Rights, Responsibility, Freedom, and Self-Control

In the previous two essays about political Liberty and Rights, I emphasized that one of the assumptions about rights built into the Enlightenment was that they were necessarily connected to responsibility. One of the early critiques of the Enlightenment that has become increasingly obvious over the decades is that many of those Enlightenment assumptions were not a result of Enlightenment ideas, but were rather leftovers from the Christian worldview out of which the Enlightenment grew. Responsibility is one of those leftover ideas. The logical conclusion of Enlightenment political theory is Libertarianism, a political philosophy in which there is very little room, if any, for responsibility for others.

While the Liberty and Rights pairing is not a specifically Christian pairing (Liberty, in Christian theology has a different set of implications, especially as Paul uses it in contrast to the Mosaic Law) there is a close analog in Christian theology: The pairing of Freedom and Self-control.

Fr Thomas Hopko, in vol 4 of a slender set of theology books designed for lay readers and church Bible Studies called The Orthodox Faith, contrasts freedom and self-control. “According to the saints, self-control is one of the main elements of the divine image in man, coextensive with the gift of freedom which is often explained as the essential and basic element of man’s likeness to his Creator.”

Just as rights and responsibility are two sides of the same reality, so self-control and freedom are two sides of the same reality. True freedom is achieved in the ability not to exercise it. Similarly, in political philosophy, true rights can only be exercised to the degree that we recognize our responsibility to others, to order, and to the polis in general.



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

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.


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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Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

Just as our concept of mishpat and tzedakah is flawed (see the previous essay), so our concept of social justice has been twisted by historical trends, and as a result, our confidence in its efficacy is flawed. This twisting of perceptions can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution which not only led to change but also to a change in the pace of change. Things happened so quickly that negative unintended consequences overwhelmed societal structures and norms. These unintended consequences were addressed under the name of social reform and life got better for most people. We now think of social reform (and later, the Social Gospel, and after that, Social Justice) driven by ordinary citizens as normative. But historically this conclusion is hard to defend.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of previously unimaginable change. The pace of change and the creation of wealth (both results of the Industrial Revolution) so far exceeded anything that had come before that people’s experience were outpacing their imagination. On the one hand the level of human horror that was created in places like industrialized London was beyond anything we thought possible prior to the Industrial Revolution. At the same time the achievements that were occurring which led to wealth creation and human comfort were also beyond anything we thought possible. So it is that a single reality that was beyond reasonable explanation was understood as simultaneously dystopian and utopian.

The Industrial Revolution also interconnected society and societies across Europe and North America in a manner not seen before. Change in London and Manchester led to change in rural England. Change in Europe resulted in change in the Americas. Increasingly nothing was viewed in isolation. Grand systems (either utopian or dystopian) were created to explain what was happening.

These utopian sensibilities shaped the politico-economic philosophies of the day (both Adam Smith’s invisible hand on the right and Karl Marx’s Communism on the left are typical of this tendency). The same forces led to millenarian religious movements (Adventism, Dispensationalism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormonism). The millenarian movements all tended to be escapist. As the whole world became intertwined there was an increasing despair that the world could not be fixed. (This is the dystopian side of the new cultural sensibility, more Marx and less Adam Smith.) The only “solution” was to await Jesus Christ’s return and his rescue of Christians from the terrible conditions and terrible world in which they found themselves.

On the utopian side of the coin, this new world also brought about aid societies the sort of which had never been seen before. Some simply sought to provide relief to the destitute, but for the most part, these new movements also tried to understand their role in terms of the intertwined world. This was the era of the Social Gospel (Walter Rauschenbusch being its most famous proponent). It was also the era of utopian communities such as Brook Farm, New Harmony, Oneida, and the Amana Communities which began popping up seemingly everywhere. The early days of reform were remarkably successful. Even the powerful industrialists recognized that the system could not continue in its present state and so it took little urging from the reformers to bring about massive change. The reform was so successful that it became the model of Christian activism. Thus contemporary social justice is a continuation of the Social Gospel and the sensibility that we must address problems systemically rather than individually.

Whether the early success of these reform movements continued is a matter of significant debate. Industrial society outpaced our political system by many decades, but eventually governments caught up and established laws, rules, and guidelines to protect their citizens. Labor unions were created. A new relationship between business, government, and labor evolved that reflected the new reality of an industrialized world. In the United States this new relationship was consummated with the Great Society legislation of the 1960s. Efforts for reform have continued since then, but the necessity of reform is not as obvious and so there is an ebb and flow of regulations.

What is clear in the last half century is that while there is a minimum standard of decency which society demands beyond which there is outrage, the fundamental reality of poverty and oppression has not changed. Those inclined to take advantage of others (whether in the camp of business, labor, or government) will, given the chance, continue to take advantage. Unless things pass beyond that ill-defined minimum standard of decency, most people are inclined to look the other way. New legislation is always accompanied by new loopholes. New protections always result in new ways to take advantage of the disadvantaged. It’s the same chess board, the pieces merely get rearranged.

