The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 8, All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter

Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin make it to Bree where they meet Strider (Aragorn). Here with Aragorn we start to unpack some of Tolkien's theology concerning Christology and kingship.

When the Hobbits first encounter the king he's not very, well, kingly. He's worn and weathered. But as the poem goes:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
Two theological observations about Tolkien's view of "kingship."

First, as we learn more about Aragorn as the story unfolds, we come to see that the king, as a Ranger, has spent his entire life serving and protecting others, especially the defenseless, like the Hobbits of the Shire.

Second, we also learn that the distinctive mark of the king is his ability to heal. We see this first displayed after Frodo is stabbed with the Morgul-knife on Weathertop. But the king's healing powers are on full display after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. In healing the wounded, Aragorn fulfills the old legend about the future king of Gondor: "The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known."

Humble service. Defense of the weak. Healing. These are the marks of the king in The Lord of the Rings, and in displaying these characteristics Aragorn points us toward the King of Kings.

The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 8, Moral Politics

But the truth remains, there are huge systemic issues that we have to face and big policy recommendations on the table.

For example, the case for reparations.

I support reparations. But for the sake of this post, we don't have to agree on that. What I want to point out is how many of the big policy recommendations social justice warriors put on the table require a moral revolution if they are to ever see the light of day. Just because you're suggesting a policy fix doesn't mean the root problem isn't moral. I believe this is what Michelle Alexander was talking about when she said we need a moral and spiritual awakening in America. You can't get something like reparations off the ground, politically speaking, without the majority of Americans coming to see the issue as the great moral issue of our time. Some systemic fixes will require a moral awakening.

This is precisely what happened during the American Civil Rights movement. America finally began to see the issue of civil rights as a moral issue. That's what finally got the Kennedy brothers, after massive initial resistance, to finally get on board with civil rights. Robert and Bobby began to see the struggle as a moral struggle.

My point is that even when the issues are legislative--like passing a reparations bill--the motive force of politics is fundamentally moral. Moral for the politicians to take courageous stands, and moral for the electorate who vote for a more perfect, more moral union.

The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 7, Woke

There's an awful lot of preaching to the choir in social justice spaces.

You host events to increase awareness, express solidarity, and organize allies, and the people who show up are those who are already educated, active and engaged. You look around the room and realize that the people who really need to hear this, the people who really need to be there, aren't there. So progressives and social justice warriors end up talking to each other, over and over, preaching to the choir.

Something like this happened on my campus recently. An awareness workshop was being offered. People who were well versed in the issues attended, and those who needed the training didn't. So a workshop devoted to raising awareness was largely attended by people who were already very, very aware. Noting this, I shared with one of the organizers, "I think people need to have a conversion experience before they'll engage with these issues."

There's a word for this "conversion experience." We call it being "woke."

Again, for the purposes of this series I don't care what you think about being "woke" and "woke culture." My point is simply to point out that being woke is a moral issue, a matter of personal conviction, accountability, and responsibility. And being woke is very similar to having a conversion experience. Like the apostle Paul's road to Damascus experience, the scales fall from your eyes. The blind now see. The sleeper awakes.

And to the point of this series, being woke isn't a systemic issue. There's no policy fix or systemic way to forcibly convert people, to make them woke. You can persuade, you can evangelize, but you can't compel people to become woke.

Becoming woke, opening your eyes and heart, is a profoundly moral journey.

The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 6, Education and Training

Again, the social justice blind spot is that it says all our problems are systemic when much of its energy, focus, and recommendations are moral.

Another example of this is how much time and effort we put into organizational and institutional education and training. Consider how if an employee acts or speaks in a sexist or racist way they would have to undergo sensitivity training. Consider how colleges require their students to receive training and education concerning consent in sexual encounters. Consider how most businesses require workplace harassment training. The examples are everywhere.

To be sure, you need systems and policies to deploy and compel people to undergo these various trainings. And again, for this series I don't care what you think about these trainings, if you think they work or are counterproductive. I don't care about that for this series. The point I'm making is that all these trainings are focused on addressing moral problems, how people treat each other, especially one on one. All these trainings and educational programs are basically forms of moral education and improvement, learning to treat each other with fairness, respect, and care.

In short, a lot of social justice effort isn't just about moral policing, it's also about moral development and training. 

The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 5, Checking Privilege

Here's another example of how social justice efforts focus on morality, despite claiming that oppression and injustice aren't moral but systemic.

A huge amount of social justice talk and effort is focused upon the issue of privilege. We've all heard how we should, if we have it, recognize, "check," or use our privilege. So, for example, as a white male I have "privileges," cultural clout and power, that women and people of color do not. Consequently, there are situations where I need to check my privilege to center others. I should also use my privilege to empower others.

Like in my last post, I don't really care, for the sake of this series, how you feel about privilege and the intersectional analysis that helps us identify privilege. My point in these posts isn't to debate any of that. My goal in these posts is to point to a blind spot in social justice.

The blind spot is that, while it is true that privilege has been brought about by systemic forces, the calls to check privilege or use privilege to empower others are moral appeals. Asking someone to "check" their privilege isn't a systemic fix, it's a moral request. 

To be clear, there are things that can be done, systemically, to address imbalances of privilege. For example, we could pass equal pay laws to combat wage discrimination between men and women. But calls to check or use privilege aren't policy fixes, they are moral appeals directed at individuals, appeals that can be rejected or embraced. A person could refuse to check their privilege, and there's nothing illegal about that, nor will there ever be. That person could just choose to be an asshole. The world is full of such people, and there's no "systemic," legal, or policy fix for that moral problem. 

So, once again, we see the social justice blind spot. As the entire conversation about "privilege" illustrates, social justice warriors claim they are focusing on a "system" when in fact they devote a great deal of their time making moral appeals.

The Gospel According to the Lord of the Rings: Week 7, The Uselessness of Tom Bombadil

Eventually, Frodo makes his move and leaves the Shire, finding himself pursued by the Black Riders.

He's headed to Bree, hoping to meet Gandalf. And on the journey to Bree we meet one of the more enigmatic characters in the story, Tom Bombadil.

It's unclear who or what Tom Bombadil is. In his correspondence Tolkien left Tom's origins a mystery. Tom is a narrative loose end that Tolkien never tied up. From the hints we can gather in the text, Tom, along with Goldberry, is some sort of primordial nature spirit or god. Alone, in seems, in Middle Earth, the Ring of Power doesn't affect him.

Tom Bombadil is a beloved character among many Tolkien fans. He is a favorite of mine. I used to walk in the woods of my grandparent's house singing Tom's song:
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.
But for this series I'd like to make a contrast between Tom Bombadil and Rivendell.

Specifically, when Elrond's Council gathers to discuss how to deal with the Ring of Power, a discussion about Bombadil takes places. Perhaps the Ring could be given to Bombadil for protection? But this idea is dismissed. Fleming Rutledge, in her book, describes this conversation under the heading "Tom Bombadil's Uselessness."

