But really, what does it mean to speculate?

It is funny to me how our culture feels about the noun, “speculation,” and the verb, “to speculate.” It has the same roots as words like, “spectacles, spectacle, spectators, spectacular,” etc., which means that it derived from the concept of sight, of seeing something. But if it derived from sight, and we as a culture like to talk about and uphold sight, then how did it come to mean something ungrounded, essentially something you couldn’t see? I am pretty sure that this is from modern responses to about two thousand years of philosophical and theological history, in which much of what was practiced was called “speculation” in a positive sense – basically “sight.” Sure, it referred to sight of the mind’s eye, in many ways. But at the same time, often enough we use and refer to the same kind of sight regularly at least in popular America. Much of American culture is made up of speculations – sights justified because they are the sights of the mind’s eye (we make mistakes about these sights, but such sight is still how we justify many beliefs and actions – and even scientific thought is a history of mistakes, hopefully being corrected, but still a history of mistakes – and so is philosophical history).

The elite and some people who pride themselves on their scientific education will probably object to this precisely on the grounds that only the scientific is reliable. But then the grounds of scientific method are non-scientific. In fact, they are speculation. How do we know that nature obeys laws and will continue faithfully to do so? Well, “sight” of the speculative kind, is what justifies such belief – the specific speculative kind which also happens to be extremely unique since most of the 6 billion people on the planet do not share that exact speculation. This is important because people who talk about science in America commonly assume that the bases of science are self-evident – but if they are self-evident why did we not come to them sooner? And why don’t most people hold to them regularly today? In fact, they are speculation. They may be good speculation – a lot of medieval speculation was good speculation. But they’re still speculations, to be held up or knocked down on those grounds, not as self-evident authorities. It is also the case with the belief that we can consistently and coherently observe, theorize, and experiment in the natural world – this essential belief of modern scientific method is speculation which is not held universally or by the majority in history or the present, and it is not a self-evident authority. It falls or stands on speculative grounds – on the sight of the mind’s eye, and our reasoning about such sight.

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‘Disinformation’ and the Death of Romulus

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All is not well as Paul and his cohort Silas write to their converts in Thessalonica. The churches into which they had formed have made quite the impression on their city, which is glorious enough, but the result has been blowback.

If every church is a microcosm, they’re a microcosmopolis, where Jew and gentile share bread and wine like brothers, and pool capital like countrymen, entombed beneath the concrete walkways of an empire that does not co-mingle and will not change. Their affront to the norm has not gone unnoticed. The gosh-dang world is upside down.

Neither has it gone unnoticed by the Synagogue leaders who do not appreciate the threat these early Pauline communities pose to the continued livelihood of their faith community. None too pleased to lose a portion of their Jewish attendants and perhaps the bulk of their “God-fearers,” – (gentiles drawn to the monotheism of the Jewish religion who had attached themselves to the synagogue worship) – they found these egalitarian cultists troublesome. Worse, “not a few of the leading women,” drawn by the teaching of these new missionaries, departed from their assembly. Their influence and financial resources departed with them. The Pauline mission robbed the synagogues of attendants and hegemony, and power, and prestige.

Of course, none of these issues couldn’t be resolved with a smear campaign. Paul and his cronies had constructed a message, said the synagogue leaders, that would naturally appeal to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles. Like all theological novelties, they went on, it was really a ploy for financial gain. The missionaries who brought the message are, after all, chasing prominence and glory. And they fled the scene once they met opposition – hardly behavior that denotes sincerity.

Well, smear campaigns are never really about misinformation. The particulars of propagandist blather never really have to take root in order to undermine the stability of its target. And the synagogue leaders, having saturated the public square with slanderous accusations, at the very least destabilized what the missionaries had built. Misinformation is an understatement. This was disinformation. 

Unsurprisingly, their claims were baseless. In reality, the missionaries had come to teach in Thessalonica on the heels of ‘shameful treatment’ in Phillipi for having preached the same ingratiating gospel, having stirred up the wrath of some of the same ingrate Synagogue leaders. Someone is incapable of handling resistance, but it isn’t the missionaries – who, by the way, the Thessalonians may remember had insisted on working side jobs to support themselves during their stay. In truth, they didn’t make any demands on their converts, although they were certainly entitled to. If they’d been thirsty after renown, they would have acted a bit more like their interlocutors.

