“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal . . . it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” C.S. Lewis – The Four Loves
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.'” Ac 17:22–23.
There are two basic versions of the story of “God and man.” The first version presents man on a spiritual quest in search of the “unknown god.” In the second version of the story, the roles are reversed, and we discover God, “the hound of heaven”, in relentless pursuit of his beloved creature, man, who continues to wander and hide. The problem with both Christian legalism and todays popular, neo-gnostic spirituality, is that they both affirm the first version of the story. In fact, the majority of religious programs are based on the “religious seeker” formula. It is Jesus Christ himself, who puts the matter to rest when he assures us that God is indeed the “seeker” and we are his “sought ones” – “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Lk 19:10. In fact, the traffic in the Gospels always moves from north-to-south, God the “seeker” moving toward man the “sought one” – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son . . .” Jn 3:16.
The ground and grammar of our life in Christ is, ‘revelation and encounter’, in that order. For we only truly encounter those who are first willing to reveal themselves to us. But when we get the roles of ‘seeker’ and ‘sought ones’ confused, we end up going on the proverbial, ‘goose chase.’ It is our refusal to simply be God’s ‘sought ones’, the objects of his grace, that gets us into so much trouble. For, when we insist on being the ‘seekers’, the ones trying to track down and identify a nameless, faceless, “unknown god”, the ‘seeking’ and ‘self-revealing’ God isn’t even on our radar and Jesus Christ, simply fades to the background. But thankfully, there is a remedy to all our compulsive spiritual seeking. Just this morning I was comforted in recalling the following words from John’s epistle:
“This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice . . . ” (MSG) I Jn. 4:7-8
When we say, God’s love is unconditional, we are not simply saying that God loves us in spite of our failures, but we are saying that God’s love for us is not conditioned by our love for him! For in Jesus Christ, we discover a God who loved us and pursued us, even while we paid him no mind. This blows a hole in all our “ladder climbing” spirituality and “seeker-centered” religious programs, which is to say, it blows a hole in all of our spiritual ambitions, where we fancy ourselves as the pious and devoted, ‘seekers’ of the “unknown god.” The God of Jesus Christ is the God who calls, reveals, initiates, restores and sustains his relationship with us, and he is not impressed with our attempts to earn the love he lavishes on us freely.
Finally, the self-revealing God has not come to us in the form of a law or a principle a program or a goal. When scripture says, “He (Jesus Christ) is the visible image of the invisible God” (Col.1:15), it means that we no longer need to guess or speculate as to what God is really like. Christ himself tells us, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (Jn 14:9). For as Baxter Kruger says, “There is no god hiding behind the back of Jesus Christ.” Therefore, since the ‘self-revealing’ God comes to us personally in the person of Jesus Christ, it is time that we demystify our understanding of faith. Faith is simply the word to describe our encounter with and our response to this divine “other”, the one who both “seeks” us and “reveals” himself to us in the form of a knowable person.
One thing that God and my neighbor have in common, is their ability to place a claim upon my life (claim on my time, energy, material resources and attention). God and neighbor both do for us what we could never do for ourselves, namely, call us out of the small story of “self”, and into the epic adventure of “living in the land of others.” I have made the mistake of putting faith in my reason and in my ‘faith’, but gradually I have come to discover that faith is not a set of static ideas, nor is it the acquisition of the best religious information. Faith is a whole-hearted response to the revealed presence of the living “other.” Faith is a vulnerable response to the one who calls me into relationship with himself and with my neighbor. So, my definition of faith is two-fold: “faithful response to the ‘seeking and revealing’ God; and learning to live in the land of others!”
Have you noticed how, as human beings, we are constantly embroiled in some type of crisis of “belief”? This “belief” crisis is not about having to choose the “best” possible beliefs from the myriad of competing belief systems, but rather, it is the crisis created by the constant pressure of having to believe. Think about how often we are asked in the course of the day to “believe” certain things: beliefs about poverty, terrorism, nutrition, politics, and laundry soap. Every day we are under a relentless assault of propositions, propaganda and campaigns. We are surrounded by advertisers, advocates and “believers”, whose sole aim is to convert us to their viewpoint or their brand. The crisis comes when we stop to consider that there is no way to opt out of the “believing game”, since even unbelief still involves “believing”.
The real “crisis” comes from living in a world that demands our “buy in”, adherence, and our devotion. We need not make the mistake of thinking about “belief” and “believing” in terms of one of the “either/or”, A or B, binary oppositions such as: ‘faith versus reason,’ ‘capitalist versus socialist,’ religious versus secular’, or that most absurd binary belief of all, the reductionist litmus test of, ‘for or against Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump.’ Also, when we talk about the dangers associated with “belief” and “believing”, we tend to think in extreme examples, such as people surrendering their minds and their money to a cult leader, but this stereotype is not helpful for most of us, since we are merely looking at symptoms of belief and not the true nature of “believing.” When we look at how belief works, in spite of the fact that people “believe” in a wide spectrum of “beliefs”, we discover that there is no essential difference in the mechanisms for how we go about forming and attaching to our various “beliefs.” Everyone is a “believer” not simply because we choose to believe, but because we need to believe.
It turns out that “believing” is how we maintain our equilibrium (sociological, psychological, economic etc.). The first step to getting a handle on “belief” is to accept our homo-religious condition, as those who “need to believe” (even atheism and nihilism are “belief systems”). The reason we find it so difficult to acknowledge this intrinsic “need” to believe is that the very admission of the fact represents the first crack in the edifice of our presumed objectivity and sense of certainty (“objectivity” is a modern myth and we are all pretty “certain” that things are pretty much as we imagine them to be). Thus, as “believers”, we are left to assume that the root of our societal problems lies with the uneducated and the unenlightened – but we would be wrong. In his book, UTOPIA FOR REALISTS , Rutger Bregman notes, “Researchers at Yale University have shown that educated people are more unshakable in their convictions than anybody. After all, an education gives you tools to defend your opinions. Intelligent people are highly practiced in finding arguments, experts, and studies that underpin their preexisting beliefs, and the Internet has made it easier than ever to be consumers of our own opinions, with another piece of evidence always just a mouseclick away.”
We not only overestimate the power of our reason and the veracity of our data, but we typically fancy ourselves as possessing the “best beliefs”, or the “least bad” beliefs. This, of course, is another belief – a belief about our beliefs. When taken together, our need to believe, along with believing that our “beliefs” are basically “good”, we have the raw material for convictions, those deeply held beliefs about what “should” and “should not” be. Our deepest convictions tend to be so foundational to our worldview that they fall under the category of “given”, which places them just beyond the reach of critical review. Consider the following excerpt from “Utopia” by Rutger Bregman.
