Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

Posted: June 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

I concluded my first post with the question, when faced with the myriad forms of modern Christianity, what’s a poor pluralist to do? On the surface, at least, the answer is relatively straightforward. I didn’t and still don’t don’t treat Christianity as one religion. Instead, just I had always done with different systems and practices of belief, I learned to approach each stream called Christian on its own terms as something distinct and unique. After all, they are.

I’ve noticed that a fair number of people, if they are more than superficially aware of the diversity within the umbrella labeled Christianity, seem to expend a degree of energy trying to somehow reconcile the different systems of belief, determine which one is right, or somehow try to find some kind of reductionist, minimal common ground. That’s always seemed odd to me.

If someone says they believe differently than I do or than some other groups does, and I attempt to say that actually they believe pretty much the same thing, then I am attempting to assert power over them. Different beliefs at this level are different. As a rule, they cannot be reconciled with each other.

An individual effort to, through reason or emotion, determine which one is somehow right or correct is focused on the wrong question. If I cared to do so, I could probably write a pretty good logical defense of that umbrella of theological systems of intellectual belief within Christianity called Calvinism. I could probably do the same for many others. I could also find ways to shred and deconstruct many of the same, but at the end of the day, what does any of that matter? After all, I’m not trying to conduct some sort of scientific experiment. I’m not conducting a survey of religion for credit at a university.

I’m trying to determine who offers a description of the reality I experience that seems to more accurately capture my experience. I’m trying to discern who describes a God I am willing to worship and in whom I can find my life. Simply discovering that something is, in at least some sense, intellectually coherent, even if correct, is useless.

Finally, if you strip enough things away, I suppose we could find the common ground between Hinduism and Christianity and call them one as easily as we could strip things away and distill Christian belief to some sort of essence. But what does that accomplish? I haven’t actually made Hinduism and Christianity the same thing. They are still quite different. Instead I have created this new perspective on reality, even if I have not given it a name, which consists of the common beliefs between the two with everything else stripped away.

My approach is not really as difficult as it seems. We know from surveys and studies that between 30k-40k distinctly identifiable Christian denominations and non-denominations exist. That sounds like an unmanageably large number. How could anyone possibly explore each and every one of them? Well, the answer is that nobody ever could, just as no-one could ever possibly explore the path of every guru within Hinduism, past, present, and future. But there are factors that serve, in practice, to reduce those numbers.

First, there are a great many instances of distinct belief within that overall number that consist of a single group not connected organizationally with any others (often described as non-denominational) in locations around the world where I don’t live. As a simple matter of physical location, I don’t need to concern myself about those in my personal exploration. Of course, that leaves a large of number of traditions, denominations, associations, and local non-denominations, but the list is not as daunting as it seems.

Even within those remaining, they tend to aggregate into streams. Now, I do not mean that those who hold themselves distinct within a particular larger stream, such a Calvinism, are all the same. They aren’t. There can be quite a bit of variation and diversity. But that variation and diversity may not matter to me. For instance, I determined early in my exploration that the Calvinist God is not one I would ever worship, nor would I ever agree that lens accurately describes the reality around us. Once I understood that, the distinctions and variation of the individual denominations and non-denominations within that stream became largely irrelevant to me.

For very different reasons, it quickly became apparent to me that the broad Charismatic stream did not mesh with my perception of the Christian God and our reality. I would be hard-pressed to explain to anyone the differences between the different churches in that stream. I’ve read parts of the Book of Mormon (from a literary standpoint it’s pretty dreadful, so I’ve never made it through the whole thing) and otherwise learned enough about it to know that I’m not interested.

As a result, I’ve spent most of the past two decades exploring the streams that flow from Luther, from the Anglican Communion (including those coming out of it from people like the Wesleys), the pietists, and Roman Catholicism. Not too many years ago, I discovered the distinct nature of Orthodoxy and found within it many of the things I had not found in other streams. I didn’t even realize I was searching for some of them.

There are, of course, specific ideas and beliefs I reject because they simply do not factually describe the world. I do not mean to imply that sort of our discernment of reality and perception of things as they are doesn’t matter. It does. The modern “Young Earth Creationist” hypothesis is one such example. And I don’t particularly care if it’s being stated by a Baptist or an Orthodox (and I’ve read and heard it from both of those and many more). I’m not going to believe it. I also don’t spend a great deal of energy on the matter.

