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.


For the Life of the World 18

Posted: November 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 18

Next I reflect on section 3 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter four.

Baptism proper begins with the blessing of the water. To understand, however, the meaning of water here, one must stop thinking of it as an isolated “matter” of the sacrament. Or rather, one must realize that water is the “matter” of sacrament, because it stands for the whole of matter, which is, in baptism, the sign and presence of the world itself. In the biblical “mythological” worldview — which incidentally is more meaningful and philosophically consistent than the one offered by some “demythologizers” — water is the “prima materia,” the basic element of the world. It is the natural symbol of life, for there is no life without water, but it is also the symbol of destruction and death, and finally, it is the symbol of purification, for there is no cleanliness without it. In the Book of Genesis creation of life is presented as the liberation of the dry land from the water — as a victory of the Spirit of God over the waters — the chaos of nonexistence. In a way, then, creation is a transformation of water into life.

We have largely forgotten the significance of water in our culture today. We turn on a tap and it’s there. We buy bottles of it. We filter it and flavor it. But we rarely think about it. Yet it remains deeply important. When I was a young teen husband and father, there were times we had to choose what utility we would or wouldn’t have turned on. After a period of a couple of weeks once without water, I realized that it’s the most important and always had it turned on first. Even in our modern society, you can survive indefinitely, if not comfortably, without electricity or gas (at least in the south where it never gets so cold that you can’t just pile on clothes and blankets — or get heat from a woodstove or fireplace). Phone is a luxury, not a necessity at all. But water? With no running water, things quickly become a nightmare just trying to manage the most basic needs. If you’re ever in a position where you have to choose, choose water first. Always.

And we miss the significance of water in the Holy Scriptures as well. Creation is brought forth from the waters. Water is primal. But it is also mysterious and dangerous. It’s life-giving and destructive. In Daniel, the monsters come out of the sea. When you understand that and the danger and mystery of the sea, you understand how one description of the eschaton in Revelation says “there is no more sea.” Yet water is also the source of purity and ritual cleanliness. It figures prominently in Torah, foreshadowing of course (from a Christian perspective) the Spirit we receive in and through Christ. And who can forget the great Water stories in John’s Gospel?

Water is significant on so many levels and not least that it’s through water and the Spirit that we are born into the life of the new Man. So, of course the water is blessed. “To bless, as we already know, is to give thanks.” We give thanks for the matter through which we enter eucharistic life.

It is in this water that we now baptize — i.e., immerse — man, and this baptism is for him baptism “into Christ” (Rom. 6:3). For the faith in Christ that led this man to baptism is precisely the certitude that Christ is the only true “content” — meaning being and end — of all that exists, the fullness of Him who fills all things. In faith the whole world becomes the sacrament of His presence, the means of life in Him. And water, the image and presence of the world, is truly the image and presence of Christ.

We have lost the sense today in many ways that Christ fills all things, that in him we live and move and have our being. We have divided reality into the “natural” world and the “spiritual.” And that is almost a blasphemous dichotomy.

But “know you not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Baptism — the gift of the “newness of life” — is announced as “the likeness of death.” Why? Because the new life which Christ gives to those who believe in Him shone forth from the grave. This world rejected Christ, refused to see in Him its own life and fulfillment. And since it has no other life but Christ, by rejecting and killing Christ the world condemned itself to death. … It is only when we give up freely, totally, unconditionally, the self-sufficiency of our life, when we put all its meaning in Christ, that the “newness of life” — which means a new possession of the world — is given to us. The world then truly becomes the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the growth of the Kingdom and of life eternal. For Christ, “being raised from the dead, dies no more; death has no dominion over him.” Baptism is thus the death of our selfishness and self-sufficiency, and it is the “likeness of Christ’s death” because Christ’s death is this unconditional self-surrender. And as Christ’s death “trampled down death” because in it the ultimate meaning and strength of life were revealed, so also does our dying with him unite us with the new “life in God.”

Read that several times. It is only by uniting with Christ’s death, his surrender to God, that we can be united to new life. The point is not primarily about forgiveness. Baptism runs much deeper than that. It’s about death and life. The newly baptized Christian is then clothed in a white garment, the garment of a king.

Man is again king of creation. The world is again his life, and not his death, for he knows what to do with it. He is restored to the joy and power of true human nature.

Christianity is, in part, a story of what it means to be truly human. If we do not grasp and live within that reality, we lose much of the power of the story.


For the Life of the World 17

Posted: November 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 17

We now move on to sections 1-2 of the fourth chapter, Of Water and the Spirit, of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter four.

As the title suggests, this chapter explores Holy Baptism. Fr. Schmemann’s opening sentence is again provocative.

