Leap and Stutter

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Piety makes for awkwardness, and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters. — Richard Wilbur, “Grace”

If there is one credo that I carry with me every day, it is that all that matters most is a matter of communication. Love, faith, hope, despair, being with someone and being apart from that one, speaking in all honesty and listening to others with a fierceness that defies obstacles—all of this is communication. And communication is, in its deepest and most profound sense, more than simply a transmission of information. It is communion.

One of the maxims of a psychology of communication is that we cannot not communicate. We’re always on, so to speak; we’re always sending out signals and we’re always receiving them, too, with varying degrees of awareness. Communication 101 says that we are not solely senders or receivers, but simultaneously senders and receivers. The warden in Cool Hand Luke was wrong when he sneeringly drawled at his prisoner (played by Paul Newman) that “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” No, there was communication between prisoner and warden; it’s just that one side of the dialectic refused to recognize as communication anything but abject subservience.

Communication and communion are based on trust—we don’t get anywhere without it. And the companions of trust are hunger, wonder, and yearning. Trust is first a verb; later, it can be a noun. The motion of someone who trusts is forward, out of oneself, a thrust outward from inside oneself. It can be a response in kind, it’s true, but the sort of trust that moves mountains and melts cold hearts is that which leaps. Trust is faith’s body.

In matters of the heart and in faith, we’re all amateurs, those who do it for the love of it. When we try to communicate with others across our self-imposed boundaries we are asking, in trust, for a certain latitude as we step into this new country. Like any traveler to a new place, we are all strangers, self-conscious and prone to mistakes, many of which we do not know we’ve committed until after they land in our midst, showering sparks and making the dogs bark. For communication to become communion, to go beyond information to intimacy, we need to recognize in the other the yearning to be understood. It sometimes gets disguised as bravado, an insouciance that covers insecurity.

With a desire to do right, to live right, to be right, we may cling to the old norms and practices, less out of understanding than to cover some weakness we might have overlooked. Trusting and leaping may seem almost ludicrous; we prefer to hedge our bets with the accustomed answers about the location of God (up and out there), our nature (inherently and seismically corrupt), and the authority of the church (incontestably the voice of God).

“Piety makes for awkwardness,” says the poet, Richard Wilbur,

“and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters.”

In grace, as in communion, we puzzle out words to each other that have the ring of authenticity, whatever they may lack in polish and certitude. Just as we might write to see what we think, so we may speak to learn what to say. “Where balance is not urgent” nobody will laugh if we fall, and though our piety may be awkward it becomes graceful as we practice it. “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience,” Emerson mused. “We paint those qualities which we do not possess.”

As originators of messages our continued communication is only as clear as our ability to interpret and adapt to those signals which we receive in response from others. What we have given to others with sincerity may be returned in like manner, but there are no guarantees. Communion is a dance of memory trusting chance, and we dare not look at our feet.

“Now we aid and influence other people simply by being who we are,” says Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward. “Human integrity probably influences and moves people from potency to action more than anything else.” It may be that our most effective communication is simply when we are with each other, body and soul. There is a silence that is fertile, on the cusp of a feeling so deep that a word of comfort spoken will open the wellsprings of weeping.

How does this desire arise for communion? Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it the “dearest freshness deep down things,” as good a description of the Holy Spirit as I have found. “How can human beings speak of God?” wonders Barbara Brown Taylor in The Seeds of Heaven. “We do not do it well, that is for sure, but because we must somehow try, we tend to talk about what we cannot say in terms of what we can—that is, we tend to describe holy things by talking about ordinary things.” Metaphors become windows, a way to see through our walls to what lies beyond.

“So much talk of God has been punitive in focus over the centuries,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “a God out to take revenge on human depravity. It is surely time to start talking again, as the scriptures do, of a restorative God who takes it upon himself to uphold human dignity and asks us to join him. Although we have often begun with idolatry and ended in violence, for the Christian all must start in wonder and end in humility.”

Humility is essential because everything we can say about God is incomplete, bounded, simplistic. Ludwig Wittgenstein understood the limits of language better than most preachers: ‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, he said. We don’t know how to pray, said St. Paul, but the Spirit prays for us in language that is beyond the spectrum of our understanding.

The intimate secret about God that has been known from all eternity is that Christ is the very Word of God, the ultimate metaphor for that whereof we cannot speak. For us, Christ is constantly being remade in the images we need in our time. Unlike us, he is capable of adapting for us so that he may meet us where we are. If we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, brokenhearted and blinded by tears, he may appear alongside us, the eternal promise of the Word made flesh in space and time. Only in his disappearance do we finally see.

Thomas Merton says, “I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Richard Wilbur, with a cheerful wink, assures us that:

“To be unchecked

Is needful then: choose, challenge,

jump, poise, run…

Nevertheless, the praiseful, graceful soldier

Shouldn’t be fired by his gun.”

So, let us “come boldly before the throne of God,” and in that spirit hold our communion with each other through trust. A certain exuberance is called for in the presence of corrosive cynicism. In a time of lies we hunger for the truths that set us free.

Photo: Nick Fewings, Unsplash.com

Abundance in the Midst of Plenty

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I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. — John 10:10, King James Bible

I confess that I do not know what this means, but it has been a text that I have read with a mixture of hope and skepticism. The skepticism arises from living in a material world which consistently promises more than it can deliver; in fact, more than it contains. The hope arises because whatever it means it’s a pretty good bet that it has little, if anything, to do with material things.

In the Greek text of John’s gospel the word for “abundantly” is perissos, from peri, which means ‘above’ or ‘beyond.’ It has about it the connotations of excessive, extraordinary, remarkable, extravagant. Perhaps today we would say, ‘over the top.’

But the intriguing thing about this text is how our interest rises upon reading it—and then how we sprawl, puzzled and rubbing our heads where we bumped them on the low ceiling of our expectations. In a culture as resolutely acquisitive as ours, where everything has an instrumental worth in the pursuit of happiness, a quick default reading of this for a lot of us will no doubt mean that abundant life means abundant wealth.

The operating manual for life in an upwardly mobile society has been written by advertising and marketing firms. We are trained from an early age to see a direct line from desires to goods to possessions to happiness. Many thousands of people bend the resources of their minds and energies to create the shortest possible distance for us between desire and happiness. But it’s the stuff in the middle—goods and possessions—that derails the end product of happiness.

The very idea that happiness is the expected product of desire fulfilled has been a philosophical question for as long as people cared to reflect on their inner lives. Aristotle devoted most of the Nicomachean Ethics to it, to what he called eudaimonia, usually translated “happiness,” but more closely thought of as ‘flourishing.’ A life of virtue, resulting from seeking and practicing that which would fulfill one’s calling to be fully human was Aristotle’s aim. The Epicureans, wholly misunderstood as hedonistic party animals, taught that a simple life of tilling one’s garden in the country and living minimally was the best route to satisfaction. Epictetus and the Stoics thought that our attitude toward the rough-and-tumble of life determined our happiness. There has been no shortage of advice, devices, and methods for achieving happiness, through wealth or other means.

But this is not what Jesus is talking about with his above-and-beyond abundance of life.

This short text is embedded in a longer passage about sheep, gates, sheepfolds, thieves, predators, bad shepherds, and a good shepherd (John 10:1-18). There is no mention of money or wealth. There is plenty of talk about true voices and the laying down of a man’s life.

The passage begins with a warning: everyone who climbs over the wall into the sheepfold is a thief and a bandit. Only the shepherd goes in through the gate. Once in, he calls out the sheep and they follow him because they know his voice. They don’t know the voices of strangers and they won’t follow a voice they don’t know.

Jesus tries out this parable on some Pharisees nearby, but they don’t get it. Barbara Brown Taylor has observed that Jesus’ parables are less like explanations and more like dreams or poems. They are derived from ordinary things, small moments, “illustrations of some truth that seems clear . . . one moment and hidden the next.” Their meanings are elastic, expanding to fit the time and culture in which they are read and heard. In her collection of sermons from the gospel of Matthew, The Seeds of Heaven, Taylor says, “By speaking in parables, Jesus could get his message across without saying it directly, so that his followers nodded and smiled while his critics scratched their bewildered heads.”

