Sin is a Hiding Place

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk By The Sea

His eyes welled up and the tears dripped into his coffee cup. “I don’t know why I keep doing this.”

I was concerned he might get loud and the other patrons of the cafe would take notice, before I remembered that it didn’t much matter. My friend was confessing.

“You know it’s–”

“It’s not okay.” He interrupted. “Don’t tell me that.”

He wasn’t wrong. We’d been praying together for several weeks. Nobody breaks a porn habit in a day, and most folks don’t even break it in a lifetime. The previous week we had talked through how at least half the porn available on the web is there without the consent of the women in the video – stripteases sent to former boyfriends, and the like. It’s never okay to gratify yourself to the image of someone you’re not in it for the long haul with, but it’s especially grievous to use an image or a video that wasn’t meant for your eyes. That goes beyond lust and dives headlong into betraying the sexual autonomy of the woman involved. All sin, at some level, deconstructs into some form of dehumanization toward another human being who bears the imago dei. This heaps on an extra layer.

He had viewed one such video the night before. At the beginning, he said, the woman made an offhand comment that suggested it was a video previously sent to a significant other. It was not meant for him, or anyone, to see. If she knew it was online, she might be horrified. To watch this was to transgress her sexual autonomy and, by extension, the sexual autonomy of all women, everywhere. He watched it anyway. Our convictions melt when they stand in the way of something we want.

It was not okay, and he didn’t want to be lied to. And I didn’t lie to him.

“Why do you think you do it?”

He tried his best to look quizzical. He already had an answer, but it wasn’t fully cooked. I waited.

“It feels safe,” He half-whispered. “Porn feels like home. And I’m usually homesick.”

* * *

Sin is usually a hiding place. We retreat to it because it feels safe and natural. Indeed, it is “safe” inasmuch as it is familiar and unchallenging, and it is natural inasmuch as it comes as naturally to us as breathing. It is a safe haven that guards us from the bold and invading reality in which we find ourselves, where nothing is certain or sound, safety is not guaranteed, and the clamor of responsibility fills the silence and prevents us from drinking deeply of rest.

So indulging in sin is most often an act of sheer cowardice rather than simply licentiousness for its own sake. A man indulges in sexual sin, for example, not simply because he lacks morals or resolve, but because he lacks backbone. He’s lily-livered and yellow-bellied.

What would we do instead? To exist at all, frankly, is painful. Everybody goes somewhere to feel safe. You fish or you drink or you reach for the remote – et cetera.  But if we’re honest, either God is your hiding place or sin is.

In the latter case, you hide from reality because it’s painful to be anyone or anything, then you hide from God because you hid from reality by burrowing deep in your sin. And then you hide from you because you’re embarrassed that you’re who you are. And at this point you ought to be, really. And now you’re in a loneliness too deep for words – especially blog words.

If you read my own entries here with any regularity, you’re probably tired of hearing me say that we’re born communitarians. God’s a trinity – three persons, one substance – which is to say that God is a Community. As such, image bearers that we are, we are created for community. ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ is, at best, secondarily about marriage. We exist to relate to others, specifically, after the likeness of God’s own Trinitarian pattern of love and self-giving. We’re born communitarians. 

It goes deeper than that, though. We are created for community, and we are created for Community. Which is to say, we exist to relate to God. In a way, that is, to participate in the unbroken joy of the Trinitarian Community, each of us, as a community swallowed up by grace in the original Community. We were created for God. Which means that so long as we’re hiding from God, we’ll be haunted by a loneliness deeper than loneliness. There’s no longevity to it. The illusion of safety that sin promises betrays us, invariably. It’s a bad hiding place.

Instead, perhaps, we could take a posture in every situation that says, “I am glad to be here. The pain of this is real, and I am glad that I am here, to be hurt at times like these. I don’t want to escape the ‘shackles of reality.’ They are not shackles. I am free to exist. To be – whatever that entails. I do not want an outlet into which I might retreat to avoid my present troubles.”

I’m suggesting the impossible here. At least, so long as we’re individuals, carrying on as individuals among other individuals while the sun sets and rises and the second-hand ticks toward oblivion. As long as we’re subjects of a loneliness too deep for words, disconnected from the ancient Community out of whose strange creativity we were born, there is no taking this posture. Too much is at stake to risk foregoing satisfaction in favor of faithfulness. If we’re not participants by grace in the fullness of joy within the Trinity’s blessed community, we’re doomed to please ourselves till we die, to stuff our pockets full with whatever might quiet the stir of deep sadness that hangs over us. And yet, our pockets have holes.

* * *

That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ: and these things we write, that our joy may be made full. (1 John 1:1-4)

John wrote the above paragraph, apparently, “so that you may not sin.” (2:1) When I was younger, I didn’t understand what was supposed to be helpful about it. Okay, I thought, Jesus is the ‘Word of Life’ that was with the Father from the beginning. The dots did not connect. This is Sunday school stuff. 

As I’ve grown, though, it’s become the passage I treasure more than any other. “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” John makes explicit what the other New Testament writers assume: that to become a disciple means enjoying the glory of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, not only at a distance as an admirer, but from the inside. No human being becomes God – this is one of the distinguishing marks between Christianity and Mormonism, for example – but we are included, by grace, through faith, in the joy of the already-satisfied God.

In a later writing, John takes to calling Jesus the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,‘ (Rev. 13:8), which is interesting, because He wasn’t slain before the foundation of the world. The crucifixion can be dated rather precisely – it took place at most within a 10 year window – and it’s well after the cosmos was made. Here John is getting at something different: The crucifixion of the Son of God is precisely the condition on which the project of creation was carried out. John writes that ‘in Him all things were made, and apart from Him not one thing was made that has been made,’ (John 1:3). Coupled with the aforementioned passages, a clearer picture emerges:

The Father, Son, and Spirit, wholly satisfied as a self-contained ‘Community,’ needing absolutely nothing and absolutely no one else to complete their happiness or augment their joy, wanted to create a world of other beings that were not them, with whom their perfect satisfaction could be shared, simply for its own sake. They knew, however, that the result would be a humanity so sinful that hell would be a form of social justice. Together, they agreed that the Son would become incarnate as a human being, teach them how to be ‘human’ again, and be crucified, swallowing up the whole wrath of the whole Godhead, and overcoming the forces of Darkness to rescue them for Himself, and complete the project, begun at Creation, of multiplying their own unchangeable joy into the world of creatures they had made.

So the privileges we receive in salvation go further than simply ‘not going to hell;’ We’re invited, for all time, effective immediately, into God’s inner corridors. There is no more Temple, no more Tabernacle, because Christ is the Temple, and we’re invited in to fellowship, as John says, with God our Father and His Son, because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And there, in the deepest chambers of the Triune communion, is a joy that sin cannot compete with, because it’s thoroughgoing. Sin is sweet and toxic, noisy, enticing. But Mercy is thirst-quenching. We chase the ghosts of satisfaction our whole lives, but it lives in the innermost chambers of a Temple we’re invited into. Like I said earlier, nobody ever becomes God. Sin offers us something like godness. Mercy offers the opposite. We’re dethroned as we’re ‘deified,’ Athanasius would have said, because he liked confusing sentences. He didn’t mean that we become a deity. He meant that we become what we were always meant to be – glorious human images of the high and humble King, emphasis on the humble part.

