The Trouble with History

I ended the previous essay by asking, “How do we say that which we cannot reduce to words, sentences, and logical thought?” The key to answering the question is to embrace the fact that we can know much more than we can say. Truly embracing this will help us stop trying to reduce reality to words.

In near Eastern mythical literature (whether Sumerian, Egyptian, or Greek) two characters who universally appear are the brothers, one who embraces good and the other evil. The hallmark of the good brother was his willingness to embrace that which we cannot know. By embracing it, by playing the hero, the good brother was able to ultimately subdue parts of the unknown and thus incorporate it into the known and structured world. In this way, that which lays beyond rational explanation becomes the “water of life,” (the domesticated “water of chaos”) which regenerates and strengthens society.

The essence of the evil brother, on the other hand, was what Peterson calls “unbridled rationality.” It is a refusal to embrace that which lays beyond what he can understand and focus only on that he thinks he can understand and thus can control.

This “spirit of unbridled rationality,” horrified by his limited apprehension of the conditions of existence, shrinks from contact with everything he does not understand. This shrinking weakens his personality, no longer nourished by the “water of life,” and makes him rigid and authoritarian, as he clings desperately to the familiar, “rational,” and stable. Every deceitful retreat increases his fear; every new “protective law” increases his frustration, boredom and contempt for life. His weakness, in combination with his neurotic suffering, engenders resentment and hatred for existence itself. [From the Introduction to ch. 5 of Maps of Meaning, p. 245.]

Heroes (the good brother of mythology) refuse to deny the great unknown of chaos, although they know they can ever ultimately subdue it and thus know all that there is to know (that is, rationality gone amok). But the thing that makes them heroes is their ability to use both rationality and technology as a tool to tame a bit of the chaos while simultaneously understanding they will never ultimately defeat chaos, or to use imagery from Gen. 2, they till the Garden and keep it orderly. They don’t exterminate the weeds completely (in Monsanto-like arrogance), only remove them from the Garden

The evil brother would consider this never-ending process futility (akin to Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill) and would thus reject the hero manner of doing things. Instead he would carve out a world where everything was orderly and understood and chaos could play no part. Rationalism (the typical response of the evil brother) seeks to understand and control everything. It is no accident that Satan, before he fell, was Lucifer, the angel of light, or “light-bearer.” Light (ie, the Enlightenment is the metaphor par excellence of reason itself). Lucifer’s battle against the God who dared create chaos (in the beginning the world was formless and void) resulted in his being cast out of heaven and cast into a circumscribed world of his own making. And while it met his standards, we know it as hell.

Likewise the evil brother’s world is circumscribed and his reason ultimately becomes the limiting factor. There are echoes of the mythical good brother/bad brother story in the story of Cain and Able. Able (the good brother) was a shepherd; shepherds don’t (can’t!) ultimately control the sheep and goats; they rather follow them or guide them, they protect them, and allow them to develop on their own. Cain (the evil brother) was a farmer who controlled his bit of creation, killing the plants he didn’t want to grow and allowing only the good plants to grow in his fields. His circumscribed life led to a circumscribed offering that was unacceptable to God. Able’s gift, on the other hand, was found acceptable.

Of course there is a fundamental problem here (not a contradiction of facts, but what we might call a contradiction of ideas). In the Garden of Eden, tilling the ground is a virtue and God says it will be necessary. In the Cain and Able story, tilling the ground becomes the problem while animal husbandry becomes better choice. In a fundamentalist Christian context, this larger meta-story of Cain the evil brother, as illustrated by the fact that he is a farmer rather than a shepherd, needs to be suppressed because it can’t be rationally harmonized with God’s words in the Garden of Eden. The power of the meta-story therefore has to be suppressed in favor of a more logical and rational (and therefore, circumscribed) explanation.