The point to be observed is this. Tom exists in an innocent state of nature. He lives in a world walled off from the concerns of the outside world. And while that makes a stay at Bombadil's house idyllic and enchanted, that loveliness cannot last, not with the Shadow growing. In the end, even Bomdadil would fall before the Darkness.

Rivendell, by contrast, sees the threat and takes action. Rivendell is just as enchanted and magical as the house of Tom Bombadil, but Rivendell hasn't retreated into self-isolation. Rivendell is resistance.

As much as we'd love to linger at Tom's house, the church is called to risk and engagement with the world.

The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 4, Moral Policing

What I'd like to do in a few more posts is give examples of how this blind spot, the reality that oppression and injustice is as moral as it is systemic, manifests itself in social justice talk and work.

These examples will mainly be illustrations of a contraction between social justice rhetoric and social justice practice. Specifically, the rhetoric of social justice is that oppression "isn't a moral problem, it's a systemic problem," and yet the practice of social justice often boils down to moral policing.

Take, as our first example, what we observe in call out and cancel culture and in movements like #MeToo. Much of the energy and effort in these movements is focused on finding and exposing bad moral actors, people who express racist or -phobic views or who are agents of oppression.

Now, there's been a lot of talk about the merits of this sort of social justice activism. But that's not the point of this post. I don't care, for the sake of this particular conversation, if you think call out and cancel culture, or movements like #MeToo, are necessary or have gone to far. My point is simply to draw attention to the blind spot these cultures and movements illustrate between social justice rhetoric and activity.

Specifically, I don't know if you've noticed, but social justice activity is very moralistic--very, very moralistic. There are good people and there are bad people, and the goal is to locate, name and marginalize the bad people. And again, I don't care about if you think this activity (for example, mob-shaming on Twitter or no platforming) is good or bad, effective or ineffective. I just want to point out that it's a form of moral policing, identifying, outing, and ostracizing the bad people.

All this illustrates the blind spot I'm pointing toward. The rhetoric of social justice is that we have systemic problems on our hands that require systemic solutions. And yet, the practice of social justice has primarily become one of moral policing.

And again--to be very, very clear--I'm not questioning the moral policing. That's another question for another time. What I'm pointing out is that the moral policing illustrates that social justice warriors don't actually believe what they are saying. Our problems are, indeed, very, very moral. And if you watch social justice activity, you'll see ample evidence that they also admit, with their actions, that this is the case. Oppression and injustice isn't just a "systemic" problem. We're also dealing with moral problems.

The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 3, "I Was Able to Change the Laws, But I Couldn't Change the Hearts"

Below is how in Reviving Old Scratch I made Michelle Alexander's point from Part 2, digging a bit deeper into how moral and spiritual problems create social justice issues.

In this passage, I dwell upon the German word "Zeitgeist," the "spirit of the age," the moral and spiritual atmosphere of a culture at work in every action and decision. The point I make is that while statistics can measure social inequity, they struggle to capture the invisible forces--the Zeitgeist--that produce these sad metrics. We see the evidences of injustice all around us, but we have trouble putting our finger on the invisible causes:
I recently took a bus trip with twenty preachers from my faith tradition through historic locations in the American civil rights struggle in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham. Ten of the preachers were black and ten were white, and we took the trip to talk about race relations in our churches and in the nation. One of the things we spoke about is how the struggle for racial justice has changed since the 1960s. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sit-in movement, the Freedom rides, and Freedom Summer, direct-action campaigns were aimed at concrete and visible locations of Jim Crow segregation. From segregated seating on buses to obstacles to voter registration. And with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in ’64 and ’65 these overt locations of injustice were removed from American society. Apartheid officially ended in America. And yet, America continues to be a highly segregated society and racial injustices persist. From police shootings to poverty to mass incarceration to the quality of schools, we are awash in the sad statistics that reveal the racial injustices still plaguing America. But with the official ending of apartheid in America, where, today, are we to find the sources of these injustices? To be sure, there is still much work to be done on the policy front to make our society fairer and more just. Caring as I do about the criminal justice system in America, there are many things still to fix, from mandatory sentencing to capital punishment, to say nothing about how the rich have access to quality legal representation in a way the poor do not.

However, as we rode through the South, those twenty preachers and I suspected that these policy fixes were only small tweaks in what was a larger, more spiritual problem—a problem with the American Zeitgeist. As one of the black preachers said, “It’s not the laws that are the problem, but the unfair implementation of the laws.” For example, stop-and-frisk laws are not, as they sit on the books, inherently racist. The problem comes when those laws are applied unfairly, used mainly against African Americans, sweeping greater numbers of them into the criminal justice system. Today we don’t mainly detect systemic racism by examining written laws and policies. Today we detect racism by outcomes, in things like poverty or incarceration statistics. Something is happening between policy and outcome.

According to the preachers on the bus, it’s the Zeitgeist. On the books, apartheid may have ended in America, but we are still plagued by a spirit of racism. Racism is what causes policies to be implemented in a biased way. But racism isn’t a law or policy. Racism is a Zeitgeist, a spirit, an anti-Jesus force at work in the world.

Which puts the political activist in a bit of a pickle. March and protest all you want, but racism, as a spirit, can’t be fixed by passing laws. Political activism is largely impotent in addressing the spiritual problems facing America and the world. A new president or a new Congress isn’t going to heal what ails us. If the Zeitgeist is the problem, then the battle is no longer merely political. The battle is inherently spiritual in nature.

For example, during our bus trip the twenty preachers and I spent time with Fred Grey, who was the lawyer for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Outside of Thurgood Marshall, Grey is the most significant civil rights lawyer in American history, the lawyer who filed seminal school integration lawsuits and who represented the victims of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. During our time with Brother Grey, he said something that gets to the distinction between the spiritual and the political and our stubborn lack of racial progress since the ’60s.

“I was able to change the laws,” he said, “but I couldn’t change the hearts.”

The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 2, Political Revolution Will Not Be Enough

In Part 1 I argued that one of the blind spots of social justice is the belief that oppression and injustice is primarily, if not wholly, a systemic problem. This is a blind spot because it ignores the moral and spiritual aspects of oppression and injustice.

I'm not the first or only person to make this observation. For example, I've shared before on the blog Michelle Alexander's social media post explaining why she was leaving Ohio State's law school to teach at Union Theological Seminary. As a WOC and the author of The New Jim Crow, Alexander has some social justice clout, and this is what she had to say in making her announcement about reducing social justice to a purely political fight:
This week I officially joined Union Theological Seminary in NYC as a Visiting Professor. I have known for some time that I need to stretch myself, move beyond what I know and out of my comfort zones. As a lawyer, it comes naturally for me to speak only when I’ve done all my research, know all the facts, and can make my case. Law, policy and advocacy have been my world for more than 20 years, and my singular passion for 10 of those years has been finding ways to awaken people to the racial dimensions of mass incarceration and help them see it for the human rights nightmare that it is.
And yet I now feel compelled to change course. I am walking away from the law. I’ve resigned my position as a law professor at Ohio State University, and I’ve decided to teach and study at a seminary. Why?