So sin is a hiding place. That’s an awful lot of why you look at porn or bully your roommate or lie to your neighbors and so on. But it’s a bad one. Ineffective, at least. But prayer, daily communion with the whole Godhead, is not. It’s not a hiding place, either. Though it is safe. However therapeutic it may be, communing with God never ends at catharsis. Instead it transforms us.

As you commune with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, your appetites are changed and your capacity to understand yourself as the recipient of an unmerited grace widens. And it makes you weird. We realize there, daily, that we’re forgiven for all of ourselves, down to the marrow. Our self-image dims, in a way. We realize as we drink deeply from the fountain of grace that every kind of abuse we ever put a gay classmate through is abuse we put Jesus through. You realize there that your homophobia held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ That your racism held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ That your sexism held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ And your porn. And your cruelty. And your negligence in not calling your mother every couple weeks. In communion with the Godhead, we’re each haunted by a million sins. It doesn’t crush us, but it’s certainly changing us into something we weren’t and always should have been.

Actually, this is probably why we stick with sin. Joy makes too may demands on us, while sin cathartically drinks us dry. So sin’s a bad hiding place, and you owe it no allegiance. John writes, ‘My little children, if any man does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.’ (1 John 2:1-2). We’re forgiven for everything, forever, and brought back into the communitarian joy we were created for. When we grasp that, we’re furnished with enough to carry us through whatever nightmares await us between the cradle and the grave. That should be plenty of joy to run on, certainly enough that we needn’t hide from reality beneath the blood-stained sheets of sin.

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A.W. Tozer’s Unsatisfying Take on Loneliness and, Hopefully, a Better Diagnosis

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St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502

“The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world. His God-given instincts cry out for companionship with others of his kind, others who can understand his longings, his aspirations, his absorption in the love of Christ; and because within his circle of friends there are so few who share his inner experiences he is forced to walk alone.

“The unsatisfied longings of the prophets for human understanding caused them to cry out in their complaint, and even our Lord Himself suffered in the same way.

“The man who has passed on into the divine Presence in actual inner experience will not find many who understand him. He finds few who care to talk about that which is the supreme object of his interest, so he is often silent and preoccupied in the midst of noisy religious shoptalk. For this he earns the reputation of being dull and over-serious, so he is avoided and the gulf between him and society widens.

“He searches for friends upon whose garments he can detect the smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces, and finding few or none he, like Mary of old, keeps these things in his heart.

“It is this very loneliness that throws him back upon God. His inability to find human companionship drives him to seek in God what he can find nowhere else.”

That’s A.W. Tozer, from the book Man: The Dwelling Place of God. (For the curious, this passage is on page 39). It was shared in a group setting by a man who divulged that he’d felt lonely, sometimes unbearably so, his whole life. Upon trying to explain it with friends and family, he was met with quizzical looks, and prescribed a slew of solutions, each more vapid than the last. He’d come across this passage and wondered aloud whether, perhaps, this was the root of his discontent. There’s certainly something to what Tozer is saying. But I don’t think that’s the root of loneliness.

As I’ve written elsewhere, loneliness is inherent. It’s going nowhere. We don’t become lonely out of our deficit in godly relationships, or even out of the inability of others to fill us up. It’s part and parcel of our humanity. Our loneliness is woven into the fabric of our being. This is by design.

It turns us into seekers or it crushes us under its weight. Kierkegaard was right. Dread’s our friend because it stirs the religious impulse in us, and our enemy because it’s dreadful. There’s no solution. There shouldn’t be. It’s a rock-drawn pathway toward the only true Wellspring of joy. So Tozer was right about something.

It could be that folks like myself and the aforementioned gentleman are outliers. We may really just be a lonely minority amongst an otherwise satisfied populace. I doubt it, though. After some probing people tend to agree that they’re lonely, almost regardless of circumstance. That they’re inexplicably discontented. That they’re happily married and haunted by a cavernous dread.

Westerners live noisy lives. Existential crises are a cash cow, and the capitalist machine, God bless, owes much of its sustainability to the holy terror, equal parts imperceptible and persuasive, of what might happen if we’re forced to be alone with our thoughts. Dread’s a low hum that underpins everything, and sin and entertainment, especially, are racket that go a long way toward drowning it out. A lot of folk, godly and not, are perpetually entertained, so the dread’s only perceptible when it’s interrupted by grief or tragedy or abandonment, or worse. But it is there.

Which is actually good news, as long as you’re not the sort of fellow that skips straight to the end of Ecclesiastes because you need everything to have an uplifting twist. Everyone’s haunted by the vanity of vanities and there’s no help coming till you’re a framed 5″ x 8″ on somebody’s fireplace. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

And it’s good news because it means that torturous quest for fulfillment-through-relationships, whether platonic or sensual or whatever, is as fruitless as the desert prophets who ate locust and honey and probably sand have always suspected they were, however colorfully adorned. Finally catching up with the Augustines and Henri Nouwens of the world, we can embrace the mercy of low-expectations, in which no one has to complete us, we can love in the absence of redamancy, we can enjoy in the absence of contentment. If we’re lovers, our hearts needn’t beat for one another, because they’ll never beat for anyone forever, really, and, granting inadequacy in both parties, it’s good to be inadequate together rather than inadequate alone.*

We can understand, at last, why Father Such-and-Such rolls his eyes when we demand an account for why he’s perfectly happy being “married to the Church” when there’s a swarm of pious young women who’d be delighted to walk the aisle with a reasonably handsome fellow who understands the word ‘infralapsarianism,’and all he’d ever have to do to sink his teeth into that ever present buffet is turn-coat and become Episcopalian. Granting inadequacy both ways, it’s plenty good to be inadequate alone rather inadequate together.

It’s not a coincidence that, by all evidences, Jesus wasn’t active in the Nazarene dating scene, and his friendships, of which he had many, were equal parts subordinate and indispensable as a component of his joy. Indispensable because we’re born to enjoy God through people and things and enjoy people and things through the mercy of God. Subordinate because we’re more than just a set of instinctive drives to be satiated or repressed, and the satiation of our drives doesn’t actually make us happy and their repression doesn’t actually ruin our lives. Human loneliness is an incurable phenomenon, as I suggested above, and Jesus wasn’t going to slay his loneliness or ours by finding a suitable partner or keeping busy with the guys. Instead, Jesus turned the clamoring dread into occasion for worship. Loneliness is a rock-drawn path to the true Wellspring of joy because it moves us to place the whole stock of our “wholeness” onto Christ. And that’s a different breed of happiness.

