convey meaning between those modes.
For when God was considering creation, before the act had begun, there was the possibility before Him of every possible creation, and each one may be understood as a complete mathematical object, each of its parts overlapping or interacting in all the ways that logos makes possible. The meaning of creating, as opposed to not creating, one of these objects is the question of whether to breathe the Spirit in, whether to make it into a subjective experience. God the Father is pure Being, that which (in eternity, not just time) supports itself in existing. God the Son, which is the Divine Word, is the perfect capacity to take up a possibility and permit it to be: it is easy to see that this is begotten of the Father. In the Spirit of God there is the perfection of meaning; she proceeds from the Father and from the Son (or perhaps her character as she proceeds from the Son is that of Wisdom).
For the atheist, then, we may point this out: The cosmos will be one of a number of mathematical structures, and the difference between the cosmos that exists and any other potential cosmos is that one contains parts (at least) with subjective existence. It had in it the potential for consciousness to emerge; yet only what is present in a substance already can emerge from it. But it cannot have had that potential as a mathematical structure, for just as mathematics operates by the mind and hands of a mathematician, the reality of mathematics always comes to it from some other substrate. This is much of the meaning of the Logos: there is something, which exists from eternity, by which the self-consistency of mathematics is made real.
The deliberation by which this created order was selected, and not some other order, is itself a mathematical structure, so the whole act is present in the decision to create the order settled upon by deliberation. The decision was, in other words, to create whatever deliberation settled upon. And in this light, we are still in the midst of that deliberation; time itself is the table of the conversation.
To believe a difficult creed by faith, is to agree to continue from that point without understanding. It is enough for the believing soul and has lead to much that is good. But it leaves us unable to give meaningful advice to anyone who does not see the difference between believing in the Trinity and believing in Vishnu, or who sees in the Trinity three gods, or who cannot conceive of a virgin birth.
The doctrine of the Trinity, as laid out by Athanasius, is not difficult. It is not confusing. We are confounded by our lack of faith, that is, self-consistency and logos, in reading it. It is good to put aside that confusion for a time, to grow into faith, but eventually the faith will be present by which we can read a simple declaration and understand it. The matter of confusion is what it is for something to be a god, that is, how one god can be three persons, and yet each person not be a god. For a god is something which contextualizes what is otherwise known to the individual, an embedding in which every moment takes its cast of meaning; in Him we live and move and have our being. The three persons are one god; they do not separately grant propitiation, they do not separately exist.
Being able to persist in faith has the character that, like steel, it can be fashioned into any needed structure; only our faith is more subtle, being spiritual in nature and expressing itself in fullness of life. If iron atoms suddenly stopped behaving like iron, in a moment the strongest steel sword would fall apart. Faith makes it possible for something to exist that does not, outside of our consistent activity, exist. Faith makes weeks and jobs and countries, as much as it makes logicians and Christians.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Mt 22:40
If the law and the prophets hang on love of God and love of neighbor, then so does their interpretation. For each utterance, the intended outcome must be loving. It is not enough to say, “this law is loving, because its violators will burn, and it is better to be corrected than to burn,” which is circular, and does not explain why God, who is love, would issue such a self-justifying law. We can assume that no law or prophetic utterance is self-justifying in this way. (Arguments that we can only learn of God through a revelation are wrong in their intent because even sense experience is revelation.)
We must also be careful not to presume the direction of the law. Laws regarding slavery regulate a pre-existing practice; we can learn from them certain truths that should pertain also to wage slavery, but we cannot deduce that slavery is permissible. We know that the writ of divorcement was given “for the hardness of their hearts,” when divorce meant depriving a woman of her means of survival; we must follow the lead of our teacher and understand that other laws, such as the slavery laws and perhaps the dietary laws, were for that purpose too. God can only push so hard without breaking us: if our hearts are hard and we will not love, then He would at least give us a space in which to grow into love.
The need to regard laws as divinely inspired in what is called the plain reading, which is the reading that agrees best with our baggage, forces other divides, such as between the ceremonial and the moral law. (There is excellent scholarship on Hebrew sacrificial practices and there is much to learn from it. Do you really know what ritual uncleanness means?) Augustine said that the law against killing meant “Thou shalt not kill man” and some translations have “Thou shalt not murder,” but it really was “Thou shalt not kill” — and I choose, in this case and others, the harder form.
