The Salvation of the World: Church vs. Babylon

Last week I wrote about sharing insights about the book of Romans out at the prison. The perspective I shared came from the new perspectives on Paul, and the big takeaway was that the issue in Romans isn't how we get to heaven but how we, Gentiles especially, get access to the promise and covenant God made to Abraham.

As I pointed out last week, the reason this is important is because the covenant of Abraham is how God is working to save the world. To be included into the covenantal family, then, is to be recruited into this ongoing labor. God is saving the world through the covenantal family where Jesus is proclaimed as Messiah and Lord.

In short, God's plan is to save the world through the church, God's covenantal, Messianic family.

What strikes me about this is how many Christians don't share this imagination. For many Christians, the church is optional, it's just not necessary or important. Our imaginations are political, we are students of the science of power. We will change the world by controlling Washington DC. We will save the world through Babylon and not the church.

This is a problematic and alarming situation, to say the least, choosing Babylon over the church. Stated plainly, in turning to Babylon many Christians have rejected and turned their backs on the covenant God made to Abraham. For many Christians, the covenant God made to Abraham is entirely disposable.

Our plan is to save the world a different way.

We're going to save the world through Babylon.

The Divine Comedy: Week 7, The Harrowing of Hell

Over the last two weeks we talked about how, in Dante, Limbo holds unbaptized righteous persons. This includes the Old Testament saints. But when Virgil and the Pilgrim visit Limbo only virtuous pagans are there. Where have the others gone?

The answer involves the harrowing of hell.

The harrowing of hell refers to the events between Jesus' death and resurrection. Specifically, the early church believed that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. Jesus breaks down the doors of hell and leads the souls of the lost into heaven. The harrowing of hell continues to be an important doctrine to the Eastern Orthodox church and features predominately in their Easter observances and iconography. And as I write about in The Slavery of Death, the harrowing of hell is also a key notion in Christus Victory atonement theology, which places more emphasis on Jesus' resurrection than his death on the cross.

Is the harrowing of hell in the Bible? It's hinted at in a few passages:
1 Peter 3.18-20a
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago...

1 Peter 4.6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Ephesians 4.8-10
This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train

and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
The belief that Christ descended into hell is also captured in Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 (v. 27, 31).

The harrowing of hell is also mentioned in the Apostles Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
born of the Virgin Mary.
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand
of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come again to judge the living and the dead...
The harrowing of hell shows up in many places in The Divine Comedy, various shades remembering the time when Christ came down, shaking the place, causing damage, and rescuing captives. I'm sure it was an exciting moment in the history of hell! We first encounter the harrowing of hell in Canto 4. Vigil was a new arrival in Limbo when it happened, and he gives first hand testimony about what he witnessed when Christ came to hell to set free the Old Testament saints:
...."I was a novice in this place
when I saw a mighty lord descend to us
who wore the sign of victory as his crown.

He took from us the shade of our first parent,
of Abel, his good son, of Noah, too,
and of obedient Moses, who made the laws;

Abram, the Patriarch, David the King,
Israel with his father and his children,
with Rachel, who he worked so hard to win;

and many more he chose for blessedness;
and you should know. before these souls were taken,
no human soul had ever reached salvation."

The Salvation of the World: On Holiness and Mission

Out at the prison we spent an evening talking about the book of Romans and I shared some of the ideas from the new perspectives on Paul.

One of the insights we spent a lot of time on is how a covenantal imagination helps connect holiness to mission.

In the popular Christian imagination the issue Paul is dealing with in Romans is how to get to heaven. And we get to heaven by grace through faith.

However, according to the new perspectives the issue pressing upon Paul isn't how we can get to heaven, the issue is how the Gentiles get access to the covenantal promises made to Abraham. And the Gentiles get access to Abraham, according to Paul, not through "works of the law" but through faith in Jesus.

So far, so good. But the issue I raised with the men in the prison study was this: We, as Gentiles, get access to the promise made to Abraham, but so what? What was that promise and why is it good news?

After the flood, the promise God made to Abraham was God's plan to deal with sin, death, and evil in the world. Through the children of Abraham God would bless all the nations. The children of Abraham would demonstrate what the kingdom of God would look like in the world. Israel would be a moral demonstration. A kingdom of priests. And seeing this, the prophets declared, the nations would stream to Zion to worship God.

In short, the promise made to Abraham is how God is fighting evil in the world.

To be sure, eschatological promises have been made to the covenantal family of God. There is a hope for a heavenly reward. But the covenant is primarily a mission, God's work in restoring and saving the world. God fights evil through the covenantal fidelity of his family. This is how holiness--living as a kingdom of priests in the midst of the world--is connected to mission.

If salvation just means "going to heaven" then we miss this connection. Once we are "saved by faith" and get a ticket to heaven we don't really know what holiness is for. Traditional readings of Romans lose the telos of holiness. However, once we come to understand that faith gets us access to the covenant, and that the covenant exists to combat evil in the world, then suddenly we see the purpose of holiness, the goal of living in the world as a priest.

