Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 1

Posted: June 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther wrote an interesting post about an exchange between Tim Challies and Ann Voskamp. If you haven’t read it, take a moment to do so. Especially as I read the comments that followed, I realized there seemed to be a pretty significant gap between the way I perceive and interact with the world around me and the way that others perceived the same. That’s not exactly a new experience for me, especially within a Christian context, but I still struggle to understand why. I’ve been mulling it in my mind and I think it goes back in part to basic cultural formation.

First, I hope everyone reading this post recognizes that whatever we term “religion” or its “non-religious” materialist (or, I suppose, possibly even non-religious and non-materialist) counterpart is not merely some private little thing informing a few edge beliefs and behaviors here and there within the life of a human being. Rather, those understandings, often operating well below any level of conscious thought, inform and shape our fundamental perception of reality and the ways we interact with the world around us.

Elsewhere, I have used pluralistic to describe my childhood cultural formation. It occurs to me, though, that people may not really understand what I mean. I also don’t reject the idea of relativism in at least some sense, but probably not as it seems to be commonly understood. As a starting point, I don’t accept and do not believe that every way of perceiving reality is a path on the same mountain, a piece of the same patchwork quilt, or any of the similar metaphors that are commonly used. That’s simply another overarching framework imposed on others as a way of forcing them to fit into your perception of reality.

Ultimately, the story it attempts to force on others is a pretty arrogant and coercive one. The story asserts that others only see a piece or a shadow of reality. They aren’t wrong, exactly, but if they could only see the whole tapestry or the whole mountain instead of just their little piece, they would be so much more enlightened. (I’ve never heard anyone present this perspective who did not seem to believe they were one of the enlightened ones who could perceive at least the existence of the mountain, if not actually see the whole mountain and all the paths upon it.) It’s simply a different way to tell other people — the ones who can’t see the whole tapestry or who do not even acknowledge the existence of such a tapestry — that they are wrong.

No, when I use the phrase pluralistic, I mean something much more straightforward. I look at those around me and I acknowledge that they have different ways of perceiving and interacting with reality. And those perspectives are actually different from each other.

Full stop.

I don’t attempt to force every perspective into a common framework of any sort or understand an individual perspective through the lens of an overarching narrative. I take every perspective on its own terms to the extent that I am able to do so. That does not mean I do not have my own perspective on this fundamental question about the nature of reality. I do. Over the course of my life, in fact, I’ve held a number of different ones. And I don’t take it for granted that the one I now hold is the one I will hold for the rest of my life. I believe I am getting at least a little closer to better understanding reality and don’t anticipate another drastic shift, but incremental change is almost certain.

In practice, that means that when I’ve explored, written about, or discussed different perspectives, I’ve done the best I could to first understand how that perspective described reality. When I’ve been exploring different beliefs, I’ve tried to spend some time living and acting as though those beliefs and everything they imply about the reality we inhabit were true. When I’ve simply been discussing other perspectives, I’ve tried to honestly and accurately compare them to the way I see things. I’m sure my success at those efforts has varied, but that’s my general goal.

I’ve read that incredulity toward metanarratives is a postmodern thing, so I suppose this perspective fits easily within the postmodern context of my overall cultural formation. Without any overarching framework, I simply take each view as it presents itself and allow it to have its own independent framework. Now that does not then imply that I believe every individual framework is somehow “right,” whatever that would mean in any particular context. In fact, since different narratives about reality are often radically different from each other, that whole idea strikes me as a really silly proposal. Is there even any common ground at all between a Hindu’s and a materialist’s perception of reality? If there is, it’s a pretty narrow strand. No, this simply means that I approach each perspective largely on its own terms and not on mine.

When I reached the point in my adult life when I acknowledged that as a result of some pretty negative experiences, I had simply discounted Christianity and never afforded it any true examination, I began slowly to attempt to do the same with it. (And that was always a struggle for me. I held a deep antipathy toward Christianity.)  It’s been almost two decades since that point now and the process is still ongoing. Christianity in our modern world is a truly confusing thing. It’s presented as a single religion, but when you approach it in the manner I describe above and simply allow the different groups to describe the God they worship in their own terms, there’s very little true cohesion or natural similarity. Different groups who present themselves as Christian (whatever that means to them) say different — and often radically different — things about God, Jesus, mankind, the nature of reality,  the purpose and effect of the Cross, and virtually everything else of any meaningful significance.

So what’s a poor pluralist to do?

I’ll explore that in the next post in this series.

