Search Term Friday: Sinning In Your Heart

I often get people coming to the blog searching for answers to the question "can you sin in your heart?"

Those queries link to some old posts of mine that summarized some psychological research regarding how Jewish and Christian persons differ in how they moralize mental states and how that research prompted some of my own students to investigate the snarly issue of "sinning in your heart."

Remember the famous 1976 Playboy interview with Jimmy Carter? In that interview Carter caused some controversy by confessing that he had "lusted after women in my heart many times."

Most Christians would sympathize with President Carter as many Christians believe that you can "sin in your heart," that thoughts have moral status. This belief is largely drawn from the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5.21-22, 27-28
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother ]will be subject to judgment."

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
This phenomena of "sinning in your heart" is illuminated by an interesting study conducted by psychologists Adam Cohen and Paul Rozin (Cohen & Rozin, 2001. "Religion and the morality of mentality." JPSP, 81, 697-710).

In this study, Cohen and Rozin compared Jewish and Christian participants on the degree to which they moralize mental events. In the study, Cohen and Rozin found that Jewish participants did not moralize mental events. Only choices leading to behaviors appeared to have moral status (i.e., be designated "right" versus "wrong").

By contrast, Christian participants did moralize mental events. That is, even if a person made proper moral choices and acted in an ethical manner they could still "sin in their hearts," and, as a result, be a "bad" person.

Why this difference in how mental events are or are not moralized?

One answer is that the rabbinic tradition posits a different moral psychology than what most Christians subscribe to. Specifically, the Jewish rabbis have distinguished between two fundamental human inclinations which clash in the human psyche. There is an evil impulse, the "yezer ha-ra," which struggles against our good impulse, the "yezer ha-tov." Psychologists call this kind of theory a "folk psychology," a psychological theory about how the mind functions that is culturally posited or phenomenologically derived. Most cultures have a "folk psychology," common assumptions about how the mind works.

What is interesting is that this rabbinic folk psychology, positing an internal conflict between the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov, creates a situation where mental events are not moralized as was observed by Cohen and Rozin. How so? Well, given the constant presence of the evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, thoughts of lust or hate or envy are, in principle, present in all moral choices. Thus, it is no "sin" to have such thoughts. It is just a part of human psychology (from the Jewish perspective). A person cannot rid themselves of the yezer-ha ra, one can only choose not to obey it. And, thus, it is the choice that has moral status, not the thoughts of the yezer ha-ra.

By contrast, Christians don't have a folk psychology to help them sort out how any given thought is a temptation versus a sin. For Jewish persons the situation is straightforward, all thoughts are temptations, only behaviors have moral status. Christians, by contrast, believing they can sin in their hearts, can't rely on a behavior/thought distinction. Christians have to sort between the thoughts themselves. Which is tougher to do and creates a lot of neurotic, paranoid, and confused Christians.

When does a thought become a sin?

Many years ago some of my students investigated this question.

Specifically, these students asked, How might a typical Christian decide when a particular thought becomes a sin?

For example, let's say, borrowing a stimulus from Cohen and Rozin's study, a married man works with a sexually attractive co-worker. Due to her attractiveness he finds, fairly regularly, sexual thoughts drifting through his mind. Is this man, per Jimmy Carter, committing infidelity in his heart?

Maybe, but we'd like some more details. What do we mean by "sexual thoughts"? And when might such thoughts move from temptation to sin?

My students came up with two related ideas that might be guiding how Christians judge these questions for themselves.

First, maybe a thought becomes a sin if the thought starts moving toward "obsession." That is, if the man in the example above thought about having sex with this co-worker for much of the day Christians would be increasingly likely to label those thoughts as sin.

Second, maybe it is not the amount of thought that matters but how the person responds to and resists the thoughts. Going back to the example, when the sexual thought emerges does the man try to shoo the thought away? Or does he entertain the thought, allowing it to sit in his mind for a time?

Clearly, these two things are correlated--degree of contemplation and resistance to the thought--but they are distinct features. That is, although resisting "tempting" thoughts should reduce their frequency, there are many cases where there is both high thought frequency and resistance. The struggling addict comes to mind.

To test how these dynamics might affect judgments of "sinning in your heart," my students borrowed the experimental protocol of Cohen and Rozin and tweaked it to manipulate the degree of contemplation and resistance displayed by the people described in the scenarios (like the one discussed above). And among a group of Christian participants my students found that assessments of sinfulness were based upon degree of resistance. No effect was found for degree of contemplation.

What these results suggest is that, at least for the sample we studied, Christians appear to view "sinning in your heart" as a sin of omission rather than one of comission.

Specifically, a lustful or hateful thought can erupt in your mind at any time. Further, these can even be very frequent thoughts. But that, according to our research, doesn't make the thought a sin. What is critical, morally speaking, is what happens next. If what happens next is a cognitive attempt to shut down the thought, then the thought is judged to be a temptation and not a sin. And you might be tempted a lot, over and over. But if you keep shutting down or fighting the thought that's okay.

But if, however, the thought is entertained, courted, and elaborated the mental events are increasing judged as being sinful, examples of lust, envy and hate.

Summarizing the findings, the sin isn't in the experience, even the frequent experience, of the thought--a sin of comission. Sinning in your heart is a sin of omission, failing to "do battle" with the thoughts, no matter how frequently or infrequently they occur.

This, at least in the sample we studied, is a part of the "folk psychology" guiding how Christians judge thoughts as being temptations versus sins.

The Better Wine

Mary, called in the gospel "the mother of Jesus," appears twice in the gospel of John. At the beginning and at the end. And in both cases thirst and wine are involved.

The first story is the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine because the wedding hosts had run out:
John 2.1-10
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.  Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
Jesus initially resists the request saying that his "time has not yet come." What time is that exactly? The master of the banquet also makes the observation that the "cheaper" wine comes early and the better wine comes out later.

That's all very interesting. We are left leaning into the story wondering when Jesus's "hour" will come and the better wine be poured out.

And wine, along with Mary, does appear again later in the story, drawing our attention and forming a connection between the wine of Cana and the blood poured out on the cross:
John 19.25-35
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.
Is this the time, "the hour" that Jesus was referring to at Cana? Is this what the miracle of Cana was pointing toward all along, the true miracle of "turning water into wine"? Is the blood of Jesus the "better wine" that comes out at the end of the story, the observation made by the master of the wedding feast at Cana?

Consider the Eucharistic overtones.

Is not the wine enjoyed in the Eucharist the "better wine" of our own wedding banquet?

Sex: The Center of Christian Morality Is Not Here

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Nadia Bolz-Weber Called Me What?: More On Christian Celebrity Culture

Toward the end of my podcast last week with Luke Norsworthy Luke took great delight in reminding me that Nadia Bolz-Weber called me an asshole during her podcast with Luke. If you heard that you might have wondered what that was all about.

In her podcast with Luke Nadia was reflecting on the issue of "Christian celebrity." Nadia recounted how she was at a speaking engagement and was feeling exhausted and needing some time away from the people where she was speaking. And during this moment of refreshment she opened an email from a friend sharing my post on Christian celebrity culture. In that post I shared a "test" about how to spot a Christian celebrity. Specifically, where are we to find the speaker before or after his or her talk? Does he or she take the time and effort to be with people? Or does he or she go off by himself or herself? Nadia, at the moment taking time away to refresh herself, read that "test," felt a bit guilty, and mentally called me an asshole for making her feel that way.

