Virtue & Truth

What comes first, virtue or truth?

The point is often made that you can't read or interpret the Bible rightly until you've acquired certain virtues. A bad person reading the Bible will draw the wrong conclusions. A Christ-like person reading Bible will draw correct conclusions. In this view, truth is dependent upon virtue and spiritual formation.

A bit of biblical support for this position is found in Romans 12:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Be transformed, so that you may discern the will of God.

Discernment of truth flows from virtue. According to Romans 12, without a "renewal of your mind," in non-conformity to the world, a person is unable to judge what is good, acceptable and perfect.

Be transformed that you may discern.

Love as Procedural Memory

In class this week I compared love to procedural memory.

Procedural memory, to copy from Wikipedia, is:
Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory (unconscious memory) and long-term memory which aids the performance of particular types of tasks without conscious awareness of these previous experiences.

Procedural memory guides the processes we perform and most frequently resides below the level of conscious awareness. When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the integrated procedures involved in both cognitive and motor skills, from tying shoes to flying an airplane to reading. Procedural memories are accessed and used without the need for conscious control or attention.
Virtue is like procedural memory. Virtue is moral skill and habit, the ability to automatically and unconsciously act in morally virtuous ways.

Consequently, love is a skilled, practiced capacity. Love is less like choice than procedural memory. Love is the routinized and automatic ability to consistently treat people as Jesus would.

Journal Week 7: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

I'm a very intellectual, cerebral person. But I'm also very sentimental and romantic.

I grew up in a faith tradition that sang acapella, four-part harmony out of hymnbooks. We also took the Lord's Supper every Sunday. And it was a tradition in our churches to sing mournful hymns before we'd come to the table.

Those mournful hymns always wrecked me. As a child, and even as a teenager, those hymns would make me weep. And I think it's those tears, despite all my doubts and intellectual wanderings over the years, that have kept me tethered to the faith.

On Ash Wednesday this week I heard the old hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" by Isaac Watts:
When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain, I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet?
Or thorns compose, so rich a crown

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all
Gracious, that's so beautiful. These hymns are etched on my soul. They are my spiritual love language.

On Ash Wednesday, when I heard the hymn, I started singing it to myself on a drive back home, eventually--of course--through tears. Those mournful hymns are still wrecking me.

At the end of the day, this is one of the main reasons I'm a Christian.

The tears. This is the story that I love so much, the beauty that keeps breaking my heart.


"Mysteries, Yes" by Mary Oliver from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
   to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
   mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
   in allegiance with gravity
      while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
   never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
   scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
   who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
   “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
   and bow their heads.

On Kindness to Strangers

I don't normally pay attention to poor reviews of my books, but yesterday when I saw Gerald's review of Stranger God on Goodreads I felt the desire, if we could have coffee together, to explain why Stranger God is more, in my estimation, than repeating the same idea over and over again for 244 pages.

So, Gerald, this post is for you! And really, I'm not grinding a personal axe here. The reviews for Stranger God have been awesome and wonderful. Thank you to those of you who have reviewed the book. Much appreciated. I just felt like using Gerald's review to sharpen the focus on what, exactly, Stranger God is about, and why its message is so important, not just for Christians, but for a very riven world.

I think the first thing I'd like to say is that the big point of Stranger God is that kindness to strangers isn't an idea (per Gerald's "I like the idea"). Kindness to strangers isn't an intellectual puzzle, it's an emotional obstacle, a heart problem we have to honestly face and overcome.

Which brings me to my second point.

The message in Stranger God isn't the imperative "be kind to strangers." As I point out in Stranger God, since kindness to strangers is, at root, an emotional problem, imperatives like "be kind to strangers" spectacularly fail. You can't command affections into people, yourself included.

And this is, as I point out in Stranger God, the #1 reason Christians fail so regularly in displaying kindness to strangers. The point of Stranger God is that kindness isn't an educational problem, it's a spiritual formation problem. Thus, after I have the reader do a self-inventory of all their emotional triggers when it comes to strangers, the whole second half of Stranger God is the introduction of the "Little Way" of Thérèse of Lisieux as an intentional spiritual practice aimed at seeing, stopping for, and approaching people we would otherwise ignore or avoid.

I heartily agree that the "Little Way" practices seem banal in their obviousness and simplicity (in the book I tell the story of how Dorothy Day herself had that initial, smug response to Thérèse), but these practices are 1) not very easy, and 2) not widely practiced. And as a consequence, the imperative "be kind to strangers"--whether in a short essay or repeated over 244 pages--continues to bounce off our very hard hearts.