Mind you, we tend to be quite flexible when it comes to practical matters. Most of us are even willing to accept advice on how to remove a grease stain or chop a cucumber. No, it’s when our political, ideological, or religious ideas are at stake that we get the most stubborn. We tend to dig in our heels when someone challenges our opinions about criminal punishment, premarital sex, or global warming. These are ideas to which people tend to get attached, and that makes it difficult to let them go. Doing so affects our sense of identity and position in social groups – in our churches or families or circles of friends.
From the time our cognitive faculties develop we begin collecting “beliefs” about the world around us, and over time we eventually organize our various “beliefs” into a coherent system or “world view.” Unfortunately, these ideological houses that we build for our habitation quickly turn into fortified castles, complete with moat and armed garrison. Like those castles of old, we are intent on protecting ourselves and “our people” from those cultural barbarians and vandals, whose view of the world poses a threat to our “way of life.” But most of us cannot afford a castle, so we end up settling for a more modest, “belief bunker.” Like the bomb shelters of the Cold War era, “bunker living” is inspired and maintained by a certain newsfeed, one that feeds our fears and enflames our outrage. Bergman’s description here is bang on, “A worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in.”
Today everyone has their own version(s) of, the “us versus them” saga. It is a curious thing that in the telling of our favorite “justice narrative,” we never cast ourselves in the role of the defendant, but only as, either the victim, the hero or the judge (there are some who cast themselves as both the defendant and the judge – I suspect “judge” is the dominant role). In other words, today everyone is demanding “justice”, but no one wants judgment. And to make matters worse, rather than practicing self-reflection by critiquing the material of our own “bunker mentality”, we find it easier to simply build bigger “bunkers” to include the people who happen to share our opinions, convictions and prejudices. “What we need around here is more ‘good people’, just like us.” Sadly, our “belief bunkers” not only insulate us from engaging the “other”, but they end up distorting reality to the point where we do not even understand ourselves.
It is no surprise then to discover that all these competing “belief bunkers” share the same chief organizing principle, a primal and somewhat involuntary form of logic, the “knowledge of good and evil.” The problem, of course, with this ancient “logic”, is not simply that it is often completely misguided; the biggest problem with the “good versus evil” binary code is that it deceives its users into believing that they are utterly exceptional in their moral vision and convictions. This explains why all the competing “belief bunkers” have the same essential confession: “We are those who affirm and share these ‘good beliefs’ and we stand over and against those misguided (ignorant, evil, homosexual, liberal, communist, fascist, homo-phobic etc.) folks who adhere to a ‘bad’ set of beliefs.” I am not saying that all ideas are created equal, but I am saying that there is a really good chance that you are overestimating the virtue of our your “worldview.” As Robert Burton wisely states in, “Our World Outsmarts Us”, “The best defense against runaway combative ideologies isn’t more facts, arguments and a relentless hammering away at contrary opinions, but rather a frank admission that there are limits to both our knowledge and our assessment of this knowledge.”
In short, the only way to negotiate our societal “belief crisis” is to “slow” our own “roll” concerning our personal level of certainty and incredulity for those who dare to dissent – intellectual humility is not an oxymoron. The question we must face is, what does it mean to live humbly and hospitably with our neighbor? The question comes back, “who is my neighbor?” As I shared with my friends and family the other day, “Christ may say, ‘love your enemy’, but the truth is that I can barely love my friends.” I suspect that my statement, like the question about the identity of our neighbor, was a kind of diversion tactic. The truth is I have a problem admitting out loud that I have “adversarial” feelings toward my fundamentalist neighbor and my new-age co-worker? So before I can even flirt with Christ’s command to love my adversary, I am going to have to change the rules of engagement. It is time that we start defending our “adversaries” right to be heard, and the best way to do that is invite her over and learn how to listen.
I just spent the last couple hours with my dear friend, Joe Enlet. On the eve of Easter Sunday, we met at my house, ate middle eastern food, launched an assault on my recently acquired 1.75 liters of Wild Turkey 101 (thank you Lauren and Johnny and Lindy!), and talked theology, the “defeated Christ.” Since Joe, is the pastor of a local Micronesian church, I asked him what he planed on preaching tomorrow for Easter and his answer was both surprising and wonderful. Joe said, “I’m not going to give them their resurrection feel-good message.” I responded, “Joe, if you don’t give them their Easter “feel-good” they’re gonna crucify your ass!” Secretly I was thinking, I wish he was preaching in English instead of Micronesian because this is quite possibly the first sermon that I would pay money to hear.
Now before you head out to church or to brunch or to an egg hunt, I have an “Easter” question for you. What does the scripture mean when it calls Christ a, “scandalon” or “stumbling block”? In what ways does Jesus Christ, scandalize us or trip us up? Some common responses to this question are, the scandal of Jesus Christ is his incarnation and in his designation as the, “God-Man.” Another common view is that the scandal of Jesus is found in a theological theory called, “kenosis”, a term which describes Jesus’ “downward trajectory”: his voluntary, self-demotion and the giving up of certain divine privileges and prerogatives. But the scandal in question is far less theoretical than any of this – the scandal of Jesus Christ is much more pedestrian in nature.
Jesus Christ is a historical figure and not a legend, and he is a living person and not just a “spiritual being.” Like all of us, there are certain things about Jesus Christ that are directly attributed to his person. Jesus was born, which means he had a mother and father. Jesus “grew”, which means that he went through all the stages of human development. Jesus died, which means that he faced his own mortality and succumbed to death. But none of these facts, in and of themselves, are “scandalous.” The scandal of Jesus Christ and the things that typically “trip us up” about this person and his life are bound up in his failure to meet our expectations and our desires for Christ to be something “other” than who he is, something super-human. Here are three examples from the letters of the apostle Paul that describe how Jesus falls short of our expectations for him to be “more.”
“For God has . . . (sent) his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” Ro 8:3.
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” Ro 9:33.
” . . . but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” ICo 1:23.
It turns out that whether we talk about Jesus the “Man”, or Jesus the “Son of God”, the story is the same one. It is not correct to simply say that God revealed his “divinity” in Jesus Christ; neither should we say that God is hidden in Christ’s “humanity.” The scandal of Jesus Christ is that God is both hidden and revealed in the form of a “stumbling block”, in the form of a weak, vulnerable, mensch. God’s self-revelation did not come to us in the form of an idea or a feeling but as a particular person, and this particular person is in a particular form, “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” It is this form, this particular form of existence, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” – this is the scandal, the “stumbling block” that trips us up.