So, obviously, she wasn't mad at me as a human being and, in fact, noted that her reaction was more about her own feelings than anything about me.

Still, if you listen to Nadia's podcast with Luke she does go on to give my "test" some good pushback, pointing out how what she was doing in that instance--getting some time away--was important and a healthy form of self-care.

And I'd agree. And I'd also agree with the pushback that Zach Lind, drummer of Jimmy Eat World, gave to that same post in his podcast with Luke. As well as with the pushback Rachel Held Evans gave in the comments of my post.

Looking back now, I would have written my post differently. The "test" I gave in the post--Does the speaker make himself or herself available before and/or after his or her talk?--is a bit too narrow and limited. It doesn't apply to the music concert situation that Zach talks about. It doesn't take into account Rachel's point that many of us can "work a crowd" to create the illusion of being "accessible." And it doesn't take into account Nadia's comments about legitimate times and spaces for self-care and that she can't be everyone's pastor.

So I think the "test" I gave in that original post is limited in some pretty significant ways. But I think the heart of the post still holds up pretty well.

Basically, I made two points.

First, I argued that there is a difference between popularity and celebrity. Just because you're in the spotlight or there is a long line at your book signing table doesn't make you a celebrity. All that stuff just makes you popular.

So what makes a celebrity? That was my second point. Celebrity, as I described it, was creating distance, generally elite distance between yourself and others. When people chaff at "Christian celebrity culture" I think that's what they are chaffing at. It's not the big crowds or the long lines at book signings that's the problem. It's the insiderism, the cool, influential people hanging out together with the attendees--the normal, regular folk--being asked to stand behind the ropes to observe the red carpet proceedings.

You can see how, if this is my definition of "Christian celebrity," why I came up with the "test" that I did. If Christian celebrity is the creation of elite distance between influential insiders and everyone else then this can be combated by the breaking down those barriers.

Basically, we combat celebrity by cultivating practices of hospitality, with popular people welcoming and making room for others.

To be sure, we need to be attentive to issues of venue, crowd size and self-care. Still, I think the general point holds: we battle celebrity with hospitality.

And I think another point I made holds as well. In my original "test" I also mentioned speakers or performers being willing to listen to other speakers and performers. And again, issues of venue and context matter here, this just might not be workable, but I do think the general point holds.

Specifically, what I was gesturing at with this "test"--listening to others--was humility, a keen interest in learning from others. Personally, I think listening to others is the quintessential sign of humility. In fact, a willingness to listen to others may be the quintessential act of hospitality as well.

In short, a speaker only interested in talking and not listening is, well, an egoist, a self-absorbed celebrity. Only their thoughts, words and ideas matter. Again, listening to others at an event just might not be feasible for many speakers, but the issue here is a willingness and desire to listen. The craving to sit in the audience with rapt attention along with everyone else. And a feeling of regret that if, for whatever reason, you can't sit in the audience that you would have missed something special, precious and potentially life-changing.

A recent example of this.

Last week I was at Streaming with Greg Boyd. I was sitting by Greg while Sara Barton was giving her presentation. Greg had a legal pad out and was filling it with notes about what Sara was teaching. Greg was the headliner at this conference, the "celebrity," the author with all the books on the book table, the speaker people traveled many miles to listen to. But at Streaming Greg didn't act like a celebrity.

As Sara was teaching Greg was sitting there, like the rest of us, listening and taking notes.

Search Term Friday: The Isenheim Altarpiece

I get a lot of traffic each week on the blog with people searching for the "isenheim altarpiece." I've written a lot about the Isenheim Altarpiece, sharing many of the things I've learned from my colleague Dan in our Art Department at ACU.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Matthias Grünewald some time between 1512 and 1516 for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim (then in Germany). This complicated work of multiple panels depicts four biblical scenes--the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, and the Resurrection. The first view of the altarpiece is of the Crucifixion (upper panels) and the Lamentation (lower panels). The Crucifixion panels are by far the most famous aspect of the altarpiece:


The Grünewald Crucifixion is considered to be one of the more painful crucifixions ever painted. Perhaps more horrific crucifixions have been painted since the Isenheim Altarpiece, but relative to the genres of its time (and even today) the Grünewald Crucifixion remains unique in the risks it took. But more than this, the fame of the Isenheim Altarpiece is largely due to the fact that this Crucifixion scene was used in a church. Few churches have a Crucifixion scene this difficult as the focal point of worship.

To come to grips with the Grünewald Crucifixion one needs to see aspects of the painting close up. First, a close up of Jesus' body:


One can see the torn flesh with many pieces of thorns or wood embedded in the body from the scourging. Even more difficult is the sickly green coloration that is employed:


These are difficult images. So difficult that we might ask: How could this horrific picture be the central worship image of a church?

The answer to this question comes from noting that the monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony specialized in hospital work, particularly the treatment of ergotism, the gangrenous poisoning known as "Saint Anthony's fire." In ancient times ergotism was largely caused by ingesting a fungus-afflicted rye or cereal. The symptoms of ergotism included the shedding of the outer layers of the skin, edema, and the decay of body tissues which become black, infected, and malodorous. Prior to death the rotting tissue and limbs are lost or amputated. In 857 a contemporary report of St. Anthony's fire described ergotism like this:

"a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death."
The theological power of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that Grünewald painted the gangrenous symptoms of ergotism into his crucifixion scene. As the patients of St. Anthony's Monastery worshiped--and a more hideous, ugly and diseased congregation can scarce be imagined--they looked upon the Isenheim Altarpiece and saw a God who suffered with them.

In a fascinating insight, my colleague Dan at ACU has pointed out to me that when the Crucifixition panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece are opened we notice the following. In the upper panel, upon opening, the right arm of Jesus is separated from his body. Below the Crucifixion scene in the lower panels depicting the Lamentation the same opening separates the legs of Jesus from his body. In short, as the Isenheim Altarpiece is opened Jesus becomes an amputee, losing an arm and his legs. We can only imagine the power of this imagery among a congregation of amputees.

You can see Dan's observation best in the following image. I've highlighted the division in the panels with a bold white line. Again, note how when the panel is opened the right arm (in the upper picture) and the legs (in the lower picture) become detached from the body:


I don't understand a lot about what happened at Golgotha. But what I think about the most is how, in the crucifixion, God participated in the horror of the human condition and stood beside--eternally--the ugly, cursed, and god-forsaken. Like the congregation of amputees at the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim.

Some thoughts on this perspective from Jurgen Moltmann's book The Crucified God:
The crucified Christ became the brother of the despised, abandoned and oppressed. And this is why brotherhood with the 'least of his brethren' is a necessary part of brotherhood with Christ and identification with him. Thus Christian theology must be worked out amongst these people and with them...in concrete terms amongst and with those who suffer in this society...Christian identification with the crucified necessarily brings him into solidarity with the alienated of this world, with the dehumanized and the inhuman.
...
The church of the crucified was at first, and basically remains, the church of the oppressed and insulted, the poor and wretched, the church of the people.
...
But for the crucified Christ, the principle of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful... but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly...

Warfare Theology

I'm back over at Luke Norsworthy's podcast this week talking about my recent conversations with Greg Boyd about spiritual warfare and demons.

Luke and I also talk about free will, the weakness of God, the problem of evil, Lady Gaga, pole vaulting, tattoos, and the benefits of guilt. 

Among other things.

And speaking about progressive Christians and the powers, yesterday Fred Clark posted some very insightful comments in two posts giving me some pushback about my recent post Christus Victor and Progressive Christianity.

