Finding Nobility rather than Tragedy

There are two old men who smoke cigars every other week, early afternoon, at the Dublin House, where I am a member and go to smoke my pipe. When they come one wears various bits of northern Civil War garb while the other wears southern bits. There they sit, blue and grey, smoking cigars, and talking just a bit too loudly about the nobility of that War and, in particular, the nobility of the southern stand against the northern aggressors.

Racism is an overused word and I certainly resist the temptation to call them racist (they’re more likely merely ignorant, having never been to the south!), but my experience is different. Having lived a couple of blocks from Prospect Ave., the great divide between black and white, in Kansas City, having gone to seminary in Louisville, KY, my first experience with huge, fancy, white private schools built to get around the busing rules, and having spent a year teaching school in Port Gibson, MS, where boycotting white businesses was first experimented with during the 1960s civil rights struggle in the American south, I have a rather different perspective on the war, its causes, and its aftermath.

A few weeks ago, because no one was paying attention to their conversation, in spite of the fact that it was getting louder and louder, the two brothers finally engaged me about my thoughts on that noble chapter in our glorious American history. I had had enough and gave them my frank opinion about the tragedy of the event, the tragedy that has continued to fester ever since, the evil that spawned it (and continues), and their own denial about that particular ongoing chapter in our history, and thus their unwitting participation in that evil.

No doubt they had heard it all be for and even said, “God bless you,” on my way out the door. I found I was disgusted by their righteousness and nobility that whitewashed the tomb of racism that still stinks to high heaven down south of the Mason Dixon line and across the country as well.

I don’t claim to be innocent. I grew up in Montana with Indian reservations all around me, so the racism I am blind to tends to be toward the Native Americans and not the African Americans.

One of the momentous events in the version of Native American history I was taught practically passed by the house where I spent most of my young life. The story I learned in school was one of grit and glory, the Nez Perce helping various groups of western bound white settlers along the way even as they outwitted the five armies chasing them. General George Custer supposedly called Chief Joseph, “the greatest living Indian” at one point. Most of the Nez Perce considered him a coward, an opportunist, and merely the last man standing.

Yep, it’s a complicated history, so I just started reading Kent Nerburn’s book, “Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce.” In the introduction he says, “A fine story, full of pathos and nobility and all the poignancy of the American Indian struggle.

A fine story, but false. Or, to be more accurate, only half true. The real story, the true story, is every bit as poignant and every bit as dramatic. But it is obscured by the myth because the myth is so powerful and so perfectly suited to our American need to find nobility rather than tragedy in our past.

Seeking nobility rather than tragedy … I was immediately reminded of the cigar-smoking brothers. Not all tragedies are noble. And in the case of both the American Indians and the African Americans, not all tragedies are in the past.

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Forgetting to Look Up

The world has lost its bearings. Not that ideologies are lacking, to give directions: only that they lead nowhere. People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet, because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky

and

Because all we want is to live, it has become impossible for us to live.

Eugene Ionesco, Romanian/French playwright, speaking at the 1972 Salzburg Festival.

That last bit would have been more appropriate to post on Mardi Gras, given what has become of the beginning of Lent in our culture. But I posted it now because Ionesco rather misses the point.

Lot’s of us look up, but there’s nothing to see and nowhere to go except the vast emptiness with the occasional star in between. Because of the blindness of sin, we not only fail to see, we are incapable of seeing—truly seeing—the Creator in creation.

No, Ionesco is mistaken, we need not bother looking all the way to the sky. We should rather humbly limit our upward gaze only as high as the cross.  From it we learn that death to self is more blessed than living to live, for in this particular path of death lies the possibility of truly living and the fullness of life.

Have a blessed Holy Week.

The Gospel of Joshua

It’s been a long time since I read Joshua. Given it’s horrific violence, it doesn’t show up in many devotional reading lists, so it may be a while since you’ve read it too. The story line centers on the genocide of the local residents so God’s people can have the land. (Not a story that matches our modern sensibilities.) And yet Joshua, the leader of this merry band of pirates, has long been considered a type of Christ.

For this to make sense we must remember that the ancient church didn’t venerate the book because it was history. This is not to say that they didn’t believe the book to be true. The fact that we tend to equate truth and history says a lot more about our distorted and reductionist modern sensibilities than it says about the ancient church. They no doubt would have found our tendency to reduce “truth” to these tiny little boxes (scientific method, historical method, textual criticism, empirical evidence, etc.) bewildering. So it is indeed the case that for most of history the church has considered Joshua to be primarily a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. (They even share a name, Joshua being a Semitic form and Jesus being a Greek form of the same name.) Just as Joshua cleansed the Land of evil, so Christ cleanses us of evil. Just as Joshua led the people from wandering into the promised rest, so Christ does the same thing.

