The Place Where God Dwells

The office manager at work is a member of a Bible Church (the same tradition in which I grew up). This week I discovered that her aunt married a Syrian Orthodox man and she was in fact one of the pillars of St. Thomas, where I was chrismated 12 or 13 years ago. The office manager said she had been to a number of weddings and funerals at St. Thomas.

Knowing the scruples of the tradition in which I grew up, at this point I expected the conversation to go south fast. Over the years I’ve had that, “Oh, you’re Orthodox? You realize you’ve joined forces with the Antichrist” conversation with a few people who were part of the Bible Church in Montana. I was waiting for the inevitable silent condemnation from the office manager.

Instead she said, “I especially love funerals at St. Thomas. Every time I walk into the auditorium (okay, granted we would never call the nave an auditorium, but I’ll overlook that) I feel like I’m walking right back into the Old Testament.” The icon wall that separates the sanctuary (what she would call the platform) from the nave is 10 to 12 feet tall. She said it felt like she was looking at the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament temple whenever she was in there.

Which is the point.

My old Bible Church tradition can be open and curious but it was too often closed and judgmental. It always makes me happy to run into people within that tradition who are open and curious. The ability to see something utterly foreign (and an Orthodox Church, chock full of icons, with chanting going on almost continually, and clouds of incense smoke rising from the altar, and several times through the service, as the deacon censes the people, rising from the nave itself, is about as foreign and antithetical as it is possible to get when compared to a Bible Church sanctuary with bare walls, a pulpit, and little else … The ability to see something utterly foreign and recognize what is happening and that it might indeed embody the presence of God is an attitude that all of us should learn to more fully embrace in this age of distrust and disagreement.

Saturday night’s first psalm selection in the Breviary was Psalm 121 (122). “They filled me with joy when they said, ‘We will go to the house of the Lord.’ Now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem, built as a city, whole and self-contained: there the tribes have gone up, the tribes of the Lord – the witness of Israel, to praise the Lord’s name. …”

To see the new in the old … that is skill we must learn to read the Old Testament. To see the old in the new … that is the skill the office manager had when she entered the church with joy and recognized that this is where God dwells (ie, the temple).

Repentance (Reflections from a Funeral)

I went to a funeral of the parent of an acquaintance this week. My acquaintance is that flavor of Baptist that is very knowledgeable about the Bible, can slip his faith or God’s blessing into every conversation almost without fail (ie, “witnessing”), and has a very specific and narrow meaning of being a Christian and what’s required to go to heaven. By his standards, his father did not make the cut, and so the funeral was a bitter-sweet event.

The funeral itself had a distinct emphasis on the need for repentance along with a large dose of “we don’t know the hour of our death.” There was urgency in the service (including a couple verses of the hymn, “Just As I Am”). Fortunately there were no direct aspersions cast on the deceased. Instead there was a focus on using our time wisely while still on earth. (That is, by implication, taking the time to accept Jesus as our Savior.)

I’ve been away from Fundamentalism for a long time, and as a result, it didn’t occur to me that all my talk about repentance in recent essays might be put into this conservative evangelical context by my readers. When it comes to how we understand repentance, context is everything.

Orthodoxy begins with a belief in a generous God. God is for us (the affirmation at the heart of Paul’s rhetorical question in Rom 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”). God is doing everything in his power to help us freely choose him. Orthodoxy moves from the foundation of a generous God to framework of joy. The eucharist is the joyful feast and every week we enter into the joy of God’s presence.

Repentance is also a very big deal. Our understanding of the human side of salvation is structured around repentance. But because Orthodoxy begins with a generous God and the framework is joy, repentance is often called “the joyful sorrow.” We are sorrowful for our own sin and willfulness; we are sorrowful for the corruption of the world, but it is a sorrow that set in the context of the endless joy of the kingdom. The sorrow comes because we know we’re missing out on the fullness of what might be because of our sin.

Fundamentalism begins, not with a generous God, but with a holy God. Furthermore, divine holiness is understood in a particular way. According to this tradition, holiness is such that it cannot abide the presence of that which is not holy. It is a holiness that seems fragile because it can be sullied  by the presence of sin. God can have fellowship with humans only because our sin is hidden by Jesus Christ. When God looks on us, he does not see our transgressions, but only Christ’s holiness. This is why God can bear to be around us.

There is a great deal of joy within fundamentalism, but there is also a great deal of fear. Because everything starts and ends with this particular view of holiness, one must worry a great deal about unrighteousness. Judgment can never be too far away from unrighteousness because can’t bear to be in the presence of that unrighteousness.

It is hard to state how different this is from Orthodoxy. Fr. Sophrony was once asked if he believed that unbelievers would ultimately go to hell. His startling answer was, “I don’t know, but what I do know is that if anyone is in hell, Jesus Christ is with them.