See Fred's first post 'Spiritual bondage to the powers of death’: Why Screwtape should’ve read some James Cone and his follow-up post ‘You have to keep scooping out of the boat’: More on progressive Christianity and sin in response to a clarification I offered.

Enjoy!

Blood Trumps Everything: Why the Church Needs Her Martyrs

Human life is the most sacred thing. Blood trumps everything.

To be sure, many would rush to say that God is the most sacred thing. That God trumps everything.

But in point of fact, that's not true. Empirically speaking, we behave as if--as well we should--that human life is the most sacred thing.

And this is what makes patriotism and the flag the most sacred thing. This is why the nation is the most sacred thing. Because human life was sacrificed--blood was spilt--for these things. The blood of the solider consecrates and baptizes the flag and the nation. And because blood trumps everything, because there is no holier and more sacred thing than human life, the flag and the nation is the most sacred thing in the world.

I experience this viscerally whenever I'm asked to stand at an athletic event for the national anthem. All around me there are grey haired men, many wearing ball caps telling about their military service. Veterans. Theologically, I chaff at displays of national allegiance. And yet, I feel awkward standing around these grey haired gentlemen during "The Star-Spangled Banner." I don't want my theological beliefs to be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. These men gave their blood, their lives for that flag. That they survived doesn't diminish this. For in their memories, as they sing the national anthem, they see the faces of friends who made, as we say, the ultimate sacrifice.

And again, blood trumps everything.

My point in all this is that debates about things like nationalism or pacifism aren't simply abstract theological discussions. These debates need to, but often fail to, take into consideration the sacred element of human blood. These debates need to reckon with the fact that blood is the most sacred thing we know, more sacred, even, than God. Emotionally, where this argument will be won or lost, blood will trump theology. Always.

And this is why the church needs her martyrs.

Phrased another way, an issue like pacifism cannot be adjudicated theologically. It can only be adjudicated ecclesiologically. Pacifism isn't about ideas. It's about blood. And without blood the academic defense of pacifism will never prevail in the pews. Because blood trumps everything. Which is why the church needs her martyrs.

Is it any surprise that the Protestant tradition most associated with pacifism and anti-nationalism--the Anabaptists--is the Protestant tradition with the most robust commemoration of her martyrs?

I'd argue that this is no coincidence. John Howard Yoder didn't make the Mennonites pacifists. The Mennonite martyrs made John Howard Yoder a pacifist. Theologians need to remember that.

In short, if blood is the most sacred thing we know the church needs to have some blood in the game if she is to stand as a counter-cultural witness to the blood-soaked flag of a nation.

Because that flag, given how much blood it represents, is very, very sacred.

And blood trumps everything.

Christus Victor and Progressive Christianity

While at Streaming last week during one of the panel discussions I was asked about my use of Christus Victor atonement in my book The Slavery of Death. During that conversation I made an observation about a problem I'm noticing in how many progressive Christians (by progressive I mean post-evangelicals) have been increasingly attracted to Christus Victor atonement.

Specifically, given their disillusionment with penal substitutionary atonement many progressive Christians have been attracted to Christus Victor atonement because it presents us with a non-violent vision of the atonement. In Christus Victor atonement Christ dies to liberate and free us from dark enslaving powers. In this vision God's actions in allowing or sending Jesus to the cross are wholly benevolent and non-violent.

There is no wrathful God being appeased by blood sacrifice in Christus Victor atonement. And because of this progressive Christians--in their commendable search for a non-violent atonement theory--have been increasingly making appeals to Christus Victor theology.

But here's the problem I noted at Streaming.

For Christus Victor theology to make any sense you have to have a robust theology of those dark enslaving powers, a robust theology regarding our spiritual bondage to the powers of death, Satan and sin. And yet, because of their pervasive struggles with doubt and disenchantment, along with their post-evangelical reluctance to talk about our enslavement to sin, progressive Christians lack an important aspect of Christus Victor atonement: a vision of enslavement to dark spiritual powers.

Basically, what are you being rescued from if you aren't enslaved to anything in the first place?

Progressive Christians like the idea of Jesus spiritually rescuing us but they do a damned poor job of describing how all of us, without Christ, are in spiritual bondage. But without a robust vision of spiritual slavery and bondage in the hands of progressive Christians Christus Victor theology is a non sequitur, it just doesn't make any logical or theological sense.

Personally, I've noted this problem and have been trying to work on it. The Slavery of Death is an attempt to articulate what slavery to death might look like and why that slavery can be described as the power of the devil. In a similar way I've also tried to rehabilitate the notion of "spiritual warfare" for progressive Christians (see the "On Weakness and Warfare" series on the sidebar). I'm doing all this work because I'm attracted to Christus Victor atonement and, thus, note the necessity to articulate a vision regarding the power of sin, death and the devil, a vision a spiritual bondage to these powers. Otherwise, if I can't articulate that vision, I should give up appealing to Christus Victor theology.

What I don't see among many other progressive Christians who make appeals to Christus Victor  atonement are similar efforts to articulate a vision of spiritual bondage. Greg Boyd, while he and I have different visions of the spiritual powers, is an exception, which is why I made this remark at Streaming while presenting there with him.

And if I'm right in this assessment, that many progressive Christians lack a theology of spiritual bondage, then I wonder if progressive Christians should drop their discussions of Christus Victor atonement.

The Future of Churches of Christ: Table & Baptism

I had wonderful time at Streaming last week with Greg Boyd and many others. Thanks to Mark Love for putting together, year after year, such a wonderful event.

(BTW, if you're thinking of pursuing a graduate degree in ministry be sure to check out the missional leadership degree directed by Mark at Rochester College. I show up in that program for a class in year two, helping teach a course on hospitality taught in Durham, NC as a part of a visit to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's Rutba House community.)

As you can tell from the Tweet above, Greg and I talked a lot about the Churches of Christ, where we've come from and where some of us might be going. This was, in fact, a conversation I had with quite a few people at Streaming.

What will be the future of the Churches of Christ? Given all the changes we are experiencing will there be anything left of the movement in a generation or two? And if so, what is that going to look like?

Before answering those questions, some quick backstory and context for Non-CoCers.

As I've written about before, right now there are two streams in the Churches of Christ, a sectarian stream and an ecumenical stream. Historically, the CoC has been very sectarian, believing only those from our tribe to be the only faithful Christians in the world. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else were headed to hell. At its worst that's what CoC theology represented and communicated. And that is what a lot of people have in mind to this day when they think of the Churches of Christ.

But starting in the 70s and 80s an increasingly ecumenical impulse began to emerge within the CoC, an increasing willingness to see ourselves as a particular stream flowing into the much broader river of Christianity. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else are our brothers and sisters in Christ. This, obviously, is the group of CoCers I identify with.

Now to a second point before we can discuss the future of the CoC. The CoC has been a movement centered around church practices, about restoring a "New Testament pattern" of worship and church organization. The CoC has been less focused upon theology (historically a dirty word in our tradition) than upon ecclesiology.

Now, the most distinctive aspect of CoC church practice, the other big thing we are known for, is acapella worship (voices only, no instruments). This has been such a defining feature of the CoC that we split with the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church over this issue. And as you know, if a church splits over an issue that issue--because you've spilled blood over it--becomes deeply rooted in the psyche and DNA of a tradition. If you spilled blood over an issue that issue has to become a test a fellowship, a boundary that cannot be crossed. For the Churches of Christ acapella worship became that defining issue, perhaps the most defining issue (because of the split) of our movement.