But most beliefs are not subject to such simple analysis and categorization.  The strands are woven into a basket and the whole basket must be examined and, if possible, tried.

In a lot of ways, it was Jesus who had worked his way into the chinks of the walls I had established against Christianity. I had not been looking for a new belief system. I was not exploring Christianity, especially at first, because I was seeking to understand reality. I had an understanding of sorts which had been disrupted, but not exactly overturned, by this strange Christian God. In a lot of ways, I’ve always been looking for the stream that actually described something I could recognize as the God who met me, who came to me.

Still, there are a lot of people in those thirty to forty thousand denominations and non-denominations. When I say something like Calvinism does not describe a God I would ever worship, what does it say about those within that Calvinist stream? What about those in the many different streams I do not accept? To me, that’s only different in degree from the question about those within Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of a host of different rivers of belief. I’ve written about that here and there in the past. In my next post in this series, I’ll try to touch on it again.


Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full stop.

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

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

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

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

So what’s a poor pluralist to do?

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

 


Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 1 – Series Intro

Posted: May 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I recognize that the topic of this series might seem a little odd. After all, I’m not a lot of different things. In fact, the list of things I’m not at least approaches infinity while the list of things I am is by necessity thoroughly finite. Nevertheless, the thoughts I will try to outline in this series have been bouncing around my head for several months now. It’s time to form them into words.

I think part of the reason a series like this makes some sense lies within the culture of our country. Christianity and atheism are often set as foils against each other. I have Hindu friends, but nobody ever wonders or asks why I’m not Hindu. (Actually, for those who know my story, it would be more accurate to ask why I don’t consider myself a sort of Hindu believer any longer.) I have Buddhist friends, but again nobody wonders why I’m not Buddhist. Over the years I have had a few Wiccan or neo-pagan friends but, again, the fact that I don’t accept or follow Wiccan beliefs never seems to be an issue. By marriage, a part of my extended family is Jewish, but nobody seems to wonder why I don’t embrace modern Judaism. And yet atheistic family and friends do sometimes express or imply a curiosity about my rejection of atheism.

I think, in our modern American culture, Christianity (in some shape, form, or fashion) and atheism appear to be our two default positions, considered by many as the two opposing poles. When arguments against atheism are presented, they are almost inevitably Christian arguments. (Frankly a lot of them, particularly of the fundamentalist variety, are really bad arguments. But that’s a different discussion.) Similarly, even if they aren’t wholly cognizant of the fact, many of the atheistic arguments are not aimed at religion in general, but at Christianity specifically. Christianity and atheism sometimes appear to be the only two philosophical positions that actively proselytize in our culture and their methods and approaches can also be surprisingly similar.

This series will not be an apologetic for Christianity — at least not beyond those particular distinctions that are personally important to me. I won’t be attempting any sort of exhaustive examination of atheism. Rather, I will focus on those facets that help form my perceptions and understandings. In other words, I won’t really be trying to address the questions that other people have about religion in general or Christianity in particular. Rather, I will focus on the things that matter to me and which have been formed by my personal experience.

If anyone reading would like to comment on some of the reasons they tend toward either atheism or something else or post any questions they might have, I’ll let you know if I already plan to touch on that point. And if not, I’ll consider it and see if I perhaps have any thoughts on the subject and use it to expand my series.

I don’t assume that atheists are unfamiliar with Christianity or religion in general. Some may be, but I have a friend and long time atheist who in his youth either was a Catholic seminarian for a time or considered and explored the possibility. I appreciate it when others don’t similarly assume that even though I have not embraced atheism, I don’t know something about it. I believe aspects of that knowledge will come up in my series. I will note though, that I do not plan to write much about the so-call new atheists. Frankly, I’ve sampled their work and tend to find it caustic, argumentative, intellectually dishonest, and philosophically shallow. In many ways, they strike me as the atheistic counterpart of a Mark Driscoll. (If you don’t know who that is, count your blessings.) And I find their work similarly repellent.