I imagine a song that accompanies everything. One of those soaring melodies that makes you contemplate the vastness of everything. I imagine it plays over the mundane goings-on of our life. It breaks in inappropriately as we put down our books and shut our newspapers, sip our coffee, and drive through the crowded city districts.

There are no words in it, because we’re always talking anyway, and even if there were lyrics, they wouldn’t make sense. What could sum up everything, all the time? Anything other than “Christ is all and in all” would be chatter. The worst kind, too.

But then the song would be crowded. The melody I have in mind is good, as is. It already says “Christ is all and in all,” because it’s beautiful and big and it wakes something up in us. It’s awe, which feels like worship, but isn’t quite worship, but transports the folks who know Christ to the altar and folks who don’t straight to the inner corridors of their own temple to introspect and come up short. It’s not quite a sermon, but it’s something.

Of course, next to nobody hears it. If there is a song of sorts underwriting everything, it’s at a frequency we’re deadened to, so that going on about it usually amounts to very little. But it sounds like joy, and it feels like joy, and it’s contagious, and beautiful, infinitely more beautiful than the low-hum of dread is ugly, – beautiful enough to make us love the dreadful hum because it drank us dry, and drove us mad, and opened our ears to the beauty of the song – so it’s worth it, because felix-freaking-culpa.

It isn’t beholden to the threadbare hope that everything will go as necessary to fulfill the proper conditions under which I can be adequately satisfied. It’s a happiness and a peace that emerges from the Godness of God. We were created for Him, and torn away from Him by sin and the unflinching resolve with which we clung to it against everything, and purchased again by Him, to be reconciled to Him. We’re hard-wired to be satisfied by His Himness. That’s what satisfies us. That’s our happiness and peace. Everything else is runoff from that. It’s a different breed of happiness.

So, like Augustine and probably Qoheleth, I’ve learned to love that there are days I wake up and wish I hadn’t, where the nausea of everything is crushing, and the hope at the end of the story doesn’t offer much solace here in the harrowing middle. The hum draws me back to the song, and, therefore, the Conductor. Big and bright and beautiful, the song makes me quietly joyful, because it’s deeper than the dread. The over-shared Augustine quote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” is true despite the kitschy den decorations on which it’s often found.

Tozer knew this by experience, despite radically misdiagnosing it on paper. Thank God. One day we’ll laugh about it together: Aiden Tozer and I, and Augustine, and Henri and everyone the cacophonous dread wounds mercifully and chases into the concert hall of Yahweh to listen and enjoy, and be filled. To be filled like all those thieves and beggars, Jean Valjean types, had hoped to be. And the bastard conquistadors, plundering their angst away, into the pockets of their indigenous prey, had hoped to be filled by it. And the Cassanova types, tangled up in the mire of sexual capitalism, trapping partners between their jaws and legs, to pick the meat off their bones, only to be hungry again, had hoped, each time, to be filled. And the fat priests and papists, who checkered the history of the Church with death and debauchery, Molochites who cooked and ate their children to appease the divines, Crusaders and Jihadists, and the architects of Pax Romana, who kept quiet the simmering countrysides of Rome only by stifling dissent with swords hammered from ploughshares, and Tsars who held their office in tightly clenched fists, nursing a threadbare security with the threat of Gulag and nothing else, had hoped – vainly, verily, desperately – that they would be filled. We’ll laugh, and embrace, and say to each other what needn’t be said – that all of it, the tears and the nausea, the ache of existence, was worth it, not because some ethereal paradise awaited, but because the song was there, and the Conductor with it. Because felix culpa.

 

 

 

*Wendell Barry said something similar, which I’ve borrowed here and modified:

“It is better,
granting imperfection in both ways,
to be imperfect and together
than to be imperfect and alone.”

[Guest Post] When Silence is Deafening

saint_paul_rembrandt_van_rijn_and_workshop-_c-_1657

Paul the Apostle, by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn c. 1657

I’ve asked Ryan to publish this anonymously on my behalf for a series of reasons: one, I do not feel as if I can say what I intend to say without the cover of anonymity (partially from each shame, guilt, and fear); two, there are parts where it can come across as having ulterior motives (e.g. bragging about “superior” faith) which I wish to mitigate; and three, while this is deeply personal, it’s not unique… while I do not claim to speak on behalf of all Christians who suffer from some form of psychiatric illness, I hope to reflect a collective experience that transcends myself.

The bible defines faith as “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 NRSV).  If this is true (which, like all Christians concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy, I affirm), then it seems two categories of actions testify and affirm a vibrant faith more than any other—dying for faith, and living for it. The former category, those who die for their faith, have been applauded for their faith from the origin of the Church; martyrs have, justly, been admired for their steadfastness and strength. Alternatively; the latter category, those who live for faith, have been more or less ignored by the Church. This category specifically refers to the untold amount of Christians who, like myself, suffer from psychiatric illnesses. This post is intended to explain why living for faith (not by faith…an immensely important distinction) can be as significant a demonstration of faith as dying for it and to deplore the Church’s silence on the issue.

The majority of the time the Church’s response is a deafening silence… a silence which carries weight and power. Often times, the loudest thing one can hear is silence—for silence isolates and stigmatizes. To the untold many Christians with psychiatric illnesses who attend church faithfully (never mind those who are not Christians who go to a church looking for something), it does not go unnoticed that there is no mention of, or attention to, mental health. We attend a community, one meant to share each other’s burdens and to suffer alongside one another; and yet, we suffer alone and in silence… either put off from the silence, thinking such problems are abnormal or otherwise unworthy of mention, or from fear of the shame that comes with the only answer ever offered—“you just need to have faith”. You just need to have faith…the hypocritically unhelpful and condescending ignorance of such a statement is simply unfathomable; never would someone tell, or imply, a person with diabetes that they lack faith. Yet, because our illness is psychiatric in nature, resultant from neurochemical imbalances or neuro-physical defects, it is attributed to weak faith (yet, did St. Paul have weak faith when he suffered from some affliction that the Lord would not remove despite prayer (2 Corinthians 12:6-10)?). The supreme irony of that statement is just how much faith we have. For many us, each day is lived purely for the faith that we hold; when we passively desire death or, more extremely, actively experience suicidal ideation, it is often purely for the faith we have that we continue to go on.  The Lord has said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 NRSV).[1] It is a duty (in the Kantian sense of the word) to continue striving forth for the commandments necessitate life. It is the love for the Lord that allows us to endure the anxiety, endure the despair, the apathy, and any and all other psychiatric problems we possess. To illustrate this, allow me to walk you through my life—a Christian who has both clinical depression and anxiety problems.

I live each day knowing that I would rather not; I wake up disappointed that I did not pass away during the night. Actively contemplating suicide is rare, although not unheard of, the act of living is an act inundated with despair. I will sit amongst a crowd of people and yet feel completely alone. I want to do things… but I lack any energy to do so; I am apathetic and lethargic and no matter how much I want to want to do something I simply cannot do so. I walk into a church building and see everyone smiling and happy, singing emotional songs about how Jesus loves us… and I am alone. The place where I should feel more at home than anywhere else, is the place I feel most isolated and alone. Where then may I turn?