There is no easy answer to this question, and there are times I worry that I have completely lost my mind. Who am I to teach or study at a seminary? I was not raised in a church. And I have generally found more questions than answers in my own religious or spiritual pursuits. But I also know there is something much greater at stake in justice work than we often acknowledge. Solving the crises we face isn’t simply a matter of having the right facts, graphs, policy analyses, or funding. And I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it — not even working for some form of political revolution — will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power. American history teaches how these games predictably play out within our borders: Time and again, race gets used as the Trump Card, a reliable means of dividing, controlling and misleading the players so a few can win the game.

This is not simply a legal problem, or a political problem, or a policy problem. At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions about who we are, individually and collectively, who we aim to become, and what we are willing to do now.

I have found that these questions are generally not asked or answered in law schools or policy roundtables. So I am going to a place that takes very seriously the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of justice work: Union Theological Seminary. Union has a proud history of deep commitment to social justice, and I am happy to call it home for awhile.
This is the bit that I think points to the blind spot of social justice:
I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it — not even working for some form of political revolution — will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.
When we reduce oppression and injustice to systemic issues we ignore, in Alexander's words, "the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of justice work."

The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 1, Moral Problems

As someone deeply invested in social justice in recent years I've come to see a blind spot in how social justice is talked about, conceptualized and pursued.

To be sure, we all have many blind spots, and so do social justice warriors. These posts are devoted to just one particular blind spot that I've noticed and have been thinking about a lot. Consequently, these posts would be more properly titled "a social justice blind spot" rather than "the social justice blind spot."

Let me state the issue quickly. By and large, when we talk about social justice we are told, over and over, that injustice and oppression are systemic rather than moral problems. And given that these are systemic issues, calling on people to be "better," morally speaking, does little to change these systemic issues.

We can appreciate some of the motivation behind this moral/systemic divide. The logic has been that, by and large, people tend to see themselves as good people. For example, we don't see ourselves as racists. No doubt we are, but that's not something we readily admit. So, the call for social justice shifts the rhetoric, and you see examples of this all the time: Fine, you're not racist, but the system is racist. So let's change the system.

Now, when you step back and look at that move, you can appreciate both its rhetorical genius and its foolishness. The genius is that, by shifting away from moral indictment and asking us to own our own racism, we can shelve that hard issue to focus on systemic issues. That shift makes us less defensive and allows the conversation about racism to continue. That's a neat and effective rhetorical move.

And yet, it's also foolish. And I hope you can see that. The move shifts the conversation toward racist systems while leaving the issue of racism to the side, as if these have nothing to do with each other. For how can you expect to change racist systems if you leave racism wholly intact and unaddressed? The whole "it's not a moral problem, it's a systemic problem" is pure folly.

Now it might be argued that social justice warriors know this is folly, that they are using the "it's a systemic problem" frame purely as a rhetorical strategy, simply to get the conversation about race started. "It's a systemic problem" is just a foot in the door strategy. It gets us talking about race because we're talking about "the system" rather than ourselves, which is a much harder conversation to have.

The trouble is, I think the vast majority of social justice warriors actually do believe that the problems are wholly systemic. You see examples of this all the time.

Consider the reactions to the movie The Green Book, the Oscar-winner for Best Picture. Social justice critics decried the film for being out of step with the times. And why? Because The Green Book told the (real life) moral story about Frank Vallelonga coming to face his racism as he drove Dr. Don Shirley to his concerts through the South. According to the critics of the movie, this intimate moral story missed the point that racism in American isn't going to be solved by white people (like Frank Vallelonga) being taught lessons about racism by indulgent black teachers (like Dr. Don Shirley). More, friendships between blacks and whites are going to do little to affect or change...wait for it...the systemic forces of racism in American society.

To be clear, I'm not denying the huge role systemic forces play in oppression, nor am I suggesting that black folks must assume the responsibility of educating white folks. What I am pointing to is how many social justice warrior frequently dismiss and decry any focus on the moral rot the fuels and energizes the system. And yet, as should be obvious, the two are inseparable. It's foolish to think you can change a racist system while never addressing racism at the personal and moral level.

This, then, is what I want to point out in these posts. One of the huge blind spots of social justice activism is how it dismisses, and even sneers at, the moral aspects of the problems facing us to proclaim that the issues are wholly "systemic" in nature.

The Gospel According to the Lord of the Rings: Week 6, The Pity of Bilbo

In these last few posts we've been sitting in the Shire with Gandalf and Frodo, mostly in the chapter "The Shadow of the Past." We've been teasing out the threads that weave the theological tapestry of the story. In the past few posts we've been paying attention to large forces at work in the story, the providential "something else at work" and the dark powers in the world that moral heroism alone cannot defeat.

But before we leave the Shire, let's pay attention to a small, but decisive force upon which the entire story hangs: the Pity of Bilbo. The Pity of Bilbo, his choice to not kill Gollum, is this tiny stone thrown into the great pond of history, rippling out to be, in the end, the decisive act that brings about the defeat of Sauron.

In "The Shadow of the Past," Gandalf and Frodo are discussing Bilbo's encounter with Gollum in The Hobbit. Frodo declares, "What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance!"

Gandalf's response to Frodo's murderous outburst:
"Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need...My heart tells me that [Gollum] has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and that when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many..."
The title of the chapter is apt. Bilbo's pity will indeed cast a very long shadow in the book. One act of pity and mercy in The Hobbit runs like a golden thread through to the very end of the story.

Notice also, as Fleming Rutledge points out, how Tolkien capitalizes Pity and Mercy in his response to Frodo. That's a sign from Tolkien that Pity and Mercy aren't just one off "random acts of kindness." Pity and Mercy are the way we participate in the providential "something else at work" in the world. Small though they may be, through this divine participation acts of Pity and Mercy are forces, like ripples in a pond, that affect and shape the history and destiny of the world. The smallest acts of Pity and Mercy can be, in the end, the most consequential, the points upon which history turns.

The Trickle Down Theory of Spiritual Formation

Much of the spiritual formation literature works with what I call "the trickle down theory of spiritual formation."

The two greatest commandments work with a vertical and an horizontal axis. The vertical: Love God. The horizontal: Love your neighbor.

By and large, the spiritual formation literature, with this focus on spiritual disciplines and liturgy, suggests that if we work hard on the vertical dimension, loving God, this love will eventually "trickle down" into loving our neighbors. Ponder the various spiritual disciplines: Prayer, devotional Bible study, Sabbath, fasting, etc. Think also of worship and liturgy. Each of these sends us up along the vertical dimension, the notion being that getting closer to God should open our hearts toward others.

But does it always? Does our love for God "trickle down"?