Since this series is more a personal exploration, it may be that neither those who lean toward atheism nor those who lean toward Christianity will find it particularly interesting or helpful. (Someone who leans in some other direction entirely will likely find it a pretty boring series.) But it’s within the realm of possibility that someone out there may find at least some of it interesting in some way. If nothing else, writing this series will help me organize my thoughts so they stop bouncing randomly around my head.

Peace.


Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

Posted: March 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

If we are not primarily seeking to change God or change ourselves when we engage in Christian prayer, perhaps we pray to establish common ground amongst ourselves and form a community? This facet is probably less visible or recognized in low church evangelical settings of individual “spontaneous” prayer, but traditionally Christians have recited prayers and creeds together in worship. Moreover, individual prayer has also revolved around set prayers at particular intervals during the day.

Praying as the church does, in fact, serve to bind us together. Set prayers help create and maintain a common ground of practice and expressed belief. That’s pretty evident and is hardly unique to Christianity. It flowed into Christian practice directly from Judaism. In Daniel and elsewhere in the OT, we see the practice of a set rhythm of prayer. We know that first century Jews prayed the Psalms together at set intervals and had other prayers they prayed. When Jesus’ followers asked him for a prayer, he gave them one to recite together. We see the Church and apostles in Acts continuing the rhythm of set prayers.

And we see the same practice in other religions. Muslims engage in communal prayer five times daily. Buddhist and Hindu worshipers will gather and chant together in prayer. The act helps shape your identity as a member of particular community of worship. And it can identify you to others. We share these prayers and practices. That recognition creates an almost instant connection or bond.

I don’t deny that the practice of communal prayer, corporately and individually, can help create community. It’s an effect of our Christian practice of prayer, but I hesitate to call this effect the purpose. Again, if that were true, there would be little to distinguish Christian prayer from that of some of the other religions. Moreover, there are many ways to mark a group as a community of shared belief and practice. If this were the purpose of prayer, then it’s just one such practice among many, and of no lesser or greater importance.

But that’s not the sense I get from the New Testament or the writings of the Church. Prayer is seen as vital and of the utmost importance. Why? That’s the question I think we must answer.


A Christian Nation?

Posted: January 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments » http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XddLDufkaig

 

 

 

Especially on the “conservative” side, it’s common to hear people claim our country was founded as a Christian nation. It wasn’t, of course. Nor was it founded as an atheistic nation, like the Communist regimes of the 20th century. Our founders were trying to establish the world’s first secular nation and I think, for good or ill, they largely succeeded. Certainly our culture is deeply and thoroughly secular. But that’s a different discussion from the one I want to focus on here.

The video above shows the building and opening of a Rebirth of Orthodoxy exhibit in Moscow. It’s pretty impressive. But there’s a section where an icon is brought in for veneration. The long lines and devotion impressed me, as it has in other videos of Russian devotion I’ve seen. Russia suffered under an atheistic regime that actively tried to stamp out Orthodoxy for most of the 20th century. Virtually nobody still alive in that country can remember a time before Communism. And yet they held onto their faith. Culturally, they remained a truly Christian nation, and when the boot of the oppressor was removed, that deep faith almost immediately began blossoming again.

It’s hard for us to imagine a country, like Russia, which has been a Christian nation for a thousand years, or one like Greece, which has been a Christian nation for even longer. As a nation, we’re still in the early portion of our third century. And our cultural memory tends to be short, anyway. Certainly as far as our privileged majority goes, we tend to dismiss slavery, our genocide of Native Americans, and even the more recent Jim Crow era as “ancient history.” Very often, even if not explicitly expressed, the attitude is that those peoples who have suffered should just “get over it.”

Some form of Christian faith has, collectively, always been the majority religion in our country. But I don’t think that alone is enough to make us a Christian nation. I watch the Russians and I can’t help but think of our own country. While the majority of us can collectively be described as individually Christian, it’s a fractured and divisive Christianity. We have no culturally cohesive and unified Christian identity. If we had suffered under a repressive and often brutal atheistic regime for a century, would we have retained any meaningful Christian identity? Maybe in pockets here and there, but across our country?

I’m skeptical. I don’t see here the same sort of deeply rooted faith we are seeing in Russia. And our cultural memories are short. We are pretty much repeating today the same mistakes we made in the late 19th and early 20th century and most people seem completely oblivious to that fact. Even our cultural memory of the era of segregation, which a lot of people still alive can remember, is fading.

