Category Archives: theologians

Inconceivable! Baptism & the “Fellowship of Christ’s Suffering”

inconceivableI am convinced that we take the wonder and peculiarity of the Christian story for granted.  Our ancient forebears, not weighed down with sappy sentimentality or rationalistic reductionism, knew better.  I came across the following quote by St. Cyril of Jerusalem while researching a sermon and I thought it was too good not to share.  This is from his catechetical lectures on the sacraments:

“O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me without pain or toil by the fellowship of His suffering He freely bestows salvation.”

St. Cyril contrasts the visceral reality of the cross and resurrection experienced by Christ with that which is symbolized and beautifully enacted in baptism.  What is inconceivable – if you’ll pardon the Princess Bride reference – is that all that Christ won in his conquest of death by death is ours without the torment he willingly embraced.  Through the confession of the true faith and baptism in the Triune name, we come to know “the fellowship of His suffering” and salvation is bestowed as a free gift.

Let us never lose sight of the strangeness of the gospel, and how – inconceivably – God has condescended to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit for our redemption.

What does it look like to share in “the fellowship” of Christ’s suffering? How does your baptism inform your daily walk with God? Leave a comment or question below!

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The Gift of Silence in a Wordy World

Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Political ads. Music blaring.  Advertisements. Phones dinging and ringing with texts, tweets, and emails, and notifications from a hundred different apps.

How do we cut the noise?

The Psalms encourage us to meet God in silence: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

But stillness and silence are in short supply these days,  This is important because the noise, the wordiness, the verbosity and constant buzz of our world directly impact our ability to live in peace with God, each other, and ourselves. St. Philotheos of Sinai reflected many centuries ago:

“Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (Jas. 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul?” (“Forty Texts on Watchfulness,” Philokalia: Volume III London: Faber & Faber], 17)

On the recommendation of my friend Isaac Hopper, I recently read a great little book for creatives called Manage Your Day-To-Day. One of the chapters dealt with silence, and encouraged creative people (and I would think it beneficial for anyone) to intentionally cultivate silence each day.  The benefits in mental and emotional health, creativity, engagement, and clarity – if this chapter is to be believed – are manifold.

We live in an over-connected world, with messages constantly bombarding us.  The urgent always demands to be  addressed immediately, which puts the critical and the important off to the side.  But without silence, we cannot differentiate between them and hear the voice of our own priorities and values.

What if you took 10 minutes to just unplug each morning before the day’s demands come at you? That might be prayer, or meditation, or thinking through the day.  Or, perhaps, you could cut five minutes from lunch and just find a quiet corner in which to reset?  Increasingly, if we are ever going to experience silence, we will have to intentionally seek it out.

Silence truly is golden, but we spend most of our days courting the din of tin.

But silence is a gift that is free; you don’t have to buy it or earn it, you only have to unplug.

How does your day-to-day routine benefit from silence? Do you find silence difficult or uncomfortable? How can we cultivate more silence in our lives and our childrens’ lives? Leave a comment below!

Abusing the Apophatic: The Turn To Mystery As a Cop-Out

losskyIn our postmodern culture, talk of “mystery” is all the rage among religious folk.  Can’t explain something? Mystery.  Don’t like historic Christian teaching but still want to sound like you’re in continuity with the Tradition? Mystery it is.

The problem is that this is an abuse, a mischaracterization of the apophatic way (sometimes called “negative theology”) on that which which twists a valued mystical tradition into a cover for all kinds of bullshit.

Friends, please hear me out: stop using the apophatic as a cop-out.

Don’t believe me that this is a problem? I could cite my own personal experience, but we are all aware (I hope) that individual experience is just about the worst possible resource for knowledge in the Christian life.  To be sure, I’ve been in numerous conversations where my interlocutor attempted to dodge the particularities of Christian teaching by giving a nod to mystery and to the apophatic way. Let’s look instead two examples, in which I have added the emphases to highlight today’s topic.

Exhibit A

A piece by Gene Marshall over at ProgressiveChristianity.org mentions mystery several times. He goes so far as to reduce God to capital-M ‘Mystery,’ like so:

At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.

