Earthly things and things heavenly

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. BCP p. 234

This week’s prayer involves a distinction that is easy to make too black and white. It is tempting to think that earthly things are all the things that have anything to do with this earthly life — food and clothing, work, relationships, hopes and dreams and fears, war and peace, the environment, etc. In that case the things heavenly would be God and… heaven. Harps? Streets of gold? Maybe our character and moral progress? Or our sins and need of repentance? The strength of our faith, the quality of our doctrine, etc.

But heaven is not some place outside this universe where we go after this earth is destroyed and we have died. Heaven is the renewal and redemption of the only universe God has made, including this earth.

What if everything about this present life is intimately connected with life in the age to come?

What if earthly things, the things that are passing away, are the things of falsehood, evil, and sin? People are heavenly things, and so are our relationships. The earthly anxieties I need to let go are not things like caring about people or even myself — how then could one practice the command to love neighbor as self? — but things like worrying about winning and maintaining other people’s approval, trying to contort and distort myself to meet others’ expectations, or any other kind of desperation around trying to get my relational needs met. One could make a similar exploration of earthly anxieties around other things of this life, too — and there are even earthly anxieties around heavenly things — like misguided efforts to earn God’s favor, or a distracting and fruitless scrupulosity.


A Buddhist and a Methodist…

A year or three ago I came across a children’s book written by Thich Nhat Hanh, called A Pebble for your Pocket. The whole thing is quite lovely. I especially loved and remember the section about anger. He talks about holding one’s anger as one would ideally hold a colicky baby — listening warmly and affectionately and tenderly, not threatened or reactive or otherwise taking it personally; not dismissive, suppressive, scornful, or otherwise pushing it away; not enraptured, enmeshed, or otherwise morbidly attached to it.

Recently my friend gave me a most beautiful book on prayer by J. Neville Ward. In the chapters on fear and suffering, he talks about pain, whether of the body or the mind, as an alarm signal, a warning that something needs attention. The right use of the mind, whether in fear or in pain, is to either come to some decision to act, or else to realize that in this case no action is warranted or possible. In the case of fear, it is then necessary to detach or disengage from the fear, as “further brooding on the matter is a misuse of the mind” (68). In pain that goes beyond the ordinary warning signal, it is necessary to “accept the situation, reject [one’s] resentment and self-pity, and… to wish to do God’s will in this situation” (77). I imagine Ward would see both cases as a detachment, and that detachment does not mean denial or repression, but involves acceptance and wise action.

I think the two could talk to each other, especially in further illuminating what detachment is and is not.

Thich Nhat Hanh might point out that it could be fruitful to explore how brooding and self-pity compare to and differ from compassion toward the self. That sometimes sitting with a feeling or set of feelings might be more fruitful when it is less focused on solution and action, and more focused on simply listening, observing, allowing, feeling, caring — on simply being with the self that is afraid or in pain. How often what our friend needs is not our advice or problem-solving assistance or external help, but our compassionate presence, affectionate and warm, often silent, unhurried, unworried — should we not offer the same friendliness to ourselves?

J. Neville Ward might suggest that it is important to know when enough time and energy has been invested in the matter, and when it is time to turn to action, whether action to resolve the matter, or some other action of doing God’s will in the situation.

I wonder if both would agree that the cessation of the sense of fear or pain is not the only or most reliable signal that it is now time to detach and move to other things. The very terms “detach” and “move” suggest something to detach and move away from. So there must be some other signal or signals by which one can sense when to remain still and silent with the feeling(s) and when to go on to something else while the feeling(s) continue in the background — some sense of having done what is called for, having reached the end of what can be done in this moment.

Perhaps it seems peculiar that I could worry that detachment could entail any sense of scorn or lack of compassion toward the fearful or pained self, that I would need reassurance that compassion and acknowledgment don’t (have to) cease when one turns to action or other matters. I wonder if either or both of these authors would readily understand that worry.

More on spiritual transition

My faith, my spirituality, my understanding of God and the Bible and the church and sin and salvation and myself and other people and everything, has been a thing subject to change — from its beginnings in my Sunday School experiences (or in my baptism, depending on how you think the Spirit works), through experiences in a mainline Presbyterian church, a Plymouth Brethren church, a non-denominational Pentecostal New Testament church, several conservative Presbyterian churches (my longest lasting spiritual home was the PCA; over ten years), a different non-denominational church, a Church of Christ (Restoration movement), and an Evangelical Free church, and now in an Episcopal church. I have been at one time hardly consciously anything but “Christian,” was later a fundamentalist without quite realizing it (thought that was just “real Christian”), was then both evangelical and Reformed, and, never able to fully integrate all aspects of Reformed theology, have been moving in more progressive directions.

