All posts by Ed Pluchar

Spirit and Letter of the Law

The Pharisees made an art and a science out of observing the Law of Moses, cowing many followers into observing the endless minutiae and machinations they had devised.  It was indeed a heavy burden – was God really like this?

Or should the commandments of God liberate us from sin, and cut a path to His love and mercy?

Along comes Jesus, who earlier permitted his disciples to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath, and now was healing on the Sabbath.  How could he explain this over and above the endless strictures concerning the day of rest?  -which strictures certainly appeared to take the command “Keep holy the Sabbath” as seriously as possible.

Jesus’ justification is two-fold:  First, a man is more valuable than a sheep (and the Pharisees would certainly rescue their own sheep from harm on the Sabbath).

Second – of course it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.  The whole point – of all God’s commands – is that we ought to do good.  But we sin, so we require God’s mercy and guidance to do good rather than to sin.  The commandment regarding the Sabbath was directed toward being holy – not toward following a rule.

The commandments are not for nothing.  They are the pattern of behavior, the focus and discipline of a man’s spirit toward the will of God.  If you follow them because you love God, you will do well!

If you follow them because you love power and influence, because you leverage them so that men will grovel at your feet or struggle to be conformed to your image, now that you have sufficiently misshapen the Law…

Right then, it is time to turn back.  Immediately.  Turn around – you’ve gone far, far off the path.

But take heed… a viper would be found far off the path.

 

See it again, one more time:   If there had been no Fall, there would be no Law.  We would be inclined toward the Good, and thus “all things are permissible.”

As it is, there was a Fall – and therefore we are profoundly broken.  We see good, and perceive that it is evil.  We see evil and imagine it is good.  It is an honest mistake, or it would be a diabolical one.

To counter-act this, God established rules-laws-patterns of behavior that would settle all disputes within the will (and the community).  My fallen nature urges me toward an illicit act.  But it is powerful and feels genuine – why not act on it?

There might not be any reason to avoid doing so, except the Law.  Of course, even that was violated, but at least we could then recognize we had sinned, and were in need of a Savior…

Therefore, the Law was good – profoundly good, so that not one iota would be altered until heaven and earth disappear.

And it was this profound good that the Pharisees had appropriated for their own gain.  The promise of God, that one would find true peace and prosperity and joy in following the commandments (“Lord, I love your commands!”), became a long chain of shackles hammered together by men too small to let their brothers live free.  It became an admixture of their neuroses and scruples, their leverage from a distance of a great weight upon their brothers.

This weight they attempted to foist upon and trap Jesus, the Messiah.  As if to anticipate the old atheist riddle, they burdened the Son of God with a weight they imagined he could not handle.

Notice, though:  There is a rock so big that God cannot lift it.  That is, of despair.   And with so many laws, and laws upon laws, and consequences of laws that must be addressed by still more laws, one could easily find, say, lepers and paralytics and tax collectors laden with such an impossible weight.

For love of them – the lost – Jesus flares up with indignation.  His Law – an instrument of liberation – bent back upon itself and sharpened into an instrument of condemnation.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

 

No – the purpose and the end are God.  They always were.  It was always – dimly – the Beatific Vision, the “well done, good and faithful servant!”  The Fall was a happy fault, because God would not, even then, abandon us.  He would find a still more incredible way to point us back to Him, and deliver us.

And we might say – He’ll be damned if His own rules are going to be used against Him.  How true.

Spirit and Flesh – 6

Another great example of a natural metaphor to explain a supernatural phenomenon is evidenced by the manifold answers to the following question:

What, exactly, did Jesus accomplish on the Cross?

It is cast as ransom for a prisoner, as redemption of a slave, as rescue from behind enemy lines, as a jailbreak from the gates of Hell, as vicarious suffering of a punishment, as repayment of a debt, as a lamb being led to slaughter, as a new Passover (itself somewhere between physical/historical and spiritual)…and this is just off the top of one’s head.

