Stewarding Creation Well, (and Other Things That Aren’t Negotiable)

A friend recently posed the question: “Should we be more focused on saving our Humanity or saving creation.”

He clarified what he meant: “By ‘humanity’ I mean, our civilization – our ability to be compassionate, to be kind, just, and peaceful. Our creativity, our expression, and our pursuit of truth. It seems like we are having a global ‘cultural’ crisis. We are also having a global ‘material’ crisis: the destruction of our planet. Which do we solve – or do we solve first? Or, which is the most important?”

Ellen Davis touches on the question in her book ‘Getting Involved With God.’ She offers a few relevant considerations:

First, the concept of ‘stewardship’ actually subordinates humanity to nature, in a way. We rule over it by serving it. Ignoring needs of the creation over which we were placed to steward is an abdication of our God-given responsibility. Our being stewards did not cease because of ‘the Fall.’ We should conduct ourselves – our families, and our churches – accordingly.

Secondly, our ‘subordinary’ rule over nature is woven into our humanity, and all the components of our humanity intersect, so embodying our role means integrating environmental and humanistic concerns. They both emanate from our role as stewards of God’s rule over the natural world. This is true of all humanity – again, we did not cease to be responsible for the well-being of creation because of the Fall. But it is especially true for those of us in the Church. Not only are we divinely charged with stewardship over creation, but we are actually aware that we are charged. 

That’s to say, irreligious environmentalists do instinctively what Christians ought to do out of obedience. How to properly care for the environment in an increasingly Globalized world is its own conversation. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m tend to advocate for limited government, and the avenues that I would suggest toward more faithful environmental stewardship will inevitably reflect that. I’m under no delusions that GMO foods are inherently “dangerous,” and I’m far more interested in what the farmer who goes to church with me has to say about stewarding the earth than I am with the blogger from New York. There are, of course, others better suited than myself for making the case for one avenue over another. As an expositor of the Bible, though, my concern is pointing out that we do, indeed, have that responsibility. Complacency regarding the environment is a theological error.

To be specific, we are subordinate, by nature, to Christ. We serve Him as our King, our God. We ‘steward’ creation, together, as God’s image. That means that we subordinate our self-interest – say, industrial productivity, for example – to the needs of creation. It doesn’t mean that we are hierarchically subordinate to creation, or that we ‘serve’ it like we serve Christ. But it does mean that we serve Christ by ruling over nature in such a way that we care for its well being. And, there’s no way around it, stewarding creation faithfully has to take shape as protecting animals and environments threatened by certain human practices. In other words, ‘serving’ nature as its stewards, we serve Christ as His subjects.

The obvious contention – and a convenient one, might I add – that could be raised is that one day, we’re told in scripture, there will be ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ – presumably, one without an ecological crisis – and so we don’t really need to worry ourselves with maintaining the creation over which God placed us as stewards. 

And the obvious response – and an inconvenient one, might I add – is that we don’t, in any scenario, have the right to disregard our role, given to us by God at our inception, simply because He’s going to fix it all one day anyway. Again: inconvenient, but painfully obvious. And, like a lot of problems that ravage contemporary Protestantism, it can probably be traced in some way to the antisupernaturalist liberalism that trickled down from Berlin in the 19/20th century. 

I can’t draw a direct connection, because the ecological crises we face today were, for the most part, unknown at that point. Contemporary research has illuminated the extent to which human civilization has debased the environment. We have made ourselves, in a way, antistewards. As recently as a century ago, this was not so clear (or pronounced). 

But now it is, and our response has been tepid, noncommital. More than a few have denied outright that we have any responsibilty to rectify it – either because they disbelieve in stewardship, or believe it amounts to a license to consume the earth’s resources however we desire, or believe that the eventual redemption of the cosmos gets us off the hook from having to obey God by seeing to the earth’s well being to the extent that we are able. In any case, this is likely the result of the classic liberal Protestant notion that, with the coming of Christ, we ceased to have concrete social responsibilities outside of the necessary practical concerns that occupy everyday life. This notion permeated every corner of Western Protestantism, as the dubious pronouncements of the European intelligentsia took hold both in elite metropolitan cathedrals and remote country churches. Consequently, when the data began to suggest that creation had been suffering under humanity’s antistewardship, we were umoved.

So it’s ironic that Ellen Davis, of all people, would best articulate what was, until fairly recently, quite obvious. As an Episcopal priest, she is a mainline Protestant. Her theological heritage is closely linked to the earliest forms of this particular theological problem. More than is the case for any ‘evangelical,’ she is, at least in theory, the intellectual grandchild of the 19/20th century liberalism that subtly conditioned modern Protestants to approach environmental issues callously. Kudos to her for being ahead of the curve – or, perhaps, mercifully ‘behind the times.’ 

She’s not, of course, the only one. Richard Bauckham, a conservative Anglican Priest, authored ‘The Bible and Ecology‘ wherein he suggests, similarly, that our given role as ‘stewards’ over creation is, to say the least, primarily a charge to conform our own communities to the needs and rhythms of creation. 

He is not, like Wendell Berry, advocating a kind of large-scale return to an agrarian economy. But he does suggest that we, as Christians, ought to understand ourselves as part of the community of creation, rather than as distinct from it. That is, we’re not quite the mediators between creation and God so much as fellow members of creation alongside whom there is only one Mediator: Christ. As fellow members of the community of creation, we have a special role. But our role, which has us ruling over creation as God’s images, renders us creation’s servants, so to speak. We’re made to be cultivators, not simply consumers. Our stewardship is more of an albatross than a license.

A happy albatross. That is, it is good that we are commisioned with caring for creation, not bad. It’s a joyous ball-and-chain. There is no freedom from the stewardship we’re charged with. There is only a satisfying faithfulness and a draining abdication thereof. As we’ll remember from the book of Haggai, God responds to our abdications by taking the joy away from the comfort and ease that comes with it. 

So, to quote Davis again, it would be in our interest to ‘get involved with God.’ One day, all the bad we’ve done – to each other, to ourselves, and to creation – will come untrue. In the meantime, our responsibility to care for the earth has not been retracted. Though I doubt we’ll ever produce a ‘scarcity-free’ world, nor will our efforts ever undo the effects of the Fall, I would be remiss to ignore the other large, looming reality that Haggai points to: that faithfulness is remarkably powerful. And, to answer my friend’s question, it would also mean retrieving at least one component of our humanness. Whatever corruption has been wrought by the Fall, and however voluminous the ecological crisis, the power of God to bring about a new heavens and a new earth is, as always, beyond the scope of imagination. 

