Thinking, Feeling and Doing: Three Kinds of Repentance for the Truly Human Life

[This post originally appeared last week on the Missio Alliance blog]

In the Christian liturgical year, Lent is a season especially dedicated to spiritual discipline and repentance. The purpose of this discipline is movement toward the resurrection life that is made available to us in Christ, and we repent because the path we naturally follow doesn’t lead to this life. But repentance is a hard thing to manufacture. If the prompting doesn’t come from a place of genuine conviction, discipline is likely to either be motivated by guilt or to produce self-righteousness. In either case, the outcome doesn’t sustain real change.

Three Kinds of Repentance

This is why the repentance that the Christian life calls for is more than behavioral. In Hebrew, there are two words for repentance: שוב shuv (to return) and נחם nacham (to feel sorrow). In Greek, the word metanoia is used, which basically means “to change one’s mind.” So shuv refers to doing differently, nacham to feeling differently, and metanoia to thinking differently.

Thus, repentance, and the change that follows it, touches on all three of these dimensions of human life: thinking, feeling and doing. Those who use the enneagram as a tool for spiritual growth might speak of these three dimension in terms of personality groupings or centers: head, heart, and body. Obviously, everybody engages in all three of these activities, but we are usually most dependent on one of the three – especially in stressful situations. For most people, one center is dominant, another is suppressed, and the third is idle. Much spiritual flourishing, therefore, depends on awakening our idle center in order to resurrect the one we suppress.

Our Greatest Strength and our Greatest Weakness

One big challenge for people on their faith journey then is figuring out which area needs work and how to work on it. It’s actually easier to resurrect the suppressed center than it is to discipline the dominant one. Why? Because the dependent center is not only the activity that is dominant, but it’s also the part of us that other people tend to like the most (if and when they like us). It’s the part of us that we’re known for. It’s the part that’s closely connected to our personality – our small self, as some would say (which is the same thing as the ego-centered self). Paradoxically, this self is called “small” because it tends to be strong, but only when it comes to survival and success in the world.

So the small self “strength” is actually at the same time a weakness when it comes to living a truly human life. This is one of the ways in which the gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks.” Jesus’s call is for a different and more abundant life that inevitably runs counter to the world’s expectations, but it is unexpected not only in terms of the end but also the means. As God says through Isaiah 59, which Paul later quotes in 1 Corinthians 1, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Jesus brings this prophecy to a head with the command to die to or lose ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him.

Some people are feeling or doing-dominant. Figuring out which center you live out of is not very difficult, but it’s not always totally straightforward either. Consulting a spiritual director or counselor is a good idea. In my case, I am thinking-dominant. I deal with anxiety by gathering information and trying to gain understanding. The mind is the “control tower” of the thinking-centered person. As stress increases, I become more detached from reality by retreating into my thoughts. This leads me to stop feeling and suppress doing. So instead of doing whatever needs to be done, I fall into a mode of passively thinking about what’s happening, rather than engaging it in a relational and active way.

Fear not, Judge not, and Peace be with You

It’s interesting that the New Testament and Greek word for repentance starts with the call to change our minds. The majority of people in the world are thinking-dominant, but they are also fearful, and Jesus’s most common command comes from the “fear not” genre. Most people who depend heavily on thinking do not think productively, wisely, or contemplatively. They think anxiously. As such, fear may very well be the biggest human barrier to repentance. The Pharisees were almost certainly a very fearful group.

For others, anger or shame are the great hurdles to overcome for repentance to take place, and Jesus speaks to these as well. Jesus never shames people who are shamed by others. Instead, he takes their shame away by forgiving and healing even the most shamed people in Jewish culture (tax collectors, Samaritans, Roman Centurions, and the sexually or physically unclean). With respect to anger, Jesus only rebukes those whose anger arises from a place of judgment or resentment rather than righteous indignation. To the angry, Jesus says “peace be with you” and “blessed are those who are persecuted.”

A Path to Repentance

We all have strengths and gifts based on our personalities. The trouble comes when we equate our strengths with our identities or use them to chart our path to truly human life. In the market place, good employers hire people based on their strengths — as they should. By contrast, good spiritual leaders, for instance, identify over-dependence on those same strengths, and put forward an alternative program for repentance that disciplines our center of strength.

One of the practices for the thinking person’s repentance is daily silence, meditation or contemplation for about twenty minutes. Over time, this discipline enables the suspension of critical thinking and movement into a more peaceful, trusting state. Another helpful practice for the thinking-centered is reading or listening to stories of others who have done meaningful, courageous work for those who are in need. Stories awaken feelings and move us to new action. They empower us to feel differently and act differently, ultimately causing us to think differently. This is why teachers like Richard Rohr are fond of saying, “We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

The Role of the Church

Because there are at least three different ways that people need to repent, and many more than three different kinds of people, one of the church’s mistakes when helping people along in their Lenten journeys has been to preach only one kind of repentance (usually behavioral) to one kind of person (usually the person who struggles with shame). It’s common, for example, for churches to prescribe one model of mission or growth, or to draw primarily on one theological stream or tradition (the liturgical, evangelical, charismatic, etc.). Is it any wonder, then, that churches are some of the most homogenous communities in our culture today?

The truly human life is about a transformed way of thinking, feeling and doing in the world, freed from fear, shame and anger, and supported by a community who takes courage, trusts and forgives together in the way of Jesus. The whole sweep of Scripture testifies to how God’s grace redeems the full range of human experience, and the gospels bear witness to Jesus’s call for repentance in all dimensions of human activity. Let us as the church, then, be bold and creative enough to make room in our theology and in our practices for the gospel to reach every aspect of people’s lives.

Proclaiming the Message: Evangelism, Discipleship and the Temptation of Constantinian Christianity

[This is the transcript from a sermon that I preached yesterday (Sunday, Feb. 8th) on the New Testament lectionary readings, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 and Mark 1:29-39. The audio is available here.]

I started teaching a class two weeks ago that some of you have attended called “Christ and Culture,” and at the beginning I basically posed this question: “how do we as Christians, and as the church, understand and relate our message, our good news, to a society that increasingly does not recognize the authority of the Christian faith?” Both of the readings today speak to the importance of proclaiming our message of good news. Jesus proclaimed the message, Paul proclaimed the message, and we’re to proclaim that same message. In many ways, there’s hardly another activity commissioned for Christians to do that produces more anxiety or reveals more insecurity than that of evangelism. Maybe it was easier in the past when a higher percentage of people in this country were going to church. It felt more natural to talk to people about faith, because it was a more routine and normal part of the national life! Of course, that is changing.

It’s important to remember though that when Jesus and Paul were proclaiming their message, people didn’t recognize the authority of a Christian faith at that time yet either. So despite some big differences in our situation and theirs, we may be able to learn more from their example than we might expect about not just the nature of the good news message itself, but also how to share the gospel even in our situation today. We’re going to look at the two passages that were read, but first, I think we can also learn something from Church history about this.

As some of you are probably aware, until the 4th Century, Christianity was growing rapidly in many places, but it was still a marginalized movement with a minority status the Greco-Roman world. It didn’t have political or social power. So when the Emperor Constantine claimed to have this vision and became a Christian, legalizing Christianity and eventually making it the official religion of the Roman Empire, this initiated a radical cultural change. Positions of church leadership acquired real public status and influence. Many local churches acquired substantial property and land. They didn’t have this before. Christian laws were put into place. And this sounds kind of good, doesn’t it?

“The paradox of the church, was that it was a religious revolutionary movement, yet without a conscious political ideology; it aimed at the capture of society throughout all its strata, but was at the same time characteristic for its indifference to the possession of power in the world.” — Henry Chadwick

“Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a believing Christian community but one had to “take it on faith” that God was governing history. After Constantine, one had to believe without seeing that there was a community of believers, within the larger nominally Christian mass, but one knew for a fact that God was in control of history.” — John Howard Yoder

So before Constantine, the church was perceived as subversive to the dominant culture. Afterwards, it became representative of the dominant culture. So the question is, after Constantine, did the church capture society, or society capture the church?

And then, maybe we should bring this question to the present, and ask it of our own church as American Christians in this culture. That’s the question I want us to have in the back our minds as we look at these two texts for this morning. Because this question also serves to help us answer the first question: how do we as a church relate the gospel to a society that doesn’t know or trust it? By trying to control society or have power over it, or by the way Jesus did it? 

“Evangelism is living together as followers of Jesus in such a way that would not make sense if the Gospel wasn’t true.”–Dorothy Day

In this way, the gospel will fascinate people. It will capture their imaginations. We don’t have to capture political power or strive for cultural dominance.

