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.


America’s Four Gods

Posted: October 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on America’s Four Gods

Two Baylor professors have published a book that is gaining a fair amount of attention. Baylor has been conducting a different sort of survey of religion over the last few years. These surveys go beyond the basic sorts of questions about affiliation and attendance and probe attitudes and specific practices. This sort of approach is more valuable and useful in our richly pluralistic nation.

In America’s Four Gods,  the authors note that across the spectrum of religious belief, Americans tend to divide into four different groups with very different basic images of the God they worship. On their site, they have a brief little quiz to identify the God in which you believe and compare you to your demographic. (I’m in a minority in mine — well below 20% in all demographics. But I knew that already.) And they also have a little test of your response to images. Both are a fun little diversion. America’s Four Gods has also gained some media attention on ABC News and in USA Today.

Of course, that’s not a new idea to me. My formation was more pluralistic than most, so I’ve always found it natural to listen to how someone describes their God, try to understand that God, and decide if their God was a God I was willing to worship or follow. I did that when exploring all sorts of religions and religious practices. I didn’t stop doing it as I’ve become Christian. Nor did I have a foundational assumption — as many seem to have — that “Christians” all worshiped the same God. Instead, I looked at everything they said about God and made the same sort of decision about the God they described.

That’s why I phrase things the way I do. When I say, for instance, that Calvin’s God repulses me and I would be something other than Christian if I believed his God was really the Christian God, I’m judging the God he describes and deciding whether or not I am willing to worship that God. In the case of Calvin’s God, it’s as clear as such things can be. There’s nothing about that God that I find the slightest bit attractive or worthy of worship. As a result, I tend to use Calvinism as an example when I write about this process.

However, I also recognize that however I try to mediate or qualify my statement, those who do worship Calvin’s God will hear me saying that they are not Christian. And that’s not really my intent. It’s my own personal judgment about the sort of God in which I am or am not willing to believe. In fact, if God is as I believe him to be, then I know that he is at work trying to heal and renew and restore all of us. Our image of him can certainly hinder our ability to cooperate with his efforts. And if we choose to wrap ourselves in delusion and reject healing God will not force himself upon us. God is not willing that any should perish, but he is also not a tyrant. The God we worship matters. But it doesn’t change God or in any way control his activity. I just don’t happen to believe that Calvin’s God, Brahman, or any of a host of ways of describing the ultimate reality of our universe actually exist.

The Four Gods that the authors identify are divided into four general quadrants: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. These are broad categories, but the professors found they are also predictive of attitudes and behaviors across a spectrum of areas. In other words, the general sort of God in which you believe shapes the way you live and act. I suppose that’s not surprising. As I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright say, “We become like what we worship.”

I wasn’t surprised that the Distant God, which is essentially the same sort of God that the Deist founders of our nation worshiped, is still widely followed. Roughly a quarter of the population, across all religions, believe in this sort of God. This is the God who starts the universe running and then mostly stays out of it.

I was, however, discouraged that so few Americans believe in a Benevolent God. Now, that does not mean that those who believe in a different sort of God don’t believe that God can be kind, merciful, and loving. They often do. It does mean, though, that they do not believe that love defines his essence. Most people do not truly believe that God is a good God who loves mankind. It’s hard to find an Orthodox prayer or liturgy that does not somewhere declare God’s goodness and love for the whole of humanity.

That does not mean that God is a God of enlightenment toleration. He’s not the good God who tolerates anyone and any behavior at a respectable distance. No, he is the God who seeks to heal us and who desires union with us. And sometimes the prescription for healing is painful. But he is the God who has suffered with us, who brings himself to us by becoming one of us in every way.

The deepest problem with Protestantism is that it makes it even easier for us to define God any way we please. If we don’t like one picture of God, we’re free to invent another. That’s always been a problem for Christianity, so the issue itself isn’t new. We have a desire to remake God in our image. But Protestantism, in which every person decides for themselves (or at least has the authority to decide for themselves) what sort of God they worship, exacerbates that tendency in us all. I think the deeper studies like this one simply reveal that underlying weakness. Yes, the majority of the people in this nation are Christian, but we can hardly claim to all worship the same God.