Holiness is, quite simply, the salvation of the world.

Anima Christi

The Anima Christi ("Soul of Christ") is a famous medieval Ignatian prayer:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me
and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever.
Amen.
Here's a translation of the Anima Christi by John Henry Newman:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ's side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne'er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.
Amen.

My Rule in Thinking About God

I was talking with my boys at the dinner table and we were discussing what various people think about God, and how so often people get God all wrong.

"So here is my rule," I said to my sons, "for how to think about God."

"Imagine the most loving thing you could do for a person. Then know that God is going to be way better than that. That's my rule if you want to know how God is going to treat you or anyone else. Today, tomorrow, or on Judgment Day.

"Imagine the most loving thing you can imagine, and know that God is going to be way better than that."

The Divine Comedy: Week 6, The Holding Tank

Last week Virgil and the Pilgrim entered Limbo and we discussed who, in various church traditions, might have ended up in Limbo.

Here's a related question: Is Limbo in the Bible?

Perhaps.

As many of you know, the Bible isn't consistent in how it describes the afterlife. In the Old Testament the place of the dead is called Sheol. Sheol isn't hell, but it looks a lot like Limbo. Not really a place of punishment, but a place of stasis.

In the New Testament, Jesus doesn't really speak about "hell." Jesus mostly speaks of Gehenna, a location outside the walls of Jerusalem, and Hades, the place of the dead. Many scholars think Hades is the equivalent of Sheol.

To make things even more complicated, 2 Peter 2.4 mentions Tartarus as a place of punishment for disobedient angels. Jesus tells the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." And where, exactly, in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, is "the bosom of Abraham"?

Are all these references--Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, Paradise, the bosom of Abraham--referring to the same place or different places? And which refer, if any, to hell, that place of everlasting punishment?

Some of this puzzle has to do with timing, specifically the timing of your death and the Final Judgment in the future. Most traditions believe that Final Judgment, where humanity is sent to either heaven of hell, is at some point in the future. If so, where do the dead go to await the Judgment?

Answers vary. Some traditions believe that the dead are "asleep." Some call this "soul sleep." But "sleep" is just a metaphor. The dead are actually dead. There is no continuing consciousness. In this view, the dead are dead until the General Resurrection when they are brought back to life again. Metaphorically, the sleepers awake.

Other traditions, however, believe that the soul is immortal. In this view the soul can't really die but is, instead, translated into another realm after death. This "other realm" can't be heaven or hell, not in any final sense, since that sorting still lies in the future at the Final Judgment. So what is this "other realm" that functions as sort of "holding tank" for souls awaiting the Final Judgment?

Well, that's where Limbo comes in. Some traditions think Sheol and Hades is Limbo, a place where the dead reside before Judgment.

But that doesn't solve all the problems. Is Limbo the Paradise Jesus describes on the cross? Also, in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man immediately upon their deaths the rich man is in torment in Hades and Lazarus is in comfort in the bosom of Abraham. That doesn't seem like Sheol or Limbo, a neutral space holding the dead. In Jesus' parable it seems like some sort of moral sorting occurred at the point of death (or just after), well before the Final Judgment. So is there some sort of pre-sorting that happens in anticipation of the Final Judgment? And if so, why would there be any need for a Final Judgment if everyone had already been sorted?

It's all very, very confusing. Next week we'll get to how Dante fits this puzzle together.

Untitled

May you be a clown and a fool
in all that you give to the world.
May you love unreasonably,
wastefully and unjustifably.
Let there be whimsy and improvisation in the grace of your gifts--
spontaneous, joyful, laughable and unpredictable.
Love weirdly in ways that surprise and subvert.
Stand before the calculus of this world and be accounted a shock and an embarrassment,
the circus of your life a scandal among those with proper, tamer tastes.
May your love be wrong in all the ways that are right.

The Contradiction of Progressive Morality

Progressive morality, as it plays out in public spaces and discourse, seems to be guided by two, seemingly irreconcilable, impulses.

On the one hand is a radical tolerance and inclusion rooted in a non-judgmental stance toward people. "All are welcome" is a motto of progressive morality.

The second moral impulse among progressives is social justice, standing in solidarity with the oppressed against oppressors. Among both secular and Christian progressives, this aspect of progressive morality has a prophetic, judgmental aspect.

As you can see, these two impulses sit in tension with each other, and can often clash and conflict. Progressives view themselves as icons of tolerance and inclusion, they are the flower children among us, but in their pursuit of social justice they can also be harsh, judgmental and exclusionary.

To use an example from the Sixties, the "all you need is love" hippie was also a "cops are pigs" revolutionary.

To be clear, I'm not making any judgments about this paradox and tension in progressive morality. Conservatives have their own tensions and paradoxes. This is, I believe, simply a feature any moral system, how values and goods come into conflict.

So there's no judgment in pointing to the conflict. Those always exist in moral systems. The issue is if the moral system has resources to navigate the conflict in healthy, productive ways.