Ok. In Mark 1, first we read that Jesus performs these healings. In the First Century, it was very common for people to believe that having a disease was a result of sin or even God’s punishment of sin. Only God could control this stuff. So when Jesus demonstrates power and authority over disease and the spiritual realm, the power and authority of God is associated with him.

This leads people to react strongly to him — one way, or another. This is a common occurrence in the New Testament when the Gospel spreads, especially in Acts. Initially, the crowd’s response to Jesus is very positive. They embrace him. They want this good message and healing and deliverance that he’s bringing. They need it and long for it.

We always should notice that Jesus’ healing and miracles were appealing to an outcast and impoverished class. This was the group he was identifying with, which if you’re in a position of imposing foreign government on people and this is going on, you know it probably spells trouble. And Jesus knew he was on a collision with both the religious elites and the security-obsessed power of the Roman Empire. So it says in Mark that he prevents the demons from speaking about him! And presumably, for two reasons:

  1. One, it might have led to the crucifixion even sooner than he intended before having the chance to fulfill his teaching and prophetic mission.
  2. But two, and more importantly I think, Jesus could have easily continued to impress and heal more people. He could have tried to capture society and probably succeeded. This is certainly what the crowd wanted from him, but he doesn’t give in to the temptation to please and earn the admiration of others. He already resisted this temptation from Satan in the desert. He’s not exploiting his potential to achieve fame and influence.

And what was especially unique to First Century people less the miracles themselves but what they were used for and by whose authority. Other miracle workers in the ancient world were trying to do seek after the acclaim and financial gain that came from it. Jesus had no interest in this sort of thing. What made him unique was less that he was doing the miracles, and more about what they meant.

And, Jesus knew that God’s power is not revealed solely through miracles, but through sacrifice and suffering, as the crucifixion will show, so he didn’t stick around to continue to do the same miracles for very long. He had to keep preaching the Gospel.

The word “gospel” or, good news, as y’all might know has the same root as the word evangelism in English – it’s the Greek word evangelion, and this word was known to people in the First Century, but it was associated with something completely different. It had political and military connotations, and it was thought, for example, that Caesar Augustus’ birthday announcement was “gospel” news, or the report of Roman victory in battle was “gospel” news. So Jesus takes concepts that people are already familiar with and transforms their meaning. Jesus and Paul both do this when they use the word “gospel.” They use it to proclaim different good news – better good news – and to pose an alternative to the dominant cultural’s way of life in their day, and we’re to do the same Gospel in our day.

And this Gospel that Jesus preaches throughout the book of Mark, is about the availability of the Kingdom of God! The Kingdom of God is another word for God in action, and that action is grace – grace for new life now, forgiveness for sins, yes, but even before that, it’s deliverance from sin, you see. It’s the availability of a transformed way of living.

And it’s the promise that, even though the world makes it very hard to believe this sometimes, and we take this on faith, but it’s the promise that God is good, and we have a future in him, no matter what suffering and death we might face. And if we’re honest, we doubt sometimes — I doubt this sometimes — which is skeptics and seekers should be welcomed into our community and into this conversation about the Christian faith.

But this is one of the greatest challenges for the church today, and always has been: It’s the challenge of getting the message right, and understanding what the good news actually is! We struggle with cheapening or distorting it.

For one, too many people, even when they hear the gospel, it doesn’t sound like good news. It sounds like bad news. Or maybe just good advice. Sometimes our own sin shows up in the way we tell the good news.  We water it down, or we even project our own fears on to it. I think it’s common for many Christians to still think that God is just tolerated us because of something Jesus did on our behalf. But that’s not what we believe. The good news is that God is like Jesus. They have the same character. And because God is like Jesus — not because Jesus pacifies God — we have a hope in healing, hope in the forgiveness for sin, deliverance from sin, and a future even in the face of death and suffering. We have this hope because Jesus is good, and God is like Jesus.

Another thing that sometimes happens that distorts and cheapens the good news is the separation of evangelism from discipleship, or conversion from discipleship, that we saw after Constantine. Where it becomes acceptable to be a Christian and believe certain things, going to church from time to time, but to continue seeing Jesus’s teachings as basically optional.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean we have to be perfect in order to call ourselves Christians.

A disciple is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. A disciple is not a person who has things under control, or knows a lot of things. Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus. — Dallas Willard

Look what happens to the first person Jesus heals in this story – this is easy to miss. (It’s also easy to miss the detail about Jesus’ life and practice of prayer, but that’s another subject). It tells us

“Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.” Mark 1:30-31

Unfortunately we don’t get a name for Simon’s mother-in-law, but that’s how it goes sometimes for women in the Bible. Though it always seems like women are the first to pick up on things, and in this case it’s no different. What does Simon’s mother-in-law do once she’s healed – she serves!

This is what happens when people experience God’s grace and healing in their lives. It’s a picture of discipleship and evangelism at the same time. Disciples want to give away the grace they’ve received because they know they’re never going to run out of it.

This is a very different response to Jesus than what the crowds tend to have. The crowds want more healing, more miracles, more exorcisms, and they’re never going to stop asking for them. Now, it’s not exactly the same thing, especially when we consider the socio-economic differences, but it’s kind of like the way some people view church. They come to church to get something, and the church makes religious consumers out of them…

This is because we’re always being discipled by something. When we’re not in church, or in a posture of prayer or service with God and others, we’re likely getting inundated with the liturgy of the culture around us, which is a culture of consumerism, individualism, and fear. It’s a culture that longs for worldly security. Which gets us back to the question: Is the church capturing society, or is society capturing the church?

Like many Christians after Constantine, we’re tempted to make the same mistake the crowds did, and that many of the Jews did. We want Jesus to stay in one place with his healing power and authority from God, and to restore our worldly Kingdom. This Constantinian Christianity is still around even today.

And when it comes to evangelism, one of the other things the church has to do is not just be honest about our doubts, but be honest about the sins of our past as a church. We’re sinners, and because of that, the institutional Church has committed and will continue to commit sin in this country and throughout the world. We’ve hurt people, we’ve been complicit in injustice, and blind to abuse at times. We have to own this history — not brush it under the rug. We’re not trying defend our religious group or its history. We’re trying to preach the gospel that we need as much as everybody else needs. And, yes we do this with boldness, but we do it with great humility, and when necessary with confession and repentance. We’re not trying to impose our faith on others.

Jesus’ message is always an invitation, never an imposition. He is always pursuing but never coercing. Are we trying to control and manipulate, or can we intrigue and fascinate? If it’s true, if the gospel is true it will entice people without us having to try so hard.

I heard a story told recently by Shane Claiborne about a rancher who was saying that there two ways to herd cattle:

  1. The first way is to build fences. This is labor-intensive. You have to monitor the fences, repair the fences.
  2. But the other way to get cattle to do what you want, which this rancher said is the best way, is to have a good, central food source. It achieves the same outcome as a fence, but in a much less tiresome and coercive way.

That’s what we’re doing in evangelism. We’re just leading people to the source. We’re not hoarding around the source like the crowds. We get life from the source, and then we share the source — like Simon’s mother-in-law.

So much of our evangelism in the past was just trying to get people to come onto our side of the fence: by either trying to convince people our beliefs or are true or to see them conformed to a particular set of rules — instead of leading them to the source of grace for daily life in the Kingdom of God.

Constantinian Christianity wants to build and police fences. Gospel Christianity takes people to the source.

Now, postmodern religion, individualistic or relativistic religion, call it — you know, anything- goes or cafeteria-style religion — that’s kinda like free range grass fed cattle herding, roaming around with neither fences nor a central food source. I’m all for grass-fed, free range chicken and cattle — just not when it comes to our faith. We don’t need to build fences, but this free range stuff won’t do either.

You know, we’ve been talking about other religions some in the Christ and Culture class, including “religions” like secular humanism. Most of the other ideologies that are out there in the world — most of them aren’t evil. We don’t have to fight or fear them. Some of them are saying some good and true things, especially when they’re at their best. They’re just not saying gospel things.

  • Buddhism teaches some compelling things about the self and what’s causing our suffering and discontentment, much of which Christians can agree with, but Buddhism ultimately says that the best thing that could happen to you is basically for you not to exist as an individual person anymore. I don’t find that to be especially good news. It doesn’t follow from this that Buddhism is “wrong,” and the Gospel is “right,” but they are two different messages.
  • Islam teaches that’s there’s one God who is holy and just, and that we should love that God and our neighbor. That’s good and true stuff, and it lays out a way for us to do this. But instead of the Gospel, instead of grace of God made available through his coming to us, Islam puts forward a Law that humans have to submit to, and inevitably, people fail to measure up to that.  So as a faith, it is sometimes in danger of perpetuating either guilt or self-righteousness zeal.

