March 25, 2014

As I See It

People tend to think it’s important to be current. Being current beats being obsolete, deteriorated, or senile. If you are current, you are engaged, contemporary, in touch.

Or perhaps not.

There’s another meaning to the word. It’s what happens in a river, an ocean, or the sky. Currents are everywhere, in natural environments, and also wherever there are people. Being part of a human current may be a good thing.

Or, again, perhaps not.

A Deadly Current

I used to live in a coastal town on Vancouver Island, just west of Canada’s mainland. Fishing, logging, and mining are key industries there. Being a church pastor, I got to hang out with the people working those jobs. I occasionally had the chance to climb aboard a seine boat and motor out of the harbor into the swells toward the unbroken horizon.

Currents are an important part of an ocean fishing experience, with favorable currents, and currents to be avoided.

One day in Seymour Narrows, a constricted channel between the island and the mainland, a hard-running tide was spawning the usual rips and eddies. Fishing boats often motored through this stretch under these conditions, but on this day the current turned malicious. A surge caught the keel of a 58-foot fishing boat. Without warning the boat capsized. In the ensuing mayhem two people in the boat’s galley and one in the wheelhouse were trapped and drowned.

These people were members of my church. For the families involved, and for that small congregation of Christian believers, it was an ill current indeed.

A couple years later I was out on the open water with a fisherman named Andy. Somewhere out on Queen Charlotte Sound, north of Vancouver Island, we encountered what Andy referred to as a tide rip, the same term fishermen used in describing the catastrophe in Seymour Narrows. In the wide-open expanse of the sound, however, it was simply two lazy currents drifting idly past each other. The visible evidence was a line of floating debris snaking across the ocean’s gently rolling surface. It wasn’t violent or scary, but neither was it something to get excited about.

That’s true of a lot of currents: they are little more than debris, unworthy of a thoughtful person’s attention. Other currents, such as that deadly confluence in Seymour Narrows, are catastrophic.

Human Currents

A problem with human currents is that it’s hard to tell at first which ones are good, which ones are just junk, and which ones are decidedly evil. C. S. Lewis wrote about this, referring to our difficulty in evaluating human currents as a kind of blindness. “None of us can fully escape this blindness,” he said, “but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.”

I suppose if Lewis were writing now, rather than in the middle of last century, he might mention iPads, YouTube, innumerable sites on the Internet and, yes, television. But writing when he did, Lewis wrote about “modern books.”

“Where [modern books] are true they will give us truths which we half knew already,” he wrote. “Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”

Why would Lewis say that reading old books is important? Think about it: “People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. . . . Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

Lewis wrote these words in an introduction to a new (for his time) translation of a very old book, originally written in Greek. Its title in English is On the Incarnation, written by Athanasius, a Christian theologian who died in Alexandria, Egypt, in A.D. 373.

I have to say that as I read On the Incarnation, “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” blew briskly through my mind. This is a strong, good current.

From Bad to Worse

Speaking of the fall of Adam and Eve, and its aftermath, Athanasius wrote, “As they had at the beginning come into being out of nonexistence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to nonexistence again.” With these words, Athanasius describes the challenge the fallen race presented to God.

In the next chapter, “The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution in the Incarnation,” Athanasius described that challenge more pointedly: “It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into nonexistence. . . . What, then, was God to do?”

Athanasius was a natural teacher; he asked a lot of questions: “Who was it that was needed for such grace? . . . Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? . . .

“For this purpose then, the . . . Word of God entered our world. . . . He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love. . . . Pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, . . . He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. . . . He surrendered His body to death.”

Two Opposite Marvels

In the chapter “The Death of Christ,” Athanasius continues. “The body of the Word, then, . . . was itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it . . . so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.”

I have to admit that I’ve never completely understood how Christ’s death makes life possible for sinners. I suspect that no mortal completely understands it. Athanasius did not solve the mystery. However, to read these ancient words proclaiming this mysterious truth gives it new vigor.

Athanasius continues with these fascinating words: “It was precisely in order to be able to die that He had taken a body, and to prevent the death would have been to impede the resurrection. . . . The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection body. . . . Death had to precede resurrection, for there could be no resurrection without it.”

More than 2,000 years later it is sometimes easy for Christians to fall into wondering if Jesus really rose from the dead. Well, Athanasius didn’t write On the Incarnation 2,000 years after Christ lived. He didn’t write it a thousand years later. Athanasius lived only 300 years after Christ’s resurrection.

Still on the Spot

To put that into perspective, we are living now about 300 years after Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere. I’ve been to the site of Ben Franklin’s print shop in Philadelphia. In Boston, I’ve been in Paul Revere’s house. There is no doubting the history of Ben Franklin and Paul Revere.

Early believers did not doubt the history of Jesus. Athanasius continues: “How could His disciples have had boldness in speaking of the resurrection unless they could state it as a fact that He had first died?”

Then comes the chapter titled “The Resurrection.” Athanasius writes, “While those who had put Him to death were still on the spot and themselves witnessing to the fact of it, the Son of God after three days showed His once dead body immortal and incorruptible.”

The reality of this incredible event led Athanasius to observe that “death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe
in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection.”

This was not idle theory. Christians of Athanasius’ generation routinely died for their faith.

Crackling Energy

The apostles Peter and Paul were executed in Rome sometime between A.D. 65 and 67. The apostle John lived quite a lot longer, perhaps to nearly the end of the century. One of the church’s leaders of the second century probably knew John personally. He likely heard John recount the story of the empty tomb. This was Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. He lived from 69 to 155. Some of his writings survive and can be read today. Polycarp died for his faith, having no doubt about the fact of Christ’s resurrection.

Athanasius was probably born in A.D. 298. The time span between the lives of Polycarp and Athanasius is a little more than 140 years. Some perspective: 140 years ago Thomas Edison was already an adult. Henry Ford was approaching his teenage years. Athanasius lived not that far from people who had direct contact with Christ’s death and resurrection. It was a time during which belief in Jesus’ resurrection still crackled with energy.

To take another definition of the word “current,” confidence in Jesus’ resurrection was still charging the believers of Athanasius’ day.

C. S. Lewis was right. We should not ignore “old books.” Reading Athanasius charged me up! And I cannot think of a better way to conclude this than with an even older book: Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, written about A.D. 55, less than 25 years after Christ’s resurrection.

Paul wrote, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you thinks you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight” (1 Cor. 3:18, 19).

Paul had little interest in being current, that is being “wise by the standards of this age.” Instead, his life was charged by the electrifying current of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-22, 51-56). For Paul, for Athanasius, and for a multitude of Christian martyrs, Christ’s death and resurrection were infinitely more important than their own life or death.

May these old books inject the same lively charge into us!