Joshua not only foreshadows Christ, the book shows us something of what the church should be. We need to have a “take no prisoners” attitude toward our corrupted nature and thinking, our mixed loyalties, and our fondness for our culture. Every time Joshua and the army compromised on the “take no prisoners” policy, things started going bad. This, according to the tradition, is the picture of our Christian life. Any sort of compromise will eventually lead to some sort of failure or downfall.

Aside from these two traditional themes, there is something else to be learned from Joshua: God seems quite comfortable being the God of really nasty and not nice people. And I’ll go one step farther. God is far more comfortable with really nasty and not nice people than we are. My perspective might be shaped by the congregations I served, which were mostly aging, midwestern, and quite proper socially, but I think it is true of American Christianity in general that we tend to conflate manners, niceness, and social acceptance with Christian maturity. We tend to confuse business acumen with wisdom. In the language of Joshua, we’re less interested in taking the Promised Land of our soul and more interested in letting Christ move in next door … as long as he’s a nice and polite neighbor.

One of the dangers of our sensibility is that it tends to blind us to our own nasty-and-not-niceness. As long as everyone stays polite and fits in with the religious culture, we tend not to be self-critical. This is one of the few “blessings” of radical Islam. They can see our failures to which we are blind. They look at the Western churches that reside fairly comfortably in Western consumer culture, and what they see is the corruption. They are horrified and are pretty sure that a real god would have no interest in being the god of infidels like us.

But it is precisely at this point that the divine grace of God’s eternal covenant reveals itself. It turns out that we have more in common with Joshua and his merry band of pirates than we’re comfortable admitting. Amazingly, in spite of the denial of our own predicament, God remains faithful to his covenant people “to the thousandth generation” (see previous post). This overwhelming reality of divine grace then gives us the space to safely admit that we have failed spectacularly. And this is the first step to true repentance and the process of rooting out all that is evil in the Promised Land of our souls.

I think I’ll call it “The Gospel of Joshua.”

 

Liberty and Freedom and Gun Rights

In the previous essay I argued that rights are not “endowed by the Creator.” Rather, liberty is “endowed by the Creator,” and in turn, there are a pair of dependent principles that grow out of liberty: rights and responsibilities. The consequence of liberty is that I have rights for myself and responsibilities for others.

The second thing that I emphasized in the previous essay is that while liberty is a natural endowment, in the context of civic life and the political systems that organize and protect civic life, rights are granted by the government (in contrast to liberty, which is endowed by the Creator). This might seem harsh and authoritarian, given the libertarian sensibilities that have permeated our society in the last twenty years, but the logic is inescapable. There must be some arbiter when rights and desires come in conflict. According to the American founding documents, the arbiters are the local governments or the Federal government.

It is within this broad context of human liberty and the dependent principles of rights and responsibilities that gun rights must be considered. No right is absolute including the right to life. To clarify this claim, the governments (both federal and state) have the authority of capital punishment in the case of heinous crimes. When chaos breaks out (murder, for instance) governments have the authority to revoke certain rights (such as the life of the murderer) in order to restore the peace.

For reasons not related to guns, our society has become more chaotic. Furthermore, public violence planned as spectacle is rising dramatically. Statistics indicate mass killings are always premeditated, but there are also a complex set of causes. Often mental illness is involved. On occasion these are crimes of passion that affected bystanders get caught up in. At times they are simply cold blooded. In other words, guns are typically the proximate cause rather than the direct cause of mass murders or mass attempted murders. On this point defenders of gun rights are correct.

No matter the direct or proximate causes, it remains the task of government to keep order, and given the trend and the societal effects of gun violence as spectacle, there is a great deal of logic for the government to more heavily regulate firearms. Furthermore, if this is indeed a situation where the chaos that results from the misuse of the freedom is growing out of control, the citizens have responsibilities (in counter-balance to their rights) to cooperate.

Finally, I want to address Christians specifically in this matter because we have something to offer that is mostly missing from the Enlightenment and, in turn, the American founding documents. The Enlightenment was weak on the idea that part of that which defines us as persons is our interrelationships. Consequently, the Founding Fathers were weak on the idea of our responsibility for others. (Remember the Declaration and Constitution are both compromise documents. Deists, who strongly preferred Locke’s original language of life and liberty endowed by nature ended up having to compromise with the Christians and change that classic Enlightenment language to life and liberty endowed by nature to life and liberty endowed by the Creator. In turn, the Christians had to compromise on the doctrine of the person and settle for the idea of the isolated but self-sustaining individual (“I think, therefore I am”). By downplaying the Christian doctrine of personhood and emphasizing the Enlightenment idea of individuality, the foundations for responsibility were undermined.