All that we have said about time and its transformation and renewal has simply no meaning if there is no new man to perform the sacrament of time.

The title of the chapter obviously refers to John 3, one of the water stories in John, where he tells Nicodemus that a man must be born again, that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit” they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Just as John 6 is the theological chapter on the Eucharist, so John 3 is the theological chapter of Baptism. As Paul writes in Romans, in Baptism we participate in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we are baptized into Christ.

For a long time the theological and spiritual interest in baptism was virtually disconnected from its cosmic significance, from the totality of man’s relation to the world. It was explained as man’s liberation from “original sin.” But both original sin and the liberation from it were given an extremely narrow and individual meaning. Baptism was understood as the means to assure the individual salvation of man’s soul. … Validity was the preoccupation — and not fullness, meaning, and joy. Because of the obsession of baptismal theology with juridical and not ontological terms, the real question — what is made valid? — often remained unanswered.

It’s odd in many ways. I’ve spent my time as a Christian within a group who place a great deal of emphasis on the correct form and timing of baptism, even rebaptizing those found to be remiss in either category. And yet, at the same time they hold baptism to be a mere symbol, effecting no ontological change, accomplishing nothing. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that conundrum, for I never realized that it was a focus on validity almost to the exclusion of meaning.

But ecclesiology, unless it is given its true cosmic perspective (“for the life of the world”), unless it is understood as the Christian form of “cosmology,” is always ecclesiolatry, the Church considered as a “being in itself” and not the new relation of God, man and the world. And it is not “ecclesiology” that gives baptism its true meaning; it is rather in and through baptism that we find the first and fundamental meaning of the Church.

The Church is the renewed human being fulfilling his place in the world in and through the one faithful man or its nothing.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to describe how, through the water and oil (of chrismation), baptism is inextricably tied to the matter of creation. It is a part of the “new time” of the Church. We have moved away from that to the point that:

Baptism in particular has suffered an almost disastrous loss of meaning.

Preparation for baptism for adults (as opposed to infants) once took as long as three years. Even now it still begins in the Orthodox Church with an enrollment in the catechumenate, those who formally expressed a desire to follow Christ, to become Christian, so that they may begin the process of learning what that means, what reality looks like through the lens of Jesus. As one who was raised with a highly pluralistic spiritual formation, I can appreciate the need for that. It is not easy to shift the way you view reality, though I’ve probably done it more often than many.

The Orthodox baptismal liturgy itself begins with exorcisms and a renunciation of Satan. Given all that our Holy Scriptures say, that actually seems reasonable to me. I wonder why other Christian traditions have abandoned the practice? (It is, after all, found in the Didache as long-time readers might recall.)

According to some modern interpreters of Christianity, “demonology” belongs to an antiquated world view and cannot be taken seriously by the man who “uses electricity.”

I wonder if that’s a significant part of the explanation?

What we must affirm, what the Church has always affirmed, is that the use of electricity may be “demonic,” as in fact may be the use of anything and of life itself. That is, in other words, the experience of evil which we call demonic is not that of a mere absence of good, or, for that matter, of all sorts of existential alienations and anxieties. It is indeed the presence of dark and irrational power. Hatred is not merely absence of love. It is certainly more than that, and we recognize its presence as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate. In our world in which normal and civilized men “used electricity” to exterminate six million human beings, in this world in which right now some ten million people are in concentration camps because they failed to understand the “only way to universal happiness,” in this world the “demonic” reality is not a myth.

Ah, part of the heart of the postmodern critique expressed from within an ancient Christian perspective.

And whatever the value or the consistency of its presentation in theologies and doctrines, it is this reality that the Church has in mind, that it indeed faces when at the moment of baptism, through the hands of the priest, it lays hold upon a new human being who has just entered life, and who, according to statistics, has a great likelihood some day of entering a mental institution, a penitentiary, or at best, the maddening boredom of a universal suburbia.

Wow. The priest breathes “thrice” in the face of the catechumen, signs his brow and breast three times with the sign of the Cross, and says the following, which I think is worth reproducing here in full.

In Thy Name, O Lord God of Truth, and in the Name of Thine only-begotten Son, and of Thy Holy Spirit, I lay my hand upon Thy servant, who has been found worthy to flee unto Thy Holy Name, and to take refuge under the shelter of Thy wings … Remove far from him his former delusion, and fill him with the faith, hope and love which are in Thee; that he may know that Thou art the only true God. … Enable him to walk in all Thy commandments and to fulfill those things which are well pleasing unto Thee, for if a man do those things, he shall find life in them. Make him to rejoice in the works of his hands, and in all his generation that he may render praise unto Thee, may sing, worship and glorify Thy great and exalted Name.

