Steven Paulson: Doing Lutheranism

Lutheran Theology, by Steven PaulsonI’m currently awaiting delivery of Steven Paulson’s book Lutheran Theology, from T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. In the meantime, this review from Themelios by Orrey McFarland has been whetting my appetite.

First, the structure of Paulson’s book. This follows the example of Philip Melanchthon and others in using Romans as a template, reflecting Paulson’s understanding of Lutheran theology as “unfinished business [of] commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.” McFarland says that:

The arrangement is straightforward, but gives a certain vibrancy to the flow of Paulson’s argument as he attempts to present Lutheran theology and navigate Paul’s letter in a coherent manner as the same task.

But for McFarland, what makes Paulson’s book special isn’t its structure, but “his single-minded insistence on a number of themes important in the Lutheran tradition,” three of which McFarland summarises as follows.

1. Justification by faith alone and the right distinction between law and gospel

For Paulson, “The key to any theology, especially done the Lutheran way, is to ask what role the law plays in its system.” Paulson emphasises two “uses” of the law: its “alien use” to “preserve and sustain life in the old Aeon until the preacher arrives,” and its “proper use” in which law “magnifies sin and exterminates any possibility for salvation other than Christ”:

Paulson seeks throughout the book to point out the error of believers when they allow law and works to play any role in salvation by smuggling a “Legal Scheme” into the gospel. While avoiding and arguing against antinomianism, Paulson’s mission is to expound the “Lutheran passion on earth” (p. 5)—distinguishing between law and gospel.

I’ll be interested to see, though, how Paulson addresses the “third use” of the law.

2. The role of the preacher and the Word 

McFarland quotes Paulson as saying that “Luther’s great discovery [was] that preaching has always and only been the thing that makes faith, and so justifies.” McFarland continues:

preachers announce the two-fold Word of God, which, in distinction to human words that merely signify, actually kills and recreates sinners. Preaching reveals Christ and makes a hidden God no longer hidden. […] “Faith is created by a promise that comes externally, as an alien word” (p. 119)—externally through a preacher by the will of God.

For me, this aspect of Lutheranism – its sacramental view of the Word in which the Word is a means by which God “actually kills and recreates sinners” through human preaching (rather than preachers merely giving us information about how to be killed and recreated) – is critical; the “engine-room” of Lutheran spirituality, as I’ve written before.

3. Luther and the history of Lutheranism 

Paulson doesn’t seek to define Lutheranism over-against Catholic or Reformed theology. Instead, he turns most of his criticisms on the Lutheran tradition itself, which he sees as an attempt to “tame Luther” by taming “the wild animal of the end of the law”:

Paulson breaks up the history of Lutheran thought into four “episodes” (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical), with Luther representing the “literal” stage and the other three trying to figure out what to do with him; but the main solution is to readmit the law into God’s salvific act in Christ. Consequently, past Luther, no thinker is safe from Paulson’s critique.

Again, as anyone who’s ever noticed my occasionally, slightly sour references to “Actually Existing Lutheranism” will be unsurprised to hear, this may be music to my ears: certainly the gulf between what Lutheranism could (and should) be, and what it often ends up as (especially in its worship) has been a constant frustration to me over the years. It’s still possible, though, that I may end up, like McFarland, wondering whether Paulson has gone a little too far: “the reader is left wondering which Lutherans, if any, can be trusted beyond Luther and Paulson.” Ouch.


McFarland concludes with further praise for Paulson’s book:

Paulson sets about the task of explaining Lutheran theology not by rigidly moving from historical point A to theological point B, but by engaging with Paul and Luther and seeking to show the deeper logic behind why Lutherans believe what they do. And given Paulson’s high view of preaching, it is no surprise that this book reads as proclamation—very dense proclamation, of course. The result is engaging writing that will benefit the student, lay person, and scholar. Readers of any category could not ask for much more.

Except, in my case, a slightly more rapid delivery of my copy…

Benedictine adventures with God

Benedictine ingredients - from Please God, Find Me a Husband!One of my favourite books recently has been Simone Lia’s spiritual autobiography in graphic novel form, Please God, Find Me a Husband!

The book describes Ms Lia’s “adventure with God”, which includes several encounters with Benedictine nuns in London, Wales and Australia. In Australia, Sister Hilda gives Lia five “Benedictine ingredients for an adventure with God”.

