Saturday, April 23, 2022

The Idol of Americianity

 Here is the most complete and most damning essay on Christian Nationalism I have read yet.

 This part in particular hit me. Growing up Southern Baptist in Missouri, I remember many years of VBS where we had to pledge allegiance to the Bible, American and "Christian" flag. It makes me sick to think about now.

Pledging to the Bible and Christian Flag

At the beginning of Vacation Bible school, children march forward as if they were in the military, carrying the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. Maybe you remember the drill: “Attention, salute, pledge!”  After the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag comes the parallel: “I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands: One brotherhood, uniting all mankind, in service, and in love.”  Then, “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s holy word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. I will hide its words in my heart, that I may not sin against God.”

It’s hard to know where to get started as to why this is wrong. Maybe I’ll start with the militarization of the church–“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war” has nothing to do with the peaceful kingdom of Christ. Or I could discuss the problem with having a Christian flag at all, since flags are national symbols and Christianity isn’t a nationality. Or maybe I’ll point out the difficulty with pledging allegiance to symbols of God, rather than to Actual God. Or I might highlight that making these pledges to the Christian flag and the Bible, at the same time as the American flag, elevates the national symbol to the same level as the symbols of faith. Christians have always been called to be anti-nationalists–but if you can’t do that, you should at least put God first.


Monday, April 18, 2022

Deconstruction or Transformation?

There's a polarization that is occurring not only politically but philosophically/spiritually. Both Ken Ham and the atheists cannot abide both-ands. But that is at the heart of the Trinity: both three and one. Sometimes I wonder how much computers with their binary digits have intensified this either/or thinking...but its roots lay long ago, when the metaphysical idea of participation was chucked.

I also am uncomfortable with all this talk about "deconstruction." It sounds to me like just more either/or reasoning. Either you embrace everything or nothing; and if the latter, hopefully you build anew from nothing. But as I read Rev. 21:1, even God doesn't do that. Yes, Babylon is destroyed, but God doesn't erase his entire creation and replace it. As Aristotle would say, it's not a "substantial" change; it's an "accidental" change, where the properties of the substance change, but the substance remains. The thing is "transformed," not supplanted.

Which is why I like the way a friend of mine put it: “resting in XC." HE is the way, the truth and the life; He remains constant, and if we remain in Him, He will transform us. Transformation is different from deconstruction. When I deconstruct, I am the agent. When I am transformed, I am the patient, not the agent. It is much harder to undergo transformation than deconstruction, simply because it requires that I give up control, and trust the One who is acting upon me.

"For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He will also deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself."
(2 Timothy 11:b-13)


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Was Jesus Forsaken on the Cross?

 From a FB exchange:

SHE  How should we understand Jesus' cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Is it that Jesus could no longer feel God's presence due to his own pain and suffering?

ME:  That's certainly a good possibility.

There's a fantastic book that tackles that question: Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why it Matters

Biblically: McCall argues that there is no scripture that supports a "broken" Trinity, particularly as we examine Jesus' last words on the cross. For example, Luke 23:46 would make no sense if the relationship between the Father and the son was ruptured or even strained.

Theologically: McCall insists that without relationship there is no Christian God. "For Latin Trinitarianism, there is no TRINITY without the relations between the persons, while for social trinitarianism there is no MONOTHEISM without the relations between the persons. Either way, then, the triune God of the Christian faith does not exist apart from the relations between the divine persons." (p. 36-37) So contra Getty and Townend, the Father does NOT turn his face away from Christ on the Cross.

So then what is the cry of dereliction about? McCall argues that "we should take Jesus' quotation of the first lines of this psalm [Ps. 22] as a signpost to the whole psalm." (p. 42) In his agony, Jesus is pointing to his mission. McCall quotes Rikki Watts: "While not detracting at all from Jesus' suffering, it is hard to understand why Mark would work so hard at evoking Ps. 22 if he did not also expect his informed readers to know exactly what was coming next: a starling reversal and deliverance." (p. 42)

<For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you[f] I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!"

A Meditation on Models of the Atonement


I'm thinking about atonement this week. Here are four questions Metropolitan Kallistos Ware offers that I'm finding helpful as I contemplate the possible ways to understand what Christ has done for us.

<1) Does it envisage a change in God or in us? “Some theories of Christ’s saving work seem to suggest that God is angry with us, and what Christ has done is to satisfy God’s anger. But that cannot be right. It is we who need changing, not God. As St. Paul said, ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is the world that needs to be reconciled to God, not God to the world.”>

Lord, In what ways do I need to be changed, in order to be reconciled to You?