So he tries again, this time making it personal and explicit. “I am the gate for the sheep,” he says. Everyone else who tries to get into the sheepfold without going through the gate is a thief and a bandit, and the sheep won’t listen to them. Just in case they still didn’t get it, Jesus repeats himself: “I am the gate,” he says, unequivocally. Me, right here in front of you. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

There are many people who would like access to all those sheep. They come dressed in shepherd’s clothes; they might even carry a staff. They wouldn’t bother to pick off one or two here or there: they would want the whole flock. They want the whole flock, because the bigger the flock, the greater their status.

The first thing this parable teaches us, then, is that if you want to lead the sheep you’ve got to go through Jesus to get to them. No climbing over the wall or tunneling under or breaking in or removing the gate. Those who do so are thieves, bandits, and predators who come to break and destroy. They are not shepherds.

This may include those who came to the sheepfold with the best of intentions, but who found entering by the gate to be an obstacle and an impediment. They are impatient to play the shepherd, to lead a large flock, to call the sheep and watch them come running. They talk at length about their sacrifices, shed tears about the cost of upkeep, proclaim themselves humbled by how awesome they are, and congratulate the sheep on having a shepherd who truly, deeply, cares. Then they go around the back and try to climb over the wall.

If you’re a hired hand—one who came in through the gate and not over the wall— it’s going to take some time for the sheep to get to know your voice. Hired hands are usually there for the season and then gone; it takes time to build trust, even with sheep. Hirelings must have been known for their unreliability or the mention of one would not have evoked knowing nods and grins. If the hireling does not have the trust of the sheep he must harass and coerce them into moving where he wants them to go. They are listening for the voice of the master. If they do not hear it they will not be compliant.

The sheep in this story are not easily fooled. They know the master’s voice and they will not follow just anybody. Here is definitive proof that in this regard, sheep are smarter than people. But if the sheep know and love and trust the shepherd they’ll move because they want to be with the shepherd. Love and trust over fear and coercion.

When we see Jesus holding a lamb in his arms in countless stained-glass windows, there’s a Teflon factor working on us. We register the image: Jesus, tall and stately, a lamb nestling in his arms, safety at hand—it’s a smooth and impervious surface, rather sweet and sentimental, truth be told, and ultimately forgettable. What we don’t see on the surface, but what Jesus’ listeners would have understood instinctively, is how the shepherd is a leader, someone with authority as well as interest, with power as well as love.

In a dry and lean land, with scarce resources and danger afoot, the analogy of a shepherd protecting the sheep is common sense, part of the fabric of one’s life. A shepherd, a good shepherd, stays and fights for the sheep, even at risk to his life. The Good Shepherd not only has an interest in protecting his investment, but far more consequentially, he loves the sheep and they love him. The Good Shepherd is good not because he leads the sheep — even the hireling is expected to do that—but because he’ll lay down his life for the sheep.

We are so far removed from sheep and shepherds that what was common and core to everyday life back then is for us a quaint and awkward symbol. We don’t think of ourselves as sheep, passively following someone over hill and dale. We are moral agents in charge of our own destinies. Moreover, if we did belong to a particular sheepfold it’s because we chose to and we could just as easily unchoose. We might even remove ourselves to another sheepfold or just go off over the hills.

We do not see that this is about life and death.

In an atomized society such as ours, with our comparative wealth and ease, we may not find the comparison to sheep persuasive. It might even be offensive. It certainly offended the Pharisees. This is an encounter in which Jesus makes claims that are bold even for him.

“I know my sheep,” he says, “and they know me, just like I know the Father and the Father knows me.” Could there be a stronger bond? And then he ups the ante. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this field. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

And here is where the light sweeping across a verdant field darkens and those who hear his voice pause with caught breath as he says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” It is a taunt against the powers that be, the ones that break in and steal and destroy, the ones who will strangle the breath out of the voice that calls to the sheep.

If there is life it is because of the shepherd, and if we have abundant life— extravagant, pressed-down-and-running-over life, life which cannot be crushed by death—it will be so because we heard the voice and followed the one we love.

Photo: Hans Christian Strikert, Unsplash.com

A Wider Embrace

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“The sense of identity can make an important contribution to the strength and the warmth of our relations with others, such as neighbors, or members of the same community, or fellow citizens, or followers of the same religion . . . but it has to be supplemented by a further recognition that a sense of identity can firmly exclude many people even as it warmly embraces others.” — Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence

When I was in college in the early 70s I attempted to put a collection of essays together around the theme of “Growing Up Adventist.” I was intrigued with the prospect of different authors writing from various perspectives on how Adventism had influenced their lives. It seemed to me that one’s religion, especially one as self-defined as Adventism, would inevitably encounter creative tension with other influences, like citizenship, ethnicity, gender, language, occupation, art, and politics. I thought it would be interesting, maybe even inspiring, to see, for example, what difference Adventism would make to an aspiring musician or artist or businessperson or professor of English literature. But when I pitched it to Adventist publishing houses I received polite rejections without explanation.

There are probably a number of good reasons why they turned it down, but later I wondered if the whole question of Adventist identity was simply inexplicable to the editors. To propose that there could be multiple Adventist “identities” would suggest that social and biological factors held equal influence with religious beliefs. Even more to the point, recognizing these factors would admit that there’s more to shaping a person’s life than Adventist beliefs alone. To look at Adventism through the lenses of sociology, anthropology, and history is to understand it in its context as a human response to the transcendent. Perhaps that was somehow threatening. Even so, it’s a question that haunts me still today.

I believe now that I was misguided in trying to sift out the nature of Adventist identity as if it were something to be added on top of one’s humanity. For one thing, I remembered C. S. Lewis vigorously decrying the practice of calling oneself a ‘Christian musician’ or a ‘Christian artist’ or a ‘Christian economist.’ The thrust of his argument seemed to be that Christians must not create a parallel and separate universe. Either we are part of this world as participating human beings or we remove ourselves to a panic-room away from the world, thus becoming completely ineffective as witnesses to Christ. Furthermore, the prospect of dicing up the body of Christ into thinner and thinner bits—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Seventh-day Adventist, United Church of Christ, First Church of Apostolic Disciples, Christian Reformed, Plymouth Brethren, and so on—each one claiming to be a purer, more refined version of Christianity—finally crashes into Christ’s prayer that we might all be one so that the world will believe that God sent him. That hasn’t worked out too well.

Our Adventist forebears lifted up the Sabbath and the Second Coming as points that Christianity had lost or at least downplayed. We emphasized healthy holistic living long before it was mainstream, we were decisive on the dignity of human beings in the face of slavery, and we cherished education that would teach students to be more than “mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.” All of these are powerful strands in the rope of faith that we grasp today. They are also nudges, we might say, to the flow of Christian praxis in the long history of the body of Christ. But should they comprise an identity, one that stands apart in some important ways from Christianity? Do we lose sight of Christ in the insistence on our differences from other Christians?

***

I took a double major in college: I took journalism because I loved to write and I took religion because I couldn’t shake off the mysterious figure of Jesus. Not at all sure I was cut out to be a “pastor,” I harbored the idea that I could still minister, so I took religion instead of theology. Like many of my classmates, I had no clear view of what I would do after graduation. My pre-med friends had their lives laid out before them ‘like a patient etherized upon a table,’ to use Eliot’s phrase. They knew what they would be doing for the next ten years and beyond. Me? Not so much.

After high school and through college I worked every summer in some sort of church-related work as a youth pastor in California, as an assistant to pastors in England and Wales, and as a member of The Gate, folk clubs established and run by young Adventists in the UK. Despite the fact that in my senior year my Religion Department chair called me into his office to tell me kindly, and with sorrow, that I “would never make a contribution to this church,” I continued to think I had something to offer. I had a notion of service that was built on impressions and images from Richard Llewellyn’s book, How Green Was My Valley, about the South Wales Valleys. I fancied that I could minister to those in the coal-mining areas of Tredegar, Rhymney, Merthyr Tydfil, and Rhondda. This was strengthened by working one summer with an Adventist pastor whose parish covered those towns. I went with him as he visited his members, driving up and over the ridges that divided the valleys, dropping down through narrow lanes to some isolated farmhouse and then farther on up to another family. I loved it. It seemed to me, naive and hopeful as I was, that such a simple, lean, and spare life could be, out of sheer necessity, filled with a muscular faith.