But this contradicts the nature of reality. It is bigger than any one story. From the perspective of the Garden, farming is a virtue; from the perspective of Cain’s sacrifice, farming becomes a vice. Which is it? the rationalist asks? But that’s a question that grows out of a rationalist need to reduce the world to understandable categories. The world is bigger than that; it has high valence and as a result our minds are able to associate these images (in this case, farming) to a variety of situations in a variety of ways.

And this is the real danger of reducing Gen. 1-11 to history or fact. It is a form of rationalizing the larger truth down to something understandable and circumscribed. Our rational, circumscribed explanation works for a while, but as the world changes, cut of from the “waters of chaos” (that have been conveniently explained away by reducing myth to history), we no longer have access to the “water of life” that will revivify our communities.

The Part That Got Left Out

I am currently reading the textbook Maps of Meaning by Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Univ. of Toronto. Peterson has recently become infamous for his opposition to bill C-16 (a Canadian Parliamentary Bill proposing full civil liberties to trans-gendered persons that has several scary side-effects). My own acquaintance with his work was through the Orthodox Church and the seeming infatuation many Canadian Orthodox thinkers have with Peterson’s ideas.

I worked my way through the 2017 version of his “Maps of Meaning” classroom lectures, available on YouTube. That was a 30 hour slog that made me wish I was in university again. The lectures piqued my interest; the textbook made it abundantly clear why the Orthodox are so enthralled with his work.

It is now expected and a bit trite to blame many of our problems on the Enlightenment. I’ve been on that bandwagon for 25 years or longer since I read Colin Gunton. But other than recommending the Protestant theologian Karl Barth and the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, as well as the Eastern Orthodox divine liturgy, I’ve had little to work with beyond repeating the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things” trope.

I’ve known since my college days that the Enlightenment was and is fundamentally reductionist, and thus leaves us incapable of adequately discerning reality and the truth. Peterson has given me a glimpse into just what got left out of the Enlightenment equation:

Myth.

(Yeah, really! That’s the part that got left out.)

In popular usage “myth” means it’s a story that’s not factual, and thus not really true. To say, for instance, that Adam and Eve are a myth (as Samuel Johnson did back in the 18th century) was and is considered heresy by “Bible believing” Christians. We all “know” that there are facts and there are myths and facts lead to truth and myths don’t. Of course the students of myth (the aforementioned Johnson, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, to name a few) say that this bifurcation of myth and fact misses the point.

And the well informed “Bible believing” Christian might sniff, “Well, maybe it does miss the point, but that doesn’t change the fact that Adam and Eve aren’t a myth!”

What’s interesting about this deep divide between what is often construed as conservative and liberal Christianity is a recent phenomenon. The early church didn’t struggle with this “problem” because they didn’t notice a problem. The divide exists because both parties (liberal and conservative Christianity) have accepted certain key presuppositions of the Enlightenment and none of us (including me) can figure out how to move beyond these presuppositions.

This is where I found Jordan Peterson to be quite helpful. He reframes the issue in a manner that helps me (and obviously a number of other people, given his hearty reception among the Canadian Orthodox) to step beyond the Enlightenment problem of reducing reality to too small a box. Furthermore, he does it in a constructive manner. Post-modernists, and deconstructionists of all stripes, have done a good job of stepping beyond the Enlightenment by criticizing it; but beyond that they have nothing positive to say. Like me, once they deconstruct the Enlightenment, they have no path forward, just the old trope, the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things”

Peterson’s solution (and it’s not his invention – he says he’s adding the neurobiological and neuropsychological pieces to an argument already made by others before him) is not only to expand the frame of reference, but move its focus altogether. Critics of the Enlightenment have universally said the Enlightenment was reductionist. Peterson goes much farther by saying that fundamental truth does not revolve around object, but around meaning. “Objective truth” is actually a second-order truth that is extracted from the more fundamental “significance” (an idea closely related to “meaning”). Significance is what allows us to prioritize and organize objective truth. (See Maps of Meaning, ch. 1, “Maps of Experience: Object and Meaning.”)