Kindness to strangers isn't an idea or a command.

Kindness to strangers is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching interpersonal practice aimed at your affectional blindspots.

And I hope Gerald would agree that there's nothing very weak about that.

How to Become a Christian

Apologies for the language here, but the thing I can never understand is how you can call yourself a Christian and act like an asshole. It happens all the time and it just blows my mind. Seriously, I have a whole chapter about this in my book Reviving Old Scratch.

How can you call yourself a Christian and treat other people like trash? How can you claim to follow Jesus yet treat others unkindly, aggressively, rudely, roughly, dismissively, haughtily, intimidatingly, selfishly?

How--How!!!--can you call yourself a Christian and act like an asshole?

Listen, I get all the big debates we have about what's wrong with Christianity, but isn't this the biggest one? Isn't the biggest problem with Christians today this disjoint between confession and lifestyle?

So what's the solution?

I'll tell you mine.

Become passionate about the Fruit of the Spirit.

Love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Make these virtues the central focus of your Christian practice. Discipline yourself to attend to these virtues from your first waking moment to the time your head hits the pillow at night. Do not, for one minute, let these virtues slip from your mind. Let the pursuit of them become your obsession, the animating agenda of your day.

Hold yourself to these virtues in every interaction, with every person in every situation. With your spouse. With your children. With your co-workers. With everyone online. With everyone in the traffic jam. With everyone standing in the line. With the cashier. With the person sitting next to you.

Pursue these virtues, with passion and discipline. Never take a minute off. Never allow yourself a slip or an excuse. Never let them slip from your consciousness. Right now, right here, with this person, am I being more kind, loving, patient, gentile, joyful, good, faithful and self-controlled?

Disciplined, intentional obsession with the Fruit of the Spirit in every interaction with every person throughout the day.

For me, that's how I'm becoming a Christian.

Journal Week 6: God's Gonna Cut You Down

Beyond Flannery O'Connor, Johnny Cash has also me a stranger Christian.

Long time readers will know that I've become increasingly interested in the music of Johnny Cash. My work in a prison was the key instigator. I'm currently working on another book with Fortress Press entitled The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.

Liberal and progressive Christians love the themes of solidarity that run through Cash's music. The song "The Man in Black" is an ode to that solidarity, "I wear the black for the poor and beaten down, livin' in the hopeless hungry side of town.."

But there's more to Johnny Cash's music than solidarity. For example, what's a progressive Christian going to do with a song like "When the Man Comes Around" or "God's Gonna Cut You Down"?

Songs of God's judgment upon sinners aren't songs progressive Christians like to sing.

And yet, I get more spiritual sustenance from songs like "When the Man Comes Around" and "God's Gonna Cut You Down" than the worship anthems heard on Christian radio and from church praise bands.  

Theologically speaking, it's hard for me to make sense of this. As a progressive Christian who professes a loving, radically inclusive, big-hearted vision of Christianity, why am I more attracted to songs of God's apocalyptic judgment upon the wicked than to the soaring emotional praise songs of God's love and grace?

Part of it, I think, and I admit this is strange and perhaps paradoxical, is that the only Christians allowed to believe in God's apocalyptic judgment upon the wicked are those who subscribe to God's ultimate reconciliation of all things. I think "Love Wins" and "God's Gonna Cut You Down" need each other. And that if you endorse only one half of the equation something vital is lost.

Conservative Christians tend to go with "God's Gonna Cut you Down" without "Love Wins" and something unhealthy results.

Progressive Christians, by contrast, go with "Love Wins" without "God's Gonna Cut You Down" and something unhealthy also results.

So, yeah, I am a stranger Christian.

I'm a "Love Wins" Christian who likes to warn that "God's Gonna Cut You Down."

My Soul Pants For You: Faith as Affection

If you spend time in the Psalms you are repeatedly struck by the psalmist longing for God. Perhaps the most famous example of this, from Psalm 42:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
Another example from Psalm 63:
You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.
I confess, I've always had a bit of trouble with these psalms. I can't say I've ever panted or longed after God.

That said, I've increasingly come to appreciate how we need a strong and deep affectional connection to God if our spiritual journey is to be sustainable across the decades.

Faith less as belief and more as affection.