But now, with the rise of the ecumenical impulse within the Churches of Christ, this worship practice has been rapidly changing. Many of the largest and most influential congregations in the Churches of Christ are adding instrumental worship services. My church, the Highland Church of Christ, is now among this group.

Which brings us back to the question: What will be the future of the Churches of Christ?

You can see the issue. If acapella worship was a or the defining practice of our tradition what happens when that practice no longer characterizes our churches? If a Church of Christ goes instrumental what makes us distinctive, say, from the other community or Baptist churches in town that worship with instruments?

Let me frame the question this way. The Churches of Christ have been a movement that has maintained unity via church practices. Each Church of Christ organized and worshiped in the same way. So what holds us together once those practices start to change? If practices have been our organizing core what happens when that core evaporates?

Well, with an emerging diversity of practices we'd no longer have a core, no longer have a consistent expectation of what a Church of Christ might "look like" from location to location. Thus the question: What's going to be the "core" of the Churches of Christ (if it's not going to be acapella worship) going forward?

Now, I'm not a fortune-teller and given my limited experience and perspective from within the Churches of Christ I cannot speak for the diversity within the movement or predict how it will all work out in a generation or two. But as I've pondered the question "What will be the future of the Churches of Christ?" this has been my answer.

In my opinion, if the (ecumenical) Churches of Christ want to maintain a distinctive and coherent identity going forward they should increasingly focus upon articulating a robust and distinctive theology as it pertains to two specific church practices which I believe, unlike with acapella worship, will continue to characterize the movement for the next few generations.

These two practices are the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper and a believer's baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.

Let me comment on each of these in turn.

What will make the Church of Christ distinctive going forward? This: We are distinct (though not unique) in celebrating the Lord's Supper every Sunday. But it's more than that. Our distinctive (though not unique) belief is that the Lord's Supper is the sole reason for gathering, that the Lord's Supper can never be skipped. Sermon, worship and just about everything else can be skipped. But you cannot skip the Lord's Supper. Table is the focal point of our gathering. Going forward my sense is that this pratice will continue to define and characterize the Churches of Christ in both the acapella and increasingly instrumental congregations.

So my recommendation to CoC leaders is this: Let's give increasing attention to our theology and practice of the Table. Our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, how everything we do on Sunday is oriented around the Table, is a distinctive practice. A robust theology informing and supporting this practice will make it even more distinctive. Why go to a local Church of Christ? Because of the weekly welcome to the Lord's Table, and all the profound theology that will rock your world if you step into that practice.

And if I might be allowed to nudge our theology of the Table in a particular direction let me add this. One of the things I've noticed in many Churches of Christ is how in our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper we've begun to explicitly articulate a theology of open communion. In ecumenical Churches of Christ you increasingly hear in the Lord's Supper meditation statements like "All are welcome to the Lord's Table."

What is interesting to me here is how our practice has shaped our theology. Given that many of our congregations are large and that we celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday, Churches of Christ have been, by default, practicing open communion. We pass the trays to everyone. No one can keep track of who is or is not taking the Lord's Supper as the trays are passed, especially in our larger congregations. Week in and week out, we have no idea who is taking communion.

Functionally, and therefore implicitly, communion has been open.

But increasingly what has been theologically implicit in our practice is now being made explicit. "All are welcome to the Lord's Table." That's what is being said in many Churches of Christ. In many places, the Churches of Christ have practiced their way into a theology of open communion.

Is that the future of a distinctive Church of Christ theology? The weekly observance of open communion accompanied by a robust theology of open communion?

I hope so. But if not, the larger observation is what I'm focused on: the distinctive practice of the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper.

The second distinctive aspect that I think will characterize the Churches of Christ going forward is a believer's baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. I have a post scheduled to come out in November on this topic, but a bit about this practice in our churches.

In the Churches of Christ we don't say the Sinner's Prayer. We never ask people to "accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and personal Savior." To respond to the gospel we ask people to be baptized by immersion. Simplifying greatly, baptism by immersion is our Sinner's Prayer.

What this means is that the Churches of Christ, as with our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, are poised to have a very robust and distinctive theology of baptism. If there is a faith tradition that can unpack Romans 6 it is the Churches of Christ.

And as with the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, I think this practice of responding to the gospel in the act of baptism will continue to characterize both the acapella and increasingly instrumental Churches of Christ for a least a generation or two.

So that's my other suggestion. Along with articulating a robust and distinctive theology of the Table I think Churches of Christ should articulate a robust and distinctive theology of baptism. We're well positioned to do each of these things.

In fact, we're already doing so. More and more we've been reminding our members of their baptism, calling them back to the symbolisim of that central, sacred and life-defining ritual. Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism.

And the same has been happening in our theology of the Lord's Table. Our services are becoming filled with the invitation: "This is the Lord's Table. All are welcome here."

Which is interesting. These are two defining sacraments of Protestantism. Baptism and the Lord's Supper. And here's a faith tradition, the Churches of Christ--because of its weekly observance of the Lord's Supper and its practice of baptism by immersion for the remission of sin upon the confession of faith--that is distinctively (though not uniquely) poised to practice these sacraments in ways that open up a rich and deep theology.

I wonder about this. What future are the Churches of Christ practicing toward?

I don't know. I know I won't live to see it. But I have a clue. And a hope.

Yes, it's for these reasons--our practices of Table and baptism--that I have great hope for the future of the Churches of Christ.

Search Term Friday: The Inclusion of Eunuchs

Recently, someone came to the blog inquiring about the "inclusion of eunuchs." Those search terms linked to some reflections of mine from 2011 on three texts regarding the exclusion and inclusion of eunuchs in the People of God.

The reflection starts with this passage from the Torah excluding eunuchs from the assembly of the Lord:

Deuteronomy 23.1 (NIV)
No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.
For the translationally curious, The King James Version renders this verse in a memorable way:
He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
The New Living Translation I think is the most straightforward, avoiding the NIV's use of the loaded word "emasculated":
If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
So that's the starting point, the exclusion of eunuchs from the Assembly of God.

But later in Isaiah we encounter a great many passages where Zion, the temple and the assembly of God is universalized. All nations will come to Zion to worship God. And in the middle of these texts eunuchs are specifically mentioned. Previously excluded, eunuchs will now be included in the coming Messianic Kingdom.
Isaiah 56.3-5
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
Okay, now let's jump ahead to the New Testament. In Acts 8 we find Philip baptizing the first non-Israelite in the book of Acts. The man is from Ethiopia. Interestingly, the man is reading Isaiah. And he's a eunuch.
Acts 8.26-39
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”


The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
And thus, in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, eunuchs gain access to the Kingdom of God. That which was excluded has now been included.

In sum, this seems to be a pretty clear theological story about eunuchs moving from exclusion to inclusion. Persons who were sexually Other and were excluded in Deuteronomy 23.1 now find themselves included in the wider embrace of the Kingdom.

To be sure, people will have various opinions about what eunuchs symbolized regarding the sexual or gendered Other.

Regardless, we know this much for certain:

Those who were previously excluded eventually become included in God's ever widening circle of love.

Pacifism and Holy Ingratitude

I've been reading Peter Leithart's book Gratitude: An Intellectual History. This post isn't review of this very informative book, but a thought I had about pacifism as I was reading about how the Romans considered the early Christians to be an ungrateful group of people.

A central theme of the story Peter tells in Gratitude is how the early Christians practiced what Peter calls a holy ingratitude.