 


Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


Mary 5 – Physically Virgin

Posted: January 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mary 5 – Physically Virgin

It came up in the comments on Elizabeth Esther’s post, so I felt I ought to write something about this belief. It’s not actually a belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus and then God restored her hymen, though I frequently saw it characterized that way in the comments. Rather, it’s a belief that Mary gave birth without pain and without any physical damage to her body, including her hymen.

It’s primarily a theological point. As I understand it, many have seen in Mary’s ‘yes’ to God the beginning of the healing of creation. And since one of the things described in Genesis 3 as a result of our mortality is that ‘in pain you shall bring forth children’, Jesus being born without pain or physical damage is seen as one of the early signs of that healing and restoration.

I tend to disagree, but not because I find the concept incredible. After all, how is such a delivery any more incredible than a virginal conception? Rather, I lean toward a different theological perspective. Jesus became flesh, or sarx, which means he assumed everything it means to be human in our mortal state. And so I believe he was born as we are born. The healing and restoration of all creation flows from him, but he began life fully and utterly one of us.

Ultimately, though, I think we all have to confess we have no way to know which is true.


Mary 1 – Theotokos and Mater Dei

Posted: January 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 1 – Theotokos and Mater Dei

Elizabeth Esther recently published a post on Mary and a fairly lively discussion ensued in the comments. I contributed several comments and the discussion has been bouncing around my head ever since. I’ve decided to develop those thoughts into a blog series. If you pose a question and my response to it is in a later post, I’ll probably just say that rather than try to summarize my future post in a comment.

I’m not a sociologist, though I tend to read at least some papers and books in that field. I’m not a historian, though I’ve had a deep interest in history for seemingly my entire life. I’m not a theologian or a bible scholar, though I tend to read quite a few of both. I’m not Roman Catholic, though I attended a Roman Catholic school for several years and have a number of Catholic relatives (including my mother, though I had been ‘out of the house’ for some years before she converted). I’m not Orthodox, though I’ve read and listened to many Orthodox past and present. If you are in any of those groups and at any point in this series feel I’ve misstated or misrepresented something, please say so. I do the best I can to speak accurately and truthfully, but I can and do sometimes misunderstand or misinterpret things I’ve read or heard.

I am basically Protestant, but I don’t think that term means what most people seem to think it means. I think it means that in matters of faith, I ultimately decide what I choose to believe or not believe is true. That’s not something I can turn on or off. I’ve been doing it my whole life, whether or not the things I believed at the time were Hindu, Christian, or something else. Of course, most Protestants don’t actually decide for themselves what to believe or not believe. Instead they accept their beliefs on authority from someone who has previously asserted that right to choose and has chosen to believe differently than the traditional Christian Churches. (That latter category is pretty much limited to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and what we call Oriental Orthodox.) Nevertheless, even if most people don’t personally employ that core Protestant ethos, the right to decide for yourself what Scriptures mean and what Christianity is lies pretty much at the core of Protestantism. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I find myself largely in agreement with the Eastern Orthodox on virtually everything that matters, but I arrived at that point in a distinctly Protestant manner.

I want to open this series with a reflection on two of the most common titles for Mary.  I wrote one in Greek and the other in Latin for a reason. While both are used in the Eastern and Western traditions, the former is more common in the East and the latter in the West.

Theotokos translates as God-bearer or Birth-giver of God. This name emphasizes that he who was conceived in Mary was God before the ages. It has a post-Nicea emphasis. Arius, of course, held that Jesus was not God, but a created being. Others had held that Jesus was born an ordinary human being who at some point (most often his Baptism) had become divinized. No, the Church responded, and emphasized that the child conceived in Mary was indeed true God of true God. And this has remained the emphasis in the East, whose liturgies were largely fixed in that era. It’s an important point, but it’s not the only one that must be made.

Mater Dei translates as Mother of God, and is the most common name for Mary in the West, though Birth-giver or God-bearer is also used (as Mother of God is used to a lesser extent in the East). The theological flavor of this name is different. It emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. As with all of us, he not only had a mother, he required a mother. His mother breastfed him, wiped his butt, taught him to speak, cared for him, loved him, and nurtured him. This name for Mary has a post-Chalcedon feel to it. Jesus was not just true God; he was true man as well.

Both of those emphases are important. We need both names for Mary in our devotion. Within them, we find our creeds.


Spanking Kids

Posted: December 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther faced off with Michael Pearl on Anderson Cooper. I applaud her for her courage. On her post, I made two comments I want to preserve on my blog. The first is simply my reaction to her post and her courage for speaking out.