The argument I make in Stranger God is that it doesn't always. We can become so absorbed in the vertical pursuit of God that we forget our neighbor right next to us. So what we need, as I argue it in the book, is a uniquely horizontal spiritual practice, a practice that gets us moving horizontally toward each other. And one example of this practice, as I share, is the Little Way of St.Thérèse of Lisieux.

I believe, pretty strongly, that if we don't have a robust horizontal formation practice, our love of God will routinely fail to "trickle down" upon others.

Breathing Space

After healing a crippled beggar in Acts 3, Peter delivers a sermon in the temple to the amazed onlookers. At the climax of his sermon Peter says this:
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. (Acts 3.19)
The Greek word anapsuxis translated as "refreshing" only occurs once in the New Testament, here in Acts 3. The literal meaning of anapsuxis is to catch your breath again. It can also mean a cooling, refreshing breeze, being revived with fresh air. In one of her Easter sermons, Fleming Rutledge translates anapsuxis as "breathing space."

In our anxious and stressed out world, anapsuxis is very good news. We're drowning and struggling for air. We need a moment to catch our breath again. We need to feel a cool breeze upon our face.

We need some breathing space.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 5, Three Powers in the Drama

Last week we reflected upon the power of the Ring and its relationship to Paul's theology of Sin: Sin with a capital S, as a dark power that overwhelms and holds the human will in bondage.

There's another perspective on evil that is shared by The Lord of the Rings and the Bible. This subject is something I dwell upon at great length in my book Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted.

Specifically, in our secular age, where belief in the supernatural is on the wane, it's difficult, even for many Christians, to give much attention or thought to what some call "spiritual warfare," our struggle against Satan. As Fleming Rutledge observes, for many Christians there are only two locations of power in our imagination. First, there is God's power, God's actions and activity. Second, there is our own power, human agency and effort. And that's it, there is God and there is us, and the drama of our spiritual lives is played out between those two powers, between humans and God.

But as Rutledge points out, there's a third power in the Biblical drama: the power of the devil. The spiritual drama of the Bible adopts what Greg Boyd has called a "warfare worldview." Our spiritual lives involve an element of struggle against dark forces at work in the world. C.S. Lewis, friend of Tolkien, has a quote I've used a lot to describe this struggle and how central it is to the Biblical drama:
Enemy-occupied territory--that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
This is exactly the drama The Lord of the Rings gives us. Beyond the inhabitants of Middle Earth, and the providential "something else at work," there is a third power loose in the world seeking to overwhelm and subdue it, to bring everything into bondage. This third power has to be resisted and defeated. And while, yes, that makes for a great adventure story, it's actually a very accurate picture of the story the Bible is trying to communicate. In its vision of "enemy-occupied territory" and the drama of its "great campaign of sabotage," The Lord of the Rings can help Christians better understand their own story, how there are three powers always at work in our lives:

Human beings.


And the devil.

"St Isaac the Syrian, a Theologian of Love and Mercy" by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

Programming Note:
I found this talk by Orthodox Bishop Alfeyev to be extraordinarily illuminating and helpful. First, I basically agree with everything in this talk. I'm 100% with St. Isaac. And second, this talk is a great rebuttal to the objection that visions of universal reconciliation are somehow squishy, liberal, modern inventions. This view goes back to the Fathers.

"St Isaac the Syrian, a Theologian of Love and Mercy"

[Excerpts from the paper delivered by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev at the World Congress on Divine Mercy, Lateran Basilica, Rome, April 4, 2008]

In this paper I would like to present the teaching of St Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest theologians of the Orthodox tradition, on love and mercy.

St Isaac the Syrian, known also as Isaac of Nineveh, lived in the seventh century and was a hermit. Little is known about his life. He spent much time as a hermit and composed books on monastic life. At a certain point he was consecrated Bishop of Nineveh, but very soon after consecration abdicated from episcopacy.

The following East Syrian legend, preserved in Arabic translation, tells us of his abdication. The first day after his ordination, when Isaac was sitting in his residence, two men came to his room disputing with each other. One of them was demanding the return of a loan: ‘If this man refuses to pay back what belongs to me, I will be obliged to take him to court’. Isaac said to him: ‘Since the Holy Gospel teaches us not to take back what has been given away, you should at least grant this man a day to make his repayment’. The man answered: ‘Leave aside for the moment the teachings of the Gospel’. Then Isaac said: ‘If the Gospel is not to be present, what have I come here to do?’ And seeing that the office of Bishop disturbed his solitary life, ‘the holy man abdicated from his episcopacy and fled to the desert’ (Cf. S.Brock, Spirituality in Syriac Tradition. Kottayam, 1989, p. 33).

The precise date of Isaac’s death is unknown, as is the date of his birth. It is quite likely that already during his earthly life he was venerated as a saint. After his death his glory increased as his writings spread. Joseph Hazzaya, who lived in the eighth century, called him ‘famous among the saints’ (A.Mingana, Woodbroke Studies, t.VII, Cambridge, 1934, p. 268). Another Syrian writer calls him ‘the master and teacher of all monks and the haven of salvation for the whole world’ (J.B.Chabot, De sancti Isaaci Ninevitae, Paris, 1892, p. VII). By the eleventh century, due to the Greek translation of his writings, Isaac became widely known in the Greek-speaking East. In the Middle Ages Isaac’s writings were translated into several European languages. From this time his name became known and appreciated also in the West.

Divine love which reveals itself through the created world

God, in Isaac’s understanding, is first of all immeasurable and boundless love. The idea of God as love is central and dominant in Isaac’s thought: it is the main source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical insights. His theological system cannot be comprehended apart from this fundamental idea.

Divine love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words. At the same time it is reflected in God’s actions with respect to the created world and humankind: ‘Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us’ (II/39,22). (Here and below the figure ‘II’ refers to Part II of Isaac’s writings: Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, chapters IV-XLI, translated by Sebastian Brock, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 555, Scriptores syri 225, Louvain, 1995). Both the creation of the world and God’s coming on earth in flesh had the only aim, ‘to reveal His boundless love to the world’ (Chapters on Knowledge IV,79).

Divine love was the main reason for the creation of the universe and is the main driving force behind the whole of creation. In the creation of the world divine love revealed itself in all its fullness: ‘What that invisible Being is like, who is without any beginning in His nature, unique in Himself, who is by nature beyond the knowledge, intellect and feel of created beings, who is beyond time and space, being the Creator of these, who… made a beginning of time, bringing the worlds and created beings into existence. Let us consider then, how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation, and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men’ (II/10,18-19).

Divine love is a continuing realization of the creative potential of God, an endless revelation of the Divinity in His creative act. Divine love lies at the foundation of the universe, it governs the world, and it will lead the world to that glorious outcome when the latter will be entirely ‘consumed’ by the Godhead: ‘What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belong to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of the creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world..! In love did He bring the world into existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised’ (II/38,1-2).