Christians who have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Christian faith should understand that to be human is to be in relationship. But given the constant emphasis on our individuality, it is easy to forget (even for Christians) that individuality stands in contradiction to the Christian doctrine of relationship. Christian teaching is not that we are individuals in the Enlightenment sense, but persons—entities that are both distinct from others while being unavoidably connected to them. It is therefore a task of Christians to highlight our internectedness and the manner in which responsibilities and rights are restored as the two sides of liberty.

It’s high time that we Christians reject the anti-Christian mantra of “Rights! Rights! Give me my Rights!” and with repentance and humility take up the burden of responsibilities of citizenship. Given the extensive infrastructure of checks and balances constitutionally built into the American government, giving up one right because it is the responsible thing to do will not inevitably lead to a spiral into authoritarianism. There are several areas where authoritarianism is growing that have nothing to do with gun rights. As Christians we need to stand up against authoritarianism where it actually exists and abandon the straw man (dare I say “idol”?) of gun rights as the supposed inevitable precursor to authoritarianism.

 

Liberty and Freedom

In Enlightenment political theory (this is the political theory that is foundational to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution) the two primary natural “endowments” are life and liberty (and yes, the Declaration adds Happiness, but that’s another story). Given the history of American jurisprudence, the most appropriate definition of liberty is “the right to speak and act without constraint.” Freedom is the application of this natural liberty in various facets of civic life.

It has been generations since we’ve experience true chaos in America, so now one might think that the purpose of government is to do stuff for us. But in the context of the above natural endowments, the purpose of government is to maintain order and keep chaos at bay. The endowment of liberty can only be expressed through freedom in an orderly society relatively free of threats. It’s this orderly society that government seeks to maintain. In the decade of the 1770s the threat to freedom was not the misdeeds of the citizenry but rather the influence of England. It is not surprising then that the Founding Fathers spoke little of the internal conditions that made freedom possible and spoke a lot about external threats to freedom. But according to their practice it seems they believed freedom was only possible if the citizens were educated, civically responsible and involved.

Because the responsibilities of the citizenry was not a primary topic, I want to get at that subject through a far more mundane avenue: children. On various occasions I have heard parents with more than one child talk about the difference between kids. The one is responsible and the parents can let the responsible child borrow the car and stay out until midnight without many worries. The other is far less responsible and as a result far more restrictions about the use of the car or going to a friend’s house for the evening are required. The parents’ attitudes about freedom remain consistent, but differing levels of responsibility lead to differing levels of freedom. Lack of freedom is not the parents’ fault, it’s the irresponsible child’s fault.

Freedom may also need to be curtailed because of the company we keep. As a grade schooler my son was very responsible and we allowed him a great deal of freedom to roam and come and go as he pleased. Then we moved and our son made a new friend who turned out to be a great kid, but who initially appeared to be a wild child. Until we understood the friendship better, our son’s freedom was severely curtailed, not because of his character or actions, but because of the friends he had.

Civic life is similar. Liberty is the naturally endowed right and freedom is granted to the extent that the populace embodies liberty or, to say it another way, is responsible enough to handle freedom without creating chaos. Furthermore, this is not only a matter of individual character. Freedom is the fruit of all (or the majority) of the citizenry having the character and being responsible in a manner that allows a measure of freedom to be granted without it leading to chaos. Just because I am capable of handling freedom responsibly, it does not necessarily follow that the society in which I live can do this. To a large extent my freedom is determined by “the company I keep.”

As I said above, in the United States we have had a remarkable measure of freedom with few ill effects for so many generations that we forget freedom is not a right. We have been relatively free throughout our history, not only because of the Constitution, but primarily because the country was not in chaos…well, except for the wild west. Although the the so-called Indian Wars are a terrible blot on our history, they are instructive at this point. Both the west-bound settlers and the federal government believed that the west was too chaotic to be governed. For the sake of argument we will accept the government’s conclusion that the problem was not the national policies about settlement of the west and was instead the Native Americans themselves. Because of this, the government practiced a policy of imprisonment, forced relocation, and killing. The Native Americans lost their freedom because they and their situation was deemed too chaotic to be governable. Even though they were endowed with natural liberty, the government was not able to grant them the consequent freedom because of their actions. (And yes, there are more facets to this tragedy, including the question of whether they were human, but for this essay I am limiting myself specifically to the question of naturally endowed liberty.) Even though this chapter in history was horrendous from my contemporary perspective, it was acceptable to the citizenry because they understood at a deep level the proper relationship between liberty, which is naturally endowed, and freedom, which is granted by the government to the degree that chaos does not ensue.