Look at the way Paul evangelized. He spoke to differently to Jews and Greeks in the book of Acts. These are the two groups to whom he was trying to be “all people.” “All people” in 1 Corinthians 9 really just means Jews and Gentiles — in this case, for Paul, that was everyone. Paul isn’t telling us that we should just change ourselves or our message according to every environment or every person’s demands, and obviously Jesus wasn’t willing to do that either.

Now, there will be differences though in how we talk to different people and where we start. Paul and Jesus both demonstrated this. The Gospel for the Pharisees sounded a little different than the Gospel for the woman caught in adultery.

Paul was able to be all things to both of these groups because he wasn’t doing any of it for selfish gain, and because Christ had moved into the center of his life:

“I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 (The Message)

I know it’s Paul talking here, but the passage actually just makes me think of God. In truth, God is the greatest evangelist of all, who literally did become all things to all people, by becoming a human being who endured all things and overcame all things to get to us — going to the greatest possible lengths, experiencing the depths of human suffering and rejection. And so it in this way, Paul means to imitate God’s activity in Christ.

That’s our same commission. That’s how we understand and relate the Gospel to the society around us: By imitating God himself and what he did through Jesus, as Jesus. And if we communing with each other, as we are about to in a moment, then extending that same communion to others who aren’t yet disciples will be the natural outcome.

Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

Exodus: The Cry of the Poor and the Oppressed

As human beings, we simply cannot flourish apart from certain basic material provisions. Food, clothing, shelter, a balanced life of work, recreation and sleep are essential. Beyond this, we also crave relational connectivity with others to feel secure and known. These material needs cannot be separated from our spiritual lives, but they are distinct and usually prerequisite for most people to live with a higher sense of identity and purpose.

Thus, it seems fitting in retrospect that the most formative narrative for the Jewish faith and memory was that of the Exodus. If not a liberator for slaves and the oppressed, then what is God? This is an absolutely central aspect of who God is, and Jesus confirms this with his first public words in Luke 4, reading from the Isaiah scroll. So we see that freedom from material bondage is the most foundational and urgent dimension of salvation.

The problem is that one can be liberated, politically and economically speaking, and still have a prideful, tribal consciousness. The Exodus story paints a picture of an enemy in the Egyptian people, and for good reasons. And God seems to have given Pharaoh plenty of chances, but was killing the first born of every Egyptian really necessary? It shouldn’t surprise us then that long after the Exodus, well into the period of conquest, judges and kings, Israel continues to have enemies whose blood stains the hands of their God more often than we would like to admit. We learn that if material liberation is not accompanied by spiritual liberation, even God’s people can start to look like Egyptians. Maybe imperial ambition and violence are a human phenomenon, and not just an Egyptian one? This is what brings downfall upon the Jewish monarchy and ultimately leads to the period of Exile. God’s response to the cry of the poor and oppressed came around full circle through the prophets to judge even the chosen people themselves.

The sobering lesson is that victims can all too easily become victimizers, and the oppressed become the oppressors. This doesn’t lessen the force of the cry of the poor and the marginalized in the face of injustice. We should always be people of Exodus. What it does, however, is reveal to us that human beings need something more to live for than political empowerment and economic well-being.

Exile: Losing and Finding our Identity and Purpose

Exile is scary not just because of the loss of power and privilege, but because with these losses also comes the threat of a much greater loss: the loss of identity and purpose. This again reveals the inadequacy of meeting merely material and even relational needs. For humanity, there is also a deeper sense of yearning for identity and purpose that can only originate from something beyond the concern for self, tribe or in-group. Many people and many Christians, however, fail to see that the identity and purpose to which they are called is bigger than this. Naturally, then, the loss of privileged identity and power of purpose produces special cause for human lament.

For the last few decades, Christians in the modern Western world have begun to experience what I think could be called a time of Exile. The Enlightenment did not deliver on its promises. Rather, it has had a dark side all along that in the 20th Century finally started to plainly show itself, and Christendom itself has collapsed with it on all sides.

One of the effects of this exile is the rise of individualism. The cohesiveness of group belonging is undermined, the purpose of the collective is muddled, and individuals are left to seek out meaning and identity for themselves instead of being told who they are by their tribe. In our context, these are outcomes of both globalization and postmodernism. What might it look like then for Christians to flourish in exile or come out of it living as a resurrection people?

The Resurrection Life

There are at least three ways that Jesus calls us beyond both a tribal and individualistic identity, and to a greater purpose in God’s Kingdom:

  1. First, against tribalism, God called for the inclusion of Gentiles in Christian communion. As non-Jews, it’s easy for us let this one slide assuming it doesn’t apply. Much like the Jews who were afraid that their religious identity was already under too much attack, however, we too as Christians have a tendency to circle the wagons and put up barriers so that outsiders do not interfere with our ways of doing things. So who are today’s Gentiles that our churches are excluding? For whom are we making the life of faith and discipleship such an undue burden?
  2. Secondly, for the individualist, the cross bears witness to the social and corporate cost of even seemingly insignificant, individual sin. It was not just the sins of the brutal and dominating Roman Empire that put Jesus on the cross, or the hypocrisy of the ruling, religious elite. It was the betrayal of his friends and the fear of otherwise good people falling into complacency (disciples sleeping in the garden), the fickle movement from fight to flight (Peter), and the love of money or comfort (Judas?) that delivered Jesus over to his killers. It’s not that any of Jesus’s friends could likely have prevented the crucifixion, and Jesus himself knew what was coming and even offered himself up willingly. But the point about the root of apparently harmless, individual sin still stands. It’s all caught up in the web of forces that ultimately lead to the worst of suffering and injustice. From the silence of churches in Germany during the Holocaust and the apathy of moderate, white Christians during the Civil Rights movement, to evangelicals uncritically supporting a “War on Terror” in the name of national security, which led to the killing of thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9-11, individual sins once added up prove to be much more egregious than we normally realize.
  3. And third, Jesus tells us all, in our in-groups and as individuals, to love our enemies. This is not something that the Israelites had heard before. They had been told to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, and they had certainly been given very specific instructions about caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant, but loving enemies raised the Jewish law to an unprecedented level, and it revealed for the first time the heart of God in a final and unanticipated way.

So powerful is God’s love for us that it didn’t stop even when we became his enemies. God is not giving us a commandment that God himself hasn’t kept. God didn’t send someone else to die for us. In Christ, God in person came on a rescue mission, bearing the weight of the world’s sin that was directed at him by his own. It is only this kind of love that is stronger than death, and only this kind of life that leads to the resurrection. Maybe, then, this kind of love, and this kind of life, is what it means to be truly human.

Naturalism is not Enough: Or, Why Transcendence is not the Problem

[This blog post originally appeared at, and was written in response to the podcast linked below. LeRon Shults graciously responded on his website, and we continued to dialogue in the comments section there.]

There has been a great discussion in the comment section of the latest TNT episode where Tripp talks with LeRon Shults and Barry Taylor, both of whom I admire. Shults defends a form of radical theology and at one point even uses the term “atheist” to describe himself. His ontology is a strictly “naturalistic” one. It reminds me of Kester Brewin’s recent criticism of Rob Bell’s benevolent conception of the universe. Several people commenting in response to the conversation have asked why process philosophy or theology isn’t more attractive to Shults, or why it doesn’t pass the science test. This is a great question and a discussion worth having, but I want to make another observation.

atheismIn the podcast, Shults characterizes religion or traditional theism as basically any belief in an infinite, disembodied agent or intentional force that authorizes an in-group. So for him there is an intimate and intrinsic relationship between “God” and “my tribe.” I think this is generally true, and sociology of religion seems to confirm it.

Because of this, for Shults, religion, or belief in God, frequently serves to reinforce prejudices of various kinds, and so should be rejected as inherently problematic or even antithetical to the advance of anything like the common good for society — or at least that’s how I interpret him. (Admittedly, I have read some of Shults’ earlier work, but here I am drawing only on the recorded conversation, and not from his books, which is probably a little unfair.) Shults does not preclude the possibility that religion can by contrast at times promote the common good, but he seems to suggest that when it does this — whether intellectually, activistically or mystically — the ianti-monotheism1nfinite, disembodied agent or intentional force-dimension to religion remains only superfluous if not an impediment. We can strive for justice, peace, the good, etc., without any transcendent referent, he would say. So Shults encourages us to “go all the way” with our criticism and not stop short at the boundary of “orthodoxy,” “theism,” or whatever. And this is the main part of his position that I want to question.