Lord have mercy.


Jesus Creed 23 – Forgiving in Jesus

Posted: October 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 6:12, 14-15; 18:21-35.

For me ‘forgiveness‘ is something of a scary thing. I know that may sound odd, but I can think of no better way to express it. In fact, I’m often unsure why others don’t seem to recognize that this ‘forgiveness‘ thing is pretty scary stuff.

There are multiple perspectives to consider.

Forgiveness, in the Old Testament, is a ‘God thing’ and a ‘repentance thing.

In other words, God (and pretty much only God) does it and it requires repentance first. Scot describes this as the standard view of Judaism.

Christianity stands that on its head.

A brief summary of each: First, Jesus innovates in his world when he urges his followers to have a disposition of forgiveness rather than of strict justice. Second, so important is forgiveness to Jesus that forgiving others is a litmus test of whether or not one is a follower of Jesus. Third, forgiving others knows no limit for Jesus’ followers. Fourth, forgiving others is effective in his society of followers. The ultimate observation we make is that Jesus is the example: On the cross Jesus looks to those who are crucifying him and forgives them.

What Jesus says about forgiveness is rooted in the Jesus Creed: God loves us, so we are to love others and to love God. Loving others means forgiving them. Put succinctly, the Jesus Creed manifests itself in gracious, preemptive strikes of forgiveness.

We should do that more often. If we follow the Jesus Creed, we will not only ask God to forgive us, but we will forgive others. Preemptively. That is, before they have repented or asked for forgiveness.

I remember the first time I ever heard about the Orthodox service of Forgiveness Vespers. It was in Molly Sabourin’s Close to Home podcast titled simply Forgiveness. (Take a moment to click the link and listen to the podcast. It’s well worth the time.) I must have listened to it at least three times in succession and I’ve listened to it multiple times since. I immediately recognized it’s beauty and uniquely Christian quality.

I have not attended one. Forgiveness is simultaneously threatening and incredibly attractive to me. Forgiveness Vespers captures, I think, the way I desire reality to be. I’m just not sure I trust that it actually does describe reality.

Lord have mercy.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 22

Posted: August 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 22

80.  If you wish to find the way that leads to life, look for it in the Way who says, ‘I am the way, the door, the truth and the life’ (John 10:7; 14:6), and there you will find it. Only let your search be diligent and painstaking, for ‘few there are that find it’ (Matt. 7:14) and if you are not among the few you will find yourself with the many.

As the Didache says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Life is inherently a journey. The person I was is connected to the person I am, just as the person I am will be connected to the person I become. As I align the thread of the way of my life with the Way of Jesus, I come to walk along the path of life. But it is easy for us to choose the way of death instead. Lord have mercy.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 6

Posted: April 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 6

23.  He who loves God will certainly love his neighbor as well. Such a person cannot hoard money, but distributes it in a way befitting God, being generous to everyone in need.

24.  He who gives alms in imitation of God does not discriminate between the wicked and the virtuous, the just and the unjust, when providing for men’s bodily needs. He gives equally to all according to their need, even though he prefers the virtuous man to the bad man because of the probity of his intention.

Our love and our lack of love is very often demonstrated by what we choose to do with our money. Did not Jesus strongly warn us of precisely that reality? And not only should we give, but when providing for the bodily needs of another human being, we ought not discriminate between those we believe deserve our help and those who do not. I’m reminded by these texts that God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike. He gives good gifts to us all. He is a good God who loves mankind.

Once again, I’m not particularly good at this. I don’t think it’s greed, since I’ve had both nothing and plenty over the years and I still have no particular desire for money. It’s more comfortable to have enough than not to have enough. That’s true. But I don’t care that much about money itself. I think it’s often fear that drives me away from love. I’m afraid I won’t have enough. I’m afraid the money will be “wasted”. I’m not sure; perhaps it’s fear of many things.

