Tuesday, July 23, 2013

the third way

Continuing the thread from before, I'd like to begin to talk about what "the third way" that Tim Keller mentioned looks like.  The first way is licentiousness, embodied by the Prodigal Son.  The second way is self-righteousness, embodied by his older brother.  The third way is the way of the cross.  As an aside that would be worth considering further, using psychological terms one could talk about these "ways" as hedonism of the id, ego, and superego, respectively.  Anyways.  So what is the way of the cross?  Who are our examples?  What are we to do and why?

Well, the obvious answer to the first question is Jesus, but I'm actually not sure that he is the most instructive example for us.  Jesus had a double mission: 1) spread the news that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and 2) die for our sins.  I am certain that the second mission does not apply to me, and I'm not even sure how well the first mission applies.  Perhaps the mission of proclaiming the Kingdom is still valid, but certain types of people in certain contexts seem to have the role of the prophet: the role of turning things on their heads, of upsetting the balance that has developed in society to point out how that system does evil.  There is a place for this sort of thing in our world today, but I would not want to go to a church full of these sorts of prophets.  If there was a church (or a Kingdom) full of Jesuses, I strongly suspect that their lives would look dramatically different from the Jesus in the Bible.  If the whole church or even a large portion of it couldn't operate in the role that Jesus played, then he's not a great example for the everyday Christian in terms of vocation.  There are things Jesus does and says that I think are very instructive for us, but sometimes it's hard to tell what is vocation and what is the spiritual center that every follower of Christ should emulate.

If not Jesus, then who?  The other prominent New Testament characters are Paul and Peter, but these too are lacking in practical, general application.  Paul was a scholar in a way that few of us will ever be.  He also was in the role of missionary preacher that few of us will occupy.  His teaching is very instructive, but it is hard to decipher at times and frequently abstract.  It is particularly hard to understand or emulate the sort of cohesive confidence he has in his teaching (at least without the benefit of psychosis); things that he claims are self-evident seem only to be so if you're a brilliant Messianic Jewish scholar.  Peter has the opposite problem.  He's an everyman, but he's also the butt of every story he's in in the Gospels and at least one in Acts.  I'm sure he was a great leader in the church, but we really don't see that part of him.  Instead we see an endearing list of things not to do.  Here's a great Christian leader who makes the same mistakes we do.  Jesus forgives his folly; what a great illustration of God's love and forgiveness!  But he is not an example of how to live, outside of being forgivable.

Taking a step back at this point and stating a little more plainly what I think, the Bible and the church do offer more concrete examples of what life in the Kingdom should look like.  Some examples of these are found in the Old Testament, some are found in the traditions of monasticism within the church, and plenty are also found in the New Testament.  A couple more recent writers in the monastic vein that have influenced me are Richard Foster and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I may get to them and the New Testament eventually, but first I would like to discuss the most concrete example of how to live a righteous life offered in the Bible: the Psalms.

For a long time, I didn't care for the Psalms; they seemed like lots of florid language that didn't have much to say to me.  However, after seeing a number of writings (including Bonhoeffer and a number of the monastic texts) talk extensively about them, I was ready to concede that there must be something worthwhile there and I resolved to read them until I got it.  Eventually what I got was this: the book of Psalms is a handbook on righteous thought and prayer.

While not every Psalm fits the mold and it often takes a bit of dwelling on the text and/or creativity to pick them out, the average Psalm typically involves the following:
  • The psalmist has some feeling ranging from joy, to grief, to fear, to anger, to righteous indignation, to despair, to regret, to thankfulness.  
  • The psalmist presents this feeling to God honestly.  
  • The psalmist states the things he knows about God or the things God has done.  
  • The psalmist reconciles his feeling with his faith in God.  
As an example, let's look at Psalm 59:

Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers
and save me from those who are after my blood.

See how they lie in wait for me!
Fierce men conspire against me
for no offense or sin of mine, Lord.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
Arise to help me; look on my plight!
You, Lord God Almighty,
you who are the God of Israel,
rouse yourself to punish all the nations;
show no mercy to wicked traitors.

They return at evening,
snarling like dogs,
and prowl about the city.
See what they spew from their mouths—
the words from their lips are sharp as swords,
and they think, “Who can hear us?”
But you laugh at them, Lord;
you scoff at all those nations.