First of all though, while it was only a brief summary in the podcast, I think Shults conflates Christian mysticism with another kind of Christian intellectualism that simply appeals to mystery when it hits an intellectual wall. That is not Christian mysticism. Shults probably knows this, but this characterization makes sense given how much Shults has studied Pannenberg, who was hardly a mystic. A theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar, for instance, who constructs his epistemology primarily on the basis of aesthetics and narrative, rather than on modern, foundationalist grounds, does not have this problem (Callid’s interview with Cecilia Gonzales-Andrieu highlights this difference well). That is, for Christians like Balthasar, the truthfulness of Christ’s beauty and goodness neither depends on nor contradicts empirical verification. And with regard to Christian mysticism — not unlike mysticism in other religions — it is about non-dual thinking and union with the divine through transformation of the mind into a less egocentric consciousness. Such a life vision is not some new idea that can be tried on for size until one becomes “post-mystical.” It takes months and years of practicing spiritual disciplines to see any fruit.

Secondly though, as one who tends to fall more into the activistic or liberationist camp in my own thinking, my counter-claim to Shults, or any other atheistic theology, is this: what stands in the way of the common good for society is not humanity’s belief in an infinite or transcendent, disembodied intentional agent. What stands in the way are people in general who want authorization of their in-group in the first place.

Most human beings live with and derive meaning from transcendent or absolute horizons. Pannenberg says as much in his anthropology. This may be too universalistic of a statement, but there’s pretty good evidence for it. The key question then isn’t whether, but what kind of transcendent horizon we are talking about. This insight is not original of course. Tillich and others have essentially said the same thing. Religion is merely the byproduct of the fundamental human tendency to make some-thing an ultimate concern. In other words, what is the ultimate good that informs and directs a people’s living and organizing? That is religion.

The Free Market, for example, is one such transcendent horizon or ultimate good. The difference is, it’s a transcendent horizon claiming a total immanence that nothing else can transcend. This was Tripp’s point in the discussion. So Hardt and Negri make their infamous case in Empire about the triumph of global capitalism, whose “soft” power of capital in contrast to the overt dominance of the nation-state subtly but no less powerfully reigns now in place of modern, national sovereigns. If Karl Schmidt’s Political Theology deified the sovereignty of the state, today we’ve done the same with the Market.

In their book Beyond the Spirit of Empire, Rieger, Miguez and Sung actually argue that the ideology of the Free Market is not transcendent enough. It is in fact atheistic. Its utopia is too weak, and so it closes off other options that might imagine a world where sacrificing the well-being of major segments of the population for the benefit of a few isn’t tolerated. For these authors — two of whom are bringing non-Western and post-colonial perspectives to the fore — to renounce transcendence, even in the name of good things, is to be left with no standpoint for a radical critique of history.

Christians confess that Jesus is somehow the immanence and the human embodiment of the Transcendent. Based on what Christians believe Jesus reveals about God, then, the danger is not, I submit, belief about the existence, intention or agency of God, so much as the disembodiment of these beliefs. I’m reminded here of this great Pete Rollins’ bit on denying the resurrection (– by not practicing it!). Because if Jesus is the full embodiment of this infinite agent’s intention, then the manner of his embodiment is always contrary to the “authorization of in-groups.” In fact, it should always un-authorize in-groups. The only thing more potentially empowering than eradicating a transcendent referent is to say that the Transcendent identifies with the excluded and oppressed peoples of the earth. I know this is a bold faith move that sometimes feels like wishful thinking, but unlike imperialistic depictions of God, it has the unique advantage of not being very convenient for the dominant and leisure classes of the world. Furthermore, if Jesus’ way isn’t ontologically authorized, from whence does resistance to in-group thinking come? Preference? Intuition? Reason? Buddhism?

LeRon Shults has obviously thought about his position very carefully and over a long period of time, so I’m not accusing him of reactionary thinking. And again, maybe it all comes back to science for him. I just have a hard time understanding how science makes the idea of an infinite, disembodied, intentional force so necessarily problematic, unless a scientific discourse is either confused with or unduly privileged over a metaphysical one. More importantly, I fail to see why atheism, full immanence, etc., is any more compelling than a transcendent theology that challenges prejudices and calls for an embodied abolition of insider-outsider ideology. This is exactly what a “Jesus religion” should do — abolish insider-outsider ideologies. And we don’t have to stop praying and reading the Bible, or believing in God to do it.

How to Fear Not and Love Your Neighbors: Church Barriers to the Gospel and the Great Commandments

This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog yesterday.

I heard it said once that the heart of Jesus’ teaching is pretty well summed up in these two commandments: Don’t be afraid, and love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, simple as this sounds, we soon figure out that nothing could be more difficult. This is all the more true given the way that Jesus defines neighbor (i.e., even your enemy), and given that fear is often more deeply rooted than we care to admit.

It starts with subtle worries about every day things from bills to pay, job security, and health to retirement, but then grows deeper into anxieties about rejection, loss, pain, loneliness, failure and the absence of purpose. The root of this fear is that as both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations, but infinite expectations and pretensions. This leads us to become self-conscious about our insecurity, which in turns produces the anxieties just mentioned. Anxiety inclines us to seek control of our own lack of certainty and security, of which there is never enough, and so we are driven to chase after these things to the detriment of others. Generally we either 1) abuse our freedom by grabbing for power, or 2) flee into our finitude via sensual indulgence (these are the sins of the older and younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, respectively). In other words, fear and anxiety are what stand in the way of us actually loving our neighbors.

But this still leaves the question of “what is the remedy?”

This is one of the reasons that Jesus went to the cross. In order to set us free, Jesus had to demonstrate that the fear that comes from all the suffering and death that the world can cause is ultimately misplaced. Jesus faced these fears. His will was one with God’s, and thus the faithfulness and love of God were fully incarnated and lived out in him.

So great was this love that it overcame sin, death and suffering, and without conditions. God’s grace was made manifest and available in such a powerful a way that not only humanity’s future, but that of the whole cosmos, changed course. This is the incredible good news that Christians claim. And let’s not pretend that it isn’t a bit outlandish. It can’t be rationalized. For many, it’s an offense and a scandal.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that some people are only interested in Jesus for his teachings rather than who we as Christians believe he was and what he did. But the truth is, the teachings of Jesus are simply not enough to set us free. They are indispensible, but not sufficient. “Fear not” and “love neighbor” are beautiful sentiments and ideals for which to strive. Even non-Christians seem to know this, which can only be attributed to the image of God that remains somewhere latent in the nature of every human being. But as mere intentions, fearlessness and love will never be realized apart from a hope and transformation that comes only from God.

For this reason, the church that fears not and loves neighbor has to also be the church that believes in and trusts the good news. You can’t have one without the other. Jesus’ life is not just a moral example, even if it is also that. The problem though is that so many Christians are left to choose between either

  1. a church whose gospel is only good news to a few, and whose version of love only manages to suppress fear rather than overcome it — either because it’s too exclusive, or because the kind of love it portrays is little more than a courtroom deal with sin;
  2. or a church that equates the gospel with Jesus’ teachings and hence tries to care about the things Jesus cared about and obey his teachings, but fails to do this because of sin, and therefore doesn’t really have good news at all.

Because of this, the door is wide open in these times for a church that believes in the kind of love that actually casts out fear and, set free by the real good news, enables the love of the world and everyone in it. There are barriers to this though, as I’ve suggested, and I will mention two of them.

First, for churches, there is always the barrier of idolizing church growth. The temptation to pander to the consumer is as prevalent in churches as it is in the marketplace. In Protestant churches in North America, we’ve seen this played out in two major ways. In an effort to reach a generations burned out on denominational church, initially there was the rise of the seeker-sensitive church. This was a deep, deep cultural shift in evangelicalism — so deep, that even when many emerging church leaders broke away in disillusionment with it to do something different, many of them ended up making the same mistakes, only this time they did so by catering to millennials rather than Gen-Xers. In both cases, discipleship was in many cases too quickly sacrificed on the altar of reaching culture.

Some Christians interpreted this phenomenon by deeming it a yet another instance of theological liberalism. I do not think this is the real issue. Theologically speaking, conservative and liberal Christians are, as best I can tell, equally prone to neglect discipleship and real spiritual discipline — the former by holding on to personal morality in the area of sexual purity and finances, and the latter by directing efforts outward toward social justice and identity politics (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc). Neither of these emphases necessarily lead to a mature Christian life.