I hope I am worthy to flee. That’s not how we often think of our embrace of Christ, is it? Maybe it should be. We flee and find refuge in Jesus. Next, the catechumen (or  godparent on behalf of an infant) formally and liturgically renounces Satan, even spitting upon him. (That’s also in the Didache, I believe.)

The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often proclaim, or to use a more modern term, “sell” Christianity today? … How could we then speak of “fight” when the very set-up of our churches must, by definition, convey the idea of softness, comfort, peace? … One does not see very well where and how “fight” would fit into the weekly bulletin of a suburban parish, among all kinds of counseling sessions, bake sales, and “young adult” get-togethers.

When I read the above, I immediately thought of a friend of mine who loves the movie, Fight Club. I have a feeling he might understand those words even better than I do.

“Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ?” says the priest, when he has turned — has converted — the catechumen to the east.

In other words, face west, be exorcised, renounce and spit on Satan, and then be turned by the priest from west to east — a literal change of direction to match the repentance or turning you have proclaimed you are making.  I deeply appreciate the depth of meaning. It means more when you do something with your mind, words, and body. Much more than with merely one alone.

Then comes the confession of faith, the confession by the catechumen of the faith of the Church, of his acceptance of this faith and obedience to it. And again it is difficult to convince a modern Christian that to be the life of the world, the Church must not “keep smiling” at the world, putting the “All Welcome” signs on the churches, and adjusting its language to that of the last best seller. The beginning of the Christian life — of the life in the Church — is humility, obedience, and discipline.

Christian life is only appealing if it does, in fact, describe the true nature of reality. If Jesus was not the true and faithful man and only-begotten of the Father, if God is not good and loves mankind, if we cannot be restored to eucharistic humanity, then what’s the point? Why be Christian?

The final act of preparation for baptism again involves the body.

“Bow down also before Him.” And the Catechumen answers, “I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

And, of course, you actually bow. How many of us truly bow down before the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?


Thanksgiving – Eucharistic Man

Posted: November 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Thanksgiving – Eucharistic Man

I’ve been pondering what to write for Thanksgiving this year. I considered the usual list one often sees, but in truth such a list would have little on it beyond my family and other relationships. At the end of the day, it’s people who matter to me. As I’ve been reading (and blogging) Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, I’ve been struck by his image of man created to be eucharistic, that is offering thanksgiving for and on behalf of creation to God. It seems to me a better thing to celebrate than either our history of broken promises and conquest over the native peoples of this continent or our bloody civil war in which neither party to the conflict had a moral high ground.

Of course, as we reflect on man as eucharistic, we realize that none of us truly thank God with our being. None of us, that is, save one, the faithful man, the true Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. He is our Eucharist for he restores to mankind our true vocation. In and through Jesus the Christ, we can participate in the life of God, offering true thanksgiving for all creation.

And yet — even now we too often don’t. We become paralyzed by fear. We do not see God everywhere present and filling all thanks. We do believe that reality is as Jesus describes it. Ultimately, we do not truly believe that God is unfailingly good, that he loves mankind, that he loves us and will use all that we experience for our salvation. From the moment I read it, I understood what Paul meant when he wrote, “For we know that all things work together for the good for those who love God…” I understood the story of Joseph. What his brothers meant to be evil, God turned to great good.

I’m drawn to Jesus because I want to believe that God is good. But it can be a hard thing to believe, deep down in your bones where it really counts. Evil may be an ephemeral shadow next to the light of God, but it seems strong and powerful, very real and frightening. We learn early on that the world is a dangerous place and so we do not see reality through the lens that Jesus offers.

What would it mean if those of us who call ourselves Christians determined to become eucharistic in communion with Christ?

I wonder.

Perhaps instead of the usual lists, I would offer thanks for having celiac, trusting that the good God would use it for my salvation? I would look at the evil I’ve experienced or which members of my family have experienced and see the good God has already brought out of that evil and offer those experiences as my eucharist?

Perhaps. But if so, I’m not there yet. I want to believe that God is good, but that is easier said than done.


Walking In My Shoes

Posted: November 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’m going to attempt to translate to words something that has long been coalescing in my heart and mind. As such I’ll probably express aspects of it poorly or in ways that are unintentionally difficult for anyone but me to grasp the intended meaning. My thoughts will probably also meander a bit, which I’m sure will be no surprise to those who know me.

Since I often find that my thoughts are spurred by music, I’m going to weave these thoughts around a fairly old Depeche Mode song, Walking In My Shoes, that at least to me relates to the thoughts revolving around and through my mind. Take a moment to watch the video. If you aren’t familiar with the song, I’ve also included the lyrics at the bottom of this post.