As the Thessalonians will also remember, they were “gentle among them, like a mother taking care of her own children,” or “a father with his children, exhorting each one of them.” They had been “holy and righteous and blameless in conduct toward them,” and the only explanation was that “being affectionately desirous of the Thessalonians, they were ready to share with them not only the gospel of God but also their own selves, because they had become very dear to them.” Having been “torn away” geographically, their hearts remained in Thessalonica. These new believers were their glory and joy.

So there was a different reason behind the opposition they had faced. The clergy isn’t what it was. Thoroughly domesticated by an empire that shuns them, this group of foolhardy prigs are the same sort that killed the prophets and crucified the Lord, and in “hindering Paul and Silas from speaking to all the gentiles,” they demonstrate their inability to envision gentiles as full participants in the coming kingdom to be established by the Messiah. Synagogues had amassed a large multitude of ‘God-fearing’ gentiles as partial participants in the life of the community, and they were happy with it that way. Behind their visceral opposition to the missionaries was a Jim Crowesque separate-but-equal-ism in which Greeks and the like, however devout, were best relegated to a second-class citizenship. These punks were at least as reprehensible as the hecklers at Galatia.

In any case, the missionaries had sent Timothy to serve as a temporary overseer, and were delighted to learn that although the new believers in Thessalonica buckled somewhat in response to the onslaught of their antagonists, they weren’t ‘bewitched’ like the Galatians had been.

So, concluding their prayer of exhortation, the missionaries entreat God to reunite them with the churches in Thessalonica, and to knit the new believers together in holy love, and to “establish their hearts blameless in holiness” so that they will be prepared for the return of Christ. They’ve issued a renewed call for holy living, a warning against disregarding God’s call to purity, and a command to remain “in the world.” Faithful as the Thessalonian Christians have remained thus far, one wonders why the missionaries thought this necessary.

As it turns out, the Synagogue leaders – horrified at the thought of losing their relative hegemony over Jewish practitioners and Gentile seekers – sought with some success to turn both the city-folk and government against them. Their brutal treatment of Jason and his household, recorded in Acts 17, was hardly an isolated incident:

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”

And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the synagogue leaders were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.

And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.” (Acts 17:1-9)

It would have been tempting for a relatively new Gentile believer to quietly slide back into her old habits to avoid meeting the same fate. Others, rather than buckling under the pressure of religious and governmental opposition, grew zealous to the point of withdrawing altogether from the life of the city. That the missionaries even needed to remind Thessalonian believers to “aspire to live quietly, and mind their own affairs, and work with their hands…so that they may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one,” is amusing in hindsight. Timothy had encountered a number of well-intentioned believers who, overestimating the imminence of the second coming, had abandoned their jobs and become dependent, quite gratuitously, on the charity of others.

On top of it all, there was concern about whether those who had died would be included in the messianic kingdom at the coming of Christ. The missionaries typically drew out their instruction over the course of several days and weeks, and the religious elites had successfully driven them from the city before they could properly furnish the imaginations of newly proselytized with an accurate conception of how the resurrection of the Son of God would pave the way for their own resurrection.

Further complicating the matter, the proselytes had likely been connected to a strand of Judaism that placed minimal emphasis on the final Resurrection – or ignored it outright – so that when Paul and Silas were prematurely ejected from Thessalonica, the infant churches were left with an incomplete puzzle of sorts. In general, Palestinian Judaism was ‘earthier’ than the acutely Hellenized form that flourished in Alexandria and elsewhere, and whose general impulses would have trickled down into the synagogues of Thessalonica.

Hence, the form of Judaism in which the new converts were versed probably emphasized immortality over resurrection and downplayed the messianic hope, at least tacitly, on the grounds that “the dynamic personality of a messiah has no proper place in such a serene, eternally ordered world,” to quote the celebrated Jewish historian Salo Baron. Having been convinced by Paul and his team that Jesus was God’s messiah, they walked into the new faith carrying over anticipation of a coming “Golden Age, unrivaled in glory, when all peoples would abandon idolatrous practices and join the Jews in the worship of the one God in Jerusalem.” Yet untaught regarding the ‘final Resurrection,’ more than a few among them were concerned about whether those who had died already would be included in the ‘Golden Age’ established at Christ’s return.

