Monday, September 20, 2021

[Not yet] The Mark of the Beast (2/n) so John Spong instead

John Spong

Before we get to a further post on The Mark of the Beast, I note here that Bishop John Spong has died, a figure of some theological/controversial note and, in my recall, often mentioned in the earlier days of this blog.

To mark his death I happily post this excellent essay by Archbishop Rowan Williams, from 1998. It repays reading, whether or not you are interested in Spong. 

The Mark of the Beast (2/n)

Last week I looked at the Book of Revelation as a pastoral letter to churches in Asia Minor, a letter of encouragement and also of challenge.

Revelation is also a book of prophecy. ... But sadly, I am not going to being able to spend time on this matter until Monday 4 October. 

Nota Bene: I have an opportunity to be offline from Friday 24 September to Friday 1 October inclusive and thus will neither post comments nor a blogpost during that period. Your patience is appreciated.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Mark of the Beast (2021 version) Post 1/n


To cite a now ancient cliche, we are living in interesting times. So "interesting" are these times that a percipient NZ political commentator, Chris Trotter thinks we are re-living the Protestant Reformation. (He doesn't call our times "interesting," appropriately he calls them "strange and disturbing.")

So strange and disturbing are these times that Antonio Garcia Martinez has written an essay "The Christ with A Thousand Faces", exploring "How trad Christians and woke progressives are unknowing co-religionists, and how the leading moral battles of our age really come down to casting." OK, I hadn't seen that trad Christians and woke progressives are co-religionists, but he has a point!

Then our friend and colleague in following Christ, Pope Francis is working on some radical reforms to the church's power structures. It all seems very Anglican! (Perhaps we are both re-living and reversing the Protestant Reformation :).

However, something very strange and disturbing, very seriously, is that we live in a time of misinformation, sometimes coming from the mouths of Christians, and with potentially very bad consequences. Naturally I am speaking about those Christians who link receiving a Covid vaccine with the Mark of the Beast. This has come up recently in our local Christchurch Press in an article entitled, "Covid-19: Mark of the beast or manna from heaven? Christianity's vaccine issue". (I have a small walk on part in the article.)

That's gotten me thinking a bit about Revelation, its message and its relevance for our times. Just may be there is more than one post in this ... Bear with!

First things first. A helpful way to think about Revelation and its mysteries is to think of it as three literary genres wrapped into one document.

1. It's a letter.

2. It's a prophecy.

3. It's an apocalypse.

Revelation as a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor

Sure, you have to wait, er, three verses, but in Revelation 1:4 you could be reading one of Paul's letters, except its by John:

"John to the seven church that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him ..."

And, sure, there is a lot of stuff after that which is very unlike Paul or Peter or James or that other John when they write a letter, but there are seven individual letters in chapters 2 and 3, and then, consider the ending in Revelation 22:20-21:

"The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen."

We've head that before, haven't we?

1 Corinthians ends with these words in 16:21-24:

"I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord.

Our Lord, come!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.

My Love be with all of you in Christ Jesus."

OK, so a letter, so what?

What do churches need from some authority writing to them? Answer: encouragement and perhaps a tune up. A pastoral need, in other words, met by a pastoral letter.

The churches in Asia Minor get this in spades. Things are building against them, times are tough, the power of Rome is so threatening you can feel the edge of the sword in your Laodicean mind and flinch Pergamumly at the crack of the torturing whip you're imagining with a cold sweat in the middle of the night. John writes to encourage them - to put some courage in them and he does this by acknowledging the depth of the danger they are in, by probing the true (and, frankly, disturbing) nature of the evil rising against them, while also and always presenting the love and power of God - the love which will see them safely into God's eternal presence is the same love which led to the Lamb being slain for them, and the power which will eventually triumph over all evil and depravity of political and economic power.

They also get a tune up! In most (but not all) of the seven letters, no matter how well a church is doing, Jesus has something they need to do something about. No slacking, no slouching, no sucking up to false teachers and their immoral leaning, and no swaying half way between being hot/cold for God.

And that's what the churches of the world today need too! We're feeling vulnerable, threatened and worried about where change and Covid are taking us. And, to be frank, there's a lot of false teaching - misinformation out there, by which I mean "in there, in the church." We're vulnerable and we have improvements to work on.

Score 10 marks for the relevance of Revelation for the church today!

Next week, a few words about Revelation as prophecy for today. Don't worry, we'll get to the mark of the beast before Christmas :).

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

When does life begin?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), 

2270 Human life must be respect and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. [Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139:15 are then cited in support].

2271 Since the first century the Church hyas affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. ...

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grace offense. The Church ataches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. ...