This leaves us with some hard questions. Was the success of efforts toward systemic change in the previous century a fluke? Were those changes largely inevitable as the industrial revolution matured into a newly ordered society with far more powerful central governments and brand new labor unions to balance out the power of industry? Or, was this new societal order not at all inevitable and instead the result of reform movements that focused on systemic change? The history of social movements (from initial success tied rather specifically to fast-paced societal change to more recent stagnation) indicates that such systemic reform movements are not normative. Rather they are as much a product of the Industrial Revolution as the squalid conditions and terrible injustice that brought about the reform movements in the first place.

One of the results of this history is that we now see social justice through a binary of escapism or activism. Either we get involved in social justice efforts or settle for a private morality where one walks in the garden alone with Jesus, not letting the cares of the world intrude. The second effect of this binary thinking is that we tend to assume that the only way the world can change is through (binary 1) a world ending climax (the return of Jesus Christ or a nuclear war, for instance) or (binary 2) social reform and social justice movements that will improve the plight of the oppressed and bring the oppressors to justice.

Like all binaries, this one blinds us to both the challenges we face and the opportunities that we have. I will come to the opportunities in a later essay, but the next essay will take a close look at the challenges that face us and why the social justice model is ill equipped to face those challenges.

Next essay: The Schism of Systems: Culture in Crisis

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.

Big Salvation Words: Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Prayer

This lovely prayer is from today’s Morning Prayer:

  be the beginning and end of all that we do and say.
Prompt our actions with your grace,
  and complete them with your all-powerful help.
I love the idea that it is God who prompts, and then, when we respond with action, it is God who completes.

Jesus Doesn’t Judge; Words Judge

In yesterday’s Daily Common Lectionary reading (Jn 12:44-50), Jesus says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” If Jesus (who is God, after all) doesn’t judge and judgment is real (the Bible is full of that affirmation!), then who does the judging?

I smell a contradiction!!!

Turns out there is no contradiction. In the next verse Jesus continues, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” It took some time for the import of these two sentences to sink in.

There was a gospel song that folks in the church in which I grew up loved to sing. It began, “Sing them over again to me, Wonderful words of Life. Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful words of Life.” But what if you reject those words? Then the words cease to be wonderful and become judgment. Jesus’ statement in Jn 12:47-48 parallels one of my favorite two verse in scripture: Rom 1:17-18. “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In this remarkable bit of parallelism, Paul seems to equate divine righteousness and divine wrath.

And on this Paul and John agree. Life giving words are the same thing as words of judgment (John). Righteousness is the same thing as wrath (Paul). The Eastern Orthodox commonly teach that heaven and hell are the same place. What believers experience as the warm light of love (because by faith they love God and have been purged of all chaff) the non-believers experience as the hot fire of judgment.

God doesn’t send anyone to hell (in this common Orthodox teaching), rather those who reject God experience the heavenly light of love as a burning hell. Righteousness is wrath. The wonderful words of life will judge us. So indeed Christ does not judge; he’s here to offer salvation! Judgment is all in how we respond to Jesus’ good words.

The Co-opting of Thanksgiving

American Thanksgiving (celebrated this coming Thursday, Nov 26) is a civil holiday with vaguely religious roots. Over the decades churches have co-opted it and turned it into a major holy day (for Evangelicals, at least). Now, when Americans treat it like the civil holiday that it actually is, some Christians sputter and get offended as if they actually own the day because they co-opted it.

A similar thing happened to the ancient pagan solstice festival. Christians co-opted it and associated it with the birth of Christ (which was likely in August and almost certainly not in December). Recently Wicca and other earth religions have been trying to take back their own festival, but with very little success.

It’s what Christians do. They take the stuff of nature and culture around them and see Christ in it. (“By him all things consist” Col 1:17). Sometimes those events turn into feasts and fasts. It’s a remarkable process of seeing the “natural” world through the eyes of faith.

What Then Is Scripture?

[I know, it’s been a long time. I’m done with school now, so maybe I’ll get back in the swing of things on the blog.]

For the most part, scripture doesn’t speak directly about the core doctrines of Christianity.

The Bible is mostly story, so I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, but it is a disconcerting fact for many. Properly, doctrine belongs to the Church. The core doctrines are how we sort out our life together and our experience of God as we live life together.

What then is scripture, if not a theology book? It is for praying. (Not exclusively, of course, but primarily). The psalms and canticles are the primary content of our prayers. The Gospels tell us the wonderful story of why we have a Church at al, of why we pray at alll. The Old Testament — and in this sense it is probably more appropriate to call it Hebrew Scripture — is the same but without the fullness of the New Testament. The epistles describe our life together so that our prayers can find their proper home or context.

Doctrine is fine (I know, it’s an odd thing for a trained theologian to say), but it is a second order aspect of our life together. Prayer, as fed by scripture and life together — with each other and with God — is our entry into the font of our being. From that comes our transformation, our service to others, our doctrine.

And oddly enough, this is precisely why doctrine is so vital. It is our definition of our life together with God and each other. If we get that wrong, it suggests we’re getting our prayer wrong. Doctrine is a litmus test of the purity of our life together in all its manifestations.

The Orthodox Church reserves the title “Theologian” for very few people (John, Gregory, Symeon the New Theologian), and they were all pray-ers, then poets, before becoming theologians.

This is not a new thought, but as I sort out theology with other strugglers, mostly American Evangelicals, it’s a thought that haunts me. It seemed high time to put it to words in this space.