To return to a possibly overused analogy (but an analogy that is used so frequently precisely because it is so applicable), Peterson is offering a “Copernican Revolution” as a solution to the Enlightenment predicament. Just as the Earth was not the center of our sky, but rather the Sun (or the center of the galaxy, etc.), so objects are not the center of truth, but rather meaning. Objects come forward out of the chaotic mass of atoms and molecules and energy and light to reveal themselves as objects not because they are inherently objects but because they mean something to us and thus reveal themselves as objects.

Mapping objects is a relatively simple task. At least it was relatively simple from a Newtonian framework. Objects fit into a “time-space continuum.” (Of course the mapping of objects gets a bit weird at the quantum level.) Mapping meaning is far more difficult, and yet it is something that we instinctually know and do. The process of mapping meaning is the dilemma that I am quite fond of which can be described (in Michael Polanyi’s turn of phrase) as, “We know far more than we can say.”

So how do we say that which we cannot reduce to words, sentences, and logical thought? I’m already at 850 words, so I’ll save that question for the next essay.

 

Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

I became fascinated with the Babylonian creation stories many years ago. The two original deities, Tiamat, the feminine god of chaos (or salt water, or the ocean, which is the embodiment of chaos), and her consort, Apsu, the masculine god who is very mysterious and unknowable, but was probably the god of fresh water, and particularly, the god of the springs from where the holy water of the religious rites came.

They had a number of children, but the key child – in terms of the creation story – is Anu, who killed Tiamat, chopped her up, and scattered her. Those scattered remains became the created order as we know it. Thus the created order came about from the defeat of chaos.

But chaos remained. Babylonian society was a small enclave of order surrounded by chaos.

This Babylonian creation myth came to mind because of the texts for Trinity Sunday, which was celebrated June 12 in the Western churches. The Christian creation story also starts with chaos: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was [chaotic] and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1f).

The difference in the two stories is striking. In the Babylonian story the outer chaos is something to be feared and avoided. I purposely quoted the RSV because it views Gen 1:2 from a Christian perspective translating the Hebrew “Wind” (blowing over the chaos) as “the Holy Spirit.” In this Christian version of the story, the chaos is there, but the Holy Spirit is present out there, above the chaos.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus sends the disciples out into the world. In the Babylonian view of the world, only a Hero would dare venture out into the chaos. In the Christian view, we ordinary people can venture out into the chaos outside our community because the Spirit is already present “blowing over the waters.”

As humans we naturally fear chaos (it’s actually biological) and in the last several years our world has become quite chaotic. For Americans that chaos reach a fever pitch with the recent presidential election. My liberal friends who are horrified by President Trump and live in abject fear of what they perceive as the chaos in the political order (and similarly, my conservative friends who were equally frozen in fear by the prospect of Hillary Clinton), desperately need to hear these glorious words of Trinitarian truth: The Spirit’s abode is above the chaos (in the same way the wind blows above the prairie). The chaos is therefore not so much a problem as it is an opportunity. As frightening as it is, the chaos is relatively safe. In chaos there be dragons! But in chaos there be God blowing upon the deep. It is the Trinitarian message of hope.

Post Script to the Meta Story Essays

I began this series of essays with some thoughts about the difficulty of entering into true dialogue with people with whom we disagree. I concluded the first essay by saying that eventually, instead of “continuing to dialogue,” I dropped out of the group. Why? Because true dialog is unspeakably hard and the dynamics of the group were not such that the sort of dialog that was necessary for me was not possible in this context.

True dialog is unspeakably hard because the things we must speak about actually lie beyond the realm of what can be spoken. Each of us is unconsciously shaped by meta-stories that help us make sense of the world by transcending words and ideas. The meta-stories are thus able to unify and give meaning to our experiences. This process is necessary because our experience of the world is always larger than we can ever grasp. It is an essential feature of being limited, created beings.