It's my opinion that secular progressive morality lacks the moral resources necessary to navigate this conflict. Situation by situation, secular progressive discourse reduces to making two contradictory moral assertions--non-judgmental inclusion and social justice--in ways that seems arbitrary, confused, and incoherent.

All are included and welcome until they are not. Come as you are, there is no judgment here, until there is a call out.

I'm sure you've experienced or witnessed this moral whiplash in progressive spaces and discourse.

The moral resources needed to navigate the conflict between non-judgmental inclusion and social justice are things like community, confession, humility, truth-telling, forgiveness, reconciliation, patience, and peace-making. To name a few things. These are resources that help us pursue both non-judgmental inclusion and social justice at the same time. These are the moral resources that help hold the paradox together.

Christian progressives have access to these resources in a way secular progressives do not. For the most part, in my estimation, secular progressive morality, at least how it plays out on social media, lacks the moral imagination and resources required to navigate the contradiction at the heart of their vision of a moral world.

Secular progressives can be moral, no doubt about it. They just can't be moral in a way that makes any sense.

Pascal's Night of Fire

Over the last year or so on this blog, I've been talking more and more about our need to encounter God, experientially. We need to "bump into God from time to time" is often how I've put it.

The argument I've made is that in our age of disenchantment, it's this experiential aspect of faith that is increasingly our biggest struggle. Without direct encounters and experiences of God, faith dries up, and reduces to moralism or politics.

In short, as I've said before, we need our faith to become more mystical.

One of the famous mystical experiences I've written about before is Thomas Merton's epiphany on 4th and Walnut. Another famous mystical experience is Blaise Pascal's Night of Fire.

Pascal, you'll recall, was a famous mathematician, scientist, and inventor. He converted to Christianity and became one of the great apologists for the faith.

Pascal's vision of God occurred on November 23, 1654. It lasted two hours, beginning at 10:30 pm and ending at 12:30 am. We know this because when Pascal died, it was discovered that he had sewn his account of that vision inside his jacket, so as to always have it with him. This is what Pascal experienced that night, in his words:
The year of grace 1654,

Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,

FIRE.

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

The Divine Comedy: Week 5, Soteriological Patches

In Canto IV of the Inferno Virgil and Pilgrim ride the boat across the river Acheron to reach the first level of hell--Limbo.

Limbo is an interesting place. Pain is not inflicted upon the souls in Limbo. Life is pretty normal, sort of what life is like on earth. The "punishment" of Limbo is that life simply carries on and on, without any hope of final consummation. More on this "punishment" in a later post.

In the Comedy Dante places virtuous pagans who died before Christ in Limbo. Virgil himself is a resident of Limbo, as are Homer and Plato and other pagan luminaries.

Limbo has an interesting place in Catholic theology. As generally understood, Limbo is that place that held virtuous or innocent persons who died without baptism. This would include, for instance, good people who died before Christ. The Old Testament saints would be an example. Virtuous pagans who died before Christ are another example, and that's who we find in Limbo in The Divine Comedy. Why we don't find Moses and Elijah in Limbo we'll talk about next week.

Another group believed by Catholics to be in Limbo were unbaptized infants, thought this isn't in the Comedy. While never an official part of church doctrine, for centuries Catholics were taught and believed that unbaptized infants went to Limbo.

The Latin roots of the word "limbo" means "border" and "edge." It's a good word to describe what's going on theologically with Limbo. Yes, as regards the geography of hell, Limbo is on the "border" and "edge." Limbo is in hell, but no one is being tormented there. But my point is more theological, Limbo exists to handle theological situations that seem to fall on "edge" and "border" of our soteriological schemes.

You might think it strange that Catholics believed that unbaptized babies went to Limbo. But these unbaptized babies were falling through a soteriological gap in the Catholic system. The babies were "in sin" and had not been baptized. And yet, they are babies. Innocents. In short, unbaptized babies were a border case that required a soteriological patch on the system. Limbo was that patch. The babies weren't saved, but neither were they damned. They were in Limbo.

You might think that a very forced and contorted solution. But my Church of Christ soteriology had its own Limbo situations. For example, we believed you had to get baptized to be saved. And as teenagers we often wondered, "What if a person got hit by a bus on the way to the church to get baptized? What would happen to them?" That situation fell through the gaps of our soteriological scheme.

And there are other Limbo cases. What about an undiscovered tribe who had never heard the Good News? What about our own versions of virtuous pagans? For example, in Rob Bell's famous video rolling out his book Love Wins, he raised the question of Gandhi. "Is Gandhi in hell?" Rob asks.

My point here is that we all have our Limbo situations, border cases that seem to fall through the cracks of our soteriological systems.

And like Dante, we all have our patches.

Behold, the Goat of God Who Takes Away the Sins of the World!

In the gospel of John, John the Baptist famously describes Jesus as "the lamb of God":
John 1.29
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"
It's a puzzling expression because the animal used in the Day of Atonement rituals (Leviticus 16), the sacrifice to "take away sins," wasn't a lamb but a goat (two goats, actually). If John was trying to describe Jesus as being an atoning sacrifice for sins he should have said, "Behold, the goat of God who takes away the sins of the world!"