Specifically, the Romans believed that Roman citizens owed a certain amount of gratitude toward the state. Romans lived in a great, prosperous and generally peaceful empire. Thus, Roman citizens owed the state gratitude.

But the Christians seemed to differ. Confessing Jesus as "Lord of all" and directing their gratitude toward God rather than toward the state the Christians busted up the cycles of gratitude that had kept Roman citizens bound to the state.

One way that Christians expressed this holy ingratitude was in their refusal to kill for the state. This refusal struck the Romans as hugely ungrateful. Christians benefited as Roman citizens. Yet they refuse to participate in the fighting that created and maintained all those benefits. Non-violent Christians in their refusal to participate in the Roman military were non-patriotic slackers and free-riders.

In short, the pacifism of the early Christians was experienced as shockingly ungrateful.

And yet, this was a holy ingratitude as Christians were obediently following the non-violent ethic of Jesus.

And it seems to me that nothing much has changed.

Specifically, the main criticism directed at Christian pacifists in the US (or in other nation states) is the same criticism Rome directed at the early Christians: ingratitude. How can you enjoy the benefits of the state that others have died for yet refuse to participate in the protection and maintenance of the state?

In short, in the eyes of the state pacifism has always seemed profoundly, shockingly and infuriatingly ungrateful.

This Christian ingratitude was the main reason the Romans hated, loathed and despised the early Christians and persecuted them so vigorously.

And this holy ingratitude continues to be the reason why the Way of Jesus remains so galling today.

A Christological Reading of Psalm 68

Awhile back I was praying the Evening Office from the Book of Common Prayer and the evening psalm was Psalm 68. The entry for the psalm in the lectionary looked like this:
68:1-20(21-23)24-36
Now if you don't know anything about the BCP lectionary those parentheses are alerting you about something. It's basically saying you should most definitely read verses 1-20 and 24-36 but that you might want to skip verses 21-23. Those verses are optional.

Why?

Generally, when you see those parentheses in the lectionary you're being warned that you are about to encounter one of those dark and difficult texts in the bible and that you might, depending upon the situation (kids, you know, might be listening in), want to read around those passages.

Psalm 68, apparently, had some difficult moments in it. And it did when I read the psalm that night. But in the midst of that darkness I also found some light and a way to read even this difficult psalm Christologically (i.e., through Jesus).

Psalm 68 is one of those songs where the writer is praising God for a victory over enemies. The first three verses:
May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;
may his foes flee before him.

May you blow them away like smoke—
as wax melts before the fire,
may the wicked perish before God.

But may the righteous be glad
and rejoice before God;
may they be happy and joyful.
This stuff isn't too bad, but things get very dark in verses 21-23, the part in parentheses in the lectionary:
Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies,
the hairy crowns of those who go on in their sins.

The Lord says, “I will bring them from Bashan;
I will bring them from the depths of the sea,

that your feet may wade in the blood of your foes,
while the tongues of your dogs have their share.”
Okay, those are some of the darkest lines in the bible. Above is the NIV, here's the rendering in the NLT:
But God will smash the heads of his enemies,
crushing the skulls of those who love their guilty ways.

The Lord says, “I will bring my enemies down from Bashan;
I will bring them up from the depths of the sea.

You, my people, will wash your feet in their blood,
and even your dogs will get their share!”
So we have here God smashing skulls and putting the defeated enemies before us so that we might wash our feet in their blood and have our dogs--so they get their share!--lick up the blood as well.

I have some issues with Psalm 68.

But here's the other thing I noticed about this psalm. Specifically, Psalm 68 is quoted in the New Testament in the book of Ephesians:
Ephesians 4.1-13
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
That phrase--“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”--is from Psalm 68, from the verses right before the infamous lines in verses 21-23:
Psalm 68.17-20
The chariots of God are tens of thousands
and thousands of thousands;
the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary.

When you ascended on high,
you took many captives;
you received gifts from people,
even from the rebellious—
that you, Lord God, might dwell there.

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
who daily bears our burdens.
 Our God is a God who saves;
from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.
In short, the writer of Ephesians is reading Psalm 68 Christologically. The victory over enemies in Psalm 68 is the victory won by Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection. When Jesus "ascended on high" he took with him "many captives."

Who are these captives? For the writer of Ephesians the quotation of Psalms 68.18 prompts a bit of commentary:
What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
For some reason the writer of Ephesians takes a moment to point out that if Jesus "ascended" then he would have had to have previously "descended" to the "lower, earthy regions." Is this a reference to the Incarnation? Or to Jesus's decent into hell after this death?

Many in the early church took this passage in Ephesians to be a reference to the latter, about the harrowing of hell where Jesus breaks open the gates of hell and releases a captive humanity.

Regardless, the victory described in Psalm 68 is being read Christologically, as a reference to the defeat of Christ's enemies--death, sin and the Devil. This sort of violent, martial imagery in reference to the cross is used in other places in the NT. For example:
Colossians 2.15
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. 
The phrase "public spectacle" refers to the victory parade of a conquering Caesar or King returning to the capital city displaying the spoils and captives of war before a cheering and adoring citizenry. On the cross Jesus is leading just such a victory parade, displaying his captives, the disarmed "powers and authorities." The imagery of Psalm 68, even verses 21-13, fits this picture.

But what is startling about this imagery is how Jesus wins his victory over his enemies non-violently. On the cross Jesus is disarming and defeating his enemies--sin, death and the Devil--and taking them as captives in war.

Be Holy To Love Each Other

Ever since the publication of Unclean I've been wrestling with the relationship between holiness and hospitality. Etymologically, holiness means to be "set apart," to create a social and moral separation between the "clean" and the "unclean," between the "holy" and the "profane."

Given this understanding we can see why holiness and hospitality pull us in two different directions.

But as I argue it in Unclean, Jesus resolves the tensions by radically rethinking what it means to be holy. According to Jesus, loving God (the pursuit of holiness) is equated with loving your neighbor (the pursuit of hospitality). This is illustrated time and again in the gospels where the Pharisees achieve holiness by moral and social exclusion and separation from tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes. By contrast, Jesus regularly eats with and welcomes tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes, declaring that God desires mercy (hospitality) and not sacrifice (holiness via exclusion).

In thinking about Jesus's conflation of hospitality and holiness I was struck recently by the associations made in 1 Peter about the relationship between holiness and love:
1 Peter 1.13-16, 22
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.
Notice how the call to holiness--"be holy"--is connected to a very specific goal: purify yourself "so that you have sincere love for each other."

Here's how 1 Peter 1.22 is rendered in some other translations:
ESV:
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart

NASB:
Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart,

NRSV: Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.
We are called to be holy as God is holy. We are to purify ourselves.

But what is the goal of holiness? For what purpose is purity?

The purpose and the goal of holiness and purity is that we will have sincere, genuine, deep and mutual love for each other.

Holiness and purity are not the opposite of love. Holiness and purity are the cultivation of love.  The holy person is the loving person. The pure person is the loving person.

Be holy to love each other.

The Lord's Day as Sacrament

Broadly understood, a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In a sacrament grace meets us in and through the material world. Grace comes to us in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. Graces comes to us in the water of baptism.

The Protestant tradition generally recognizes two sacraments, the ones I just mentioned, the Lord's Supper and baptism. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions recognize seven sacraments.

In doing some research into the theology of my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, some have argued that our tradition recognizes (in deed if not in word) three sacraments: the Lord's Supper, baptism and the Lord's Day.

