An Inconvenient Truth

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, July 16, is what Jesus called “the Parable of the Sower.” (The parable appears in Mt. 13:1-9 and Jesus’ own interpretation appears in 18-23.) To the extent it is a parable about the Sower, then it is a defense of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t particularly successful at this moment. (For instance, no one had a clue what he was talking about when he spoke in parables.) This parable is an emphatic reminder that the incarnation wasn’t about Jesus’ ministry and its success, it was all about the Kingdom.

As we turn our focus to our contemporary situation, it might be helpful to reframe this parable, as Lloyd Ogilvie did in his book Autobiography of God, and think of this as the Parable of the Soils. There is “rocky ground.” This person receives the Gospel with joy, but when “troubles or persecution” comes, they do not endure. There is “thorny ground.” This person hears the word but “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” distract them. But there is also “good soil.” This person “hears,” “understands,” and “bears fruit.”

This parable does not speak of repentance directly. In fact, a facile reading may lead us in a different direction completely, because Jesus says that the person who “hears” and “understands” is the one who bears fruit. Being a culture that holds reason and science as the highest ideal, we tend to conflate “understanding” with reason. But when we speak of understanding the message of the kingdom, something rather different is at work.

John the Baptist went about preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the parts of last week’s Gospel lesson that were scandalously left out, Jesus condemned the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not repenting (Mt. 11:21). The Kingdom of Heaven life is not compatible with life as we normally live it and so to “hear” and “recieve” the Kingdom, at the most fundamental level, requires us to repent of our current life and way of doing things. Understanding is not an intellectual item but an action item.

I am friends with a Roman Catholic priest and Missouri Synod pastor. We often see each other at the local cigar lounge where they smoke cigars and I smoke my pipe. It is friendship that is becoming increasingly strained because we view ministry/kingdom quite differently. This week my pastor friend showed us a meme that is currently floating around religious leaders circles. The author claimed that if the men in his congregation knew as much about the Bible as they did about football stats, he would have a great congregation. Both priest and pastor chuckled and agreed wholeheartedly. Both then turned to me for the obligatory chuckle and affirmation that, yes, this is why ministry is so difficult today.

But I wasn’t amused. I simply arched my eyebrow and said, “Really? You think that’s what you want?” In the following silence it was clear that they were waiting for me to explain why I was being such a buzzkill. So I pondered out loud just what sort of people seemed to know every football stat in the last twenty years: out of shape men who are somewhat bitter about how life has turned out for them, so they sit around Buffalo Wild Wings, commiserating and trying to outdo each other with their trivial knowledge. I concluded by saying that I would far rather have people who were committed to playing the game than those who replaced that sort of discipline with information about how others play the game.

Paul, uses that very analogy in his letters. We should train like athletes, be disciplined like soldiers (2 Tim 4, et. al.). He warned Timothy, “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21).

The church fathers used the Greek word askesis (“athletics” in English) to describe kingdom life. With this word they encapsulated what it means to be good soil. Repentance involves rigorous training (according to Paul) so that the rocky soil can be broken up and the thorns and weeds removed. Then, the Gospel can produce great fruit.

My friendship with the priest and pastor are strained because we live in a time when repentance and askesis are not celebrated. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, leave verses out of the lectionary that clearly emphasize the consequences of not repenting. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, think that if their congregations have Bible knowledge, their pastoral ministries will be improved.

But I’m here to tell you that the church, at its core, is not a place to transmit knowledge. The church, at its core, is not a place to serve the world. At its core, the church is a place to repent so that the vibrant life of the kingdom can begin to seep into, and eventually pour into our broken and dried up souls.

Ah, but isn’t it both? Isn’t the church both a place of knowledge and repentance? Isn’t the church both a place of service and repentance?

Repentance is not pleasant. It’s not hard, but we will avoid it if we can. This is why Jesus called the kingdom an “easy yoke.” A yoke is something you put around an animal’s neck. We need a yoke so that we don’t throw it off when it is inconvenient. But it is not a terrible yoke, it is an easy yoke (see the previous essay on last week’s lectionary readings).

If we emphasize that the church is both a place of knowledge and repentance, the effect will be to avoid the repentance (which is inconvenient at best) and settle for the knowledge. And we will end up with a Buffalo Wild Wings sort of congregation where we keep statistics on other Christians while sitting around being entertained. This is why we must insist that the church is a place of repentance, period. Once that actually happens, then knowledge and service and prayer will grow out of the repentance itself. Knowledge and service will be the fruit of repentance. This is the good soil. Any other path will inevitably lead to hard rocky soil and weeds.

