Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.

 

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Ministry, Margin, & Gleaning

The Old Testament from Last Sunday (the 5th Sunday of Easter) struck me deeply.

Here is a common experience for this preacher: after having spent (on Saturday and very early Sunday morning) hours of study, prayer, thought, and rhetorical preparation for my sermon in the 11:05 Epiphany Eucharist, I find myself sitting in the chancel pew in the Christ Church nave at the 7:30 Eucharist on Sunday morning. I’ve been focusing intently on my sermon, with its particular emphases rooted in a particular text, but now it is time to worship the Living God.

The faithful lay reader begins with the Old Testament lesson, and I begin to notice a different theme, a different image, a different tone than the one(s) I have been pounding home in my own sermon prep. Even though it often barely registers the first time through, this is the first nudge from the Holy Spirit that God is way bigger than I forgetfully assume. Then Father David (or Father Keith) mounts the pulpit. A typical experience is that those faint images from the lay reader’s voice–which had barely registered–are then handled deftly and persuasively by the preacher, and I am left undone. Often times tears begin to roll down my face.

I had been focusing on X, but it was Y which the Holy Spirit wanted to press into my bones. It is not that X was bad or unworthy; it is simply that God is bigger than my heart/mind, and I that am not in control.

I don’t remember what X was for me last Sunday; but I do remember Y.

Y was: gleaning. From Leviticus 19.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.

What are the ways I tend to “strip the vineyard bare?” What are the ways I forget about margin? The margin which allows me to work less, which allows others to thrive? I think about my car, my body, my family, my ministry.

I don’t want to romanticize ancient Israel’s practice of gleaning, and I am still prayerfully listening to what this might mean. But I do want to become so mature in Christ (Eph. 4:13) that I have some good stuff left over. That I am not continually “spent,” so that others can enjoy. That I remember that while hard work is good, it is not ultimate. My hard work is an act of obedience and worship, but at the end of the day, God must grant the harvest. God must make things grow. God must make everything OK.

Not reaping to the edges of our metaphorical (or literal) fields is an action, a little ritual, which reminds us that our hard work, our astute planning, our laborious attention, is penultimate at best.

Maybe the Pentateuch knows that for most of us, “workaholism” is a bigger danger than laziness, or that we have a tendency to oscillate between the two, or that most of us assume the paradigm of “working for our salvation.” And so it wisely gives us a golden mean for which to strive: not too little work, and not too much.

May God help me, and all of us, to become more like an ancient Israelite in this way, and less like a 21st century, capitalist-individualist American. May God help me, and all of us, to practice in our lives the ancient wisdom of gleaning.

 

 

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Intersubjective Ecclesiology

Today I experienced the Episcopal Church (in my diocese, the Diocese of Texas) at its best.  Today a small army of saints was newly confirmed and received, the Gospel of the Risen Christ was clearly preached, and the Kingdom of God was extolled and celebrated.

All this leads me to reflect on my church, and my place in it.

I am a traditional Christian. I am in a real sense deeply catholic, committed to the teaching of the apostles. And yet, my church–the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Texas–seems (to my mind) to be drifting away from that foundation in some important ways.

Am I tempted to leave this church, to walk away and find greener pastures elsewhere, more doctrinally faithful to the apostles? Yes, I am.

And yet, what I am compelled to admit after today–a day of rich fellowship and joyful love with the saints–is that I can no more walk away from my church than I can walk away from myself.

Why would I say such a thing? I say it because this church is my very self.

In this lecture David Bentley Hart argues (at about the 19-minute mark) that the traditional doctrine of eternal damnation in hell presupposes something like Cartesian subjectivity. That is, to think that my loved ones can burn eternally in hell but that I can remain free and clear of those flames assumes that my soul is “buffered” (to invoke Charles Taylor’s) terminology, and this, in turn, is something like Descartes’ (or Kant’s) notion of the individual subject.

But this is not Christian. To view the soul or the human self in a way which resonates with Christian assumptions is to recognize that my soul is formed by, in, and with others. My soul is the product of a whole web of influences, personalities, convictions, perspectives which I did not invent, but rather which I inherited from others. That is, my soul is enmeshed with the souls of many others. My soul is not distinct, but “porous.” It overflows into the souls of others and vice-versa.

To embrace this is to embrace intersubjectivity.

My soul is intersubjectively enmeshed with the souls of countless others. But chiefly among these “countless others” are those with whom I share Christ’s body and blood week in and week out. Chiefly those with whom I am “one body”–the Body of Christ–in the most concrete ways possible. In the most basic, visible ways possible.

I am talking about my church. The visible Body of Christ with whom I am in communion. The Diocese of Texas. This is the community of souls with whom my soul is enmeshed.

I might not “agree” with the majority. Praise God! I get to demonstrate that the love of Christ is not conditioned by agreement, but is bigger and deeper!

I can no more leave these saints than I can leave myself. Literally.

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Faith becoming Sight

I have been meditating lately on Psalm 48:8: “As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

You see, faith is a “hearing thing”: it comes to us, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 10:17, “by hearing.” His reminder that “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) confirms the same point. Yet even though all this is true, and even though the book of Hebrews reminds us that “faith … is the conviction of things unseen,” nevertheless Psalm 48:8 presents us with the opposite perspective.

Yes, faith is a “hearing thing,” and, yes, we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Nevertheless Psalm 48:8 reminds us that, in addition to all that, God desires that the contents of our faith also become visible. “As we have heard, so have we seen” means that the oracles of God, the promises of God, have now become manifest in the “real world,” the world of our sense perception, laid bare for all to see, to the glory of God. There is a time and a place for this, too. The heart of a Christian longs to see the things of faith become visible. The follower of Christ longs for the Kingdom of God—the reign of God—to become palpably present in the daily lives of men, women, and boys and girls. When this happens, faith has “become sight;” the word of God has become visible, palpable, seen.

