Nicholas lash on the Nature of Religion

In the era of the Enlightenment religion was understood primarily as associations of subscription to particular beliefs, it would be more fruitful to consider them as schools whose pedagogy has the twofold purpose of weaning us from our idolatry and purifying our desire.

British philosopher/theologian Nicholas Lash, The Beginning and the End of Religion, 1996 (1994 Teape Lectures), p. 27.

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Truth Arising from the Touch of Jesus’ outstretched hand

I have a long history of engagement with Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. The epistle, Romans 10:5-15, is one of those texts that is deeply problematic for Protestants while at the same time one of the most beloved. In a variety of classes in both college and seminary the instructor has posed the question, “What is Paul talking about?”

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, / on your lips and in your heart” – (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That’s the hard part of the text, the beloved part follows in v. 15

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The associated Gospel, from Mt 14:22-33, is the story of Peter walking on the water. Fairly early on in my pastoral life I put the two texts together. I had been reading Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and it dawned on me what everyone (Polanyi, Paul, and Matthew) were getting on about.

There is a facile reading of Romans which interprets Paul as saying that the point is neither rote repetition nor salvation by works, it is rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is required. This is true as far as it goes but misses Paul’s larger argument that cuts to the heart of our assumptions about how the universe works.

A very long time ago an influential bishop by the name of Augustine, reading the Bible through the lens of Plato, came up with the hair-brained platonic idea that truth was a philosophical concept that was absolute, along the same lines as gravity. The Western church has been either vociferously defending Augustine or trying to overcome him ever since. Calvin and Luther, and thus Protestants in general, were quite enamored of Augustine, so this has been a particular problem for Protestants.

The older western theologians, such as Ireneaus, and pretty much all of the eastern church understood that truth is not so much a philosophical absolute as it is an outgrowth of a loving relationship. Saying truth is absolute is remarkably parallel to Isaac Newton saying that time and space are absolute. While these ideas work on an everyday level, they are simply wrong at a fundamental level. It was Einstein who figured out that it’s the speed of light that’s absolute and time and space coordinate to the speed of light. Thus, as we approach the speed of light, time and space are bent toward the more fundamental reality.

Similarly, the fundamental reality for Christians is the living Lord, Jesus Christ. The radix, or fundament of the faith is the incarnation, the joining together by God, of eternal God with creation itself. This change of focus from truth as a philosophical construct to the living and loving person of Jesus Christ is a “Copernican revolution” of sorts that Protestants and Catholics struggle with. Just as the Sun is the center of the solar system and not the earth, so the Son, the living Word, is the center of Christian faith, and not truth or written word.

Paul’s point in Rom. 10 is that objectifying truth ultimately blinds us and leads us away from the living and loving Truth of Jesus Christ. By objectifying the truth we bring Christ to us (either bring him down from heaven or up from the grave, in the words of Paul) and thus make Christ our servant. That is not the path of salvation. Instead of bringing Christ to us, we need to go to Christ. Christ is very near, but it requires us to enter into relationship.

And this, as we come to the end of the lectionary reading, is why the one who preaches good news is so blessed. It simply does not do to read the text. Truth isn’t there to be grasped and eaten like an apple, it arises in the midst of relationship. As the person sharing the Gospel and the hearer of the Gospel come together, truth arises and salvation is possible. Just as true Truth is found at the coming together of Creator and creation in Jesus Christ, so salvation is found in relationship and community, not in words on the page.

And if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the point of the Sea of Galillee, the storm, Peter in the boat, and Jesus walking on the water. As long as Peter was in communion with Jesus, moving toward him, entering into that living and loving relationship, Peter too could walk on the water. But Peter “objectified” rather than “relationalized” the situation. He looked at the stormy water surrounding him; he looked back at the boat far away, he looked at Jesus, also far away, and he became isolated and alone in his predicament. Salvation is far away when we are isolated and alone.

But Jesus, ever loving and ever drawing us toward himself, reached out and lifted Peter from the stormy depths. Relationship was restored and the truth of salvation was once again established in the interaction of God and human.

In short, we can’t make it on our own. Truth and salvation come only at the crossroads where we enter into community: community with God and community with others. The truth, as an objectified philosophical thing, will never save us, but moving toward relation with God, the Living One, the Truth – the living Truth – reveals itself in the relationship itself, and salvation is the result. Thanks be to God.