Since finishing Lia’s book, I’ve been reading various books and articles on Benedictine spirituality (see the list of further reading at the end of this post). Sr Hilda’s five “ingredients” provide a useful framework for outlining some of the things that have struck a chord with me (not least from a Lutheran perspective) from what I’ve read over the past couple of weeks or so.

1 & 2. Scripture and prayer

I’ve combined these headings into one, as to do so lies at the heart of Benedictine spirituality: praying the Scriptures, in both corporate and personal prayer.

Corporate prayer revolves around the Daily Office (or, to use St Benedict’s phrase, the Opus Dei, the “work of God”). As Fr Mark Hargreaves (.doc) puts it:

[O]ur spirituality is essentially liturgical, rather than devotional.

And then this, by Simon Jones, on the centrality of the psalter in the Benedictine “work of God”:

If our minds and hearts are to be transformed by the psalter, then we need to make sure that psalmody plays a central part within our celebration of the Opus Dei. Michael Perham has observed that ‘All too often nowadays psalmody can feel like one of the preliminaries, especially when it has been reduced to a snippet.’ When it came to the psalter, Benedict had no time for snippets, and nor should we. Whatever form of office we use, we should make sure that the recitation of the psalter is given its full and proper place. Even though most oblates will not be able to achieve the 75 psalms a week which the Directory for the Celebration of the Work of God requires, at least one substantial portion of psalmody should be part of our daily diet.

My diet of psalms has been a bit “snippet”-based in recent months. I’m grateful for the prompt to go back to something more substantial.

As for personal prayer, another key Benedictine practice is lectio divina: that is, praying the Scriptures, and in particular doing so around a loose framework of “lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio“. I’ve been trying to develop this in recent months, and have greatly benefited from it, so again I’m grateful for the encouragement to persevere.

3. Works of charity

The Benedictine tradition places a great emphasis on work, especially manual labour. Our everyday work is seen a both an inherent good – a service of God and neighbour by those who bear God’s image – but also as a cross we bear.

This combination of vocation (in the Lutheran sense) and cross-bearing is one that finds strong echoes in the Lutheran tradition. I’m sure that any Benedictine could identify with Luther’s statement that “God milks the cow through the milkmaid”: in other words, that in our everyday work we are “masks of God”, instruments through whom he works to serve our neighbour.

This also ties in with the Benedictine emphasis on stability. There is, and must always be, a place in the church for the “Franciscan” spirit of leaving all behind and striding out into the unknown with Christ. But it’s good that there also remains a place for maintaining a steady, everyday existence of daily service in the places in which we find ourselves, as employees, spouses, parents, carers and so on. That’s both very Benedictine, and very Lutheran.

4. Silence

This is one area that I struggle with! Simone Lia’s nun recommended “half an hour of silence a day”. Another Benedictine writer suggests that “five minutes a day is better than five hours once a month”. Even that is something I find hard to fit into a daily routine of bus, train, open-plan office, train, bus and back home to three children.

This may, however, be a good place to look at another point of affinity between the Benedictine and Lutheran traditions. St Benedict’s test for a prospective monk was fourfold: “Does he truly seek God? Is he eager for the Work of God, for obedience, and for trials or opprobria?”

What are the “opprobria” of which Benedict speaks? Fr Mark Hargreaves describes them as follows:

God sends us difficulties—to use no stronger word. He sends us situations that simply should not happen, that are unjust, that are unbearable, etc. Or there is the daily version of this, which is the impossibility of putting up with people, because they are just such a nuisance.

In other words, opprobria are the trials that Martin Luther speaks of as “life under the cross” – whether that’s the Anfechtungen that make a true theologian, or “the possession of the holy cross in the suffering of the saints” which Luther regards as one of the marks of the church. To be a good Benedictine is thus to be a “theologian of the cross” rather than a “theologian of glory”.

It should also be emphasised that the Benedictine way doesn’t seek suffering or extreme asceticism for its own sake. I remember being appalled by the frankly morbid asceticism described (with approval) by J.K. Huysmans in his autobiographical novel En Route, set at the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe in the late 19th century. By contrast, St Benedict famously writes in the preface to his Rule that:

With all this in mind what we mean to establish is a school for the Lord’s service. In the guidance we lay down to achieve this we hope to impose nothing harsh or burdensome.