So in addition to the idol of church growth, churches have erected the barrier of theological ideology. This does not mean, however, that Christians should stop caring about all the things I just mentioned (sexual purity, social justice, etc.). What it means is that we have to change the way we care about those things, and, to become more sensitive to the things we should care about in addition, and that we’ve neglected.

Now, some churches might think that they’re immune to these issues because they’re more “moderate” or “diverse.” Except in churches that are skilled at good listening and mutuality through real dialogue though, much evidence of moderation and diversity tends to be superficial. Deep moderation and diversity means really dealing with and talking about these issues. It means growing in self-awareness and epistemic humility. Many churches that think they’re moderate or diverse remain that way only because they tend to avoid hard conversations.

As one might expect, both of these barriers, idolizing church growth and avoiding hard conversations, have their origin in fear, which keeps us from truly loving people. It is indeed very good news, then, that the gospel gives us the power to break down both of these barriers by fearing not and loving our neighbors.

Dissertation Question and Description

I get asked about my dissertation a lot, and I’ve posted about it before (abstract here, and theological significance here).  I’ve definitely made some headway in the past six months, but things have been slow as I’ve been adjusting to a new full-time job and have taken on a few other small writing projects.  Those are done now though, so 2015 promises to be a very productive writing year…  Anyway, to get back into it, I rewrote a description of my topic for a fellowship application, and here it is.

Core Question:

Seen within the context of the phenomenon of globalization, I am examining the Christian understanding of salvation with respect to the violence and impunity that has occurred as a result of the U.S.-Mexico Drug War. To do so, I ask: what is the good news and hope that the Christian faith promises to those who suffer in this conflict, and what kind of engagement and response does such a promise demand from North American churches in light of the difficulty that our Mexican neighbors are facing?

Project Description:

Even though this project constitutes a theology of the church, as a political theology it nonetheless must begin with a study of the political, historical and cultural context in question. This requires a social-scientific look at the phenomenon of globalization as it has affected the U.S.-Mexico region in general and the drug war in particular. In sum, my argument is that several of the key features of globalization serve to exacerbate but not necessarily cause the drug-trade-related violence.

To fully appreciate the situation in Mexico, however, I will also rely on Latin American political philosopher, ethicist and historian Enrique Dussel to characterize the experience and viewpoint of the victims in this conflict. Accordingly, Dussel will help to sensitize the Christian doctrine of salvation to the specific concerns of what he calls history’s “colonial underside.” In this way, it is hoped that my North American perspective on this issue will be less colored by a eurocentric, modern or postmodern hermeneutic. Hence, the term “trans-modern” has been chosen to describe my approach.

With regard to the doctrine of salvation, I will draw on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, his aesthetic epistemology, and his depiction of history as a drama on the world stage of God’s redemptive performance. Furthermore, Balthasar provides an understanding of salvation from the social location of the church. Recourse to formal political avenues for ethical response by Christians may be considered, but the formulation of ecclesial identity and a theology “from below” will be operative from the start so as to guard against the risk of absorption by any state-centered or imperial program.

Finally, based on what is set forth by both Dussel and Balthasar — epistemologically, politically and soteriologically — I will construct an ecclesial ethic that is marked by neighborliness and resistance for a North American church engagement with this crisis.

Understanding the Darkness, Receiving the Light

The audio of this sermon is available here for December 14, 2014:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of [their] own heart? -Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The line between good and evil does not lie between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between the West and the rest, between Left and Right, between rich and poor. That fateful line runs down the middle of each of us, every human society, every individual. This is not to say that all humans, and all societies, are equally good or bad; far from it. Merely that we are all infected and that all easy attempts to see the problem in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are fatally flawed. -N. T. Wright

Today marks the third Sunday of Advent, and our theme has been that we’re on a journey from darkness to light. We’re saying that when we have the light and life of Christ in us, we bear witness to the light of God that came into the world. And as we approach the day when we finally celebrate God’s full advent on Christmas, God’s full coming, as John the Baptist said we are striving to make straight the way for the Lord, to testify to the one who is come to take away the sins of the world. We do this in hopes that our light will grow and shine in this community, and in this city and beyond.

But we have to understand the darkness in order to reflect light. Two weeks ago, Patrick talked about that — about what sin is, and why things have gone array in this world. He mentioned that God hates sin because of what it does to us! Because of its effects and the harm it does to others. And so there’s something about our nature and this world, that is dark, that is evil. And then last week TJ stressed that this darkness and evil is actually waging war against us. So there is a spiritual struggle that is real, and that manifests itself in our lives — individually, collectively, culturally, and politically! And when we’re unaware of it, or when we deny it, we’re far more susceptible to be overcome by it.

Some of you who were on the Alpha Retreat with me last month heard me talk about resisting evil, and that’s basically what today’s passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 is all about, beginning in v. 4-8:

4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.

Paul continues:

vv. 21b-22: “Hold on to what is good, and reject every kind of evil.”


vv. 16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

These were the practices we were left with last week — worship and prayer serve to arm and guard us against the assaults and opposition of sin, death and destruction. And why do we do this? To be sanctified, made holy:

v. 23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.”

We do all of this — we arm ourselves — so that we might be transformed and begin to look more and more like Jesus.

It was also mentioned last week that we must be diligent in the study of Scripture to understand and discern how and in what ways darkness sneaks up on us, so that we might resist it. This is part of what Paul means in verses 19-21 when he says “Don’t quench the Spirit . . . but test everything.”

And that’s where we’re going this morning. I want to look a little more at some of the ways evil tends to manifest itself — in society, yes, as Patrick talked about two weeks ago, but more specifically for today, how it gets a foothold in communities like the church, and then see what we can do to resist it.

Talking about resisting evil is viewed with condescension and suspicion in our culture. If we talk about it at all, we tend to reserve the word evil for the really overtly atrocious stuff, like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, ISIS, and so on — and rightly so, but this conveniently this distances us from evil, and as a result can tend to make us blind to not only our indirect responsibility for evil but to the evil that resides in our own hearts.

I’m part of a theology reading group with a few other folks in the church right now, and we’ve just recently finished reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine was probably the most important early Church theologian for the Western church since the time he lived in the 4th Century, and he defined evil as simply the absence of God, or absence of good. In other words, evil is the absence of the abundant life that Jesus promises. That may sound like a pretty tame definition at first, but it rightly emphasizes that good and evil are not equal, opposite forces. Evil only has the power that we give to it. It’s like a parasite. It doesn’t stand by itself. It has to attach to something.

And our theme is very helpful illustration of this. Like good and evil, light and darkness don’t work the same way. If we turned out the lights in this room, and it got really dark, we wouldn’t say, that we turned on the darkness. If we turn on a little bit of light, it can illuminate a big area. In other words, the light is stronger. And God’s light shines everywhere, but I can still cast a shadow by turning my back on the light — by blocking it. And this darkness that we create is the breeding ground for evil.

The gospel reading for this morning speaks to this reality of darkness and light, from John chapter 1, beginning in vv. 4-5:

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

And then on to vv. 10-11:

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”

There are two things going on here. We have to recognize the light, and understand the light. But this also requires recognizing and understanding the darkness. And I would say this is the hardest thing to do. A lot of people can see some semblance of the light in their life, but because they don’t fully recognize and understand the darkness, they can’t receive the light — they can’t experience it!

Again, the word of warning in the sermon last week was that life is a battle, and ignorance about or complacency toward the forces of evil and darkness isn’t going to suffice. The word of warning this week is that, once we’ve acknowledged the presence evil in the world as a real and powerful force — we’re neither denying nor obsessing over it — then we have to learn how to begin to recognize it and understand how it gets a foothold in our communities, so we can then do something about it.

As you all probably know, there was a great shift in history that became especially apparent in Europe during the 18th Century. Authority had already begun to move from being derived from the Church and traditional institutions to being located more and more in the mind of the individual. So you had the rise of what some would just call free thinking. Of course this is generally a good thing, bringing about industrial, medical and technological advances just to mention a few. But modernity also has a dark side!

This dark side was that a kind of arrogance developed in which we thought that, simply through education, technological advancement, or political reform, we could free ourselves from the hindrances of yesterday and basically establish peace on earth. Maybe no society believed this more than Europe in the 20th Century, and Germany in particular, and we know the rest of that story turned out. It led to the bloodiest century in human history. The two world wars alone left 80 million dead.

How could this happen? How could a civilization that seemed so enlightened, so cultured, and so developed, turn to such unspeakable darkness? This is one of the most tragic and ironic periods in all of history. I think part of the answer lies in what I’ve already been talking about: the subtlety and sophistication of evil.