Once again, we Christians are not particularly known in this country for our outrageous generosity. Many people in our country know we are supposed to love and we are supposed to be generous. Too many of the charges against us are true.

Lord have mercy.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 5

Posted: April 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 5

15. If we detect any trace of hatred in our hearts against any man whatsoever for committing any fault, we are utterly estranged from love for God, since love for God absolutely precludes us from hating any man.

16. He who loves Me, says the Lord, will keep My commandments (cf. John 14:15, 23); and ‘this is My commandment, that you love one another’ (John 15:12). Thus he who does not love his neighbor fails to keep the commandment, and so cannot love the Lord.

I wanted to take these two texts together. Christians who acted out of love toward me in ways that did not fit with what I thought about Christianity opened that door in my life which I had thought was closed and sealed. If they acted that way because of Jesus of Nazareth, I needed to know more about him. And the standard of love he lived and demands from those of us who follow him is … daunting. I suppose I can understand why so many people seem to want to discount, limit, or disregard that command.

The above texts come straight from Scripture, of course, and are found in many places. Some are referenced above. But 1 John should give every Christian pause.

He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. (1 John 2:9)

We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:14-15)

But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:17)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?  And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. (1 John 4:20-21)

I know I don’t love others very well. But I don’t pretend that I can love God any better or more fully than I’m able to love my enemy.

I have never heard Christians in the US today (including me) criticized because we have loved too much or too outrageously. Until we can recover something of the love of our Lord, I’m not sure that we have much of anything worth saying at all.

Love is hard. It does not mean that you simply give people what they think they want. They may be ruled by a passion that is destroying them and those around them. As Dallas Willard puts it, love means actively willing the good of the other. No matter what they do or say to you. And that often seems impossible. Much of the time I’m not sure what is truly “good” for me, much less able to discern the good for another. And even when the need is obvious, I often don’t desire that person’s good.

But we either learn to love or whatever else we might be, I don’t see how we can possibly call ourselves Christian. Yes the Lord is merciful and loving, but this isn’t about his judgment or love. This is about the sort of human being we choose to be. Do we choose to love God or not? Not according to our criteria, but according to his? Not according to our fantasy, but in reality? He won’t force us to love him. He never has.

I pray “Lord have mercy” because I’m increasingly aware just how much in need of mercy I stand.


The Monstrous Within Us All

Posted: February 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

As I’m sure most people are now aware, this past week an Austin resident snapped and flew his small plane into one of our IRS offices. Due to a well-designed building, some fast thinking and good reactions from those in the building, small acts of heroism, and a healthy helping of good fortune, it appears that only one person died in the attack. While I did not personally know Vern Hunter or his wife Valerie, I’m still discovering those within the web of my friends and acquaintances who did know Vern. The IRS is a large employer in Austin, but I suppose you can’t work for them for a quarter of a century without developing connections that leave you one or two degrees of separation from many of the other employees. My thoughts and prayers have been and remain with the Hunters.

Nobody I personally know was injured or killed in this attack. As such, I would not describe my reaction to it as grief. Nevertheless, as my coworkers and I (and our immediate families) fielded calls and texts all day Thursday from friends and loved ones across the country checking on our well-being, I experienced a sense of … unreality. I suppose that sort of reaction is a natural insulating effect of mild shock. This particular attack hit uncomfortably close to “home,” to the immediate environment over which we all of like to feel some degree of control. It drove home how little we are able to truly control.

Of course, we all immediately wish to demonize people like Joe Stack. We want to strip them of their humanity and turn them into monsters. We want to turn them into the “other”, distance them from ourselves, and make them into objects of scorn and hatred. The message of that hatred is, in part, that “we” (our network of family and friends — our tribe, if you will) are not like that monster. We could never act in such a way.