So, did John get the animal wrong?

The reference to the "lamb" isn't a reference to atonement (Leviticus 16) but to the Passover, where a lamb was killed and eaten in the Passover meal. To be sure, the Angel of Death passes over Israel when it see the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of Israel. But that Passover blood isn't a sacrifice of atonement that "takes away" sins.

So, again, did John get this wrong, mixing up the Passover with the Day of Atonement?

No, what seems to be going on is an intentional conflation of Passover with the Day of Atonement. As N.T. Wright points out, Israel's original exile in Egypt did not come about as a consequence of Israel's sinfulness. Thus, it's true that atonement wasn't originally a part of the Passover motif.

However, Israel's subsequent exiles after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests were a punishment for Israel's sins. Thus, the end of exile, requiring a second Passover with a second Moses, became necessarily tied up with the forgiveness of Israel's sins, Day of Atonement themes.

In short, by the time of Jesus the Passover and the Day of Atonement, while initially separate, had become intimately linked, the end of exile associated with the forgiveness of sins. And there's no better example of that conflation than John surprising you with a lamb instead of a goat:
  
“Behold, the Lamb of God [Passover], who takes away the sin of the world [Day of Atonement]!"

Character and Hope

From the book of Romans:
Romans 5.3-4
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Notice how character produces hope. Hope isn't wishful thinking or optimism. Hope emerges out of virtue, a character forged from suffering and endurance.

Hope isn't something that we can just conjure up within ourselves. Or demand it from others on the spot. Hope can't be whipped up in an instant, on-demand and as needed. Hope is an issue of character, and character is formed and forged over time. Hope is earned.

Perhaps this is why we've become so despairing, anxious, and angry. We've lost, or never formed in the first place, our capacity to hope. We've lost hope because we lack the virtues that give birth to hope and sustain it.

The Software of Dehumanization

Software isn't neutral, it shapes and molds behavior. Software permits and constrains. Software allows you to do some things and not others. Software nudges and pushes.

Insofar as software shapes and affects our behavior, software affects us morally. And some software helps promote dehumanization.

Twitter is a software of dehumanization.

First, oversimplification. Twitter puts limits upon characters. The software is designed to force condensation. The software penalizes nuance and complexity, vital features of empathic, humane communication. Twitter demands oversimplification, making communication sharper, blunter, and less human.

Second, objectification. Twitter facilitates objectification through retweeting and subtweeting. When retweeted, people are displayed like bugs pinned behind the glass of an insect collection. When retweeted, the humanity of the person is not engaged, they are specimens for observation and moral dissection.

Why is Twitter so toxic?

Simply put, the software facilitates and promotes oversimplification and objectification.

And that makes Twitter a software of dehumanization.

More On Apocalyptic Mysticism: "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor

Last week I shared my concern that Christian mysticism, which I think is vital for a vibrant spiritual walk with God, is tempted into becoming diffuse, sentimental, spiritual uplift.

To be clear, we need spiritual uplift. We need awe, wonder and joy. We need to be astonished by beauty.

And yet, there is a hard, cruciform edge to following Jesus. Let me again quote Dorothy Day: We only love God as much as the person we love the least. So what I'm wondering about is the shape of a mystical experience that leads us into that sort of love.

In my post last week I called this an apocalyptic mysticism, an experience with God that traffics less in spiritual uplift than assaulting the hardness of our heart. If such experiences happen, what would they look like?

My inspiration here is the mystical experience that assaults Mrs. Turpin in Flannery O'Connor's short story "Revelation."

You need to read the story to get the full effect, but the gist of it is this. Mrs. Turpin is a smug, prideful woman who looks down her nose at the "trash" of the world. As Mrs. Turpin is sitting in a doctor's office, being thankful for the fact that she's a good, decent, honest person, not at all like the lowlifes sitting in chairs around her, she is eyed with increasing hostility by a teenage girl named Mary Grace. Mrs. Turpin feels uncomfortable under the gaze of Mary Grace, but she becomes convinced that the girl has a message for her, a revelation from God.

Mrs. Turpin gets her message when Mary Grace throws and hits her in the head with a book. It's a totally unprovoked act of violence, but Mrs. Turpin is convinced it's because Mary Grace has seen something in her soul that only God could see. As the nurse and doctor hold and try to sedate the struggling girl, Mrs. Turpin leans in to hear the word of God Mary Grace has for her, the revelation. Mary Grace looks straight at Mrs. Turpin and spits, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog."

Now that's an apocalyptic moment! That's a revelation!

Stunned, Mrs. Turpin returns to her farm with her husband. Later on, Mrs. Turpin is hosing down the pigs while the sun begins to set. She takes up an argument with God. Why did God want her to see herself as an old wart hog? Wasn't she, after all, one of the decent, hardworking folks? If so, then why did God send that message to her? She didn't deserve it! Mrs. Turpin rants and screams at God.