As it turns out, they needn’t worry. Just as Christ was resurrected from the dead, Paul insists, so also will those who have died be resurrected at His return. In fact, his whole gospel hinges on it. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven,” sooner or later, and “the dead in Christ will rise first.” For Paul, this meant the families he’d set ablaze at the height of his career in barbarism, and Stephen, from whose eyes he’d watched the vitality drain with the coats of his murderers strewn across his arms. For myself, it means my grandfather, Homer Chalmus Ellington, and Johnny Cash, to whom I’m supposedly related by marriage. After all this, says Paul, “We who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The imagery is strikingly reminiscent of a pivotal episode in the second book of Samuel:

“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd over my people Israel, and you shall be leader over Israel’” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

And David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, also carpenters and masons who built David a house. And David knew that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel.” (2 Samuel 5:1-12)

That’s to say, when the Thessalonian Christians meet Christ in the air, it will be like the tribes of Israel ‘meeting’ David at Hebron. They will say, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh,” and welcome Him back for good – “and so we will always be with the Lord.” Soon enough, the fermenting churches will meet their loved ones afresh, and their Savior – no longer as an itinerant healer, but as the promised Messiah – King Jesus, come to take the blood bought world back for Himself.

One couldn’t be blamed for missing that emphasis, though. Two millenia after Paul, disinformation abounds – from the press, certainly, and the academy, probably – and, regrettably, the pulpit.

If you grew up Protestant in the United States of America, you might be under the impression that Paul and his colleagues applied for a grant from the Jerusalem council, built a medium-sized rectangular church building with an impressive white steeple, and prepped their converts with the basics of Christian theology to tide them over while they waited out the rapture. This is taught nationwide in pulpits occupied by Spirit-filled ministers with good intentions and poor theology.

In reality, these Pauline communities remade the world. Apparently his exhortation to live quietly and do honest work for honest wages was sufficient to rouse them out of their retreatist stupor because, together with the scattered Church the world over, the Christians in Thessalonica quietly ushered in the death of the old West where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were functions of power and little else, people were only acknowledged as human insofar as they were useful to the State and properly assimilated into the bloody machinery of imperialism, and the order of the cosmos endorsed a thickly stacked caste system whereby the poor and others were resources to be consumed by the nobility – as labour, or entertainment, or, more commonly, as sexual playthings to be brutalized and drank to exhaustion. It is hard to oversell how Paul’s gospel toppled the empire that Aeneas built, but it did exactly that, as generations of his disciples lived together in embodied glory – a communitarian compassion that enfleshed the bones of Moses in their midst. As it turns out, all Christian theology is ‘liberation theology’ if you understand where we came from and toward what we are continually blooming.

So the churches in Thessalonica were a counterculture, so to speak – one so thoroughly contagious that it spread through the streets of Rome like a ravaging disease and devoured the ethos of strength, of ‘manly vitality,’ and sowed the egalitarian spirit that continues in each generation to give birth to itself, each time more mature than before.

Depredation was the rule in the world that crucified the Son of God, and the ages were long, the norms static – it was a world that did not change. Armed with the gospel of the crucified God, the scattered church in Rome and abroad broke apart the pavements and tended the Edenic gardens buried well beneath. Consequently, they grew, albeit slowly, into the world that is, and as we, too, see to these gardens, they will grow, perhaps, somehow, into the world to come. And we will meet the Lord in the air, and say “We are your bone and flesh,” and we will always be with the Lord, because the Resurrection of His blood bought world cannot be undone.

Trying (Not) to be Jesus for Others: A Remarkable Thing to Consider

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Like many of the Christian NF-types I know around my age, I (finally) picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. I’d heard a lot of high praise for this epistolary novel of a dying father writing to his young son. And the more I read (and reread) the final pages, the more I realized I was not disappointed by the hype. We could devote an entire series of blog posts to Robinson’s glowing coal of a novel—shining forth, Hopkinesque, with the grandeur of God—and an undergrad course I took actually intended to spend three or four class periods over it. Sadly, that class ran out of time by the end of the year; I suppose I don’t have the time to blog all of my thoughts about it, either.

In those last pages, the ones I relish rereading, John Ames imagines his son as an old man. He cherishes the thought of his son filled with wisdom and experiences and evidence of having loved creation. He blesses the body parts that will trouble him in forty or fifty years—the very same parts that trouble Ames as he imparts his novel-length goodbye. “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years,” he writes. “But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.” The gap after this sentence in the book, marking the end of the section of text, literally underscores Ames’ impending absence.

Even though this is a passing thought (most of Gilead is, actually), I can’t help but find it a “remarkable thing to consider,” to use Ames’ oft-repeated, almost liturgical, phrase.