Ok, so by now you are probably thinking, “Come on, Chris, what are you blathering about here? Well, to quote El Duderino, “I’ll tell you what I’m blathering about!” Contrary to what has become for many of us an Easter tradition, the message of Easter is not an “easy-feel-good” story, but rather, it is a difficult and controversial message, one that tends to scandalize and confuse its recipients. The purpose of this homily is to correct the view of Easter as the “happy sequel” intended to cover up the tragedy and erase the painful memory of Good Friday. The problem with this approach is that the passion of Christ, his betrayal, doubt, suffering, abandonment, death and resurrection are all cut from the same cloth. Christ’s passion and resurrection rest on the one and same “scandal”, which is why the Gospels calls for faith even while leaving room for uncertainty and confusion. Also, because this “stumbling block” is an actual person, who also happens to be the “given” Son of God, his existence and his form are presuppositional and are not subject to proof (which would only seek to explain away and minimize the “scandalousness” of the scandal).
The scandal of Christ’s crucifixion, his execution at the hands of Pontius Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders is a major “stumbling block” for both Christians and pagans alike. Now I can hear someone say, “But wait, I thought Easter tells us that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, but then rose from the tomb two days later – how is this still a scandal?” Well, Paul also believed that Christ was risen and alive and yet he wrote, well after the fact, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” Notice, he neither says, “we preach Christ resurrected” nor does he say that his message is, “scandal and folly” to unbelievers. Christ’s followers, such as his first disciples, repeatedly “stumble” over Christ before they learn to believe.
When we see Christ in agony in Gethsemane, we ask, “What will happen to the Son of God if he is captured and defeated?” At Golgotha, we gaze upon the lifeless body of our hero and in shock and disbelief we ask, “How could this be?” When we arrive at Easter Sunday the “fog index is high” when we discover the empty tomb . . . “What does this mean?” And when we encounter the risen Christ, even if we don’t say it out loud, we wonder, “Who or what is this who has as returned to us from the dead?”
It is at this point that we must resist the temptation to indulge in the comfort of predictable formulas and religious slogans. If we can suspend our default schemes long enough to read the gospel accounts again, we might discover that the one who emerges from Arimathea’s tomb is not simply an invincible deity, but a figure shrouded in mystery. Scripture simply does not support the popular image of Jesus as the divine super-hero and the resurrected demigod. The Easter story that we encounter in the Gospels does not reflect the Schwarzenegger slogan, “He’s back!” The Gospel’s depiction of Easter is a much more nuanced and paradoxical reality, resurrection as “concealed glory” and “exalted-defeat.”
(In Luke, two disciples encounter Jesus after the resurrection but fail to recognize him. They walk along the road together while Christ “plays dumb” in order to draw them into a conversation). “The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel . . . He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk 24:21-25).
This same theme of “glory through suffering” appears in the book of Revelations where John describes his vision of Jesus Christ at the “end of the age”:
“And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals? And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain . . .” Re 5:2–7.
Notice that the “elder” assures John that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed to open the scroll” (the title deed for the cosmos and the fulfillment of the destiny of humanity), but the one who actually appears is not a Lion at all. When John looks, he sees a “slaughtered Lamb.” But how can this be? How can a “slaughtered Lamb” be a “conquering Lion”? Is this just a case of mixed metaphor and word play? Was Jesus’ “slaughter” a rouse intended to give the illusion of defeat? I suspect that the problem lies more in our failure to grasp the scandal of the gospel and the “foolishness” of the cross, for “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (ICo.1:21).
Jesus Christ’s cross was a genuinely tragic defeat, and all our Easter sermons and all our “atonement theories” cannot change this fact. As much as we like to make the scandal a “success story”, we are simply out of our element here. It turns out that the only way for the scandal of Christ’s death and defeat to be transformed into “glory and victory” is with another scandal. The scandal of Jesus Christ, his person and his cross, were ultimately subject to God’s own judgment. The scandal of God’s judgment took place when God looked upon his Son’s death and defeat upon the cross, and proclaimed him the “winner.”
Jesus Christ’s submission to an ignominious and tragic death was not vindicated by either his disciples or by the church with her priests and theologians, and he is not vindicated by this Easter sermon.The scandal-ridden story of Easter, rises and falls on God’s own vindication of Jesus. For God is the one actor who alone could vindicate the obedience of his “defeated Son.” Therefore, when we say, “Easter”, we are saying, “God vindicated the obedient submission of his Son even though that obedience ended in death and defeat.” For God did not rescue and exalt his Son despite his defeat on the cross, but because of his defeat. The message of Easter is when God proclaims to the world, “My defeated Son is the ‘winner’ and his shameful death on the cross is now the wisdom, power and glory of God!” Easter is the “wisdom of God’s folly” the “victory of God’s defeat” and the “glory of God’s humiliation.”
The Easter scandal is Jesus Christ himself and not merely the circumstances which he is involved in. And because the “stumbling block” is a Person, the scandal lives on into his post-resurrection encounters with his disciples and into eternity. It should be noted that Christ’s return to life was anything but publicly overwhelming, and to this day, the vast majority of his followers have never even seen the “risen Christ. The climax of the Easter scandal was when God overruled the “natural” order of things by rescuing and exalting his defeated Son from death and Hades and declaring him the “winner” over those who had defeated him!
The scandal of Easter echoes in eternity. For the one who suffered and died, who was raised and exalted above every name and throne, is the one who forever bears the wounds of his earthly defeat! The eternal scandal of Easter is that God has appointed a “slaughtered Lamb” to rule as his undisputed sovereign of the cosmos, the one who will bring all of history to its consummation! This is why we experience the Spirit of Christ whenever we acknowledge the reign of the defeated Messiah in our midst, for as Paul says, “we proclaim the Lord’s death (defeat) until he comes” (I Co. 11:26).
Now as I finish this piece at 2:53am the current song of my “soundtrack” plays poetically (prophetically?), “Gotta Serve Someday” . . . “Might like to drink whisky, my like to drink milk, might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk . . . Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody!” Alright, I’m going to bed, now go get your Easter brunch!