Yeah, That Zombie Apocalypse

Big fan of Jonathan Pageau, the Quebecois iconographer and intellectual. He’s the guy, by the way, who introduced me to Jordan B. Peterson, for better or worse. Even if you, like me, kinda hate to have to sit down and watch a video (or t.v. or movie) and would rather read or listen, this lecture by Pageau, which is, far as I can tell, is only on YouTube, is well worth the the effort. In my theology professor’s words, it’s an RBD (Read Before you Die).

I mention it on my blog because it fits rather nicely with themes that I was playing with in the previous two essays, especially the idea of the necessity of being welcoming in a context that makes us uncomfortable.

Living For Other People rather than Against Them

After writing the post, Gender Identity and the Passions, last week I ran across some notes that I had taken from a 2015 podcast back in 2015 by Fr Stephen Freeman that I can’t find in the “Glory to God” podcast feed. His essay illustrates why it is so difficult for Christians to speak in a Christian manner on these issues to people who do not have a Christian context or Christian assumptions.

He begins with the affirmation that we are created in the image of God, but then clarifies that broad statement. “The image we are created in is the crucified Christ (that is Christ, Lamb of God who was slain from eternity according to Revelation). Along with being the crucified Christ, he is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:24). He also emphasizes the fact that this process of being in the divine image is not yet finished. It is “the image in which we were created and toward which we are being conformed.”

In order to understand sexuality (and given our assumptions today, I should clarify that I am not talking about the sex act but rather our sexuality as male and female – two related but very different things) we have to begin with the movement of the Trinity who continually self-empty into each other. “Therefore,” Freeman says, “we must understand ourselves as self-emptying male and self-emptying female.”

What we see in this world is a distortion of this self-emptying mode. All discussions of our gendered existence (and Christians must remember that in all our discussions) male and female are eschatological images. That is, they are images towards which we are moving, not givens by which we automatically live. The male who is not self-emptyingly male is not yet what he shall be or what he should be, the female who is not self-emptyingly female is not yet what she shall be nor what she should be.

For some the experience of the energies of our nature is changed whether through the brokenness of genetics or the brokenness of nurture as we experience it in this world and they are not yet what they shall be nor what they should be. We share a tragedy that is common to all humanity.

The sacrament of marriage must be seen in this same eschatological manner. Sacraments do not merely bless things as they are but transform them in a dynamic manner towards what they should be. In the case of the Eucharist this transformation is complete. But in those sacraments that involve the freedom of persons, the transformation can only be seen in a dynamic manner. Man and woman are blessed towards what they should be.

The heart of marriage is self-emptying love towards the purpose of union and the procreation of children. It does not exist for the self-fulfillment of our tragic existence. Marriage is not legalized sex nor mere companionship. Rather it is towards and end which is just now being made present. And like every other form of Christian living, marriage is marked by askesis and thanksgiving. The passions are as much a part of marriage as they are for the single state. The proper Christian position before all of this should be humility. The world is not divided into good guys and bad guys, the world shares a common struggle towards the truth of our existence. That truth is revealed to us in the Gospel of Christ and the fullness of its story. I’ve written elsewhere that “kenosis is theosis,” that “self-empyting is divinization.” [Note: askesis means “discipline” or “exercise,” kenosis means “self-empyting,” and theosis means “divinization.” the word the fathers and the Orthodox Church use to refer to becoming one with Christ.]

I am perfectly aware that Fr Stephen’s analysis would be generally be classified as hate speech in contemporary society because he does not make room for sexual self-identification. But a more careful reading shows there is nothing hateful about it. He laments, “We share a tragedy that is common to all humanity.” One cannot speak in a Christian manner without speaking of being “self-emptyingly male” and “self-emptyingly female.” But this is a foreign language today, even for Christians. And because it is so foreign, it offends our sensibilities.

The special difficulty is that this talk of self-emptying is not an appropriate starting point in a conversation with the larger society. Instead we need to live in fellowship with people in society. It’s not so much that we need to invite others in to our fellowship, but rather that we need to go out and be with them. This is precisely why Jesus was condemned. He was the Holy One who ate with sinners and tax collectors instead of staying within his presumed community of religious leaders and the synagogue faithful.

Jesus invited all those who were burdened to sup with him. That is the stating point of the Gospel. The disciplines of Christian faith (ie, self-emptying) are not the Gospel, they become the grateful response of those who have ate with Jesus Christ and discovered the reality of the loving and inviting God.