Spiritual change is uncomfortable, to put it mildly.

One thing that has undergone change is my understanding of the Bible, through wrestling with the same issues that are familiar to many who have read or studied it much. Why would God order genocide — and does the workaround really work without fatally distorting our sense of love and justice and our ability to trust in God’s good character? Why do the first eleven chapters of Genesis read so like “just so” stories, as mythic explanations for why certain things are the way they are, like pain in childbirth or snakes having no legs or the existence of many languages? Why would God tell Moses to lie about going into the wilderness just temporarily to worship and return? Why, if God regretted making people, would he save a family of them instead of starting with some new creature — and why punish (but preserve) the animals, too? Why does the God described in Numbers, parts of Isaiah, and other places seem more like the most immature petulant authoritarian parent or petty dictator than like a coherent and serious creator-redeemer-sustainer who triumphs over evil through good? I don’t quite see the neat division between wrathful OT God and gentle NT God — there are many OT passages that describe a God of grace and mercy and unending compassion, and there are some things in the NT that seem awfully harsh.

So I have gradually slipped out of inerrancy without quite noticing. Or at least without a conscious decision to simply abandon all sound doctrine and reject the authority of the Bible in my life. I am, as far as I am able to be, willing to be corrected, to be persuaded, to be taught and led, to embrace all the truth of God. It just has become more and more impossible to understand the Bible I read in terms of the inerrancy framework.

Peter Enns has been featuring guest posts on his blog from folks who have experienced significant ‘”aha” moments’ about the Bible — mostly from biblical scholars, but also some pastors and students. So far all have been moving from fundamentalist or evangelical to progressive or liberal. I would like to also read the stories of those whose studies led them into inerrancy… Anyway, I have read eleven of these stories so far, over several days. Today I read two or three. And while there is much that rings true, much that resonates, much that breathes living air, there is also much that is distressing and perplexing, not least the comment sections, where I read one response and agree, and read the counter-response and agree with that too, and they are mutually exclusive, and I don’t even want the responsibility of making such decisions.

I read a bunch of these articles and then think, I ought to take a break and actually speak with God, and spend some time listening, and do the daily office and read the actual Bible… and yet it is so hard to escape, or to understand the propriety of escaping, that all we know about God we get from the Bible. That some kind of deity exists and sustains things in some way seems somewhat suggested by observation of nature… but beyond that it seems we need Scripture for the specifics and the nuances. We can talk about church tradition, but what does that come from, if not Scripture? Is there anything in church tradition that trumps Scripture? In terms of an arbiter, I mean — isn’t it by Scripture that we judge which of the early Christians were heretics and which were not, and so on?

Of course, one answers; of course we need the Bible — we just need to take it as it is and not as we wish it were or think it must be based on our extra-biblical convictions or extrapolations from a handful of verses. But I don’t quite yet know how to take it as it is. When one has been reading this Bible for a couple decades, how does one ever hope to come to it in a fresh way again, without all the baggage of all the ways one has previously been taught to understand it all?

And I have longed for many years to have a more integrated, holistic grasp of this anthology of books from many authors in many genres for many purposes, and I was startled a few weeks ago to come to the thought that perhaps this very uncomfortable state of dissonance is an integral part of fulfilling this longing. It encourages me to remember that very few of these issues were unknown to church history; there was not a simple division between all the complete heretics and all the others who held monolithically to the same systematic doctrine — there has always been diversity in important matters, even as the church has worked to find consensus on the crucial matters.

One guiding principle is to take jesus as the center of our hermeneutics, and understand everything else in light of what he has revealed. On the other hand I am increasingly unnerved by those who also talk about the limitations of the Gospels… and there are some, such as significant differences in accounts of the crucifixion. If Jesus is the center of our hermeneutic, and we can’t even be sure of what all he said and did, the foundation seems awfully crumbly.