What is interesting is that one is often taught that no single metaphor captures it.  In fact, some are downright scornful for some scholars, except that they appear in Scripture, and so must be addressed.  The redemption of a slave received this treatment recently.

I am personally of the view that we should not be so quick to judge Scripture, and that whatever the case may be just is the case.  If God Himself would tell us to imagine we were slaves (to sin) and that He came to redeem us for a price (His suffering and death), what exactly is my objection?  That He did not order the Universe properly so as to avoid a slave analogy?  That He did, in fact, redeem me?  Nonsense.

Anyway, this great spiritual reality strains all analogies, which is a lesson that the spiritual realm is truly a different realm.  Just as new formulas and rules govern 2D geometry and 3D geometry (and beyond), so are there new rules in the spiritual which we can hardly begin to imagine by way of the physical.

One of the more acute ways of demonstrating this point follows:  Imagine you are speaking to a man who has been blind since birth.  How would you describe a beautifully cut, flawless diamond?

You could approach it – perhaps some exquisite smell, like a rose, with an almost geometric perfection – or perhaps by means of heat and texture, as well as construction that might be conveyed by touch.  You see the point, though.

In no way have you shown this man the diamond.  And we left you the benefit of four senses.

Likewise, in no way do we really understand what Jesus accomplished by His Passion and death.  Yet even a child can understand it was marvelous, miraculous work, and precious to possess.

 

Nota bene:  Naturally, these metaphors do not refer to purely physical phenomena.  The social construct of slavery, for example, does not appear to have any parallel in the animal kingdom, and relies on abstractions such as dignity (or lack thereof) and power.  The spiritual analog is, therefore, a next-level abstraction.

Spirit and Flesh – 5

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

– John 1:1-2, 4-5

Supposing you had a real but indescribable experience – how do you go about sharing it with a friend or confidant?

Consider an epiphany you’ve had.  There was some problem, some riddle of existence which you could not answer.  Perhaps for days, perhaps for years, you sought the answer and could not find it.  (We are already speaking in metaphor, but hang with me).

And then, quite unexpectedly, you had it.  The answer.

Now the physical phenomenon of an epiphany might be described as a new neuro-pathway, the literal (physical) firing of synapses across particular neurons in a particular order which rendered the new thought to your consciousness (whatever that is).

For one thing, this is a quite dull and tedious way of telling the story of your epiphany, but let it pass.

For a second thing, it is anything but clear that thought is, our could be, a purely physical phenomenon.  Never mind this, too.

The salient point is that the truth discovered, the object of the epiphany, the objectiveness of the truth, is non-material.  Insomuch as we engage with it, then, we are operating in the abstract/spiritual realm.

So when you say something like, “And then I saw it…” or “That’s when the light bulb came on…” – which functionally mean the same thing – you are pulling an abstract experience through the filter of a physical experience.

Or, you are reaching up to understand the abstract by means of the physical, which is the thesis here.

Now what if (literally) God came to Earth and became (literally) man, and dwelt among us?  What if this God-man taught and demonstrated a doctrine which corrected our moral and intellectual (spiritual) deviancies, healed and exalted our wounded bodies (literally) so that we might transcend them to a greater reality?  How would you describe this experience?

You might call Him the Light of the world.  You might describe Him as irresistible, unassailable, like a light in darkness – in no way can the darkness overcome the light.  Just so, in no way could evil overcome Him or His mission.*

And if you’ll accept the Gospel and believe in Him, that same invincibility – on the spiritual level – is conferred upon you.

Next example…

*Arguably, even mission is a metaphor.

Spirit and Flesh – 4

We have laid out three ways of knowing the spiritual realm, which is further proposed as the true realm.  The physical realm is but an echo.

The difficulty remains that – ordinarily –  we know the physical realm with a higher degree of confidence than the spiritual.  It feels more real because it is more obvious and less deniable.

There is a reason, after all, that apostates are made by imprisonment and torture.

So if there are three ways of knowing the spiritual, which are nevertheless nebulous to the populace; and if we have a systematic and reliable way of learning about the physical; what could ground us more firmly in true knowledge of the spiritual?