The law was always two things: a tutor and a skin against our moral nakedness. And that moral nakedness is precisely our unlovingness. The law teaches us to love, if we will follow it broadly; but if we seek to hedge it and control it, it cannot teach us anything. If we use it as a legalistic rule, which we must obey or become guilty, we will always seek to narrow it; if we understand it as a tutor, then sinfulness must precede the law in nature, must be unlovingness, and the question of guilt makes no sense to us, because our concern is that we have been unloving, not whether we will be faulted or punished. If the law opens our eyes to instances where we have failed to love, then God bless it. If punishing me makes something up to someone I have wronged, sates their unforgivingness, then punish me.
Then we must read the law looking diligently for ways we have been unloving, and the prophets to guide us to new ways to love. This is what they hang on: This is how we will use them. And every time we come up with an interpretation, we can pause and ask, “Is there a risk that this interpretation will become unloving? Then what must we distinguish?”
Abimelech credits God with saving him from sinning, when he would have taken Sarah. (No one, it seems, thought to ask her.) This is precisely what we need to pray for — not to be led into evil. For it seems that, if our heart is willing not to sin, willing not to be unloving, God is willing to lead us out of it. It is when the hardness of our heart will not consider another way that we sin.
Sin, as a concept, is fraught with its association with guilt. And this association is not wrong or unscriptural. I am pointing towards something stronger, not something weaker: To say that if I am guilty of breaking the law, I am also guilty of not loving; and if I will be forgiven my sin, then I will gladly let go the guilt of breaking the law, but may I correct my failure to love, at any cost, anyway?
Here is what I posit as the interpretation of law. It pertains to what has been said of meaning; that the hearer and the speaker mutually consider the actions that may result from the interpretation, and both have them in mind. It pertains further to the hinge of the law, which is love. It holds that all laws must be understood as exemplars of a principle, and that that principle must be extended as far as possible — or as far as love necessitates, but when law still serves as tutor, what do we yet know of the extent of love? — and then we must feel ourselves forced by situations to break the law. This we must do as little as possible, and feel grieved at it.
Take the simple example of the law against killing. I say it is “Thou shalt not kill” — so I say it extends as far as plants. What absurdity! Must we then weigh a human life against some number of plants, considered for their own sakes? No; the balance tips extremely. Indeed it is fine to kill a plant for any reason — so long as there is a reason. It is fine to kill an animal out of necessity — whether because it cannot be fed, or because it is a hazard, or because its kind have become too numerous, or because a family must be fed — yet we should be grieved at it and desire not to do it. We should desire this to the point of planning ahead — a failure to neuter a cat is a violation of the law against killing.
The whole purpose of our faith is the projection of love. The purpose of the law is to commute faith into love: some people are given the gift of faith by nature; very few are given love. (Many are given empathy, and where empathy ends — nothing.) See that you do not smother the love in someone who has love but very little faith; the law is the wrong medicine for them.
The law must not be circumscribed. It is sufficient to say “thou shalt not kill,” for the law is a tutor; of my every act of killing I may ask, “must I kill? know I no other way?” and let the law work in me its tutelage. “Is this stealing? Must I steal?” “Is this covetousness? Must I covet?” Indeed, the wolf is not guilty on account of killing, in which sense it is sinless; yet it is not able to love its prey. When we demand that the law never indict us when we are doing our best, we demand the kind of law that would judge us, rather than the kind that would teach us.
We must extend the law to its moral completion and beg to be allowed to follow it. We must not be undone by those moments when we have violated it in the clearest terms. God has already had mercy.
Where it comes to explaining these things to those sheep of the Logos who are in other folds, we must prepare the argument that is palatable to them and it must at every stage be true. It must admit fact as mere possibility, as it admits counterfactuals, for they must come to the truth by whatever path their feet can walk. Most of us would be unwilling, I think, to countenance “The Unknown God,” which Paul used to such effect.