The spirit of the Rule is not that of a gruelling asceticism for its own sake, but of a disciplined, orderly community life. Again, this seems very much in keeping with Luther’s pastoral approach in the Small and Large Catechisms.

5. Spiritual direction

This is another unexplored area for me, and to be honest I don’t feel there is currently a “spiritual director”-shaped hole in my life. Never say never, though, especially where the Holy Spirit is concerned.

That does raise the wider question, though, of where an interest in things Benedictine can lead – given that it is self-evidently not my calling to be a monk. Benedictines have a tradition of oblates – lay people who are attached to a particular monastery while living in the world – and the numbers of oblates has been growing significantly in recent decades (so that oblates now outnumber monks and nuns by some margin). As I understand it, there is no requirement for oblates to be Catholics. However, it would be premature (to say the least) for me to think in those terms.

I have been greatly blessed, however, by the day retreats I’ve attended at Worth Abbey in each of the past two years, and would hope to complete the hat-trick later this year. The affinities that seem to exist (or to be capable of existing) between the Benedictine and Lutheran traditions makes me wonder if this sort of private and informal semi-affiliation with Benedictine ways (the daily office, lectio divina, the occasional retreat, and so on) while remaining in the Lutheran church may help provide the “stable equilibrium” that I’ve been in need of for a while now. We’ll see. I hope, though, that this post will provide some helpful pointers to others who may be interested in exploring the Benedictine tradition for themselves.

Further reading

Any other recommendations are very welcome in the comments…

It was 495 years ago today…

…that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg his Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, better known as the Ninety-Five Theses.

These were not quite the Protestant thunderblast that they have come to be portrayed as on both sides of the Reformation divide. Rather, Luther’s Disputation is a complex and richly ironic document, arguing from within late medieval Catholicism rather than breaking out of it. Take, for example, thesis 81:

81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.

“Shrewd questionings” that Luther goes on to quote in full over the following eight theses – all the better for “rescuing the reverence due to the pope”, no doubt.

Or a little earlier:

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.

Quite so.

But for an example of how far Luther’s theses are from a prototype for today’s chirpy, self-confident evangelicalism (and indeed much of Actually Existing Lutheranism), here is Luther’s conclusion:

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!

94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

When’s the last time you heard a Lutheran pastor or evangelical preacher devote their Reformation Day sermon to exhorting their congregation to “be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace”?

Finally, Luther’s forty-third thesis is one which we all need to hear over and over again (substituting for “buying pardons” whichever spiritually improving activity is most appropriate for us – theoblogging, say):

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons.

Lutheranism and the God of offensively ordinary things

This is an interesting video, well worth the twenty minutes: ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speaking on how and why she converted to Lutheranism as an adult (having had quite a journey to get there, as she tells us in the first half of the video):

Now, this is a rather different-looking Lutheranism in many ways from the one you’d find in my own church, say. Our quotient of tattooed female pastors is quite low, for example :-). But, as a Lutheran convert myself (albeit with a less dramatic backstory), I could identify with a lot of what Pr Bolz-Weber said.

For example, I love the description of her first encounter with the liturgy (having grown up in a non-liturgical, fundamentalist church):

But the liturgy… I didn’t even know that’s what it was called. But I had never heard that kind of language used to speak of God, and I thought it was so beautiful, and eventually the liturgy felt like it was this stream of the faithful that flowed for generations before us and will flow for generations after us, and we just gotta kind of wade in it and come out… (@10’50”)

And on some of the language of Lutheranism, in particular the language of “simul iustus et peccator”:

 So you know why I’m a Lutheran? Because you are the first people in my life who gave me language for what I had experienced to be true. (@13’47”)

For me, the language that Lutheranism gave me was slightly different (as my background in Anglican evangelicalism had taught me “simul iustus et peccator”): for example, the language of law and gospel, of the hiddenness of God, of vocation. But it still felt like an unveiling of things I’d already known deep-down.

The closing section, from 18’00” on, is worth listening to in its entirety even if you don’t get to watch the rest of the video. “Before I leave, I want to tell you about this God,” begins Pr Bolz-Weber, with one of my favourite parts being:

This is a God who rose from the dead and grilled fish on the beach and then ascended to heaven and is especially present to us in the most offensively ordinary things: wheat, wine, water, words. And this God has never made sense, and you don’t need to either. (@19’13”)

Yep. That’s it: especially God coming to us in the “offensively ordinary things” of “wheat, wine, water, words”. For me, that’s the heart of what the Lutheran take on Christian faith is about.