Drawing on the existentialism of Tillich and others, Marshall avoids anything particular about God by the apophatic turn.

Exhibit B

I generally try to avoid quoting comments, but in this instance it just fits too perfectly (I also mean nothing personal by this, as I have no idea who this particular commenter is).  Once again, in a discussion about Christian doctrine, the commenter uses the apophatic turn to stay in the realm of generic, personal-experience deity:

If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology.

Note here that “apophatic” has little content save being against the Nicene Creed and similar to a variety of non-Christian faiths and Process theology.  Further note how similar the above comments sound to that of Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor fighting to keep her credentials because everyone else knows she’s an atheist while she maintains she’s evolved into a higher, non-theistic conception of the divine. Read: poppycock.

The Truth: The End of the Apophatic is the Holy Trinity

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?
The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

What’s truly sad is that apophatic theology is a valued part of Christian teaching, particularly in the East.  While the vast majority of Christians today have domesticated the transcendent, attempting to pull God down to our level and make the Divine only a friend, or a healer, a get-out-of-jail-free card or a cosmic soup of affirmation, the apophatic tradition at its best reminds us to keep silent before the incomprehensibility of our Maker.

Oh, Mystery there is: the One whom we love is too holy for words and, as Israel attests, the ‘I AM’ whose name is too holy to pronounce and too grand to scribble, this God, our God cannot be named by our limited imaginations, tamed by our feeble intellect, claimed for our puny projects.

But Christians, you see, revel not just in mystery but also in paradox.  This unutterable God has made Godself known to us in a particular way.  The goal of the apophatic, the Mystery that we claim as Christians, is named not by our own fatuous grasping but by God’s gracious condescension His creatures.  The great Russian Orthodox scholar-priest Vladimir Lossky thus reflects,

“This is the end of the endless way; the limit of the limitless ascent; Incomprehensibility reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for his incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity. Here apophaticism finds its fulfillment in the revelation of the Holy Trinity as primordial fact, ultimate reality, first datum which cannot be deduced, explained or discovered by way of any other truth; for there is nothing which is prior to it. Apophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity. Here thought gains a stability which cannot be shaken; theology finds its foundation; ignorance passes into knowledge.”

In God’s nature or substance, that “stuff” (if you’ll forgive the vulgar imprecision) of which God is, God is utterly unknowable because God is outside and above and beyond us.  But in God’s hypostases, the Tri-Personal God has made himself known to us.  The Mystery has given us a glimpse; not a full view everything, of course, for that would be like asking to stare at the sun when it is one block away.

But what we can know about this God, what God has revealed to us in Scripture, through the teaching of Apostles, Saints, and Doctors of the Church, and most especially through life of Jesus, we gladly and happily confess as the Most Blessed Trinity.

Ignorance passes into knowledge, and theology has its foundation.

To misappropriate the apophatic as an excuse to feign ignorance of God is not only wrong according to every possible standard of Christian truth, it is tragic.  The Mystery at the heart of all reality has opened a door, as it were, and given us a glimpse inside.

Who are we to shut it?

Source: Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 63-64 (emphasis added).

Fear of God as the Pathway to the Love of God

love the harbor“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practice ithave a good understanding.
    His praise endures forever.” 

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;  for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1)

Are love and fear opposites?  In the popular sentimentality of the 21st century West, fear is on a spectrum “negative” emotions to be avoided at all costs (including sanity, truth, and virtue).  Christians often like to quote 1 John 4:18 as evidence that our faith should have nothing to do with fear. Others seem to base their whole faith on fear, reducing the gospel to fire insurance.  But a more nuanced, canonical approach reveals that the Bible is not as paranoid about fearing God as we modern Christians are.  Taking a more holistic view thus undercuts