When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth Proverbs 8:27
God, I have said, breathed life into a mathematical structure — the Father imparts His own being through the Spirit into a cosmos defined by the Son. His wrath with the cosmos reflects the places where being is put in intolerable straits by it: but the alternative is for it not to be. Having had a choice of structure, one was made which seems to run on its own, so that the parts of it will themselves be mathematical entities that could have been created as the entire cosmos, in union with the Trinity. God could, to put it bluntly, have dreamed up and made any given saint instead of making anything else. God could, as He begged Moses to let Him do, have made Moses a nation.
This love is a love for the potential creation, as though it longed for a lost love until the beloved is actual. This created order includes a strong component of give calculated to give the Spirit plenty of play — it is possible, for any plausible event, to contrive particular outcomes of very tiny events, at whatever remove from it, that lead to its taking place. This goes beyond the inspiration of texts, as I applied it before, and on into the inspiration of events — I will not weigh on miracles, because the obvious point about miracles is that they are trivially possible, but it is extremely hard to believe any given event on the basis of a written record. (Or, I hasten to add, based on video.) Yet a miracle can never give evidence for the power of God: You have some other god in mind, if you think it can: Repent.
It is quite probable that the value of a subjective moment — perhaps measured in terms of its closeness to the divine — is itself the thing sought after in settling little momentary chances, so that a moment of theosis or beatific vision is a great sink towards which the flow of reality, both before and after it, tends. Because of the beauty another will feel, perhaps I feel a draw to do the thing that results in that moment. (And this, I think, is the work of the Spirit.)
So the work of the Son in physics is the consistency of events and particles, the work of the Spirit is in selecting out chains of self-consistent events (not merely arbitrating quantum collapse), and the Father, as always, provides the perfection of Being. As this mathematical structure is chosen out from eternity, and not within time, the whole of it is under His control — yet each entity within it is given its full freedom, and that is the reason this order was chosen. Indeed, there are relatively few structures that give their entities the kind of freedom we have in this one.
We ought to pursue the good of others as though it brought no good to us — we ought to pursue their good when it harms or even destroys us, without a second thought. But once every option is open in us, so that we would give up everything or endure anything, the Spirit has room to work in us our greatest good (which may yet involve a violent death — do not be deceived. Or it may involve a very long life, with peace and ever-improving medicine. Let God choose.) Given all escapes and alternatives, I would love fully, grieve deeply, and serve. Do the same.
Be a seat of control through which God can conduct the world easily: where many large potential differences in the world are anchored to a small store of localized give that is offered up willingly as a holy sacrifice of mercy. The ties tying the world to that localized give are, of course, faith; and the structure is given by logos; and its purpose is love. So we must seek wisdom and understanding and practice self-control and discipline and everything that makes us more effective, while tolerating nothing in ourselves that leaves sin a place to hide.
They hated me without a cause. Jn 16:25
Guilt, too, gives sin a place to hide. It covers over the real consequences of what was done with the fig leaf of a bad feeling; and when the bad feeling is no longer a compelling reason, it frees you to sin again. When you are free, as Paul says, considering all things permissible (but not all beneficial) then is the Spirit free to overcome sin in you. You must confront sin as a failure to love. (This is more than not causing harm. It is loving as God would have you love yourself.)
You are required to administer the good that you do as effectively as you are able. Perhaps, for you, this means budgeting and researching. Perhaps it means earning less money and giving your time. Or perhaps you know you have something to say, and it is right for you to spend long hours writing. Only you can know. But you must listen to good counsel.
There is, in our common understanding of sin, much hatred of good things that God has made. God administered delightful pleasures to be a part of our being — and when they are strictly less important to us than love, every one of them is blessed. We must let them go easily when we need to, be willing to let them go easily at all times.
The evil of gluttony, for instance, is its preference of food to right administration of wealth, bodily health, and the lives of animals. (There was a songbird eaten in France, eaten bones and all, whose devourers covered their heads with towels, it is said, to hide from God.) The evil of lust is in its willingness to take an unwilling partner, its refusal to consider the generative reality of the act, its reduction of a person to an object, and its failure to take its place in a complete understanding of life. Regard for money is always idolatry; and though we know that idols are nothing, we cannot worship them; and money demands worship, from rich and poor alike. Every time you think it natural that someone does not have something because they do not have money — you mean that they must bow low to Mammon. Wrath perverts righteous anger, which serves well when situations demand (contrary to our preference, in love) immediate intervention, when someone is trading something precious for something crass and must be stopped. It feeds on the steady manufacture of outrage — does this sound familiar?