BPI and ABC — ABC Eats Crow and We’re Still Eating FTBP

The “Finely Textured Beef Product” (or “FTBP,” disparagingly called “pink slime”) libel case has come to an end, and sadly, BPI settled with ABC out of court today. I was hoping BPI would publicly clean their clock. With the out of court settlement, ABC doesn’t have to live up to their libel.

I originally wrote in defense of BPI way back in 2012 (read it if you like). Since then BPI has continued to prove their critics wrong and continues to be a vital part of the Siouxland economy. Jamie Oliver and his self-righteous and uninformed feculence (see the previous post) has disappeared from the American scene. So I guess all’s well that ends well.

Except it didn’t end well. BPI lost millions of dollars in lost sales, leading to quite a number of people losing their jobs. The price of school lunches went up. Ah, but who am I kidding … that’s a small price to pay for a ratings boost for the news network.

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.

 

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.

Oppressed-a-non

‘Tis the season to be reminded of the poor and oppressed. We hear it every week in the Advent scripture readings at liturgy. We are asked to give financially to a whole host of charities during this season. And inevitably, we hear some harangue about how “we” (the “we” in this harangue may be aimed at one’s local congregation, or denomination, or city, or nation, or even the U.N.) are simply not doing enough to help them.

My thesis today is that such harangues are likely a product of what those in recovery call an “enabling” or possibly a “codependent” relationship. At the heart of codependency is the reality that both parties are broken and use the relationship in order to either cover up or pass blame for their own brokenness. As long as I am helping the addict (no matter how inappropriately), I can avoid dealing with my own issues and deny my own brokenness.

So it is with the poor and oppressed. Jesus said we ought to help them, but oddly he never told us to fix the problem. The Old Testament prophets certainly went after kings, nobles, and governments for allowing these conditions, but fixing poverty seems to have never been high on the agenda of God’s commission to the Church. In fact Jesus said that the poor would always be among us. As a result almsgiving – helping – (in  contrast to social justice – fixing) is given a high priority.

I propose the reason for this is that poverty and oppression are not the problems; they are rather symptoms of a much deeper problem. The deeper problem is sometimes called “sin” and sometimes called “injustice” in scripture, but both terms are notoriously vague and difficult to pin down. Paul even calls it “death,” which seems a bit weird given what we mean by that term today. Within a couple of generations after Christ the Church began to identify this part of the sin problem specifically as “corruption.”

Because of their initial sin, Adam and Eve “died” and passed death on to their offspring. In this context death refers to our separation from God, who is the source of Life (because he is Life itself). Like a Christmas tree that begins to dry out, fade and lose needles, even though it’s kept in water chock full of nutrients, cut off from the root, the tree begins to die. For us humans that death manifests itself as “corruption.” Our bodies don’t work right, our social systems don’t work right, etc.

In Christ we are joined back to true Life and in the Holy Spirit true Life begins to once again flow. The Spirit is the Source of Life and we (the Church in its grandest mystical meaning) are, in a sense mediators (or as Peter calls us, “priests”) of that Life to all creation. (Don’t ask me exactly how it works; this point clearly falls under the category of “ineffable.”)

But we can cut off the flow of this true Life because our sin (either our ignoring of the effects of the corruption on others – the poor and oppressed – or the outrage and anger toward all those people and institutions that aren’t fixing the problem) is not dealt with. We must become vessels that can hold true Life before we can effectively be the priests and mediators through which that Life enters into the world.

But dealing with our outrage and anger and a whole host of other sins, from pride to miserliness, to lust, to laziness, is extremely difficult. It requires humility and discipline and the gentle help of those around us (whether confessor or friend or person who sits in the pew directly behind us). It’s far easier to become an “advocate” and rage against the system that has failed the poor and oppressed than it is to deal with the rage.

Helping the poor and oppressed and enacting systemic change so that the oppressed get a fair shake is not a bad thing, but rather than rage, it must grow out of our joy and wonder of God. Just as oppression is symptomatic of a much deeper issue, so is our rage against the system is symptomatic of our own codependency and denial. Instead of joining an advocacy group, maybe we need to first join Oppressed-A-Non so that we can become the priest and mediator of true Life that we are called to be. Only then will our almsgiving and advocacy become truly transformative, both for me and for those being helped.