  • Fundamentalist Christians, who use texts like Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 to justify a fear-based approach that is both effective and damaging.  I can’t tell you how many times I “got saved” as a youth because a preacher scared the hell out of me (literally) and sent me careening toward the altar convinced that God hated me.  It’s important to remember that the only people Jesus scared were the uptight religious folks and authorities of empire; the fundamentalist wing of Christianity tends to do the opposite: apologize for empire and religious authority while putting fear into the common folks and ignoring the plight of the poor and marginalized.
  • Progressive Christians, who use texts like 1 John 4:18 as proofs against fear having any kind of role in the Christian life.  It’s common to hear progressives talk about their “conversion stories” (meaning their transition out of conservative Christianity) as a move from a “fear-and-law-based” faith to a “love-and-grace-based” faith.  While I am sympathetic to this journey because it is similar to my own, the truth is that too often Christianities that are solely focus on “love” have such a Westernized, emotive view of love that it tends towards cheap grace and even pantheism.  If God is love, and love costs nothing and elicits no response, then discipleship, worship, mission, evangelism matter little.
  • Cultural Christians, who have neither fear nor love for God.  One significant strand of this is described well by Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Cultural Christians are those who identify as Christians but have no active relationship with God and/or a faith community; they may pray when the chips are down and go to church at Christmas, but day-to-day their decisions and actions are governed by something other than the Triune God.  They have neither fear nor love for God, but might occasionally try to use God to get what they want.

But can we get to the love of God and wholly bypass fear? St. Isaac the Syrian suggests this is impossible:staniloae

Just as it isn’t possible…for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear. We can cross the tempestuous sea placed between us and the spiritual paradise only with the ship of repentance, borne by the oarsmen of fear. If these oarsmen of fear don’t handle the ship of repentance well, by which we cross the sea of this world toward God, we will be drowned in it.  Repentance is the ship, fear is the rudder, love is the divine harbor. So fear puts us in the ship of repentance and we cross the tempestuous sea and it guides us to the divine harbor, which is love where all those who labor and have been enlightened by repentance arrive. And when we have reached love, we have reached God. And our journey has ended and we have reached the island which is beyond this world.

In his classic work Orthodox SpiritualityDmitru Staniloae expands on this by noting that the fear at issue is chiefly fear of a lower love of God, or fear of remaining egotism which would keep us from reaching the harbor of pure love (Wesleyans would call this Christian Perfection, the East would call it theosis or union with God):

The will for a greater love will keep us on board and help us to steer a straight course. It will keep our heads above the giant waves of evil and the egotism which rises up within us. It will lead us straight ahead. Only in the vessel of repentance do we constantly pass over the sinful waves of egotism, which tend to rise up from deeply within us and beneath us. Only by it are we always above ourselves and moving onward from our present position, moving closer to full love, closer to the paradise where the tree of life is, in other words to Christ, the source of love which feeds our spirit. (2)

I love the vision of the life with God as a journey.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Eastern spirituality reminds us that there are “many danger, toils, and snares” on the way to the full love of God. (3)  A proper and holy fear of failing to reach “perfection in love” and thus the fullness of the life God intends to give us seems, as St. Isaac suggested, a part of our pilgrimage we cannot avoid if we would reach that harbor for which we were made.

What do you think? Does fear have a role to play in our journey towards a full love of God? Are repentance and fear necessarily linked? How would you preach or teach this journey? I’d love to have your feedback below.

Notes

  1. Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; 1 John 4:18.
  2. Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 140-141.
  3. “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton.

Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How do have the conversations that matter most?  Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered.  Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday.  Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon.  The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality).  A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline.  Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting.  As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote.  This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted):

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote.  It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern).  But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition.  Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them.  Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation.  This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling.  Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging.  Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the same-sex marriage debate.  His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement.  Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things.  We can do better.  But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echo-chambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints.  The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the flesh-and-blood church of Jesus Christ.  But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement.  I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

Bishop Spong, the Fundamentalist

Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.
Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.