True dialog is unspeakably hard because we must move beyond the realm of words and conversation (the “speakable”) and start the process of uncovering our own meta-stories that shape our perception of reality (the “unspeakable”). The group I was a part of was a group that wanted to do things. I admire that in my friends; in fact, I envy it, and that is why I stayed for as long as I did. But in my months of being part of that group I realized that what I need to “do” at this moment in time is to “pray things” rather than “do things.”

I was surprised how deeply the meta-story of the monks of Mt. Athos has become my own story. I was surprised at how forgettable books on activism were and, in contrast, how moving the life of Thomas Merton, the non-active activist was.

One does not need to be a cloistered monk to seek union with God. The monks specialize in it in order to teach those of us who live in secular society how to do it.  What I need to do is “pray things.” If the monks’ meta-story is true, I suspect that as I “pray things” while my friends and colleagues are busy “doing things,” a far more authentic dialog is beginning to happen. It is a dialog of spirit to spirit as my heart expands and the Spirit groans the larger truth to all of us.

My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors

In the previous essay I opined that we need to broaden our face-to-face community and interact socially with a broad range of people. In truth it is surprising how difficult that is. Our social networks, our churches, and many of our social groups are “silos of conformity” where no real dialog with those who are different is possible. There’s a reason for this; being with those who are different is hard.

This year I took part in an Advent book study that extended out through winter and Lent. Over time the group inexorably veered toward social justice issues, not by design, but because the most outspoken members were focused on social justice and seemingly quite dismissive of disciplines focused on personal spiritual growth (except for prayer: prayer is good … as long as it leads to social justice; and worship and the Eucharist are good … as long as we understand that the Eucharist is about feeding hungry people). I hadn’t been intimately involved with the social justice wing of the church since my days as a Presbyterian pastor, so this turned out to be an adventure in community with people of quite different perspectives and thus an illustration of that which I was speaking in the previous essay.

I was unimpressed (to put it mildly) by the social justice movement of the 90s which was long on talk and short on action (except for protests, public meetings, and bulletin inserts – in other words, long on action that made us feel good but short on action that actually led to social justice). Over the years I have come to realize that the systemic change the social justice movements of the 80s and 90s were seeking were beyond the scope of anything that movements could significantly influence. For the most part systemic change occurs in spite of, and not because of, social justice movements.

My new experience with social justice was the same as two and three decades ago. We read books and repeated the same conversation we had back then. The characters had changed (Latinos instead of Somalis, for instance; Donal Trump instead of Ronald Reagan) but angst and anger were all pretty much identical.

It was at this point that I began to disengage in the book study. My memory of my Presbyterian days was that it was the anger that propelled the movement forward and the angst that made it feel righteous. We felt bad and a righteous anger burned against those who did bad. But is it righteous?

Righteous anger is a very rare thing because it needs to be constructive rather than destructive. For me, in my very short time with this justice focused group, there was very little that was constructive. (Conversation for conversation’s sake, for instance, is not constructive; going to a meeting about immigration is not constructive.) It was destructive because it left a slow burn in my soul. Righteous anger, in order to be constructive, cannot be the slow burn variety. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26).

Anger that you sleep on, that you mull over in your head, transforms itself into a variety of spiritual problems. It drowns out the silence of God that transforms the heart into the image of anger rather than love. St. Porphyrios said, “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.” Abiding anger is antithetical to the life of love that Porphyrios is talking about.

But when I disengaged from the book study I did not engage the group in a discussion of these issues, or only did so at the surface level. Is this not a contradiction to what I said should happen in the previous essay? As I said at the beginning of this essay, my experience illustrates the difficulty of authentic engagement with those one disagrees with.

The Orthodox vision of salvation is radically but subtly different than the Western vision of salvation. It took me years to begin to understand and embrace the difference. One of the key differences is that the Orthodox recognize that social justice is inherently futile.  The world is broken; we are broken. The result is that when we try to fix the world, we inadvertently break it more. The very idea of changing the world (every college kid’s dream, if you believe the commencement speeches) is triumphalistic and thus , to a degree, idolatrous. Only God can change the world.