As the song goes, “We live in a political world”, which means that we live in an ideological world. One definition of ideology is, “the imaginary relationship of individuals to the real conditions of their existence”. A more popular and accessible term for ideology is “worldview.” Worldview is basically the lens that you look through to see and interpret the world around you. And if there was any doubt about the role of ideology in shaping our individual and collective lives, this recent election should settle it. The tsunami wave that has effectively ravaged our national psyche was the perfect ideological storm. We just experienced the collision of two monolith world views, competing in a political zero sum game. The winner of this competition would get to determine what kind of “world” we would all live in.
This brutal competition that dragged on for nearly two full years, not only divided our country, but has made us “prisoners here, of our own device” (the secret meaning of Hotel California revealed!). The brick and mortar of these prison walls is the bipolar, “left/right” politics and the bars are the binary logic and the enemy-centered narrative of “either/or” and “us/them”. So given the fact that our country has been duly ravaged by political ideology, we desperately need to understand just how ideology and worldview work (see Slavoj Žižek excellent film on the subject).
Here are some common worldview slogans that you may have seen on the highway today: “Proud to be a Christian American”, “Everyday is Earth Day,” “If it feels good, do it!”, “I work for my family, not yours. Get a job”, “War Is Not The Answer” etc. The problem, of course, with these bumper sticker maxims is that they are virtually unassailable, since no one is ever required to defend the veracity of these slogans – in terms of discourse, the bumper sticker, the tee-shirt and the placard are classic examples of monologue or what Melvin Udall refers to as “shoving your show.” Ideology and worldview are essentially a type of religious creed in that for it to work well, it requires a faith commitment or a “buy in” from its adherents. But why do we need Ideology in the first place? Ideology (worldview) tells the “big story” about how we do life (i.e., capitalism, democracy, moralism, liberalism etc.). To use another metaphor, ideology is our map for helping us to navigate this complex world. Unfortunately, because these ideological “maps” give us a sense of what is real and true, we end tend to form deep attachments to them. Over time our worldviews become dogmatic, rigid, and myopic. Overtime these ideological maps corrupt our public discourse.
Now if everyone sincerely believes that their “map” accurately describes the territory, and their worldview prescribes the best possible world for us to live in, what happens when we bump into people whose “maps” and vision of the world look nothing like our own? This would be a recipe for disaster. Or worse, what if we found out that half of the country is navigating their lives with one map and the other half is referencing another? This appears to be our current situation. By some strange design our country is now divided between two monolith ideologies, two competing “views” of reality. Unfortunately, unlike the peaceful, co-existing balance of the eastern, yin and yang of “both/and”, our political binary is intensely competitive, winner take all, and enemy-centered.
Have you noticed how many news stories are based on binary-oppositions: rich-poor, black-white, blue-red, theist-atheist, gay-straight? As John Stewart makes clear in his two-part interview with Rachel Maddow a few years back, news stories are intentionally designed by network producers to appeal to the lowest level of critical thought. As Stewart explains, it’s like the moment you notice a sporting-match on TV and your mind has to quickly figure out which uniform your team is wearing so that you can root for the “right team.” In other words, journalism, Stewarts says (and he was clear to point out that it’s not just Fox news), appeals to us at the level of instinct (fear and mistrust of others) and our unreflected preferences.
Apparently our brains are naturally wired for a “fight or flight”, “friend or foe” thought process and response. Unfortunately, this natural tendency means that we are vulnerable to those who would seek to exploit that tendency. An enemy-centered story (“dangerous immigrants” or “evil Trump”) captures our attention because such a message assures us of our “rightness” and sanctifies our incredulity of others “wrongness.” It is this formula that TV producers intentionally craft for the purpose of hooking and reeling in their viewers, one that they know will drive up their ratings. Oh, and again, this is not the patented formula of one infamous network. In this way our discourse is becoming increasingly competitive, dogmatic, binary and reductionist and as a result, we are losing the ability to think critically and converse constructively. When news stories are intentionally crafted to be polarizing we end up living in a Pavlovian wasteland, where each time we hear a certain political “bell” ring, we begin salivating on our Facebook page. It turns out that the rise of “artificial intelligence” predicted by countless, future-dystopia, sci-fi books and films, has not manifested the way we had expected, with the “rise of the machines”, but rather with the rise of the ideologues.
In addition to the binary news formula, we have the zombie apocalypse of social media, where millions upon millions of talking heads are now running their own “news desk” (present commentator included), complete with microphone, stage, and audience (Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, You Tube, etc.)! In the world of “new media”, there are no more experts, for everyone is now an expert, everyone is a preacher of righteousness, everyone is an advocate for truth and justice. In the world of new media, the old rules are out. Now anyone can “make news” without any regard for journalistic restraint or appeal to dispassionate objectivity. In fact, the fuel driving this new media is shameless bias and moral outrage. The new media has unleashed on the world an army of zealots and ideologues, secular and religious crusaders, true believers, who will not rest until they have “Made America Great” or until they have exhausted their moral outrage as they curse at the darkness (the darkness that lies in the hearts of their enemies). Today everyone fancies themselves as a champion of the just and righteous cause! But as we are quickly discovering, hell hath no fury like the zeal of a political ideologue.
I personally reject the “greatness” myth, but that does mean that I plan on joining the reactionary “resistance” made up of the self-appointed “guardians of the good,” who possess an unshakable and shameless confidence in their own ability to arbitrate between good and evil. These “guardians of good” are so confident in their moral superiority (“intelligence” is a common euphemism for moral superiority) that they believe that they can not only suss out the intent but the future actions of the “evil doers.” Behold, the new “moral majority”! Like its fundamentalist predecessor of the 70’s and 80’s, this group feeds on fear and moral outrage. Well, you can cancel my subscription to your “greatness” movement and take me off the mailing list of the morally outraged “resistance.” Did we really think it was possible to overthrow fear and outrage with more fear and outrage?
The election cycle from hell eventually came down to one political maxim, “there are two kinds of people in this world, those who are for him and those who are against him.” Now with Trump in office, the question continues to hang over our heads like the Portland cloud cover, “are you for him or against him?” But I refuse to surrender to this inquisition and I refuse to give my heart to this narrative. I will not be defined by these cultural crusaders and morally outraged inquisitors. I do not have to defend myself to those whose minds have been taken captive by the binary logic of American politics. I reject the terms of the debate! I refuse to adopt either the “American greatness” narrative or it’s antithesis, the “guardians of the good.” I reject the myth of a “great past” as well as the myth of the “great man” which means that I reject the hope that any of this will somehow make me great or even “good” in some way.