Surprisingly Enough, Jesus Is What God Is Like (Happy Easter)

The above image has the high and holy King washing the feet of His rowdy disciples. It ought be surprising that this is what God’s like. 

You’ve probably noticed that Jesus as we meet Him in the four gospels not just an amplification of whatever we already thought was right. ‘Good‘ as exemplified by Christ Himself was not, it turns out, just common sense baptized in Godness. Counterintuitively, He was something else entirely – something which often grates against what we call conventional wisdom. As a man, Jesus began the divine project of turning the world upside down. As the Creator of the universe, He began the project of bringing His creation into conformity with Himself. As both God and man, He bore the weight of humanity’s sin, and His own wrath against it. 2000 years later, we’re familiar enough with the story to miss the point. 

There was no reason to expect Good Friday. No reason to anticipate Holy Saturday, Christ’s descent into Hell. And no reason to count on Resurrection Sunday. And yet they happened.

These things are beyond the parameters of human creativity. Folks who imply a parallel between Jesus and the old myths of ‘dying-and-rising-Gods’ miss the point by a few degrees, like folks who can’t see much more than a ‘tribal deity’ in the Old Testament’s image of the God who sprung Israel out of Egyptian slavery. Whatever peripheral similarities exist are eclipsed by the sheer insanity of this God character who defies expectation.

There was no reason to expect the Creator of the universe to wash the feet of His disciples. There was no reason to expect the God who commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites to preach the Sermon on the Mount. There was no reason to assume that the God who vanquished Pharaoh would submit to a cross to redeem the crowds of people screaming for His blood. 

But on this side of His resurrection, it makes perfect sense. All this time we’d read our own motivations into the Yahweh character. We’d given Him our own psychology, assumed our own values in His every move. But God is different than we thought we knew. Everything He’d ever done, somehow, is part of the project of redeeming the world. 

The hasty meet Jesus in the gospels and assume that the Old Testament got God wrong. But the truth is that the Jesus we encounter there shows that we’d read the Old Testament wrong. God has always been like Jesus. The Father, Son, and Spirit has always been, as John writes, love. And now we know, on this side of the Resurrection. 

The Old Testament Wasn’t a ‘Works Religion’

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Temple of Juno in Agrigento by Caspar David Friedrich

The idea, ever popular, that the Old Testament was a ‘works religion’ but the New Testament is all about ‘your personal walk with God’ didn’t come from Luther or Calvin or Melanchton, or the old Baptists (or the Apostles). It does, however, show up in Adolf Harnack, a theologian that the churches teaching this nonsense probably have no love for. Of course, the idea didn’t originate with him. But he certainly helped popularize it, and it was a long time coming. The century leading up to his meteoric rise to prominence in the field of academic theology was a kind of seedbed for the growing hyper-individualism that overtook much of Western Christianity and produced the parched landscape in which we find ourselves.

Against their usual caricatures, it turns out that Luther’s a lot more nuanced about Law and Grace than is typically represented, and the Anabaptists/early Baptists found far more in the Old Testament than Law to be liberated from. Calvin, too, scoffed at the notion that the New Testament Religion was primarily about your ‘soul.’ The Patristic authors wrote often against an idea not unsimilar called ‘gnosticism’ (Google it for a fun afternoon). And the Apostles wrote the New Testament, which has an awful lot more on its mind than our ‘personal salvation.’

You do, however, see that idea fermenting in liberal academic circles throughout the 19th/20th century, and came to a head in pre-war Germany. At that point in time, mainstream theology trickled down from Berlin, alongside a few other elite academies. As goes the scholarship, so goes popular preaching, and both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestant churches were penetrated by the novel ideal that the Old Testament had brought about a ‘public’ religion, where people in a community work for their salvation in a shared domain of people separated from the rest of the world by God, but the New Testament had brought a ‘personal’ religion, where people were saved, either by assent to certain doctrines (as some ‘conservatives’ might have said) or by some sublime emotional experience of God (as some of the ‘liberals’ might have said).

Naturally, these are both wrong notions, because the ideology behind them is wrong. There is not a hard separation between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ testaments. Some early Church Fathers were concerned that separating them as such in the canon would create an unbiblical disjunction between them in the minds of future congregations. It turns out their concern was prophetic, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

Over the following century, the line between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestantism blurred. New denominations emerged, old branches withered away, Fundamentalism was born, and proved to be a powerful evangelistic force. But it soon splintered off and became so varied and diverse that it’s hard to identify any ‘one’ thing that ‘Fundamentalism’ might mean today. But amidst the diversity of contemporary Protestantism, there is at least one common feature that we share.

Namely, that ‘conversion’ is framed chiefly as an individual’s personal experience with God, which is inaugurated by an emotional rush and then cemented by an intellectual assent to a (varying) set of doctrinal standards. Modern Protestants didn’t invent conversion – the Holy Spirit did that – but we did invent the ‘conversion experience.’

Formerly, a convert was someone ‘grafted into the existent community of the risen Jesus.’ There was an extent to which the convert ceased to be simply themself and became instead a ‘member’ (read: appendage) of Christ’s ‘Body.’ This was true across denominational lines. The ‘Great Awakening’ and other primordial revivals were not, chiefly, about saving souls, but about grafting wild olive branches into the Tree of Life, so to speak. Of course it dealt with individuals. Of course, every woman or man was responsible to respond to the Holy Spirit with submission rather than rebellion, but it was unthinkable that this was all somehow part of a puerile scheme by which God was turning people from damned to not-damned by charging people to talk them into belief and inspire them into spiritual euphoria.

Revival, back then, was more like enlistment. Jonathan Edwards, who championed the Second Great Awakening, preached ‘Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God‘ not to people he hoped merely to turn into private believers, but to crowds of God’s enemies, whom, by grace alone, through faith alone, he hoped would be transformed through hearing the gospel word, into contagious gospel communities.

And they would, by carrying out the same mission that God’s people have always had, from Noah to Abraham to Moses to Nehemiah to Jesus’s disciples and their disciples and so on, multiply and fill the earth, as members of the ‘Redeemed’ community, so that over time, their neighbors would seek out the same Jesus in whose Resurrection they now found their life, and one day the whole world would look like love.

