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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Passions, Tyranny, and Joy: The Struggle of the Christian Life

This week we have watched, and possibly participated in, one mob seeking to defend what they euphemistically call their way of life, and a second mob seeking to destroy and banish the first mob. The white supremacists are certainly contemptible both because of their willingness to act on their prejudices and the violent way in which they do it.  But mobs in general are contemptible.

I find them contemptible because mobs are reduced to their animal natures. Once a person gets swept up into the mob (whether it’s a legal march in a city park and the quasi-legal other night marches with torches intentionally designed to terrorize and intimidate or an online response via social media which reduces everything to either/or and black and white, the person begins to lose their sense of self and is reduced to their animal instincts, or what Maximus the Confessor called “the unnatural passions.”

What is a passion? Maximus says

  • Passions are impulses that move us to action by overcoming our will. Because of this these passions enslave us.
  • Passions are powerful because they cannot be satisfied. (This is because the root impulse that drives the passions is the desire to be one with God, but the effect of sin is that this drive misses the mark and gets attached to things that are not God. This might be recognizably bad things, such as a desire to be recognized and the center of attention, or seemingly good things, such as the desire for social justice. The inability to find satisfaction is at the heart of mob mentality.)
  • Passions are forces that go against what we know to be the proper action and lead us to actions which are counter to the commandments of Christ. But passions also have the ability to self-justify, so often in the moment, we believe we are doing the right thing. It is only with some emotional space that we can step back and recognize that the actions are improper.
  • Passions are also distinguished by “natural passions,” such as hunger, fear, and sadness, and “unnatural passions,” which are the unhinged natural passions that lose focus, miss their mark, or even get captured in a mob spirit. The desire to stop bigotry and hatred, for instance, when seized upon by a mob and by our animal instincts of fight or flight, quickly expresses itself in hatred and generalizations – everyone marching in defense of a Gen. Lee statue is, in this particular generalization, a racist and/or white supremacist.

Fortunately there have been a great number of people who have managed to avoid getting caught up in either mob and have recognized that these generalizations are both false and dangerous. My purpose here is not to enumerate the falsehoods or the dangers of the two mobs because others (and here I think particularly of Jemar Tisby and others with his wisdom and local experience) have done this far better than I could, living the insulated life I live in the Midwest.  Rather, my purpose is to put the Charlottesville affair into the context of what the church fathers consider the fundamental battle of our salvation.

We can become enslaved by evil by embracing evil. We can also become enslaved by evil when fighting evil. This is not to say we shouldn’t fight evil (although St. Porphyrios did say just that as I’ve mentioned here, here, and here), but when we do battle we must be ever vigilant of both the outward physical battle (in this case, racism) and the internal spiritual battle against the unnatural passions that an outward battle can always stir up.

I will conclude by proposing that the greatest weapon we have against tyranny and evil is joy. (Remember the 1997 movie Life is Beautiful?) When we are joyful, the unnatural passions have great difficulty in finding root in our hearts. Joy also tends to unmask the pretense of the enemy. (Go look at the work of Rachel Fulton Brown for profound analysis on this point.) Finally, true joy chases away the anger and replaces it with sorrow. I doubt there can be true joy that is not coupled with deep sorrow. When that happens we can recognize that the supremacists are not the masters, but slaves of their passions. When we recognize that we can authentically pray for them even as we struggle against their tyranny.

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.

Temptations as Hunger Pangs

Some thoughts as the Orthodox Christian Church finishes the second week of Lent.

As a youth I was heavily influenced by the parachurch organization, The Navigators. For the Navs, the solution (the very good solution, I will add) to most spiritual problems was to pray, memorize scripture, and get together with your trusted group of like-minded people to tell them what was going on. (The sensibility of small, trusted groups and how they are supposed to function is a de-clericalized Protestant version of Orthodox confession, so they were certainly on to something in their disciplines.)

I don’t know the precise theology of why it is they recommended prayer and scripture to counter temptation and various spiritual problems; I don’t even know if there was a singular theology behind the practice, but the way I came to understand it was that scripture and prayer were a sort of inoculation against temptation. The basic framework with which I approached the whole problem was war or battle. There was a good side and an evil side. Prayer and scripture strengthened the good side in order that the evil side could be defeated.

As I was reminded by Michael Gillis this week, St. Isaac the Syrian offers much the same advice but his reasoning is a bit different. We are, in Isaac’s world-view, primarily spiritual creatures who are hungry for spiritual things, although in our sinful state we may not recognize this underlying reality. When we are not feeding our true inner being with true spiritual things that satisfy, we become spiritually ravenous, and anything will do. We attempt to feed that deep spiritual hunger with worldly things rather than spiritual things: money, sex, power, recognition, etc.

Whenever temptations arise and we find ourselves in a cycle of temptation, yielding to temptation, and then increasingly stronger temptation, it is evidence that we are spiritually hungry and we need to be more mindful of our proper spiritual disciplines that provide spiritual nourishment. Doing these things will feed our hungry soul and the temptations will retreat and not be so bothersome.

I like St. Isaac’s imagery because it puts the world and its temptations into the proper perspective. To think of this struggle as a war is to give the world system and its temptations far too much significance. They are defeated. One of my favorite Karl Barth arguments is that sin and evil have no actual reality because they are non-being: they don’t do battle with God’s reality, they merely negate it. When handled properly the passions are simply a nuisance … a nuisance we must be mindful of and guard against, but still, a nuisance, and not an undefeatable enemy.

Conversely, it would be unwise to underestimate the power of temptation. Such things can ensnare us, addict us, and drag us down so far that we cannot even imagine loving God and honoring God’s good creation any longer. Nuisances can become very powerful and very dangerous when not attended to. But that being said, the solution is not to give them more reality than they have by battling them, the solution is simply to feed our soul with what it is truly hungry for. Over time this diet of true food, of Living Water and Life-giving Bread, will satiate our soul and the passions will slowly dissipate.

Scripture is not a talisman and prayer is not an incantation protecting us from evil. Rather they are food and through them we can be led to the true source of true satisfaction.