I want to point to two examples of “faith becoming sight.” The first is Promise Academy, located in the building of New Days Community Church in North Tyler, near the corner of Broadway and Gentry. At this brand new school, in its very first year, the promises of God and the longing of God’s people are becoming visible. Here, at Promise Academy, hope is being provided for a handful of little ones (right now, the school only consists of Kindergarten; God willing, first grade will be added next year). At this school, a small number of mainly black and Hispanic kindergartners are learning how they are fearfully and wonderfully made, how God’s ways are the best ways, how trust and obedience in the God who loves them will bear fruit in their lives. All this is becoming visible: in their facial expressions, in the life of their families, in the physical beauty and orderliness of their lives (both in the classroom and out).[*]

My second example is a very different one, but one no less breathtaking: Christ Church South. The groundbreaking ceremony we experienced last week … this, too, is an example of “faith becoming sight:” a new Temple for the worship of God is being erected right in front of us! A new House of Prayer for all people and for a burgeoning community of friends in faith is being raised up, for all the world to see. Not only is God’s creation being transfigured from glory to glory, but sacred, sacramental space is being consecrated and set apart. Fr. David’s “message” at the perimeter of the construction sight “nailed it:” just imagine how many generations of lives will be impacted for the cause of Christ and the sake of the Kingdom.

All this in a contemporary world wracked by division, addiction, and heartache. A sign of visible hope, a leading indicator of Gospel victory. By the grace of God alone.

“As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

 

[*] To learn more about Promise Academy, please visit http://promisetyler.org/

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Anglican Primates 2016 (my thoughts)

This last week the Anglican Primates Meeting occurred in Canterbury, and the meeting has attracted much attention.

For background, see here and here.

Two thoughts (since folks have been asking me):

  1. This is a welcome development, because for the Episcopal Church to think that we can “have our cake and eat it, too” is a travesty. What the primates did is to send a signal to the Episcopal Church that certain decisions  we have made having to do with marriage and its redefinition will now bring about certain consequences. We will now no longer be able to tell our global partners in ministry to “bugger off” and that we are going to do our own thing, and still expect that we will be able to be “warm and fuzzy” with them. We can no longer do that. This is a good thing, because in any real relationship, actions have consequences. Show me a relationship in which actions do not have consequences, and I will show you a superficial relationship, which isn’t really real.
  2. It just became a lot easier to imagine a time in the near future when the Episcopal Church will not be part of the Anglican Communion.

As always, the thought of Ephraim Radner in this area is worth considering, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

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Incurvatus in se

In one of his earlier works, the Lectures on the Romans, Martin Luther drew on highlights from Augustine to introduce theology to an extraordinary image for understanding the experience of being a sinner. ‘Scripture,’ Luther tells us, ‘describes man as so curved in upon himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.’ (Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 345, see also pp. 291-92). What Luther means is  (i) that despite our best efforts to get beyond ourselves, to love and serve others to the best of our ability, human beings find it impossible to escape the gravity well of self-interest, and (ii) we are often unconscious of this fact, even as it in fact drives our behavior. Luther quotes Jeremiah 17:9: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt–who can understand it?’

— Quoted from The Mockingbird, vol. 6, p. 35.

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Epiphany & the Strange Gift

What is the strangest birthday gift you have ever received?

What if someone gave you the gift of a tombstone for your birthday? How about a coffin?

As I said in a sermon on the 4th floor this past Sunday, if one is in their 20’s, with decades of life in front of them, they might interpret such a gift as a bizarre joke. But if you are in your 70’s or 80’s, with only a few more years of this life to look forward to, then such a present would surely provoke distress and offense.

As Fr. David hinted from the Christ Church pulpit this last Sunday, the gift of myrrh—gifted by the three Magi to the baby Jesus on that day long ago—is a strange gift indeed. A spice or ointment used for embalming the dead, it points directly to the death of this Baby. Here in the presence of the Mother of God, it foreshadows the cross of Christ, the arrow which will pierce her own heart (Luke 2:35).

There is so much going on in Matthew’s presentation of these exotic Magician-Kings from the East. In addition to the foreshadowing of the cross, this story also startles us into the realization that Christ came to form a new global community, a new international family, composed not just of Jews and Gentiles, but also of “civilized” and “barbarian.” For not only were these three strange pilgrims not religious authorities; not only where they not rank-and-file Jewish worshippers; they weren’t even Roman citizens. They were literally from the edges of the earth, from way outside “the grid.” And yet in Matthew’s story they are the first to bow down and worship the Jewish Messiah.

These are just a couple of reasons why, for me, the Epiphany is my favorite feast of the Church. A couple of reasons why, too, we named our new community within Christ Church “the Epiphany Community.”

As we observe the final Epiphany (January 6) before launching Christ Church South, I am full of awe and excitement. Awe that God has been faithful; excitement for the coming season of mission and ministry.

I am mindful that the mission of Gospel love in the world is unstoppable. As we continue to commend the love of Christ to all kinds of folks in Tyler and East Texas, God will bless our efforts, even though the results will not look like what we expect. It will be an astonishing surprise.

Here, too, we find a clue from Matthew’s story in chapter 2 of his Gospel. Imagine what was going on in Mary and Joseph’s hearts and minds that night. They have finally found a place to lay their weary bodies. A firm bed from which to enter into the travail of childbirth. At this point Mary and Joseph have literally had their world turned upside down, and their heads are spinning. They don’t “know which way is up.” Neither would I, had I experienced all of that: the visitations from the angels, the unexplainable pregnancy, the near divorce, the forced migration. Surely they were on the brink of a nervous breakdown or worse.

And then, after the crying newborn has been safely delivered, as Mary’s pain and discomfort finally recedes, they look up, and what do they see? An astonishing surprise. A multitude of shepherds surrounding three strange Kings from the East, bowing down to worship their child, bearing lavish gifts of grace and abundance.

At that moment, their struggling trust was vindicated, and they knew that God powerfully at work in their lives. It was wild. It was crazy. It was uncontrollable. But it was from the Lord.

As it was for them on that first Epiphany, so may it be for us in ours.

Happy New Year!

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Trump, Marwa Balker, & Identity Politics

In this story, CNN.com reports on an “open letter” (in the form of a Facebook post) by California college-student Muslim Marwa Balker.

Ms. Balker is responding to the recent, deplorable comments by Donald Trump on the Muslim community in the United States.