This fell by the wayside, however, because future ‘revivals’ were carried out under presuppositions unfortunately bestowed on us by liberal protestants from Berlin and Tübingen, and so on. Books like The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman have done some great work toward recasting the original vision, but as it stands, revival in the West would first mean changing the consciousness of an entire generation.

There was, it seems, a rather direct line from the hard separation of ‘Law’ and ‘Grace’ to the artificial distinction of the ‘public, works-based‘ religion of the Old Testament from the ‘personal, spiritual’ religion of the New Testament, to the strange and inorganic framing of conversion as ‘saving your soul‘ rather than ‘being grafted into the earthly body of Jesus, as exclusive subjects of His kingship, who (incidentally?) share in His inheritance.’

This article is filled with generalizations. It’s hard to cover large swaths of history and interact with broad concepts without doing so. History is always more nuanced than is apparent in the books, articles, and dumb blog posts. Generalizations have to be read as such, and that is what these are. But generalizations are only untrue if they’re untrue, and these are not. And to summarize the sweeping statements thus far: We have inherited the notion that there is a distinction to be made between our spiritual lives and the rest of our lives. It was not the old Baptists, nor Luther nor Augustine nor the Apostles who told us that Jesus came round to save our souls so we could carry on with business as usual in the knowledge that we’ll go to heaven when we die. That was some German liberals from back in the day. Adolf Harnack and friends didn’t mean to derail the Protestant church in the process, but they largely did. Today in the West, even if you fancy yourself a ‘fundamentalist’ or an ‘evangelical,’ liberals probably wrote your theology.

Most of Harnack’s colleagues didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Mercifully, they never did get religious conservatives to abandon that central doctrine of the ancient faith. But their theology did trickle down, not only to the towering Episcopal church on the corner of 4th and Dunmeier, but also to the Independent Baptist Church across the street. The result is that an awful lot of our churches carry on like the Resurrection didn’t happen, and Jesus isn’t King.

Because if the Resurrection did happen, and Jesus wasn’t just a spiritual guru, as Harnack taught, who died for our sins but left His throne unoccupied until the end-times, as too many to count have taught, then everything – literally everything – is different. If the crucified Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to His throne, then He rules the Church in a particular sense, even as He rules the world in a general sense. He said to Pilate, ‘You could have no authority over me that is not given to you’ (John 19:11), and Paul affirms as much when he exhorts the Christians in Rome to honor the Emperor (Rom 13:1-7). The rule of Christ over the whole earth is not expressed through political dominion. There can be no ‘Christian Nation,’ no legislated Christendom. He rightfully rules the whole world, but its thrones and dominions are occupied by usurpers. ‘David is anointed but Saul remains.‘ (1 Sam. 15 – 2 Sam 5).

And yet, Jesus is taking claim over the world that belongs to Him. Not from the throne, but from the trenches. He reclaims His world as He colonizes the countries of the usurpers – the gospel is taken from city to city, house to house, and people are grafted into His own ‘resurrection Community.’ They live on the terms of the Kingdom of God, together, in the midst of cities that cannot understand them. They don’t blend in to their surroundings, because their lives are strangely Jesus-shaped. The gospel has permeated every corner of them. Their politics are weird, because they serve a King who crucified Himself for His enemies. Their marriages are weird, because each member is married to a ‘Husband‘ who crucified Himself rather than retaliate against them. 

Their finances are weird, and their sex lives are different, because they worship a man who died a broke 33-year-old virgin (to paraphrase Derek Webb). They run their businesses strangely because they see the face of Jesus in every employee. And they make remarkable employees, because they work as though they work for Jesus Himself, rather than the CEO of Highland Ventures Inc. They haven’t simply had their ‘souls’ saved. They have, literally, become members of a ‘Body‘ other than their own, and the subjects of another Kingdom, who live out its principles in the midst of this one. And this one is passing away – not into nothingness, as though God were going to destroy the world. No, this world is passing away and becoming – slowly, painfully, and certainly – the kingdom on whose terms they already live. Half the work of an ‘evangelist’ is to live Christianly.

* * *

And so, to understate the point, Harnack and his colleagues were wrong. Long dead, he knows that now, and I like to think he’s happier for it. There has only ever been one mission of God, and Noah was a missionary, as was Abraham, and Moses. The ancient Law was not a pathway to salvation. The whole of scripture knows nothing of ‘works-based salvation’ – with the notable exception, perhaps, of some heretics in Galatia who didn’t understand their own Torah. The Law of Moses, perhaps counterintuitively, was a missionary endeavor. It carried forward the missionary work of Yahweh by shaping the already-saved‘ community of Israel around a ‘moral government‘ that reflected the unnatural compassion of the Triune God. Had they carried out their mission to the nations, they would have introduced world to the God who had chosen them, and waited together for the redemption that was to come.

The mission is not fundamentally different in the shadow of the cross. Abraham was saved through faith, if Paul is to be believed, and the ‘righteousness’ of Christ was ‘credited to him’ (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:2-5) – and he was given a mission for the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). We are saved through the same faith – our faith is Abraham’s faith, and vice versa – by the same grace, too. It was the Cross that saved the Israelites – time is linear, but grace is not.

What is different is that because all of us are included in the resurrection of Jesus, now we really are a royal priesthood. The Kingdom of God really is a kingdom of priests. That is to say, Jesus exercises both His royal and priestly functions on earth, today, through the Church. Scripture is the eyes through which we see the world – past and present – and we, the Church, are the hands by which Jesus writes the future.

There was no place for this in Harnack’s theology. He had faith in the world to work itself out. Religion, of course, was a good emotional crutch, so his Jesus needn’t do much more than abolish the old religion and instead create a new, ‘private’ religion, suitable for the modern man. Again, generalizations. Harnack and others were considerably more nuanced than I can do justice to here, but the point stands that we’ve absorbed more of him than is good for us, and it’s only stifled our usefulness as appendages in Christ’s body.

We would, conversely, benefit from relearning scripture. For too long, the lingering ghosts of German liberal Protestantism have haunted our preaching, writing, and discipleship. We will continue to self-marginalize if the modernist conception of New Testament faith is allowed to remain a very real fox in our imaginary hen-house. Conversion, irreducibly, is a transfer of citizenship. The Church is a kingdom of priests, overcoming the world as is by contagiously living on heaven’s terms in a world that foreshadows hell. The gospel doesn’t begin in Matthew, but in Moses. We share the mission of ancient Israel, because we’re the same Community.

