Gilead, Part 3, Existence

Part 3, Existence

There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.

(p. 53, emphasis added)

I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial – if you remember them – and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There were all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

(pp. 56-57)


The first excerpt, especially, recalls to my mind a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, of which I have only Books VIII and IX:

…for life is by nature a good thing, and to perceive the good present in oneself is pleasant; and living is a choiceworthy thing, especially to those who are good, because existing is good for them, and pleasant, for in simultaneously perceiving what is good in itself, they feel pleasure. And if as the serious man stands in relation to himself, so he stands also in relation to a friend (for a friend is another [or different] self) – then, just as one’s own existence is choiceworthy to each, so also is the existence of a friend, or nearly so. Existing is, as we saw, a choiceworthy thing because a person’s perception that he is good, and this sort of perception is pleasant on its own account.

(p. 205)


The first passage I quoted also reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Ash has always struggled with finding approval from his father, Mr. Fox, who seems to love Ash’s cousin even more than him. Yet, nearing the end of the movie, Ash and Mr. Fox have a conversation:

MR. FOX: The whole time I was putting paw over paw with your mother digging beside me [i.e. digging their foxhole], and I thought to myself, I wonder who this little boy…

ASH: Or girl!

MR. FOX: Right, ’cause at the time we didn’t know. I wonder who this little boy or girl is gonna be? Ash, I’m so glad he was you.

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King Richard II

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The Creation of Light by Gustave Dore

There are many things I could say after finishing my first Shakespeare play since high school. There are many things I should say; there are many things I won’t be able to say. Instead of trying to verbalize everything that I’m thinking at the conclusion of this history play, I will merely pick a passage that illuminated a piece of truth for me.

This is from the first act of the play. Two men, Henry Herford (Bullingbrook) and Thomas Mowbray, were about to duel in order to decide justice – Bullingbrook had accused Mowbray of high treason. Instead Richard II holds a council, sentencing Mowbray to permanent exile and Bullingbrook to ten years exile. Richard, at seeing Bullingbrook’s father, John of Gaunt, shortens the sentence for Bullingbrook by four years. This is Bullingbrook’s response:

How long a time lies in one little word.

Four lagging winters and four wanton springs

End in a word, such is the breath of kings.

(Richard II, 1.3.212-214)

Bullingbrook speaks about the power of words, specifically the power of a king’s words. Kings have explicit power to have the words actually do something. Kings can use this power in many different ways, including ways of evil.

This brought my mind to a sermon I heard a few weeks prior. The preacher said something very simple that struck a chord with me. He said that God spoke first. Of course he did. Yet, I had never given it much thought to the fact that God spoke first (let us leave the problem temporality for now).

But God, the King of Kings, has the ultimate power of language. His words, at the very moment he speaks them, become truth. See the creation account where God speaks all into existence.

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The Creation of Fish and Birds by Gustave Dore

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

(Genesis 1)


Also, something I plan on doing with all of the Shakespeare plays I read this semester is title every scene. These are the scene titles I have for the history of King Richard II:

  • Act I
    • Scene 1: The Appeal
    • Scene 2: Revenge and Grief
    • Scene 3: Banishment
    • Scene 4: Post-Farewell
  • Act II
    • Scene 1: Gaunt’s Final Words
    • Scene 2: Grief and Its Shadows
    • Scene 3: Richard Gone, Henry Returned
    • Scene 4: The Death and Fall of Kings
  • Act III
    • Scene 1: The Execution of the Flatterers
    • Scene 2: News of Henry’s Success
    • Scene 3: Flint Castle
    • Scene 4: The Garden
  • Act IV
    • Scene 1: Decoronation
  • Act V
    • Scene 1: Sing About Me
    • Scene 2: A Necklace of Treason
    • Scene 3: A Loyal Father, A Treacherous Son
    • Scene 4: The King’s Terror
    • Scene 5: The Death of King Richard II
    • Scene 6: Eight Heads

Calvinism and Arminianism

I recently finished reading For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger E. Olson.

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Before I get into the “five points,” I want to begin with this. First, I think that Calvinism is way more than the five points (TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). Second, I think that Arminianism is way more than just a negation of those five points. Third, I want to say that I find it decently unhelpful, at least for myself, to claim that I’m one or the other. I might lean towards Calvinism, but I wrestling with a lot of questions. Quite frankly, I could care less whether Calvin said X or Y, or Jacob Arminius said X or Y. I care whether Scripture says X or Y.