You are my strength, I watch for you;
you, God, are my fortress,
my God on whom I can rely.
God will go before me
and will let me gloat over those who slander me.
But do not kill them, Lord our shield,
or my people will forget.
In your might uproot them
and bring them down.
For the sins of their mouths,
for the words of their lips,
let them be caught in their pride.
For the curses and lies they utter,
consume them in your wrath,
consume them till they are no more.
Then it will be known to the ends of the earth
that God rules over Jacob.
They return at evening,
snarling like dogs,
and prowl about the city.
They wander about for food
and howl if not satisfied.
But I will sing of your strength,
in the morning I will sing of your love;
for you are my fortress,
my refuge in times of trouble.
You are my strength, I sing praise to you;
you, God, are my fortress,
my God on whom I can rely.
In writing this psalm, the psalmist puts a bunch of things next to each other on paper.  He is facing a threat to his life.  He has not wronged those who threaten him.  He wants God to step in to protect him and restore justice.  He trusts that God is both sympathetic to him and strong enough to defend him.  This isn't a logical progression, but rather dwelling on the tension presented by life circumstances: i.e., "Things don't look quite fair, but I trust in God.  How do I reconcile these things?"
It's easy to react to events off the cuff without resorting to this sort of reflection.  Sometimes this could look like lashing out in anger or taking matters into one's own hands.  It could also look like backing down and assuming one's own fault when faced with conflict.  The Psalms have a lot to say about how we deal with conflict or tension, though. 
First, we should acknowledge it.  Evil is real.  The world is not right.  The solution isn't to twist our heads and squint until it looks alright, but to announce the ways in which the world falls short of justice - the apparent conflicts between the nature of God and the actions of God, if you will.  If there is a God, if prayer means something to him, and if the Psalms are to be admired in any way, then this announcement of injustice must be the central point of prayer.  We're calling God out to act in accordance with his nature so we can participate in the redemption of some wrong. 

In addition to allowing us to participate in the work of God, this also gives an impetus for us to better understand what is good and just.  If we're going to call out the creator of the universe on how he's running the place, it would seem that we'd better have a good idea of how it should be run.  By looking through the Psalms and other prayerful books (such as many of the minor prophets), we can put together a list of grievances that holy men and women in history thought worthy of raising up to God:
  • People who do evil seem to come out ahead.
  • Evil is not punished.
  • People who are weak get exploited.
  • Society seems to promote godlessness.
  • People are attacked without cause.
  • I have sinned and need mercy. 
  • People suffer and die. 
Perhaps with some creativity we could add "relationships between people are broken".  This is what godly people in the Bible pray about.  The world is complicated and ambiguous, but the godly focus on these clear injustices.  Perhaps we should too.  This simplicity counteracts our self-righteous tendencies.  We can be confident praying about these things in the way that the psalmist does, and as we make the Psalms our own, we see ways in which we can pray for our own circumstances. 
Thirdly, we should state the things we believe, even when they are challenged by circumstances.  If David had exactly zero doubts that God would rescue him - that is, if he thought he had just grabbed an invincibility star - would he really write this Psalm?  Doubtful.  When David is faced with challenges and doubts, however, he tended to spew off a list of reasons he trusted in God.  In this case, he simply affirms that God is his strength, fortress, refuge and shield. 
One of my favorite lines from the the Royal Tennenbaums is when the estranged father and general dirtbag, Royal, is trying to make amends with his ex-wife:
Royal: "Look, I know I'm going to be the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say the last six days have been the best six days of probably my whole life."
Narrator: "Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true."
A lot of the time, saying something out loud allows us to realize the truth of our statement.  It connects us to others who share our beliefs and helps us to remember why we thought the thing in the first place. David's declarations of devotion and faith remind us of times when we felt God protected us. They help us remember that we are not strong enough on our own, and that we didn't get to where we are based on our might. When I read statements like these and when I participate in creeds and common prayers in church, I see it not as a boast of some truth I find obvious, but rather as talking myself into a set of beliefs that are important. It is beneficial to make these sort of statements communally on a regular basis and personally as we are faced with challenging circumstances.

In a sense, making these statements is about submission. I may be submitting to the church at large, repeating creeds or prayers that have endured for hundreds of years. I may also be submitting to my past self. Even if I feel faithless now, at some point in the past, I felt faithful. In either case, even when these might be challenging to say or believe, we defer to those who held them in high regard for so long, and seriously consider if they carry truth for us or not.

A final thing the Psalms have to teach us is that being in the right is attainable. Listen to what the psalmist says in various Psalms: "I have done no wrong" (Psalm 59). "I have led a blameless life" (Psalm 26). "Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness" (Psalm 7). "I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I have set my heart on your laws. I hold fast to your statutes, Lord;" (Psalm 119).  This is a far cry from how we typically hear righteousness talked about in evangelical churches today.  No one would make these statements.  It would be all "God, if it be your will, even though I deserve much worse, please consider letting me get to work safely."  Assuming David actually wrote the Psalm, he's pretty clearly not blameless and more to the point, no one should ever have any issues with the idea that everyone sins at some point.  So what's the psalmist getting at here? 