Here is my thesis:  The spiritual realm is the source of the physical.  It is often analogous to, but not an exact emanation of, the spiritual.

In some ways this sounds like Plato.  I said before – honestly – that I don’t know whether the world of Forms is real.  Nevertheless, we are not saying that there are forms, per se.  We are saying that, if one imagines that forms exist, it gives us a useful way of learning about the spiritual from our experience of the physical.

Indeed, suggesting that humans have a spiritual sense captures what we’re about here – that one’s physical senses are analogous to one’s spiritual sense.

But what if your spiritual sense is dull, or inoperative?  Or what if you simply don’t trust it?

What if you think Plato is interesting, but he’s mostly talking ho-bunk?

If, still, you wish to learn something about the spiritual realm, I suggest you can learn it by a careful study of the physical realm.  We’ll take some examples next time.

 

There is a reason, after all, that saints are made by imprisonment and torture.

Spirit and Flesh – 3

We have established that humanity, over and above the emus, has an innate sense of the spiritual realm, and this is demonstrated by the persistence of religion in human life, among other things.  Against the naturalist, we see the impossibility that human life could have been purely physical, because of the ease with which humans engage in abstractions.

In other words, a single kiss from my daughter is the kiss of death for Naturalism.  Requiescat in pace.

This frees us to advance:  What do we know about the spiritual realm, anyway?  What can we know?

Our difficulty is that the physical realm seems so…well, obvious, immediate.*  When we want to say something about the physical realm – the sun is shining, the tree is blooming – these things are generally provable by observation.  Humans broadly agree about the facts right in front of them, in this sense – we don’t argue with the weatherman about whether it’s raining, nor the traffic reporter, for that matter, who sees down the road and looks upon other roads.

The spiritual realm is not verifiable in the same way.  It is not engaged with by means of the physical senses…though, it can be indirectly verified that way.  Let us return to that another time.

For now, the grievance of the naturalist is more important than his arguments:  If beliefs aren’t scientifically verifiable, then anyone can believe anything they like!  How can this rise to the level of knowledge?

That’s true.  That’s a good point.

One argument, which we have alluded to already, is that humans have a spiritual sense.  It “looks” upon the world and detects certain abstractions, like good and evil, beauty, even truth.  The philosopher Alvin Plantinga says we have a “sense of the divine” which justifies our belief in God.

For another argument, we derive from Plato the world of “forms,” which are abstract and ideal molds from which the physical instances are derived.  Is there an ideal form of a chair?  I don’t know, but there is something remarkable about the ability to make a chair without explicit instructions, as though the idea exists as a universally accessible concrete entity.

Let’s take a third.  That is, the natural order appears to be governed by laws, which laws have no physical properties.  These laws are often expressed by mathematics, which is the highest point of agreement between the naturalist and the supernaturalist – math works, is practically the most reliable form of knowing that there is.

Whereas the naturalist may agree that mathematics is the language of the Universe, the supernaturalist goes further and says that information does not simply occur, but is articulated by someone or something.  Math is preceded by Logos, which gives the Universe structure and predictability and knowability.

And so, we can have knowledge of the spiritual realm by direct experience of it (the spiritual sense), by abstraction from the physical structures to a spiritual ideal, and by observing that the physical realm operates according to non-physical laws, which laws must have their own reality.

Any of these, arguably, is more reliable that the physical world itself as a deliverer of truth.  You will find people who claim to have seen the spirit world in a vision or a near death experience.  You will find others who hold to the Platonic view of the world.  And still others construct reality on a foundation of abstractions – arguably, all of modern science, for a start – and build a monument of knowledge thereupon.

 

*Who stops to wonder – is this by design?

Spirit and Flesh – 2

A basic biological creature – an emu, perhaps – only deals in the physical.  Life is all hatching and growing and foraging and mating and running and dying.  Often it’s not quite that good.

By the naturalist’s account, this ought to be everything for humanity, and we may as well enjoy it while it lasts.