Nevertheless, I will go into at least describing the five points that Calvinists claim about salvation:

T (Total Depravity): Every part of every human being is affected by sin from birth. This is not saying that each of us is as bad as we could be.

U (Unconditional Election): God elected certain individuals that he would save from the foundation of the world. (There are typically two views on election: double predestination – the idea that God elected some people to salvation and some to damnation – and single predestination – the idea that God elected some people to salvation without electing others to damnation.)

L (Limited Atonement): Christ’s death on the cross forgave the sins of the elect and secured their salvation. (It should be added that even if the cross did only save the elect, the effects that the cross had on the world are still too vast and far reaching for us to even comprehend.)

I (Irresistible Grace): Since we all will naturally resist God, He must put in us the spirit of belief. Irresistible Grace usually refers to the “effectual call” as opposed to the “general call.” (Arminians tend to say that regeneration comes after faith and Calvinists tend to say that regeneration comes before faith). What irresistible grace says is that it is God who is the author of our faith.

P (Perseverance of the Saints): This doctrine claims that once someone is called by God, he cannot be “unsaved.” Once someone truly comes to Christ, God will never lose him/her.


The few nuances I have come from people like Michael Horton (who wrote For Calvinism) and from James K.A. Smith (Letters to a Young Calvinist). First, I find the term “Particular Redemption” preferable instead of “Unconditional Election.” Similarly, I find the term “Effectual Calling” more helpful of a term than “Irresistible Grace.” People like Roger E. Olson (who wrote Against Calvinism) have objections with regards to changing the names of these doctrines (he claims that the doctrines are the same no matter what you call them).

I tend to side with the Calvinist view, but I think there is room to nuance and to ask questions, especially since Scripture is not the easiest thing to pinpoint. I actually have questions for both Calvinists and Arminians:

Questions for Calvinists:

  1. How is a person assured of salvation?
  2. What is the nature of God’s love?
  3. Is God free? Are we free?
  4. Is God the author of sin, evil, suffering, and unbelief?
  5. Did God plan redemption before (causally, not temporally) sin entered the world?
  6. Can we think that evil things are bad? Or, is it just that all things are part of the plan, and therefore all things that happen are “good?”
  7. What does it mean that all is for God’s glory?
  8. Is God’s plan of redemption an end to justify the means? Is the future glory worth the suffering that happens on earth?

Questions for Arminians:

  1. How is a person assured of salvation?
  2. What is the nature of God’s love?
  3. Is God free? Are we free?
  4. Is salvation by grace through faith?
  5. Is God not in control?
  6. If the cross only made possible the salvation of human beings, did the cross actually do anything?

The Brothers Karamazov: Part III

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The Body of the Dead Christ by Holbein the Younger

In part III of The Brothers Karamazov, our main character, Alyosha, is grieved by the death of his closest companion, Elder Zosima. Zosima not only died, but his corpse has begun to corrupt, which supposedly didn’t happen to Elder’s bodies and monk’s bodies. Alyosha is actually offended by all of this.

But it was justice, justice he thirsted for, not simply miracles! And now he who, according to his hope, was to have been exalted higher than anyone in the whole world, this very man, instead of receiving the glory that was due him, was suddenly thrown down and disgraced? Why? Who had decreed it? Who could have judged so? These were the questions that immediately tormented his inexperienced and virgin heart. He could not bear without bitterness of heart, that this most righteous of righteous men should be given over to such derisive and spiteful jeering from a crowd so frivolous and so far beneath him. (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)

This drew my mind to what Søren Kierkegaard says in his Training in Christianity about the offense we feel about the humiliation of God in the figure of Jesus Christ (on the cross, in the mocking and derision, in the incarnation itself).

The disciples who had believed in His divinity, and in this respect had surmounted the offense by holding fast to their faith, are now brought to a stand by lowliness, by the possibility of offense, which consists in the fact that the God-Man suffers exactly as if he were a mere man. (Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity)

The Brothers Karamazov: Part I

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Last week I began a book that I have been wanting to read for a long time: namely, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I had to go through an adjustment period, but by the time I finished the first part of the novel, this period of adjustment was over. I am now done with the first part, and I wish to reflect upon the novel so far before I continue reading.

All that Dostoevsky talks about (through his characters), at first, seemed lofty and philosophical. Common conversations between characters include the following: the problem of suffering, faith and doubt, the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, the fall of man and human depravity, etc… In the beginning, this threw me off. However, I am now impressed with how Dostoevsky talks about these things. It is actually very plausible that his characters discuss these serious issues given the relationships his characters have in the novel. Alyosha (Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov), the main character, lives in a monastery. His father is a sensualistic money grubber. One brother is another sensualist, and the other is an atheist. This incites many deep conversations including the topics I mentioned. There are also trips and situations with elders and priests, as well as with prostitutes.