The above example reminds us that as compelling as the ideas expressed in the founding documents are, the execution of these ideas is always messy and far from perfect. Legal slavery, North America’s relation to the native population (in both the U.S. and Canada), the U.S. policy toward Japanese, and to a lesser extent, German citizens during WWII are all historic examples where the proper understanding of liberty and freedom and the identification of the core problem were handled badly. There are many contemporary examples, but because of differing beliefs and sensibilities it’s far harder to nail down either the truth or the proper direction forward without the benefit of historical clarity. (This would include ideas as disparate as immigrant rights, LGBT issues, and internet freedom.) Because I am a political conservative and because on the issue of gun rights I fundamentally differ from many, if not most, other conservatives, I will explore gun rights in the context of liberty and freedom further in the next essay.

Hayek on Social Justice

When I read this I had an aha moment. It summarizes very well one of my discomforts with social justice.

Social Justice makes sense as a political ideal within a closed community of like-minded people but cannot coherently be pursued across an abstract order of people who interact with and relate to one another not because they share particular deep ethical commitments but in spite of the fact that they do not

Quote is a summary of Friedrich Hayek’s view of social justice by LSE professor Chandran Kukathas, in the book, Law, Liberty and State: Oakeshott, Hayek and Schmitt on the Rule of Law (David Dyzenhaus and Thomas Poole, eds., Cambridge, 2015), p. 289. It was Kenneth McIntyre’s review in the Anamnesis Journal that pointed me in the direction of this fine volume.

St. John of Damascus on Black Lives Matter

I never expected St. John of Damascus to insert himself into my Black Lives Matter pondering, but leave it to a member of the Church Triumphant to nudge us, the Church Militant, in the right direction. I have no direct experience with BLM and my very limited interaction has come first through the online heresy hunters who found heresy in the movement. After a bit of eye rolling I thought I should at least check out their claims. That led me to the writings and podcasts of RAAN (Reformed African American Network, now called “The Witness”) led by Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) pastor Jemar Tisby. Let’s be clear that my opinion is an outsider’s perspective. I almost pursued ordination in the PCA but quickly became troubled by their utterly scholastic theology. Even though I am quite theologically conservative, I ended up being ordained by the mainline PC(USA) rather than it’s Evangelically oriented step-child. I am now Eastern Orthodox and as lily white as a Midwesterner of Danish decent can be, so this whole reflection is by an outsider both culturally and religiously.

I have been impressed by the theological consistency of Tisby. RAAN also includes those who know a lot about systematic theology but who have little clue how to think theologically and are thus caught up in the winds of popular outrage. I took a couple of RAAN members to task for just this sort of faux-theology a few months ago in this post. Black Lives Matter provided a mirror into our American psyche precisely because of this mix of good and bad theology. The PCA (Tisby’s own denomination) had an opportunity at their annual assembly to affirm the theological wrestling that some of their own members (such as Tisby) were doing. Instead, they sorted through that which had been said and written, found things that smelled of heresy, condemned it, back off a bit, then side-stepped the issue, and in the process furthered the suspicion that racism is far from rooted out of this denomination.

Shortly after this debacle in the PCA (and a similar debacle in the Southern Baptist Convention) RAAN changed their mission statement and their name. Rather than an umbrella organization for Presbyterian and Reformed African American pastors, it is downplaying the Reformed part and focusing more on how racism is still endemic within Evangelicalism as a whole. The new name, “The Witness” appears to be an attempt to highlight this change. Tisby and company have taken the high road and not railed against the PCA or the SBC, but it’s hard not to think that the new name is a direct result of the convention this summer.

I have struggled mightily to sort these events out. I believe that heresy (if it is actually there) needs to be rooted out by proclaiming the true faith. Furthermore, most of what this summer’s heresy hunters said about the theological claims surrounding Black Lives Matter was technically accurate (in a motes vs logs manner), so it seems I should have been happy. But I was deeply troubled by the heresy hunters, although I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Last week Cambridge professor Demetrios Bathrellos posted a paper to http://www.academia.edu entitled St John of Damascus and the Future of Orthodox Theology which helped me sort out this summer’s kerfuffle. For John of Damascus, the heresy in question was Islam. (Yes, the Church Fathers of the era considered Islam a Christian heresy and not a distinct religion.) Bathrellos argued that while John’s critique of Islam was insightful and very skilled, it also had a weakness that is common in anti-heretical scholarship. The critic is “often unfair to the other, tending as it does to draw a caricature of its opponents’ position instead of describing it accurately and fairly” Bathrellos goes on to say that this is “particularly repulsive in some of its forms that are still with us today” (p. 215).