<2) Does it separate Christ from the Father? “Some theories seem to suggest that God the Father is punishing Christ when He dies on the Cross. I remember as a student in Oxford hearing that great evangelical preacher Billy Graham say, “At the moment when Christ died on the Cross the lightning of God’s wrath hit him instead of you.” I didn’t find that a very happy way of thinking of Christ’s work. Surely we should not separate Christ from the Father in that kind of way, for they are one God, members of the Holy Trinity. As St Paul states, in the words that I quoted just now, ‘God was in Christ’. When Christ saves us, it is God who is at work in Him; there is no separation.”>

How have I tried to pit the Persons of the Trinity against one another? How have I preferred One over the rest? Father, forgive me; help me to see how Jesus reveals you, and by your Spirit use me to reveal Jesus to others.

< 3) Does it isolate the cross from the Incarnation and the Resurrection? “We are to think of Christ’s life as a single unity. So we should not think only of the Cross, but we should think of what went before the Crucifixion, and of what comes after.”>

Lord Jesus, help me to be balanced when I study about and speak what you have done. Enable me to make connections, and see your power and love throughout the entirety of your story.

<4) Does it presuppose an objective or a subjective understanding of Christ’s work? “Does Christ’s saving work merely appeal to our feelings, or did He do something to alter our objective situation in an actual and realistic way?”>

Father, thank you for the way you are in the process of restoring my soul, my heart, my mind, and my body, and healing the whole world.


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

How will Covid Change the Church?


Penance and plague: How the Black Death changed one of Christianity's most important rituals."   and

It has caused me to wonder
how, in years to come, we will see all the ways Covid has changed the Church.

Philosophically, the Black Plague caused a shift in perspectives on reality. Instead of seeing persons as imaging God--unique particulars participating in a community, and seeking the common good--Europeans started to see human beings as individuals--autonomous "billiard balls on the pool table of life." That individualism has been snowballing to this very day: from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to Spencer's "survival of the fittest" to Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, postmodernism.
It remains to be seen where Covid will take us, philosophically and theologically, but I think that it has already paradoxically increased hyper-individualism while simultaneously increasing tribalism. When there is no longer such a thing as persons who seek to image the divine community, human beings will still yearn for it, and seek a substitute, by collecting themselves tribally around political or social figures and topics. In the past, that was called idolatry.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Church is like a Library


"I think being in the Church is like being in a great library. The Church holds the truth, just as a great library holds many many books of knowledge, facts, science, philosophy and truth.
But being in the Church doesn't mean you hold all the Truth anymore than being in the library means you have read every book."

--Iain Elabo

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

This Blog is my Commonplace Book

 This essay in the NYT gave me the language for what I am doing in this blog: I am keeping a Commonplace Book.

    Commonplace Books Are Like a Diary Without the Risk of Annoying Yourself

    I keep a journal of quotes, lines from songs, poetry. Nothing is my original thought — but all of it struck me as meaningful when I wrote it down

Commonplace books are hardly new. In the Renaissance, readers started transcribing classical fragments in notebooks, bringing ancient writings into conversation with their own lives. After his wife left him in 1642, John Milton processed it in his commonplace book, chronicling a reading binge about bad marriages. Arthur Conan Doyle transcribed criminology theories in his, and then gave Sherlock Holmes his own commonplace book, filled with intel on up-and-coming forgers. But the idea of a personal intellectual database fell out of style as printed material became more accessible to a broader audience. You could just look at a copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” Today you can scroll through inspirational quotes on Instagram.

...Thrumming beneath the pages is a shifting self-image. When I read them, I recognize the past me who saw herself in these quotes, but I don’t roll my eyes at her. With others’ words as intermediaries, the harsh light of hindsight softens. If keeping a journal would be a way to look in the mirror and make an honest appraisal of myself, keeping a commonplace book is more like looking at myself out of the corner of my eye.

It’s an admittedly different approach from my generation’s inclination toward full-frontal accountability. Daily diary apps and self-improvement podcasts and confessional Instagram stories evince a belief that to grow as a person you have to be entirely, unflinchingly forthcoming. But I couldn’t catalog my flaws without flinching. And I don’t think I need to. That’s part of the point of reading, I think: When I find myself too earnest, too impatient, too much, I can be in conversation with other minds instead. Keeping a commonplace book feels like a kinder way to grow, by wrestling with the articulations of others in the open as I hopefully adjust myself within.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

"How Powerless are you Willing to Be?"

 A friend recently sent me this essay, "How Powerless are you Willing to Be?"

This is my response:

Thanks for this essay.  I've been mulling it over for quite some time. It is a very Eastern Orthodox perspective. The Orthodox have a deep respect and understanding of the Trinity, which I admire and agree with.  But Eastern Christians tend to take a mystical and contemplative road to truth, rather than the  philosophical and analytic one that Western Christians take. IMO neither one alone is sufficient.  