There is the Spirit. Who seems to lead people in all sorts of directions, some of which seem awfully contradictory. How can I trust what I think the Spirit is saying to me, in my spiritual mentors, in the Bible, in my prayers, if other people, trusting the Spirit to be speaking to them, are moving another way?

I can’t return to inerrancy. It’s too strident, too much founded on fears and necessities and assertions made ahead of time. It doesn’t seem to do justice to the actual Bible we have.

The alternative to inerrancy isn’t any clearer than inerrancy itself is. Just as inerrancy consists of multiple overlapping views, ranging from the extremely literalistic to the nuanced and sensitive to human contexts, so does the alternative admit a range of views, from something very much like the broadest view of inerrancy, to something that preserves nothing historical at all, nothing of God at all.

And so I shall go to my prayer closet with very little certainty about anything, and attempt to speak and listen to one I am not sure I know at all. Aslan certainly is not a tame lion! — but it does not make sense that God would not be good. I will rest in that certainty and wait for him alone in silence. And in conversation with authors and bloggers and my spiritual director and friends and pastors.

Two books about Jesus

I am currently reading two books about Jesus. They are very different. One is Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulén. The other is In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen.

Aulén’s book is about the history of atonement theories. He argues that today (he wrote in the 30s) we have what he calls the Latin doctrine on one side, and the subjective on the other. The Latin one is the form of vicarious substitutionary atonement in which Jesus, as sinless man, offers to God the merit of his sinless, obedient, faithful life, satisfying the requirements of God’s justice to remove the penalty due to sin. Aulén avoids the caricature of the angry Father who must be placated by the merciful Son, as if the Trinity were divided against itself. One of his issues with the Latin theory is that it is not one continuous work of God. God is the author of the plan, but the work is accomplished not by the divine nature of Christ but by his human nature.

So far he has not talked at length about the subjective theory, but from brief remarks in the first chapter, I gather that this refers to an understanding of the atonement involving only a change in people, and not any change in the whole situation or in the relation between God and people.

The main argument of the book is that there is another view, which he names the classic doctrine, which involves Jesus triumphing through his death over the powers of evil, including our own sinfulness as well as powers external to us. It is a work done by God from beginning to end, and addresses not just the penalty due to sin, but sin and evil itself. Thus, Christus Victor properly understood contains all that is really important from the substitutionary view — ideas of sacrifice, ransom, deliverance from guilt, justice — but without confining the atonement to a legal issue, and without putting the Father and the Son in conflict.

It is difficult, for me at least, to follow all the arguments clearly. Of course all interpretations of the atonement look to the New Testament for their support. Of course some of the same metaphors and concepts are common to them all. Sometimes the same language is taken quite differently by different theories. It is not always clear what one element of one theory is getting at, what it is reacting against or promoting. Nevertheless, it is fascinating, fruitful, and important reading. The Cross is central to our faith; we must have some understanding of what is going on with Jesus’ death and resurrection. How we think of the cross is deeply related to how we think of ourselves, others, the nature of the universe, the nature of God.

Here is a passage I read this morning that I thought especially  significant. Aulén is discussing how the Latin theory emphasizes the seriousness of sin — that it is not something that can be finally, fully, justly dealt with by simply forgiving it.

But while it is necessary to admit this intention of moral earnestness, we cannot forget that this doctrine of the Atonement grew up on a moralistic basis; and it can truly be said that the very fact that a satisfaction paid to God is regarded as making amends for man’s fault shows quite decidedly that the radical opposition of God to sin has become weakened down. If God can be represented as willing to accept a satisfaction for sins committed, it appears to follow necessarily that the dilemma of laxity or satisfaction really fails to guard the truth of God’s enmity against sin. The doctrine provides for the remission of the punishment due to sins, but not for the taking away of the sin itself. (91-92)

It is interesting that, according to this book, this atonement theory grew out of a legalistic outlook in which it is possible for people to earn merit with God — something that would be anathema to the Reformed and Calvinist folks who generally champion substitutionary atonement. I wonder to what extent current models of vicarious penal substitution are identical to Aulén’s Latin view, and to what extent they differ. I wonder the same about current models of Christus Victor — do some, as this Christianity Today column suggests, leave out too much, and would the columnist find more to support in Aulén’s version? After all, Aulén is at great pains throughout the book, at least thus far, to show that the classic view is not at all dismissive of the problem of sin and guilt, but sees the powers of evil as both our enemy captors and executors of God’s judgment against sin. Likewise he constantly reiterates that in Christus Victor God is both Reconciler and Reconciled, not alternately one or the other. (Which reminds me, beautifully, of the Abrahamic covenant story in which God passes between the sacrifices by himself, taking on both sides of the covenant, his and ours.)