(Via Arni Zachariassen, HT Lee M..)

From Catholic confession to Protestant institution

Like my master the king, I am a faithful son of the holy Catholic church. Only just now we are not in communion with the Pope.

– Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, p.101.

I’m currently reading Eric W. Gritsch’s book A History of Lutheranism, and in one chapter he describes how Lutheran “confessional identity” developed between the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (which established an uneasy modus vivendi between Lutheran and Roman Catholic states within the Holy Roman Empire) and 1580 (when the Lutheran confessions of faith took their final form in the Book of Concord).

Gritsch emphasises that, throughout this period, the Lutherans were seeking to retain their self-identification as reformers within Catholicism, rather than a new church or denomination. Hence the Lutheran emphasis on retaining, so far as possible, the inherited traditions of the church, such as the liturgy of the Mass, private confession and (in Sweden at least) the historic episcopate – albeit with the removal of “abuses” in each case. “Lutherans agreed with the ancient wisdom that abuse should not eliminate proper use,” Gritsch writes, summarising the position as follows:

Lutherans wanted to be reformed Catholics who lived in harmony with Scripture and tradition as faithful witnesses of Christ in the world. Although the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 prescribed a territorial settlement of religious issues (“whoever rules the region determines its religion”), Lutherans tried to make the best of it by remaining committed to Christian unity, even though it seemed to become an increasingly elusive goal. For the Book of Concord understood Lutheranism as a reform movement within the church catholic, indeed within sixteenth-century Catholicism. At stake was the retrieval of the ancient Christian convictions for all of Christendom, and Lutheranism became the inevitable historical constellation for such a retrieval, even though it became an organized church when medieval Christendom refused reform.

The Lutheran confessions – especially the Augsburg confession – are expressed as a voice within the Catholic Church. To put it another way, Lutheranism as a confession is, at heart, a Catholic movement. However, given Rome’s rejection of the Lutheran confessors’ agenda for reform, and the polarising effects of the century of division and war following the Reformation, it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up where we are now: where to be in the church that holds to the Lutheran confessions is to be in a Protestant denomination.

Which explains the tension that I can often find myself in (and my periodic susceptibility to bouts of “Roman fever”): because to be a Lutheran now, particularly in a country where Lutheranism’s presence within the wider “church catholic” is so miniscule, is to be in a situation which our own confessors would not have chosen, and which is fundamentally unnatural within the terms of our own confessions.

Hötidliga Högmässan (Solemn High Mass, Swedish style)

Via Rick Ritchie in the comments to my post yesterday on Swedish Lutheranism, here is a series of videos (continuing after the fold) from a Solemn High Mass at Uppsala Cathedral.

I haven’t watched all of these yet, but what I have seen was great to watch (love the opening hymn – such a joyful tune, plus INCENSE!). Please be warned, though, that it’s filmed in Glorious Shaky-Cam®, so people with inner ear infections or who are prone to motion sickness should probably avoid it…

1. Processional

Continue reading “Hötidliga Högmässan (Solemn High Mass, Swedish style)”

The Church of Sweden’s “middle way”

Bo Giertz is a familiar name to many Lutherans, thanks to his novel The Hammer of God. I’m reading one of Bishop Giertz’s other books at the moment, Christ’s Church: Her Biblical Roots, Her Dramatic History, Her Saving Presence, Her Glorious Future, first published in 1939, but not translated into English until 2010.

Bp Giertz’s focus in this book is mostly on the Church of Sweden, and I suspect that many readers of The Hammer of God will be surprised at how strong an emphasis Giertz places on the Church of Sweden as the catholic church in Sweden, standing in continuity with the pre-Reformation church.

He quotes on more than one occasion the Augsburg Confession’s claim that:

Our churches dissent from the catholic church in no article of faith but only omit a few abuses which are new and contrary to the canons.

He goes on to cite with approval the terminology used by Archbishop Söderblom (1866-1931), who:

used to designate our branch of the Church [as] the Evangelical-Catholic, as distinguished from the Greek-Catholic and the Roman-Catholic.