Some of its modern forms, because of their excessive preoccupation with heresy, tend to make Orthodoxy defensive, and to give rise to multiple (and naïve) conspiracy theories. Modern heresy-hunters see heresies everywhere, not least in prophetic voices or practices that attempt to promote authentic Christianity in the context of (post-) modernity. This excessive preoccupation with heresy is responsible for the fact that Orthodoxy sometimes tends to define itself not positively, but negatively, namely not on the basis of what it believes but ont he basis of what it rejects. In this way it unwittingly allows its enemies to exercise upon its self-understanding a very powerful influence. (pp. 215f)

Although Bathrellos’ immediate context is the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis dispute, the repulsion he expresses about that quite perfectly summarizes my unease with the heresy hunters going after the organization formerly known as RAAN. Furthermore, Bathrellos puts his finger on the root cause of this sort of repugnant heresy hunting. Quoting Angelo de Berardino, he says, “in line with a large majority of post-Chalcedonian authors, he [John] rarely makes direct use of Holy Scripture. To defend and confirm Orthodoxy—the main aim of his theological work—he bases himself, as do the others, more on the authority of the Fathers.” This tendency to rely on “an assumed canon of fathers who represented infallible Orthodoxy” is how “Scholasticism was born” (p. 210) Here’s how Bathrellos describes Scholasticism:

This type of theology, albeit true to the Bible, depends largely on a mediated access to the Scriptures through the works of earlier fathers.

After describing it, Bathrellos goes on to describe the primary symptom of a scholastic theology.

This tendency for a certain dislocation of Scripture has at times been evidenced in all Christian traditions, including not only medieval scholasticism but also the Protestant Reformation. So, in spite of their emphasis on a return to Scripture, the reformers focused rather on the Epistles of Paul than on the Gospels, because the latter gave them more material for constructing dogmas, ideas, and values of perennial significance. (Is it, I wonder, merely an accident that the Damascene’s scriptural commentaries are almost exclusively on the Epistles of Saint Paul.) (p. 211)

In spite of his tendency toward scholasticism, Bathrellos insists that John transcended the tendency because of his ability, not only to wrestle with that which had been written previously, but also with the culture in which he found himself.

John belongs to a very long tradition of Christian authors who rejected innovation as heresy and yet were original thinkers. No innovation is allowed, for we cannot invent new truths … nevertheless, originality and creativity are necessary in a changing world, which demands an ever-deeper understanding of different aspects of the same Gospel, as well as a capacity to address it afresh to new and different persons, conditions, questions, and problems. (p. 214)

There are two points where I am deeply troubled by the heresy hunters that went after RAAN. The first is the above-mentioned tendency to critique a caricature of the other rather than learning to know them in their complexity. The second is this necessary intersection that Bathrellos describes above. The heresy hunters seem only to be concerned that no innovation is allowed. Authentic theology, on the other hand, requires a capacity to address the Gospel (and not just the revered theologians of a previous generation) “afresh to new and different persons, conditions, questions, and problems.” And that is the medicine that keeps the virus called scholasticism at bay.

 

Karl Barth on Aaron and the Golden Calf

Karl Barth has a most interesting and provocative exegesis of two Old Testament stories in two excurses in Church Dogmatics IV/1. The first one concerns Aaron (Exodus 32) on pp. 423-432. The second is about the rejection of Samuel and the rise of Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 8-31) on pp. 437-445. The exegesis has to do with the culpability of leaders and organizations in contrast to the culpability of the people the leader is leading. In both he circles around the subject of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. I am surprised I did not notice this passage when I read it back in the late 80s or early 90s, but it could be that Barth’s insight may require the perspective of an old guy looking back rather than of a Young Turk just looking around.

Barth was no fan of the papacy. In these two excurses he manages both to critique the institution quite harshly while at the same time provide a way of being Roman Catholic while remaining faithful to the deeper call of the Gospel. His critique is not only about the papacy, but about all systems where power (or possibly more accurately, authority) is concentrated in a small group. He never mentions Hitler by name, but his life context of the Third Reich and the German church whispers throughout this whole section of the Church Dogmatics. (It’s entitled, “The Pride of Man.”)

Exodus 32 is part of the story of the giving of the Law. Moses is on Mt. Sinai and has been gone a very long time. There is concern, then grumbling, then an assumption that he’s dead and never returning. The people talk Aaron, Moses’ brother, into forming an idol, the Golden Calf, which they can worship in place of Yahweh. Moses does eventually come down the mountain, is horrified by what he sees and breaks the tablets of the Law. God tells Moses that the people have broken the covenant they promised to keep and they therefore will be destroyed. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and even though many people die and everyone suffers, ultimately God forgives the breach of covenant and things return to as normal as it can be after such an apostasy.

Barth argues that the respective roles of Moses and Aaron (in relation to God and the covenant) are important if one is to understand the story. Moses is the prophet and is thus the one who has been appointed to be the mediator between God and the people. Aaron, on the other hand is the priest and is not a mediator. He rather speaks on behalf of the people and organizes the religion.