It is, of course, true that most of us will never act as Joe Stack did. But that is not quite the same thing. And though we wish to deny it, we do share in Joseph Stack’s basic humanity. It’s in that shared human nature, which those of us who are Christian would call an icon of the Creator, that we have the capacity for acts of incredible goodness and heroism. But it is also in that same damaged nature that we all have a capacity for the monstrous. It is perhaps only when we acknowledge that fact that we find the ability to love those who make themselves into monsters. The reaction of the Amish when their children were gunned down is the example of humanizing love that comes to my mind. Of course, I am a Christian. And I would say that ultimately our capacity to love flows from the one who is Love. But that does not diminish the synergy of our participation in that love or the dissonance when we refuse to participate.

I’ve been following the reports of neighbors, acquaintances, and family of Joe Stack. They all describe a man not unlike us all. He was a man who loved and was loved. It’s become clear that he was more tormented by his demons than those around him realized, but they were pretty ordinary demons. There was nothing that stood out about Joe Stack, that marked him as anyone unusual, until that moment when he chose to act.

I was heartbroken by the comments of his daughter, who lives in Norway. They spoke often. She loved him and had no sense that anything was wrong. Her children, his grandchildren, loved him. At one point, she says, “Maybe if I’d lived in the states… a little closer to him… I don’t know.” My heart ached for her as I read that statement. There is, of course, no answer to that question. But who among us has not been tormented by the question: What if? It’s a cruel question and yet one we cannot seem to avoid.

The reality is that people are not monsters; they are not demons. Human beings perform monstrous acts; they try to dehumanize themselves. That is absolutely true. But at one point in their lives, they were that helpless infant, that small and hopeful child, a son or daughter, a husband or wife, a parent — a person with dreams not unlike the rest of us. Almost everyone has loved and been loved. Even the “monsters” leave behind people who love them, confused and heartbroken. Even the most monstrous cannot escape their basic humanity.

And when we recognize that fact, we are forced to acknowledge that the capacity for the monstrous exists within us all. As a Christian, I turn to Jesus and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” for I do not know what else to do. He is the only human being who, fully sharing our nature, defeated the monstrous within it. If we cannot find our true humanity, a humanity worth embracing, in Jesus of Nazareth, I don’t know where else to turn. I’ve explored so many other paths and found nothing like the promise Jesus offers. But sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s real, especially when forced to face the monstrous.

My heart also breaks for the family and friends of Joe Stack. I can’t imagine their pain and heartbreak. And so I pray for them. But I also pray that God has mercy on Joseph Stack III. After all, he was a human being, created as an eikon of God. If I deny that fact, if I let myself turn him into a monster, then I am denying my own humanity and life itself, at least as I understand it to be hid with Christ in God.

Lord have mercy.


Merry Christmas!

Posted: December 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Merry Christmas!

I just wanted to take a moment and wish any and all who might wander by here a very,  merry Christmas. This is, of course, the season during which Christians celebrate the nativity of our Lord, the wonder of the Incarnation. But it has also become a broader American celebration of family. For those who have suffered loss, this season is also often bittersweet at best and dark and hopeless at worst. I especially wish grace and peace to all those suffering during this time and I offer up my prayers.

Lord have mercy.


A Pluralist Lost In Christian Pluralism

Posted: November 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

I often have a difficult time expressing my thoughts about the myriad strands of Christian belief without saying things that are prone to be misunderstood. I doubt this attempt will be any different. But I’ve had a variety of thoughts swirling around my head lately and it’s time to reduce at least some of them to the written word.

It’s hard to understand what is meant by the label ‘Christian‘ today. On the one hand, modern Christianity seems to be almost as diverse and varied as the many paths we lump together under the label ‘Hinduism‘. However, on the other hand, modern Christians for the most part assert that within their pluralism they somehow remain ‘one faith‘ even as they make assertions about God, man, and the nature of reality that utterly contradict each other. Even in Hinduism, the various paths generally share some common basic assumptions about the nature of reality. That is not always the case in modern Christian pluralism.

I have a theory that many people are raised and shaped primarily within one perspective on the nature of reality. It might be some sort of an essentially materialistic perspective or Hinduism or Buddhism or a particular flavor of Christianity. Though they might change that perspective at some point over the course of their lives, they tend to take the assertions of the paths they adopt more or less at face value. Since it is common today for the myriad Protestant paths to claim that the various Christian paths are essentially the same faith, it seems to me that there is a shared assumption among Christians and non-Christians alike that the claim accurately reflects reality.