The other vivid image I had of ministry came as I worked for a year as a volunteer in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Newly-married and just graduated from college, my wife and I worked with another couple as teachers, counselors, and general helpers in the British Columbia Conference. We lived in the basement apartment of some church members and taught at the local SDA elementary school. One night I saw a public service announcement on our small black and white television. It showed a rancher branding calves amidst milling animals, flying dust, and wind whipping around the corrals. A pickup drives up and out gets a man in black. He takes in the scene and then drops to his knees to help with a struggling calf. The job done, both men clamber to their feet. The tag line identified the Mennonite Church as the two walked toward the house in the distance, the rancher clapping the minister on the back as they talked. It was the earthiness and the “be-here-now” presence of that minister that touched me; he was not afraid to get his hands dirty, literally, in service to his parish.

It’s funny how images stay with us. They become almost totems for us, something rooted in our soil that also points heavenward. Around them forms a cloud of memories, associations, fragments of poem and song, even feelings. These two images, as romanticized as they were for me, held a core truth of a life of service, unadorned and unassuming, close to the earth and to people. It was a faith that found its strength in commonality with others. That is what appealed to me then and still does today.

***

How are we Adventists to think of ourselves now? This krisis, this cutting-point matters. The compliance vote has laid bare a divide in Adventism. If it is eventually bridged it will only be with time and courage and honesty. Are we a religion of fear and coercion or one of confidence and community?

Lately, I’ve been reading again Jurgen Moltmann’s, The Crucified God. He writes that faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to die inwardly because it grasps for security and guarantees. It usually occurs, he notes, “in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever . . . When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it.” Christians who ferociously defend pure doctrine and belief “build a defensive wall round their own little group, and in apocalyptic terms call themselves the ‘little flock’ or ‘the faithful remnant’, and abandon the world outside to the godlessness and immorality which they themselves lament.” They accept their increasing isolation on the margins of society and proudly proclaim it as their badge of faithfulness. Such churches display symptoms of sectarianism in the “preservation of tradition without the attempt to found new traditions . . . increasing unwillingness to undergo new experiences with the gospel and faith, and the language of zealotry and militant behavior in disputes within the church.”

Moltmann asks, “Where does the identity of the Christian faith lie?” It’s usually tagged to membership, but that simply shifts the problem, since the church is affected by so many other interests. We could point to particular experiences we have had or examples of conversion and grace. But even these do not guarantee one’s Christian identity. Ultimately, says Moltmann, our identity is not found in our own personal faith, but in Someone who is more than our own faith. “Jesus was folly to the wise,” asserts Moltmann, “a scandal to the devout and a disturber of the peace in the eyes of the mighty. That is why he was crucified.”

So I wonder if my Christian identity should not be found with Christ first of all, specifically the crucified Christ, the one who draws all the abandoned and displaced ones to him; the Christ who came for the sick and the lost. With the right vision I can see myself as I am, all pretension aside, as real as I can bear to be, in need of grace and healing.

The most compelling analogy for Christian identity that I can think of is that of salt, which brings out the best in the world and its people, while at the same time disappearing into it. It melts ice, and it can melt the cold, mirthless, calculating heart of this world too. It is quietly pervasive, but if it wasn’t there you would miss it.

Photo: Kelen Loewen, Unsplash.com

The Stories We Become

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“The stories we live by are made, not found.” — Dan McAdams, The Stories We Live By

Are we a project or a discovery? Do we make ourselves or are we disclosed to ourselves? The question has been for me a touchstone of sorts, something I return to with intensity in liminal moments—those thresholds we cross that change how we see the trajectory of our lives.

As a college student in the 70s I was drawn to existentialism, especially the kind that Albert Camus lived out. Somehow, he brought together elements of Stoicism and Romanticism into a resolute philosophy of life that emphasized commitment to principle along with a sensuous enjoyment of nature. Being brought up by English grandparents in California in the 60s, in a home that was religiously devout and loyal to the church, oddly enough, paralleled that outlook and even converged at some points.

My grandfather was English, from Yorkshire, average in height, stoic in his perseverance without complaint, and quietly consistent in his gentleness and understanding. His commitments to principle were unwavering, but his ability to forgive was just as strong. God was a presence he rarely named, but he lived in gratitude for how he had been led that expressed itself in moments between us, especially as we talked while wrestling boulders out of our volcanic soil under the heat of a California sun.

Camus, on the other hand, refused God, but never managed to turn his face away completely. Since his only perception of God was that portrayed by the Church, he was inevitably disappointed. It seemed to me that he lived as if he wished God were real. He saw life as a beautiful tragedy, something that appealed to my adolescent romanticism.

But above all, he believed that we made ourselves through our decisions and actions. Life required commitment, faith in each other, a willingness to sacrifice for principle. Dr. Rieux, in Camus’ novel, The Plague, daily faced death as he worked to relieve the suffering of his patients, simply because it was the right thing to do. That sense of duty to principle is where the Adventism of my grandparents and the humanism of Camus overlapped. There was a cross-pollination that has influenced me to this day.

Because of our strong heritage from one of the founders of our church, Ellen White, most of us of a certain vintage have grown up with phrases like being “as true to duty as the needle to the pole,” and “Everything depends on the right action of the will.” In effect, most of us were raised as Kantians, with a strong sense of duty, manifesting a kind of “disinterested benevolence,” to use another of Ellen White’s maxims. We were encouraged not to trust our emotions, since they could easily be swayed, but to trust in Scripture, our spirit of prophecy, and the moral precepts we derived from both.

The idea that we “make” ourselves can go in several directions. We could think of it as a by-product of duty, not something to be sought after, but not something to be dismissed either. Or we could choose, like Aristotle advocated, to seek a higher end or telos, through cultivating the virtues, a choice that we make through reason.

Yet, as Adventists, we are conflicted about trying to become virtuous. It seems presumptuous to us to imagine that we could pursue such an end, even one directed to God. It seems to emphasize works over faith, as if we might work ourselves out of the need for a savior or somewhere along the way, slough off the Holy Spirit. We want to be virtuous, but we don’t want to look like we’re trying to be. There is also a virulent strain of perfectionism in current Adventism that is curiously hostile both to virtue ethics (because it relies on philosophy) and to grace (because it’s not rigorous enough). So, an understanding of how we might be nourished and strengthened by practicing the fruits of the Spirit and the virtues, for instance, is timely and welcome.

There is another way that we make ourselves and that is through the stories we imagine for ourselves about who we are. Dan McAdams, in his ground-breaking book, The Stories We Live By, calls them “personal myths,” and defines them as “an act of imagination that is a patterned integration of our remembered past, perceived present, and anticipated future.” Over the course of years, from adolescence to middle adulthood, McAdams says our personal myths should reflect increasing coherence, openness, credibility, differentiation, reconciliation, and generative integration. These six “narrative standards” are the elements of a good story in human identity, one that reflects who we are and lures us onward to what we may become.

As we become more differentiated in life, we face conflicts and paradoxes. Our personal stories become richer, more textured, as we learn to cope with suffering, disappointment, and conflicts. We seek reconciliation and harmony between the conflicting elements within ourselves and between ourselves and others. Reconciliation, says, McAdams, “is one of the most challenging tasks in the making of personal myth,” and psychologically, we’re not prepared to face it until in midlife.

McAdams’ research is original, but in some respects roughly parallels James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Fowler argued that faith was a universal in human existence, and that one did not have to be “religious” in order to have faith. We look for order and patterns in the universe, and we live by what we find. He identified “faith as relating” and “faith as knowing,” and it is the latter that McAdams understands as contributing to our personal myths. McAdams sees the stories we construct for ourselves as developmental stages, “qualitatively different structures of religious belief and value.” He separates these into four positions, A through D.

Position A understands faith as specific rules about good behavior and has only vague notions about God, nature, human identity, and so forth. While it can be authentic, there is little reflection on meaning and even less on putting one’s thoughts in order. Nevertheless, it’s a beginning.

Position B, what Fowler calls “synthetic-conventional” faith, gathers up beliefs into a systematic creed or system, whether it be provided by the Church or the scientific enterprise. These are the positions, typically, of adolescents and young adults. There is structure within a system, but little questioning, either of beliefs or of the organizing principles.

With Position C, the individual moves beyond the conventions and begins to fashion a more individual and personalized faith structure. There is questioning of the conventions of the previous position and a good deal of soul-searching. We attempt to find something that is both authentic and truly expressive of who we think we are. And when we reflect on our faith and our conventions we may ultimately reject some and accept others—but the ones we accept will no doubt be those we reason are most honestly ours. We try to reconcile inconsistencies between our beliefs and those of other people through reason and logic. We wish the world were as reasonable as we are.

Position D, however, understands that reason is not enough. “A very small number of people,” says McAdams rather wryly, “beginning probably in mid-life, reorganize their beliefs and values in order to accommodate paradox and inconsistency in life.” In this phase we may gain a renewed appreciation for the simple stories of faith we grew up on, while at the same time recognizing that life is more complex and multi-layered than it first appears. James Fowler calls this “conjunctive faith” because it allows a person to join together ideas and images that are usually kept separate. It makes room for paradox and irony, qualities that are needed to think about the mystery of evil or the redeeming characteristics of our enemies and the darkness of our heroes. It lives with ambiguity and paradox. Some of its most articulate expressions are found in Soren Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, and Parker Palmer.

It’s what I would call “innocent experience,” the quality of perception that comes after we take a fall from innocence into despair and knowledge and are forgiven and raised to a point beyond our innocence. If we’re fortunate enough to belong to a community, and humble enough to recognize our constant need for honesty, then we can live with paradox and uncertainty—and press ahead with faith.

If Position C—questioning and rejecting our conventional mores and theology—is the prodigal leaving home, Position D is the prodigal returning: wiser, humbler, and armed with a no-nonsense BS detector. The prodigal leaves home innocently arrogant, crosses over into weary cynicism, and returns with the gifts of openness and empathy.

In the summer of 2015, after the GC Session, I posted the following observation on my Facebook page. I think it applies now more than ever, especially since Annual Council 2018 (Battle Creek edition) presents us with an opportunity for authenticity, a way to re-imagine our faith together.

“It may be that in the post-San Antonio era, with another five years under Ted Wilson, many who have been Adventists all their lives, and many who may never have questioned church policy, procedures, and prejudices, will quietly realize how little they need to look to the church structure for their spiritual strength. They may see their friends, their pastors, those they have met online, their non-Adventist and non-Christian friends, as their spiritual community. They may understand that it’s possible to be in the church, but not of the church, that we don’t have to be hindered by unjust practices and blatant mismanagement to the extent that it blinds us to who Jesus is for us today. If we want, we can carry the invisible church within us every day. It will be exciting to see how we may grow and learn through adversity. We need to hold our fellow travelers close on this journey.” — Facebook, July 2015

Costumes and creeds do not a faith provide, but we can write a new story that does.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?”

Photo: Aurelien Romain, Unsplash.com

A Lesser Disappointment

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Similarly, it would be redundant to say that certain leaders are good; of course they are good; their influence as leaders depends on their goodness. We should not say that a leader is bad; we should say, instead, that this person has failed to be a leader. — Paul Woodruff, The Ajax Dilemma

In the range of emotions that we experience, disappointment falls somewhere between sorrow and resentment. It does not cut as deeply as sorrow nor does it fester like resentment. It comes from a 15th-century French word, disappointen, which meant, unsurprisingly, ‘to remove from office.’ It brings to mind failed expectations, a setback, something that we wish had not happened. But we’ll recover, given time. It could have been worse.

The Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, is a formative part of Adventist history. We pay more attention to it, liturgically speaking, than we do to the resurrection. It forms the crucible out of which we were poured, as a religious community, with a new purpose and justification for mission. In the strictest sense, it is our primary mythos, our origin story. We’ve been carrying our disappointment in our pockets ever since.

The Adventist pioneers who had set their sights on heaven suffered deeply, agonizingly, when their end-time prophecies misfired. Many had committed their money to the cause, left their crops to wither in the fields, and sold their possessions, even their homes. They were invested in this in a way that is something of a wonder. It wasn’t so much the loss of material things; those could be replaced. It was the complete dashing of hope, the blackness of night that lasted after the sun rose, the bitter realization that this shadowy and twisted world would hold them in its grip until death after all.

This is more than disappointment; it is abject defeat, humiliation, and loss. Perhaps it was the taciturn nature of those New England Millerites that kept the grief taut and held it to ‘disappointment,’ albeit a Great Disappointment.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s landmark study, When Prophecy Fails, on the Millerites and a UFO cult, introduced us to cognitive dissonance, the state of mind that arises when our deeply-held beliefs and behaviors are at war with one another. We seek cognitive consistency and a reduction in the dissonance. Typical responses to it include rejection, resentment, retrenchment, and reinterpretation. Adventists, for the most part, chose reinterpretation. They admitted they were wrong about the particulars, but right that there was a cosmic event.

Once bitten, twice shy. The early Adventists were not about to set a date again for the Second Coming. Everybody can see when you’re wrong on that one. Instead, they reinterpreted the event horizon to something theologically unique, but spiritually moribund—the investigative judgement. While it refocused the energy that had flagged in the wake of October 22, it has been a puzzlement to many members and to theologians from outside the tradition.

There is something about failing so spectacularly at the outset that sets a people apart for generations to come. Adventists have a mark of Cain upon them, a collective sense of social inferiority that causes them to trot after celebrity. Sometimes it provokes pity within their non-Adventist or secular friends, but more often it results in confusion. Those who are better acquainted with our eschatology—perhaps through a Revelation Seminar—may hold faint admiration for how we picked ourselves up, reinterpreted our mistakes, and turned defeat into a global educational, health, and religious enterprise of 20 million people.

Now, 174 years after we put our foot wrong the first time, we are about to break a leg. In 1844 we looked up when we should have looked within; in 2018 we are looking within, when we should be looking out. In 1844, we tried to get out of this world, when we should have examined the house of prophecy we had built. In 2018 we are condemning our own when we should be helping our world. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

But, in a knife fight put your money on the one who wields Occam’s razor.

There are probably many theories as to why the Adventist church is at this juncture right now. The simplest one is that leadership’s hostility toward women’s ordination became an issue of divine right to rule. At stake is the question of justice, just that, of what is right and fair for those involved. It’s a minimum standard, what most democratic societies strive for in one way or another, because without it the other civic virtues—freedom, respect, equality, opportunity, honor—are in jeopardy.

And if the leadership of the General Conference continues to align with injustice and authoritarianism it will find it has become irrelevant. Regretfully, but decidedly, many of us will turn away to try to live out what the Lord requires of us: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. The imperatives are simple; the carrying out of them, as always, is a matter of faith and grace.

We need a new language, one that can expand our meanings as needed and that just says no to the brittle formulas of authoritarianism, sexism, and literalism. We will live, as disciples, within parable, metaphor, analogy, allusion, indirectness. Anything but a bald, braying literalness whose faint light only illumines disappointment. “A faith-language will be always open enough for a God who has more truth to teach us,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “who ‘speaks’, not ’spake’. It will be a language that finally reads us more than we read it, helping us to listen to our life.”

We need to rediscover the beauty of the Sabbath, not as a commandment or a ticket to a heavenly excursion to the New Jerusalem, but as a potent symbol of creativity, exodus out of oppression, solidarity in suffering, care for this earth, and blessed rest.

We need a vocabulary that can account for “the evil that men do” as well as the weight of glory that humans bear. We need to take seriously the human comedy and to understand tragedy in all its severe beauty and dignity. We need to regard prophecy as a compass that points us to our true north of faithfulness to Jesus’ words and life. We need to see the extraordinary nature of the Bible as revelatory literature and poetry.

We need a consciousness that regards women and men as full citizens of creation, engaged joyfully in a circle of work and worship and play, not a ladder of competitiveness and condescension. We need the humility to grasp that the only uniqueness to which we need aspire in this world is that for which all Christians are called—to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We need the empathy which recognizes that our crosses are our own. And we need the steadfastness that keeps us on our journey of faith, even when some would compel us to return to a time that no longer exists. Instead of anger against leaders who divide us, we can regard them with mild disappointment — and continue on.

We need to reinvent Adventism for our time. Something leaner and more supple, more informed by faith and imagery and poetry and less throttled by policy; Earth-centered, with a hope that begins here of something eternal beyond.

Since no one knows the day nor the hour of the Kingdom still to come, we need to rejoin the work of being Christ’s hands in the world and leave the finishing of it up to God. Like a farmer who works the fields, reading the weather and the land, we can be aware of the change of seasons without the delusion that we are causing them. We can work with diligence, looking ahead of us and around us. And someday, as only God knows, we will be surprised by joy from above in the midst of our sowing.

Photo: Gavin Hang, Unsplash.com

Our Moment at Jabbok

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When you are through with your tradition, it must be different from what you found or else you have failed. It is your responsibility to make your religious tradition, whatever it may be, Christian or otherwise, more truly religious by the time you are through with it. That’s the great challenge we face. — Brother David Steindl-Rast, “The Shadow in Christianity”

In story and in myth, crossing rivers signals a shift of identity, the overcoming of not only a natural force but of a personal barrier to a new experience. In Greek mythology the River Styx is the boundary between life and death. In Norse mythology the Ifing River separates Asgard, the land of the gods, from Jotunheim, the land of the giants. It runs so swiftly that ice can never form on it, and thus it is an effective barrier for any giant who wants to take on the gods. The Jabbok River, a tributary of the Jordan River, is the place where Jacob wrestles with God before he meets his estranged brother for the first time in years.

Jacob sent his family, his household, and all his possessions over the river before the sun went down, but now in the darkness he is alone. Scripture can be so stringently laconic at times: the text in Genesis 32 simply says, “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

Spiritually, Jacob is at a crossroads in his life. Even within the womb he struggled to gain an advantage, but Esau emerged first. Esau had the brawn; Jacob had the guile. What he couldn’t get through honest effort, he gained through deception. But he had his comeuppances too. The blessing he had stolen from his brother as he deceived his father curdled in his heart: his beautiful bride, Rachel, was found instead—on his wedding night, no less—to be her stolid and morose sister, Leah. His servitude to his father-in-law, Laban, a man renowned for his chicanery, stretched on year after year. Jacob survived through cleverness, bordering on fraud.

He had his moments of light though. Making his way through the desert, he lay one night under the stars and dreamed he saw a ladder stretching to the heavens, alive and glowing with angels, stunning in their beauty and haughtiness. When he awoke, gasping and disoriented, all he could whisper across the sands was, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” And so he called it Beth El.

But this night he is alone with his anxieties, a man approaching middle age who carries responsibility for an extended family, slaves, and herds. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber saw in Jacob the existential man, wrestling with life’s questions until he wins through to some spiritual release.

Psychologically speaking, we can see Jacob struggling with his Shadow, the part of himself that he could not acknowledge, that constantly raised its head to confront him with his weakness, his suspicion, his fear, and the ache in his heart that pounded into him with every breath that he would never be good enough for his father.

In Carl Jung’s development of the Shadow it appears in our dreams as a figure of the same sex as ourselves whom we fear or dislike or regard as inferior. In trying to live up to the standards of conduct set for us by parents, church, and society, we identify with those ego ideals and reject the qualities that contradict them. “But the rejected qualities do not cease to exist,” says John Sanford in Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality, “simply because they have been denied direct expression. Instead they live on within us and form the secondary personality that psychology calls the Shadow (50).”

Unless we recognize them and integrate them into our consciousness, they will only cause us pain and confound our psychological and spiritual growth. But the shadow personality can also be a positive force for us if we can relate to it in the correct way. If we have always repressed anger in an attempt to be kind and “Christian,” it becomes part of our shadow. But if we can integrate part of that capacity for anger it can help us become stronger, more resolute people, who are able to respond in a healthier way to intolerable circumstances and especially to injustice. Sanford offers the example of Jesus’ anger in driving out the money changers who were profaning the Temple of God. “Obviously, Jesus’ capacity for controlled anger gave his personality a strength that he would not have had had he lacked the capacity for such a response,” notes Sanford.

People in whom the Shadow is repressed often lack a sense of humor. They are not able to see themselves as anything but striving for perfection — and humor is often a release for all the tension that comes from falling short — and from falling. If we can have humility without humiliation, then we can laugh at ourselves in those awkward situations. The Shadow helps us forgive ourselves and others too.

Jacob at Jabbok is one of those stories that stays with one throughout a lifetime. It is about a man being reborn through struggle and suffering, who wins through failing, and who limps off into the sunrise a hero. He had been passive-aggressive all his life, looking for an advantage where he could not prevail through strength or credibility. Now, as he struggles through the night, he puts his whole heart into it, assertive, not violent—so alive for the first time that the superior strength of his opponent is his joyous challenge. Even as the Stranger strikes his hip, throwing it out of joint, Jacob will not let him go without a blessing.

The audacity of one who sees his spiritual liberation within his grasp is stunning. And in that moment his name, Jacob, “The Supplanter,” is flung away, and a new name, Israel, “The God-Striver,” pours down on him like oil. As the first light strikes the mountain tops in the distance, the Stranger slips out of Jacob’s sobbing grasp, lowering him to the ground.

When he rolls over and looks around, he is alone again. Once, he had seen the angels; now, with a thrill of awe, he struggles to his feet: “I have seen God face to face and lived!”

***

The ability to admit one is wrong and to change one’s ways and direction is part of the toolkit for any Christian. Lord knows we get enough practice at it to be experts, but it’s a lesson we apparently must learn and relearn. As individuals, we may stop in our tracks, look back, see where we diverged, and change course. As institutions? Not so much.

It takes humility to admit that we are wrong; it takes perception to see it. To perceive is to see our situation with new eyes: that we may be right in our results, but wrong in how we got them; that we may have magnified the incidentals and overlooked the essentials; that we may have gotten some of it right—but there’s so much more to discover.

Jacob struggling at the River Jabbok is a metaphor. Facing his greatest crisis, he bares his soul like an offering. The struggle is not about winning, but about dying and being reborn. Jacob struggles against himself that his true self might emerge. He bears in his flesh the wound that never heals, every step the ache of Love’s weight. From now on, Jacob’s empathy for those frozen in their pride draws them to him; he becomes a warming, healing presence to those whose self-righteousness wedges them apart from others.

***

This is our Jabbok moment as a church. As we confront our hubris and our guile we may finally acknowledge our shadow. “True justice must resolve a conflict in a way that leaves the community whole,” writes Paul Woodruff in The Ajax Dilemma. “It’s not merely what you decide that matters, but how you decide it, and how you communicate the decision.” We have thought of ourselves as templates for perfection, nothing short of a model for the world. But we are humans, fretful in our weaknesses, and yet bright with promise. If, as a church, we struggle now for a rebirth, we will hear God’s breath close to us. “I never asked for perfection,” God will say, “only that you become complete. And I will take care of that.”

Our changes now are painful, extended in time, bending our form to the breaking point. That is how change is made in this dimension of time and space. On this plane our changes usually cause friction and disturb the peace. There is a time coming when we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, as we are transformed from the perishable to the imperishable.

Photo: Ian Espinosa, Unsplash.com

Faith at the ‘Between’ Places

“We are beginning to see

now it is matter is the scaffolding

of spirit; that the poem emerges

from morphemes and phonemes; that

as form in sculpture is the prisoner

of the hard rock, so in everyday life

it is the plain facts and natural happenings

that conceal God and reveal him to us

little by little under the mind’s tooling.” — R. S. Thomas, from “Emerging

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“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood.” So said Dante, and so echoed I, if not in word, then in experience. But Dante woke to find himself there; I stumbled into it with my eyes wide open. Dante had his Virgil—and his Beatrice—to guide him through what lay ahead. I had Rainer Rilke, Jurgen Moltmann, the Gospels, and U2.

With my life at a standstill, trying to write a dissertation for a degree I wasn’t at all sure I would have the chance to use, I woke to who I was — and wished I could sleep again. There is much about our selves that we sense is just behind us, but we’re too afraid to look. There is still more that we don’t know until a fissure opens and we fall into the depths. Once there, every shadow is menacing, every sound unnerving, every thought doubling back on itself in an endless loop. We wonder if we were ever who we thought we were, and we are sure that everyone sees us more starkly and completely than we see ourselves.

Trying to write a dissertation about hope and suffering and the mystery of evil when one has little hope becomes an ordinance of humility. The suffering we cause, when named and owned, is first a fire that sucks up all the air, and then a cleansing flame that scours away our pretense.

Down in the depths there is nothing to be gained by plugging in the formulae that others assure us we will need for peace of heart. What is needed is clarity, a fierce honesty that stops down the aperture of our soul to a brilliant point of light.

***

I visited my father once when he was working in research for a major defense contractor. He asked if I’d like to experience a sensory deprivation chamber. He promised to let me out after a few minutes, since I would have no sense of the passage of time. That was a darkness that seemed to atomize my body. Although I could touch my hand, I could not see it no matter how close I held it to my eyes. And although I shouted as loudly as I could there was absolutely no sound. None. It was like a mini-death, but I felt no panic, only a pang of loss, as if I could no longer remember my name or my face.

***

When we long for the presence of God, of a word we can hold in front of us like a candle, we feel the limits of our faith. How is it, as Christian Wiman ruefully admits in My Bright Abyss, that he can wake up as a Christian and go to bed an atheist? Why should we expect, as people of faith, that the path before us will be cleared of all obstacles before we touch a foot upon it? Why do we imagine that our faith in that which is eternal will be satisfied once for all? Why do we expect that the flame that is lit between ourselves and the Spirit will burn steadily from that moment onward?

Rilke was there with his angels, those terrifying angels, and the grandeur he uncovered in the spaces between prayers. He gave syllables to the breath within me that could just utter the name of God without choking up. I finished the dissertation in due course, defended it, and reinvented myself. I began to see hope in the crucified God and to turn my face toward the garden of the resurrection.

“It is not that he can’t speak:

who created languages

but God? Nor that he won’t;

to say that is to imply

malice. It is just that

he doesn’t, or does so at times

when we are not listening, in

ways we have yet to recognize

as speech.”

There are days when we put on the brave face and speak of faith to others and pray that they don’t see the desperation in our eyes. Doubt and faith journey together; when one falls behind the other pauses to wait patiently. Thomas became my patron saint, I his twin brother. When he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” he had seen through the familiar figure of Jesus to the God within. I wondered if I could see that God in the pale and fastidious Jesus of religious media.

“Christian faith teaches that the One whom we are to love most is the one whom we can never fully possess,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words. “It means that our faith’s language will be inevitably infused with desire, ache and search. The One we long for most finally eludes us.”

I learned that faith grows in the ‘between’ places, and that if I could not bear the potted version that provided contentment for many, that God would generously, with patience and good humor, meet me where I stood, defiant but uncertain.

Oakley says, “we are not seeking relevance but resonance — not the transient ideas of today that can convince for a time but the truths that address the deepest longings of a human life and a fragile world.” Our faith weakens, “when we think we somehow have captured God or contain God. This is when certainty more than doubt becomes the opposite of faith.”

“But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. . .”

Someone said — perhaps Rumi — that every morning we may say, “Now I begin!” If we can believe it, God starts anew with us every moment; each breath may be our untainted first. Because we carry our memories and our guilt with us, and because we are creatures of time, we think in linear fashion: first this must happen, then that, and finally, this will be the result. God, unbounded and beyond all constraints of time, sees us as we were, and are, and shall be evermore in every moment.

“As a Christian,” Oakley says, “I believe that God has given us all a gift. It is our being. God asks for a gift in return—our becoming, who we become with our being. Because our gift back to God is lifelong and continually shifting and changing, it means that any language that is to be true to this spiritual adventure of being alive needs equally to resist closure, to protest at black and white conclusions and fixed meanings.”

We are unfinished beings, mercifully limited by space and time, and blessed with curiosity and imagination. If we believe that the One who started this good work in us will continue in our renewing, perhaps we will have the courage to see beyond the dark wood.

Poem selections are, respectively, “Emerging” and “Nuclear,” by R. S. Thomas, in Collected Poems: 1945-1990.

Photo: Beschte Photography, Unsplash.com

The Gods Dissolve Like Clouds

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“There are billions of gods in the world . . . Most of them are too small to see and never get worshipped. . . They are the small gods. Because what they lack is belief. . . Because what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods.” — Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Sometimes we need a brisk jolt to the spiritual nervous system, like the whack from the paddle that the Zen master gives his novices who zone out under his watchful eye during their sitting meditation. Terry Pratchett does this with his cheerful parody of institutional religion called Small Gods. If all you got out of it was the epigraph above, you’d still be ahead of the game.

The root idea here is that the gods are remarkably human in that they rely on others to validate their existence. The more the followers, the greater the size of the god. The field can get crowded, the advertising intense, as the gods compete for air time and loyalty. Let us see how this knowledge might be applied.

***

There are gods for everything: The God of Laundry, who restores the one lost sock; the God of The Mother of All Headaches; the God of Parking Spaces; and the God of Snappy Comebacks After Arguments. Most of these pass through their life cycles unnoticed, unheralded, and unmourned because they simply don’t have the polling power of, say, the God of Instant Recall or the God of Social Skills or the big one, the God of Ultimate Truth. The grace note for the smaller ones is that like Home Depot, there’s a tool for every job. If you need to put your hands on a paper clip, the God of Hammers just won’t do.

There is specialization to the nth degree, but the really wise gods become generalists in order to play to the broadest possible audiences. The God of Polite Euphemisms, for instance, competes favorably with the God of Sly Innuendo, while a current favorite, the God of Plain Speaking, polls just ahead of an evangelical mainstay, the God of Thus Saith the Lord.

Granted, there are whole swaths of humanity who have never heard of these gods, of any gods for that matter, for whom the news that gods are dying by the billions arrives with all the interest quotient of banana price indices. These are tough audiences. They are unmoved by tragedy, indifferent to complexity, focused on the trivial, and contemptuous of procedural niceties. They lack a sense of history. Timelines mean nothing to them nor does the inherent authority claimed by certain small gods command respect or compliance.

We may well ask whence cometh and goeth these gods anyway. For this we can turn to Wallace Stevens, one of the truly great American poets and a man of letters, who conjectures in a lecture that “To speak of the origin and end of gods is not a light matter. It is to speak of the origin and end of eras of human belief.” Humans and gods are so closely intertwined, allows Stevens, that the demise of the gods cannot but change the very nature of humans.

I quote at length from his lecture, “Two or Three Ideas,” in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose:

“To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing . . . It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.”

To be sure, these gods once played a significant role in the lives of many. The God of Tradition, for instance, carried a respectable train of believers for centuries, while the God of Fundamentals enjoyed tremendous growth even as his fundamental traits tripled, making it difficult to clearly discern the fundamentals from the incidentals.

But the God of Institutional Authority, one of the biggest in the pantheon, lost millions of adherents when he abused their trust in a naked grab for more power. The reaction was at first puzzlement: why would he do that? Many had been happy to serve in his court without need for coercion or arm-twisting. But puzzlement turned to concern, and then a stiffening of resolve, as it became clear that the God of Institutional Authority no longer trusted them nor looked on them of equal worth. No amount of evident sincerity could mitigate against the feeling that sincerity could be wrong if it overlooked, nay deliberately set aside, such a foundational element as equality.

The aberrant behavior of the God of Institutional Authority prompted endless discussion, even argument, among those for whom god-watching was their profession, and others for whom it was a consuming avocation. There were some who muttered darkly that such abuse ran in dynastic god families, even unto the third and fourth generation, and that nothing more could be expected from such a god — ‘like father, like son,’ was the summarizing phrase. Others just as vehemently argued that the God of Institutional Authority was merely exercising the power he had been entrusted with to keep order, enforce the rules, and maintain the hierarchy of responsibilities that was so important for a smoothly functioning organization. “It’s not for us to question him,” they said. “He carries enormous burdens. On him rests the well-being of millions. Who are we to thwart the will of the gods?”

This prompted some to turn once again to Stevens, who noted parenthetically that “Their [the gods] fundamental glory is the fundamental glory of men and women, who being in need of it create it, elevate it, without too much searching of its identity.” Stevens then added, prophetically as it turned out, “The people, not the priests, made the gods.”

Among the professional god-watchers there were a few whose expertise and knowledge of the gods was unparalleled. Many people relied upon them to discern the movements of the God of Institutional Authority and his court, and to place this within a larger framework of cosmic events. One of them had been knighted for his efforts and was known affectionately and colloquially as Sir George the Dragon-Slayer. Even though he was supported by a comparatively large and established network, there were those who privately worried that there was a bounty on his head. Some cited Henry VIII’s off-hand and exasperated remark, “Who will rid me of this troublesome prelate,” as historical precedent for vigilante action against Sir George by devoted free-lance enforcers.

This brings us to the present in what is a developing story. Because there are many facets to these developments, one should not be too quick to pronounce that the definitive analysis is in. After all, on the central point of equality of members and service, decades of blue-ribbon commissions were commissioned, only to see their conclusions and recommendations dismissed on the wind. Looking ahead for the consequences of present actions, intended or otherwise, one need only invoke the carefree butterfly flitting above a chrysanthemum on a remote Japanese island, to shudder at the hurricane that might await us up ahead.

In the meantime there comes to us a word from another professional god-watcher, the sociologist Peter Berger, who warned in his book, A Far Glory, about something which seems to have been lost in the current confusion. I will quote it at length:

“All true worship is a difficult attempt to reach out for transcendence. It is this reaching out that must be symbolized, by whatever resources a particular tradition has at hand. . . The community itself is not the object of the exercise; at best it is the subject . . . The congregation itself is not what matters, but the community of the Kingdom of God which the gathered congregation feebly foreshadows. Nor is this proleptic community contained within the walls of a particular sanctuary: It includes the community of the living everywhere, and of the living and the dead; ultimately it includes the worshiping community of the angels and all creation.”

There must be a God for that.

Photo: Samuel Zeller, Unsplash.com

A Path We Can Imagine

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As often as I think I am seeking other people out in order to get something for myself, the deeper truth is that I am hoping they will draw me out of myself. — Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

I began reading about Dorothy Day while a graduate student in Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate School, in California. I had picked up a copy of the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles, a newspaper published to highlight social justice issues in the Catholic tradition. It was started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 and has been published continuously ever since. I was taking classes in liberation theology and social justice at Claremont, learning about the movements in Latin America by Catholic priests to educate the people and to teach them to read, using the Bible. Then later, when I came to Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland to teach, I contacted the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, met Jim Wallis, the editor and co-leader, and became aware of some of the networks of Christians in the Metro area who were working with the homeless.

Eventually, I met Mitch Snyder, who was living and working out of a row house on Euclid St. in Washington, DC. He had been an adman on Madison Avenue before he dedicated his life to the homeless. He and some friends operated a soup kitchen in an abandoned garage across the street. My students and I would go down on Sunday mornings to cut up vegetables for stew and often we’d come back to hand out meals in the evenings. We continued to work with Mitch and his community over the years, as they advocated and cared for the homeless. Always aware of the official studied neglect by governments of the homeless, he fasted to the brink of death until the city capitulated and opened the DC Shelter on 4th Street in Washington. Many students worked and helped out at the shelter over the years.

My friendship with Mitch continued even after we were no longer actively involved in the community. One evening, he asked if I’d like to go up to Baltimore and meet Dan and Phil Berrigan, the Catholic priests who had been in the vanguard of protests against the Vietnam War and who had worked for decades in the civil rights movement. When we arrived we were ushered into a row house filling with young people as well as grizzled veterans of the peace movement. As the sun was going down, light streaming into the windows, Phil Berrigan led us in a worship and prayer service for the homeless. For me, this was a golden moment, a revelation of the commonalities of Christian activism that begin with prayer and are sustained through worship.

My interest in the Catholic Worker movement had begun much earlier, when a friend from college decided to become a Catholic priest. We were graduate students together at Andrews University and unbeknownst to me he was taking catechumen lessons at Notre Dame University. The night before Easter Sunday he was baptized into the Catholic Church. We stood in for him as witnesses, since his family, staunch SDAs in Southern California, had rejected him and his calling. He felt his calling was to work in East LA among the barrios, the poverty and the gangs. His life, after baptism, was brimming with hope; his enthusiasm for the Catholic Worker movement and its mission to reach those in poverty led him to give up his comfortable upper middle-class life and to enter a vocation that was open to the Spirit’s leading in all parts of his life.

Witnessing his baptism and seeing his joy caused me to reflect on what had brought him from Adventism to Catholicism, from wealth to voluntary poverty. While he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve known, it was his single-minded direction toward Christian activism that stirred me.

Years before, as a teenager newly-awakened, I was keen to witness. I wanted to fix the spiritual errors that I saw around me and to confront those, especially in the Catholic Church, who I felt were perpetuating these errors. One of our high-school faculty, our Bible and history teacher, invited a Catholic priest to his home one Sabbath, so that some of us could learn more about Catholic beliefs and his friend’s faith. I confronted the priest with all the bravado and ignorance that a 15-year-old on a mission from God could muster. He graciously answered my questions, parried my thrusts, and generally treated me with respect and interest. I came away feeling that I had made a holy fool of myself.

While at graduate school at Claremont I took a course in Liturgies of the Church. We studied all the major liturgies and their history, from the time of Justin Martyr in CE 155 up to John Wesley’s “Service of the Methodists in North America,” written in 1784. One of the requirements of the course was to attend a worshipping community outside of our own faith for the semester. At that time, I was an active member of the North Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Claremont, but I easily found an Anglican church in Ontario and began attending their Sunday services also.

I was immediately struck by two things. One was the homily delivered each week (without notes) by the priest. It was literate, deeply Scriptural, and invariably opened windows into the life of discipleship. It brought together the liturgy, the Scripture, and current news in ways that set my imagination on fire.

The second thing was the compassion and respect shown toward the gay couple that attended from week to week. This was in 1977, not a particularly easy time for gays, and especially not the norm for the Anglican Church. But each week that they were there they were surrounded by people who obviously cared about them, who did not regard them as either a curiosity nor an abomination, and who did not shy away from sharing the cup with them during the Eucharist.

***

There is a sociological and communications theory known as Symbolic Interactionism that counts among its strengths the idea that “it is through social interaction that (our) identities are formed, maintained, and changed,” as scholar Joel Charon puts it in his Symbolic Interactionism. Founded on the work of George Herbert Mead and extended by Herbert Blumer and others, SI says that we form our self-identity through interaction with others. We are social beings, said Mead, and we shape each other through our interactions. That may seem self-evident, but Mead believed that it is only through what he called ‘role-taking’ that we can communicate, develop a self-identity, and become part of a society.

Role-taking relies on imagination, a central characteristic of humans that makes it possible to put ourselves in the place of others. The ones who influence us the most are our significant others; they may be parents, friends, role-models, heroic figures, people we emulate or admire. They may even be people we fear. We imagine how our actions will affect them, and we imagine what they might be thinking, feeling, and understanding in certain situations. It’s impossible to ever take on another’s role with complete accuracy, but it’s essential for everything that we do as human beings to try our best. As we grow more capable of it we become more understanding of others, better communicators, more able to anticipate the expectations of others so that we can conform, rebel, choose, and exercise our will in relation to others.

Mead called another group of people our ‘generalized other,’ a combination of several significant others who make up a group or a community, a society of sorts that we visualize as we act. We might think of ‘my friends,’ or ‘my family’ or ‘my church’, or even ‘my generation’ and ‘my country.’ Another term for this is a reference group, a group of significant others we hold in our imagination.

While we need to take others into account in almost everything we do, there are two exceptions to this: those who are extremely selfish and those who hold extreme power. Those who are almost totally self-centered may regard others as simply objects to be manipulated, and those who have extreme power may actually do so. Of course, by provoking fear or anger in others, such people can expect retaliation in kind, which generally reinforces their selfishness. As long as their power is intact they are personal hurricanes of chaos. They lack the imagination and the social intelligence to take the role of anyone but themselves.

Symbolic interactionism gives us perspectives through which we can actively and consistently see ourselves and others in a new light. It provides a consciousness which can be turned to great good or to evil. We can learn to empathize with others or to manipulate them. It means that we go through our days with eyes wide open, continually attempting to see the world—and ourselves—through the eyes of those we are communicating with.

As a Christian, a person attempting to live in grace by faith, it helps me to visualize and imagine the lives of others. It helps me to learn from those with whom I interact. To try to see the world through the eyes of a person in the LGBTQ+ community or to try to imagine how a Protestant asking a Catholic about sexual abuse by priests must seem to a Catholic — those are exercises of the imagination worth attempting.