There is help to be had here. The problematic trends  have described above are not true of all Christians everywhere. They are not even true of all Western Christians. Or even the American Church at large. These trends are prevalent in predominately white churches in the United States more than others. It has been less common, for example, in the black church. For whatever reason, they were less inclined to absorb the novel theological musings of the elite anglo-theologians working out of the European academy. (It’s almost like the heavy liberalization of the Ancient faith is a form of colonialism, or something.)

Of course, there’s no use romanticizing the black church. From what I’m told, they have problems of their own. But privatizing faith is not one of them, and a cursory study into the historic black church in America reveals, for one, a vibrant faith community that seeks to reconcile ever corner of itself to the gospel. Unlike the predominately white masses of mainstream American Christendom, they have not hammered a wedge between the private faith of the individual and the potent social force of the subversive gospel community. To put it another way, the black church is more ‘conservative,’ theologically speaking, even if their politics are more liberal.

Naturally, there’s nothing special about predominantly ‘white’ churches. We could disappear for centuries and the mission of God would not be threatened. But, you know, hopefully we won’t, and we would do well to learn from their example as a community of ‘gathered social engagement,’ ‘tightly-knit communal identity,’ and ‘deep scriptural engagement.’

Again, there’s no reason to paper over their own persistent ills. But they can remind us, for example, that Moses preaches the gospel. And part of Moses’s gospel is the transformation of society by the gathered community of Yahweh in the power of the Spirit. It’s part of Moses’s gospel because it’s part of Jesus’s gospel. Thanks largely to the corrosive influence of 19th/20th century liberalism on the white church, you won’t find much of that in the predominately Caucasian churches in the United States. We’ve been the ‘ruling class’ for so long that it’s ingrained in our psychology that this world doesn’t need to be turned upside down. Coupled with the trickle-down liberalism from Harnack and friends, this has rendered us a largely impotent force for the kingdom here. Again, generalizations have to be read as such. But these are not untrue generalizations. So we can learn from the black church what our own history has engineered us to forget: that the gospel turns the whole world upside down, and – as we ought to recall, but lately have not – that we are the ones to upend it (Acts 17:6).

Is Religous Liberty Biblical?

If you are a part of the Southern Baptist Convention or follow it closely you know that the past few months have been plagued with disunity and at times even hostility. While some of these issues have been resolved, there are still some questions that need to be answered. One of the most central and important questions that have been asked concerns Religious Liberty. 

The reason this topic is important is due to the controversy that surrounds it. While all religions officially have the right, is it fair for us as Christians to allow the courts to infringe upon this right against Muslims? Since we understand the Islamic faith to be contrary to the Gospel of Grace is it even right for Christians to protect their right? Ultimately, the question becomes is Religious Liberty Biblical?

There has been a debate as to whether Christians are obligated to either support the right of Muslims to build Mosque or whether Christians are called to oppose what we view as a false religious system. While both sides stand at opposite sides of this battle, we need to be reminded that there is no reason to destroy fellowship between a brother or sister over this issue. 

What we need to do is seek conversation and understanding between those who disagree with us. With this being said I would contend to you that it is not only our responsibility to advocate for religious liberty for all, but it is also a Biblical mandate.

There are three primary passages of scripture that justify the necessity for Religious Liberty and they are Mark 12:31, Romans 1:14-17, and Romans 13:1-10.  So that we fulfill the next passage for this stance, Romans 1:14-17 states “I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish.So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” (CSB). 

We do not get to pick and choose people groups that deserve to hear the Gospel. We cannot hope to share the Gospel with someone that we are actively telling they are second-class citizens who do not deserve the same rights we enjoy and allow others to enjoy. Our obligation to share the Gospel with all people comes before our fear or bias towards Muslims.

Romans 13:1-10 tells us:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. 

“Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. 

“Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  

“The commandments, Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up by this commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.” (CSB).

The first amendment our founding Fathers established states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

If we truly desire Biblical Purity then we have to respect the first amendment and honor the law of the land which decrees that the government cannot oppose nor support any one religion. Paul ties in the command to love your neighbor because in it is the fulfillment of the Law and to follow the law is an example of loving our neighbor and thus fulfilling the law of Scripture. 

And Mark 12:31 states, “The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself.” (CSB). When we oppose the building of Mosque but have idly sat on the sidelines over the building of Jewish Synagogues, Hindu Temples, or even Kingdom Halls we are essentially telling Muslims that they are not as worthy of American rights as these other citizens. What Christians need to remember is that Muslims are not our enemy, we have one enemy. 

Muslims are not the predator, they are the prey to the true predator. Our enemy is “prowling like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 CSB). Muslims are just as blinded and ensnared by the enemy as we would be without the grace of God that saved us. We must not let our bias against the religion of Islam stop us from showing them the love we show all those who are of different religions.

Christians, we must understand that if we want to enjoy the religious liberty that we have enjoyed since the founding of this country then we must allow all religions to enjoy this freedom. It’s either Religious Liberty for All or Religious Liberty for none. If we are to be justified in our opposition of Religious Liberty for one Religious Group then we must be willing to lay our rights aside as well. However, if we truly want this liberty and desire to hold Biblical purity then we must not condone the beliefs of these religions, but we must support their right to build their places of Worship here in the United States.

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.

Finding Jesus in a Psych Ward

The particulars of exactly how and why I was hospitalized for psychiatric complications are both too difficult to put into words and also are one of the best blessings God has given me in my 21 years of life. On December 1, my husband brought me to the local emergency room and the next morning I rode in the back of a police car to a larger facility. As I rode in the car the officer was kind and tried to get me to talk about my situation but all I could do was cry. I had been emotionally stunted for months and finally it was all flowing freely.

As my vitals were being taken a kind older woman approached me as my quiet sobs continued. At the time I didn’t know it, but she was also a patient and was going home that day. She took my hand and said, “I know you’re scared honey. But God will be with you here; these are good people. God is here. I just wanted to tell you that.” I think I murmured a thank you before finally being taken to my room to get some rest.

I spent the first day sleeping and observing. I was shocked at the kindness and vulnerability that was evident in every interaction that we had with one another: patients, techs, nurses, therapists, psychiatrists, and even the man with dementia who was in the next ward over and kept trying to enter our ward. My friend, who was my roommate during my stay, is a particularly special person. When I arrived the only things I had were the clothes on my back and my stuffed tiger, Limo. When I walked in our bedroom the first thing I saw was her penguin slippers and I knew she was a kindred spirit. She taught me the ropes the first day and we built a friendship that we’ve maintained beyond the hospital.