Compared to Russia and other truly Christian nations, in what sense, then, can we call ourselves a Christian nation?


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.


The Jesus Prayer 1 – History, Scripture, and the Meaning of Mercy

Posted: February 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 1 – History, Scripture, and the Meaning of Mercy

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

It seems to me that a life of unceasing or constant prayer is very often dismissed as impossible by many Christians today. I’m not entirely sure why that’s so. For most of Christian history, the discipline of prayer has been one of the central practices of Christian faith. And it seems clear that St. Paul considered prayer extremely important. In no fewer than four places in the Holy Scriptures, he exhorts those hearing his words to pray constantly or unceasingly. If it’s captured that many times in the texts of Scripture, we can be certain it featured prominently in his oral exhortations and teachings.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Rom. 12:12)

Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance. (Eph. 6:18)

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with Thanksgiving. (Col. 4:2)

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

I think, to riff off Chesterton, the discipline of constant prayer has not been attempted and found impossible or wanting by so many Christians today. Rather it has been found difficult and left untried.

And it is certainly difficult. I’m the first to confess that my rule of prayer is a poor one and even so I fail to keep it as often as I succeed. My efforts at constant prayer still produce sketchy results at best. But I do believe that St. Paul would not have kept exhorting those under his care to pray constantly if it were not humanly possible to do so.

Moreover, the practice and seriousness of the ascetic discipline of prayer colors and shapes the whole of Christian history. I first encountered the Christian discussion of unceasing prayer through Bro. Lawrence, but the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries are the ones to whom Khouria Frederica turns in this chapter. We think we need novelty in prayer lest it become stale and we become numb to it, but the following story speaks volumes about that conceit.

Abba Pambo (AD 303-75) could not read, so he asked another desert dweller to teach him a psalm. When he heard the first words of Psalm 39, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue,” he asked the other monk to stop and then meditated on that verse alone — for nineteen years. (Asked whether he was ready to hear at least the remainder of the verse, he replied that he had not mastered the first part yet.)

We now live in a literate culture with easy access to almost any text we desire, including myriad translations of the texts of Scripture. Moreover, there are everywhere churches that claim to be “bible-believing.” But can we honestly say that we take the texts that seriously? What does belief mean in this context?

The particular form of the Jesus Prayer arose because so many of those who encountered Jesus in the Gospels asked for mercy. I’m not sure exactly why this prayer is the one that kept coming to me when I was searching for a breath prayer, but that likely had something to do with it. (And perhaps it’s also an example of the mercy of our Lord. He knew the prayer I needed, even if I didn’t.)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
      Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
            Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
                  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Khouria Frederica then asks a good question. What does it mean to ask for mercy? I never realized it was a good question until I read this section of her book. I had always read it the way we see it used in Scripture and in many contexts of history, literature, and life. Asking for mercy is a way of asking for help.

But a lot of Christians today think of mercy as something a prisoner begs from a judge — basically a plea for leniency. While that’s a limited, but valid, meaning of the term in English, that’s not the way it’s used in Scripture, common Christian usage, or even in general usage. If you take mercy on someone, you help them. I’ve always seen it so. But I realized that in my Christian context, a lot of my fellow Christians have equated mercy with the leniency of a judge, not with rescue.

God’s forgiveness is a gift bestowed on all humanity. We don’t need to ask for it. We don’t need to do anything to gain it. He is a good God who loves mankind. His forgiveness is abundant and free. The following quote captures the real problem better than anything I could write.

So this isn’t a question about whether we’ve forgiven. No, the problem lies elsewhere; the problem is we keep on sinning. Sin is in us like an infection in the blood. It keeps us choosing to do and say and think things that damage Creation and hurt other people — and the ill effects rebound on us as well. There can even be sin without guilt. Sometimes we add to the weary world’s burden of sin through something we did in ignorance or unintentionally, for example, by saying something that hurt a hearer for reasons we knew nothing about. Our words increased the sin-sickness in the world, yet we are not guilty for that unintentional sin (though we are still sorry for inadvertently causing pain). Sin can be recognized as a noxious force on earth without having to pin the guilt on someone every time.