I’ve lived most of my life in a way that encouraged dependence. Maybe it stemmed from sibling interactions or loneliness or grade school expectations or pride. Maybe it’s just human depravity. I remember realizing in middle school that while being friends with popular kids was a lost cause, I could easily get other (obviously) lonely people to like me. It became a game in high school. A mode of survival in college. It bled into friendships where I could tell myself I was being loving: listening (a lot), offering advice, giving gifts. And it seemed to start with love.

Soon, the object was not so much loving another person—which involves, of course, another person. The object was myself. Seemingly loving behaviors became vehicles for my feeling affirmed, feeling wanted, feeling needed. None of those feelings are inherently bad, of course. But if, like I did, I preyed on other peoples’ loneliness for the sake of my own gratification, then I really couldn’t call that love anymore.

And the worst thing for those who squandered their dependence on me: I, like every other human, am imperfect (in case the previous paragraphs of my predatory predilection didn’t already make the point). Admitting that sets my teeth on edge almost as much as admitting my mercenary desire to be affirmed. I, even the wizened and bright and compassionate and obviously-humble individual that I am, will let down every single person I happen to come in contact with. I will disappoint. I will say the wrong thing. I will hurt.

I will not be able to provide for their every need. Even on my best day, with the best intentions and all of my resources available, I will be insufficient for even one single human soul.

If only this realization about my own sick self was just one of those cool metaphorical dream sequences in a movie. If only I woke up from it, whistling, and hastily changed my ways. But I think the realest lessons have to come from the realest part of our experience: the part where our hands are lacerated by even the dirt we fall down in, and we can’t look away from the fact that it’s our own damned fault. Over the course of a couple of months, I saw that I had let people down not just by my absences and mistakes—the ways that were immediately apparent—but because I simply and ravenously encouraged dependence on me.

The dying John Ames rightly admits that he can’t bear the burden of years for his son. I think he would have realized that even if he had lived to see his son become an old man himself: he writes only of helping carry, not carrying for him. And so he wisely does not express a desire to somehow absorb his son’s struggles, even if it would make Ames feel the essentiality that I crave. And how can he, when he will be gone?

He writes instead of God having “that fatherly satisfaction.” And in two sentences, he does what has been so difficult for me: he entrusts someone he cannot help to the care of someone who can. Someone transcendent and sufficient. Someone who provides the only rest for hearts that fundamentally seek an object upon which to heap their dependence. Someone who gives meaning to the term “fatherly” and, in fact, “satisfaction.” Someone perfect.

Along with Ames, I must also confess that I can’t bear the weight of many years. I can’t do it for myself, much less another human. I can’t fill those deepest wounds because I’m not meant to be Jesus. (And, sweet freedom, I truly thank God for that.) But because I am meant to be like him, I am not excused from caring for others. The way I imitate him is not by pointing dependent hearts in the direction of myself (the listening, sage, meek, and deeply predatory self). It is by turning my attention, and others’, toward the only Person who deserves the fatherly satisfaction of holding all of the aches in our aging bones and aging souls.

A remarkable thing to consider, indeed.

The Omnipresence of Suffering (and the Image of the Bloodied Christ)

Anonymous Byzantine illustration: The pre-incarnate Christ speaks to Job.

One can rarely be sure how to go about paraphrasing Calvin. He’s an almost bottomless pit of nuance – so much so that it’s nearly impossible to summarize his thought without burying each sentence in qualifications. There is a tacit existentialism to him – especially in The Institutes – and he’s well-pleased when a thought stream grows dizzying and the fragile tensions he has drawn together become insufferable. The result is that Calvinism, in the broadest sense of the term, is a magnet’s coil – always, evidently, liable to burst at the seams, and yet, consistently, holding together. It’s ‘head in the clouds’ theology, to paraphrase a much-easier-to-summarize John Piper. The unfavorable appraisals that he has obtained in recent years seem, at best, reductive.

There’s a certain poetry to the disfavor into which he has fallen of late. Calvin spent his life swinging at enemies real and imagined. He is, in fact, a prime example of the demonic perils of demanding to be proven right. The man nursed an appetite for vindication. At every turn, his words were twisted by adversaries and misinterpreted by troglodytes. He longed, sometimes violently, to be understood. And now, more than ever, he isn’t.