Orthodoxy also has a very strong emphasis on the holiness of God. I would argue that it has a far deeper sense of divine holiness than fundamentalism. But God’s holiness is not fragile as it is conceived in fundamentalism. It is a holiness that gladly veils itself so that it can be in the company of sinners such as prostitutes and tax collectors. Of course Jesus, who embodied this sort of holiness, got into a lot trouble with the religious establishment (who had a view of holiness not unlike my friend’s view).

In this traditional view, holiness is frequently compared to fire. Fire doesn’t mind being in the presence of wood, it is wood that has a problem with being in the presence of fire because the fire will consume the wood. Repentance is the process of getting rid of the wood so that only the precious metal remains. Judgment does not destroy me, it only destroys the wood. But if I am in love with wood of my life, if I confuse the wood for the precious metal, when I enter into God’s presence it feels like I am being destroyed. Judgment is strictly a purification.

And this brings me back to the funeral, and funerals in general. I did not know the deceased and so I have no sense of who he was as a person. I do believe in hell, but my conception of it has changed dramatically from my fundamentalist days. I do not believe God sends anyone to hell. Those who go there do it by their own choice; they prefer the wood over the precious metal. Being absorbed by self and antagonistic to God, they would prefer an eternity in misery, holding on to the eternally burning wood of their false being.

Quite frankly, I have little sense of any other person’s eternal destiny. Some of the most wonderful people I have known have turned out to be truly terrible people. “Holy fools” are famous for being obnoxious people who are actually holy underneath the scabs of their humanity. The funeral is not, or at least should not be, a celebration of a person’s eternal destiny. It is, rather a celebration of Jesus Christ who is the Life of the World, the One who trampled Death by death and led the captives from the grave, the eternal Flame of God who burns away the wood of our false being so that all that remains is the precious metal of what God created and intended in the first place.

There is a “Where’s Waldo” sensibility to a proper funeral. Funerals are at the same time terrible and joyous. They are terrible because a dead person is laying there in our midst. They are terrible because funerals are inevitably a reminder of just how disastrous the corruption of the world truly is. But in the midst of this is the joy of Christ. Those who have eyes to see can find the life-giving Christ in any situation, even death. Funerals are an exercise in finding and focusing on the giver of Life and Light in the midst of death and despair. Whether the dead guy is a holy monk or a backslidden Methodist, the funeral is the same. It doesn’t revolve around the dead person; it revolves around Jesus Christ.

If I were in my friend’s shoes, how would I think about this guy in the coffin who apparently never repented. That’s not my problem. Every moment I am focused on someone else’s repentance is a moment I am ignoring my own repentance. This doesn’t mean that we should not spur each other toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). But after death, it is actually a holy discipline to focus on the reality that God is a generous God. All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28). Tallying up the sins and lack of repentance of the dead guy in the casket is in truth a subtle way of avoiding the state of our own soul, or comparing my seeming goodness to the other person’s seeming badness (instead of God’s goodness) and thus coming out looking good.

God is generous and good. The kingdom is preeminently a place of joy. Don’t let anyone, even your loved ones, steal that reality from you. Even in the darkest moment, the good God, living, loving fire of Christ’s presence can be found for those with the eyes to see it. Amen.

The Trouble with History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Joseph’s Story

The three lessons for the 4th Sunday of Advent are each about the nature of the Messiah: his humanity his sinlessness, and his deity. Isaiah 7:10-16 deals with it in a prophetic/poetic voice. Paul comes closest to what we might call a theological statement on the subject with his utterance of praise in Rom 1:1-7. The Gospel (Mat 1:18-25), deals with it as a story.

Historically the church has tended to focus on the theology of the incarnation. And for good reason, because, as seven ecumenical councils and hundreds of years testify, getting the doctrine wrong on these matters leads to seriously bad consequences.

The story itself, on the other hand, has much to tell us about the effects of “God with us” (the meaning of the name “Immanuel”) rather than its meaning, and I’ve been thinking about that this week. For those involved God’s direct involvement with humanity led to inconvenience, chaos, doubt as to how to proceed in life, etc.

Joseph was a righteous man and betrothed (a state of affairs that doesn’t exist in modern culture – pretty much all the legal entanglements of marriage without the “benefits”). Furthermore, the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. He knew he didn’t do it, so he began the process of a quiet divorce. The law suggested he might want to have Mary stoned to death in the city square but he chose to spare her life, and to the degree possible, save her family from shame.

This is the immediate effect of the incarnation: utter chaos in the fabric and family and community life.

The second effect of the incarnation is God’s secondary involvement in life. God comes to Joseph in a dream an explains the situation: the baby’s not illegitimate, the child is from God. Go ahead and marry her.