In the Eastern view, all humans share a common life; when Christ became a member of the human race, our restoration was begun. The opposite is, sadly, true as well; our continuing sins infect and damage everybody else, and indeed Creation itself. It’s like air pollution. There is suffering for everyone who shares our human life, everyone who breathes, even the innocent who never did anyone harm.

I will add that we need look no further than the life of Christ to see the truth of that last sentence. If there was ever anyone who was truly innocent, it was he. And yet he shared in all our suffering. So when we cry to him for mercy — for help — Jesus understands in a way only another human being could. We keep asking for mercy because we continue to need help. At least, I continue to need help every moment and every day. I suppose I shouldn’t presume to speak for others who may need less help than me. Sometimes, if I stop asking for mercy, I begin to believe I no longer need any help. That rarely ends well.

I’ll close with another quoted paragraph from this chapter. It describes what has been slowly (sometimes imperceptibly) happening in my life.

Theosis is a vast and daunting goal even to imagine, so there’s something distinctively, sweetly Christian about using a prayer that is so simple. There have been plenty of other religions that taught convoluted mystical procedures for union with God, but for Christians it is as straightforward as calling on our Lord and asking him for mercy. As you form the habit of saying this prayer in the back of your mind all the time, it soaks into you, like dye into cotton, and colors the way you encounter every person and circumstance you meet.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the ways that modern Christians discuss and employ the Bible are highly anachronistic. In this series, I’ll reflect on the nature of ancient texts in general and the Christian Holy Scriptures in particular. I was going to do it in a single post, but then I realized that would be a long post even by my standards. At a minimum, this series will help me organize my own thoughts on the topic. It’s possible others will find it interesting as well.

Before we even begin looking at the specific ways texts functioned in the ancient world, we have to step back and look at the culture in which they were embedded. While ancient cultures varied greatly, they did all share one feature. They were oral cultures. We live in a highly literate culture so it can be difficult for us to imagine what that means.

First, it does not refer to how many people in the culture can read or write. That varied wildly. At some times and in some places, hardly anyone could read or write at all. In other times and places a large percentage of the population could read and write at least to some extent. Homer and Plato, despite their great literary works, developed them in the context of an oral culture. The primary feature of an oral culture is that forms of speech are the means of encoding and conveying knowledge across space and time. Oral cultures tend to have as many specialized forms of speech as we have literary forms.

Moreover, when the cultural means of conveying and preserving information is different, our brains actually adapt themselves to the task. We’ve learned a lot by studying members of some of the remaining oral cultures today. In an oral culture, our capacity to store large amounts of orally encoded information almost verbatim expands tremendously. Moreover, we become highly attuned to nuances of speech. As long as the culture itself remains intact, oral cultures seem to retain information across generations very well. Of course, when the culture fades, it leaves less of that information behind than a highly literate culture does.

That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult for us to reconstruct ancient history. We’re always working from bits and fragments. Much was never recorded at all. And time has damaged or destroyed much that was recorded. We actually know much less with certainty about the ancient world than many people today assume. Now that’s not to say that we know nothing or that the assumptions and patchwork with which we’ve filled in the gaps is wrong. Much of it is reasonable. But reasonable does not necessarily mean those assumptions are right. Ancient history is a fluid area of study. As we find something that seems to invalidate an earlier assumption, we have to reshuffle our conceptions.

I will note that ancient pagan religions of all sorts were largely mystery cults that were “traditioned” orally. When an ancient religion faded, that means very few markers were left about the religion. In most cases, we know very little about the religion itself. For instance, we actually know almost nothing about the Celtic Druids or any ancient Celtic religion. We don’t actually know very much about the inner workings of ancient Norse religions. We know a little bit more about ancient Greek religions, but still less than some would imagine. Moreover, the things we do know about ancient religions that faded in the mists of time are mostly confined to their outward forms and displays. The inner workings were never written down and thus died with the religion.