It would be everything, except for that pesky “brain virus” that clings to religion, that continues to believe old fairy tales against all experience and evidence…or so they would have you believe.

I don’t notice the godless being all that critical about paganism.  They will tell you this is because the pagans do not trouble them, but they are ignorant of history and human nature besides.

It is more a case of making allies with a common enemy.  If modern religion disappeared, Paganism would immediately gain from it.  We know this by looking back before Christianity emerged, and noting that human nature has not changed.

But Paganism is the bellwether of Naturalism’s demise – its miscarriage, really.  If Naturalism could not dam up religion from the earliest days, it never had a chance.*

Why is this significant?  The question is the answer.

That is, significance is the first handhold out of the physical realm.  If physical objects can be imbued with meaning beyond their physical utility, then we are also engaging in a realm beyond physical activity.

Think of a flower, for instance.  It has physical utility, a place in the natural order.

Now think of giving a flower.  One is not offering the flower in order to pollinate another flower, or for ingestion, or for composting or anything else.  Instead, the giver and the receiver both perceive an abstract (roughly, a spiritual) significance to the flower and the act of giving the flower.

This is what the naturalist could not prevent from happening, never could prevent from happening.

 

*The usual line is that humanity has sufficiently advanced, or will inevitably advance, such that religion will be seen for the fraud it is.  They believe we will see Christianity like we now see Roman paganism.

As a matter of fact, the sword has another edge – if the Stoics and the Enlightenment could not free the world from the grip of religion, it is doubtful that anything else could.  Rather, one religion comes to dominate another at any given point in time.

Spirit and Flesh – 1

What one must immediately see is that the spiritual and the physical are completely different.  And we have always seen this.

They are parallel lines, running together but never crossing.  If we were mere physical creatures – like the lower animals – a “spiritual realm” would never occur to us.  Even among men, we are dismayed at those who are singularly focused on the physical – a woman obsessed with her looks, a man with his riches.

Just so, the spiritually obsessed are often mocked, detached as they are from the most basic and necessary elements of living on a physical planet.  The ditz, the new age believer – we instinctively understand that they enjoy a disposition supported by those who daily reckon with the elemental – dirt and steel and sweat and disappointment.

But the spiritual is more real, the foundation of the physical.  God spoke the Universe into existence, and not the other way around.

So, why not detach from the physical?  Why not all be esoterics?

Surely you’ve thought of that.  And what came of it?

You’re here, reading today – surely you’ve thought of forsaking the world completely, praying all night, perhaps, as Jesus did, or else fostering such piety that you might levitate while in an ecstatic vision of the Almighty.  Are you familiar with the Stigmata?

And you did not wonder, at least for a moment, what that would be like?

That, my friend, is exactly what forsaking the physical looks like.  It looks like holes through your hands and blood and water flowing from your side.  It is a coronation with thorns, because they are no better or worse than gold.

“My kingdom is not of this world.”  No joke, that.

My friends, it is dreadfully painful to forsake the world, because you just are a physical being.  Your very being responds to the environment, to the stimuli impressed upon you.  There is the objective quality about it, that if you are shot through the heart, you will suffer and die, no matter what you believe or how you live.

And yet…

Yet, some do forsake the world.  Not absolutely, but – shall we say? – in spirit.

 

Now, how are we to resolve this paradox?  We exist as physical and spiritual beings, and while the spiritual is more fundamental, we can be destroyed by physical means.  The two do not intersect, and yet we cannot ignore either of them.

How do parallel lines cross and remain parallel?

They do so, if you view them from a third angle, another dimension.

Spirit and Flesh – Preface

“The condition of human nature … is such that it has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible.”  – St. Thomas Aquinas

As always, St. Thomas has not only arrived where we want to go centuries in advance, but he has done so with precision and the poet’s flourish.

Still, every generation must grapple with the world as they find it.

The contemporary search for proof of God’s existence often runs through the sciences, namely physics, though the atheists fancy that biology can do their work for them.  Neither is necessary to show that God exists, nor can either possibly show that He doesn’t exist.