Way to go EE!

And the truth is that kids are resilient. (The older we get, the less resilient we seem to get, but we often still have surprising capacity in that area.) Some break. Sometimes even those who experienced much worse don’t break and find healing. Some experience things that boggle the minds of others and become relatively unscathed adults.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. A child can be loved, given structure and boundaries, and given many other advantages, yet still walk dark paths as an adults.

Parenting matters, and can matter a great deal. But neither good nor bad parenting can assure any particular outcome. And in many ways that’s a good thing. After all, aren’t most of us a mixed bag as parents? It’s good that our mistakes don’t really “scar our kids for life” even if that also means the things we do right don’t guarantee a positive outcome.

I think that’s an important, but overlooked point. Our kids are free human beings just as we are. The fact that we can’t do anything that will guarantee a positive outcome is the corollary to our freedom from every mistake we make having a permanent effect on our children. You can’t have one without the other.

The second comment is one I made to someone who described themselves as a former pediatric trauma nurse and asserted that ‘spanking’ was an overall good in order to ‘keep kids from running into the street.’ I’m tired of that meme being abused, especially by someone asserting professional authority, so posted (if EE approves it) the following.

I wasn’t going to say more than I had mentioned above, but in describing yourself as a pediatric trauma nurse you have made an appeal to authority (in this case professional authority) while making an assertion of fact that is contrary to psychological findings. I don’t defend the language of the person to whom you were responding and their blurring of categories. But you’re appealing to medical authority and your statements are contrary to fact. I don’t want to leave that unchallenged.

This is one of the peer-reviewed articles I can find available online for free. (That’s actually an ongoing problem when discussing science.) I’ve read many more in other media and its results and conclusions are consistent with other peer-reviewed studies I’ve read.

http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-1284539.pdf

Now, that might be a bit much for people not accustomed to reading scientific papers. I come from a family of scientists, though I am not myself a scientist. My mother is many things, but those things include two masters degrees in psychology and art therapy.

Personally, I have experienced abuse and my older son was seriously abused by his biological mother at a young age. (Lots of medical and legal bills and bankruptcy followed that experience, but I regret none of that part of the cost. I do regret that I wasn’t able to learn to be a better parent any faster than I did.) I had the ability to read and understand the research and the motivation to do so.

Here is the key point. The only “positive” thing that has been shown to correlate with corporal punishment is short term (less than five seconds) behavior modification. It’s good at doing that. It’s pretty poor at moral internalization and every other positive long-term measure. And it correlates with some pretty negative long-term outcomes.

What does that mean when it comes to “running into the street”? Well, it shows a number of things (which other peer-reviewed studies have also shown). First, if you are close enough to strike a child, then you have no need for short term behavior modification. You can physically restrain the child from running into the street. (Or they have already run into the street, you’ve caught them, and you are striking them because they frightened you.)

So if short-term behavior modification is not the goal, then moral internalization must be the goal. (You want the child to internalize that they should not run into the street and restrain themselves in the future.) But corporal punishment is one of the worst approaches to moral internalization. That’s not to say that it never works, but it usually doesn’t. And there are many other things you could do that would be more likely to result in moral internalization. Studies have shown precisely that as well.

Once I read the studies and thought about it, I realized there really aren’t any situations where I’m primarily concerned about immediate compliance (short term behavior modification) when my children are within arm’s length. Yes, my children can sometimes embarrass me. I got over that a long time ago. But as a parent, my goal is always moral internalization. I want them to internalize what I’m trying to teach so it becomes something they can do for themselves without me forcing compliance.

So I decided I would do the best I could to use approaches to discipline correlated with greater success at moral internalization. Which is not to say I don’t ever yell (a lesser form of the same sort of thing as spanking), but I don’t hit my children. And I’ve gotten pretty good at apologizing when I do yell and explaining why I did. Doesn’t make it all right, but kids mostly want to give their parents the benefit of the doubt. They forgive easily.

Have I screwed up and will I screw up tomorrow? Sure. But I don’t hit those I love the most. And maybe that’s a start toward learning not to hate those I love the least.

So my cards are on the table. What say you? But be warned, I will remove comments I believe cross the line. I’m not interested in the sort of comment war I’ve seen on other blogs. If you assert something, you better have more than your opinion or an anecdote behind it. This is something about which I feel strongly, and experience tells me if you push me, I’ll tear what you say apart. So be prepared. Or just walk away if you have your own strong opinions and believe it would be mutually counter-productive to engage.