The movie, “The Mosquito Coast” (see video below), starring Harrison Ford and River Phoenix, shows us how ideology (pragmatism, nationalism and “freedom”) leads to tyranny. Ford’s character is the ideologue, whose cruelty and intolerance is aimed at those who do not share his view of things. His contempt extends to anyone, including his family, who fail to properly affirm and support him and his “solution-driven” regime. Can you identify any of these traits in the way your neighbor defends his favorite ideology? Here is a harder question, can you find any of these tendencies in yourself? What makes someone’s anger and outrage morally superior to another? Who is qualified to diagnose what exactly needs “fixing” in this world (certainly this social commentator is not immune)? Are we even interested in conversing with those who think so very differently than ourselves? Are we even open to listening to and considering dissenting viewpoints? Or are we only interested in discrediting our detractors so that our viewpoints are advanced with the least amount of resistance?
The problem with the message of Trump’s election, as well as the message of the emerging “resistance” to that election, is that they are both working off the same basic script. “Make America Great” as well as “Join the Resistance” are both populist messages fueled by fear and outrage. Trump ran on a populist message of, “Washington insiders don’t care about you, but I do!” and now the reaction group has replied saying, “Trump is the enemy of the good. He does not care about you but we do. Join us!” The irony here is that both the seekers of “greatness” and the “guardians of the good”‘ are really brothers under the skin, two sides of the same reactionary coin. The team-cheer for both the Trump camp and the resistance goes like this, “Who are we?” “We are not those assholes over there!” It is this “over and against” orientation that is dividing us today and turning us into the first church of the enemy-centered and morally outraged. There are no easy formulas for restoring thoughtfulness and civility to our discourse – changing this wasteland of our dysfunctional discourse will not be easy.
Now I realize I have been describing two extreme poles, and I realize that there are moderate positions along the spectrum, but the fact is that the extreme polarity is what drives the discourse and what fuels the messages – messages about how wrong those “evil doers” on the left or right are. The reason that we are constantly drawn to one of these extreme poles is that it gives us a false sense of strength and equilibrium. Let me ask, is anyone interested in a different kind of movement, one that is not part of the existing political binary and enemy centered outrage? Would anyone like to explore a new discourse, one that is not entrenched in the binary logic of American political ideology with it’s self-righteous superiority and an infernal hatred of the “other”? I want to escape the binary trap of, “for him or against him?” I long to be a part of a movement that will transcend this viscous cycle of “us against them.” I want to be part of a civil discourse that is more humble, less fearful, less cynical and more, well, civil. The fact of the matter is that we will never recover civil discourse until we sincerely learn to value it.
Such a movement, would certainly start with humble beginnings. We would have to be willing to develop some new habits of mind and tongue. We would have to sharpen our sensitivity to all the hooks and traps designed to keep us captive to the dominant narrative of the political binary. Together we would learn to resist the sirens of propaganda about “American greatness” as well as the sanctimonious talk about being one of the self-appointed “guardians of good.” We would learn to refuse all agendas that are based on the absurd reduction of, “for x, or against x.” To the proponents of the binary formula who insist that there are “two kinds of people”, we will learn to reply, “yes, and I am neither.” If you are interested in exploring a place beyond the divisive discourse that we have inherited, the one that is dividing us from one another and ravaging our public discourse, let’s start a new conversation. Please write in the comment section below with your thoughts and ideas about this new engagement.
I have been a part of the Church for over 30 years now. I love the Church because, like my family, my nation and the town I live in, the Church is my home. Now I love my family and I am grateful for it, but that does not mean that I approve of everything that my family does. In order to grow, both individually and corporately, we must learn to practice the art of reform, for to “reform” is to form again that which has become deformed. Not surprisingly, in the first line of Luther’s 95 Thesis, the German reformer says that the life of the Christian is one of ongoing repentance (re-thinking our views and re-directing our actions).
With this in mind, it is in the spirit of solidarity and a love for the Church, a love which includes a love for the truth, that I offer the following holiday reflection.
When will the Church realize that the gig is up and that the world has called her bluff? Like the story of the naked emperor, the Church appears to be the last to know what everyone else has known for some time. We wonder why the world refuses to believe us when we tell them that we are committed to healing and reconciliation. Perhaps it is because they have rightly detected that we are secretly more concerned with being right and being in charge than we are with being humble ambassadors of Jesus. Or perhaps they are turned off by our marketing schemes – they see how we desperately want people to “like” the Church? Sadly, in this post-Christian era, the Church has become like that boyfriend who refuses to acknowledge the break up. Unfortunately, rather than do the update, the Church has turned to marketing gimmicks to try and boost her dwindling approval rating.
These days where we are constantly being bombarded with sales pitches and infomercial gospels, here comes the Church, hawking her religious goods and services just like all the other peddlers. Here’s a sample of church junk mail I have collected over the years. One post-card invitation with an image of smiling, happy people clapping while seated in a movie theater reads, “Comfy seats, Free coffee, Great message”; another half page card with the caption, “GET PURPOSE”, has a picture of a “Toshiba flat screen TV” along with a picture of a “Cyberhome DVD Player” and reads, “Join a 40 Days Group by April 15th and you will be eligible to win one of our grand prizes!” Unfortunately, there are consequences to this kind of communication, for in turning to marketing gimmicks and public image make-overs, the Church is trading her image and identity as a living body and a loving family to the image of the religious service industry.
In my lifetime I have watched as the Church has increasingly adopted the values of corporate America along with the marketing methods of Madison Avenue and the results have been devastating. We have conflated and confused Christ’s teaching of dependency, intimacy, and humility with the message of Tony Robins, complete with spiritual self-help principles and winning formulas that hold out the promise of personal success and self-improvement! We assumed that we could simply adopt the language and values of the marketplace, without suffering from any of its ill-effects. Did we honestly believe that the spirit of the age could be sanctified by simply dressing it up in religious clothing? Sadly, as the Church clings to her need to be needed, evidenced by her recent obsession with being “relevant”, she continues to forfeit her birthright as those who humbly serve and bear witness to their Lord.
The Church’s ‘new and improved’ make-over identity is, “church as religious service industry.” Church as religious service industry, means that the Church is now in the business of supplying spiritual goods and services to religious consumers. But those who “live by the market” will certainly “die by the market”, and with rare exception, fewer and fewer people are interested in “buying” what the Church is “selling.” And while there is certainly a time and place for marketing and shopping, when Jesus talks about what is most essential in life, he doesn’t use the language of marketing and shopping, but instead he uses the language of the farm and the garden. For example when Jesus tells us, “I am the the true Vine” or when Paul writes about the “fruit of the spirit”, they want us to understand that the life that Christ offers is living and organic. The gift of God is not manufactured, or “genetically” modified!