Obviously Trump is an idiot. It is, however, Ms. Balker’s comments which I think need to be examined, precisely because the ideology they display is much more insidious, as proven by the fact that CNN holds her comments up as an example of model political speech.

Addressing Mr. Trump, Balker states: “Being Muslim does not make me any less American than you are.” That this statement seems natural and noble is obvious to anyone living in Western society in the 21st century.

However, one of my leading theological / philosophical lights, Michel de Certeau (sort of the Christian version of Michel Foucault) would say that Balker is reducing the difference of another to the same, to a false identity.

She is attempting to constitute one thing (American identity, identity as a U.S. citizen) as the whole. Certainly Trump is performing a different version the same attempt; of course “radical Islam” tries to do the same; admittedly the Church historically has been guilty of the same project.

For de Certeau, however (as articulated in his article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”) this move, this strategy, is not authentically Christian. de Certeau would call this “a false universalism that functions as a mask.”

When I say that I am a Christian first, a Texan second, and an American third, this is the sort of issue I am trying to allude to.

Ms. Balker is plainly an American first and a Muslim second. My stance, on the contrary, is that the only possible universalism is that of the “concrete universal” (Heidegger), in which difference is not eclipsed but lived with and engaged. Authentic Christianity, that is, life within the Body of Christ, really does make such an approach possible. The Christian church is the only (possible) concrete universal I know of.

As de Certeau points out, the existence of the four Gospels demonstrates the founding importance of admitting intractable difference: the Gospel of Mark is not saying the same thing as the Gospel of John.

Theology, as Milbank says, is (or can be) the “discourse of nonmastery.”

Modern liberal political philosophy, of the kind that Ms. Balker has swallowed uncritically, cannot make this claim; nor does it want to.

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Running (with a “light touch”)

A couple of nights ago I had a wonderful conversation with my 73 year old dad (who had a stroke a week ago). We talked about a devotional book that he (and my whole family) read called _Jesus Calling_.

What a blessing this book has been for us. The entry for Nov. 15 reads thus:

Approach problems with a light touch. When your mind moves toward a problem area, you tend to focus on that situation so intensely that you lose sight of Me. You pit yourself against the difficulty as if you had to conquer it immediately. Your mind gears up for battle, and your body becomes tense and anxious. Unless you achieve total victory, you feel defeated.

There is a better way. When a problem starts to overshadow your thoughts, bring this matter to Me. Talk with Me about it and look at it in the Light of My Presence. This puts some much-needed space between you and your concern, enabling you to see from My perspective. You will be surprised at the results. Sometimes you may even laugh at yourself for being so serious about something so insignificant.

You will always face trouble in this life. But more importantly, you will always have Me with you, helping you to handle whatever you encounter. Approach problems with a light touch by viewing them in My revealing Light.

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.
—Psalm 89:15

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
—John 16:33

My godly father went on to speak about how he has _never_ approached life, or life’s problem’s this way. Instead he has always attacked any problem “directly and head on,” trying to fix things immediately and to exercise full control. But now, on the other side of a stroke, he was able to appreciate this wisdom at a deeper level.

What an opportunity, we went on to contemplate together, to let God show us new ways, new paths, new approaches to life, new ways of being. Whether you are 73 or (like me) 43.

Today on my 10-mile morning run, after a rainy morning during which I worked, studied, and wrote at a coffee shop for about four hours (waiting for the rain to end), I was thinking about this “light touch.” I was mindful that this is how it is with running, too. At various points along this morning’s ten mile run, with the sky now dazzling blue with the sunlight dissolving the last vestiges of cloud, I thought about and meditated on the fact that distance running requires a “light touch.” Neither bulldozing forward with brute force, nor procrastinating on your ass waiting for the perfect conditions to run.

Instead, “running with a light touch” is a lot like what the ancients meant by practical wisdom (phonesis; prudentia). As I plan to articulate in a future blog post, the ability or “know how” to live–or to run–with a “light touch” is analogous to driving with a good set of shock absorbers. Shock absorbers which can respond to the bumps and potholes of life. Phronesis is the wisdom to know that sometimes the truths of theory (epistemescientia) don’t link up, don’t precisely “map onto” the rough-and-tumble of life completely smoothly and  without remainder.

Hence, we must run and travel and live “with a light touch,” trusting in God and holding our theory / plans / knowledge very loosely as we travel down the road of life, as wayfarers in transit to our final destination which is God.

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Dog Collar in the Classroom

This morning is a typical morning for me. For three and a half years now I have been rising from my cozy bed (which I share with a snuggly friend) at around 5:00 AM, gathering up my strength and heading westward down I-20 for Dallas. As I sit in the Starbucks in Terrell at 6AM this morning, I wonder what Tylerites I might run into. About half the time—I’m here every Tuesday and Thursday, without fail—I will see a friend from the Rose City in this highly caffeinated place.

And when they see me they are sometimes taken back. “Father Matt,” they say, “I almost did not recognize you: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you without the collar.”

Ah, the collar; usually we clergy call it the “dog collar.” It is one of the true joys of serving as an ordained minister in this Church. As I Presbyterian minister (which I was for almost a decade) I rarely if ever wore one. A few people have asked me over the years “What does it mean?” to which I reply that it is an ancient symbol that reminds us of our slavery to Christ, that we wear the yoke of this slavery daily on our bodies.

And yet, I almost never wear my collar in Big D. (when I pose as a scholar every Tuesday and Thursday). Why not? Several reasons: first, I am not in my “parish:” there are tons of other Episcopal priests in Dallas, and I am content to let them bear that visible burden. Second, though, I use this time to “roll incognito,” to take a break of being a public, institutional servant of Christ, instead choosing to withdraw into a more anonymous mode. I cannot lie: these windows when I am “off duty” as a priest have been a real gift these past three and a half years. Day in and day out (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) I study and read and write for hours on end in solitude, knowing that the exigencies of pastoral ministry lie dozens of miles away to the east, just over the Smith County line. (It is an oft forgotten fact that even smart phones are equipped with “off” buttons.)