Faith in God can't be merely an intellectual and theological relationship. Faith has to involve your feelings as well as your ideas, your heart as well as your head.

An Economy of Attention

Over breakfast one morning while Jana and I were in Switzerland with the Pepperdine Study Abroad program, we had a wonderful conversation with Emily Plank about the culture of children.

Emily is an expert in the area of childhood education and has written a book Discovering the Culture of Children. Emily explained that the book approaches childhood sociologically and anthropologically, exploring childhood as a culture distinct from adult culture.

That approach fascinated me given how last semester Jana and I spent many hours experiencing the culture of children when we helped with childcare after school at Abilene Christian School. As I shared a few months ago, Jana and I were greatly impacted by our time with the children. Over breakfast we shared our observations with Emily to see how they intersected with her own observations and research.

Here's a bit from that post I wrote, observations we shared with Emily:
I think children teach us the basics of being a human being. Children want you to bear witness, to behold, to see them. The requests you get over and over again are, "Look at me!" and "Watch this." and "Come here and see this." Most of what you do in being with children is beholding them. Seeing. Watching. Bearing witness.

Which requires two things. Presence and attention. You have to be there, and you have to have your eyes open.

And as I practice these skills again on Tuesdays and Fridays, I'm made aware that I'm being reeducated all over again in how to be a human being. 
When Emily heard us describe all this, she said, "Yes, exactly! Childhood culture is an economy of attention." 

And that phrase absolutely nailed it for me. An economy of attention. If you've ever spent time with children you've experienced this. Giving and receiving attention is the currency of childhood culture.

And I think that explains why we find playing with children so humanizing. Because at its heart, love is simply an economy of attention. I believe this is a part of what Jesus is talking about when he points to children and says, "The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

Love is an economy of attention. The kingdom of God is an economy of attention.

From the last part of my post reflecting on being with children:
What we want most from each other is presence and attention. That's the basic language of love. But we so rarely offer each other this gift. Mostly because we are all, at various times, sullen, oppositional, demanding, and boring. So we look away. And we lose track of each other.

And eventually, we discover that we've left each other all alone, and that love is in short supply.

Presence and attention. That's what I think made Jesus so good with children. That when no one else saw them, he did.

The way he beheld everyone.

And so it is that a five year old girl takes my hand and tugs, pulling me toward the sandbox.

"Come and see," she says.

I follow.

And I behold.

The Horned Moses

Last week, Jana and I were blessed to be the Spiritual Retreat speakers for Pepperdine's study abroad experience in Lausanne, Switzerland. What an amazing experience! Mark Barneche and Ezra Plank, the directors of the program, were just amazing. And the Pepperdine students were a joy to be around.

After the retreat, Mark took Jana and I on a tour of the Cathedral of Notre Dame there in Lausanne. During the tour I spotted a bearded figure among the statues with horns on his head. "What's Lucifer doing here?" I thought to myself.

Well, as many of you probably already know, that figure wasn't Lucifer. It was Moses, as Mark pointed out and explained to us.

If you didn't know, in Western Christianity there is a tradition of portraying Moses with horns. I think this is common knowledge, but I'd never encountered it before. Somehow I missed that Michelangelo's Moses had horns.

I just love quirky stuff like this.

As Mark explained to us, the tradition of Moses having horns comes from a translation in the Latin Vulgate.

In Exodus 34.29-30 Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets, and the text says that his face "shone":
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him (ESV). 
But notice this translation of the same text in the Douay–Rheims Bible:
And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned, were afraid to come near.
What's going on here?

The Douay–Rheims is an English translation of the Latin Vulgate. And that's where the horned Moses tradition originates. The Latin Vulgate was the work of St. Jerome in the 4th century, and became the official Latin Bible of the Catholic church in the 16th century.

The Hebrew word in question in Exodus 34 is qaran, and its root does literally mean "horn." However, the meaning of qaran is generally understood to mean to "shine" or "send out rays." Jerome, however, translated qaran into the Latin cornuta, "horned." Thus, the Catholic Bible of the 16th century speaks of Moses being "horned" when he comes down from Mt. Sinai bearing the Ten Commandments. This was picked up in the Roman Catholic statuary of Moses, like the statue I saw in Lausanne (pictured here).

Interestingly, there is actually some debate about why Jerome made this translation, as Mark when on to point out.

One camp claims that Jerome just made a mistake, fooled by the root of qaran being "horn" and failing to attend to what the word actually meant ("to shine," "to emit rays"). As we know, etymology does not equal meaning.