Rather, what grew out of that search, for me, were the ready analogies that physics offers for spiritual phenomena.  I learned, for example, that the very laws of physics break down as one approaches the first instant of creation, the Big Bang.  Seeing the Universe issuing forth from the command of God, I found it remarkable that there was nothing but the spiritual realm, when all of the sudden laws, mathematics, particles, energy, space and time came “screaming” into existence.  The abstract realities – laws, mathematics – reached terminal velocity, like a satellite re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, and the resulting fire and fury resulted in forces, space, time, and matter, immediately and inexorably falling into order.

That analogy is not exactly what I mean, but a bridge to it.

That spiritual realm persists – it has to – even while our physical world lives and grows, fights and loves, and decays and dies into the matter that forms new life.  And how do we know the spiritual realm exists?  The first analogy…

It would be odd for any creature to have a sense which senses falsely.  Biologically speaking, this would be extra baggage, more body to protect and feed.  There are even instances of fish which had sight, when a group of them came to be effectively trapped in a a cave for many years.  In order to save energy, they evolved the loss of their eyes.

In other words, there was first light, and so the eyes developed and were useful.  Then there was no light, and the eyes were not useful, and soon they atrophied away.

Now when many billions of people around the planet claim experience or evidence of the spiritual realm, are they like fish with eyes and no light?  Why haven’t we evolved the loss of this spiritual sense?

What if, instead, the organ (the soul) survives because there is something that it detects, which proves useful for living in a physical reality?

There is much here; we will explore it.

A Jealous God

It is good to remember, from the outset, that attributes applied to men are fundamentally transformed when they are applied to God.

You may call a man “holy,” and get a picture of a radiant presence, even a halo.  You might imagine him self-possessed, patient and long-suffering, with a peaceful magnetism.

When we call God “holy,” we mean a furnace of holiness, a star going supernova, a light so bright it puts out your eyes.  It is a blast unrelenting, rendering all else to dust and incinerating even the dust, so all that remains is the perfect purity of His Spirit.

One is the vessel, the other is the source.  One is derived, the other is the original.

Holiness is a fitting introduction to jealousy.  The holiness of God dictates that nothing else could exist, unless He permitted it to be so.  And His holiness requires that there be very good reasons for anything else to exist.

What could those reasons be?

We advance:  The Christian faith teaches that these reasons are rooted in God’s great love.  The creation of the Universe, the creation of man, the endurance of sin, the suffering and redeeming work of the Savior – these are all effects of the cause, that God is a loving God.

Now when is it that a man becomes jealous?  It is when he desires something very much, to the extent of claiming possession.

My wife.

My son.

My daughters.

My friends.

My faith.

This should not be reduced to contractual ownership, the way I might own a car (which I might also desire very much).  That is an economic relationship.  We are discussing covenantal relationships, which include a spiritual dimension, something real but non-material.

You could not pay me enough to possess me as a husband, there is no material consideration great enough to earn you – from any man – the limitless gift-of-self required.

Likewise for he who is the bridegroom of the Church.  Could you have paid Jesus Christ any consideration for his passion and death which would have adequately compensated him?  What sum would represent an equal exchange?

It is absurd to ask.  Likewise for the husband and wife.  (This is truly why prostitution is regarded as sinful – it infinitely devalues a person’s worth, manifest in her body).

Now, that which is possessed – what if it is threatened, stolen, or seduced away?

We see this in Hosea, where the prophet is compelled to marry a prostitute, who subsequently commits adultery.  Predictable, but no less painful.

God selects this as the metaphor for His relationship to Israel, and there is no compulsion except for His own will.  He is compelled, in fact, by His love.

What does love have to do with it?

He made them.  He conceived and created them from nothing.  They were something much less and much more than a flight of fancy, so little did He require their existence and so much did He desire it.

And He saw His image in them, and said it was very good.

Then, over and over, Israel His bride was unfaithful to Him, worshipping other gods and disobeying his laws.  Their desire to be fulfilled – which would find ultimate satisfaction in God alone – was gorged with vapid, vulgar imitations.  They were seduced, deceived, and led astray.