The problem for the Nazis, and for any corrupt political group, wasn’t a lack of education, but a lack of awareness and conviction about the darkness and evil in their own hearts. When groups circle the wagons, close in on itself, this prevents any outside light, God’s light, from coming in, and then it starts to see itself as the one, true, good, righteous group, and to see all other groups and people, or especially one other group of people – in this case, the Jews – as the enemy, as evil, and as the problem. By locating evil outside of themselves, they, and we, become blind to the evil within. It’s an extreme example, but in can happens in individual and families lives, or the church too.

Do any of you watch the British show Downton Abbey? Well, you can watch the fifth season online even though it doesn’t air in the US until 2015, so Whitney and I have been enjoying that. If you don’t watch the show, Downtown Abbey is about an aristocratic family living in the English countryside during and after WWI. This was a time of immense cultural, technological and political upheaval, and change is a major theme throughout the series. There’s a character named Tom who is a Irish, blue collar worker, but he marries into the Grantham family — he marries the daughter of Lord Grantham, who is the head of the household.

tom and lord grantham2

Needless to say, they don’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything — especially politics. There’s a great deal of animosity and tension between them, especially at the dinner table. Tom’s a socialist, and he thinks his people have been victimized by British Elites for many years. Lord Grantham thinks the ruling class knows best and is most suited to govern the country. So both individuals see themselves morally superior and innocent of their groups alleged crimes.

But since Tom marries their daughter, he has to move into their estate, their mansion, and get to know them on a personal level, rather than just judging them on the basis of their social privilege and traditional, aristocratic politics. And they have to learn to do the same thing with him. The show isn’t over yet, but eventually, tragedy brings them together, and they realize that they’ve both grossly misjudged each other, and both parties grow to have deep affection for one another even though they disagree fervently about the best way to govern the country. They stop demonizing each other, and they learn to listen. The “Us vs. Them” mentality, is all but dissolved. There’s a moment when this becomes especially clear. Tom meets a woman with a similar background to his. She learns his story and asks him, “Tom, I’m surprised you associate with these types of people.” Tom replies, “Yeah, well I guess I don’t believe in types anymore.”

One of the reasons I like Downtown Abbey, is because I see part of myself in both of these characters, but especially Tom — even though my background is very different from his. That’s what makes it such a good story. We see ourselves in the characters, much like we do in Scripture. Tom’s a young, idealistic guy, passionate, critical of people who seem complacent, ignorant or who oppose his ideas, but he was harboring cynicism and judgment in his heart. And then there’s Lord Grantham, who’s an upstanding gentleman and leader in the community, a kind man, but he’s a bit stubborn and very resistant to change. Now I know I’m not free of these things, and neither is Tom yet in the story, but Tom’s circumstances of having live with people who are so different, change him for the better, and it leads to reconciliation with the Grantham family, as they too are changed by him! And I’ve prayed that God would do the same for me, and I’ve seen it happen — slowly and painfully! — but it’s happening.

I want to call your attention to the quote in your bulletin:

“Denial, usually in some form of rationalization, is the primary device that humans use to deal with their wrongness. It was the first thing out of the mouths of Adam and Eve after they sinned, and it continues up to the latest edition of the newspaper. The prophetic witness from God through the church must throw itself against this massive weight of group and individual denial, often institutionalized and subtly built into our customary ways of speaking and interacting.” – Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart

Evil doesn’t approach on its own. It wears these masks — of self-righteousness and moral superiority, or playing the victim, and claiming innocence. Both blind us to the darkness in our hearts. And again, once we know how evil an darkness tends to show itself and confront us, we’re far more likely to be able to resist it.

The good news is that, while education can only take us so far, God’s grace actually does give us the power to resist the power of sin, evil and darkness. In Colossians 1:12-13, Paul says God has qualified to share in the inheritance of the Kingdom of Light, and has rescued us from the dominion of darkness. The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Light, is breaking into our midst with Jesus’ advent! And we can live in this Kingdom. And We prayed that passage in Ephesians 6 about putting on the armor of God. So to close, I want to mention two things we can do as a church to arm ourselves.

Because the truth is, although there’s a lot of talk in church about transformation and changed lives, it’s still pretty rare. Because even when we get the right vision and intentions, we nevertheless very often still lack the right means — the right structure and plan to carry out this right vision and intention.

So first, to establish this right means, we need a close group of preferably two, no more than four other people around us — Jesus had three — with whom we can feel safe, but also with whom we can be brutally honest and expect the very difficult question of “How are you really doing?” Which is why we have Compass Groups. We’re going to be talking about Compass Groups more in the spring, and giving you more tools in that area for growth, but this is what they’re designed to do — to provide a place where judgment is suspended, honesty is embraced, truth and spiritual maturity is enabled. People who’s gone through 12-step programs know this better than most. The first thing they learn is to stop trusting in themselves, and to acknowledge their own guilt and powerlessness to enact change apart from God.

Secondly, just like Tom, the blue-collar socialist from Downton Abbey, and Lord Grantham, the aristocrat, we need to spend time with and get to know people who are different from us. If we surround ourselves with those who agree with us, who think the way do, talk the way do, share our same culture, customs and convictions, we’re very unlikely to see our own blind spots and to see into the corners where darkness and prejudice lurks.

Because remember, darkness just lets us persist in our own ways of how we want to see things. But the light can chase that out of us. This advent season is about preparation, self-arming, so that we can expose the darkness, and receive the Light of Christ. So let’s the way for Christ by opening ourselves up to the Light. Please pray with me:

God, we pray that you’d enable us to truly recognize and understand both the darkness and the light, so that we might live in the day, in sober judgment. Convict us of our prejudices. Reveal to us our blind spots. Set us from the lies that our sinful nature tells us about  our self-righteousness, innocence, victimhood, or moral superiority. Help us to see others on the same footing as ourselves, and to learn from them. Shine your light Lord, in, on and through Saint Peter’s Church this Advent Season. It’s in Christ’s name that we pray these things. Amen.

Social Media, Sabbath and Silence: Three Ways to Counter Misshaping Cultural Currents

This is a repost from an entry I made on the Missio Alliance Blog last month, and it has also been curated on the Baptist News Global Perspectives Page:

The community group that I co-lead in our church has recently been talking about and experimenting with how to better spend our time and money on what matters most in God’s economy. At this point, we’re not very ambitious, but I think that’s a good thing for now. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the little ways in which we are called to be faithful. I enjoy thinking about the big picture — about the global economy, the ecological crisis, and geopolitical conflicts. Of course, Christians need to be involved in and concerned about these things. It’s just that I’ve learned how much my own personality is prone to introversion, abstraction and disembodied faith. I’ve learned that I need practices and people to keep me grounded and focused on the tangible responsibilities in my own little life. So we’re helping each other ask, what are the areas and opportunities for change right in front of me?

Last week we assigned three simple tasks, each of which is intended to challenge the cultural currents that are misshaping not only the church’s engagement with its mission but also community life in general in our society today.

First, in an effort to free ourselves from the cultural currents of our polemical political climate, some of us agreed to take a social media fast, and re-think the way we use social media altogether. On the surface, this seems like a harmless way to simply disconnect for a time and enable reconnection through face-to-face relationships. While that is certainly part of the goal, there is more to it than that. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean has argued that social media is actually part of a force of what she calls “communicative capitalism.” This force functions to capture critique and resistance, and reformat it back into the social media circuit only to then have it broken up into smaller bits. At this point, the smaller bits of thought and insight can still be shared, but not in such a way that adds up to anything that might aid us in understanding, critically confronting or restructuring our present life. Dean explains that the

“deluge of images and announcements, enjoining us to react, to feel, to forward them to our friends, erodes critical-theoretical capacities — aren’t they really just opinions anyway? Feelings dressed up in jargon? Drowning in plurality, we lose the capacity to grasp anything like a system. React and forward, but don’t by any means think.”

One of the purposes of a social media fast then serves to cut us off from the pressure release valve that is clicking, “liking,” “favoriting,” “sharing,” and “commenting.” Notwithstanding the irony of writing about this through the medium of a blog post, the hope is that our time away reveals not only our egoistic tendency toward self-promotion, but also the drive to minimalistic, low-risk involvement in relationships and in the public sphere. The ultimate aim of such a practice is the transformation of politics and culture itself, but it has to start with our own individual, daily lives.

Secondly, we invited each other to take a real, 24-hour Sabbath. Of course, Sabbath is always an important practice for Christians to observe, but it is especially fitting in our culture today for at least two reasons. In the first place, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Sabbath is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.” Sabbath makes time and space for people to become related to each other once again as people. It’s a shift from commodity-centeredness to covenantal relationship. So it serves us personally to be more richly related corporately.