The other book is a less heady endeavor, in a sense, and yet equally weighty if not more so.

What is needed in Christian leadership? To be free from the tyrannies of relevance, spectacle, and power, and instead to be grounded in the limitless and unconditional love of God through contemplation, confession and forgiveness, and theological reflection. I find Nouwen, in this and other books, breath-takingly in touch with the shadow side of life — loss, pain, fear, loneliness, brokenness, vulnerability, need — in ways that are alternately almost unbearably discouraging and passionately, soaringly hopeful.

Here are some of the lines I read this morning that especially moved me:

The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus… Do you know the incarnate God? In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred… (37)

Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them… when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative. (45)

Echoing Aulén’s criticism of the moralistic legalism and reductionistic rationality of the Latin view of the atonement, Nouwen closes this chapter thus: “For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful… a movement from the moral to the mystical is required” (47).

Further reading on the Christus Victor theory:

Tony Jones
Greg Boyd
Derek Flood
And, on the opposing side in a way,
Mike Wittmer

Life and death

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)

I have come that they might have life, and life more abundantly. (John 10:10)

Some err pursuing pleasure at all cost;
I sometimes err pursuing death instead.
If gaining life requires life be lost
Then let me miss no chance for getting dead.

What consternation, finding death brings life;
Does it not mean life must be lost again,
Again, again? How does one cease this strife?
This winless cycle’s not what Jesus meant.

He also came that life abundant be.
Not all that feels like death does death require.
Not all that feels like life should make me flee.
Not death nor life the rule; let my desire

Be all to follow you who are the Way
Through death and life; with you, find peace and grace.

Blogging through the Lectionary

Rachel Held Evans is starting a new Thursday series blogging about the upcoming Sunday’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. I think I’ll join her; I agree that it is not only fascinating to see what other folks do with the readings, but it’s also a great way to engage the Scriptures in community. Join in if you like — on your own blog, or if you don’t have one feel free to share your comments here.

God got a dog

I browsed the YA shelves at the Culver library last week while Amy was playing on the computer one afternoon. I love reading theology and the like, but I needed a break — I needed a different kind of challenge, a different kind of heavy reading, the kind that comes through fiction, especially young adult fiction, especially the kind that doesn’t even consider making any deliberate effort to conform to any kind of Christian worldview. From the stack I brought home, so far I have read Breaking Stalin’s Nose, and Fortunately, The Milk, and Unhooking the Moon. And this weekend I read God Got a Dog.

I was introduced to Cynthia Rylant through her Henry and Mudge books, which I adore for their simplicity and sweetness — there is nothing saccharine, cutesy, or precious about them, they are just straightforward, ordinary, and evocative. They have a similarly rich understanding of child life as Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad.

Rylant’s God Got a Dog is a collection of poems that imagine God in various human situations. Her simplicity and openness shine here, too; clever and witty and creative and provocative without melodrama or heavy-handedness. There are moments that are mildly annoying — easy dismissals of some traditional doctrines that I believe remain vital — but I can also imagine enjoying a conversation with Rylant hearing the stories and thoughts behind these lines as well as those behind the parts that resonated with me.

Here is one I especially liked. The poems touch on various aspects of the human condition, including, as this one does, embodiment and gender and expectations, but not in a strident or aggressively political way. Each poem is illustrated by Marla Frazee, and her images are beautifully gentle and full of just the right kind of energy, inviting and engaging.

God took a bath

With Her clothes on.
Her robe, to be specific.
Why did She do this?
She was shy,
that’s why.
A little self-conscious
about Her body.
God wasn’t always
this way.
She used to be free as a bird,
running stark naked
She never thought
about bodies at all.
Then these things started coming back to Her:
The whole misunderstanding
with Adam and Eve.
Then circumcision.
Then talk talk talk
of everybody being made
in Her image.
Until She got afraid
to look in a mirror.
Everybody had such
high expectations
and now She was
a little insecure.
Could be She was flabby.
Love handles on God
would have to be HUGE.

So She kept Her robe on.