The will of God, which is full of love, is the primal source of all that exists within the universe (II/10,24). God is not only the Creator of the universe and its driving force: He is first of all ‘the true Father’, ‘who in His great and immeasurable love surpasses all in paternal affection’ (I/52, 254). (Here and below figure ‘I’ refers to the English translation of Part I of Isaac’s writings: The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, [transl. by D.Miller], Boston, Massachusetts, 1984). Thus His attitude to the created world is characterized by an unceasing providential care for all its inhabitants: for angels and demons, human beings and animals. God’s providence is universal and embraces all (I/7, 65). None of His creatures is excluded from the scope of the loving providence of God, but the love of the Creator is bestowed equally upon all: ‘...There is not a single nature who is in the first place or last place in creation in the Creator’s knowledge.., similarly there is no before or after in His love towards them: no greater or lesser amount of love is to be found with Him at all. Rather, just like the continual equality of His knowledge, so too is the continual equality of His love’ (II/38,3).

All living creatures existed in God’s mind before their creation. And before they have been brought into being, they received their place in the hierarchical structure of the universe. This place is not taken away from anyone even if one falls away from God: ‘Everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect... He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen’ (II/40,3).

The providential care of God and His love extends to angels, who were the first product of God’s creative act, including those who had fallen away from God and had turned into demons. According to Isaac, the love of the Creator towards fallen angels does not diminish as a result of their fall, and it is not less than the fullness of love which He has towards other angels (II/40,2). ‘It would be most odious and utterly blasphemous’, Isaac claims, ‘to think that hate and resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good’ (II/39,3).

To say that the love of God diminishes or vanishes because of a created being’s fall means ‘to reduce the glorious Nature of the Creator to weakness and change’ (II/38,4). For we know that ‘there is no change or any earlier or later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser place in His love, no before or after in His knowledge’ (II/38,5). Nothing that happens in creation may affect the nature of the Creator, Who is ‘exalted, lofty and glorious, perfect and complete in His knowledge, and complete in His love’ (II/10,23).

This is why God loves equally the righteous and sinners, making no distinction between them. God knew man’s future sinful life before the latter’s creation, yet He created him (II/5,11). God knew all people before their becoming righteous or sinners, and in His love He did not change because of the fact that they underwent change (II/38,3). Even many blameworthy deeds are accepted by God with mercy, ‘and are forgiven their authors, without any blame, by the omniscient God to whom all things are revealed before they happen, and who was aware of the constraints of our nature before He created us. For God, who is good and compassionate, is not in the habit of judging the infirmities of human nature or actions brought about by necessity, even though they may be reprehensible’ (II/14,15).

Even when God chastises one, He does this out of love and for the sake of one’s salvation rather than for the sake of retribution. God respects human free will and does not want to do anything against it: ‘God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge… Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!’ (I/48, 230).

Thus the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme). According to him, mercifulness (mrahmanuta) is incompatible with justice (k’inuta): ‘Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves... Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul’. Thus one cannot speak at all of God’s justice, but rather of mercy that surpasses all justice: ‘As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures’ (I/51, 244).

Rejecting with such decisiveness the idea of requital, Isaac shows that the Old Testament understanding of God as a chastiser of sinners, ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’ (Ex.20:5; Num.14:18), does not correspond with the revelation that we have received through Christ in the New Testament. Though David in the Psalms called God ‘righteous and upright in His judgments’ (Ps.117:137), He is in fact good and merciful. Christ himself confirmed God’s ‘injustice’ in His parables, in particular in the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard and of the Prodigal Son (Mt.20:13-15; Luke 15:20-22), but even more so by His incarnation for the sake of sinners: ‘Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us?’ (I/51, 250-251).


According to Isaac, the final outcome of the history of the universe must correspond to the majesty of God, and that the final destiny of the humans should be worthy of God’s mercifulness. ‘I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome’, Isaac claims, ‘a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more - and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness. It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them - and whom nonetheless He created’ (II/39,6).

All afflictions and sufferings which fall to everyone’s lot are sent from God with the aim of bringing a person to an inner change. Isaac comes to an important conclusion: God never retaliates for the past, but always cares for our future. ‘...All kinds and manner of chastisements and punishments that come from Him’, Isaac suggests, ‘are not brought about in order to requite past actions, but for the sake of the subsequent gain to be gotten in them... This is what the Scriptures bring to our attention and remind us of.., that God is not one who requites evil, but He sets aright evil’ (II/39,15-16).

The idea of love contradicts the idea of requital, Isaac insists. Besides, if we are to suppose that God will punish sinners eternally, this would mean that the creation of the world was a mistake, as God proved to be unable to oppose evil, which is not within His will. If we ascribe requital to God’s actions, we apply weakness to God: ‘So then, let us not attribute to God’s actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love’ (II/39,17).

All of God’s actions are mysteries that are inaccessible to human reasoning. Gehenna is also a mystery, created in order to bring to a state of perfection those who had not reached it during their lifetime. According to Isaac, Gehenna is a sort of purgatory rather than hell: it is conceived and established for the salvation of both human beings and angels. However, this true aim of Gehenna is hidden from those who are chastised in it, and will be revealed only after Gehenna is abolished. All those who have fallen away from God will eventually return to Him because of the temporary and short torment in Gehenna that is prepared for them in order that they purify themselves through the fire of suffering and repentance. Having passed through this purification by fire, they will attain to the angelic state. ‘Maybe they will be raised to a perfection even greater than that in which the angels now exist; for all are going to exist in a single love, a single purpose, a single will, and a single perfect state of knowledge; they will gaze towards God with the desire of insatiable love, even if some divine dispensation (i.e. Gehenna) may in the meantime be effected for reasons known to God alone, lasting for a fixed period, decreed by Him in accordance with the will of His wisdom’ (II/40,5).

God cannot forget any of His creatures, and for everyone their proper place is prepared in the Kingdom of heaven. But for those who are unable to enter immediately into the Kingdom, the transitory period of Gehenna is established: ‘No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned… He has devised the establishment of the Kingdom of heaven for the entire community of rational beings - even though an intervening time is reserved for the general raising of all to the same level’ (II/40,7).

Isaac was quite resentful of the widespread opinion that the majority of people will be punished in hell, and only a small group of the chosen will delight in Paradise. He is convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the Kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time which is necessary for their repentance and remission of sins: ‘By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the Kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy Nature is so good and compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right, how He can forgive human beings their sins - like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer (Luke 18:14), or like the case of a woman with two small coins (Mark 12:42-43; Luke 21:2-3), or the man who received forgiveness on the Cross (Luke 23:40-43). For God wishes for our salvation, and not for reasons to torment us’ (II/40,12).