In terms of my doctoral coursework, however, I am beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel, for, incredibly, my degree audit form indicates that my class requirements are almost complete, which is one reason I have begun to focus on that other requirement (though less formal) for the PhD student in the humanities: teaching college courses. Thanks be to God, I learned yesterday that I will be teaching 20 – 40 freshmen at the University of Texas at Tyler in an introduction to philosophy class this coming spring semester.

Should I wear my dog collar in the classroom? Even though I can make an argument in both directions, I do intend to do so. (I asked the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences if that would be OK, and he said he has no opinion, and there are no official policies concerning this.) Why? For the inverse reasons why I do not wear it in Dallas. At UT Tyler I will be in the parish. There are no other Episcopal churches or ministers who can lay claim to that mission field called UT Tyler any more than I can. And since I will be in Tyler, I will be “on duty.”

Last but not least, I will channel the power of that symbol as I stand before those wet-behind-the-ears freshmen, for I remember what it’s like to sit where they sit. I remember what it is like to be at the big university, away from mom & dad, wondering what in the world is true, what is worth believing in, what is worth living for. And how in the world could I know? Was it even possible to know anything? My philosophy professors at that other U.T. in that other fair Texas city were not pastorally helpful to me, to say the least. Their goal, it seemed, was to dismantle my faith by any means necessary.

I do not intend to proselytize these students as I give them their first gourmet sampling of the philosophical spread next semester; that would be irresponsible and inauthentic. Instead, I will let this ancient symbol of Christ speak for itself.

 

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Nietzsche & “Family Values”

When was the last time you heard a pastor or a conservative politician in America invoke the notion of “traditional family values”? Examples of this kind of rhetoric abound, and one quick example is this.

Question: if 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could hear someone (a pastor, a politician, a “think tank”) invoke this rhetorical phrase, what would he say? I’m pretty sure he’d say: “I won!”

In his editorial introduction to Nietzsche’s _Beyond Good and Evil_, Rolf Peter Hortsmann provides the following summary of three Nietzschean bedrock convictions as expressed in this book (pp xvi – xvii):

  1. “Life is best conceived of as a chaotic dynamic process w/o any stability or direction.”
  2. We have no reason whatsoever to believe in any such thing as the “sense” or “value” of life, insofar as these terms imply the idea of an “objective” or “natural” purpose of life.
  3. Human life is “value-oriented” in its very essence – that is, w/o adherence to some set of values or other, human life would be virtually impossible.

Commenting on this summary, Hortsmann continues: “Where the first conviction is supposed to state an ontological fact, the second is meant to be an application of the ontological point to the normative aspects of human life in particular. The third conviction, though somewhat at odds with the first two, is taken by Nietzsche to reveal a psychological necessity.”

Values, then, are for Nietzsche a way of coping with the senselessness of life.

Now, as Allan Bloom states in this lecture, no-one in the United States talked about “values” before Nietzsche; he introduced this language and rhetoric into our culture. Why, then, do conservative, evangelical Christians adopt a category which has as its foundation atheistic nihilism? Why do they speak of “values,” as in “traditional, family values”?

The answer to that question is complicated, but for me the most penetrating analysis would have to deal with the fact that evangelicalism, in addition to its frequent historical ignorance, long ago jettisoned the Church’s traditional language of the objective Good which is mediated by and embodied in the formation of virtue. It has become a thinly-veiled secularism.

If you lose the language and tradition of virtue (and by the way “virtue” was totally absent from my senior-year ethics class at a prominent Evangelical seminary in the year 2000; instead we focused entirely on “what the Bible teaches”), then you lose any objective basis for morality. And if you lose that, then right-and-wrong devolve into something like preference.

“My tribe’s ‘preference’ over yours:” this is not far from today’s culture wars. That the partisans in this struggle often resort to bullying and might-makes-right tactics (on both sides, including the “Christian Right”) is yet another symptom of the underlying source of the illness: that modern American evangelicalism has “given away the farm” to secularism.

 

 

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Bonaventure & “Affective Experience”

In Bonaventure’s _The Soul’s Journey into God_, the Seraphic Doctor offers a regimen for how the soul can come to mirror God, a suggested path for what this might look like.

In this context he says that such an achievement “is more a matter of affective experience [of the inner senses] than rational consideration.”

What might this affective experience of the inner senses mean? What is “inner sense,” anyway?

Without getting too bogged down in pre-modern faculty theory, recall that Aristotle and his medieval followers believed in a faculty of the soul called the “common sense.” This faculty or power is what allows a person to coordinate various sensory input. For example, consider an ice cube. If one holds the ice cube in her hand, she perceives by the sense of touch that it is cold, but she _also_ perceives by vision that it is grey in color, and cubical in shape. But how does she know that the cold thing and the cubical thing are one and the same thing? She knows this, thanks to the work of the inner sense power called the common sense.

Now, although for some early modern thinkers such as Descartes the common sense receives its input prior to the work of the memory and the imagination, for scholastic thinkers such as Thomas and Bonaventure, the common sense is situated _after_ the memory and the imagination. What this means is that the work of his faculty is not limited to the coordination of various sense stimuli, coming from diverse organs of the outer sense (e.g. eyes and skin). Rather, the common sense also imbues the object of thought with qualities supplied by memory and imagination. Surely it is here, in the memory and the imagination, where the “affections” which Bonaventure stresses, originate.

I thought of an example. Suppose you had a bit too much to drink last night. Suppose you drank a bit too much vodka, and you are a bit hung over. Suppose, further, that you just finished a 7 mile morning run, and you are very thirsty. You look up and you see two bottles, both containing clear liquid. For the purpose of this analogy assume that neither bottle has a label on it. You know that one bottle contains vodka, and the other one water.

Notice that the sensory input coming from you eyes as they gaze upon the different bottles is identical. That is, the eyes perceive no difference between the liquid contained in the two bottles: in both cases it is clear and colorless. Yet when you focus on the bottle of vodka you are repulsed, and when you focus on the bottle of water, you are so attracted to it that your mouth waters, impelling you finally to pick up the bottle, open the lid, and gulp down its contents.

What accounts for the difference between your different perceptions of the two bottles of clear, colorless liquid? It is not your vision or any other external sense power. The difference is “affective:” your perception is altered by the “inner sense power,” the “faculty” of “common sense,” which combines features of the two liquids, supplied by the memory and the imagination, with your visual perception of them.

