Friday, September 19, 2008

The Beauty of, um... Beauty!

A few more thoughts on Book 15 before I move on...

While brilliant and essentially orthodox, Augustine was also a man of his times; times that included a tremendous theological preoccupation with monastic self-denial, and general distaste for the physical world over against the spiritual. However, I suspect Augustine was inwardly uncomfortable operating within this context because he can't help acknowledging the praiseworthiness of beauty:

"Beauty is indeed a good gift of God..."

Even though he immediately feels compelled to qualify, almost apologize for his appreciation of something in the material created order:

", which is indeed God's handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good..."

But for all that, he still can't help the fact that he does appreciate it!

"It is this which some one has briefly said in these verses in praise of the Creator: 'These are Thine, they are good, because Thou art good who didst create them. There is in them nothing of ours, unless the sin we commit when we forget the order of things, and instead of Thee love that which Thou hast made.'"

Most of his caveats have their place; we should only love creation insofar as it reflects the glory of its Creator. Taking that appreciation too far, to the point of loving creation on its own merit, is nothing short of idolatry. But we must also recognize that there are ditches on both sides of the path. If idolatry is on the right, then ingratitude is just as surely on the left. And while balance is key, that doesn't make it unreasonable to know which ditch is in more need of exhortation. After all, a drowning man doesn't need a lecture on the necessity of staying well hydrated!

Augustine goes beyond erring on the conservative side here. He is wrong to say that beauty is carnal, or even a "lower form of good". On the contrary, beauty is not exclusive to the created ("carnal") order, but is one of God's eternal attributes (Zec. 9:17)! Furthermore, in Augustine's time (as is often true in the church today) the ingratitude on the left was the ditch more commonly encountered than the idolatry on the right. But in reality we have no reason to look down on God's material creation as somehow inferior to the “spiritual things” (whatever that means) because He made both! Some things He made for utility and some for beauty, but all for His glory. Each piece of His creation can be viewed as a mirror designed to reflect His glory back to Him.

Don't be afraid to revel in the afterglow!

Inherently Selfish

From Book 15:

"...this is the characteristic of the earthly city, that it worships God or gods who may aid it in reigning victoriously and peacefully on earth not through love of doing good, but through lust of rule. The good use the world that they may enjoy God: the wicked on the contrary, that they may enjoy the world would fain use God."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where the Tobacco Meets the Road

The poem by Ralph Erskine that I posted is fantastic, but beyond all the terrific allegorical interpretations and clever insights he provides... I really just enjoy a good cigar! I've tried smoking a pipe on a few different occasions, and though enjoyable, I don't think it will ever have quite the same appeal to me as a well-crafted cigar. To state my primary reason simply, heat moves upward; which means that in drawing air over the embers of a pipe, you have to puff pretty proactively to keep all the heat from escaping and your pipe from going out. With a cigar on the other hand, the ash plug that forms after a few minutes serves to insulate the embers at the end of the cigar, and allows you to smoke at a much more leisurely pace; even to the point of setting it down for a few minutes between puffs without having to re-light. But while this "low maintenance" factor draws me toward cigars, I also find I simply like the flavor of cigar smoke better than that of the pipes I've sampled.

But before I start rhapsodizing at length on my latest cigar, let's pause a few minutes to consider some of the reasons that conservative eyebrows often reach new heights when discussing this topic.

The objections can be roughly divided in to one of three categories, in this order of importance:
1. Sin Issues
2. Conscience Issues
3. Taste/Preference Issues

For now let's confine our discussion to the burning question, "Is it a sin to use tobacco?" But since tobacco use is nowhere explicitly forbidden in scripture, the question is not at all a simple one, and should therefore be more nuanced: "What element(s), if any, of using tobacco make its use sinful?" The three most common answers given to this question are the addictive nature of the nicotine, the negative health impact, and what I like to call the "guilt by association" argument (i.e., jailbirds and movie villains smoke, and we shouldn't imitate them); but this last one also wanders into "Conscience Issues", which I'll address in another post.

For those who argue against tobacco products because of the risk of addiction, the finger is really (and correctly) pointed at the addiction rather than the tobacco itself. Scripture speaks to the danger of addiction in a variety of ways, including the warning of Matthew 6:24 which states that, "No man can serve two masters..." Addiction is among the basest forms of slavery, being servitude to something rather than even to someone. It violates the first and second commandments by allowing some thing to dominate our habits and desires in a way that should be reserved to God alone, and is therefore rightly viewed as a form of idolatry. But "addiction" and the "risk of addiction" are two vastly different things. Depending on how tightly we define "addiction", dozens or even hundreds of otherwise lawful items from coffee or painkillers to food and shopping come with a gradated risk! Does this mean that we should swear off chocolate (which contains caffeine, so yes, it includes a risk of chemical addiction) and Advil because of the "inherent risk of addiction"? Hardly. It does, however, mean that we need to exercise discretion and temperance in every area of life, bringing each thought and action into subjection to Christ (1 Cor. 10:31 and 2 Cor. 10:5).