Some would say it's prophetic and told from Jesus' perspective. That may be true, but I refuse to believe that the Psalms were written and sung or recited for several hundred years of Jewish tradition before the meaning made any sense at all to the participants. The psalmist is saying he is without blame! He's aligning himself with the Son of Man in the process, but he's really saying this stuff, and he really means it about himself! Otherwise, if the Psalms were written by prophets speaking about abstract things hundreds of years down the road, if they were all about Jesus but not about humans, if we can't relate to the psalmist, what possible value could the Psalms hold for us? 
So if the psalmist is really talking about himself, and he's not making a claim to perfection that no one would buy, what is he saying?  I think it's related to the points above.  First, just like evil is real, this acknowledges that good is real and that we have the ability to do either.  Second, how do we know what is good?  Well, it's complicated, but the broad brush strokes are not: live justly, don't let evil go unchecked in your realm of influence, be merciful.  Another way of saying this would be:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

And thirdly, just as making statements of faith helps to restore our faith, making statements of righteousness helps to restore our righteousness.  We identify with the Son of Man and say that this is what we value, what we want to be, and to some extent, what we are. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Skeptic's Psalm

Lord, I want to be as those who follow you blindly,
As he who has not seen, yet believes.
As Rahab, who paved the way for her city's destruction for the sake of your people
As James and John who left their father and livelihood at a wave of your hand.

Yet how can I be expected to trust in you,
To trust in an ancient book that preaches love and genocide,
To trust in a church without order,
That does as much harm as good,
That is subject to intractable differences and worldly leaders,
To trust in a Holy Spirit that is indecipherable from my whims and feelings,
To trust in a God that can move mountains but chooses to act through coincidence,
To forgo the simple, practical, falsifiable answer to trust in something without evidence?

Am I to ignore what I observe?
Am I to act on feelings without reason?
Is religion nothing more than indecipherable urges?
No. You gave me reason like you gave me whims.
You created me to ask these questions
You are big enough to answer them.
Prove me wrong, reveal yourself in power!

I am not he who has not seen, yet believes.
Let me be lesser, like the apostles, like Thomas.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

the hole in evangelicalism

The other night I watched a short video sermon from Tim Keller at my church. He presented two perspectives, which essentially were the perspectives of the two brothers in the Prodigal Son parable from Luke 15. He called the older son “religious” and the younger son “irreligious”. The younger son parties with hookers and comes crawling back to his father’s open arms; the older son is pissed that he worked his ass off instead of partying with hookers but ends up equal with his younger brother. Keller presents these perspectives as a continuum and points out why both brothers are wrong. Then Keller talks about a third way – the way of the cross... Something about humility… End video.

I like Tim Keller. He’s a good guy. His church does good things. But I hate a few different things about how he presents this message. I am probably being unfair, and my irritation mostly stems with some long running disputes I have with the evangelical church at large, but it inspired me to articulate exactly why it stirred me up.

First, why “religion”? Is not self-righteousness a considerably more precise term for the older brother? Licentiousness or hedonism would work fine for the younger brother. Bringing religion into the equation sounds like a potshot at Catholicism or something. As in, “organized religion is bad, you should act based on the Spirit or your gut.” Keller might not intend to come off this way, but he does. Webster defines religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”. And guess what? Listening to someone tell you to act based on your gut fits that definition. So does singing songs together and just using the word “just” while praying.

Religious rituals are nothing; that is, they are amoral. Just like most anything else, the question is whether they are useful. Do they promote self-righteousness, have’s and have-not’s? Or do they help us to live at peace, listen better, put others higher than ourselves, enjoy people and things rightly? Sometimes it’s not the rituals themselves that are problematic, but rather how we think and talk about them. Fasting can produce self-righteousness or devotion. Music can unify or divide. When we make fasting a subtle contest, we end up where the Pharisees did. When we start thinking about music (specifically whatever type of music we like) as holy in and of itself rather than as a tool for affirming and fusing our collective beliefs and our emotions, we are much more likely to steamroll our brothers and sisters in the name of God.