He is know for his rigidity and supposed authoritarian bent. Fair enough. He was insufferably rigid. And rather heavy handed in governing Geneva. These facts are unremarkable. It shouldn’t surprise us that a 16th century intellectual was vociferously combative, nor that he ruled his Protestant theocracy with a half-clenched fist of iron. It should astound us that he was as remarkably flexible as he was – both as a theologian and politician. This flexibility makes him a complex read – not that any of his writings are terribly complicated, but his willingness to tease out possibilities and to take his readers along with him as he plumbs the depths of the transcendant beauty at center of the universe makes him an author who defies systematization. It is not that his thoughts are disorderly; they aren’t. And yet, no summary of Calvin has ever captured his many-layeredness. His nuances must be felt, not simply assented to. Calvinism is a lived-theology, and, as such, can only really be understood in hindsight, and from the inside.

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There are no good theodicies. As Austin Farrer observed half a century ago, nothing in the world can quite make up for the fact that the universe runs on suffering. There are also no pacifists. Not unless we so thoroughly restrict the term as to render it meaningless: Research has suggested that plants can feel pain and think thoughts, recognize relatives, and support one another by sharing photosynthesized sugars through a rather complex entangled-roots system. A rapidly multiplying group of animals have proven to be more nearly ‘sentient’ than we ever previously imagined. The boundaries between human and beast, and beast and plant are ever-narrowing. And no creature, human or otherwise, can exist without inflicting suffering on other creatures. One is reminded of a Noah and the Whale song:

When the baby’s born
Oh, let’s turn it to the snow
So that ice will surely grow
Over weak and brittle bones

Oh, let’s leave it to the wolves
So their teeth turn it to food
Oh, its flesh keeps them alive
Oh, its death helps life survive
Oh, the world can be kind in its own way

To understate: The classic ‘Problem of Evil’ is a bit passé. And in light of the sheer brutality of existence, so are theodicies. How can life be meaningful – or, even tolerable – in the face of such horrors? Can anyone stay sane who takes seriously the fact the the world literally runs on the suffering of creatures? It is not simply that unnecessary suffering pervades the goings-on of the current milieu. The ecosystem mainstains itself and adapts as creatures, some microscopic and others magnificent, fight and claw for resources. And there is no rest, no escape route: If creatures did not kill each other on purpose for resources, some would kill others by accident. Larger creatures would still crush smaller creatures by no fault of their own. Sizable creatures would still crush those too small to be seen by the naked eye. And worse yet, if creatures did not kill each other on purpose, even more would die than before. Plants are alive, but herbivores have to eat them. Trees feel the pain of losing bark to hungry herbivores – they emit an ultrasonic noise when feasted upon. Trees scream in horror when predators sink their teeth in and fungi drink them dry from the inside out. And even if plants did not think and feel and scream in pain, there would be unspeakable animal suffering if creatures stopped competing for resources. It is the bloody struggle for survival that guarantees that as few creatures die as is necessary. If they stopped killing each other, there would still be such a scarcity of resources that most of them would starve to death – a worse fate, even, than being mauled. No creature, anywhere, can exist, in any sense, without inflicting senseless suffering on other creatures.

How does one keep from going insane in this world? Interestingly enough, Calvin – who did not have access to the findings of modern science and had not read The Hidden Life of Trees – was remarkably in tune with the absurdity of the universe. I don’t, of course, mean that he grasped the particularly sordid depths of animal suffering. And yet, he grasped, long before it had become self-evident, that the world is precisely as fleeting, as cruelly indifferent, you might say, as Solomon had posthumously warned, and Job had (rather repetitively) chronicled. And yet – he was also the man who, long before Edwards, had declared that ‘there is not one blade of grass that does not exist for the glory of God.’ The world is a horrifying factory of barbarism that somehow, still, is an indefatigable repository of transcendant beauty. If you can accept it, the horrors that travel the veins of everything are a characteristic absurdity, which, though omnipresent, contradict the very fabrics of reality. God is love, and God is the Ground in which we have our being, and yet, to be at all is intolerably painful, and yet, the transcendent beauty at the bottom of everything beckons us onward into the absurdity in pursuit, we hope, of transcendence itself.

And so Calvin eschews theodicy, instead goading his readers on to something less clear and more satisfying. Endlessly qualified and characteristically dizzying, he says to the downtrodden – and, my paraphrase will be unsatisfactory here – ‘You will suffer, and often, perhaps unthinkably so, and others will suffer worse, too, unbearably. And God’s hand is in it, somehow – like all things, your suffering, seemingly needless, traces back to God’s eternal decree. And you have no grounds for protest, because He is the very Ground you stand on. But you can endure it and, by grace, find yourself hammered more nearly into the image of the bloodied Christ.’