There are many specific situations, conversations, scenes, images, etc… that I could point out. I will mention only two, however.

First, I want to look at a mention of the term “happiness.” Zosima, an elder at the monastery, is the one who discusses happiness briefly. Zosima is a sort of mentor for Alyosha. Zosima is speaking to a woman whose daughter he has healed (the daughter’s health is still in question since her condition has merely improved). The mother’s name is Madam Khoklakhov, and the daughter’s name is Lise.

“For people are created for happiness, and he who is completely happy can at once be deemed worthy of saying to himself: ‘I have fulfilled God’s commandment on this earth.'” (p. 55)

So, what is happiness? Well, no specifics have been put forth explicitly by Zosima. He is an elder at a monastery, so it might be helpful to look at the creation of man in Genesis to try and understand Zosima’s worldview. I want to look at all of Genesis 1-2, but to be concise, I will quote only a few verses.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man[h] in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26-28 ESV)

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for[e] him.” (Gen. 2: 18)

Man is created in the image of God (Imago Dei). God is triune, He is in relationship: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Genesis 1 does not tell us that God needed his creation to be whole. Rather, it is out of this perfectly loving relationship of the trinity that creation happens. Love cannot help but create. And man was created in God’s image. Man was intended to live in relationship, he was intended to love. That is man’s purpose: to love. This is why I quoted Genesis 2:18 as well. To love – to do as God intended us – is to be happy. (The cultural mandate to be fruitful and multiply is one way that man can fulfill this call to be God’s image bearers on earth.)

In this quote, Zosima invokes the creation of man, but more specifically the purpose of man: why was man created? I would argue that Genesis, and the elder Zosima, say (even if implicitly) that man was created to love. Zosima says that man was created to be happy. Yes. I would argue that Zosima’s concept of happiness is directly rooted in the command to love in Genesis, and in the rest of Scripture. Happiness is the freedom and ability to love.

This actually leads to the second quote I wish to point out.

“Never be frightened at your own faintheartedness in attaining love, and meanwhile do not even be very frightened by your own bad acts. I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment – I predict this to you – you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.” (p. 58, Zosima to Madame Khoklakhov)

The “goal” that Zosima discusses is to be happy, and, thus, to love. God’s commandment for us is happiness, and to be happy means to love. Happiness is the freedom and ability to love (I argue this based on Genesis 1 and 2 with the creation of man in God’s trinitarian image, and God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply, a commandment to love and perpetuate love). And, in this second quote, Zosima defines the nature of this love – this active love.

My personal canon

1. The Odyssey by Homer
2. The Gospel of John
3. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
4. Confessions by St. Augustine
5. Othello by William Shakespeare
6. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
7. Training in Christianity by Soren Kierkegaard
8. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
10. Dubliners by James Joyce
11. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
12. An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

My life author is 19th century Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

See Bensonian for the criteria for a ‘personal canon.’

Wildcat

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This third short story of Flannery O’Connor proved to intrigue me, more so than the previous two short stories. The narrator tells us about Old Gabriel, a blind man. His grandkids are trying to hunt a wildcat in the woods. Old Gabriel flashes back to when he was their age, and their was a wildcat near the house. Young Gabriel was left with the women by the men, who went to hunt the wildcat. Old Gabriel was left by the grandkids, who go hunt for the wildcat.

The main idea that I glean from this story is something that Flannery O’Connor may or may not have intended her reader to think about with regards to this story. I like to think she did intend it–but I am not claiming to know O’Connor’s mind. What I get from this short story is the following: Evil is not so far off (in the woods), rather, evil is closer than we think it is (next to the house). 

Take a look at the book of Mark:

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit,sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23 ESV)

So, not only is evil (according to Scripture) closer than we thought, just on the porch; the evil is within the heart of man, the wildcat is inside the house!

Hear Old Gabriel’s thoughts about the wildcat:

Mattie’s! Take him to Mattie’s! Settin’ wit the women. What yawl think I is? I ain’t afraid er no wildcat. But it comin’, boys; an’ it ain’t gonna be in no woods–it gonna be hear. Yawl wastin’ yo’ time in the woods. Stay here an’ you ketch it. (p. 30)

The evil is here.