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Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem

A Gift From God

A Gift From God

This is the time of year that is high with excitement. It is special as no other season is. And it’s because our attention is once again drawn to the Great Story of a gift from God. The baby in the manger, his virgin mother, the angels announcing the good news of great joy for all people. We buy gifts for those we love as an echo of the greatest of all gifts.  We echo the gift of the Savior God gave to us. And once again, we sing the carols that we have come to cherish over the years The songs remind us of what the celebration is all about: Joy to the world the Lord is come! Love came down at Christmas. (See also here.A manger scene

Just because this season is so special, it is also a time we lovingly anticipate being with family and friends. These, too, are a gift from God. What CS Lewis reminded us about concerning friends, applies even more so to family members:

A Quote from C.S. Lewis

“…for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking,  no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to his disciples, “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It  is  the instruImage result for friends in christment by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is his instrument for creating as well as revealing. At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests. It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside.  Let us not reckon without our Host.

Therefore ….

This is the central truth behind the celebration. The love we share with others is not merely the consequence of God’s love for us. Rather, the love we give and receive IS the love of God shown to us through them and to them through us. This season, celebrate a gift from God.

Wishing you all a blessed Christmas,

Roy Clouser

 

 

St Augustine on The Incarnation

The Incarnation

When we ponder the wonder of the Incarnation, we can find ourselves at a loss for words to express the wonder of that event. St Augustine wrote a profound selection in what we know today as Sermon 191. It was a message for his church, especially for those who had chosen to be nuns, on a Christmas Day. I offer it to you for your meditation and encouragement this Christmas season. See also a brief meditation on the Incarnation by Roy Clouser.

St Augustine on the Incarnation

“The Word of the Father, by Whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born in time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day set aside for His human birth.

In the bosom of His Father, He existed before all the cycles of ages; born of an earthly mother, He entered upon the course of the years on this day.

The Maker of man became Man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at His mother’s breast;

Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem

that He, the Bread, might hunger;

that He, the Fountain, might thirst;

that He, the Light, might sleep;

that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey;

that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses;

that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge;

that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust;

that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips;

that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross;

that Courage might be weakened;

that Healer might be wounded;

that Life might die.

To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits. Begotten by the Father, He was not made by the Father. He was made Man in the mother whom He Himself had made, so that He might exist here for a while, sprung from her who could never and nowhere have existed except through His power.”

–Augustine of Hippo, Sermons 184-229: Sermons on Liturgical Seasons (Edmund Hill O.P. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 191.1.

 

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Separation of Church and State

Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter About Separation of Church and State

The expression “separation of church and state” does not appear in any of the founding documents of the US. It comes, instead, from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to an association of Baptists in Danbury, Conn. Baptists had a history of being persecuted in countries with an official religion, and wrote to the newly elected President Jefferson with concerns that their state had no specific statutes protecting their religious liberty.

In reply, Jefferson quotes the first amendment to the effect that “Congress shall make no law” to establish an official religion or to prohibit “the free exercise thereof…” Jefferson then expresses his understanding of that amendment to mean there should be “a wall of separation between church and state.”

Kuyper’s “Sphere Sovereignty.”

In an earlier blog, I gave a brief introduction to Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty.” (See also the blog here.) This was based on the way scripture recognizes different authorities in life. This recognition is, in Kuyper’s thinking, a hint as to how to come up with a general theory about the relations between the different forms of authority that naturally arise in human society.

The scriptures speak with approval of the authority of parents in a family, of the clergy in the church, of the owners of a business, the officials in government, and even of teachers in a school. Extrapolating from these examples, Kuyper proposes recognizing other natural authorities such as arise, for example, in medical practice, charity work, artistic organizations, political parties, and unions.

From the sphere sovereignty point of view, it isn’t only state and church that have different spheres of authority. Rather, there are multiple types of it throughout human social life all of which need legal protection from encroachment by other authorities.

These Are Not the Same

At first blush, then, it appears that Jefferson has anticipated by a century the Christian theory of sphere sovereignty with his idea of a “wall of separation” or the idea of the separation of church and state. A closer look, however, shows they are not quite the same ideas. For one thing, Kuyper never spoke about walling off any social sphere from any other. That, he believed, is impossible.

The church exercises its proper authority when it governs the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and regulates church membership. The government exercises its proper authority when it makes and enforces a public legal order. This means for sure that the church doesn’t make or enforce public law, and the government doesn’t set theological standards or make requirements for church membership. But can these two institutions of society actually be completely walled off from one another?

Spheres Influence One Another

Scientific ideas influence art, and artistic trends influence how people understand their history. So, too, the moral teachings of the church cannot fail to  have an impact on what people believe should be included or not in public law. This includes, but is not limited to, how public law must go about protecting people’s right to freedom of religion. (See, for example, the 4th myth in the Washington Post article Five Myths About the Constitution.)

This is a clever image showing a separation of church and state
Separation of Church and State

If this sounds like a tidy prescription, it isn’t. In practice, it can be a messy business to sort out precisely where and how one authority limits another. Consider, for example, the ways Federal law has sought to prevent workplace discrimination. The law, by unintended consequence, ends up endangering a religious institution’s right to hire only employees who are devotees of that religion. That wrinkle got ironed out, but spin-offs of it remain to be sorted out. (See this article.)

Don’t Take It Too Literally

John F Kennedy wanted an absolute separation of Church and state
JFK Quote

My point here is that – famous as it is – the expression separation of church and state may not be taken too literally or it will be in danger of bringing itself into disrepute. There is a proper separation (of distinct) of authorities, to be sure. And that includes all types of authorities, not just the church and the government. But any “wall” between them is porous, not airtight. That is why the sphere sovereignty idea is not a panacea. It does not guarantee we will never draw the boundaries between different authorities correctly. But we are still better off tackling political/legal issues from within that idea than we would be without it. We will still come closer to what is just than if we begin without recognizing that there are a number of legitimate authorities to be done justice to.   

To Sum Up

In sum, this means we must continue to do the hard work of thinking through each specific issue to see where we, as Christians, should stand. There is no short-cut of proclaiming an impenetrable wall between any two of them. Instead, this “thinking through” must be multi-sided. Just as there are many spheres of social life (not only the state, church, and family), there are equally many sides to every major issue of life. And all sides must receive their due, just as all must be protected by the law.

Roy Clouser