The Desolation of Smug

The juxtaposition of Sunday’s daily lectionary Old Testament and New Testament readings is striking. In the Old Testament Job is getting his lecture from God in Job 38. God is telling him that Job does not know God’s ways and neither could he accomplish God’s tasks if he did.

  • Do you know the dwelling place of light and dark?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of snow and hail?
  • Oh yeah, and thunderstorms, do you understand them?
  • Etc.

I had just paged through the trending podcasts on my pod catcher prior to reading these texts and one that I had never heard of was high the list. Its list of guests includes Brian Cox, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott (I know, she’s dead, but that’s what it said), Bill Nye, etc. That’s a who’s who of atheist intellectuals who are so utterly self-absorbed in their own grasp of the truth it’s mind boggling. At least Brian Cox has the grace to be amusing about it. But my immediate thought was, “Wow, that must be one of the most smug podcasts going today.”

As I read the Job text I couldn’t help but think that this group would have had the arrogance to answer God on each of these points, because, after all, this group actually understands all this stuff.

In contrast to this text is the reading from Revelation 18:1-8. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Babylon is the symbol par excellence of the hubris and excess of the world system.

There’s a long history of empires fading from the scene. In the case of Babylon, it practically happened overnight. Rome, on the other hand, and the Ottoman empire faded over a very long period of time. As is discussed in many places, not the least being Isaac Asimov’s brilliant and fifty year old Foundation series, the American Empire is showing alarming signs of wear and there is no clear indication what may replace it. We may be looking at yet another “regime change” in the not-so-distant future.

In contrast to this, I was on the phone this week with a now retired representative of the Antiochian Archdiocese (sort of like my denomination). The occasion was the aftermath of the centennial of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, which was celebrated last weekend. The subject of some recent trouble in the Archdiocese came up, but the person I was talking to dismissed it out of hand. “We’ve weathered this stuff for 2,000 years and we’ll weather this too,” was the comment. There is some real meat in the comment. Antioch, after all has been an important Christian center for all of Christian history. The first Bishop of Antioch was Peter. The second was Evodius, who is less well known, but the third Bishop, who served that office from 70 to 107 was the well known Ignatius, who was martyred by the Romans. There is an unbroken line of bishops (some of them outstanding, some of them traitors, some of them heretics, but an unbroken line – with schisms and plenty of weirdness mixed in) from Peter to John, who has served since 2012.

On the other hand there was certainly a sense of smugness in the 2,000 year comment, but there is also a sense of history that says, “God will remain faithful to the church, even when the church is not faithful to God,” when you look at the history of Antioch, the place where followers of the way of Christ were first called “Christians.”

Babylon: a symbol of the ephemeral that looks permanent. Antioch: a symbol of obscurity which has actually endured.

I confess that I am generally a huge fan of the current crop of radical atheists, although many of my favorites are now dead. Richard Feynman is hands down my favorite physicist and world traveler. I am also an unabashed fan of Douglas Adams, who regularly used his fame associated with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to bash Christianity and other religions. I find Richard Dawkins to be an utter bore – an unforgivable sin if you are going to be an outspoken critic of the cultural norm. On the other hand, I’m an avid listener to The Infinite Monkey Cage, Brian Cox’s podcast and bully pulpit to tear down Christianity when he doesn’t have his handful of clerics on as guests.

I like these guys because in all their smugness they seem to recognize that they are also court jesters (with the obvious exception of Dawkins and certainly the once utterly earnest Eugenie Scott) pointing out in amusing ways that the emperor has no clothes.

But in reading the Daily Lectionary today it occurred to me that it is a dangerous game to actually laugh at the jester because they play a dangerous game. I will continue to listen to Monkey Cage and grin with the rest of the audience, but ultimately these people really don’t know what they’re talking about because they are only dealing with a small slice of reality, and one day, this whole world system that has given us smart phones to listen to podcasts, the unimaginable wealth to afford these shiny toys, and the leisure to even bother with it, is going to come crashing down. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

“And then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18: 4f).

Someday there will be a Desolation of Smug. Both the church and our culture will one day reap the consequences of our sins. It’s an excellent reason to take the earbuds out, turn off the podcast, and get down to the business of the life of repentance that we’re called to.