While those with psychiatric illnesses are not unique in this, they are a group that the Church has, inexcusably, failed. Ignored or brushed aside, we are made to feel isolated from the body of Christ, doubtful of our faith, and ashamed of our illnesses. Modern worship has been diluted to nothing more than emotional manipulation and faith is now measured by emotive response… in such a church, what place is there for those of us who possess psychiatric inhibitions for the emotive outbursts now identified as the Christian response to worship? Faith cannot be reduced to how you feel… how you act, who (and what) you are, what you do—these are the measures of faith found in the New Testament: “[Jesus] is the vine, [we] are the branches. Those who abide in [Him] and [He] in them will bear much fruit, because apart from [Him] [we] can do nothing” (John 15:5 NRSV).[2]

[1] It is worth noting that other ancient manuscripts lack “you will”—reading instead, “if you love me, keep my commandments”. While the textual variant does not significantly alter the reading of the text, the emphasis shifts: the former can be articulated as a sign of the love one has; if you truly love Jesus then you will display that love by keeping His commandments. The latter can be articulated as a condition; in order to love Christ, you must keep His commandments.

[2] Cf. Matthew 7:15-20

Aphorisms; The Importance Of A Good Philosophy

Adapted from Private Conversation:

A good philosophy is like a well-built house. There are many different ways it can be built, but there are certain basic needs (or even very particular needs) which it needs to meet in order to be a good house. In the same way that a house needs to keep people warm, some philosophies can leave people out in the cold if they don’t answer certain questions well. Modern science is a primary example of this because it was developed in a specific way that it didn’t need to be and now it has a habitual way of seeing the world which subtracts meaning from it (see Lewis’ The Empty Universe, or Barfield’s The Rediscovery of Meaning, or Charles Taylor on Buffered and Porous Selves). So, again, a world primarily informed by modern science is often lucky if it isn’t left significantly empty by that science. This is why Lewis wrote the essay called the Empty Universe. The way of seeing which science pushes is a big deal, and part of how it got there was often the result of certain decisions in philosophy or spirituality that have had a big impact along the way.

Then again a good philosophy is like a computer program – I learned this because around the time I was getting into Philosophy I also was taught some programming classes by my dad – these gave me much more knowledge of structural issues than of computer languages, which I hardly know now. But a computer program is made to call up certain code under certain conditions. If it goes to certain code and the code doesn’t actually remedy the situation satisfactorily, then the program defaults and an error occurs, sometimes crashing the system. The same thing happens in people’s lives. People run into real life issues when the (implicit or explicit) philosophy they have been taught requires certain “code” and calls it up and they discover that the code is lacking. This can create great despair and years of searching.

Now this doesn’t mean that philosophy is supposed to be taught completely authoritatively. In fact it only works by dialogue and dogma (in the traditional, European sense of doctrine and tradition), which is why it is so significant that Socrates and Jesus and the best Philosophers have written by showing little talks. If something is not convincing, we discuss why. If it is finally found lacking, it is acknowledged and that is that if nothing else is proposed. The history of philosophy is thus a long conversation. Someone who has studied it well can dwell in it like a house. Either it works or it does not. It works like a code in that it will run into errors sooner or later, bigger or smaller. The smaller they are, the more it will be like a dialogue. The bigger they are the more it will require both creativity and even revelation

I am saying all of this to illustrate how I believe philosophy has very real consequences and how it is important.

[It occurs to me that that some people will think this is meant to be exhaustive, or that this means I am purely constructivist about philosophy. I believe there is a “single truth” in life, but exactly how one gets there, or in what sense or degree anyone does get there, is a very complex matter. In short, Truth is not constructed; Philosophies are.]

Some notes on how we know things

 

These have been slightly adapted from a discussion I had on Facebook. Hopefully they will appear to be of merit. Most or all of this is not original to me.

1.  The problem with Kant (and others) saying that you should think for yourselves is that he is still telling you to think that. This is a modern doctrine; it has benefits, but it is not so bad to imitate the thought of someone else so long as you find the right thinker to imitate. This is difficult. There are good things to imitate in Kant and Descartes and modern (and Post-Modern) philosophy, but there is an unnatural and unnecessary rejection of earlier philosophies in them and a misunderstanding of how they work. For a Christian, this is undoubtedly the place where Revelation, that He is There and He is Not Silent (as the non-Academic but often quite edifying Francis Schaeffer puts it) comes in most significantly and profoundly, redemptively.

2.  Words are so interesting. My impression is that dogma still has a real existence as a word in Europe, and even indoctrination originally (if I remember) had, too.

[Meaning, I don’t think these words are essentially used negatively or even manipulatively at all points in their history. The Vatican has a Ministry of Propaganda – but they don’t mean what we mean by “Propaganda.” They are probably using two-millenia-old Latin terminology for the purpose of the ministry – to propagate.]

3.  I think, interestingly, that both conformity and “criticism” are largely imitative. An original thinker almost never happens unless they are original by knowing what they imitate so well that they improve on what they imitate (both C. S. Lewis and George Steiner testify to this in remarkable ways). In this way, I don’t think it is totally fair to say that “indoctrination” stifles creativity and criticism. It is like that Owen Barfield quote from The Rediscovery of Meaning – we tend to think we are open minded today, but in reality we are just more open minded about different things.

4.  I am beginning to think the issue of indoctrination is complex. Belief A can be held as a good belief to teach by both Man X and Man Y (and yet, what do we mean by “Good”? Two different concepts are commonly operative. See Lewis’ The Abolition of Man), but Man X wants to raise the student to a fuller humanity, whereas Man Y just wants to manipulate the situation to his advantage. In the absence of access to the truth about the belief and/or a good third perspective which can try to avoid the belief’s being used manipulatively, I think it is unfair to say what is exactly actually indoctrination and what isn’t. Perhaps a different word should he used.

5. Complicating everything  is my belief that authority can be a category of legitimate knowledge (think of the role of Revelation and of Mysteries specifically in the Christian faith). I think that there are generally three means of knowledge or rational knowledge – being Experience, Logic/Reason (a priori), and Authority. The question here is not, for me, whether authority can be a proper base for knowledge, but which authorities are and to what extent. Many of the points often made about manipulative “indoctrination,” as opposed to humanistic education, can, I think, be used edifyingly for humanistic education to the point that they are neither manipulative or indoctrination. Yet we have a habit, a tradition, in the modern West, to rejecting the face of authority. (We see how false this rejection is when we see the defacto authority which science, academia, politicians, media, and even regular entertaibment TV can have in the establishment of “public truths,” unquestioned, or questioned even sometimes at potential peril.) — This edification, then, is diametrically opposed to the manipulation which we are talking about. This is inherently related to the issue of idols and true worship in the Bible, historical Christianity and post-modern thought (Heidegger’s teachings are signfiicant here, through Westphal’s readings of them alone).