Bp Giertz describes how this claim to catholic continuity is asserted by the Church of Sweden’s Church Ordinance of 1571, which describes how the Church had retained many practices “which have been in use not only under the Pope but elsewhere in all Christendom”:

first of all our holy days and our churches, our bishops, priests and deacons, our masses with their firm rituals, our churchly acts and ceremonies and much more, which we by no means must “reject just because they were used also under the Pope.” […] Thus we retain paintings and sculptures, the prayer hours and vestments, altars, paraments, chalice and paten; likewise we call the Lord’s Supper the mass “as it was always called in Christendom.”

This same continuity can be found at a parish level, where (in contrast to many English parish churches) it is usually impossible to work out from the list of pastors when the break between pre- and post-Reformation ministry occurred:

Often the parish itself could not tell. The change was so gradual, and when it was completed, one still worshipped in the same church, the priest kneeled at the same altar with the same antependium, the same crucifix, and the same candlesticks. The priest wore the same chasuble, the same bells summoned the parishioners to the high mass, and just as in the past the same church wardens served in the Lord’s House. The difference was that the people could understand the whole liturgy since it was now in Swedish, that there was always a sermon, that congregational hymn singing had been introduced, that the laity received the chalice as well, and that people more frequently partook of the sacrament of the altar.

The Church Ordinance even Bo Giertz (see this comment) describes this approach in that term later beloved of Anglicans, a “Via Media” between “the erroneous doctrines of the papists and the Calvinists” – though it seems to me it could also be described as a Via Media between Anglicanism and German Lutheranism.

I don’t know much about the Church of Sweden – though enough to realise that it has changed a great deal since Bp Giertz wrote Christ’s Church, and mostly not in ways of which he approved in the later years of his long career (just as he criticises many of the changes it underwent between the Reformation and the early 20th century). But it is interesting to see a version of Lutheranism that is more visibly in continuity with its pre-Reformation past, and perhaps less bathed in anti-Roman Catholic polemic, than some other flavours of “Evangelical Catholicism”.

Too catholic to be Catholic?

Peter Leithart has written an interesting post on a question that he is asked (with varying degrees of friendliness or hostility, depending on source): why not just swim the Tiber already?

Leithart talks of the pain which the church’s divisions cause him, which I think many of us can share:

The division of the church, especially since the Reformation, has largely been a story of horror and tragedy, with the occasional act of faithful separation thrown in.  I regard the division of the church as one of the great evils of the modern world, which has seen more than its share of evils (many of which are, I believe, quite closely related to the division of the church).  What more horrific sight can we imagine than to see Christ again crucified?  Christ is not divided.  I think our main response to this half-millennium of Western division, and millennium-plus of East-West division, should be deep mourning and repentance.

However, he continues, “it’s because I am so passionate to see the church reunited that I, not grudgingly but cheerfully, stay where I am”. He then presents two broad arguments as to why he considers himself to be “too catholic to become Catholic or Orthodox”.

The first is a fairly familiar list of objections to Catholic teachings (though I’ve been a Lutheran for long enough to do a double-take at his suggestion that iconoclasm is part of “true catholicism”):

Certain Catholic teachings and practices obscure the free grace of God in Jesus Christ; prayers through Mary and the saints are not encouraged or permitted by Scripture, and they distract from the one Mediator, Jesus; I do not accept the Papal claims of Vatican I; I believe iconodules violate the second commandment by engaging in liturgical idolatry; venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry; in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, tradition muzzles the word of God.

These are not, however, the “primary driving reasons” for Leithart to remain Protestant (probably just as well, I suspect a Catholic reader of that list would observe). Far more important to him is the question of what becoming a Catholic would say about his former Christian life, and the life and faith of those he left behind:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? […] Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist.  To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus.  […] Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that?  I’m too catholic to do that.

I do wonder how “catholic” Leithart really is here, though. After all, his list of objections to Catholic and Orthodox teachings imply that Catholics and Orthodox believers are obscuring the free grace of God, muzzling the word of God, and engaging in systematic idolatry in almost every element of their worship. It’s hard to see how that is any better than the Catholic Church calling Peter Leithart a “separated brother” or claiming that he is not validly ordained.