I was not raised within any one perspective, however. Throughout my childhood, my mother was actively searching and exploring a wide variety of things. While I sometimes label my default perspective relativistic pluralism, that’s really more of a non-label. As a result, when I found myself drawn almost inexorably toward some sort of faith in Jesus of Nazareth fifteen years ago, I did so as someone who had wandered through many beliefs and practices through the first three decades of my life. If I was anything, I was a pluralist in the truest sense of the word.

It’s difficult to describe life without an overarching narrative (or with one that shifts fairly easily) to those who have never experienced it. It does mean that I don’t usually try (or at least try for long) to fit things into a predetermined framework. Rather, I more or less experience different perspectives as they are described. Some perspectives I try on lightly. Others I’ve held more tightly. But I don’t generally try to make any perspective fit into some mold. I just let it be what it is.

So at first, I accepted the assertion that Christianity is a single faith which is essentially the same across all its denominations, sects, and schisms. However, that assertion only holds up if you don’t look too closely at the different paths within Christian pluralism. They are actually very different from each other in the most basic elements. They do not say the same thing about the nature and being of God. They do not say the same thing about the nature of man. And thus they do not say the same thing about the nature of reality. Even when they use the same words (as they often do), when you look through the lens of particular paths, you find they don’t actually mean the same thing when they use those words.

What’s a poor pluralist to do in the midst of that confusion? What do you do when people say they believe the same thing when they obviously don’t?

For a while I tried to treat Christian pluralism the same way I approached Hinduism as I explored and practiced some of the different paths within it. That “worked” on some levels for a while. But the more I learned about the Christian faith and its different modern paths, the more dissonance that created. As diverse as it is, Hinduism does share some common sense of transcendent reality in Brahman, both the substance of all that is and more, but in an impersonal way. There is some basic, shared sense of karma, the transmigration of souls, and other common elements that provide some coherence within the pluralism of Hinduism. I found no such commonality within Christian pluralism.

A few years ago, a friend loaned me A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. My friend was curious how someone with my background and formation would react to the book. On one level I liked it. (And I’ll point out that I generally enjoy the things Brian says. I haven’t read a great many of his books because I don’t think he’s primarily speaking to people like me. But I have read some and I do follow his blog.) I naturally try to appreciate the positive within various spiritual paths as I try to inhabit them to a greater or lesser extent. However, I found the book … incomplete. Brian never seemed to fully inhabit the various perspectives explored in the book and, as a result, while he does lift some positive aspects from each, the book never reveals the deep dissonances between the perspectives.

Instead of trying to somehow reconcile the different Christian perspectives or pick the aspects from each that I liked in a sort of Christian syncretism, I began to try to simply look through the lens of some of the different paths within Christian pluralism (nobody could ever inhabit them all) and decide for myself if the path described a God I could not just worship, but love. For it was the love of Jesus and a love for Jesus (and for the ways that Jesus formed and changed people in perplexing ways) that had drawn me into Christianity. It’s that same love that keeps me within it, almost as if I’ve passed the event horizon of a black hole, though the center of this gravity well is purest light.

As I did that, I discovered that a lot of the different paths described a fundamentally unlovely God. They described a God I didn’t even much like, much less love. And I’m not interested in worshiping a God I don’t like and can’t love. And so in discussions, I began saying things like, “Calvin describes a God I would never willingly worship, much less love.” Of course, people read such statements and interpret them to mean that I don’t believe that, for instance, Calvinists are Christians. I don’t know how to avoid such interpretations, but I don’t have any ability to judge who is or is not a Christian, and would never assert anything along those lines. I don’t even know how to judge if I am or am not Christian. I’m not even sure what that means. The only thing I can say is whether or not a given perspective describes a God I could or would ever worship. I’m not making a statement about others. I’m making a statement about myself.