UPDATE: I wrote the comment below later on EE’s blog and wanted to preserve it here as well.

“Right” and “wrong” are moral judgements (unless they are used to mean factually correct and factually incorrect, when usually isn’t the case in these discussion). That wasn’t the point of my comment at all.

Rather, if your goal is moral internalization (teach the child not to run into the street in the future so they restrain themselves) then corporal punishment is one of the least effective means you can choose to accomplish that goal. That’s not a moral judgment, that’s a statement of fact.

The question then becomes, why do parents do something that’s ineffective at their stated goal? And why do they often perceive it as effective when it isn’t? (In other words, why do their perceptions fail to coincide with reality?) That’s another discussion, entirely.

Here I was simply pointing out that your assertion of fact (that spanking a child is an effective means of teaching them not to run into the street in the future) was incorrect. That’s not a matter of opinion. That’s as close as you get to an established fact in behavioral science confirmed in multiple studies by lots of researchers over the course of decades. Corporal punishment is pretty good at very short term behavior modification. It sucks at moral internalization.

Heck, I even read a study from more than a decade ago (not available online as far as I know) that didn’t rely on parental reporting on the specific subject of ‘running into the street’. Instead, they used a control group of parents who reported using spanking to correct that behavior (and controlled for as many factors as they could). And then they taught a study group of parents a relatively simple and straightforward disciplinary approach to teach their small children not to run into the street. Then they observed both sets of families as they were outside under similar conditions for similar periods of time each day over the course of a  period of time. (It was something like 2 weeks or a month.)

Over that period of time, the control group of kids who were spanked showed little or no reduction in their attempts to run into the street. The group that was effectively disciplined very quickly fell to almost no attempts to run into the street.

The same study also asked the parents questions designed to determine their perception of the effectiveness of their disciplinary approach. And this was the strange part. The study group correctly perceived the effectiveness of the approach they used, even though it was new to most of them. However, the group of parents who spanked also reported that they perceived their efforts as effective and further significantly under-reported the number of times their children tried to run into the street.

That’s a good illustration why our perceptions of effectiveness — without objective measures — are not particularly trustworthy. Heck, Michael Pearl perceives his approach as effective.

And I’m not particularly interested in sympathy for myself or my son (who’s doing pretty well for himself with a family of his own now). I was just explaining why I was motivated to actually learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to discipline.

And corporal punishment doesn’t work in any of the areas I care about, and which I believe most parents care about, when it comes to disciplining children. (Even when compliance — short term behavior modification — matters, which isn’t very often, there are other approaches to achieve it that don’t have the negative outcome correlations of corporal punishment.)

I did notice one thing that I don’t think was clear in my abbreviated overview of the ‘running into the street’ study I described. All the parents normally spanked their kids. (I think this study was from the late 80s or early 90s when it would have been much harder to find parents in the US who wouldn’t have given their small children a swat for running into the street.) They first observed the entire group for a period of a week or two to establish norms in the study situation. They then taught a selected study group a different approach and continued the study for another week or two. Obviously they didn’t tell the control group that they were the control group and as little as possible to either about the purpose of the study. (I think they told the study group they were evaluating a ‘new’ idea for a parental discipline technique or something like that.) In human behavior studies, you can never control for everything. But I thought it was a pretty well-constructed study. That’s one of the reasons it lodged in my brain all these years.

This isn’t a moral judgment like any discussion of abuse must be. (Though I will note that there seems to be a pretty huge gray area between things that almost everyone would agree are non-abusive corporal punishment and the things that almost everyone would agree are clearly physical abuse. That’s another problem to discuss at another time.) This is a discussion of reality and the fact that so many parents’ perceptions of reality with their parenting techniques and children don’t coincide with what is actually happening.


Prayer, Evil, and the Nature of Things

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A post about prayer on the blog, Permission to Live, kicked the wheels of my mind into gear and started it whirling. As my mind peeled back layer upon layer, I quickly realized I couldn’t really say anything meaningful in a comment. But in this case I also realized I did want to write something on the topic. The post in question actually touched on a number of areas, but I’ll primarily focus my thoughts on the purpose of prayer and the deeper question of why God does not prevent evil things from happening to people who do not deserve it and allows good things to happen to the wicked. Obviously, those are topics that can’t possibly be addressed in a blog post. The Library of Congress would not suffice.