But what about the health risks? Isn't our body the temple of the Holy Ghost?

For starters, the risks of lung cancer (and addiction, for that matter) so often attributed to smoking in general are almost completely exclusive to cigarette smoking. Because while cigars and pipes have a long heritage of being savored in a slow, deliberate manner for the enjoyment of their flavor, cigarettes were designed to deliver a quick nicotine fix. This was achieved by reducing the diameter of the traditional cigar down to about that of a pencil, and inserting a filter near the "mouth end" of the cigarette. These two features dilute the overall effect of the smoke sufficiently to allow the smoker to inhale the smoke into his lungs. Conversely with a pipe or cigar, the smoke is typically only drawn into the mouth and blown out -- without ever entering the lungs. Furthermore the bulk of the health risk associated with smoking is effected not by the tobacco or even the nicotine, but the tar (yuck...) produced by the burning paper and other additives peculiar to cigarettes! Of course with a pipe or cigar no paper is present, only dried tobacco leaves. So even though the cigar/pipe imparts more nicotine per puff, the cigar smoker who doesn't inhale is actually absorbing far less nicotine (let alone tar) than the cigarette smoker who is inhaling.

This distinction between the mechanics and physiological impact of cigarettes in particular as opposed to other forms of tobacco use should clear the air on virtually all the questions of addiction and health impact as they pertain to the occasional cigar smoker like myself. Ignoring it would be like blurring the difference between a fellow who enjoys a cup or two of coffee a day and one who needs regular doses of caffeine just to keep him functioning. And for the purposes of this discussion I would like to distance myself from cigarette smoking in particular, though I'm inclined to think that even this form of tobacco use (in moderation) could be defended as lawful for Christians.

One final comment on the health impact of tobacco: Its potential benefits remain woefully underexplored! Even the scant amount of study done on the positive end of the spectrum has shown that moderate tobacco use dramatically reduces risk for several types of heart disease and mental disorder. The fact that these benefits are referred to as "Smoker's Paradoxes" only serves to further illustrate our societal bias against tobacco in general. After all, despite the obvious negative impacts of overindulging on chocolate, nobody calls it a "Chocoholic's Paradox" when researchers discover another hidden benefit of cocoa consumption!

Rather than allowing our standards to be governed by the prevailing winds of cultural opinion or the latest prohibitionist crusade, we should search the scriptures and draw our own conclusions from its teachings (Acts 17:10-11).

Stay tuned for future posts on the "Conscience" and "Taste/Preference" objections.

Comments and questions are most welcome!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Great and Mighty One

God of our Fathers,

You are the great and mighty One, the Judge over all. You have made even the wicked for the day of judgment, and the devil for Your glory. You alone are Lord of the universe, the three times holy God, and we tremble at Your righteousness.

You are the Guardian of the fatherless, the Comforter of the widow, the Strong Tower of the defenseless, the Safeguard of all eternity, and we shelter in Your mercy.

You are the master Craftsman, the Creator of the ends of the earth, Maker of all things visible and invisible, Designer of rose petals and spider webs, mountains and oceans, and we revel in the majesty of Your handiwork.

You are the Giver of life, the Ordainer of marital bliss and parental nurture, the Fountainhead of all joy, and we marvel at Your generosity.

In You we live and move and have our being. You sustain the planets in their orbits, cause sunshine and rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and You alone set kings on their thrones or abase them at Your pleasure. You are the Amen and Amen before Whom even the angels cover their faces, and we give You all praise.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Two Cities Defined

Arriving in Book 14, Augustine decides that he has laid enough groundwork to begin formulating his thesis. The two warring cities to which he has been referring since Book 1 are called the City of Man and the City of God, essentially equivalent to the scriptural "seed of the serpent" and "seed of the woman".

"And thus it has come to pass, that though there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit; and when they severally achieve what they wish, they live in peace, each after their kind."

"Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, 'Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.' In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, 'I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength.' And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God 'Glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise' -- that is, glorying in their own wisdom, and being possessed by pride -- 'They became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.' For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, 'And worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever.' But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, 'that God may be all in all.'"

Having thus defined and contrasted the two cities, it will be interesting to see how Augustine sets about praising the City of God and criticizing the City of Man in subsequent Books.

Sweet Home Alabama

Hard to believe... but today marks the two year anniversary of our arrival here in the great state of Alabama, fresh from the theological wasteland of the left coast. Praise God for allowing us to bring our children to the heritage-rich South, the homeland of my clan and the battleground of my ancestors!

May we be worthy of their legacy, proud of their example, and mindful of the cause for which they fought.

Deo Vindice!