There was a deep irony in that almost every person on the ward was suffering with some level of depression and anxiety (some of it social). However, one of the ways that we showed we were ready to go home was interacting with each other. I was so scared that I would never get to go home because I was not willing to approach anyone. But I didn’t have to. During my first day, every single patient introduced themselves to me and gave me a piece of encouragement. “Don’t worry, the first day is always the hardest.” “Don’t skip snack time because they serve ice cream and Oreos.” “You have a great psychiatrist.” “I struggle with the same thing.” “Here’s how to work the phones.” On and on until I felt overwhelmed with how much love I was receiving.

Every single one of us there struggled with self-love. We were there because our self-hate had manifested itself in some way that required us to be under constant care. And yet- the words that we gave one another were words of love. “You are so much stronger than what happened to you.” “You are beautiful.” “You have overcome so much.” “You have a great smile.” “The world would be worse without your humor, your story, your smile, your life.” Words that we could not bring ourselves to say to our own bodies and minds and souls we poured into one another.

By the grace of God, I got to spend 6 days with these people. I learned more about community than anything else. For the first time, I was in community with people who as broken as I, and we all knew it. There were no masks, no pretention, no “I’m fine”. Nobody pretended they were fine; we were all openly broken. There was only love and support and encouragement and kindness. We were there to learn to love ourselves, but we learned that by loving one another.

I met Jesus there. I had met Him before and I knew Him, but I didn’t know that He was living inside of a psych ward. But His grace was evident everywhere. It was evident in that I had a support system that came to visit me (including my husband who never missed a minute of visitation). It was evident in the care that the nurses who worked with me showed toward me. It was evident in the dignity that each person was treated with. His grace was evident in the lives of the women I met there, many of whom had been victims of assault, trafficking, abuse, neglect, disease. And by His grace alone we all survived to live through our adversities and meet each other that weekend.

I will never forget the friends I made in the facility. One of my last interactions was with my roommate. We were lying in the dark the night before we got to go home and she opened up to me about her story for the first time. And as we both lay there in the dark crying, she said to me, “I knew that you were a special person the moment I saw you. I felt the Holy Spirit tell me that you had experienced deep pain and that we were both going to be okay.”

Friends, that was church. That was God’s people living together and sharing their deepest pains and their greatest joys with one another without any reserve. When I walk into a church I don’t want to have to hide my mental illness and what I have survived. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to cry with me and listen to me and encourage me, and I want to do the same for them. The church should be a place of true community, of the kind of love and sacrifice that I experienced on the Adult Behavioral Ward.

“Those who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to those not in need
the occasion to do good
for goodness’s sake.”
Dorothy Day

There’s a Place At the Table for the “Faithless”

Originally published to Armchair Theologian.

​I am not God. That’s an ultimate reality. But only because it contains so much in so few words. “I am not God,” means that God exists, almost certainly. I could reason my way into an explanation for the universe that does not require a creator, sure, but that isn’t the point. If something like the Classical Theism we half-read about in our Western Civ classes is true, then God is present, in a way, in the statements, “God does not exist,” and “There is no God.” I happen to think that’s true, and so you can commune with God, live with Him and love Him with the best of yourself if you struggle and even fail to believe with your head and your gut that He is real.

For all of its strange incarnations, Christianity recognizes the contradictions in man. And God, if He’s this God, promises rest to people who need it, so He invites one and all to His table to join Him in His rest. And he knows the contradictions in man, and it is right for the one who struggles and fails to accept even His existence – who cannot with her conscious mental faculties sign off on the proposition, “there is a God,” to join in worship, in the ordinances, and in the whole life of the Church community, because despite her limitations God has accepted her.

Her place at the table is not a special place amongst other specially marked places  for  those whose faith is, like hers, intentional rather than intellectual. The place marked out for the one who cannot believe in God but will not let go of Christ is among all of her brothers and sisters in the faith. It is wrong to say that she has no faith. They have the same faith, and sit at the same table in fellowship with the same God whose real presence makes them one people.

That the God incarnate on earth in Jesus of Nazareth actually exists, not only in the faith of His people but in Himself, means that the sort of belief that saves is not actually an intellectual assent to the right propositions. If anything, that would constitute a “good work” that would put certain people in God’s favor by way of an arbitrary advantage. Instead, saving belief is to entrust yourself to God through Jesus Christ, even in the midst of serious limitations in your capacity to believe.

“I am not God,” means God is distinct from me. That is “good news of great joy.” He has His own being apart from me. He is not ultimately a projection of my unconscious emotional need to believe a higher power. It is true that “in Him we live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul quoted Epimenides to the crowd of Greek philosophers in Athens, but that is not the end of the story. We exist in Him but we are not a part of Him. The quest for God is not a journey inward.

The Christian religion teaches that history is a roundabout retelling of God’s journey toward us. He has left His place to meet us, not within ourselves, but as Himself and on His own terms. It is no kind of grace if we seek God and the road brings us back round to ourselves. For the woman who needs desperately the rest of God, it is a nightmare to find that she has nowhere to run. If God is an extension of herself, then there is no help coming. She has only “the power of positive thinking” to hope in. The rest of God is an illusion.

If, however, God is His own person, then also the rest of God in which He invites us to join Him is real. He has the authority to offer it to whomever He  wants. The struggle, the anxiety of existence can be overcome and the hope to do so is real. The world is inhabited by tired people, and if God is real, and I am not Him, then He can offer rest to my tired eyes, and yours, even amidst our utter lack of faith.

Jesus Won’t Make You Not Lonely

Jesus won’t make you not lonely. He never offered to. That’s a false promise from your youth pastor or a kitschy blog post you read.

And yet He does promise to make you complete. Which, apparently, still means lonely. Because if the gospels are any indication, Jesus was plenty lonely. 

There was a time when He wasn’t. “And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.” (Jn. 17:5)

Jesus was and is God, even though He’s not the Father, or the Spirit, and in eternity past, they were complete together, and they weren’t lonely. 

And creating people such as ourselves had everything to do with multiplying their own mutual satisfaction into creatures that were not them. So there will be a day when we are like them in that we won’t be lonely. Every thing will be as satisfying as it ought to be. 