6.  Also, I think The Trio of Sources for Knowledge help upbuild each other. It is often by a mix of Authority and Experience that we learn about Reason/Logic. Geometry and Logic are literally learned practices which require discipline and a devotion of rigor. Anyone who tells you to think for yourself is giving you a tradition to follow and a thought that is not your own, and they give it to you on the basis of their authority and experience much more often than on the basis of reason alone, although that is in theory possible. Alternatively, experience seems to yield knowledge both on the basis of reason, “this worked in the past” and similar propositions, but it also is from a sort of tradition which is passed on to us; the very fact that most humans do not hold to modern science and its assumptions is proof that the assumptions of modern science are not really so self-evident as they are professed to be but that they are accepted often on authority of a tradition (with some experience and supporting reasons). Then again, authority is held up because experience teaches us that our elders, and some “authorities,” are often right; and reason can supply reasons as to why or how this is so. You cannot really rely on experience and reason without authority, for you learned of the value of experience and reason from authorities in your life. Experience testifies to a degree of veracity in both Reason and Authority. And the Reason can offer up not just “reasons,” but a substantial way in which the content of beliefs (beliefs proffered by Experience, Authority, and Reason) can be structured and held coherently. Yet even the structure of a system is affected by tradition and experience as well as by logic.

There is not any easy way to get to the bottom of this, although I think tradition and authority are far undervalued and are important in ghe same way that there must be some originary force which institutes reason and experience. And we can learn about this from authority.

7.  It is really very true that all of Western philosophy are footnotes to Plato. And yet Plato is built signfiicantly on Socrates. And Socrates had predecessors and had significant divine influences. And yet, even Nietzsche is hopelessly derivative, in many ways by being a negative imitator of what he rejects.

Music to Make Us Believe the Gospel

Third Eye Blind is the reason I didn’t kill myself in 2010, so how’s that for the power of music? I can still remember sitting in my car, listening to Motorcycle Drive By, and deciding I wanted to live. I wasn’t teetering on the edge, ready to take the plunge, but the thought was there, and it lingered, and it looked good.

It’s a good song. Didn’t change anything about my life, but it took all the reasons – however intangible and impossible to articulate – that I wanted to live, and drug them up out of the depths and onto the beaches of my heart.

I still don’t really know what they were. I don’t know what I thought was going to justify going on another day. But that song – an angsty recollection about a doomed relationship with a girl from New York – sounded like hope. And it still does.

It sounded like resurrection, but that wasn’t even in my vocabulary when I was 16.

I think I can identify that as a turning point in my life, maybe the really big one. If I wrote an autobiography it’d be it’s own chapter. I sat in a car one evening and started to believe the gospel while a pagan sang about a girl.

That’s how music works. Because that’s how people work. I met Jesus months later, but it started there. I was done with something, even though I wasn’t sure what it was. Eventually my head-strings caught up with my heartstrings and I trusted Jesus in a tangible way. Because I heard a song that sounded like resurrection.

That’s why we believe the gospel more deeply when we encounter God in musical worship. Especially corporate musical worship. Music knits people together around the Conductor.

That’s why our faith doesn’t wither away amidst the onslaught of failure, depression, and hopelessness. God is a disease, and once we’ve caught Him too many songs remind us of Him. God is a disease and music is a dirty syringe.

Thank God.

I’m at a worship gathering as I write this. The crowd around me is singing Be Thou My Vision. High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art, they sing. They’re bloody well right, and it’s never more tangible than these moments.

The concrete and excellent impact which “books” have had on my life…

If you think that reading books just closes you off from the world, making you impractical and impersonal, you should consider what effect interactive, thoroughly involved and participatory reading has had in my life.

1- it introduced me to Spiritual inwardness and much wisdom

2- it helped guide me through no small depression and into action and purposeful life

3- in particular, it led me to volunteer several times and later work two summers at a Summer Camp for people with Special Needs, Camp Barnabas. This was no small feat for a shy, sheltered young man who knew at the time nothing about caring for others or about people with special needs. This in turn led me to be a team leader / staff supervisor at a small Summed Camp in New Mexico (which I thoroughly surprised myself by making not a terrible job of). And these experiences have certainly taught me a variety of excellent skills both practical and people-based (and self-based, like fear-management, which started in many ways with C. S. Lewis and led to volunteering at Barnabas, then working on their team that was in charge of the Rockwall, zipline, and ropes course, and so on — this was supplemented by Kierkegaard, Donald Miller, Dostoyevsky, Pascal…). Come to think of it, the inward life that books taught me, or that I embraced and learned through books, perhaps I ought to say, also provided me with the courage to pursue the possibility of the great, outrageous, living beauty who is my wife now. (Much of this also involved a long-time conversation with God, but the role of “books” generally is undeniable in all my major life decisions, which I value very much and do not believe have been foolish, at least in God’s eyes.)

4- it has helped make dull moments and dull jobs more meaningful or at any rate less dull; by 1st helping me to understand how mundane things tie into the big picture of the universe, humanity, and God in a way that is meaningful to me. Work and the very fabric of this world, however mundane, are holy and good and your conscious perspective about them affects your ability to be bored or exultant. Or 2nd by giving me plenty to think about, poetry and philosophy to learn and recite and dwell on, even while, or perhaps especially while, at work.

5- it has helped me connect with people who have similar thoughts and feelings, even though they may never have seemed to in the first place or never had the same way of thinking about it; it has helped me connect with people who are different from me.

I could go on. “Books” will not close you off to the world anymore than anything else, and, if you let them, if you work with them, they can help you make your life into something practical, beautiful, thoughtful, helpful, and Godly.

(My father and others also helped immensely with all of this, but this post is specifically about the influence of “books,” read with thorough involvement, like I said. If you don’t believe me, it’s your loss.)

Things Are Different Now.

Figures_The_Israelites'_Cruel_Bondage_in_Egypt

The Israelites’ Cruel Bondage in Egypt, by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733)

Exploiting areas of moral overlap between the bible and contemporary culture is always a good principle. Contemporary America is essentially a culture-in-transition, so there’s a lot of ambiguity present in our national consciousness, but there’s plenty there to be taken advantage of.

It’s common to read melodramatic laments from the John Hagees and Robert Jeffresses of the world about how far America has drifted from Christian principles it used to cohere to. In reality, there was a time when our nation’s basic moral framework overlapped with the moral vision of the Christian faith in certain areas and not so much in others. We came to hold those areas of overlap very dearly and ignore the areas where the American moral framework fell dreadfully short of the biblical worldview.

But much of the angst that American Christians feel today about the nation’s supposed drift away from biblical values is actually a misplaced panic at the fact that the cultural shift we are experiencing is shaking things up so that the specific points of overlap between the American mindset and the biblical mindset are different. Top that off with the fact that America no longer pays institutional lip-service to the Christian religion, and we’ve got a new cultural situation that, although not worse than the one our grandparents grew up with (even in the good ol’ days, America was a kiddie pool of sin), is distinctly different, and we have to engage the culture accordingly.