My role in that primary grand divine process of changing the world is to participate in changing myself. Changing myself is extremely difficult. In fact, it is far easier  to put that aside and go about trying to do social justice and hope that others and social systems will change. In this Orthodox framework, social justice is similar to co-dependency.

But the other people in the group didn’t sign up to have a conversation about Orthodoxy and how it is radically different than the liberal Protestant vision of what we need to do in the world. They didn’t come to me, I came to them. It would have been impolite to force the conversation in that direction.

Instead, I’ll hang around and wait. Maybe at some point down the line there will be an opportunity for such a conversation. But before that is truly possible I need to spend more time listening and being … and allowing myself to fully appreciate their personhood and ideas without (1) merely demeaning their ideas, and (2) not allowing their ideas of social justice to create a slow burn in my own heart. The time is not full, the opportunity is not yet fully ripe.

Tolstoy, Facts, and Community

I continue to ponder what I believe to be Tolstoy’s misguided view of the world and reality itself as expressed in his book, The Kingdom of God Is within Us. In this essay I want to consider his rejection of the larger community and the resulting narrowness of his thinking. Most everything he said was factual but he didn’t have enough facts. Because of his disdain for those who disagreed with him, he had no source of the other facts and ideas that would have rounded out his opinions.

We have far too much confidence in facts. Facts are good, but there are too many of them. Several factors limit our ability to get the facts that are useful to us. First, we are limited creatures. I can only be in one place at once, so my perceptions of the world are not actually of the world, but of this small place that I am in. Even if we had access to “all” the facts, all that information would overwhelm our limited brains.

Second, my personality shapes how facts are observed and incorporated into my thinking process. Consider two observers of a conversation between two people. The one observer, who is an idea person rather than a people person, pays attention to what is said. When asked to  report on what happened, she describes the content of the conversation and what she learned from it. The second observer, being a people person, describes how the conversation was uncomfortable and one-sided because person A was domineering, moving into person B’s space. The effect that person B was constantly on the defensive. What are the facts of the conversation? Our idea person described it in a series of concepts while our people person described the relationships. All those facts were present in the conversation, but personalities shaped which facts were heard and incorporated into the listener’s perspectives.

Third, my value system will shape which facts stand out, and thus get incorporated. The van has a flat tire and everyone gets out and stands by the roadside while the tire gets changed. Afterwards they are asked what they saw. The prairie expert notices an unusual flower tucked in beneath the bank beside the road. The flower requires shade and is usually found in woodlands, but because of the shade of the bank created by the road cutting through the hill, the flower is thriving in a most unexpected place. The bird expert saw the sparrow, which he had never seen this far north. He wonders if that species is expanding its range. The environmentalist didn’t see the flowers or birds in particular but bemoaned the litter along the roadside. The guy who works for the county said a crew needs to come out and fill the potholes.

Expertise also comes into play in our ability to see what’s there. I am a fan of the Creighton Men’s Soccer team and attend most of their home matches. I don’t know a lot about soccer, but enough to enjoy the matches. One night I sat in front of two scouts from the Chicago Fire, a professional soccer team. They were there to watch three players. They saw the same match I did, but what they saw was completely different because they knew exactly what to look for and their eyes were trained to see the small details that I didn’t have the skill to notice.

Put all of these factors together and the result is that different people see or hear the same things physically but harvest a different set of facts from the same event. If I don’t interact with these different people, when I observe the world and collect the facts that shape my understanding, I will see and hear things that confirm my personality, my interest, and my expertise. I need other people to round out my perceptions of the world.