In our last post, we looked at how fundamentalism is actually a modernist phenomenon, and not its opposite.  As I have continued to read through Billy Abraham’s excellent The Logic of Renewal, he makes these relationships even more explicit.  It’s not only that fundamentalism is representative of modernity, but that the most thorough-going modernists can also be fundamentalists.  Case in point is Bishop John Shelby Spong, the infamous Episcopal bishop (now retired) known for questioning virtually every distinctive Christian belief and yet – somehow – remaining a bishop.  Abraham explains:

“Converted within the boundaries of modern fundamentalism, he has never really recovered from the thinness of its doctrines or the narrowness of its structures. The marks of the former Fundamentalism in his preaching and teaching are obvious.  There is the same sense of alienation from tradition, the same angry self-assurance, the same hunger for intellectual and scholarly recognition, the same boundless evangelistic energy for the cause, the same pretentious self-importance, the same note of apocalyptic urgency, and the same faith in simple, sure-fire arguments that will shoot down the opposition in flames.”

Having spent many years among conservative fundamentalists, I find it pretty easy to recognize that streak among progressive fundies as well.  As Abraham so aptly names, the same tone, methodology, and simplistic world-view is found in the left-wing fundamentalism of Spong as it is in the right-wing fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fundamentalism, in other words, is not a matter of the left or the right.  It’s a quintessentially modern habit, found in any faith or faith leader co-opted by its norms and modes of discourse.

Where do you see fundamentalism – right and left-wing – in the church today?

 

Source: William Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 40.

The Pew Forum Obituary & the Good News of Powerlessness

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord ActonPewForum

 “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” -James 4:10 (NRSV)

If you’ve ever been to a Hospice House, you know that there is such a thing as holy dying.  Even in a film absurd enough to suggest that Tom Cruise could be a samurai, the viewer encountered the idea of a “good death.”  As Christians, death and resurrection are at the very heart of our faith.  Thus it is surprising to see the defensiveness, anger, fear, and finger-pointing among Christians that have accompanied the release of the recent Pew Forum obituary report sounding the death knell for most forms of Christianity in the US.  Evangelicals point to the attitudes and theologies of liberal Christians. Liberal/Progressive Christians point to the intolerance and judgmentalism of conservatives.  Decline is everyone else’s fault. And we’re pissed.

The Pew results are neither surprising nor encouraging, but I want to suggest they need not cause us to despair, either.  Most forms of Christianity are suffering because we have so accommodated to American culture (regardless of which side of the culture war battle lines one prefers) that we no longer offer a compelling alternative that is more interesting than a football game, yard sale, or an extra hour of sleep.  To make matters worse, many of the most ‘successful’ churches have bucked this trend not by offering a faithful alternative, but by doubling down and out-MTVing MTV.  Their end is destruction.

Instead, perhaps what we are experiencing is a necessary winnowing.  Elaine Heath has suggested the church is going through a “dark night of the soul,” a period of spiritual struggle from which we will emerge more vital and faithful.  I can’t help but think that the decline of Mainline Protestantism is overall a good thing.  The “Christian Century” was marked by the worst atrocities and wars humanity has ever concocted. We deserve to lose our prominence.  Maybe if we can embrace our newfound irrelevance, as my friend Evan suggests, we might find the only renewal worth having.

My own United Methodist tribe is marked by a sad compromise with the world that defines our history even today.  Scott Kisker reflects on the compromise that led early Methodists to abandon their anti-slavery stance in a devil’s bargain to win the frontier (and eventually become the “most successful” church in the newly united US):

“When Euro-Methodists abandoned some of our brothers and sisters to accept a place at America’s table, we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power that went with the position to do good. We didn’t notice we were being changed by the power. We became worldly, not holy.” (1)

Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The story of American Methodism is mimicked heavily in US Protestantism more broadly; this is so whether we consider the Moral Majority, “Cross & Flag” triumphalism of the 1980’s or the gradual succumbing of denominations like the UCC to forms of liberal Religious Leftism that mirrored and thus could not critique politically compromised evangelicalism.  They were both Constantinian in approach: seeking power and influence on the world’s terms in the guise of the gospel.  Like Kisker notes in reference to Methodism, “we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power” without being co-opted by it.  Lord Acton’s dictum remains true for all who are not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That’s why the Pew Forum report gives me hope.  In our newfound (and uncomfortable) powerlessness, we just might recover the church of the apostles.  Our failure on the world’s terms just might lead to success on God’s terms.  Isn’t the direction of the gospel the story of downward mobility? Henri Nouwen thus reflects:

“The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. The way of Jesus is radically different.  It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility.  It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place!  Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing?  Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.” (2)

Jesus once told Peter (John 21:18) that when he was older, he would be taken where he did not want to go (this indicated Peter’s death by crucifixion, in imitation of Jesus).