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Episcopal GC 2015 – Is Anyone Listening?

As an Episcopal priest serving in Texas, I am well acquainted with something like political whiplash. Or perhaps it could be better described as ideological schizophrenia.

On the one hand, I minister in a national Church which tends to line up with the views expressed on salon.com or sometimes even gawker.com. On the other hand, I serve in a local context in which if one dare question the reigning assumptions of Fox News, his or her status as a good American is now deeply suspect.

This is the vantage point from which I observe the goings on at General Convention in Salt Lake City. I pray for my bishops, that they will somehow discern the mind of Christ, and for the clergy and lay delegates from our diocese, that they will have discernment and serve faithfully.

I read of the actions and results of General Convention: a march against gun violence, a canonical redefinition of Holy Matrimony, a likely move to divest allocations from certain ideologically offensive funds.

Whether I agree on these issues is totally irrelevant to this article, as is my admission that many in Texas need to hear aspects of the Episcopal Church’s views on these issues.

The question I’m asking is: “is anyone listening?” Yes, many of the major news outlets, traditional and online, will carry the stories. But does anyone in my local ministry context—the folks our community is reaching out to in evangelism—really care?

What is interesting is that, while most of these contacts—the people we believe God is calling to come and taste our Anglican way of being Christian—are quite happy to be living in a “red state,” many of them are not. A good percentage are for gay marriage, against the alleged “right” to bear arms. But both groups are attending our events at church and our evangelistic parties and venues out on the town and at people’s homes: crawfish boils, film nights, pub gatherings, bible studies, service projects.

These people—on the left and on the right—are nothing if not cynical about the church. Many of them walked away from the church, from “organized religion,” years ago. And yet, they are responding to our invitations. They are hanging out with a peculiar group of people (our church community) who love the Body of Christ. They are being drawn in, as if by a “good infection” (to quote CS Lewis).

And now for some more good news. You see, in my local ministry context, we have earned the trust of the community; we have been granted the “right” to minister in ways public (news interviews, interfaith efforts, initiatives for the poor, multi-church conferences) and private (counseling sessions, hospital visits, visits to incarcerated folks). People in our city trust us “on the ground.” They know that we love them, that we love Jesus, and that we are committed to serving our neighbors.

So the ones who would roll their eyes (at best) at the news coming out of Salt Lake City trust us and open themselves up to us anyway, and the ones who would give their Twitter feed a “high five” as the news rolls out of Utah, even if they were to pay attention … these people let us into to their lives, not because they agree with the developments of G.C. They do so, rather, because of something more local, more embodied, more important: a lived encounter with the love of Christ.

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Episcopal GC ’15 – Catholic or Ideological?

The state in which I live and from which I hail is not a “blue state.” And within this red state of which I am a bona fide native, my local community is a crimson dot.

Now, many of my fellow denizens in this concentration of crimson culture consider me a “liberal.” They are quite wrong, and as I tell them frequently, “when you are more conservative than St. Paul you have a serious problem.” There is a world of difference, I tell these friends to my right, between a conservative and one who cherishes and believes in tradition. To quote GK Chesterton, “I am a democrat because I believe that my dead ancestors deserve a vote.”

Now there has been talk at General Convention this year about “what to do with the conservatives” who remain in the Episcopal Church. Michael Curry, for example, points to his track record in North Carolina as a precedent for how he might interact with traditionalist Anglicans at home and around the Communion.

Will the new Presiding Bishop continue to purge conservatives from our ranks, or will he (alas no female candidates are under consideration this election cycle) enact policies, precedents, and attitudes which will allow and encourage them to stay?

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey once quipped: “the opposite of Catholic is not Protestant; it is schismatic.” I would suggest one could also hold that the opposite of Catholic is ideological. Any church which claims to embody the catholic faith, then, must resist ideology in all its forms. She must resist the temptation to organize the life of the church around any issue or issues that are not agreed on by all Christians, and made explicit by the great creeds of the Church. She must resist the temptation to exclude those who agree with the majority of the tenets of the catholic faith, but at the same time maintain disagreements on sub-catholic issues, regardless of how emotionally provocative those issues are.

Theologian John Milbank says that the Church is “real social space.” Like an English pub or a coffee house or a neighborhood park, it is a community which transcends differences of ideology. In this community one belongs not because he is conservative or liberal, gay or straight, Boomer or Millennial, Republican or Democrat, but instead simply because she has been baptized into the faith of Jesus Christ.

This ecclesial posture is not optional; it is foundational to the identity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. What do we do with the conservatives, then? We affirm, enjoy, and implement our unity within the Body of Christ with them, overcoming every barrier and distinction which in the world only create divisiveness and fragmentation.

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Gospel for Doubters

It has been my great joy & privilege over the last few months to get to know Matt Magill of The Magills. My favorite Magills song by far is “Yes.”

Is there a love for me?

Can you deliver me?

Will you remember me?

Have you forgiven me?

The answer is always “yes.”

The answer is always “yes.”

If you’re askin’ … you’re already blessed.

What great news, especially for folks plagued by doubt & guilt.

Reminds me of Tim Keller: “A sense of God’s absence is a sign of his presence.”

And Thomas Merton: “Prayer is the desire to pray.”

And CS Lewis: “Do you doubt that you are one of the elect? Say your prayers, and rest assured that you are.”

And don’t forget Keller (again): we must learn to doubt our doubts.

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Kool-Aid Institutional & Familial

For many traditional Episcopalians confirmation is somewhat normal. It is a familiar event, a familiar notion, a familiar thought. It is just something that one does in the course of one’s normal life. It is mainstream.

Indeed, what a blessing that for many this is the case. And yet for whole other large swaths of contemporary culture, nothing could be more bizarre and foreign than participating in a “special worship service” in which a man dressed in flamboyant robes with a pointy hat that looks like something from a comic book lays hands on you and claims to have brought you into …

… into what? Into an institution?

Now, I happen to believe that institutions are a good thing. Without institutions life unravels. Without institutions individuals are left exposed to the potentially oppressive manipulations of state power. Institutions are among the “mediating connections” that bind people together in society. All of this is very “meet and right.”