I tend to use Calvinism in my illustrations because in its purest form (which I know most people don’t actually hold) that perspective is simultaneously widely considered somehow “orthodox” while at the same time is utterly repellent to me and antithetical to everything I see in Jesus and believe about God. I don’t even particularly care what arguments people can construct about its rightness because I don’t care if it’s right or not. If Calvin was right, then I’m not Christian, will never be Christian, and utterly reject that God. Calvin described an evil God. Obviously, I don’t believe he was correct or I would not still be pursuing Christian faith.

I could use Mormonism in my illustrations since I find its description of God and reality completely uninteresting also, though not quite as repellent as Calvin’s. However, most Christians don’t consider that sect Christian, so the illustration would not have the same impact. (I’ll point out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints actually agrees with other Christian traditions that they teach something entirely different. They just disagree over who is correct, not over whether or not it is different.)

That reminds me of a joke I heard recently. It was a takeoff on the Four Spiritual Laws, that begin “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” (I had to look them up, but the joke was funny even without knowing what they are.) These were the two spiritual laws of Calvinism.

  1. God hates you and has a horrible plan for your life.
  2. There’s nothing you can do about it.

It was funny to me anyway.

There are several general things I feel I can now say about Christian perspectives. If your perspective does not describe a God who is unfailingly good, I’m not interested. I may struggle to truly believe that God is good at times, but I’m not interested in trying to have faith in any personal God who is not good. If your God is not love, a good God who loves mankind, then I’m not interested. If your God is one who has a problem with forgiveness and who must have all debts paid by someone, I’m not interested. Like Jonah, I see a God who overflows with mercy and forgiveness, even when that mercy irritates me. For in truth, if God does not overflow with mercy, on what basis can I pray, “Lord have mercy” and expect to be heard? I look at Jesus and I don’t believe that God has any problem with love, any problem with forgiveness, or any great concern about his “honor.” The question is never if God loves us or if God forgives us or if God is doing everything he can (without coercion) to “save” us. The question is on us. Do we want his love? Do we want to assume our proper place in creation or do we want something else? How will we choose to experience the fire of God’s love? As warmth and comfort? Or as a “consuming fire”? God has shown us who he is in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s not the question. The question is who and what do we choose to be?

So many modern Christians seem consumed with trying to prove that they are right that few seem to pause and ask if the God they describe is worth loving.

However, I don’t presume that I have any ability to judge individual people, whatever perspective they say they hold. I had an aunt who was a lifelong Presbyterian (though I had no idea for much of her life that that perspective was “Calvinistic” or even what that meant) and who was probably a better Christian than I’ll ever be. I have a friend who claims to lean toward a “Calvinistic” perspective (though I’m not sure how to reconcile that with what he actually says and does) but who is again a more faithful follower of Jesus than I’ll probably ever be. Knowing what I think I know about Jesus, I would also be shocked if he were not working to “save” those within Buddhism, Hinduism, or other perspectives, even if they never overtly claim a faith in him. I don’t set boundaries on the work of the Spirit. But I think there is a lot within modern Christian pluralism that makes that work more rather than less difficult.

I’ve written the above without even touching on my long-standing interest in history, how Christianity is fundamentally a historic faith (in that we claim that God acted within the context of history in Jesus of Nazareth), nor of the historical disconnect within most of modern Christian pluralism. If I ever decide to explore it, that’s a separate post. Hopefully, in this one I’ve made it a little clearer how I approach faith within Christian pluralism.


Are You Saved?

Posted: June 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I listened to the following from Molly Sabourin in one of her podcasts quite a while back. Somebody uploaded it to youtube with visuals. It’s timeless and beautiful.

