Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Glory of the Sun is Typical

The sun is the star at the center of our solar system. It is a mass of exceptionally hot plasma and magnetic fields. Chemically it is mostly made of hydrogen and helium. By mass, it is many times larger than all of the other planets in the solar system combined – giving it the gravitational pull that drives the other planets – including our own – through their respective motions, seasons, and other periodicities. It provides the energy that makes life, as we know it, possible on Earth.
We are dependent on this universal oven for our lives. Without it there would be no photosynthesis – no growth or energy, that is – in plants for us to benefit from. The surface of our planet would no longer be a beautiful blue and white sphere (as in the Apollo 8 image that so inspired us when we first saw it in 1968). It would be a cold grey mass spinning lifeless in space.   
For some reason we normally take this remarkable star for granted. It is so constant that even our complete dependency upon it gets ignored, just like the essential water that falls from the sky and the oxygen that we pull into our lungs. It shines on all of us – rich and poor alike.
And if many of us forget what a blessing it is, there is something even more significant that I would like to point out – something that even fewer of us ever consider: our sun works like a cosmic battery. It is not our ultimate source of energy. Something else entirely energizes it.  This is not an astronomical truth that you will learn about in a physics class. It is a scriptural truth of such proportion that it fills us with wonder: the source of the sun’s brilliance is the Son of God.
“This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.” (D&C 88:7).
Consider the significance of this. It means that the influence of Jesus the Christ extends to the very core of our physical existence. Yes, we understand that He is the source of all spiritual sustenance. And yes, we understand that He is the Creator of the world. Of course, we also realize that He is the High Priest of good things to come (Hebrews 9:11) - with all of the salvific implications of that magnificent title. But somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten that He is also the source of our everyday (hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute) needs. Without the sun – that is, without the Son – we would not exist in this world.
I am not suggesting that we dig up the pagan rites of sun worshippers.  They crop up without too much trouble on all continents and through a long history of religious commitments. Christianity itself has its own brief conjunction with sun worship that seems to have been almost inevitable in the melting pot of the Roman Empire where the deity Sol Invictus was worshipped as the official Sun God.
His day of birth – the so-called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – was December 25th which was later adopted by the early Fathers as the official day to celebrate Jesus’ own birth. We sometimes smile knowingly that the real birthday of Jesus was actually in the spring – when shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night.
But was the Christian adoption of the sun god’s birthday a mere political expedient? Was a convenient calendar the only reason for changing the date? We will probably never know. We do, however, have a couple of clues that suggest that there may just have been a solar association with the Son of God even back in those forgotten centuries. One of the clues involves the Book of Malachi (written probably a couple of centuries before Christ and recorded as the last book of the Old Testament) and the book of Third Nephi (written at the time of Christ and recorded in the Book of Mormon) which contains a section repeating the verse in Malachi.
Referring to the end of times when the earth will be burned as an oven, Malachi records, “but unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings...” (Chapter 4:2).
This is an interesting perspective on the word sun: being capitalized, referring to a male deity (most likely) and representing a moral being representative of a Hebrew seraph (with wings). The early Christians, however, were clear that this being was Christ, the Sun of justice.
Ambrose wrote in Six Days of Creation (4.2.5): “therefore God the Father says, “let the sun be made,” and the Son made the sun, for it was fitting that the Sun of justice should make the sun of the world…”.
Valentinus was also clear on this (Letter 216, Valentine to Augustine): “…the Lord shall come as a burning furnace and shall burn the wicked like stubble. And to those who fear the name of the Lord, the Sun of justice shall rise, when the wicked shall be punished with the judgment of Justice.”
The Book of Mormon makes the relationship even clearer:  “But unto you that fear my name, shall the Son of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings…” (3 Nephi 25:2). Here the healer is the Son, not the Sun. And Malachi’s play on words becomes apparent. There is a glory in the Son of God that resembles our life-sustaining star. But if the orb can burn, the Son of God will heal. One wonders what other similarities there might be. What other hints are to be found in the sacred record?
One important hint was given to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in their vision of the degrees of glory. “These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical” (D&C 76:70).
That last word typical is a wonderfully ambiguous word. It can mean a handful of different things. If this were the only verse we had associating the sun with deity, we might draw one of several conclusions.
We might assume that the sun is an example of deity – that it is characteristic of a god. It wouldn’t be clear that the sun wasn’t a god itself. This understanding of the word typical isn’t all that different from the understanding we sense from some sun-worshipping cultures. In fact this understanding of typical is the definition we are most familiar with today. As in, “I am eating a typical apple for lunch.”
Then there is the definition of typical as a type, or as the defining example of something. In the science of taxonomy, for example, a type specimen is the actual individual (preserved and usually mounted in a museum) that defines a species. In order to assure accuracy in identifying an individual of the same species, a careful comparison must be made with the type specimen. This is the individual that the original author (describer) of the species designated as the name-bearing entity of his discovery.
If this were the intended meaning of the word typical, it would indicate that the sun was not just an example of a deity, but that it was the Supreme Being in existence. Again, this is the understanding of some sun-worshipping cultures.
The other meaning of typical is that it is emblematic of, or that it is of the nature of, something else. Maybe it is a symbol of something else, or perhaps a subset of a larger entity. An apple in a painting, done in still-life, might be a typical apple. An expensive truck might have the power typical of several teams of horses.
The sun, in this sense, might represent a being that is, itself, even more powerful than it is. Similarly, it might have characteristics that are similar to the Supreme Being.  It seems that this is what Malachi meant when he drew upon the image of the Sun to describe the Son.
And it opens up to us is an immense amount of understanding about the Son of God, by way of comparison. We know that the sun’s power is beyond our ability to comprehend. We know that it will burn to a crisp all of life unless we are protected. (And this is why the early Fathers recognized the sun as a symbol of Christ’s justice.) We also know that it is the life that sustains us day by day.
Such understanding makes us stop in awe-full wonder. How transcendent is the Son of God? Certainly his power is beyond comprehending. Truly we are nothing without His grace. And without this same grace we will wither as the summer grass before the blazing sun.
Before such majesty our human pride is truly tragicomic. Our greatest achievements appear in the archives of eternity as so many ant-hills in the Garden of Eden. How pathetic is our fallen presumption before the Son/Sun of God!
My quotations from Ambrose and Valentinus are taken from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament XIV, The Twelve Prophets; edited by A. Ferreiro and T.C. Oden. Inter Varsity Press, 2003.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Kingdom of Faith