And yet, the specific characteristic that leaves many in our day with an anti-institutional taste in their mouths is that, all too often, the true motive for institutional activity is mere self-preservation. Why have a meeting? Why have a membership drive? Why raise money? Simply to promote the institution and its survival.

And so it is that, when scores of new friends from all across Tyler & East Texas (most of whom are “young” by Episcopal Church standards) have entered into the hallowed halls of Christ Church over the last three or four years to see what has been going on here, they are confronted by many and diverse aspects of an institutional life that it is foreign. There is a foreign hierarchy. There is a foreign vocabulary. There is a foreign, maze-like building. There are foreign gestures and traditions. There is a foreign ethos and culture. All of these foreign dimensions teeter on the brink of reinforcing the suspicion that one has just entered into … the bowels of an institutional monster.

And yet, there is so much more. You see, my mind is blown that people are “drinking our Kool-Aid.” But what they are drinking is not so much the new hierarchy and tradition and gestures. I do believe in all of that fantastic stuff, and I am confident that, over time, they will, too. But the main thing that folks are imbibing is not a new institution but a new family.

A new family that sticks together. A new family that is messy. A new family that is honest. A new family that does not agree on everything, but is absolutely committed to doing life together. A new family in which Christ is loved & served but not forced onto people. A new family where believing follows belonging.

All of this is both classically Anglican / Episcopalian and “postmodern.” It is “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

Our new members of Christ Church who confirmed last Sunday … for many of them they are joining not so much a new institution, but a new family.

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Running Zen (Self-forgetfulness)

Please. I’m not one of those mealy-mouthed new agey types.

However, I do think that long distance running is (or can be) zen. It can be “done zen” or “performed zen.” Notice that here, as in the title of this blog post, “zen” is an adverb (though it can also be a noun or an adjective).

How so? I’ve been pondering this, actually, for about a year. When I ran my first (and most recent) marathon, I realized during about the 20-mile mark, when I was tempted to “give up” and stop running on that unusually warm & humid Texas February day, that I was free to continue running.

You see, early in my adult running career, I realized that I was free to stop running. As one whose distance running is a form of meditation or contemplation, I realized, in the spirit of Fr. Thomas Keating who describes contemplation as a “mental vacation,” that the worst thing I could do was to put pressure on myself to continue to meditate / run. (Yes, for me running and meditation are the same.) There is no shame, I realized, in setting out for a 10 mile run and then “quitting” at the 3-, 5-, 7-, or whatever-mile mark.

I wanted my running to be a kind of rest, a kind of exploration, a kind of play. To stifle that by a kind of exertion of my will power did not seem to promote the kind of contemplativeness I was seeking to cultivate. Hence, I exulted in my “freedom to quit.” If I felt like walking home for the second half of my run, I did it, and I sought to make that walking time, too, a time of prayer.

But then (before my first marathon) my inner world took another turn: I discovered the joy of working the Twelve Steps. One of the key emphases of this spiritual tradition of lived, practical wisdom is that one’s own will-power is not the answer. It is not the answer to overcoming addiction. It is not the answer to finding deep freedom. It is not the answer to becoming happy or satisfied.

Now, this breakthrough served to confirm my previous embrace of the “freedom to quit.” But (in the context of the rest of steps and the culture of the Twelve Step community)  it also served to drive deep into my being an additional “lesson” which I had assented to intellectually but perhaps not embraced holistically: the humility of self-forgetfulness.

Not only is reliance on my own will power a death knell, but so also is one’s obsession with (or even consciousness of) self.

“How do I look?”

“How am I doing?”

“Do people like me?”

“Am I succeeding?”

So much of personal happiness is learning to wean oneself off of such habits.

And so it is that, when I was running my first (and most recent) marathon, and I desperately wanted to quit, I was cognizant of my “freedom to quit.” But then I immediately had another, instinctual realization. If I was free to quit, then I was also free to keep going.

Put it another way. One might assume that if a runner has true humility then she will not allow herself to quit. That would be soft; that would be self indulgent.

My “first breakthrough” was that this assumption is false, and that, actually, that kind of self-reliance is arrogant and self-centered, relying as it does on the strength of one’s own will power. Thus, the truly self-actualized, spiritual person / runner will paradoxically embrace her freedom to quit.

I still believe this, but what I realized in my “second breakthrough” was that sometimes when one quits, this, too is a form of self-obsession 0r self-consciousness. If I totally forget myself, then continuing to run (mile 10, mile 12, mile 22, etc.) is just as “available” an option, just as live-giving an option, as is quitting the run.

True, there is no shame in quitting. But, just as truly, there is no bondage in continuing to run. Once my self is transcended (this takes place moment by moment, nanosecond by nanosecond), at one level it does not matter if I quit or continue.

Hence I might as well continue.

This is a little window into my psychological experience of running. And this is why I say that running is, or can be, zen.

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Dostoevsky, Desire, & Seduction
In Notes from the Underground we see that for Dostoevsky desires (including sordid ones) cannot successfully be eradicated or stamped out. Instead they can be transformed through seduction. Thus the Underground Man quips: “So change them, seduce me with something else, give me a different ideal.”

In this spirit, Socrates in the latter books of Plato’s Republic tries to “seduce” Glaucon out of his tyrannical tendencies and aspirations by appeal to the superior pleasure of the philosophical life.

So also Aidan Kavanagh says, “Liturgy exists not to educate, but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.” (Having said this, I might want to quibble with Kavanagh’s use of “educate,” seeking to show how it is quite compatible with seduction. Education as ex-duco, a kind of “drawing out” from the deep reservoirs of anamnesis, a la St. Augustine, etc.)
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All things for Good (Recovery Style)

“… God works all things together for the good of those who love him, and are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Anyone who has ever come along side someone who is suffering, or anyone who has struggled themselves, knows about the double-edged sword of these words from St. Paul. On the one hand they can be a wellspring of deep, invincible encouragement. One the other hand, though, they can sometimes feel like a “trite ditty,” a “pat answer.”

Nowhere is the latter edge of the sword more painful than when engaged in discussions with people who are deeply skeptical of the Christian Faith, especially when such suspicions are fueled by arguments about suffering and injustice in the world.

