Sing, and Keep Walking

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For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15,16, AV

One of the memories that ties Protestants of a certain vintage and social class together is the revival meeting. In my religious neighborhood this was visited upon us longsuffering teenagers during our annual Week of Prayer. At our parochial elementary school or high school, a speaker, usually known as a ‘youth pastor’ for his position in guiding the youth, would take up residence in our midst for a week to bring us to the Lord. This meant that we had chapel every day of the week, instead of our usual assembly once a week. Invariably, the last day of the week would be given over — we were tensed for it — a Call, in which the speaker would appeal to us to give our hearts to Jesus.

The organ or piano would play, the speaker would stand astride the platform, an immovable object through whom we would have to pass in order to see the sky, the light, the earth again. Our ticket, our passport to freedom, was to admit our sins and to publicly stand for Jesus, proclaiming by our verticality that we had cast aside our old life and had given ourselves over to a new attempt at sanctification. I was usually tolerant of this, sometimes moved by it, but on one occasion I hardened my heart toward the speaker and his wiles.

For wiles they were, and he wielded them with the skill of a trained propagandist. There were the glittering generalities, the card stacking (only certain facts allowed), the plain folks approach (I’m just like you; I sin too), the testimonials (I turned my life over to Jesus and you can too), and — as the numbers of those standing inched upward — the bandwagon effect (won’t you join us?). But the twin screws of fear and guilt were usually enough to break the most recalcitrant. It was our sins that had nailed Jesus to the cross and that kept Him there — never mind the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The sight of squirming 14-year-olds trying to come up with sins toxic enough to kill Christ was disheartening.

There was a point in this emotional fire-hosing when we realized that we’d left a real encounter with Christ behind and that now the speaker was running up the score, carving notches on his belt, and counting scalps. That’s when I hardened my heart and prayed for release. Not wanting to offend or cause another to stumble, I was struggling to stay in my seat, and yet I knew I should not be false to my own relation to Christ. I had a tentative, but sincere, connection with God; if there remained anything standing between me and a commitment to Jesus, it would not be bulldozed aside just to give The Speaker the satisfaction. So I remained sitting, to the consternation of my teachers and some of my friends, since I occasionally assisted as a student leader in religious activities.

Fear and guilt, endemic as they are to humans, are not the best roads to Paradise. I think guilt has a place in waking us up to our situation — the move is called repentance, metanoia in the Greek, and it means ‘to turn around’ — but no one ever built a lasting and healthy communion with another based on fear and guilt alone.

Moreover, such tactics in the hands of a skilled and unscrupulous religious leader too easily result in counting for numbers, herding impressionable people toward a decision they barely comprehend and cannot articulate. It is enough that we see how futile our efforts to walk on water really are and that we reach out to God in Christ.

Wendell Berry has said that “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” It is in that context that we can ask what it means to say that Jesus was tempted as we are.

However, we derail ourselves if we insist on a detailed catalogue of the temptations that a first-century Jesus couldn’t have been subjected to. How would Jesus have handled the easy access to online pornography, the money to be made in drugs, plagiarism by students of term papers, or vaping?

If we broaden the scope beyond personal temptation to include ethical dilemmas made unavoidable through advanced technology, it illustrates the fact that as a society our achievements are double-edged: they are gifts that change our environment and our values even as they benefit us. What about genetic screening for inherited diseases, surrogate pregnancies, assisted suicide and DNRs, biological and neurological enhancement, and the use of placebos in clinical testing? Science and technology in our era often outrun ethics; this is the world that we have made. So, presenting God with a list of exemptions based on our technology isn’t going to help us nor does claiming that He couldn’t possibly understand what we are going through. As the Buddha said about discussions on the afterlife: “This does not lead to edification.”

We are opened to a new perspective with Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Hebrews 4:15,16 as he writes: “For the high priest we have is not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, since he has suffered all the trials we have, except that he did not sin.” The solidarity Jesus extends to us comes not from specific temptations faced, but from suffering the weaknesses of being human.