I think the Trinity teaches us that we are not "individuals," who exist in "collections," but "persons" who participate in "communities." Freeman rightly criticizes individuals and collections/states, but IMO he fails to develop the fact that we are persons who participate in communities. Let me define these terms:  

1) INDIVIDUALS  are discrete, atomistic, autonomous particular human beings. The modernist Myth of the State of Nature (which inspired Hobbes and Locke) holds that individuals are autonomous-- literally, "laws unto themselves-- until such time as *they themselves* choose to gather together in a collection: a society/system/structure/state. Their relationships are only a matter of their individual wills, until such time as they themselves choose to create a society/system/structure/state, and are liable to change as individuals’ wills change.  

2) PERSONS are indeed particular; they are also unique and valuable. However, they are more than simply individuals. They *participate* in realities beyond themselves-- systems/ structures/ institutions/bodies. Genesis is the premodernist myth, holding that human society is a gift from God, and a reflection of the society that is the Trinity. God is not three individual Gods, but three Persons who participate in one Substance, the Godhead. The relationship of Persons is not a product of their wills, but a result of participating in something which is the ground of their wills.

2) A COLLECTION is a set of individuals, each with their own will which determines . The collection is external to their identities. In the end, whoever has the strongest will determines what the collection will be about, and decide who gets to be in the collection.

3) A COLLECTIVE  is a group where neither individuals nor persons are permitted: Groupthink is the ultimate reality.

4) A COMMUNITY is a body of persons who share/relate to each other with some kind of intellectual, volitional and/or spiritual end which is essential to their identity.

Individuals are able to exist --and if Rousseau is correct, thrive-- apart from other individuals; persons are not.

Historically, here in the U.S., a nation born of the Enlightenment, the idea of "rugged individualism" has been an ideal. Our motto is "e pluribus unum," out of many, one. In the past we have imagined ourselves as a collection of individuals, bound together by the social contract which is the Constitution. (This concept is graphically portrayed by the 13 arrows in the claw of the eagle, in the Great Seal of the United States.)

But lately there have been competing wills, with different visions of what this collection of individuals should be like. Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy has apotheosized the individual. It naively assumes that the goals of individuals will not conflict, but in reality her thought has pitted individual against individual, and taught that selfishness is good. Republicans have latched onto that for many years now; but since 2016 a new vision has overtaken them: that America is the collection of white "Christian" citizens who celebrate and support the will of Donald Trump. Anyone who disagrees with that vision is not a good American--indeed, they are the Other, a threat to be dealt with.

Freeman writes,
<Attending to the evil within my own heart (as well as attending to the good) is castigated by some as “Quietism.” There are, instead, impassioned proposals that call us to action (write your congressman and save the world). Moral sentiments and moral actions come to us with the promise of their effectiveness. If enough of us act, we will change the world. This is not true now nor has it ever been.>

I disagree with Freeman here. IMO it IS true that “if enough of us act, we will change the world.”  In fact, individuals acting in collections HAVE changed the world, and are continuing to do so. Consider what the world would be like if our nation had never existed.  Consider what would have happened if women had not banded together to demand the vote. Consider what would have happened if individual Germans had refused to submit their wills to the will of Hitler. Today the world has been so polarized that only collections and collectives exist. Currently, Russia seems to be the ultimate embodiment of a collection, manifesting the will of Vladimir Putin; and China seems to be the ultimate embodiment of a collective, manifesting the will of Xi Jinping. I fear we are about to see how the world will change as a result of individual Russians acting as a collection/society/system/structure/state that has submitted to Putin’s will, and his moral sentiments and actions. Every human will is sinful and finite, and as a result our moral sentiments and actions are corrupted, leading to destruction.  

IMO, because Freeman has not distinguished between individuals and persons, collections and communities, he has thrown a baby out with the bathwater.
It is also true that Christians acting in communities have changed the world. Christians are persons who participate in community—that community that is the Body of Christ. Christians are called on to align their moral sentiments and actions—indeed, their minds and wills and hearts—with those of Jesus Christ. “You are not your own, you were bought with a price.” (I Cor. 6:19-20)   Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ (Eph. 5:1-2)  In doing so we submit our wills not to any sinful, finite human being, but to God, and this is what makes it possible for us to change the world for good. Let us be encouraged by the examples we have already seen, given to us by the confessors and martyrs of the Church. When enough of them displayed the moral sentiments and actions of Christ, they gave us glimpses of the Kingdom to come.

So the question is, are we willing to submit our particular wills, and our power, to the only One who Good? (Luke 18:19)  Are we willing then to be filled with the Spirit’s moral sentiments, and do the work of Christ?  God help me to do so, and forgive me when I don’t.