2273 The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation: ...

Arguably the most famous Catholic layman in the world today is President Joe Biden, and readers here are likely familiar with the fact that over the past year or so a debate has broken out within US Catholicism (and beyond, because it has a "liberal" v "conservative"//Francis v Burke etc globalizing aspect to it) about whether Joe Biden's views on abortion are reconcilable with his continuing to receive the eucharist. This debate and the Catholic life and character of Joe Biden are reported on comprehensively in this Politico article, "A Private Matter: Joe Biden's  Very Public Clash with his Own Church." (H/T: Bowman Walton). As an aside, a fascinating line in the article is this:

"There is no such thing as mainstream, there is no such thing as extreme, and there is no such thing as liberal — there is Catholic.”"

Even more recently, within the last week when the Texas state legislature has passed a "smart" law which effectively bans abortions in that state after a woman is six weeks pregnant while (so far) avoiding being struck down because it is "unconstitutional," Joe Biden's views have hit the headlines again.

With the help of Auntie Google, here is Joe Biden through the years:

2008 (NYT): "Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee for vice president, departed Sunday from party doctrine on abortion rights, declaring that as a Catholic, he believes life begins at conception. But the Delaware senator added that he would not impose his personal views on others, and had indeed voted against curtailing abortion rights and against criminalizing abortion."

(This past week, but referring to 2015 views), 3 September 2021 (New York Post): "President Biden delivered a broadside Friday against the controversial Texas anti-abortion law, at one point saying that he did not agree with the proposition that human life begins at conception.

However, Biden struck a different note while he was vice president, telling an interviewer in 2015, “I’m prepared to accept that the moment of conception is a human life and being.”"

Then, this week past, after the Texas decision: 

3 September 2021 (Catholic News Agency): "President Joe Biden (D) said on Friday, Sept. 3, that he does not believe life begins at conception - contradicting his previous statements on when life begins.

Biden answered a reporter’s question on abortion on Friday, after addressing the August jobs numbers at the White House. “I respect those who believe life begins at the moment of conception,” Biden said. “I don’t agree, but I respect that. I’m not going to impose that on people.” "

There is no intrinsic reason why Biden (2021) cannot be correct. Our understanding of things can change. One moment we believe the sun travels around the earth, the next the earth is travelling around the sun. But is Biden (2021) correct and Biden (2015), Biden (2008), nearly all Catholics everywhere and many, many other Christians wrong?

It is only possible that Biden (2021) is correct if some kind of redefining is taking place because it is not like the biological facts of "sperm and egg meet and SOMETHING TAKES PLACE" have changed. We could, for instance, define the beginning of life as, say, around about 13 years of age, when a "differentiation" takes place and the life form realises that he/she/they do not have to do everything Mum and Dad say, have a teen rebellion phase, and thus (so to speak) "the individual is born". Ok, I am jesting, but (I can only presume) that Joe Biden is now thinking that life begins at some stage later than conception. Definitions of when life occurs, if not when sperm and egg combine, could occur through theological and/or sociological and/or legal considerations.

I gather some would focus their definition on when the heart starts beating, others on when birth takes place, and so forth. 

I also observe that when (say) Jim and Josie are trying to conceive a child, the instant they know that life has been conceived in the womb (and sometimes couples "know" right after conception has taken place), that life is the child, the human being they have desired. But when (say) parliamentarians are debating some revision to abortion law, perhaps around the number of weeks which may elapse for when an abortion is legally permissible or the range of conditions for which abortion is permitted, the language tends not to talk about a "child" and "abortion" itself becomes a euphemism for what is being legally permitted. That is, within society, there are a range of definitions occurring in a variety of contexts in talk about the same biological phenomenon of a living being in the womb.

Back to the President: isn't the challenge here for Joe Biden, or any of us who profess the name of Christ, that the definition of "when life begins" is theological as much as it is biological or anything-else-ogical?

The Catholic Catechism is right to cite those Scriptures which understand life in God's eyes as beginning at conception.  Those Scriptures are common to all Christians. Perhaps even more importantly, what those Scriptures speak of is the comprehensiveness of God: the God who sees and oversees all of life, the God from whom nothing is hidden and to whom all is present.

It looks like Joe Biden (the individual) is theologically in an awkward place. I think even we Protestants can say that, whatever the awkwardness of the place that "President Biden" is in in relation to the debate within US Catholicism about whether he should be given communion or not. (I say "President Biden" because I suspect that if 1. Joe had retired from politics, and 2. Joe had changed his mind from 2008/2015 to 2021, there would not be a debate about whether communion should be given to former politician Joe Biden.)

Certainly, Protestants can have some sympathy for US Catholicism: the beliefs of Catholicism about when life begins are very clear, very solid and very much adhered to. To deny these beliefs and present for communion is a challenge in respect of the meaning of communion (which, among other things, is a sacrament of belonging in a context where belonging and believing are tightly connected). Protestants, after all, are themselves denied communion in Catholic churches because of what we (do not) believe.

I personally find it a puzzle that Biden has shifted from a position of "I believe life begins at conception AND I am committed to legal abortion being available in a civil society which is not uniformly Christian" - so many Christian, Catholic and Protestant politicians would adhere to - to his current position.

What the articles above do not convey is the rationale within his own mind for his new definition of when life begins.