[Note: This association of “mediator” with prophet and not priest might be hard to defend on exegetical grounds. I haven’t studied it a great deal. But if there is a problem, it is not in the idea but rather in the manner which Barth expresses it. His analysis of Moses and Aaron is indeed what Exodus describes. Moses is the one who talks with God, after all, not Aaron. Barth’s motivation becomes clear when we get to the second excursus. Samuel, and all the prophets who proceeded him (that is the Judges), are clearly the mediators between God and the people. But the people wanted a king who served them, not a prophetic Judge who served God. Barth is making a parallel between the two stories. On pp. 438ff, Barth proposes that Samuel’s function is parallel to Moses while Saul’s function should be more or less parallel to Aaron.

The part of the Golden Calf story that is so striking to Barth is what doesn’t happen to Aaron. About 3,000 people died that day (Ex. 32:28) but Aaron, the high priest of the new religion, is not among those who died. Moses’ rebuke of Aaron is shockingly mild. “What did this people do to you that you have wrought so great a sin upon them?” (v. 21). It’s as if Aaron is not responsible. “What did this people do? not, “What did you do?” This is where Barth observes that Aaron’s role is to speak on behalf of the people and thus do their will (in contrast to Moses who speaks on behalf of God). “The one who receives and mediates the divine revelation, the friend who speaks with God as an equal, is Moses himself. Aaron and all the others are only witnesses” (p. 428).

What is Aaron then? He is “a type of the institutional priesthood” (p. 428). “He is the man of the national Church, the established Church. He listens to the voice of the soul of the people and obeys it. He is the direct executor of its wishes and demands. He shows the people how to proceed and he takes the initiative” (p. 429). The problem is not with Aaron, it is with the people. The institution can and should certainly play a role in teaching and guiding the people back to the truth, but ultimately when things go wrong, it is not the fault of the institution, it is the fault of the people. (And this sentiment is the heart of Barth’s nuanced critique of the Roman Catholic Church; it is what the people want.) “The priestly art as such—building altars and celebrating liturgies and ordering and executing sacrifices and proclaiming feasts of the Lord—is a neutral activity which can turn into the very opposite of all that is intended by it. The priest as such can always be a deluded and deluding pope” (p. 429). In Barth’s mind, “Aaron (and any priest or pope for that matter) is not without blame, but because the institutional priesthood (of which Aaron is a type) faces the people and reflects their wishes. It is the prophet, on the other hand, who guides them.”

[Note: at this juncture it is well worth noting that in the classic Reformed tradition of which Barth is a part, clergy should not be thought of in the priestly role because Jesus Christ is our priest, clergy are rather modeled on the prophetic role. It is, I suspect, why proclamation of the Word tends to overshadow administration of the Sacraments although they are technically equal activities. Ministers are not “priests” but “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”]

The relationship between Samuel (the last prophet leader, or Judge, of Israel) and Saul (the first king of Israel) is similar to that of Moses and Aaron. Samuel is the prophet and thus the mediator between God and the people. Just as with Moses and Aaron, Samuel serves God on behalf of the people while Saul, as king, should serve the people on behalf of God. This pattern is not God’s ideal because the institutional side (ie, Aaron and Saul) can become overbearing as they cease to serve the people’s will and begin to lord over the people. That tendency is much more clear in the story of Samuel and Saul and will be explored in the next essay.

 

A Brief Introduction to the Prayer of the Heart

When growing up I was taught that God wasn’t Santa Clause and prayer wasn’t just asking God for stuff. In order to avoid the pitfalls of just asking for stuff I was taught to pray the ACTS way: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. As my sense of prayer grew more sophisticated I realized that all prayer, no matter what sort, was consciously entering into the presence of God. It wasn’t just asking God nor was it just talking to God, it was being with God. (Just as when we get to know another person we eventually develop the ability to be with that person in silence.)

The Orthodox ascetics (literally, the spiritual athletes, that is, the Christians who explored prayer very deeply) argued that all of the above, while the necessary place to start, was simply an exercise of the mind. In Orthodox sensibility the mind (and our thoughts) are part of our physical being and need to be distinguished from our inner self or heart (Greek nous). Beyond the activities of the mind, prayer can become a movement of our awareness from the mind down to the heart. When this happens we move beyond talking with God and even just being with God and begin communing with and uniting with God being to being.

[Excursus: in case that last sentence is making you nervous I will offer a technical clarification. “Union” is a loaded term, and by saying we can unite with God, I am not saying that our nature (Greek physis) unites with God’s nature (Greek ousia). Rather, to use the langue and distinctions that are typically used in the east (from the earliest days including Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Cyprus, Maximus the Confessor, but most especially associated with Gregory Palamas), our heart is united with God’s energies. What’s the difference between essence and energy? Divine energies (often called “the Uncreated Light”) are God, but they are not God’s essence. That’s one of the most important distinctions in Orthodoxy and Edward Siecienski’s book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, gives a nice overview in ch. 7. To be fair to those who remain uncomfortable, this whole area remains a point of contention between East and West.]