We won’t be God, but we’ll he like Him in all the right ways even as we’re unlike Him in almost every way, because we’ll be investing in each other without emotional deficits to fill.

Everything we’ll stand to gain from friendship will change because we’ll carry on with one another out of an over-abundance of satisfaction. We will not strip-mine one another for satisfaction.

But today we’re lonely. We wake up and the dread’s there, quiet or clamoring. This is what Jesus felt, too. And it wasn’t because He was single, which He probably was.

Say He’d married Mary Magdalene. After picking her up off the ground and dusting her off, He wraps His robe around her and walks to the courthouse asking for a Baptist preacher. James and John are witnesses to their union. Their mom, too, for good measure.

They have a courthouse wedding and build a life together. He’s a bottomless pit of patience and He helps out around the house. She cooks a mean fish and she knows things the other wives don’t know about, on account of her life of sin before she met Him. Pretty soon she’s teaching every wife in the neighborhood things they couldn’t have known and the husbands are grateful. Jesus is just happy He gets to be the guy who comes home to her every day.

It’s not an end to His loneliness, though. The dread’s still there. Maybe it was clamoring and now it’s quiet. But dread is dread and if it’s there it’s there. Any way we slice it, we’ve got a lonely God-man and that means our loneliness is as holy as His ever was because it’s part of the human experience, and the human experience is holy because the Triune God breathed life into it for His glory – even if the humans that experience  it are damnable. 

What isn’t so holy is what we do with our loneliness. One of the things that sets us apart is the desperation with which we endeavor to eat up the dread that haunts us. We won’t be subjected to it, and anything done in the name of shielding ourselves from its oppression is pardonable, or even praiseworthy, we say in our hearts. Remarkably, this does not appear to have been Jesus’s posture.

There’s always a multitude of angles to everything, and there’s plenty to be said about the how and why of Jesus’s sinlessness, but one angle is certainly this: sin is noise as much as it is anything else. Noise to drown out the cacaphony of dread. It doesn’t shrink our loneliness, but it does compete for our attention. It’s racket that muffles despair. Our career in sin is a humanitarian endeavor directed at ourselves. We’re nursing wounds.

Jesus, lonely and wounded like everyone else who’s ever lived, turned His dread into occaision for worship. He neither revolted against His loneliness nor resigned Himself to it. He sacrilized it. 

Amongst other things, being like Jesus means going and doing likewise – recognizing the sanctity of loneliness and protecting ourselves from the temptation to flee from it. The tyranny of trying to complete ourselves in other people is staggering, and the novelty of romance and sex and even platonic friendship turns on us when we heave the weight of our “wholeness” on it. To quote Derek Webb, “Jesus died a broke, thirty-three year old virgin for the sake of those of us with misplaced values.” Like Jesus, let the existential dread that accompanies being a human being on planet earth carry us to the altar to worship.

The Monsters That Remind Us: Empathy, Civil Society, and the English Major

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As the sister to two older brothers, I grew up watching a lot of monster movies. My brothers especially loved the old Godzilla films. And when Godzilla 2000 came out, of course my family packed up and went to see one of the first showings. Never mind that I was four years old. Godzilla 2000 has to be one of my earliest childhood memories, which consists largely of closing my eyes in the embrace of my mom and dad. I still have weird dreams about jellyfish aliens; sometimes I swear I can hear the echoing of Godzilla’s roar in the distance. It wasn’t until I watched monster movies later that I came to realize that they have valuable lessons to teach us, even aside from how to hide from three-headed dragons and radioactive moths.

Weird as it sounds, I think that empathy is one of the lessons here. And I don’t just mean for all of the parents who had to comfort frightened children in movie theaters across America.

There are, of course, a myriad of definitions, as well as subcategories, as to what empathy means. It originally came into English from the Greek empatheia, meaning “to feel into.” Aesthetic theorists first used the term to describe “the ability to perceive the subjective experience of another person. The term was later used in psychology by E.B. Titchener, who said that empathy stems from one’s own physical imitation of the pain that another person feels. Empathy, then, is deeper than sympathy in that allows us to feel—or at least attempt to feel—the pain of another person. In a helpful and concise definition, autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen defines empathy as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion.” So this practice is two-fold: identifying the processes of the Other, and then responding appropriately.

Stephen G. Post and Ann Jurecic add extra layers to this concept of empathy. Post, first of all, calls empathy a “force” that is on a sort of spectrum. The feeling of empathy is well and good, but this is a weaker manifestation of the force. For empathy to be “strong,” it must motivate us to do something. Inherent to this strong empathy is the “reliable affirmation of the other [that] requires a conceptual act of valuation—that all human lives have equal worth.” Empathy requires the acknowledgment that my life has the same worth as yours. And when I affirm this, I am even more motivated to “identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion,” as Baron-Cohen says.

Empathy is not always welcome or even helpful. Jurecic writes, “Empathy is not salvation; it’s not certainty or knowledge; it blurs the boundaries in ways that can be both generative and destructive. In the end, empathy is a practice, a process that extends in time. To make it work takes both effort and humility.” Jurecic’s definition of empathy as a practice aligns so far with what the other writers have said. And because empathy depends so much on imagination, it is indeed far from certainty. However, her talk of it as destructive comes from a misapplication of the practice. Sometimes the exercise of empathy causes us to misimagine the Other, to project our own thoughts and emotions onto him instead of accepting him on his own terms. We imagine that we fully understand people when we empathize, when really the process of empathy must be far more open-ended than that: a practice that must be ongoing.

If empathy is an ongoing process that seeks to imagine the thoughts and emotions of the Other and to respond well, then the applications of empathy to civil discourse are hopefully apparent. On a personal level, some have written that degree of empathy corresponds to moral action. Goleman writes on the research of Martin Hoffman, “who argues that the roots of morality are to be found in empathy, since it is empathizing with the potential victims—someone in pain, dangers, or deprivation, say—and so sharing their distress that moves people to act to help them. Beyond this immediate link between empathy and altruism in personal encounter, Hoffman proposes that the same capacity for empathy . . . for putting oneself in another’s place, leads people to follow certain moral principles.”

Hoffman’s research demonstrated a correlation between a person’s capacity for empathy and her support for moral principles like aid for the poor. Studies have not concluded that empathy always motivates people to act morally, but they do highlight empathy’s importance in living in a civil society. Acting morally, yet empathetically, better helps us to extend that hospitality in our thoughts, speaking, and listening. As former president Barack Obama once said, “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decision and outcomes.”