The teaching on universal salvation, which is so explicitly preached by Isaac the Syrian, has never been approved by the Orthodox Church. On the contrary, Origenist idea of the apokatastasis ton panton (restoration of all), which has certain resemblance with this teaching, was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. However, we would not completely identify Isaac’s idea of the universal salvation with Origenist ‘restoration of all’. In Origen, universal restoration is not the end of the world, but a passing phase from one created world to another, which will come into existence after the present world has come to its end. This idea is alien to Christian tradition and unknown to Isaac. The latter is more dependent on other ancient writers, notably Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus, who also developed the idea of universal salvation, yet in a way different from Origen’s. On the other hand, it would not be fair to say that Isaac simply borrowed the ideas of his predecessors and inserted them into his own writings. Isaac’s eschatological optimism and his belief in universal salvation are ultimate outcomes of his personal theological vision, whose central idea is that of God as love. Around this idea the whole of his theological system is shaped.

Nevertheless, Isaac’s teaching on universal salvation evokes the following questions: what is the sense of the whole drama of human history, if both good and evil are ultimately to be found on an equal footing in the face of God’s mercifulness? What is the sense of sufferings, ascetic labour and prayer, if sinners will be sooner or later equated with the righteous? Besides, how far do Isaac’s opinions correspond to the Christian tradition and to the teaching of the Gospel, in particular, to the Parable of the Last Judgment, where the question concerns the separation of the ‘sheep’ and the ‘goats’?

First, in speaking about the absence of any middle realm between Gehenna and the Kingdom of heaven, Isaac does not deny the reality of the separation of the sheep from the goats, and he even explicitly refers to it. But his attention is directed far beyond this separation, for he does not regard it as final and irreversible. As we saw, the Last Judgment is a reality which Isaac recommends one to ponder over every day, and the experience of the separation of a sinner from his fellow human beings is clearly depicted by Isaac when he speaks of the Judgment. However, his main point is that the present life is a time when the separation actually takes place, and the Last Judgment will only reveal that spiritual state which was reached by a person during his life. Thus, the Parable should not be understood as a dogmatic statement concerning the final destiny of the righteous and sinners, but as a prophetic warning against not having and manifesting love for one’s fellow humans during one’s earthly life.

Secondly, Isaac warns that the torment of Gehenna is terrible and unbearable, even though it is limited in time. Gehenna is a reality that is in no way denied by Isaac. But he understands it in the context of the Gospel’s message about God’s unspeakable love and boundless mercy. For Isaac, God is primarily a householder making those who worked only one hour equal to those who have borne the burden of the whole day (Matt.20:1-15). A place in the Kingdom of heaven is given to a person not on the basis of his worthiness or unworthiness, but rather on the basis of God’s mercy and love towards humankind. The Kingdom of heaven is not a reward, and Gehenna is not a requital: both are gifts of the merciful God ‘Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim.2:4).

Finally, the theological system of Isaac the Syrian is based on the direct experience of the mystical union of an ascetic with the love of God. This experience excludes any possibility of envy of other human beings, even to those who have reached a higher spiritual state and thus have a chance of receiving a higher place in the Kingdom of heaven. Moreover, the experience of unity with God as love is so full of delight in itself that it is not for the sake of any future reward that a person prays, suffers and toils in ascetical labours: in this very suffering, in this very prayer and ascetical labour, the experience of encounter with God is concealed. The reason for prayer, bearing afflictions and keeping the commandments is, therefore, not one’s striving to leave other human beings behind and to obtain a place in the age to come that is higher than theirs. The sole reason for all ascetical toils is the experience of the grace of God which a person acquires through them. An encounter with God, a direct mystical experience of the divine love which one receives during one’s lifetime is, for Isaac, the only justification for all struggles and efforts.

Lockdown Testimony

The semiannual lockdown had finally finished out at the unit. The lockdown is a 3-4 week season where the inmates are restricted to their cells 24 hours of the day as the officers go cell by cell, house by house, inspecting inmate possessions for contraband.

The summer lockdown is the most difficult given the heat. The prison isn't air-conditioned, and Texas summer days are regularly over 100 degrees. The inmates are only given Johnny sacks to eat in their cell, just a bologna sandwich and an apple for lunch and dinner, day after day after day. The calories not quite sufficient to stave off hunger pains, especially for the bigger guys. The weeks of the lockdown are hot and hungry, with no way to escape your cell and cellmate. The lockdown is a mental and physical trial of patience and endurance.

With the lockdown lifted our Bible study resumed on Monday nights, and as I hugged and greeted the men I asked my standard post-lockdown questions: "How was the lockdown? Did you do okay?"

Most of the answers I got were expected. "It was rough." "I was hungry a lot." "Long and hot."

And then I got to Kenneth.

Kenneth is a 70-some year old African American man. Kenneth is a spiritual leader among the inmates, a wise friend and mentor to many of the younger men.

"How was your lockdown, Mr. Kenneth?"

Kenneth's face lit up.

"It was wonderful!" he exclaimed.

"It was wonderful?" I asked in a puzzled tone.

"Oh yes," Mr. Kenneth went on. "The lockdown is my personal time with God. Lockdown is all about your spiritual mindset. For me, I use the peace and quiet of those days to spend time with God. The lockdowns are my spiritual, one-on-one time with God, my time to focus on God. So my lockdown was wonderful."

I listened with growing amazement and awe. Kenneth was practically glowing, recounting the hot and hungry weeks locked in his cell.

I left the unit that night thinking of my life, and praying to be more like Mr. Kenneth.

Daring to Be Ordinary

Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks. The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility, and Christian humility is first of all a matter of supernatural common sense. It teaches us to take ourselves as we are, instead of pretending (as pride would have us imagine) that we are something better than we are. If we really know ourselves we quietly take our proper place in the order designed by God. And so supernatural humility adds much to our human dignity by integrating us in the society of other men and placing us in our right relation to them and to God. Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.

It is supreme humility to see that ordinary life, embraced with perfect faith, can be more saintly and more supernatural than a spectacular ascetical career. Such humility dares to be ordinary, and that is something beyond the reach of spiritual pride. Pride always longs to be unusual. Humility not so. Humility finds all its peace in hope, knowing that Christ must come again to elevate and transfigure ordinary things and fill them with His glory.

--Thomas Merton

"The Other"

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in
the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village that is without light
and companionless. And the
thought comes
of that other being who is
awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

--"The Other" by R.S. Thomas

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 4, Neither Strength Nor Good Purpose Will Last

The reason I've been dwelling on themes of providence and anthropology in The Lord of the Rings over the last two weeks is that these inform the central theological predicament of the story.

Specifically, the power of the Ring cannot be overcome by moral heroism, by an act of will. All who try to wield the Ring, even Gandalf, will eventually succumb to its power. To be sure, the Hobbits, due to their innate goodness, can resist the corrupting power of the Ring longer than most. But even Hobbits will succumb over time. As Gandalf says to Frodo early in the story:
A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later — later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last — sooner or later the dark power will devour him. 
"Neither strength nor good purpose will last...sooner or later the dark power will devour..."

This is a part of the more pessimistic anthropology we find informing The Lord of the Rings. Yes, great heroism is on display in the story and required to accomplish the defeat of Sauron. But in the final analysis, moral heroism cannot defeat the power of evil. Frodo is strong and good, but by himself he would have failed in the end and all would have ended in disaster. At the final moment, the Ring overtook him. 