The gathering of the saints on the Lord's Day as a sacrament. You don't see this gathering mentioned a lot in discussions about the sacraments. But in my faith tradition going to church--the observance of the Lord's Day--is very much a sacramental practice.

To be sure, more often than not gathering on a Sunday in the Churches of Christ has been experienced more as a duty and an obligation than as a sacrament. But interestingly, the way we've focused on duty and obligation in observing the Lord's Day has informed how I've come to understand the sacrament of our gathering.

Specifically, at least when I was growing up, church services were aggressively non-consumeristic. Church was never supposed to be entertaining. Church wasn't even supposed to be interesting. Church wasn't supposed to be helpful or useful or impactful. Church wasn't there to "meet your needs."

So if you ever expressed a consumeristic sentiment--"I'm just not getting a lot out of church."--you'd be met with a blank stare. Why would you expect to "get anything" from church? Such an assumption betrayed a deep flaw in your theological understanding of what church was about. Church isn't about you. Church is not about your boredom or your needs or your feelings of fulfillment. The fact that your are bored is perfectly irrelevant. Church is a duty. You go regardless. That is all.

That's how I was raised. You go to church. Simply because you are supposed to go. Commanded to go. To expect to "get something" out of church was consumeristic, self-absorbed and ego-centric.   

Consequently, for many decades church services in the Churches of Christ were stubbornly uninventive. To innovate was to betray the fundamental conviction that church wasn't about "reaching" or "speaking to" the audience. If you were trying to please or interest the audience you were focusing on the people and not on God.

Of course all that sounds horrible. A church aggressively committed to being boring doesn't sound like a great way to do church. But this focus on duty had a genius about it. And it was this: a church based upon duty was not anthropocentric. In a church-as-duty model the human agent--our needs, wants, preferences and desires--were marginalized. Church-as-duty just isn't about you.

There is wisdom here. And it points to an irony in a lot of contemporary Christian worship. In striving to be more and more about God contemporary Christian worship has, ironically, become more and more about the preferences and tastes of the audience. True, when church is boring your numbers will be small, but you can be much more confident that the people showing up are showing up for God and not for themselves. Because they would, probably, rather be somewhere else. Yet here they are because they see it as their duty to God. God expects the gathering and they are obliging.

Again, many people will be rightly horrified by this grim vision of going to church out of a sense of duty or obligation. There is something masochistic about dragging yourself and the family out of bed on a Sunday morning to sit through a boring, rote and seemingly pointless religious observance. I myself rebelled against this in my young adulthood. I wanted church to be "meaningful" and "impactful." I saw the "duty" of going to church to be an example of a mindless and spiritually hollow legalism.

Which is to say, I now realize, I wanted church to be less about God and more about me.

So here's the crazy thing. I've found my way back to seeing the wisdom of church as duty. But less as a duty and more as a sacrament.

Here's my confession: I'm increasingly delighted when church is boring or irritating. I only feel the Spirit of God moving in my soul when I'm struggling to stay awake or chaffing at the banality of the praise songs. Spiritually speaking, the worst thing that can happen to me is for me to "like" church.

I don't want church to be like Facebook. I don't want to "like" church. I want to be bored by church. I want the drudgery.

I'm exaggerating of course. I'm simply here trying to gesture toward this notion that, more than anything, church is about showing up. Regardless. Showing up regardless.

I love it when church is stimulating, impactful, meaningful and thought-provoking. But for me, more and more, the showing up part is the most important part. I'd like the other stuff to happen of course, but I'm going to show up regardless.

Why?

Because I think the gathering itself--let me make that really clear, the gathering itself--is sacramental. I experience grace in the gathering. And when I look back on my early experiences of church, where we very dutifully gathered every Sunday, I now realize that the grace I experienced was due to the gathering, the simple act of gathering, week in and week out.

Grace came to me, sacramentally, in the material act of congregating. Grace came to me in the bodies and faces of those who greeted me at the door. In the bodies and faces of those who sat beside me in Sunday School class. In the bodies and faces of those who prayed and sang beside me in the pews.

The content of the service varied. Sermons were variously interesting or boring. Songs were variously uplifting or ear-splitting. Prayers were variously inspiring or rote. But week in and week out all that proved to be irrelevant. Grace came to me through the gathering. Church may have been a duty but it taught me that gathering, the simple act of gathering, was an experience of grace.

And so, to this day, the alarm will ring early on Sunday mornings. And the Becks will roust themselves out of bed. We get cleaned up and we drive to church.

And if it's no longer a duty it definitely is a discipline. Who wouldn't rather sleep in on Sunday morning? But we go. Because the sermon will be great? Maybe, I hope so. But that's not why we are going. Because the praise will be uplifting? Maybe, I hope so. But that's not why we are going.

We are going simply to experience the grace that comes with the sacrament of gathering. That is all.

And that, I've discovered, is enough.

Search Term Friday: Theological Worlds

I get a lot of search terms about "the problem of suffering" or "the problem of pain" with many of those search terms linking to a post from 2011 about Paul Jones' notion of theological worlds:

Specifically, Paul Jones argues that each of us live within a unique and different "theological world." These "worlds" are characterized by, in Jones's terms, a distinctive obsessio and epiphania. Here is how Jones describes our obsessio:
An obsessio is whatever functions deeply and pervasively in one’s life as a defining quandary, a conundrum, a boggling of the mind, a hemorrhaging of the soul, a wound that bewilders healing, a mystification than renders one’s life cryptic. Whatever inadequate words one might choose to describe it, an obsessio is that which so gets its teeth into a person that it establishes one’s life as plot. It is a memory which, as resident image, becomes so congealed as Question that all else in one’s experience is sifted in terms of its promise as Answer. Put another way, an obsessio is whatever threatens to deadlock Yeses with No. It is one horn that establishes life as dilemma…The etymology of the word says it well: obsessio means “to be besieged."
Basically, the obsessio is the Question of your existence, theologically speaking. What's the location of brokenness in the world or in your life?

The epiphania, by contrast, is the experience (or hope) of an Answer to the obsessio:
epiphania, etymologically meaning “to show upon,” that which keeps the functioning obsessio fluid, hopeful, searching, restless, energized, intriguing, as a question worth pursuing for a lifetime. It keeps one’s obsessio from becoming a fatal conclusion that signals futility…Epiphania is epiphany precisely because its absurdity resides in being too good to be true.
Jones suggests that the experience of obsessio and epiphania can be asymmetrical. For believers who I describe as "Winter Christians" in The Authenticity of Faith the obsessio is the major chord of the faith experience: questions predominate over answers, the experience of brokenness is more acute than the experience of grace. By contrast, for "Summer Christians" the epiphania is the dominant experience, with answers sufficient to the questions and grace able to relieve the brokenness.

But beyond the relative "balance" of obsessio to epiphania Jones goes on to suggest that there are unique and distinctive obsessios and that these create a "theological world."

What is a theological world? According to Jones each obsessio is different. And, as a consequence, so is each epiphania. Basically, my Question might be different from your Question. And what keeps you up at night, spiritually speaking, might be different from what keeps me up at night. We each have different felt experiences about what is wrong with the world. And, as a result, we go looking for different sorts of answers. Thus, your unique obsessio and epiphania--your Question and your quest for an Answer--creates a distinctive spiritual experience, defining the sort of faith quest you are on, your theological world.

What is helpful about Jones' ideas is that they highlight the great diversity of the Christian experience. It's not a one size fits all deal.