For example, the contemporary America is not, like the America of yesteryear, consumed to a fault with questions of personal moral piety. Every culture inherits a doctrine of sin even if they do not, strictly speaking, have the necessary vocabulary to identify it. While sin is what it is, because truth isn’t relative, it has been uniquely understood through the ages.

The contemporary American doctrine of sin, if any such monolithic agreement can be clearly identified, is concerned primarily with sinful systemic structures. Never before has Total Depravity been an easier concept to sell. In the last several centuries, our notions about right and wrong have been torn asunder and then stitched back together by Darwin, Derrida, Nietzsche, Heidegger and other heavy-hitters. We’ve watched totalitarian demagogues rise and fall while honest, God-fearing citizens marched along to the rhythm of Apocalypse. We’re not really sure what evil is in the abstract, and we’re not entirely convinced it exists. But rarely do we fail to identify it when it appears in concrete form. There has not previously been a generation more sensitive to the pervasiveness of coercion in human behavior, and the contemporary western doctrine of sin deals extensively in the difficulty associated with preventing coercion without stifling human freedom.

The subtle suspicion that our collective moral convictions are environmentally conditioned has led those with sufficient influence and vested interest in maintaining the ideological status quo to forcefully suppress those who would pose a threat. Society has caught on to this trend and responded by trying to undercut the militarizing influence of moral uncertainty by privatizing convictions. In the absence of a clear-cut pathway to discerning non-partisan truth, we have shifted the emphasis away from conformity to a common moral standard in favor of conformity to a common commitment to “pursu[ing] our desires fairly—that is, in a manner that does not impinge on anyone else’s freedom.” (Quote by Stanley Hauerwas).

But privatized convictions are their own worst enemy. They actually bolster the culture of coercion by undercutting their own commitment to mutual non-coercion. Because the hyper-individualization wrought by contemporary society’s “live-and-let-live” ethic devalues the actual truthfulness of moral convictions we are left with no actual basis on which we can bravely oppose violent coercion. Having been overwhelmed by the pervasive role of power-plays in institutional morality, contemporary people take for granted that no alternative exists. “As a result of our self-deception, we have become unrelentingly manipulative,” Hauerwas laments. Thinkers both religious and secular have sought all the more rigorously a social ethic built atop a “universal” foundation–that is, a non-religious basis for doing right by others. That didn’t work out either.

“The attempt to secure peace through founding morality on rationality itself, or some other “inherent” human characteristic, ironically underwrites coercion, [because] if others refuse to accept my account of “rationality,” it seems within my bounds to force them to be true to their “true” selves.” quoth Hauerwas.

All of this means that we can no longer expect those outside the Christian community to share even the basics of the Judeo-Christian moral framework. This has staggering consequences on efficacy of what had been tried-and-true aspects of gospel preaching. Until recently, the forcible Christianization of the western world remained largely intact. The American consciousness was (to use a term coined by Jonathon Martin),  “Christ-haunted”. As a result, we did not need to define our terms. We could assume that there was, at the very least, a basic agreement about what was and was not kosher. Even those who reveled in debauchery either did so in secret or conceded that the debauchery in which they reveled was indeed debauchery and that they reveled in such debauchery because they were debauched.

The America in whose midst we stand as the Body of Christ, however, is undergoing the probably overdue process of dechristianization and correspondingly the points of contact it does have with the Judeo-Christian ethic are both fewer and different than before. One such example is that while the biblical push toward monogamy is no longer a considered viable in the American consciousness, the Old Testament’s ambivalence toward unregulated economic systems is unprecedentedly welcome. Monogamy is now seen as stifling and probably coercive, but laissez-faire capitalism is no longer accepted uncritically as the paragon of individual freedom. We are more conscious than generations past of the oft-hidden wheels that turn in the background, rendering a wholly autonomous class of big-business figureheads nightmarish for those (read: the labor force) under the thumb of their unmitigated sovereignty.

My own colors will show here (I’m politically conservative and I happen to like Capitalism), but what makes the American experiment work (in theory) is the presence of communities who prophetically push for justice in an arrangement in which the government’s role is not to coerce individuals and businesses into doing right by others. It’s true that there can be no such thing as a morally neutral government, but in a non-invasive arrangement such as the American republic is meant to be, the Church is one example of a community that helps make capitalism possible. There will always be a power struggle. There will always be a coercive sovereign–whether it is the Federal government or the corporation. And the culture is now more acutely aware of this than ever before.

So although the Church and the culture are no longer on the same page regarding sexual ethics (amongst other things), ambivalence about what we might call corporate sovereignty has become a point of convergence between the two. The difference is that our ambivalence is shaped by the Old Testament narrative, which paints a picture of a monarchy whose tumultuous politics gave birth, at points, to economic arrangements that left common folk at the mercy of Pharaohesque employers – a situation roundly condemned by the prophets, perhaps not because they opposed hands-off economic policies (to apply modern economic vocabulary to ancient Near-Eastern culture would be a bit anachronistic) but because no checks-and-balances existed to protect workers from abuse.

Such focal points are the jumping-off points on which we ought to zero in. You can no longer assume that your next door neighbor has a moral commitment to monogamy, but they’re probably appropriately ambivalent about Wall Street cacophony and corporate corruption. They’re probably anxious about systemic forms of injustice – police brutality,  the disproportionality with which minorities are sentenced to death for the same crimes as Caucasians, militaristic Bush-era empire building, etc.: concrete examples of authoritarianism revealing the cracks in its own asphalt. Those who are only now becoming concerned about such issues are, in a sense, finally catching up to the Bible. These are only a few examples.

As in all generations, the Bible ought to direct our gospel proclamation. But the points of convergence between the Bible and the culture are the in-roads by which we effectively witness. And as the culture has changed, so have those points of convergence. Let’s exploit them well.

“We Have Done a Lot of Worthwhile Things”


(Some aphorisms, some assaying of 3 ways to enter the bleakness)

This post is dedicated to my wife – “Come live with me, and be my love”

 

0. “We have lived a long time.”
“What?”
“We have lived a long time.”
“Yes,… and I plan to live some more.”
“Yes, and I might, too.”
Pause.
“We did a lot of things.”
“What?”
“We did a lot of things, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did. I circled the globe.”
“And I spent three years in the far east.”
“You served well.” (He had been in the military.)
Pause.
“We have done a lot of worthwhile things.”

1. She asked me how old she was, to do the math. (89 years, I figured from 1927 to 2016 so far.)

2. They keep telling each other that they’re going to get through this, this is just a bump in the road, and that sort of thing – genuine encouragements. They’ve been doing this a lot.

3. He asked her if they still had a two bedroom apartment, she didn’t understand the question and he didn’t know how to clarify (along with being exhausted of trying to explain). I don’t know the answer, don’t know them, and nobody has come by today who would know if they still have a two bedroom apartment. (After writing this post I learn that they have “no next of kin.” Does anybody come to visit them? I don’t count, I am an intrusion.)

4. She is very hard-of-hearing and apologized sincerely to him about it, and he just said, “It comes with the territory.”