For Rutledge, what we find illustrated here in The Lord of the Rings is Paul's apocalyptic vision, how human persons are enslaved to dark spiritual powers. For Paul, Sin is a power that corrupts, weakens, and enslaves the human will. And the corrupting power of the Ring in the The Lord of the Rings is a profound meditation upon this bondage.

This theological predicament, for Rutledge, sets up the deep theological narrative of the story, how God fits in as the "something else at work" weaving its way through the story. Specifically, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, help must come to us "from the outside." This is the Christus Victor notion that humans are trapped and require divine rescue.

To be sure, the rescue operation we find dramatized in The Lord of the Rings is deeply participatory. The Fellowship of the Ring and their allies are not passive, they must act and resist. But something more, something "from the outside," is required to defeat the evil facing Middle Earth. Because when we stand all alone, by our own power, neither strength nor good purpose will last.

Sooner or later, the dark power will devour.

Jesus and Food: Continuity vs Discontinuity

There's always been a lot of discussion and debate about how much Jesus and Paul "break" with Judaism. On one end of the spectrum is the evangelical paradigm that Jesus and Paul make a decisive break with a Judaism characterized by legalism and a works-based righteousness. One the other end of the spectrum is the reigning academic consensus that both Jesus and Paul were wholly Jewish.

That's a bit too simplistic, as there are a lot of evangelicals who very much embrace the Jewishness of Jesus. Go to any Christian bookstore and watch the evangelicals buying their shofars. Relatedly, in academic circles there are many who read Paul apocalyptically, emphasizing the radical discontinuity of the Christ event.

So, which is it? Is there continuity or discontinuity between Jesus and Paul with the Old Testament?

Well, it's obviously both. There is evidence for both sides of the debate, which is why it's perennial.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because I was struck again today in my daily Bible reading about Jesus's teaching regarding the kosher food laws. The issue, you'll recall, is Jesus's followers eating with unwashed hands:
Mark 7.1-5, 14-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” 
I don't think we get just how huge the seemingly small aside--"Thus he declared all foods clean."--would have been to a Jewish audience. In a stroke, Jesus sets aside a significant chunk of the Levitical code. And on what authority?

(To be sure, there's debate about this text. Was Jesus referring to food or to the issue of ritual purification? Was this an original saying of Jesus or a footnote added by a later editor or community? Also, in Acts 10 Peter still seems to be observing the kosher food laws.)

All that to say, in the debates about Jesus "breaking" with the Law in significant ways, let me throw into the mix Jesus' declaration that all foods are clean, which would have been a decisive break with the Torah in relation to the food laws.

Love is a Beautiful Way to Live and Die

A little bit more about that Arthur McGill quote I was reflecting on yesterday. A few years ago I described the sentiment of that quote, along with another McGill quote, in the following post:

What does it mean to give your life away in order to give life to others? What does it mean to say that love is sacrificial, a taking up the cross, a form of self-denial?

In trying to puzzle this out I've meditated a great deal on this quote from Arthur McGill:
The way of Jesus is the way of self-expenditure.
Is that hyperbole? Dysfunctional? Is it suicidal? A thirst for martyrdom?

I don't think so, but I do think there is a martyrological sensibility to all this. This is what I think:

Love is the  allocation of our dying.

Life is a finite resource always slipping away. Every minute that passes is a passing of life, a movement toward death. Every moment we are being expended and used up.

But we have some choices in how we are expended. We can allocate our dying. We can specify the times and places of our dying.

My point here is that, because life is a finite resource, giving ourselves to others is a very real sort of sacrifice. It's not suicidal or dysfunctional, but it is sort of martyrological in that I am literally dying the minutes I spend with you. To be with you--to love you--is to die a little bit. A sacrificial giving of my life to you.

When we think of "giving our lives away" our minds tend to jump to big, dramatic gestures. And it can be that sort of thing. In crisis situations people do act heroically, giving their lives in a big single action to save others. But I wonder if the difference here is more quantitative rather than qualitative, a matter of degree rather than of kind. Because to love other people in small but tangible ways over a lifetime is a way of dying. But a slower, drip, drip rather than a big splash.

Which is to say that I do think there is something sacrificial and martyr-like in giving small gifts of love to each other. Love is a sacrifice, an expenditure.

Love is a beautiful way to live, which means that love is, in the final analysis, a beautiful way to die.

I Recieve to Give Away

I want to revisit that Arthur McGill quote from yesterday:
Every action is a losing, a letting go, a passing away from oneself of some bit of one’s own reality into the existence of others and of the world. In Jesus Christ, this character of action is not resisted, by trying to use our action to assert ourselves, extend ourselves, to impose our will and being upon situations. In Jesus Christ, this self-expending character of action is joyfully affirmed. I receive myself constantly from God’s Parenting love. But so far as some aspects of myself are at my disposal, these I receive to give away. Those who would live as Jesus did—who would act and purpose themselves as Jesus did—mean to love, i.e., they mean to expend themselves for others unto death. Their being is meant to pass away from them to others, and they make that meaning the conscious direction of their existence.
This quote perfectly captures how McGill has been such a huge influence upon me. Specifically, if you've read The Slavery of Death you'll recall how I lean upon McGill to describe how an eccentric identity helps us overcome our slavery to the fear of death (Hebrews 2.14-15).

The label "eccentric identity" is borrowed from David Kelsey. McGill describes it as Jesus's "ecstatic identity." I find Kelsey's label more compelling than McGill's, but McGill's description of this identity more compelling than Kelsey's.

The central notion behind the eccentric/ecstatic identity is summarized in the quote above.

When our identities find their grounding eccentrically (beyond ourselves) in God, when our identities and life are held as gifts, we acquire the psychological capacity to relinquish our lives in acts of love.

As McGill says it, when "I receive myself constantly from God's Parenting love" I can "receive to give away." Grace creates the capacity to love: I can "expend [myself] for others unto death." And this giving, this love, this pouring out, becomes the "conscious direction of [my] existence."

Love as Relinquishment Unto Death

Every action is a losing, a letting go, a passing away from oneself of some bit of one’s own reality into the existence of others and of the world. In Jesus Christ, this character of action is not resisted, by trying to use our action to assert ourselves, extend ourselves, to impose our will and being upon situations. In Jesus Christ, this self-expending character of action is joyfully affirmed. I receive myself constantly from God’s Parenting love. But so far as some aspects of myself are at my disposal, these I receive to give away. Those who would live as Jesus did—who would act and purpose themselves as Jesus did—mean to love, i.e., they mean to expend themselves for others unto death. Their being is meant to pass away from them to others, and they make that meaning the conscious direction of their existence.

--Arthur McGill

The Gospel According to the Lord of the Rings: Week 3, A Lower Anthropology

Last week we talked about one of two contrasts Fleming Rutledge makes between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That contrast was between chance and providence. In The Hobbit, Bilbo's fate seems to be driven by good fortune. In The Lord of the Rings that element of chance drops out almost completely. In The Lord of the Rings there is "something else at work" in the background, and Rutledge traces this thread as the deep theological narrative of the book.