In the second place, this invitation is reciprocated to others when we encounter them. Sabbath-keeping shares Sabbath. According to Sam Wells and Marcia Owen,

“Those who learn … stillness find that their lives become a Sabbath for those who encounter them. … Their lives become an embrace of the qualities and gifts in those around them that others have been too busy or too threatened or too self-absorbed to see and encourage. Their lives become an invitation into a place of depth, but an exhilarating invitation because it is depth without fear, depth as an adventure in which you are expecting to be met by God. Their lives become a place and a time of renewal in which others rediscover who they are and who God is.”

The end goal is to signal toward a new economy, a new environment, and a new creation. But again, it starts with the church actually becoming a pacesetter for this alternative rhythm of rest — one that counters busyness and consumerism, and one that rehumanizes our relationships.

Finally, we were instructed to spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes a day in stillness and silence. This could be a time for meditation or contemplative prayer, but regardless, the aim is the same: powering down what Thomas Keating has aptly called our “emotional programs for happiness.” We all have a pre-programmed self that is governed by instinctual values and conventional ideas. Unless recalibrated, this program will run us into some form of legalism or individualism. Silence and stillness — not just of body, but of thought — begins the journey of installing a new program. It takes patience, discipline and plenty of failure before this program gets fully uploaded and running, but God’s economy won’t operate on the version of that program that we were born with.

Just like fasting from social media and observing Sabbath, practices like meditation and contemplative prayer are not only intended to further our own spiritual formation. They are meant to grow us into our authentic selves, and into our authentic voices. Only then can the church participate in its mission in a way that shapes, rather than gets misshaped by the dominant culture. Cynthia Bourgeault talks about the mission behind stillness and silence in this way:

“The world will never listen to an arrogant voice that pronounces from a position of power and privilege. The world will listen only to the authentic voice that speaks from a place of deep sensitivity and openness to the real wisdom that is already present in the hearts of people who do not find a place in the church.”

This is not a battle cry to make our faith more palatable to the cultural currents. Practices like those just described are hardly accommodations. They are tools to help us live our faith faithfully enough to actually be heard.

Nor as a church are we supposed to “right” the “wrongs” in the world. There’s plenty that needs to be done to address the problems in the world for which North American Christians are more than partly responsible. But if we don’t start with disciplines that are as simple and concrete as these, we’ll never get anywhere.

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

Furthermore, democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, because of the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, there is the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. And this requires an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms – and of routine time – only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues in contrast to Carl Schmitt, but that of the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the good, as well as their openness toward the possibility of a revelation and a conversion, or what Honig drawing on Rosenzweig calls a “miracle” (more about this notion of a miracle in a moment). Honig further explains:

Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive or progressive. [both of which Kierkegaard and Niebuhr reject] Linear time, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount (15).

One thinks as well here of the both “already” and “not-yet” presence and availability of the Kingdom of God, in the way that Jesus talks about it. And it is precisely this notion of paradox that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr each in their own way employ in their understandings of faith and politics, respectively.

First, in Kierkegaard’s view, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change – for passing on the vocation of citizenship, for the formation of virtuous people, and for the inclusion of new, formerly excluded groups. An Individual, personal leap and risk must be taken with resoluteness. But this risk and leap is always only possible as a response, not as an initiative. It’s a response to what Simon Critchley, analyzing Paul through a Kierkegaardian lens, calls an “infinite demand.”

This demand remains incomprehensible, for Kierkegaard, for whom faith is always a passionate inwardness rather than external, or primarily doctrinal security, which he criticizes both in Hegel’s philosophy and the nominal Christianity of his culture. If we politicize this, Kierkegaard serves to guard against the polarization of the citizenry into either despair or presumption – resignation or ideological entrenchment. As Critchley remarks, a faith (or faithlessness for him) “with passionate inwardness best sustains the rigor of faith because it does not require security, guarantees or rewards” (Faith of the Faithless, 252). For Critchley, believers, as well as non-believers, are no longer allowed the naivety of a pre-Kierkegaardian faith. For Kierkegaard, faith starts neither with our political effectiveness, nor even our ideas. Faith is a leap, and a realized life in response by subjects to an infinite demand — one that ultimately is a demand of love, as will be seen below.

In Kierkegaard’s day, the Danes of Christendom would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth as a security, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. For Kierkegaard, Socrates in contrast actually does put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it — and Kierkegaard admired Socrates for this — but Climacus only saw this as what he called “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would later say, Socrates lacked a messianic consciousness. For him, a Christ was not expected (Nature and Destiny).

So, as Kierkegaard has it, it is not only the nature of faith that is paradoxical, but also its object, and what that object promises. Socrates’ ethic failed to preserve this tension, and he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin. For Socrates, ignorance is the source of conflict, harm, hate, and so on, rather than sin.

So what Socrates doesn’t appreciate is this: what stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the people, then, is the paradoxical combination of human finitude and human freedom. And here I’m focusing on Niebuhr’s understanding of sin, which builds on Kierkegaard’s in part. As both finite and free, Niebuhr would say, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, and to do so to the detriment of extending new rights to new constituents –even with democracy. So the big question becomes, what does it take for people to become prepared for and postured to affect change, in spite of this anxiety?

Rosenzweig is instructive here. His view of a miracle, which I alluded to a moment ago, is not that it compels or commands attention, but that it is a subtle signal soliciting a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to be open to its possibility. This openness requires habituation to certain patterns of receptivity, and the cultivation of an orientedness to the good, to the divine (Honig, The Miracle of Metaphor).

Kierkegaard’s view is similar. Again, just as faith is paradoxical rather than reducible to the rational, so too is the remedy for sin paradoxical. It is unexpected and from outside or beyond, rather than a mere lesson to be learned. So, following Kierkegaard, for there to be any change, individuals must undergo conversions (that is, they must receive and respond to a transformative revelation — they must be open to the miraculous in Rosenzweig’s sense). But what is the nature of this conversion, for the people, at the social level? For this, one is better served by turning to Niebuhr.

Whereas for Kierkegaard the paradox of faith finds its object in the doctrine of the incarnation – that the infinite of the divine dwells in humanity – in Niebuhr’s work, while there is still a christological paradox, it is social and ethical as much as theological. Niebuhr argues in the third chapter of Nature and Destiny that:

“the significant contrast between the divine and the human in Christ is not, as Greek thought assumed, the contrast between the “impassible and the passible.” [Here we see Niebuhr’s ambivalence toward metaphysics.] It is [rather] a contrast between the perfect coincidence of power and of goodness in the divine.”

For Niebuhr, it is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history. Niebuhr goes on:

“The final majesty, the ultimate freedom, the perfect disinterestedness of the divine love can have a counterpart in history only in a life which ends tragically, because it refuses to participate in the claims and counterclaims of historical existence. It portrays a love which seeketh not its own” (emphasis added).

What Niebuhr does through this christology is to situate finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love.

Niebuhr may have a less suspicious outlook on philosophical theology than Kierkegaard, but he is just as realistic or even as pessimistic as Kierkegaard is in his outlook on the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard in terms of human subjectivity, and Niebuhr in terms of politics, and what human beings are to strive for.

So the paradox, politically speaking, for Niebuhr, is that Christians must strive to realize proximate justice within history, even though we will still inevitably sin in the process — while at  the same time also resisting the temptation to push forward with the expectation of fully achieving a justly representative society. This is because Niebuhr understands that the meaning of life and history while revealed in history is not fully fulfilled through history. Like Kierkegaard, he sees the meaning of life and history as having a transcendent source. (This is also what I think most distinguishes Kierkegaard and Niebuhr from several important contemporary political philosophers today, such as Badiou or Agamben, for example.  While this is far too terse of a synopsis, I would venture to say that Niebuhr would consider Badiou’s “event” as dehistoricized, somewhat like Greek though, and Agamben’s “messianic time” as lacking the universal reach of the Christ event.)

So again, Niebuhr strikes a balance bound to neither an ideology of false utopias nor despair about change. (In Nature and Destiny, he characterizes these two ends with the paradigms of “Renaissance” and “Reformation,” respectively, both of which are reactionary and half-true in what they emphasize about human progress — i.e., Renaissance humanism, and Reformation depravity).