Molly’s words require no elaboration from me. They are haunting and beautiful and stand easily on their own. Still, I have sought for words to express how I reacted when I first heard this in her podcast. There was a profound sense of affirmation and proper orientation. My heart sighed, “Yes!” as tension I had carried for so long melted away. I’ve had many interactions with Christians and experiences with Christianity, both positive and negative, throughout my life. All of those were “legitimate” in the sense that they all infomed the first thirty years of my process of conversion. I don’t discount one in favor of another. The events and decisions that led to my Baptism at age six or seven were not somehow false or invalid because my identity did not begin to truly become intertwined with Jesus of Nazareth until my early thirties when I generally consider the process of my journey to have reached the point where the language of conversion is the only language that fits.

However, as many Americans who wind their way into or within Christianity often do, I reached that point in my journey in a tradition which attempts to reduce the broad, rich, and varied use of the concept of “salvation” within Christianity to a single event at one specific point in time. They want to use the metaphor of a wedding rather than the biblical metaphor of a marriage. They want to make salvation about an intellectual decision that you make fervently and sincerely enough for it to stick in that instant. And as far as I’ve been able to discern, “salvation” is reduced to an answer to the question, “What happens when I die?”

That was never a particular concern of mine. To the extent that I considered it at all, I was perfectly satisfied with my childhood and adult belief in the transmigration of souls blended with a later developing belief that some might remain pure spirit as a form of kami. I wasn’t worried about the caricature of “hell” you encounter in American culture in general and more seriously in evangelicalism because I didn’t believe in it. (I still don’t believe in either the funny cultural parody or the more serious evangelical caricature of hell which the culture rightly parodies. But that’s a discussion for another day. I do believe in the power of death (hades) which Christ has defeated. And I do believe in the reality of the experience described by the metaphor of gehenna that flows from the eschaton of the narrative of the Christian story. Pick which you mean by the English word drawn from the name and realm of the goddess Hel.)

As N.T. Wright and others have pointed out in detail, the Holy Scriptures also say fairly little about what happens in the interim period between the time our bodies sleep and the resurrection of the dead. There are just a few words here and there. Instead of the deep and multi-faceted concepts of salvation found in our Holy Scriptures, much of evangelicalism has reduced salvation to a single facet that does not ever seem to be the primary focus of the New Testament. And in so doing they have crafted a framework in which my own personal story simply won’t fit.

Molly captures in her words so much of the way the story and person of Jesus of Nazareth had reshaped and reformed my own personal story and identity in something more like the full richness of the scriptural usage of the concepts of salvation. In one sense, all humanity was saved when Jesus united the human and divine natures fully, in their entirety, and lived the life of a faithful human being; was crucified by the powers as our ransom; and broke the power of death over humanity in his Resurrection. Because of Jesus, it is no longer the nature of man to die. In Christ we find our salvation.

In another sense, I am working out my salvation today in this life with fear and trembling. I see as though through a mirror, darkly. But as best as I am able I am pressing forward, running the race, and trying to learn to obey the commands of Jesus as I try to follow him. In this sense, I can hardly say I was saved at some earlier point in my life. I’m still alive. While it seems incredible to me at this moment that I would ever do anything but follow Christ, it was once just as incredible to me that I would. If over the course of my life I turned to a different spiritual path and followed other gods, in what sense would I be “saved” in the particular Christian sense? I continue to be in the process of being saved. As with marriage, this is a process and a life. We follow a personal God of perfect relationship. How could it be anything else?

And finally, in another broad scriptural sense, I will one day stand before God with my true self fully revealed in his light to myself and all others. There is no account of that final judgment in the Holy Scriptures that does not describe it as a judgment over the totality of our lives — over who we are with no lies and no deception. God is love and light, but so pure that no shadow of darkness can persist in his unveiled presence. The question will not ultimately be about what God thinks of me. The ultimate answer to that question was the Cross. God loves me. The question will be, “Do I love God?” I pray that I grow in the grace and love of God so that through Jesus my answer is, “Yes!” For this reason I pray, “Lord have mercy.” But a lasting life in a resurrected body continuous, yet discontinuous, with my present body and in some sense like our Lord’s in his Resurrection working within a restored and healed creation that has been made new and is overflowing with the unveiled glory of the Lord marks the fullness of the Christian story of salvation.

That is our hope. Nothing less.