So there is a sense that my previous essay as well as Freeman’s description of the proper life lived as male and female is not useful in cultural arguments about marriage, divorce, LGBT rights, etc. It is true, but if we hammer on it without proper context, it is perceived as hate speech rather than love speech, as condemnation rather than Gospel. A proper life is not something we can force on people, it is rather something that we must exemplify and then invite people to.

In this sense, I have a great deal of sympathy for what Natasha Sistrunk Robinson said in defense of LGBT rights. (See the previous essay cited above.) This might be interpreted as waffling and backing down on my previous critique. It is not. My critique had to do with the uncritical acceptance of cultural assumptions. Rather this is a statement that as Christians we need to be crystal clear in our understanding that we are fundamentally eschatological creatures who are not yet what will be or can be. As Christians we cannot stand against the LGBT community, but must stand with them even as we live out and speak out the glories of the loving and inviting God, and demonstrate the joys and benefits of gratefully responding to God by being self-empytingly male and female.

Gender Identity and the Passions

I watched a twitter tiff unfold last week that was rooted in two people talking right past each other. Natasha Sistrunk Robinson (@sista_theology) tweeted something in defense of LGBT people after President Trump’s tweet about trans people no longer being welcome in the military. Sistrunk Robinson considers herself an evangelical (MA from Gordon Conwell) but many of here evangelical brothers and sisters aren’t so thrilled to have her in the evangelical fold because “she sees life differently,” as one of her defenders (Jemar Tisby, see below) commented.

In this case, the issue everyone thought was in question was “human rights.” But the conceptions of the extent of our essential humanity were so different that no communication was happening. Given the fact that everyone involved seemed to have theological degrees from reputable schools (Gordon Conwell, Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster) one would think the issue of presuppositions would be explored. It never was.

The church fathers were always busy exploring the nature of our humanity and among the things they considered fundamental realities were:

  • Our passions are expressions of our false selves. They are an expression of the heart which is “devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

  • We are becoming; our being has not yet matured to (or been revealed in) its final form. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet be revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). All sorts of things are being revealed. Our work will be revealed “with fire” (1 Cor. 3:13), and “the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” It is therefore false to assume that the things we assume define our humanity right now are the things that actually define our humanity. We are in flux and not yet revealed fully.

This problem of defining what it means to be human is exacerbated in Western cultures, where some form of capitalism has been the economic philosophy du jour for centuries. Jemar Tisby (Executive Director of the Reformed African American Network) said, “A lotta people say America’s original sin is racism. I disagree. America’s original sin is greed. … And without that driving principle of greed, slavery loses its foundation” (from a lecture at the RAAN national convention).

If we put Tisby’s insight into the context of the church fathers we can also say that America was founded, not with our virtues in mind (as an actual Christian nation might do) but rather with our vices. Civility, in a capitalist society, is brought about by playing my vices off of your vices. If the expression of my vice begins to impinge on your freedom to express your vice, then law steps in and adjudicates.

In this context where greed (and the other passions, to use the father’s term) are accepted as normal, there is a tendency to begin to think of the passions (which are, for the most part, quite pleasant to indulge in) as normative. In other words, we begin to think that we are our passions. We celebrate entrepreneurs as the drivers of our good lives and in the process fail to recognize the avarice and lack of social justice that drives entrepreneurial culture. The sexual harassment culture that is only now being admitted to in the high tech industry is just the latest example of the subtle assumption that our passions are who we are, and the role of government is mostly to keep a lid on competing passions.

It is therefore no surprise at all that when we begin to define our humanity in terms of our passions as currently expressed in a manner pleasant to us, that transgender identification seems to be normative and, by extension, a proper expression of the image of God in our humanity.

So, if this is the path you want to go down (and it is the necessary path to follow if you decide to espouse gender identity rights), at the very least recognize the roots of this sort of thinking. Just because the church fathers said what they said about the passions does not necessarily make it right. But the other side of the coin is also true. Just because our culture, which is rooted in the principle of greed and celebrates everything from gluttony to lust to envy, etc, has come to a general conclusion that these passions are not only good but what properly define us as humans, it doesn’t make it necessarily right.

Until the last century, Christian culture has been a culture of self-denial, not self-expression. This is one of the fundamental Christian presuppositions that was never even considered in the Twitter tiff between theologically trained Reformed evangelical Christians. As alarming as our President is, that is far more alarming to me, as a Christian, than a tweet by a President (who is seemingly consumed and controlled by his passions) about whether transgender people are welcome in the military.

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.