What is it that captures your allegiance more than anything else? Is it a homeland, a political geography, a flag? Maybe you are an idealist and prefer to stand by principles or a favorite author. Perhaps you’d rather stick with what you know and trust personally – your allegiance is to your own judgment.

Or maybe, just maybe - out of all the people you respect and befriend - someone stands above the others in your estimation and respect. Maybe your highest loyalty is to a person.

In the next few paragraphs I hope to convince you (if you need to be convinced) that this is the highest form of allegiance. Not everyone will agree – especially these days. Who, after all, is worthy of our highest respect? “You can’t trust anybody anymore,” we often hear ourselves complain.

Our modern decision-making instincts aren’t very helpful in this regard either. Prime-time news channels make sure to let us know how balanced they are by endorsing nobody or nothing in particular (at least overtly). Everybody has some sort of flaw. And if someone shows up with a strong opinion, she will always be held up to public judgment. That’s just what happens in democracies.

How on earth, then, can I argue that it is better to stand behind someone than something? Or that it is even a good idea to profess loyalty to anybody at all?

I have three witnesses. For starters let me quote Chesterton in a statement he made about art and the artistic pursuit of beauty: “nothing is perfect,” he said, “unless it is personal.”

The greatest works of art, it is true, are about people. In literature, the Bible, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables, and so many other great works are about people. The most important paintings of all time have all dwelt with people. Yes there are masterpieces in still life, of abstract subjects, or of landscapes. But individual human beings are the great subjects and always will be.

As a young boy without many resources at Christmastime, I was always a little discouraged with the kinds of presents I could find for my family. Gratefully I accepted the advice of my parents that a hand-made item would mean more to them than an expensive gift purchased from a store. I thought they were just being nice. After all, every boy knows that a new bike is much preferred to anything that a family member might make. But I didn’t complain.

Years later I was surprised when we cleaned out our garage before moving. After boxing up tools, sweeping the floor, and clearing items off of shelves I was surprise to find one of my drawings. It was an animal scene that I had made for my father years earlier. It was of a meadow scene, and it was proudly positioned on the wall. The quality of the artwork was not all that impressive – certainly not something to be framed for the living room. But the pride of my father was obvious, and I began to realize that maybe he did like my personalized presents to him the most.
This was a comforting realization for a boy that wasn’t a social butterfly – who never felt comfortable in large groups. In fact, it took me quite a while to realize just how significant personal interactions are in other areas of my life. I have always insisted that I would rather eat by myself than spend two hours prolonging a business meal in order to be sociable. And when it comes to parties or other social gatherings, I prefer staying at home with a book in my reading chair.