So this Advent season, rather than rehearse the old saw about how Christmas has become commercialized, I would like to make a Christmas confession. My confession is that I am a recovering religious consumer and a church marketer. As a consumer, I learned how to shop for the best deal on my goods, services and experiences, be they religious or secular. And as a church marketer, I have watched as the world continues to vote with its feet, letting us know that they are no longer interested in what we are selling. I have watched the Church’s influence in society dwindle and I have groused. I once believed that there is no salvation outside of the Church, but I have come to believe that there is certainly salvation outside the Church, just not outside of Christ. When the Church loses sight of this crucial distinction, she ceases to be a faithful witness to her Lord and becomes a hindrance and a stumbling block.
The word “Christmas” is a shortened form of Old English, “Christ’s mass” (meaning, Christ is formed). The word advent means, “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event”, thus the Advent season is marked by weeks of preparation, where we prepare our hearts and our homes to welcome the arrival of our special visitors. The Advent season is not simply a countdown to December 25th, for as I shared last week in “A Weary World Waits”, Advent is a four week period where we practice the discipline of prayerful waiting, “O, Come, O’ Come Emanuel and ransom captive Israel.” I was surprised, however, to discover that Advent is the celebration of not one, but three arrivals or “comings”: 1. there is the coming of the promised Messiah, the child born to Mary and Joseph 2.there is the coming of Christ into our hearts, and 3. there is the future coming of the Christ, when he will reign as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
With all the above in mind, I am offering this simple prayer, a prayer inspired from that great Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World.” Now, may the Jesus who came that first Christmas as a babe in the manager, come again this Christmas to each of our hearts. Let every heart, prepare him room! Merry Christmas!
As we approach the end of 2016, I have to admit, I am weary.
I’m weary of thinking, weary of working, weary of believing in all the “little mores” of life – a “little more” information to help us solve the problem, a “little more” effort (intellectual, political or moral) so we can fix the unfixable. It’s enough to make your head hurt. And then I started thinking. Perhaps its time to re-engage some of the wisdom of a bygone era. Maybe its time to reconsider some of our timeless traditions.
According to the liturgical calendar, we are in the third week of Advent – the fourth week begins tomorrow. I know this because Maylannee and I are attempting to take part in Advent this year in some meaningful way (think Advent for Dummies). We started by making our own Advent wreath (wreath, plus five candles, three thin white, one thin pink and one fat white one). With each candle, one lit for each Sunday leading up to Christmas, we reflect on the given theme for the week: Hope, Love, Joy or Peace and then we say a prayer, asking God to help us keep our hearts open to him. The last big candle is the Christmas candle, that we will light on Christmas Day.
The theme for the first week of Advent is hope. Hope is the invitation and the doorway into the Advent season. [On a parallel note, I was pleased to discover this week that Rogue One was a most impressive segue to the original Star Wars movie: A New Hope]. Now the tricky thing about hope is that it involves waiting for the person or thing that you are hoping in. And as we all know, the problem with waiting is that every five minutes there comes the frustrated voice from the back seat of your mind asking, “how much longer!?” There is also the proverb, which warns of the dark side of hope, “hope deferred make the heart sick.”
So Advent is a call to wait, but for how long, and for what or for whom are we waiting? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while sitting in his solitary jail cell in a Nazi prison, wrote a letter to his dear friend Eberhard Bethge in which he said this about Advent,
“Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent, in which one waits, hopes, and does this that or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison 135.
Bonhoeffer’s prison cell letter reminds us that the waiting of Advent is not merely passive resignation or mindless boredom. The waiting of Advent is a mindset and a discipline of the heart. Advent is our response to an invitation to slow down, to still our anxious hearts, to rest and to wait. Our response to this invitation involves placing our hearts, with all its hopes and fears in the care of someone greater than ourselves, someone who is uniquely able and graciously willing to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Someone who will open the cell door from the outside.
I had always maintained that God and his divine enterprises, his “kingdom”, were the overarching realities for all of life, but after the inferno that consumed so much of my life (loss of job, money, house, church, and friends) I began to question their relevance for life in the ‘here and now.’ If my life was a house, it burned to the ground. “How could this have happened? Was my life over? I picked through the charred and smoldering pieces, desperate for an answer, for a sign, something that I could use to rebuild and begin again. “Where was God” I asked, “and why hadn’t he protected us?”
The answer to these questions eluded me and over time a chasm opened up. On the one side of the chasm was God and on the other side, the ‘real world.’ The biblical admonition to be, “in the world but not of it” had become an impossibility, for I could no longer occupy both spheres at once. The chasm yawned opened and I fell in, tumbling into the darkness of the void.
The void is emptiness, the total absence of meaning and certainty.
The void is emptiness, the total absence of meaning and certainty. In this way the void is less like going to jail or traveling to another country and more like going to an alien planet. In the void, you are still aware of God but he is no longer familiar – he is different. In the void God is no longer willing or even interested in getting on your wavelength. The one who had once promised a “future and a hope” has now become the source of excruciating pain and disappointment. The void is kind of like Alice’s rabbit hole or Neo’s experience with the Matrix, for in the void reality is distorted and redefined.
There in the void, the questions flood and torture your mind. What will become of me? Have I lost my spiritual walk? Have I been living in a daydream all these years only to now awake from my religious slumber? Would I ever return to the life I once lived above the void? As my eyes adjusted to the shadowy darkness, I surveyed the landscape and it was devastating, worse than I had feared. I was looking at “dead bones” on top of “dead bones” and again the questions mounted. Was this all my fault? Had I really gotten it all that wrong? Was not God (his Spirit and his Word) the one who had shaped my dreams and expectations over all these years?
My questions were met with silence and my complaints were denied validation. God, as well as several of my closest friends, refused to consider these painful questions and disturbing complaints. In the void, things like, logic, fairness and sincerity have no meaning. In the void, the rules that govern life “above” do not apply. The void mocks and demolishes each one of our reasons, principles and sentiments. In the void there are no answers or consolation, only confusion. In the void I was disoriented and out of sync, out of sync with my God, myself and with the world around me. Protest and anger was all I had for protection.
“I have been betrayed by the one I had called Lord and savior!”