To be human is to live in paradox. We are made of earth but aspire to the heavens. We wish to be infinite but are bounded on all sides. We want to please those whom we love, placate those whom we fear, be admired by those we admire. We want to be the masters of our destiny, but on some days we fall and we can’t get up.

“We work our jobs

Collect our pay

Believe we’re gliding down the highway

When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away”1

We can stand apart from the path we are on in the present and ask ourselves what the trajectory of our lives points toward and where we might arrive at if we continue. No other creature can do that, and it is both the blessing and the curse of our condition that we can perceive — if only in hindsight — our misdirections, wrong turns, willful diversions from the way, and lost opportunities.

We are flesh and spirit; we are blind, but we can see that we are blind. We give in to the power of sin and yet we resist. “The fact that we accuse ourselves,” said Paul Tillich, “proves that we still have an awareness of what we truly are, and therefore ought to be. And the fact that we excuse ourselves shows that we cannot acknowledge our estrangement from our true nature. The fact that we are ashamed shows that we still know what we ought to be.”2

God may not snatch us out of temptation or even necessarily lessen our suffering. We may ask, then, how God is present to us in our time of trial. Christ’s credentials here are not a smug “been there, done that” throwaway line. Nor does he peddle cheap grace like some ham-fisted TV evangelist. Christ lives with us in our temptations, suffers with us in our temptations, and does not abandon us when we are tempted.

Christian Wiman says in My Bright Abyss, that “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.” And, we might add, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

“Let us sing alleluia,” says Augustine in a sermon from 418 CE. God doesn’t say he will keep us from temptation, but “with the temptation he will also make a way out, so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).”

I wish I’d understood that when I chose to remain seated during that call to stand. The way it was presented to me, I was either in or out: sunk in sin and at war with Jesus or cleansed and on the right side. Somehow, instinctively, I knew that it wasn’t that cut and dried. My heart’s cry and my intention were to live in Christ; the reality was that this would take some time.

What I later came to realize is that Christ takes the intention of our hearts as what we really are. Living up to that intention is living within the new being, the new reality, one day at a time. “So now, my dear brothers and sisters,” concludes Augustine in his sermon, “let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil . . . Sing, and keep on walking. Don’t stray off the road, don’t go back, don’t stay where you are.”

Sing, and keep on walking.

  1. Paul Simon, “Slip Slidin’ Away”, 1975. Universal Music Publishing Group
  2. Paul Tillich, “The Good That I Will, I Do Not,” The Eternal Now. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1963, p. 54.

Photo: Nathan McBride, Unsplash

The Original Sin of the Species

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“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

Augustine and the Word of Love

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In 387, Augustine, the man who would become the greatest theologian of the early Christian church, was baptized by Bishop Ambrose in Milan, giving up a glittering career in the emperor’s court and renown as a celebrated teacher of rhetoric. A year later he and several equally distinguished friends returned to North Africa and Thagaste, where he was born. Settling there on his family’s estate, Augustine began a life of writing and contemplation. But by 391 he was ordained to the priesthood and had moved to Hippo Regius, on the coast of Algeria, to found a monastery. Legend has it that one Sunday as he was attending services in the cathedral, the presiding bishop, Valerius, looked out in the congregation and cried out, ‘Stop that man! Do not let him escape. He is to be my successor when I die.’

Four years later, in 395, Augustine was consecrated as Bishop of Hippo Regius and remained its bishop until his death in 430. But in 397, a decade after his baptism and only two years into his bishopric, Augustine was 43, approaching middle age. In the midst of a busy life of teaching, pastoring, and defending the faith, he wrote his Confessions, a remarkable work of intellectual and spiritual therapy set as a literary prayer to God which we are allowed to overhear.