When I try to express thoughts in areas like these I particularly feel the need to state up front that the things I say will of necessity be incomplete. I have to discuss God, but God is greater than me in such a way that no analogy, no description, no words could ever truly describe him. My mind and imagination are insufficient to the task, but they are the tools I have. So the reality is always far greater than anything I can understand or say. Please keep that in mind and try to work with my imagery rather than against it — at least for the short time that you are reading this post.

Before we can move to a discussion of prayer on a topic this deep, we have to begin with the nature of things from a Christian perspective. The fundamental division of reality lies between the uncreated and the created. Only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can be placed in the category of uncreated. Everything else that exists is a creation of God. Moreover, God created all things good. Nothing was created evil. (Elizabeth Esther actually just posted on the innate goodness of human beings.) It’s important to grasp this fundamental Christian tenet since it runs directly counter to the narrative of some religions — both ancient religions and present day ones.

When we acknowledge that truth, something should immediately stand out. There is no place in those divisions for evil. This is one of the thoughts behind my recent post on evil as mystery. Evil is not uncreated; the only uncreated is God. Moreover, all created things are created by God and are created good. Part of the mystery of evil is that it cannot be said to have the same sort of existence as created things. In fact, it almost has to said to have no existence in the sense that creation exists. Yet evil is palpably real. So what then is evil? That’s the question to which we have to turn.

One of the aspects of creation is its freedom. There is a randomness woven into the fabric of created things that seems to provide the framework within which, for example, human freedom can exist. While that provides the basis from which we can exercise our free will and creative abilities and thus have the potential of truly being in the likeness of God, it’s not limited to humanity. That element of freedom is woven into the fabric of created things by a God of overflowing love. And that freedom is, as part of creation, also an innately good thing.

Such freedom does introduce a certain wildness into creation — even absent the influence of man. I think people often particularly misread the second creation narrative in Genesis. The garden cannot represent some idyllic, perfect unfallen reality. There was already a wilderness outside the garden into which the man and the woman could be banished. I tend to think of the image of the garden in terms of a nursery. It was a place of few challenges in which the man and the woman could learn to fulfill their created function.

And what was that function? At least part of it was to order the wildness and randomness of creation. Some of that can be seen in the act of naming (though that bit also has other meanings) since names are powerful. It’s also seen in God’s command to them. A part of our natural function is also to act as priests in creation, offering it back to God in Thanksgiving. In this sense, Jesus commanding the storm, healing the sick, and feeding the many displays his true humanity at least as much as his divinity. Yet, the story of the garden illustrates that even in the safest possible nursery environment with only a single ascetic challenge, we still do nothing but turn away and hide from God. Read the story. Man accomplishes nothing in the garden but sin. From the time we were able to lift our heads above the animals, we have turned away from God.

And that provides our first clue into the nature of evil. Evil is an aberration, a distortion, of that which was created good. It flows from the freedom instilled in creation when that freedom is turned against God. (It wouldn’t be freedom if that capacity did not exist. And if it exists, it happens.) We could ask why God then created such freedom, but that strikes me as a futile question. Any such reality we could imagine would be incredibly diminished. Beauty flows from that freedom. Love flows from it. I don’t see how a God of overflowing love could have created anything less.

Yes, I’m sure God knew from the beginning that evil would flow from the fabric of such a creation. That’s why we have the apocalyptic image of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. God knew and was planning to rescue and complete his creation from the start. In that respect, creation is not simply something that happened in the past. Creation continues to happen every time the darkness is pushed back even a little, every time evil is transformed into good, every time love conquers. Creation is the ongoing process of renewing all things.

So what then is prayer? It seems to me that many Christians today reduce prayer to little more than intercessions. While that’s an aspect, I don’t believe it’s the central purpose of prayer at all. What is our truly human created role and responsibility in creation? Humanity was created to be the ruling, royal priesthood of our world. We were to order creation and offer it back in thanksgiving to God. (There is much that could be pursued from the Eucharist beginning as bread and wine rather than wheat and grapes, but I’ll set that aside for now.) First and foremost, prayer is our direct connection to God. And it’s in and through our communion with God that we order time and the rest of creation.We are created for communion with God and prayer is an expression of that communion.

Of course, even most of us who are Christian do not live in constant, unceasing prayer. I don’t think most of us regularly or ever recognize the extent of our culpability in the evil of the world. We are not isolated individuals. We were created not only for communion with God, but for communion with each other. As such, we share a common nature and bond with each other and with the created world we are intended to rule. It’s through that shared nature that the work of Jesus is efficacious. He became one of us in every way, sharing the fullness of our common nature, and by doing so he redeemed us and defeated death on our behalf. And by healing the human nature Jesus also completed all that was necessary to heal and redeem the whole created order.