But a second camp argues that Jerome didn't make a mistake, that he put horns on Moses intentionally. Some argue that Moses' shining face was a glorified face, and that Jerome translated qaran as "horned" to indicate that glorification. In ancient times, horns were symbols of power and authority. You even see this in the Bible itself:  God "also exalteth the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints" (Ps. 148.14). In this view, Jerome horned Moses to communicate his exalted, glorified countenance.

All that to say, I found it all so very quirky and interesting.

Journal Week 5: "I Don't Like the Sinner Part"

Here's another example of what's broken in progressive Christianity.

Awhile back I was speaking at a progressive Christian event. A woman asked me about the Orthodox prayer rope I wear on my right wrist. "What's that?" she asked.

I explained it was a prayer rope and that the Orthodox use the knots in the rope to keep track of Jesus prayers, the same thing I use it for.

"You recite the Jesus prayer on each knot," I explained, "'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'"

"Oh, I like that," she exclaimed, "but I don't like the sinner part. I'd leave that out."

Classic progressive Christian response.

"I don't like the sinner part. I'd leave that out."

"I don't like the sinner part." Well who does? I sure don't. But that doesn't mean it's not true. Speaking for myself, to borrow from the Psalms, my sin is always before me.

Listen, I'm not saying we need to load up on shame and don hair shirts. But if your Christianity isn't involved in owning and confronting your sin then, well, I don't have much use it.

"I don't like the sinner part. I'd leave that out."

That's the problem in a nutshell.

We are Christians who don't need Christ.

Biography and Soil

People often ask me for advice about how to deal with people. How can I reach this person? How can I change that person? How can I get this person to believe, come to church, or pray?

Mostly, I have no idea. Because so much of this is rooted in biography. Why do I, for example, find church meaningful and another person does not? Sure, it probably has something to do with respective churches, but most of the answer is biographical, the things that make us different from each other.

It puts me in mind of Jesus' Parable of the Sower:
When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.

The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
Same seed but four different sorts of people, leading to four different sorts of outcomes.

I know what I'm saying is blindingly obvious, but can you appreciate how impossible all this makes answering questions about how to change or influence another human being? I can give you some advice--"Say X or do X for this person"--but depending upon where that person is when you say or do X--what sort of soil they are--you can end up with wildly different outcomes.

All you can do is sow a good word. But in the the end, the outcome depends upon the soil.

What Is the Right Thing To Do?

I've noticed that, whenever we face hard choices and decisions, we tend to gravitate to the question "What is the right to do?"

More and more I've come to the conclusion that, as human beings, we rarely know what is the right thing to do. There are no guarantees. We cannot see into the future. There are things we may be missing.

What's the right thing to do? God knows, but we rarely do. We are limited, finite creatures.

And yet, we fret, fearing that if we can't find the right thing to do we'll end up doing the wrong thing. And that choice--between doing the right thing or the wrong thing--fills us with dread.

So let me make this suggestion. Let's stop thinking about decisions and choices as being "right" or "wrong." We just won't know. Can't know.

So instead of thinking about a choice as right or wrong--instead of moralizing our decisions--let's ask if a decision is wise. Is this a wise thing to do? I think the wise/foolish frame is better than the moralized right vs. wrong frame.

Rarely will we know, with absolute certainty, what is the right thing to do. But is it within our capacity to make wise rather than foolish decisions.

So the next time someone asks, or when you ask yourself, "What's the right thing to do?" respond with this:

"I don't know. But what is a wise thing to do?"

Good Friends, Good Food, and Good Conversation Over a Bottle of Wine: On How Not to Be Transgressive

Yesterday I mentioned that Jesus' practice of table fellowship was transgressive. The list of dinner guests at Jesus' table offends our emotional sensibilities. We find his table offensive.

I made that observation regarding the transgressive nature of Jesus' practice of table fellowship to set up this point.

A lot of people who have walked away from organized Christianity like to describe the "church" as good friends, good food, and good conversation over a bottle of wine.

Delightful conversation, beautiful food, candles on the table, clinking wine glasses. The Eucharist, for these people, is an Instagram-worthy dinner party.

And it's a classic example of how not to be like Jesus.

First of all, the "good friends, good food, and good conversation over a bottle of wine" model of church and Eucharist smacks of so much economic and educational privilege that I feel embarrassed for people who say things like this. The "good friends, good food, and good conversation over a bottle of wine" model of church is so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that it makes me cringe.