On a more societal level, Jeremy Rifkin writes on the “empathic civilization.” (And you can watch a really cool video explaining his thoughts here.) In his work, he speaks on the primary human drive to belong, which he calls an “empathic drive.” He says that empathy is grounded in our shared morality and our flaws. For Rifkin, “When we talk about building an empathic civilization, we’re not just talking about utopia. We’re talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other, but with our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet.” And when we are able to show that solidary, Rifkin argues, then we are able to truly have civilization.

To illustrate his point, he uses perspectives on human evolution: we first saw ourselves as part of one tribe, then as part of one religion, then as part of one nation state. Humans typically show empathy in order to relate to each other on these levels, showing solidarity as they associate with one another in terms of blood ties, religious affiliation, and national identity. So, Rifkin asks, why can’t we extend our empathy beyond this? Why can’t we see ourselves as part of one race sharing one biosphere? Surely if such empathy extended this far, we would stop seeing ourselves in terms of our differences. If we began discussions with the acknowledgement of our common humanity, then civil discourse could flourish. Disagreements would undoubtedly arise, as surely as they do between family members, but such strong empathy would still allow us to work together civilly for the common good.

Of course, despite some of our perhaps natural tendencies, empathy doesn’t always come easily. In fact, sometimes it is downright discouraged by the culture we find ourselves in. We are tempted to continue to define ourselves by our merely religious, ethnic, or national ties. During World War II, for example, both Japanese and American cultures encouraged the dehumanization of their respective enemies, largely to make it less difficult to kill one another during wartime. Donald Shriver writes, “In its systematic erosion of tendencies to empathize, racism is a peculiarly vicious enemy of forgiveness in politics or justice in any human relation.” Through this negative example, Shriver directly links empathy with forgiveness and justice. Racism, which refuses to extend empathy past a limited idea of “our own kind,” undermines the ability to practice forgiveness and justice well. And interestingly, the U.S. has never apologized for dropping atomic bombs on Japan, and Japan has never apologized for bombing Pearl Harbor.

Now that we have a working, nuanced definition of empathy—that is, an ongoing process by which we identify and respond actively to another’s thoughts and feelings, a practice fundamentally associated with hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and civil discourse—well, what’s a lowly undergraduate English major to do? How can my discipline help cultivate empathy, as well as civil discourse?

Critics, academics, and writers have often associated reading, especially that of fiction, with empathic readers. Margaret Nussbaum, in a defense of the liberal arts education, writes on a particular type of empathy that she calls “narrative imagination,” or “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of someone different from oneself.” Reading narratives causes us to see from someone else’s point of view, even feeling what they feel. If we read well, we empathize with the protagonist and other characters. As in Jeremy Rifkin’s idea of extending our empathy to the world, some attribute “to storytelling the extension of the ‘moral circle’ to include ‘other clans, other tribes, and other races.’ . . . [B]y allowing our projection ‘into the lives of people of different times and places and races, in a way that wouldn’t spontaneously occur,’ fiction can change our perspectives,” writes Suzanne Keen.

While there are no significant studies to show that reading does actually increase empathy, the possibility exists for us to cultivate an at least “weak” empathy. Even if this practice does not result in action, by reading, we have at least begun the ongoing process of empathy.

Aside from the potential to cultivate empathy, English as a discipline requires writing. A lot of writing. Looking back at my own trajectory in my time as an undergrad, I know that writing has helped me to create orderly thoughts, connections, and arguments. Not only do I see it in myself, but I am also able to better analyze the arguments and connections of others. Admittedly, I don’t always do that well—hopefully this presentation doesn’t represent that fact—but the rhetorical skills that an English major has fostered an extra concern for words and the arguments that they can represent.

Empathy, the English major, and civil discourse all seem to work well on paper. Empathy oozes from the cracks of what it means to study the language and literature of the Other. And empathy binds itself up with the other virtues in forming a foundation for civil discourse. But instead of simply focusing on the higher philosophies and musings, Finding Civil Discourse has taught me the value of particulars and exemplars. So for this project, I sat down with Dr. Alan Noble, professor of English, longtime editor-in-chief of the magazine Christ and Pop Culture, and recent founding member of Public Faith with Michael Wear. He describes the latter as an organization that’s attempting to reenvision evangelical participation in politics. Instead of the angry, “culture war” rhetoric often employed by the right, Public Faith seeks to promote pluralism and bipartisanism while remaining steadfast on key issues. Dr. Noble wishes to offer an evangelical perspective on political issues, but winsomely. The website publishes key stances in language that invites agreement, with the goal to remain neighborly toward people who do not always agree. We can think more creatively about living together with the Other by engaging in empathic language rather than the sensationalized, enflamed accounts we often stumble across in the media.

Public Faith has released statements on topics like criminal justice, perspectives helped by empathy. However, Dr. Noble says that the real work of empathy is two-fold: we must advocate for the oppressed without abstracting them, and we must seek to understand those with whom we argue. Advocating while abstracting can hurt communities when we do not stop to consider how they might be hurt by certain policies. A civil society pursues the common good, which can only be achieved when we consider the Other. For those who do not see things in the same way, we must empathize in order to communicate well. Dr. Noble has stressed that we don’t necessarily need to win people over to our side through arguments, but we ought to help them understand that it is possible to live as neighbors, and work together in pursuit of the common good. By maintaining a stalwart online presence, Public Faith serves as a practical example of civil discourse and empathy.

Empathy is an ongoing process by which we identify and respond actively to another’s thoughts and feelings. It is a practice fundamentally associated with hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and civil discourse. And I say, “practice,” because in order to contribute fully to civil discourse, it must continually be put into action, extending to the whole human race. Studying English may be the starting point for cultivating empathy, but organizations like Public Faith show empathy in practice among a culture of uncivil language and thoughts.

When I look back to that fateful viewing of Godzilla 2000 as a kid, I see a terrifying monster, formidable foes, and unthinkable destruction. But I also see the potential for humanity to recognize each other as humans, to work together despite religious or ethnic ties, to put differences aside for a greater good. While I don’t think that a monster will rise up out of the sea, I do think that the monsters of the present day can unite, not divide, us, if we are properly empathetic.