This is heart-breaking.

5. Once or twice I heard the gentleman made negative comments to the effect that someone is holding them here. The woman has asked who sent me here, who I work for, under whose orders I am – not asking in a challenging way, but in a probing way, not as though she expected anything, exactly – but the very nature of being accompanied suddenly by someone you don’t know in the least, and not knowing why they are there … it is horrifying to think about. The man at one point asked, I believe in exasperated exaggeration, if there was some sort of experiment going on.

6. I also overheard him observe to his wife that the people in the dinning room, other elderly ladies and gentlemen, looked depressed, and that he saw some of them crying. (Today, I am observing an elderly couple discover some of the realities which elderly people face in America. Some of their experiences they seem to be having for the first time, some they are used to, some, I wonder if they would be more used to if they had better memories – but I don’t know.)

7. He doesn’t understand why, for now, he has to wear certain medical apparatus (those words are perfect for the awkwardness of what they describe). They both have complained about the service – not, I think, because the service is bad – on the contrary, this must be one of the nicest senior living centers in Colorado. The real reason is that communication, understanding, empathy, are so difficult to achieve even by those really trying and really skilled at it. It is terrifyingly, depressingly unavoidable. And much of the medical skill required to take care of these people can’t easily be explained to them. In other words, increasingly, these men and women live in a world which they can’t understand, and which doesn’t understand them. They live in a world where they have things done to them which, even if they are just, seem to be injustices, and must feel to them to mean they are voiceless and sometimes even without basic rights.

8. And in fact, I know very little. Either about them or about their health or about any conspiracy about an experiment. I certainly believe that great good has come from modern medicine, and yet it seems quite undeniable to me that it is an industry, not to say many people don’t mean well by it. – I do suspect that a government which rules by absolute law could not do better than an industry in the sense that an industry can adapt, more or less, while changing unjust or overextensive laws once they have been made can be extremely difficult. But I am concerned. Above all, when I am asked why I am here, I can only say my company sent me (basically), as almost nothing of the science or their human situation has been explained to me.
9. If I was here as some part of a conspiracy, I wouldn’t know and couldn’t tell them. I don’t believe I am, but my point is that they really are becoming more and more passive agents in a world where things are done to them, just or not, and there is little to nothing that I can do, since we don’t know each other, to change that. My point is that only personal, long-lasting acquaintances, probably family, could really adequately respect them and give them the whole world, or anything like the world, which they are used to. But that would require an entirely different social structure, one that would allow even relatively skilled medical help to become commonplace (and probably commonplace in the home). And then there is the fact that most people struggle with respecting and loving those closest to them in the first place. You cannot stop this situation from being horrifying. You can ignore it, but it will creep up on you. I am not talking about “old people.” I am talking about people – because unless you “die young,” this is each and every one of us. The existential certainty of death is far too ignored. When did you last contemplate just how many years you might spend alone, or not alone but alienated, not understanding everyone around you? And even with those who “die young,” or who don’t make it to old age “whole:” –

A poor black woman hears her son has been shot, she has a stroke, goes to the hospital, is unable to see her son before he dies; her own mother won’t tell her that her son has died, sells her house, and she will spend the rest of her life half-paralysed in a wheelchair (this is a true story, I know this resilient but mistreated woman); my own uncle, Kerry Chadwick, entering his fifties, not really that old, not nearly old enough, died last year in a zipline accident. He was just beginning to live a dream of his, he had earned a Doctorate in Ministry (his dissertation was on Mentoring), and he had just completed a whole year (a whole year, so long, so small, – not enough time, it makes me want to cuss and I’m crying writing this) a whole year, only a year, but an important one, as a Camp Director at Inlow Baptist Camp and Conference Center in New Mexico, a camp of his childhood. He is survived by a wife, a son, a daughter. He was a loved and respected pastor for about a decade. He had experience as a chaplain, I believe both for the military and for the police force. He had worked as a bus mechanic and as a bus-tour guide in Alaska (many of these vocations he had fulfilled simultaneously). He was an incredible man, a phenomenal man. I had just been getting to know him when I worked for him almost two years ago, the summer before he died. No man is an island; my family, myself, are all lesser because of his death. The world is missing something, and I am crying again.

And this is so very, very depressing. To try to speak adequately about these things is to know you will fumble, but decide to fumble anyways. Here I turn from more aphoristic wonderings to my attempt to “assay” the difficulty. Being more directed, I expect it is easier to fail; I only hope I can “fail, fail again, and fail better,” as George Steiner says, that my weakness in not knowing what to say might be as a strength, that if my own words fall to the ground like seeds, they abideth not alone, as the saying goes.

Most of the time we all just want to ignore this sort of thing – certainly myself included. I often turn away from articles and blog posts, other peoples’ despair, saying, “I don’t even want to entertain that or let it in. If I were to take it seriously I would be wrecked.” I understand. Contemplating all of this makes me want to go home and just hold my beautiful wife. **(Note 1, scroll to bottom)

The fact is, though, even if science could progress (I heard someone say recently that progress isn’t finite), if death by old age could be done away with (“old age is the failure of stem cells”), that slow cold melting of your self, the fact is that we live in a precarious universe. If you put hope in ignorance, or in manipulative knowledge (called “science,” where “knowledge is power,” which more appropriately means that knowledge is primarily power and if it is not power then it is not really knowledge) – either way, you are only putting off the problem. Unless you deal with the existential crisis awaiting you in any and every situation, in the end, then it will become that much worse in the meantime. Putting off facing the problem extends its consequences further into the present.

But there is a way to deal with it – this crisis of old age, young death, or just death – sort of. There is a necessity that we go through the problem, through death, rather than around it, or than backing away from it. While my Uncle was no fool, and he did not take death lightly or get on that zipline without taking it seriously, – and I have talked with him about death (I only wish I could remember more than the gist of what he said) – he also new that “solving the problem” is something of a different nature than ignoring it or trying to power your way out of it. In fact, it is also different from even “solving” a “problem” – which is a mathematical and chemical phrasing – tied to the project and the hopes of modern science. (See Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, specifically her chapter titled, “Problem Picture.”) Death, and coming to terms with it, is a matter of character, of quality, of subjectivity, not in the sense of relativism but in an objectively human sense, a moral, relational, even religious and sacred sense. Coming to terms with death means coming to terms with the crux of the despair in your own self, which stops you in the here and now from becoming a person, the person whom you ought to be, your true self. (For the Christian, this is the self as God sees you.)

Christians often talk as though death had been overcome in such power that they can remain ignorant of it. But this is precisely not the death which Christ had, this is not carrying your cross daily, and this is not fear and trembling. In other words, Christians often say that because Christ died, we don’t have to, and this exhibits a loss of faith on their part. (Or a failure to truly appropriate faith – in which failure their “faith” is in-appropriate, a band-aid “solution” to a problem which must be met as a person with character and humilty, not by ignorance of the reality of death or by fake “power” which is the ignorance of arrogance – I mean scientific manipulation.)