Where are the poor and homeless at your Pottery Barn-worthy table? Show me that, and your dinner might start looking more like the table Jesus envisioned.

Where are the awkward dinner guests, the zealots breaking bread with tax collectors? Is there a Trump supporter or a Black Lives Matter activist at your table? Show me that, and your dinner might start looking more like the table Jesus envisioned.

When I describe Jesus' table as transgressive, this is what I'm talking about.

I enjoy good friends, good conversation and a bottle of wine. But I'd never, ever describe that as "church." It's too self-indulgent. And not transgressive enough to get Jesus' attention.

Journal Week 4: The Bleeding, Stinking, Mad Shadow of Jesus

So how else has Flannery O'Connor made me strange?

Again, for years I used a Thomas Merton quote in my blog header. It read, in part, "be human in this most inhuman of ages, guard the image of man for it is the image of God."

I now have a quote in my blog header from Flannery talking about following the "bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus."

Contrasting those quotes is one way to dissect the spiritual changes going on with me.

There are so many ways I'd like to unpack this, and I think I'll explore some of these in the Fridays to come, but let me try to articulate what I think is close to the center of what's gnawing at me, spiritually speaking.

As we know, we're all in grave danger of making Jesus into our own image. I'm coming at this from the progressive side of Christianity, so the danger among us liberal, progressive types is turning Jesus into a compassionate, woke, social justice warrior. To be clear, I think Jesus is those things. But I also think Jesus is more, and that more is bleeding, stinking and mad.

Flannery O'Connor interrupted my cozy assumptions that Jesus can be reduced to being the spiritual warrant for progressive politics, ethics, and activism. There is something sacrificial ("bleeding"), offensive ("stinking"), and foolish ("mad") about Jesus.

So where is Jesus asking progressive Christians, like myself, to do something sacrificial, offensive, or foolish? Where is the bleeding, stinking, mad shadow of Jesus offending progressive Christian sensibilities?

Where, on the cruciform path, do progressive Christians look at Jesus and say, "No, I'm not following you there."?

Following Jesus into the darkness of that spiritual shadow is now my spiritual obsession.

To be sure, the bleeding, stinking, mad shadow of Jesus is also offending conservative and evangelical Christian sensibilities. But I'm talking here about me, about my own personal encounter with Jesus. That is the issue that occupies my attention. Where does Jesus offend me?

The trouble with "guard the image of man for it is the image of God" at the spiritual crossroads where I am now stating, is that that sentiment too easily and cozily affirms my self-perception as a progressive Christian hero.

Trudging off into the bleeding, stinking, mad shadow of Jesus is taking me down a different path, to a place where my heroic progressive self-perceptions are offended and, ultimately, die.

Idolatry is Primarily a Way of Life

Idolatry is not primarily considered to be a metaphysical error, a question of ontology. The key question is not what people believe but how they behave. What constitutes idolatry is usually not the mistaken attribution of certain qualities to material objects, but the attitude of loyalty that people adopt toward created realities...Idolatry is primarily a way of life, not a metaphysical worldview...the Bible appears to consider allegiance most commonly to be the decisive factor in separating idolatry from true worship.

--William Cavanaugh, from Field Hospital

Were Not Our Hearts Burning Within Us?

It's a well known story, the story of the walk to Emmaus, the two sad and confused disciples of Jesus who encounter him on the road after his resurrection. But today, something struck me about the story.

After Jesus disappears from their sight, the two disciples say to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us as he walked us on the road?"

That sentiment--our hearts burning within us as we walk with Jesus--struck me as the quintessential statement of what it feels like, experientially, to be a follower of Jesus.

Seriously, whenever I think about Jesus my heart starts to burn within me. I am totally and wholly smitten. I am, quite literally, in a state of awe. A mix of wonder, bewilderment, fascination and reverence. And it's that feeling--my burning heart as I journey with Jesus--that grounds and tethers my faith.

Will You Become a Neighbor?

We all know the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is triggered by a lawyer who asks the question, "Who is my neighbor?"
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus then tells the very familiar story. But at the end of the story Jesus flips the question around:
"Which of these three do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” 
The question the man asks at the start is: "Who is my neighbor?"

The question Jesus asks is: "Who was the neighbor?"

I love this subtle change Jesus makes.

It's not about Them, it's about You.