But therein lies the rub. The evil we do spreads to others and to the world in ways we do not always directly perceive. As we particularly see in Romans 8, creation itself groans beneath that weight. When we turn away from God, we turn energies shared in the human nature to evil. By our own acts, we have contributed to the evil others experience and to the evil others do. I rarely hear of a crime or evil act and think to pray for the way my sin contributed to it. We deny our interconnectedness or we embrace only the positive and personally beneficial aspects of it. But to the extent we have each done evil, we have contributed to the evil of humanity and the world.

Finally, we are also instructed to pray for intercession, especially for others. And God sometimes intercedes. God miraculously heals a person. God protects an innocent in desperate need in a manner that offers no easy explanation. And yet many other people die despite many intercessions. Children suffer. Not everyone is healed. Not everyone is protected. All of this is true. And sometimes Christian attempts to explain this truth away do more harm than good, I think, especially when they try to call evil something sent by God or something that was really somehow “good.” Evil is evil and it is not of God. Our hearts look on evil and cry out, “Why?”

This is where I try to remember that God is not willing that any perish, that God is actively working for the salvation of all. I remember that God is constantly turning evil into good. I think of Joseph, who is certainly a type of Christ. Great evil was done to him again and again and God did not stop it. But Joseph did not despair. Joseph did not curse God.  And ultimately he could tell his brothers that God had taken their unquestionably evil act and turned it into a tremendous good. That’s the gospel of Christ prefigured. Jesus suffered in every way we suffer. He endured torture and execution under supremely unjust and evil conditions. Jesus absorbed the worst that evil could do and defeated evil and death on behalf of us all.

I believe God perceives all possible outcomes of every decision and every interaction. Reality is not static, so there is no single path. I tend to think of a bubbling stew, though that’s a weak analogy. It has states of being that are fluid and change. And the freedom of creation, especially our freedom, has immense value. Even in those times when God has blocked a human action, he has not blocked the intent or the effort to perform the act. God does not make human beings less than they were created to be. (Though it must be said we tend to do that ourselves.) And from all the stories I’ve read throughout Christian history, it’s rare even for God to so physically restrain someone from acting.

God is always working for our salvation — the salvation of every human being. And God is always working to transform evil into good. But he does not reach into our being and restrain our hearts from working evil. I believe God intercedes or doesn’t according to those goals and more. Other influences are the prayers of the communion of the saints. As the evil we do works its tendrils into the fabric of reality in ways we can’t perceive, so our prayers permeate creation. Either the things we do accomplish something or there is no point doing them.

It’s not an answer that explains. As one who has suffered evil and seen those I love suffer evil, I don’t think it’s something that can be explained. But I trust reality is at least somewhat like what I’ve described. We can’t avoid choosing a narrative framework and a perspective on reality. Of all the ones I’ve explored or held over my life, the Christian narrative offers the best lens through which to understand the nature of things. I’ve encountered this strange God, but even if I hadn’t I would want to believe this framework over the alternatives.

We cry, “Lord have mercy!” And he does.


Saturday Evening Blog Post – November Edition

Posted: December 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post – November Edition

For this month’s edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I selected a post of thoughts spurred by a tweeted question, Rebaptized?. I was torn picking a favorite post from November. I thought about this post on Reality. I also considered emphasizing my Reflections on Resurrection series for a second month with my post on Reincarnation. But I think I picked the one I most enjoyed writing.


Saturday Evening Blog Post – October Edition

Posted: November 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post – October Edition

For this month’s edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I selected the first post in my ongoing Reflections on Resurrection series. I almost selected the unplanned post, 15 Authors, that I threw together after being tagged on Halloween. I enjoyed putting that one together quite a bit. But the things I’m trying to say about resurrection (the Christian narrative) as opposed to the many competing narratives about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being are closer to my heart.


Saturday Evening Blog Post

Posted: July 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post

For the June edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I chose my post, What is the source of our oneness?. I also considered some of the other posts from June, including the early posts in my series on Heaven & Earth (& Hell), but finally settled on this post.

As always, I encourage all readers here to check out the Saturday Evening Blog Posts. There are always interesting posts to read. And if you blog, consider adding a post yourself.


Saturday Evening Blog Post

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post

For the May edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I chose my post, Fallen. It was an easy decision this month. That was by far the most personally meaningful post I wrote in May.

Enjoy, peruse the other posts on EE’s site, and consider adding a link to one of your own.