We all have a story and no two stories are the same.

That may seem obvious, but we often act as though it were not true. We recast those we meet into roles in our drama. We see them through the lens of our own narrative. We make them more like us than is often true. And when people fail to act according to the roles in which we have subconsciously place them, we tend to become angry and judge them accordingly. Less often do we recognize what we have actually done and the pain we have inflicted as a result.

That is one theme I hear resonating in this song. It’s the cry of one judged by others for failing to live out their assigned role. We all do that to people at times, even when we strive for something different. We are bound more tightly than we think by the lens of our experience. On the one hand, we can claim little right to judge unless we truly ‘walk in the shoes’ of the we are judging. And on the other, we are never able to truly do that. We are the product of our journey, not that of the other, and we can never escape that reality.

Would you have made better choices if you had lived my life?

Would you be a better person than me if you had experienced all that I have experienced?

Who are you to judge me?

These questions echo in the song and to one degree or another in the hearts of us all. These and the others like them are perfectly valid questions. And when raised, they must be answered. It seems to me that they are too often dismissed, instead.

I know that in many of my interactions with Christians over the course of my life, those questions formed at least a part of my reaction. I may not have expressed them verbally, but they were certainly in my heart. And there were times when those questions were twisted in knots of anger, especially when I would hear stories (whether real or not) of what seemed by my standards idyllic and peaceful lives from people who then condemned those who did not rise to their standards of (untried) “moral” excellence.

I’m hardly immune from our tendency to judge, though. For instance, to use just one prominent example, I hear John Piper’s public statements on things ranging from the I-35 bridge collapse to thoughts on divorce and abusive relationships and I am appalled. While I automatically reject such things and have no problem seeing the evil in them, there is always a part of me that thanks God that I was not shaped by my life and experience into someone like Piper.

It’s true that I don’t make the mistake of assuming I would have somehow turned out “better” if I had lived his life instead of mine. Nevertheless, when I do that, I know as I do it that in some way I am standing in the place of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, who thanked God that the circumstances of his birth and life were not those of people he judged to be in a worse state than his. As I am truly grateful that I did not experience whatever it was that made people like that who and what they are, I am left with no option but the prayer of the publican, “Lord have mercy!”

God, however, did offer a response to those cries of our soul. It’s one of the most beautiful facets of the gem of Christianity. In the Incarnation, the only begotten Son of God walked in our shoes. He kept the same appointments we keep, even the appointment with death. He experienced the pain we’ve been subjected to. He experienced the temptations of the apparent “feasts” laid before us. And through it all, he remained the faithful Man, the faithful Israel, the Man of Thanksgiving, the eucharistic Man.

Yet, from the vantage of his faithfulness where we are unfaithful, Jesus did not judge or condemn us. He ate with sinners. He offered love. He sought those who were discarded and lost. He made himself the least and the servant of all.

And Jesus commanded us to do that same.

That’s an uncomfortable place to be. We prefer to denounce and to distance ourselves from those we reject. We prefer to focus on things like the prophetic woes Jesus proclaimed on the scribes and pharisees. And yet, even here, if you dig below the surface things become a little harder to fit into a particular compartment. For instance, while it seems that Jesus used ‘hypocrite’ as an epithet, it did not commonly have that meaning at the time. Rather, a ‘hypocrite’ was one who spoke or acted in order to affect a crisis of decision in the audience. And neither actor nor speaker should be understood in modern terms. Both were connected to religious activities and rituals. The pharisees were attempting to live and speak in such a way that they provoked a crisis in Israel and bring the people to return to faithful adherence to the Law of Moses. In practice, they were doing something not dissimilar from what the pagan hypocrites of their era did. And that was not considered  a bad thing or an insult. It was noble. Dwell on that the next time you read the prophetic woes and see if you can find any modern parallels.

Having walked in our shoes, Jesus invites us to walk with him in his. He tells us that as we walk with him, love with him, consume him, we too can become faithful. We too can still participate in the life of God. He doesn’t try to make us good. He gives us life and offers us an opportunity to become truly human.

And that brings us to the last theme in the song I’ll explore. It’s something I think much of modern evangelicalism gets wrong. It’s the theme of repentance and absolution. The song says it well. “i’m not looking for absolution, forgiveness for the things I do.” Modern evangelicalism seems largely to assume that most people are looking for forgiveness or have some understanding of their need of repentance. Everything seems focused on the attempt to make people feel bad about themselves, provoke a crisis in their audience, and thus bring them forward toward proffered absolution.