The issue isn't "Who is my neighbor?" but "Are you a neighbor?"

Journal Week 3: Losing Interest in Progressive Christianity

So, how has Flannery O'Connor made me stranger?

Specifically, how has Flannery O'Connor interrupted my progressive Christianity?

Many liberal and progressive Christians struggle with doubts. The forces of secular disenchantment strongly affect liberal and progressive Christians.

Consequently, there is this impulse within progressive Christianity to make faith lighter, to believe less and less, to dilute faith.

As a progressive Christian, over the years I've contributed my fair share to this impulse, doing my best to sing the praises of doubt. But a few years ago, I began to grow concerned about this trajectory if left unchecked. I began to worry about my spiritual health, as well as the health of many other progressive Christians.

I am not the only one who has grown worried. After years of praising doubt and deconstruction, many progressive Christians have begun to speak about the need for a turn, a movement back toward reconstruction and a second naïveté.

To be clear, because the label "progressive Christianity" is messy and vague, I'm not speaking of progressive viewpoints, theologically or politically, but about the deconstructing, disenchanting, Enlightenment-driven impulse that runs through much of progressive Christianity. The impulse that keeps diluting faith, where you are believing less and less.

Reading Flannery O'Connor finally brought all these worries to a crisis point for me. I think it was Hazel Motes' preaching about the "Church of Christ Without Christ" in Wise Blood that did it. "The Church of Christ Without Christ" sounded a lot like what I saw going on within progressive Christian circles, a Christianity that gets so watered down and diluted you don't, in the end, believe anything at all.

The trouble with the incessant deconstruction at work within progressive Christianity is that, left unchecked, all it tends to produce are agnostic Democrats.

This realization hasn't made me conservative. My voting hasn't changed. Especially with Trump in office.

The effect hasn't been political. It's metaphysical. I'm simply tired and bored by a progressive Christianity that doesn't believe in anything, at least anything beyond Jesus being a model exemplar of liberal humanism. I'm not angry or disgusted, I'm not rejecting progressive Christianity. Plus, everyone is at a different developmental stage. You might be just starting out on a necessary and vital season of deconstruction, especially from toxic forms of Christianity. You can't be expected to be where I am right now. So for you, friends, I hope what I've written about doubts and deconstruction is a blessing to you as you start your journey.

All that to say, I remain very sympathetic to progressive Christianity.

But a Christianity that doesn't believe in anything--a Christianity that dilutes and dilutes and dilutes until you have a "Church of Christ Without Christ"--that Christianity just doesn't interest me anymore.

I've made a long and hard journey carrying my doubts, and now I'm just bored by them.

Living Reminders of God's Divine Presence

Marriage is not a lifelong attraction of two individuals to each other, but a call for two people to witness together to God's love.... [The] intimacy of marriage itself is an intimacy that is based on the common participation in a love greater than the love two people can offer each other. The real mystery of marriage is not that husband and wife love each other so much that they can find God in each other's lives, but that God loves them so much that they can discover each other more and more as living reminders of God's divine presence. They are brought together, indeed, as two prayerful hands extended toward God and forming in this way a home for God in this world.

The same is true for friendship. Deep and mature friendship does not mean that we keep looking each other in the eyes and are constantly impressed or enraptured by each other's beauty, talents, and gifts, but it means that together we look at him who calls us to his service.
--Henri Nouwen, from Clowning in Rome

Jana shared this Nouwen quote a few months back on Facebook. We very much liked the perspective on marriage, how our marriage works best when we become living reminders of God's divine presence for each other.

But we also loved the connection to friendship, and I think it's a great vision of what church should be: a broken and diverse group of people who come together to do the hard relational work of becoming living reminders of God's love for us.

Let Us Die, Then, And Enter Into the Darkness

Christ is both the way and the door. Christ is the staircase and the vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant, and the mystery hidden from the ages.

A man should turn his full attention to this throne of mercy, and should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of faith, hope and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation. Then such a man will make with Christ a pasch, that is, a passing-over. Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna, and rest with Christ in the sepulcher, as if he were dead to things outside. He will experience, as much as is possible for one who is still living, what was promised to the thief who hung beside Christ: Today you will be with me in paradise.

For this passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul...

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardor of his loving passion. Only he understood this who said: My soul chose hanging and my bones death. Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God...

Let us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination. Let us pass over with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: It is enough.