But Christians do have the “answer” to death – and this is appropriate phrasing in as much as life is an ongoing dialogue, and in as much as the love and pursuit of wisdom is a philosophical midwifery, which means that it is a discussion which helps you bring yourself to maturity, to birth and then to rebirth. The answer is the Living Word (the Divine Other who Speaks into us, enters into dialogue with us), the presence of Justice, which is not a single, finite “solution” in a scientific sense or a sense which simply ignores the problem and the reality of death in spiritual procrastination. Instead, this presence is the quality and vitality of humanity when it is preserved, respected, creative, loving, familial and redeemed. So far as I can tell, Christianity generally is the only religion, the only “worldview,” which does not offer “band-aid” “solutions” which you apply yourself. It offers a spoken Word – spoken to you and me, a Word which speaks into the dark and makes it light. This light is the quality we try to preserve, the character and humility with which we are okay with neither ignorance of death and despair nor arrogance about them. Only this light can really carry you on in the face of death, into death, through it, past it. As George MacDonald says, “the Son of God suffered not that we might not suffer, but that our suffering might be like his.”

And indeed, once Christ had gone through the suffering of death, he came back to those who followed him and waited for him, he encouraged them, he gave them a direction to go in and he gave them a helper (the Holy Spirit) – all of these are what Christians regularly use to go through death and go on in a life full of bleak futures. (True evangelism is a life of spreading the Word, actively living with hope in the face of death, the threat of despair.) After Christ’s death, for those who lived in him, even those who were daily beaten and thrown in jail for not bowing to the ignorance and arrogance of the world – for them, death was a reality, but one with no sting. My own grandfather, or my own uncle, because they have been given the power to face and go through death (which power is the vitality and basic quality of their life-style; this is the calling of Christians) are able to face death and old age with confidence and hope, in spite of its bleakness, though not negating it. The “sting” of death is negated by entering the bleakness with the character of Christ.

This is why I have worked as a caregiver for the elderly in the first place, why I ever went to Camp Barnabas to serve and to love God and people with special needs, this is why I have embraced doubt and doubters, tried to be there when a void opened up inside of them (as it had inside of me, during my own existential crisis). This is why I want to be a professor, exploring the languages which we make in imitation of our maker, extensions of the Word. This is why I want to be a church planter (not in any boring sense); this is the application of the Gospel, the declaration of the salvation of my Lord.

(There is this idea, it is either the presence of the in-deconstructible, or it is deconstructive justice itself, that dialogue, “argument,” conversation, or community, call it what you like, “goes on forever,” as Aquinas said. I could talk on these themes forever, but here looks like a good stopping spot. Communion with the community of the Trinity goes on after my hand stops writing.)

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat should fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
John 12:24

 

**(Note 1: Two brief thoughts: 1. I mean here not to objectify my wife but to illustrate the very desire to reach out to the Other, I mean respectful desire, a desire for oneness, intimacy, over against exploitation. 2. It occurs to me here that there is a balance in the traditional vow, “to have and to hold;” marriage, when it is successful, is not a matter of mere “possession” without respect (mere “having”), but neither is it a matter of respect without commitment (mere “holding”). My wife posseses me not as one possesses a thing, but as one possesses oneself and commits to oneself; and the same goes for me “possessing” her. With God’s grace and help, we are hoping to become one. I am reminded of the couple here, of him getting up in the night, laboriously donning his robe and taking his walker down the hall to make sure that his wife is still in her room, that she will meet him for breakfast tomorrow – “there are a number of places she could be,” he tells me with concern. Their love in their old age is evidence of their efforts to be one in their life together. In at least one sense, their old age reveals a reality in which the “corn of wheat should fall” and thereby not “abideth alone.”

Unworthy Ministers of a Liberating Gospel

ChristCleansing

Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864.

Days come when I wake up in the morning and cannot talk myself into feeling worthy to lead any ministry in any capacity. Weeks of fighting hard against your own sinful habits and tendencies mean next to nothing to you in the hours and the days following a massive, messy collapse. Those are the moments in which you will want to give up – to throw your hands in the air and say, “I’ve always known I wasn’t cut out for this, and here is the proof.”

So you’ll probably do something incredibly unhealthy. If you’re like me, you’ll employ the fake-it-till-you-make-it method of dealing with your own unworthiness. Rather than allowing yourself to feel the weight of your sin and then allowing yourself to be healed by the grace of God, you will suppress both the pangs of crushing guilt and the peace of experiencing God’s ongoing forgiveness. Rather than offering yourself freshly to Jesus, you’ll ‘give God a few days to cool down’. And if you’re in any sort of leadership position in the Church, you’ll put on your best “I’m doing fine” face and carry on doing the work of God without the Spirit’s guidance.

I remember just how messed up I am every time I speak condescendingly to my girlfriend and watch the sense of security with me disappear from her eyes. It is crushing to realize that you are the kind of person that makes others feel unsafe. I remember just how not-holier-than-anybody I am every time I make the conscious decision to take the easy rather than the ethical course of action when nobody is watching. And if the conversations I’ve had with other believers are an accurate representation of the norm, everyone is like me.

Not everybody’s sins are the same, but everybody’s sins are equally crippling. Whether you’re a porn addict or an emotional terrorist or just kind of a jerk, your sins are crippling. And if, like me, you’re tasked with leading others in ministry on a regular basis, the crippling effects of your constant moral failure can eat you alive.

The lie that we believe, that dominates our lives, is that we are uniquely jacked up. Because we can only know other people to a certain degree, it’s an easy lie for the enemy to sell. While I can’t plumb the depths of anyone else’s depravity, I know my own far too well to trust myself with anything. And so it goes with everyone.

But the gospel poses an uncompromising challenge to the pervasive lie. Namely, that everyone, everywhere, is supremely, nauseatingly jacked up. If the Biblical narrative is true, then I can assume with confidence upon meeting anyone that somewhere beneath the human face they put on, a terrifying darkness is present. We just domesticate our actual-jacked-up-ness well. At our best, we are all one push away from collapsing back into utter debauchery.

Let me put it another way. Nobody is that well adjusted. Time and intimacy reveal the cracks in the asphalt of everyone, and all it takes is to look closely at someone for a moment to see how remarkably fragile they are. We have a threadbare righteousness.

That means you don’t have to feel like damaged goods when your actual-jacked-up-ness shows its ugly face. And if you’re someone tasked with leading others as a minister of the gospel, it should remind you that you’re leading a flock of jacked-up redeemed people as one after their own heart. You’re going to sin, and then you’re going to be numb for a while, and then you’re going to be hit like a train with the fact that you’re completely unqualified for the job of “spiritual guru”. In that moment, cling to that conviction. Because it’s true. Your real-life depravity completely disqualifies you from wearing the “spiritual guru” hat. But understand that it’s a joyous disqualification, because ‘spiritual gurus’ have nothing to offer people who are ‘crooked deep down’.

Instead, be a ‘wounded shepherd’, selling a story of good news for criminals like yourself.