Setting that aside, it seems to me there are two slightly separate issues here: the question of whether one could be a Catholic, and the question of whether one could become a Catholic. What Leithart sees as the errors of Catholicism would prevent him from being a Catholic, and what he sees as the sectarianism of Catholicism would prevent him from becoming a Catholic. Or to put it another way: however truly “catholicity” might be found in the Roman Catholic Church (as it clearly is, for Leithart, even if in his view mixed with errors), the costs of becoming a Catholic would only be worth paying if to do so were absolutely necessary. And for Leithart, it is not necessary.

So, capitalism. Thumbs up? Thumbs down?

I’ve been asked to prepare half a side of A4 on “the Lutheran view of capitalism” for one of our denominational committees. It’s intended as one of a series of short statements setting out “the Lutheran view” on various topical issues.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. Would be interested to know what people think – though do bear in mind the context and limitations of the remit (he said, carefully 😉 )…

The Lutheran view of… capitalism

“Capitalism” is an umbrella term for a wide range of economic systems that have developed since the end of the middle ages, all of which have varying degrees of public and private-sector involvement in their economies.

The Bible is not an economics text book, and Lutherans (and other Christians) disagree over the extent to which Christians can or should support any given economic system. However, Lutherans (as with other Christian traditions) have had a profoundly ambivalent relationship with capitalism, and with money and wealth more generally – as would be expected from followers of the One who said “you cannot serve both God and Mammon”.

Luther condemned in characteristically strong terms the early capitalism that was developing in 16th century Germany, writing: “Daily the poor are defrauded. New burdens and high prices are imposed. Everyone misuses the market in his own willful, conceited, arrogant way, as if it were his right and privilege to sell his goods as dearly as he pleases without a word of criticism.” Elsewhere, he went even further: “Little thieves are put in the stocks, great thieves go flaunting in gold and silk.”

However, Luther was also critical of those (such as St Francis of Assisi) who had advocated the total renunciation of wealth by Christians. He asserted that “silver and gold … are good creatures of God” – the problem was their misuse, not their existence. “If God has given you wealth, give thanks to God, and see that you make right use of it”.

What does it mean to make “right use” of our wealth? Lutherans understand this in terms of vocation. This is our belief that the Christian life is one in which we use our abilities and wealth to serve our neighbours in the ordinary spheres of human existence in which we find ourselves: as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and as citizens (including, today, as voters).

For some, this service of neighbour through our vocations may include working to change aspects of the political or economic system that are unjust. For others, perhaps most, the priority will be serving our neighbour within whatever economic system we find ourselves living in.

(Note: the main sources quoted above are this and this, though this also looks quite fun.)

The edge of the precipice

Feeling in need of some spiritual nourishment, I dug out my copy of Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way last night.

One of the things I most appreciate about Orthodoxy is its sense of the numinous, of the mystery and unknowability of God. In theory, Lutheranism shares much of this, through Luther’s “theology of the cross” – which emphasises how we cannot know God by ascending up to him to encounter him as he is, but can only know him as he has descended to us in Christ: Christ incarnate, and Christ present today in word and sacrament.

This ought to make us able to speak of God in the same terms described by Bp Kallistos:

The Greek Fathers liken man’s encounter with God to the experience of someone walking over the mountains in the mist: he takes a step forward and suddenly finds that he is on the edge of a precipice, with no solid ground beneath his foot but only a bottomless abyss. Or else they use the example of a man standing at night in a darkened room: he opens the shutter over a window, and as he looks out there is a sudden flash of lightning, causing him to stagger backwards, momentarily blinded. Such is the effect of coming face to face with the living mystery of God: we are assailed by dizziness; all the familiar footholds vanish, and there seems nothing for us to grasp; our inward eyes are blilnd, our normal assumptions shattered.

However, in practice we often end up sounding trite and banal in our talk of God and in our worship of him. When’s the last time any of us had anything like the experience described above, whether in our own personal prayer lives or in our church services? How many of us could identify with the sense of the numinous described in this story told by Bp Kallistos?

When Samuel Palmer first visited William Blake, the old man asked him how he approached the work of painting. “With fear and trembling,” Palmer replied. “Then you’ll do”, said Blake.

I don’t say this to be negative, but just as an opportunity to reflect on how grateful I am – as an irredeemably western Christian – to be given the opportunity to join in a prayer like this occasionally:

Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness.
Come, my Life, and revive me from death.
Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds.
Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins,
kindling my heart with the flame of your love.
Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there.
For You alone are my King and my Lord.