As the years passed, I came to accept the fact that God and I were locked in a stalemate with neither side backing down, so I decided to settle into my new life “below” the surface. I discovered that life “below” had some real advantages to life “above.” I am convinced that the book of Ecclesiastes, was written from the perspective of life “below.” What I did not realize was that life “below” was not the deepest place. Further and deeper down lay a simmering cauldron of lava. And then one day the cauldron blew. Out of the depths of my heart spewed bitter complaints and cursing, “I have been betrayed by the one I had called Lord and savior!”
I cursed at the heavens but the heavens held their peace, so with my relationship with God in complete disrepair, I did the only thing that I knew to do; I began a studied exploration of the badlands of my soul. I explored the rocky crags of bitterness and descended into the deep crevasses of inexorable fear. I walked the length and breadth of my personal Death Valley, and as I walked I cried out to God, lifting up anguished protests followed by desperate pleas for mercy, “Why God, why have you forsaken me!?”
“What are you counting on?”
I had heard about people with “hardness of heart”, those who had resisted God’s authority even to the point of open rebellion. The symptoms of my hardness had manifested in mistrust and bitter complaints. Gradually, over the course of months and years, without a dramatic breakthrough, there in the midst of these spiritual badlands, a tiny beam of light. The question quite literally came to me in a dream, “What are you counting on?” I thought about the question but I could not see that far into the depths of things – perhaps I was unwilling to look for fear of what I would find, so I decided to go another route.
I remembered this one “trick” that I kept for desperate times like this. Like Charlie Kauffman, I am not above tricking people into loving me, but where would I find these people who would recognize my inherent worth? Before what audience could I display my talent? Then I thought, “Perhaps there is a church in need of a minister . . . I have studied more than most people . . . I must have something to offer . . . something good . . . I just need to refine my message and improve my attitude. Maybe academia and theological discourse could give me the opportunity to shine!”
I had hoped that through the rigors of in-depth study (five years of graduate seminary) and with the right changes to my theology, I could fix the “dead bones” problem and move forward in life. But, while my studies opened up new perspectives, deep down I knew that things were still as I had feared and I was still in Death Valley. And then, a memory stirred. I remembered a conversation, one that I had turned to several times over the last thirty years, a conversation between God and the prophet Ezekiel.
‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’
“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” Ezek.37:1-4
Does living by faith mean living in a religious, “make believe land”? Does having faith mean sticking our heads down in the sand of denial or up in the oxygen depleted clouds of delusion? Faith in God is neither a fanatical escape nor a stoic indifference to the fallen order of things. We tend to like things “all or nothing” and “black and white”, but God meets us in the messy middle of our lives and faith refuses to look away from the mess. Faith is not denial or delusion, for it requires that we make an honest assessment of our situation, “behold, there were very many on the surface, and they were very dry.”
The discoveries I have gleaned from my experience in the void and the truth hidden in Ezekiel’s vision, continue to shape my life. The first thing I discovered is that the losses in our lives are neither trivial nor imagined – the “dead bones” are very real. The second thing I discovered is that God is not asking us to play make-believe and he is not downplaying the tragedy, “Now, now, it’s not that bad.” The third thing I am learning is that we will never be able to supply what is chronically missing in our lives or fix what is irreparably broken in this world and that is ok – such work is simply way above our pay grade. How would any of us know the first thing about “dead bones” coming to life?!
Now in answer to the earlier question from my dream, “What are you counting on?” If I am honest, I was always counting on God ‘backing me up’ in the world and giving me an advantage over the heathens. I was counting on a certain contractual deal where, if I faithfully served God, then he would be obliged to give me a privileged “seat at his table.” I was wrong. Somewhere along the way, I had conflated and confused God (along with his Spirit, his Word and his people) with my visionary dreaming and my personal ambitions.
I have learned the hard way that he never meets me in the place I think I should be – he only meets and deals with me in the place where I am.
I was surprised (more like devastated) to learn that despite how spiritual or godly my dreams and ambitions are; God is under no obligation to bring them to pass. And while I still believe that God speaks and that God promises, I have learned the hard way that he never meets me in the place I think I should be – he only meets and deals with me in the place where I am. It turns out that God’s promises are one-part pain and one-part hope. The one-part pain is the fact that even as we speak, “the present form of this world is passing away” and with it all our expectations of what we hoped that world would look like for us (ICo. 7:31).
I am still discovering right up to this minute that God is someone who I am ever discovering but never fully grasping – control and certainty are illusions, deceptive idols of the mind. My notion of God as the one who “backs up” my dreams is worse than useless – it is the source of insufferable heartache. Unfortunately, these notions die-hard, and I am gradually coming around to accept the truth. The truth is that God, the almighty creator and crucified redeemer, is not here to do my biding and he is not interested in doing a ‘fix up job’ on the “old me.” The God of Jesus Christ does not put Band-Aids on the “old creation” – life in Christ is nothing less than new creation! For he says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5)! Notice, he says, “I am making” and not, “I will make.” The only question left is, what does “all” mean?
This piece from SCOTTYTHINKS is a great summary for anyone interested in understanding the “rules” that govern modern thought.
This article represents an ongoing study for me and will be updated from time to time.
Western culture is yet awash in a detrimental subjectivism which stems from the impact of the modern turn to the subject. Before defining that phrase and more, it is important to confess my presuppositions.
As mentioned above, Western culture yet lies awash in Enlightenment philosophy and, indeed, is still in the Enlightenment period (though many subsequent and intervening eras have been spawned in response). While, indeed, Western culture may have been in a postmodern trance for a time in response to the Enlightenment era and the subsequent eras it spawned, postmodernism failed to convincingly “occupy a standpoint (‘the view from nowhere’) from which it [might] survey all possible standpoints and find them all ‘relative,’ while at the same time [claiming] that there is no such standpoint.” That…
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Christians, like myself, have a long history in America of presuming to be God’s appointed guardians of “the good”, the standard bearers of morality and righteousness! With regards to American politics, Christians have insisted that they are the ones uniquely qualified to “manage the store.” This would explain why in recent decades (the post-Christian era), the church has become defensive and preoccupied with “taking back America for God.” The very thought of relinquishing or even sharing the moral high ground with “the heathens” has been unthinkable and instead of going quietly into the night, some Christians have resorted to doom and gloom rhetoric, self-inflicted martyrdom and an all-out culture war.