It is highly probable that during the 2000 year history of the church, church leaders, laypeople, and monks found some useful tools for producing healthy, devout Christians. Creeds, the Book of Common Prayer, the church calendar, liturgies, written down prayers, festivals, ceremonies, and many more traditions may qualify as this sort of tool. The best of these traditions tend to rise to the top. It is worth considering what they have meant historically, what they could mean to us, and how they might be life-giving if done correctly.

Secondly, and this is my main point, by using words that essentially mean “religion and not religion”, he makes it sound like it’s an “either or” decision and they’re both wrong. If I remember correctly, he explicitly states that these are on a continuum, as if you have to pick what percentage of religion and irreligion you can tolerate. Of course, from there, he talks about a third way, the way of the cross. I’m not sure if he failed to make this third way even a tiny bit concrete or if I got bored and missed it, but the message I took away was “we should all feel really bad about ourselves and hope God does something, because we’re not going to live like Jesus any time soon.” Again, I am being unfair, but that was my first reaction.

I spent most of my youth and college days trying very hard to live the way God wanted me to. A big question that I often came back to was “what does God want me to do?” Another way to phrase it might be “what is the Christian life supposed to look like?” The answers that were easiest to find were usually phrased in the negative. “Well, you don’t have sex before marriage. Don’t get divorced either. Don’t look at pornography. Don’t listen to music with cuss words in it. Don’t be prideful, even though there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t be gay.” Positive imperatives were few and far between and often were things like “make sure you spank your kids and don’t forget to tithe”. That, and to live like Jesus as a roving preacher who heals people, hangs out with prostitutes, and comes up with awesome burns for the people in charge. Only no one in the church really does that so it’s probably not a realistic goal. What I felt was missing was a good concrete, plausible example of what the Christian life should look like. People are quick to chuckle at the old prohibitions on movies, dancing, drinking, drums, etc., but the Christianity I grew up in just came up with new things not to do without telling me what I should do.

I think it is incorrect to interpret the Prodigal Son story as an illustration of two wrong ways to live. If I know anything about Jesus, it’s that just about all his rebukes were directed at the people with power and respect. This story is an illustration of the grand narrative of the Bible, namely “What does God do about evil? He forgives,” with a rebuke of self-righteousness tagged on the end. The reason it’s even necessary to rebuke self-righteousness at all is that it doesn’t really look all that bad and often gets confused with righteousness.

If we think about the story as speaking to the general populace about two wrong ways to live, we end up uncertain of our position and next move. We have two compelling illustrations of sin, and some part of us can relate pretty well to both characters, especially the older brother. The “third way” is strangely absent, though. We end up adrift, feeling guilty that we have self-righteous tendencies, and looking for places in our life that maybe we are just a little condemning or proud of ourselves.

I am going to stop here, leaving all my internet bot creepers viewing the blog with a better understanding of what not to do just to illustrate my point. Okay, just kidding. This entry was a roundabout way of introducing what to me is the big hole in evangelicalism*, and I plan to discuss what positive imperatives from other veins of Christianity I have found since.

*I’m using the term “evangelical” in a more colloquial sense to denote fairly conservative Baptist-ish type of churches. There are a broader set of churches that could be considered “evangelical” in a more technical sense.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

on human suffering

Something that I have been thinking about recently is human suffering. It's a topic that I've continually felt was worth dwelling on, partly because there are so many cheap sounding answers out there and partly because I completely ignore it until I'm faced with it. I've recently had two older relatives die, one of which was perhaps the greatest picture of a godly life I've encountered. She was generous, could listen without judging, and spent most of her final years decades living by herself, baking cookies for others and weeding her garden via walker. But death was bitter even for her and there was no silver lining. If it "redounds at the end only to the glory of [God's] work" (Tolkien's phrase) it sure doesn't seem that way.

This, mixed with various other stimuli got me thinking about why dwelling (or maybe "meditating" is more accurate) on suffering could be worthwhile either for Christians or atheists. During my thinking, I picked up N.T. Wright's "Evil and the Justice of God", which influenced my thoughts and offers a pretty fair treatment of the subject. I'm going to attempt to answer my question from both perspectives, but since my own agnosticism is rooted in doubts about the objective fact of God’s existence and the resurrection of Christ, as opposed to the rejection of the general Christian ethos, I’m going to start by stating why it’s important to Christians.

From the Christian perspective, God’s conquest of evil is the entire story of the Bible. The Bible gets through all of 2 chapters before introducing this central plot device and closes by describing its end. As I mentioned, we don’t know what it is or where it came from, and it’s pretty clear that we’re not supposed to know from the lack of any attempt at an explanation, this lack being most blatant in Job. To be a Christian is to live with the tension of this reality with the knowledge that God did/is doing something about it – particularly that he subjected himself to evil, perhaps more evil than anyone has ever endured, in order to conquer it. The only explanation for the problem of suffering is that whatever injustice there is in the world, it was endured by the one who created it. Christ identifies with all who suffer because he suffered, which makes it somehow palatable, if not “all better”.