But as the sun sets, Mrs. Turpin looks up and has a mystical vision. She sees a great highway leading up to heaven. And at the front of the line, the souls getting into heaven first, are all the trashy people. And far to the back, the people at the end of the line, getting in last, are Mrs. Turpin's people--the good, hardworking, decent folk, stunned and shocked to find themselves bringing up the rear.

Mrs. Turpin's vision comes right out of the gospels. As Jesus said to the Mrs. Turpins of his own day: "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you!" (Matthew 21.31).

The vision at the end of "Revelation" is what I'm aiming at when I describe an "apocalyptic mysticism." This is a mystical encounter with the upside-down kingdom of God. This is a mystical encounter that's less about inspiring uplift than about getting hit upside the head to find out you're a wart hog from hell.

"Revelation" is, of course, fiction. And it's Flannery O'Connor, so it's extreme, violent fiction. So I'm not suggesting that the experiences I'm talking about will go down as it goes down for Mrs. Turpin. I use the story "Revelation" simply to gesture, perhaps wildly, at what I mean by an apocalyptic mysticism.

Apocalyptic mysticism is an experience that interrupts us with a vision of ourselves and the kingdom of God in ways we'd rather ignore or avoid. What I'm chasing is a mystical encounter that prompts conversion, repentance, and cruciform love.

The Divine Comedy: Week 4, You Get What You Want

Before leaving Canto 3, some thoughts about choice and hell.

No doubt, hell is a bad place. But it's doubly bad if you're forced to go. Consequently, many have speculated that hell is a place people choose to go.

This was C.S. Lewis' idea in his parable on hell The Great Divorce. Hell exists, but it is a place people choose to go. Hell is self-imposed exile and separation from God. As Lewis famously said, "the doors of hell are locked on the inside." This was also the central idea in Rob Bell's Love Wins, that even if we end up in hell "love wins" because love gives us our freedom, and if we want hell, well, you get want you want.

In Canto 3 Virgil and the Pilgrim move through the vestibule of hell to the edge of the river Acheron to await the boatman who will carry the damned across into hell. The Pilgrim sees the souls of the damned crowding on the shore eagerly awaiting their crossing and entry into hell. Their eagerness confuses the Pilgrim. Who wants to go to hell? Virgil explains:
"My son," the gentle master said to me,
"all those who perish in the wrath of God
assemble here from all parts of the earth;

They want to cross the river, they are eager;
it is Divine Justice that spurs them on,
turning the fear they have into desire.

A good soul never comes to make this crossing..."
There's an interesting mixture of ideas here. On the one hand, hearkening back to Lewis and Bell, the souls of the damned are wanting and desiring to go to hell. They are eager.

And yet, Virgil says that this eagerness is formed by "Divine Justice," which turns fear into desire. Basically, Divine Justice doesn't force someone into hell against their will, but rather acts on the will itself.

There's always been a delicate dance in Christian theology regarding the relationship between God's providence and the human will. As moderns, we tend to assume our will is autonomous and independent. But the biblical authors and church fathers saw the will of God and human will as fused and linked. This understanding allows Paul, for example, to say confusing things like this:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2.12-13)
See the paradox? Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Here in Paul we see this fusion of wills going in a good direction. But on the banks of the Acheron in The Divine Comedy we see it working in a bad direction, the will of God and the will of the damned creating an eager desire for hell.

To moderns, the idea that you are not forced into hell but come to desire it, might be cold comfort. I'm not defending the idea. I'm simply intrigued that in The Divine Comedy there's a sensibility similar to the idea the C.S. Lewis floated, that in the end God gives us what we want. 

Searching for an Apocalyptic Mysticism

Following up on yesterday's post about mystical experiences.

As I've been writing about more and more over the last two years, I believe it's necessary to re-enchant our faith in this secular, disenchanted age. I think mystical experiences with God provide not just the energy and vibrancy for a living, active faith, but evidence for faith itself.

But a worry I have with all this is mysticism devolving into something vague and sentimental, generic spiritual uplift.

For example, I think nature mysticism and an sacramental ontology can bleed into each other in good ways, but also in bad.

A sacramental ontology tells us, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that "the world is charged with the grandeur of God." So we wander out into nature to experience God in the trees, oceans and mountains.

But there is more to mysticism than encountering God in beautiful places. I don't want mystical encounters with God to reduce to nature mysticism, as important as that might be given a sacramental ontology.

So what I want to search for might be described as an apocalyptic mysticism, a mysticism that interrupts us with a vision of the crucified Christ. A mysticism that has an ethical, interpersonal, and cruciform aspect to it. Think of Peter's vision of unclean animals on the rooftop and Paul's vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.

This mysticism is not a sentimental, uplifting walk on the beach. This is a mysticism that reveals the kingdom of God to us, a kingdom that comes to us in strange, startling, and unexpected ways, in ugly guises and places. This mysticism is a bit of a shock and it demands a reorientation of life.