Have mercy, deep mercy, on people who perform acts that look sinful to you — who have sex with people you think they should not, who enjoy foods you think are too decadent (if anyone thinks that anymore), who engages in that acts are at least immediately loving. This may be baseless hatred. I know the texts well; there are laws against sodomy and Paul took it for granted that it was disreputable — and even he just says not to judge them. As for Sodom, Ezekiel says she was destroyed for failing to strengthen the hand of the poor.
Sexual purity laws pertain to the system of marriage and to the protection of the vulnerable. (If someone is a prostitute on account of poverty, and you exploit that instead of giving your money freely, you have no charity in you.) The system of marriage was itself a system for the protection of the vulnerable. It was the primary means given by which women could support themselves; and it is probable that limiting this support only to married women, was for the hardness of the people’s hearts.
Holy orders that have chastity in their vows are always to be commended. Sexual desire, unlike hunger, can be ignored harmlessly. We must order matters so that no one who is struggling with temptation will be put upon by it; the market economy presently does the opposite. If you are involved in work tempting your neighbors, you must stop, no matter the cost to you. (If your neighbor has stopped, you must help out, whatever the cost to you.)
If you wrong me, I will forgive you. You know that now and may exploit it. I permit that. But if you wrong anyone else, we're going to have to talk. And if you keep on doing it, we're going to have to get physical. If you must not hate your enemy then you must not hate. You may destroy, undo, unmake, rebuild, transform — and when you really cannot help it, kill — but you must not hate.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
Nothing you do with your hands has any effect unless nature responds. Your work is a conversation with God, mediated through physical things. Your decision to act is already a prayer — one which you think you know will always be answered. And when it is not answered, you feel frustration; you must learn not to feel frustration. To the degree that you can accomplish a purpose by the work of your hands — and this is a very great degree — you must presume that God prefers that your prayer take that form. If He sees fit to bless or to frustrate your endeavors, there is nothing in that to distinguish from granting or denying your prayers.
Indeed, He is a good father, and when He frustrates your plans, you may well feel blessed. You have been kept, quite possibly, from doing something unloving; or at least pushed to the side for something momentarily more important. Yet you must not try to read His will from events: That is divination. You may trust that He arranges things, but you must not try to derive any knowledge from that arrangement. He may desire that you persist, just as easily as that you give up. So there must be some other way to determine what to do.
As to your inward thoughts, we have scriptural assurance that He hears them. Anything we ask for that is to our good, He will grant. But our good is achieved in loving, not in receiving goods that have been marketed, not in satisfying the desires that hound us, but in quashing them.
The notion of embedding gives a simple way to build up to a trust that God hears prayer. My mind may appear, for anything I know, in any of many contexts: in a mechanistic world, in a simulation, in a world with many gods, or in God. It may also appear again — for instance, after the end of time, perhaps other people will have occasion to hear what I have thought. (These ideas are heterodox. Please understand that they are temporary.) In this last case, for instance, I may desire that my thoughts be something that other people would be pleased to hear; for it may be unloving to harbor an unloving thought. In the general case, some subset of my thoughts is accessible from some subset of eternity: this much I think we can say is orthodox. My thoughts are a part of the whole conscious experience that God sees fit to optimize, which is the object of love, and I may therefore take it for granted that they are involved in the original deliberation: indeed, prayer may be precisely our taking part in the deliberation of the three-in-one.
In this light, we can see clearly the kinds of prayer that will be acceptable. We may argue that such and such a thing can be cleaned off and made right. We may offer ourselves up as a sacrifice. We may earnestly desire the good of anyone; we may say, “perhaps a certain outcome must come about, but must it be achieved like this?” If we understand ourselves as seated, by invitation, as equals with the godhead at the table of creation, then we understand the kind of prayer we ought to pray — indeed, the kind of thought we ought to think.
(Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven…)