Were we not already numbed by countless current memoirs that revel in self-defecatory ‘honesty’ we might find his Confessions startling. Unlike so many ancient and medieval biographies, for instance, which depict their subjects as heroically exhibiting ideal qualities, Augustine reveals himself as a man whose past still resonates in his present. He is a bishop whose youthful sexual adventures still haunt him and whose memories are still painful. He underscores the force of desires that result in habits which become engrained and lock a person into paths not easily reversed. Long before Freud, Augustine understood that childhood experiences shape the adult. But unlike Freud he knew that change could only come from processes beyond one’s control. His prayer is suffused with wonder and gratitude at God’s intervention in his life.

The Confessions is comprised of thirteen books, what we would call chapters. In Book 12 Augustine takes up a dispute over the meaning of the phrase “heaven and earth,” in the Genesis Creation story. It’s an argument on whether God created ex nihilo,’ out of nothing,’ or whether He used pre-existing material on hand in order to bring a new world to life. Within the intellectual and theological community of which Augustine was a member, this was, apparently, a matter worth coming to blows over.

He poses a number of interpretations of what the phrase could mean and assesses their relative merits. Some make more sense than others, but Augustine asserts that any of them could be true, since we don’t know exactly what Moses was thinking. What we do know is that what comes from God is truth.

Augustine believes that the interpretation he has arrived at is that which God prompted him to understand, but he holds that others may have arrived at different truths. His principle is to settle for one truth, “so long as it is firm and helpful, however many other truths may suggest themselves.”

When there are so many possibilities for interpreting scripture Augustine confesses that “I make my testimony on the understanding that if I have identified what your servant Moses meant, that is the best and highest truth, the one I was bound to strive for.”

That would be the ideal, as difficult as that would be to reach. In humility, though, Augustine concludes that if he didn’t reach that truth, “let me at least express what your truth willed me to take from the author’s words, just as your truth willed what the author himself said.”

Apply your understanding through love, says Augustine: “So when one man says Moses meant what he means, and another says Moses meant what he means, I think it is more in the spirit of our love to say: Why cannot both be true?” After all, why shouldn’t we think that Moses intended all these various meanings?

God, states Augustine, “has suited his Scripture to readers who will find various truths when different minds interpret it.”

Augustine had come to realize that his earlier difficulties with understanding the Bible were because of spiritual pride; the scriptures were only accessible to those who had rid themselves of conceit and self-importance. God spoke through images that we could understand, but even so we could never know the whole truth in this life. Language fails us, even in our relationships with others. How impossible, then, that we should be able to fully express the mystery of God in our own words. Wrangling and bitter disputes about the meaning of scripture were futile. As Karen Armstrong puts it in her The Bible: A Biography, “Instead of engaging in uncharitable controversies, in which everybody insisted that he alone was right, a humble acknowledgment of our lack of insight should draw us together.”

Augustine had arrived at the insight of the renowned Rabbi Hillel and others: “Charity was the central principle of Torah and everything else was commentary (Armstrong).” For him, the rule of faith was not lodged in a doctrine, but in the spirit of love.

This would not be easy—Augustine rather ruefully begs for divine help in disputations:

“O my God . . . rain down gentleness into my heart, that I may patiently put up with such people, who say this to me not because they are godlike and have seen what they assert in the heart of your servant, but because they are proud, and without having grasped Moses’ idea they are infatuated with their own, not because it is true but because it is theirs.”

If we can each see some truth in what the other says, observes Augustine, where do we see it? “I certainly do not see it in you, nor do you see it in me; we both see it in the immutable truth itself which towers above our minds.”

Thus, we can arrive at a principle of Bible study: trust that if we open our hearts in humility to God’s teaching through scripture, and if we do not claim to have the sole authoritative interpretation, then we can trust that we have been led into a truth which God has for us.

In Armstrong’s felicitous phrase this is “a compassionate hermeneutic.”

What would such a hermeneutic look like in practice? We might, with charity toward all, apply it to our current controversies. We have nothing to lose but our fear.

Translations of The Confessions used are those by Garry Wills (2006) and Sister Maria Boulding (2017). Image is by Anna vander Stel (Unsplash.com)