Living in a World of Labels

"Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most part to live in a world of labels."

--Evelyn Underhill, from Practical Mysticism

Underhill's point is that instead of encountering the mystery of existence directly we attach words to reality, we create and affix labels to things in the world and then pretend that those words are the thing itself. This fixation upon labels interferes with our ability experience the sacred mystery of the world.

This is one of the ways theology gets in the way of faith. By specializing in "labels," all the God talk associated with theology, theology interposes a perceptual filter between us and God. Instead of a mystical encounter with the living God all I have are words, words and more words.

Letter To My Class On the Secret to Happiness

In my class "Psychology and Christianity" at ACU I give a lecture on the ideas from my book The Slavery of Death regarding the "eccentric identity" (a phrase I borrow from David Kelsey). I half-jokingly call this lecture "the secret of happiness lecture."

Anyway, last semester after giving the "secret to happiness lecture" I followed up with a letter to my class to underscore the big ideas. Below is the letter I sent the class, a sort of summary of some of the big ideas in The Slavery of Death:
Hello Class,
Still cold and rainy out there, I hope you are staying warm!

Next week we'll pick up again on the "secret to happiness" lecture. If you haven't noticed, that secret is something I think about a lot. I take this subject pretty seriously. It's no joke that in this conversation I think we are close to Ground Zero when it comes to the roots of mental health.

All that to say, I've been thinking some more about all this and wanted to jot down some ideas and pass those along.

The heart of what I was trying to describe boils down to this choice:

You are either going to have to earn and perform for your self-esteem/significance/worth in life, or you're going to accept your significance and worth as a gift of grace.

Truly, I think receiving your worth as a gift of grace is the only way to escape the neurotic trap that 99.99% of the world finds itself caught up in.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that self-esteem isn't a psychological problem, it's a religious problem.

If self-esteem is a psychological problem we have to fight for and secure our worth through the eyes and opinions of others. Do they like me? Do they approve of me? Am I a failure? Am I successful? This psychological pursuit of self-esteem is, I don't know if you've noticed, doomed to being a neurotic roller-coaster ride, your worth and significance going up and down and up and down, depending upon the day and the moment, the acceptance or the rejection, the success or the failure.

By contrast, if self-esteem is solved religiously, rather than psychologically, if I come to accept myself and see myself as God's "beloved," receiving this as a sheer act of grace, as a gift, then my worth/significance becomes "hidden in Christ" (Col. 3.3) and is extracted from the neurotic ups and downs of approval and failure. In the words of Jesus, your identity is now located in heaven, "where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." When self-esteem is secured religiously, received as an act of grace, nothing can ever hurt or diminish your worth, nothing can be lost. Grace liberates you from the neurotic trap. Psychologically, you've been set free. You've become the rarest thing in the entire world: A non-anxious, non-neurotic human being. And as best I can tell, that's what it would have felt like to be inside Jesus' head.

Now, of course this is more easily said than lived. It takes a lifetime to live into grace. I'm not suggesting that the "secret to happiness" is easy or effortless. For myself, this choice between neurosis and grace is a choice I don't make once for all. I make over and over again, moment by moment, breath after breath, heartbeat to heartbeat. You have to keep receiving grace, over and over. The discipline here is one of memory: Remember who you are.

And while it is hard, this is, as best I can tell, the secret to happiness. This is the truth. And if you don't believe me, observe yourself. Watch the roller-coaster ride of your worth from this day forward. Notice when the dips hit you--those seasons of rejection and failure--and note how you've been playing the neurotic game, trying to secure worth by performing for others, trying to demonstrate to the world why you are worthy of attention, love and belonging.

And then reflect, if you've ever experienced it, when you've let grace cover your shame and failure, when you've felt, if only for a moment, the Voice of Heaven say, "You are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased." Recall in that experience--remember those four marks of a mystical experience!--the peace, courage, and joy. That is what I mean when I say that the problem of self-esteem can only be solved religiously.

Ponder that contrast in your own life--neurosis vs grace--when you've experienced each.

As best as I can tell, pondering that choice gets you very, very close to the secret of happiness.

Grace and peace,
Richard

You Will Come at Last to Love the Whole World

Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love…

Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time. Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance. My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you...

--Father Zosima (from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov)

The Divine Comedy: Week 3, These Wretches, Who Had Never Truly Lived

In Canto 3 Virgil and the Pilgrim pass through the gates of hell--ABANDON ALL HOPE--and enter the outer "vestibule" of hell.

It's sort of like the lobby of hell.

Being the lobby, this place is hell but isn't hell. Here in this "nowhere" place we find the Indecisive, those who in life never took a stand for good or evil. These are souls whose lives were neither particularly praiseworthy nor condemnable.
And he [Virgil said] to me: "This wretched state of being
is the fate of those sad souls who lived a life
but lived it with no blame and with no praise."
The souls found here were "neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God." Consequently, heaven doesn't want these people, and neither does hell! You know it's bad when hell kicks you out. That's why these souls find themselves not in hell, but in the lobby.
Heaven, to keep its beauty, cast them out,
but even Hell itself would not receive them
The sin of these Indecisive souls is that they "stood but for themselves."