I suppose that’s fine for those shaped in such a way that they do feel shame or guilt and a need for forgiveness. But that simply does not describe as many people today as it perhaps once did in a culture predominantly shaped by Christianity. But now? Even today, I echo the somewhat defiant words, “Before we talk of any repentance, try walking in my shoes.” Of course, Jesus did walk in our shoes. When he calls us to repentance, he is not trying to make us feel bad about who or what we are. He is trying to get us to release our burdens. “Come to me all you who are heavy laden.” I heard that call. I hear it still today.

Once I began to try to follow Jesus, once I was captured in his embrace, I began to understand repentance. I began slowly to see places I did not walk with him, places I was burdened and heavy laden, and I began (very, very slowly) to turn from one destination toward a destination of life in Christ. That’s repentance, not some passing feeling of sorrow or remorse. Of course, when we do cry out for mercy and forgiveness, God is overflowing with all the mercy and forgiveness and embracing love we could ever need. Unlike us, God has no forgiveness problem.

“i’m not looking for absolution…” And yet, absolution is all that so many churches seem prepared to offer. I would never say there’s no place for that. There is. But if someone’s not looking  for forgiveness, then such churches have nothing at all to offer. The questions today more often revolve around the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. Christianity has the most wonderful answers to those questions, but you almost never hear them.

When you interpret repentance as remorse and expect it as some sort of precondition, you also begin to enter some twisted territory. For instance, when I became a teen parent, I remember there were people who thought I should be remorseful about my choices. And I never was nor ever expect to be. Why? The answer lies in the face of that infant girl I held in my arms for the first time one night in a hospital almost twenty-eight years ago. That memory has never faded. I believe to my core that the world is a richer and better place with my daughter in it than it could possibly be without her.

Do I recommend teen parenthood? Of course not. It’s a hard and often painful path to walk. But I have never and will never regret my daughter’s existence. I even got thrown out of a Christian worship service because I refused to hide her away. They correctly felt that I was in no way ashamed about my daughter and the circumstances of her birth. I’ve recently seen that the same sort of attitudes persist among some Christians today.

Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to life in Christ even if the fire consumes me. But I’m still not sure I’m looking for forgiveness for the things I’ve done. Some I regret, especially where I have hurt other people. And if God is truly who we see in Jesus of Nazareth, then I do believe I regret worshiping other gods. But I don’t regret my life. I don’t regret my children. And I can’t honestly say I regret the choices that helped make me who I am.

I do, however, want to be fully and truly human.

Depeche Mode
Songs Of Faith & Devotion
Walking In My Shoes

I would tell you about the things
They put me through
The pain i’ve been subjected to
But the lord himself would blush
The countless feasts laid at my feet
Forbidden fruits for me to eat
But i think your pulse would start to rush

Now i’m not looking for absolution
Forgiveness for the things i do
But before you come to any conclusions
Try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps
Keep the same appointments i kept
If you try walking in my shoes
If you try walking in my shoes

Morality would frown upon
Decency look down upon
The scapegoat fate’s made of me
But i promise now, my judge and jurors
My intentions couldn’t have been purer
My case is easy to see

I’m not looking for a clearer conscience
Peace of mind after what i’ve been through
And before we talk of any repentance
Try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps
Keep the same appointments i kept
If you try walking in my shoes
If you try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes

Now i’m not looking for absolution
Forgiveness for the things i do
But before you come to any conclusions
Try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps
Keep the same appointments i kept
If you try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps
Keep the same appointments i kept
If you try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes
If you try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes


What Does It Mean To Be Alive?

Posted: November 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I almost always enjoy listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko, but I’ve especially liked his podcast series on The Names of Jesus. Names remain important today. The names by which I am known certainly describe me in the minds of others. But in the ancient world, the power of names was much more widely recognized than it is today. And Jesus has many, many names in the Holy Scriptures. In this week’s podcast, Jesus – The Life, Fr. Hopko explores the name Jesus gave himself as the Life. My thoughts mostly riff off one thought in the podcast, but it’s well worth your time to listen to it in its entirety.

At one point in the podcast Fr. Thomas mentions that we are not spirits whom God places in bodies. We did not exist before we were conceived and we were not created to have any sort of existence apart from our bodies. We are the embodied eikons of God within creation, not spiritual beings. There already are spiritual persons in creation who do not have the same sort of physical bodies that we have. The Holy Scriptures call them angels (or demons for those who oppose God).

Fr. Hopko was specifically refuting Platonism, something Bishop Tom Wright also does fairly frequently. Platonism held that the spirit was eternal and had always existed. In Platonism, a spirit has a body for a time, but that body is not who you truly are as a human being. After death, your spirit is freed from your body and might have the opportunity to join the “Happy Philosophers” eternally in a purely spiritual existence. That perception of reality does not even intersect the Christian perspective of reality, yet has infiltrated it again and again over the centuries in one form or another.