Why do shitty things happen, anyway, in a world that a good God supposedly made and loves?

Enter a recent experience I had with a group of fellow travelers who were huddled around the 12 steps of life-giving wisdom. (Yes, I’ve had the transformative gift of traveling with these broken, nonjudgmental, humble, joyful folks for a while now.) The passage we were focusing on was an autobiographical “testimony” offered by a poor, black, sexually used and abused woman who had finally, miraculously found the gift of sobriety.

She goes into great detail about the hopelessness, pain, and suffering that she went through on her way to hitting “rock bottom.” Sentences and clauses like this: “Now I had gotten to the place where I would wake up with black eyes and not know where I got them….”

But the real zinger of the chapter is this: “It was [in prison] that I found out what [recovery] was…. Today I thank my Higher Power for giving me another chance at life and … being able to help another [person who is in need].”

When I was huddled up with those secular saints meditating on this story and these words, all of the sudden it hit me: twelve step recovery proves that Romans 8:28 is true! For countless folks who were at the end of their rope, God used their darkest hours to rescue them, to restore them to sanity and health, to life and peace. This poor, black, sexually used and abused woman, who has now found true liberation, is just one of them.

And so am I.

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Old People Pretending to be Young

I am 42 years old. I’m an old man. Worse, I’m a middle-aged man. Deal with it. (Yes, I’m talking to myself.)

I’m much too old, for example, to write a subversive shard of provocative bricolage, assembling an argument about why Millenials are leaving the Church in droves (while claiming to be one of them).

May God grant me the grace & peace to admit who I am, to be comfy in my own skin.

Then, and only then, will there be a modicum of hope  that “young people” — who these days often call me “sir” — will look to me as a leader, will consider me a resource for navigating the turbulent cultural waves of our time. (Such leadership will then be a “bonus,” not a motive for striving to be at peace with myself.)

In an culture in which “agism” is the last acceptable “ism,” I’m over it. I think I’m legit (hopefully in a humble way) … whether you feel the need to call me “sir” or not.

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If I don’t control my appetites …

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will end up drunk in a ditch on the side of the road.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will get type two diabetes and probably die of cancer at an early age.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, eventually my wife will leave me and I will lose my ministry and my kids will grow up damaged and dysfunctional.

All of this (and more) I believe. After all, “… the fruit of the Spirit is … self-control….” (Gal 5:22-3).

But if one wants to control her appetites, then maybe it would be a tad helpful to know what an appetite actually is. (For appetites manifestly are not controlled by “trying harder.”)

Enter Thomas Aquinas, who has some very interesting things to say about appetite and the larger issue of desire.

By the way, as an Anglican priest I’d be remiss not to mention that our Book of Common Prayer is replete with references to desire, not least the Collect for Purity: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Indeed, desire is what the Christian life is all about. (John Piper gets this right with his “Christian Hedonism,” in my opinion, albeit in a truncated way which leaves much to be desired — no pun intended.)

For example Thomas insists that, though all people do not choose God, all people do nevertheless desire God.

He also teaches that if a thing exists, then it has appetite. So rocks have appetite, as do trees, earthworms, chimps, human beings, angels (what Thomas sometimes, in a more metaphysical mode, calls “intelligences”), even God himself. Appetite is the tendency that a thing has to “complete” itself, to strive for its telos.

For Thomas the appetite, like the external sense organs of eye, ear, nose, etc., are passive. They require an object if they are to be “activated.” But the object required to activate or to “ignite” the appetite is no ordinary object. It is a fusion of various “inputs,” the result of a chain of psychic steps which include sense impression, synthesis by the common sense, and “intention.”

What, you ask, is an “intention?” For Thomas an intention is a kind of psychic apprehension (performed in nonrational animals by natural instinct, and in humans by the evaluative faculty known as the vis cogatitiva) by which an object is imbued with self interest. That is, a lamb grasps by natural instinct that a lion is a threat; a human being (who happens to be an entrepreneur) grasps that a market opportunity will create wealth which will lead to creaturely comfort.

More on appetite forthcoming. For now, if you want to control your appetites, perhaps you should know what they are, and how they work.

For more, see Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, ch. 1.)

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Mysticism & Temperament

There is a common assumption that mystics are born, not made. That they just appear in the the world with a certain calm, peaceful kind of temperament or natural disposition. As if the main ingredient in learning to tap into the deep wells of reality is a naturally tranquil life of the soul.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. I am convinced that the best mystics are the temperamentally addicted, afflicted, bi-polar, anxious, ADD, and vicious.

For starters, take the Buddha. Did he live a life of smooth tranquility prior to enlightenment? On the contrary, his story bears witness to the kind of turmoil that (necessarily?) precedes true spiritual peace: exclusion, isolation, fear, doubt, struggle.

Exhibit B: St. Bernard of Clairveaux. In his introduction the life of Bernard, Jean LeClerq emphasizes that Bernard’s temperament was competitive, vindictive, arrogant (due to his profound giftedness), and harsh. Yet, in the crucible of his many years of ascetic experience, his egotistical self gave way, and was transormed into to something sweet and beautiful … something strangely unique with its own distinct and savory flavor, as only a true saint of the Church can be. For Bernard, writes LeClerq, misery called unto mercy.

Finally, consider Thomas Merton, and the story he narrates in his autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain. Anyone who has read it will know that Merton was an arrogant, lustful, self-centered prick … by nature. But over time, and with many struggles, God transformed him into the kind of man who could write mystical prayers and passages like the world has never known. And who could tell the story of his transformation — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with honesty and humility.

So, what kind of person makes a good mystic? What kind of person, more than anyone else, ought to begin the practice of meditation? Not the calm. Not the serene. Not the self-controlled. On the contrary, show me a mystic who has plumbed the mysterious depths, and I will show you someone whom, almost certainly, was previously an unvirtuous ball of filth and fear who could barely make it through the day.

Real spiritual peace never comes easy. True mystics have had to “fight for it.” And that is very good news.

 

 

 

 

 

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Ascension: the Fluid Body of Christ

I’ve been thinking about the Feast of the Ascension (celebrated this year on May 29) lately. The Prayer Book’s collect for Ascension reads:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ

ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:

Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his

promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end

of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and

reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory

everlasting.  Amen.

