A Question of Balance   Leave a comment

Above:  Balance Scale

Photographer = Andreas Praefcke

Image in the Public Domain

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[Jesus] called the people to him and said, “Listen, and understand.  What goes into the mouth does not make anyone unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean.”

–Matthew 15:10-11, The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)

I remember a single-cell cartoon depicting a man standing before St. Simon Peter at the Pearly Gates.  The caption reads,

No, that is not a sin either.  You must have worried yourself to death.

Recently I have renewed my interest in Scandinavian-American Lutheran history.  I have therefore been reading in that field.  These volumes have covered topics including Pietism, complete with its condemnation of indulging appetites and engaging in “worldly amusements,” such as dancing, drinking tea, playing cards, playing chess, attending plays, attending fairs and circuses, and reading works of fiction.  I have remembered an old joke:

Q:  Why don’t fundamentalists have sex standing up?

A:  It might lead to dancing.

Pietism and Puritanism are two unfortunate -isms that overlap with regard to denunciations of “worldly amusements.”  Pietism, which originated within Lutheranism then spread beyond it, dates to the 1600s, as a reaction against excessively abstract theology in preaching.  Pietism rejects the definition of the church as the assembly of hose called by both word and sacraments and redefines the church as the gathering of the spiritually reborn.  Pietism also de-emphasizes doctrine and stresses deeds–many of them laudible acts of charity and general decency and honest piety.  Unfortunately, Pietism also bends toward legalism and de-emphasizes the sacraments and rituals (referring scornfully to “externals”), tends toward serial contrarianism with regard to “the world,” and is Donatistic.  A Pietist contrasts deeds and doctrines.  I rebut that deeds reveal doctrines.  As we think, so we are.  That which we are inside cannot help but be evident outside.

I affirm the following statements:

  1. What we do matters.
  2. What we do not do matters.
  3. What we believe (give intellectual assent to) matters.
  4. None of the above can save any of us from the consequences of our sins.
  5. Faithful response to God is vital.
  6. Legalism is spiritually detrimental.
  7. Salvation is a gift.  It is free, not cheap.

The allegation of works-based righteousness is a cudgel many Protestants use against Roman Catholicism.  This reality indicates a misapprehension of Roman Catholic theology.  Yes, many Roman Catholics have a sense of works-based righteousness, but so do many Protestants.  I, who grew up a United Methodist in the South Georgia Conference, recall some children’s sermons delivered by laypeople whose theology included works-based righteousness.  I know well that the doctrinal standards of that denomination reject works-based righteousness.  For many Protestants of various theological categories affirming orthodoxy becomes a means of salvation.  Salvation from damnation therefore becomes a matter of knowledge.  This is an error–a sort of Gnosticism, to be precise.  Furthermore, an obsession with personal peccadilloes becomes an excuse for giving short shrift to or ignoring collective responsibility for societal and social ills.  So yes, one might cheat one’s employees and oppose policies that would penalize one for doing so and prevent one from doing so, but one rarely uses profanity and never cheats on one’s spouse.  The Bible says more about the exploitation of people than about sexual activities, however, so such a one needs to rethink one’s priorities.  Anyhow, even the most moral life, measured by kindness, cannot save one from damnation.

In both Judaism and Christianity the law of love is paramount.  So, O reader, leave the world better than you found it.  God will save it, but your faithful response is to act positively.  Also, go ahead and enjoy your life.  Enjoy a good dance, if you wish.  Watch movies, from harmless popcorn flicks to profound art films.  (Italian Neorealism has enriched my life recently.)  Why not relish a well-written novel or short story?  Lose yourself in a symphony or other work of great music.

Finally, brothers, let your minds be filled with everything that is true, everything that is honourable, everything that is upright and pure, everything that we love and admire–and whatever is good and praiseworthy.

–Philippians 4:8, The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)

The “worldly” in “worldly amusements” is not necessarily negative.  Yes, one should avoid much that one can find to amuse oneself, but many of the options are laudable.  Playing chess is beneficial for one’s mind.  Antioxidents in tea are good for us.  Idle hands are not necessarily the Devil’s workshop, for we need to rest and play as well as work.  God has given us life;  may we enjoy it and thank God frequently.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 9, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF KARL BARTH, SWISS REFORMED MINISTER, THEOLOGIAN, AND BIBLICAL SCHOLAR; FATHER OF MARKUS BARTH, SWISS LUTHERAN MINISTER AND BIBLICAL SCHOLAR

THE FEAST OF GEORG FRIEDRICH HELLSTROM, DUTCH-GERMAN MORAVIAN MUSICIAN, COMPOWER, AND EDUCATOR

THE FEAST OF SAINT PETER FOURIER, “THE GOOD PRIEST OF MATTAINCOURT;” AND SAINT ALIX LE CLERC, FOUNDRESS OF THE CONGREGATION OF NOTRE DAME OF CANONESSES REGULAR OF SAINT AUGUSTINE

THE FEAST OF SAINT WALTER CISZEK, ROMAN CATHOLIC MISSIONARY PRIEST AND POLITICAL PRISONER

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