I’m not particularly interested myself in the flesh/spirit dichotomy of Platonism and never have been. However, I realized as I was listening that to the extent I begin to think of spirit as eternal, I remain drawn to the Eastern non-Christian aspect of my formation. While I can’t say I ever fully embraced it (or anything else) before I was eventually drawn into Christianity, I do remember the attraction the Hindu perspective on reality held for me. Oddly, now that I’ve been shaped within Christianity, I would probably lean more toward Buddhism than Hinduism were I to rebound or drift in the direction of another world religion. I say “oddly” because in my younger days I didn’t find any flavor of Buddhism particularly attractive at all.

However, both Buddhism and Hinduism deal with spirit as eternal in a much richer and fuller way than either Platonism or the strains of Christianity influenced by something like that perspective. Whether it’s the Happy Philosophers or an eternal ‘spiritual’ existence in ‘heaven’ adoring God, both perspectives share the same fatal flaw. They are deeply existentially boring. I can think of no better word for it. Whatever else might be said about them, Buddhism and Hinduism are not boring. They are both deep and rich.

The sad thing is that Christianity actually has a lens into the heart of reality that is deeper and richer than anything I’ve ever encountered. It has the most profound things to say about what it means to be human and alive. And yet that lens seems to have often been buried so deep it’s impossible to see. And that shallow perspective has no legs to stand either against materialism on the one hand (we are just bodies) and the ancient Eastern religions on the other (all is actually spirit).

As Christians, we say that we are neither spirits that have a body nor bodies that have a spirit. We living souls, body and spirit, inextricably interwoven, interlaced, and sharing the same substance in a profound way. Ironically, as our scientific knowledge grows, we find our knowledge of the ways our bodies impact who we are growing at an exponential rate. But this is not a victory for the materialists, somehow proving that there is no such things as ‘spirit‘. No. It’s actually an affirmation of the Christian story of what it means to be a human being.

As we see in Jesus, the death of the eikon grieves God with a heartbreaking grief. Standing before the tomb of Lazarus, even knowing that he is about to raise him, the Word is deeply troubled, is disturbed, is angry at the violation of death, and weeps the tears of God. But God is our only source of life and as we participate in the sin of humanity (of the ‘adam‘) we turn from our life and seek a non-existence we can never actually achieve. This is the wonder of the Incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God, joins his nature to that of humanity so that he might bring Life to us. Our life is now hid with Christ in God. How amazing is that?

But the life we have remains an embodied spiritual life. And we retain a function and purpose within creation as the eikons of God. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The deepest mystery is not what happens in the fully realized Kingdom, when the veil between God’s reality and our own is dropped and we see things as they truly are. No, to me the strangest mystery is how God preserves our conscious existence between the time we die and the time we are all resurrected. There are a few scattered hints in the Holy Scriptures, but they are mostly silent on that point. Of course, we also have the witness of centuries of interaction between the Church and the reposed saints to affirm that we are preserved and remain active in some sense. But the whole thing is something of a mystery.

However, for Christians, the death of the eikon, of the human being, is always an abomination, as it is to God. Death is not a release. It is not a sweet journey home. It is something that even God grieves and acted in the most amazing way to defeat on our behalf. Yes, to be apart from the body is to be with Christ, which is far better, one of the few things our Scriptures tell us. And certainly, to be with the particular God we see in Christ is certainly better. But death itself? Still a great wrong, not something good itself. And we deeply wrong people when we tell them it is for the best or that they should rejoice for their reposed loved one. Death is ugly and wrong and we know that to the core of our being.

Either that’s what Christianity proclaims about reality and what it means to be human or it deserves to die out as a world religion.


On the Incarnation of the Word 54 – He Was Made Man That We Might Be Made God

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

In this next section, Athanasius makes one of the more profound statements. It captures the process and goal of salvation and our union with Christ in one phrase. It’s the sort of thing that packs an enormous amount into just a few words. Read and reflect on the whole section.

For He was made man that we might be made God

Jesus was made one of us. In the language of Irenaeus (and Paul), Jesus lived the life of the faithful man, overturning our choice as the unfaithful man. In that recapitulation, he broke the power of death over us. Jesus restores us to God, our only source of life. And as we participate in the life, we become participants in the life of God. Because of Christ’s union with humanity, we are able to share in the communion of the life and love of the Triune God. This is the underlying reality that makes Christianity so powerful and compelling. Our God is a God of self-sufficient, eternal love. And we are created to be participants in that life of love.

And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in.