As we commune with God in the heart rather than in the head we open up the very core of our being to the Holy Spirit and we also begin to unite with God. In this way prayer and the Eucharist work together to unite us in the different aspects of our physical being (heart and body) with God. This is the true meaning of communion, not just as fellowship, but as “union with,” or joint participation. As I describe it here, the prayer of the heart sounds kind of easy. Those experienced in these matters say it is remarkably difficult. It’s not just praying in a different way nor is it praying without words. It is a spiritual movement away from the physical (the mind) and down into the true self (the heart). The ascetics say, based on centuries of experience, that it is something that typically can only be fully accomplished through the guidance of someone who already has experience in this area.

Why is it so hard? One of the consequences of original sin is the dissolution of our unity. Our connection with divine life was dissolved, leading to our immediate spiritual deaths and our eventual physical deaths. Our connection of our inner being (heart) and our physical being was dissolved, as a result of that our awareness of human nature, that is, our connection with other people faded, and for the most part, disappeared. Christian theologians most often speak of this in terms of the crisis of personhood (which, not surprisingly parallels historically Neumann’s crisis of the collective unconscious). Our personhood is not only us, it is us in proper relationship with other persons. Personhood presumes the human spirit (physis) which is shared by all of us and connects us. Because we are not aware of this collective spirit we ignore or deny it and think of ourselves as individuals. Reducing a person to an individual is a reflection of sin which blinds us to our true nature. Sin alienates us from our shared nature, but it does not annihilate it. Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ and John’s doctrine of the Vine and the branches assumes the reality of a shared human nature revivified in the victory of Christ and enlivening presence of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer of the head (the ACTS process being one example) is our disunited self trying to talk to God. Prayer of the heart is a step toward reuniting the disunited parts. It starts with reuniting ourselves (the movement down from head to heart) which in turn makes it possible to begin the process of reuniting with God and with others. Furthermore, this process, the prayer of the heart, makes our heart alive and pliable thus making it possible to expand the heart (an image drawn from the parable about the new wine and wine skins). The more our heart expands, the more God is able to enter in, the deeper, broader, higher, and more profound our communion – or union – with God becomes.

Because of a 700 hundred year history of individuation (according to Jung) we have lost touch with and have become profoundly alienated from our human nature. The tragic effect of this reality is that as we enter into the prayer of the heart, we’re not even aware that we are reconnecting with our nature. We get all excited about God (which is certainly a good thing!) but remain oblivious to humanity (and if the ascetics are right, with all creation) that we are being reconnected to all because of a living and expanding heart.

Ironically, even as we pray without being aware of its social implications, social justice becomes yet another tool of alienation. We pursue it because in our binary thinking it is active (and not escapist). We participate in it because we think that in this way we participate in God’s salvation of the whole world. But salvation, including the salvation of the world, only comes as the world participates in the life-giving divine energies. And those energies are available to the world, both people and creation, through our hearts that are expanded by true prayer.

But what does this sort of prayer of the heart, with our neighbor or enemy specifically in mind, look like? I will explore this further in the next essay.

Next essay: My Neighbor, Myself

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The Schism of the Systems: Culture in Crisis

In the final section of The Origins and History of Consciousness, Erich Neumann offers an explanation of one of the great concerns facing modern society: the breakdown of civil discourse and the apparent accompanying breakdown of culture itself. The original German version of the book was written in 1949, so the context of his ideas is Germany between the wars, the rise of Hitler, and the world immediately after World War II. In short, our current crisis is not new but rather a further maturing of forces that need to be understood in terms of decades and centuries, not election cycles.

Neumann’s concern has to do with what he calls “re-collectivization.” Drawing on Carl Jung’s theories of the “collective unconscious” as a trans-personal connection between individuals within a tribe or culture, and to a lesser extent, among all humanity, Neumann argues that we have lost our connection to the collective unconscious. The Renaissance is a convenient signpost marking a transition away from societies (or more accurately, tribes) with a strong collective connection toward more individuality. As people became more individuated, they slowly lost awareness of the collective unconscious and its guidance became unavailable to them.

Neumann argues (pp. 381ff) that humans are really quite bad at being individuals. Without the structure of the collective unconscious giving us foundations for our thinking and parameters for what is acceptable, we inevitably seek re-collectivization by joining “mass collectives” which provide us with “participation mystique” (p. 383). This is not participation in a true collective unconscious (thus it’s a “mystique” and not a reality, in his terminology); it is more akin to the joy or “mystique” of joining a bandwagon. But because the foundations of these mass collectives are arbitrary to anyone outside the collective (for instance, the Tea Party in 2008 or Bernie Sanders’ appeal in 2012), different collectives mass together but inevitably disagree with each other, often violently.