This is one of the primary functions of communities. Groups of hunter/gatherers were more successful than lone hunter/gatherers and this was the basis of the first human towns and tribes. Similarly, one cannot be a lone Christian and remain truly Christian for long because we need the broader insight and experience to come to know the living God and not just the caricature of a God (or a caricature of the Bible) that I develop all by myself.

But community is having a tough time of it at the moment. Universities were originally designed to promote this sort of broad thinking that would promote true communities of learning. Increasingly, universities are doing the opposite by focusing on a single ideology and excluding most others. (The book The Closing of the American Mind offers a thorough critique of the problem.)

Social networking, as it is currently conceived, is not social at all, in the classic understanding of the term. These networks tend to gather people of a single opinion together and thus mirror the crisis of the modern university. The effect is that certain facts that confirm a certain bias get amplified in the various self-selected “social” groups.

American churches suffer from the same confirmation bias. Individual congregations and denominations tend toward a single perspective on critical issues. In the most recent American election cycle a Trump supporter would probably have been stoned (if that were still allowed) at the local Episcopal Church while the same fate would have faced a Hillary supporter at the currently popular local post-denominational entertainment church. (At least if the rhetoric at work from members of those congregations is any indication.)

If we want to be well-rounded human beings, it is critical that we spend time, and I think it requires face-to-face time where we interact with the fullness of persons and not just their on-line avatars, with a variety of people. I’m not sure where we go to find these relationships, but I do believe it is one of the critical needs of the day.

Eventually we will figure out how to incorporate all of our new technologies into our social relationships. For the time being, we need to be intentional about seeking those sorts of relationships out. Only then can we be given more facts by others – facts that we probably won’t and can’t discover on our own – that will give us a well-rounded understanding of reality.

Nowhere for Me to Get Out To

From Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Setting: Ivan is in an insane asylum because of a misdiagnosis (in his opinion); he saw the transcendent world. There are bars on the windows, but another patient has just entered Ivan’s room by unlocking the bars and opening the window. They are now talking:

“But if you can go out onto the balcony, you can get out of here. Or is it too high up?” queried Ivan.

“No,” was the guest’s firm reply, “It’s not because it’s too high that I can’t get out, but because there’s nowhere for me to get out to.” After a pause he added, “So, we’re stuck sitting here?”

“Yes, stuck,” replied Ivan, gazing into the new-comer’s anxious-looking brown eyes.

Ah … but isn’t that the plight of humanity! Nowhere for me to get out to.

Note: If this doesn’t make a lot of sense, the novel is a critique of Russian atheist culture.

What I learned from Tolstoy (That Tolstoy did not intend for me to Learn)

I am quite ignorant when it comes to Leo Tolstoy. Like most people with a passable liberal arts education, I have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I know little of his life. I had assumed that, like Dostoyevsky, he was Orthodox; although in fact he was an anarchist with what seems to be vaguely Christian tendencies (a Christian in general but believes whatever he wants to pull out of the Bible and ignores the rest) and dismissive of not only all Orthodoxy, but seemingly all organized Christianity.

I came to this realization reading his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You is his explanation and defense of his anarchist position, drawn largely from two American writers, William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. It was an influential volume. Gandhi said it was one of the books that taught him the value and process of non-violence. But it is a thoroughly 19th century book that embraced most of the weakness and few of the strengths of the era. I’ve managed about a third of the book but doubt I will finish it.

Tolstoy says he embraces “non-resistance,” but his understanding of the idea is so comprehensive it must necessarily be identified as an anarchist philosophy. Along with pacifism, Tolstoy argues that the Christian cannot serve in any government office, cannot vote, cannot willingly pay taxes (although one shouldn’t object if the government takes it by force). He also is open to the possibility that the Christian cannot be a land owner.