I don't know about you, but it seems like here in hell's lobby we find a perfect description for our time and place. Sure, here and there are people who are moral exemplars or very wicked. But most of us, we're just living for ourselves. We're not particularly good or virtuous, but neither are we depraved and evil. To quote from Revelation, we're neither hot nor cold. We're comfortably lukewarm.

As you likely know, in the Inferno the souls suffer a punishment that symbolizes their particular sin. The punishment for the Lukewarm and the Indecisive is to chase after a banner for all eternity that never takes a stand:
As so I looked and saw a kind of banner
rushing ahead, whirling with aimless speed
as though it would never take a stand;

behind it an interminable train
of souls pressed on...
You know what that sounds like? Capitalism and consumerism, our economy of desire, chasing after the next iPhone, weekend party, and beach vacation. Living from weekend to weekend. As I tell my students, there is more to life than waiting for the next Harry Potter movie, video game release, concert or party.

Stop chasing your desires, goddammit, and take a stand for something!

Why? Well, if you spend your life chasing the weekend or the next shiny new thing you're going to get to the end of your life and discover that you never really lived:
At once I understood, and I was sure
this was that sect of evil souls who were
hateful to God and to His enemies.

These wretches, who had never truly lived...

There Is More Beauty Than Our Eyes Can Bear

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance - for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light .... Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? .... Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave - that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”

― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Gustave Doré

Yesterday I wrote about Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37.

One of my favorite depictions of that scene is from Gustave Doré. I'm sure you've seen Doré's work before. Doré is famous in Christian circles for his illustrations of the Bible, 241 wood engravings done in 1843 for a deluxe edition of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. Those wood engravings have gone on to be reproduced in many other Bibles. I first encountered them in old King James Bibles.

Doré illustrated 139 scenes from the Old Testament, 21 scenes from the Apocrypha, and 81 scenes from the New Testament. You can look at them all here.

Anyway, like I said, my favorite of all the Doré illustrations is the Valley of Dry Bones:


Prophesy Over the Bones

Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is very familiar to us (Ezekiel 37). But what struck me recently about this text is the connection between prophecy and hope.

The Lord shows the prophet a valley of dry bones and then asks this question: “Son of man, can these bones live?”

The prophet cannot answer and replies, “O Lord God, only you know.”

And then the Lord responds with this:
“Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live."
Prophesy over these bones. Say to them, "You shall live."

The point that struck me is how we tend to think of prophets as bringing words of judgment and doom. And to be sure, the prophet does bring those words.

But the prophet also brings a word of hope. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet speaks words of life. Prophesy over these bones. Say to them, "You shall live." The prophet speaks life back into the dead.

Our world needs these prophets. People are lost, despairing, and hopeless.

You and I, we have a job to do.

Let us speak life back into the dead.

Prophesy, the Lord commands, over the bones.

Politics Will Not Fix What Ails Us

"Every philosophy that believes the problem of existence to be shelved, or even solved, by a political event, is a sham philosophy. There have been innumerable states founded since the beginning of the world; that is an old story. How should a political innovation manage once and for all to make a contented race of the dwellers on this earth? If anyone believes in his heart that this is possible, he should report himself to our authorities: he really deserves to be Professor of Philosophy...

"We are feeling the consequences of the doctrine, preached lately from all the housetops, that the state is the highest end of man and there is no higher duty than to serve it: I regard this not as a relapse into paganism, but into stupidity." --Friedrich Nietzsche

Personally, speaking as a Christian, I think it's both pagan and stupid.

The Divine Comedy: Week 2, The Gates of Hell

As the Pilgrim and Virgil begin their walk to the gates of hell in Canto 2 Virgil recounts how he was taken from hell and sent by heaven to be the Pilgrim's guide.

In Canto 3 the pair reach the gates of hell and pass under the ominous (and famous!) inscription:
I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY,
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL GRIEF,
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN RACE.

JUSTICE IT WAS THAT MOVED MY GREAT CREATOR;
DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE CREATED ME,
AND HIGHEST WISDOM JOINED WITH PRIMAL LOVE.

BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
WERE MADE, AND I SHALL LAST ETERNALLY.
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, ALL YOU WHO ENTER.
Rightly frighted, the Pilgrim remarks to Virgil, "Master, these words I see are cruel."

I agree! So before entering the Inferno, we should probably stop right here and talk a bit about hell.

Let me state up front that I'm not going to try to give the Inferno a hopeful, universalist spin or reading. Dante's theology is Dante's theology.

That said, a couple of observations about Dante's hell.

First, people who espouse hopeful eschatologies about the fate of all humanity are often dinged as being sentimental and soft on evil. So let's clear this up: Hell is necessary. True, we might have different visions of hell, but we have to have it. Without some sort of final reckoning there's no way for God to deal with evil and injustice, eschatologically speaking.