Consider one of the theological worlds. Perhaps the dominant theological world in Protestantism is the world where the obsessio is human sin and guilt. In this theological world sin--your sin--is the problem and predicament. Sin, guilt and judgment are what is wrong with the world (and with you in particular). Sin is the location of brokenness. Judgment is what keeps you up at night.

Consequently, the epiphania in this world is forgiveness and grace. The journey in this theological world is to find relief for sin--the obsessio--in the experience of God's salvation and forgiveness.

Importantly, your theological world shapes your Christology, how you see the work of the Christ. When the obsessio is sin and the epiphania is forgiveness the work of the Christ is specified: In the atoning death of Jesus on the cross the predicament of sin is confronted and overcome. In the sacrificial death of Jesus the Question has found an Answer.

Now, it's a big shocker for some Christians to find out that many of their brothers and sisters don't live within this theological world. Sin isn't their obsessio. Not that they deny the existence and problem of sin, just that sin isn't the defining quandary of their spiritual lives.

I am an example of a Christian of this sort. Sin and guilt isn't my obsessio. If you tell me that I'm going to hell I'll just blink at you blandly and yawn. I'm emotionally unmoved. To be clear, it's not that I don't want to go to heaven. I do. I just don't spend my life trying to save my own skin.

Because who really cares if I, one privileged American male, gets to go to heaven when 15 million children will die from hunger this year? I mean, really? I'm supposed to sweat my own eternal destiny in the face of that suffering? Wouldn't a pietistic obsession about my own status in the afterlife seem a bit obscene and self-serving given what is happening in the world?

Of course, you might disagree with me on this score. Strongly so. But that's the point. We live in different theological worlds. Your obsessio is not my obsessio. And these differences cause us to approach our faith experience in qualitatively different ways.

And again, this shapes our respective Christologies. Where someone might see the cross of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice--the epiphania for their theological world--I see Divine solidarity with the starving child. I'm not interested in if the death of Jesus "saves" me. No doubt it does. But that's not my obsessio. I'm not looking for those sorts of answers from the cross. I'm looking for an epiphania for my obsessio. What I'm looking for in the cross is less about salvation than about God's solidarity with victims.

To conclude, let me say that no world is "better" than the other, although I expect we each favor our own. The main point is that we are different. And each of us has a bit of the truth. The world is a very broken place. It is sinful and it is suffering. And some of us are attuned to one more than the other. I think that's healthy. May grace abound to us all. May God find you in your theological world, in your dark night of the soul...

No matter what Question keeps you up at night.

Faith as Quantum Superposition

For many Christians, faith is a simple binary, an either/or. You either believe X or you don't believe X. You either have faith or you don't have faith.

But for people who struggle with doubts--the sick souls and Winter Christians I describe in The Authenticity of Faith--faith doesn't feel like that at all. Faith is not a solid yes or a solid no. Faith feels indeterminate. Like a yes and a no, going back and forth, back and forth. Faith is a yes always shadowed by that inner voice: "but on the other hand...". Sometimes faith is a yes and no at the same time.

Basically, for many of us faith feels like quantum superposition.

If you are not aware of quantum superposition it's a part of the weirdness regarding the behavior of the elementary particles of the cosmos, things like photons and electrons. Specifically, according to quantum mechanics, the reigning theory for how these particles behave, the exact location and momentum of these particles cannot be precisely specified. These features of a particle can only be known probabilistically. This is the famous Uncertainty Principle.

But it's weirder than that. It's not just that the exact location and momentum of these particles cannot be known with certainty. It's not simply that the particle has a 25% chance of being Here versus a 75% chance of being There. It's more like the particle's existence is both Here and There, at the same time, albeit with different probabilities.

Now, if that's hard to wrap your head around you're in good company. As the physicist Richard Feynman once quipped, "Anyone who says that they understand Quantum Mechanics does not understand Quantum Mechanics."

The notion that a particle can be both Here and There, at the same time, is called quantum superposition and it sits behind some of the stranger features of the quantum world, things like quantum entanglement. The Wikipedia definition of quantum superposition (emphasis added):
Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics that holds that a physical system—such as an electron—exists partly in all its particular theoretically possible states simultaneously; but when measured or observed, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configuration.
When measured, the wave-function of a particle (those probability estimates) collapses and we see the particle either Here or There. But prior to the observation the particle is, in a very real but weird way, both Here and There. And while it is true that any big object can't be both Here and There at the same time, it does appear that elementary particles can be in two places at the same time. That is quantum superposition.

And that is what I'm saying faith often feels like, like a quantum superposition.

True, at any given moment if I were to verbalize my beliefs, like taking the measurement of an elementary particle, "collapsing the wave-function of faith," my faith might be Here or There.

But in reality, in my moment to moment experiencing of faith, prior to any verbal description my faith feels like a quantum superposition--it's always both Yes and No, believing and doubting.

Both possible states--Here and There--simultaneously.

The Philosopher

The prison bible study was about to start. But I was hanging back, waiting on the Philosopher.

The Philosopher is new to the study. He's really smart in many ways. Hence the nickname he's been given by his fellow inmates. They call him the Philosopher.

But the Philosopher is also socially challenged. To my eye he as a lot of Asperger-like symptoms. These social skills issues make the Philosopher difficult to deal with in the class. The Philosopher has a tendency to go on long theological, doctrinal or biblical disquisitions that hold the floor for too long. But the Philosopher has trouble reading the non-verbals of the class as well as mine. He doesn't know when to stop so I have to awkwardly interject to get the class moving forward again.

But that's not why I'm hanging back this evening. I don't mind the Philosopher being long-winded. I'm a college professor. I'm an expert in being long-winded. So I get it.

I'm hanging back because last week the Philosopher accosted my co-teacher Herb. He accused Herb of "blasphemy" and asserted that Herb had "blood on his hands."

To be clear, there are lots of disagreements in the bible study. But this was extreme. It's going to be hard to have a good class discussion going forward if accusations of blasphemy are being leveled. So I need to check in with the Philosopher.

Here's the hilarious thing. You might be wondering what Herb was teaching that provoked the charge of blood-soaked blasphemy. It was this: Max Lucado.

That's right. Max Lucado. That damned heretic.

Herb was leading a discussion about Max Lucado's recent video series on grace. And why, you might ask, did the Philosopher find grace to be blasphemous?

Well, the Philosopher is a bit of a legalist. Consequently, the doctrine of grace is a bit scandalous. It's blasphemy. Thus Herb is leading souls to perdition for preaching (via DVD) the doctrine. Hence the "blood soaked hands" accusation.

The Philosopher was the last one to get to the study. He handed in his lay in (the slip of paper given by the chaplain's office granting permission to go the study) to the guards who began to pat him down.

But there's something stuffed in the Philosopher's sock. That's a problem which gets the attention of the guards. Their mood turns grim. You're not supposed to have things stuffed in your socks.

Is it contraband? A weapon?

Turns out it's a bible. One of those tiny, pocket-sized King James Version bibles.

The Philosopher was now asked to stand with this hands against the wall for a more thorough pat down.

The Philosopher has, it is discovered, about five small bibles stuffed all over his person.

One of the guards remarks, "I patted this guy down last week and he had like eight bibles on him."

The pat down concludes. I reflect. I'm about to try to have a biblical conversation about grace and legalism with a guy who carries bibles stuffed in his socks and whose nickname is "the Philosopher."