There is a touching sequence in certain stories of a husband who goes astray, and finds himself in ruin until his wife comes to rescue him.  She will often be forced to defy his “friends,” those who have participated in his downfall and desire for the party to continue.  She rightly sees that what he wanted was not good for him, and she quite literally fights to protect him from it.  There is sometimes a parental thread within the fabric of a marriage.

Likewise, Hosea loves Gomer for what she is, and it is not good for her to be a prostitute.  When she reverts to that darker life, he goes after her.  It is a cause for shame, it is humiliating and painful – but it is virtuous and true.  Here in Hosea 3:3, we begin to see how love and jealousy lose their distinction:

“You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.”

Which is this?  Love?  Jealousy?  Love expressed as Jealousy?

Far from competing, this jealousy – jealous for the good of the other, jealous in protecting from evil – is the manifestation of love.  If Hosea wasn’t jealous, we would have to wonder if he loved Gomer at all.

It is much harder, deeper, and sheerer with God.  To be unfaithful to Him is to invite destruction into your life.  To love Him in return is to embrace everlasting life.

If those are the stakes, no wonder God would be jealous for us.  If He did not thunder from Heaven and flood the Earth and punish sins, we would have to wonder if He loved us at all.

Infant Invader

In our time, Christmas is a lovely thing.  It is universally observed as a time for giving, family, good works.  Only a little more narrowly, it is the great holy day, brought out as something better than any heirloom or treasure, recognized as the arrival of a singular hero, God Himself.

The comfort of family and traditions veils the shock.  Consider the infant!

A baby in the room will elicit warm smiles, soft coos, sure hands to cradle her.  The infant receives and cannot offer, cries but cannot articulate, trusts but cannot protect herself from harm.

At Christmas, we are not often reminded that the world is still enemy territory.  Christmas is the time when it feels as though the world could be otherwise – perhaps there could be peace on Earth.

But that is not the pretense for the Incarnation.  The pretense is that the world is fallen, is in need of redemption.  The pretense, as Christ later says, is that men are wicked, this generation is faithless.  They cannot grapple with the mess they’re in.  It will destroy them.

Now, if you had all power and determined to fight and win this conflict, would you begin by emptying yourself of all that power and appearing as an infant behind enemy lines?  This is the paradox that would destroy all reality:  That God made Himself utterly vulnerable to death.

That baby in the manger is everything.  And he has nothing, can say nothing, can protect nothing.

Why?

 

We with finite powers may begin to answer this:  If we had all power, we might storm the earth, take the holy innocents trapped behind enemy lines, and speed them to Paradise.  And then, if we had the stomach for it – and we would, being holy – we would destroy whatever remained in water and fire, and begin again.

But who, exactly, would you have rescued?

All are under the grip of sin.  None are innocent.  You would return to Heaven empty-handed, and turn around and destroy all those you meant to save.

 

Do you see the predicament?  We are willing captives.  We choose this every time we sin.  Meanwhile, God loves us and wishes to redeem us to unimaginable glory.

If He comes in force, we are likely as not to resist!  Our guards go up, and all of the things we value more than we should, all of the priorities we have placed above Him – these things we cling to in defiance of Him.

Not you?  Do it now, then.  Go where He has been calling you.  Give up the sins, give up even the good things which nevertheless stand in your way.  Leave all things behind – do not look back – and follow Him.

 

See it now?  You are the enemy’s territory.  Your heart is behind enemy lines.  God cannot rescue you by destroying you.

Make no mistake.  There is evil, and it must ultimately be destroyed.  Violently, with a permanence so profound you will not remember it existed.

Yet you are redeemable, and one of the ways you can observe this is by your response to an infant.  Do you offer a smile?  Does your hope awaken?  Would you protect the baby from harm?

It was a master stroke, wasn’t it?  God almighty, appearing as an infant invader?

He had to come claim your heart, first.  Only then could He lead you out.