Friday, March 25, 2011

The Catechism: The First Commandment

Writing on the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the First Commandment, it is easy for me to see how Mary's response and Luther's description of the proper Christian response to the Commandment may illuminate one another.  This is probably not incidental.

1:26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” 1:29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 1:30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 1:31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”

1:35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
1:36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age – although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

1:38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.  [NET]

I post this in a segmented fashion in order to highlight the bold divine disclosure, "You are favored, and you will bear a special son" [paraphrased], the puzzled response to it, "How can this be?" and the paradigmatic response of faith, "Let it be according to your Word".

I will return to this as I move into the body of my meditation, for now it is important to note that there is a formal quality to the event:

1. Initial event of revelation.

2. Reality check.

3. Repetition and intensification of the disclosure.

4. Reality check.

5. Repetition and intensification of the disclosure.

6. Faithful ascent to the Author of reality.

Returning to my original purpose:


"You shall have no other gods."

That is, you shall regard me alone as your God... What is it to have a god?  What is God?

Answer: A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.  To have a god is nothing else that to trust and believe him with our whole heart.  As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.  If your faith and trust are right, then you God is the true God.

I am surely not the first to point out that the immediate impression of this brief "answer" to the question "what is [a] God?" seems hopelessly subjective and arbitrarily dependent on a host of prior assumptions that Luther must be assuming he shares with his readers.  A word or two on this observation is necessary.  First, Luther is most certainly assuming a set of tacit beliefs concerning the general subject, and it would have been a safe assumption for him to make in his historical moment.  The people he addressed still lived in "Christendom" where the church was the primary cultural engine.  They may have had errant beliefs on certain points of doctrine, or fuzzy beliefs that were the result of any number of popular pieties, but they had tacit understandings that were undoubtedly determined by the church.  The liturgies, festivals, and domestic piety they displayed had a common primary origin in the church of the medieval West, not the sole origin, surely, but the primary one.  We late moderns can no longer assume this about any public audience.  [An interesting aside: as a sort of culturally inductive evidence for my argument, the word "pieties", which I made use of earlier in this paragraph, is not recognized by my browser's spellchecker - it is underlined in red as a mistake.]

That God was a possibility, foremost, and that God possessed certain metaphysical "attributes", would have been tacitly recognized by his audience.  He is in no way here concerned to give a list of these attributes, or a phenomenological description of [a] god, but assumes a cultural stockpile of classical and Christian traditional religious thinking on divinity.  So, Luther moves to the heart of the matter - what does it matter to you if there is a god, and what does this god look like when we investigate the object of your longing?  He isolates desire as the best evidence of the nature of one's god, the assumption being that what desire tends to regularly as the highest object is god to that desiring entity.  But this is not entirely correct.  Luther is not saying that what one desires is god, but what one turns to as the ultimate source of desire's fulfillment - this is the best indication of one's god.

Do you believe that you [the desiring subject] are the only, and therefore the best, source for satisfying your needs and desires?  If so, then you are your own god, according to Luther.

This method for determining one's god could be reduced to this:

1. Locate the source from which all good relative to one's own desire originates, there at that origin is one's god.

I have indicated that the desired good and the bestower of desired good are necessary themes for Luther in his explication of the First Commandment.  We can see this clearly from this passage:

It is God alone, I have often repeated, from whom we receive all that is good... This is, I think, why we Germans from ancient times have called God by a name more elegant and worthy than any found in other languages, a name derived from the word "good" because he is an eternal fountain which overflows with sheer goodness and pours forth all that is good in name and in fact.

Yes, Luther is incorrect as to his etymology for the word "Gott", but his theological insight is necessary and sound.  He shares in and affirms the vast Christian/Platonic insistence that a proper name for God is "[The] Good", and the imagery of God as the inexhaustible fount that spills forth blessing is as necessary to his Evangelical theology as it is to the perennial philosophy.  As I have said, it is clear that Luther is not, in the Catechism, concerned to dwell on theo-metaphysical issues, yet to interpret his theology as a refusal of metaphysics, or as a decisive break with that tradition seems unwarranted.  One can, I think, without too much trouble, find any number of traditional metaphysical assertions concerning God implicit and explicit in the Catechism.

