Some St. V-Day birthers: 2-14-12
Help for caregivers: 2-16-12

Grasping Christian doctrine: 2-15-12

I was going to put a dateline on this entry so you'd know where I attended a funeral last week, but I've decided that the where doesn't matter.

Immortal soul

The funeral was for a member of my extended family, though someone I had never met. She became part of my extended family due to marriage in the generation after me.

The funeral was held in a Protestant church to which this person had belonged for a long time. The young pastor, who had known the deceased for two years, did an admirable job of giving those in attendance a sense of the person's spunk and curiosity and faith. All well and good.

But then he started talking about how the human body is just a shell and how "you have an eternal soul that will live forever."

I know this is the kind of trumpery people -- even Christians -- say to one another to try to be of comfort, but it is in no way Christian doctrine or teaching. The idea of an immortal soul is an old Greek idea that has infected the Christian church, despite the church's alternative -- and quite distinct -- teaching called the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

The great theologian Shirley C. Guthrie, in his classic book Christian Doctrine, outlines what I mean as clearly as anyone:

"If we hold to the genuinely biblical hope for the future, we must firmly reject this doctrine of the soul's immortality for several reasons.

"First, the Christian faith does not pretend that death is not so bad after all. . .For the biblical writers death is real, total and terrible. .

.Death is hideous, because, so far as we are concerned, it means the death of us, not just the death of our bodies.

"Secondly. . .the Christian hope is not in the indestructibility of man, but in the creative power of God. . .God alone has immortality. If there is life beyond death for men, it is not because they possess in themselves some immortal quality death cannot destroy, but because God gives them eternal life or immortality. . .Christians are not optimistic about man and the potentialities he has in himself, but about God and what he can and will do. . .

"Finally, Christians reject the doctrine of the immortality of the soul because of the unbiblical split it makes between body and soul, physical-earthly and spiritual-heavenly life. . .The Bible does not teach that the body is only a worthless or evil prison which degrades our true selves. . .(T)he biblical hope is not for the soul's escape from the bodily-physical into some purely spiritual realm. Our hope is for the renewal of our total human existence."

Indeed, as Bishop N.T. Wright makes so clear in his book Simply Christian, the Christian belief is that God will renew not just human existence but the whole of creation.

The pastor who spoke of the deceased person's body as just a shell from which her immortal soul now was evacuated could have learned true Christian theology about this also by reading Faith Seeking Understanding, by Daniel L. Migliore, as well as Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.

Somehow I expect Christian pastors to understand traditional Christian doctrine and am always disappointed when I find them offering something else. Though, to be fair, even the Westminster Divines in the catechisms they produced got mixed up on this issue. But we've had hundreds of years since then to get it right.

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OK, speaking of Christian doctrine, I'm going to all traditional Catholic on you by endorsing the thrust of what the archbishop of Louisville says in this video, which is that "destination weddings" can set the wrong tone for a marriage. I just don't get why so much preparation goes into the wedding and, by comparison, so little to the marriage. Now, the fact that Protestants like me, unlike Catholics, don't consider marriage a sacrament doesn't change the fact that more preparation should go into marriage than goes into the wedding.

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Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, by Lauren F. Winner. Maybe my expectations for this book were too high. Although I hadn't read Winner's previous book, Girl Meets God, my wife had and really liked it. Same for other friends. But this new book, while it had its moments, seemed so self-referential that I had trouble understanding what I was supposed to get from it other than the opportunity to sit on the sidelines and watch as the author, through clever and engaging writing, expressed angst about her relationship with God. Winner converted from Judaism to Christianity and then eventually began to lose the passion for the faith that permeated her when she was a new Christian. Loss of faith is a common affliction in today's culture. Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to hold to a strong faith without going through the valley of the shadow of doubt and a feeling that God has gone missing. And Winner expresses that feeling in sometimes-compelling language. But in the midst of all this we also learn of her divorce, and yet she really doesn't give us a chance to grasp what caused it, what kind of man her former husband was, what role faith played in all of that and so on. Like much else in the book, it struck me as just a lot of free-floating distress. Perhaps if you are now experiencing a disquieting distance from God and want words to help articulate what you're feeling this book can help. I just found it too much about Lauren Winner and not enough about why her experiences matter to the rest of us. But I've been wrong before.



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