How do you think about the Ascension of Christ?

I think that, in the contemporary church, there are three different ways of thinking about this redemptive-historical event. First, most people are just confused. After all, it seems so weird that Jesus would start floating up into the sky, eventually transcending the ability of the disciples to see him.

Second, however, and better, many people assume that Jesus is going “up to heaven.” That is understandable, but this view is definitely strengthened when coupled with the idea that Jesus is ascending to his throne, which is “in heaven,” at the right hand of his father.

A third view, suggested by the liturgical calendar itself, is that when Jesus ascends, he is going away in order to send down the Holy Spirit onto the Church on the day of Pentecost. (Indeed the collect of the day on the seventh Sunday of Easter, after Pentecost, might encourage this view, with its petition to God to “send us the Holy Spirit to comfort us.”)

Notice, however, what the collect for Ascension above actually says: Jesus ascended that he might fill all things. I cannot help but think that this is sacramental language. Remember the ancient dictum which is utterly scriptural: “Christ is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ.” It is this Church with whom “he abides … on earth … until the end of the ages.”

Why did Christ ascend to a transcendent “place,” why did he ascend into a transcendent mode of being? Precisely so that he could fill all things. When his body disappears, it becomes all things. It saturates all things. All things in a mystical way become charged with divine presence. Not only does this point to the eacharistic elements as tokens of all creation, but it also suggests that all material creatures are divine. As the fathers of the church said, “When Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, he sanctified all water.”

I know that this is a strange thing to think about. But our collect for Ascension invites us to think about it, and to meditate on it. Christian truth is indeed strange. Strange and beautiful.

Note: this article is inspired partly by Graham Ward’s chapter “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ” in his Cities of God. See also here.

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Bringing the Church to the World (Stations of the Cross)

Several years ago when I was on the church staff of a vibrant and growing Presbyterian church in Austin, I had the opportunity to join a small group in studying a powerful and thought-provoking book called Bringing the Church to the World. The author of this work, one of our most beloved and respected theologians / ministers / spiritual leaders, is the Anglican Bishop-scholar N.T. Wright.

The title of the book says it all. Wright’s vision for the Kingdom of God and its expansion is limited neither to a movement of solitary individuals who have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” nor to a political agenda for secular justice, but instead it has everything to do with a new kind of community. A community where justice and mercy are real. A community where broken sinners sacrificially serve one another out of love. A community that is ordered according to a biblical pattern. A community gathered under the Word-based Gospel of grace, centered on the ritual body and blood of Christ.

For more than a decade now, this has been my vision, too. I have started calling it the “bread-and-wine-community.” I believe that you, reader, are called to “do life” with your “bread-and-wine-community,” the one you gather with (and as) on Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week. These are the people whom, first and foremost, you live with, suffer with, serve with, and love with.

This is why Robert Finney, yet again, “made my day” the other day when he stormed into our office with a slightly frazzled facial expression that screamed, “Oh no … what have I just gotten myself into!?”

He proceeded to tell me about the leadership network meeting of Christian campus ministers he had attended earlier that day, where plans were made for to reach out to the university community at U.T. Tyler for Easter and Holy Week (to the extent that these evangelicals, bless their hearts, know what Holy Week is). The other campus ministers quickly made plans to share the gospel message with strangers by various means including the distribution of “Gospel tracts” which encourage people to make a decision for Christ, to give their lives to Christ.

Now I believe in evangelism. I have done street preaching (more than once) on college campuses, including here in Tyler. No question, God can use and has used tracts given to strangers (even outside the context of relationship) to bring new life.

And yet, Robert sensed the need for something deeper. Something more rooted in the ancient ways of the people of God. Something which fits out College Community motto: “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

And so he volunteered to organize a Stations of the Cross exhibit on campus during Holy Week. This “makes my day” for all sorts of reasons. Not only is this practice rooted in the history and beauty – have you seen the icons which Christ Church uses for the Stations? – of the catholic church, but it “brings the church to the world.”  It takes a practice not of some individual but of the church and it invites people in. It allows people to “belong before they believe,” to “taste and see” that the Lord is good.

Please keep Robert, me, and our Epiphany college community in your prayers this season as we bring the church to the world, and invite people into a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.

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St. Paul’s Foul Mouth (& Grace)

After a really rich & profound time of Bible study last night with some dear brothers & sisters, I got to thinking — it’s been a while since I’ve thought about this — about St. Paul’s penchant for strong, offensive language which crops up in the NT at least twice.

“… I consider [all that stuff I used to care about, before I met Christ] to be loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them to be shit, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8)

“But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.  I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:11-12)

Think about it. We have around a dozen letters which Paul wrote, and on not one but at least two occasions, perhaps in the heat of passion, he blurts some kind of acerbic overstatement which would have to be censored from the letter, if it were read in public today. (Granted, much of this has to do with our contemporary cultural sensibilities, derived as they are from cultural milieus such as Victorian England, but still.)

Does Paul have some sort of issue (anger, maybe?) here? Maybe.

But what’s interesting to me about both contexts above is that Paul is involved in a discussion about the grace of God which has come to him (in some sense) “apart from the law” (cf. Rom 3:21). Apparently he feels quite strongly about such matters.

The second implication for me has to do with language, and how those who follow Christ are to speak and write. The point is that what matters is not so much how successful we are in avoiding “four letter words” and so on, but rather, do we use our language and our words to promote goodness, truth, beauty, and the _shalom_ of others?

In this light it is helpful to think about Isa 64:6: “… all our ‘righteous deeds’ are like ‘bloody menstrual rags'”. Ouch. Really, Isaiah? Perhaps that’s a bit overstated? A bit unnecessary?

Not when it comes to the importance of the free grace of God, over and against the Pharasaical / Judaizing tendency we all have (it is the human condition; this is Luther’s — and Kierkegaard’s — “sickness unto death”) to depend on our own “righteous” performance.

There is no doubt in my mind that St. Paul, participating in the tradition we see in Isaiah, was speaking (writing) faithfully in the somewhat shocking language he uses in the references above.

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