As alluded to above, the book is a product of the some of the least tenable ideas of the 19th century. It is thoroughly rationalist and considers Christianity, not as a living relationship with God, but rather as a philosophy or a collection of ideas (or in the case of this book, a singular idea from the Sermon on the Mount) to shape his thinking and live by. It also elevates his own private interpretation above all others that have gone before. The depth and breadth of his hubris is quite frankly a bit frightening. That someone could be that absolutist and sure of his own ideas in the context of the Stalinist regime is unimaginable to me. But I suspect that sort of triumphalistic rationalism was the air the 19th century breathed because those same sensibilities were also built into American Protestantism and still largely infect conservative American Christianity.

If Shashi Tharoor is correct in his analysis (and most Indians think so, if not Britons) Winston Churchill committed genocide on a scale near to that of Stalin in his dealings with India. Tolstoy was essentially responding to Stalin and his genocide in this book, and it could be that context in India was similar enough that Gandhi found, in Tolstoy, a comrade who was horrified by the evil perpetrated by the government.

I mention Stalin and Churchill because we too live in an age of demagoguery. Brexit, the American and French elections, along with similar sentiments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere, indicate that the neither Brexit nor Donald Trump are outliers in the modern Western world. The sort of violence expressed in acts of genocide have not been seen, but the attitudes that underlie such actions should be recognized.

But if I dislike the book so much, why am I writing about it? Because it reveals the disconcerting ways in which we are living in similar times. First it is rooted in the idea that a relatively simple idea will fix everything. (For Tolstoy it was anarchism. Today it is, among other things, nativism, which is at the root of the Brexit vote, the Make America Great Again campaign, and the le Pen campaign.) Second, it is rooted in a personal version of truth that rejects a broader understanding of reality. (In this sense, Tolstoy’s interpretation of the Bible is similar to the modern phenomenon which is currently called “fake news.”) Third (and this is closely related to the first), is inherent triumphalism of such ideas. Some things are simply too big to fix with an overarching plan. The problems need to be chipped away rather than swept away. Trying to sweep them away will lead to unimagined consequences that are almost always bad. India was left with staggering poverty (although that was almost certainly the result of British policy more than Gandhi’s response), Russia was left with the police state that we called Communist Russian and the modern world … well, what knows what will happen with the modern world.

And this has led me to think at length at how we chip away at world that seems to be spinning madly out of control. Tolstoy didn’t have a clue. Dostoyevsky understood the problem very well it seems. Gandhi was immediately successful, but his revolution has been a long-term spiral downward. It’s hard to find true modern success stories.

This essay is designed to set forth some very broad ideas. I will propose the following:

  1. The problem isn’t fake news, or more fundamentally, the problem is not truth and our lack of commitment to it; rather the problem is relationships, and our lack of commitment to them.
  2. We can solve very little by focusing on the victims. They do not represent the core problem, but rather the effects of deeper problems.
  3. Most problems cannot be fixed in an acceptable way. Rather than fix them, we need to learn to live with them and through them.
  4. The biggest problem is not the government nor radicals nor the unengaged, it is rather us. If we learn to focus on our own issues rather than other peoples issues (Jesus described it as the log in my eye and the speck in the other person’s eye), we can seriously begin to address #3.

These are some rather broad ideas that I hope to flesh out in the next months. I am curious how much headway I can make. I invite you to follow along.

Big Salvation Words: Repentance

And so we come to my final big salvation word: Repentance. In case you haven’t figured it out, this little collection of essays are a Lenten meditation. It might seem odd to choose the word “repentance” on this day after Easter. “Shouldn’t you be talking about victory, or new life, or bunnies?” you ask.

Ah, but in truth I am talking quite precisely about our new life in Christ that is made possible in Christ’s resurrection. For millennia those intimate with the spiritual practice of the church has said unequivocally that the Christian life is a life of repentance.

Once God’s divine life and light begin to flow into our being the secret corners of our life begin to be revealed. Once the light is turned on, we see that we need to change. Once we are given the gift of new life, we have the ability to change, or more precisely, to be transformed by the Holy Spirit within us.