But I was raised in the Churches of Christ. So I'm pretty fearless when it comes to debating the bible. I don't care if you carry eight bibles on your person. That doesn't intimidate me. I was captain of my Bible Bowl team. I'm a member of the Churches of Christ, where children know more about the bible than N.T. Wright.

But in truth, I really don't want to debate the bible with the Philosopher. All I really want to say is that we don't mind disagreements in the study. Disagree all you want. But we do need to tone down the rhetoric. If you disagree with someone, fine, but you can't call them blasphemers and say that they have blood on their hands.

But here's the problem. The Philosopher feels compelled to say these things because, in his words, "my Father told me to say that." "My Father," of course, is God. The Philosopher is communicating directly with God, sharing God's words with us.

Probing into this, as we talk, the Philosopher reveals to me that he's sort of like the apostle Paul, getting visions directly from God.

I realize as the discussion goes on that this is getting beyond a biblical discussion and that I am now bumping into something more psychiatric. How do you have a disagreement with someone speaking directly for God?

I work to keep the discussion biblical and point out that the apostle Paul, despite the revelations he received from God, once worried that he might have been misinterpreting those visions, that he might have been "running in vain." Consequently, Paul sought out other mature followers of Jesus--Peter, John and James--to check out his gospel with them. I have the Philosopher turn (in one of his five bibles) to Galatians 1 to read about Paul's worry and his actions.

This story is new to the Philosopher. Or, at the very least, this story never registered in this particular way. Paul--the apostolic model for the Philosopher--needed other Christians to check and sign-off on his gospel. Truth required communal discernment.

We can't, I cautioned the Philosopher, be a lone wolf. Not even Paul.

That, at least, was the point I tried to bring home. I wasn't totally successful. But I gave the Philosopher pause. He became more thoughtful. Reflective. You could see the wheels turning.

The great apostle Paul once worried that he might have been wrong.

It's a sobering thought.

But a perfect thought, in my estimation, to start off a bible study.

Especially for Christians who like to carry lots of bibles.

Two Brothers and Texas Rangers

As I've written about before, I like to visit cemeteries. I love the spirituality of cemeteries where I'm reminded of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes 7.2
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.
The other day I was riding my bike to work from Downtown Abilene rather than from my house. This route led me by a different part of the Abilene Municipal Cemetery. I pass this cemetery everyday on the way to work but the cemetery is bisected by North 10th street. Daily I pedal by the part of the cemetery that is north of 10th. But this day I was pedaling by the part of the cemetery which is south of 10th.

The part of the Abilene Municipal Cemetery which is south of North 10th is, I believe, the oldest cemetery in Abilene. The town was settled in 1881 and that's the date of the oldest burial in the cemetery. Many of the city founders are buried here.

I turned my bike into the cemetery and was looking around. And as I looked I came across a unique arrangement. Two matching obelisks with two matching crosses with a small iron fence in front. It's pictured above.

I got off the bike and approached. Looking at the crosses this is what I saw:


Buried here were two Texas Rangers.

I examined the obelisk on the left and read this:

In fond remembrance of our darling brother
WALTER COLLINS
Aged 28 years
Died
Jan. 8, 1884

On the side of Walter's obelisk were the words of this short poem:
Dear Walter, sweet brother
farewell.
How we miss thee now
save God can tell.
Walter was, I believe, a younger brother who was buried and mourned by his older brother.

A brother who was also a Texas Ranger.

Why do I think that? Well, when I turned to look at the obelisk on the right I read this inscription:

In loving memory of my precious husband 
JOEL FRANK COLLINS 
Aged 32 years 
Died 
Mar. 14, 1884 

Walter Collins and Joel Collins. Two brothers. Two Texas Rangers. Buried side by side. In January of 1884 it looks like Joel buried his younger brother Walter. And then, three months later, another tragedy struck the Collins family with the death of Joel. Joel left behind a family. A wife and children.

On the side of Joel's obelisk I read this poem:
Husband dear take thy rest,
The summer flowers will bloom.
While you my dearest and my best,
Doth wither in the tomb.
Fast my tears are falling,
O'er thy memory sweet,
While I catch the echo,
Of thy passing feet.
But thro' summer starlight,
And thro' wintry rain,
Never oh, my babies,
Will he come again.

Hell On Earth: The Church as the Baptism of Fire and the Holy Spirit

In the New Testament the metaphor of fire is often associated with judgment and "coming wrath."

In this regard John the Baptist says that Jesus will bring this fiery, hellish judgment to earth:
Luke 3.7-17
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
According to John Jesus will come to baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire." And this fire is associated with hell/judgment imagery:
"Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"

"The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." 

"His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Later in the gospel of Luke the disciples tip their hand about how they see this judgment happening, this "baptism of fire." But Jesus seems to disagree:
Luke 9.51-55
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 
The text suggests that Jesus has something different in mind for his "baptism by fire." And perhaps something different from what John the Baptist had in mind.

So how does Jesus see this fire from heaven? Later in Luke Jesus describes it:
Luke 12.49-53
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Here again we see fire and baptism discussed. Jesus says that he has "come to bring fire on the earth." And this fire is disruptive. The fire creates social tension and conflict. There is a division taking place, the winnowing prophesied by John

But let's pay close attention to a few different things.

Notice that Jesus connects baptism to the fire coming to earth. An despite his earlier baptism in the Jordan this is a baptism that Jesus has yet to undergo. I take Jesus to be referring to his crucifixion.

Also note that the fire Jesus is bringing is kindled "on earth." This isn't an otherworldly hell, but a fire that is experienced--as a disruption--in intimate social relations.

And that's the last thing to note. The vision of judgment prophesied by John the Baptist--where Jesus has a winnowing fork in his hand--is shifted by Jesus away from the notion of throwing bad people into the pit of hell (the vision the disciples seem to be working with in Luke 9, a notion that Jesus rebukes) and toward people being divided up and sorted--wheat winnowed from chaff--in their social relations.

Summarizing, Jesus's crucifixion brings a fire of judgment to earth--a baptism that winnows, separates and sorts--causing social tension and conflict.

But the puzzle remains. After his death when do we see Jesus "baptize by fire and the Holy Spirit" as prophesied by John? When do we see Jesus's fire kindled on earth, a fire that winnows and disrupts social relations?

We see it happen at Pentecost:
Acts 2.1-4
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
On Pentecost we finally see the baptism prophesied by John, Jesus's baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the fire of judgment falls from heaven and is kindled on earth.

But what is strange here is that the fire doesn't fall on the bad people.

John's hellish "unquenchable fire" of judgment falls upon the church

The church becomes hell on earth.

And we see in this the winnowing that John and Jesus predicted, how the fire begins to interrupt and disrupt social relations. After hearing Peter's sermon on Pentecost the people cry out "What shall we do?"

And in response Peter offers them hell. Step into the fire now kindled upon the earth. Step into the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. Throw yourself into the flames of Pentecost. Step into the church and save yourselves.
Acts 2.38-41
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
The people are saved from the "corrupt generation" when they throw themselves into the flames, into the church, into the Pentecostal baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. There is a winnowing here, a sorting, an invitation to step away from a corrupt social order and into the Kingdom of God where social relations are characterized by the cruciform life of Jesus Christ:
Acts 2.42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. 
"Those who were being saved." This is what salvation looks like. This is the winnowing. This is the fire of heaven now kindled on earth. This is the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit.

Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Step into into the flames of Pentecost. Step into the fire Jesus kindled upon on earth.

The coming wrath prophesied by John has come, the flames of heaven are upon us.