And Dante, in fact, is really helpful for hopeful eschatologies. When we get to Purgatory in the Comedy we're going to get a vision of punishment as redemptive purgation and purification.

Second, as we go on we're going to find that the sign "ABANDON ALL HOPE" isn't 100% true. As we'll see in the Inferno, many people have been rescued from hell.

Third, as we'll also see, not everyone suffers horribly in hell. Some live lives in hell very much like the life they lived on earth. Virgil, for example.

Forth, what about hell being "eternal"? There's an interesting debate in Christian theology about this distinction: Hell being eternal vs. hell being empty. If the free choice of creatures is assumed then hell remains an eternal possibility. Hell is the direction you're headed if you are walking away from God. That said, at the reconciliation of all things hell might be emptied. Thus, hell may be eternal but empty. Here's a video from Catholic Bishop Barron talking about if hell exists but is empty.

And lastly, and related to my first point, the language of eternal damnation is necessary for prophetic rebuke in this world. I talk about this in supplemental footage for Kevin Miller's documentary Hellbound?

And what's interesting here is that this is exactly how Dante uses hell in the Comedy. The biggest problem modern readers have with the Comedy is the deep dive you take into the politics of Florence, Rome, Italy, and Europe, past and present. You could make a very strong argument that The Divine Comedy is, at its heart, a political manifesto with Dante using hell to call out and damn the corruptions of the church and the state. 

Reading the Psalms: Part 4, i carry your heart with me

After listening to my class on the Psalms, with my encouragement to "stay romantic," Jana's mind when to a poem by e.e. cummings.

When Jana and I were falling in love, those many years ago, e.e. cummings' poem "i carry your heart with me" was a poem we shared because it captured our feelings for each other. During my class, Jana's mind went back to that poem as I described the Psalms as romantic love songs to God. Jana looked the poem up again and read the words, but this time reading the poem as a prayer to God. Jana shared this with me the next morning and asked me to listen to the poem again, but as a prayer. Both Jana and I were struck by how powerful the poem works as a prayer.

Here's "i carry your heart with me." Pray it as a prayer and see what you think:
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
                                                            i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
Maybe this prayer doesn't work for everyone, but for Jana and I praying words was a profoundly moving experience. 

Reading the Psalms: Part 3, Too Romantic?

When I encouraged my class on the Psalms to "stay romantic" as we studied these songs I did get some pushback.

Many people resist attempts to make our love relationship with God "romantic." Much of this criticism is leveled at contemporary praise songs that cast God or Jesus as our romantic partner. These songs are derided as "Jesus is my boyfriend" music.

But let us be very clear. The "Jesus is my boyfriend" stuff didn't start with Hillsong. That notion goes way back to the Christian mystics, female mystics in particular. Julian of Norwich, anyone? Teresa of Avila?

In all this, I'm reminded of this caution offered by James Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom, a book, along with his book You Are What You Love, about how love, and even romance, has to be placed at the heart of spiritual formation:
I think a philosophical anthropology centered around affectivity, love, or desire might also be an occasion to somewhat reevaluate our criticisms of "mushy" worship choruses that seem to confuse God with our boyfriend. While we might be rightly critical of the self-centered grammar of such choruses, I don't think we should so quickly write off their "romantic" or even "erotic" elements (the Song of Songs comes to mind in this context)...The quasi-rationalism that sneers at such erotic elements in worship is concerned to keep worship "safe" from such threats is the same rationalism that has consistently marginalized the religious experience of women--and women mystics in particular.
And it's not just female mystics. St. Francis was "God's troubadour," a romantic poet who sang love songs to God.

In short, I wonder if our resistance to "staying romantic" isn't because, at some deep level, we know that love means surrendering and losing control.

When we resist "romance" we are keeping love at an emotional distance, more "objective" and therefore safer and controllable.

We keep our love unromantic because we want to stay in control and minimize the risk.

Reading the Psalms: Part 2, Being in Love with God

When I describe the psalms as love songs my mind naturally goes to attachment theory.

In psychology, attachment theory is one of the main ways we describe the experience of "love," love between parents and children, love between romantic partners, love between friends.

Psychologists typically describe four features of this "attachment bond":
1. Proximity Maintenance: We wish to be near or close to those we love.

2. Separation Anxiety: We experience distress when separated from those we love.

3. Secure Base of Exploration: We are at "home" with those we love, and they give us the courage to take risks and face challenges

4. Haven of Safety: When hurt, fearful or distressed our loved ones give us protection, healing, and comfort.
All of these aspects of love show up in the Psalms:
1. Proximity Maintenance: "But for me it is good to be near God." (Ps. 73.28)

2. Separation Anxiety: "Do not be far from me." (Ps. 22.11)

3. Secure Base of Exploration: "By you I can crush a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall." (Ps. 18.29)

4. Haven of Safety: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." (Ps. 46.1)
In encouraging my class on the Psalms to "stay romantic" I was pointing to the emotional topography of the Psalms, how over and over these poems describe all the features of what it feels like to be in love.