I love this analogy. Have you ever tried to follow the waves of the ocean with your eyes? Have you ever tried to focus and follow a single part, even a single wave? It’s impossible. So it is that our minds cannot compass the wonder of Christ. But as we can stare at the ocean in awe and wonder, so we can behold Christ, even as minds are overwhelmed.


For the Life of the World 16

Posted: November 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 16

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 6-7 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  third podcast on chapter three.

Fr. Schmemann now explores the manner in which the cycle of services relates the Church and individual Christian to the time of day, and how the prayers and other liturgical acts, performed on behalf of the whole community, are an essential part of the Church’s redeeming mission. In the book and thus also in my post we’ll focus on the morning and the evening hours. In all traditions that join in the set prayers of the Church or are at all liturgical, these are the most prominent. In the podcast, Deacon Michael does an excellent job summarizing all of the hours. If you are not familiar with them, I recommend listening to the podcast even more strongly than I normally do.

Contrary to our secular experience of time, the liturgical day begins with Vespers, i.e., in the evening. This is, of course, the reminiscence of the biblical “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Gn. 1:5). Yet it is more than a reminiscence. For it is, indeed, the end of each “unit” of time that reveals its pattern and meaning, that gives to time its reality. Time is always growth, but only at the end can we discern the direction of that growth and see its fruits. It is at the end, in the evening of each day that God sees His creation as good; it is at the end of creation that He gives it to man. And thus, it is at the end of the day that the Church begins the liturgy of time’s sanctification.

So as our day or work and play and rest winds down, the Church does not merely add an epilogue to the experiences of that day. It begins a new day characterized by thanksgiving, turning toward God, and sanctifying the new day.

There must be someone in this world — which rejected God and in this rejection, in this blasphemy, became a chaos of darkness — there must be someone to stand in its center, and to discern, to see it again as full of divine riches, as the cup full of life and joy, as beauty and wisdom, and to thank God for it. This “someone” is Christ, the new Adam who restores that “eucharistic life” which I, the old Adam, have rejected and lost; who makes me again what I am, and restores the world to me. And if the Church is in Christ, its initial is always this act of Thanksgiving, of returning the world to God.

However, contrasted with the beauty and wonder for which we give thanks, there is also the ugliness of sin. Repentance is another theme of Vespers.

In the face of the glory of creation there must be tremendous sadness. God has given us another day, and we can see just how we have destroyed this gift of His. We are not “nice” Christians come apart from the ugly world. If we do not stand precisely as representatives of this world, as indeed the world itself, if we do not bear the whole burden of this day, our “piety” may still be pious, but it is not Christian.

The third theme of Vespers is redemption. This redemption, of course, is Christ.

Now in the time in which we can thank God for Christ, we begin to understand that everything is transformed in Christ into its true wonder. In the radiance of His light the world is not commonplace. The very floor we stand on is a miracle of atoms whizzing about in space. The darkness of sin is clarified, and its burden shouldered. Death is robbed of its finality, trampled down by Christ’s death. In a world where everything that seems to be present is immediately past, everything in Christ is able to participate in the eternal present of God. This very evening is the real time of our life.

And the last theme of Vespers is that of the end announced in the words from the Gospels of the old man Simeon.

Vespers is the recognition that the evening of this world has come which announces the day that has no evening. In this world every day faces night; the world itself is facing night. It cannot last forever. Yet the Church is affirming that an evening is not only an end, but also a beginning, just as any evening is also the beginning of another day. In Christ and through Christ it may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening.

The day that has no evening. That image echoes in my mind. Fr. Schmemann then moves to Matins. I like his opening in section 7.

When we first wake up, the initial sensation is always that of night, not of illumination; we are at our weakest, at our most helpless. It is like a man’s first real experience of life in all its absurdity and solitude, at first kept from him by family warmth. We discover every morning in the amorphous darkness the inertia of life. And thus the first theme of Matins is again the coming of light into darkness. … The Church announces every morning that God is the Lord, and she begins to organize life around God.

As Vespers, rather than epilogue announces a new day of Thanksgiving, so Matins organizes our waking life around the God whom we thank.

These two complementary, yet absolutely essential, dimensions of time shape our life in time and, by giving time a new meaning, transform it into Christian time. This double experience is, indeed, to be applied to everything we do. We are always between morning and evening, between Sunday and Sunday, between Easter and Easter, between the two comings of Christ. The experience of time as end gives an absolute importance to whatever we do now, makes it final, decisive. The experience of time as beginning fills all our time with joy, for it adds to it the “coefficient” of eternity: “I shall not die but live and declare the works of the Lord.”

Fr. Schmemann reflects on the words from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” That seems to capture the essence of the sameness of daily life. We get up, get ready, and head into a day of work, joining a rush of others doing the same. And in the evening, the rush is in the other direction as tired people head home. And the cycle, in the fallen world, repeats day after day in a blur of sameness, futility, and meaninglessness.