Because suffering is so central to the Biblical narrative and Christ’s role on earth, if we are to identify with him, we must identify with those who suffer. This means that we will suffer, but it also means that we will bear one another’s burdens by looking at those who suffer with sober eyes, realizing the tension that this suffering represents, that there is no answer for it, that the fullness of the Kingdom of God has not yet come to pass, that God takes it seriously, that God suffered in the same way.

For the atheist, as I'll talk about another time, there is no fundamental basis for morality. All things are lawful, but, as with Christianity, not all things are profitable. Murder is not profitable, and not only because of the criminal justice system. We are wired to work in certain ways, and when we deviate from these ways, we do self-harm. Specifically, we feel guilt that we harmed someone else and are miserable as a result. This is position on sin is actually very similar to the one Augustine took, only the reason for us being wired a certain way is different. For him, our nature was prescribed from God; for the atheist, the survival benefits of having a strong community that worked together caused this aspect of our nature to evolve.

The Christian atheist asserts that it is in our nature to be most at peace (i.e., to be the least self-harming) playing the role of the Son of Man from Isaiah, the role of the Psalmist, the role intended for the nation of Israel, partaking in the Kingdom of Heaven as described by Jesus, continuing in the best (read: least corrupted by plays for power and control) traditions of the Christian Church and monasticism. These represent a series of high water marks for holiness and upon close examination have a very similar core, a conversation taking place over the course of human civilization and continually examining the same ideal from different angles and contexts. The key difference between this and traditional Christianity is that this conversation is merely a human attempt to examine his evolved psyche and figure out what to do about it.

If we accept this concept, it is clear that mediation on suffering is part of the Son of Man package. We are wired with a sense of justice that constantly butts against the world as it is. We are wired to idealize turning the other cheek instead of fighting back, which subverts a stronger impulse to dominate. We are wired to live in community, loving one another, empathizing with one another, soberly looking into one another’s lives and refusing to blink, look away, ignore, justify, or judge in the presence of evil and suffering. Instead we bear our brother’s burden until it has passed.

I've got more, specifically on Wright's perspective on the power of forgiveness, but this seems like a good stopping point for now.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

front matter

I am an atheist, or perhaps an agnostic, living (mostly) closeted within the church.  Now before you judge me or say you've heard that one before, hear me out. 

I grew up in a fairly nondescript evangelical church.  We didn't speak in tongues.  I wore jeans and cheesy print shirts to church.  We had a cool band that played up to date worship songs.  I connected with the youth pastor on a philosophical level, but not so much with the other youth most of the time.  I wondered why everyone didn't sell everything and give the money to the poor, why we did anything other than street evangelism to keep as many people from going to hell as we could.  I imagined Jesus looking at me sadly me while I masturbated.  I prayed long prayers with lots of "just's" in the school Bible study.  I kissed dating goodbye but had entirely too serious emotional relationships with girls from said Bible study.  Blah blah blah.  

Right about here in the story, I either become the guy in church with the goatee and cool glasses (or whatever) and the Rob Bell book urging everyone to be a little more radical, or I become disillusioned with God and/or the church and leave.  Well, two things actually happened.  First, I found an answer to my big question with Christianity that I alluded to above – how do we reconcile living the fairly normal lives that almost everyone in the church lives with the apparent metaphysical reality of an eternal hell?  Is everyone other than traveling evangelists and missionaries just lazy, lukewarm Christians?  I’ll try to explain this question better and an answer I found to it that deeply impacted my thinking in future posts.  Secondly, it occurred to me that there is very little evidence of God in the world that I observe as well as reasonable materialist explanations for the evidence of God that is present. These leave me in a place where I find Christianity meaningful and useful without necessarily believing in the core reality, a place I feel is fairly unique and possibly worth sharing with others.  

I’m trying to preface something I don’t know I can preface, something that makes sense in my head and hopefully will eventually make sense on a page but may be a little difficult to understand from somewhere other than my immediate perspective.  Ultimately, my goal in this (other than just expressing my thoughts) is to help reconcile, not Christianity and atheism, but rather Christians and atheists.  Hopefully this goal works itself out through the course of this blog.  

I'm very interested in feedback on my thoughts and genuine questions, although the subject matter lends itself easily to conflict, so let's all try to be respectful.