The second contrast Rutledge makes is related to the first and has to do with an anthropological contrast.

Theological anthropology, our view of human persons, is an interesting area of reflection in my discipline of psychology. How capable are people in self-actualizing? Is self-help realistic or doomed? Are we innately good or totally depraved? And on and on.

Broadly, we can classify anthropological theories as being either higher or lower, more optimistic versus more pessimistic. A higher anthropology tends to be optimistic about human nature and capacities. At root, we're both good and capable. Just give us room to grow! A lower anthropology, by contrast, is pessimistic about human nature. Humans are fallible, sinful, and weak.

With that background, similar to last week's observations, Rutledge makes a contrast between a higher anthropology in The Hobbit versus a lower anthropology in The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, Rutledge cites a passage after Bilbo saves his companions from the giant spiders in Mirkwood:
...somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt himself a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach.
There's a humanistic aspect to this passage. Hero faces challenge. Hero rises to challenge. Hero grows and self-actualizes. This is an optimistic anthropology. It's the anthropology of self-help and the meritocracy. 

But Rutledge observes something about this passage in The Hobbit: "I emphasize this passage because it is so striking that there isn't anything like it in The Lord of the Rings." And what sets it apart are the words "all alone by himself." No character does anything in The Lord of the Rings "all alone by himself."

Now, it could be argued that Rutledge puts too much on this one passage. Last week in the comments JD Walters pointed to a different passage toward the end of The Hobbit, Gandalf speaking to Bilbo:
You don’t really suppose do you that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world after all!
I think that's quite a good point that mitigates against Rutledge's hard contrast between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

For my part, I'd split the different between Rutledge and JD's comment that "There is certainly not a switch from events in The Hobbit happening due to chance and those in LOTR happening due to purpose. Tolkien's messaging is consistent in both." Because of his Catholic faith, I think Tolkien, in his own mind, held a consistent vision across the two books. That said, I do think the anthropology dramatized in the narrative of The Hobbit is more optimistic, necessitating the expository correction by Gandalf at the end. That is, what might have been in Tolkien's head wasn't really portrayed in the story, and had to get dropped in like a deus ex machina at the end. In The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, the lower anthropology Gandalf speaks of in The Hobbit is deeply woven into the narrative. This lower anthropology isn't found through a "correction" delivered in a speech, since it is so vividly displayed and dramatized in a way it just isn't in The Hobbit. Rutledge is right that nothing like the phrase "all alone by himself" occurs in The Lord of the Rings, a passage that Tolkien seems keen to "take back" at the end of the Hobbit. All that to say, the pessimistic note sounded at the end of The Hobbit is right there at the start of The Lord of the Rings.

More on this anthropological aspect of The Lord of the Rings next week.  

Silence and the Non-Productive Self

In my book The Slavery of Death, which I consider to be the most significant book I've ever written, I describe, borrowing from David Kelsey, what I call "the eccentric identity." I contrast the eccentric identity, borrowing from Arthur McGill, with "the identity of possession."

Quickly and simply, an identity of possession is rooted in earning or performing for our identity--our worth, value and significance. The eccentric identity, by contrast, is an identity given to us as grace and gift.

Last semester, in my Psychology and Christianity class, I was talking with my students about the practice of silence, and I made a connection with the eccentric identity. Many of my students don't get the practice of silence. They feel stupid and awkward just sitting there quietly. What, they ask, am I supposed to be doing?

And the answer is...nothing. And that's the point. Caught up as we are in pursuing the identity of possession, we believe that we must be doing something, producing something, for our lives and our very selves to have meaning, worth, and value.

Silence, by contrast, challenges that assumption. Silence, I told my students, is learning to hold the self before God in a non-productive posture. Because when I do that, the idolatry of productivity and performance--I am valuable to God and others because of my talents and achievements--is faced and relinquished. And in that newly opened space I can come to experience my non-productive self as valued and loved by God.

Preaching to Pagans

There's an interesting contrast in the book of Acts illustrating the contextual nature of theology, especially in missionary contexts.

In Acts 13 and 14 we find Paul on his first missionary journey and we get to listen in on two of his sermons.

The first sermon is in Acts 13.16-41, and it is preached to a largely Jewish audience. And this sermon sounds a lot like many of the sermons we've already heard Peter and Stephen deliver to Jewish audiences in Jerusalem. Specifically, Paul's sermon walks back through Jewish history, with an emphasis on the patriarchs, the Exodus, and God's promises to David:
Acts 13.16-22
“Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years.

“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’"
In contrast to this sermon, in the very next chapter we find Paul preaching to a largely pagan audience. This is the first time we get to see this happen in the book of Acts. This audience knows nothing about the history of Israel, so Paul has to preach the gospel from a very different starting place. Notice how different this sermon sounds from the sermon above:
Acts 14.15-17
“Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 
Notice that with the pagans there's no mention of Abraham, Moses, or David. Paul instead starts with God as Creator and the evidences of natural revelation: "He has not left himself without testimony." And that testimony isn't the Torah, but the blessings of creation: "He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy."

Two very different audiences, two very different sermons.  

On Discernment: Did Paul Disobey the Holy Spirit?

One of the puzzles in the book of Acts swirls around Paul's journey to Jerusalem, where he'll eventually be arrested.

Specifically, on this way to Jerusalem, it appears that the Holy Spirit warns Paul twice not to go:
Acts 21.1-6, 10-11
When we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. When we found a ship bound for Phoenicia, we went on board and set sail. We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home...

While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
So, does Paul disobey the Holy Spirit in going to Jerusalem anyway?

A chapter earlier, Paul does seem to know, because of the the Holy Spirit, that he is going to be arrested. And he also shares that he feels compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. Paul, saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders:
Acts 20.22-23
And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. 
So we see the paradox. In Acts 20 Paul says the Spirit is sending him to Jerusalem. Yet in Acts 21, he gets warnings from the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem.

What to make of all this?

Opinions seem to differ on how to reconcile these passages. But one thing that does seem clear is that while the Spirit might give Paul a warning, Paul is still free to follow his course of action. The Spirit seems to be giving Paul information to make discernments, but is still leaving it up to Paul to make the choices, even very hard choices.

I find this interesting because, in my world, a lot of Christians speak of God "closing" and "opening" doors. On that reading, it seems clear that the Spirit was trying to "close the door" on Paul's return to Jerusalem. And yet, Paul ignored those signs and opened the door. And that choice is a faithful, if costly, choice.

All that to say, warnings and bad omens, at least in Acts, aren't necessarily signs a "closed door" from God. Warnings and bad omens seem to be more about information that about what decision to make. The Spirit might give you a warning, but that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't keep going. The warning is less about changing your mind than preparing you for the maelstrom to come.

Nothing Is More Practical Than Finding God

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

--Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe