A Path We Can Imagine

PathShadows:inbal-marilli-3425-unsplash

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

Suffer the Children

JohnMooreGetty:19SEPARATION-jumbo

In these years of our discontent there is no shortage of outrage. If you are a Trump supporter, these are your salad days in which the outrages of the Obama administration are finally receiving their comeuppance. If you are not a Trump supporter, but now find your moral sensibilities being dragged behind a pickup with three rifle racks across a landscape of cacti, rocks, and boiling sand, then there is a certain relief in shouting out loud. It is cathartic. I am in the latter group. You are free to leave at this point; no hard feelings.

I mention that it is catharsis only because so much has already been written and said and analyzed and disseminated about the Trump administration’s policy of tearing children away from their parents at the border. I am writing because thinking out loud helps me understand what is important to me, and more to the point, how I can express a spiritual faith in times like these.

There are a few moral precepts that one should be able to affirm without agonizing over. Slavery, the rape and abuse of women, and the abuse of children are among them. Stating them thus does not exclude other precepts nor should it be considered a knee-jerk reaction without thought and reflection. Rather, these are simply part of one’s moral landscape, familiar markers that commemorate a covenant between God, oneself, and others, markers that remind us of the (now) obvious conditions of being faithful to God, responsible to one’s society, and true to oneself. These are also three reasons for moral action, as I understand it.

The first one is that God asks us to refrain from certain actions and to do other actions. For people of faith, whatever form their god may take, this is often enough reason to act. It is a powerful reason, and for some does not require any further reflection.

Even some who are moved by it still find themselves intrigued by Plato’s question: are actions right because the gods approve of them or do the gods approve of them because they are right? According to some lines of the historical discussion, if we do them because the gods approve of them we may run the risk of blindly following some arbitrary divine commands. What if your gods are tricksters, irresponsible, forgetful, or otherwise not to be trusted? On the other hand, if the gods do them because they are right then while that is a powerful vote of confidence in the moral justification of the actions, it makes the gods look weak. In the first case, the gods have arbitrary and perhaps capricious power; in the second case, not enough power to make them worthy of worship.

Most historical religions have a moral structure and some even have commands for meeting moral and religious expectations. We could chose to think of these commands as arbitrary, but then we would have given up any semblance of trust or even of thoughtful reflection on our relationship with our god. Again, it’s a matter of trust: we do these things not only because our gods ask us to, but also because doing them is an exercise of our moral freedom.

The second reason is to be responsible to one’s community—and again, we may choose to act for a number of reasons. We may wish to avoid jail time if we break the rules; we may desire to be in favor with our neighbors, our friends, and our families (Adam Smith called it the ‘approbation of society’ in his Theory of Moral Sentiments); we may want the rewards that come with good behavior or we may genuinely want to contribute to the well-being of our society. These are all good reasons for doing the right thing, and as many have pointed out, one does not have to be religious to accomplish them. For many people today, ethics is the new religion.

The third reason is to be true to oneself, a piece of advice that can be traced back at least to Aristotle. It’s not hard to see that either or both of the previous reasons could give us a sense of ‘self,’ but some people will immediately get diverted into questions of whether we have a self or not, and if we do, how much of it is the result of genetics plus environment. Since most of us act as if we are selves and treat others as if they are selves too, we can leave the questions to others and try to think about whywe ought to be true to ourselves.

Classical ethical theory invokes Aristotle here (practicing virtue aligns us with our true end or telos , which is to flourish) and Kant (do the right thing because you respect yourself and others and you’d want the same respect for everyone else).

Being true to oneself not only involves respect for oneself and others, but going deeper in and farther back to find the highest regard we can have for the human being.

In an essay on goodness, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) examines the relation between habit and nature. “Goodness I call the habit,” he says, “and goodness of nature the inclination. This, of all virtues and dignities of the mind, is the greatest, being the character of the Deity; and without it man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing, no better than a kind of vermin.” Bacon believes that we achieve a “habit of goodness” through “right reason,” but that just as there is in some people a natural inclination toward goodness and a willingness to help others, there is in others a “natural malignity” that drives them beyond mere irritation with others to envy, anger, and selfishness.

Such people revel in the calamities of others. They are like flies buzzing around a raw wound, says Bacon, and rather than bind up the wounds of those who are suffering these misanthropi enjoy the misfortunes of others. “Such dispositions are the very errors of human nature; and yet they are the fittest timbers to make great politics of.”

Having been the victim of some palace intrigues in the courts of Elizabeth I and King James I, Bacon knew from first-hand experience how crooked the timbers of politics could be.

The policy of the immigration hardliners in the Trump administration to separate children from their parents has been roundly condemned by congressional Democrats and some Republicans. Immigration-advocacy groups, lawyers, children’s rights organizations, psychologists, educators, and doctors, all have been scathing in their criticisms. The Catholic Church has flatly called out the practice as immoral. Melania Trump has expressed her horror at it and former First Lady Laura Bush, diffident to a fault, has written an op ed in which she called the policy “heartbreaking.” Even Franklin Graham, who refuses to call out Trump on anything, has characterized the practice as “disgraceful.”

And yet here is Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General of the United States, whose shrill pronouncements increasingly sound like the cries of a desperate man, fiercely clinging to his “zero-toleration” position. When Christian authoritarians run out of options for justifying their immoral policies and laws they reach for the fire extinguisher they think will put out the blaze—Romans 13—in which the Apostle Paul advises his readers to obey the laws because the authorities have been put in place by God. Read out of context these verses (Romans 13: 1-7) have been used to justify slavery, war, apartheid, and systemic evils of all kinds. Marilynne Robinson drily comments in her recent collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, that “Indeed, unread books may govern the world, not well, since they so often are taken to justify our worst impulses and prejudices. The Holy Bible is a case in point.”

Read in context, these verses are sandwiched between the marks of a true Christian—extending hospitality to strangers, living in harmony with others, and overcoming evil with good—and showing love for one another by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Paul is pretty clear earlier in his letter to the Romans that every person, Christian or not, knows in his or her heart the basics of what is right. The implication is that Christians try to do what is right in every situation out of love for the neighbor and respect for that which God has created. The assumption is that good rulers and good laws have the blessing of God; the knowledge that there are bad rulers and worse laws is so obvious that it does not need mentioning. God’s people are expected to know the difference and to live by their consciences accordingly.

People of faith who look to the Bible to understand the function of principles in shaping our ethics and actions see that caring for children is pretty high up on the hierarchy of values for Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus makes the point that people make mistakes in caring for children, but woe to the person who deliberately hurts a child. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt, 18: 6).

With his characteristic irony and pointed hyperbole Jesus lays it down that crushing a child’s faith and hope is a deadly sin. These are things that everybody is expected to know and abide by. As Bono says, “Jesus said ‘Suffer the children to come unto me,’ not make the children suffer!” But the fact that Jesus speaks so urgently means that this fundamental precept of human existence, caring for the children, was alarmingly ignored in his time. So it has ever been. And now we’re doing it again with howling cynicism and hypocrisy by appealing to the sanctity of the rule of law and the authority of God and scripture. Except that it’s literally not a law but a prejudice, and Jesus condemns such actions in the strongest possible terms.

In the increasingly fractious and twisted arguments over immigration one thing should be clear: these children have the most to lose right now and in the years to come. And as for us adults, it’s time to throw off our millstones.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The Faith of a Heretic

BlownAway:thomas-young-658905-unsplash

In the matter of religion, as indeed in other areas of human life and thought . . . the modern individual is faced not just with the opportunity but with the necessity to make choices as to his beliefs. This fact constitutes the heretical imperative in the contemporary situation. —Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative

The English word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek verb, hairein, which meant ‘to choose.’ Hairesis, then, simply meant ‘to make a choice.’

To be a heretic is to be a person who makes choices.

Within the Christian tradition, however, it holds a much more negative meaning. The apostle Paul warns in Galatians 5:20 against those who engage in a ‘party spirit’ (hairesis)—akin to partisan politics, but not to be confused with a keg-draining frat party. Those with a party spirit divide and fracture the community. In the theological and legal history of the early Christian church heretics were identified as those who promoted deviant views over against the authority and teachings of the Church. To be tagged with the term meant to carry a target on one’s back, to suffer denunciation, a quick trial, and sometimes a grisly death. In his The Heretical Imperative , sociologist of religion Peter Berger writes of heresy with straight-faced understatement: “Its etymology remains sharply illuminating.”

One of the major themes that Berger explored throughout his long career as a sociologist of religion who was also a practicing Christian, was the impact that modernity has had on religion and people of faith—not just in Christianity, but in all major religions.

In a premodern society religion had the quality of objective certainty for most people. The society supported this certainty and enforced it, to a degree, by making it difficult to question the social structures that undergirded its reality. Modern society, in contrast, undermines that certainty by collapsing the assumptions that allow us to take our social reality for granted. It relativizes knowledge and subjectivizes religion.

“If the typical condition of premodern man is one of religious certainty,” says Berger, “it follows that that of modern man is one of religious doubt.” If the background of premodern people was this religious consensus, then that authoritative consensus for modern society has vanished. Heresy—choosing a different religious path—was a rarity in societies in which the questions were settled, the religious and political authority was secure, and the penalties for deviance were dire. Yet, it’s very difficult to follow a consensus that is no longer available. “In other words,” says Berger, “individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact.”

Berger makes the point that the orthodox person defines him or herself as living within a tradition. Traditions, by their very nature, are taken for granted, but this state of taken-for-grantedness is no longer possible in today’s society. “Every tradition consists of frozen memories,” says Berger, “And every questioning of tradition is likely to lead to an effort at unfreezing the memories.” The unfreezing of memories means that every generation questions why the tradition exists and where it came from. On the principle, however vaguely sensed in one’s life, that we cannot inherit our grandparent’s religion, we question in order to understand. It’s a natural and essential process. Through the asking of questions and the testing of traditions we may come full circle back to our starting point, but now we know what we believe and who we put our trust in.

Where the social and religious consensus breaks down, pluralism rises. Modernity opens up choices and narrows down what was considered destiny. In any given city across America the religious traveller has a choice to attend the services of not only most of the major world religions, but also scores of Christian denominations and sects. American religion is a buffet of choices.

But beyond the choices to be made between religions, there are choices to be made within a religion. It’s interesting how ‘heresy’ transmogrified from ‘choice’ to anathema—as if the true disciple would never ask questions, never see differences, never compare, and never step over the lines drawn by authority. In fact, faith requires choice, otherwise it would not be faith but a cramped and reluctant obedience to authority. When the integrity of religious authority collapses, the inward turning to reflection on one’s religious experience is both inevitable and necessary for one’s faith. That is, after all, where the exhortation to develop a “personal relationship with Christ” will lead.

Christ asks for our free choice in faith. The rich young ruler is dismayed because he must choose between identifying with his wealth or following Jesus. The man born blind chooses Jesus over his rigid tradition—and risks the sullen plotting of the religious authorities in retaliation.

What we call heresy may be viewed as making a choice out of what was previously thought to be closed, over and done with. Faith, then, is the continual act of choosing the way we should go. There is less certainty here. But while modernity alienates and isolates us from each other, we are saying that community can be found with others who also choose. Because we are social beings and because we make our ethical and moral decisions to a great extent according to what is affirmed by our communities, we need each other. Because our worship is both solitary and communal our fellowship of faith is a fellowship of heretics, people who continue to make their choices every day about Jesus as they live within the world. To be faithful is to exercise choice and thus to be a heretic.

Berger gives us three ways that people live within their religions. The first is what he calls the deductive approach, familiar to orthodoxy, in which we go on believing as if nothing had changed in the world. The behaviors are prescribed according to law, the rewards are contractually-based, and knowledge of traditions and rules is paramount. Certainty is high because our unquestioning trust is in religious authorities.

At the other extreme is the reductionist approach, typical of liberal theology, in which accommodation to the secularizing force of society is almost total. Religion is reduced to a political agenda and there is little sense of a personal religious experience. Jesus is seen as the great ethicist and the New Testament a compendium of motifs of justice and responses to the oppression of others. What makes religion palatable to a secular person, then, is its emphasis on psychological, political, and ethical analyses of our current unjust society.

Berger’s choice is the third option, the inductive approach, in which we turn from external authorities, both religious and political, and from tradition, to our own experience of God. This is the heretical imperative in which our faith is constantly making choices and our trust in Christ is the experience that lifts us daily. It is not an easy path and uncertainty is high because we are not following well-worn paths of tradition nor are we simply swept along with the crowd. We reason, we “test the spirits,” we recall that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” we revel in Scripture and in the many avenues to the Spirit that we find. We pray and we decide; we seek in order to realize our foundness.

There is much that is good in tradition and the assurance it bears. Tradition gives us stability and it reminds us of the mountains and valleys in the experiences of our forebears; it can be a bright line of consistency when everything else is murky and chaotic. But it may too easily slide from authority into authoritarianism and from guidance into coercion. It substitutes response to God with reaction to religious power.

We must be clear that other people’s experience of God, crystallized into tradition and dogma, will never be enough for those of us on the road to Emmaus. We need to see Christ’s hands for ourselves.

The heresy that is faithfulness relies on thinking for oneself, praying for guidance, looking to counsel from those we trust, and finally, choosing our path. It is a path of humility; there is no glory to be gained in side-stepping religious authority that is exercised just to keep one in line.

In the original sense of the word, we may all aspire to be heretics, people who choose daily, with eyes wide open, to follow Christ.

Photo: Thomas Young, Unsplash.com

My Bibles, My Life

WalkStars:rafael-barquero-677303-unsplash

“The Bible, more than most books, forms part of one’s life once it is absorbed into the system. It does not remain static, any more than you remain ever the same. Your perspective of it will change with the years.” — A. N. Wilson, The Book of the People

I cannot remember a time in my reading life when a Bible was not within my reach, both literally and figuratively. In the home I grew up in, the Scripture was the primary source of one’s instruction and inspiration. It was read aloud morning and evening, discussed at church, memorized as Bible verses, emblazoned on bulletin boards at school, and called upon in times of celebration and grief. Its phrases came naturally to the lips, its stories became the video of our imaginations long before there were pixels, the grand highway of its narrative from Genesis to Revelation (pitted with potholes in the Pentateuch) provided both a spiritual history of humankind and a kind of eschatological weather report (“Look for a cloud on the horizon the size of a man’s hand!”). Later, through the ministrations of our well-meaning elders, its revelations came to us like birthday gifts from distant uncles who still thought of us as five-year olds. It was unavoidable and indispensable.

But I find I can trace out the course of my life by looking at the Bibles on my bookshelves, each one having played a role in my life that was both episodic and cumulative.

***

In high school my Bibles of choice were the Living Bible and Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament in Today’s English. The Living Bible was a paperback brick, lovingly slipped into a doeskin cover that my grandfather had gotten for me in Canada, with a painting of an Indian brave on the front. Inside the end pages I wrote notes of favorite verses, quotes from religious authors, and lines of poetry. The LB was fresh, a bit cheeky, conversational without falling into cultural jargon. The Good News New Testament was plain, small enough to carry in one hand, and modest in its literary aspirations. Its line drawings were simple, evocative, and good-humored. I was also reading a lot of C. S. Lewis at the time, along with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Byron, Shelley, Yeats, and Matthew Arnold. It was a heady mix.

My first year in college, working on a double major in religion and journalism, I used a standard issue King James in my religion classes. I’d had it since my baptism at 12 and I knew my way around its paths by sight. These were the phrases and verses I had heard all my life. They seeped into my consciousness and became the language of my operating system, an eloquent counterpoint to the informality of the modern versions.

***

In the summer of 1971 I left California for England to work with friends in Coventry in starting and running a Christian folk club and then to spend the school year at Newbold College. Away from home for the first time, I spent the year in a constant state of wonder and discovery. That summer I bought my first New English Bible, a paperback Penguin version of the New Testament whose language and verses seemed like poetry to me. I found a tanner’s shop in Leamington Spa and made a book cover for it from suede leather, stitching a peace symbol with a cross in the center on the front. The cover art on the Penguin version was a reproduction of Georges Rouault’s Head of Christ, thus beginning a lifelong admiration for his art. In the fall, as a student at Newbold, I hitchhiked down to Reading and bought J. B. Phillip’s The New Testament in Modern English. I also started a year-long course in Koine Greek. I was terrible at it, but I scraped by with enough margin to be given a copy of the British and Foreign Bible Society’s Greek New Testament with critical apparatus. Burrowing into the permutations of Greek verbs and nouns reinforced my life-long fascination with word origins and their meanings.

That year I always carried in my backpack at least one Bible, usually two. As I hitchhiked to Scotland or down to Wales or up to London, these Bibles became my traveling companions, provoking comment and conversation from the generous people who gave me rides. Comparing these translations and paraphrases jolted my imagination and gave me different lines of sight to their meaning. And always I carried a small Authorized Version whose cover could be zipped closed. I left it behind in a train station in Milan one December; two years later it showed up in my mailbox at Pacific Union College, having made the journey through the kindness of strangers on the strength of my college address at Newbold.

***

All through graduate studies at Andrews University and Claremont Graduate University, my familiars were the New English Bible I had bought in Wales in 1974 when I worked in evangelism there, and The Jerusalem Bible, another chunk of a Bible whose lyrical Psalms were refreshing and whose Job was high tragedy. Later, teaching Jesus and the Gospels, Hebrew Prophets, and Paul and His Letters at Columbia Union College, I entered into a professional relationship with The New International Version. Those who knew their Biblical languages assured me it was the latest and most accurate rendering, but its starched and anemic language gave me no joy. Time and again I went back to my NEB, by now so annotated and stuffed with typed-out quotes and photos of friends, that when the spine finally collapsed my wife made me a book cover for it from the jeans I wore out hitchhiking through the UK.

***

In these later years I have come back to the New Revised Standard Version, not to be confused with the Revised English Bible, a second take on the NEB. As I write there is one just behind my shoulder on the bookshelf, another one next to my comfy chair across the loft, and a third one, barely marked, in another bookshelf. Recently, having finished my courses for the semester at Trinity Washington University, I stopped into the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, right across the street from Catholic University, and indulged myself in a beautifully leather-bound Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. I intend to study the Apocrypha this summer.

***

I’ve entered the Bible as into a vast and varied library — ta biblia, the books. Not a single, coherent narrative, but stories of wonder, beginning in a garden of light and ending in a city with a river running through it. To try to understand the people within the stories is to read with a dual vision: that in certain irreducible ways they and we come from the same stock and harbor the same emotions and motivations. And in other ways, bound by time, culture, language, and technology, we arrive at our final home having traveled such disparate paths. I am grateful to the archeologists, linguists, anthropologists, and theologians who have peeled back the layers of the Bible for us and interpreted its structures.

The Bible has meant different things to me through many different stages of life. It has both revealed and hidden God, and it has held a mirror up to myself. The Jesus I have found there is no less enigmatically divine than when I first began with the Gospels, but now even more touchingly human. The Bible, I’ve found, is large enough that it can play many roles in a person’s life. Like the Earth itself it presents a different but constant face to the observer hovering in orbit above it. It is guide, wisdom, puzzle, danger, mystery, and light. It is still the literary foundation of many of us.

The Bible creates an alternate world that runs parallel to our own. It is like holding two magnets in tension so that you feel the pull of one to the other. Let one go and the tension is gone, the case closed, the story resolved, the horizon suddenly walled up. Unless we see both the fragments of light it illumines around us and the Light itself — and the distinction makes all the difference — the Bible remains just another revered and unread bestseller.

Photo: Rafael Barquero, Unsplash

Our Infinite Choice

SnowChapel:johannes-plenio-572924-unsplash

“The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

One of the extraordinary features of religion, as one studies it, is the infinite variety of its expressions. The moment we step out of the holy place wherein we worship, and into the crowd swirling past outside, we are enveloped in a multitude of faiths, each one with a history, symbols, myths, art, language, casualties, diagnoses and prescriptions. They pour past us as we stand transfixed in the midst of the stream.

Some might picture themselves as a rock, immovable and stalwart, dividing the waters that flow past, resisting the current, sure in their grounding in the streambed. Others, less sure than curious, join the flow to ask those at their elbows and around them where they’re going, what set them on their path, or why they continue. Still others will do their best to divert the stream into side channels, away from the swiftly-flowing current into quieter, shallower rivulets, and eventually to pools of standing water.

We will step lightly up on the riverbank now, away from the analogy, carrying with us the twin observations of the variety of religious expressions and our attitude toward them.

The sheer number of religions sparks in us wonder that God could be filtered through so many veils and still be perceived in coherent form. At the very least the history, traditions, and practices cause us to view our own thin wedge of religious history as one among many.

Ask yourself this: If you joined your religion as an adult, what was the deciding factor? If you were born into your religion, why do you continue in it?

Joiners or borners—the questions stand open.

Is a religion a vehicle to deliver us to a destination, at which point, our quest fulfilled, we will enter into a sacral bliss? Is a religion a chrysalis within which we are transformed into another creature, a new creation? Perhaps we are pilgrims traveling through a barren land, seeking a city not made with human hands. If we become disciples of Jesus we will have no place to lay our heads, even if foxes have their dens and the birds of the air their nests.

“What makes a man human,” says Abraham Heschel, “is his openness to transcendence, which lifts him to a level higher than himself.” Religion, despite its flaws and obsessions, and depending on its light source, can be both a mirror and a window to transcendence.

Metaphors matter, because they both reflect and shape our experience and behavior.

Machiavelli regarded religion as a paltry crutch for an individual, but he saw the value in it for creating conformity and confining the masses. Durkheim regarded it as the social glue that created community and provided fellowship between people — solidarité.

When we bow in epistemological humility before our need for evidence that will undergird our faith, it is bracing to recall the debate between W. K. Clifford and William James.

Clifford, a British mathematician and a psychologist like James, was a friend of his, but also someone with whom he was delighted to debate. Clifford’s assertion in his The Ethics of Belief begins with the idea that our hypotheses ought never to be accepted until we have solid evidence for them. We find easy comfort in that which pleases us and soothes our doubts, says Clifford. We need to resolutely turn our backs on these superficial comforts and take the manly road of ethical integrity to face the universe as it really is. As it is in science, so it ought to be in all matters of life, including religion. As James quotes Clifford: “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer . . . It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”(Emphasis supplied)

James answered Clifford in a closely reasoned essay entitled, The Will to Believe,a title that James came to regret because so many erroneously took it to mean “believe what you will.” In fact, it is about both the right and the will to believe.

There are two ways of dealing with received opinion, says James: “Believe truth! Shun error! . . . by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life.” Clifford, asserts James, would have us choose the latter, to remain in suspense forever as we wait for conclusive evidence in order to avoid the risk of believing lies. In the thousand ways each day that we believe and act on the thinnest of evidence, says James, even Clifford fails his own stringency. But in withholding our trust until all—how would we even knowif it was “all”—the evidence is clocked, tallied, and catalogued, James says we have already made our decision. Not to decide is to decide—a forced option.

Where do we get the spark of trust in order to light the fuse of faith? Augustine writes of the faith that precedes faith in God—and intimates that God gives us that faith as well.

No trust is without risk, as anyone who has ever fallen in love knows. We think that the currency of trust is backed by the gold standard of the degree of risk involved. In our calculus great risk should equate to great reward. But when it comes to trusting God we often find that a step taken in clenched fear, with a breath of hope, turns out to be merely a passing shadow in the waves of joy and relief after the act.

The debate between W. K. Clifford and William James in The Will to Believe is an example of calcified certainty (Clifford) versus the right to believe (James). We cannot wait for all the evidence to be in before we make decisions; James chooses to believe with both reason and passion.

For those of us born into our religion, we must choose at some point to make it our own or to search elsewhere for transcendence. What goes into choice? Circumstance, inclination, temperament, and tradition. But also reason, coherence with our reality, conviction, and passion.

“But the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people,” says Henri Nouwen in Making All Things New. “What is new is that we have moved from the many things to the kingdom of God. What is new is that we are set free from the compulsions of our world and have set our hearts on the only necessary thing. What is new is that we no longer experience the many things, people, and events as endless causes for worry, but begin to experience them as the rich variety of ways in which God makes his presence known to us.”

Photo: Johannes Plenio, Unsplash.com

All Our Gods

DesertGods:val-vesa-542426-unsplash.jpg

When I was teaching a world religions class from semester to semester I would sometimes ask my students a question: Are God and Allah the same entity?

It was a complex question, but it would invariably provoke a simple response. At first there would be a momentary silence, with faces looking back at me in shock or puzzlement, as if they were waiting for me to say, “Just kidding!” But I wasn’t, and then the hands would go up and we were off, with questions and assertions richocheting around the room for the next few minutes.

The lines of consensus would usually form up in some fairly consistent ways. There was one group that was unequivocal: Allah is not God, no way, not ever. How could they be sure? Well, look at the kinds of horrific crimes against humanity that the followers of Allah have perpetrated. How could a real . . . god . . . be in charge of such a cruel and capricious lot?

Others would then point out the crusades of Christians against Jews and Moslems, the genocide by American Christians against native Americans, and the centuries of slavery. The Holocaust would be raised and apartheid in South Africa would be recognized.

Having fought to a draw, both sides would then stand down, panting a little. Then a hand would be raised. “Yes, I think they are both the same entity.”

But why?

“Because God can appear as Allah if He wants. He can do anything He wants. Besides, who are we to say who God is or what He does?”

If we think of this response as illustrating an epistemological pebble causing a ripple, then the degree of certainty expressed diminishes rapidly as the energy dissipates outward.

The question about God and Allah is complex because we cannot prove, by the usual standards of observation or deduction, if there are such entities, much less ones that answer to this name and not that one. What this question does first is to stop us in our tracks as it reveals the limits of language in the service of knowledge. As Job says into the whirlwind, “I have spoken of things I do not understand.”

This is not a concession by Job to withdraw his demand that God answer his charge of injustice, but an admission that, putting his charge aside, Job cannot grasp all that God is. But this does not stop him from addressing the God he does know, nor should it stop us.

The mystery is that God is more than we can know, but not less than we can desire.

Traversing the terrain of God’s nature in this way is throttled by some people when the conversation about the divine leaps into the higher elevations. Often, in the midst of animated conversations after the church potluck, someone will play the Homo sapiens card: “Now you’re thinking man’s thoughts. If they speak not according to the word it is because there is no light in them.” The fact that it took human cogitation to come up with that sentence is lost on such a person. For him the Bible is a literal transcript of pronouncements God gave in dictation to selected secretaries over the course of thousands of years. In his view it is an answer book for vexatious questions and a recipe book for doctrinal casseroles.

The problem with such a fundamentalism is, strangely enough, a coldly indifferent lack of respect for God. The metaphors of God that ring through the Biblical stories are about a being who is fiercely—and tenderly—involved with His creations. By contrast, the contractual obligation of the fundamentalist God is to deliver on the promise of an eschatological gated community in return for fulfillment of stipulations on conduct and creed. It keeps God at a distance, a being so abstract that the only indications of its existence are the myriad ways it is not like us.

There is no intellectual curiosity, but even worse, no spiritual wonderment and awe.

But there is a second purpose for such a question, and that is for us to discover the values that form our descriptions of God and how those values shape our action in the world. Like Parent, like children, you might say. Who do we think God or Allah is? How do we characterize them? How do the values we attribute to our gods align with those we live by? What do those values have in common with believers in other religions? And most importantly: What practical effect do such “God-shaped” values have as we learn to live with others and their divine values?

There are two ways of thinking about this. Conceptual thinking reasons out the problems and is useful when we try to add to our knowledge of the world. Situational thinking involves an experience. We need them both.

Abraham Heschel, the great twentieth-century rabbi and philosopher, says in God in Search of Man, “Situational thinking is necessary when we are engaged in an effort to understand issues on which we stake our very existence.” The nature of God, and our relation to people of faith in all religions would qualify for both kinds of thinking. Conceptual thinking would explore the history of the ideas, the development of nuances in religious philosophies, the sources of wisdom in the traditions. But situational thinking would look to events, the times and places where the gods touch the earth, and the songs and visions and psalms that well up from those springs.

Somewhere, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it produces.” On the face of it the hearer might nod and agree, thinking, perhaps, that the proof is in the pudding and that our puddings should be of the highest quality, lest they be spewed out of the mouth of the Lord. But then a second thought occurs: Wait! Given our record as human beings and the monumental capacity we display for turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear, what hope is there for any religion? Considering the many shortcomings and pure screw-ups of any given denomination, especially one’s own, surely this is a bar no one can reach, a standard that cannot be achieved?

We do, however, have Jesus saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” and cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit in due season, and stories about cutting down trees that don’t produce. Behavior seems to matter to Jesus.

I would amend it to read: “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it is producing.” We are not end-products; we are in process. The gardener knows the tree will thrive when it has the nutrients it needs.

Christian Wiman, poet and essayist, notes in his wonderful book, My Bright Abyss, that “An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive.”

In the loving embrace of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, we may sense, rather than see, the One who is closer to us than the vein in our neck.

Photo: Val Vesa, Unsplash.com

Welcoming the Child

WelcomeChild:carolina-sanchez-b-83117-unsplash

“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” — Mark 9:36, 37

Jesus called a child to him. I am that child. Or was. That was many years ago and now I have a child of my own. I remember him that day, how he smiled at me, and touched me on the shoulder as I was playing. He drew me to him and put his arms around me. I looked down at his tanned hands, the fingers interlaced across my chest. When he spoke to the men around me I could feel the resonance of his voice rumbling through his face next to mine.

I knew these men. They were friends of my father and my father was one of them. I was glad that day because my father was at home, finally, and I hoped that he would stay for a few days this time, before he and the others and Jesus went off again.

I liked Jesus. He was kind to me and he listened to me. Sometimes he would carry me on his shoulders down by the lake and he would tell me stories as we skipped rocks. But sometimes, when we were sitting by the lake, he looked sad. I knew children weren’t supposed to ask grownups questions about themselves. “You don’t want to pry into other people’s business,” my mother always said, but it made me sad to see him that way.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?’ He called a child, set him in front of them, and said, ‘I tell you this: unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” — Matt. 18: 1-5

***

The grownups are acting like children, we say, when they squabble and bicker over who gets to be first in line. In the midst of this revolutionary experiment of living up to a higher plane, the disciples want to know, in all seriousness, who will be first in the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus does not react with impatience or astonishment. Instead, he draws a child to him and, encircling him with his arms, speaks of turning in the opposite direction, away from the door which the adults have crafted and toward a child’s doorway, one that you would have to bend down to get through—that is, if you’d even noticed it.

Once again, Jesus reverses expectations with such abruptness that you can almost see the skid marks. “Become like children,” he says, in a society in which children, while loved, were to be seen and not heard. Decisions were made for children, not with them. Children gazed upward, puzzled, as the adults vigorously debated the consequences of their behaviors and the perils of nonconformity over their heads. No one, having been a child, would want to return to that state.

To turn around on this track (the word is metanoia, to repent) means to recapture the difference between childishness and childlikeness, the latter of which picks up the simplicity and trustfulness of childhood. We cannot, knowing what we know as adults, simply reverse the tape and re-record our lives. Nor is there any goodness in a pious helplessness that refuses action without a direct command from God.

We don’t chide children for being “childish.” It’s what we call people whose behavior doesn’t match their age. But to be “childlike” is to suggest a sense of trust, of wonder, of innocence. When spoken of an adult there is sometimes a tinge of pity, as if this naif was off picking flowers when he should have been reading up survival guides for the apocalypse. Sometimes you sense a bit of wistfulness for eyes that can see goodness in the world or in another person.

And then there is Paul:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways . . . Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. — I Cor. 13:11; 14:20

Except you become as a little child you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Christ wants us to be childlike; Paul wants us to grow up.

It’s a question of maturity and, as Reinhold Niebuhr suggests in Beyond Tragedy, “Childhood cannot see beyond its time and place. Maturity extends the range of its knowledge to larger areas of life and experience. Maturity is thus the fulfillment of the promise of creation. It represents a larger life than childhood.”

But maturity can also signal the atrophy of imagination and eagerness. Sincerity devolves into deviousness, ‘mere’ honesty into becoming brutally honest. Maturity that has lost its anticipation of the new relies on the sighs of cynicism to carry the weight of authority.

The consciousness of childhood gives way to the self-consciousness of the youth, and the egotism of the adult. Every adult experiences the reality of the Fall, over and over, in the course of life. Our rational freedom, a gift from God, opens possibilities to transcend our situation. But it’s also reason which often sabotages our ability to achieve such harmony. Niebuhr warns that, “Therefore man is estranged from himself and discovers that there is a law in his members which wars against the law that is in his mind (138).”

Becoming as a little child again is not a promise of a recaptured innocence. “To repent and be converted,” says Niebuhr, “cannot mean to achieve perfect honesty. It must mean to achieve the honesty of knowing that we are not honest (142).”

Paul sees spiritual maturity as the conscious evolution of the child in Christ. There’s no condescension toward being a child: the child speaks, thinks, and reasons as a child should. Rising to maturity, on the other hand, is not inevitable as one clocks the years. The very fact that Paul has to exhort the Corinthians suggests that becoming an adult involves a clear-eyed decision to take the long view over the short-term gratification of childishness.

“Be infants in evil,” says Paul, “but in thinking be adults.” Paul, of all people, is neither naive nor cynical. Don’t be experts in the latest ways to do others in. Don’t be sophisticated in your conspiracies against your enemies. Be innocent of evil and be grown up in how you think.

***

As I say, I remember Jesus from that day, the last time I would see him. He went up to Jerusalem. He was killed there, my father told us. Something else happened soon after. My father wouldn’t say much about it, but every time he talked about it he’d shake his head in wonder. A few years later someone read us a letter at our gathering that said, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

***

“And we are put on earth a little space,

That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

— William Blake, Songs of Innocence

Photo: Carolina Sanchez, Unsplash.com

Resist and Love

GirlResist:allef-vinicius-305443

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says Frost, and thus rouses the silent kid in her ninth grade English class who finds in the poet a resistance fighter. At the molecular level, within the genetic structure of the body politic, the germ of resistance can be isolated, understood as a trait that our American forebears had in abundance and we would do well to emulate.

We resist when we’re young because we don’t know what we’re capable of; we resist because without something to push against we lose all feeling in our senses. To be someone we have to bump up against something, push something around, if only to find the edges of the universe we find ourselves floating within.

“The simplest idea of power,” says James Hillman, “supposes that for work to be done, there must be something that resists.” If nothing else, resistance makes power possible, even something which can be measured.

But we measure ourselves by what we’re not going to put up with anymore, by what rights we are owed, by the amount of pushback we get when we bend the world to our will.

We resist, therefore we are.

But this is tenuous and we know it. We are living in times when identities are thrown like knives. “I am this!” “You are that!” “They are not this, not like us.” “We would never do that, not like them!” We peer through our family and tribal filters that polarize the light around us by cutting out the interferences. There is precedent.

A man named Saul, a bona fide terrorist, riding to Damascus with a license to apprehend and arrest Christians for their torture and death, is thrown from his horse, blinded, and pinned to the ground by a bolt of light and a voice from the heavens.  The King James Version puts it best:

“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

Saul had been kicking against the pricks all his life and the pricks had returned the favor to the extent that Saul could easily have passed for one himself. Modern translations of the Bible have lost the latter phrase, but we can know that Saul was resisting with everything he had, kicking away all the faces of those he carried in his conscience day after day. “You have lost yourself,” they whispered. “You must change your life.”

And change he does. Resisting the dead weight of primitive prejudice, this Saul becomes a Paul, rebounds from his blindness to persuade his former victims that while he once was blind, now he sees. Now he’s fighting—not against flesh and blood—but against principalities and powers, unholy powers in high places who build their walls.

Years later this Paul is still resisting. He knows plenty about fighting the good fight, but he also knows a lot about love. Look, he says, now I only know part of the story, but someday I will know as fully as I am known. Faith, hope, and love, he says, these are the essentials, but the best part is love. You must change your life. We don’t even know how to pray for change, but the Spirit prays within us, and in all things there is something working out for good to those who believe that goodness still lives in the world.

We may call this Truth or God or Love; in the end they are quite the same.

Elaborated Spontaneity #5 (Photo: Allef Vinicius on Unsplash.com)

The Gospel of Imperfection

The Gospel is for losers

The proud, the arrogant, the blind, the halt, the lame, the penny-pinchers and the big spenders, the manipulators and the gullible, the doubters and the believers, the thieves, the liars, the murderers, the slanderers, the poor, the ignorant, the lazy, the tight-fisted and the self-indulgent, the impulsive and the fearful, the indifferent and the cynical, the gluttons and the ascetics, the hypocrites and the self-righteous, the foolish and the false, the bullies and the weak.

Have I left anybody out? Oh yes—the perfect.

The perfect don’t need the Gospel.  

For years self-help and business books have focused on achieving invulnerability, finding quick solutions, crushing one’s opponents, and using Machiavellian techniques to get ahead.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed an emphasis on being honest about our weaknesses. For example, Brene Brown’s presentation on vulnerability and recognizing one’s needs is the fourth most-watched TED Talk at 25 million views. The second most-watched TED talk is Amy Cuddy’s research on how our bodily stance can give us the confidence we lack for social encounters. Medium.com is a unique writing site built by the co-founder of Twitter. A constant theme of Medium’s posts comes from start-up entrepreneurs rhapsodizing about failing upward, launching out to new adventures, enjoying one’s failures, and learning from those who keep trying despite their constant failures.

Social media’s uptick of interest in our failures and mistakes isn’t reason enough for Christians to follow along, but the fact is we were there early. Christians know a great deal about missing the mark and falling short.

I’d like to explore a perspective on life which I think we deny. It’s a view which runs against both the officially optimistic attitudes of the self-help industry and the prosperity gospel business, yet it’s more realistic and hopeful than either of them. We ignore this viewpoint to our detriment, and in fact denial of it has damaged thousands of Christians through the centuries. But rightly understood this alternative view offers us a way to fully experience God’s grace in our lives.

We could call it the Gospel of Imperfection. There are three major points. The first is realism about our human condition, the second is finding language and symbols that truly reflect our spiritual experience, and the third is about living in humility.

Realism about our condition

Three things we can acknowledge about the human condition:

We are severely limited — we don’t have the strength, the will, or the resources to do life right;

We are deeply flawed — under the surface, close to the heart, we are all broken;

We are immature — we resist change, act badly when we don’t get our way, and become murderous when challenged.

In a word: We are imperfect. To be human is to be imperfect.

“We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves,” says Thomas Merton, “frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

“This is a difficult job. It can only really be done by a lifetime of genuine humility (Merton, No Man is an Island).”

BUT: Matthew 5:48 commands us, “Therefore be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” the final lash of the whip for lazy Christians.

How many of us have struggled with this over the years, wanting to be sinless, yearning to be perfect so that God will accept us, only to realize how far off that perfection lies and how impossible it will be to achieve it. Yet the pressure to conform is constant if we listen to certain refrains.

We’re told that all that stands between the world and the final judgment is a perfected church that has informed the whole world of its rights and responsibilities under God’s laws. In fact, the delay in the Second Coming is because of us, our lack of passion for the message, our sinfulness, our disobedience. Thus, we thwart God’s sovereign will and timetable. We prolong the agony of the world until we can perfectly reflect, individually and as a church, the character of God. In this view Seventh-day Adventists are the center of the universe. Let’s hope the world never discovers the real reason why evil continues or the persecution will begin in earnest.

Marilynne Robinson says, “We all know about hubris. We know that pride goeth before a fall. The problem is that we don’t recognize pride or hubris in ourselves, any more than Oedipus did, any more than Job’s so-called comforters (Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books).”

What we might not realize is that the Greek word teleios, translated “perfect,” does not mean “to be without sin or flawless”, but rather is that which is “fully complete.” In the context of the whole passage that follows Matt. 5:48, “be perfect” means to be compassionate to all, to treat others equally and fairly.

To be perfect is to be complete, finished, whole. Nothing to be added or changed.

Even at our best we are open-ended, incomplete, limited. There is more in play here than meets the eye.

Language and Symbols

The second point is that for many of us the language and the symbols of conversion and daily living have changed from our childhood and youth. Language and symbols matter. Some move us, some leave us cold. I can recall Weeks of Prayer as a teenager in which we were exhorted to “surrender all,” and to be ”washed in the blood of the Lamb,” so that we might throw ourselves “at the foot of the cross.” I find that much of the 19th-century language about Jesus in hymns, sermons, and devotional material appeals to a sensibility that I lack.

Do you respond more naturally to a command or an invitation? Do you commit to God through love or duty? Perhaps both: duty sometimes leads to love, whereas what we do in love does not feel like a duty–unless it’s required by the one who is loved.

How do we imagine Jesus? As a king? A prophet? Our Father or a brother? Is he not all of that and more? Can you imagine walking with him in deep conversation down the Emmaus road or would you be tongue-tied in his presence, like waiting to get an autograph from a celebrity? At any point in our lives we may need one role in particular, but not to the exclusion of the others. We change, we evolve, life bears down on us and we need a savior, a comforter, a healer, a guide. Each role is different and we respond differently to each one. Our needs change, but Christ meets us where we are in the moment.

The thing is, we cannot predict what touches us most deeply about Christ or even where it might come from. We can’t even know what we need from Christ, except that we know we need Him.

It might be a song on the radio, a passage of Scripture or a poem read alone late at night, news of an unspeakable tragedy, or something a friend says that wells the tears up in our eyes and leaves us longing for God. All we can say is that we see in a glass darkly and what we usually see is a dim and muddy likeness of ourselves. Most of us are perfectly capable of beating ourselves up over our sins. We don’t need others to do that and Christ won’t do it.

Merton says, “We cannot find Him Who is Almighty unless we are taken entirely out of our own weakness. But we must first find out our own nothingness before we can pass beyond it: and this is impossible as long as we believe in the illusion of our own power (Merton, No Man is an Island ).”

So there it is: when we’re honest with ourselves about our weakness and imperfection, Christ finds us. That’s the flash point between us and Christ—our honesty and Christ’s incomparable response.

But God is not left without a witness and there are many paths that lead to the top of the mountain.

Christ for me is both a living symbol and Real Presence, a past historical figure and my mysterious companion in the present, the Word of God made flesh.

T.S. Eliot’s lines in The Waste Land lift the veil slightly:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

–But who is that on the other side of you?

Attention to this point is to find the metaphors and analogies that resonate to our lived experience.

Humility as a Way of Life

The final point in the gospel of imperfection is the role of humility. Humility is really the hinge upon which all of this turns. It’s about our imperfection and our great need. It’s a way of regarding God and religion from the basement to the rooftop, down to up, from us to God.

Humility is the working mindset that results from gratitude. Gratitude for what, you might ask? Well, for one thing gratitude for giving us reasons for living instead of shuffling off this mortal coil. Albert Camus famously said there is only one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. This is the question that demands an answer from each one of us. Everything else amounts to games. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but for a lot of us the glass is almost always half empty. It takes the upside-down thinking of Jesus for us to see it as half full, with the possibility of it brimming over someday.

I think it’s revealing that the word ‘humility’ comes from the same root as ‘humor’ and ‘humanity’. The root word is humus, and humus is earth or dirt. To be human is to be made of the earth, as ancient and as glorious as the stars, and as common as . . . dirt. We’ve all come from the same stuff, so to speak. We’re all humus.

So humility is paradoxically the virtue that we aspire to without testifying that we’ve got it. Humility is seen, but not heard; others may tell us they see it in us but if we brag about it it’s pretty certain we don’t have it. To be humble is to not make comparisons.

But the glory of the creation story is that this mud can aspire to magnificent things. Humility as a way of life is remembering where we came from, Who sustains us, what we are capable of doing. It’s not about living with constant shame or feeling ourselves to be worthless or whipping ourselves for our sins.

And it’s not about inflicting that sense of worthlessness on others either. That’s humiliation—standard fare in the power arenas of our age. Humiliation is imposed on us from the outside and is a capitulation out of fear. Humility says comparisons are foolish and dangerous: “the problem with both ‘first’ and ‘last’ is that both are extremes (Kurtz and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection).”

Humility speaks from the inside and whispers our need of God. Gandhi said humility is a state of mind, but humble people aren’t conscious of their humility. C. S. Lewis put it succinctly when he said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” And it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor about all this.

Marilynne Robinson says of Jesus, “It is his consistent teaching that the comfortable, the confident, the pious stand in special need of the intervention of grace. Perhaps this is true because they are most vulnerable to error . . . (Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books).”

And Thomas Merton concludes, “The relative perfection which we must attain to in this life if we are to live as sons (and daughters) of God is not the twenty-four-hour-a-day production of perfect acts of virtue, but a life from which practically all the obstacles to God’s love have been removed or overcome (Merton, No Man is an Island).”

Living this way would change a lot about our relations with others. I think it would change how we got along in our communities too. If we thought about ourselves less and about others more it would turn our world upside down. We’d be better drivers, more caring to our spouses and partners, more interesting in conversation, and safer to be around. We’d be less anxious—humble people don’t have anything to prove. I think we’d listen more and probably pray more mindfully.

So here’s the thing: nothing I’ve said here is new or original. This is the Gospel before it became a job. Being realistic about our imperfections, finding language and symbols that reflect our experience, and living in humility, humor, and gratitude puts us squarely in God’s neighborhood.

I’ll give the last word to Thomas Merton:

“As long as we are on earth our vocation is precisely to be imperfect, incomplete, insufficient in ourselves, changing, hapless, destitute, and weak, hastening toward the grave. But the power of God and His eternity and His peace and His completeness and His glory must somehow find their way into our lives, secretly, while we are here, in order that we may be found in Him eternally as He has meant us to be (Merton, No Man is an Island).”