But we Christians have too often forgotten that God has redeemed the world. For centuries we have preached to the hurrying people: your daily rush has no meaning, yet accept it — and you will be rewarded in another world by an eternal rest. But God revealed and offers us eternal Life and not eternal rest. And God revealed this eternal Life in the midst of time — and of its rush — as its secret meaning and goal. And thus he made time, and our work in it, into the sacrament of the world to come, the liturgy of fulfillment and ascension. It is when we have reached the very end of the world’s self-sufficiency that it begins again for us as the material of the sacrament that we are to fulfill in Christ.

“There is no new thing under the sun.” Yet every day, every minute resounds now with the victorious affirmation: “Behold, I make all things new. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end…” (Rev. 21:5-6)

I love how he ends by contrasting the words of the Preacher and the words of our Lord. Indeed, Christ makes all things new, including time.


On the Incarnation of the Word 53 – Pagan Gods Routed by the Sign of the Cross

Posted: November 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 53 – Pagan Gods Routed by the Sign of the Cross

In this section, Athanasius continues to describe the rout of the pagan gods by Christ. I found this particularly interesting living, as we do, in a place and an age where some form (though certainly a milder form) of ancient paganism is experiencing a revival.

And to mention one proof of the divinity of the Saviour, which is indeed utterly surprising,—what mere man or magician or tyrant or king was ever able by himself to engage with so many, and to fight the battle against all idolatry and the whole demoniacal host and all magic, and all the wisdom of the Greeks, while they were so strong and still flourishing and imposing upon all, and at one onset to check them all, as was our Lord, the true Word of God, Who, invisibly exposing each man’s error, is by Himself bearing off all men from them all, so that while they who were worshipping idols now trample upon them, those in repute for magic burn their books, and the wise prefer to all studies the interpretation of the Gospels?  For whom they used to worship, them they are deserting, and Whom they used to mock as one crucified, Him they worship as Christ, confessing Him to be God. And they that are called gods among them are routed by the Sign of the Cross, while the Crucified Saviour is proclaimed in all the world as God and the Son of God. And the gods worshipped among the Greeks are falling into ill repute at their hands, as scandalous beings; while those who receive the teaching of Christ live a chaster life than they.

We are the body of Christ. We are the ones who claim to be living in the Kingdom of God, declaring Jesus of Nazareth our Lord. If we see the reverse of the above happening today, how can we not be culpable? And is not our failure a failure of communion (oneness) and love? After all, Jesus gave those who do not believe the right to judge if we follow Jesus by our love. If Christianity is failing in the West, it is failing because we do not love.

We follow an incredible God, found nowhere else and unlike any other god. Once I finally saw that God in a handful of people and began to seek to know him, I was captivated by the beauty of the Triune God. I’ve been entranced ever since. But I also have to agree with Gandhi. “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”


Promise Pizza

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Today my wife and I decided to try a new pizza place in Round Rock, Promise Pizza (also on twitter @promisepizza), for lunch. They offer all natural and organic ingredients, have a gluten free crust, gluten free sauce, and gluten free toppings, and, for the vegans or lactose intolerant out there Daiya “cheese” and a vegan crust and sauce. They also have a great lunch special, a personal 8″ one topping pizza (additional toppings at a small added cost), a drink, and cinnamon knots for $5.95.

My wife got the lunch special with chicken and mushrooms for her toppings. She enjoyed the pizza (and I was jealous of the thick, puffy, chewy crust), but absolutely loved the cinnamon knots. She said they were much, much, much better than the typical cinnamon pizza or stix you get at most places.

As is fairly normal, the gluten free crust was only available in one size, the 10″, and wasn’t part of the lunch special. I checked and the italian sausage was gluten free, pretty rare for sausage at a commercial restaurant, so I decided to get that along with red peppers for my toppings. The pizza was very good. They use a more complex and flavorful dough than the typical rice flour crusts I’ve encountered since I was diagnosed with celiac. It was more than simply a platform for transporting the cheese, sauce, and toppings. I actually enjoyed the crust itself. Oh, and they had natural gingerale at the soda machine, immediately endearing their restaurant to me. 😉

My wife’s assessment was that Promise Pizza is a place she wouldn’t mind going back to in the future. Since I have so few quick lunch options and the ones I find are not always thumbs up for her, that was good news. Moreover, it’s the closest place to our home that offers any sort of gluten free pizza. It’s my luck that it’s the best I’ve found so far. Pizza is not really “health” food, but more “comfort” food. But they offer pizza that is as healthy and eco-friendly as pizza can be!