--St. Bonaventure

On Sacrifice: Effort, Investment and Excellence

In The Slavery of Death I talk about how idolatry manifests as service to the principalities and powers. Mixing Ernest Becker with William Stringfellow, I talk about how we achieve self-esteem by service to an institution or organization. Success within the "hero system" of the institution--generally your employer--becomes your route to meaning and significance.

This service to institutions often becomes a form of slavery when the institution demands greater and greater loyalty, commitment and sacrifice, often couched in calls for "excellence."

The point I make in The Slavery of Death is that these calls for excellence are often euphemisms for the word sacrifice. Specifically, we are finite creatures with limited time, energy and resources. We can't keep getting more and more excellent without a significant reallocation of time, energy and resources. Something has to be sacrificed. More time at work, for example, means less time with family, friends or church.

And yet, since success within the institution is how we achieve self-esteem, we are tempted to make these sacrifices. This is the cycle--self-esteem fueled sacrifice--that creates our idolatrous relationship with the Powers.

That said, I occasionally get push back about how we should think about excellence. Shouldn't we strive to be excellent? Isn't it a display of good Christian stewardship to do and give our very best?

To help get this sorted out, let's dig down into what is involved in a call for "excellence."

Let me suggest that excellence is comprised of two ingredients, effort and investment. Simply:
Effort + Investment = Excellence
Sometimes the call to excellence is simply a call for effort. For example, people at work might not be giving it 100% effort. They might be doing shoddy work to spend time surfing the Internet while at the office. A call to excellence, when it's aimed at effort, is aimed at laziness, goofing off, and mailing it in.

So in this sense--an appeal to do your job and do it well--the call to excellence isn't really about idolatry. "Excellence," in this view, is something we should all aspire to. We should give and do our best, whatever the task or job might be. We should work, as the Bible says, as for the Lord.

But let's say you are giving maximal effort. In that instance the call to excellence shifts from effort to investment. If you're working to the max the call to excellence means that you have to invest more. Usually by putting in more hours. It's this aspect of the equation that I'm calling out when I say "excellence is a euphemism for sacrifice."

To be clear, sometimes sacrifice--increasing investment--is good and necessary. Maybe you're covering for a sick co-worker. Maybe it's a busy season at the office. And maybe it's what you have to do to keep your job. I wouldn't call any of these increases in investment forms of idolatry. They are sacrifices, to be sure, but they aren't idolatry.

But there are times when these calls for greater investment, and our desire to respond to them, do qualify as idolatry, as sacrifices we make on the altar of significance and self-esteem.

These ego-driven sacrifices--in Henri Nouwen's phrasing, the desire to be relevant, powerful and spectacular--are the ones I'm calling out in The Slavery of Death.

Journal Week 2: Burned Clean By Flannery

Regular and perceptive readers will have noticed that I changed the Thomas Merton quote in my blog header to two quotes, one from Flannery O'Connor and one from Johnny Cash.

All of us, I'm guessing, can tell a story of the significant theological influences upon us. George MacDonald was the big influence upon me during my college years. Since MacDonald, there was William Stringfellow, Arthur McGill, Dorothy Day, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

And now Flannery O'Connor.

I have to confess, Flannery O'Connor has wrecked me. Over the last two years, I've read all her short stories and have read her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, twice. And I don't read fiction.

Reading Flannery O'Connor has been a profound and destabilizing experience that I'm only just starting to reckon with. I'm still exploring the contours and jagged edges of the changes O'Connor has wrought within me. What have I rejected and turned my back on? What have I changed my mind about? How have my theological biases and prejudices been altered?

Am I still the same person, theologically and spiritually speaking, or have I changed in some significant way? Has my spiritual pilgrimage been enriched, or knocked off course?

I think I'll use some of these Friday journal entries to try to figure some of this out.

I guess the first thing I'd say is that Flannery O'Connor beat the liberal Christianity clean out of me. To speak as Flannery speaks, it might be more appropriate to say that Flannery burned the liberal Christianity clean out of me.

The acid bath, if you're interested in undergoing it, was mainly a mixture of Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, and the story "The Lame Shall Enter First." Speaking only for myself, the liberal, enlightened humanism that informs and guides much within liberal Christianity just withered in these stories. I saw way too much of progressive Christianity in Hazel Motes' "Church of Christ Without Christ" (Wise Blood), and in the enlightened humanism of the characters Rayber (The Violent Bear It Away) and Sheppard ("The Lame Shall Enter First").