Even so, I have learned that I enjoy eating a meal with somebody I really like more than eating alone. And if I know that a good friend will be at a party, I am eager to attend. It just depends on who I happen to be with. This may seem a bit paradoxical: that a social misfit will admit to the primacy of the personal. But I assure you that it is real.

Today our political leaders are rarely loved. We support them for their record of public service and because they may represent our point of view. But, for the most part, we don’t even know them. The loyalty we offer them is only a vague sentiment. If our candidate loses an election we hardly ever feel sorry for him personally. We feel sorry for ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In local communities, and especially in local religious congregations, many leaders are actually loved. And our loyalty to them is very often genuine. We compliment them, send them messages, and we even pray for them. Even with a life-full of imperfections, there are people that we still trust.

My second witness is John Henry Newman. In his Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford, he writes that revealed religion stands above natural religion, “training us to be subjects of a kingdom, not citizens of a Stoic republic.”

Newman’s point is a sad but poignant one. Philosophy, in the end, isn’t enough to ground us spiritually. “A mere moral strain of teaching duty and enforcing obedience fails in persuading us to practice, not because it appeals to conscience, and commands and threatens, but because it does not urge and illustrate virtue in the Name and by the example of our blessed Lord.”

We watch the best philosophers argue for utilitarian or universal standards, using measure of truth in human averages or physical laws. Sadly, even suicide itself becomes a reasonable response to an ultimately amoral world that taunts the human presumption and cry for meaning. If our spiritual needs are to have any real significance, it becomes obvious that they will not be coming from our many philosophies. Efforts to direct a life on both Christian and Darwinian principles can only lead to madness. Clearly, we are better off seeking a virtuous leader than a faulty philosophy.

I know I am getting on thin ice here. After all, we Americans are convinced that enlightenment philosophy (as translated into our national Constitution) has produced the best possible form of governance. The fact that our Constitution is the oldest written constitution in the world would seem to confirm this belief. I am not denying this.

But our national Constitution allows our diverse population to co-exist because of compromise. Our many beliefs and cultures (not to mention our many levels of virtuous commitment) require a document that can give and take on important issues. It is an inspired document.

But compromise does not ultimately satisfy our deepest spiritual needs. Compromise is no more satisfying than a reasoned philosophy. It may help in the short term, but it remains a shadowy solution. In the end we do not wish to live forever in a world of gray.

We seek a kingdom because we believe that real virtue can (and does) exist. Maybe we have come to permanently doubt the list of candidates endlessly posting their signs in our neighbors’ yards. Our suspicions of human nature are legitimate. In fact we may have lost faith that a human being might ever achieve real virtue.

But then once in a while we see a true example and our faith returns. Even if, in our idealism, we no longer esteem anybody completely; there is one personal example (and this is my third witness) that demands our personal allegiance. It is the example of Christ.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” (John 14:6). Jesus doesn’t tell His disciples that if they keep the commandments, they will be guaranteed a place in heaven. He tells them that if they love him, they will keep His commandments (John 14:15). The ultimate measure is not a laundry list for forensic living. It is our love and faith in the Master himself.
It is valuable to remember here that the word believe goes back to an old English word be-love. Sadly we have lost this important personal sense of what faith is all about. It is to be based in a loving person, not in an abstract principle.

There is good reason that the eternal realm is called the Kingdom of Heaven. This place of wonder (of our ultimate dreams) is not just mentioned once or twice in a forgotten verse of scripture. The Kingdom of Heaven (and the Kingdom of God) takes center stage in Christian holy writ.

It is a compound word. The first syllable is king - obviously referring to a regal being. The second is dom referring to a legal jurisdiction. The word, itself, has come to be most frequently thought of as a place. In a religious sense it has become the place of our anticipated eternal home.

But this emphasis is wrong. It has always been intended that the focus be on the King and not the place. Who knows what heaven is even like? Why are we so preoccupied by a place we know so little about? By contrast we know a great deal about its Ruler – the King. He lived here once, and we have a record of the things He said and did. He has been involved in our own lives and in our many histories. We can come to know Him. In fact coming to know Him is what the eternities are all about. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3).

It is said that there are bits and pieces of heaven all around us. “Home can be a heaven on earth” we sing with our children. And maybe we do love the place where we live. Or maybe we feel like we don’t belong. Perhaps we keep hoping for a better world. So be it.

My advice is to forget about the perfect place, and think instead about its King. The place is far away. But the Ruler is willing to join us here, even if His kingdom is not of this world.


Chesterton’s quote come from The Everlasting Man (page 104 of my soft-bound edition from Ignacius Press). Newman’s quote is from Sermon II (The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively) in Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford. My copy is the Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900.