Now of course the criticisms of this position are familiar, because it can be seen as a kind of false third way between either choosing to actually struggle for real progress or just resorting to political quietism. But Niebuhr insists that Christianity has unique recourse to a penultimate social ethic because theologically it holds together the paradox and uncertainty of faith and politics, and therefore, Niebuhr might say, the possibility of faith and politics. Niebuhr states:

“The Christian belief that meaning of both life and history is disclosed and fulfilled in Christ and his Cross, is in a sense a combination of Greek and Hebrew interpretations of life. It conforms to the Greek interpretation of life because in it there is an understanding of the fact that the meaning of life transcends history; but in Greek thought history tends to be excluded from the realm of meaning, and life is fulfilled by escaping from the historical process. In Christianity the meaning of life and history is fulfilled, though not wholly, within the historical process. New Testament faith conforms to the Hebrew interpretation of life [then] because in this view life is fulfilled in history, though in Christianity the implicit difference between “life” and “history” is made explicit…” (Nature and Destiny, 1996 (36))

— namely, because, again, paradoxically, Christ fulfills history not by just living but in fact by dying, only this death is not final. After all, that is the hope that Christians have in the midst of the uncertainties of history.

Finally, Niebuhr states that:

“The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures [– this is the false certainty we crave –] as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves [God’s self] in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (71)

— because human beings doubt that the structural character of reality really is good!

So for Christians, the agape of God, which was paradoxical for Kierkegaard because it came in the form of the finite, and paradoxical for Niebuhr because it did not exploit, is the basis of God relationship with humanity and history. And therefore it is from faith in this both seemingly tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, that I understand Kierkegaard and Niebuhr to be illuminating the horizon upon which historical-political, subjects can strive for the good — because of the consequent freedom that comes from this agape, from the anxieties and rivalries of history, and the hope that that final meaning and fulfillment is not totally tied to historical outcome.

In sum, and by way of response to this very cursory look at two major figures, the political is inherently paradoxical, and so must be our engagement with it. But people ignore, suppress, or overtly deny the paradox, clinging instead to false certainties and neat political ideologies, contenting themselves instead with voicing opinions or voting. Those most adversely affected by this are not surprisingly the poor and the oppressed. Kierkegaard didn’t speak to this very much, which in part one can attribute to his context. Niebuhr, however, was sensitive to economic injustices, but he was still addressing these issues from a place of privilege and power. Because of this, I do not think he was truly sensitive to the weight of oppression that certain groups were experiencing. Moreover, there is a difference between intervention and solidarity.  Many times it seems that people have used Niebuhr’s thought to justify the former without doing the hard work of the latter. So, if we can evaluate Niebuhr’s thought with the interests of the powerless in mind, some of his blind spots may come into focus for us. No doubt two of the most glaring are the matters of race and gender. And Niebuhr’s complicity with U.S. nationalism at times may also become evident.

In this respect, Kierkegaard’s call to actually heed the infinite demand of love is a stronger injunction to imitate Christ.  Niebuhr by comparison is satisfied, it would seem, to merely use Christ as the benchmark.  My sense is that the more faithful appropriation here, even politically, is Kierkegaard’s, but the challenge becomes how to do that in light of Niebuhr’s apt prediction that such attempts to embody Christ’s ethic will eventually lead to martyrdom.

And finally, by way one more closing critical observation, it does not appear that Niebuhr really develops his political theology with a high view of the church’s role in society in mind – despite his pastoral experience in an urban and economically depressed congregation in Detroit early on in his life. And it seems to me that, especially as the United States continues to fragment – religiously, culturally, politically, etc. – a robust understanding of the role of the church in the public sphere with respect to this paradoxical politic is essential, and wanting in both Kierkegaard and Niebuhr. The question remains looming in my view, for example, as to how the organizing identity of local congregations will posture itself and its church members for political agency and activism, in comparison to the conventional ways this has been done in recent history in both conservative and liberal contexts.

Niebuhr says, for example, that heedless love has to replenish mutual love — otherwise it will degenerate into something less. In order for this to happen, however, it seems to me that Christians must primarily derive their identity from a community in which heedless love is the norm, or the at least the archetype. This cannot be the case if the primary identity of Christians comes from citizenship of the state. Without a well-developed ecclesial structure and identity that informs the Christian politic, any complicity with violence on the part of Christians for the purpose of approximating justice will risk being rationalized instead of sorely felt, mourned and repented of.

These limitations notwithstanding, there remains tremendous promise from both of these thinkers with respect to not just Christian faith and practice, but sober hope for society, individual social responsibility and collective political engagement.

Resisting Evil

This was a short talk I gave last Sunday morning at a retreat.

“The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” – Irenaeus

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

- John 10:10

Talking about resisting evil might sound a little bit strange in our modern world.  We tend to reserve the word evil for really atrocious stuff, like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, ISIS, and so on.  We do this partly because we want to separate and distance ourselves from the most obvious and extreme forms of evil so that we’re not responsible, and so though our conscience feels clean – so that we don’t have to acknowledge the evil in our own hearts.

Early on in Church history, one Christian theologian named Augustine defined evil as simply the absence of God, or absence of good.  In other words, evil is the absence of the abundant life that Jesus promises. That may sound like a pretty tame definition at first, but it rightly emphasizes that good and evil are not equal but opposite forces. Evil only has the power that we give to it.  It’s like a parasite.  It doesn’t stand by itself.  It has to attach to something.

One of the most common metaphors for good and evil is light and darkness. I find that this is an even more helpful way to illustrate evil, because again, light and darkness don’t work the same way. If you turn on a light in the corner of a room, it can light up almost the whole area. Darkness works differently.  I can’t turn on darkness.  But I can cast a shadow by turning my back on the light.

See, God’s light shines everywhere, but God gives us the room and the freedom to resist the light by turning inward on ourselves and living in that shadow.  Individuals do this, and groups can also do this. And this darkness that we create is the breeding ground for evil. It’s the absence of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of what we might call a demonic spirit.

Just using the Holocaust illustration again – thinking about how this is probably the most radical example of evil we’ve seen in the last 100 years: A group has to circle the wagons, close in on itself, which prevents any outside light, God’s light, from coming in, and then it starts to see itself as the one, true, good, righteous group, and to see all other groups and people, or especially one other group of people – in this case, the Jews – as the enemy, as evil, and as the problem.  By locating evil outside of themselves, they, and we, become blind to the evil within.

Beginning in the Gospels, this same evil force gets personified in the figure of Satan, and Jesus himself is tempted by Satan after the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to fast for 40 days. And of course Jesus also resists evil by casting out what are called demons or “unclean spirits” in the Gospels. I will come back to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in a moment.

Returning the analogy of light and darkness, Jesus says, I am the light of the world! And then Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that he has come that we might have life to the full, and life abundantly. So this kind of life, full of light and abundance, full of what one author I like calls “aliveness,” is supposed to be central to the Christian faith, and to our experience of following Jesus. Honestly though, a lot of times, it’s not. Many times we don’t experience abundant life, and it may leave us frustrated and confused.  Because here’s the deal: nobody accidentally finds abundant life. You’re not just going to stumble into it, or follow your natural inclinations and fully experience it. It takes great intentionality and diligence. More than that, we often think that abundant life means the presence of comfort and the absence of suffering. Just by looking at Jesus own life though, it should be clear to us that abundant life may come with great hardship – joy and peace and contentment, but still hardship.

Another reason we miss out on abundant life, is because we fail to realize and appreciate that this life is a battle, and a war against evil. The difficulty though is understanding how this evil operates. The best illustration of how evil works that I know of is found in the story I mentioned a moment ago in Matthew 4 in which Jesus is tempted by Satan.

A few chapters later in Matthew Jesus says that the path that leads to destruction is wide and many people are on it.  This isn’t about hell or afterlife.  He’s talking about abundant life, and un-abundant life.  Then Jesus says that the path leads to abundant life is narrow and few find it!  Again, not because only a small number of people are forgiven or saved, but because only a small percentage of people actually decide to live into this truth.

Getting back to Jesus’ temptation now: You could say Jesus is tempted by the three P’s: (the worship of, or the idolatry of) Pleasure, People, and Power.  Or, borrowing from what Thomas Keating says, which I referenced in the previous post, Jesus, like all of us, was confronted with the enticement of:

  1. Comfort, survival and security (includes pleasure)
  2. esteem and admiration from others
  3. Power and control

None of these things is essentially bad, but the temptations Jesus faces are about their abuse – making these things god. I think this helps to demystify, or demythologize evil somewhat.  It doesn’t make it any less serious, but it does make it less weird and spooky.

Evil doesn’t approach on its own.  It always has a mask on, and the mask will generally fall into one of these three categories.  And once we know how evil tends to show itself and confront us, we’re much more likely to be able to resist it.


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