That’s really why I was never deeply attracted to modern neopaganism. I’ve had friends who were adherents and have attended some of the more open rituals. But I also knew that most of it couldn’t have any real connection to those ancient religions. Of course, a more accurate reinvention would have been completely repellent (and possibly illegal). Animal sacrifice, sacrifice of enemies, child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and many similar things were a part of many actual ancient religions — though again it’s hard for us to reconstruct specifics. That’s probably part of the reason I was always more drawn to the ancient Eastern religions that are still practiced today. There is a continuous thread of connection and practice.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that writing this series would help me organize my thoughts. That’s also something that’s pretty common in a literate culture. We write to organize our thoughts. We write lists to organize tasks. We write speeches before delivering them. We write essays and papers to develop our train of thought or to construct an argument. Oral cultures don’t work that way at all. If something is written down, it’s usually to help convey it to a distant destination or because someone else wrote it down as it was delivered (usually on behalf of someone who couldn’t be present). It’s not just the way our memories function that changes, the way we process and organize our thoughts changes as well.

It’s important to understand just how different an oral culture truly is from a literate culture. Those of us who are thoroughly shaped by a literate culture will never truly be able to place ourselves inside the mental context of an oral culture. Still, if we are aware of the difference, it can help keep us from jumping to the wrong conclusions. It seems to me that many of the anachronistic ideas arise simply because people interpret something from the ancient world through the lens of their modern, literate formation and mindset. We almost can’t help but make that error to one degree or another, but if we keep the distinction always in mind, we can make fewer erroneous assumptions than we otherwise would.


Thirsting for God 10 – The Right Ritual

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 10 – The Right Ritual

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Love cannot exist without ritual.

Think about the above statement in the context of anyone whom you have loved. Are there not myriad little traditions and rituals that embody and sustain that love? Matthew provides an example with his wife in the book, but it shouldn’t be hard for any of us to think of our own personal illustrations. In fact, to one degree or another ritual behavior permeates all our relationships. Even at the most casual level, we shake right hands, or we bow, or we salute.

Of course, I’ve never had the strange aversion many Protestants have to ritual worship and practices. I’ve explored and practiced an array of religions and all of them provide practices that you follow both individually and corporately. As a result, the title of this chapter immediately caught my eye. It’s not about whether or not you follow certain ritual practices in worship. It’s a given that you will have some form of ritual practice. Rather, the question is whether or not you follow the right rituals.

For here’s the dirty little secret of the anti-ritualistic side of Protestantism. Every single one of them employ rituals in corporate worship and prescribe ritual practices for individual use. It’s simply an unavoidable aspect of being human. Even if you sit together in a bare room waiting for the Spirit to move someone to speak, that’s still a corporate ritual practice. A daily “quiet time” is a personal ritual practice.

And that’s natural, especially in those aspects of life that are the most important to us. It’s not something to fight against. Think about your closest relationships of love. As Matthew Gallatin puts it, what makes love real is its “predictability and constancy” not its “spikes and flutters.”

Once you recognize that truth, the real issue becomes one of discerning between the myriad ritual practices that are presented as Christian worship today. And this is where it seems natural and obvious to me to turn to history. Sure, there are things I like and things I may not like as much, but I’ve spent the past decade and a half trying to understand what it means to be Christian. Given my relativistic formation it’s a constant temptation for me to find the things I like and gravitate toward them, but I’ve been down that road. I’m not particularly interested in continuing to pursue it with a Christian veneer.

As Christians, we are not sacramental because that’s the way we like to worship. We’re sacramental because this is the path God has revealed and commanded His Church to follow.

Most of the modern Protestant practices are, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, completely anachronistic. Moreover, they not only didn’t exist in the ancient world, many of them couldn’t have existed. They simply don’t fit. They can also generally be traced to a specific origin in the last few hundred years.

Matthew Gallatin also makes the point that the diversity in ritual practice that fragments Protestantism and keeps Protestants from being truly one with each other also keeps them from attaining true union with God. And that’s an important point. We love God as much as we love the human being that we hate the most. And we can only be one with God to the extent that we are one with each other.

My SBC church has reached the point where its two styles of worship have become a point of divergence. It’s a church whose members cannot worship together. Significant numbers on both sides have made it clear they would leave before yielding even a small degree. In what sense is that Christian? Sure, it’s not hard to accommodate both groups with two different worship services, but it illustrates the lack of oneness.

(For the record, while I do have personal preferences, I don’t really have a dog in the fight. The two services look to me like slightly variant expressions of the same modern form of ritual worship. Neither of them have much thread of connection to any historical pattern of Christian worship. But the fact that many are so deeply entrenched does illustrate how important our rituals are to us.)