Notice that this secondary divine involvement in the lives of the people involved doesn’t solve many problems and essentially creates more for Joseph. It saves Mary’s life and makes the baby sort of legitimate, but it doesn’t solve any of the disruptions in the family and social fabric.

We overlay our Christianity with religion. Religion is awe-inspiring, comfortable and predictable, and we use it to solve a lot of our problems. Christianity, on the other hand, is anything but. Since we’ve had Christianity around for two millennia, we’ve settled quite comfortably into it’s religious façade. In this text the façade is torn away and we are reminded of the real thing, of what actually happens when God chooses to dwell among us.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing a congregation because the preacher is really good and then to stay there because it meets our needs. That doesn’t exactly line up with Joseph’s story in Mat. 1. So as Christmas approaches, I wonder … are we going to celebrate the actual chaos of Christmas, escape into the false comfort of the gentle Christmas celebration at Church, or dive into the alternative chaos of consumerism?

Three alternatives. Joseph’s story shows us a glimpse into the best of the three.

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 Trinity as Life instead of Doctrine

There’s currently quite a little tempest going on among Evangelicals about Trinitarianism. Certain high profile Evangelical professor types have gone astray of Trinitarian orthodoxy (specifically in relation to the doctrine of subordinationism) and are seemingly unrepentant. Of course, Evangelicals have no disciplinary structures to speak of, so all that remains for the remaining orthodox Evangelical sorts is to huff and puff with little consequence … oh and offer that little 33 question “Are You A Trinitarian?” test that Tim Challies put together.

A relative of mine posted it on Facebook. I took the quiz because I figured I might flunk it, since I confess and believe the Nicene Creed as it was written and approved by the ancient councils, and not with the “and the Son” phrase that the Western Church has added in order to defend the double procession doctrine. Turns out this little test didn’t touch on the subject of the procession of the Holy Spirit, so I am safely Trinitarian according to this little quiz. (Whew! You can’t believe how relieved I am!! Winking smile)

Beyond the “Are you a Trinitarian?” question is the follow-up question of “So what?” Here is Challies “So what?” answer (from Q31):

Redemption is illogical and impossible without Trinitarian distinctions. For example, in order for the Father to pour out his wrath on his Son and for the Father to accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the persons must be distinct. That the Son is infinite God also explain how his death can be infinitely valuable and thus able to pay the just penalty of eternity in hell for all those he redeems.

I used to be Presbyterian, so I get that a Presbyterian is going to put emphasis on a juridical framework for salvation, but I was left wondering, “Is that actually all you’ve got?” This is certainly not why Trinitarian doctrine is vital to salvation. I will explain:

We are spiritually dead and Trinitarian doctrine, with all it’s arcane details about oneness, threeness, Jesus’ full humanity and full deity, procession, etc., explains how it is possible for Creator God to enter into creation and offer spiritually dead humans the Source of True Life for now and eternity.

Our physical life is not unlike a cut flower which is beautiful and seemingly alive for days and even weeks. But since it has been snipped from its source of life, it will eventually wilt and die. We too are cut off from our only possible source of life, which is the life-giving Trinity.

Trinitarian teachings show us that it is possible for us to be united, or “made one” with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and thus to be made one with the life-giving Trinity because Christ is actually and truly God. Christ, fully God and fully human, participates in our life even to the extent of dying a humiliating cross death. This participation by God with us and as us in turn allows us to participate in God’s life. All of this talk of judgment is certainly biblical, but it is a side-bar to the content of the Gospel: the mysterious life-giving power of the life-giving Trinity who, in Christ, is fully united with humanity, thus giving humans the gracious opportunity to drink deeply and forever of the actual source of life.

To reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to a riff on divine wrath, divine judgment, and Christ’s sacrifice as a solution to judgment rather than as the more fundamental issue of how we actually access the life that is offered to us through Christ’s participation, is a pyrrhic Trinitarian victory. It is the essence of what we find in 2 Timothy 3:5. “… holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” It is the conceit of knowledge (v. 4) without proper application of that knowledge to the actual problem: we’re dead … still pretty as we stand tall in the vase but decaying and wilting fast. If we don’t want to get thrown out and replaced by tomorrow’s bouquet (ie, judgment), we need to “put off [the] old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts and to be renewed in the spirit of your [nous] (not “minds” as intellectual endeavors, but our true inner being). Eph. 4:22f.

Good doctrine either improperly applied or only partially applied is not a lot different than bad doctrine. Even the demons believe, as James reminds us (2:19). Being a Trinitarian Christian is not a matter of good doctrine, it is rather a matter of understanding how to properly apply it and the will to do so (ie, the putting off) and the humility to allow it to be done to us (ie, the being renewed in the spirit of our nous).

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.