***

In recent years I have been teaching at two universities, both embedded in the history of the renegade order of nuns who came to America from France and established colleges for young women in the early 20th century. My friendships with colleagues at both schools have opened my eyes to larger issues of justice, education for the disadvantaged, and the power of a constant witness to Biblical activism in the nation’s capital. In a way, the ripple that began at The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame on that Easter many years ago has finally lapped against the shore. The sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whom I have gotten to know at Trinity, were once as young as my college friend. In their lives of devotion to scholarship, service, and compassion, I imagine the trajectory of my friend, now lost to me these many years. He moved me to question how fervent was my faith; the sisters’ lives are testament to a steady will in a singular direction.

These kinds of moments might have come to me in other ways. Perhaps because of temperament, inclination, opportunity, and curiosity I leaned this way instead of other ways. I needed work, they opened their doors, it turned out well for both parties. Going forward, I did not have a long-range plan. We rarely do in life. Nor did I determine to follow a specific course to meet people who understood and practiced faith in ways different than mine. Rather, I found myself responding to intuition, the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the openness of God to “strangers,” and the curiosity that searches out how others worship and come to know God.

The experiences that we have and the people we meet may seem random, but there is reason to believe that the paths we cross with others can be seen, in time, as part of a larger pattern. God has a multitude of ways to meet us in unexpected places and to reveal the moments of grace we need in the midst of the mundane, the sublime, and the tragic.

Photo: Inbal Marilli, Unsplash.com

The Original Sin of the Species

AfterTheFall:anqi-lu-783189-unsplash

“Yet the quality of a religious system depends perhaps less on its specific doctrine, than on the choice of problems that it regards as important, the areas of human experience to which it directs attention.” — Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo

Peter Brown (who wrote one of the most highly-regarded biographies of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and the greatest influence on the Christian Church after Paul and before Aquinas) gives us a perch from which to regard one of the great controversies that Augustine was determined to stamp out.

Augustine’s disputation with Julian, the young ex-bishop of Eclanum, on the origins and effects of original sin, is described by Augustine as an explanation for the misery and suffering of the human race. Their battle comes late in Augustine’s life, the old lion up against a whip-smart and ruthless opponent half his age for whom this battle is personal.

Brown makes it clear that Augustine’s loathing of sex, even within marriage, determines his view of Adam and Eve falling into sin through their unbridled lust for one another. The behavior which Augustine assumes as evidence is their shame at their nakedness after eating from the tree. Everything flows from this. Fully developed, the doctrine then requires baptism for sin in order to escape the horrors of hell—even infant baptism—because even newborns do not escape the stain of original sin. Everyone who is born of a woman is the result of lust; it follows then, infers Augustine, that everyone is born in sin, preternaturally bent from the moment of conception to choose the wrong, to stain the holy, and to willfully, at every turn, gallop off the path of righteousness.

It’s a tortured and torturing logic, one that has inflicted untold pain on Christians since the time of Augustine. In contrast to Augustine, Julian upheld the view that God was, above all, a god of equity. God’s justice was toward each of us individually, not all of us lumped together. We were responsible for our own failures, but God’s grace would be sufficient for us.

What Augustine did in the service of theology — and what many following him in the Church have done from his time to the present — is to ascribe our human propensity to fall and to fail to the weakness of Eve. This has serious consequences. It means that we deflect responsibility for our own state of separation, as Paul Tillich characterized the effects of sin. It builds in moral passivity and projects onto others the motivations for our own deceit. It calls into question whether even God can reach beings so utterly corrupted and debased.

But most of all, it perpetuates sexism because it lays the blame for the world’s misery on women. To paraphrase Paul: “And thus abideth racism, xenophobia, and sexism. But the most pervasive of these is sexism.”

We are, all of us, without exception, complicit in the sin that Adam and Eve committed. Nor do any of us need convincing about the horrors humans can perpetrate on one another. So, we’re not denying that evil can have a human face. It’s just that for millenia the face that appears most often in the Church’s grand narrative of the Fall is that of a woman.

It is interesting that in Paul’s recounting of the story sin entered the world through Adam, not through Eve. But the story that the Christian world accepts — and it could be argued that the world accepts — lays the blame on Eve.

If it is true, as Brown reminds us, “that the quality of a religious system depends . . . On the choice of problems” it gives its attention to, then such a religious system is only as strong as its weakest link. The blame for sin that is laid on women derives its power from assumptions that underlie not only matters of theology, hermeneutics, and worship, but also policies and hiring decisions. Its direct application in churches around the world weakens the hope for redemption that we are encouraged to hold. When people use it to denigrate women and “keep them in their place” they are not only wronging women specifically, but they are also trivializing the real issues of grace and redemption.

Brown’s epigram asks us to take seriously where our attention lies, as a church and as Christians. How long are we going to punish women? What are the problems that consume our time, energy, and money?

But if all our essential beliefs are meant to point us to the burning bush of God’s saving love, then we should at least examine that through which we have relegated fifty percent of the human race to the flickering shadows at the circumference of that light.

This prejudice runs deep, as unseen and seemingly innocuous as the air we breathe. It begins early in our lives, with the first telling of the temptation story, and it remains part of our cellular structure until we realize how extensive its roots really are. If you’re a Christian, you know what I mean. In fact, if you’re Western — no, make that human — if you’re human, you know this is the primal prejudice, the one most difficult to overcome because it seems to be the natural order of the world. Augustine’s attitudes towards women were no doubt influenced by his own proclivities and the temptations he wrestled with, but they are not prescriptions for contemporary life. His attempt to derive a theological explanation from biological and emotional responses need not be our default position nor should the Church’s hardening on the role of women be accepted as a fait accompli.

We might begin with the original myth itself — ‘myth’ being defined as an archetypal story about our human origins, not a story that is untrue. The Genesis story of the Fall can be interpreted in many ways, but one central note is the exhilarating paradox that reveals our moral freedom as both liberating and binding us. We are subject to the dizzying expectations of both obedience and independence. We need obedience to claim our independence; we need independence to be freely obedient. It’s a setup for a tragicomedy. Granted, from outside the Garden we literally can’t imagine human existence without the failures of sin built in, but we can imagine (and live) the joy that comes when we know we are accepted by God. Can we accept that we are accepted, as Tillich so powerfully stated in one of his sermons?

There is a streak of sadism that runs through the administering of Christianity. It’s the belief that salvation is only as real as the guilt that makes it necessary. The greater the feeling of guilt, the sweeter the salvation — and there are always people willing to tighten the screws in the service of compliance. All of that for our own good, of course.

But our dilemma is that we do that which we ought not to do, and we do not do what we ought to do. We don’t do the ‘oughts’ because we can’t see how or why they would help us. And we can’t imagine how they would help us because we can’t trust that which we did not make. It’s our desire for independence that brushes aside the ‘oughts’, but it’s that very independence which can turn the ‘oughts’ into that which we desire with all our heart.

***

After they turn to leave the Garden, we do not read of Adam and Eve talking to God again. A force field has been raised behind them. Nor do they seem resentful at their loss. Stoically, they set about making a life east of Eden — ‘Eden,’ the Hebrew word for ‘delight.’ Once they lived in the innocence of children; now, with experience, they have shouldered the responsibilities that come with consciousness. We wonder, too, if at the end of a long day of toil, they find satisfaction in that which they have hewn out of the hard rock of endurance. There is heartbreak ahead for them, but they will suffer it together, alone and in silence. There is joy in the midst of pain.

They hope for us what they cannot taste: the sweetness of unexpected grace and forgiveness. And we look back, almost wistfully, longing for even the shards of memory which they hold of the Garden.

No promise but that which heals could foreclose on Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, for all the anguish it has caused and all the anger it has raised. Among the rifts between people that we Christians have driven wedges into over the centuries, this one that casts women into a ritually inferior state must be bridged.

“Let us say

We are all confused, incomprehensible,

Dangerous, contemptible, corrupt,

And in that condition pass the evening

Thankfully and well,” says the Countess in Christopher Fry’s, The Dark is Light Enough. “In our plain defects

We already know the brotherhood of man.”

Photo: Anqi Lu, Unsplash.com