Such as:

1. God as the source of all being.

2. God as utterly simple substance.

3. God as the author of secondary causes.

These, among others, surely.

Indeed, the fuss over the nominalism of Luther and other Reformers is to me overly dramatized.  How nominalist can an author be if he can write things like "[God] is an eternal fountain which... pours forth all that is good in name and in fact"? [Emphasis is my own.]

Further, following the passage I cited above is this: "Although much that is good comes to us from men, we receive it all from God through his command and ordinance."  Luther may describe this reality of creation in a manner that makes it much more transparent to God's impetus than do others, but he does not insist on a slavish account that makes God the only true and effective cause in creation.

Returning to Luther's "method" for ascertaining one's "god", a possible moral objection can be made; is this method not ultimately concerned only with the self?  Isn't it selfish to allow a god to be determined, or highlighted, by the relative good it brings to an individual subject?

In reply, I would only say that Luther's method does not formally rule out the common good as also a personal good for any subject.  But, given the nature of Luther's concern in the Catechism, that is, who or what is your god, and not just what god may be in the abstract, the method is the only one suited to its task.  In this sense, there is a certain manner in which the method is a phenomenology.

It should also be clear that Luther is not determining God in Himself by reference to a desiring or thinking human subject, as is done in some forms of modern theology (with Schleiermacher at the head), but, again, is concerned to show what this god is for you the created human.

If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.

Moreover, it should be clear that Luther cannot mean that human desire actually creates gods in any real sense, for this would clash with the Creed [to which we will eventually turn].  Nor can he really be concerned with erecting some category for determining a general sort of "divinity" or "godhood" - Luther cannot, by the force of the faith that is in him, believe there is any set for godhood that could be filled by other pretenders, it is exhaustively filled by Father, Son, and Spirit.

So, perhaps the dictum quoted above can only be a condition only for the true God of specifically Christian faith; the quality of bestowing all good upon creation and acknowledging this source as "God", that is, as Father, Son and Spirit [but we haven't learned much about Father, Son, and Spirit!], is a necessary condition for Christian faith and a necessary condition for being true God... if that sounds circular, it probably is.

So, the dictum in the First Commandment cannot be a guide given over to the "generally religious" in order to show them that they do not know the true God, for they may justly reply, "But I look to Artemis, or the GDP, or the spark of 'godhood' within me, for all good, therefore, I possess the true God..."

For the dictum to be true it necessarily requires instruction in the Creed, and the Commandments must be interpreted in their light.  The First Commandment requires the Creed for its proper observance.

All of this taken together, we find that true faith obtains when one allows God to be the God who is the source of all Good for the created human being - A God whose definite identity conditions are set forth in the Creed.  When we acknowledge that God is who He says He is, the One who would bless us and defend us, and the source of all Good, then we are having faith in the true God.

It is important here to point out that this ascent to God in faith can be, and many times can be expected to be, in direct opposition to the normative manner of viewing daily reality conditions.  How it is that God is the source of all blessings in a particular instance and how He is the author of the truly real is not always immediately transparent to reason and experience.  This is one of the challenges of faith and of obedience to the First Commandment.

Illustrative of this sort of challenge met in faith is the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin which I placed at the beginning of this meditation.  Mary allows God to be the true source and author of reality for her... despite the apparent contradictory reality conditions.  She expects good from God and ascents to His disclosure of Himself to her. She trusts God, and ascents to Who He, in fact, is.

There is much, much, more to comment on in this connection, but I will allow it to stand as is for the moment.

What has not been dealt with as of yet is the question of how one is able to have such faith.  How can a human being, plagued by sin and distorted and deranged in the best of its faculties, ever manage to have this sort of faith?

How can a perverse human heart, desiring a panoply of created things inordinately, ever turn to God as the Source and provider of all blessings?

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