Being American, I will illustrate with the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s a fine historical document, but today we wonder just what is so self-evident about these truths. We wonder because they are no longer so self-evident. In fact there are competing sets of self-evident truths. Alongside these truths of American civil religion, there are the self-evident truths of Islam. Many Americans have been scandalized by certain members of the Trump administration who are trying to institute the self-evident truths of a certain flavor of fundamentalist Protestantism that is utterly foreign to people living on either coast. There is also the rise of Putin’s Russia and the newly reminted China and the self-evident truths of these two cultures are as frightening as the self-evident truths of Islam or Christian fundamentalism.

This also occurred a couple of generations earlier (as Neumann observed) in Europe. Germany, France, and Italy were deeply divided with differing mass collectives that broadly broke down into Communist, Fascist, or Capitalist collectives. The result was the two World Wars. Being isolated, North America was not on the cutting edge of this process and the center held for a couple more decades. To an extent with the Korean War, and certainly by the Viet Nam war, a similar process, but with different collective sensibilities, occurred in the United States.

Europe recognized the terrible consequences of this “schism of systems” and was able to unite under a new mass collective banner represented by the European Union. But it is now clear that the values that underlie the EU while widespread, are still perceived as arbitrary, and not everyone has bought in. The result is schism, many of them violent, both on the national level (Greece and Britain chafing under th EU, for instance) and also internecine conflict, illustrated best in France where the North African French and francophone Africans have not bought into the collective assumptions of the majority of French people.

In the United States this schism of mass collectives is jumbled, the divides cutting in different and sometimes seemingly contradictory directions. There is a race divide. As the old mass collective began to break down in the 1950s and 60s racial tensions between Blacks and Whites as well as Native Americans and Whites shattered the illusion of a true collective consciousness. In my childhood memory, the Black Panthers and Wounded Knee were the exclamation marks of this deep divide.

Today, alongside the racial tensions, we have a mass collective that seeks security (build a wall) and a different mass collective that seeks openness (we are a great country because we are a country of refugees). Each collective interprets the fundamental social problems differently. Neumann describes it as follows (referring to 1940s Europe, and not contemporary America):

The disintegration of the old system of values is in full swing. God, King, Fatherland, have become problematical quantities, and so have Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, love and fair play, human progress, and the meaning of existence. This is not to say that they will not continue to influence our lives as transpersonal quantities of an archetypal nature; but their relation to one another is questionable, and their old hierarchical order has been destroyed. (p. 390)

I find Neumann’s argument completely convincing and very well documented. It is even more so because of how his predictions have played out in the sixty-five years since he wrote the book. And since this is the case, it is also clear that the manner in which the church has set its priorities (aligning itself with one mass collective against another) actually supports and furthers the “schism of systems” rather than healing it.

Extroverted means of dealing with social crises (that is, the social justice sensibility of most Protestants and many Catholics) actually pits the varying mass collectives against each other. Neumann worried about this also. “[T]he individual who lacks the support of a compensatory movement inside himself [ie, a strong identification with the predominant mass collective] drops out of the ordered fabric of civilization.” The result is “a shrinking of world horizons and the loss of all certainty and meaning in life” (p. 390). This is a near perfect description of the nihilism that underlies the random American violence from Oklahoma City (1995) to Las Vegas (2017).

But as dire as Neumann’s description is, he does not despair. This isn’t a static state in his view, it’s a necessary process we are in the midst of. This is the inevitable consequence of the rise of the individual that began with the Renaissance. But we now have to move beyond it. The knee jerk human reaction to the rise of individual consciousness is the inevitably destructive and cruel mass collective. The actual next step (redeveloping and rediscovering a true collective consciousness) is exceedingly difficult and so we had to be faced with the terrible consequences of individual consciousness in order to motivate us toward the next step.

Returning to his field of expertise, he compares our situation to adolescence (pp. 392ff). The terrible necessity of adolescence is that they have to go through a disintegration of personality (the one given to them by their family unit) in order to begin the process of reintegration of personality so that the adolescent can become a true individual. Similarly, we have experienced a disintegration of tribe and culture in the last 500 years. The key task now is not primarily to help the poor and oppressed, but rather to reintegrate disparate groups into an authentic society so that the poor and oppressed are no longer marginalized.

I will argue in the next essay that the Church is uniquely qualified to lead in this process. I will further argue that the specific gift we have to offer is not the work of social justice but rather authentic prayer centered in the Eastern Christian sensibility that the whole point of salvation is union with God.

Footnote: Jung’s and Neumann’s idea of the collective unconscious is similar, but not identical, to the Christian doctrine of shared human nature (Greek physis). The fact that the collective unconscious sounds so wacky to us is simply an indication of how deeply the alienation growing out of our emphasis on individuality, affects us, even in the church where we have a doctrine for that.

Next essay: A Brief Introduction to Prayer of the Heart

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