Spurgeon’s Witness and the Plight of Contemporary Evangelicalism: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 4)

sword_and_trowel_cover

Cover page of early Sword and Trowel Magazine, published by the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

And we’re coming to a close. Charles Spurgeon is by no means a flawless witness. The advent of fringe sects such as the “5-point Spurgeonists” (See: Pulpit and Pen, etc.) have demonstrated the futility of orienting whole theological systems off of the work of any single theologian or Church figure. “Calvinism,” with its variegated pool of sources, is less-than-susceptible to this particular crack-in-the-asphalt, although no one theological system is without blemish. Nevertheless, it ought to have been exceedingly self-evident throughout this series that a sustained, immersive study of his ministry and the underlying theological propositions that drove it would be in our better interest. The fault-lines in his theology are not ambiguous. His ecclesiology was insufficiently robust. Although he managed to transcend the hyper-individualism that held Victorian Britain in its oppressive grip, he nevertheless allowed it to influence him away from a more satisfactorily plain reading of the new testament vision of the Church—the list goes on. But those fault lines, substantial as they are, do not diminish what he has to offer.

Although propositional theology has waned in popularity over the last half century, Spurgeon stands as a walking indictment against those who have sought to snuff it out of contemporary Evangelicalism. All of the charges leveled against it—that it breeds a cold, unfeeling demeanor in those who hold it, that it shuts down all opportunities for ecumenical activity, that it inclines believers away from social action by needlessly occupying them with intellectual scuffles, that it kills community between Christians of diverse stripes, and, among other things, that it fosters coercive measures to suppress theological dissenters—are found dead on arrival when applied to Spurgeon. He was vociferously opposed to the what he considered to be the peripheral flamboyances of Roman Catholicism but regarded them as brothers and sisters and unabashedly sought guidance from Catholic devotional writers.

He espoused a warm, emotive gospel proclamation that beckoned any and all to the rest of God. The finer points of theology that furnished his proclamation were not extraneous; they were the substance of his proclamation. His Evangelical Calvinism, his devotion to the supernatural authority of scripture, etc. were not baggage that came along with an otherwise nondenominational message of comforting vaguery. They were his message, and they were more tangibly love-wrought than anything drawn from the fashionable obscurantism emanating from the modern Evangelical establishment.

We can learn from Spurgeon that the challenges of the post-modern age are best met with a robust orthodoxy. After years of thinning out the distinguishing marks of the Christian religion in an effort to render our gospel proclamation more palatable to an increasingly post-Christian culture, it has ironically turned out that we need what Glen Stassen calls “a thicker Jesus.” We’ve come to hold the letter of Paul in suspicion, based on the assumption the he was part of some DaVinci Code-esque theory to depoliticize Jesus by turning Him into a Greek god—or something along those lines. Spurgeon’s testimony reminds us that an unrelenting faithfulness to Biblical authority will render us subversive. If Spurgeon read his Bible right, Paul was the force that cemented the subversive Jesus into the memory of the Church and defended His memory against the amnesiac tendencies of Judaizers and proto-Gnostic hecklers.

Likewise, we have plenty to learn about the importance of integrative theology. One unfortunate by-product of higher criticism’s growing prominence throughout all corners of the Church has been an obsessive attention-to-detail at the expensive of the bigger picture. The most troubling of the conclusions at which our 19th century German forefathers arrived can be pretty well traced back to F.C. Baur’s lack of imagination. Theological trends tend to ebb and flow according to the intellectual climate of the age, and the 19th century proved to be discouraging time for Orthodoxy, not because the foundations of the ancient faith had eroded, but because the men and women (mostly men) to whom we entrusted the keys to the hermeneutical kingdom had a keen eye for details but a hopeless deficiency in the sort of imaginative qualities required to interpret details well.

These controversies only arose at the tail end of Spurgeon’s life, and in any case he was in no condition to approach them earnestly. The stand that he took against higher critical methodology has not aged well, and those seeking to identify as contemporary Spurgeons, waging brave battle against the modern downgrade bear little resemblance to their hero. As a people who live in the middle of a peculiar standstill within the Evangelical world between differing strands of inerrantists, we would do well to emulate Spurgeon’s remarkable aptitude for integrating diverse sources into a coherent theological synthesis. By all accounts, the prince of preachers bore the greatest similarities to the puritan tradition. But we would be remiss to neglect the very real influence of Madame Guyon upon his thought. His disdain for the extravagancies of Roman Catholicism did not prevent him from appropriating that which was truthful in the scholarship and devotional literature of his would-be opponents.

Had he been in a more able state when the so-called Downgrade Controversy, he might have been able to prevent the mass apostasy that took place. Were Spurgeon to have put his imaginative prowess to use in sifting through the admittedly dry literature coming from the higher critical machine, he may well have come to the conclusion that the broad majority of conservative Evangelicals now hold: that the tools introduced by Wellhausen and friends are actually pretty useful so long as you can reason through the data you happen upon. In any case, he did not, and the heated propaganda churned out by both sides probably played a big part in preventing him from doing so. But with his penchant for integrating new and often stultifying information into a coherent ‘big picture’ in view, we are well equipped to confront even the more controversial edges of contemporary biblical scholarship and integrating what is truthful there without making a shipwreck of our faith.

Finally, we have plenty to learn from Spurgeon about the sheer depth of our dependence upon Christ as the inaugurator and completer of our ministry efforts. You could fill Noah’s Ark with all of the books that have been written over the last several decades about the various methodologies employed by Spurgeon and his compatriots at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. These are often helpful but can only tell so much of the story. When surveying Spurgeon’s own comments about his success in ministry, what emerges is a radical dependence upon the Spirit of the Christ with whom He communed to actualize the ministries for which He had commissioned him and his church family.

If a substantial amount of the work undertaken by Evangelical churches today feels empty, it is likely because although we have strategically built our church staffs with the Meyers-Briggs team development methods in mind, and crafted our programs specially around the trends we have noticed in our own communities, and paid close attention to Pew Research statistics and Barna studies to familiarize ourselves with the mind of our friendly neighborhood unchurched Mary(s) and Harry(s), we have carried out our best laid plans with the Spirit of Christ as an afterthought at best. The old saying, “is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” is as cheesy as it gets, but it’s also poignant.

Divine unction arises out of radical desperation for the Spirit of God to carry out the work of God and a willingness to become tools in his invisible hands. This desperation is visible in every line that Spurgeon wrote, and until we surrender ourselves, along with our resources and our status in contemporary western culture, we will see nothing like the revival that God was pleased to bring about in the ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.