And so I repent: I begin to clean out the cobwebs in the corners I have carefully avoided for much of my life. And as I clean out the cobwebs, I find another secret door that I have forgotten about. As I open it and God’s light shines in, I discover that I need to repent all over again. This leads to more inner hallways and doors, more spider webs, and alas, more repentance.

Said in this way, it all sounds rather dreary. But in fact, it is the most joyful thing a Christian can do.

Sometimes we are seduced into thinking that the Christian life is mostly about “fellowship” (ie, coffee and croissants at the coffee shop with my church buddies), “service” (ie, serving meals at the local homeless shelter), spiritual growth (reading Christian blogs, listening to Christian podcasts, reading the Bible), and thinking good thoughts that will chase out the negative thoughts.

None of these are bad things, but too often we settle for the good and never get around to the best things. “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:9f). This can only happen in the midst of repentance.

I remember renting my first apartment, a dark, dingy thing that was dirty and bug infested, but something I could afford. I was pretty depressed. But a group of college friends came over and helped my roommate and I clean it up. Windows were washed, curtains were taken down and new bright curtains were put up. Light bulbs were replaced. The carpet was cleaned. Wash buckets of pine-smelling cleaner were handed out. By the time we ordered pizza that evening, we were shocked to discover that we actually had a nice little apartment.

That is a picture of true Christian repentance and the resulting authentic Christian joy. Christ is risen. His light shines. Make the most of it. Amen.

Big Salvation Words: mercy

If you’ve been paying attention for the last month or so as I’ve considered a variety of “big salvation words,” you might realize that asking God for mercy implies much more than, “A little help, please?” At the root of mercy is the double edged sword of divine help through the process of God unmasking everything I am and have ever done (as the Samaritan woman discovered at the well). After a severe warning about disobedience, the Letter to the Hebrews describes it this way:

Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs. Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from morrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:11-16)

When read in context, this final verse inviting us to God’s mercy sounds much more ominous than when it stands alone. So far in this series I have mostly talked about the back side of divine activity in the world – judgment, wrath, the fire of love – and now as we turn to the front side, we find exactly the same themes coming to the foreground.

Mercy is not the act of God accepting us as we like to imagine ourselves, it is God accepting us as we are so that he can transform us into his likeness. Ephesians says that there is a necessary process of putting off the old nature and putting on (or being renewed in) the new nature (Eph 44:17ff). I’m quite sure that none of us understand just how devastating “putting off our old nature” is going to turn out to be. We have an amazing ability to view ourselves in the most positive light possible and the result is that we underestimate just how difficult the transformation will turn out to be.

In Walter Wangerin’s dark and beautiful novel, The Book of Sorrows, a follow up to The Book of the Dun Cow, one of the characters, a bastard beast who is half snake and half rooster (ie, old nature and new nature) comes to the point where he needs to shed his snake skin and become a rooster. The process is is itchy; it is painful; it takes a long time; it’s smelly; and he becomes dismayed and regrets the process:

Welcome to divine mercy.

God is in the business of saving us, but he is not in the business in saving that particular persona that we are so fond of, that we show to our friends in order that they will think we are a nice person, nor is God in the business of saving our work persona, which exudes excellence and confidence to our boss. God is in the business of stripping off the snake so that he can save the real me that buried deep beneath my various personas and self-delusions.

The practical effect is that if I want to actually experience divine mercy, I need to actually experience my true inner self which is wicked, deceitful, and (here one can add any number of other synonyms for sin) …

Mercy is truly all glory and light and happiness. Divine mercy doubly so. But that light is at the end of the tunnel of repentance. In short, deep inside your secret self, you desperately want divine mercy. Furthermore, you should absolutely pursue divine mercy; you should pray, asking God for his mercy. But beware. The road to mercy fully and absolutely embracing us is arduous. Pray this prayer with your eyes wide open. Pray this prayer with the knowledge that Aslan is a wild Lion (in Lucy Pevensie’s famous words in the Narnia Chronicles). As the aphorism goes, “Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.”