Because of Flannery O'Connor, I struggle to think of myself as a liberal, progressive Christian anymore. No doubt, I'll continue to use that label to describe myself when it's helpful to draw quick, rough contrasts between my views and conservative, evangelical views. I haven't shifted toward conservatism in the religious, culture and political wars.

The only way I can describe what's happened is this.

I'm not liberal or conservative, progressive or evangelical.

I am something stranger.

Figuring out just how strange, and it what ways, is now the adventure that I'm on.

Michael, the Devil and the Body of Moses

As I've written about before, in the Bible the archangel Michael is described as God's main weapon in fighting the devil. Because of this, in the Catholic tradition prayers to St. Michael are believed to be particularly effective in gaining protection from evil.

The struggle between Michael and Satan is mostly rooted in Revelation 12:
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Evidence of this fight is also found in Daniel 10, where Michael is described as fighting against the spirit prince of Persia (Babylon). As the angel says to Daniel:
But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.
But the strangest and most enigmatic place we find Michael and Satan squaring off in is Jude 9:
But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!"
Huh? What's going on in this text?

The writer of Jude assumes knowledge of a story about the assumption of Moses into heaven. From what we can surmise, Satan was preventing or objecting to Moses entering heaven. Most likely bringing some sort of accusation against Moses, like his murder of the Egyptian or his disobedience at Meribah. Michael rebukes Satan, presumably making the way clear for Moses to enter heaven.

The source for this story about Michael and Satan fighting over the body of Moses is unclear. It could be a story from the Jewish apocryphal book The Testament of Moses.

Or it could be a story that the writer of Jude (and/or others) pieced together from threads found in the book of Enoch and a story we find in Zechariah 3, where an unnamed angel rebukes Satan with the exact same words from Jude 9 when Satan brings accusations against the High Priest.

Regardless, Jude 9 is another place where we see Michael and the devil squaring off.

Paul's Mission to the Gentiles and the Noahide Laws

In Judaism there is a teaching regarding what are called the Noahide Laws. These seven laws were believed to be binding upon all of humanity, a minimal and universal moral ethic for Jew and Gentile alike. Where the Jews, given their unique vocation, were to obey the entirety of the Torah, Gentiles were only obligated to keep the minimal, Noahide requirements. A Gentile who kept the Noahide Laws was considered to be a "righteous Gentile" and would be given a place in the world to come.

What are the Noahide laws? They are:

  1. Do not deny God. 
  2. Do not blaspheme God. 
  3. Do not murder. 
  4. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations. 
  5. Do not steal. 
  6. Do not eat from a live animal. 
  7. Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to said laws. 
When we encounter righteous Gentiles in the gospels we can assume they are identified as such not because they are Torah-observant but because they are keeping the Noahide Laws.

When in the book of Acts Paul starts taking the gospel message to the Gentiles the issue of morality and law-keeping becomes an issue. Are the Gentile supposed to convert to Judaism and become Torah-observant? Or can the Gentiles stick to the Noahide code? Some have argued that this is the question being debated in Acts 15 and that the outcome of that debate seems to be that the Gentiles just need to keep the Noahide laws.

Here's the letter the Jerusalem Council sends to the Gentile churches (Acts 15.23-29):
The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.

Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.

If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Some see the Noahide Laws at work in this letter. (Some scholars don't.)

First, while not every Noahide Law is given here, it seems to be a safe bet that the authors of the letter assumed that the unlisted Noahide Laws were understood as givens: Do not murder, do not steal, do not deny God, do not blaspheme. The seventh law listed above--the creation of laws--wouldn't have been applicable to individuals.

The rules that are given in the letter, it is argued, seem to flow out of the Noahide Laws and are listed here by the Jerusalem church because these laws might not have been known by a Gentile convert: abstaining from blood (which flowed out of Law 6 above) and sexual immorality (Law 4 above). The exhortation about not eating meat sacrificed to idols can also be understood as a clarification about what it meant to not deny God (Law 1 above) and to not blaspheme God (Law 2 above).

The point that's made here is that an understanding of the Jewish Noahide Laws helps the letter in Acts 15 seems less random in its moral recommendations.

That may be helpful, but the other pushback here is that Paul in his love ethic (see 1 Cor. 13) pushes his churches toward a moral vision far surpassing the Noahide Laws.

Perhaps the Jerusalem Counsel had ethical minimums in mind, but Paul certainly did not.