Likewise, the church in North America is being led where it does not wish to go.

Jesus, though, has walked this lonesome valley before us. We journey towards a cross.

But after the cross…

Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250.  Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.
Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250. Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources:

1. Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources 2008), 47.

2. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.

How to Recognize Evil

The famous 15th cent. Rublev icon of the Most Blessed Trinity.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The famous 15th cent. Rublev icon of the Most Blessed Trinity. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We live in an age where the language of good vs. evil is not appreciated.  Hyper-postmodernity would have us believe that every truth claim is merely an assertion of power, so no truth claim holds value.  Bullshit.

Here’s how to recognize evil:

Love unites. Evil divides.  It’s a simple premise that, if you accept it and begin to look for it, you’ll see everywhere.  Churches. Families. Communities. And of course, on to whole nations and regions of the globe.

Love brings things together in ways that are life-affirming.  In marriage, two become “one flesh” and join lives, hearts, and wills.  Communities form when individuals become neighbors.  Countries form when communities come together for the common good.

Evil is the opposite.  Evil makes a marriage a contract between two individuals rather than a covenant bond.  Evil turns community members into bitter, envious, hateful, and prejudiced rivals competing for scarce resources.  Evil turns nation against nation.

As Augustine noted, evil has no force on its own. Evil can only ever be a parasite.  It is a privation of the good only possible wherever the good is found.

God (who is love) became united with humanity for our salvation, to unite us to God and to each other. As St. Maximos the Confessor observed (emphasis mine):

“In His love for man God became man so that He might unite human nature to Himself and stop it from acting evilly towards itself, or rather from being at strife and divided against itself, and from having no rest because of the instability of its will and purpose. Nothing sequent to God is more precious for beings endowed with intellect, or rather is more dear to God, than perfect love; for love unites those who have been divided and is able to create a single identity of will and purpose, free from faction, among many or among all; for the property of love is to produce a single will and purpose in those who seek what pertains to it.  If by nature the good unifies and holds together what has been separated, evil clearly divides and corrupts what has been unified. For evil is by nature dispersive, unstable, multiform and divisive.”

Evil is the power of entropy, the power to corrupt, to rot, to destroy that which God has joined together in love.  Division is the way of the world (it’s no accident that Christians are often enjoined to flee it, after all).  It’s hard for people, even with much in common, to be united in the bond of love; pride and experience and competing narratives all get in the way.

But let’s be clear: God’s will, the ultimate Good, is not for division but for loving unity.  As God has been revealed to us as a unity of persons who are distinct but still united in will, purpose, and love – a mystery we name Trinity – so God’s will for us, His people, is that we might know that same purely other-regarding love in our lives.  A high calling, but one worthy of our best efforts, despite the difficulties and many differences which too easily divide us.

May that effort be found abundantly among us: as wives and husbands, as communities, and particularly as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Body of Christ.  As David Watson has suggested, such unity is not primarily institutional but spiritual. In a world bent on incarnating the evils of division along every possible line, let us resist that tide and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to instead live as Paul exhorted the church at Ephesus:

“…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:2-6, NRSV)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Source: “First Century Various Texts,” from the Philokalia: Volume 2  (London: Faber & Faber 1981), 174.  If the Philokalia is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend it and this helpful interview with the great Orthodox leader Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

“The Spitting Image of God”: Our Life’s Goal and the Lord’s Prayer

smith bookThe world of Christian publishing is rife with material about “purpose.”  Everyone wants to read about their life and someone else’s opinion of what it should be about.  Much of this is based on a misreading of Jeremiah 29:11, which was never a word of the Lord to every individual for all time, but a promise to the exiled Jewish community that the God of the covenant would not abandon them.  So I don’t know that we have much reason to believe that God has a “plan” for each an every one of us; I find little reason Scripturally to believe that God has designed us genetically to be butchers or marketers or writers or actresses or what have you.  The most we can say (and this is enough) about God’s purpose for each of us is that we were designed for fellowship and union with God.