When will the church realize that the world has grown weary of her, “make you wrong – make us right” scam. The world has rightly interpreted the church’s posturing and angry rhetoric as an attempt to dominate. Sadly, the church has for the most part, refused to recognize the cost for all her cultural crusading; failing to see how in setting herself up as judge over the world, she has forfeited her essential witness to Christ and to his gospel. Whenever the church confuses gospel with political ideology and moral outrage, she becomes just another one of the warring factions shoving their “show” on the rest of society.
As a Christian, I am painfully aware of how I have played the role of judge on the people around me, all the while holding a “get out of jail card” for myself. I have taken cover behind my religious self-image, presuming that my status of “good and godly” entitled me to special consideration, if not from society, at least from God and my fellow Christians. Too often I have played the role of the Pharisee who prays, “Lord, thank you that I am not a sinner like that man over there.” It is time for the church to repent of the “make you wrong – make me right” scam and to become a movement for good, those who bear witness to Jesus Christ, while discovering what it means to “love God and neighbor.” The church, by protecting her own interests, has lost her ability to bear witness to the one who willingly laid down his life for his friends, as well as his enemies.
The motivation for this piece is to uncover or confess “the truth” as in, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Now I am not interested in bashing the church – I am the church – and I want the church to be free! Everyone, regardless of class, ethnicity or worldview has to struggle to maintain their existential equilibrium. Maintaining equilibrium within one’s self, one’s social group and one’s environment can be a difficult and painful task. Aside from the countless threats to our physical well-being, most of us are just one personal rejection or failure away from feeling utterly devastated! In order to avoid or decrease personal devastation, we unconsciously create a variety of “survival mechanisms.”
Robert Mulholland in his book, The Deeper Journey, explains how a certain survival mechanism has back-fired on us, the mechanism known as the religious false self (ref. R.F.S.).
“With that I began to realize that underneath the thin veneer of my religiosity lived a pervasive and deeply entrenched self-referencing being which was driven by its own agendas, its own desires, its own purposes, and that no amount of superficial tinkering with the religious façade made any appreciable difference” (The Deeper Journey 23).
Sadly, the R.F.S. is not limited to those whose worldview includes a particular deity, since the non-religious version or “ideological false self” is equally insidious (further proof of how dubious the secular vs. religious dichotomy can be). But what is behind this facade of the R.F.S.? Mullholland explains that just “underneath the veneer” of the religious false self lies a “pervasive and deeply entrenched self-referencing being.” Can the R.F.S. be reformed or deconstructed? Unfortunately, because the R.F.S. is a “self-referencing being”, it is virtually immune to outside influence and correction. The R.F.S. is blind to its need for renewal and repentance (read: paradigm shifts or “program updates”). A truly “self-referencing person” is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes as being cor curvum in se, the heart turned in upon itself.
There are serious consequences for failing to recognize ones own “tricks”, which is why the proverb cautions us saying, “Keep your heart with all diligence for out of it flows all the issues of life” (Prov. 4.23). Failure to watch over ones own secret motives and to reflect on ones deepest affections is like failing to watch over one’s physical health – both can have devastating consequences. Again, the dangers of the R.F.S. is not restricted to those who adhere to a “world religion”, there are atheist friends of mine who can be just as”self-referencing” in their dogmatism and equally accomplished in the “make you wrong” scam. Also, this is not an all or nothing problem. There are days when I live generously with people around me and there are days when I can feel the R.F.S. trying to grab the wheel.
When the self-righteous agendas of the R.F.S. go unchecked in our lives, it not only corrupts our reason and our affections, consequently it distorts and damages our relationships with others. The earliest and most tragic example of this distortion is recorded in the ancient Hebrew’s story of Reshith (raysheeth) or Beginnings. In the story, God is looking for his creature Adam who has come under the influence of reality-distorting “fruit.” God calls, “Where are you?” Adam responds, “I heard you calling and I was afraid because I was naked.” Much has been written about the identity of the fruit but all one needs to now from this story, is told in the telling of the story (i.e. the fruit in question came from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”). The symptoms of the “forbidden” fruit are dramatically portrayed in Adam’s behavior. When you read the story below see if you can identify some of the symptoms that Adam exhibits while under the influence of this “fruit.”
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ge 3:8–13.
The first symptom we see in Adam is what appears to be an irrational fear (“I heard the sound of you . . . I was afraid . . . and I hid myself”). If we were doing a psych analysis on Adam, we would say that the creature was likely suffering from acute paranoia. As the story unfolds, God inquires of Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” Adam does not answer the question, the implication here is that no one told Adam that he was “naked” (i.e., inadequate and shameful) – Adam apparently told himself this! The name for this condition is, self-loathing. Lastly as God attempts to get to the bottom of the crisis, he asks Adam if he had eaten the forbidden fruit, to which Adam replies, “The woman . . .” This symptom of failing to take responsibility for one’s actions is called “blame-shifting” or what we have called “running the scam.” When asked a yes or no question, “Did you eat it?” Adam simply shifted the blame onto the woman, who then proceeded to shift it on to the snake.
This ancient myth is a profound depiction of human nature struggling to maintain its equilibrium in the face of fear, shame and blame. Adam’s world began unraveling the moment he acquired this new “knowledge.” The “knowledge of good and evil” turned Adam into a judge, for he immediately began to judge everything. Adam judged himself, “I am naked,” Adam judged God, (“You’re a threat!”), Adam judged the woman, “She gave it to me!” It is this last symptom of blame and judging that we have been talking about these last months. We must not allow the gift of the Beginnings story to be wasted on misguided debates about when or how the beginning happened. Like all good myths, the purpose is to find yourself in the story. I am Adam. I am hiding in the bushes, under the influence of a reality-distorting “knowledge”, a “knowledge” which has turned me into a judge! The tragedy of this story is that Adam has become an R.F.S. and his world will never be the same!
I want to conclude our series by considering something truly hopeful and redemptive, something we might think “too good to be true” – the hope of life beyond our scams, judgments and false selves. As children of “Adam”, we have seen how capable we are of deluding ourselves, while simultaneously marginalizing the “other.” But consider the possibility that Jesus Christ was not a R.F.S. – he is no mere peddler of D.I.Y. religion or ideology. Despite the fact that millions of people have used his image and name for their own agendas, Christ himself is not the author of our religious scams. Christ is the author of the new heart and the one who gives sight to “the blind.” Christ is the one who breaks the spell of the R.F.S., freeing us from our compulsive need to judge the shit out of everything, as well as from the tyranny of being judged! Paul refers to this Christ as a “life-giving spirit”, which means that he can create something new in the human soul, a new orientation toward God and neighbor!