For many Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a regular and powerful part of their spiritual journey.  It is for me and for many of my friends and colleagues.  The prayer that Jesus gave us is not only a pattern for prayer but a  rich prayer in its own right.  Even aspects of the prayer than are often overlooked provide an amazing fount of insight into life with God.

As Warren Smith, who teaches historical theology at Duke Divinity School, suggests, when we pray “hallowed be Thy name,” we are remembering the holiness of God and thus the true purpose for our life:

So the confession “hallowed by thy name” grounds our lives in the knowledge of who God is and what God has done for us. This daily confession focuses our mind upon the end or purpose of our journey – that is, fellowship with God – and the quality of our life – that is, holiness – necessary to attain that God. But when we confess that God is holy we also confess that we cannot become holy on our own. We cannot be holy apart from the Holy Spirit. Our thinking and speaking and acting become holy when we cultivate holy habits by living in the company of the Spirit. By inviting us to share his name, by calling us to be saints, God has set a high bar for his children. But he has given us the Holy Spirit as our companion who helps us gradually replace unholy habits of thought, speech, and action with holy thoughts, holy conversation, and holy actions as we grow into the likeness of our heavenly Father, becoming the spitting image of God. (The Lord’s Prayer: Confessing the New Covenant, 46)

This is a small example of how a deceptively simple line such as “hallowed be thy name” works on us over time.  The Lord’s Prayer is full of such wisdom and beauty – a treasure too often ignored, and too little appreciated.

You want purpose? Pray and work, die to self daily so that you might become “the spitting image of God.”  There’s plenty of room to grow there for several lifetimes.   And thanks be to God, he never stops his gracious, other-regarding, self-giving through the Spirit so that we might become who he made us to be:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

-2 Cor. 3:18 (NRSV)

What role does the Lord’s Prayer have in your spiritual life? How does your faith community make use of it? I’d love to hear about your experience below.

Recovering Our Mother Tongue

Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.
Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.

“…have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

-St. Augustine

Languages are best learned through immersion.  One cannot learn French by reading an English translation of a Dumas novel – one needs to hear the French, speak it, let it get inside.  Doctrine functions quite similarly to language, if George Lindbeck is to be believed.  Thus he argues that, from a cultural-linguistic perspective, Christian doctrines function much like “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.” (1)

Reflecting on the use of creeds in worship, from the ancient church to today, Geoffrey Wainwright argues they “are binding in so far as they summarize in words the primal revelation of God in Jesus Christ…and so enable the believer to declare his own life-commitment to that same God in the present.” (2)  By the words of the traditional creeds, we learn the language of faith, the language of that sacred and profane body of persons that is somehow called the Body of Christ.  Through the creeds and other forms of doctrinal instruction (in particular, if they are of sufficient quality, our hymns), we learn to speak the truth which was “preached to [us], which [we] received and on which [we] have taken [our] stand” in and through the ministry, witness, service, and worship of the church. (1 Cor. 15:1, NIV)

St. Augustine goes so far as to recommend reciting the Apostle’s Creed multiple times per day in his homily to catechumans (who would recite the Creed at baptism):

“Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed ). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed…These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes. For have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

Only in the language bequeathed from our Mother, the church, is right praise (“orthodoxy”) possible.  This language is learned chiefly by our full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy, through creed and hymn, through homily and response, through sacrament, icon, footwashing, and stained glass.  Without worship that forms us in the language of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we are left mute to proclaim and live (for language forms lives, not merely words) the One who is alone and fully True, Good, and Beautiful.

“How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” asked the Psalmist. (137:4)

We cannot, at least not without much formation, practice, immersion.  And increasingly, we Western Christians are realizing that North America and Europe are foreign lands.  Thus for the sake of Christian mission, belief, and life, we need to recover our Mother Tongue.

1. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984), 18.
2. Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford 1980), 192.